Dispatches from the Creation Wars

Mark Chu-Carroll on Egnor

Fellow ScienceBlogger Mark Chu-Carroll has now posted on the argument with Michael Egnor. He rightly points out the absurdity of Egnor’s claims about information theory:

We’ve got Dr. Egnor demanding that he be shown “how much new information darwinian processes can generate”. and making it very clear that what he wants is an exact measure.

So people respond – showing how to compute the specific quantity of information generated by particular evolutionary processes. And of course, they do it in terms of the only mathematical or scientific framework that can assign specific values to quantities of information: Shannon theory.

Exactly right. First he demands a precise measurement be given, then he rejects the only possible means of providing such a number. That’s actually good, because at least he appears to recognize that measuring the amount of Shannon information in the genome doesn’t really tell us anything about evolution. Even Egnor recognizes that what matters is that the information in the genome “does things, specific things”, that is, it codes for traits and functions. What he is apparently too dense to understand is that recognizing that makes his demand for a precise measurement meaningless.

No, what matters is that mutation and selection can produce variation in function and fix new traits within a population. And the example that PZ gave him a week ago remains perfectly valid for that purpose: gene duplication and diversification is a primary process by which new information – that is, information that codes for new functions – is created and fixed in a population. We have identified this happening many times, both in the lab and in the wild. All Egnor is doing is shifting the ground beneath his argument.


  1. #1 RBH
    February 26, 2007

    Egnor marries the arrogance of surgeons to the ignorance of creationists. That’s a match made in Hell.

  2. #2 RickD
    February 26, 2007

    I know enough about information theory and enough about modeling molecular evolution to know that any information-theory attempt to prove evolution didn’t happen is pure bullshit. Should I waste my time reading this crap?

    (Looks at browser window downloading guinea pig genes.)

    I guess I can fit it in my busy schedule.

  3. #3 qetzal
    February 26, 2007

    Keep in mind that Egnor’s original question was:

    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.

    Show me. If you can’t, then why is my question fradulent?

    Of course, his question was easily and immediately answered.

    Now he’s saying that the real question isn’t whether RM+NS can generate any new information. It’s whether RM+NS can generate enough new information:

    Dr. Frank,

    Thanks for your comment, and I agree. There’s no question that a random process (meaning ‘one not directed by an intelligent agent’) can produce some information, however it is measured. But the question is how much, and the question really matters.

    Not only has he shifted the goalposts, in classic creationist fashion, he’s also ensured that his new question is unassailable. It’s just God of the Gaps, restated,

  4. #4 J-Dog
    February 26, 2007

    Damn. I REALLY wish he were my surgeon… so I could tell him he’s fired for being stupid.

    Oh well. Maybe someone else will get to enjoy the moment.

  5. #5 mark
    February 26, 2007

    The second law of thermodynamics is indeed an order-degrading principle in itself and without constraint; but when we place it under the control of the higher laws of information theory, it becomes directly responsible for the production of a very important type. This is why life has arisen.–Lila Gatlin, 1972, Information Theory and the Living System

    Gatlin argues that nucleic acid systems evolved in steps; first, “building vocabulary” (as base pairs in close proximity become more independent, i.e., less correlated), followed by stage of “building fidelity” (as base pairs in close proximity become more correlated).

    What’s this got to do with Egnor’s comments? Well, here we have a scientist actually knowledgeable in the application of information theory to biology, who has actually done the computations Egnor claims don’t exist, and did it decades ago. Ed correctly notes that it’s not merely the amount of information in the genome that matters. Living things reproduce, and the fidelity in reproduction is what matters in evolution–but fidelity is countered by mutation, duplication, and horizontal gene transfer, and the resulting new combinations are subject to selection.

  6. #6 ctw
    February 27, 2007

    “There’s no question that a random process (meaning ‘one not directed by an intelligent agent’) can produce some information, however it is measured. But the question is how much”

    knowing no biology or genetics, I can only tenuously follow this debate. but knowing (from a distant past) some info theory, I think I see dr egnor’s problem. I infer that he is essentially sugggesting that altho a random event can produce some info, it will be negligible relative to a directed – ie, intelligently guided – event.

    unfortunately, he has it backwards. information is conveyed by the resolution of uncertainty, not by determinacy.

    if there are M equally likely outcomes of a random event (eg, I’m thinking of a number between 1 and M) and ask you to guess which one, the info conveyed when I tell you which it was (ie, resolve your uncertainty) is log2(M) bits (“log2 means base-2 log). eg, for M=8, it’s 3 bits.

    OTOH, if I tell you I’m thinking of a number between 1 and M, tell you it’s M-3, and then ask you to guess, when I tell you your guess was right (assuming you are smarter than the average creationist and “guessed” what I told you, and I am more honest and don’t lie), no uncertainty is resolved and no info is conveyed.

    relating this to the genetic arena (where as noted, I’m on shaky ground – ie, deadly quicksand), if there is some DNA segment with M equally possible values due to mutations, transcription errors, whatever and one occurs, the info conveyed is again log2(M).

    dr egnor appears to believe that from the observer’s POV, it makes a difference whether the outcome is “random” or “guided”. in fact, as observers we can’t tell the difference – to us, it appears to be random even if in fact it is guided, and the info conveyed is the same either way. from whence, deism (I assume – I’m not much of a theologian either).