On the Origin of Life, Computer Code, and Brownies

Review of the book The DNA Question: Where does the Information Come From?  Stephen Orla Searfoss.  2019. Independently published in the USA.  142p.

In December of 2019, an unsolicited email arrived from the author of this book inviting me to request a courtesy copy.  Knowing that the origin of the highly specific and functional information coded into DNA represents a critical knowledge gap in the standard materialistic explanation for the origin of life, I was interested in the author’s view.  The author is an Information Technologist with 50 years of experience in his field, and who became curious about how information is linearly encoded into DNA, which is perhaps superficially like lines of computer code.

Searfoss does not attempt an explanation for the question posed in his title.  Rather, he merely relates that he sought to understand “how DNA could come to contain the information that it has.” (p. 6). In the preface, he goes on to say that he intends to expose the shortcomings of accepted theories.  Then he reiterates the question, this time adding that if we can know the answer, we will know the origin of life (p. 9), but he does not attempt an answer.  Searfoss is not openly skeptical of Darwinian mechanisms, except of its ability to produce original information and encapsulate it into DNA.  In this Searfoss is like another computer scientist, David Gelernter of Yale University, who publicly rejected Darwinism in 2019 for similar reasons (https://claremontreviewofbooks.com/giving-up-darwin). 

This book is divided into three parts.  Part 1 discusses DNA and its role in the cell in simple terms – something like a review sheet for a student of General Biology, but couched in ways of thinking that an Information Technologist would be comfortable with.  Searfoss invites professional biologists who already understand DNA and its role to skip to Part 2, but I suspect that most biologists would read it to make sure that the author has an accurate understanding.  (As far as he goes, he does.) 

In Part 2, the author discusses the sources of information, noting that intelligent agents (humans) can modify DNA in ways that achieve meaningful outcomes, but can new information be added to DNA through natural, undirected processes?  The short answer, in the opinion of the author, is no.  Searfoss identifies three factors in the literature that are said to bring about evolutionary change; mutation, natural selection and environment. 

DNA is actually quite stable in populations of organisms, even though mutations occur more commonly than they are detected.  There are two reasons for this.  Mistakes in DNA replication (mutations) are usually caught and edited (fixed).  The overwhelming majority of mutations that are not edited, are lethal.  Surviving mutants may be less fit, more fit, or the mutation is neutral and has no impact on Darwinian fitness.  New functional enzymes do not come about by a few random mutations in amino acid sequence.  And yet were a novel enzyme to appear, a single enzyme rarely functionally acts alone, but does so in an integrated enzyme system.  Random mutations of information in DNA are simply unlikely to produce massive amounts of new functional enzymes.  

The preceding paragraph alludes to the idea of fitness, the product of natural selection.  Natural selection is incapable of adding new information by itself.  Natural selection only modifies what variation in information is already present. The source of this variation, mutations, are usually said to be the raw material upon which natural selection acts.

Using bipedalism in hominids as an example, Searfoss points out that many writers engage in what we might call sloppy logic when it is suggested that the environment causes evolution.  Writers in biology, or in this case anthropology, do not actually mean that there is a direct link between the environment and the sequence of bases on DNA.  Rather it is a kind of shorthand to describe the sequence of beneficial mutation followed by natural selection.  To state that bipedalism arose because early hominids moved into a new environment is superficial because it ignores the vast amount of new information simultaneously required to modify the interdependent functionality of bones, muscles, and nerves, to enable bipedalism, to say nothing of the requirements for new embryological development.

Part 3 is the shortest of the three sections, with only one brief chapter that examines the field of epigenetics in a cursory fashion.  It does not do justice to the growing and bewildering field of epigenetics.  Searfoss’ main point is that since epigenetics does not change DNA, it can’t be seen as the source of the information encoded in DNA.  What is so bewildering about epigenetics is that it requires new thinking about inheritance.  The idea that inheritance is mediated by something in addition to DNA chips away at the worldview of the centrality of DNA and presents enormous challenges to the adequacy of Neo-Darwinian explanations, as centered as they are on gene frequencies.  Epigenetic mechanisms appear to influence certain events in embryonic development, and some hoped that epigenetics might provide a simple shortcut to sudden appearance of new body plans.  But coordination between epigenetic processes and the DNA genome means that organisms are more complex, not simpler, and more complexity provides greater challenges to a mechanistic view of the origin of life.  The challenges posed by epigenetics to Neo-Darwinism have been reviewed by Meyer. 1

The origin of the information in DNA has become critical to the debate on the origin of life ever since the molecular revolution began in biology over 60 years ago.  Prior to the molecular revolution, evidence from classical embryology, classical genetics, comparative anatomy, paleontology, and geology could be massaged into a plausible “just so” story supporting Darwin’s descent with modification hypothesis.  Darwin, a brilliant thinker, had no knowledge of the inner complex life of the cell, and we can now see that the mechanisms he proposed cannot be counted on to originate DNA code for the stunning complexity of life in all its diversity.  The Neo-Darwinian Synthesis propped up Darwinism for many years, but it has become clear to many, including Information Technologists, that vast amounts of new, coordinated, interdependent information encoded into DNA is required for a new organ, a new body plan, or a new phylum to appear.  The incremental change in gene frequencies described as evolution by Neo-Darwinists is inadequate to explain the sudden appearance of the trilobite’s eye, the mammalian body plan, or the Anthophyta in the fossil record.  Yet such new innovations appear in the fossil record with no apparent precursors over and over again, to say nothing of the supposed abiogenic appearance of the first cell.  An Information Technologist knows that if a computer program requires new functionality, new lines of code have to come from somewhere.  New lines of computer code don’t just happen by chance.  It has to be authored.  Why don’t the majority of biologists see that the DNA code needs an author too? 

As one of my colleagues ruminated on this question, he said something that surprised me, though perhaps it shouldn’t have.  He said that if materialistic scientists really had to acknowledge that DNA had an author, they would be forced to acknowledge the existence of a powerful creator.  It would force a reassessment of how we do science, the structure of society, and even how we live our private lives.  Perhaps Searfoss had come to a similar conclusion when he rather cryptically wrote, “We should conduct our science and our lives based on not knowing the origin of information in DNA.” (p. 120)

Amusingly, the last page of the book (p. 142) gives a recipe for brownies, attributed to Melcena-Deborah Searfoss, apparently a relative of the book’s author.  We might not be surprised at such good-natured, homespun prose in a self-published book, but I will attest that it does indeed yield excellent brownies if one follows the recipe.  Perhaps that’s the point: Brownies, computer code, and life forms need sets of instructions, and instructions come into existence via an author.

The author seems unaware of the existence of others who have robustly developed the argument that the origin of the information in DNA is not accounted for by materialistic processes. [1],[2]

Reviewed by Arthur G. Schwarz, Ph.D.
Southwestern Adventist University


[1] Stephen C. Meyer. 2013. Darwin’s Doubt: The Explosive Origin of Animal Life and the Case for Intelligent Design. Harper Collins, New York. 540 p.

[2] Michael J. Behe. 2019. Darwin Devolves. Harper Collins, New York. 342 p.