PZ has already commented on this, but I thought that I’d throw in my two cents. A surgeon, Dr. Michael Egnor, posted a bunch of comments on a Time magazine blog that was criticizing ID. Dr. Egnor’s response to the criticism was to ask: “How much new information can Darwinians mechanisms generate?”
Of course, the Discovery Institute grabbed this as if it was something profound, and posted an article on it – and that’s where they really start to get stupid:
I did a PubMed search just now. I searched for ‘measurement’, and ‘information’ and ‘random’ and ‘e coli’. There were only three articles, none of which have any bearing on my question. The first article, by Bettelheim et al, was entitled ‘The diversity of Escherichia coli serotypes and biotypes in cattle faeces’. searched for an actual measurement of the amount of new information that a Darwinian process can generate, and I got an article on ‘cattle faeces’. I love little ironies.
Did the Darwinists respond to Egnor’s question? Most tried to explain how there can be an increase in Shannon information, but as Egnor explained, “Shannon information is not relevant to biological information.” Egnor points out: “Your example of Labbe’s paper on gene duplication is, presumably, not to be taken too seriously. If you count copies as new information, you must have a hard time with plagiarism in your classes. All that the miscreant students would have to say is ‘It’s just like gene duplication. Plagiarism is new information- you said so on your blog!’”
So now they’ve stepped into my territory – and “stepped in it” is definitely the appropriate phrase.
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.
And Dr. Egnor plays the good old standard creationist game: move the goalposts. It’s not Shannon information he wants to know about. It’s something else. He want to know how much biological information is created. And of course, “biological information” is undefined.
It’s exactly the same game that Dembski always plays with specified complexity. He challenges you to show him how Darwinian processes can create specified complexity. But specified complexity is undefinable. He’s careful to never precisely nail down just what SC is; it’s always vague, always undefined. The closest he ever comes it to present a list of definitions, saying “it could be this, or it could be that… “
Can Dr. Egnor define biological information as a precisely measurable quantity? In a way that is distinct from Shannon information? Of course not.
Here’s another example of him continuing with the same trick, this time in a comment on Pharyngula:
How much new specified information can random variation and natural selection generate? Please note that my question starts with ‘how much’- it’s quantitative, and it’s quantitative about information, not literature citations. I didn’t ask ‘how many papers can I generate when I go to PubMed and type ‘gene duplication evolution’. I asked for a measurement of new specified information, empirically determined, the reference(s)in which this measurement was reported, and a thoughtful analysis as to whether this ‘rate of acquisition’ of new specified information by random heritable variation and natural selection can account for the net information measured in individuals of the species in which the measurement was made. Mike Lemonick was wrong that this isn’t an important question in evolutionary biology. This is the central question.
Yes, it’s got to be a precise measure of information. It’s got to be empirically measured, with complete details of how the information was generated, and whether or not that matches with what evolutionary processes can produce.
But it’s not Shannon information. It’s undefined information – something allegedly measurable, but which is specifically defined as being different from the only tool that allows us to precisely measure information. And, even if someone did somehow come up with some other measure that defined “biological information” as distinct from Shannon information, it would still not be enough: because you’d need to show a complete model of evolution in terms of Dr. Egnor’s undefined and unspecified biological information theory.
Speaking as a math guy, this is wretched, dishonest garbage. In math, we don’t get to demand that people provide us with undefined measures. In fact, we expect the person making a claim to demonstrate that claim. Dr. Egnor is the one who’s making an appeal to mathematics – by arguing that evolution cannot explain the creation of “biological information”. To make that claim, it is incumbent on him to define his terms with sufficient precision to make it possible to refute him if he’s wrong.. But Dr. Egnor’s claim is full of wiggle room, and attempts to assign the burden of proof
to his opponents – which is an unreasonable thing to do, since he hasn’t defined his terms. There is no way to refute a claim like Dr. Egnor’s – because any refutation will
just be met with “No, that’s not what I meant by biological information” – exactly the way he responded to Shannon calculations showing how information is created by evolutionary processes.