Thursday, July 09, 2009

Software and Genetics: A Comparative Analysis

As I've been reading about and discussing evolution over the past year or so, I've noticed a disconnect in people's minds concerning genetic variation and origins. People seem to gleefully state that variation in a species over time somehow shows that evolution is happening, and thus, the Theory of Evolution must be true!

But there's just one problem. The Theory of Evolution does not simply state that lifeforms change over time. It states that these changes, going backward in time, account for the origins of the species. As I count it, however, these folks have not thought through things very thoroughly.

I'd like to make a comparison between two things. The one must be genetics, since that's what contains the data being passed onto the offspring of a specimen. The other is computer software. At first, this might seem like too simplistic a comparison, but I think you'll see where I'm going with it if you'll persevere.

The genome of any species is merely an extremely long set of repeating chemical sequences known as base pairs. These base pairs are arranged in a certain order that is meaningful to some interpretive mechanism that uses these base pairs to know how to build all the building blocks of a particular cell, and indeed, the entire organism. Even though each cell has only one "type" (with the obvious exception of stem cells), every type of cell has all the information contained in it to rebuild the entire organism if called upon (which it's not).

Now, these base pairs aren't consumed while building the pieces of the cell such as the chloroplasts or the golgi vesicles. Rather, they are interpreted the way a builder uses a blueprint. After the vascuole of a new cell is constructed using the DNA, the DNA is still 100% intact, having all the base pairs in place and in the same sequence.

The many, intricate parts of the cell are described by DNA in a method known to geneticists and bioinformaticists as "coding". They use this term because the way DNA codes for the body is very similar to the way the binary numbering system, the building blocks of all computer programs, codes for software. The user of the software thinks in terms of windows, buttons, pictures, menu items, etc. The organism thinks in terms of fingers, toes, ears and eyes. But beneath each set of abstractions (windows and toes), lies a language that describes to an interpreter how to build them. The interpreter for computer software is called the CPU or Central Processing Unit, manufactured by Motorola, Intel or AMD. The interpreters for DNA coding are several fold. Most internal components of the cell (15 or so categories) in some way interpret either the DNA or the biproducts of the DNA produced by other interpreters.

"Coding" is a good word for the information contained in DNA, because just like the 1's and o's of computer code are not windows, buttons, images, and browsers, so the A, C, T and G of the human genome are not fingers, eye balls, lungs, or brains. But where the computer code needs and interpreter and a hundres or so external hardware devices to manifest anything meaningful, the DNA is interpreted, literaly, by things produced by...DNA! So DNA is the code, the interpreter, the manufacturer of the interpreter, the manufacturer of the whole organism and the source of new DNA!

Software development is a very involved and deliberate process that takes years to master, is fraught with pitfalls and is very much a trial and error process. It can take years to develop a complex software system into something that is featured, performant and robust enough to deploy into a production environment.

The comparison between DNA and Software breaks down at some point. The place where DNA and software breaks down is that the software running on the CPU does not describe how to make, maintain, repair and alter the CPU. That is a whole different level of intelligence which modern technology has not been able to broach.

Science fiction often imagines a world where thinking machines improve themselves and "evolve" independently of their creators. They suppose that once a machine reaches a certain level of complexity, it will be able to continue its upward progress independent of its designers.

While that assertion is yet to be proven, it's interesting that they assume that a very high degree of complexity is required before a machine is able to change independent of its original programming. And they are correct. An even higher degree of complexity would be required for a machine to reproduce itself and upload a copy of its own software to the new unit. Interestingly, if you copied computer software with random copy errors, it would cease to function. DNA doesn't. It manages to cope in nearly all cases. Only when the copy errors are large and dangerous to the offspring does it react defensively and cause the offspring to be sterile, preserving life, but ensuring these errors don't further promulgate into the larger populace. This tendency towards defensive sterilization is also a design feature, not intended by the specimen, but engineered into it's very fiber by its designer.

To pause a moment, consider that when arguing that variation in a modern form shows the origin of that form, one must assume that the unit of life was already at a sufficiently complex state so as to begin the upward progression to its current form. Without that assumption, you have no explanation for how that cycle of creation, variation, reproduction got started. It's like saying, "If I was really smart, I wouldn't have to go to school!" You have to assume the first part for the second part to be true. But the debate on origins is not a discussion of how mankind lost control of some futuristic robotic monster which reproduced and took over the world (i.e. how environmentalist talk of humans), it's a question of how the futuristic robotic monster came together in the first place without the aid of a designer?! How did it achieve the level of complexity and sophistication where it had the ability to decide on its own, envision a more capable self than its current form and design a sequence of events that would lead to that improved state.

When one begins to understand the unfathomable complexity of the inter workings of even a single cell, then the idea of it coming together without an intelligent designer is shown to be a simple impossibility. Bringing a machine (organism) from crude materials (iron, silicon, water, carbon, etc) to the level of being able to recognize non-toxic foods, adjust its behavior to match its environment, consume matter to produce energy, repair itself, reproduce itself and improve in reproduction is ALL of the problem of explaining origins. Once it has reached that level of complexity, variation is a matter of carrying out its original design, whether in direct obedience to its programming or as a byproduct of unintended side affects.

With millions of engineers adding their lives, experience and expertise to the problem of making autonomous machines, we are just now beginning to produce what is called "semi-autonomous" machines which can make simple decisions of navigation with only occasional guidance from humans, but without the ability to self-repair, reproduce or self-improve. We are not even close to this level of sophistication, and the self-improve part is only theoretical. It is not certain that it is even possible. And sophistication alone does not automatically bequeath the abilities listed above. Those machines that have these semi-autonomous characteristics were designed with those abilities in mind. It has never happened accidentally. Most sophisticated machines and systems have none of these traits.

My whole point is this: Many people accept and offer observable variations in species as proof of origins. This is a false assumption. Variation is a deliberate design feature that is currently beyond the technology of or even the dreams of modern scientists and engineers. To think that any entity, mechanical or biological, could achieve this level of targeted sophistication is far beyond faith, its belief in the mathematically impossible. Those that have this faith despite this fact either rebelliously wish to orphan themselves from their Designer or haven't thought things through very well.


Luke Townsley said...

This is true.

However, many people feel that in order to believe in " intelligent design", they have to believe in a 6,000 year old earth which they believe is easily and demonstrably false from numerous fields of study.

This, of course, unless one is willing to state that the earth was created not only with mature plants and animals, but also with the appearance of great age. This leaves them with what seems to be a "lying designer" which isn't much good.

Jason Hodge said...


Are you the one I went to college with? If so, hello, how are you?

Anyway, thanks for reading. What I would take issue with is the notion that it is "easily and demonstrably false" that the earth is 6,000+ years old. In fact it's not easy at all. Only when science became too complex for a layman to understand were they able to convince the masses that science had proven such a belief false.

Additionally ludicrous is the idea that it is "demonstrably" false. If I wanted to prove something, then I would show it in understandable terms to an audience that accepts the method of proof as valid and indicative of the thing I'm proving. Without a time machine, there really aren't great ways to show that the world was here 10,000 years ago. You can't "demonstrate" that. You can only infer it by non-demonstrative means and hope everyone agrees, which they do not.

I also take issue with the idea that creation with the appearance of age would necessarily make the Designer a liar. What is the appropriate starting state? The chicken or the egg? Whichever you assert assumes the other as previous whether or not there was a previous. Is this, then, a lie?

Jonathan Stevens said...

I like how mention the way in which, while we have been able to create machines and software that can perform simple tasks, we have not come close to reaching the level of complexity of the human mind, or the behaviour of a cell.

Bear in mind, however, that microtechnology is a science that has only really taken off in the last 40 years, as opposed to the 8 billion years that it is understood to have taken evolution to get to this point.

The rate of scientific advancement has already given us 'the eye' - the creationists' favourite anti-evolution argument. We have digital cameras that work in a manner that can pick up for more information than the human eye can pick up.

The fact that, in the last 15 years since the digital camera came about, we are yet to develop a processor as sophisticated as the human brain to interpret these images is actually quite understandable.

Evolution happens all the time, or to be more specific constant mutation happens all the time. Think about stories such as people born with two faces, extra limbs, people who grow up to be 9 feet tall. This is evolution in progress. The fact that these traits are of no use, and usually hindrances to people is the reason that we do not all have these characteristics, and many of these people do not prove to be desirable partners and usually die without having kids.

Ginger hair and blue eyes are examples of mutations that, while aesthetically pleasing to some people, serve no specific purpose, but have caused no real issues so have stayed.

Don't be so bloody minded and just accept evolution as the proven fact it is. And feel free to send me an email if you wish to discuss this further.

Jonathan Stevens said...

Mr Hodge, the egg came before the chicken, and was laid by a creature that looked very much like a chicken, but which was genetically different enough to be something else.

Jason Hodge said...


Thanks for reading. As far as the chicken and egg argument goes, would you accept as knowledgeable an answer as unspecific as you have given?

"the egg came before the chicken, and was laid by a creature that looked very much like a chicken, but which was genetically different enough to be something else."

You're merely speculating. That's why you describe it in terms of a chicken. That's why you say it was genetically different enough to be something else. That's why you give it the descriptive, Latin name of "something else".

Jason Hodge said...


You are mistaken about picking up more than the human eye. The human, or rather organic, eye is the highest resolution receptor known. No mechanical eye matches it. At least not yet. I suppose in the next 10 years or so, at the current rate of advancement, we just might get there. We do have cameras that pick up different bands of light, but that's because they were designed for that purpose by someone with organic eyes. Either way, you would agree, wouldn't you, that this "advancement" hardly refutes anything I've said. The cameras cannot power themselves by consuming various other devices. They cannot reproduce themselves. They cannot improve themselves or their offspring. There really is nothing in your statements that acts as a refutation of anything that I've said.

You say that evolution happens all the time. As I have said in other posts: Variation happens all the time. But variation of something is, by no means, proof that those variations, going backwards in time, are the origins of a specimen. Interestingly, I could play the same game with our sun. Did you know that the accepted theory is that the sun is shrinking at a rate of 30 cm per hour? That's right. So if we follow that trend backwards in time for 4.5 billion years, you know what happens? The sun is more than twice the diameter of the entire solar system. Oops, that makes just about every theory of evolution moot! Do I believe that little factoid from Astronomy? No. Not really. Sure, I believe scientists that the sun is shrinking (though this defies the big bang theory, but we won't get into that), if they say they are observing it. I've never had a problem with the observable. But do I believe our sun was ever twice the size of the solar system? No, because I don't invest much in the conjecturable, just the observable. Scientists never get too excited about the observable, though. They want me to worship their superior intelligence and accept as fact their conjecture...just as you have. And I refuse.

As far as you "undesirable partner/aesthetically pleasing" theory goes, are you aware that even slight mutations, much smaller than what you are referencing, almost always cause the offspring to be sterile? Again, it's true, look it up...It's observable! What's not observable is your conjecture that this process leading backwards in time is the source of our forward progression in evolution!

And since you referenced both the eye as an example as well as aesthetically pleasing mates, pray tell, how do you explain the forward, constructive progress of species before the eye evolved?? Don't bother answering, I'm just making fun.