Creationists, “Biological Information”, and Cyber-Vitalism

In response to us foul-mouthed evolutionists, Casey Luskin asks, “Yet for all their numbers and name-calling, not a single one has answered Egnor’s question: How does [sic] Darwinian mechanisms produce new biological information?” I’ve never liked the whole “biological information” concept.

As far as I can tell, the creationists started bandying the term about after this George Gilder article in Wired was published:

Just as physicists discovered that the atom was not a massy particle, as Newton believed, but a baffling quantum arena accessible only through mathematics, so too are biologists coming to understand that the cell is not a simple lump of protoplasm, as Charles Darwin believed. It’s a complex information-processing machine comprising tens of thousands of proteins arranged in fabulously intricate algorithms of communication and synthesis. The human body contains some 60 trillion cells. Each one stores information in DNA codes, processes and replicates it in three forms of RNA and thousands of supporting enzymes, exquisitely supplies the system with energy, and seals it in semipermeable phospholipid membranes. It is a process subject to the mathematical theory of information, which shows that even mutations occurring in cells at the gigahertz pace of a Pentium 4 and selected at the rate of a Google search couldn’t beget the intricate interwoven fabric of structure and function of a human being in such a short amount of time. Natural selection should be taught for its important role in the adaption of species, but Darwinian materialism is an embarrassing cartoon of modern science.

As PZ notes, if you’re going to comment on cellular function and organismal development, you really should know what the hell you’re talking about. When you strip away the ‘Power and Glory’ bit, it’s an absurd argument, particularly coming from someone who supposedly knows something about computers. Why? Because cellular functions don’t happen sequentially, but in parallel–as in parallel processing. A ‘technologist’ should have heard of that before….
But then Gilder brings the Full Metal Stoopid: welcome to the world of Cyber-Vitalism! Brace yourself (italics mine):

Intelligent design at least asks the right questions. In a world of science that still falls short of a rigorous theory of human consciousness or of the big bang, intelligent design theory begins by recognizing that everywhere in nature, information is hierarchical and precedes its embodiment. The concept precedes the concrete. The contrary notion that the world of mind, including science itself, bubbled up randomly from a prebiotic brew has inspired all the reductionist futilities of the 20th century, from Marx’s obtuse materialism to environmental weather panic to zero-sum Malthusian fears over population. In biology classes, our students are not learning the largely mathematical facts of 21st-century science; they’re imbibing the consolations of a faith-driven 19th-century materialist myth.

Mind you (pun intended), Gilder doesn’t actually present any evidence that “the concept precedes the concrete”, but I suppose an emphatic declarative statement is just as good. Of course, if this sounds anything like the Genesis story where God speaks (i.e., generates information), and only then creation happens, I’m sure that’s a coincidence. It’s sure not evidence (“coincidence is not evidence”–I like the sound of that).
But enough about the possible origins of the creationist infatuation with “biological information”–I prefer the term genetics, but that’s so Darwinist. (an aside: We, like, so need a Darwinist emoticon). Here’s another problem with Luskin’s argument (PZ demolishes the supposed production of new information problem): sometimes evolution results in the reduction of information, whether it be the loss of operons during the evolution of Shigella/E. coli, or the massive chromosomal reduction during the evolution of Wolbachia and other insect symbionts.
When you hear someone talk about “biological information” and evolution, there’s a creationist lurking around somewhere.

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9 Responses to Creationists, “Biological Information”, and Cyber-Vitalism

  1. kemibe says:

    Does Gilder really think the Big Bang theory is not rigorous? Maybe because we haven’t recreated it in the lab? I wonder how he feels about quantum mechanics.

  2. Joshua says:

    kemibe: He sounds like the proverbial New Ager who shouts at the scientists, “Haven’t you ever heard of quantum mechanics?!” while not recognising that there’s a Schroedinger wave equation written on the blackboard.
    “Cyber-vitalism” is just solipsism in new garb. Yawn. Actually, the garb isn’t even that new. Deepak Chopra’s already broken it in.

  3. Jim RL says:

    Have these people seriously never seen an ant colony, bee hive, or termite mound? Do they seriously think there is some frickin’ architect ant directing the digging and foraging and babysitting? The colony “knows” the shortest distance to food, how many diggers are needed, and when to form a new colony, but no individual ant has any comprehension of any of those things. Information is in no way soley hierarchical. The emergent systems all around us prove that.

  4. Michael Schmidt says:

    I think the problem with the “information theory” argument as usually presented is not so much a difference of sequential vs. parallel processing, but a difference between a global search of sequence space as opposed to something approaching more of a simplex minimization. I can fit data to a model containing 7 independently adjusted variables in a second, to a remarkable precision in each variable, and there are other algorithms that are more powerful still. These algorithms don’t try all possible combinations of the variables in a fine-precision net–that would indeed take longer than my career. They just look for the best combination in a sample of combinations, and then head off in that direction in my variable space, and gradually contract around a minimum. Likewise, nature doesn’t decide to “create” an organism with 3 billion base pairs, and then mix up 4 to the 3 billion combinations to see what works. That would take longer than the age of the universe. That would be dumb.
    I think that perhaps the intelligent design people create God in there own image (not too bright) and then insist that nature is dumber than God.

  5. Michael brings up an interesting point that I’ve wanted to get to, but never got around to elucidating. When IDers talk about “information theory”, they are often really talking about optimization theory and metaheuristics. Optimizations are not useful in that they are “new information” (something that is trivial given any technical metric), but that they are a useful problem.
    And the irony of it all is that optimization theorists and practitioners have been drawing upon evolution for quite a while to develop new algorithms and metaheuristics.

  6. Should be “useful solution to a problem” above, sorry about that. 🙁

  7. Bob Calder says:

    Re: “the concept precedes the concrete”
    You could say that an idea actually does exist in a chemical state for a fraction of a second prior to its being caught and processed or realized by whatever filtering mechanism we use. It wouldn’t be the kind of information Gilder is talking about though. It would be “sound of tree falling in the forest” information. lol

  8. Richard Simons says:

    Did Charles Darwin ever believe that the cell is a single lump of protoplasm? I’m sure he had no idea what is in it but he must have realized that it is complex.

  9. Michael brings up an interesting point that I’ve wanted to get to, but never got around to elucidating. When IDers talk about “information theory”, they are often really talking about optimization theory and metaheuristics. Optimizations are not useful in that they are “new information” (something that is trivial given any technical metric), but that they are a useful problem

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