Sep06 2010

DNA: The Information Molecule

Imagine a setting in the old west.  An old rancher named Gus needs some help on his ranch, so he’s got to try and find a way to contact his longtime friend Benjamin who is now living in a remote area far away.  Gus travels to town where he arrives at the telegraph office.  He verbally dictates the following message to the clerk:  “Ben, I need you to come help me on the ranch.  -Gus.”  The clerk writes the message down on a piece of paper, and then begins tapping it out on the telegraph.  The message travels over the wire until it reaches a clerk in another town who receives the message.  The second clerk writes down the incoming message on a sheet of paper and hands the letter to a courier on horseback who rides up into the mountains where he finally delivers the message to Ben.

It’s a pretty simple story, yet something very significant was taking place.  Even though nothing of a physical nature made the journey from beginning to end, there was obviously something that traveled all the way from Gus to Ben.  What was it?  It was the message- the information. The information was able to travel all the way from Gus to Ben even though the material means by which it traveled was constantly changing.  This fact alone reveals two very important principles about the nature of information:

1)  Information is not the same thing as matter. Information is something that exists separately and independently from matter.  Even though information requires a physical medium to store it or to carry it, information, in and of itself, is a non-physical, immaterial entity.

2)  Information always comes from a mind. It is never the product of a purely material process.  Whether the information comes in the form of computer software, text, some type of code, or hieroglyphic symbols, it always comes from an intelligent sender.

These two concepts are extremely important to grasp, because our understanding of the nature of information raises some very profound questions regarding DNA.  DNA is an incredibly complex information molecule that is tightly coiled up inside the center of the cells of your body.  It is the molecule that carries the “assembly instructions” necessary for life.

How much information does DNA carry?  Dr. Werner Gitt, professor of information science gives us some insight into this question in his thought-provoking presentation, “In the Beginning was Information.”  Dr. Gitt points out that the DNA molecule has the highest density (storage capacity) of information of any system known to man.  As an illustration, he shows a small 32mm x 33mm slide on which the entire Bible is printed.  That is amazing enough.  But Dr. Gitt points out that the DNA molecule is 7.7 million MILLION times more density of information than his 32mm slide. He goes on to point out that if you took just one pinhead of genetic material and converted all of its information into text, it would fill so many books that if you were to stack them up, the stack of books would be 500 times the distance from the earth to the moon!

As you can see, the storage capability of DNA is nothing short of mind-boggling.  But as it turns out, the most crucial thing of all about DNA isn’t the molecule itself, it’s the information that it carries.  Without that information, DNA is a dead molecule.  Again, it’s important to keep in mind that the information carried by DNA does not reside in the molecule itself.  That information exists independently and separately from the physical medium of DNA.  In many ways, it’s similar to the ink on your newspaper.  Ink does not posses any information in and of itself.  Ink that is simply spilled onto a sheet of paper cannot arrange itself into information.  In order to get an intelligible message, information must be imposed upon the ink by an intelligent source outside of it, who already has that information in his or her mind.

This brings us down to the most important question of all:  How do we account for the ORIGIN of the information that is carried by DNA?  Since information is a non-physical, immaterial entity that only comes from an intelligent source, this question proves to be an insurmountable problem for the atheist, materialist, or evolutionist who accepts, by faith, that all of reality can be reduced to a physical/material explanation.  However, this question is not a problem for those who hold the view that the universe and everything in it is the product of an eternal, omniscient, omnipotent Creator.

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  • 4 Responses to “DNA: The Information Molecule”

    1. Danny says:

      Excellent information Marty. :-) We have an awesome GOD!

      • Marty says:

        Danny, I couldn't agree with you more- we really do serve an awesome God. The most natural thing for us is to be filled with a sense of awe and reverence when we look around us at that which God has created. Unfortunately, many people become so jaded as they grow older that they oftentimes lose that sense of awe and wonder that they once had as a child.

    2. Dale Bailey says:

      Marty, your post brought to mind Romans 1:20: "For the invisible things of him from the creation of the world are clearly seen . . . ." Romans 1:22 seems tailor made for materialists: "Professing themselves to be wise, they became fools."

      How does the materialist, who claims the natural world is all there is, reconcile faith in naturalism while professing love for anyone or anything? Love cannot be seen, touched, or traced to any material source, yet I suspect most materialists claim to possess it. I could only say, "Show it to me, or else, according to your own convictions, I must conclude that for you it does not exist, and therefore you do not possess it."

      What I find so complelling about your argument is that you offer it in the context of the natural, material world around us, while pointing out the non-material realities that cannot be denied.

      So, what is information? It doesn't "matter."

    3. Marty says:

      Dale, Thanks for taking the time to comment. Romans 1:20 is one of my favorite verses. It tells us that God's revelation of himself through that which he has created is "clearly seen", such that "men are without excuse." Verse 18 tells us that not only does everyone know that God exists, it goes on to tell us that because of their wickedness, people deliberately "suppress the truth."

      I really liked your final comment! It reminded me of something that R.C. Sproul said as he was quoting his mentor, Dr. John Gerstner. He once said, "What is mind? No matter. What is matter? Never mind!"

    • In today's world, there is a great deal of confusion when it comes to matters of truth, meaning, morality, our origin, and our destiny. The purpose of Renewed Thoughts is to bring clarity to such issues by examining them in light of a Biblical worldview, using the tools of science, philosophy, and critical thinking.