The Algorithmic Origins of Life

Sara Imari Walker and Paul C. W. Davies have a great paper out that I would like to call attention to. It is called the “The Algorithmic Origins of Life” and can be viewed in its entirety by downloading the PDF. Davies has written a large number of relatively accessible books that deal with some of the big issues like the origin of the universe and the origin of life from a scientific standpoint. He is often called upon in interviews and panels as a sort of intermediary position between believers in God and Creation Science and atheists and scientists. I must caution that this particular paper is relatively technical so I will hit some of the highlights for you.

Theories about the origin of life fall into two general categories – genetics first or metabolism first.  Both of these approaches focus mainly on the chemistry of life; however, since genetics and metabolism are both required for life as we know it, this creates a sort of chicken or egg problem. Walker and Davies try to get beyond this problem by redefining the problem in terms of information. They argue that what makes life different from non-life is that in life “information manipulates the matter it is instantiated in.”

Walker and Davies think of the origin of life as a phase transition during which information gains control over the matter that instantiates it. They specifically point to the following hallmarks of life:

Global organization
Information as a causal agency
Top-down causation
Analog and digital information processing
Laws and states co-evolve
Logical structure of a universal constructor
Dual hardware and software roles of genetic material
Non-trivial replication
Physical separation of instructions (algorithms)
from the mechanism that implements the

While we are still left with something of a mystery as to how this phase transition first occurred, Walker and Davies attempt to provide a new way of thinking about the problem.

I think perhaps this approach might be extended to how we think about mind and consciousness. In other words, consciousness is the encoding of information in near real-time just as life itself is the encoding of information in evolutionary time. Consciousness may also be a phase transition during which mind gains a qualitatively different level of control over the matter it is instantiated in from that of genetic and other regulatory information. This to me suggests that consciousness is an almost inevitable outcome of the evolution of living organisms.

This might, in addition, point to some more profound trend in the universe as a whole whereby information becomes increasingly more capable of controlling matter in which it  is instantiated.

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7 Responses to The Algorithmic Origins of Life

  1. Hi James,

    Thanks for linking the paper and sharing your thoughts on it, I’m in the process of reading it now. The paper seems to be related to some ideas I’ve been thinking through regarding the pervasiveness of information in living organisms, intelligence and consciousness. I wrote a blog post, “Information, interpretation and life”, that touched on some of my ideas. I’m interested to see if we can find some common ground here.

    It seems to me that information requires representation and a system of interpretation. I would say there are various levels of information representation in biological organisms and matter. A genome is a chemical embodiment of information that is interpreted by other biological chemicals, and all mediated by the physics of the universe. Self-descriptive information could also be said to exist in biological structures of cells and multicellular structures.

    I hope you don’t mind me returning to the conversation we were having on Rick Searle’s blog:

    When it comes to consciousness, I think the information is represented abstractly in the structure and activity of biological neural networks. Chains of sensory nervous cells communicate with structures involved in the perceptual and cognitive processes–the network activities abstractly represent the sensory experience. Because I think this information is represented abstractly, in my view any structure that has equivalent organization and function to the biological neural network would produce consciousness.



  2. James Cross says:

    Thanks for commenting and I glad to return to this discussion. I will read your post and respond more fully later.

    For the moment, however, let me say I think you have hit the key difference in our views. I actually think consciousness is not abstract, that it is like an electromagnetic field in that it is subtle and observable (to external observers) primarily through its effects, and that it is a property of the arrangement and action of certain types of molecules.

    My last statement above about some overall trend in the universe is something I am still working through, but it could be interpreted as allowing for some sort of information accumulation in matter that is extra-biological.


  3. Rick Searle says:

    These are some really interesting ideas on the evolution of consciousness, James. For some reason it put me in mind of what I know of Daniel Dennett’s book Freedom Evolves (I haven’t read it I just know the gist- although you know I have problems with Dennett- though not in what follows).

    Here’s a quote from a review in The Guardian:

    In particular, we are now finding steadily increasing complexity throughout the developing spectrum of organic life. The more complex creatures become, the wider is the range of activities open to them. And with that increase goes a steadily increasing degree of freedom: “The freedom of the bird to fly wherever it wants is definitely a kind of freedom, a distinct improvement on the freedom of the jellyfish to float wherever it floats, but a poor cousin of our human freedom… Human freedom, in part a product of the revolution begat of language and culture, is about as different from bird freedom as language is different from birdsong. But to understand the richer phenomenon, one must first understand its more modest components and predecessors.”

    I think this might prove helpful in thinking through your ideas.


    • James Cross says:

      I read the review and it does look like Dennett has evolved. 🙂

      I have not cared for the reductionist elements in the old Dennett and am not sure to what extent they are still present in the new Dennett. My view is more that mind and consciousness are parts of the world different in quality from matter but equal to it in terms of validity and reality.


  4. Pingback: Abiogenesis and Information « Eye on the ICR

  5. Pingback: Consciousness As a State of Matter? | Broad Speculations

  6. Melanie Stephan says:

    Life begins at Life

    This information comes from Gods recent message about First is Last and Last is First. This is the message.
    In the morning I go to Heaven. In the afternoon I live my life. In the evening I die, death.

    In this very simiple message is a huge amount of information. Unlike most of us who are wordy, God uses a few words to say a lot. One thing he says in in this message is that Life begins in the afternoon. That means you haven’t been born yet. Life doesn’t begin at birth. Life begins at Life. Life starts in the middle. It doesn’t start at the beginning or the end. It took me a long time to get this one point. I had a hard time wrapping my head around this concept but it sounds similar to what the Pro- Life people have been saying. So, I kind of get it.

    Now there seems to be a group pf science people that want to toss out that God had anything to do with creation. I don’t know why they are so against this concept. Some will delete with anger everything I write on the subject cause they believe that life crawed out a prehistoic premordial soup. Or something can be cooked up in the lab. As far as I know God can’t cook up anything in the lab either.

    I have been listening to the Creator for 8 years now and I wrote everything down. My Book is over 400 pages long. I put it on the Internet for anyone to read for FREE. I also provide proof of just about everything God had to say. He hits on just about everything. And from what I have been hearing from the Creator is that everyone is wrong on just about every subject. Then origins of Life has more to do with Quantum mechanics than it does with Biology. So just about everyone is studying the wrong field to learn about creation.

    Then most of you arn’t going to like what God had to say, especially the Christians and the Muslims. They are just going to hate it. God has 6 words that say everyone is wrong on religion.

    Last he tells me that Life is like a Black Box. The box works for the user but the user does not know how the box works. All of us own a box. God also has a box.

    So for those that think they are closing in on how Life began . You may know more than God himself.

    God Messenger, Melanie Stephan

    My book is titled “Divine Dreams, A True Story”

    * * * * * * *


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