The origin of life is one of the great outstanding mysteries of science. How did a non-living mixture of molecules transform themselves into a living organism? What sort of mechanism might be responsible?This sounds an awful lot like what intelligent design theorists have been saying now for two decades, but there's more:
A century and a half ago, Charles Darwin produced a convincing explanation for how life on Earth evolved from simple microbes to the complexity of the biosphere today, but he pointedly left out how life got started in the first place. "One might as well speculate about the origin of matter," he quipped. But that did not stop generations of scientists from investigating the puzzle....
Most research into life's murky origin has been carried out by chemists. They've tried a variety of approaches in their attempts to recreate the first steps on the road to life, but little progress has been made. Perhaps that is no surprise, given life's stupendous complexity. Even the simplest bacterium is incomparably more complicated than any chemical brew ever studied.
But a more fundamental obstacle stands in the way of attempts to cook up life in the chemistry lab. The language of chemistry simply does not mesh with that of biology. Chemistry is about substances and how they react, whereas biology appeals to concepts such as information and organization. Informational narratives permeate biology. DNA is described as a genetic "database", containing "instructions" on how to build an organism. The genetic "code" has to be "transcribed" and "translated" before it can act. And so on.
If we cast the problem of life's origin in computer jargon, attempts at chemical synthesis focus exclusively on the hardware – the chemical substrate of life – but ignore the software – the informational aspect. To explain how life began we need to understand how its unique management of information came about.
Now a new perspective has emerged from the work of engineers, mathematicians and computer scientists, studying the way in which information flows through complex systems such as communication networks with feedback loops, logic modules and control processes. What is clear from their work is that the dynamics of information flow displays generic features that are independent of the specific hardware supporting the information.As Stephen Meyer points out in his magisterial work Signature in the Cell complex coded information is always in our experience the product of an intelligent agent. Computer software and books do not result from natural processes acting randomly. Such a phenomenon has never been observed, yet when it comes to life we are told that we must believe that the equivalent of entire libraries of information somehow arose almost spontaneously in some "warm little pond" to use Darwin's phrase. A lot of thinkers, even those disinclined or even averse to the idea of an intelligent designer, scientists like Paul Davies and philosophers like Thomas Nagel, are beginning to realize that such a scenario is so highly implausible as to be literally incredible. Davies concludes his column with this:
Information theory has been extensively applied to biological systems at many levels from genomes to ecosystems, but rarely to the problem of how life actually began. Doing so opens up an entirely new perspective on the problem. Rather than the answer being buried in some baffling chemical transformation, the key to life's origin lies instead with a transformation in the organisation of information flow.
The way life manages information involves a logical structure that differs fundamentally from mere complex chemistry. Therefore chemistry alone will not explain life's origin, any more than a study of silicon, copper and plastic will explain how a computer can execute a program. Our work suggests that the answer will come from taking information seriously as a physical agency, with its own dynamics and causal relationships existing alongside those of the matter that embodies it – and that life's origin can ultimately be explained by importing the language and concepts of biology into physics and chemistry, rather than the other way round.Perhaps at some point they'll also realize that they need to import the language of intelligent, purposeful agency as well.