Getting Information from Creationists Is Like Pulling Teeth

Some of you may remember threads on time.com and Pharyngula where Egnor challenged “Darwinists” to say “how much new information can Darwinian mechanisms generate?”

For completeness, you should read those threads, but the summary is that when people tried to answer his question, e.g., by showing that point mutations increase the Shannon information of the genome, or pointing at the literature for gene duplication, Egnor said that wasn’t what he meant by “biologically meaningful information” and refused to provide a definition.

On the Mar. 26, 2007 episode of the ID the Future podcast, Casey Luskin interviewed Michael Egnor. They talked about these discussions. Egnor accused Darwinists of being angry and implied that they were unsure of the soundness of their own theory (start listening at 12:42, if you care).

Then (around 14:16), Egnor said

I, for example, if a Darwinist approaches me, and asks me politely about Intelligent design, I’m delighted to talk about it!

I took this as an invitation to ask him to clarify his remarks.
On Apr. 13, I sent him this message:

Dear Dr. Egnor,

A while back, I read about your attempts to get Darwinists to tell you how how much biologically meaningful information a darwinian process can generate.

Unfortunately, I’m not sure what you mean by biologically meaningful information. Could you please clarify what you mean by this?

Thank you,

He replied (all email reproduced with permission):

Thanks for the note. I asked Darwinists to define biological information, because Darwin’s theory hinges on it. Darwin asserted that all natural functional biological complexity (information) arose by non-teleological variation and natural selection. ID theory asserts that some natural functional biological complexity (information) arose by teleological variation and natural selection. By ‘teleological’ I mean a process that is most reasonably understood as the result of intelligent agency, analogous to human intelligent agency, with which we have ample experience.

These assertions are the whole issue in the ID/Darwin debate.

I think the best definition is Dembski’s CSI, but there remains a lot to understand. What appalled me is that Darwinists don’t even know how to measure the property on which their entire theory turns.

I can’t help them prove their theory. That’s their job. What kind of scientist asserts that his theory is a fact, and when you ask him for the data on which his theory turns, he demands that you tell him how to prove it?

Darwinism is a scandal.

(Emphasis added.)

Unfortunately, that didn’t answer the question, so the next day I wrote back:

Thank you for your answer, but I’m afraid I still don’t understand. For one thing, the people at Time and Pharyngula defending evolutionary theory gave examples such as gene duplication, but you said that wasn’t what you were asking for.

This leaves the question of what you are asking for. You say that it’s close to Dembski’s CSI, but unfortunately I’ve been unable to find out how to calculate CSI.

Perhaps an easier question is, if a process did increase (or decrease) biological information in the way that you ask, how would we know? What would we have to measure?

On Apr. 22, he replied:

No one knows how to measure biological information in a meaningful way. The current ways of measuring information (Shannon, KC, etc) are relevant to sending signals, and are not of much help in biology.

Gene duplication is not a source of significant new information. It obviously changes the way things work in the cell, to some extent, but it can only copy what’s there, and we’re asking how it got there to begin with.

Even though we can’t measure it (and serious investigators like Dembsky are trying to figure this out), we know biological information when we see it. The genetic code, molecular machines, seamless integration of physiology are all obviously the kind of biological information that we are trying to understand. The only source of such information (or functional complexity or whatever) that we know of in human experience is intelligent design. There are no ‘natural’ codes, aside from biology, which is the topic at issue.

Darwinists have a responsibility to show that undesigned mechanisms can produce sufficient biological information to account for living things. If they don’t even know how to measure it, how can they assert that random variation and natural selection can account for it, and why is the design inference ruled out?

(Again, emphasis added.)

I wrote back:

If I understand correctly, evolutionary biologists do not recognize biological information as a necessary, or even useful, concept. You, on the other hand, intuitively recognize biological information, but cannot quantify this information the way that Claude Shannon quantified the nebulous notion of “information”.

Since you are claiming that “How much biological information can be generated?” is a meaningful and important question, isn’t it then up to you to define what you mean? It looks as though you’re asking evolutionary biologists to formally quantify your intuition, which hardly seems fair.

Have I misunderstood something?

He replied:

The origin of functional biological complexity (‘biological information’, or whatever) is obviously of central importance to biology and the Darwin/ID debate. You can’t make the problem go away by pretending that it’s not a problem. We ID folks have a straight forward explanation: like all complex functional ‘machine-like’- systems that we encounter, biological systems are best explained (at least in part) as having arisen from intelligent agency. This raises profound philosophical issues, which is the reason that Darwinists are avoiding it, even to the point of denying that it exists.

If you don’t think that there is anything that could be meaningfully be called ‘biological information’ in living things, then there’s not much that we can talk about. I have no patience for sophistry.

which I took to be the end of that conversation.

So there you have it, folks: Michael Egnor can’t define “biologically relevant information”, no one knows how to measure it, so obviously it’s up to “Darwinists” to do the hard work of formalizing his intuitive notions. But he’s delighted to talk about it if asked politely!

61 thoughts on “Getting Information from Creationists Is Like Pulling Teeth”

  1. arensjb:

    It’s obvi ous that you haven’t actually read the book that you’re quoting from; that you’re just mindlessly parroting what someone else told you it says.

    RKD:

    What a perfect irony. Here we see a man who, having asked me to cite an evolutionary biologist, then accuses me of plagiarism for both citing, and accurately quoting and sourcing, said evolutionary biologist. Notice, carefully, that this slanderous fellow does not claim that I have failed to accurately quote CHARLES DARWIN.

    He could not say that, because every single individual in future history with internet access to a search engine could input the following quote and immediately verify two facts:

    1. Rick DeLano accurately quoted and cited Charles Darwin.

    2. arensjb falsely slandered Rick DeLano as a plagiarist.

    THE QUOTE:

    RKD:
    Sure. “”all the organic beings which have ever lived on this earth have descended from some one primordial form…”- Charlie Darwin, Origin of Species, First edition, p.484

    Now we all know how sometimes, in the heat of battle, tempers can flare, and we can all find ourselves hitting the “post” button just a millisecond before our better natures arrive, screaming at us to calm down first.

    But apparently not, alas, our dear arensjb.

    This fellow, having had a full day to reflect on the moral obligations incumbent upon one who falsely publishes such a serious accusation, decides to continue the pathetic sophist’s tap dance instead. as follows:

    arensjb:

    But there’s an easy way to prove me wrong: what’s the ISBN of the particular edition that you’re quoting from, the one on which the quotation you give appears on p.484?

    RKD:

    How, exactly, does this “prove you wrong”, sir? Anyone with a honest mind, capable of inputting the quote into google, will see in seconds that my quote is accurate, is accurately sourced, and is completely responsive to your original request.

    What possible advantage to you imagine you gain by quibbling like a timid, obfuscating little sophist, so terrified of facing the import ofthe quote, tht you would resort to the sophomoric “ad hominem”?

    I guess what I mean to say is, if you are going to persist in the dishonest, anti-intellectual, reprehensible tap dance to which you have so doggedly committed yourself thus far, could you at least trry to be more witty about it? Try to obfuscate and divert in some more interesting and appealingly ropguish way?

    The alternative, of course, would be to apologize and return to the debate- first off by dealing with the question of from whence the information arises, which converts the “primal form” into you.

    Thank you ever so much for not censoring my comments.

  2. Rick DeLano:

    arensjb:

    But there’s an easy way to prove me wrong: what’s the ISBN of the particular edition that you’re quoting from, the one on which the quotation you give appears on p.484?

    RKD:

    How, exactly, does this “prove you wrong”, sir? Anyone with a honest mind, capable of inputting the quote into google, will see in seconds that my quote is accurate, is accurately sourced, and is completely responsive to your original request.

    In the time it took you to complain about me being a mean ol’ poopy-head, you could have pulled the book from your bookshelf, flipped to the copyright page, and looked up the ISBN. That way, we could make sure we were talking about the same edition of the same book, and could meaningfully refer to page numbers.

    But you didn’t do that. You also quietly dropped my “extra credit” question:

    in the paragraph in which that quotation appears, Darwin gives a reason for concluding universal common descent, as well a specific example. What are they?

    You could have answered this even though you’re bluffing about the rest. But you didn’t even bother looking up one of the online editions of Origin of Species to read that one measly paragraph. Are you really that lazy? Or are you afraid that if you read anything of Darwin’s that hasn’t been cleared by a fellow Church member, somehow demons will come out of the screen into your head and send you into a mad hedonistic rampage of sodomy and puppy-kicking?

    Just so you know: that’s not what’s going to happen. What might happen, however, is even worse: you might learn something, and start to think.

    You also haven’t explained how it is that you came to quote the exact same passages as afdave, down to spacing, punctuation, and typos, if you didn’t copy from him.

    In short, you’re obviously not interested in having an honest discussion, only in scoring cheap rhetorical points.

    return to the debate- first off by dealing with the question of from whence the information arises, which converts the “primal form” into you.

    Okay. earlier, you said

    “Information”, in this context, refers to the instructions in the genetic code, instructions not present in goo, but present in you, which are responsible for the differences between goo and you. Or, if you prefer, “information”, in this context, refers to the changes in genetic code, not present in the “primal form”, but present in drosophilia, which are responsible for the differences between the “primal form” and drosophilia.

    This is a bit fuzzy, so I’d like you to clarify. Let’s say that a particular insecticide works by attaching itself to a particular protein in fruit flies, preventing the protein from working properly, thus killing the fly. Let’s say that a particular fly has a mutation that gives that protein a different shape, so that the insecticide can’t attach to it, thus giving the fly immunity to that insecticide. Does that constitute a gain of information? Why or why not?

    Or another example: in vertebrate embryos, hands and feet start out looking like little ping-pong paddles. Then bones appear inside the “paddle”. At some point, cells between the bones die and fall away, thus forming separate fingers and toes. Let’s say that a given aquatic bird has a mutation that damages the gene that’s supposed to tell the cells to die. The gene is disabled, the digits never become separated, and the bird has webbed feet, which is useful for paddling in water. Does that constitute a gain of information? Why or why not?

    Or let’s say that a plant or animal has two copies of a particular gene, where its parents only had one copy. Is that a gain of information? Why or why not?

    Further, let’s say that a few generations later, one of the copies of the gene undergoes a mutation, and the mutated copy does something different from the unmutated one. Is that a gain of information? Why or why not?

    Once we pin down exactly what you mean by “information” and how to measure it, we can make some progress.

    Thank you ever so much for not censoring my comments.

    You’re welcome.

  3. a sez

    In the time it took you to complain about me being a mean ol’ poopy-head,

    RKD: Actually, a dishonest purveyor of slander. There is a difference. Mean folks are not necessarily immoral folks. To be mean, is not necessarily the same as being a slanderer.

    The difference between the two is serious enough, that I would again invite you to do the right thing and apologize.

    a:
    you could have pulled the book from your bookshelf, flipped to the copyright page, and looked up the ISBN. That way, we could make sure we were talking about the same edition of the same book, and could meaningfully refer to page numbers.

    RKD: How cute. Since anyone following this can input the quote and see it verified on any number of sites, including this one: http://www.talkorigins.org/faqs/origin/chapter14.html
    we are led to the ineluctable conclusion that you remain bereft of any sense of fairness or intellectual honesty. You wouild rather obfuscate, quibble, and slander, than address your opponent’s truthful citation truthfully.

    This is a profound indication of two things:

    1. You are personally not a truthful person.
    2. You are utterly incapable of addressing the issue upon which this debate was joined, that is, the mechanism whereby evolutionary biologists of the Darwinian persuasion propose a single celled primordial form to have evolved into you.
      a:
      But you didn’t do that. You also quietly dropped my “extra credit” question:

    RKD: Until I have received an apology from you, sir, I will consider myself to enjoy a very wide ranging latitude to ignore, delete, selectively engage, or otherwise dispose of any issue you raise. I will do this for two reasons:

    1. You are not an honorable interlocutor, in the absence of said apology;
    2. You have not addressed the issue upon which our debate was initially joined, as in #2 above.

    a
    in the paragraph in which that quotation appears, Darwin gives a reason for concluding universal common descent, as well a specific example. What are they?

    RKD:

    However, I am happy to tactically address your diversions in whatever sequence might seem good to me, until such time as I have received an apology, and our debate has thus resumed upon premises of basic honesty.

    For example, in the instant case above-
    Darwin asserts the common features present in organisms as an evidence of common descent (the evidence argues as easily for common design, of course). He offers an an example the fact that a secretion of an insect produces growths upon a tree (again, this does not prove common descent, any more than it proves common design. It supports both).

    a:
    You could have answered this even though you’re bluffing about the rest.

    RKD:

    I never bluff. I also tend to examine my conscience very rigorously, if it should be brought to my attention that I might have falsely calumniated, slandered, or accused a fellow human being. I commend this practice to you, quite apart from its religious connotations. I wish, again, to bring to your attention the fact that you have publicly, falsely calumniated me, and you ought to ackowledge and apologize for this reprehensible departure from truthfulness.

    a:
    But you didn’t even bother looking up one of the online editions of Origin of Species to read that one measly paragraph. Are you really that lazy? Or are you afraid that if you read anything of Darwin’s that hasn’t been cleared by a fellow Church member, somehow demons will come out of the screen into your head and send you into a mad hedonistic rampage of sodomy and puppy-kicking?

    RKD: It is going to continue to go very badly for you, sir, so long as you imagine that the mere fact that your interlocutor might be a Church member, somehow dispenses you from the obligation of truthfulness.

    a:
    Just so you know: that’s not what’s going to happen.

    RKD: Oh, I have never experienced anything of the sort when reading Darwin. His more fanatically inclined apologists, on the other hand……..but we have already animadverted to that sad-but-true syndrome, whereby the acolytes of certain religions tend to act in such a way as to cover the founders of said religions with ill repute. Darwinism, alas, having evolved into a kind of religious faith among a certain segment of the unChurched, has shown itself not to be immune to the virus of fundamentalism within its body politic.

    a: What might happen, however, is even worse: you might learn something, and start to think.

    RKD: I think I’ll ask you again about where the information comes from that morphs goo into you. Who knows, you might get embarrassed enough at your own hypocrisy here to conceive within your conscience the notion that it were time you attempted an answer.

    I will prepare a respone to the subsequent, extremely hopeful conclusing section of your last post, in hopes that you will admit, like a man, that you muddied up what had started out to be a fairly promising clash with your terribly ill-advised slanders.

  4. Godamn but you’re an annoying twatwaffle of a drama-queen, Ricky. A dishonest, annoying twatwaffle of a drama-queen when one considers the totality and context of the quote:

    Throughout whole classes various structures are formed on the same pattern, and at an embryonic age the species closely resemble each other. Therefore I cannot doubt that the theory of descent with modification embraces all the members of the same class. I believe that animals have descended from at most only four or five progenitors, and plants from an equal or lesser number.

    Analogy would lead me one step further, namely, to the belief that all animals and plants have descended from some one prototype. But analogy may be a deceitful guide. Nevertheless all living things have much in common, in their chemical composition, their germinal vesicles, their cellular structure, and their laws of growth and reproduction. We see this even in so trifling a circumstance as that the same poison often similarly affects plants and animals; or that the poison secreted by the gall-fly produces monstrous growths on the wild rose or oak-tree. Therefore I should infer from analogy that probably all the organic beings which have ever lived on this earth have descended from some one primordial form, into which life was first breathed. — Charles Darwin, On The Origin Of Species

    Note the strong statements such as, “I cannot doubt” and “I believe”, and compare them with the use of qualifiers such as, “I should” and “probably”. Note also the use of an attribution for the quote in question. Be certain to emulate it in the future as you work to cast off the chains of your plagiarism habit when you get around to providing the proof of intelligent design you promised.

  5. Rick DeLano:

    RKD: Actually, a dishonest purveyor of slander.

    Did you come up with the quotations you gave on your own? If so, then why are you unable to provide the ISBN of the books where you found them? And why is your quotation of Thompson exactly the same as afdave’s, right down to the mistakes?

    Or did you rely on afdave, ARN, and/or others to do your research for you? If that’s the case, why didn’t you credit them?

    I never said that the sentence fragment you quoted doesn’t appear in The Origin of Species. What I am saying is that you’ve been using other people’s work without giving them credit.

    Having said that, thanks for at least Googling the paragraph that you were purportedly quoting from. I was right in the post subject: getting information out of creationists really is like pulling teeth.

    I think I’ll ask you again about where the information comes from that morphs goo into you.

    And as soon as you define “information” in an objective and meaningful way, we can start discussing that.

    Michael Egnor demanded that “Darwinists” show where “information” came from, but when I asked him what he meant, he was unable to define it. Now I’m asking you, and you’re not doing any better.

  6. Rick DeLano:

    RKD: Actually, a dishonest purveyor of slander.

    A:
    Did you come up with the quotations you gave on your own?

    rkd:

    What, you are supposing I came up with it through random letter substitution and computer selection?

    a:
    If so, then why are you unable to provide the ISBN of the books where you found them?

    RKD: Where did you specify that the quote had to come from betwen the covers of a physical book, open upon my physical lap? Where did you specify that my quote include an iSBN number….oh dear me. I am sitting here dealing with you as if you were capable of distinguishing between truth and falsehood. You are not capable of this.

    Again. You requested a quote from an evoolutionary biologist. I supplied and cited a perfectly responsive quote from a fellow named Charles Darwin, of whom some have said he knows a thing or two about evolutio.

    From that moment to this, you have carried on like a Stalinist party hack at a show trial, apparently because the quote is rather somwething you had hoped would not be forthcoming.

    It nonetheless has been forthcoming.

    It is completely and conclusively obvious that you are unable to deal with it, and therefore the debate has concluded, and it has been shown that you are unable to defend evolution.

    It is therefore incumbent upon me to take a deep breath and reiterate that, merely because you are such a complete failure as a defender of evolution, it does not necessarily follow that evolution cannot be better defended; that is to say, there might be an individual capable of intellectual honesty, who were likewise convinced of evolution.

    It would be fun to debate someone like that.

    It is rather obvious that none of that sort are presently habitues of this here blogspot………………………….

    RKD earlier:

    I think I’ll ask you again about where the information comes from that morphs goo into you.

    a (aka “the dancing darwinist”?)

    And as soon as you define “information” in an objective and meaningful way, we can start discussing that.

    RKD:
    I have already done so.

    the dancing darwinist:
    Michael Egnor demanded that “Darwinists” show where “information” came from, but when I asked him what he meant, he was unable to define it. Now I’m asking you, and you’re not doing any better.

    RKD: Michael Egnor has engaged men of integrity and committment to scientific truthfulness in public fora. He recognized you for the dishonest little poseur you have shown yourself to be, and decided to not waste his time.

    He is a very much wiser fellow, clearly, than either one of us.

  7. arensb,

    Would someone please explain to me why I bother rescuing this annoying twatwaffle of a drama queen’s comments from the spamtrap?

    Because for all of it’s misplaced arrogance you thought it might be able to engage in a worthwhile discussion or debate of the topic at hand. Turns out your better inclinations were misplaced and it’s not here under honest pretenses. The fucktard has yet to answer a single question posed to it.

    Not to mention that, in keeping with just about every other fundie visitor thus far, it’s too stupid to learn how to quote properly. And it’s a plagiarist.

  8. Holy crap Andrew, you caught a creationist good. This post is nine months old and they’re still biting. Maybe I can duplicate some of the successes here by writing a similar creationist-bashing post on my own blog :-P

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