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Reproduction: the essential sign of life

What can a coffee table teach us about the beginning of life?



‘Vital signs’. ‘Signs of life’. What are they? How do we decide if something is living or not? We know living things grow, respire/metabolize, move, and are responsive to the environment.1 Perhaps the most important ‘sign of life’, however, is the ability to reproduce—the power a living thing has to make a living copy of itself. How can this happen? How do we produce a copy of something, living or not?

Suppose we saw a coffee table at someone’s house, and wanted to make one for our own house, exactly like it. What would we need? We would need to know the materials it is made of, the exact shape of every component, methods of producing these components, and the order for putting the parts together (including intermediate stages such as supporting structures while glue sets, etc.) In other words, we need information, and lots of it.

Replicating a coffee table

If we are going to replicate a coffee table, we measure and examine it, forming concepts of the information needed. These concepts are formed in our minds, but we would probably record most of these observations in writing, especially if we wanted someone else to build it. This writing is a conceptual representation of the coffee table, a set of symbols standing for various elements of the information (such as dimensions and instructions). The concepts and their representation remain even if the original coffee table is destroyed, and they survive translation into another language, or into a series of diagrams or other forms of information storage. The coffee table then effectively exists in a conceptual rather than a physical form, and can be reproduced without any further reference to the original table. This reminds us that it must actually have begun its existence as a concept in the mind of its first builder. It did not form, and cannot be reproduced, by accident, but only by purposeful application of information conceived beforehand.

Replicating living things

It cannot be denied that the same applies to the reproduction of living things, though these are much more complex than coffee tables, and need to also carry out all the other functions that we see as ‘signs of life’. For them to make copies of themselves would obviously need much more information than is involved in the reproduction of a coffee table. But every living thing, even the ‘first self-replicating organism’ proposed by believers in evolution, must be able to reproduce, to be called ‘living’. In short, it must contain stored information about its construction, its life processes (including extracting energy from its environment), and the process of its own replication.

Now, that sort of information cannot arise from the chaotic movement of matter.2 Obviously, rules (or instructions) for organizing matter (such as building a coffee table, or growing a living cell) can’t arise from the matter that’s going to be organized by those rules.

Coding information involves purpose

Also, just as in the case of humans transmitting a message, the information that drives the reproducing machinery of living things involves a purpose. In the case of the coffee table, the task of conceptualizing and recording the information about it was done with the purpose of reproducing it—that is, building either the original from a mental concept, or a replica from an existing example. But mindless matter itself cannot formulate a purpose. Purpose can only be formulated by a person: a being with a will, and a sense of the future. The person may impose that purpose onto coded information such as a computer program, so that, for example, a robot could be programmed to make coffee tables, and an observer of the finished product could not necessarily tell the difference between it and a table made directly by the person who conceived of it. The purpose for the program was there in the mind of the programmer.

So, there must have been purpose with the originator of living things. They are programmed, not only to make copies of themselves, but also to pass on those programs to their descendants. What we must admit is that somewhere back along the line of (re-)production, someone conceptualized the object, formulated a way of meaningfully recording (coding) the conceptualized form and instructions for its replication, and initiated the mechanical process that decodes and enacts that recorded information.3

Prerequisite for life

These are absolute prerequisites to life. Man can meet these requirements for simple things like coffee tables, but for the origin of living things (including Man) there is only one possibility: a supernatural Creator. The Bible says that the Creator (God, through the Lord Jesus Christ, God the Son) created all things (Genesis 1:1, John 1:3) and imbued the living things with life and the ability to reproduce ‘after their kind’ (Genesis 1:22, 24–25). To do this, He included computer-program-like genetic information in the form of DNA that carries out His purpose. It allows not only accurate reproduction of the ‘kind’, but also sufficient variation within each kind to allow individuals to adapt to a variety of environments.

Thus, while the mechanical process of reproduction is a physical ‘sign of life’ in each organism, the conceptualized, coded instructions for that process point undeniably to a supernatural mind, a mind existing before life in the physical universe began.

It is the ultimate ‘sign of life’, and the ultimate sign of His handiwork.

The fertilized egg—a ‘self-activating CD-ROM’

Each new (multicellular) life begins with a single cell, the immediate result of the process of reproduction. Whether it is the spore of a fungus or fern, the fertilized egg (zygote) of a fish or a frog, or that of a hamster or human, there are two things we can say about this cell. The first is that, as the first stage of a new individual, its genetic make-up will have no further input from its parents. It will produce an organism somewhat like its parents; of the same kind, but also different, special, unique. Its genetic basis is set.

Secondly, and much more interestingly, though it will eventually develop into an organism like its parent(s), it is not a miniature adult. Its growth is not just like a balloon inflating, with the only change being size. Rather, it will have to go through many developmental stages, for which this stage is but the beginning. At this stage it is less like an organism, and more like a book, a program stored on a CD-ROM. It is an idea, a concept, a plan—little more than a bundle of information which is a representation of its future self (see main text).

This information is not only about the adult stage, but also about the various developmental stages, each one necessarily being a competent, functioning, viable piece of biological machinery in its own right—and sometimes a completely separate, independent organism. Consider a butterfly egg, which begins as this single-celled bundle of information, then divides into more and more specialized cells, forms the necessary organs, hatches as a caterpillar (spending much of its lifetime in this form). Then this pupates—where most of its tissues are dissolved—then it rearranges, and finally emerges as an incomprehensibly different adult. The information for all of this was present in the DNA of that first cell, and this applies to every living thing.

Can anyone really believe that such design and forward planning came about without any intelligence involved?

References and notes

  1. Some non-living things may be capable of some of these things under certain circumstances (for example, crystals might ‘grow’, waves ‘move’, etc.), but only living things do all of these consistently by internal processes. Return to text.
  2. Gitt, W., et al., Without Excuse, Creation Book Publishers, Powder Springs GA, Section 5.5, pp 124–125, 2011. Gitt has had a distinguished career as an information scientist. See Return to text.
  3. In living things, the information is ‘written’ in DNA code on a helix or strip’ of special molecules. As with all information, this ‘written’ information is a conceptual representation of the absent future physical reality that is the cell’s intended copy. Return to text.

Helpful Resources

Busting Myths
by J Sarfati & G Bates, edited
US $15.00
By Design
by Dr Jonathan Sarfati
US $15.00

Readers’ comments

Joe B.
There is another layer of required design. In addition to the 'code' found in the DNA, that the fertilized single cell uses, the architecture of that cell must be designed so that it can execute the instructions in the DNA and the DNA must use a language (and coding symbols - nucleic acids) that is supported by the architecture of the cell. This not a chicken or an egg problem, it is both. Both must be designed to work together, just like the software that runs on a computer. Now adding the ability to self-replicate - wow.

Of course this article represents real science based on empirical observation which does not fit into the pseudoscience mythical world of randomness and evolution.
Terry W.
Awesome article! We should have had something like this decades ago. (Actually, we did. I didn't forget about you, Dr. Gitt: [link deleted per feedback rules] ...huh?? Anyway, it's a book called "In The Beginning Was Information".)

I was thinking of a 3D printer that could print itself. But that isn't quite reproduction because to truly reproduce, it needs the ability to do so inherently. The printer needs the information from the computer, which directly commands its mechanisms, and once it has printed the parts, it needs a human to assemble them. Using our information and printing technology, the simplest self-replicating organism would be a factory, able to print its own microchips and disk drives for the computers, racking and forklifts for inventory, electric motors to run everything, Dextre-like hands to assemble them, etc. (Now think about how realistic movies like Terminator and the Matrix really are!)

If you examine a simple, single-celled bacterium closely enough, you find that it really is that complex; we've named most of the machines (other than kinesin, the forklift) something that ends in "-ase". For starters, the battery is ATP (the dead battery is ADP+P), the battery charger is ATP synthase, and the boiler room is the mitochondria. In the nucleic acid category, we have the DNA memory, mRNA paperwork copied from the DNA with transcriptase, taken to workbenches called ribosomes, assembling parts using hand tools called tRNA, one for each of twenty types of parts called amino acids. A stuffed assembly is soldered and packaged by molecules called chaperonins, and I haven't even gotten out of the basics of how these things work!

(Dextre is a "hand" for the space station's robotic arm.)
Tomislav O.
I am reminded of one of my favorite pieces of art, namely that of Jesus Christ holding the world in His hand and shaping it with a geometer's compass. Surely His creation reflects His wisdom, the same wisdom that emanates from the Logos Himself.
Michael M.
This is an outstanding article. It shows most clearly that the evolutionists' mantra "Naturalism today, naturalism tomorrow, naturalism forever!" simply is not sufficient to explain life. (Apologies to George Wallace.) All their nonsense is based on assumption after assumption after assumption - all of which go against what we know from the real world. Again, my compliments on an excellent article.

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