Monday, April 17, 2006
Steganography and the Genome
Consider now the following possibility: What if organisms instantiate designs that have no functional significance but that nonetheless give biological investigators insight into functional aspects of organisms. Such second-order designs would serve essentially as an "operating manual," of no use to the organism as such but of use to scientists investigating the organism. Granted, this is a speculative possibility, but there are some preliminary results from the bioinformatics literature that bear it out in relation to the protein-folding problem (such second-order designs appear to be embedded not in a single genome but in a database of homologous genomes from related organisms).
While it makes perfect sense for a designer to throw in an "operating manual" (much as automobile manufacturers include operating manuals with the cars they make), this possibility makes no sense for blind material mechanisms, which cannot anticipate scientific investigators. Research in this area would consist in constructing statistical tests to detect such second-order designs (in other words, steganalysis). Should such second order designs be discovered, the next step would be to seek algorithms for embedding these second-order designs in the organisms. My suspicion is that biological systems do steganography much better than we, and that steganographers will learn a thing or two from biology -- though not because natural selection is so clever, but because the designer of these systems is so adept at steganography.
Such second-order steganography would, in my view, provide decisive confirmation for ID. Yet even if it doesn't pan out, first-order steganography (i.e., the embedding of functional information useful to the organism rather than to a scientific investigator) could also provide strong evidence for ID. For years now evolutionary biologists have told us that the bulk of genomes is junk and that this is due to the sloppiness of the evolutionary process. That is now changing. For instance, Amy Pasquenelli at UCSD, in commenting on long stretches of seemingly barren DNA sequences, asks us to "reconsider the contents of such junk DNA sequences in the light of recent reports that a new class of non-coding RNA genes are scattered, perhaps densely, throughout these animal genomes." ("MicroRNAs: Deviants no Longer." Trends in Genetics 18(4) (4 April 2002): 171-3.) ID theorists should be at the forefront in unpacking the information contained within biological systems. If these systems are designed, we can expect the information to be densely packed and multi-layered (save where natural forces have attenuated the information). Dense, multi-layered embedding of information is a prediction of ID.
I would differ with Dembski in that I doubt the organisms would have systems which contain "no functional significance", but rather that the arrangement of organisms, and their similarities are themselves the guidebook which is the "book". So, in keeping with the "Privileged Planet" hypothesis, we also have a biosphere that is the best place for us to learn about how biology functions.