Darwin and Design in Knoxville, Part Three

Read Part One and Part Two.

Stephen Meyer was next up. Strobel and Richards played their parts well, but, let's face it, the conference thus far had mostly been amateur hour. Strobel stepped in it every time he mentioned something vaguely scientific, but he's not exactly thrust forward as one of the major intellects of the ID movement. Richards presented his goofy argument with sufficient eloquence, but there was too little of substance in his presentation to make him worth too much emotional energy.

But with Meyer we hit the ID big time. Meyer, you will recall, is the one who managed to get this paper, about alleged flaws in evolutionary theory, published in The Proceedings of the Biological Society of Washington. It's amazing what you can accomplish with the aid of a sympathetic editor. Alan Gishlick, Nick Matzke and Wesley Elsberry gave that paper a proper reaming here.

Anyway, the fuss surrounding this paper launched Meyer into the upper echelons of ID, where he sits right alongside scamps like William Dembski and Michael Behe. He boasts a PhD in philosophy and is a senior fellow of the Discovery Institute. Let's consider his remarks.

Meyer's subject was the origin of life. He started with the familiar Dawkins quote about life only appearing to be designed, and used that as a starting point to explain the idea of common descent. He went on to explain that Darwin left the origin of life unexplained, but that this did not stop people from using his work to conclude that everything in biology could be explained without recourse to design. This was possible in the nineteenth century, because people had naive ideas about the cell. They tended to think it was just a simple ball of goo. Today we know better.

The parade of talking points continued with some discussion of the Oparin hypothesis regarding the origin of life and the Miller-Urey experiment. Meyer repeated the standard distortions about the Miller-Urey experiment having been discredited as the result of further research into the nature of the atmosphere of the early Earth. I addressed these errors in Part One.

Moving on. Meyer then gushed about the complexities of biochemistry. The cell is an information processing system! Proteins have to fold just right in order to function! (Those beknighted scientists from days of yore were expecting proteins to have a very simple structure. Poor sots.) Proteins have sequence specificity! DNA! There's a code, just like a computer program!

This is where things started getting interesting.

This is the point where Meyer started discoursing about the nature of information. According to Meyer, there are two different notions of information. First, there is the mathematical version, as elucidated by Claude Shannon. In this version “information” is construed as inversely proportional to probability. High information content is correlated with a low probability of occurrence. In this notion, Meyer argued, any lengthy string of symbols can be viewed as containing a large amount of information, since it is only one of a very large collection of possible strings of symbols.

But in biology we have a different sort of information. We don't just have complexity. We have specified complexity! Meyer repeated several times that this is a richer sort of information than what Shannon considered. He drew a distinction between a meaningless string of symbols, and the phrase “Time and tide wait for no man.” The latter phrase is clearly different since it conveys a meaning.

Standard ID fare. What is interesting here is that Meyer drew an explicit distinction between the Shannon notion of information on the one hand, and this notion of specified complexity on the other. ID folks draw this distinction routinely, apparently oblivious to the logical hole they dig themselves by doing so. The nice thing about Shannon's theory is that it gives us a precise method for measuring the information content of a message (technically, the “entropy” of a message is a somewhat more accurate way of putting it.) As long as you can embed a particular message within a meaningful probability space you can talk about the amount of information it contains. This makes it possible to answer questions like, “Does physical process X lead to an increase or decrease in information?”

But the ID folks distance themselves from Shannon's notion. This leaves them with the problem of quantifying the information they find in DNA. They assert that DNA possesses specified complexity and then challenge scientists to explain how this quantity of information can increase over time via natural processes. The question is meaningless unless they can tell us precisely how to measure the quantity of specified complexity. Otherwise, how would we know an increase when we saw one?

This sort of facile simple-mindedness is ubiquitous in ID and creationist writing. They routinely point to this or that mutation and say that information has been lost because the organism in question can no longer perform some function that its unmutated brethren can perform. Indeed, but the mutation might very well also lead to some new functionality that the nonmutants lack. Sure, we lost one ability, but perhaps we gained another. Does that add up to a net gain or net loss in information?

I have raised this objection to ID folks before. The answer I usually get (when I get any answer at all) is that when it comes time to measure information, they are still using Shannon's conception. But if that is the case, then their little challenge turns out to be no difficulty at all. There are a vairety of familiar genetic mechanisms that can account for increases in genetic information. Gene duplication followed by subsequent divergence is an especially important one. Any decent genetics textbook will tell you about many others. So it is either trivial to explain the growth of genetic information in time (if you mean Shannon's version of information) or the question is meaningless (if addle-brained creationist argle-bargle about “specified complexity” is what you mean).

This is hardly the only problem with the notion of specificity used in this way. There is also the problem of knowing a genuine specification (that is, a pattern that rightly makes us think that some intelligent agency has been monkeying around) as opposed to the patterns we impose on nature. This is one of the fatal flaws in William Dembski's work, but that's a different post.

Okay. Back to Meyer. Quotes from people talking about information in the context of the origin of life. Comparisons of genes to computer code. Monod on “Chance and Necessity.” Blah blah blah.

Inspired by Monod, Meyer now went on to ask whether the specificity of DNA can be explained either by chance alone, natrual laws alone, or by some combination of the two. And this is where he carried off a rather startling bait and switch.

For the next fifteen minutes Meyer gushed about the absurdity of attributing to chance alone the complexity of protein sequences. There was lots more probability talk, most of it worthless since it was based on the standard combinatorial arguments that view proteins as a string of amino acids so many items long, with twenty ways of filling each item. But the basic point is trivial enough, which is why no one explains these things by chance alone.

The most interesting portion of this section of the talk was Meyer's shameless use of work by molecular biologist Douglas Axe. For those who follow this subject, the way ID folks tell it Axe showed that functional proteins represent tiny islands in vast oceans of nonfunctional proteins. The idea is that this would make gradual evolution by natural selection impossible, since only large scale changes could possibly lead to new functionalities.

Of course, Axe showed no such thing, as explained by Arthur Hunt in this post for The Panda's Thumb.

Anyway, after fifteen minutes of belaboring the obvious, Meyer finally got around to considering the possibility that a combination of chance and natural laws led to the complexity we see in modern DNA. This is more promising, after all, since evolution is based on the idea that chance variations get passed through the sieve of natural selection. How would Meyer get around that possibility?

This is where the switch came in. You see, when he wanted to persuade us that chance alone was an inadequate explanation for the complexity of DNA, he talked about modern DNA and modern proteins and things we find in modern organisms. But when he wanted to refute the idea that the great complexity we see around us is the result of eons of gradual natural selection, he reverted to the origin of life. Out came the usual quotes about how prebiological natural selection is a contradiction in terms. How absurd to explain the origin of genetic information via a mechanism that presupposes the existence of such information!

That's why no one uses natural selection, in Darwin's sense, to explain the origin of life. There are various ideas sometimes referred to as “chemical selection” that are similar to natural selection and do come up in such discussions, but that is a different matter.

The bigger point, however, is that the quantity of information in the first bona fide living organism was vastly smaller than what we find today. Furthermore, the earliest self-replicating molecules were doubtless much simpler than the sort we see in modern organisms. So all of his bloviations about the hurdles faced by chance go out the window.

Sure, unaided chance can't be the sole explanation for modern complexity. But a combination of chance and physical laws could certainly explain the formation of the earliest self-replicating molecules. And from there, familiar evolutionary mechanisms are up to the task. The bait was the complexity of modern organisms. The switch came when those findings were viewed as relevant for origin of life studies.

I was starting to fade at this point, as Meyer shot right on through the one hour mark without showing any intention of stopping. But I perked up again when I heard this:

Is there anything that we know about that does explain the origin of information? Now we get into the positive case for a new approach....We looked at three different approaches that have not been able to describe a cause that is adequate to produce the effect in question. The effect in question is biological information. But here's a person who says in an offhanded way that we actually do know a cause that is sufficient to produce information. ...What is that cause? Conscious and rational deliberation. Intelligence.

This is standard fare but it does provide a concrete example of something I've blogged about quite a bit here. For ID proponents the inference to design is a straightforward extrapolation from the things known intelligent designers do. The relationship of their designer to biological information is that of a human architect to the building he designs. It was this idea that Richard Dawkins was attacking with his “Ultimate 747” argument. He was pointing out, rather effectively, that whatever else it is the design inference can not be a straightforward extrapolation from known intelligent agents. Rather, it represents the invention of an intelligent agent utterly unlike any other intelligent agent we know about. In fact, if we are just extrapolating from known causes acting today, we would have to conclude that intelligent agency is flatly incapable of doing what ID folks says it did.

Many of Dawkins' critics went after him on the grounds that God could be simple, or that he exists outside of space and time, or by hypothesizing other kluges. You can go this route, of course, but then you lose all of the intuitive appeal of the design hypothesis. In other words, you can't say on the one hand that the inference to design is a straightforward extrapolation from known causes, but on the other hand involves conjuring into existence something utterly unlike anything we know about today.

Meyer, incredibly, closed by framing his argument as an application of Charles Lyell's maxim that we should explain the past using causes that are known to be acting today. Then he basked in the adoration of the audience.

Mercifully, lunch was next. A few hundred people barreled out of the convention center and walked to the one little shopping center within walking distance that had a handful of restaurants. Subway struck me as the most attractive option (which tells you something about dining in Knoxville), and I got in a very long line waiting for my sandwich. There was precisely one person behind the counter (I guess the Doscivery Institute folks didn't think to warn the local restaurateurs that Saturday lunch might be a busy time). It was while I was waiiting on line that I had my most interesting moment at the conference. Stay tuned!

Coming Up: Showdown at Subway. Behe spins like a top.


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The ID folks put on one of their dog and pony shows in Knoxville, TN this weekend. My curiosity piqued, I decided to check it out. So I left big bowls of food and water for the cats, piled into the Jason-mobile, pointed it South, and wound up in Knoxville six hours later. Things got off to an…
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Over at the Discovery Institute's blog, Winston Ewert has a post up explaining, one more time, what specified complexity is. Since I am given a mention near the end, perhaps it's worth a look. For those not steeped in ID rhetoric, “specified complexity” is a term coined by William Dembski. It is…

Regarding information, I took a similar swing at Casey Luskin here. Reviewing the Egnor affair, he goes on about how those eeeviiilll "Darwinists" are meanie-heads and only call names instead of forming cogent arguments. His whole screed hinges on the idea that no one actually answered Egnor's question about how evolutionary mechanisms produce information.

It's kind of strange that, no matter what technical definition of information you use (I elucidated my argument with KCS/algorithmic theory, since it's what I'm most familiar with), it's trivially easy to get new information with evolutionary mechanisms. But if the IDers are going to counter that they have a brand-spanking new definition of information out there, they can take it to the technical literature.

And they can't use their usual "evil Darwinist conspiracy suppressing us" excuse in that instance, because it means next to nothing professionally to theoretical computer scientists and mathematicians if evolution is true or false (there is evolutionary computation and DNA computing, but those have mostly proven useful regardless of the biological reality of the process). So where are Dembski and Berlinski, who claim the mathematical chops to debunk evolution, when they have this bold new theory that revolutionizes everything?

Jason you tease! Yes, I enjoyed your previous 3 posts, and thanks for putting up with the ID so we don't have to, BUT, leaving us hanging overnight while awaiting the Showdown At Subway is just mean-spirited.

And am I right in inferring from your tease that Behe has been driven to break-dancing / spinning in front of Subways to earn money now? Jeez, I know he screwed the pooch at Dover, but didn't realize he had sunk so far. Well, good for him.

Jason the last line of your post should be Coming Up: Showdown...

As a test this comment contains an unbalanced ending tag which will need attention. Hope my doing this isn't a big no-no. My apologies if I make things worse.

By JohnnieCanuck (not verified) on 28 Mar 2007 #permalink

JasonR: You must be a very mild mannered, patient man. How did you sit through all this?

Koray! Just the man I wanted to catch before beddie-bye. Drop me a line when you get a sec, would you? My email address is in my blogger profile.

(To JasonR: I know used your blog as a rendezvous once already. Last time, promise...)

Jason -

Offtopic request, but I'd really like to hear the rest of your thoughts on Plantinga's response to Dawkins. The claimed incompatibility between naturalism and evolution is clearly bunk; what I'm interested in is how you think the rest of his arguments fare.

(The reason for the focus is that Plantinga is (supposedly) a respected academic within his discipline. The ID crowd are just clowns within theirs. Hence, it's worth dealing with his points in full).

Jason, try this. Replace the terms ID or Intelligent Design or even IDiots with "Johnsonist" or variations of same to make the grammar work.

It's my belief that Johnsonists use the term Darwinist in order to demote a scientific theory, evolution, into a cult of personality, Darwinism.

We should return the favor, with more justification because there is actually scientific data to back evolution.

By Jim Ramsey (not verified) on 29 Mar 2007 #permalink

It would be more accurate to call it crypto-creationism.

By Caledonian (not verified) on 29 Mar 2007 #permalink

Jason, you deserve a medal and a lifetime supply of your favorite sandwiches for the service you've rendered already in relating this nightmare to us. This same dog-and-pony show is scheduled to appear at SMU here in Dallas next month; on the basis of what you've described of it, I would not have the stomach to attend it even at gunpoint.

Incidentally, the science departments at SMU have committed a terrible strategic error by protesting this IDiotic event and trying to get SMU to back out of hosting it, since that just makes them come across as dogmatists and gives the unfortunate appearance of veracity to the IDiots' claims of professional persecution. Since SMU will not back out of allowing its facilities to be used for the event (though it distances itself from endorsing its message), the only result has been considerably greater free publicity for the event, spiced with fresh and juicy controversy, which must be driving the science professors absolutely nuts.

What they really ought to do, in my opinion, is study your review of it (and others), attend it themselves as well (in as strong a representation as they can stand to muster) to take their own notes, and then announce and present their own rebuttal and "scientific revival" a week or two later at the same venue! If they are quick, they can just draft off the publicity of the first event to promote their own, then get the last word on the issue!

~David D.G.

By David D.G. (not verified) on 29 Mar 2007 #permalink

David D. G.-

In Knoxville the organizers mentioned that they will be doing the same conference in Dallas, which I believe is the one you are talking about. I think these conferences are basically like travelling Broadway shows. They show up, do their thing, then move on to the next town. I have mixed feelings about the science departments protesting. On the one hand you're right that it gives the ID folks a propaganda point. On the other hand, they are fond of giving the impression that when a school allows them to use some of their space, the school is in some way endorsing the legitimacy of what they are saying. To this day they brag about how ID has been debated at Harvard, without mentioning that it was a student group that organized the event and the university had nothing to do with it.


I am planning to get back to the Plantinga article. It's just that there's been so much good blog fodder lately that I've been busy with that.

the way ID folks tell it Axe showed that functional proteins represent tiny islands in vast oceans of nonfunctional proteins.

So how does ID account for the "nonfunctional proteins" in the first place?

The is the crucial question that I always have with intelligent design: If one assumes a Designer, isn't chance or randomness also the design of the Designer? So why posit that "chance isn't sufficient" or that "natural selection cannot do it" when, certainly, the Intelligent Designer could make any mechanism, including random mutation and natural selection, sufficient? Are there parts of the universe that were not created by God - excuse me, designed by the Designer? If so, how do the believers, I mean the ID theorists, account for this?

Why juxtapose randomness against "design" as evidence for design when their position is that the Designer designed everything, presumably randomness too? (If randomness is created by another designer, who designed the other designer?)

Likewise I have never understood this "information cannot increase" argument. To propose design as a solution for increasing information in DNA presupposes information that exists prior to DNA, and is being fed into it. Well, if it's being fed from a Designer, then again, what are all those "nonfunctional proteins" doing there, and by the way why are ID theorists so enthusiastic about "nonfunctional proteins" when they deny the validity of the concept of junk DNA? How can they simultaneously argue for and argue against junk (nonfunction) in the universe to conclude design?

Where did this initial information come from? How did it increase? As we've been told over and over again by them, we're not supposed to ask where the Designer came from - why not? The Designer is the ultimate repository of information, no? We are discussing information theory, are we not? So why is the question forbidden?

Because the Designer doesn't know where he (oh, excuse me, she - no, probably not "she" - it) came from? There's never any information about the Designer coming from ID - why not? (I know the answers, folks; I'm asking these questions rhetorically.) What's the metadada on the Designer-Data (Datty)? That He (She, It) has no context, and therefore we have no basis upon which to conclude that the Designer is good information, bad information, a smart designer, an incompetent one, "perfect" as Dembski asserts, or Himself just an accident! So what then?

Dawkins concluded The Selfish Gene by saying that we have the opportunity to rebel against the reality of our selfish genes. That's my question here. Even if one assumes a Designer, what does that tell us? Why must we "study" (worship) the design? Why shouldn't we rebel against the design if we don't like it?

That would certainly increase the information in the universe, I must say.

As I always say: the best evidence AGAINST intelligent design is childbirth.

Speaking as someone who's had 3 C-sections, my opinion has always been that if there was a Grand Designer out there, he/she could have come up with a much better (less painful and certainly less death-inducing) way to propagate the species!

By Jennifer M. (not verified) on 29 Mar 2007 #permalink

But then they just drag in "sin," Jennifer. Literally childbirth is a punishment for sin in Genesis. "Intelligent design is not optimal design" and all that - they've developed their counterarguments to bad design.

I'm trying to expose their implicit plan that, once people "recognize" design, they want people to submit to it. That's their true agenda - as long as they get to articulate what the "design" is.

People think they're worshipping God when in fact most of them just follow other humans (esp. men) who claim to speak for God. That is why they try to snow people with all this information-speak. Never doubt for one minute who they think should control all this "information."

Jason Rosenhouse:

To this day they brag about how ID has been debated at Harvard, without mentioning that it was a student group that organized the event and the university had nothing to do with it.

One could say with equal legitimacy that Time Cube was debated at MIT and Georgia Tech.

"I have never understood this 'information cannot increase' argument."

I think that it's supposed to be the flipside of entropy not decreasing or energy being conserved or something like that.

Hey, I never said that it made sense.

Shannon's theory was originally developed in the context of telecommunications: successfully sending messages across a noisy comms line. In this context information can not increase, because the received message cannot contain more information than you were trying to send in the first place.

What I don't understand is this: because of this it would seem that Shannon theory can not have any relevance to evolutionary biology, and any concept of genetic information must use some other information theory (maybe Kolmogorov complexity?) But I have recently seen two or three science-bloggers referring to Shannon theory as if it was a relevant area after all. Can someone fill me in on the state of play on this?

Thanks for the comprehensive summary, Jason. I plan to attend the show when it comes to SMU in a couple of weeks.

Was there any question-and-answer period? I'd be interested to know if I'll have the opportunity to ask any questions of the participants.

Stephen look at MarkCC's awesome post here.

Depending on its structure you can add information to a string by introducing randomness (though noise may not be the information that you want!). That's what Meyer, and Sal Cordova, don't get. I think they think that any noise introduced reduces information of the string. Or something like that. (Ironic since they're mostly noise themselves.)

"We looked at three different approaches that have not been able to describe a cause that is adequate to produce the effect in question. The effect in question is biological informationBut here's a person who says in an offhanded way that we actually do know a cause that is sufficient to produce information. ...What is that cause? Conscious and rational deliberation. Intelligence. "

That's such a bizarre argument. What cause do we know of that is sufficient to produce intelligence, which produces "information"? Blind, unguided developmental biology, of course. Just like the "747 in a tornado" people ignore the fact that jet planes don't have sex, the "only intelligence can generate information" people and the 2LoTD people ignore the fact that intellgent, information rich, design capable people develop from a single cell without a designer. It's possibly the single greatest increase in information we know of, yet they just pretend it doesn't happen. It reminds me of that fundie comment on FSTDT about the big external source of energy for the Earth that scientists surely would have found.

By Ginger Yellow (not verified) on 29 Mar 2007 #permalink

Kristine: thanks for that.

Mark's description of the Kolmogorov-Chaitin theory matches well with what I thought it was. I have to say his description of the Shannon theory doesn't match so very well with the Shannon theory I was taught at University. In particular, if line-noise intrudes on a low-compression signal, this will add information in Kolmogorov-Chaitin terms, but not in Shannon terms (at least not in the Shannon terms I met.)

I still feel then that the Kolmogorov-Chaitin approach is probably useful when talking about genetic information, while the Shannon approach is probably not.

Life Evolution Within Cosmic Evolution,
Design And Randomness

A. The Cosmic Drive and Purpose Behind
The Drive and Purpose Of Life

(From chapter III of "Life, Tomorrow's Comprehension" )

(1) Again, Earth Life Is A Real Virtual Affair; it pops in and out of existence from its matrix, which is the energy constrained in Earth's biosphere. The totality of life in Earth's biosphere (the outermost part of the planet's shell, including air, land, surface rocks and water, within which life occurs, and which biotic processes in turn alter or transform. Wikipedia.) is a temporary grand store of constrained energy, and all living organisms are elaborate temporary energy storage containers and all genes-genomes are "Life quanta" organisms, carriers of "Life photons".

(2) Singularity and D-Infinity (max expansion/ cosmic energy dilution) are the two cosmic stable states. Their in-between is a metastable state. This corresponds to commonsense observation: the denser the compacting goal of material the more energy is required, and vice versa the more thorough the disintegration of material the higher the amount of energy released. It seems that E=mC^2 is a specific case of the cosmic (and universal) process


where D is the Distance from Big Bang point and the sum is of all spatial values of D from D=0 to D=selected value.

[BTW, (Nov 9 2006), following Newton (1) gravity is decreased when mass is decreased and (2) acceleration of a body is given by dividing the force acting upon it by its mass. By plain common sense the combination of those two 'laws' may explain the accelerating cosmic expansion of galaxy clusters, based on the above E/ m/ D suggested relationship.]

(3) Life, and every and all objects and processes including natural laws, are - since their non-existence at singularity - products of evolution and are continuously further evolving. Everything in the cosmos is fractal, rehappens on many scales, and is continuously evolving. Each and every system in the universe continuously evolves within the total universal evolution and all the systems' evolutions are intertwined. Ergo (Big-Bang's) energy is the base element of everything in the universe and individual genes are the base elements of Life. Cosmic evolution is evolution of energy, and within it Life's evolution is the evolution of the genes/energy-quanta carriers.

(4) At the beginning was the energy singularity. At the end will be near zero mass and an infinite dispersion of the beginning energy. In-between, the universe undergoes continuous evolution, consisting of myriad energy-to-energy and energy-to-mass-to-energy transformations. The cosmos evolution process comprises, though, phenomena of forms of temporary energy storages, energy dispersion constraints. Examples of such temporary pockets are black holes of all sizes, and all forms of biospheres wherever they are.

The temporary constrained energy pockets are far-removed versions, up-fractionally evolved, scattered cosmic fragmants of singularity-akin energy storages. Energy stored in the temporary constrained energy pockets resists dispersion; we do not yet comprehend why. However, we do comprehend that we, all Earth life, are real virtual constrained energy pockets formed by Earth's biosphere energy store in the process of enhencing Earth's biosphere energy content and for resisting its dispersion by maintaining it bio as long as possible.

B. Life Evolution Within The Cosmic Evolution

All cosmic objects, processes and (natural) laws, not having been in existence at singularity, are products of evolution and are further evolving.

Life system(s) is a sub-system of energy. The evolution of Life(s) system(s) differs from the evolution of non-living system(s) in Design and Randomness.

Non-living systems evolve in accordance with laws that evolve during the systems' evolution, affected and selected randomly by the Ambience. This route of evolution, even if it 'enables' temporary diversions from the inavoidable final end state of the cosmos, has a fixed overall direction and a fixed end state.

Whereas Life system(s) evolve with Design, with the design and culture selected by the evolution of Life's prime organisms, the genes-genome, for surviving as long as possible, for lengthening as much as possible the period of constrainig their planet's biosphere energy, even if in a hopeless eventual losing struggle to maintain their planet bio.

Dov Henis

One thing I would like to ask all of you atheists and agnostics. If you are all right about the origin of mankind and I am wrong about it (God created it all), then I look and sound both stupid and uneducated. But what do I stand to lose. If, however, I am right about our shared origin (God's creation everything about 6,000 years ago, time-wise via the bible), and you are wrong, then you lose an eternity with God, gain an eternal torment too painful to think about, and become forgotten for eternity. With over 2,500 prophecies in the bible and over 2,000 of them already come true to the letter, doesn't it make sense to put your trust in what the bible says and not in the hypothesis of evolution which has never gone throught the scientific process?