Information Theory and Intelligent Design

Can Information Increase in a Biological System?

Intelligent design advocates say that information theory makes evolution impossible, at least Darwinian evolution (Dr. Marciej Giertych, Population Geneticist, European Union, from the film Expelled; of course I could cite references from all over the web as well).

So what is information theory anyway?

The theory of the probability of transmission of messages with specified accuracy when the bits of information constituting the messages are subject, with certain probabilities, to transmission failure, distortion, and accidental additions. (answers.com)

That proves evolution can't happen???

Information Theory and Entropy

I did my best to sort through the incredibly difficult descriptions of information theory available on the web. Wow. I easily qualified for Mensa, the international high-IQ society, and I found the descriptions incomprehensible. (Just because you're in the top 2% of the population in IQ doesn't mean there's not a lot of people a lot smarter than you.)

A Note on IQ

IQ is a great predictor of your ability to do puzzles. It also has at least something to do with your ability to understand complicated theories. There's a lot of other places it just doesn't apply.

A person with a higher IQ is not necessarily "smarter," and certainly not in every area.

But let me let Professor Robert Pennock sort information theory out for us. In a response to William Dembski, an Intelligent Design advocate, Dr. Pennock writes:

He insists that his "law of conservation of information" proves that natural processes cannot increase biological complexity. He doesn't lay out his case here, and a refutation would require too much space. Suffice it to say that a connection exists between the technical notion of information and that of entropy, so Dembski's argument boils down to a recasting of an old creationist claim that evolution violates the second law of thermodynamics. Put simply, this law states that in the universe, there is a tendency for complexity to decrease. How then, ask the creationists, can evolutionary processes produce more complex life-forms from more primitive ones? But we have long known why this type of argument fails: the second law applies only to closed systems, and biological systems are not closed. (ActionBioScience.org)

Ok, quick explanation of entropy. Entropy describes the fact that energy tends to even out in a closed system. When you heat a burrito in the microwave, it doesn't heat evenly. If you leave the burrito sitting, the heat in it will even out. That's entropy.

A "closed system" means nothing is acting on it. If you set your burrito on a burner on the stove, then something is acting on the burrito. It is not a closed system, and the heat will not even out.

Entropy fails as an argument against evolution because the earth is not a closed system. Massive amounts of energy are applied to it from the sun, so entropy doesn't apply.

Professor Pennock is saying the same is true of information theory. It doesn't apply because life is not a closed system. A lot is acting on it.

Since writing this page, I have run across numerous scholars who say that William Dembski, the primary proponent of the argument that evolution can produce no new information, has invented his own version of information theory which is pseudo-science. He borrows a lot of mathematical formulas from the real sciences of information theory and thermodynamics and misapplies them. This is very impressive to non-scientists, but very irritating and dishonest in the eyes of real scientists.

I have a discussion of Dembski's pseudo-science at Specified Complexity. The bottom of that page has a several links to scientific discussions of Dembski's use of mathematical formulas to deceive the public.

Information Theory and Evolution

That's a scientist's answer to Intelligent Design's information theory argument. Let me handle an easier task than information theory. Here's some obvious reasons why genetic information can increase.

Dr. Giertych, quoted in Expelled, says:

Darwin assumed that the increase in information comes from natural selection, but natural selection reduces genetic information.

His point is that you can't have natural selection producing new species because that requires new information, and natural selection reduces information, it doesn't increase it.

True. Natural selection does reduce information, but lesson number one in evolution is that there are two steps in the process. Mutation, which has been observed and occurs at a predictable rate, produces new information, and natural selection picks the best of that information to keep.

Even Charles Darwin, who knew nothing of mutations or genetics in 1859 (to say nothing of information theory!), understood this. He wrote:

Let it be borne in mind in what an endless number of strange peculiarities our domestic productions, and, in a lesser degree, those under nature, vary … Can it, then, be thought improbable, seeing that variations useful to man have undoubtedly occurred, that other variations useful in some way to each being in the great and complex battle of life, should sometimes occur in the course of thousands of generations? (Origin of Species, ch. 4)

Darwin simply noted that animals vary. In domestic animals, some of those variations are beneficial to man. Man then selects those animals for breeding, and species vary to an almost unbelievable degree under artificial selection. Natural selection does not operate so quickly, but it operates on the same principles.

Darwin was careful to distinguish between the variations presented by heredity, which we now know to come from genetic mutation, and natural selection:

This preservation of favourable variations and the rejection of injurious variations, I call Natural Selection. (ibid.)

Natural selection, as Dr. Giertych points out, does not produce the new information. Variation does. Natural selection sorts the new information, preserving the favorable and rejecting (through death) the injurious ones.

This is evolution 101, and, as you can see, it's been understood and simply explained since 1859.

So why would a population geneticist for the European Union argue against evolution by saying natural selection reduces information? A geneticist cannot possibly be ignorant of the process of mutation and selection.

Easy. He's lying. He knows he can't defend his case by telling the truth, so he lies in order to deceive people who don't understand evolution. He is purposely promoting ignorance.

That sort of thing makes me mad, and I'm not going to sugarcoat it.

Since I wrote this I read a little more on Dr. Giertych. It turns out he's a Christian and young earth creationist.

That just makes it worse. Of all people, Christians shouldn't deceive, and Expelled should have revealed that Dr. Giertych disagrees with almost everyone else they interviewed about evolution and an old earth. (Many of those interviewed in expelled hold to Intelligent Design theory, which denies neither evolution nor an old earth, but simply posits that an "Intelligent Designer" must have been involved.

Mutations: What They Are

Mutation increases information—information theory or no information theory—in a number of ways.

DNA works pretty simply. It has four "letters," called G, T, C, and A. These letters are strung together on your DNA. Each three letters is a code that tells your body cells to produce a specific amino acid. There are only twenty amino acids that make up your body (yes, really!), and three letter words with a 4-letter alphabet produce 64 possibilities. So those 64 codes are sufficient to code for all your amino acids, plus start and stop codes, with duplicates.

There are many proteins that make up your body. Each protein is made up of various numbers of amino acids, usually at least 200, but often many more. So your DNA strings together 200 or more words, 3 letters each, then follows it with a stop code. Your cell reads that code, produces the protein, and creates you.

Really!

Change the words and sentences written on the DNA, and you produce different cells and different creatures (and, thus, new information). Every cell from every single-celled amoeba and every multi-celled creature—like yourself—reads the same DNA language. Change the words and change the sentences, and you get a different creature.

Obviously, it takes billions of letters to write the instructions for creating you. Every time you make a new cell, those billions of letters have to be copied. The copy process is not perfect.

Prokaryote cell diagram in public domain by Mariana RuizThis bacteria cell and your cells all read the same DNA "language."
By the way, the flagellum turned out not to be irreducibly complex.

If there is a problem in the copy process when you are just producing a new hair cell or skin cell, no big deal. The cell just dies or is never produced. Hopefully, the mutation—which is what we call a copy error—won't produce a cancer cell that lives and multiplies and puts you in danger.

However, when you or any other living organism reproduces, you do so with just one cell. All the copy errors made on that cell are passed on to your offspring and reproduced. That's why there's so many miscarriages in humans. Ten to twenty-five percent of pregnancies end in miscarriage.

Okay, so how do mutations produce new information despite whatever information theory might say?

Mutations and New Information

Mutations produce new information in lots of ways.

  • They can simply get a letter wrong in the code. This could damage a protein, or it could create a new protein that performs different functions.
  • Sometimes a gene is completely duplicated, added into your genome (your DNA sentences).
  • Sometimes a whole new chromosome is produced. This actually happens often; it is the cause of Down's Syndrome.

There's a lot of ways these sorts of mutations can produce new information. Information theory must allow this because it happens.

Mostly, that new information is bad or neutral. Occasionally, however, like an archer randomly shooting at a target, they produce information that is useful to the individual involved. If that individual is then more likely to survive or becomes more desirable to mates, then his mutation is likely to spread through the population as he produces more descendants than his less fit relatives.

Let's look at the duplicated gene scenario. A gene is a series of those protein sentences on your DNA that regulate a certain trait. All your traits, even your eye color and the amount of ear wax you produce, is regulated by proteins. You are made of proteins, as is all other life, and all your proteins are made from just twenty amino acids.

Pretty cool, huh?

Okay, let's say you have a mutation giving you a second gene that produces a digestive enzyme. You don't need that gene, so if you pass it on to your son or daughter, and it has a mutation that causes it not to work—something likely to happen if you have enough descendants—that descendant won't even notice. That gene will be able to continue to mutate without affecting your descendants until it mutates into something that does have an effect.

You only have to change one protein to cause some rather major effects. For example, scientists added a gene that coded for one protein in male squirrel monkeys and gave them color vision. Other scientists blocked the production of one protein in chicken eggs, and the chicks were born with scales rather than feathers.

In this way mutations can produce new information no matter what kind of gyrations Dr. Giertych tries to perform with information theory and natural selection.

banana treeThe Yellow Cavendish banana is a 170-year-old mutant now cloned to avoid further mutation
Public Domain Image.

New Information in Real Life

Intelligent Design adherents will admit that the formation of a new species that has never existed before is new information. It's known that the banana that Americans love to eat is the product of a mutation that occurred in the early 1800's. There are over 50 species of banana in existence in the world, but prior to 1800 there was no bananas like the Yellow Cavendish variety Americans eat. It mutated from a different species.

The bright yellow bananas that we know today were discovered as a mutation from the plantain banana by a Jamaican, Jean Francois Poujot, in the year 1836. He found this hybrid mutation growing in his banana tree plantation with a sweet flavor and a yellow color-instead of green or red, and not requiring cooking like the plantain banana. The rapid establishment of this new exotic fruit was welcomed worldwide, and it was massively grown for world markets. (Patrick Malcolm, "The History and Evolution of Banana Hybrids")

New information. It happened, and it happens. Intelligent Design theorists can try to confuse us with information theory, but we know better. New information happens.

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