Friday, May 04, 2012

Read Along: Chapter 6—How Did Life Begin?

Today we continue with Chapter Six in the Read Along with Apologetics 315 project. This is a chapter-by-chapter study through the book Is God Just a Human Invention? And Seventeen Other Questions Raised by the New Atheists by Sean McDowell and Jonathan Morrow. (Hear an interview about the book here.) Below you will find an audio intro for Chapter Six, a brief summary of the chapter, a PDF workbook with questions for the chapter, and some notable quotes. You're also encouraged to share your comments and feedback for each chapter in the comment section below. Feel free to interact!

[Audio Intro] - Jonathan Morrow introduces this chapter.
[Chapter 06 Study Questions] (with kindle locations) - PDF study guide.
[Podcast Feed RSS | Podcast in iTunes] - Click to subscribe to the audio.

Summary
Chapter Six: How Did Life Begin?
(pages 83-94)

Chapter six delves into the question of the origin of life. The authors discuss the current state of origin of life research, talk about the technology and complexity found in the cell, and survey the possible means by which the information in the cell came about. They show the shortcomings of naturalistic theories to account for the specified information in DNA, while showing that the best explanation for information is an intelligent source.

Biochemist Fazale Rana contributes an essay entitled, "My Most Important Discovery." Here he describes how the elegance, sophistication, and complexity of the cell's chemical systems, along with the inadequacies of evolutionary explanations for the origin of life, convinced him as a biochemistry graduate student that a Creator must exist.

Notable quotes:

A typical cell has roughly 100 million proteins of 20,000 different types, and yet the entire cell is so small that a few hundred cells could fit on the dot of this letter i. (p. 85)

Richard Dawkins writes, "Apart from differences in jargon, the pages of a molecular-biology journal might be interchanged with those of a computer-engineering journal."
(p. 85)


Paul Davies says, "Life is more than just complex chemical reactions. The cell is also an information storing, processing and replicating system. We need to explain the origin of this information, and the way in which the information processing machinery came to exist." (p. 86)

The probability of finding a functional protein through chance alone is a trillion, trillion, trillion, trillion, trillion, trillion, trillion times smaller than the odds of finding a specific particle in a random search throughout the entire universe! (p. 87)

Any valid theory for how life began must be able to explain information's origin. (p. 89)

Former atheist Antony Flew put it best, "The only satisfactory explanation for the origin of such 'end-directed, self-replicating' life as we see on earth is an infinitely intelligent Mind." (p. 91)

Discuss
  1. How would you describe the odds of a functional protein emerging by chance alone?
  2. Why do you think Richard Dawkins' suggests that luck is enough to explain the origin of life?
  3. What other explanations besides design could account for specified information in DNA?
Recommended Reading
Next Week: Chapter 7—Why Is the Universe Just Right for Life?

19 comments :

Gabriel Pagel said...

This is so cool. Have you been doing the read along for a while? What other books have been done? When you finish a book, do you make a page to access all of the pdfs and audio introductions in one place?

Brian Auten said...

Gabriel,

We have been doing this read-along stuff for like 9 months now, maybe.

We also read along with Doug Groothuis' book, "Christian Apologetics" and you can find the index to that read-along right here.

An index will be made for this one as well, but in the mean time, you can find all posts for this series here.

Hausdorff said...

I'm wondering if anyone can help me out on the section entitled "Ignorance or Design". It started by pointing out that the common complaint to this line of reasoning was that it is an argument from ignorance. (This is what I was thinking when I was reading the whole chapter, this entire thing is just a giant argument from ignorance) As far as I can tell, it never really gave an explanation as to why it is not an argument from ignorance. Anybody see something that I missed?

Brian Auten said...

Hausdorff,

In that section, the authors answer the question like this:

Intelligent design is also positively based on our uniform experience that information always arises from an intelligent mind, not an unguided material process. Computer scientists write computer programs. Authors write books. Young people text their friends. Lovers send messages to their beloved. For every instance in which we are able to trace information back to its source, we find an intelligent mind. (p. 91).

It seems to me that the authors are saying, if we ask, "what sorts of things that we know of produce information?" it seems that in every case we know of, we correctly infer that the source is intelligence. So in looking at information in the cell, and asking for what caused it, it is plausible to say that is more likely an intelligent cause than a random one. That's not an argument from ignorance—it's not arguing from what we don't know, but arguing from what we do know.

Hausdorff said...

I guess to me that still sounds like an argument from ignorance. I am not sure that I would agree that every time there is information there is an intelligent mind behind it, but let's suppose for the sake of argument that it is correct. Isn't it still an argument from ignorance to say that it must be that way?

The claim is still "we don't see how this could happen by randomness therefore it must be design". At least that is how it looks to me.

Brian Auten said...

Hausdorff,

"we don't see how this could happen by randomness therefore it must be design"
This isn't the argument.
It's more like: "Every time we see information, the cause is intelligence." That's a positive argument. However, I think it is strengthened by the fact that alternative explanations (random chance, physical law) fail to generate information.

Hausdorff said...

What exactly is meant by information? Information is all over the place, and it doesn't seem to me that it is always put there by intelligence. For example, the Fibonacci sequence is a list of numbers that I would certainly consider information. It shows up in nature all over the place.

Brian Auten said...

Hausdorff,

All of page 85 answers that question, it seems to me.

"Biologists today describe the cell using language reminiscent of engineering and computer science. They regularly use terms such as genetic "code," "information-processing system," and "signal transduction.""

and

"In a single cell, the DNA contains the informational equivalent of roughly eight thousand books. If the DNA from one cell were uncoiled, it would extend to about three meters in length. Thus, if the DNA in an adult human were strung together, it would stretch from Earth to the sun and back roughly seventy times!'"

and

"But DNA does not just store information. In combination with other cellular systems, it also processes information. Hence Bill Gates likens DNA to a computer program, though far more advanced than any software humans have invented.""

Those are just a few small excerpts. But it seems to me that when we are talking about DNA, we are talking about complex specified information. That is, not just a pattern, but a pattern with a goal or purpose. DNA is an instructional code for building cells, and ultimately, complex organisms that reproduce themselves.

As for how it differs from something like the Fibonacci sequence, they give a good example on page 88:

While self-organizational models may be able to explain the origin of order in living systems, they cannot explain the origin of specified information. Drain a bathtub, for instance, and you will see a vortex emerge naturally. But here's the catch: while a vortex may have order, its information content is simple and repetitive. This is a far cry from the specified information in computer code, written language, and DNA.

Hausdorff said...

In pursuit of a good definition of information, I came across the following. It is really interested but a bit long. Here is a relevant quote from the article:

"Perhaps the main lesson we should learn from Pringle is that the information content of a biological system is another name for its complexity. Therefore the creationist challenge with which we began is tantamount to the standard challenge to explain how biological complexity can evolve from simpler antecedents, one that I have devoted three books to answering (The Blind Watchmaker, River Out of Eden, Climbing Mount Improbable) and I do not propose to repeat their contents here. The “information challenge” turns out to be none other than our old friend: “How could something as complex as an eye evolve?” It is just dressed up in fancy mathematical language — perhaps in an attempt to bamboozle. Or perhaps those who ask it have already bamboozled themselves, and don’t realise that it is the same old — and thoroughly answered — question."

Brian Auten said...

Hausdorff,

Thanks for the quote.

I remember reading that article some time ago, as it addressed the question posed to Dawkins about mutations in cells that can generate new information. So that is the information question he is responding to. So to begin with, I don't think what he is saying here is specifically addressing the origin of information for how life began.

Information is not just another name for complexity. If that were the case, then a book full of random words (which is complex) would be considered information. What makes information different is that there is complex specificity. In the case of a book with real information in it, it would carry a message. In the case of DNA, you have machine code for building self-replicating living creatures with all their unique functions. That's a big jump from only complexity.

When Dawkins says he has devoted three books to the subject, it is true that he has devoted three books to evolution... how creatures that are already alive, change through mutations of their information. But he himself is quoted in the book we are studying about the ORIGIN of life, that he accounts for that by one lucky accident. He doesn't account for the origin of life by pointing to evolution because you can't have evolution unless you have life first.

I don't think this is something dressed up in fancy language. Nor do I think people life Antony Flew are trying to bamboozle anyone. And it seems to me the origin of life question is not the "same old thoroughly answered question"... but like I said, I don't believe the Dawkins article or quote is addressing this origin of life issue; and in particular, the origin of information issue.

MaryLou said...

Brian wrote: "But it seems to me that when we are talking about DNA, we are talking about complex specified information. That is, not just a pattern, but a pattern with a goal or purpose."

For me, it's that little word 'purpose' that stands out. Lesslie Newbigin in his book, Foolishness to the Greeks, talks a great deal about the significance of purpose. For example, he writes that a machine cannot be explained by chemical and physical analyses of its component wheels and shafts and pulleys. Just knowing how each of those components works doesn't explain a machine. We only understand it when we know its purpose. The same goes for DNA.

I'm not a scientist and I don't pretend to know the ins and outs of the discipline, but to me, it doesn't make sense that purpose came out of random purposeless activity. A computer programmer designs a program with purpose. Why would we think that this complex world just happened accidentally and, happily, all of those accidents ended up into something purposeful?

Forgive me if my thoughts on the matter are naive. But I just can't get my head around the idea that everything purposeful happened without someone designing each and every thing for a purpose.

Ex N1hil0 said...

Dawkins fumbles...TURNOVER!

(Apologies to non-Americans reading this comment.)

Ex N1hil0 said...

MaryLou,

Your intuitions about design and purpose are certainly reasonable. And, in fact, it was just such thinking that gave impetus to the men who founded modern science as we know it today.

It is ironic, then; that an entire discipline has emerged—ostensibly a science in its own right—a primary focus of which is to show that there is neither purpose nor design in living creatures.

Hausdorff said...

Brian:

I think you are right. The quote from Dawkins was more about evolution than origin of life. It still does make a good point though, that using 'information' is basically asking similar questions in a new way. It doesn't quite mean what we think it means and we need to be careful speaking too colloquially. I think the first part of the link where it describes what is meant by information is pretty interesting.

Hausdorff said...

MaryLou:

"it doesn't make sense that purpose came out of random purposeless activity"

One thing to remember, is that it is not simply a bunch of random things that happen to get to the world today. Randomness is involved, yes, but natural selection is behind what survives. Randomness plays a part in the variability that is available, but natural selection makes it so the random moves in a bad direction don't propagate and the random moves in good directions flourish.

"I just can't get my head around the idea that everything purposeful happened without someone designing each and every thing for a purpose."

It is definitely a difficult idea, I guess it depends on what you mean by purpose. Is it possible that we might see purpose where there isn't really any? Could something that appears to be purpose evolve naturally from a very simple beginning?

Suppose for example that I made some very simple machines that could harvest surrounding materials and make copies of themselves (simple replicators). Now, suppose at some point there is a new copy (call it A) whose programming is a bit different. Suppose it changed the way A searched for materials to make new copies of itself and because of this it is able to make a whole bunch of copies of A. Would you say that A had purpose in looking for those new materials? It might appear that way from the outside, but it was just a fortunate replication error.

Suppose now from our original machine, there was a different copying error producing a new machine B which also looks for materials to use for new copies in a different way. Suppose this time it is a complete failure, it does a poor job of searching for material and is unable to copy itself. This is the idea of natural selection, there was a random change that was detrimental to B, so the change in B doesn't get propagated. There was a random change that was good in A, now there are a ton of A's around.

Randomness is involved, but it is not all that is going on. Is there really purpose here, or is that just the way it seems from our perspective. Does the machine want to replicate and therefore it is looking for new materials with that in mind? Not really, it is following a simple program to create copies. It doesn't want anything in the sense that we think of it.

Isn't it possible that some version of this happened on early earth? Perhaps there was some simple arrangement of things that didn't do much other than make copies of itself. Changes in copying every once in a while resulted in a new version that is better at making copies than what is around it. Repeat on an enormous time scale and you have the world today.

(sorry for rambling a bit and going a little off topic, but I think these little thought experiments are fun and I just ran with it)

Vicki McGrew said...

I took a look at the Dawkins article “The Information Challenge” that Hausdorff mentioned several comments ago. I noticed that in the article, Dawkins describes the information theory developed by mathematician Claude Shannon in the 1940’s. Shannon’s mathematical theory consists of rules for analyzing how characters are transmitted across communication channels. Dawkins seems to make use of Shannon’s theory and definition of information throughout his article. Reading about Shannon’s theory reminded me of something I’d read in a book by Stephen Meyer.

Stephen Meyer, director for the Discovery Institute for Science and Culture and a founder of the intelligent design movement became interested in Shannon’s theory. In his book, Signature in the Cell (2009), he explains Shannon’s theory and how it relates to the information in DNA (see chapter 4). Meyer differentiates between what he calls Shannon information (information-carrying capacity) and information content (functionally specified information). Meyer goes on to say that “Shannon’s theory cannot distinguish functional or message-bearing sequences from random or useless ones. It can only measure the improbability of the sequence as a whole. It can quantify the amount of functional or meaningful information that might be present in a given sequence of symbols or characters, but it cannot determine whether the sequence in question produces a specific effect.” Meyer concludes by saying that DNA contains both Shannon information and specified information. “DNA displays a property—functional specificity—that transcends the merely mathematical formalism of Shannon’s theory.”

It’s this kind of specified information that needs to be accounted for in explaining the origin of life. This kind of meaningful information that produces a specific effect seems inexplicable apart from an intelligent mind.

MaryLou said...

Thanks for those responses, ExN1hilo and Hausdorff.

The thing is, Hausdorff, when you use your example of a machine replicating itself, you begin with a machine that you made with a specific purpose. The fact that some error occurred and it no longer does what you programmed it to do doesn't mean that the original wasn't created by a creator. That's what I can't get past in this discussion.

And when it gets right down to it, that is what happened with the earth. God made it for one purpose. Sin blighted it, meaning that error crept in, and we and all of creation got off-track. The good news is that in the future, Christ will return and God will create a new heaven and a new earth which, quite frankly, I'm really looking forward to!

I like the challenge of these "thought experiments", too, Hausdorff. It's good brain exercise, that's for sure, and it's exploring fields that are fairly new to me so I am explanding my horizons which is good, too.

Thanks to all of you for the discussion. I'm looking forward to the conversation that follows tomorrow's posting.

Hausdorff said...

That is true, in my example we still did have a creator, the guy who made the first replicating machines. I guess my point in that example was that the creator didn't intend any of the new behaviors that grew out of the random copying errors. But all that we have to do change the story to what might have happened at the beginning of life is replace the robot I am picturing with a simple collection of protein that self-replicates. If it is simple enough it is feasible that it could have happened by chance.

Self-replicating doesn't have to be a complicated as we typically picture it. What if it is little more than like particles sticking to like particles? At some point it gets big and splits off making multiples of itself. Maybe some of these globs arrange themselves in an efficient way and we are off.

Coming up with an example that doesn't have a creator is difficult. Anything is either going to be man made or natural, anything natural is what is under discussion and anything man made is obviously created by someone.

Vicki McGrew said...

I took a look at the article by Dawkins called “The Information Challenge” that Hausdorff mentioned several comments ago. I noticed that in the article, Dawkins describes the information theory developed by mathematician Claude Shannon in the 1940’s. Shannon’s mathematical theory consists of rules for analyzing how characters are transmitted across communication channels. Dawkins seems to make use of Shannon’s theory and definition of information throughout his article. Reading about Shannon’s theory reminded me of something I’d read in a book by Stephen Meyer.

In his book, Signature in the Cell (2009), Meyer explains Shannon’s theory and how it relates to the information in DNA (see chapter 4). Meyer differentiates between what he calls Shannon information (information-carrying capacity) and information content (functionally specified information). Meyer goes on to say that “Shannon’s theory cannot distinguish functional or message-bearing sequences from random or useless ones. It can only measure the improbability of the sequence as a whole. It can quantify the amount of functional or meaningful information that might be present in a given sequence of symbols or characters, but it cannot determine whether the sequence in question produces a specific effect.” Meyer concludes by saying that DNA contains both Shannon information and specified information. “DNA displays a property—functional specificity—that transcends the merely mathematical formalism of Shannon’s theory.”

It’s this kind of specified information that needs to be accounted for in explaining the origin of life. This kind of meaningful information that produces a specific effect seems inexplicable apart from an intelligent mind.

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