Thursday, October 26, 2006

Freeman Dyson on the origin of biological information (no change in 32 years!)

While my wife is away for ~5 weeks in Colorado for the birth of our second grandchild, I am taking the opportunity to sort out my ~2 metre stack of photocopies of science journals by spreading them all over the lounge room floor (I hope she doesn't read this!) and I am rediscovering some great quotes.

[Graphic: Freeman Dyson, Princeton University]

For example, this one in Science (1974) by renowned physicist Freeman Dyson famous for his observation:

"The more I examine the universe and the details of its architecture, the more evidence I find that the universe in some sense must have known we were coming." (Dyson, F., "Disturbing the Universe," Harper & Row: New York, 1979, p.250. My emphasis).

in which he admitted "the difficulties that arise in trying to understand in Darwinian terms the prebiological phases of evolution" and "Successful attack on these problems will require ... the boldness to imagine and create new concepts describing the organization of not-yet-living populations of molecules" (my emphasis):

"To celebrate Dirac's 70th birthday in 1972, a mammoth conference was organized at the International Center of Theoretical Physics in Trieste. ...One of the contributions that will probably be of greatest interest to the unspecialized reader is `The origin of biological information,' a 40-page essay by Manfred Eigen. This is a fragmentary but illuminating discussion of the difficulties that arise in trying to understand in Darwinian terms the prebiological phases of evolution. Eigen raises many questions and answers none. Because he is here talking in an informal and tentative manner, his statement is more convincing than the dogmatic article on the origin of life he published a few years ago in Naturwissenschaften. The problems of reconstructing possible pathways of prebiotic evolution in the absence of any kind of fossil evidence are indeed formidable. Successful attack on these problems will require, on the one hand, the boldness to imagine and create new concepts describing the organization of not-yet-living populations of molecules and, on the other hand, the humility to learn the hard way, by laborious experiment, which molecular pathways are consistent with the stubborn facts of chemistry. We are still at the very beginning of the quest for understanding of the origin of life. We do not yet have even a rough picture of the nature of the obstacles that prebiotic evolution has had to overcome. We do not have a well-defined set of criteria by which to judge whether any given theory of the origin of life is adequate. And yet, the origin of life is clearly destined to be one of the great themes in the science of the coming decades. It is a unifying theme, which will require the concerted effort of chemists, biologists, geologists, paleontologists, and perhaps even physicists, for its elucidation. Eigen has performed a valuable service in calling the attention of a new generation of physical scientists to the existence of this challenge. He has begun to ask some of the right questions. It is too soon to expect any answers." (Dyson, F., "Honoring Dirac." Review of "The Physicist's Conception of Nature," Proceedings of a Symposium, Trieste, Italy, Sept. 1972, Mehra, J., ed., Reidel: Boston MA, 1973. Science, Vol 185, 27 September 1974, pp.1160-1161).

It is significant that nothing has changed in the field of origin of life in the 32 years since Dyson wrote that, despite the exponential success of science in other fields. It is quite common to read origin of life theorists saying things like there is a need "to imagine and create new concepts" (my emphasis), e.g.

"New lines of thinking and experimentation must be tried" (my emphasis):

"More than 30 years of experimentation on the origin of life in the fields of chemical and molecular evolution have led to a better perception of the immensity of the problem of the origin of life on Earth rather than to its solution. At present all discussions on principal theories and experiments in the field either end in stalemate or in a confession of ignorance. New lines of thinking and experimentation must be tried." (Dose, K., "The Origin of Life: More Questions Than Answers," Interdisciplinary Science Reviews, Vol. 13, No. 4, 1988, p.348. My emphasis).

"... a fully satisfactory theory of the origin of life demands some radically new ideas" (my emphasis):

"When I set out to write this book I was convinced that science was close to wrapping up the mystery of life's origin. The dramatic evidence for microbes living deep underground promised to provide the 'missing link' between the prebiotic world of biochemical soups and the first primitive cells. And it is true that many scientists working in this field confidently believe that the major problems of biogenesis have largely been solved. Several recent books convey the confident message that life's origin is not really so mysterious after all. However, I think they are wrong. Having spent a year or two researching the field I am now of the opinion that there remains a huge gulf in our understanding. To be sure, we have a good idea of the where and the when of life's origin, but we are a very long way from comprehending the how. This gulf in understanding is not merely ignorance about certain technical details, it is a major conceptual lacuna. I am not suggesting that life's origin was a supernatural event, only that we are missing something very fundamental about the whole business. If it is the case, as so many experts and commentators suggest, that life is bound to arise given the right conditions, then something truly amazing is happening in the universe, something with profound philosophical ramifications. My personal belief, for what it is worth, is that a fully satisfactory theory of the origin of life demands some radically new ideas." (Davies, P.C.W., "The Fifth Miracle: The Search for the Origin of Life," Penguin: Ringwood, Australia, 1998, pp.xvi-xvii. My emphasis)

There is only one genuinely new (although it is old) concept left to consider, but which, to a science dominated by materialism-naturalism, is literally unthinkable and that is Intelligent Design!

And as ID theorist Stephen Meyer points out, on historical science's own guiding principle of "the present is the key to the past ... We have repeated" (he could have said "absolutely uniform with no exceptions"!) "experience of rational and conscious agents ... generating or causing increases in complex specified information":

"For historical scientists `the present is the key to the past' means that present experience-based knowledge of cause and effect relationships typically guides the assessment of the plausibility of proposed causes of past events. Yet it is precisely for this reason that current advocates of the design hypothesis want to reconsider design as an explanation for the origin of biological form and information. This review, and much of the literature it has surveyed, suggests that four of the most prominent models for explaining the origin of biological form fail to provide adequate causal explanations for the discontinuous increases of CSI that are required to produce novel morphologies. We have repeated experience of rational and conscious agents-in particular ourselves-generating or causing increases in complex specified information, both in the form of sequence-specific lines of code and in the form of hierarchically arranged systems of parts. In the first place, intelligent human agents-in virtue of their rationality and consciousness-have demonstrated the power to produce information in the form of linear sequence-specific arrangements of characters. Indeed, experience affirms that information of this type routinely arises from the activity of intelligent agents. A computer user who traces the information on a screen back to its source invariably comes to a mind-that of a software engineer or programmer. The information in a book or in inscriptions ultimately derives from a writer or scribe-from a mental rather than a strictly material cause. Our experience-based knowledge of information flow confirms that systems with large amounts of specified complexity (especially codes and languages) invariably originate from an intelligent source from a mind or personal agent. As Henry Quastler put it, the `creation of new information is habitually associated with conscious activity.' [Quastler, H., "The Emergence of Biological Organization," Yale University Press: New Haven CT, 1964, pp.16-17] Experience teaches this obvious truth. ... Conscious and rational agents have, as part of their powers of purposive intelligence, the capacity to design information-rich parts and to organize those parts into functional information-rich systems and hierarchies. Further, we know of no other causal entity or process that has this capacity." (Meyer, S.C., "The Origin of Biological Information and the Higher Taxonomic Categories," in Dembski, W.A., ed., "Darwin's Nemesis: Phillip Johnson and the Intelligent Design Movement," InterVarsity Press: Downers Grove IL, 2000, pp.200-201. Emphasis original).

Stephen E. Jones, BSc (Biol).

Genesis 7:17-24. 17For forty days the flood kept coming on the earth, and as the waters increased they lifted the ark high above the earth. 18The waters rose and increased greatly on the earth, and the ark floated on the surface of the water. 19They rose greatly on the earth, and all the high mountains under the entire heavens were covered. 20The waters rose and covered the mountains to a depth of more than twenty feet. 21Every living thing that moved on the earth perished-birds, livestock, wild animals, all the creatures that swarm over the earth, and all mankind. 22Everything on dry land that had the breath of life in its nostrils died. 23Every living thing on the face of the earth was wiped out; men and animals and the creatures that move along the ground and the birds of the air were wiped from the earth. Only Noah was left, and those with him in the ark. 24The waters flooded the earth for a hundred and fifty days.

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