Pharyngula

There’s a very good reason I reposted an old reply to a creationist today. It’s from 2004, way back shortly after I’d started this blog, and it addresses in simple terms the question of how ordinary biological mechanisms can produce an increase in information. I brought it up because Casey Luskin is whining again. He says the “Darwinists” have not answered any of the questions Michael Egnor, their pet credentialed creationist du jour, has asked.

Yet for all their numbers and name-calling, not a single one has answered Egnor’s question: How does Darwinian mechanisms [sic] produce new biological information?

Isn’t it obvious that we have answered the question, repeatedly, for years and years? That the answer is plainly stated in any college-level genetics textbook you might be able to pull off the shelf? We answer, we repeat the answer, we rephrase the answer, we’ve got a whole damn chorus of biologically informed people singing the answer at them, and the creationists just babble back, obliviously, “We can’t heeeeeeear youuuuu!”

Look, I’ve pointed out Luskin’s own embarrassing incompetence at basic genetics before; there are mechanisms operating in genetics that make duplication of genes and the concommitant increase of information in the genome routine. I’ve traced the origin of bicoid and zerknüllt to a duplication of Hox3, for instance, and I’ve described how genes, such as Wnt, are found in gene families, the product of duplications over evolutionary history. I’ve shown how Hox genes arose by duplications; seriously, how can anyone look at the serial chain of Hox genes and their phylogenetic distribution, and the fact that vertebrates have 4 sets of Hox genes, and not recognize their source in gene duplication, and not see that as a change in complexity over evolutionary time? We can go further and look at synteny, or the conserved order of sequences in the genome, and see that there is an explicable pattern of change, one that is explained by common genetic and evolutionary processes, and does not fit the design hypothesis (except in the sense that the design hypothesis is so uselessly vague that you can make any observation fit it).

Luskin actually asks two questions.

…two questions remain: (1) Why is such name-calling so common among Darwinists? and (2) How do Darwinian mechanisms produce truly novel biological information? I’ve seen no good answers to question 2, and perhaps their lack of such a good answer is driving the observations behind question (1).

We’ve answered question #2 many, many times as I’ve mentioned. The creationists like Luskin, Egnor, and many others obtusely resist paying any attention, ignore the scientific literature, and act like stupid little children when they are confronted with the evidence … which, I think, goes a long way towards answering #1. That creationist calliope is awfully repetitive and out of tune, excuse us if we are more than a little tired of the noise. Maybe if they actually had some respect and knowledge of the biological sciences they are abusing, and if they didn’t persist in lying and misrepresenting the facts, we wouldn’t be so pissed off with them.

Comments

  1. #1 Peter McGrath
    March 28, 2007

    MartinC: “Unfortunately the peer review process for that one has been somewhat a closed shop for the past 1600 years.”

    And many of the dissenting peer-reviewers were burned at the stake, or done away with in a way that left no fossil remains or intermediate forms.

  2. #2 Mike Haubrich
    March 28, 2007

    And another thing:

    It’s not an “ad hominem” when the argument is stupid, and when the arguer ignores the evidence when it is shown to them, then the arguer is stupid.

    Poor innocent IDists that never are mean to evolutionists. BARF.

  3. #3 Scott Hatfield, OM
    March 28, 2007

    Sean Carroll’s new book ‘The Making of the Fittest’ really does a terrific job of answering question #2, and the concluding chapter provides a measured but firm version of question #1. I’m commending it to my ID-sympathetic brethren, because it is just so accessible. It even takes the time to explain transcription/translation etc. for the genetically-illiterate.

    Very commendable, but at the end of the day we all know that many who raise question #2 are not interested in the answer, they are simply trying to score rhetorical points with the uninformed.

    Probably the best strategy is to push to get as much accessible public discussion of Evo Devo as possible, with an emphasis on its application in medicine. To this end, Carroll’s book is extraordinarily helpful as it makes clear, for example, that the emergence of cancers and their treatment is in a sense an evolutionary problem: freed from the burden of selection, cancer cells mutate at a higher rate, and eventually constitute a genetically heterogenous population that may not be amenable to a single program of treatment.

  4. #4 Madam Pomfrey
    March 28, 2007

    “Dr. Randy Guzu…..” To anyone who knows Persian, this is absolutely *perfect*. :-)

  5. #5 Tyler DiPietro
    March 28, 2007

    Casey Luskin blathered: “How do Darwinian mechanisms produce truly novel biological information?”

    Actually, it looks like that qualifier (in bold) is being used as the trap door to get away from any possible dis-confirmation. When it was pointed out to Egnor that any post-hoc measurement on the genome that uses any technical definition of information (Shannon-Wiener, KCS, etc.) allows the creation of “new information”, he just said those weren’t good measurements. Egnor then essentially asserted the existence of some informatic quantity that evolution couldn’t produce…even though he by his own admission didn’t have a clue what that could be.

    Something tells me, then, that we’ll never find an example of “truly novel information” being generated by evolutionary mechanisms, since TNI A.) exists and B.) can’t evolved via Darwinian mechanisms, evolution is TEH DOOMZORRED!!11 We just can’t be troubled to define this quantity in a way that it can be meaningfully investigated. HAVE A NICE DAY!

  6. #6 Tyler DiPietro
    March 28, 2007

    I should point out that creationists/IDists probably won’t regard gene duplication as an “increase in information”.

    I would simply respond that when using the genome as a physical implementation of information, gene duplication can act as a sort priming operation for the generation of new information. Like if you took the following string and duplicated it.

    0101101100
    0101101100 (duplicate)

    You could iterate random digit switches on both strings (or the larger concatenated string) to produce “new information”.

  7. #7 Thinker
    March 28, 2007

    Yes, the creationist calliope is wheezing. I just hope that this and the unpleasin’ sneezin’ is a sign of an imminent crash to the ground.

    Ah, Manfred Mann…

  8. #8 Tyler DiPietro
    March 28, 2007

    Simply writing a dna sequence using a random generator would produce information in the Shannon sense, but it’s unlikely to produce it in the “produces useful proteins” sense.

    But that’s the problem my original objection alluded to, which is that the IDers are not defining the informatic quantity they want us to demonstrate being generated by evolution. I’m actually not all that familiar with Shannon theory, but a crude approximation of KCS information of a given string x is.

    C(x|y)= min{l(p): f([y, p]) = x}

    Where p is the program that computes x given y. Here terms like “useful” would be rigorously defined as the irregular aspects of the string p, so that the redundancy from it’s length (l(p)) is minimized. With some negligible modifications you can apply this to the genome and it would be trivial to generate new information. I’m not a geneticist, so I honestly don’t know the answer to this question. But how would you define “useful proteins” in a mathematically rigorous fashion? And if we know that they are generated, we can just use whatever example we know of to counter the argument.

    But that assumes they stick to the definition they agree to, which as Egnor demonstrated, is far from a given.

  9. #9 Eamon Knight
    March 28, 2007

    Doctors! Are they the new engineers?
    Dr. Randy Guzu…..

    Well, according to the linked article, the guy was an engineer before he was a doctor. (Predictably, his argument boils down to: “Well it looks designed to me, and I’m smart!”).

    However, for a long time now, I’ve felt that the Salem Hypothesis should really inculde doctors (and dentists, and probably many other of the medical-ish professions). The common thread is a training in using the results of science to practice an applied art, but without necessarily getting a deep understanding of science itself.

  10. #10 Haydin
    March 28, 2007

    Please don’t pick on engineers. Most engineers that I personally know graduated from either the BS or BS+MS program at UCLA, which requires rigorous study of quantum mechanics, electromagnetics, mathematics, etc…
    I double majored in physics and EE from UCLA, and I can say without a doubt that at least at this university, the EE program is much harder and contains at least as much ‘science’ as does the physics program.

    I think you are confusing technicians with engineers.

  11. #11 BSD
    March 29, 2007

    “Of course, it’s possible to show IDists that mutations can create information with a simple thought experiment:

    Take a genetic sequence A, and make one point mutation to it. We’ll call this “sequence B”. According to them (Creationists), mutations cannot create new information, so the information in sequence B is equal to or less than sequence A (i.e. never greater). Let’s assume that we are dealing with a case where sequence B actually has less information than sequence A.”

    Genetic Sequence A: [1a, 2a, 3c, 4w]
    Genetic Sequence B: [1, 2a, 3c, 4w] –we’ll say the mutation is such that “a” was lost in the replication process.

    B is less than A

    “Now, do one point mutation to sequence B. There is a finite chance* that the mutated version of sequence B will be sequence A.”

    Sequence B: [1, 2a, 3c, 4w] mutates/becomes Sequence A: [1a, 2a, 3c, 4w] –a was “gained”

    B = A

    “In this case, the mutation MUST be an increase in information since we already established that the information of sequence A is greater than the information in sequence B.”

    Wrong. The mutation never exceeded the boundary of information in Sequence A.

    What you overlook is that DNA has the means to correct and repair itself. What you are calling a mutation on Sequence B is actually the DNA repairing itself. Calling this repair process a “mutation” is inaccurate. What you have here is not an increase in information but a replacement of information that should have been there in the first place. What appears as a gain of information is merely DNA fixing itself to replace lost information.

    “Oddly enough, the fact that mutations can “degrade” information means that mutations can also create information since all mutations are reversible.”

    Yes, mutations are reversible because DNA has a built-in process to correct a mutation (flaw, corruption) in case of replication errors or interruptions. Information is not being gained here, just replacing that which was lost.

    Do I get my cigar now?

  12. #12 Graculus
    March 29, 2007

    I guess I see it this way: Say I have a child born with a mutation that results in having no eyebrows. That child passes on the mutation so I have a grandchild with no eyebrows. The grandchild then has a child whose DNA mutates giving it eyebrows.

    That’s not information, that’s meaning. You are using a sujective valuation rather than an objective measure.

    Let’s put it this way, if the mutation that lost the eybrow confered immuntity to psoriasis, was that a gain or a lose of information?

    So technically yes, it gained information but the information it gained is already within the subset of information available to that organism:

    A Nobel Prize awaits you for finding the cellular storehouse where the genes that aren’t in the genome are warehoused while not in use.

  13. #13 Caledonian
    March 29, 2007

    Information has two very different technical definitions.

    Which definition are you using? If not one of the two generally-understood ones, please present your special definition now.