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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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Barry - #35157

October 18th 2010

Roger - # 35153

“Okay, but what is an evolutionary advantage?  The most obvious one is the enhanced ability to catch a prey or to avoid capture by a predator.”

This is only one of many potential advantages. This explains why every prey of a natural predator has virtually the same running speed as the predator. Selective pressure on genetic variation based on the genes of those animals that survived (prey) or caught food (predator). Nothing about “ecology” there Roger, although we would still call this an “environmental” pressure.

“so the question arises as to whether evolutionary advantage and better adaption to the environment are not the same thing.  I would say yes”

You’re getting there Roger.

“is the reason why this change was evolutionary advantageous was because the change in the environment, then both aspects were necessary”

Exactly right Roger. It’s just that genes can’t anticipate what the environment is like - they are blind to it. That is why evolution by natural selection is called a “blind” process and why Dawkins (your hero) called his book describing this, “The Blind Watchmaker.”

Barry - #35160

October 18th 2010

Roger - 35154

“Darwinists tend to fixate on prey and predator when talking about natural selection, but that is not a good illustration, because prey and predators are not competitors for survival.”

Only you is fixating on “prey” and “predator” Roger, we know there are many aspects to natural selection that are nothing to do with prey and predator. But in what sense are prey and predator “not competitors for survival”? Do you mean maybe that all “prey” are in competition with each other for survival? And all predators are in competition with each other to catch prey? What are you trying to say? How does that change natural selection. If you and I are walking in the woods and are attacked by a bear, I just need to be able to run faster than you.

“both are vital to the efficient working of the ecology.  Survival is based on niche & adaption to habitat, not conflict.”

You have to stop using terms like “ecology” in this context without defining it. You are so completely wrong in this summary. Please explain how you got from “prey and predator” to niche adaptation, habitat and ecology? Earlier i thought you were accepting the “prey/predator” selective pressure.

Barry - #35161

October 18th 2010

Roger - 35154

“Both the wasps and the trees are necessary for the survival of each other, but each has to give up a biological advantage to adjust to the other and make this relationship work.”

What do you think “give up a biological advantage” means in this context? Are these philanthropic bees? Do the trees exercise judgment? Dawkins repeats a variation of this argument in “The Greatest Show on Earth” where he describes the forest canopy - there is a huge cost to tree growth in terms of physical resources, but why aren’t some trees in the canopy twice as big as others? This is perfectly explained by natural selection. There is no differential return on one species of tree growing twice the size…it just needs enough growth to get sufficient access to light to photosynthesize. The different species of tree are in competition for growing resources - natural selection selects for those trees who can grow a few inches higher, but no more.

But this isn’t a feedback loop at the genetic level. Evolutionary biologists don’t refer to this as “ecology”. It is a well understood and attested environmental pressure on gene expression.

Barry - #35162

October 18th 2010

Roger - 35154

“it is based on both genetic and ecological interaction.”

Completely wrong Roger. Please explain how the “ecology” “interacts” with genes.

” You stress genetic variation more because that is the basis of traditional biology, but the reality is IMHO that both are essential.”

Essential for what? Natural selection explains how genetic variation enables some organisms to propogate their genes in environments conducive to survival. This isn’t an genes v. environment argument Roger, because we know the part played by all the actors.

“Now Barry brought up the topic of sexual selection and leave it up to sex to mess up scientific theories.  If we are agreed that the evolutionary purpose of sex is to produce more variation and thus the possibility of more genetic change subject to ecological natural selection, then I think that this can be explained.”

Roger, please explain how a peacock’s feathers meet environmental pressure? Are they good camoflage? If so, why is the peahen completely brown yet lives in the same habitat? What possible explanation do you have for that ridiculous expenditure of growth resource? Do you reject sexual selection as an evolutionary pressure?

Barry - #35170

October 18th 2010

Bilbo - #35119

“But that’s begging the question, isn’t it?”

No. Begging the question would be to assume an intelligent agent on no evidence.

“”Don’t know what you mean by “meaningful”.”


And yet DNA is “functional” and we know how it works. Are you fixated on origin? What do think happened?

“So far, all natural explanations fail the test.  The most reasonable explanation seems to me to be ID.  Whether that is “testable” I wouldn’t know and wouldn’t care.  I care about being rational, not “scientific.””

Have we exhausted testing? This is an extremely new area of research. There is likely no fossil evidence…ever. We might see more testing of chemical properties suggesting the mechanism. The problem is this. Look at how quick you have decided, on no evidence, that god is the answer. Because that’s the “intelligent” part of ID…right? Your explanation isn’t “reasonable” at all. It is so far fetched and unlikely precisely because there is no evidence and even less idea of mechanism. This is a really good example of why faith and science don’t mix.

Roger A. Sawtelle - #35191

October 18th 2010


Changes of genes produce changes in the organism.  If the changes in the organism help it to adapt to the environment and thrive, generally it survives. If the genetic change does not, then it is a dead end or it must wait until environmental changes takes place that makes it beneficial.

Of course genes do not interact directly with the environment.  I do not interact directly with you.  I type out a message and you read it.  You agree or not and respond.  That is the way communication takes place.

No one said that it was genes vs ecology argument.  I said that the environment is the key to natural selection.  It is the gatekeeper so to speak.  No species change takes place unless natural selection based primarily on ecology allows it to take place. 

In terms of the peacock, first of all I do not think that environmental pressure causes changes, but it creates the opportunity for change which encourages or allows changes in life forms.  Who can explain adequately the extravagances of nature?  All I can say is that the display of the male must not be an environmental maladaption, or there would be no fancy male peas.

Roger A. Sawtelle - #35192

October 18th 2010

Part 2,

Ecology deals with many kinds of relationships, not just sheer survival.  Ecology works on several levels.  It deals with the relationship of a species between all aspects of the environment.  The dictionary that I consulted after you challenged my use of these terms gave this definition of an environment, “the complex of physical, chemical, and biotic factors (as climate, soil, and living things) that act upon an organism or an ecological community and ultimately determine its form and survival.”  Merriam-Webster

Please note that it says that an environment “ultimately determines” the “form and survival of an organism or an ecological community.”  That is exactly what I have been saying, because it acts as the selective process of natural selection.  Do you have a better explanation?

Chris Massey - #35197

October 18th 2010


The more we discuss this, the more I realize that we’re not so far apart. You obviously recognize that genetic change provides the variation on which natural selection acts. And you recognize that natural selection selects for those variants that are best adapted to the environment.

But there are a few areas where I think you go wrong.

1) “No species change takes place unless natural selection based primarily on ecology allows it to take place.”

This is clearly wrong. Genetic drift plays a significant role in evolution, as do phenomena such as founder effect and population bottlenecks.

2) As for peacocks, the elaborate tails are the result of sexual selection by females. The tails themselves come at a cost to the peacock who is more vulnerable to predation. It’s a trade-off between improving his reproductive odds while decreasing his odds of survival.


Chris Massey - #35201

October 18th 2010

3) Your main point seems to be the notion that there is some sort of ecological equilibrium - that the environment is somehow guiding evolution towards results that are mutually beneficial for all the constituent members of the ecological community.

There are some problems with this view:

a) you have yet to offer a mechanism for this. For instance, what prevents natural selection from selecting an allele for a particular species that has a benefit for that species only but poses a serious detriment to all other members of the ecological community? Why would only mutually-beneficial alleles be selected for?
b) the history of life on this planet is one of extinction. There have been several mass extinctions. 99.9% of the species that have every lived have gone extinct.
c) there are countless examples of arms races between predators & prey and between hosts & parasites. When a species loses the race, extinction can result. This isn’t consistent with the sort of co-operative evolution you propose.

R Hampton - #35207

October 18th 2010

Biological advantage refers to any genetic improvement in an organism’s ability to live long enough to reproduce viable offspring. That’s it.

So any genetic trait that can help an organism achieve this goal - directly or indirectly - is a trait that may be passed on to the next generation. Statistically, more offspring leads to more individuals with the advantageous trait, and so it spreads throughout the population. What is not often mentioned, however, is that many such traits can be (likely are) spreading through the population at any given time.

Now consider a successful species coming upon an existing but unexploited niche (food source). The individuals are not well adapted to the niche, but can still get something out of it, especially given the lack of competition from other species.

But the true competition in this new niche is between individuals within the species. Some may have very slight advantages that make it just a little better at making a living in this niche. In fact, there may be any number of unique traits that confer a slight improvement. It’s when this assortment of first-generation colonizers mate that new individuals with multiple advantages appear…

R Hampton - #35209

October 18th 2010

In a rather short period of time, a subspecies with a stable suite of traits adapted to this new niche appears. The subspecies, given its specialization, out competes the original species and so genetic isolation begins. In time the two lineages, which continue to accrue mutations, drift to become two distinct species, giving rise to a genus which may in time itself split.

That’s how the genus Vulpes (the true fox) produced the genus Canis (dogs, wolves, coyotes, and jackals) as well as other fox genera (though not considered true foxes).

Roger A. Sawtelle - #35259

October 18th 2010


The Gaia Theory is based on the way the whole biosphere has evolved over these billions of years.  If you are not familiar with this scientific theory, which is the basis for concern over climate change in today’s world, you need to do some study.  You are right in a sense that the human species is able to possibly destroy the unity of nature and do great harm to the planet and ourselves. 

Since it seems that the biosphere today is more diverse than ever, I question your 99% figure.  Even so while species have changed, all life forms have descended from other extinct forms, so we can say that the genes of “extinct” species still live in all the creatures of our world. 

R Hampton,
You have highlighted the tautology that Popper objected to.  A life forms survives because it is fit and vice versa.  I am popular because I have many friends.  A biological advantage is something that enables an organism to reproduce.  Those are not falsifiable explanations.  They are circular statements.  When you put ecology into the mix as you do when discussing niches, you have a true theory that is testable, but not Darwinian.

Barry - #35267

October 18th 2010

Roger - 35259

” I question your 99% figure.”

I suggest you consult these papers where you’ll find support for Chris’s figure

Newman, Mark. “A Mathematical Model for Mass Extinction”. Cornell University. May 20, 1994. URL accessed July 30, 2006.
Raup, David M. Extinction: Bad Genes or Bad Luck? W.W. Norton and Company. New York. 1991. pp.3-6 ISBN 978-0-393-30927-0

“so we can say that the genes of “extinct” species still live in all the creatures of our world.”

We share DNA will all organic matter Roger, not just creatures.

“A life forms survives because it is fit and vice versa.  I am popular because I have many friends.  A biological advantage is something that enables an organism to reproduce.  Those are not falsifiable explanations.  They are circular statements”

Roger, it isn’t that these statements are not falsifiable, it’s that they are not scientific. Please tell me exactly what is not falsifiable about the theory of evolution.

You might want to read this first.

Barry - #35268

October 18th 2010

Bilbo - #35272

October 18th 2010

Barry:  ““No. Begging the question would be to assume an intelligent agent on no evidence.

Begging the question would be assuming either an intelligent agent or assuming a non-intelligent cause.

And yet DNA is “functional” and we know how it works. Are you fixated on origin? What do think happened?

Yes, I’m “fixed” on origin.  I think DNA (and proteins and RNA and the rest of the cell) were intelligently designed.


Bilbo - #35274

October 18th 2010


Barry:  “Have we exhausted testing?

Origin of life researchers pretty much reject a protein-first or a DNA-first scenario.  They like the RNA world, but most see it as an intermediate state between whatever the original life forms were and what present life forms are made of.  They think it is intermediate because of what seem insurmountable difficulties of originating (there’s that word, again) RNA.  So far no one has come up with a plausible initial life form.  When combined with what I think is obvious evidence of intelligent design (Venter:  “bacteria are software driven biological machines”), I think ID is a reasonable conclusion.

R Hampton - #35288

October 18th 2010

A life forms survives because it is fit and vice versa.

No, Evolutionary Theory is not so simple. Individual life forms can survive being fit or unfit (less fit), though the odds favor the former. For example, a genetically advantaged life form is not protected from random dangers like earthquakes or tornadoes; a genetically disadvantaged life form is not prevented from having offspring. Therefore it can take many generations for a negative genetic trait to be deleted from the gene pool - a lot depends on the severity of the disadvantage. In fact, the nature of population statistics is such that some disadvantages can remain in the gene pool indefinitely at minimal levels—like Albinism.

Barry - #35322

October 19th 2010

Bilbo - #35272

“Begging the question would be assuming either an intelligent agent or assuming a non-intelligent cause.”

Could you please point to one example…just one…where a supernatural “intelligent designer” turned out to be the eventual “answer” to any scientific question? It isn’t “begging the question” to assume a naturalistic cause when every problem we have ever studied has been answered in naturalistic terms.

“Yes, I’m “fixed” on origin.  I think DNA (and proteins and RNA and the rest of the cell) were intelligently designed.”

You’re absolutely right, God could have done it. God could have done anything. It’s just you have zero evidence, and never will have evidence. How would you go about falsifying the “god did it” hypothesis?

“I think ID is a reasonable conclusion.”

It’s an extraordinary claim on no evidence.

Roger A. Sawtelle - #35350

October 19th 2010


You seem to confuse Darwin’s concept of natural selection, survival of the fittest- the tag that he did not orginate, but he accepted- with the whole concept of evolution.  Popper’s claim, which I am supporting, is that Darwin’s concept of NATURAL SELECTION is not falsiable, because it is a tautology.

The role of science is to explain how thing works.  In other words, they can not say God did it or nature did it, even though on a theological or philosophical level that may be true.  Therefore we cannot say that nature selects the life forms which will survive and flourish without a clear explanation of how this works. 

Darwin did not provide such an explanation.  Malthusian competition has not been demonstrated to be true.  Biological advantage does not work without some clear definition of what this is and how it works.  This of course does not mean that evolution does not take place, just that our understanding of how and why it takes place is lacking. 

The problem with this is there is much riding on our understanding of how and why evolution takes place.  If scientists ignore this hole in our understanding of the universe and ourselves, we impoverish that understanding of Life and everyone suffers.

Roger A. Sawtelle - #35351

October 19th 2010

My goal is to deepen and extend this understanding, not attack it.  I think that the science of ecology has much to offer to our understanding of evolution.  Dawkins does not and his response to those who disagree with him is to attack.  Of course I am not talking about him and his friends attacking me, but others.  The fact that Dawkins has admitted to a deep ideological investment in Darwinian natural selection does not help the matter either.

I suggest you explore this possibilities by studying ecology, niche construction theory, and reading my book.

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