Cornelius Hunter on the Implications of DNA Being Already Present in the Earliest Life

Cornelius Hunter is a Fellow of the Discovery Institute, and earned his Ph.D. in Biophysics and Computational Biology from the University of Illinois. At his blog today, I noticed that he offered an argument for life’s probable design that I had not seen before, and it struck me as a pretty good one. At the very least, it raised questions in my own mind. Here it is: 

[T]he same DNA code is found in all species. And that code is so efficient it is sometimes labeled as ‘optimal.’ . . . The near universality of the code means it was present in evolution’s purported universal common ancestor. It would be too unlikely (even for evolutionists) for the identical unique code to have evolved independently in the different evolutionary branches, so it must have been present from the very beginning. In other words, evolutionists must explain the universality of the code as arising from a common ancestor, not from the repeated evolution of the code. If that is true, then evolutionists must say that evolution somehow created such an efficient code very early in the history of life. But evolutionists typically refer to these early stages of life as elementary, inefficient, crude and so forth. For instance, in their abiogenesis narrative evolutionists often appeal to “crude” chemical processes to account for the variation in replication they need. But if life was elementary and crude, how did such an optimal code arise—a code that is remarkably suited for the more advanced cells that had not even yet arisen? Furthermore, the fact that the DNA code is so efficient means that evolution performed a tremendous search operation. Only by creating an abundance of such codes could such a good one be found. Remember, evolution is a blind process. But while evolution must be very adept at creating new codes, it must paradoxically also be unable to create new codes. The code must be frozen, otherwise it would not be universally shared amongst the species. So evolutionists must say that at one time evolution was adept at evolving the code, but later it became inept at evolving the code.

In other words, there are two big issues here:

  1. The ealiest DNA code would seem to be efficient in excess of the demands of the first cells, for that very same code also proved itself more than sufficient to the demands of all the more complex cells that arrived later
  2. There must have been intense selection pressure placed upon the code early on, and then once an optimum was reached, the selection pressure stopped and all competing codes simply died away

But wouldn’t the Earth, in its early stages of evolution, have been something like Australia (that is, an uncrowded world)? In other words, wouldn’t the Earth have been a place with lots of open spaces for organisms to avoid direct competition with others? In such a world, how did the code face so intense a competition with variations, and reach its optimal state so relatively fast and efficiently, and then hold itself steady for so long (that is, all the way to us)?

Odd.

Does anyone know of a good atheist biologist’s response to this early DNA code optimization puzzle? How, exactly, did such an optimal code find it’s way into the earliest life, and then basically stop evolving from there? It sounds to me like a more than fair question.

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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9 Responses to Cornelius Hunter on the Implications of DNA Being Already Present in the Earliest Life

  1. Gilams says:

    Everyone knows what an atheist’s view on this. How about a nonbiased biologist? Fairer question doesn’t it?

  2. santitafarella says:

    Gilams:

    As an agnostic, I’d like to know what sort of best atheist case can be made against this argument. I like vital Hegelian antitheses. It’s a sharper intellectual knife than the “nonbiased biologist” (a creature which I question actually exists).

    —Santi

  3. Grad Student says:

    You don’t need to find an atheist biologist, just ask a biologist. Most biologists don’t take intelligent design very seriously, not because they are Coyne-esque atheists, but because they consider ID to be sloppy scholarship.

    The idea that because we don’t understand X, God exists, does not seem convincing. Strictly speaking, we can only be agnostic about there being a naturalistic explanation of X. However, science and evolution have done a darn good job thus far, why would anyone give up now and say, “God did it”?

  4. santitafarella says:

    Grad student:

    I think that science is a tool for material explanation, and we should push that tool to its limits. But if the tool runs up against an impasse of explanation, I want to know what scientists make of that impasse theoretically. Pragmatically, I agree with you that no scientist or scientific project should ever give up on any attempts at material explanation. Science, afterall, can only provide material explanations. The project to figure out, in causal material terms, how the information in the first cell got there should never be abandoned. But this doesn’t mean that ten years from now, or five hundred years from now, persistence will solve the problem in material terms. That part constitutes faith, and I don’t begrudge theistic scientists for pointing out the impasses.

    As limited beings enclosed in the system we are trying to understand, we will always ask the big questions. Can everything really be reduced to atoms and the void? Really? No Blakean ghosts of a flea and no spectral people “in olive green” at Yeats’s bedside at three am?

    —Santi

  5. santitafarella says:

    Grad student:

    One more thing. I think it is misleading to say that science has made advances in material explanation that, over the years, have made God less probable as a hypothesis about where the laws of physics, matter, life, and mind ultimately come from. The answers that nature returns to science frequently open as many new perplexities to material explanation as they solve. What one hand giveth, the other taketh away. I don’t think that it was any more or less reasonable to be a believer in God 150 years ago than it is today. In other words, the advance of science has not marginalized the religious intellectual anymore than he was already marginalized 150 years ago. I think that the progress of atheism via science is a myth.

    I do agree, however, that science has made fundamentalist biblical literalism untenable. Science over the past couple of centuries has scored a direct and fatal blow to a literal reading of Genesis. But this is a very different issue from the larger question of matter’s relation to mind, and which came first (matter or mind), and which direction the reduction goes to. And this is what the God question, ultimately, comes down to.

    —Santi

  6. Grad Student says:

    Oops, I meant to recommend you look at

    http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=origin-of-life-on-earth

    or just the wikipedia article:
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/RNA_world_hypothesis

    (Unfortunately, you have to pay to read it the sciam article.) These links describe some plausible scenarios for the origin of life and mention the evolution of DNA.

    Also let me make two concrete points about the post:

    1) DNA still had almost a billion years to develop.

    2) Natural Selection operates regardless of the proximity of other lifeforms. For example, hair formed because of the cold, not due to competition with other life.

    I agree with most of your above response (I’m an agnostic too), but I do “begrudge theistic scientists for pointing out the impasses” in the context of the ID movement. Many scientists are candid about the problems in evolution. These problems or “impasses” always have the potential to be acts of God. If the ID people wanted to point that out that would be fine by me. I would be okay if they were to say something like, “current evolutionary biologists are unable to explain the evolution of the bacteria flagellum. This cold be the fingerprints of God, or it may be explained by evolution in the future.” Instead they say that the bacteria flagellum cannot, in principle, be explained by evolutionary process. This sort of categorical denial of even the possibility of scientific explanation is what I find to be intellectually sloppy.

  7. Grad Student says:

    Santi,
    It looks like my comment got dumped in your spam bin because I included links, so here it is minus the links:

    I agree with most of your above response posted at 7:46pm (I’m an agnostic too), but I do “begrudge theistic scientists for pointing out the impasses” in the context of the ID movement. Many scientists are candid about the problems in evolution. These problems or “impasses” always have the potential to be acts of God. If the ID people wanted to point that out, that would be fine by me. I would be okay if they were to say something like, “current evolutionary biologists are unable to explain the evolution of the bacteria flagellum. This could be the fingerprints of God, or it may be explained by evolution in the future.” Instead the IDers say that the bacteria flagellum cannot, in principle, be explained by evolutionary process. This sort of categorical denial of even the possibility of scientific explanation is what I find to be intellectually sloppy.

    Also let me make two concrete points about your post:

    1) DNA still had from 0.5 – 1 billion years to develop.

    2) Natural selection operates regardless of the proximity of other lifeforms. For example, hair formed because of the cold, not due to competition with other life.

    And here’s some ways that biologists sketch out how DNA and life in general could have evolved:

    “The Origin of Life on Earth”, Scientific American, Sept 2009

    Wikipedia: RNA world hypothesis

    (Unfortunately, you have to pay to read the sciam article.)

    -Grad student

  8. santitafarella says:

    Grad Student:

    Sorry your comment with links had a delay appearing. It was WordPress, not me, that automatically blocks or slows down linked comments. I had to approve the comment and I didn’t check my blog yesterday. Sorry.

    —Santi

  9. santitafarella says:

    Grad Student:

    You said: “Instead they say that the bacteria flagellum cannot, in principle, be explained by evolutionary process. This sort of categorical denial of even the possibility of scientific explanation is what I find to be intellectually sloppy.”

    I agree that they do sound like Dr. Evil doing a Dr. Evil monologue: “You’ll never figure this one out, Austin Powers!”

    It’s definitely where I part company with ID people. I think science should never stop pushing its tool (Freudian pun intended, I suppose) at nature. And science is, and can only be, a material tool yielding material causes.

    I want to do a separate post on this soon, but the origin of life, I think, is not, in principle, like alchemy. Science should keep trying to get life’s gold from dead matter, and figure out how meat became mind. But the alchemy analogy, which IDers sometimes use, is interesting.

    If IDers were to be proven right, say, a thousand years from now, materialism applied to the first life and to mind would have historical parallels with alchemy. It would be a category mistake and a reduction that failed.

    But we ain’t nowhere near that point yet. Until some principle is discovered that makes life and mind from matter either logically or physically impossible (as was discovered with regard to alchemy), then we have to keep pushing. As Hillary Clinton said during the election, you don’t know how far a frog will jump unless you poke it.

    —Santi

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