Commentary on the so-called Creation/Evolution/Intelligent Design Debate and Right-Wing nuttery in general - and please ignore the typos (I make lots!)

Tuesday, February 07, 2006

On Crevo's 'information' paper

Crevo (Jonathan Bartlett, a computer programmer) referred to his article on evolution and information here.

It purports to discuss the “problem” of “information” for evolution. It is all over the map, littered with superfluous analogies and anecdotes and unnecessary background. I will quote relevant sections and discuss them below.

From the section titled “Genomic Change”:

So now, while mutation can be applied to morphological characters, it is
way more complicated than that. Not only must the morphology have changed
between organisms, but also the biochemical pathways supporting that morphology.
And the required changes must be happenstance, not directed by the organims. And
it has to be able to make these changes a small step at a time, without
destroying essential machinery. If it morphs too fast, it would cause error
catastrophe and kill the cell completely. If it morphs too slowly, nothing will
happen. In fact, if a particular adaptation requires multiple changes, it may
not be able to adapt at all if the adaptations are slow.

Did I mention that Bartlett is a computer programmer?
The biochemical pathways also have to be changed to support the morphological change? Hmmmm…
Let’s take a look at one of my favorite mutations. It is a single point mutation in the gene encoding the receptor (type 3) for fibroblast growth factor (FGFR-3). A mutation in this gene produces a type of achondroplasia, or dwarfism. The manifestations, morphological changes that can result include a loss of interphalangeal joints in the digits, disproportionate limb to trunk growth, distinctive facial features, etc. No other biochemichal changes are required to produce these functioning, albeit abnormal, limbs.
I am not presenting this as an example of evolution, nor of a beneficial mutation, nor an increase in information, or anything else. I present this to demonstrate that a suite of characteristics need not change in order to support altered morphology. That claim is the result of a computer programmer pontificating on physiology.
We also see another creationist gem – error catastrophe. Creationists like to toss around that term, most often without knowing what it actually means. It refers to an accumulation of excessive mutations during DNA replication (or, more commonly, mutations in RNA viruses). It has little relevance to evolution. But it is catchy – error catastrophe!

I stated above that this article purports to deal with “information” and evolution. I think ‘purports’ was a good choice, for it reads more like standard Apologetics with pseudoscientific use of terminology tossed in to make it look impressive. For the very next section, titled “Christian Problems with Darwinism”, opens with:

“It is important to keep in mind what, specifically, the problems Christians have with Darwinism are. Primarily it is this: that life did not need God to bring it into existence, or to order its path. Even removing origin-of-life questions, Darwinism says that purpose is unimportant for life. As Christians, we see the voice of the Lord speaking life into matter -- the life was totally dependent on the voice of the Lord to come into being.”

This is important, for it lays out the true “issues” that Christians like Bartlett have with evolution. The talk of “information theory” and error catastrophe and the like are just fluff to prop up their real problems – evolution does not require their God, thus, it is bad/wrong.

But it goes on.

The next section, titled:
“Biological and Algorithmic Problems with Darwinism

Huxley and Typewriting Monkeys -- The Probability Theorem Does Not Show Life is Inevitable”

has some gems in it. Like:

“The big scientific problem with Darwinism is the idea that information can make itself.”

This is interesting, and I will revisit it later. Bartlett recounts Huxley’s ‘monkeys at typewrites’ story, then brings up this standard creationist canard:

“First of all, to dispense with the obvious, the use of a typewriter itself imparts a huge amount of design onto what the monkeys were doing.”

This is reminiscent of the standard comeback one gets from many creationists after presenting them with experimental data that answers a question they had asked. “Well, the experiments were designed, therefore, this supports creation/intelligent design, not evolution!”
They always leave themselves an out.
Bartlett goes on with a couple of analogies, then points out that most of what the monkeys typed would be “noise” and that some intelligence would be required to produce ‘work’ distinct from the ‘noise’. Note the subtle insertion of the language of “information theory” there, and further that ‘probability’ is against it and so forth.

Of course, Bartlett is talking about abiogenesis, which is not evolution. Some refer to it as chemical evolution, but just because it has the term “evolution” in it does not mean that it is part and parcel of the theory of evolution, as initially put forth by Darwin. This is a common conflation in creationist writings. Point out the problems with abiogenesis, then extrapolate those problems to evolution as such.

The next section is titled

“The Nature of Computational Systems and Programs”

and Bartlett opens it with this line:

“Let's stop talking now about typing monkeys, and look at the biological problems of information self-creation. Cell biology is much like a machine, or more specifically, a machine being run by a computer. You have, essentially, a code, a way to replicate the code, a way to run the code, and a system that mediates the action of the code. In fact, in cell biology, you have the only naturally occurring Shannon information system. That's an interesting topic, but I don't have time to get into it here.The most interesting thing about biology is that it is coded information and algorithms. In order to understand why this is so important, we need to discuss codes, algorithms, and complexity.”

A machine being run by a computer. Did I mention that Bartlett is a computer programmer? Interesting, isn’t it, that a computer programmer will tell us that cell biology is just like a machine being run by a computer?
Bartlett then goes through a lengthy series of descriptions of various types of computing systems and what their functions/limitations are. He inserts this comment:
“It should be becoming clear why creationists often make the proposition that information cannot create itself, and evolutionists claim it can.”
Which seems something of a non-sequitur, for thus far, he has only been writing about computers.
The remainder of the essay is more computer systems/coding issues.
I cannot figure out why Bartlett linked me to this article.
Was it supposed to prove something? If anything, it appears that Bartlett can describe computing systems and toss in the typical creationist zinger, but not much else.
He mentioned towards the end what Dembski thinks about “information”, but it seems irrelevant and thrown in just to use his name.
He ends by saying he will get to how this applies to the genome at some point in a later essay.

So again I have to wonder what the point of linking to this was in the first place.

No comments: