Dispatches from the Creation Wars

There’s an interesting exchange of emails on this blog between the author of that blog and Michael Egnor. It provides a perfect example of how this whole “increase in information in the genome” argument heard incessantly from IDers is nothing but a shell game. The whole thing started when Egnor demanded to know “how much new information Darwinian processes can generate.” In order to answer that question, of course, one must have a means of measuring information in that context. And before you can have a means of measuring whether there is any new biological information as a result of “Darwinian processes”, one must be able to define biological information. So the author of that blog wrote to Egnor and asked him to define the terms of his challenge. Here was Egnor’s reply:

I asked Darwinists to define biological information, because Darwin’s theory hinges on it. Darwin asserted that all natural functional biological complexity (information) arose by non-teleological variation and natural selection. ID theory asserts that some natural functional biological complexity (information) arose by teleological variation and natural selection. By ‘teleological’ I mean a process that is most reasonably understood as the result of intelligent agency, analogous to human intelligent agency, with which we have ample experience.

These assertions are the whole issue in the ID/Darwin debate.

I think the best definition is Dembski’s CSI, but there remains a lot to understand. What appalled me is that Darwinists don’t even know how to measure the property on which their entire theory turns.

I can’t help them prove their theory. That’s their job. What kind of scientist asserts that his theory is a fact, and when you ask him for the data on which his theory turns, he demands that you tell him how to prove it?

Darwinism is a scandal.

But as the author there points out, when he asked his question he was given examples of new traits developed through the well understood process of gene duplication and diversification, a process that results in new traits in a population. And he said that wasn’t what he was looking for. So the author pressed on and asked the question in a different way:

Perhaps an easier question is, if a process did increase (or decrease) biological information in the way that you ask, how would we know? What would we have to measure?

And predictably, Egnor dodged it yet again:

No one knows how to measure biological information in a meaningful way. The current ways of measuring information (Shannon, KC, etc) are relevant to sending signals, and are not of much help in biology.

Gene duplication is not a source of significant new information. It obviously changes the way things work in the cell, to some extent, but it can only copy what’s there, and we’re asking how it got there to begin with.

Even though we can’t measure it (and serious investigators like Dembsky are trying to figure this out), we know biological information when we see it. The genetic code, molecular machines, seamless integration of physiology are all obviously the kind of biological information that we are trying to understand. The only source of such information (or functional complexity or whatever) that we know of in human experience is intelligent design. There are no ‘natural’ codes, aside from biology, which is the topic at issue.

Darwinists have a responsibility to show that undesigned mechanisms can produce sufficient biological information to account for living things. If they don’t even know how to measure it, how can they assert that random variation and natural selection can account for it, and why is the design inference ruled out?

all of this is utter nonsense. The only thing that his question could possibly mean – the only way it could possibly be answered – is by showing specific examples of evolutionary processes resulting in the development of a new trait. After all, that is what the “biological information” in the genome actually does. But that is a trivially easy question to answer because we observe the development of new genes coding for new traits in genomes, both in the lab and the wild, virtually every day.

What else could “biologically meaningful information” mean than that? If you’re asking for examples of new biologically meaningful information, then what can that possibly mean other than new genes producing new traits in a population of organisms? It simply can’t mean anything else. But they can’t just say that because they know full well that there are limitless examples of that throughout the scientific literature. That’s why they refuse to define “biologically meaningful information”, and why they have to play these word games and keep it as vague as possible so that it can never be answered to their satisfaction.

It’s a very similar game to the one that has long been played by creationists regarding transitional fossils. They make the bold claim that there are no transitional forms in the fossil record, but if you ask them what a transitional form might look like if you did find one – demand that they give some criteria for defining a transitional form that, if met, they would accept as being one – you will never, ever, ever get a straight answer. And that’s for the same reason you will never get a straight answer on this, because any specific answer they give is easily met – and they know it. So the definitions are like the pea under the shell as they move around the table. Yet another game of three card monty with the creationists.

Comments

  1. #1 ruidh
    April 25, 2007

    The answer to him is that gene duplication *does* generate information in the information theoretic sense of information. But he wants to deliberately conflate a rigorous idea of information with an intuitive idea of “information”. To him a duplication dosn’t add any “information” because it’s just another copy of what’s already there. To the information theoritician, a gene duplication *does* add information because it allows for more distinct messages. To DI dissemblers, they want to talk about meaningful information in a non-rigorous sense and complain that a duplication dosn’t add any meaning.

    Meaning is not a concept in information theory.

  2. #2 xebecs
    April 25, 2007

    Let’s say I add a new entry to my Quicken account ledger, showing that I made a mortgage payment of $1,000 this month, just like I did last month. I do it by copying from the previous entry, and pasting it into a new entry with today’s date.

    The date change is analogous to a positional change in DNA; nothing else changes.

    By their argument, this duplication adds no new information to my ledger.

    I hope they use this logic to balance their books, and then have to explain it all to the IRS auditors.

  3. #3 CPT_Doom
    April 25, 2007

    Forgive my ignorance (it’s been a long time since biology class), but isn’t the information coded withing the genome analagous to the alphabet? All DNA, and the proteins which are manfactured by that DNA, are based on the 4 bases – ATCG. Those 4 bases can be combined in a nearly infinite number of possible permutations, to create new forms of DNA and therefore new proteins and other biological products. In the same way the old 26-letter alphabet can be combined into nearly unlimited forms to create new words and new meanings – new information.

    In reality, the rise of new forms of DNA and their biological products is not information out of the blue, but a new permutation of the 4 bases. The only question is whether those bases are recombined using natural processes or through some designer. Thus, the question to research is whether the 4 bases can be recombined through non-directed biological processes, which, as I understand it, is what biologists have already demonstrated many different times.

  4. #4 Ray
    April 25, 2007

    I think when asking for ‘new’ information, they are looking for a way to account for unique development… in order for a single cell to ‘evolve’ into a lizard ( or a trilobite or a rat or whatever), actual NEW and unique information must be added to the genome, not just duplication… what’s the process that accounts for that?

  5. #5 Ed Brayton
    April 25, 2007

    Ray-

    Your question is a giant strawman. Single cells don’t evolve into lizards or trilobites or rats. Single cells might evolve into colonies, which might evolve into simply multicellular life (like algae), and so forth. What is needed are new traits at the phenotypic level, but new traits often involve only small changes at the genotypic level. A single modification of a HOX gene, for example, can have a dramatic effect on any number of traits. A single point mutation can change scales into feathers, a major phenotypic change.

    It sounds really unlikely if you choose two very distantly related types of organisms like bacteria and lizards, but when you look at the thousands of smaller intermediate steps between the two the problem goes away. The transition between, say, lobe-finned fish and amphibians is much easier both to imagine and to document and we have an incredible series of fossil species in precisely the right temporal and anatomical order showing how that transition took place. Evolution predicts such evidence; creationism can only try and explain it away.

  6. #6 rmp
    April 25, 2007

    OK, full disclosure, I’m very ignorant on this topic. That being said, I’m trying to understand it. Doesn’t the argument about ‘duplication’ isn’t new break down like this.

    Duplication creates a larger amount of genetic material from which random mutations can take place and hence ‘new’ results then occur. If the ‘new’ results result in a higher likely hood of survival, then natural selection will come into play.

  7. #7 Chris Harrison
    April 25, 2007

    Ed Brayton said:

    A single point mutation can change scales into feathers, a major phenotypic change.

    Call me incredulous, but do you have a cite for this Ed? Not that I don’t believe you, but I’d like to know if you have any more information on this. Thanks.

    For what it’s worth, I posted a bit about the origin and evolution of biological information here:

    http://interrogatingnature.blogspot.com/2007/04/once-more-on-biological-information.html

  8. #8 itchy
    April 25, 2007

    A fine time to quote Trey Parker and Matt Stone:

    “Why would a wookie live on the planet Endor? Does that make sense? It does not make sense.”

    Egnor uses an old trick borrowed from the new-agey types. His “information” is meaningless.

    Yes, it’s a term that has formal definitions in some contexts and sounds important, but he uses it so loosely as to negate its meaning — in the same way pushers of woo (mis)use valid words like “energy” and “force.”

    I think most respondents are fighting this battle in the wrong place. The burden of proof is on Egnor to show that Darwinism “hinges” on his “information” — not on parsing what it means, although that would be a requirement for his argument.

    There is no such thing as Egnor’s “information.” Ergo, evolution does not require it.

    To whit:

    “If Darwin’s theory is true, then why can’t you show me evidence for grumphelpfaff? I’ve asked repeatedly, but no one has provided an answer. You talk about ‘Shannon information’ and the like, but that’s not grumphelpfaff. I’ll know it when I see it, but don’t think I’m going to tell you what grumphelpfaff is. It’s *your* theory! YOU prove it! What kind of scientist are you?”

  9. #9 ZacharySmith
    April 25, 2007

    If I may use the language of the IDiots for a moment, wouldn’t a gene duplication necessarily be an increase of information? It may be redundant information, but it’s information nonetheless. Just because it’s redundant doesn’t make it “meaningless”.

    It seems to me that the IDiots’ argument is sunk right from square one. And of course the duplicated gene is available for further modification or co-option, which results is still more information.

    It’s very amusing that guys like Egnor demand that Darwinists quantify biological information, yet have no idea of how to measure it themselves. How the hell do they plan to distinguish “designed” information from “evolved” information?

  10. #10 Ed Brayton
    April 25, 2007

    Chris-

    I’m afraid I misspoke. The research I referred to is from Zou and Niswander and it involved feathers and scutes, not scales.

  11. #11 Kristine
    April 25, 2007

    in order for a single cell to ‘evolve’ into a lizard (or a trilobite or a rat or whatever)

    I keep hearing this complaint, and I’ve never understood it. But something made me just go, Whoa! Am I to understand that creationists don’t think of creatures, like lizards and trilobites, as corporate entities of cells? Do they know that we are made up of many cells? They know that, right, and don’t believe that a single cell turns into a multicellular creature? I mean, otherwise – wow. I don’t get it.

    Do they have a problem with atoms, too? I mean, they know a person is not just one big, “complex” atom, right? Please tell me that they know this. *Feels depressed*

  12. #12 Troublesome Frog
    April 25, 2007

    All I can say is what I said on Pharyngula a while ago:

    Let me get this straight: There is a type of information that cannot be measured using any of our tried and true tools of information theory. Nobody has a measure of how much of this information exists in anything, nobody can describe it, and nobody can measure its rate of change. Yet, after all this, evolutionary theory’s inability to explain its obvious abundance (?!!) is a death blow?

    Seriously, is this guy listening to himself?

  13. #13 Randi Schimnosky
    April 25, 2007

    I’m with RMP, I don’t understand most of the fine details but this seems painfully simple and I don’t see where there’s any debate to be had – genes duplicate and then random mutation of the duplicated gene means there is an additional different gene than there was before, and this is new information. Information is simply measured as the total number of unique genes, it seems clear Egnor has nothing to disagree with. What could RMP and me possibly be missing here?

  14. #14 Dave S.
    April 25, 2007

    To me, natural selection is a means of decreasing information in the genome, not increasing it. Random mutations (duplications, frame shifts, point changes) create vast amounts of information. The problem for evolution is winnow this down, which is what natural selection does. Although that still leaves a lot of information.

    Not that Engor would be satisfied though. HE knows information when he sees it, even if he can’t (won’t) say what it is.

  15. #15 Ray
    April 25, 2007

    Ed… you know what I’m saying here… somewhere along the line some new information has to be added to the dna so that whatever organism it is, a different organism is evolved from it. The whole idea in general is that our earliest ancestor is a single cell from which all diverse life evolved. But if you don’t like my generality let’s use yours…

    “The transition between, say, lobe-finned fish and amphibians is much easier both to imagine and to document and we have an incredible series of fossil species in precisely the right temporal and anatomical order showing how that transition took place.”

    What kind of alteration or series of alterations to a series of single cells in the gonads of parent-descendant generations of fish took place to change a perfectly good fin into a useless foot (in water)at the same time as all the other systems in that animal changed to allow it to exist on land before it actually did?

    There had to be something other than gene duplication to account for this…

    Science can measure anything… why not this?

  16. #16 Tyler DiPietro
    April 25, 2007

    “Ed… you know what I’m saying here… somewhere along the line some new information has to be added to the dna so that whatever organism it is, a different organism is evolved from it.”

    Define what you mean by “different organism”. Are you talking about something to the effect of “reproductively isolated population”, a la Ernst Mayr? Are you talking about some specific level of phenotypic variation? You really have to tell us what you mean, otherwise you’re not even wrong.

    “There had to be something other than gene duplication to account for this…”

    Gene duplications are only one sort of mutation, point mutations are another. Any basic genetics or genomics text will help you out with that.

  17. #17 Ed Brayton
    April 25, 2007

    Ray wrote:

    What kind of alteration or series of alterations to a series of single cells in the gonads of parent-descendant generations of fish took place to change a perfectly good fin into a useless foot (in water)at the same time as all the other systems in that animal changed to allow it to exist on land before it actually did?

    Your assumptions are all wrong. Lobe-finned fish already had feet long before the first amphibian crawled on land. Why? They were shallow water fish and having stronger limbs under them to use the bottom to push themselves up, move themselves along, resist the current, etc, is valuable. Feet evolved millions of years before the first fish left the water because they were quite useful. We are just past one year to the day that Nature announced the discovery of Tiktaalik roseae, a late Devonian specimen that fits perfectly in to a series of fossil species and shows that very transition as it occured. The pectoral fins of Tiktaalik were, quite literally, in the process of becoming forelimbs, with a much more robust bone structure than found in Pandericthys and other osteolipiforms that preceded it, but still covered with fin rays rather than digits. And that’s not the only trait that is found to be in transition: the rib cage was stronger and more robust (important for being able to support its weight), the head and snout are flatter and more elongated (better for snapping at food rather than sucking it in, thus allowing feeding while out of the water rather than in the water), the loss of the gill cover bone, a distal skeleton adapted for flexing upward (an adaptation for allowing it to lift itself out of the water), and much more. Most importantly, this specimen was predicted by paleontologists; they predicted, based on the comparative anatomy of the species in the transition on either side of it, what that transitional form must have looked like, the type of depositional environment it must have lived in (and thus the type of sediments it would be found in) and the age of those sediments, and they found it right where it was predicted.

    All of this makes perfect sense from an evolutionary standpoint, but is rather difficult to explain from a creationist standpoint. Was God practicing, working his way up to true tetrapods by making a series of almost-tetrapods that appear more and more adapted to life on land? Did he just happen to create these species in precisely the right temporal and anatomical order to mimic evolution so perfectly that, using evolutionary assumptions, one could make such accurate predictions? For what purpose, to fool us?

    As far as the information question is concerned, every single one of these changes only requires alteration of already existing traits. That is how evolution operates, by continually tinkering with body plans one bit at a time. A fish didn’t wake up one day and crawl out of the water and start climbing trees. We can trace the evolution of these traits in every major transition of life in a similar fashion and they always show the same pattern of appearance – the first of each new type of animal to appear looks just like the last of an older type of animal to appear. The first birds are, literally, feathered theropod dinosaurs; over time, as new species appear they become less and less dinosaur-like and more like modern birds in a wide range of characteristics (the first birds had teeth, like the dinosaurs, but over time they lost them; the pelvic girdle changes, the skeletal structure becomes better adapted for flight, the avian brain develops over the top of the reptilian brain, etc). Likewise, the first amphibians are virtually identical to shallow water osteolipiforms and over time we can see them slowly become more and more adapted to life on earth and less adapted to life in the water. The first mammals look just like therapsid reptiles but become more diversified over time and all of the key traits of mammals evolve over time. It’s true in every single lineage, all in just the right temporal and anatomical order that evolution predicts, indeed requires. There is no other serious explanation for this other than common descent.

  18. #18 Troublesome Frog
    April 25, 2007

    Science can measure anything… why not this?

    Correction: Science cannot measure a quantity that is not defined in any measurable way. This alternative definition of “information” is one of those quantities. Until it can be described using a general definition rather than by example, you can bet that it won’t be measured. What amazes me is that people think that this is somehow a problem.

  19. #19 Raging Bee
    April 26, 2007

    This represents a change in Egnor’s official line: he used to say evolution was “irrelevant,” now he’s going whole-hog into the denialist camp. Either he’s been bribed or pressured to take a more extreme position, or someone else is posting this nonsense over his name.

    This is typical radical-right spin: take the central point of their own “theory,” pretend it’s the central point of their opponents’ theory, and thus try to force their opponents to do their research for them.

    Let me see if I’ve got their “logic” straight…

    NAZI: “The Jooos are in charge of everything!”

    SENSIBLE PERSON: “You have to prove that if you want me to take that seriously. Got any evidence to back that bigoted statement up?”

    NAZI: “I don’t have to prove anything — the central point of YOUR argument is that the Jooos are not running the world, therefore the burden of proof is on you: you have to prove your assertion! (Oh, and BTW, you called me a bigot, see how I’m being persecuted here?)”

  20. #20 Foggg
    April 26, 2007

    Egnor sez

    I think the best definition is Dembski’s CSI, … The current ways of measuring information (Shannon, KC, etc) are not of much help in biology.

    In his book The Design Inference, Dembski claims his CSI is equivalent to Shannon information.
    Either Dembski or Egnor or both are hopelessly confused.

  21. #21 Raging Bee
    April 27, 2007

    Foggg: could Dembski be posting as Egnor?

    Or could Larry Farfromsane be posting as Egnor?

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