An egregiously stupid remark by an IDiot (redux)

| 41 Comments

We have a twofer! In his account of his visit with Stephen Meyer to Norman, Oklahoma, a couple of weeks ago, Jonathan Wells made another totally stupid remark just following the one for which he got an earlier award. This one contains a deceptive analogy that the ID creationists have grown fond of lately. Recall that their recent mantra has been ‘evolution can’t increase “biological” information.’ That’s the shorthand gloss of Dembski’s so-called Law of Conservation of Information.

In the Q&A Wells ‘explained’ to a questioner that HOX genes are remarkably non-specific, and burped up the egregiously stupid remark for which he got the earlier award:

If evolutionary changes in body plans are due to changes in genes, and flies have HOX genes similar to those in a horse, why is a fly not a horse?

To win his second award, Wells went on to write another truly dumb thing.

The questioner became agitated and shouted out something to the effect that HOX gene duplication explained the increase in information needed for the diversification of animal body plans. I replied that duplicating a gene doesn’t increase information content any more than photocopying a paper increases its information content.

Now let me see. Many genes code for proteins via transcription and translation processes. Proteins are the physico-chemical workhorses in cells. Some are enzymes that catalyze chemical reactions in cells, while others are structural components. (I’m leaving aside genes that code for stuff like ribozymes; they make Wells’ analogy even dumber.) The duplication of a protein-coding gene doubles the amount of some protein in the cell. Does Wells imagine that doubling the concentration of an enzyme or a structural component in a cell is biologically irrelevant? If so, I recommend that the next time Wells gets a prescription for codeine he double the recommended dosage. After all, according to his reasoning doubling the dosage should add no biologically relevant “information” content and therefore should be innocuous.

That particular analogy – photocopying a piece of paper as an analogy for gene duplication – is popping up more often lately and should be firmly slapped down at every opportunity. It has a surface plausibility for lay people but is deeply deceptive. And I’m sure Wells knows it!

41 Comments

Obviously, these idiots never thought of what would result if one were to make two copies of a page, then transcribe a different set of notes on each copy.

No, obviously Wells should half the total amount of codeine since that will have the same impact (since doubling that amount will be the same). And then he can half that again. And again. And… hey, this is starting to sound like something else. Yes! Intelligent Design proves that homeopathy works!

What if the US Mint made only one copy of each bill or coin?

Wouldn’t that suggest that duplication has some utility?

As to the copied sheet of paper argument, I’d propose a simple scenario: suppose I show you a folder with a single sheet of text in it, allowing you to inspect the sheet such that you could reasonably identify either the same sheet of text or a copy. Then I leave the room with the folder, make a copy of the sheet, place both copies in the folder, and return to the room. Can you tell by inspecting the folder that something has changed? If adding the copy has no effect, how can you make such a determination?

So, any detectable change implies a change in information, and adding the copy certainly didn’t _decrease_ the information…

Ironically, his analogy to copied papers completely demolishes his own point.

Suppose you need 20 people to co-operate to do something, they each need to read a set of instructions beforehand to accomplish their task. It takes 5 minutes to read the instructions and 40 to finish their project.

If you have one copy of the instructions they each have to read it in sequence, taking up 100 minutes before they can start their task, which takes 40 minutes more. Altogether it takes 2 hours 20 minutes with a single copy.

However, if you have 20 photocopies of the information, it will take them all 5 minutes to read the copies simultaineously and 40 more for their task. That’s 45 minutes total with several copies.

So, it’s 45 minutes for many photocopies versus 2 hours 20 minutes for a single sheet. You save more than 1 and 1/2 hours simply by having several copies. There’s no question that more copies IS an increase in useful information.

I wonder if Wells thinks that a baseball game that is 1-1 in the first, contains the same amount of information about the teams as one that is 12-1 in the eighth. After all, each run scored counts the same, so adding runs doesn’t provide any more information about either team.

The same thing goes for wins and losses. Under J. Wells’ Know-Nothing Guide to Sports Betting™, you know as much about a team with a 6-4 record as you know about a team with a 60-40 record. All wins count equally, so teams at the end of the season are just as mysterious as they were before the season started.

Maybe when start releasing my football computer polls this season, I’ll include this “insight” to make my life easier.

Take away lame analogies, defining away problems,and Weasel fixations, and ID has nothing.

How does an ion differ from an atom? Only by the number of identical electrons.

How does an ozone (O3) molecule differ from an ordinary oxygen (O2) molecule?

How does a protein molecule differ from a collection of carbon, oxygen, nitrogen, hydrogen, and so on, atoms?

How much information is there in a protein molecule, as compared with the information in its component atoms?

TomS Wrote:

How does an ozone (O3) molecule differ from an ordinary oxygen (O2) molecule?

I have a love-hate relationship with the superoxide ion, but that’s another story for another time.

Here, unfortunately, I have to play my usual devil’s advocate. These egregiously stupid remarks may have us - at most ~0.1% of the population - spraying our keyboards with freshly-sipped coffee, but the big question is how those sound bites are rated by the ~1/2 of the population that is not hopeless, but either denies evolution or at least thinks it’s fair to teach anti-evolution propaganda in science class. Question 2 is how many of that ~1/2 will read and understand the reply?

Well of course Wells knows this. Unless he lives in a cave or something! This is what, the umteenfth billionth time it’s been pointed out? We know he doesn’t live in a cave because he talks about other people’s blogs he’s read. (Unless he reads blogs from inside a cave or something.)

I think the problem might be that he’s thinking in terms of creationist information. No matter how much information is added, it always remains the same. I guess it’s kind of like a “can’t teach an old dog new tricks” kind of information. “Thick headed dogmatic” information. “Fleece the flock easy pay check” information. Creationist information.

386sx said:

Creationist information.

Ah! On the nosey: No matter how many times you point out the flaws in a creationist’s thinking, he cannot obtain any new information from it.

I think we make a mistake in the response. A original (=gene) at the copier is copied (=mRNA), a single transcription. And yes, number of copies is important, but it is regulated by the person using the copier who determines the number of copies (aka regulation). That copier then can be used to copy something else (another gene). The act of making something different to make a copy off is one place where the information change arises. if that first is a exact copy just made by the copier, but you write then on it to add information, and copy it, the gene copy has gotten more information. You get the gist.….

Frank J -

I’m actually optimistic that a sizable fraction of the population recognizes that having two copies of something represents a change from having one copy of something.

Also, good point which was raised here the second time this remark by Wells has been discussed is that genes are not merely passive symbols. Gene expression is essentially the ultimate control of cellular activity and identity.

It’s actually common for gene copy number to be related to the concentration of a protein or other biologically active compound in a cell.

I’m embarrassed that I didn’t think of that the first time.

And it illustrates a new point that has occurred to me.

When someone is talking crap about biology, it’s a good idea to include facts about biology when rebutting them.

For example, in the last thread, people were easily able to demolish Wells’s point with reference to information theory. And it’s important to do that.

But we also shouldn’t let them completely change subjects from biology to information theory, thermodynamics, etc.

Yet another point which may or may not have come up is that in this case, each copy is guaranteed to be recopied, and each time you make a copy, there are guaranteed to be random (in the sense “not precisely predictable”) changes between the copy and the original.

This is actually obvious when talking about photocopiers - a perfect photocopier can’t exist. But it’s much MORE obvious when we realize that we are talking about transcription of nucleic acids in biological systems.

1: Only intelligence can create new information 2: The arguments of the ID crowd never change.

Given above statements, we can’t be certain that IDists are intelligent.

According to Wells’s logic, if I brew a batch of beer with 6 pounds of malt extract, and then brew another batch with 12 pounds of malt extract, both batches should taste exactly the same, have the same color, body, and aroma, and the same alcohol content.

To directly address is Fly is not a Horse argument. If “The Icons of Evolution” and “Origin of the Species” both have chapter markers, why are they not the same book?

If evolutionary changes in body plans are due to changes in genes, and flies have HOX genes similar to those in a horse, why is a fly not a horse?

Hasn’t Wells ever heard of a horsefly? Sheesh…

That particular analogy – photocopying a piece of paper as an analogy for gene duplication – is popping up more often lately and should be firmly slapped down at every opportunity

One way to reframe this is that maybe is to say, “Yes, perhaps that is true, but if you photocopy it 500 times, it will clearly weigh more than a single sheet of paper. Is not the weight of the stack of paper information?”

*shrug* I dunno. Or we could just explain to people that argument from metaphor is fallacious.

James Sweet said:

*shrug* I dunno. Or we could just explain to people that argument from metaphor is fallacious.

Yeah. It’s like two trees dropping chestnuts at regular intervals; one might hit a squirrel, but at the end of the day, a cactus is still greener than a carrot.

Don’t they argue from metaphor in pretty much every article they write and every lecture they give? Sure seems like it to me!

Defeating the photocopy analogy is easy: making a copy of a page indeed does not increase the amount of information on that page. However, it sure increases the amount of information on the copy, which started off as an empty piece of paper.

SUMMARY -

I think this summarizes what is wrong with Wells’s idiot comment. I urge others to remind me if I have forgotten anything.

1) Even if we were talking about photocopiers, the comment would be stupid. He doesn’t specify what type of information he means. Even a perfect duplication of information is more information, under any mathematical treatment of information. Photocopiers do not perfectly duplicate, at any rate. The copy always differs from the original in some way, usually in ways that are visibly obvious.

2) Gene duplication occurs in the context of nucleic acid replication. It is empirically known and theoretically obvious that nucleic acid replication never produces identical copies. This is even more true of nucleic acid replication than of some photocopiers.

3) Genes regulate cellular function. Extra gene copies will often result in higher concentrations of expressed RNA and/or protein, for example. (This also potentially serves as a trivial demolition of the claim about photocopiers, if the text on the photocopied sheet has any kind of active function.)

4) Last but not least - IF the function of a gene is required for life, precluding survival with certain types of mutations present if the organism has a single copy BUT the organism has more than one copy (either due to diploid/polyploid genome, multiple copies of a gene at different loci, or both) THEN a mutation may accumulate in one copy, with conservatively preserved function in the other, and such mutations may ultimately form the basis of expressed phenotypic changes that can be selected for. This may to some degree be a major reason that neither a horse nor a fly is the same as the last common ancestor of horses and flies.

In some cases, yes, information is added by copying. From Wikipedia:

Some high-quality color printers and copiers steganographically embed their identification code into the printed pages, as fine and almost invisible patterns of yellow dots. Some sources identify Xerox and Canon as companies doing this [10] [11]. The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) has investigated[12] this issue and documented how the Xerox DocuColor printer’s serial number, as well as the date and time of the printout, are encoded in a repeating 8×15 dot pattern in the yellow channel. EFF is working to reverse engineer additional printers. The US government has been reported to have asked these companies to implement such a tracking scheme, so that counterfeiting can be traced.

harold Wrote:

I’m actually optimistic that a sizable fraction of the population recognizes that having two copies of something represents a change from having one copy of something.

I’m even sure that 90+% of the population (at least high school age or older) has the capacity to understand that these quotes, if not all DI arguments, are nonsense. But most of them just don’t have the time or interest in reading the rebuttals. But they will remember the sound bites. And unfortunately another 90+% looks for any excuse to say “I hear that scientists are wrong about X.”

5) The whole notion of “functional information” is troublesome anyway.

“This only provides one bit of information!”

“Yes, but what is the functional weighting of that bit?”

“Huh?”

“Take a binary integer, 16 bits, it can store values from 0 to 65535. Set the least significant bit and you change the value by 1. Change the least significant bit and you change the value by 1. Change the most significant bit and you change the value by 32,768. If this value is a navigation heading in a drone aircraft, it’s the difference between being slightly off course and going in completely the wrong direction.”

“But it’s still only one bit of information!”

“But how much does that bit do? What is its functional weight? How do you quantify that, particularly for something like an organism that isn’t really a digital system?”

The notion of “functional information” is very plausible-sounding, but trying to pin it down in a formal way has a tendency to turn down blind alleys.

Information theory is easily exploited by scamsters because the real stuff is obscure, while it’s very easy to come up with glib and plausible-sounding stories on an informal basis. In the end, it’s absolutely nothing more than a diversion – an attempt to muddy the waters.

Wile Coyote -

Thanks for the addition.

Information theory is easily exploited by scamsters because the real stuff is obscure, while it’s very easy to come up with glib and plausible-sounding stories on an informal basis. In the end, it’s absolutely nothing more than a diversion – an attempt to muddy the waters.

Exactly. When people are attacking the theory of biological evolution, but they do so by spouting incorrect things about peripheral topics in physics or math, they are to a large degree just trying to change the subject, and desperately hoping that they appear to the ignorant lay person to know something that a biologist doesn’t.

Fortunately, what usually happens is that 1) biologists themselves can usually recognize the BS and 2) people with specific expertise in the physical or mathematical sciences dislike hearing their own fields lied about and step in and 3) biologists can bring it back to biology, and point out that abstract assertions have to be wrong if they are contradicted by empirical data.

I note that PZ Meyers is now ripping a lot of other patently wrong Wells statements to shreds in the next post.

By the way, I don’t mean to imply, by the use of the term “peripheral”, that physics and math are not important to biology. They very much are, and to get my undergraduate biology degree, I was required to get a decent background in physics, chemistry, calculus, and statistics, and I took some extra courses in chemistry and statistics/probability, a common thing to do.

harold said:

When people are attacking the theory of biological evolution, but they do so by spouting incorrect things about peripheral topics in physics or math, they are to a large degree just trying to change the subject, and desperately hoping that they appear to the ignorant lay person to know something that a biologist doesn’t.

Information theory is particularly useful to this game because, unlike discussions that involve entropy, which is not easy to define, everybody thinks they understand the concept of information. Of course informally they do – but that informal understanding doesn’t support any conclusions that resemble a law of physics.

In any case, I am merely repeating others here to point out that all this twaddle about the information content of photocopies is, one way or another, a red herring. The bottom line is that considerable evolutionary change can arise from the copying and subsequent variation of genes, as has been well-documented. That’s why we have trichrome vision while most of our furry cuzzins have dichrome vision.

Hand-waving about photocopies doesn’t cut it: This is the way things are known to work – you can handwave all day and it won’t make any difference.

I wonder how Wells explains the Bar eye mutation in Drosophila? It is nothing but a duplication. For that matter, what is Downs syndrome but a consequence of duplication of a very small amount of information in the human genome. Some similar duplications even produce a phenomenon called ‘death’.

That said, many small duplications do not show much effect because the amount of gene product is regulated to produce homeostatic levels (also why most loss-of-function mutations are recessive). But that merely allows one of the redundant copies to vary, sometimes to useful effect.

Howard Hershey said:

I wonder how Wells explains the Bar eye mutation in Drosophila? It is nothing but a duplication. For that matter, what is Downs syndrome but a consequence of duplication of a very small amount of information in the human genome. Some similar duplications even produce a phenomenon called ‘death’.

Oh don’t say that, he’ll switch to “all mutations are harmful.”

Oh don’t say that, he’ll switch to “all mutations are harmful.”

Even the ones that happen to be the reverse of another one? ;)

Henry J said:

Even the ones that happen to be the reverse of another one? ;)

Now SINCE WHEN did a gross and obvious contradiction ever slow these folks down?

I don’t know, perhaps there is something to the Wells assertion that duplication yields no new information. After all, the so-called information in a computer boils down to just a bunch of 1’s and 0’s. Obviously one 0 is as good as another – so there is no information passed by computers.

You got this message by magic.

Hmm. Wells may be right.

How many times has he said the same stupid things over and over and over?

The information content remains the same.

Zero.

After all, the so-called information in a computer boils down to just a bunch of 1’s and 0’s.

There are 10 kinds of people in the world - those who understand binary, and those who don’t.

Inline skates typically use 608 bearings common in vacuum cleaner motors (http://www.getrolling.com/orbit/F08_engineer.html).

Why then cannot I use inline skates to vacuum the carpet?

And more to the point, why are there still monkeys and how do I get them to stop skating all over the carpet?

Getrolling. Is that what Tray does in Germany?

Hee hee.

PaulC said:

And more to the point, why are there still monkeys and how do I get them to stop skating all over the carpet?

Give them bananas and watch them slip on the peels.

As a newbie to this forum, I’m confused. Genes are duplicated every time a cell (including a gamete) divides. If the genotype of the child cell undergoes a mutation or copying error and the parent doesn’t, is that not an increase in information in the info-theory sense (which Dembski and the cdesignproponentsists claim to have “proved” is impossible)? Is he defining an “increase in information” to include only changes he subjectively determines to be positive changes to the phenotype?

John_S, posted 10/22/09 5:23 PM As a newbie to this forum, I’m confused. Genes are duplicated every time a cell (including a gamete) divides. If the genotype of the child cell undergoes a mutation or copying error and the parent doesn’t, is that not an increase in information in the info-theory sense (which Dembski and the cdesignproponentsists claim to have “proved” is impossible)? Is he defining an “increase in information” to include only changes he subjectively determines to be positive changes to the phenotype?

The duplications referred to in the arguments is getting more copies in each cell than were previously present per cell.

But yes, mutations in existing genes does increase the amount of information in the gene pool for the population, though probably not the amount of information in the individual offspring.

That aside though, the “amount of information” in a genome is a red herring to start with. What matters in evolutionary terms is the effect on reproductive success, not some abstract measure of the “information” present. Much (perhaps most?) of that information has no immediate effect on the success of the individual, anyway.

Henry

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This page contains a single entry by Richard B. Hoppe published on October 15, 2009 10:51 PM.

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