Feb 12 2010

A Darwin Day Celebration

Today is Darwin Day – the anniversary of the birthday of Charles Darwin on February 12, 1809. The Darwin Day Foundation is promoting Darwin Day as an international holiday, celebrating science and humanity. It is more than just a celebration of one great scientist – it is a recognition of the power of science as a human institution. It is also about defending science from anti-scientific goons who would seek to undermine or destroy it in order to protect their world view.

I decided to do my part by picking a random anti-evolution post and dissecting it – always a good time. As usual, the DiscoTute’s propaganda blog presents an embarrassment of riches for any hungry skeptic.

At the top of page is a post by Casey Luskin, who seems intent on refighting the Dover vs Kitzmiller trial in which intelligent design (ID) theory was soundly trounced and properly tagged as a religious belief, not science. Luskin, it seems, just cannot accept this defeat and so obsessively goes over it again and again, rehashing arguments that have been discredited years ago.

His current post is no different. Now he is picking on testimony about how the genome can acquire new information, writing:

Virtually all of those “publications” mentioned by Judge Jones came from one single paper Miller discussed at trial, a review article, co-authored by Manyuan Long of the University of Chicago. The article does not even contain the word “information,” much less the phrase “new genetic information.”

Luskin is an exemplar of denialism – showcasing the many ways in which denialists seek to create doubt and confusion, rather than engage in sincere scientific inquiry or discourse. Here he is picking on the fact that the judge in the case mostly quoted from one publication in defending his conclusion that the defenders of evolution in the trial, and specifically Kenneth Miller, presented evidence to support the conclusion that evolutionary processes can result in increased information. But the one article was a review article, which means it brought together and summarized the research of many studies. This is not the same as citing one study.

Then he tries to make hay of the fact that the paper does not contain the word “information.” The paper concerns how new genes with new functions evolve. Since genes contain genetic information, new genes means new information. But Luskin does not appear to be interested in being fair or in honestly explaining the issue – just throwing doubt on whatever evolutionary biologists say.

ID proponents have a history of abusing the very concept of “information” and change the operational definition as needed. Luskin tries to turn this around on the biologists. This is a classic denialist strategy – arbitrarily shift your definitions around, and then accuse scientists of not using your definition in their criticisms. He writes:

A closer look shows that the NCSE is equivocating over the meanings of the words “information” and “new,” and that the NCSE’s citations are largely bluffs, revealing little about how new genetic functional information could originate via unguided evolutionary mechanisms. This bluff was accepted at face value by Judge Jones, who incorporated it in his highly misguided legal ruling.

While complaining about the NCSE “equivocating” over the meaning of “information”, Luskin then shifts slyly over to the phrase “functional information”. This is now an old ID trick. Claim that information theory argues against evolution, which requires increasing information (at least in some lines) over evolutionary time. But when mathematicians who actually understand information theory show how evolution can increase information, they shift over to “specified” information or “functional” information – without operationally defining it. And then they have the gall to claim that scientists are being squirrely.

He also throws in “unguided evolution” – another ID canard. Evolution is not unguided, at least not in the sense relevant to information theory. Mutations may be random, but natural selection is the process of cumulative non-random survival.

Let’s get to the specifics of the papers presented by Miller at the trial. They demonstrate, for example, that genes, parts of genes, groups of genes, and even entire chromosomes can be duplicated from parent to offspring. Where there was one gene there are now two.

ID proponents claim that the second gene is merely a duplication and does not represent new information, but they are being willfully ignorant. The duplication itself is only part of the process. Now that there are two genes for the same protein, one is redundant. This means that if one gene randomly mutates so that it makes a different protein, the organism will likely not suffer because the original copy of the gene, and therefore its protein product, remains. The duplicate copy is therefore free to mutate and evolve in random directions. It is therefore ripe for being coopted for another use.

Fastforward a bit through evolutionary history, and eventually we have two related but distinct genes coding for related but distinct proteins – two genes where previously there was one. This is new genetic information.

ID proponents just ignore the second part of that process. This is similar to their strategy of arguing that mutations are random and therefore cannot provide direction in evolution. Correct but irrelevant – natural selection provides the direction. They also argue that natural selection can only remove information, not create it. Correct but irrelevant – mutations provide new information. Evolution happens when mutations and selection happen together, it is a straw man to argue that either alone does not produce evolutionary change.

Getting back to genes – the evidence presented at trial was a sample of the scientific evidence that gene duplication and other changes to the genome have in fact happened throughout evolutionary history, and produce a pattern consistent with common descent.

Richard Dawkins also addresses this issue in a somewhat longer post that is worth reading. He goes over some basics of information and complexity, and applies it to evolution. He discusses, for example, the hemoglobin protein:

The dozen or so different globins inside you are descended from an ancient globin gene which, in a remote ancestor who lived about half a billion years ago, duplicated, after which both copies stayed in the genome. There were then two copies of it, in different parts of the genome of all descendant animals. One copy was destined to give rise to the alpha cluster (on what would eventually become Chromosome 11 in our genome), the other to the beta cluster (on Chromosome 16). As the aeons passed, there were further duplications (and doubtless some deletions as well). Around 400 million years ago the ancestral alpha gene duplicated again, but this time the two copies remained near neighbours of each other, in a cluster on the same chromosome.

He then goes on to point out that the branching pattern of descent among copies of ancestral genes conforms to the branching patterns of descent of the organisms that have those genes – a nice confirmation of common descent.

Regarding the entire issue of information and ID nonsense he writes:

The “information challenge” turns out to be none other than our old friend: “How could something as complex as an eye evolve?” It is just dressed up in fancy mathematical language — perhaps in an attempt to bamboozle. Or perhaps those who ask it have already bamboozled themselves, and don’t realise that it is the same old — and thoroughly answered — question.

This mirrors what I wrote about – their “bamboozle” over information theory, and specifically gene duplication, is the same old tune about mutations and natural selection, just with new jargon.

Luskin, of course, attempted to respond to Dawkins but in typical fashion butchered what Dawkins was saying:

The difference between the Darwinist and ID definitions of information is equivalent to the difference between getting 10 consecutive losing hands in a poker game versus getting 10 consecutive royal flushes. One implicates design, while the other does not.

You see how he is assuming in his straw man of the evolutionary position only the random duplication or mutations, and not the whole bit about natural selection? To correct his terrible analogy – what scientists are saying is that evolution is like dealing out a hand and having an unlimited ability to discard and draw new cards. I bet I could get a royal flush every single time with this evolutionary method. The cards I draw are random – but evolution allows me to draw new cards and only keep the ones that work.

But even this better analogy contains a misconception – because there is no predetermined hand in evolution. Rather, evolution is like drawing cards at random but getting to keep the ones you like and redraw as much as you like in order to make a winning hand. But that winning hand does not have to be a royal flush – it can be anything that works.

And with evolution, you don’t have to discard if you don’t want to. You can keep cards you don’t use, just in case they become useful in the future. Of course, your hand will become littered with cards you don’t use, but that’s OK. You are allowed to use just the cards you want.

Luskin is a useful idiot in that he reminds us why we celebrate Darwin Day – to remind ourselves not just that evolution is a legitimate and powerful science while creationism/ID is not science, but also the underlying reasons for this distinction. Science is a process of honest discovery. Creationism/ID is ideological propaganda, and its proponents are promoting doubt and confusion, not understanding.

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