What is Life?

Where did it come from?

Possible objection no 5
Possible objection no 5

Given enough time anything is possible

The Nobel Prize winning scientist George Wald once said regarding the origin of life
"Given so much time, the impossible becomes possible, the possible probable, and the probable virtually certain. One has only to wait; time itself performs the miracles."

This is a commonly held viewpoint that for many seems like powerful logic.
The well known thought experiment involving a monkey a typewriter and an infinite amount of time is often cited as evidence of the power of time coupled with chance.

A question of monkeys and typewriters

Just in case there is someone who has not heard this thought experiment before, with some variation, it goes like this:- Given an infinite amount of time a monkey with a typewriter would inevitably be able to accurately type out the complete works of Shakespeare.

While it is clear that the monkey in this thought experiment represents chance events and the complete works of Shakespeare represents some beneficial target sequence that would in some way give an advantage to a proto life form. The question of what the typewriter represents is usually overlooked.

In the real world the existence of a typewriter presupposes something that could not possibly have existed in a prebiotic world, that is a semiotic system of language.

A typewriter enables an individual to use their preexisting knowledge of the conventions of a specific language that they likely acquired as a child to embed their ideas in a string of symbols on paper. Those conventions which give every semiotic system its functionality are entirely an intellectual construct.

Every single information storage system that exists, without exception, is based on the semiotic principles of intellectually derived conventions assigning meaning to a previously chosen set of physical symbols so as to capture and store for future use the ideas of the original writer.

It is important to recognise the fact that an informational string is never a stand alone entity, it is always part of a system. A system of conventions that necessarily exist prior to the formation of the string without which that string would have absolutely no significance or function.

It may seem plausible to some that given enough time our very diligent monkey could indeed type out the complete works of Shakespeare. However, even if he managed to achieve that, in a prebiotic world, without the conventions of the English language the end product would be nothing more than a random pattern.

There would be no way to differentiate between his successful representation of 16th century English literature from the previous meaningless random sequence he had produced.  It certainly would have no function.

Code not chemistry

At this point it is important to highlight another very significant reality.

There is no automatic cascade of simple chemical reactions that transforms the information imbedded within a biological genome into its target function - a working protein for instance.

The execution of the computational algorithm contained within our genome is entirely dependent on the processes of translation and transcription which is facilitated by the use of incredibly complex biological hardware such as  RNA Polymerase, at least 31 different tRNA molecules and a Ribosome. These complex machines are themselves the product of transcription and translation. Without this hardware the software is non functional!

The granddaddy of all chicken and egg scenarios.

A perfectly sequenced complete DNA string will not automatically spring into production of the necessary products of the biological process. A DNA string needs the products of its own transcription and translation to function.

We could perhaps liken the situation to our very diligent monkey adding a memorandum to his complete works of Shakespeare a tutorial on how to construct and use the English language while writing this tutorial itself in the English language.

In a pre digital age, an isolated string of 0's and 1's regardless of whether it conformed to a Windows program or any other functional digital code, without the existence of the necessary semiotic conventions of programing or the hardware to run it, would have absolutely no function.

It is not just a question of time and chance events. Regardless of how long you wait any randomly produced molecular chain it would still have no function. The important point to take from this is that the functionality of any DNA / RNA sequence is provided not by chemistry but by a semiotic code.

The destructive power of time

If there is no functionality and no replication process to accurately preserve what our diligent monkey has produced, the relentless natural processes of entropy would quickly degrade anything produced. In fact those unstoppable degrative processes would be degrading our monkey's handy work far more quickly than it could have been assembled.

In fact long periods of time would be no friend of such a random process. While time may at first glance seem to provide opportunity, it would also destroy what had previously been produced. Our everyday experience tells us that extended periods of time degrades, it does not build.

George Wald's idea that time and chance events are able to achieve the seemingly impossible, just like our thought experiment with monkeys and typewriters, is nothing more than a empty assertion that hides the hard realities of both the integral role played by the semiotic process as well as the unstoppable processes of entropy that come hand in hand with time.

Random events can not create semiotic systems!

Time degrades. It does not build!