Dispatches from the Creation Wars

Neurosurgeon Challenges Evolution

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.

Comments

  1. #1 G. Shelley
    February 19, 2007

    When someone uses the term “information” in this context, what it really means is the sequence in DNA that determines what proteins are produced.

    I think you are being far to charitable there. What they mean by information is “Something necessary for evolution that can’t be produced by mutation. Not duplication, because that is the same information and not DNA change because that is always a loss of information”

    I think your final point, that the question is incoherent is more to the point.

  2. #2 Troublesome Frog
    February 19, 2007

    What’s interesting about the whole “can’t be produce by mutation” argument is that given the basic types of mutation, it should be relatively easy for a mathematician to prove that any DNA sequence can be transformed into any other DNA sequence using just those basic mutation types. Of course, ID advocates hop between definitions of information so quickly it makes one’s head spin, so they’d no doubt find a novel way of measuring it to invalidate the proof.

  3. #3 Kevin Klein
    February 19, 2007

    From the Creationist’s Dictionary:

    information – n. – that quantity, in unspecified units, which cannot increase via random mutation and natural selection

  4. #4 ctw
    February 19, 2007

    when I was young in pre-civil rights texas, a popular gambit among more “educated” racists was to challenge a civil rights supporter to “name even a single black who has distinguished himself in the X field”. [note: it also was pre-women's equality texas] few if any could because the challengee was predictably ignorant of the tactically chosen field.

    the challenge in question seems a variant on that tactic. I see two responses available to those who – like me – are ignorant of genetics: jovially point out that you know the gambit and aren’t nearly foolish enough to play, or call the challenger’s bluff by answering “317 kb” (once appeal to authority is excluded from the game, who’s to say that’s wrong or challenge its source?).

    the exclusion of appeal to “authority” (complete with quotes presumably intended to indicate dismissiveness) says a lot about the current state of anti-intellectualism, suggesting as it does that if someone actually has credentials, standing, expertise, etc., their opinion doesn’t count. I wonder how the good professor squares this attitude with being an educator.

    -charles

  5. #5 Skemono
    February 19, 2007

    when I was young in pre-civil rights texas, a popular gambit among more “educated” racists was to challenge a civil rights supporter to “name even a single black who has distinguished himself in the X field”.

    And if you could, the response would have been one of three things:
    1) “Okay, but that’s only one. One distinguished black in three centuries under White tutelage in the greatest nation ever known” etc.
    2) Dismiss this person’s accomplishments as not really deserving distinguish, they only get it because they’re black, in much the same way that people are amazed at a dancing monkey–not because he dances well, but because he dances at all (actual quote, though paraphrased).
    3) “Well, s/he has white blood in her/him.”

  6. #6 Dan S.
    February 19, 2007

    And on top of G. Shelley’s point, I presume no simulation, no matter how well-designed, showing how “new information . . . can emerge from random variation and natural selection” could count, because (of course)someone would have had to set it up . . .
    Very clever, indeed.

  7. #7 386sx
    February 19, 2007


    From the Creationist’s Dictionary:

    information – n. – that quantity, in unspecified units, which cannot increase via random mutation and natural selection

    Very good. In other words… “poof!”. See, that’s the thing about being a fundamentalist: you get to pretend you can “poof!” things however you want, and you get to drag the whole damn world down with you. Oh boy, where do I sign up for that. Wow!

  8. #8 Coin
    February 19, 2007

    the challenge in question seems a variant on that tactic. I see two responses available to those who – like me – are ignorant of genetics: jovially point out that you know the gambit and aren’t nearly foolish enough to play, or call the challenger’s bluff by answering “317 kb” (once appeal to authority is excluded from the game, who’s to say that’s wrong or challenge its source?).

    What I’d suggest is just throw the bluff back at them: Demand a definition of “information”.

    Whatever they say from there, meanwhile, the obvious next step is to point out that whatever their definition of “information” is isn’t the one that is actually used in math and science, and therefore there will be no references, papers, etc related to that definition of “information” in any way– because it isn’t a rigorous or measurable scientific concept, it’s just something they made up.

    (Under the definition of “information” actually used in real information theory, the answer to their question is simple: The amount of information that can be produced by random variation is is unbounded. Infinite, if you like. This is because randomness, by itself, is information. Information is not measured in terms of content, it is measured in terms of incompressibility or unpredictability. “Random variation”, if it is truly random, is the most pure source of information one can find, because there will be no underlying structure or predictability to it, and if you have a source of “random variation” then this will produce as much information as you care to record. [This information will not necessarily be particularly useful, mind you, but they didn't ask about usefulness, they asked about information.] If they want a source on this, point them at any basic text on information theory where a definition of information is given.)

  9. #9 Daniel Morgan
    February 19, 2007

    I just wanted to give Orac some props for also taking this guy (and other MD’s) to task.

  10. #10 Tyler DiPietro
    February 19, 2007

    [This information will not necessarily be particularly useful, mind you, but they didn't ask about usefulness, they asked about information.]

    And this is one of the things that is so frustrating about the IDCists and their shameless co-opting of information theory. The algorithmic information content* of X is an invariant quantity, and anything beyond the incompressible (random) description is not new information but rather a redundancy. What the IDCists fail to grasp is that information is not a thing but a quantification of a thing. As I’ve said before, they just take the old creationist “2LOT” saw and add irrelevant jargon to it to make it a bit more sciency.

  11. #11 TomMil
    February 20, 2007

    I don’t have the chops to enter into the substance of this discussion. However, the techniques used for persuasion are not uncommon. As a trial lawyer, I encounter this sort of thing quite often. An expert with a stellar C.V. is placed on the stand and inevitably one of the advocates tries to get an opinion out of him/her that is beyond their expertise (but inevitably turns the case into a “slam dunk”). The ID folks are counting on the lay person’s understandable and justified respect for a person qualified not only to be a brain surgeon but a professor of brain surgery. It is right that he should be given that respect when talking about his field of expertise. Unfortunately, his character is such that he would use those qualifications to assume authority in a subject area that he does not possess. He knows he is out of his element and it is a reflection on his honesty that he would engage in this sort of intellectual fraud.

    In reality, the scientific community should not and probably would not care what title was held by the person who came to some new breakthrough. The reliance on “authority”, as opposed to the facts is a tell. It is one of the things I specifically look for when I am considering the examination of an expert.

  12. #12 raj
    February 21, 2007

    In reality, the scientific community should not and probably would not care what title was held by the person who came to some new breakthrough.

    A. Einstein was an obscure patent examiner in the Swiss Patent Office when, in 1905, he produced–what was it? 3, 5? I lost count–of the most seminal papers in modern physics.

    Your comment is exactly correct.

    One other point, though. The papers did not go before a jury of laymen before they were published. And they did not go before a public “debate” before they were published. Both exercises are useless in terms of the scientific discussion, a point that I’ve made here several times before.

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