Information Enigma: Where does information come from?
Information drives the development of life. But what is the source of that information? Could it have been produced by an unguided Darwinian process? Or did it require Intelligent Design? The Information Enigma is a fascinating 21-minute documentary that probes the mystery of biological information, the challenge it poses to orthodox Darwinian theory, and the reason it points to Intelligent Design.
The video features Dr. Stephen Meyer and molecular biologist Douglas Axe.
Stephen C. Meyer
Received his Ph.D. in the philosophy of science from the University of Cambridge. A former geophysicist and college professor, he now directs Discovery Institute’s Center for Science and Culture. He has authored most recently the New York Times best seller Darwin’s Doubt: The Explosive Origin of Animal Life and the Case for Intelligent Design (HarperOne, 2013) as well as Signature in the Cell: DNA and the Evidence for Intelligent Design (HarperOne, 2009), which was named a Book of the Year by the prestigiousTimes (of London) Literary Supplement in 2009.
Meyer’s other publications include ten chapter contributions to the 2015 collection of essays Debating Darwin’s Doubt as well as contributions to, and the editing of, the peer-reviewed volume Darwinism, Design and Public Education (Michigan State University Press, 2004) and the innovative textbook Explore Evolution (Hill House Publishers, 2007). He has published editorials in national newspapers such as The Wall Street Journal, USA Today, The National Post (of Canada), The Daily Telegraph (of London) and The Los Angeles Times.
He has appeared on national television and radio programs such asThe Jim Lehrer News Hour, NBC Nightly News, ABC Nightly News, CBS Sunday Morning, Nightline, Fox News Live, Paula Zahn Now (CNN), Good Morning America and the Tavis Smiley Show on PBS. In 2008, he appeared with Ben Stein in Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed. He is featured prominently in the science documentaries Icons of Evolution, Unlocking The Mystery of Life, and Darwin’s Dilemma, as well as two New York Times front-page stories and attention in other top national media.
Engineer and molecular biologist
Director of the Biologic Institute, non-profit research organization launched by the Discovery Institute in Seattle
Author of Undeniable: How biology confirms our intuition that life is designed (New York, 2016).
Doctorate at Caltech, he held postdoctoral and scientific research positions at the University of Cambridge, the Cambridge Medical Research Council Center and the Babraham Institute in Cambridge.
He has published in scientific journals, such as the Journal of Molecular Biology, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences and the prestigious Nature.
Full text of the video “The information enigma”
What is the information?
How do we detect it?
Where does it come from?
Stephen C. Meyer, PhD, Author of Darwin’s Doubt:
The crucial question that will decide the debate about biological origins is precisely the question of the origin of information. If you don’t have intructions, if you don’t have information, you can’t build anything alike.
Doctor Douglas Axe. Molecular Biolog. Director of Biologic Institute:
Everyone who works in biology knows that infromation is needed in order for a living cell to do what it does.
On the other hand there’s this huge mystery surrounding information because we also know, as humans, that information doesn’t come from nowhere it has to come from somewhere.
so you have this big question mark in the origins question in biology: Where did all the information come from?
The enigma of information
With the participation of Stephen Meyer and Douglas Axe.
In the beginning… there was information.
Until 530 million years ago the oceans of the early Earth were almost completely void of animal life.
Then, within a geologically brief span, of perhaps ten million years, the waters were suddenly alive teeming with a riot of complex animals representing most of the major animal body plans that have ever existed on our planet, know today as the Cambrian Explosion. This mysterious episode in life’s history was familiar to Charles Darwin who regarded it as a disturbing challenge to his theory of gradual and unguided evolution by natural selection.
During the past century the mystery of the Cambrian explosion has deepened as scientists have discovered the central role played by biological information in the history of life.
Stephen C. Meyer:
The Cambrian explosion is not just an explosion or the abrupt appearance of many new forms of animals life.
It’s also an explosion or would have required a huge infusion or generation of new biological information.
Biological form requires biological information.
Scientist understanding of biological information advanced dramatically when Cambridge University researchers James Watson and Francis Crick made a starting discovery, they found that the structure of the DNA molecule stores information in the form of a four-characters.
Digital code strings of precisely sequences chemicals called nucleotide bases supply the assembly instructions the information for building the crucial protein molecules that living cells need to survive.
Crick later came to realize that the chemical constituents in DNA function like letters in a written language or digital symbols ina section of computer code. Just as English letters convey a particular message dependindg on their arrangement. The sequences of chemical bases along the spine of the DNA molecule convey precise instructions for building proteins.
The arrangement of these bases directs the arrangement of the 20 different kinds of aminoacids, that make up protein molecules.
Proteines, in turn, perform a vast array of critical jobs inside cells; catalyzing reactions, processing genetic infromation and forming the structural parts of comelcular machines and other biological structures.
Building new animals requires many new protein molecules and building new proteins requires new biological information.
Stephen C. Meyer:
I used to ask my students a question when I was teaching, you want to give your computer a new function what do you have to give it and they would know they would say: code or software or instructions, or also a program…
All those are the correct answer to generate a new function in a computer you have to have code, you have to have instructions.
The same thing turns out to be true in biology. This is the great discovery of the second half of 20th century biology, that information is running the show in biological systems; to build a new form of animal life requires cell types, requires proteins and therefore requires genetic information.
And that’s the big question that the Cambrian explosion presents: if you want to think about how to build an animal, how would these animals get built, you have to have some explanation for the informational requirements of their construction.
According to modern evolutionary theory, new proteins and new forms of animal life, arise through random genetic mutations sifted by natural selection . But in an alphabetic text or a section of computer code random changes typically degrade meaning or functionality and ultimately generate gibberish.
Stephen C. Meyer:
As we’ve come to appreciate the digital or typographic character of genetic information we also it raises some really interesting questions about the efficacy of that mutation driven mechanism.
We know from computer code for example, that if you start making random changes to a section of computer code, you’re much more likely to degrade the information that’s there already then you are to come up with a new operating system or program
This problem has long been recognized by computer scientists mathematicians and engineers, including a group from Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) who convened a now-famous conference at the Wistar Institute in Philadelphia in 1966. These scientists met to consider whether the random mutation natural selection mechanism could conceive generate enough biological information to build a new animal or even a new protein in the time available to the evolutionary process.
One of these scientists was MIT engineering professor Murray Eden:
No currently existing formal language can tolerate random changes in the symbol sequences which express its sentences. Meaning is almost invariably destroyed.
Murray Eden, MIT.
Eden knew that random changes to alphabetical or digital characters inevitably degrade the information in any section of alphabet texts or digital code and for a very good reason.
Stephen C. Meyer:
Whether you’re talking about digital code in a software program or a section of text in an english sentence or book or the genetic text in DNA, there are vastly more ways to arrange the relevant characters that convey the information in a way that will produce gibberish, then there are so that will produce function or meaning.
Eden and his colleagues suspected that the genetic code fced a similar difficulty. When it came to producing new genetic information at least enough to generate a new protein the random mutation natural selection mechanism had to deal with what mathematicians call a combinatorial problem. In mathematics the term combinatorial refers to the number of possible ways that a set of objects can be arranged or combined.
In genetics the combinatorial problem poses a severe challenge to the random mutation natural selection mechanism. To understand why, imagine a thief who would like to steal a beautiful new bike all that stands between the thief and the bike is a lock with four dials each marked with the numbers 0 to 9 but there is only one correct combination that will set the bike free.
Stephen C. Meyer:
The reason of by clock works is that there are vastly more ways of arranging those numeric characters that will keep the lock closed then there are that will open the lock.
A thief without knowledge of the combination must guess the right combination from among ten times ten times ten times ten possibilities, that’s ten thousand possible combinations. Which usually would be more than enough to defeat a random search for the one right combination, yet there is still a way the thief might succeed. if he has enough time to try enough combinations he might eventually identify the right one by chance. For example, if trying each combination takes 10 seconds then in 15 hours and especially diligent thief could try more than 5,000 (five thousand) combinations, or more than half of the total possible combinations. In that case, he would be more likely to succeed than to fail in opening the lock. But now imagine a much more complicated lock, instead of four dials this lock has 10 dials. Instead of 10,000 (ten thousand) possible combinations this lock has 10 to the 10th power or 10 billion possible combinations. With only one combination that will open the lock out of ten billion it’s much more likely that the thief will fail, even if he devotes his entire life to the task. So what about relying on random mutations to search for a new DNA sequence capable of directing the construction of a new functional protein. With such a random search for new genetic information be more likely to succeed or fail?
In the time available to the evolutionary process. In other words, is a random mutational search for a new gene or protein more like the search for the combination on the 4 dial lock on a 10 dial lock?
The scientist at the Wistar Conference were unable to definitively answer that question because of the time no one could adequately quantify how hard the surge problem was.
Doctor Douglas Axe:
Thus, at the end of the 60s, someone could argue based on analogies of the things we already understand: written language, digital code, but there was no experimental data to show if those analogies were really appropriate to the biological case, so that nobody I managed to get to the exact numbers to answer those questions at that time.
The molecular biologists of the time knew that the number of possible combinations corresponding to any given DNA sequence is extremely large and grows exponentially with the length of the molecule in question.
For example, corresponding to a short protein of 150 amino acids in length, there are 10195 of other combinations of amino acids with the same length.
This is an unimaginably large number. But scientists in the 1960s did not know how many of those compositions would actually be functional. They did not know, in fact, how many combinations were going to open the lock. This did not stop evolutionary biologists from speculating. Many argue that there should be a high proportion of functional sequences among all possible sequences, so that a random investigation of a new functional sequence would have a high probability of success.
Doctor Douglas Axe:
The way they did it was simply to say: perhaps, biological sequences are not as delicate or as demanding about where certain characters are, as are written languages or digital codes.
And then that was the way they took: that, perhaps, the proteins really do not care what amino acid they are with and there would be great variability. That is, you could have the same function performed by a large number of protein chains and a large number of genes.
But recent experiences in molecular biology and protein science have replaced speculation with experimental data. These experiences demonstrated that DNA base sequences, capable of producing functional proteins, are, in fact, extremely rare among the large number of possible sequences. But how strange? After working at the University of Cambridge, molecular biologist Douglas Axe undertook to answer this question using a technique called site-directed mutagenesis. His experiments allowed him to estimate that, for each DNA sequence that generated a functional protein of only 150 amino acids in length, there would be the amount of 1077 of amino acids that did not bend in a stable three-dimensional protein structure. capable of performing that biological function. 1 correct sequence for every 1077 incorrect sequences. This is equivalent to finding a correct combination of a block with 10 numbers in each of the 77 markers!
Putting this in perspective, keep in mind that there are only 1065 atoms in the entire galaxy of the Milky Way!
Can random genetic mutations actually perform a search in such a large space of possibilities, to the point of finding a single functional protein sequence?
Doctor Douglas Axe:
So, given this terrifying probability, one in a 1077, How could something so unlikely happen?
Well, as we know in general, about the probable things, the way they can happen is because they have many and many opportunities to happen. Thus, for life, these opportunities assume the form of individual living organisms in which a mutation could come and conceive a solution. No matter how rare it is, if you get enough opportunities, you may become likely.
So the question is, Does the number 1 between 1077, which is the improbability that must be overcome as number of organisms that already existed on the planet since the beginning of life, is close to that number? And it is perceived that it does not even come close.
Throughout the 3,500 million year history of life on Earth, it is estimated that only 10 ^ 40 of individual organisms have already lived. However, 10^40 represents only a small fraction of 10^77. Only one-tenth of a trillionth of a trillionth of a trillionth, to be exact. In other words, even for a single functional protein folding to arise, the mutation and selection mechanism would have time to have investigated only a small fraction of the total number of relevant sequences. A tenth of a trillionth of a trillionth of a trillionth of the total possibilities. It follows that it is very likely that a random mutational search would have failed to produce even a new functional protein folding throughout the history of life on Earth.
Of course, the construction of new animals would actually require the creation of many new proteins. For this and other reasons, today many scientists are questioning the creative power, the mechanism of natural selection and random mutations. Even evolutionary biologists who write in peer-reviewed biology journals are recognizing the difficulties of traditional evolutionary theory. Some are willing to admit that we already live in a post-Darwinian era, while others are clamoring for new theories of evolution.
Meyer and Axe are part of a growing minority that urgently needs to consider another possibility. In Meyer, the recognition of another possibility arose from his work as a PhD student in philosophy of science at the University of Cambridge. During his studies, Meyer ended up examining the scientific method used by Charles Darwin in his classic work The Origin of Species. Darwin’s method focused on trying to establish the causes of events in the remote past of history. Darwin’s historical-scientific method is different from what many people normally think of science.
Stephen C. Meyer:
It is much more forensic reasoning than common experimental science. The reasoning starts from the clues left behind from the evidence before us, and goes back to probable or possible causes that can explain what produces life, in the first place, or what produced animal life, or what produced these clues that are in front of us. When I did my doctorate in Cambridge on the historical-scientific method, one of the things that I discovered in the process of my research, was that this distinctive method existed. And it has a name, the name is the method of multiple concurrent hypotheses, or the method of inference for the best explanation.
But how do scientists who study biological history determine what explanation is really better?
Meyer again found the answer in the work of Darwin and that of his contemporary, the great geologist Charles Lyell, who argued that, to explain the past, the key is the present. Lyell insisted that we should look for explanations based on our knowledge of “causes in exercise today”, or “causes in operation now”. And that led Mayer to ask a critical question:
Stephen C. Meyer:
What is the cause now in operation for the production of digital information? Because the crucial question in the origin of animal life in the origin of life itself is, where did the information come from? The information stored digitally in the DNA molecule, Where did that information come from? That is necessary to build these new forms of life and I realized that the answer to that question is intelligence. The cause now in operation, the cause os which we know from our uniform and repeated experience another key idea from layout that is capable of producing information is intelligence. Whether we’re looking at a hieroglyphic inscription or a paragraph in a book or a section of computer code or even information embedded in a radio signal, whenever we see infromation, especially when we find infromation in the digital or typographic form, and we trace it back to its ultimate source we always come to a mind not a material process.
So the discovery that information is running the show in life the discovery that there are these huge infusons of information in the history of life such as the one that occurs in the Cambrian explosion suggests that a designing intelligence has played a role in the history of life. It also suggested to me that it was possible to formulate a scientific case for Intelligent Design.
That is a case for Intelligent Design based on this same sceintific method of reasoning that Charles Darwin had used in the Origin of Species. So if you want to say intelligent design isn’t science, you would have to say that the Darwinian argument, in the orders os science, is also not science. But no one really wants to say that. He’s not using an unscientific method, he’s just using a different method of scientific reasoning an historical method of scientific reasoning, and I used that exact same method in formulating the positive case for intelligent design in both, Darwin’s doubt and In signature in the cell.