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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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nedbrek - #55265

March 22nd 2011

Hello John (55260)
“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’?”

Strictly speaking you are right.  Darwin never spoke of where the first life comes from.  But that is dodging the question.  Pure DE requires some starting life which is derived only from random environmental noise (otherwise it is a form of ID).  You can call it naturalistic materialism, Dawkinsism, or whatever you like.

“‘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?”

I am a supporter of ID only in principle (because I believe in God as the designer).  I doubt there is any way to show this empirically (which many IDers attempt to do).


R Hampton - #55289

March 23rd 2011

 Rich,

Here’s a video primer on Kolmogorov complexity that includes a refutation of Dembski’s use of information theory (videos 11-14).
http://wn.com/Kolmogorov_complexity



Kolmogorov
complexity was independently co-developed by Greg Chaitin (I posted a
link to a recent paper in the comments, previously) who started his
career while still in high school!

http://www.cs.auckland.ac.nz/~chaitin/

After familiarizing yourself with the information, read Jeffrey Shallit‘s critical analysis (requires a basic knowledge of Kolmogorov complexity)
http://recursed.blogspot.com/2009/10/stephen-meyers-bogus-information-theory.html


Rich - #55296

March 23rd 2011

R Hampton (55289):

Don’t try to change the topic. Your assertion was:

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

And my questions were:

“Have you surveyed “most” information theorists regarding Meyer’s work? Has anyone surveyed “most” information theorists on Meyer’s work? ... 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?”

Nothing in your post above answers any of these questions. Either justify the word “most,” or admit that you just made it up, without a shred of empirical evidence.

And by the way, Shallit’s field isn’t information theory; it’s number theory. So the sole reviewer of Meyer you were able to come up with doesn’t even count toward your total of information theorists.

Oh, and you didn’t answer my implied question. Have you read—not glanced at, not skimmed, not partly read, but read attentively, Meyer’s *Signature in the Cell*, from cover to cover?


Rich - #55297

March 23rd 2011

R Hampton (55289):

Don’t try to change the topic. Your assertion was:

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

And my questions were:

“Have you surveyed “most” information theorists regarding Meyer’s work? Has anyone surveyed “most” information theorists on Meyer’s work? ... 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?”

Nothing in your post above answers any of these questions. Either justify the word “most,” or admit that you just made it up, without a shred of empirical evidence.

And by the way, Shallit’s field isn’t information theory; it’s number theory. So the sole reviewer of Meyer you were able to come up with doesn’t even count toward your total of information theorists.

Oh, and you didn’t answer my implied question. Have you read—not glanced at, not skimmed, not partly read, but read attentively, Meyer’s *Signature in the Cell*, from cover to cover?


Jon Garvey - #55301

March 23rd 2011

@Lurker - #54578
“By any formal definition of information, there was information in this universe since the big bang.”

These is an instructive parallel, when there seems confusion in the scientific community - several on here deny the genome to be actual information, yet say there are many evolutionists interested in information theory. Presumably it’s their spare time hobby.

Your sentence, evidently, parallels the “information” in the Universe with that in DNA. The Universe does contain basic information in the form of the fundamental constants. All science proceeds on, what it seems to me, are information theory assumptions: no new information can be added to the Universe by chance, and on the contrary information decreases by entropy. So if an astronomer claimed to have found a new fundamental constant localised to a distant galaxy, his data would either be discounted or studied for an alternative explanation. True?

The genome is said to be, in effect, an outworking of the Universe’s basic algorithms - it arose and develops by physical law. But it is also a subset of information (unless Yockey et al are charlatans) and ought in theory to be subject to the same restrictions as those operating in the Universe.

Yet “noise” in the form of random mutation is said to accumulate (before selection) to form useful new information on which selection can act. Observations suggesting this are routinely accepted, rather than being treated as indicators that the mutations are actually non-random, ie that they are new products of the algorithms by which the system operates. Information entropy is ignored.

In both the Universe and evolution, the question of origin is crucial. That’s why there are multiverse theories (a multiverse with algorithms that generate universes with a range of fundamental constants). But in biology algorithms were produced randomly from non-algorithms… certainly Yockey (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hubert_Yockey) doesn’t buy it.


Jon Garvey - #55302

March 23rd 2011

Rider on mutations:

There’s a lot of convenient switching between categories, isn’t there? It seems mutations are only random when someone chooses them to be. And sometimes they’re not random because they’re natural selection (go figure!)

But let’s clarify:
If a mutation is random, it’s noise and can’t produce new information according to information theory.
If a mutation is not random, then it’s a product of information and can only generate information already inherent in the system.

And if the genome can’t be information because it might necessitate intelligent design, then the Emperor’s nakedness can be seen.

Any other alternatives out there?


Bilbo - #55369

March 23rd 2011

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

As soon as you tell me what’s wrong with Mike Gene’s inferences.


Lurker - #55370

March 23rd 2011

Jon-

I doubt this discussion is going to be productive. I’ve offered a number of different resources that explain how the claim that information theory prohibits darwinian evolution is false, in specific reference to Dembski’s work. Shallit’s discussion of Meyer that R Hampton referred to is also relevant. I suggest you read them, and if you don’t change your mind based on those sources, I doubt I have the patience or talent to try to do so myself.
A few odds and ends to wrap this up:
1. You mention Yockey. If you have access to it I suggest you read Chris Adami’s review of his book in the QRB. 2006 I believe. I couldn’t find a link past the paywall.
2. This has been mentioned before but from the perspective of evolutionary theory, mutation is random with respect to fitness. Please consult any evolutionary biology textbook for details; many are available on google books.

R Hampton - #55391

March 23rd 2011

Rich,
Meyer used Dembski’s formulation of information theory and complexity (see Shallit for more detail)

In Signature In The Cell Meyer builds on Dembski’s cornerstone case and uses a seemingly non-ending supply of illustrations to firm up his own supportive arguments
http://www.stephencmeyer.org/news/2009/12/want_to_know_more_about.html



And if you want to get an idea about the impact of Dembski/Meyer and/or CSI on Information Theory (that is, a poll of their peers), do a citation search and see how many results are critical vs. supportive. Then do the same for Chaitin and/or Kolmogorov complexity. If you find results that suggest my contention is wrong, please show them to me.


John - #55395

March 24th 2011

Bilbo:
“As soon as you tell me what’s wrong with Mike Gene’s inferences.”

I’m trying to SHOW you. I can see why you have to have it as hearsay, though…


John - #55397

March 24th 2011

Jon:
“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…”

It’s funny that you don’t seem to understand that “symbolic code” is redundant. If you insist that it is symbolic, why not simply define the “DNA system” and point out the step that is symbolic?

”... before ID people started invoking information theory.”

But ID people are afraid to empirically test any theory or hypothesis. Why is that, Jon?

“If that has led Darwinists to clarify that the genetic code isn’t, in fact, subject to the constraints of information theory,...”

Wow, Jon, if you’ve been reading about evolution for 50 years, why would you substitute “genetic code” for “genome.” If you are using a special definition of “genetic code,” please provide it.
 
”...could that be ID’s biggest contribution to science?”

Science is about testing hypotheses empirically. No one in the ID movement has sufficient faith in an ID hypothesis to test it empirically. Why is that, particularly given their admissions that their enthusiasm for ID is driven by their religious faith? Seems laughably weak to me.


John - #55399

March 24th 2011

nedbrek:”I doubt there is any way to show this empirically (which many IDers attempt to do).”


No, nedbrek, no IDer has sufficient faith to empirically test an ID hypothesis; only a few can get it together sufficiently to flail at testing transparently contrived evolutionary hypotheses. How do you explain that when ID is driven by religious faith?

John - #55401

March 24th 2011

Rich:

“Have you surveyed “most” information theorists regarding Meyer’s work?”

Why bother, Rich? We all know that NO information empiricists have been inspired to do anything by Meyer’s self-plagiarised repackaging of Dembski, which has been around for years.

“Has anyone surveyed “most” information theorists on Meyer’s work?”

We can survey the literature, Rich. Have any significant information theorists CITED Meyer’s barely repackaged regurgitation? Have any significant information empiricists CITED Meyer’s barely repackaged regurgitation?

”... 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?”

They have said nothing or negative things. How would you test Behe’s hypothesis that evolution involves many new CCCs?

“And by the way, Shallit’s field isn’t information theory; it’s number theory.”

Meyer’s field isn’t information theory. Meyer’s field isn’t number theory either!!

John - #55402

March 24th 2011

Jon wrote:

Yet “noise” in the form of random mutation is said to accumulate (before selection) to form useful new information on which selection can act.”

No, Jon, variation does not accumulate before selection. Variation is there, anyone with half a brain can observe it, and anyone with half a brain can observe that some variation is heritable.

Mutation could stop tomorrow and there would be plenty of variation for natural selection to act upon for a long, long, time.

Can you grasp this basic mechanism? Heritable variation is all around us. If it isn’t produced by mutations, which are only random wrt fitness, where does it come from?

Rich - #55408

March 24th 2011

R Hampton (55391):

Nice try.  You want to put *me* through a search of all the information theorists in the world who have commented on Meyer, to disprove *your* claim?  Get real.  Why should I do your work for you?  If you tell me that most biologists think that unicorns exist, it’s not up to me to survey all biologists to prove that you’re wrong.  The onus of proof is always on the person who makes the claim, not on the doubter.

You’ve made a claim—that most information theorists in the world reject Meyer’s work—which may be true or may be false.  The truth or falsity of the claim is not at issue here.  What’s at issue is your argumentative irresponsibility.  You simply made up that claim, for your usual polemical purposes, without doing a shred of research to establish it.  So just admit that you were bluffing and were wrong to do so.  Graciously yielding a point—for a change—would would look good on you.

Thanks for acknowledging my correction about Shallit’s academic field (not).  Yet another example of your marvelous give-and-take in conversation (not). 

I notice that you didn’t answer my repeated question whether you’ve read Meyer’s book.  I shall infer from your silence that you haven’t read it.  It follows that you are not qualified to offer an opinion on it, and are simply nodding vigorously in assent to the opinions of others.  But that’s nothing new here.  Half of the anti-ID commenters on this site are opposed to ID purely or almost purely on the basis of hearsay.  That’s why their opinions are inconsequential, despite their delusions to the contrary.


John - #55653

March 25th 2011

Rich:
“You’ve made a claim—that most information theorists in the world reject Meyer’s work—which may be true or may be false.”

Well, since Meyer’s repeatedly warmed-over leftovers are themselves  recycled Dembski, folks might be interested in a meltdown at Uncommon Descent, in which a mathematician is challenging Dembski’s minions to define CSI, and hilarity ensues. They not only fail to define or calculate it, they can’t even agree on the proper units! Maybe Rich can help them. 


nedbrek - #55421

March 24th 2011

John (55399)

“nedbrek:I doubt there is any way to show this empirically (which many IDers attempt to do).’
No,
nedbrek, no IDer has sufficient faith to empirically test an ID
hypothesis; only a few can get it together sufficiently to flail at
testing transparently contrived evolutionary hypotheses. How do you
explain that when ID is driven by religious faith?”

As I said before, I’m not terribly familiar with the ID movement.  Nor am I motivated by their claims.

However, why is “ID being driven by faith” bad?  What is wrong with theological arguments?


Jon Garvey - #55423

March 24th 2011

Lurker - #55217, #55370

Thanks for the references in your two posts. It appears that your response to Meyer comes under the category in my previous post: “If  information theory says that information cannot be added to a system by random events (noise)”... If I’m right, you say IT doesn’t say that, but by implication information theory does apply to the genetic code, which is helpful as some here have denied it.

The rebuttal of Dembski seems to be primarily that his maths doesn’t prove what he wants to prove about quantifying the “impossibility” of biological systems, rather than a demonstration that they are possible. Is that fair?

One article showed the fallacy in his maths by the example of throwing a sequence of dice, and showing after the event that the probability of that sequence is astronomically low. Yet the fact you threw it shows it’s possible. However, presumably one would not then want to predict a similar sequence (for example, if such odds were discovered for the emergence of life on earth, one would cancel the SETI program; or if they were shown for a particular genetic modification, one would call it fortuitous rather than normative.) Does that follow? (...)


Jon Garvey - #55424

March 24th 2011

(...)

I too could not gain access to the Yockey review, but in a way would find as helpful Yockey’s response to the review, in view of the preponderance of reviews in this area that are far from dispassionate.

I have no brief for Meyer, Dembski or ID, but you’ll understand it’s hard for the non-specialist to keep even vaguely abreast of the wide range of disciplines cover in the Biologos brief. It’s even harder when the issues often seem clouded (not in your case) by intellectual arrogance, professional tribalism or personal rancour.

One more point, if I may. It would help me, and others here, if you could help define the boundaries of “mutation random with respect to fitness.” Clearly that covers transcription errors, gene duplication etc where those are seen as malfunctions of the genome - if their phenotypes are selected, they’re fit.

But would such “randomness” also apply to the kind of “physiological” processes suggested by James Shapiro, in which reorganisation of functional units is programmed by the genome to occur under environmental stresses, so long as the variations produced are not tailored to the environment, but selected by it. Are these “random wrt fitness”? (...)


Jon Garvey - #55426

March 24th 2011

(...)

If Shapiro’s process are indeed “random wrt fitness”, supposing that God (for the sake of argument), by divine fiat reorganised the code to produce a range of changes on which selection could operate. Would that violate the definition of “random wrt fitness” in any way?

That may seem a specious instance, but it would seem to mean that various possible theistic approaches to evolution and the origin of life, such as front-loading of the genome, or even the direct design of the LUCA DNA system with basic control and development systems in place, would be compatible with the Neodarwinian synthesis.

It also follows, it seems to me, that a statement like Dawkins’ : “For example, mutations have well-understood physical causes, and to this extent they are non-random. ... the great majority of mutations, however caused, are random with respect to quality…” leave a lot of room for a small minority of non-random mutations to be responsible for a big majority of the big phylogenetic changes that have never been directly observed.

The synthesis, then, has no reason to feel threatened by a range of teleological models.


DarwinGuyDan - #55435

March 24th 2011

Can’t stay but wanted to comment regards “prebiological natural selection is a contradiction in terms.”  Did Dobzhansky really say that?  Wow.  R. J. P. Williams  (q.v. at Amazon) and J. J. R. Fraústo da Silva would certainly disagree with this thesis.  Their ‘The Natural Selection of the Chemical Elements’ (1996) blurs the line between inorganic and organic chemistry and touches on many topics of interest, including thermodynamics.  E.g., p.326 has “The basic route for uptake of C, H, N, and O into living organisms using energy.”

 

As a Naturalistic Parallelist and contrary to the standard cliché, I am also one who believes “[Everything] in biology makes [much more] sense without evolution.”

DarwinGuyDan


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