Reasons to Believe

Does New Approach Solve Origin-of-Life Problem?

How Did Life Begin?

Even though the scientific community has worked diligently since the early 1950s to explain how life originated via evolutionary processes, “It would not be an exaggeration to say that the origin of life is one of the greatest unanswered questions in science,” according to astrobiologist Sara Walker and physicist Paul Davies.1

In an attempt to move the discipline beyond this impasse, Walker and Davies propose a new way to study the origin-of-life problem. Their schema shifts attention away from the two strategies that have, until now, dominated the discipline: (1) chemistry-based explanations (metabolism-first models); and (2) explanations that rely on the emergence of self-replicating molecules subject to Darwinian evolution (replicator-first models).

Instead, the two scientists suggest a framework that views the origin of life as the genesis of information management and control, with a set of instructions (software) gaining control over the matter that harbors the information itself (hardware). Living systems would be understood as two-way flows of information: bottom-up and top-down. For example, when a person touches a hot stove, the molecules in his hand sense heat, transmit that information to the brain, and the brain then tells the molecules of the hand to move. Two-way information flow governs the behavior of all life.

Does this provocative proposal provide the way forward for scientists trying to account for the origin of life via naturalistic means? Or, in their attempt to reframe the origin-of-life problem, do Walker and Davies actually push the scientific community closer to an explanation that relies on the work of a Creator to account for life’s beginning?

Failure of Current Approaches

One of the most significant points Walker and Davies make in their article is that the origin-of-life community has failed to account for life’s start through either the replicator-first or metabolism-first approaches. In effect, the Arizona State University researchers (who are committed to a naturalistic approach to the origin-of-life problem) agree with the scientific criticisms we have leveled against evolutionary origin-of-life scenarios in Origins of Life and Creating Life in the Lab.2 (Also see “Metabolism-First Models Can’t Evolve,” “Grave Concern about Metabolism-First Origin-of-Life-Scenarios,” “A Fork in the Road,” part 1, and part 2 to read articles that briefly highlight some of the most salient problems for metabolism-first and replicator-first models.)

Ultimately, Walker and Davies argue that the real problem is conceptual, not technical. That is, the scientific community has failed to properly frame the origin-of-life problem. This futility explains why they have made no genuine advances toward understanding the emergence of life via evolutionary mechanisms.

Origin of Life and Information

Walker and Davies rightly assert that the origin-of-life problem cannot be duly addressed until life is adequately defined. Unfortunately, scientists have tried to define life for the last few centuries—to no avail.3 The definition (information processing and storage) proffered by Walker and Davies, while grossly insufficient, highlights largely ignored but crucial features of all living organisms. If the evolutionary paradigm is to account for life’s origin, information in the form of instructions (algorithmic information) must take control over the matter that harbors that very information in order to yield life.

Biochemical systems are information-based systems. As Walker and Davies point out, biochemical information possesses different properties: (1) syntax, as manifested in the nucleotide sequences of DNA (and RNA) and the amino acid sequences of proteins (called Shannon information); (2) context-dependent functionality, that is, meaning (called semantic information); and (3) causal efficacy, in which the information harbored in the biomolecules exerts control over the biochemical systems these molecules comprise (called algorithmic information).

According to Walker and Davies, the origin-of-life community has focused on the genesis of syntactical information in molecules, which the two deem as trivial information. While Darwinian processes can, in principle, produce molecules with syntactical information (and maybe even produce molecules with semantic information), this mechanism cannot account for the nontrivial information harbored by biochemical systems —information that manages and controls these systems. “How this transition occurs remains an open question,” Walker and Davies say, “While we have stressed that Darwinian evolution lacks a capacity to elucidate the physical mechanisms underlying the transition from non-life to life or distinguish non-living from living, evolution of some sort must still drive this transition.”4

Biochemical Information and the Case for a Creator

Walker and Davies are correct that some sort of change must drive the transition from nonlife to life. However, neither they nor anyone else offers a way to account for this transition from a naturalistic perspective. In fact, the prospect of generating nontrivial algorithmic information (step-by-step procedures) without invoking supernatural design appears to be far more insurmountable than the “trivial” syntactical information embodied in the nucleotide and amino acid sequences that comprise DNA and proteins, respectively.

The information-based systems that define life’s chemistry can be marshaled to make the case that life stems from a Creator. As discussed in The Cell’s Design, the hallmark features of biochemical systems are identical to those characteristics of human designs that indicate that they must be the work of a mind.5 Nothing exemplifies this relationship more than the information systems found inside the cell.

Remarkably, the structure and function of biochemical information displays an eerie similarity to the ways that humans structure and manage information systems. For example, computer scientists recognize the one-to-one correspondence between the machinery and mechanisms the cell employs to manipulate DNA and Turing machines—conceptual machines that form the basis for how computer systems function. This analogy has inspired work in DNA computing and provocatively suggests that living systems must come from a Mind.

Common experience teaches that information and the systems to manage and control information stem from intelligence. Therefore, it is reasonable to conclude that biochemical information and the management of such data must come from a mind. This is especially true when it comes to algorithmic information. Complex sets of instructions (such as computer software) that control the operation of complex machines (such as computer hardware) are exactly what one would recognize as the product of very intelligent designers.

In their effort to establish the connection between algorithmic information and biochemical information, Walker and Davies push the analogy beyond Turing machines, highlighting the similarity between the cell’s information systems and von Neumann’s universal-constructor. This machine is a conceptual apparatus that can take materials from the environment and build any machine, including itself. The universal constructor requires instructions to build the desired machines and to build itself. It also requires a supervisory system that can switch back and forth between using the instructions to build other machines and copying the instructions prior to the replication of the universal constructor. Just as von Neumann’s universal constructor stems from the work of a mind, so too, must living systems.

The similarity between conceptual machines and biochemical information systems is nothing short of mind-boggling. In this way the Walker-Davies proposal, which highlights this amazing correspondence, can be enlisted to make the case for the supernatural, super-intelligent design of the Creator God of the Bible.

Subjects: TCM - Life's Origin

Dr. Fazale Rana

In 1999, I left my position in R&D at a Fortune 500 company to join Reasons to Believe because I felt the most important thing I could do as a scientist is to communicate to skeptics and believers alike the powerful scientific evidence—evidence that is being uncovered day after day—for God’s existence and the reliability of Scripture. Read more about Dr. Fazale Rana

1. Sara Imari Walker and Paul C. W. Davies, “The Algorithmic Origins of Life,” Journal of the Royal Society Interface 10 (2013), doi: 10.1098/rsif.2012.0869.

2. Fazale Rana and Hugh Ross, Origins of Life (Colorado Springs: NavPress, 2004); Fazale Rana, Creating Life in the Lab (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2011).

3. Fazale Rana, 23–31.

4. Walker and Davies, “The Algorithmic Origins of Life.”

5. Fazale Rana, The Cell’s Design (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2008): 69–283.