The key point at issue between Intelligent Design theory and neo-Darwinian evolution

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Part Eight Part Nine Part Ten Part Eleven Part Twelve Part Thirteen Part Fourteen Conclusion

Professor William Dembski. Courtesy of Wikipedia. Can mutations create new information?

The one vital point on which Intelligent Design proponents disagree with the claims of neo-Darwinian evolution

The key difference between Intelligent Design theory and neo-Darwinian evolution was identified in a 2009 essay by Professor William Dembski and Dr. Robert J. Marks II, entitled, Life's Conservation Law: Why Darwinian Evolution Cannot Create Biological Information:

Let's be clear where our argument is headed. We are not here challenging common descent, the claim that all organisms trace their lineage to a universal common ancestor. Nor are we challenging evolutionary gradualism, that organisms have evolved gradually over time. Nor are we even challenging that natural selection may be the principal mechanism by which organisms have evolved. Rather, we are challenging the claim that evolution can create information from scratch where previously it did not exist. The conclusion we are after is that natural selection, even if it is the mechanism by which organisms evolved, achieves its successes by incorporating and using existing information. (page 29)

The central issue in the scientific debate over intelligent design and biological evolution can therefore be stated as follows: Is nature complete in the sense of possessing all the resources it needs to bring about the information-rich biological structures we see around us or does nature also require some contribution of design to bring about those structures? Darwinian naturalism argues that nature is able to create all its own information and is therefore complete. Intelligent design, by contrast, argues that nature is merely able to reexpress existing information and is therefore incomplete. (page 3)

What is a biological target? How do we measure the information associated with a search for that target?

Shooting targets: from left to right, a chicken, pig, turkey, and ram. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

What do the authors mean by information? To answer this question, we need to grasp the notion of a target. Living things, and the proteins in their cells, can be thought of as targets. A living thing is made up of matter arranged in a certain way, whose structure allows it to perform specific biological functions - e.g. digestion or reproduction. If the matter that wasn't organized in the right way, it couldn't perform those functions. A protein is a molecule with a specific function (or functions) that it performs within the cell, by virtue of its molecular structure - in particular, the way it folds. The different kinds of proteins within cells have different kinds of tasks to do. Thus we can speak of living things, and also the proteins in their cells, as "specified" - i.e. capable of performing a specific function, or doing a particular job.

The key point here is that not every arrangement of organic matter will perform the functions carried out by living organisms, and by the various proteins within their cells. If you take some organic matter (e.g. some meat, humus or horse manure) and consider all possible ways that its atoms could be arranged, most of the arrangements won't be alive at all, and most arrangements won't be capable of performing any useful biological function. Only a select few arrangements of matter will be capable of performing any biological function at all.

Now let's say you want to make a living thing of a particular kind: say, an E. coli bacterium. Let's imagine we're in the 22nd century, and there's a biochemist who can make organisms to order, from scratch. You ask her, "Could you build me an E. coli bacterium, please?" and (after a few hours) she says, "Done." The bacterium was your target: it was what you were trying to build. It will also contain certain proteins that enable it to function as a one-celled organism.

Now let's say instead that you simply want to make a living thing. Any kind of living thing will do: a bacterium, a flower or a horse would make you equally happy. There are only two restrictions you impose: the living thing in question has to be a cell-based life-form, and its cells have to contain proteins of some sort. You wouldn't be happy, then, if someone built you a funny kind of crystal that could somehow grow, reproduce and mutate. As it turns out, all biological life-forms that we know of are cell-based, and they all use proteins. So you go along to your 22nd century biochemist and you say to her, "Could you please build me a living thing?" "What kind?" she asks. "I don't really care," you answer. "Any kind will do. A chicken, a pig, a turkey, a ram - even a flower or a bacterium. Whatever you like." Here, the biochemist has a range of targets: there are literally millions of possibilities she can choose from.

Here's the thing: a range of targets is itself a target. The biochemist has a lot of freedom in what she can make, and in what proteins she can use. But her freedom is not total: she can't just make anything. She still has to make something that's alive: more specifically, a cell-based life-form, whose cells have to contain proteins. If she's starting from simple organic compounds like amino acids, nucleotides and sugars, she has a tall task ahead of her, because the vast majority of possible ways that her simple organic compounds can be combined and arranged won't yield a living thing - or even a protein.

Now if you're a Darwinian evolutionist, you have to believe that once upon a time, "Mother Nature" somehow accomplished what you've asked your 22nd century biochemist to do. Starting from simple organic compounds, Nature somehow managed to build cell-based life-forms containing proteins, around four billion years ago. Of course, the earliest life-forms may have been something different, for all we know: perhaps they were self-replicating clay crystals, as some origin-of-life researchers have supposed. But the point is that somehow, Nature managed to eventually hit upon the target of a cell-based life-form containing proteins. Which cell-based life-form was that? We don't know, and we may never know. But we can legitimately call it a target, because even though "Mother Nature" is not conscious and has no aims, only a very, very tiny proportion of possible configurations of organic matter fit the description: "cell-based life-form containing proteins."

We've all heard the phrase, "looking for a needle in a haystack." The idea, then, is that in order for Nature to build a living thing, it has to find that needle in that haystack. And even if there are millions of needles - one for every possible cell-based life-form - finding even one of those needles is going to be very very difficult, if the haystack is, say, the size of a large barn. Obviously a blind search won't do any good - or we'd be here until Doomsday, waiting for Nature to hit upon a suitable combination of matter. That would just take too long, and you've only got a limited amount of time. There has to be a more efficient way of searching than a blind search. (And if you're thinking that a blind search would still be just fine, given billions of years of Earth history, I'll explain below why you won't even get a protein that way, let alone a living thing.)

OK. So let's say Nature has an alternative, more efficient way of hitting on a cell-based life-form than a blind search. Suppose that the alternative search is X times more likely to reach the target than a blind search. Then the active information relating to that search and that target, as defined by Dembski and Marks on page 13 of their monograph, is just log(X). That's all there is to it. See? I told you I'd keep the math simple. So if the alternative search procedure is 1,000,000 times faster than a blind search, then the active information relating to that search and that target is the logarithm of 1,000,000. If you're using base-10 logarithms, as most of us do in everyday life, that'll be 6. but if you're an information scientist, you'll prefer binary (base 2), and your log will be about 20, because 2 to the power of 20 is about 1,000,000.

How might a more efficient search for a living thing actually work?

A Rube Goldberg machine. Could the universe be a Rube Goldberg machine that's rigged to produce life? Image courtesy of J. C. Larson and Wikipedia.

So by now you're probably thinking to yourself, "It would be very nice to be able to make a living thing from a few simple organic chemicals. I wonder how you could make it easier to accomplish."

Basically, there are two ways that you might go about it. One way is that you might select a nice starting point, that makes it a lot easier to get to your destination. Perhaps you might start with organic compounds that are more complex, for instance. That way, proteins won't be so hard to make, and cells will be easier, too. The other way is that you might select a particular biochemical pathway that makes it very easy to attain your goal of building a living thing. You might have some special secret recipe that tells you how to do it: a sequence of steps that will get you there. The key point I want to make here is that to get to your destination more easily, you need to either bias your starting point, or bias your pathway from the starting point to the destination.

So far I've spoken about what you might do to make a living thing from a few simple organic chemicals, more easily. But if you don't like hard work, you can take yourself out of the picture entirely, and make it all automatic. With a bit of ingenuity, you might even rig up your laboratory so that it could do the job of building a living thing without you having to lift a finger. You might line up the chemicals and flasks and bunsen burners in a row, and hook them up in a sequence, like some crazy Rube Goldberg machine, so that the completion of step A would trigger step B, and so on. (Of course, it would be much more complicated than that, because there would be a lot of steps occurring in parallel.)

With regard to the evolution of life, what might a biased starting point be like? We can't really bias the raw materials at the start, because at some point in the distant past, billions of years ago, we eventually get back to something very basic: just atoms, if you go back, say, 13 billion years, and a few simple organic molecules in a liquid solvent, if you go back 4.4 billion years to the primordial ocean on Earth. However, you could imagine that the precise position of those molecules 4.4 billion years ago would influence the outcome, and hence the likelihood of eventually obtaining cell-based life on Earth. If that sounds odd, think of the beating of a butterfly's wings triggering a storm in Brazil. Conceivably, under just the right circumstances, it could happen.

OK. What about a biased pathway? We can imagine that Nature might contain a built-in hidden bias, favoring a particular (and very complex) sequence of steps (taking place in parallel, of course) that lead from simple organic chemicals to cell-based life. Perhaps amino acids are chemically disposed to hook up in a certain way, making it easier to form proteins, for instance. There might be laws of physics and chemistry favoring the evolution of life, that scientists don't know about yet. Perhaps one day they'll figure it out, and manage to recreate the pathway that led to cell-based life.

Now here's the surprising thing that will probably shock most of the Darwinian evolutionists who are reading this post. (That includes you, Zack.) Intelligent Design is perfectly cool with a universe that's biased to produce life, in the ways I've described. Intelligent Design proponents are not committed to life being created by an act of supernatural intervention - although if you want to believe it happened that way, that's perfectly fine by us. But there's one thing we do insist on: if you want to say that the universe is somehow biased to produce life, you'll need to specify how it's biased. And to do that, you'll need to specify a lot of information: either information relating to the starting conditions of the universe, or information relating to its hidden laws which favor the evolution of life. One thing you will not be able to do is write it all down on the back of a T-shirt - some simple, magic equation that'll give you life. Life is not, at any level, simple.

Why life is not, and cannot be, simple

Left: a Mandelbrot set. Image courtesy of Wolfgang Beyer and Wikipedia.
Right: an origami bull. Image courtesy of Emre Ayaroglu and Wikipedia.
Life is not like the Mandelbrot set. It's like the origami bull. The reason is that it embodies instructions for making many different kinds of folded shapes (e.g. in proteins) which all work together.

This conclusion might be very uncongenial to some people. We've all heard about Mandelbrot sets - fantastically complex structures that can be created from a single equation. Why couldn't life be like that? And wouldn't it be more mathematically elegant if it was? Physics types are especially prone to feel this way. "Why does it have to be so complicated?" they might want to scream. Many of them, I dare say, might want to echo Louis IX's famous remark on the Ptolemaic system, that if the Almighty had consulted him, he could have told Him a simpler way to make the cosmos.

I would ask these people to take a cold shower before they get all steamed up, and take a good look at the two pictures above. What I'm saying is that life is not like the Mandelbrot set. It's like the origami bull. The reason is that it embodies lots of instructions for making many different kinds of folded shapes (e.g. in proteins) which all work together. That's why cell-based life cannot be simple. If you want to build simple life, make sure you don't use proteins.

What do Intelligent Design proponents and Darwinian evolutionists disagree about?

The key point at issue between Intelligent Design proponents and Darwinian evolutionists, then, is whether natural selection alone can amplify, over the course of time, the probability of a highly specified system (in our case, a living thing of any kind, containing proteins) arising as a result of blind processes (chance plus necessity). Intelligent Design proponents claim that natural selection can't amplify the antecedent probability of such a system arising. The only way to amplify this probability is to narrow down your choice of starting points or your choice of possible pathways, thereby biasing the likelihood of obtaining a system that can do the job in question. In other words, you have to either rig the initial set-up or rig the rules. And it takes an intelligent being to rig things like that. What we're saying is that the universe was somehow rigged to produce life. However, at the present time, we don't claim to know how it was rigged to produce life.

Why Intelligent Design has no problem with teleological evolution

Some people accept common descent, but unlike Darwinists, they believe in a teleological version of evolution, and regard natural selection as a directed process. Dembski and Marks make it clear in their paper that they have no problem with that kind of evolution. What they reject is the Darwinian, nonteleological version of evolution:

... Darwin's main claim to fame is that he is supposed to have provided a mechanism that could create information without the need for intelligence. Interestingly, he referred to this mechanism as "natural selection." Selection, as understood before Darwin, had been an activity confined to intelligent agents. Darwin's great coup was to attribute the power of selection to nature hence "natural selection."

Nature, as conceived by Darwin and his followers, acts without purpose it is nonteleological and therefore unintelligent. As evolutionary geneticist Jerry Coyne puts it in opposing intelligent design, "If we're to defend evolutionary biology, we must defend it as a science: a nonteleological theory in which the panoply of life results from the action of natural selection and genetic drift acting on random mutations." But why do Coyne and fellow Darwinists insist that evolutionary biology, to count as science, must be nonteleological. Where did that rule come from? The wedding of teleology with the natural sciences is itself a well-established science it's called engineering. Intelligent design, properly conceived, belongs to the engineering sciences. (page 2)

Table of Contents Part One Part Two Part Three Part Four Part Five Part Six Part Seven
Part Eight Part Nine Part Ten Part Eleven Part Twelve Part Thirteen Part Fourteen Conclusion