Wednesday, 19 November 2008

"Creation or evolution - do we have to choose?" - chapter 5 (cont.) - information

The sections in this chapter on the question of information were the most disappointing to me. Perhaps that is because of my background in mathematics I'm more "on the ball" here than when reading paragraphs about theories of fossilised fish. From whatever angle, though, DA's discussion of these questions is particularly poor.

The question of information does not have to be a painful one for a theistic evolutionist per se. The idea of common ancestry is not essentially incompatible with the ideas of complex, coded information and intentional design. It is a problem, though, for a believer in Darwinian evolution, and it's surely DA's thorough going acceptance of Darwinism specifically and not just common descent in general that makes it impossible for him to give these questions good answers.

The arguments that can be launched from information by a Christian are simple to understand. Information that is complex and finely tuned is a strong indication of a mind. We could say it more strongly; in our recorded experience, we have never known such information to come from anywhere else but a mind. Systems of inter-dependent components working together for a common goal are a signature of intelligence. That is our intuitive experience. The science of information theory looks to translate this intuitive experience into the language of science, and back it up with real research and intellectual rigour. Where this interacts with biology is in the fact that we now know what Darwin didn't - that human DNA and the biological systems for interpreting and using it (which are themselves also encoded in DNA) are the most complex and highly specified information systems known in the universe. They vastly exceeds anything that human minds have, with all their millions of man-hours of research and labour, managed to produce. As such, they are an overwhelming testimony to a divine mind for its origin. Codes, coupled with systems for decoding and encoding and translating into physical results, are the work of intelligence. DNA is such a system on a scale that is orders of magnitude beyond what man's finest intelligence has concocted. DNA testifies to us of our true origin: in the mind and will of God.

None of that should be painful for a believer in common ancestry per se to accept. It's impossible, though, for a Darwinist to accept it. Darwinism is at heart a mechanism which fundamentally denies teleology, i.e. the concepts of intentional design and purpose. It's an attempt to describe how one animal can give rise to another of a different type without there being a conscious intention on behalf of any agent that such a thing should happen. The external pressures and difficulties of survival alone account for the improvements at each stage - there is no inevitable final goal to be reached. In short, there is no need for a mind that designs and directs: the sheer redness in tooth and claw of nature brings it about. These contradictions are why many, such as myself, feel that to describe oneself both as a Darwinist and a theist is a logical contradiction, however sincere a person may be in affirming both.

DA starts his discussion on the question of information by admitting that mathematicians, engineers and computer scientists are often puzzled when they listen to biologists' (he means Darwinists') explanations of information. We agree there. DA's explanation for this phenomena is that it comes from a misguided attempt to force the meaning of "information" from one field into another. This explanation is basically a concession that DA has no real idea what he's talking about, isn't going to talk about information in a meaningful way as defined by information theory, and is going to allow himself a free hand to redefine that area of study as it suits him. This won't do. Information theory is a universal theory; it applies to information as information, wherever it is found. It is independent of the mediums and mechanisms by which the information is stored or translated into some useful end product. To give a simple example, a telephone number has the same information content whether I store it on my mobile phone or memorise it - whether it's silicon, brain cells or paper that are recording the number, whether by 1s and 0s, neuron configurations, or patterns of ink upon papyrus, it makes no difference. The information content is the same. If DNA stores information, then it matters not one jot what othere theories concerning DNA are floating around - information theory either applies to DNA, or information theory is itself in error. It cannot be correct when talking about other kinds of storage system, but not DNA. Hence, by this ad hoc explanation in which he attempts to tell the information theorists to get off his turf and allow him to write his own theory, DA betrays the fact that he doesn't know what he's talking about.

DA seeks to explain some ways by which new information can be generated in a genome, but these further give away his lack of understanding. DA never actually explains how new information arises, except to play with the definitions. He repeats some arguments about alleged Darwinian mechanisms, and then waves the wand and says "bingo - since we now have new capabilities in the organism, that must mean there's more information!" But this is simply arguing in a circle and missing the point. Information theory poses a serious challenge to Darwinian orthodoxy - to simply argue that Darwinism alleges that this happens, and this would have to generate new information, therefore there's no problem, is to shove the problem under the carpet. You've got to show us the mechanisms and what they do to the information content at each stage. To just tell us the mechanisms again and insist that they are correct and so therefore must, is ducking the challenge.

DA points to gene duplications, and then says that the duplicated gene is under less selective pressure so can accumulate new mutations without danger to the organism. Fine, but what has this to do with an actual mechanism for the increase of information? That's the crucial question, but the one DA doesn't answer. It's all left to randomness - there will be lots of mutations, some will be useless, some will be good, and those good ones must have more information because that's why they're good. Randomness, though, is precisely what information theory tells us does not generate a reliable source of information. A tightly specified system is not likely to be improved, but ruined, by random alterations. Throw a cup of water over your computer to randomly alter some of its logic circuits to see what I mean. How likely is that procedure to result in a upgrade of your hardware to future technology, compare to the likelihood it'll mean you need to go and buy a new computer? The Darwinist insists that what happens in biology is a unique exception to these kinds of laws, but such a significant assertion needs significant supplies of proof, not mere hand-waving and complaining that computer scientists are bringing in their own ideas which should't be allowed to apply.

DA gives us a somewhat humourous example of his confusion beginning on page 114, when he explains how a gene duplication in mice is thought to have resulted in two genes with slightly different functions - and yet that biologists found that the original gene could be made to cover both functions, only with less room for manouevre. So, says DA, the duplication didn't lead to an increase in information in one sense, but did in another - and thus DA seeks to equate information content with survival capacity. This may be convincing to the layman coming to the whole area for the first time, but to anyone else, it just reads like a confused man trying to answer a question that has stumped him and he doesn't really know how to begin with. In a similarly inept way we read on page 117 that sexual reproduction produces new information because the offspring are different to their parents because their genes are combined in new ways - and DA concludes "The proces of recombination... is just another way of introducing variation into the genome." This confusion between new information and mere shuffling of existing information is symptomatic of the whole section. DA does not seem to know what he means by information and hence never defines it - and then proceeds to lead the reader on a tour of confusion as one implicit definition gives way to another in a magnificent but ultimately vacuous display of Darwinian hand-waving.

1 comment:

Susan said...

Thanks for this David, can I say you are doing a fine job I do not want to buy this book since I do not want to fund a Darwinist, nor do I want to try to get it through a Library since they might buy a copy.

But I do need to know the arguments in his book since he is one of the leading members of the CIS.

Darwinian evolution allows me to be a intellectually satisfied Atheist Dawkins

ID allows me to be an intellectually satisfied Theist

Theistic evolutions just an muddled position

Paul Potter