Biological Information and Intelligent Design: the curious world of RNA (continued)

(system) #1
Is the process by which cells use the information stored in DNA to form proteins complex organic chemistry, an indicator of a designing intelligence, or both?
This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at


Dennis, I’m curious. Do you believe in an infinite multiverse, or do you disagree with Eugene Koonin, who believes that an RNA world scenario is untenable in a finite universe?

(Dennis Venema) #3

Hi Bilbo - I have no strong position on the multiverse, but I am certainly open to the idea that an RNA world was possible within our one universe. That article was published in 2007, and I wonder if he would revise his stance based on some of the new things that have come to light since - for example the discovery that RNA replication may well have been via a reciprocal population of smaller molecules. We’ll talk more about that in an upcoming post.


Apparently Koonin’s 2011 book still maintained his views from 2007:

So if he’s changed his views, it’s been within the last five years. I haven’t seen any evidence that he has. You may be confident that this finite universe could achieve an RNA world by chance (and without any extra help from God), but I think I’ll stick with the expert.

(Dennis Venema) #5

Hi Bilbo,

Not sure how you arrived at the conclusion that I am “confident” when I said I was “open to the possibility.” Also not sure where the “without any help from God” thing comes from either. That seems to be quite the extrapolation from what I said.



You are in the process of trying to refute ID by citing data that suggests there was an RNA world which supposedly would show that the origin of life could be explained by mere chemical reactions, without the need for high levels of information. I cite an expert in the origin of life studies, Koonin, who believes that it would take many universes to to make an RNA world probable. Now Koonin would rather believe in many universes rather than believe that God or some other designer purposely arranged events (ID) so that an RNA world could come about. You, on the other hand, are open to the possibility that the RNA world happened, even if there is only one finite universe. But you are not open to the possibility that God purposely arranged events (ID) to make that happen. Or if you are open to it, you don’t believe that there could ever be any evidence that he did so. Or if you do believe there could be evidence, you haven’t bothered to delineate what that evidence would be or look like. Instead, all you want to do is refute any attempt to show that there is evidence of ID.

(Dennis Venema) #7

Bilbo, in your opinion, does the discovery of solar fusion remove God from the process of sustaining the sun, or does it reveal a more intricate design?


Let’s make a distinction between designing the laws of nature and designing (or arranging) events (ID). Thus, I think theists, regardless of whether they accept ID or not, would agree that God designed the laws of nature, which make solar fusion possible. If Koonin is correct, then the laws of nature needed much more time and material to work with than a finite universe could furnish to bring about an RNA world. If one believes that there is a only one finite universe, and that Koonin is correct, then it seems to me that it is reasonable to believe that God designed or arranged the events (ID) necessary to bring about an RNA world. Of course, I think it would also be reasonable for scientists to continue to do research to see if Koonin is wrong, or if there is more than one universe. But to outright reject ID without showing that Koonin is wrong? On what basis?

(Dennis Venema) #9

Indeed - and there is significant research done since 2011 that supports the idea that an RNA world is more plausible than Koonin suggests. We’ll discuss it later in this series.

I’m curious, though - why place so much weight on one individual, especially in an area that is acknowledged to be speculative? We don’t know enough about the system to evaluate how probable an RNA-world scenario might be.

Also, according to Koonin, if he is right, then ID is dead:

“A final comment on “irreducible complexity” and “intelligent design”. By showing that highly complex systems, actually, can emerge by chance and, moreover, are inevitable, if extremely rare, in the universe, the present model sidesteps the issue of irreducibility and leaves no room whatsoever for any form of intelligent design.”

(sy_garte) #10


Nice job, as usual. I appreciate your ability to place this complex system in a way that is accessible to laymen, and I also appreciate your aim of keeping things as simple as possible. But there is one omission in the story, which I think needs to be corrected, since it adds an additional layer of complexity, and I think is important for a full appreciation of what we are dealing with with the translation system.

The tRNA is actually only one of two critical adapter molecules in the process. This is because while each tRNA must bind to the correct amino acid, there is no way for this to happen directly. The way it happens is that there are enzymes called amino acid synthases (AA Syn) specific for each tRNA and the cognate amino acid. So there is an AA Syn for glycine which has a binding site for glycine, and also a separate binding site that binds one of the tRNAs for glycine (containing a glycine codon). The AA Syn is the protein enzyme that attaches each amino acid to the correct tRNA, so it is a critical step. And there is very little room for error, since if the glycine specific AA Syn could also bind an alanine tRNA, then the translation would be imperfect.

I think an important take home message here is that nucleic acid chemistry and protein chemistry do not go together. It requires the enormous specificity and flexibility of enzyme and ribozyme binding and catalytic activity to go through all the steps required to translate information from one chemistry into the other.

(Dennis Venema) #11

Hi Sy - I’ll be talking about this part of the system in a later post - we’re just not there yet.

(sy_garte) #12

Oops. Sorry to jump the gun. Thanks

(Dennis Venema) #13

No worries!


Yes, if we live in an infinite multiverse, then using probability to sift out designed from undersigned things would certainly be much more difficult, though I wouldn’t say “dead.”

But I rely upon Koonin because he is considered one of the leaders in origin of life research. If he’s come to the conclusion that at RNA world is untenable in a finite universe, I think that should be taken seriously.

(sy_garte) #15

Hi Bilbo

I interpret Koonin’s point a bit differently. I dont think he is specifically arguing against RNA world. I think he is saying that the probability of any replication linked to translation system is extremely low in a finite universe, assuming that it could only arise by chance. That is clearly true. The question is, which I am sure Dennis will address, could such a system arise by evolution?

The RNA world is hypothesized to be one possible step in that evolution. Koonin acknowledges that possibility, but further claims that the origin of RNA world, and in other work says that the transition from RNA to the modern replication/translation linked system are both not possible to arise by chance in a finite universe. And he states that it is very difficult (if not impossible) for either the RNA world or the transition to occur by evolution.

He is clearly right if one assumes that only Darwinian evolution is possible, since Darwinian evolution (which is extremely error free) requires the genotype phenotype linkage provided by modern DNA world. But, other forms of evolution cannot be ruled out, including some forms of very error prone evolution. There are some papers (Dennis probably has them) that indicate this could be possible.

(Charles Alexandre Roy) #16

@DennisVenema. Would you say that this series essentially addresses somewhat similar claims made by John Lennox of Oxford in terms of DNA and semiotics. Essentially that DNA is the longest word in the world and in no case can language be reduced or fully explained in terms of physics and chemistry.

You can see a snippet of his type of argument from around 40:30-46:00 in this lecture.