What is life? It’s software that runs biological robots, says a leading geneticist.
In 1943, before the genetic revolution, physicist Erwin Schrödinger spoke at Trinity College (Dublin, Ireland) on the subject, “What Is Life?” It was unusual for a physicist to address a biological subject. Approaching life in physical terms, Schrödinger realized that life needs to store information. By its nature, biological information has to be aperiodic (i.e., non-repeating) yet stable, like a crystal. This led him to ponder the possible future discovery of an aperiodic, crystalline “genetic code” as a conveyor of biological information.
Schrödinger’s prescient insight occurred before the computer revolution, and a decade before Watson and Crick’s elucidation of the structure of DNA. It not only inspired many to view life through a physical lens, it also encouraged more physicists and chemists to ask biological questions. Those questions presaged the discovery of an actual genetic code written in DNA, on informational macromolecules. As we know, that discovery led to a genetic revolution that has continued unabated to the present day of genetic engineering.
Claire O’Connell used this background for her report in New Scientist on the current meetings at Trinity that are ending today (July 15). In Schrödinger’s footsteps, Craig Venter took the stage at Trinity to discuss the same question, “What Is Life?” O’Connell sees this as “passing the baton” from one influential scientist to another; Venter’s name will be familiar to many, not only as the entrepreneur who raced the US government’s Human Genome Project to the finish line, but as the charismatic TED showman who has wowed large audiences by boasting his team’s successful creation of the first synthetic cell whose parents are a computer. (Actually, Venter plagiarized existing life; see 5/22/2010 and 6/2/2010).
Venter’s description at the meeting underscores how far we have come in our conception of the nature of life. A brief history: for centuries, life was seen as fundamentally different from non-life. The synthesis of urea in 1828 by Wöhler was a first bombshell to old thinking; scientists began to see an overlap between organic chemistry and regular chemistry. That line of thought remained productive till Schrödinger, Watson and Crick revealed another special trait of biological chemistry: it is a conveyer of information. Venter’s statement this week now brings together physics, chemistry, information science and robotics:
“All living cells that we know of on this planet are ‘DNA software’-driven biological machines comprised of hundreds of thousands of protein robots, coded for by the DNA, that carry out precise functions,” said Venter. “We are now using computer software to design new DNA software.”
The digital and biological worlds are becoming interchangeable, he added, describing how scientists now simply send each other the information to make DIY biological material rather than sending the material itself.
Venter speaks freely these days about DNA software, genetic design, and digital life. His team even programmed text messages into their synthetic cell. To emphasize the informational nature of DNA as software, O’Connell pointed out that human-designed DNA software even has bugs:
But perhaps the most intriguing anecdote Venter shared was his description of how his team ‘watermarked’ their synthesised DNA with coded quotations from James Joyce, Robert Oppenheimer and Richard Feynman, only to learn that they had included a mistake in the Feynman quote. Venter’s rather airy description of how they just went back in and fixed it drove home just how far we’ve come in being able to understand, and even manipulate, our own DNA molecules.
James Watson, now 84, was present at Venter’s speech and shared the applause with Venter. (See also the 7/04/2012 entry about Epigenetics, the code above the code.)
Secular scientists are apparently viewing this as a victory for materialism, but it’s actually the opposite. Information is not material. This is clear from the fact that the same information can be conveyed by a blackboard, an email, skywriting or voice. There’s a growing realization that Information must be added to particles and forces as a fundamental entity needed to describe the universe.
The very fact that we can take the DNA code and program it with a computer shows that its essence is software – a form of complex specified information. Our human experience with software, codes and messages makes it the most rational inference that software-driven biological machines operating protein robots have an intelligent cause. This should be the death of materialism, actually. Combining these discoveries with the principle of conservation of information (i.e., that information cannot exceed its source, and degrades without intelligent proofreading and maintenance), the evidence now more strongly than ever implies that biological information has an intelligent cause greater than the effects we observe.
Those who wish to take the next step beyond science in the direction the evidence points can locate that intelligence in God. “By faith,” the author of Hebrews said, “we understand that the universe was created by the word of God, so that what is seen was not made out of things that are visible.” Look how modern that statement sounds. The universe was created by the word of God (information, communication), so that what is seen (material) was not made out of things that are visible. In short, the invisible information came first by the Word (logos, as in John 1:1), then the material.*
Also noteworthy in Claire O’Connell’s story was that it never mentioned evolution. Darwin is disappearing stage left as Venter, Watson and a new generation of information engineers rise to the footlights, describing life as fundamentally information-rich software. They may still be materialists, but they cannot justify materialism by their own science. As materialism dies, so will its ground of relativism and amorality. Before tinkering with the biological software, then, man with his limited knowledge and questionable wisdom had better rethink his accountability to the omniscient and all wise-Creator.
*Footnote: O’Connell’s statement about biologists sending each other the information instead of the biological material itself suggests, for Christians, an interesting possibility about the resurrection. Skeptics have scoffed at the idea of the resurrection of the dead. The biological material of a human body quickly degrades. What if a man is eaten by a shark, which is caught and eaten by a fisherman? Whose body will be raised? It’s possible your body contains the atoms of countless dead people that have been recycled through the food chain. But if the essence of the body is software, not its material substance, it is simply a matter of reconstructing the atoms from the code – analogous to how technicians can rebuild a company’s computer center at an offsite location on new hardware with backup tapes. Venter stated in his TED talk that a third of all humanity’s DNA genomes would fit on the proverbial head of a pin. For the Biblical Creator who called life into existence by His Logos, it’s no problem at all to resurrect every person’s physical body right out of the spot where it died, assembling the atoms from the code and upgrading it to Body 2.0 on the way up.
Exercise: Read I Corinthians 15:35–58 and I Thessalonians 4:13–18 with this new understanding of physical resurrection in mind. (Note to materialists: this only applies to born-again Christians. To see your resurrection fate, you need to read Revelation 20:11–15, unless you call on the Lord while he may be found; see Isaiah 55 and Romans 10:5–13).