Part 1 of the book we are discussing is devoted to a scientific critique of theistic evolution. The crux of the critique is that evolution is not a viable scientific theory and therefore it doesn’t make sense to try to connect it with Christianity. The claim that evolution is not viable has two main prongs. One is that evolution cannot account for the creation of new information as needed to generate the current biosphere. The other is that there is insufficient evidence for universal common descent. I will address the latter in the next post and I have already partially considered the first one in a previous post. In this post I want to focus more specifically on this first claim that evolution cannot create new information.
The first claim is sometimes called the “Law of Conservation of Information” which can be simply summarized as “new information can only be created by an intelligent agent.” The ubiquitous increase in complexity and information observed in the biosphere is therefore evidence that evolution is an inadequate explanation of nature and that there must be an intelligent agent that we as Christians worship as our God.
Very simply, there is no such universal law. It is an invention of the ID community to extend the concept to biology and is repeated often enough to become familiar to many. In their book An Introduction to Evolutionary Informatics, which I reviewed in the June 2017 issue of PSCF, Marks, et. al., trace the origin of this so-called law to Lady Asa Lovelace. She worked closely with Charles Babbage on mechanical computational machines and pondered the ability of machines to behave like humans. In the ensuing years, there have been many debates about whether artificial intelligence really exists and whether computer simulations can truly generate new information. Those who argue that computers cannot do so have coined the term “law of conservation of information” to lend credence to the argument. I do not wish to argue in this post whether or not computer simulations truly generate new information without it being inserted by intelligent agents. I believe it depends considerably on the precise definition of information being used. My main concern is to point out that whatever merit it may have in computer simulations or in artificial intelligence, it is not a universal law and there is no basis for extending it elsewhere, particularly to biology.
It must be pointed out that the definition of information used by the ID community is very different from that used in the scientific discipline of Information Theory. Marks, et. al., make this point very clearly. They reject the physical view of information as defined by Claude Shannon and Rolf Landauer and other pioneers of information theory, claiming it is of no interest to them. Rather they only want to focus on the meaning of information, which was explicitly excluded by Claude Shannon. This resonates with the general public who think of information more as who won the Super Bowl or what’s on sale at Walmart than the physical basis of information. The meaning of information is contextual and cannot be quantified. Therefore, it cannot be addressed scientifically in the same way as physical information..
An example of physical information would be the material shape of a letter of the alphabet, whether the distribution of ink on paper or a trace in the sand. Another example would be any sequence of letters or numbers. The number of ways in which letters of the alphabet can be arranged in, say, five letter words, can easily be quantified. In contrast, the meaning of the shape of a letter of the alphabet or of a sequence of five letters cannot be expressed as an equation or some universal criterion. It is not a physical entity but an abstract relationship.
Interestingly, meaning can also refer to a physical function as well as an abstract relationship. Specifically in biology, the meaning of a DNA sequence and the protein for which it encodes can be a specific necessary biochemical reaction. Even though the meaning is a physical process, it cannot be quantified since the need for a particular reaction is dependent on the environment, on the biochemical reactions leading from the DNA to the protein, and on the survival needs of the larger organism in which it exists.
Steve Meyer is well known for popularizing the law of conservation of information with a simple assertion. He often repeats some variation of this theme: “All our experience is that information is generated only by an intelligent source. Thus biological information can only come from an intelligent designer.” To illustrate his point, he cites in some depth a variety of examples such as language, computer software, telephone numbers, engineering marvels, etc.
This striking example of inductive reasoning would normally be rejected by the ubiquitous observation of information being generated without an intelligent agent, just as the 1697 discovery of a black swan falsified the inductive expectation that all swans were white. Dennis Venema has amply provided numerous such examples in his 14-part series at this BioLogos site, and we can all observe it in every reproductive event in the biosphere. But no, the position of Meyer and colleagues is that all these examples are not truly “new” or are inadequate to account for macroevolution or simply show that there must have been an intelligent designer to generate all this information. In my opinion, this is circular reasoning to the extreme.
To make a credible case, Meyer should have analyzed the examples he offered in an effort to understand just why the examples he cites require intelligent sources and whether those requirements exist in the realm of biology. I have personally asked him to do that but he has not done so. I would suggest that the reasons why his proffered examples require intelligent sources is that they are all instances of human-designed systems. All of them involve abstract relationships in some form for either the formation, operation, or verification of the system. Since abstract reasoning is one of the hallmarks of intelligence, it follows that each of those systems requires intelligence. In sharp contrast, no abstract relationship has been detected in the biosphere. All activity involves some kind of biochemical reactivity. Some would counter that the genetic code is an abstract relationship but it is only our human description of that code that is abstract. The actual nucleosomes, amino acids, ribosomes, etc. perform their physical activity without involving any abstraction in formation or operation. Even the verification, meaning the effectiveness of enabling survival of the organism, is physical. No abstract relationship is required. Hence, Meyer’s appeal to “all our experience” cannot be extended to biological information.
Virtually the entire book, from the supposed scientific critique to the philosophical and theological critiques based on it, depends on this fundamentally flawed claim that new information requires an intelligent agent. Without it, the critique of theistic evolution fails.