Mike the Mad Biologist

Creationism and Cybervitalism

Every so often, a creationist will start babbling about “information theory”, and thereby defaming a perfectly legitimate line of research. While I’m at the airport, waiting for my flight back from ASM2011, here’s something from the archives, “Creationists, “Biological Information”, and Cyber-Vitalism” about that topic:

In response to us foul-mouthed evolutionists, Casey Luskin asks, “Yet for all their numbers and name-calling, not a single one has answered Egnor’s question: How does [sic] Darwinian mechanisms produce new biological information?” I’ve never liked the whole “biological information” concept.

As far as I can tell, the creationists started bandying the term about after this George Gilder article in Wired was published:

Just as physicists discovered that the atom was not a massy particle, as Newton believed, but a baffling quantum arena accessible only through mathematics, so too are biologists coming to understand that the cell is not a simple lump of protoplasm, as Charles Darwin believed. It’s a complex information-processing machine comprising tens of thousands of proteins arranged in fabulously intricate algorithms of communication and synthesis. The human body contains some 60 trillion cells. Each one stores information in DNA codes, processes and replicates it in three forms of RNA and thousands of supporting enzymes, exquisitely supplies the system with energy, and seals it in semipermeable phospholipid membranes. It is a process subject to the mathematical theory of information, which shows that even mutations occurring in cells at the gigahertz pace of a Pentium 4 and selected at the rate of a Google search couldn’t beget the intricate interwoven fabric of structure and function of a human being in such a short amount of time. Natural selection should be taught for its important role in the adaption of species, but Darwinian materialism is an embarrassing cartoon of modern science.

As PZ notes, if you’re going to comment on cellular function and organismal development, you really should know what the hell you’re talking about. When you strip away the ‘Power and Glory’ bit, it’s an absurd argument, particularly coming from someone who supposedly knows something about computers. Why? Because cellular functions don’t happen sequentially, but in parallel–as in parallel processing. A ‘technologist’ should have heard of that before….

But then Gilder brings the Full Metal Stoopid: welcome to the world of Cyber-Vitalism! Brace yourself (italics mine):

Intelligent design at least asks the right questions. In a world of science that still falls short of a rigorous theory of human consciousness or of the big bang, intelligent design theory begins by recognizing that everywhere in nature, information is hierarchical and precedes its embodiment. The concept precedes the concrete. The contrary notion that the world of mind, including science itself, bubbled up randomly from a prebiotic brew has inspired all the reductionist futilities of the 20th century, from Marx’s obtuse materialism to environmental weather panic to zero-sum Malthusian fears over population. In biology classes, our students are not learning the largely mathematical facts of 21st-century science; they’re imbibing the consolations of a faith-driven 19th-century materialist myth.

Mind you (pun intended), Gilder doesn’t actually present any evidence that “the concept precedes the concrete”, but I suppose an emphatic declarative statement is just as good. Of course, if this sounds anything like the Genesis story where God speaks (i.e., generates information), and only then creation happens, I’m sure that’s a coincidence. It’s sure not evidence (“coincidence is not evidence”–I like the sound of that).

But enough about the possible origins of the creationist infatuation with “biological information”–I prefer the term genetics, but that’s so Darwinist. (an aside: We, like, so need a Darwinist emoticon). Here’s another problem with Luskin’s argument (PZ demolishes the supposed production of new information problem): sometimes evolution results in the reduction of information, whether it be the loss of operons during the evolution of Shigella/E. coli, or the massive chromosomal reduction during the evolution of Wolbachia and other insect symbionts.

When you hear someone talk about “biological information” and evolution, there’s a creationist lurking around somewhere.

Comments

  1. #1 HP
    May 25, 2011

    Darwinist emoticon? Let’s see if this works: ς:-≈≈

    (Type ς:-≈)

  2. #2 HP
    May 25, 2011

    Crap. Stupid preview. There should only be one asymptote sign following the hyphen. Now it’s a ZZ Top emoticon. :(

    For clarity when spoken aloud: “Type ampersand, sigma-eff, semicolon. Colon. Hyphen. Ampersand, A-symp, semicolon.”

    Variations:

    ς8-≈ Freudian emoticon.

    ς:-≈) Socratic emoticon.

  3. #3 Dave X
    May 25, 2011

    Dawkins’ “METHINKS IT IS LIKE A WEASEL” program and http://www.ebi.ac.uk/training/schools/decode/ were the first couple of things that sprung to mind upon reading Luskin/Egnor’s question.

    A random process combined with a selection process generate information without skyhooks.

  4. #4 Min
    May 25, 2011

    I am a layman in biology, but I have debated creationists, faute de mieux. My first reaction to the question would be to say that evolution creates new biological information like a sculptor creates information from unformed stone. But that might play into Intelligent Design arguments. What is a good retort?

  5. #5 Fred
    May 25, 2011

    Min, start here and click all the links.

    http://scienceblogs.com/pharyngula/2007/03/the_circus_is_in_town_the_crea.php

    Forgive my ignorance, I don’t know how to make clickable links.

  6. #6 HP
    May 25, 2011

    ς:-≈)=[| ← ς:-≈

    “Charles Darwin Contemplating a Bust of Socrates.”

    (Sorry. I’ll see myself out.)

  7. #7 Dave X
    May 25, 2011

    ς:ξ

    (I think I like it a bit bushier: Ampersand sigmaf semicolon colon ampersand xi semicolon)

  8. #8 Couldn't Have Said It Better Myself
    May 25, 2011

    Mad Mike:

    Your post’s closing sentence says just about everything one needs to know about the debate over intelligent design and evolution:

    “When you hear someone talk about ‘biological information’ and evolution, there’s a creationist lurking around somewhere.”

    Darwinian materialists: calling their opponents names and mocking those who ask important questions (because, por supuesto, they can’t answer those questions).

    Intelligent DesignErs: not calling their opponents names and asking extremely important questions about the origin of biological information.

    Cheers,

    -Someone you would apparently consider one of those “Fucking Morons”

  9. #9 Hercules Grytpype-Thynne
    May 25, 2011

    Except, CHSIBM, that it isn’t a problem if “Darwinian materialists” can’t answer questions about something that’s never been properly defined. For all the time I’ve seen creationists toss around the term “information”, I’ve never once seen anyone actually explain what exactly they mean by “biological information”, or how one would measure it, or how they know that Darwinian processes can’t produce it. They seem to think that the term is self-evident and that everyone just knows “biological information” when they see it, but that’s not how science works. You have to define your terms.

  10. #10 NJ
    May 25, 2011

    Can’t Think For Himself @ 8:

    asking extremely important questions about the origin of biological information

    Questions that never made a whole lot of sense and have long since been answered -

    http://www.talkorigins.org/faqs/information/infotheory.html

    As for the reason you and you ilk and kith and kin get called ‘Fucking Morons’? You aren’t actually trying to advance knowledge or to learn about the topics; you are simply proselytizing.

    You get all charged up from reading a tract or going to hear a lecture at church and think you have discovered obvious gaps in science that people with years of training and experience have overlooked. And when someone actually tries to explain things to you, you circle around and around and around until you return to your starting point, asking the exact same inane questions again.

    When people with a creationist bent truly try and learn and ask honest questions, they tend to be met with respectful answers. But the bulk simply arrive to preach; they get hammered.

    The lesson: Don’t want to get hammered? Don’t preach; listen.

    I end this comment with scant hope you will try this.

  11. #11 Min
    May 25, 2011

    Thanks, Fred. :)

  12. #12 Keith Harwood
    May 26, 2011

    But Grytpype, biological information is perfectly defined by its properties, chief of which is that it can’t be created by natural processes. From this it follows that Darwinian processes, being natural, can’t create it.

    Another property is that it can’t be recognised by people who are halfway competant (or better) biologists or mathematicians.

    As for measuring it, that’s easy. The biological information of an organism is measured by its position on the Great Chain of Being, with bacteria, trees, horses, chimpanzees huddled at one end and Human Beings way at the other end.

    Wonders of the Shteam Age.

    Moriaty.

  13. #13 supratall
    May 26, 2011

    OK, I’ll come clean: this reminds me of an embarrassingly recent conversation with my materials science-trained boyfriend.

  14. #14 Christopher Wing
    May 26, 2011

    CHSIBM probably believes that a snake told a woman to eat an apple, so a sky deity had to have his only son killed and turned into a zombie so that we could all be condemned to a burning pit when we die because we think about sex too much.

    Why even debate these morons? Let them be stupid. I’m tired of this fight, and there’s science to be done.

  15. #15 Ender
    May 27, 2011

    It’s better you bow out, you’re apparently too stupid to know what a Zombie is. Have you ever even seen a film?

  16. #16 Wow
    May 27, 2011

    The world needs more ZZ-Top emoticons.

    the ladies go crazy over a sharp-dressed “:”.

    PS Superatall is a linkspambot.