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Evolution and the Origin of Biological Information, Part 1: Intelligent Design

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March 10, 2011 Tags: Design

Today's entry was written by Dennis Venema. You can read more about what we believe here.

Evolution and the Origin of Biological Information, Part 1: Intelligent Design

One prominent antievolutionary argument put forward by the Intelligent Design Movement (IDM) is that significant amounts of biological information cannot be created through evolutionary mechanisms – processes such as random mutation and natural selection. ID proponent and structural biologist Doug Axe frames the argument this way (his comments begin at approx. 15:19 in the video):

“Basically every gene, every new protein fold… there is nothing of significance that we can show [that] can be had in that gradualistic way. It’s all a mirage. None of it happens that way.”

The importance of this line of argumentation for the IDM can be seen clearly in Stephen Meyer’s book Signature in the Cell (published in 2009). In this book, Meyer claims that an intelligent agent is responsible for the information we observe in DNA because, in his words, natural mechanisms “will not suffice” to explain it:

Since the case for intelligent design as the best explanation for the origin of biological information necessary to build novel forms of life depends, in part, upon the claim that functional (information-rich) genes and proteins cannot be explained by random mutation and natural selection, this design hypothesis implies that selection and mutation will not suffice to produce genetic information … (p. 495)

It’s hard to overstate the importance of this argument for Meyer in Signature, and for the IDM as a whole. In the conclusion to a pivotal chapter entitled “The Best Explanation” Meyer presents the following summary of his case:

Since the intelligent-design hypothesis meets both the causal-adequacy and causal-existence criteria of a best explanation, and since no other competing explanation meets these conditions as well –or at all–it follows that the design hypothesis provides the best, most causally adequate explanation of the origin of the information necessary to produce the first life on earth. Indeed, our uniform experience affirms that specified information … always arises from an intelligent source, from a mind, and not a strictly material process. So the discovery of the specified digital information in the DNA molecule provides strong grounds for inferring that intelligence played a role in the origin of DNA. Indeed, whenever we find specified information and we know the causal story of how that information arose, we always find that it arose from an intelligent source. It follows that the best, most causally adequate explanation for the origin of the specified, digitally encoded information in DNA is that it too had an intelligent source. (p. 347)

Put more simply, Meyer claims that if we see specified information, we infer design, since we know of no mechanism that can produce specified information through an unintelligent, natural process. As a logical argument, Meyer’s position only works if (and this is a big if) – his premises are correct.

The issue is that Meyer’s case is open to refutation by counterexample, and even one counterexample would suffice. If any natural mechanism can be shown to produce “functional, information-rich genes and proteins”, then intelligent design is no longer the best explanation for the origin of information we observe in DNA, by Meyer’s own stated criteria. His entire (500+ page) argument would simply unravel.

The obvious problem for Meyer’s case is that biologists are well aware of a natural mechanism that does add functional, specified information to DNA sequences (and in some cases, creates new genes de novo): natural selection acting on genetic variation produced through random mutation. Not only are biologists aware of some examples of natural selection adding functional information to DNA, this effect has been observed time and again, and in some cases it has documented in exquisite detail. When I reviewed Signature for the American Scientific Affiliation journal Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith (PSCF) what struck me, repeatedly, was that Meyer made no mention of the evidence for natural selection as a mechanism to increase biological information. I fully expected him to dispute the evidence, certainly – but the surprise for me was that he simply denied it to be sufficient without addressing any evidence. The closest Meyer comes in addressing natural selection in Signature is in a section discussing evolutionary algorithms used to simulate evolution. As I said in my review:

Meyer’s denial of random mutation and natural selection as an information generator notwithstanding, in a discussion about evolutionary computer simulations, Meyer makes the following claim:

If computer simulations demonstrate anything, they subtly demonstrate the need for an intelligent agent to elect some options and exclude others- that is, to create information.

Employing this argument, Meyer claims that any mechanism that prefers one variant over another creates information. As such, the ample experimental evidence for natural selection as a mechanism to favor certain variants over others certainly qualifies as such a generator. Meyer, however, makes no mention of the evidence for natural selection in the book.(pp. 278-279)

In the PSCF review I went on to point out a few examples of known instances in biology where random mutation and natural selection have indeed led to substantial increases in biological information, but the limitations of space in that format precluded me from exploring those examples in more detail, or from presenting that information at a level readily accessible to non-specialists. In this series of posts I will attempt to remedy that shortcoming by exploring several examples in depth. The question of how new specified information arises in DNA, far from being an “enigma”, is one of great interest to biologists. While the IDM avoids this evidence to present a flawed argument for design, responding to this flawed argument provides an excellent opportunity to discuss some particularly elegant experiments in this area.

Of course, it should be noted that describing how specified information can arise through natural means does not in any way imply God’s absence from the process. After all, natural processes are equally a manifestation of God’s activity as what one would call supernatural events. So-called “natural” laws are what Christians understand to be a description of the ongoing, regular and repeatable activity of God. As such, the dichotomy presented in ID writings of “naturalism” versus theism is a false one: is not God the Author of nature, after all?

In the next post in this series, we will examine an ongoing experiment over twenty years in the making: the Long Term Evolution Experiment (LTEE) on E. Coli conducted in the laboratory of Richard Lenski at Michigan State University.


Dennis Venema is professor of biology at Trinity Western University in Langley, British Columbia. He holds a B.Sc. (with Honors) from the University of British Columbia (1996), and received his Ph.D. from the University of British Columbia in 2003. His research is focused on the genetics of pattern formation and signaling using the common fruit fly Drosophila melanogaster as a model organism. Dennis is a gifted thinker and writer on matters of science and faith, but also an award-winning biology teacher—he won the 2008 College Biology Teaching Award from the National Association of Biology Teachers. He and his family enjoy numerous outdoor activities that the Canadian Pacific coast region has to offer. Dennis writes regularly for the BioLogos Forum about the biological evidence for evolution.

Next post in series >


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Jon Garvey - #54820

March 19th 2011

It’s a funny thing, but I’ve been reading about evolution for 50 years, and never heard anyone suggest the DNA system wasn’t a symbolic code before ID people started invoking information theory.

If that has led Darwinists to clarify that the genetic code isn’t, in fact, subject to the constraints of information theory, could that be ID’s biggest contribution to science? Or could the clarification have an underlying metaphysical agenda?

I seem to remember a similar redefinition in medicine, when the anti-abortion lobby unwittingly triggered the redefinition of the “embryo” I studied at medical school as “zygotic material”.


Bilbo - #54826

March 19th 2011

Once again my comment was closed, since the computer thought it was “spam.”  I’ll try again:

John:
                  “Me:

“Do you
perceive intelligence in that design?”

Bilbo:

“Mike Gene
did:”


That’s nice, but I was
asking you. Courage, Bilbo!”

 
                 
       
Me:  I found Mike’s arguments persuasive, John.  If you don’t, please explain why.  Otherwise your unsupported claim that one cannot coherently argue for ID from start and stop codons seems false.  It takes courage to admit that you’re wrong, John.

           
     
           


sy - #54856

March 20th 2011

Lurker

Sorry for missing your first comment. I did write a reply to your latest one with questions for me, but it got lost. I will try again tomorrow.


Lurker - #54858

March 20th 2011

Sy-

No worries. It’s hard to keep track, especially as, at least for me, the “reply to this comment” option doesn’t seem to work.
I look forward to your response.


Jon Garvey - #55200

March 22nd 2011

I’ve just re-read this thread.

It seems to me that an adequate refutation of Meyer’s work depends absolutely on an informed rationale for either:

(a) why Shannon’s Law and information theory in general are false.
(b) why information theory cannot be applied to the DNA code.

I wonder if biologists generally know enough about information theory to give such a rationale. Is there an information theorist in the house?


Jon Garvey - #55201

March 22nd 2011

A for instance…

If

  information theory says that information cannot be added to a system by random events (noise), and Dennis gives evidence that this has been demonstrated to happen in the cell, does this mean

(a) that information theory is mistaken (unplug your computers, guys!)?
(b) that DNA is proven not to be an information-bearing system?
(c) that noise in cells operates differently from chance elsewhere?
(d) that what is thought to be random mutation is actually some non-random process?


If (c), then something decidely odd is happening which would rewrite the laws of physics, not just Darwin’s theory.
If (d), then it would be a good instance of science benefiting from interdisciplinary input.


John - #55206

March 22nd 2011

Bilbo:

“I found Mike’s arguments persuasive, John.”

You didn’t write that, Bilbo. You simply stated that “Mike” did without stating whether you agreed.

“If you don’t, please explain why.”

Whether I do or not is irrelevant. This is about YOUR definition of “intelligently designed.” Please list the characteristics of the translation stop system that YOU agree suggest intelligent design.

“Otherwise your unsupported claim that one cannot coherently argue for ID from start and stop codons seems false.  It takes courage to admit that you’re wrong, John. “

Bilbo, your victory dance is premature and has no rhythm. We haven’t addressed start codons yet. Shall we, after you elaborate on stop codons?

nedbrek - #55212

March 22nd 2011

Jon, I would say something close to (c).  The “noise” inside a cell is not true environmental noise.  It is a state permutation inside an analog computer.


Bilbo - #55213

March 22nd 2011

John,

If you think Mike Gene’s arguments for the rationality and foresight of the stop codons is wrong, feel free to explain why.  Otherwise, whether you admit it or not, it is reasonable to think that  ID inference does flow from them.  Start codon?  Do you see something irrational or lacking foresight about it? 


R Hampton - #55216

March 22nd 2011

Jon Garvey,

The problem with your assumptions is that, for the most part, Information theorists reject Meyer’s work as being built on fundamental misunderstandings (e.g. he does not use Information Theory’s standard definition of information).


Lurker - #55217

March 22nd 2011

Jon Garvey-

Your premise is flawed. This has been discussed ad nauseam in regards to Dembski’s claims, from which Meyer draws his own. For fear of the dreaded spam filter I’ll avoid a long list of links, but just google Dembski and Felsenstein, Shallit, Chu-Carroll, Wein, or Elsberry to name a few.

There are a great deal of talented biologists interested in information theory, and talented mathematicians interested in biology - the idea that evolution is prohibited by information theory is not even an issue of contention in either crowd. An untended theory is the science equivalent of the $20 bill lying on the ground; if it’s laying there, and no one picks it up, there’s something wrong with it.

John - #55219

March 22nd 2011

Bilbo:

“If you think Mike Gene’s arguments for the rationality and foresight of the stop codons is wrong, feel free to explain why.”

Bilbo, it doesn’t matter.

“Otherwise, whether you admit it or not, it is reasonable to think that  ID inference does flow from them.”

Then it also is perfectly reasonable to ask you to list the criteria underlying YOUR inference. Would you please do so?

John - #55220

March 22nd 2011

Jon Garvey wrote:“I wonder if biologists generally know enough about information theory to give such a rationale. Is there an information theorist in the house?”

Looks like somebody is looking to rush into the warm embrace of hearsay. 

Jon, there are bucketloads of biologists, particularly geneticists, who work in the field. The better question is, does Meyer know enough about information theory?

“If (d) [random mutation is non-random], then it would be a good instance of science benefiting from interdisciplinary input.”


1) Meyer isn’t an active scientist in any discipline.
2) Mutation is random in only one respect: with respect to fitness. Both the random and nonrandom aspects of mutation have been demonstrated empirically by biologists. 

nedbrek - #55223

March 22nd 2011

John, the randomness of mutations is actually irrelevant to the issue.  The question is whether random processes can create what is technically called information, and whether DNA constitutes information in this strict sense.

To say that random processes create information is contrary to Shannon’s law.  This forces evolutionists to say that DNA is not information.

Lurker, thank you for the references.  I will check them later (maybe tonight, maybe Thursday…)


John - #55230

March 22nd 2011

nedbrek:
“John, the randomness of mutations is actually irrelevant to the issue.”

Jon Garvey brought them up. I was merely correcting his faulty generalization.

“The question is whether random processes can create what is technically called information,…”

But Darwinian evolution isn’t random.

”... and whether DNA constitutes information in this strict sense.”

You didn’t define it. I wouldn’t say that DNA constitutes information, I would say that it is a repository of information generated by mutation and decidedly nonrandom selection.

“To say that random processes create information is contrary to Shannon’s law.”

Good thing that natural selection is anything but random, then!

“This forces evolutionists to say that DNA is not information.”

Why?


nedbrek - #55250

March 22nd 2011

Hello John,
“But Darwinian evolution isn’t random.”

But DE presupposes an system for the generation of mutations, and the machinery for replication.  These systems are built via DNA.  You have a chicken and egg (or more precisely, “bootstrap”) problem.

“‘This forces evolutionists to say that DNA is not information.’
Why?”
To admit that DNA is information opens the door to intelligent design.


Rich - #55254

March 22nd 2011

R Hampton wrote (55216):

“for the most part, Information theorists reject Meyer’s work”

Please provide documentation for this claim.  Have you surveyed “most” information theorists regarding Meyer’s work?  Has anyone surveyed “most” information theorists on Meyer’s work?  Or is this just the impression you’ve picked up from reading posts on Panda’s Thumb, or some other place where one would expect knee-jerk reaction against anything written by any ID theorist?

For that matter, R Hampton, would you have any idea how to even *locate* all the information theorists in the world, let alone how to determine how many of them have read Meyer’s book and what they have said about it?  Or are you doing the usual thing done by anti-ID posters here, i.e., just making up stuff as one writes, without regard to evidence?

In any case, to respond to Jon Garvey’s extremely thoughtful post by citing what most information theorists say about Meyer’s work is to argue from authority.  How about presenting your *own* argument against Meyer’s book?  Of course, that would require *reading* it before forming an opinion, wouldn’t it?


Larry - #55255

March 22nd 2011

“To say that random processes create information is contrary to Shannon’s law. “

Can you provide any support for this assertion, such as links to mathematical papers on the topic which make this claim?

“To admit that DNA is information opens the door to intelligent design.”

How, exactly?


John - #55260

March 22nd 2011

Me:
“But Darwinian evolution isn’t random.”

nedbrek:
“But DE presupposes an system for the generation of mutations, and the machinery for replication.”

Darwinan evolution? No way. Darwinian evolution requires variation within a population (which anyone with eyes can see everywhere) and that at least some of that variation is heritable (which anyone with eyes can see). Did Darwin never use the words “mutation” or “random”?

Try and grasp this simple point: Darwinian evolution is not random because natural selection is not random. There is a random form of evolution—genetic drift—but it is non-Darwinian and it doesn’t have the power of natural selection.

“These systems are built via DNA.  You have a chicken and egg (or more precisely, “bootstrap”) problem.”

Which has nothing to do with your false claim that Darwinian evolution is random. You really should know that they are built as much on RNA as they are on DNA.

“To admit that DNA is information opens the door to intelligent design.”

Why? The door’s always been open. Why is ID all rhetoric? Why don’t IDers come inside and do some empirical work?


nedbrek - #55263

March 22nd 2011

Hello, Larry (55255)

“‘To say that random processes create information is contrary to Shannon’s law.’

Can you provide any support for this assertion, such as links to mathematical papers on the topic which make this claim?”

Shannon’s law is C = B log(1+S/N), where C is the channel capacity (bps), B is the channel bandwidth, S is the signal strength, and N is the strength of noise.  Signal is the “good” information (what you want), noise is what comes from random events in nature.  As N becomes much larger than S, the channel capacity drops to zero.

“‘To admit that DNA is information opens the door to intelligent design.’

How, exactly?”

Because to admit there is design begs the question of who is the designer.


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