New information

I’ve posted about “new information” in the past, but I recently wrote this for some friends and figured it may as well go up here, too.

This is from a YouTube video by some dishonest creationists who poorly edited a video to make it look like Richard Dawkins couldn’t answer a question. It doesn’t deserve to be linked.

“[Is there] an example of a genetic mutation or an evolutionary process which can be seen to increase the information in the genome?”

The answer is yes. But I won’t get to the heart of the question right away. It needs explaining.

A definition of “information” is drastically needed here. It’s a term that doesn’t really mean anything in the given context. However, we can ascribe it some definition which is useful. My best proposition is that it can mean DNA itself (nucleic acids), amino acids, or genes. I’ll tackle DNA first.

Our genetic code consists of four ‘letters’, A, C, T, and G (or adenine, cytosine, thymine, and guanine). These four letters are mixed in a huge number of ways in order to form amino acids. It is amino acids which compose our genes. But let’s slow down.

An amino acid is composed of 3 letters. Let’s say we have CGU. That makes arginine. If we replace that final letter with, say, another “C”, we have CGC. As it happens, that still gives us arginine. Different letter combinations can make the same amino acid. When a mutation occurs which does this, it’s called a silent mutation. It’s neutral and natural selection is blind to it.

Now let’s say we change that middle “G” to an “A”.That gives us CAC, or histidine. This is a completely different amino acid. It’s presence in a given gene in place of arginine can have potentially huge consequences. This single letter substitution is called a missense mutation. (It is also called a point mutation because just one letter was changed; the same applies to the arginine example.)

So as should be clear, single letters of DNA can be considered information because they can have profound effects on genes, which in turn affect how proteins are made. However, we have another avenue.

An amino acid can be considered information because it is more directly responsible for the changes to how a protein operates than a simple letter. Personally, I prefer this option the least, but I digress.

Genes are composed of chains of amino acids. Some can be quite short while others range into the hundreds, even thousands. Recall how an amino acid is composed of a series of 3 letters of DNA. That means those letters go back to back to back to back to etc…, each set of 3 making an amino acid. After one triplet, there’s another. And another. Each “another” is an amino acid. (Eventually, a gene can be defined, at least one way, by identifying where the stop codons are – triplets which tell the gene that it is at its end, thus releasing the amino acid chain.)

But if we’re going to call amino acids information, we may as well go a step further and just say genes. And this gets more to the heart of the question. Genes essentially determine what protein will be made (epigenetic or environmental factors are important, but there’s no need for those here). A mutated gene is mutated information, at least in a sense. So how can an evolutionary process be seen to increase the information in a given genome?

It’s actually pretty simple. DNA is far from perfect. It has incredibly high fidelity, meaning it makes few copying errors, but it isn’t perfect. That’s one way we get mutations. Another thing we can get is extra copies of genes. There are a myriad of ways this can occur which I will not discuss here. But it does occur all the time. In one recent text, I read of 12 copies of a gene for seeing green in relation to eyesight.

So what does it mean to have too many copies of a gene? Sometimes it can mean a lot. A lot of the time, though, it doesn’t have to mean too much, such as with the aforementioned case. But what happens to all those extra copies in the next generation, especially if they have no real world (phenotypic) results? They are not subject to the pressures of natural selection. They are free to mutate in whatever way they ‘please’. This gives these genes a huge range to become useful in other ways. In this case, they may affect vision acuity or color sharpness and that may be an advantage.

This is, for all intents and purposes, new information.

A gene gets duplicated. It mutates. It becomes useful, by chance, in some other way. It is subject to the pressures of natural selection. For that reason, it is maintained in the gene pool. Those with this gene have increased the size of the ‘information’ in their genomes.


The sad state of science

At least it’s sad among the public. There’s a new survey in Britain that confirms this.

In the survey, 51 per cent of those questioned agreed with the statement that “evolution alone is not enough to explain the complex structures of some living things, so the intervention of a designer is needed at key stages”

A further 40 per cent disagreed, while the rest said they did not know.

The suggestion that a designer’s input is needed reflects the “intelligent design” theory, promoted by American creationists as an alternative to Darwinian evolution.

Asked whether it was true that “God created the world sometime in the last 10,000 years”, 32 per cent agreed, 60 per cent disagreed and eight per cent did not know.

A third of people in Britain believe the world began sometime around the agricultural revolution. That’s inanity. These people do not believe with any reason, but with stupid, stubborn, ill-formed faith. The worst part is that some of the same numbers are reflected in the teacher population.

Interestingly, this article takes on the subject a little more directly. Rather than simply remain topical and report on the survey plus a few recent events, it ventures into some of the points in the creationism-evolution debate.

Paul Woolley, the director of Theos said: “Darwin is being used by certain atheists today to promote their cause.

“The result is that, given the false choice of evolution or God, people are rejecting evolution.”

There is a tad bit of truth in what Woolley is saying, but not in his primary message. The choice is clear: either the world needs a designer or it does not. The answer is that it does not. Of course, that does not mean God does not exist. He very well may. That, unfortunately for theists, does mean God is a superfluous idea, whether he be a personal god or simply a deity.

Where Woolley gets it right is that people do perceive this choice and thus reject evolution. These people are known as “dumb”.

Prof Dawkins expressed dismay at the findings of the ComRes survey, of 2,060 adults, which he claimed were confirmation that much of the population is “pig-ignorant” about science.

“Obviously life, which was Darwin’s own subject, is not the result of chance,” he said.

“Any fool can see that. Natural selection is the very antithesis of chance.

“The error is to think that God is the only alternative to chance, and Darwin surely didn’t think that because he himself discovered the most important non-theistic alternative to chance, namely natural selection.”

Methinks the journalist is rather familiar with the issue and knew what questions to ask Dawkins. I almost want to say he simply quoted Dawkins from some writings not directly related to this article, but that would be irresponsible of me. At any rate, it sounds like we have some attempt at a tad bit of science education going on here. Natural selection is not chance. We don’t need to know that for the purposes of the article, but it is good to know, none-the-less.

Lord Carey, the former Archbishop of Canterbury, accused Dawkins of evolving into a “very simple kind of thinker”.

He said: “His argument for atheism goes like this: either God is the explanation for the wide diversity of biological life, or evolution is. We know that evolution is true. Therefore, God doesn’t exist.

“I’m an evangelical Christian, but I have no difficulties in believing that evolution is the best scientific account we have for the diversity of life on our planet.”

That’s a honker of a strawman. Dawkins argument is closer to this: God is necessarily complex. Complex things do not come about by chance. Either God came about by chance or he is the product of natural principles. If the answer is chance, then we’re just proposing the question we sought to answer. That is, we want to know how all this complexity (the Universe and all it entails) came to be. It cannot be random chance. By postulating God, we’re postulating something more complex. If the Universe cannot be chance, God cannot be chance. If the answer is natural principles, then he isn’t much of a God, is he?

Of course, there is another option: God is beyond Nature and thus neither chance nor the product of anything. At this point we’ve ventured into la-la land. This is blind guessing with no basis, no evidence. It may be true, but we have no reason to be postulating it, much less any reason to think it remotely reasonable. If God is beyond Nature, not only can we not study him, we cannot experience anything related to him. If we can experience him, then he is within Nature and thus we are able to study him. Of course, there is nothing in Nature which shows a link to some exo-Universe being, so let’s move on and discuss things that make sense.

Just for fun

Here’s another Michael Heath rebuttal (he doesn’t allow dissent in his comment section). I’m not particularly trying to troll the guy or pick on him, but I have to admit I was hoping to find something anti-evolution on his blog. I know he’s made short mention of evolution being a problem, but he has yet to create any explicit article denouncing the foundation of all of biology.

Fortunately, Heath made this post where he blathers on in pride over his bigotry. He makes this statement at the end.

We are dedicated to the proposition that sex outside of marriage is wrong.

Our civilization will continue to nurture this truth, or it will die.

Actually, Mr. Heath, civilizations will continue to thrive because of sex. That isn’t even Bio 101. What Heath means is that civilizations which promote his brand of morality will die. And all the better for it. As he says,

The Bible is the most discomfiting book on the planet.

This is a rare instance where Heath may agree with someone of the likes of Richard Dawkins