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Life in a cake mixer

January 2008 | by Edgar Andrews

Life in a cake mixer

‘The life-giving miracle of Dr Venter’, screamed the headline (The Times, 26 January, p.32). Along with other news reports, the article hailed the recent announcement that US scientist Craig Venter and co-workers had completed the laboratory synthesis of a bacterial DNA sequence containing over 580,000 base-pairs.

So, what are base-pairs? They are the four different chemical groupings that constitute the ‘letters’ in the ‘alphabet’ used by the genetic code. The English alphabet has 26 letters but the genetic alphabet has only four, each consisting of a given base-pair.

Just as the sequence of letters in a word or sentence spell out a meaningful message, so the sequence of base-pairs spells out (and preserves) the information needed by an organism to live, grow, function and reproduce.

More soberly, the article continues: ‘Although the synthesis of the DNA of M. genitalium [the bacterium in question] represents a technical tour de force … it represents no fundamental breakthrough, technologically. It is not the first living DNA to have been synthesised artificially’.

Life created?

The Guardian(6 October 2007) was less guarded! It declared: ‘Craig Venter, the controversial DNA researcher involved in the race to decipher the human genetic code, has built a synthetic chromosome out of laboratory chemicals and is poised to announce the creation of the first new artificial life form on Earth…

‘Mr Venter toldThe Guardian he thought this landmark would be “a very important philosophical step in the history of our species. We are going from reading our genetic code to the ability to write it. That gives us the hypothetical ability to do things never contemplated before”.’

So, have these researchers created artificial life?

Well, actually, no. They have simply copied the DNA sequence from an existing natural organism. I could copy one of Einstein’s scientific papers word for word and submit it for publication as my own work, but I doubt whether I would receive credit for creating something that didn’t already exist (which is, after all, what ‘creating’ means).

This is not to deny that the synthesis is a genuine scientific achievement or that great skill was required to accomplish it. It is simply saying that nothing has been ‘created’ – only copied.

To claim that ‘we are going from reading our genetic code to the ability to write it’ is completely misleading. If I copy out the words of a Shakespeare sonnet, in what sense have I ‘written’ them? A photocopier could do the same. I would certainly not have ‘written’ the sonnet – nor would I have created anything other than marks on a piece of paper.

Life in a cake mixer

Returning to The Times article, we are also told that chemistry has abolished the idea that life is something special: ‘Dr Venter … is simply the latest in a long line of biochemists who have punctured life’s claims to specialness. Until 1828 it was believed that life, with its so-called “vital forces”, owed nothing to science…’

The idea being promoted here is that life is simply complex chemistry, nothing more. That is why (they say) life was able to evolve by the chance combination of ordinary non-living chemicals.

There are two basic fallacies with this ‘reductionist’ approach to life – so beloved of evolutionary philosophy.

Firstly, the chemical tour de force demonstrates that to produce a meaningful string of DNA requires a lot of hard work by highly skilled and intelligent chemists. No one suggests that Dr Venter and his team simply poured the necessary chemical ingredients into a cake mixer, set it on automatic and took a vacation.

And that is just to copy a DNA molecule. To create the first such molecule from scratch would, I suggest, have required an infinitely greater input of intelligence. It simply is not enough to claim that the cake mixer actually will produce a ‘life-giving miracle’ as long as you run it for a thousand million years or so. Yet that is what evolution claims.

Life is information

The second fallacy in claiming that life is nothing but chemistry is even more nonsensical. It is true that science has removed the need for a mystical ‘vital force’ to explain why life is special. But what they don’t tell you is that science has replaced ‘vital force’ by something even more amazing – organised information!

It is perfectly possible to string base-pairs together randomly in a way that spells out biological ‘nonsense’, but such a pseudo-DNA molecule would not support life. So it is not the chemistry of DNA that constitutes life but information – the meaningful sequence of base-pairs that spells out instructions that the living cell can read, interpret and use.

Life, therefore, consists not in molecular chemistry but in the information stored by the molecular chemistry – which is altogether different.

This article could be stored in many ways – words printed on paper, magnetic ‘marks’ on a tape, microscopic pits on a CD, or even radiowaves endlessly carrying their sounds. The media on which the words are stored are necessary but they are not the information that constitutes the message. The same media could be used to store a meaningless jumble of letters!

Life is still as special as it ever was because it consists of information, not chemicals. So don’t be misled by ‘science falsely so called’.

Edgar Andrews