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Materialists Beware: The First Gene Defends a Strictly Scientific, Non-Materialist Conception of Biological Origins

Can a book that is essentially devoid of the term “intelligent design,” doesn’t talk about “specified complexity,” and makes only scant mention of “irreducible complexity,” offer an argument that is friendly to teleology in biology?

A new technical book, The First Gene, edited by Gene Emergence Project director David L. Abel, shows that the answer to that question is “yes.” Materialists will not like this book because its arguments are 100% scientific, devoid of religious, political, or cultural concerns, and most importantly, compelling.

The arguments in The First Gene are rooted in what Abel calls “ProtoBioSemiotics” or “ProtoBioCybernetics,” which according to Abel answers questions like:

How did a prebiotic natural environment of mere mass/energy interactions generate meaningful, functional messages? How did chance and necessity prescribe the ability of the receiver to follow arbitrary rules required for decoding? How could the laws of physics and chemistry have enabled molecules to understand linguistic-like symbol systems, and act on such messages within the first protocells? (p. xvi)

Likewise, ProtoBioCybernetics “specifically explores the often-neglected derivation through ‘natural process’ of initial control mechanisms in the very first theoretical protocell.” (p. 1) Thus, the subtitle is “The Birth of Programming, Messaging and Formal Control.”

Formal control is a major theme of this book, where “uncoerced choices” (p. 4) are used to actualize functional goals that fit into abstract categories. This Platonic idea finds support in mathematics, language, and computation, where non-physical entities exist and have meaning apart from their physical form. Thus, Abel explains that “None of these formalisms can be encompassed by a consistently held naturalistic worldview that seeks to reduce all things to physicodynamics.” (p. 5) In Abel’s view, such “formalisms depend upon choice contingency rather than chance contingency or necessity.” (p. 5) Yet life is built upon formalisms.

The First Gene investigates a number of different types of information that we find in nature, including prescriptive information, semantic information, and Shannon information. Prescriptive information is what directs our choices, and it is a form of semantic information — which is a type of functional information. In contrast, Shannon information, according to Abel, shouldn’t even be called “information” because it’s really a measure of a reduction in uncertainty, and by itself cannot do anything to “prescribe or generate formal function.” (p. 11) Making arguments similar to those embodied in Dembski’s law of conservation of information, Abel argues that “Shannon uncertainty cannot progress to becoming [Functional Information] without smuggling in positive information from an external source.” (p. 12) The highest form of information, however, is prescriptive information:

Prescriptive Information is much more than intuitive semantic information. PI requires anticipation, “choice with intent,” and the diligent pursuit of Aristotle’s “final function” at successive bona fide decision nodes. PI either instructs or directly produces formal function at its destination through the use of controls, not mere constraints. Once again, PI either tells us what choices to make, or it is a recordation of wise choices already made. (p. 15)

In Abel’s view, if you’re going to explain the origin of prescriptive information, then “Choice Contingency (Selection for potential []not yet existing[] function, not just selection of the best already-existing function) must be included among the fundamental categories of reality along with Chance and Necessity.” (p. 25) He further argues, “Chance and necessity cannot generate formal controls. Chance and necessity cannot pursue ‘usefulness.'” (p. 263) Moreover:

No physical entity can “self-organize” itself into existence. An effect cannot cause itself. Organization is the effect of choice-contingent determinism, not physicodynamic determinism or chance. (p. 264)

So how does prescriptive information arise? Abel explains that “Only agents have been known to write or program meaningful and pragmatic linear digital PI” (p. 40) for “We are hard-pressed to provide empirical evidence, rational justification, or references showing how programming can be accomplished without intentional choices of mind (crossing The Cybernetic Cut).” (p. 78)

Other contributors to the book include Kirk Durston and David Chui, who develop similar methods of measuring functional biological information. They introduce three types of information: Random Sequence Complexity (RSC), Ordered Sequence Complexity (OSC) and Functional Sequence Complexity (FSC), where “The primary feature of FSC that distinguishes it from RSC and OSC, is the imposition of functional controls upon the sequence.” (p. 161) They then measure the FSC for various protein families, showing that functional protein sequences are rare. They believe there is “almost infinitesimal size of functional sequence space relative to the size of the entire sequence space for a given number of sites.” (p. 175)

Chemist and computer scientist Donald E. Johnson, author of Probability’s Nature and Nature’s Probability, has a chapter looking at the “minimal replication and control information” required for a protocell. He lists many requirements, such as “A robust information structure that can be self-maintained (including error-correction)” (pp. 414-415) or “Controlled chemical metabolic networks are needed that can selectively admit ‘fuel’ (redox, heat, photons, etc.) into the cell and process the ‘fuel’ to harness the energy for growth, reproduction, manufacturing of needed components that can’t migrate in, and other useful work.” (pp. 413-415)

Johnson critiques both the RNA world hypothesis and metabolism-first scenarios for the origin of life. The RNA world hypothesis suffers from the “the infeasibility of forming functional RNA by chance” (p. 405), whereas metabolism-first scenarios cannot achieve life-like replication, and complex chemical catalysts are unlikely to be available on the early earth. The problem, Johnson explains, is that “inanimate nature” cannot “write those programs and operating systems” (pp. 407-408) found in life, and “Coded information has never been observed to originate from physicality.” (p. 408)

The Requirements of Life
From reading The First Gene, a number of minimal theoretical and material requirements for life emerge:

  • High levels of prescriptive information
  • Programming
  • Symbol systems and language
  • Molecules which can carry this information and programming
  • Highly unlikely sequences of functional information
  • Formal function
  • An “agent” capable of making “intentional choices of mind” which can “choose” between various options, select for future function, and instantiate these requirements for life.

Let’s return to the question posed at the beginning of this post: Can a book which doesn’t talk about “intelligent design” make an argument that is friendly to design and teleology?

Anti-ID conspiracy theorists love to say that those pesky creationists are always changing their terminology to get around the First Amendment. ID’s intellectual pedigree refutes that charge, but The First Gene adds more reasons why that charge should not be taken seriously. The book offers highly technical, strictly scientific arguments about the nature of information, information processing, and biological functionality. Even a cursory read of this book shows that its contributors are just thinking about doing good science. And this science leads them to the conclusion that blind and unguided material causes cannot produce the complexity we observe in life. Some agent capable of making choices is required to produce the first life.