Last week I had a post fisking Nathan Bradfield’s ignorance about evolution and his trumpeting of the DI’s famous list of dissenting scientists. One of the names mentioned in his article was that of Michael Egnor, one of the folks who has signed the DI’s list, but is not a scientist but a professor of surgery. I pointed out that, in fact, the majority of the people on that list have no training or expertise in evolutionary biology at all. Now that doesn’t necessarily mean that they don’t know what they’re talking about, but it does mean that putting them on a list that is used solely as an appeal to authority is ridiculous, since they have no authority in the field.
Now Egnor’s name has come up again, on a Time magazine blog by their science writer, Michael Lemonick. He rightly points out the absurdity of using that list as an appeal to authority when most of the people on the list have no authority as they have no training or expertise in relevant fields of science. Egnor shows up in the comments and challenges Lemonick, but in the process he shows exactly why he should not be taken seriously on the issue. PZ has already answered Egnor’s arguments; I just want to add a couple of other points to the discussion.
Egnor pulls out the old “new information in the genome” chestnut, one that ID advocates love to use but it actually goes back to old fashioned creationism. Egnor asks:
I am asking a simple question: show me the evidence (journal, date, page) that new information, measured in bits or any appropriate units, can emerge from random variation and natural selection, without intelligent agency.
And later repeats the same question in slightly different form:
Ask your friends that you trust to answer my question. No spin, no recourse to ‘Authority’, no ad hominem attacks, no credentials thumping. Just an answer: how much new information, in bits/organism/ unit time, or any units your friends choose, can Darwinian natural selection generate? Just give me a number, and references.
Leaving aside the irony of Egnor decrying appeals to authority and “credential thumping”, since he is a signatory of a document that exists solely for that purpose, let’s look at how he uses this term “information”. Like most IDers, he uses it without bothering to define it, and he does so because phrasing the argument in this manner makes it seem as though measuring the amount of “information” in a genome is like counting the number of jellybeans in a jar. This, of course, is rather silly.
PZ provides a good answer by pointing to recent scientific papers on gene duplication, and this provides the basis for an examination of this vague issue of “information” in this context. We know that gene duplication takes place. We’ve observed it in both the lab and in the wild and we can easily infer it having taken place throughout history in various organisms by comparing DNA and molecular sequencing of proteins in closely related organisms. No one, not even Michael Behe, denies that gene duplications do occur and can provide the raw material for the evolution of new functions.
When someone uses the term “information” in this context, what it really means is the sequence in DNA that determines what proteins are produced. Those sequences, we know, can be altered by mutation which alters the structure and sequence of the amino acids in proteins, thus changing their capabilities and thus their potential function. The scientific literature is chock full of examples of gene duplication followed by further mutation and the cooption of the duplicated gene to a new function that aids in the survivability of the organism.
So let’s ask Egnor this question: when gene duplication followed by diversification occurs and the new gene codes for a new protein with a new function – something that, again, we have observed innumerable times and can infer from molecular data all through the genome – is this not an example of the generation of “new information” in a genome? Even IDers do not attempt to deny, for example, that the alpha and beta chains of hemoglobin came about as a result of gene duplication and diversification; likewise for the antifreeze proteins in arctic fish and many other biochemical systems.
Since we have observed this process and seen how duplication and diversification, driven by mutation and selection, can result in the production of novel proteins with new functions and traits, there are really only two possibilities here: either this is a well understood example of how new “information” can be introduced into the genome (in which case the claim that it can’t is wrong), or the person making the claim is using some bizarre definition of “information” (what else could it possibly mean if not the instructions for the coding of novel proteins?) and the question is incoherent.