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Science and the Question of God, Part 4

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October 14, 2010 Tags: Christianity & Science - Then and Now
Science and the Question of God, Part 4

Today's entry was written by Randy Isaac. Please note the views expressed here are those of the author, not necessarily of BioLogos. You can read more about what we believe here.

Today’s blog is the fourth entry in a five-part series, which has been adapted from a new Scholarly Article found here. All references have been removed for the blog series but can be found in the full paper. In his previous entry, Randy Isaac introduced Intelligent Design and pointed out some flaws with Stephen Meyer’s argument from information. Today he distinguishes between different types of information and concludes that the case for an intelligent designer as laid out by the ID community is not compelling.

What is information?

The word “information” is used in many different ways, often leading to confusion. It may be helpful to consider three of the categories in which the term is often used.

  1. Complexity. Information theorists quantify information as the logarithm of the number of possible states of a system. Four coins, for example, can have 16 different possible combinations of heads and tails. The amount of information is the log of 16, or 4 bits. This category includes so-called Shannon information, named after Claude Shannon who in 1948 published a seminal analysis of the amount of information that can be transmitted in a noisy communication channel. This type of information is related to entropy, which also depends on the number of possible physical states.

    Changing some heads to tails can generate an informational pattern without changing the amount of information. Just as there is no conservation principle that limits changes in entropy there is no conservation principle that limits changes in information. In closed systems as well as in open systems with energy flow, information can increase. Rolf Landauer has shown that while energy is not necessarily dissipated in the change or in the increase in information, it is necessarily dissipated in the destruction of information. In other words, there is no fundamental constraint on increases or changes in complex information.

  2. Compressibility. Another use of the term information refers to the minimum amount of information required to describe a particular state of the system. It is easier to describe the state of all coins being heads than it is to describe coins in a random sequence. Both states have the same amount of information in terms of complexity, but regarding compressibility, the repetitive sequence has less information. This category includes Kolmogorov information and information that can be expressed in simpler algorithms. It is extremely useful in the telecommunication industry in transmitting audio and video data.

    This type of information can change significantly without any change in complexity whenever the state of the system changes. For example, if some coins are heads instead of tails, the compressibility of the information changes while the total complexity remains the same. Any discussion of the “generation” or “creation” of information is ambiguous without further clarification since it can refer either to increasing the amount of information or to changing the state of the system.

  3. Significance. The popular use of the term information most often refers to the significance attributed to a particular physical state of a system. This significance can either be a physical characteristic or, more commonly, an abstract or symbolic relationship. The physical shape of the letter “A” conveys significance in the English language that is not mandated by the physical characteristics of that letter. It could have had a different meaning. Intelligence is sometimes defined as the ability to carry out symbolic reasoning. Therefore, meaningful information in this category requires intelligence to generate the abstract significance.

    Note that physical complexity must exist in order for meaning to be attributed to it. Paul Revere’s famous phrase “…one if by land and two if by sea…” is an example of far-reaching information being conveyed by two bits of information. If the lanterns did not exist, the information would not be conveyed. If an intelligent agent had not assigned that meaning, the lanterns by themselves could not transmit the desired effect. DNA and computer code information: same or different?

Stephen Meyer’s use of the term “specificity” puts it in this third category of information. Meyer adds a second type of specificity, namely functionality. Usually functionality refers to the characteristics or action of a design compared with the design specification set by the designer. If that functionality involves symbolic meaning at any level, then an intelligent agent does need to be involved in some direct or indirect way. What Meyer overlooked, however, is that if no symbolic meaning is involved, then physical processes might be adequate to determine functionality. For instance, computers are constructed from a set of binary systems in which one state in each binary is assigned the symbolic meaning of “0” or “1”. No attribute of the binary system determines which meaning must be assigned to which state. An intelligent agent capable of symbolic reasoning must be involved. However, in living systems the ability to reproduce is a type of complex functionality that has a physical, but not a symbolic, function. If a living cell reproduces, it functions—otherwise it dies. There is no necessity for an intelligent agent to be involved at any level. Significance of information cannot be quantified and is not conserved in any quantitative way.

The information argument sounds appealing at the surface. Most of our daily use of information involves computers, language, and numbers, which are all laden with symbolic value. It makes sense to us that information requires intelligence. The remarkable similarity between DNA code and binary information code makes it tempting to attribute the same requirement of intelligence to the generation of DNA information. Closer analysis, however, shows that every biomolecule in a living cell can be assessed by its value to survival as opposed to any symbolic relationship set by an intelligent designer. DNA information is complexity with significance endowed by the physical and chemical functions that enable its host organism to sustain existence. This means that natural selection is a viable process for determining DNA information. An intelligent agent is not necessarily required.

The case for an intelligent designer as laid out by the ID community is not compelling for the scientific community. Science has not answered the question of God even in the less stringent form of an indeterminate intelligent agent.

Isaac's series continues here.

Note: The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and not of the American Scientific Affiliation.

Randy Isaac is a solid-state physics research scientist and executive director of the American Scientific Affiliation (ASA), where he has been a member since 1976 and a fellow since 1996. Isaac received his bachelor’s degree from Wheaton College in Illinois and his doctorate in physics from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. He joined IBM to work at the Thomas J. Watson Research Center in 1977 and most recently served as the vice-president of systems technology and science for the company.

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conrad - #34630

October 14th 2010

Yeah George Gamow who was generally a physicist,. figured out that DNA information would be based on units of 4 nucleotides because he reasoned the purpose was to code for the essential amino acids.
  4 Heads&tails; units represented the minimum system to do that.

Watson and Crick might have never figured that out.
They were busy racing Linus Pauling to find the double helix.

How Gamow got involved with the biologists I do not know but somehow he took an interest in their project .

There is a great talk by George Watson on Ted.com for those who are interested.

conrad - #34631

October 14th 2010

Randy no one has figured out how DNA arose through “natural selection”.
The physical chemistry does not work.
They are looking at RNA instead.

It is almost easier to assume that DNA was created in the laboratory by some intelligent being.

Now I am not trying to bad-mouth “natural selection”.

The Intelligent Being who created DNA may have arisen through “natural selection” for all I know,... far away in another universe.
I just don’t think that natural election processes ON THIS PLANET had enough time to create all that.

Chandra Wicksramasingh is an astrophysicist who claims 13.7 billion years is not enough time for ‘evolution” to do all that.

Or are you other people all in England?

Pat - #34634

October 14th 2010

Meyer has basically attempt to hijack a branch of mathematics (namely information theory), and misrepresented it, based on his own misunderstandings and misapplications of it, in an attempt to support his creationist views. He is not the first to do this, but such claims about “information” appear to have become increasingly common in anti-evolution circles (fuelled particularly by the arguments of Meyer, and also Dembski). He relies on the fact that his audience generally understands information theory no better than he does, and that his claims appear to have a ‘common sense’ appeal, as if such vague intuition and extremely dubious analogies form a basis for a strong scientific argument.

Roger A. Sawtelle - #34639

October 14th 2010

“This means that natural selection is a viable process for determining DNA information.”

The problem with this is that natural selection does not determine DNA information, unless it is somehow an agent which it is not.  Natural selection determines whether the product of this information is viable or not. 

This could be by a rational natural process, but according to neoDarwinism it is not.  For them fitness determines survival and survival is evidence of fitness.  The best explanation for natural selection as a rational natural process is based on ecological symbiosis.  The problem with this for the neoDarwinists seems to be that it dethrones DNA as the sole engine of evolution.  It makes ecological interdependence rather than absolutism of genetic material govern the system and makes it rational, rather than random and irrational.

The question of design is settled.  The only question is whether natural selection designs life, or some thing or One else.  There is no necessary problem if one understands that the One Who is the Source of the universe and the Source of life, designed natural selection as a rational process.

RBH - #34648

October 14th 2010

Roger A. Sawtelle wrote

The problem with this for the neoDarwinists seems to be that it dethrones DNA as the sole engine of evolution.

I know of no “neoDarwinist” (and I’ve read a whole lot of them and have taught evolutionary modeling at the college level) who thinks that “DNA [is] the sole engine of evolution.”  I can’t even figure out what that sentence means.  Perhaps Roger would be good enough to tell me.

Chris Massey - #34653

October 14th 2010


I, too, am having a hard time pinning down how exactly your views differ from what you call neoDarwinism. Can you spell it out a little more concretely?

Bilbo - #34654

October 14th 2010

Randy:  “DNA and computer code information: same or different?

The same.  DNA code is a set of 64 codons, each one composed of three nucleotide bases.  Each codon has a special “meaning.”  Three of them are “stop” codons. The remaining 61 code for one of 20 amino acids.  There is no apparent physical/chemical basis for the code.  It appears to be arbitrary, just as computer code is arbitrary. 

But the reason the code functions is that enough long strings of DNA code for functional proteins.  But the chances of long strings of DNA coding for proteins is very unlikely.  Optimistically, about one chance in 10^8.  Pessimistically, once chance in 10^74. 

Compare this to computer code.  What are the chances of a random command actually coding for an actual function in a computer?  And if the computer doesn’t function, then it won’t survive, just as a cell won’t survive. 

So computer code and DNA code are the same.

conrad - #34659

October 14th 2010

Yeah Bilbo,
  and the DNA doesn’t replicate itself.
It sends a message to another protein via RNA and the other protein makes the new DNA.
It is really hard to figure out how that could start by accident or through natural selection.

Those people who worship Darwin, like Richard Dawkins, have no explanation for this either.
Darwin himself never heard of DNA ....OR ANY OTHER CHEMICAL.
He just drew little pathetic charts like his “tree of life”.

R Hampton - #34671

October 14th 2010

Keeping up with the research…

Molecular midwives helped birth of DNA (March 2010)

US researchers have uncovered new clues to how the earliest forms of life may have evolved in the primordial soup. The secret could be ‘molecular midwives’ - compounds that played a crucial role in combining small nucleotide fragments into the first genetic polymeric material.

‘There are lots of unanswered questions about the how the first genetic polymers formed on the prebiotic Earth - that is, without the protein enzymes that are around today,’ says Nicholas Hud, who led the research at the Georgia Institute of Technology. ‘We investigated how small nucleotide fragments might have joined together in long polymers - forming the first DNA or RNA strands.’...

See: Intercalation as a means to suppress cyclization and promote polymerization of base-pairing oligonucleotides in a prebiotic world

Roger A. Sawtelle - #34672

October 14th 2010

RBH and Chris,

Please read the long diatribe against against ecology in Dawkins’ book, Climbing Mt. Improbable, pp. 267-68.  Read the diatribe of Dennett against adaptionism in Darwin’s Dangerous Idea, pp. 265-267.

Even a current college textbook, Strickberger’s Evolution 4th ed 2008 includes minimal references to the environment.

Dawkins’ new book, The Greatest Show on Earth makes the point to repeat Darwin’s idea that natural selection is “nature’s war” with itself, rather than symbiosis, living together.

Biologos accepts natural selection as based on Malthusian conflict and whenever I suggest otherwise, there are many to contradict me.  If you agree with me, excellent.

Karl Popper criticized neoDarwinism as being a tautology, because survival = fitness and fitness = survival.  No one has been able to answer this criticism, but the Wikipedia says that this circular thinking can be overcome by putting adaptation to the environment into the mix. 

As far as I can see most neoDarwinists have not taken up this suggestion, but if they do then they must accept ecology and symbiosis as the basis of natural selection.  Again if that has happened please direct me to the appropriate literature.

R Hampton - #34673

October 14th 2010

Roger A. Sawtelle,

I think you are much too dismissive of the important role environment plays in Evolutionary theory. Indeed, the concept of convergent evolution relies upon a given ecological niche’s force in selecting common morphological features among animals of differing lineages. Correctly understood, natural selection encompasses any pressure - including ecological - that favors some traits over others and thus confers an advantage to survival and/or reproductive success.

conrad - #34688

October 15th 2010

But if they get nucleotides they still have the fact that DNA does not replicate itself.


Chris Massey - #34691

October 15th 2010


Are you saying that modern evolutionary biologists have not taken up the idea of natural selection being a matter of adaptation to the environment? I really don’t get it. To me, that seems to sum up the gist of everything I’ve ever read on natural selection. Sometimes, the environmental pressures take the form of predation, which can lead to arms races, but sometimes the pressures simply have to do with food resources, parasite resistance, all sorts of ecological issues. Why does it have to be one or the other?

Roger A. Sawtelle - #34758

October 15th 2010

Chris and RH,

First of all I have been addressing the issue of neoDarwinism, while you refer to modern evolutionary biology.  While I have always suspected a disconnect between Dawkins who claims to speak for neoDarwinism and by default for modern evolutionary science, you seem to confirm it.  However this does not let you off the hook, because it raises the question as to how can scientists allow Dawkins spread misinformation about this important aspect of science unchallenged.  This is what I am trying to do, but it seems that others are afraid to criticize neoDarwinism.

Second you speak of environmental pressure as the source of natural selection.  This would suggest an element of Malthusism.  It is my observation based on an ecological perspective that the fact that life forms reproduce much faster than necessary to maintain their population is a stratedgy to adapt to a changing environment and habitat, not the source of inevitable conflict between members of the same species.

Roger A. Sawtelle - #34760

October 15th 2010

Part 2

It has been noted by the Sahney study that the number of species grows as new environmental niches arise.  As neoDarwinism would have it, the species already developed would just flow into these niches.  What Sahney suggested is that population growth would force life forms to migrate into these new niches. 

I have quoted the semi-scientific saying from Spinoza, Nature abhors a vacuum.  Another more scientific statement is that they were following the path of least resistance.  In other words we do not need Darwin or Malthus to explain why life forms flow into new, but not radically different, environments, and then evolve into new species through ecological, interdependent evolution.

Predation is usually explained in terms of Malthusism, when a closer view revealed that it is better described as a form of symbiosis.  Species do not go extinct unless the obliterated by humans, or they lose their environmental niche.  It has little to do with traditional neoDarwinian Malthusian natural selection.  On the other hand predation is a key aspect of the ecological cycle of life.

Roger A. Sawtelle - #34761

October 15th 2010

Part 3

Conflict is the basis of the Darwinian model of natural selection.  NeoDarwinians accept and maintain this view.  Others seem to open the door to ecology by saying that adaption plays a role in natural selection and symbiosis is a good survival stratedgy, however the model stays the same.  Life forms compete by cooperating.  What they need to say is that life forms adapt to survive by cooperating, by working together for a mutual goal of mutual welfare, benefit, and survival. 

Evolutionists also talk about a evolutionary advantage as the basis of conflict.  It seems to me that we are looking for an evolutionary advance, which brings everyone forward as changes are assimmilated into the whole population and not just a few.  It seems and is a slight change in perspective, but it means a great deal in how we look at life as working together or working against one another.

conrad - #34770

October 15th 2010

That’s old Roger!

R Hampton - #34784

October 15th 2010

As you have said many times, genetic science did not exist during Darwin’s life. Compared to Chemistry and Physics, it’s still in its formative years. So the point of my posting the research was to challenge your final assessment that “the physical chemistry does not work”—premature, to say the least.

This article should help enlighten you, “European evolutionary biologists rally behind Richard Dawkins’ Extended Phenotype.” Modern evolutionary theory and “neoDarwinism” are the same thing, a broad field containing many theories which amount to a robust description of natural selection, including “ecology” as you are want to describe.

R Hampton - #34785

October 15th 2010

European evolutionary biologists rally behind Richard Dawkins’ Extended Phenotype (January 19, 2009)

conrad - #34793

October 15th 2010


Chandra Wicksramasinghe who is I think at Cardiff Astrobiology institute [or some such thing], was the protegee of Sir Fred Hoyle’s has said that the physical chemistry does not work.

He has calculated the total number of molecules in the universe and said they would NOT accidentally make DNA in the 13 billion post-Big Bang that creation has been here.

[I tried to calculate that myself on the back of an envelope this morning but I forgot to carry the 1 when multiplying,... so I didn’t quite get the answer.]

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