Egnor and Biological Information, Take 2
Ed Brayton printable version print page     Bookmark and Share
Wed Apr 25, 2007 at 12:25:07 AM EST
There's an interesting exchange of emails on this blog between the author of that blog and Michael Egnor. It provides a perfect example of how this whole "increase in information in the genome" argument heard incessantly from IDers is nothing but a shell game. The whole thing started when Egnor demanded to know "how much new information Darwinian processes can generate." In order to answer that question, of course, one must have a means of measuring information in that context. And before you can have a means of measuring whether there is any new biological information as a result of "Darwinian processes", one must be able to define biological information. So the author of that blog wrote to Egnor and asked him to define the terms of his challenge. Here was Egnor's reply:
I asked Darwinists to define biological information, because Darwin's theory hinges on it. Darwin asserted that all natural functional biological complexity (information) arose by non-teleological variation and natural selection. ID theory asserts that some natural functional biological complexity (information) arose by teleological variation and natural selection. By 'teleological' I mean a process that is most reasonably understood as the result of intelligent agency, analogous to human intelligent agency, with which we have ample experience.

These assertions are the whole issue in the ID/Darwin debate.

I think the best definition is Dembski's CSI, but there remains a lot to understand. What appalled me is that Darwinists don't even know how to measure the property on which their entire theory turns.

I can't help them prove their theory. That's their job. What kind of scientist asserts that his theory is a fact, and when you ask him for the data on which his theory turns, he demands that you tell him how to prove it?

Darwinism is a scandal.

But as the author there points out, when he asked his question he was given examples of new traits developed through the well understood process of gene duplication and diversification, a process that results in new traits in a population. And he said that wasn't what he was looking for. So the author pressed on and asked the question in a different way:

Perhaps an easier question is, if a process did increase (or decrease) biological information in the way that you ask, how would we know? What would we have to measure?

And predictably, Egnor dodged it yet again:

No one knows how to measure biological information in a meaningful way. The current ways of measuring information (Shannon, KC, etc) are relevant to sending signals, and are not of much help in biology.

Gene duplication is not a source of significant new information. It obviously changes the way things work in the cell, to some extent, but it can only copy what's there, and we're asking how it got there to begin with.

Even though we can't measure it (and serious investigators like Dembsky are trying to figure this out), we know biological information when we see it. The genetic code, molecular machines, seamless integration of physiology are all obviously the kind of biological information that we are trying to understand. The only source of such information (or functional complexity or whatever) that we know of in human experience is intelligent design. There are no 'natural' codes, aside from biology, which is the topic at issue.

Darwinists have a responsibility to show that undesigned mechanisms can produce sufficient biological information to account for living things. If they don't even know how to measure it, how can they assert that random variation and natural selection can account for it, and why is the design inference ruled out?

all of this is utter nonsense. The only thing that his question could possibly mean - the only way it could possibly be answered - is by showing specific examples of evolutionary processes resulting in the development of a new trait. After all, that is what the "biological information" in the genome actually does. But that is a trivially easy question to answer because we observe the development of new genes coding for new traits in genomes, both in the lab and the wild, virtually every day.

What else could "biologically meaningful information" mean than that? If you're asking for examples of new biologically meaningful information, then what can that possibly mean other than new genes producing new traits in a population of organisms? It simply can't mean anything else. But they can't just say that because they know full well that there are limitless examples of that throughout the scientific literature. That's why they refuse to define "biologically meaningful information", and why they have to play these word games and keep it as vague as possible so that it can never be answered to their satisfaction.

It's a very similar game to the one that has long been played by creationists regarding transitional fossils. They make the bold claim that there are no transitional forms in the fossil record, but if you ask them what a transitional form might look like if you did find one - demand that they give some criteria for defining a transitional form that, if met, they would accept as being one - you will never, ever, ever get a straight answer. And that's for the same reason you will never get a straight answer on this, because any specific answer they give is easily met - and they know it. So the definitions are like the pea under the shell as they move around the table. Yet another game of three card monty with the creationists.

It seems to me that ID'ers would have done far better for themselves by appropriating Complexity Theory, a la Prigogine, to simply declare ;

"Look ! It's built in ! - Order arises spontaneously from disorder, it's inherent to the basic nature of matter...."

From there, it would have been a short, fairly convincing ( to many ) leap to.... God ! "Self Emergence" seems to me to be a much stronger argument for a creator - a tendency towards complexity may be built into the basic fabric of material existence ( assuming the requisite energy is on hand, of course. Thermodynamics doesn't get, as far as I know, superceded ).

That's a much sronger argument, I'd say. But, I doubt ID'ers were after an argument that was congruent with science. There would have been nothing much scientists could have said about the hypothetical approach I just laid out except; "well, maybe. You could be right. I don't know how we could possibly prove it , but you could be right."

In the end, that approach would have dovetailed nicely with E.O.Wilson's "Non Intersecting Magisteria" accommodation.

If the Catholic Church had constructed ID arguments that might have been the way things went. Maybe. But, Protestant ideologues gunning for Darwin built ID, it seems, and the point apparently wasn't to achieve the best explanation or one that was actually congruent with science.

It was not to be, and the ID'ers have staked out their basic opposition to science.

So, instead of a nice, smooth entente between religion and science we're afflicted by YouTube videos of Kirk Cameron brandishing a banana allegedly designed by God to fit the human grasp and by Chuck Missler waving about his anti-evolutionary jar of Skippy peanut butter !

It seems a shame:

Another few decades and the phenomenon of Americans getting their consumer product information from direct conversations with God may be commonplace although I'm not convinced that will prove more efficient at getting defective product information out to the public as compared to, say, having a federal agency tasked with the job.

by Bruce Wilson on Wed Apr 25, 2007 at 06:16:48 AM EST

One of the key things about ID that I keep pointing out is that there is no ID model. None. ID is simply a set of anti-evolution arguments under that label. They can't propose an actual ID model because they have no agreement on what the "intelligent designer" (wink, wink) actually did, when he did it or how. There's simply no way to propose a model that agrees with both Behe, who accepts common descent but with a divine assist at some unspecified time and in some unspecified manner, and with Paul Nelson, a young earther who denies common descent entirely as a result. Without such a model, there's no way to propose any actual research that might confirm the model. So ID can simply be summed up as "not evolution, at least not alone."

by Ed Brayton on Wed Apr 25, 2007 at 05:52:14 PM EST
It may come down to an issue of who has the best PR and advertising.

by Bruce Wilson on Tue May 01, 2007 at 05:51:14 PM EST

You called the blogger "author" throughout the post. Seems like we ought to identify him, give credit where credit is due, you know.

FYI, his name is Andrew Arensburger.

- mick -

by mick arran on Sat Apr 28, 2007 at 01:49:29 PM EST
I didn't identify him because I didn't know his name.

by Ed Brayton on Sun Apr 29, 2007 at 03:57:53 PM EST

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