Evolution and the Origin of Information Problem

My smartphone pings and the screen lights up. What do you do when you notice a message? Well, if I know the language it’s written in, I can’t help but read the message so I can understand what it is saying to me. What do I assume about this message? “Someone wrote it for a reason.” What thought NEVER crosses my mind? “This message arrived out of the ether without someone having written it first.” I’ve never ever considered that as a possibility. Even automated messages from my phone carrier company Vodaphone…were originally conceived by a person, even if they were sent automatically.

The message was from my wife. “What time are you home tonight for tea?”

It seems to me we make consistent assumptions about the personal source of messages, and this holds in virtually every area of life … except maybe one. Biology.

I was having a conversation with someone recently about the Darwinian theory of evolution and I brought up the problem of the origin of the information that is embedded in life’s biological structures. “Where does this information come from? Doesn’t this matter?” These questions seemed to be no barrier to believing that life occurred in a naturalistic evolutionary way for my friend. The origin of the information did not seem an issue, biological change and adaption of different species was the important thing to him. He seemed happy to accept that life developed naturally, simple single celled organisms all the way up to complex animals with skeletal structures and body plans.

One of my big problems with naturalistic evolutionary models is the origin of information problem. We know so much more than Darwin did in the 1860s. We’ve discovered that life carries a staggering amount of digital information around within it. Instructions like DNA, managing the production of proteins, systems to correct the errors that occur in the copying of the genetic code through natural means, and the hardwired instructions for building a particular animal body plan. This is a problem for evolutionary theory.

I’m not alone in being sceptical about naturalistic evolution as an explanation for the presence of life on this planet. Stephen Meyer puts it like this:

“Whenever we find functional information – whether embedded in a radio signal, carved in a stone monument, etched on a magnetic disc, or produced by an origin-of-life scientist attempting to engineer a self-replicating molecule – and we trace that information back to its ultimate source, invariably we come to a mind, not merely a material process. For this reason, the discovery of digital information in even the simplest living cells indicates the prior activity of a designing intelligence at work in the origin of the first life.”[1]

It seems to me that the issue is not whether genetic mutations and natural selection both occur. They certainly do. There is much natural evidence of both of these phenomena, although mutations tend to have a negative influence on particular beings (one dreads a cancer diagnosis in a family member). No – the question is, can random mutation and natural selection account for the rich volumes of digital information that scientists read and interpret in the various genome projects underway today?

Information theorist Henry Quastler observed this – “The creation of information is habitually associated with conscious activity.”[2] Information can’t find it origin in naturalistic processes. This is simply a category error. There are multiple categories of explanation available to us when explaining anything. Something may happen as a result of natural causes – or an agent may cause the event to occur. When it comes to explaining the origin of information, the rational way to go here – is to assume the originating influence of a conscious agent.

Lennox is fond of explaining it this way. To explain the car engine, we might discuss the physics of internal combustion, or we might talk about Henry Ford. Both are rational explanations and both are necessary for accounting for an engine. In terms of life origins, we can therefore expand out the analogy to say this. God no more competes with science as an explanation of life than Henry Ford competes with science as an explanation of the car engine. God’s an Agent-Creator explanation of the universe, not a scientific explanation.[3]

Evolutionary theory has great influence on how people think about and understand the world and its history. There are many different forms of this theory, and not all struggle with the problem I am pointing to in this blog – the origin of information. But naturalistic evolutionary theories – the ones that want to render God unnecessary in nature – certainly do. It’s a headscratcher for sure.

[1] Stephen Meyer, Darwin’s Doubt: The Explosive Origin of Animal Life and the Case for Intelligent Design, (London:Harper Collins, 2013), 72

[2] Quastler, “The Emergence of Biological Organization,” 16, quoted in Meyer, Darwin’s Doubt: The Explosive Origin of Animal Life and the Case for Intelligent Design, (London:Harper Collins, 2013), 72.

[3] John C. Lennox, Can Science Explain Everything, (The Good Book Company, 2019), 384.

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I live in the UK, I'm married to Janet and I'm passionate about proposing a case for the historic Christian faith. You can find me on Twitter at @stuhgray.

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