Search in Living Systems and Conservation of Information

2022 Jul 10

Currently, the origin of life is suggested to have started with a "simple" self-replicating molecule. note Since this proposed molecule was self-replicating, it could make use of evolutionary mechanisms to add information to it. Natural selection is the core part of evolution which implements this process.

I have heard Richard Dawkins give the "simple" self-replicating evolvable molecule as an explanation for life.

Note that natural selection is a sorting mechanism (for survivability), implementing a search for entities with the most fitness.

I have written elsewhere about abiogenesis as a search by the universe for life. (See The Probability of Life.) There I argue that the entire probabilistic resources of the universe are so vastly insufficient to have accomplished a successful search for life that it would be impossible.

However, it may be thought that the apparent inadequacy of the searching model as described there is actually just due to an over-simplification of what evolutionary search can do. It might seem that evolutionary search must be better than a dumb search because it is obviously successful in the context. That is: obviously we are here and we are alive. And presumably there must be a naturalistic explanation for our existence.

First however, note that evolutionary mechanisms are impotent before self-replicating entities. note It is only after life (or "proto-life") exists that evolution could even be relevant. And second, this view has to assume that life could have occurred by natural processes (a purely metaphysical assumption without mathematical support or scientific evidence).

Note that only partial replicating molecules have been made to work. These only work in artificial environments which are not relevant to the early earth. The replications also degrade after a few generations so that they are massively filled with errors. There is no way to avoid these fatal errors.

Therefore, no one has made or found complete "simple" self-replicating molecules. Also no one has demonstrated that a "simple" self-replicating molecule could evolve.

What is the Information?

First it is important to understand what information is because the key mystery is the source of the information stored in the DNA of all living cells:

  • Information is the realization of one possibility to the exclusion of others within a reference class of possibilities. Information is measured via probabilities: the smaller the probability, the greater the information. - William Dembski note

From a talk on YouTube by William Dembski

  • Also see in The Probability of Life, where at the end of that Unlikely Things section in the last note I talk about the kind of information that drives living things.

In the context of living systems, the information I am talking about is complex functionally specified information. This kind of information has special ability to fulfill specifications. It is the kind of information in DNA which instructs the cells for the making of protein machines that sustain life. This information is very unlikely. It has very small probabilities, meaning it contains a very great amount of information.

Where did the information come from? This information is so unlikely that it could not have happened by chance. There is only one known source for large quantities of this kind of information - from a mind, from an intellect. The conventional suggestion, however, is that evolutionary processes find the information in a mechanistic naturalistic way, essentially doing it by a search process.

Free lunch and sneaking information into the system

Reference the article Conservation of Information — The Theorems

In search, there is a provable problem of no free lunch. If you have a specialized space you wish to search, it is true that some search algorithms do better than others for the context. However, proofs show that in generalized spaces there is no search method that outperforms a simple brute search. Over specialized regions certain search methods do better only because prior knowledge of the problem space has been integrated into the algorithm. However when a region is generalized, all algorithmic advantage is lost and all search methods (at best) perform equally.

Biological evolutionary processes have no pre-knowledge of their context, therefore, whatever their search methods they have cannot be be more effective than simple blind search. A thought experiment of simple search (as described in The Probability of Life) then is very equivalent to the best evolutionary search implementations.

There is also a related problem: the aspect of information being surreptitiously snuck into the search. How can we even know if a search is being successful? In a search there is either a match being performed on a candidate against some known goal, or alternatively a comparison of measured values between multiple candidates is being performed and the candidate with highest valued metric is being given preference over the others.

Having a standard (a goal) against which you can make a value comparison is sneaking information into the system. Where did that goal come from? The standard (any standard, even continued life itself) is a donation of information that was not there before. note If there is a comparison of metrics, where did the metrics come from? The source of the metric is donating information into the system.

A standard of continued life might seem obvious, however, it is not so. Even as intelligent humans, we are not able to define what life is. This means we cannot define or determine what is living. Therefore, why should an unintelligent naturalistic process reliably be able to make choices toward continued life?


Darwinian evolution says that the organisms most fit for the environment are promoted by means of an extended life that enables reproduction (a goal) and by superior rates of reproduction (a metric). However if this is evolution, then existing well-adapted organisms (such as microbes, insects or rabbits) should have out-competed any tentative new organisms such that new ones could not have come into existence. note

I know that this is a very wimpy and questionable argument (a straw man). However, on evolutionary theory it is questionable to me why examples like elephants should have evolved when other species are demonstrably more prolific and therefore must have higher fitness.

A good theory should explain why something happened by a demonstrable mechanism. A strong theory should be able to predict what will happen from a context. However, evolution did not predict the arrival of elephants. It is not a powerful theory if all that it is able to do is accommodate artifacts of every kind after the fact like a just-so story.

See also Predicting Economics and Evolution

In addition, large organisms like whales should never have evolved because their generations are slow. (Slow selection results would fail the evolutionary goal in comparison to other faster-adapting species.) They will also fail due to their size and food needs which prevent large populations. (Small populations have poor genetic variability, which compromises survival.) Thus they would do poorly for both the viability goal and the reproduction metric.

The suggested answer to these problems is that there are neutral mutations that make populations drift in various directions. However, this process is very slow because on average (by definition) neutral mutations don’t supply any advantages, therefore natural selection can’t select for the changes. In addition, on average the changes don’t have any direction, therefore, accumulation of species-differentiating changes do so at a slower rate than if they were actively being selected. There already is critically insufficient time to have accomplished the transition from land mammal to whales by evolution, therefore, this issue makes the viability of the evolutionary explanation become even more remote.

Conservation of Information and Information Sources

Successful search goes along with the concept of conservation of information. There is a well-established law of conservation of energy which says that energy can neither be created nor destroyed. Energy can be transformed, but it is always conserved. note

Of course only free energy is accessible for use. If energy becomes dispersed it might no longer be free energy, but the energy is still conserved.

Similarly, there is a theorem of conservation of information which is that information is not spontaneously created nor is it destroyed. note This matters because the codes in biological systems contain information used by organisms to maintain life, and living systems are information containing and processing systems.

I haven’t seen that there is much popular discussion regarding the issue of creating information. However, I have seen plenty of talk about the issue of not being able to destroy information in the context of black hole event horizons. The idea is a problem that must be addressed seriously in the theory of what happens at black holes.

By this we know that knowledgeable scientists already do believe that conservation of information is a serious thing.

As the linked article above says, there are two choices for sources of information because of this information conservation theorem: either information is preloaded into the system (before running), or information is infused into the system while it is running.

Preloaded information for our biological world (from a materialistic perspective) would have to have come from whatever happened in the multiverse in the setting up of our universe. The information then flowed into life as we see it as time developed. (From this perspective, the information is then only recognized as such by us as conscious beings after the fact.) Importantly, this information must include the goal standard and comparison metric aspects of evolutionary search.

To me, this line of thinking is completely without support because there exists no plausible mechanism for storage of known biological information in the environment until such time as it becomes embedded in biological codes. This is because information does not just float together; it must be carefully stored. Like energy, if it is not stored it disperses and becomes inaccessible due to entropy. So the brute fact of our existence is no evidence for the pre-loading option being true.

For the second information source option, there are no materialistic suggested possibilities for information being infused into our universe to explain the appearance of biological systems. That is, materialism strongly disagrees with the idea that biological information was externally added during the history of our universe environment.

However, the infusion option is the one that best matches with vast fossil evidence of sudden appearance of new lines of organisms without precursors. These appearances of new organisms with their new body types are introductions of very substantial amounts of information. This is the option that is best supported by the evidence and it therefore strongly calls the materialistic view into question.


The information in life had to have come from somewhere, and it had to come from a believable source. Naturalistic (evolutionary search) processes are completely implausible to me to be a source of this kind of information. The best explanation based on things we known with certainty is that information from an intellectual source was infused during history into our biological systems.

2022-07-10 updated 2022-12-27   © 2023 Larry Grove