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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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Bilbo - #35383

October 19th 2010

Barry:  “It’s an extraordinary claim on no evidence.

I stated the evidence.  You ignore it.

Barry - #35449

October 20th 2010

Bilbo - #35383

“I stated the evidence.  You ignore it.”

I must have missed it the first time. Please state it again so that I can miss it a second time.

Barry - #35450

October 20th 2010


With respect, you seem to have reverted to restating claims that have already been shown to be completely untrue by several posters who are actually qualified to talk on these subjects. Natural selection is not a tautology and I posted a link to an article which explained, in scientific terms, precisely how it can be falsified. Rather than revert to an outdated Popper position (that he later recanted), why don’t you tell me why each of the 29 points of falsification provided aren’t actually falsifications at all?

“we cannot say that nature selects the life forms which will survive and flourish without a clear explanation of how this works.”

Yet we have that explanation Roger. Even you believe that you can explain some of it with respect to your missuse of the term “ecology.” It’s as though all of those explanations provided to you earlier were irrelevant and you are now back on your soapbox…or pulpit. Either way you aren’t engaging in an honest dialog.

Barry - #35452

October 20th 2010

Roger - “I think that the science of ecology has much to offer to our understanding of evolution.”

You keep repeating this Roger but you have failed to demonstrate any mechanism. Waving Gaia theory doesn’t work.

“The fact that Dawkins has admitted to a deep ideological investment in Darwinian natural selection does not help the matter either.”

Who cares what Dawkins thinks? Science doesn’t argue from authority, it deals with evidence. Unless you can show that natural selection is a failed hypothesis and something else is testable and works (for which you would be a candidate for a top scientific research award), you have absolutely nothing to say.

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

I dismantled “niche construction theory” above and you could give no response…you just ignored it and have now repeated it again. This really isn’t very good Roger. Reading your posts gives me no appetite for reading your book..sorry.

Roger, you are an example of a person who is well-intended but who doesn’t understand the science you are attempting to criticize. It fatally weakens your position without injecting much humility.

Roger A. Sawtelle - #35474

October 20th 2010

Barry - #35268

October 18th 2010

I meant read this - http://www.talkorigins.org/faqs/comdesc/


When I read your post, this was not there, so I was not ignoring it.

However this defense of MACRO EVOLUTION and Common Descent does not address the problem we have been discussing which is Darwin’s concept of Natural Selection.  I and certainly Karl Popper have no problem with the basic concept of Macroevolution and common descent.  That is not the issue and it is you who have ignored that fact.

You say that I was refered to an article that destroyed niche contruction theory, but it only said that Dawkins opposed niche construction theory and most of the European biologists agreed with him.  As you say, it is the facts that count, not Dawkins’ authority, and I maintain that the facts support the niche construction theory.

You also did not respond to the observation that Dawkins’ view indicates all behavior is controled by memes which are controlled by genes thus bypassing learning & learning. 

You claim that I misuse ecology to make a statement about evolution, but you have in no way indicated that you understand what the science of ecology is all about, so you have given any substance to that claim.

Roger A. Sawtelle - #35477

October 20th 2010

Chris wrote:

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?”

Response: It seems that you should ask that question to the Darwinists who say that individually beneficial alletes are selected.  Ecological viability is based on the balance of nature based on the whole web of relationships, not an overly simplified relationship between prey and predator.  Some imbalances can occur, but in the past at least they have been corrected.

Roger A. Sawtelle - #35478

October 20th 2010

Part 2

“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.”

R:Yes, agreeing that this is true, so what?  The environment of the earth has changed radically over the last 3 billion years, so it follows that the life forms, who live in these changing environments have changed radically.  The greater miracle has been the way life forms and the planet have interacted ecologically to transform the biosphere in what it is today through all these changes.

Roger A. Sawtelle - #35480

October 20th 2010

Part 3

“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.”

Response: You say that extinction can result, but give no examples.  The most important mass extinction, which was the extinction of the dinosaurs, was not caused by an arms race, but by climate change caused an astroid.  This event alone makes the case for ecological natural selection.  You have ignored the role that symbiots play in humans & other species, which cannot be accounted for in a Darwinian conflict and mutation based evolution.

Predation and parasites are all ecological relationships, which generally are beneficial, but not necesarily, to individuals and groups.  It is the whole that is more important, not the individuals acting within that whole.  The mutualist goal of ecology is to maximize the benefits for those involved by making full use of the resources available.  This means that there must be so to speak give and take for all involved, and of course when the environment changes there are going to be some winners and losers.

Roger A. Sawtelle - #35545

October 20th 2010

R. Hampton,

Thank you for the example of the Fox (vulpes) and the Dog (canis) families.

I am puzzled as to why you think that they had compete for the same niche.  A niche separates species so they do not compete with each other.  Certainly foxes still exist and have their own niches, while members of canis family do too.  There is room for everyone as new niches open up unless they replace the old, which is normally not the case.  Diversity helps everyone. 

My point is that the environmental niche shapes and defines the species.  Thus when the original canis niche was opened a group of the foxes moved into it and were gradually changed into canines as they adapted to the environment and the environment adapted to them and they became isolated from their former niche and species. 

Genetic changes did take place, but took place in reaction to the needs and demands of a new enviromental niche.  Ecological evolution is not that different from Darwinism except it clarifies how natural selection works which deepens our understanding of nature.

R Hampton - #35577

October 20th 2010

Genetic changes did take place are always taking place - sexual reproduction guarantees us that. If the environmental niche is stable, then there is considerable pressure against genetic change that appears in individuals of the next generation. But if the niche is in flux or a new one opens, then there can be considerable pressure against individuals of the next generation lacking genetic change. It’s important to note that genetic change does not happen in response to demand—that is, environmental niches do not “design” genetic changes in the residing organisms.

Roger A. Sawtelle - #35641

October 21st 2010

R. Hampton

The environment is always changing.  Change is the pattern of life. 

The environment does not design genetic changes, but selects them in or out.  That is what natural selection is all about.  Thus in effect the environment shapes and determines life forms using genetic material. 

Darwin’s concept of natural selection is modeled after artificial or agricultural selection where plants and animals are selected to meet the needs of agriculture.  Natural selection is where the environment selects plants and animals to meet the needs of the ecology.

R Hampton - #35697

October 21st 2010

Roger A. Sawtelle,
Exactly. And how does the environment select? By simply existing.

Consider our bodies - every moment it naturally selects against parasites, viruses, etc. without having any intent to do so other than to rid itself of these pests. Some of these unwanted individuals will have genetic advantages that allow them survive, even thrive, in our bodies. As such, our bodies also inadvertently select for successful invaders, but there is no design.

In a similar but opposite fashion, our bodies select for the bacteria in our gut, which aid our bodies in digestion. Those individuals that are more efficient at breaking down food matter (eating) are more likely to survive and pass on their genes. Again, there is no design per se.

Incidentally, horizontal gene transfer is simultaneously at work so that “lucky” individuals of bacteria acquire bits of genetic code from the food it digests. Still, it’s a random process shaped by natural selection (Gut bacteria are what we eat, The Scientist, April 7, 2010 - http://www.the-scientist.com/blog/display/57272/)

Roger A. Sawtelle - #35716

October 21st 2010

R. Hampton,

I think that you are misusing the word random.

random adj (1632)
1 a : lacking a definite plan, purpose, or pattern b : made, done, or chosen at random ‹read ~ passages from the book›
2 a : relating to, having, or being elements or events with definite probability of occurrence ‹~ processes› b : being or relating to a set or to an element of a set each of whose elements has equal probability of occurrence ‹a ~ sample› ; also: characterized by procedures designed to obtain such sets or elements ‹~ sampling›
— ran·dom·ly adv
— ran·dom·ness n
syn: random, haphazard, casual mean determined by accident rather than design. random stresses lack of definite aim, fixed goal, or regular procedure ‹a random selection of books›.

One cannot say that the human immune system works randomly.  Its purpose is the prevent hostile organisms from invading our body.  Sometimes it does not succeed and we become sick.  If we are infected with the AIDS virus, then we lose these defenses and we become sick very easily.  If you mean that our body was created randomly, that is not proven, except if you accept Darwin’s theory which you are trying to prove.

Roger A. Sawtelle - #35717

October 21st 2010

Part 2

I do not know what you mean when you say that the immune system of our bodies select against harmful bacteria without intent.  That is exactly what they are intended to do just as our lungs are programed to breathe and heart is designed to pump blood.  Machines do things that they are constructed to do, they do not act randomly, even though they themselves have no intent.  Random means without purpose as indicated above.. 

Horizon transfer to aid digestion is one symbiotic relationship among many.  It is a “biological advantage” which is not based on genetic mutation, so it goes against Darwinian theory.  Personally I do not think that what people eat is random.  The fact that some persons and cultures have a better diet that others means that they have adapted better to their environment better than others and are thus healthier.  The fact that horizon transfer happen points to the interdependent ecological character of life, which is inconsistent with Darwinian theory.  Thank you for the reference.

R Hampton - #35726

October 21st 2010

Randomness refers to the genetic mutations that appear in parasites, viruses, gut bacteria, et al. For example, for a given species of parasite or strain of virus their are random genetic variations within the individual members. Our immune system attacks and kills what it recognizes as foreign, but the mutations of some invaders will allow them to escape detection and proliferate. This is how the parasite Plasmodium falciparum gained resistance to malaria drugs, it’s also how and why the common cold can not be eradicated - an unintended consequence of natural selection by our bodies.

FYI: Horizontal gene transfer is random.

Genetic escape pods, The Scientist, Oct 1, 2010

Packaging random snippets of DNA into virus-like capsules known as gene transfer agents, or GTAs, may be a key way for marine bacteria to exchange genetic information, a new paper in Science suggests.

High Frequency of Horizontal Gene Transfer in the Oceans, Science, Oct 1, 2010
...widespread capability of marine bacteria to participate in horizontal gene transfer (HGT) in coastal and oceanic environments may be the result of gene transfer agents (GTAs), viral-like particles produced by alpha-Proteobacteria.

R Hampton - #35729

October 21st 2010

The mechanism by which HGT/LGT affects gut bacteria is random. The source (in the article “Gut bacteria are what we eat,” it’s marine bacteria found on seaweed eaten by the Japanese) produces random packages of bits of its genome, a few of which main contain a sequence beneficial to the gut bacteria. There is no planning or design by either the sending or receiving bacteria. This mechanism has been documented in the laboratory:

Genetic escape pods, The Scientist, Oct 1, 2010
Because these GTAs package random pieces of DNA up to 1,000 base pairs long (barely enough to fit one gene), approximately 1 in 20,000 carried an antibiotic resistance gene, McDaniel said. Nevertheless, the researchers found that approximately 50% of the natural bacteria acquired antibiotic resistance in some of the experiments.

Barry - #35755

October 22nd 2010

Roger A. Sawtelle - #35474

“I maintain that the facts support the niche construction theory.”

You haven’t presented a single “fact” Roger. But by all means maintain it.

“You also did not respond to the observation that Dawkins’ view indicates all behavior is controled by memes which are controlled by genes thus bypassing learning & learning.”

You don’t have a reference for this Roger, so it isn’t worth commenting on. As I have said a number of times, science doesn’t operate with reference to authorities…only the data.

“You claim that I misuse ecology to make a statement about evolution, but you have in no way indicated that you understand what the science of ecology is all about, so you have given any substance to that claim.”

There’s a limit to how many times I can explain this Roger, and for reasons only known to you you still completely fail to explain the “ecological” pressure on evolution in a way that is different from what is already known about the environment. The onus is on you, not me.

Roger A. Sawtelle - #35791

October 22nd 2010

R. Hampton,

While we are in agreement that gene mutation is in some sense random, the question is natural selection which is not.  It appears to me as an observer that we can reasonably assume that that certain bacteria have been preserved in the systems of fish because they provide ecological adaption biological benefits. 

They have also been preserved in human digestive systems for the same ecological reason, neither of these are random and neither of these events fit into the traditional Darwinian view of evolution.

Roger A. Sawtelle - #35798

October 22nd 2010

Barry - #35755

Are we agreed at last that we are discussing Darwinian Natural Selection, rather the whole process of evolution?  If so, we can continue.  If not, we are discussing apples and oranges.

Assuming that we have this basic agreement, I will address your comments.

Barry:  ...you still completely fail to explain the “ecological” pressure on evolution in a way that is different from what is already known about the environment.

Response: First of all I suggested that your comments did not reflect current knowledge about the environment and ecology.  Particularly because I am the non-scientist, I do not think that it is my place to lecture you about the basics of ecological theory and world view.

On the other hand if your response and the responses of others suggest that “ecological pressure” plays the role of Natural Selection in modern evolutionary theory, then we would be in agreement.  So how does ecological or environmental pressure differ from natural selection, if any?

Third, you have failed to say how the astroid hit that caused the mass extinction of the dinosaurs can be placed into the Darwinian understanding of natural selection.

Roger A. Sawtelle - #35803

October 22nd 2010

Roger:“You also did not respond to the observation that Dawkins’ view indicates all behavior is controled by memes which are controlled by genes thus bypassing learning & learning.”

Barry: You don’t have a reference for this Roger, so it isn’t worth commenting on. As I have said a number of times, science doesn’t operate with reference to authorities…only the data.

Response: Since you were willing to defend Dawkins’ extended phenotype, I expected that you knew enough about it that a reference was not needed. (See River Out of Eden, p 133)  If I am wrong, then please provide a reference of your own.

Concening Dawkins there is a pattern of personal attacks on those who disagree with him on issues such as punctuated equalibrium, niche construction, and kin selection. 

Roger: “I maintain that the facts support the niche construction theory.”

Barry: You haven’t presented a single “fact” Roger. But by all means maintain it.

Response:  Dawkins did not provide a single fact to support his views in the article provided.  In fact he suggested that niche construction theory was a special subtheory incorporated into his views, so it does have factual basis, if you accept Dawkins’ views as true.

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