Originally posted at Adaptive Complexity
Posted July 17, 2006
The National Review has published an article that demonstrates just how intellectually vacuous right-wingers can be. (The link is to a free version, the page also has a link to the article on the NR site). Of course almost all creationists are going to be conservative because of their fundamentalist religious views, but what I don't understand is why other conservatives who claim to have intellectually sound opinions on policy should align themselves with a movement as intellectually bankrupt and dishonest as intelligent design creationism. This is a fight they just aren't going to win, any more than one could win a crusade against quantum mechanics or general relativity. Evolution is real science, and even if somehow creationists managed to get it out of the public school curriculum (which is unlikely, since creationists have lost essentially every major court decision on the issue for the last 40 years), there is just no way research will stop on what is an extremely successful bedrock foundation of biology. The National Review and like-minded conservatives won't break evolutionary biology with this stuff, they will only break their own intellectual credibility.
This article, "Evolution and Me" by George Gilder is what typically results when someone with no real scientific training in biology tries to debunk a technical field like evolutionary biology. Sometimes people seem to forget that science really is hard; this means that it takes a lot of time and effort and at least some formal training to be able to speak intelligently about even basic, textbook-level stuff. To be able to seriously critique the technical details of current research requires even more effort -- you not only need a lot of background knowledge that scientists spend years in grad school acquiring, but you also have read and understand the latest papers and conference talks on the subject. Scientists generally aren't stupid (at least about their own field), and it is really, really, really unlikely that someone with no training in biology will come up with a worthwhile idea that hasn't already been thought of and tried by a working biologist. I'm not trying to be elitist -- this is simply the reality in a tough, competitive profession.
It's no surprise then that George Gilder, who has no training in biology, goes on in this article to make a complete fool of himself in his attempt to take down evolution. Much of article in fact isn't even about evolution (or Darwinism, as he always refers to it, which makes about as much sense as referring to quantum mechanics as 'Schrödingerism'). Gilder, like any good creationist, has to link evolution with Nazism, feminism, Planned Parenthood, and various economic theories that have no basis in the science of evolution. As Richard Feynman said (referring especially to the Uncertainty Principle), "in any case that I have ever seen of any of the philosophical ideas of the sciences dragged out into another field, it's completely distorted, a trivial shadow of its original idea, and it seems in some respects to be quite silly." It's also usually just plain wrong. That doesn't stop Gilder.
The main thrust of Gilder's piece is to argue that information theory logically shows that evolution is impossible. Before looking at the details of this argument, I should point out that if real scientists did find that information theory implies that evolution couldn't occur, they would see this as an indication that information theory is flawed and needs to be revised. Not because scientists dogmatically cling to evolution; it's because the overwhelming physical evidence for evolution would trump a construct like information theory, and as in all good science, theories are tested against evidence. The other problem with Gilbert's whole approach is that he thinks that biologists have ignored information theory, and therefore they have missed its implications. Remember what I said above -- that it's unlikely that a layman has come up with something that professional biologists have missed? That's certainly true here; biologists know about, and even use information theory, especially in fields like genomics and computational biology.
Once Gilder starts trying to talk about real science, he goes wrong right away. (Just so you know that I'm not bashing information theory, I'll say right here that what I present below are Gilder's distorted claims about information theory, and not the real theory itself.) He claims that "information could not be borne by chemical processes alone, because these processes merge or blended the medium and the message, leaving the data unintelligible at the other end." Completely leaving aside evolution, we know this is wrong. Inside a cell, things happen through chemistry. The interactions of DNA, RNA, and proteins in a cell involve only their chemical behavior, and not some outside, mysterious force. Chemistry explains why proteins bind to DNA; an RNA transcript is synthesized from the DNA template because it is energetically favorable to do so in the context of the cell (chemistry!), RNA is translated on ribosomes into proteins, following all the laws of chemistry, and proteins are transported to their final destinations and carry out their functions, all according to the rules of thermodynamics and kinetics (which is called physical chemistry).
I have to clarify that I am not arguing that all biological phenomena are reduced to the laws of chemistry and physics. What we know about biochemistry and cell biology (leaving aside all thoughts of evolution) shows that Gilder is wrong that information cannot be carried "by chemical processes alone;" in the cell "the medium and the message" are not merged in a way that results in incoherence -- cells manage just fine on chemistry and physics without any extra magic to hold them together. In other words, the hypothesis that chemical processes can't handle information is disproved by observable biology. Maybe Gilder thinks there is some unknown force that is really holding the cell together, but he then has to explain why biochemists have been so successful without invoking this mysterious force.
Gilder next brings up a complaint about computer models of evolution that intelligent design creationists can't seem to let go, even though the flaw in their reasoning is obvious. Gilder claims models that simulate evolution actually refute evolution because they show "the need for intelligence and teleology (targets) in any creative process" due to the fact that a human has to program them. But these models show no such thing; computer models are there to test the implications of a theory, given a set of initial conditions. Just because a human being programs these conditions into a computer model doesn't mean that nature can't set up similar conditions without any intelligent design. And in fact we see this kind of thing at work in nature all the time, in the selection we can actually observe. Gilder's theory says this can't happen, but we observe that it does -- Gilder's theory is wrong. Real science proceeds by testing. Intelligent Design Creationists try to do science only by theorizing.
Gilder keeps making statements about computers, and then says that these facts about computers mean that evolution is impossible in biology. He never really makes much of an argument for why these facts about computers have to apply to biology too: "In a computer, as information theory shows, the content is manifestly independent of its substrate," and this offers an "insuperable obstacle to Darwinian materialism." (Again, note the language here -- Gilder prefers 'Darwinian materialism' to evolutionary biology. Does Gilder think he's talking about science or philosophy?) First of all, we don't use information theory to show us anything about the independence of content and substrate in a computer - we simply look at how the computer is designed to determine that. Once more Gilder thinks that theories by themselves show what's possible and what's not; if the observations don't support the theory, so much the worse for the observations! Second, just because it's true in a computer doesn't mean it's true in a cell. We can look at a cell and see that the means of information processing are different.
Some paragraphs in Gilder's piece are so completely incoherent that I can't really figure out the argument he's trying to make:
The failure of purely physical theories to describe or explain information reflects Shannon's concept of entropy and his measure of "news." Information is defined by its independence from physical determination: If it is determined, it is predictable and thus by definition not information. Yet Darwinian science seemed to be reducing all nature to material causes.
Gilder is so confused it's hard to know where to start. The sentence "Information is defined by its independence from physical determination" does not mean the same thing as the independence from a physical substrate that he's been jabbering on about; the phrase "physical determination" is really meaningless in the way Gilder is using it. Shannon's definition of information has to do with the uncertainty of a recipient before a message is received; if the content of the message is completely determined in a way that's known by the recipient in advance, then the information content is zero. This has nothing to do with 'physical theories to describe information' (can Gilder name any of the physical theories he's talking about?) or 'independence' from 'physical determination.' Gilder is just stringing technical-sounding sentences together with no content.
The rest of the essay is no more coherent than the first part. There are some gems like this: "By asserting that the DNA message precedes and regulates the form of the proteins, and that proteins cannot specify a DNA program, Crick's Central Dogma unintentionally recapitulates St. John's assertion of the primacy of the word over the flesh." So it was not just Shannon, but also the Bible that says information is independent of its substrate! I still don't know what Gilder's point is here -- information can be processed through a variety of different media, but how does this prove that evolution is impossible?
Gilder just can't let his ideas of information go, no matter how irrelevant they are to his discussion. He describes an atom as a "complex arena of quantum information," but an atom is made up of quantum particles -- electrons buzz around protons and neutrons, not information. He goes on about how a cell processes information at a thousand times the speed of the latest IBM supercomputer; guess, what, that's because cells work through chemical reactions, which can be extremely fast, and which a few paragraphs earlier Gilder dismissed as unable to process information.
No anti-evolutionist comes without conspiracy theories. Gilder says the "emergence of the cell as supercomputer precipitated a mostly unreported wave of consternation." This consternation led Richard Dawkins come up with the word meme "to incorporate information in biology... But in the end Dawkins's memes are mere froth on the surface of a purely chemical tempest, fictive reflections of material reality rather than a governing level of information." Huh?!? Note to Gilder: cells do not have memes. What any of this has to do with biological evolution is a mystery.
Gilder claims that "we now know" that our knowledge of chemistry and physics cannot tell us anything about "the origins of life or the processes of computation or the sources of consciousness or the nature of intelligence or the causes of economic growth." OK, I'll concede that we don't study chemistry to learn about economic growth. As for "the processes of computation" - is Gilder claiming that quantum computing is not physics? And speaking of biological 'computation,' that has nothing to do with biochemistry? Concerning the origins of life, all Gilder can apparently do is just ignore the chemical experiments that have been used to study all the ways proteins and nucleic acids could have formed under the conditions on the early earth. Notice again the language Gilder uses -- 'We know now...' that x,y, and z is impossible, not because of experiments, but because of a priori theorizing.
This is not how you do science, but this problem crops up over and over in Gilder's essay. Kurt Gödel proved this so biology can't do that. Mathematician David Berlinski (an anti-evolutionist himself) concluded x, so biology can't do y. "Mathematician Gregory Chaitin has shown that biology is irreducibly complex..." Intelligent Design Creationists are almost all philosophers, mathematicians, or theologians, and they just don't seem to get that scientific research involves lab experiments, or field studies, or even computer simulations. To quote Richard Feynman again, "Experiment is the sole judge of scientific 'truth.'" This is the reason why Intelligent Design Creationists have produced no scientific research -- they think evolution can be disproved by their theorizing. Biology is so damn complicated and diverse that almost any sweeping a priori statement that 'biology, in principle, could never do x' is immediately suspect.
And yet sometimes Gilder seems like he does get it - he says "real science is practical and demonstrable." (Unfortunately, he then immediately cites Thomas Edison as an exemplar of the practical scientist -- Edison most definitely was not a scientist -- he produced inventions, not scientific research.) Yes, real science is demonstrable (although not always practical). Evolution has been studied in the field and in the lab. Scientists have used experiments to study mutation, natural selection, and many other aspects of evolution. Evolution, through comparative genomics, helps us to identify the function of genes linked to diseases. That's pretty damn practical. Even so, real science always has uncertainties, which is why there is still ongoing research. Gilder says that "the pretense that Darwinian evolution is a complete theory of life is a huge distraction... from the rigor and grandeur of real scientific discovery." Nobody has ever claimed that evolution is a "complete theory of life" except for the straw man that Gilder is attacking.
We've wandered a long way from Gilder's ostensible original point, which wasn't that clear to me in the first place. While the logical connection between Gilder's paragraphs is indecipherable (some information is apparently getting lost in the medium!), Gilder towards the end helpfully produces the conclusion we're supposed to draw, the Discovery Institute talking point that "Where there is information, there is a preceding intelligence."
And of course, we know this because theory shows it to be correct, real observations be damned. Advice to the National Review: if you value your credibility, stay as far away from guys like Gilder as you can.
Michael White is a postdoctoral researcher in the Department of Genetics and the Center for Genome Sciences at Washington University in St. Louis.