Is information a ‘false metaphor’ for DNA?
Is the concept of ‘information’ a metaphor too simplistic to describe DNA?
Published: 13 March 2012(GMT+10)
Chris C. from Greece writes:
Hello dear sir. I hope this is the right place to ask a scientific question. I’m aware of the information theory and how it is related to DNA and Creator, I have also read many of your articles upon this.
But I need some more clarifications upon this. I carry the words of a materialist and I would like to have the answer to these specific claims.
Here it is:
“The ‘information metaphor falsehood’ (IMF) is a useful falsehood when used properly, but is overly simplistic. DNA is like instructions in that cells follow predictable patterns due to the pivotal role this molecule plays in the assembly and production of RNAs and proteins. Beyond this, however, IMF breaks down. The sequence of the DNA molecule does not contain instructions, but rather is a physical structure which responds to interactions with other molecules because of this structure, not because of the sequence. While the sequence partially provides this structure in DNA, this structure is influenced by many factors. For example, histones around which the DNA is coiled play an integral part in what segments are expressed. Sequences of DNA are only partially responsible for the structure of these histones and they are regulated by other external and internal factors aside from other segments of DNA. The IMF is a simplified version of what is actually occurring within the cell and this simplification ignores the three-dimensional and interactive aspects of the molecules within the nucleus. Additionally, IMF assumes that the sequence is the important aspect of DNA ignoring that many sequence changes in DNA do very little to the organism. DNA can be better described for what it is, a molecule which provides the templates for the synthesis of various RNAs under specific conditions. It is not a causative agent or “set of directions” but an interacting part of the cell (albeit an important one) subject to external and internal factors.
This is true information storage, retrieval, and processing, and no educated person today should be allowed to deny it.
“IMF relies upon known and blatantly false simplification to reach the conclusion
“The information metaphor implies that the important aspect of DNA is only the sequence or “content” while ignoring three-dimensional conformations and external influences. Parts of the DNA molecule which have useless sequences, but the lengths are important (separating promoters) as well as regions providing specific binding to histones which allows interaction at other specific points along the molecule are also important.
“Finally, ‘information’ implies directionality or intentionality while DNA is not a causative agent nor was it placed, put, or designed by any agent. Instead, it is hereditary material which has been shaped by countless generations with mutation and evolution influencing it. DNA is not a pattern which ‘represents’ or ‘conveys’ anything. It is a template which functions as hereditary material enabling and regulating RNA synthesis.”
Alex Williams responds:
Biological information is an extremely complex subject that no one fully understands.
Biological information is a very complex issue that we do not fully understand, but we do understand enough about it to develop extremely powerful arguments against materialistic views of life’s origin. The author of this piece you quote is trying to counter the creationist position by focussing on DNA only and I would address his main arguments as follows:
- He uses a fabricated nasty name “information metaphor falsehood” to label it as if it is false. This is empty name-calling, not science. No one who knows the subject can deny that the ‘protein code’ in DNA (the amino acid coding regions, often simply called the ‘genetic code’), together with its cellular support mechanisms, constitutes a sophisticated information storage, retrieval and processing system. To call it a “metaphor” means that it only ‘looks like’ information and information processing but is not really so. This is blatantly false. The symbolic structure and narrative sequence dependence of the protein code is exactly parallel to the way that the English language works in our exchange in this email. The words that I write here have symbolic meanings that you can look up in a dictionary, and I have strung them together in a narrative sequence to tell you a story about biological information. The protein code has symbolic meanings that a cell (and you) can look up in a ‘dictionary’ of the protein code, and they are strung together in sequences that have meaning for the workings of the cell. This is true information storage, retrieval, and processing, and no educated person today should be allowed to deny it. To highlight the technical accuracy of this point, the information content of DNA sequences, and of the 3-dimensional proteins that are made from them, can be measured using the Shannon method, as information expert Hubert Yockey showed in his book Information Theory, Evolution, and the Origin of Life, a review of which can be found here: Great minds on the origin of life (and the Shannon method can only measure a tiny fraction of the biologically useful information in DNA, as illustrated by Dr Rob Carter).
- He claims that the creationist argument is “overly simplistic” and therefore false, because it ignores the 3-dimensional structure and complex interactions of biomolecules. This is a ludicrously false argument. The author is trying to deny the “simple” challenge of the protein code by saying that cells function in a far more complex manner. This is nothing more than an attempt at bluff. It is similar to the argument used by molecular biologists who studied the way in which bacteria build their motorized flagella and concluded that it was so complex that it could not have been intelligently designed. Surely, they argued, an intelligent designer would have created a simpler system! Materialists cannot explain the “simple” protein code in terms of atoms and molecules (matter), so they certainly cannot explain the more complex interactions that occur in whole cells just by saying “it’s more complex than that.” The author is trying to defeat you by hitting you with a weapon that is not in his armoury!
- He claims that DNA is not a causative agent or “set of directions”. This likewise is false. DNA never does anything on its own. It is an information storage molecule, nothing more. It only ever functions in the context of a cell where there are very complex molecular mechanisms in place for retrieving the stored information and putting it to use in the life cycle of the cell. The cell-with-its-DNA is most certainly a causative agent, and it does indeed carry a “set of directions”. Every organism that ever lived has to pass through a single-cell stage during reproduction. That single cell is the cause of its offspring as surely as the Earth’s rotation causes our day/night cycle of sunlight and darkness. And every cell contains a hierarchical set of directions for producing and maintaining its offspring. In the case of humans, the first level of control turns the first single cell of the offspring into a mass of daughter cells that know where the head, tail, right, left, back and front of the final baby will be. The second level of control develops the arms, legs, head, spine and internal organs in the specified places. The third level of control produces the detailed characteristics of that particular individual (e.g. skin, hair, and eye colour, height, weight, gender etc.). Eric Davidson’s (evolutionary) book The Regulatory Genome, 2006, was the first to describe this hierarchical system of gene regulation.
- He says it was not designed. This is an empty claim based upon deliberate ignorance of the evidence for design. He was not there when life began so he has no authority on which to deny the existence of a designer when there is so much evidence for design.
- He says it is the product of mutation and evolution. This is not logically possible because evolution via natural selection can only begin to occur if a population of living-cells-with-their-DNA already exists. The evolution of organisms cannot logically explain the origin of organisms any more than the ‘evolution’ of human language can explain the origin of humans or human language. It is not physically possible either because the rate of mutation is so great that it is degrading the genomes of all multi-celled organisms on earth to inevitable extinction on alarmingly short time scales (Please see Mutations: evolution’s engine becomes evolution’s end! which illustrates this point).
- He says it is “a template which functions as heredity material enabling and regulating RNA synthesis.” This is a description, not an explanation. It is a bit like offering the following statement as an explanation for the origin of a car engine: “it’s there to make the wheels go around”. Explanation requires very much more argument and evidence than description does.
The author of this piece has something to say only because he is ignorant of the science and ignorant of the structure of logical explanations.
The important point is this: biological information is an extremely complex subject that no one fully understands. Materialists do not understand it and they cannot explain the origin of the simplest part of it (the protein code on DNA) so they certainly cannot explain the whole of it by saying that “it is more complex than that”. That is not an explanation, it is just a description.
Here is a story about a surgeon and an engineer that nicely illustrates the complexity of biology. The engineer said to the surgeon “Your job is quite similar to mine. In my job, people have problems with their machines, they bring them to me, I open them up and have a look inside, see what the problem is and fix it, then close them up again. In your job, people have problems with their bodies, so they come to you, you open them up, have a look inside to see what’s wrong, you fix it, and close them up again.” The surgeon thought for a while and then he replied “Yes, I agree on the similarity, but there is also a very big difference. I do the job on my patients with their ‘engine’ running.” This shows how much more complex life is than machines are. And machines are more complex than the atoms and molecules that they are made from. Materialists only have atoms and molecules to explain their world. They cannot explain machines without reference to design, so they certainly cannot explain the much more complex life. An article of mine Life’s irreducible structure—Part 1: autopoiesis illustrates the point if you are interested.
Information storage, retrieval and processing is a unique characteristic of life. It requires a symbolic association between items in a code (e.g. an English dictionary, a binary computer code, or a DNA-amino acid ‘dictionary’) together with a language processing system (e.g. human communication, computer software generation, cell function) that can interpret the code via the symbolic associations and carry out work as a result. Information can never be meaningfully studied in isolation; it must always be seen in the context of its language processing system and the work module that this is in turn connected with (and this is the reason that Shannon information is an inadequate measure of biological information). An article by James Shapiro, a world leading microbiologist and anti-creationist, entitled Bacteria are small but not stupid;1 illustrates some of the points I have made here, and highlights the ignorance of the author of the writing that you quoted.
- Shapiro, J.A., Bacteria are small but not stupid: cognition, natural genetic engineering and socio-bacteriology, Stud. Hist. Phil. Biol. and Biomed. Sci. 38:807–819, 2007. Return to text.