• Information and Intelligent Design

    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.

    from Wikipedia

    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.

    Category: BiologyCreationismEvolutionGeneticsScience


    Article by: Smilodon's Retreat


      Your analogy concerning nucleotides doesn’t even adress the origin of genetic information and falls way short of the kind of complexity we now see, as the gene centric paradigm is effectively obsolete Mutations are errors that occur during the transcription process and have a much greater chance of being neutral or deleterious much more so than any thing beneficial.

      Secondly some mutations are far to subtle for natural selection to act on. See (John Sanford Genetic entropy) We cannot scientifically quantify the notion that physics and chemistry alone and unguided can even produce the simplest of living cells. The problem of homochirality and natural negative chemical reactions are just one of many many problems involved. And last but not least, according to most evo devo and even a great many mainstream evolutionary biologist, the modern synthesis is effectively dead as a theory. I’ll cite one of many articles that speak of its demise.

      Will the new paradigm as in the proposed extended synthesis (ala the Altenberg 16) answer the questions that need to be answered? Well only time will tell, but again, one thing is certain, and that is, the modern synthesis as taught now is a house of cards. ID theorist accurately the demise of the junk DNA paradigm and design theory is now being used at Park Center MIT in systems biology, and with great results. ID theory is also now being published in many respected science journals. All knew theories that question old entrenched dogmas will always encounter this type of hostility. This is our history. This is our human nature.

      • SmilodonsRetreat

        No, because ANALOGIES don’t do any of that. They are ANALOGIES that are used in explaining a complex to an audience that may not have the technical background to understand the complete minuscule details that are required in the actual concept.

        Most people are not specialists in DNA, information theory, mathematics. Therefore, I use ANALOGIES to explain, in general what the concepts are.

        If you would like to discuss the actual math and such with me, that’s fine.

        Basically, everything you say in this post is fundamentally wrong. After several thousand papers and almost six decades of research, there has never been a single researcher conclude that life cannot arise from non-life through basic chemical processes. Indeed, many of the complex compounds have multiple chemical pathways that can generate them.

        Here’s a link to the discussion about homochirality.http://www.skepticink.com/smilodonsretreat/2013/02/19/weaknesses-of-evolution-part-3-homochirality/

        I suggest you read up on subjects before declaring them to be dead.

        Finally, evolution is not Darwin. Evolution is not the modern synthesis. Evolution is not evo devo. Evolution is not random mutation and natural selection.

        Evolution is a broad, over-arching theory that encompasses all of those things and builds on them to generate a functional, testable, and predictive explanation of how evolution happens. It simply works. Which is the one thing that ID hasn’t ever done.

        In nearly 20 years, with modern computers and plenty of money (see my post on the DIs tax return), ID proponents haven’t actually done anything.

        So, until you guys actually do some work. All the paradigm changing notions you have is just so much hot air.


      The new biology: beyond the Modern Synthesis

      Michael R Rose1* and Todd H Oakley2

      The last third of the 20th Century featured an accumulation of research findings that severely challenged the assumptions of the “Modern Synthesis” which provided the foundations for most biological research during that century. The foundations of that “Modernist” biology had thus largely crumbled by the start of the 21st Century. This in turn raises the question of foundations for biology in the 21st Century.

      Genetics and Molecular Biolog

      Soft inheritance: challenging the modern synthesis

      Eva JablonkaI; Marion J. LambII


      This paper presents some of the recent challenges to the Modern Synthesis of evolutionary theory, which has dominated evolutionary thinking for the last sixty years. The focus of the paper is the challenge of soft inheritance – the idea that variations that arise during development can be inherited. There is ample evidence showing that phenotypic variations that are independent of variations in DNA sequence, and targeted DNA changes that are guided by epigenetic control systems, are important sources of hereditary variation, and hence can contribute to evolutionary changes. Furthermore, under certain conditions, the mechanisms underlying epigenetic inheritance can also lead to saltational changes that reorganize the epigenome. These discoveries are clearly incompatible with the tenets of the Modern Synthesis, which denied any significant role for Lamarckian and saltational processes. In view of the data that support soft inheritance, as well as other challenges to the Modern Synthesis, it is concluded that that synthesis no longer offers a satisfactory theoretical framework for evolutionary biology.

      • SmilodonsRetreat


        You do understand that even if you disprove evolution right here, right now (which, BTW, the paper you posted does not)…

        it still doesn’t mean Intelligent Design is correct.

        ONLY positive supporting information can show that ID is correct.

        Considering that there is no one notion of ID. That several versions of ID are contradictory. That no ID proponent can actually explain the appearance of anything. That no ID proponent can even do the one thing that they must do (i.e. tell the difference between a designed thing and an evolved thing).

        Then, there’s really no much to talk about.

        The fact that the Modern Synthesis is being supplanted by evodevo does not actually harm evolution. You might think it does, but you’d be wrong.