The Origin of Information

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The Nature of Information

Information is central to all living systems, and is responsible for assembling the proteins that are essential to life and reproduction. Being a biochemist and taking many courses in molecular biology as well, I knew this already. But information, in and of itself, is mysterious…and that is something I hadn’t really thought about.

“Evolutionary biologists have failed to realize that they work with two more or less incommensurable domains: that of information and that of matter…the gene is a package of information, not an object. The pattern of base pairs in a DNA molecule specifies the gene. But the DNA molecule is the medium, it’s not the message.” Williams, Natural Selection, 11

Consider: if I fax a form to my bank, what I put into the machine and what comes out on the other end is not the same thing. They are different sheets of paper with different ink—the form can even be stored digitally. The actual information has nothing to do with ink or wood pulp or electrons on a hard drive. Information is completely different from “dust or particles,” and that seems to be the crux of the intelligent design argument.

This is something I had never considered before reading Signature in the Cell. It shows my ignorance of history and philosophy, for this was the dominant worldview for centuries. It was the understanding of Plato, Aristotle, Roman Stoics, Jewish philosophers such as Moses Mainonides, Christian philosophers such as Thomas Aquinas, and most of the founding scientists in the scientific revolution from 1300-1700 that mind was the primary source of reality. Material either issues from or is shaped by (or both) a pre-existing intelligence. This ignorance on my part is not surprising, though, if you think about it, since materialism dominates the modern university.

So, does information have anything to do with the DNA molecule? Or does it have everything to do with the order of the nucleotides? It is such an interesting insight to consider when reviewing data and articles on origin of life—does this experiment or result solve a material problem (producing amino acids or nucleotides in a test tube) or an information problem (the cause or mechanism of specific ordering of nucleotides)? And as I read more about origin of life, the more this delineation should be at the forefront of my mind.

What is Information?

Overall, I was really pleased with the amount of information and definitions on information in this book. What is information? Here are two definitions:

  1. The communication or reception of knowledge or intelligence
  2. The attribute inherent in and communicated by alternative sequences or arrangements of something that produces specific effects.

The first definition is sort of generic and intuitive, and deals with what people do all the time: “Turn right on Oak St.” “I like you a lot.” “I loathe you and all you represent.” Knowledge is passed from one being to another, and the other can take whatever action they see fit. A right turn, a kiss, or a firm uppercut. The second definition gets into more detail of the “language” of information—sequences or arrangements that produce an effect. It’s the arrangements that have an effect, and therefore the arrangements are a cause. This definition seems more applicable to software or DNA code.

Shannon Information Theory

Not only does information communicate knowledge or an effect, there can be a varied amount of information. According the Shannon Information Theory, information and uncertainty are inversely proportional. The more information in a sentence, the more uncertainty it reduces. Consider the following:

“Someone stole my wallet.”

“A tall light-skinned man with blonde hair, pimples on his nose, a tattoo of a mermaid on his left forearm, wearing blue denim jeans and a yellow tee-shirt stole my wallet, and he ran that way…”

In the first sentence, you could be looking for anyone. The second sentence obviously provides more information and reduces the uncertainty of exactly who stole my wallet (because I want it back, I have bills to pay and mouths to feed). Here are the categories of information:

  1. Order redundancy – ABCABCABCABC etc. This kind of information is compressible and, because of its regularity, carries little information.
  2. Mere complexity – ALWIWOCZNVDWIQSAOA. This information is not compressible. It is complex, but not specific to any particular function and conveys no information (assuming no hidden code). An example from the biological world would be random polypeptides or polymers that serve no biological function.
  3. Specific complexity – “TIME AND TIDE WAIT FOR NO MAN”. This information is also complex and not compressible. It clearly serves a function, though, or communicates a message. Biological examples include functional DNA and proteins. This is a synonym for specified information or informational content.

It is this specified complexity that Intelligent Design theorists are most interested in. What qualifies DNA as information-rich is that fact that the code in DNA is translated (via RNA) into a protein that performs a function.

Yes, one can perform experiments to try to imitate what happened in the “primordial soup.” But these experiments have to do with the dust and particles, and have nothing to do with the generation of information. That is what is essential to understanding where intelligent design is coming from. Suppose it can be discerned how nucleotides came together, formed the unfavorable bond at the ribose backbone, and then formed long enough chains—that is still not the same as explaining the origin of the information formed.