Information is a tricky word. Mainly because it is confused a lot of the time, by the majority of the people.
I’m one of those people that cringe when I hear a character on a police drama say, “I have a theory about how this murder happened.” It is NOT a theory. It’s a hypothesis. That miscommunication, more than anything else, is one of the main reasons people think evolution doesn’t work. “It’s just a theory.”
Theory, like information, has a very specific meaning in science circles and to use it improperly just makes communication more difficult. But, the people who hate science want communication to be difficult. It’s one of their debate tricks. If they can make themselves sound all sciency, then, because of ideological reasons, people will believe them instead of actual scientists and then we get supreme court judges asking questions like “why are we teaching evolution if it’s just a theory”.
Let’s be very clear, information is not the same thing as the meaning. This is a very, very important concept to understand. Let me give you an example.
“The boy is brave.” in the English language has specific meaning. However, a translation into German that looks good, “Der junge ist brav”, would not have the same meaning. “Brav” in German is “well-behaved”. However, the INFORMATION content of the two sentences is very close to each other.
Of course, if I has said “Mvulana ni jasiri*”, then the meaning would be zero (except for a small number of people). But again, the information contained in the sentence is about the same.
So, what is information?
Information, in its most restricted technical sense, is a sequence of symbols that can be interpreted as a message. Information can be recorded as signs, or transmitted as signals. Information is any kind of event that affects the state of a dynamic system. Conceptually, information is the message (utterance or expression) being conveyed. The meaning of this concept varies in different contexts.
There have been massive tomes written on the various meanings and concepts of information. But, I just want to focus on the confusion of ID proponents.
The big deal is that ID proponents want to calculate an amount of information in bits. And that’s fine. But how, exactly, does one calculate meaning? The concept itself is silly. As in the examples above, the meaning depends on one’s language, cultural contexts, and other factors.
But the ID proponents insist that it can be done.
It is claimed to be done by calculating the probability of a particular string (of something) if the string were to be totally random. However, this calculation doesn’t consider the ‘meaning’ of the string.
So, if we had a DNA sequence of ATG, then the first position has a 1/4 chance of being “A”. The second position has a 1/4 chance of being “T”. The third position has a 1/4 chance of being “G”. Therefore the chance of that sequence appearing, given that all sequences are equally likely (something that I’m not agreeing to), is 1/64.
Of course, that presents four problems which ID proponents don’t ever deal with. The first is that biological systems are not random and haven’t been random since well before the first thing we would call ‘alive’. Evolution isn’t random. No biologist would even suggest that the giant hemoglobin protein came about by random assemblies of amino acids… or random assemblies of nucleotides that just happen to code for a hemoglobin molecule.
Yes, changes to the genome (mutations) are random, but are random within constraints. Not every mutation allows the organism to survive, so any mutation that causes death at any stage will not continue in the gene pool. Even that one constraint reduces the available field of possible genes (or proteins or whatever) by a large number. Selection is a mitigating factor for the randomness of mutations.
The second thing is that do to this, the ID proponent must be able to accurately calculate all the possibilities. To my knowledge, they have not been able to do so. And what I mean by this is that all DNA/protein sequences are not equally probable. For example, it has been known since 1990 that the energy in the chemical bonds between nucleotides varies. Any calculation about the random probability of a DNA sequence forming that doesn’t take this factor into account is, therefore, little better than making up numbers.
The third issue is that this kind of calculation means that ALL three nucleotide sequences of DNA have the same probability. ATG, GCT, TTA, GGG, etc (all 64 possibilities) have the same chance, that is 1/64.
Why is this a problem? Because, in this case, design is indistinguishable from random chance. This is supposed to be evidence of design, but it’s not. If there are 64 equally likely possibilities, then we could never say TGA is the one that was designed and all the others are random. It doesn’t matter if we are talking about 3 nucleotides or 3,000. If THIS METHOD is used to calculate the chance of one of these sequences appearing, then there is no way to determine which one is designed or not.**
Finally, is that the ID proponent assumes, one and only one, valid protein/DNA sequence. For example, there are over 700 known variants of hemoglobin beta in the human population. Each one of them is a fully functional hemoglobin protein that works well enough to allow survival. Some may be worse than others, some may be better. Some are better in certain environments and worse in other environments.
But the important point here is that all three of these factors directly affect any calculation of probability of a DNA sequence and/or a protein existing.
There’s another major problem with this method though and one that no ID proponent appears to have even thought about.
For DNA, in a perfectly random sequence, each position in the strand has a 1/4 chance of being a particular nucleotide (A, T, C, or G). If you have 3 nucleotides, then you have a 1/4 x 1/4 x 1/4 = 1/64 chance of getting a particular sequence.
For proteins however, each position has a 1/20 chance for getting a particular amino acid (there are 20 that are used in modern biology).
The problem for these kinds of calculations is that three nucleotides (called a ‘codon’) is the code that represents a particular amino acid in the protein sequence. Since multiple nucleotide combinations can code for the same amino acid, we have a case where the information content (calculated in bits) between two otherwise equivalent things is not equal.
The amount information contained in the DNA sequence that codes for a particular protein is larger than the amount of information that is contained in the protein itself.
It gets worse too. What if there’s a point mutation? A point mutation is just a simple change of one nucleotide for another one.
Since the probability of the DNA sequence is unchanged (because it’s the same length), then the information content hasn’t changed. However, the function of the protein may have changed.
The classic example of this is the sickle cell gene in human hemoglobin. There is a single nucleotide difference between normal red blood cells and sickle-shaped red blood cells. The 20th nucleotide in the gene changes from T to A. That’s it. And you get a massive change in the function of the protein.
I guess (and I’m not willing to say this is 100% true), that the function of the protein is the ‘meaning’ of the information. So that minor change radically altered the meaning of the information. Like mistranslating a word from English to German.
It gets even more confusing, because the sickle cell gene is a beneficial mutation in some environments and detrimental in other environments. I bring this up because ID proponents often want to talk about how the function is no longer useful or detrimental or the protein is damaged and all that other stuff that makes no sense without context.
In biology, context is everything. The context being the environment. A mutation that is massively harmful in an environment without malaria is highly beneficial in an environment that does have malaria in it. Just like speaking German in SE Texas would be detrimental, in downtown Munich, it would be beneficial.
Meaning is separate from information. This can be easily seen by a classic thought experiment. Which contains more information? Thirty minutes of white noise or thirty minutes of a Winston Churchill speech?
If you think that ‘information’ equals ‘meaning’, then you will choose the Winston Churchill speech. If you think that meaning is divorced from information, then the white noise will contain more information. This is because it is a collection of complete randomness. While a speech will have pauses, reuse the same words, and thing that make it compressible.
Whenever you hear an ID proponent talking about Shannon information, they don’t understand the concept. Claude Shannon, an employee of Bell Labs and a bloody genius, basically invented the concept of information theory. And part of this was the compression of information across a noisy channel.
In other words, how to get bits of data across a telephone line, so that the receiver has the best chance to get a complete set of data. That’s all that it is.
Notice that this says nothing about the message that is being sent across the line. Indeed, some of Shannon’s work was in cryptography, in which the entire purpose is to change a message so that it appears to be totally random noise. Then that almost totally random noise is sent down the wires. A spy might be able to get the information from the wires, but without the code, the spy can’t get the message. See the difference?
Creationists and ID proponents constantly misunderstand/misuse technical terminology in order to confuse and promote their ideology. The concepts of ‘calculating information’ and ‘calculating meaning’ are not equal concepts. Indeed, as we have seen, the concept of meaning depends too much on context to even calculable. On the other hand, calculating information is a trivial process.
Trying to use the calculated information to draw a conclusion about meaning is simply not possible. And the ID proponents who attempt to do so are purposefully confusing people.
* This is Swahili for those interested.
** This is where the ID proponents insert “Function” into the mix. They think that in a totally random space, if the one sequence that has a function appears, then it is evidence of design. This is plainly silly. This is because we know that the vast majority of sequences are not functional and therefore would not continue into the next generation.
Basically, the ID proponents, using this method, cannot distinguish between evolution and design. Which is what some people (me for example) have been saying all along. There is nothing in the ID methodology, that actually talks about the ‘I’ and evolution is perfectly capable of the ‘D’ part. As we have seen before.