“Programming of Life” by Donald E. Johnson (paperback, video, quotes) came to my attention fairly recently. The prospect of a case for God’s existence being made from my area of training (computer science) especially caught my attention. The fact that the author is formally trained in both information science and biochemistry seemed to give him a unique set of credentials to authoritatively compare the code in DNA to computer programming code. The book is short at only 127 pages (included appendixes) and is divided into nine chapters. This review will be a chapter-by-chapter summary, but should not be confused with providing Johnson’s case comprehensively or precisely. This month I will summarize the first five chapters, and next month will include the last four along with my thoughts and recommendation.
Chapter 1: Math Basics: Probability and Large or Small Numbers
Johnson prepares his readers by providing a quick tutorial of some basics required to understand his arguments. It is commonly misunderstood that “chance” is a force; however, it is rather merely an expression of likelihood of an event taking place versus its not taking place. If an event has any likelihood of taking place, it is considered “possible,” but possibility should only be claimed if scientific observations have demonstrated the event to have taken place. “Plausibility” is a value of the level of possibility (0-1; 0=impossible; 1=certain; 0.5 is the threshold for an event to be considered “plausible”). Johnson prepares the reader for the significance of these concepts by explaining the lowest limit of physical possibility given all the resources (atoms in the system, the fastest chemical reactions in the universe, and the age of the systems) of the universe (10-108), galaxy (10-96), solar system (10-85), and earth (10-70). He explains that if the probability of an event taking place is lower than these physical barriers, the event is indistinguishable from impossible within that system, and the proposed event may be considered scientifically falsified.
Chapter 2: Information Basics: Data and Information Types
Johnson takes a chapter to explain the difference between data and information and the different types of information. Data is merely a collection of symbols (0’s and 1’s for computers; A’s, C’s, G’s, and T’s for DNA). Information is a meaningful or significant collection of these symbols. In order for a collection to be considered “meaningful,” both the transmitter and the receiver must agree upon a protocol used to encode and decode the data to decipher the information. Three primary types of information exist: functional, prescriptive, and shannon. Functional information communicates a specific function to a specific degree. Prescriptive information communicates a function with a specific purpose which anticipates points of decision, the available options, and which one is appropriate for the circumstances. Shannon information is a mathematical measure of the improbability of the collection of symbols. The “information” of a collection of symbols is said to be inversely proportional to its probability of occurrence. Finally, information theory focuses on maintaining symbol collections’ integrity during storage and transmission.
Chapter 3: Evolution of Computer Hardware and Software
Johnson now moves to tracing the history of the personal computer. As he takes the reader through each major step, he explains that to complete each step required a top-down approach of having a goal or purpose, then building a design to achieve the goal. He also emphasizes that this approach was necessary for both hardware and software, driving home the point that the personal computers that we have today would not exist had it not been for designers of the physical machines and engineers to write the information (programming code) to make the machines functional.
Chapter 4: Life Basics
Johnson provides the reader with a very basic explanation of the DNA and the cell. In doing so, he shows that not only is functional information stored in DNA, but it is also compressed in such a way that allows it to produce unique instructions simply based upon starting the reading of the data at a different bit of the data. He explains the process of replication of this data along with the error correction that takes place to ensure accuracy (which actually makes gene mutation a relatively rare event). He further explains that how these complex cells made via functional information in DNA come together to form organs, including the human brain. The information in this chapter is minuscule compared to the knowledge that exists about these systems, but the information in this chapter is enough to make the case that life’s design is far superior to anything that humans have developed.
Chapter 5: Shannon Information in Life
Beyond simply comparing the systems of life to human designs to show the crude resemblance (on the human side), Johnson also aims to show that information is distinct from its storage medium (DNA, in life’s case). He explains the fundamental differences and how there is no way for one to give rise to the other. Johnson reminds the reader that information cannot be the result of necessity because necessity has no contingency, and the information we find in DNA is full of contingency. Through the process described in the previous chapter backward through time, it is seen that the language of the information had to be in place prior to the origin of life. Since necessity is not an option, chance must now be investigated. The only way for the language to develop naturally is from one less complex. Johnson examines the “protein first” theory for the origin of life; however, this would require the transfer of information from a language with fewer symbols to one with more (a mathematical impossibility). That transfer violates the laws of information theory, which would make it impossible. Johnson concludes that if the language did originate naturalistically (prior to the origin of life), it would have to possess the same number of symbols then as it does today.
Next month I will examine the last four chapters of the book and offer my thoughts and recommendation.