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That depends on what your definition of ‘information’ is

24 July 2000

The ‘information’ argument is used by many creationists to show that particles-to-people evolution is impossible. Following is an attempt by a critic to discredit this argument, followed by our response.

Dear Editor:

The ‘information’ argument that many creationists have taken to using (or keeping in their store of sophisticated comebacks for debate purposes) has become an intellectual exercise for me, and I would like to share a brief evaluation. The argument that information cannot increase because of the second law of thermodynamics is flawed, but this flaw is very difficult to unravel unless its postulates are examined. A friend once showed me a proof that every triangle was isosceles, but I could not uncover the flaw until he showed me how the proof had to assume an isosceles triangle. Similarly, the creationist argument that information cannot increase rests on assumptions which are valid but cannot be applied to biological systems.

It begins simply enough: a creationist asserts that information cannot increase spontaneously. Ken Ham began in this manner in his NPR debate with Eugenie Scott. On the surface, the argument is in fact true. Scott’s response to the actual question came as ‘define information.’ When this is brought to light, it becomes clear that biological systems are not influenced by this dilemma.

The definition of information, according to Werner Gitt, implies semantics and syntax to be conveyed, as well as the capacity for abstraction. The difference between the lexical communication that constitutes the sole means of scientific publishing and the iconic communication of body language is the abstraction of meanings: a lexeme such as jump may convey meaning dependent on context. In the usual context, it evokes the image of a person propelling themselves by their legs into the air. In other contexts, it may convey the image of a speedometer suddenly moving to a higher reading. Abstraction allows a piece of information, dependent on the semantics and context, to convey a variety of meanings. Abstraction also draws the line between the workings of a biological system and the mathematical definition of information.

It is a convenient and widely used analogy to refer to the genetic makeup of an organism as information that is transmitted, read, and copied. It is certainly convenient to catalog the content of a genome in computer memory and transmit it electronically for research purposes. In vivo, however, the genome is not an abstract set of mere instructions. The molecules of DNA are physically involved in the cellular processes, so the analogy of a carpenter reading information off of a blueprint to build a house is not as accurate as the analogy of a music box playing a melody off of its spool. When one defines information and includes the feature of abstract symbols, the ‘information’ argument is moot: biological systems do not contain information in that sense.

The question remains as to how complexity could arise in biological systems. Ilya Prigogine’s Nobel Prize-winning work covers the means by which increased order (decreased entropy) can be achieved in open systems such as the biosphere. Complexity is not a far cry. As an example, weather consistently shows an increase in order and complexity simply by the input of energy via sunlight. A hurricane, for example, shows a huge increase in complexity. It is a rotating aggregation of thunderheads and a mass of cold, moist air that is guided by jetstream currents and packs an enormous punch. Thermodynamics is in effect the whole way through-as sunlight shines on the ocean, the lowest energy state is for some water to evaporate and rise into the atmosphere. When the air accumulates and cools, the thermodynamic solution is for the water to condense and fall back to earth, and the natural way for this to happen may involve the formation of a rotating storm system, tremendous winds, and drenching rain. If there could be no local increases in complexity, there would not be so much as a breeze. Biological systems are increases in complexity, but not increases in information in every technical sense of the word. In support of the natural increase in complexity that is possible in biological and other systems, one can make demonstrative proof, proof by contradiction, and proof by mathematical induction. The fossil record provides the first proof (this is not circular reasoning, as the authenticity of the fossil record may be verified by independent data). Proof by contradiction is supplied in the above paragraph. Mathematical proof is supplied by Ilya Prigogine. I have yet to see a creationist so much as analyze the diversification of humanity that has occurred (either in creationist history or scientific history) and prove that the diversification does not in fact constitute an increase in complexity, an increase in the content of the gene pool.

On the surface, the ‘information’ argument is a confounding and intriguing problem. When one sees it used in the context of creationism, one finds that the argument is powerful not because it is undeniably true, but only because a creationist will never accept a reply to it. One might talk of the existence of nylon digestion, a capacity that was developed in bacteria downstream of a chemical plant, found to be the result of a frameshift mutation in one of the existing metabolic pathways. The overall genetic content of the strain was increased, and a simple conjugation could have produced bacteria with both the original and the novel metabolic capacities. Still, the only acceptable answer to a creationist would be an example of the emergence of a completely new gene formed spontaneously by the convergence of random nucleotides, which of course does not happen. The ‘information’ argument indeed relies on abstraction: in a debate forum, where information implies whatever the creationist wants, the argument is impossible to handle. In explicit, written form, when everything is constrained by rigorous definition, one sees that thermodynamics in fact drives evolution. To anyone who insists that the universe is winding down into a monotonous heap of boredom: just look at the clouds.

David Cerutti

Ed. note: A common sense example should suffice. Jerry Coyne, an evolutionist from the University of Chicago, reviewed Niles Eldredge’s recent anti-creationist book The Triumph of Evolution in the Chicago Tribune, 30 July 2000, pg. 4. Among other things, Coyne berated Eldredge for not mentioning ‘some of the classic and most powerful arguments for evolution [including] the nonfunctional eyes of cave organisms, which evolved from sighted creatures.’ Of course, this is a loss of information for eye function. What would be really impressive evidence for goo-to-you evolution would be fish gaining eyesight where there was no previous genetic information for eyesight. But Coyne’s example, like nearly all others given as convincing ‘proof’ of evolution, is a change in exactly the opposite direction required for evolution! See New eyes for blind cave fish? and Beetle bloopers. (Additionally, visit Q&A: Information theory, especially the articles by Dr Werner Gitt, who is a specialist in information theory, and Dr Royal Truman’s response to Dr Richard Dawkins. Both of these highly qualified scientists explain why information must be understood on a number of levels, rather than a simplistic statistics-only level.)

Please also see the article by Dr Jonathan Sarfati on The Second Law of Thermodynamics. In particular, he points out the difference between order and specified complexity, confused by Mr Cerutti and many other anti-creationists. [See also his two part response to thermodynamics criticisms by anti-creationist science writer Jonathan Sherwood: Part 1 and Part 2] Note also that Dr Sarfati is a Ph.D. physical chemist, so is qualified in the area, unlike Cerutti, who is just an undergraduate BioEngineering and Environmental Science student. However, the evolutionary origin-of-life expert Leslie Orgel is not as confused as Cerutti:

‘Living things are distinguished by their specified complexity. Crystals such as granite fail to qualify as living because they lack complexity; mixtures of random polymers fail to qualify because they lack specificity.’ [L. Orgel, The Origins of Life, John Wiley, NY, p. 189, 1973.]

In his article, Dr Sarfati also provides links to chapters of the book The Mystery of Life’s Origin by expert thermodynamicists Thaxton et al., which directly addresses the claims of Prigogine, who also produced only examples of order, not the specific complexity required for life.

It should be noted that when it suits them, evolutionists argue that life is nothing but chemicals, but then they claim that living things are exceptions to the laws of thermodynamics that describe the behaviour of chemicals (a position completely refuted by The Mystery of Life’s Origin). This shows the inconsistency of their materialistic religion.

One must wonder, if Mr Cerutti thinks that the origin of life is no problem for his evolutionary faith (despite all the problems documented in Q&A: Origin of Life), has he claimed the $1.35 Million (USD) The Origin-of-Life Prize?

Finally, Mr Cerutti is out of date about this new nylon digesting ability allegedly from a frame shift. New evidence shows that the ability was due to plasmids [e.g. K. Kato, et al., ‘A plasmid encoding enzymes for nylon oligomer degradation: Nucleotide sequence analysis of pOAD2’, Microbiology (Reading) 141(10):2585–2590, 1995.] In fact, more than one species of bacteria have the ability, residing on plasmids. This suggests that the information probably already existed, and was just passed between different types of bacteria.

All that would be needed to enable an enzyme to digest nylon is a mutation causing loss of specificity in a proteolytic (protein-degrading) enzyme. This may seem surprising—how would a loss of information create a new ability? Answer: enzymes are usually tuned very precisely to only one type of molecule (the substrate). Loss of information would reduce the effectiveness of its primary function, but would enable it to degrade other substrates, too. Since both nylon and proteins are broken down by breaking amide linkages, a change in a proteolytic enzyme could also allow it to work on nylon. If this process were continued, the result would be a general enzyme with a weakly catalytic effect on the hydrolysis of too many chemicals to be useful where much selectivity is required. To put it into perspective, acids and alkalis also catalyze many hydrolysis reactions, but they also lack specificity. Indeed, an inhibitor of a protein degrading enzyme also inhibits the action of the nylon degrading enzyme.

The principle is explained (for a different example) in the book Not By Chance by Israeli biophysicist Dr Lee Spetner. Yet another example of a ‘defect’ being an advantage, but totally irrelevant to evolution. Dr Spetner explains enzyme information in more mathematical detail in his response to the sceptic Dr Edward Max.

[Ed. note, 9 April 2004: Research has shown that the correct explanation for the nylon-eating enzyme produced on the plasmids is somewhat different from the previous two paragraphs. It also confirms that the frameshift idea is totally wrong. Rather, there seems to be a special mechanism that recombines parts of the genes in the plasmids in a way that is non-random. This is shown by the absence of stop codons, which would be generated if the variation were random. See The adaptation of bacteria to feeding on nylon waste.]

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