- Meyer, Stephen C.
Signature in the Cell.
New York: HarperCollins, 2009.
At last we have a book which squarely takes on the central
puzzle of the supposedly blind, purposeless universe to which
so many scientists presently ascribe the origin of life on Earth.
There's hardly any point debating evolution: it can be demonstrated
in the laboratory. (Some may argue that
is an example of devolution, but recall that evolutionists
must obligately eschew teleology, so selection in the direction of
simplicity and rapid replication is perfectly valid, and evidenced by
any number of examples in bacteria.)
No, the puzzle—indeed, the enigma— is the origin of the
first replicator. Once you have a self-replicating organism and
a means of variation (of which many are known to exist), natural
selection can kick in and, driven by the environment and eventually
competition with other organisms, select for more complexity when it
confers an adaptive advantage. But how did the first replicator
come to be?
In the time of Darwin, the great puzzle of biology was the origin of
the apparently designed structures in organisms and the diversity
of life, not the origin of the first cell. For much of Darwin's life,
generation was a respectable scientific theory, and the cell was
thought to be an amorphous globule of a substance dubbed
“protoplasm”, which one could imagine as originating
at random through chemical reactions among naturally occurring precursor
The molecular biology revolution in the latter half of the twentieth
century put the focus squarely upon the origin of life. In particular,
the discovery of the extraordinarily complex digital code of the genome
in DNA, the supremely complex nanomachinery of gene expression (more
than a hundred proteins are involved in the translation of DNA to
proteins, even in the simplest of bacteria), and the seemingly intractable
chicken and egg problem posed by the fact that DNA cannot replicate
its information without the proteins of the transcription mechanism,
while those proteins cannot be assembled without the precise sequence
information provided in the DNA, decisively excluded all scenarios for
the origin of life through random chemical reactions in a “warm pond”.
As early as the 1960s, those who approached the problem of the origin of
life from the standpoint of information theory and combinatorics observed
that something was terribly amiss. Even if you grant the most generous
assumptions: that every elementary particle in the observable universe
is a chemical laboratory randomly splicing amino acids into proteins
every Planck time
for the entire history of the universe, there is a vanishingly small
probability that even a single functionally folded protein of 150 amino
acids would have been created. Now of course, elementary particles
aren't chemical laboratories, nor does peptide synthesis take place where
most of the baryonic mass of the universe resides: in stars or interstellar
and intergalactic clouds. If you look at the chemistry, it gets even
worse—almost indescribably so: the precursor molecules of many of
these macromolecular structures cannot form under the same prebiotic
conditions—they must be catalysed by enzymes created only by
preexisting living cells, and the reactions required to assemble them
into the molecules of biology will only go when mediated by other enzymes,
assembled in the cell by precisely specified information in the genome.
So, it comes down to this: Where did that information come from?
The simplest known
organism (although you may quibble about this, given that it's a
parasite) has a genome of 582,970 base pairs, or about one megabit
(assuming two bits of information for each nucleotide, of which there are
four possibilities). Now, if you go back to the universe of elementary
particle Planck time chemical labs and work the numbers, you find that
in the finite time our universe has existed, you could have produced about
500 bits of structured, functional information by random search. Yet here
we have a minimal information string which is (if you understand combinatorics)
so indescribably improbable to have originated by chance that adjectives
What do I mean by “functional information”? Just information
which has a meaning expressed in a separate domain than its raw components.
For example, the
theoretic entropy of a typical mountainside is as great (and, in
fact, probably greater) than that of
Mount Rushmore, but
the latter encodes functional (or specified) information from a separate
domain: that of representations of U.S. presidents known from other sources.
Similarly, a DNA sequence which encodes a protein which folds into a form
which performs a specific enzymatic function is vanishingly improbable to
have originated by chance, and this has been demonstrated by experiment.
Without the enzymes in the cell, in fact, even if you had a primordial soup
containing all of the ingredients of functional proteins, they would just
cross-link into non-functional goo, as nothing would prevent their side
chains from bonding to one another. Biochemists know this, which is why
they're so sceptical of the glib theories of physicists and computer
scientists who expound upon the origin of life.
Lyell, most scientists
have embraced the principle of
which holds that any phenomenon we observe in nature today must have been
produced by causes we observe in action at the present time. Well, at the present
time, we observe many instances of complex, structured, functional encoded
data with information content in excess of 500 bits: books, music, sculpture,
paintings, integrated circuits, machines, and even this book review. And
to what cause would the doctrinaire uniformitarian attribute all of this
complex, structured information? Well, obviously, the action of an intelligent
agent: intelligent design.
Once you learn to recognise it, the signatures are relatively easy to distinguish.
When you have a large amount of Shannon information, but no function (for
example, the contour of a natural mountainside, or a random bit string
radioactive decay), then chance is
the probable cause. When you have great regularity (the orbits of planets, or
the behaviour of elementary particles), then natural law is likely to
govern. As Jacques Monod
observed, most processes in nature can be attributed to
Chance and Necessity, but there remain those
which do not, with which archæologists, anthropologists, and
forensic scientists, among others, deal with every day.
Beyond the dichotomy of chance and necessity (or a linear combination of
the two), there's the trichotomy which admits intelligent design as a cause.
An Egyptologist who argued that plate tectonics was responsible for
Great Sphinx of Giza
would be laughed out of the profession. And yet, when those who observe information
content in the minimal self-replicating organism hundreds of orders of magnitude
less likely than the Sphinx having been extruded from a volcanic vent
infer evidence of intelligent design of that first replicator, they are derided
and excluded from scientific discourse.
What is going on here? I would suggest there is a dogma being
enforced with the same kind of rigour as the Darwinists impute to
their fundamentalist opponents. In every single instance in the
known universe, with the sole exception of the genome of the minimal
self-replicating cell and the protein machinery which allows it to
replicate, when we see 500 bits or more of functional complexity, we
attribute it to the action of an intelligent agent. You aren't likely
to see a CSI episode where one of the taxpayer-funded sleuths
attributes the murder to a gun spontaneously assembling due to quantum
fluctuations and shooting “the vic” through the heart.
And yet such a
Boltzmann gun is
thousands of orders of magnitude more probable than a minimal
genetic code and transcription apparatus assembling by chance in
proximity to one another in order to reproduce.
Opponents of intelligent design hearts' go all pitty-pat because they
consider it (gasp) religion. Nothing could be more absurd.
Francis Crick (co-discoverer of the structure of DNA) concluded that
the origin of life on Earth was sufficiently improbable that the best
hypothesis was that it had been seeded here deliberately by
intelligent alien lifeforms. These creatures, whatever their own
origins, would have engineered their life spores to best take root in
promising environments, and hence we shouldn't be surprised to
discover our ancestors to have been optimised for our own
environment. One possibility (of which I am fond) is that our form of
life is the present one in a “chain of life” which began
much closer to the Big Bang. One can imagine life, originating at the
quark-gluon plasma phase or in the radiation dominated universe,
and seeing the end of their dominion approaching, planting the seeds of
the next form of life among their embers. Dyson, Tipler, and others
have envisioned the distant descendants of humanity passing on the
baton of life to other lifeforms adapted to the universe of the
far future. Apply the Copernican principle: what about our
Or consider my own favourite hypothesis of origin, that we're living in
a simulation. I like to think of our Creator as a 13 year old superbeing
who designed our universe as a science fair project. I have written
before about the
accessible to experiment which might falsify this hypothesis but which, so
far, are entirely consistent with it. In addition, I've written about how
is less parsimonious than the design hypothesis.
In addition to the arguments in that paper, I would suggest that evidence we're living in
a simulation is that we find, living within it, complex structured information which we
cannot explain as having originated by the physical processes we discover within
the simulation. In other words, we find there has been input of
information by the intelligent designer of the simulation, either explicitly as
genetic information, or implicitly in terms of fine-tuning of free parameters of the
simulated universe so as to favour the evolution of complexity. If you were
creating such a simulation (or designing a video game), wouldn't you
fine tune such parameters and pre-specify such information in order to make
Look at it this way. Imagine you were a sentient character in a video game.
You would observe that the “game physics” of your universe was
finely tuned both in the interest of computability but also to maximise the complexity
of the interactions of the simulated objects. You would discover that your own
complexity and that of the agents with which you interact could not be explained
by the regularities of the simulation and the laws you'd deduced from them, and
hence appeared to have been put in from the outside by an intelligent designer
bent on winning the science fair by making the most interesting simulation.
Being intensely rationalistic, you'd dismiss the anecdotal evidence for the
occasional miracle as the pimple-faced Creator tweaked this or that detail to
make things more interesting and thus justify an A in Miss O'Neill's Creative
Cosmology class. And you'd be wrong.
Once we have discovered we're living in a simulation and inferred, from design arguments,
that we're far from the top level, all of this will be obvious, but hey, if you're reading it
here for the first time, welcome to the revelation of what's going on. Opponents of
intelligent design claim it's “not science” or “not testable”.
Poppycock—here's a science fiction story
about how conclusive evidence for design might be discovered. Heck, you can
go looking for it yourself!
This is an essential book for anybody interested in the origin of life on Earth. The
author is a supporter of the hypothesis of intelligent design (as am I, although I doubt we
would agree on any of the details). Regardless of what you think about the issue of origins,
if you're interested in the question, you really need to know the biochemical details
discussed here, and the combinatorial impossibility of chance assembly of even a single
functionally folded protein in our universe in the time since the Big Bang.
I challenge you to read this and reject the hypothesis of intelligent
design. If you reject it, then show how your alternative is more
probable. I fully
accept the hypothesis of intelligent design and have since I
concluded more than a decade ago it's more probable than not that
we're living in a simulation. We owe our existence to the Intelligent
Designer who made us to be amusing. Let's hope she wins the Science
Fair and doesn't turn it off!