Thursday, June 6, 2013

Open access to Biological Information: New Perspectives

I previously raised an eyebrow at an editor of Springer’s “Intelligent Systems Reference Library,” in which the creationist volume Biological Information: New Perspectives (eds. Robert J. Marks II, Michael J. Behe, William A. Dembski, Bruce L. Gordon, and John C. Sanford) was scheduled to appear. The proceedings of the secret scientific symposium of scientists and “scientists”…

In the spring of 2011 a diverse group of scientists gathered at Cornell University with an eye on the major new principles that might be required to unravel the problem of biological information. These scientists included experts in information theory, computer science, numerical simulation, thermodynamics, evolutionary theory, whole organism biology, developmental biology, molecular biology, genetics, physics, biophysics, mathematics, and linguistics. Original scientific research was presented and discussed at this symposium, which was then written up, and constitute most of the twenty-four peer-edited papers in this volume.
… (did I mention science?) that took place at, but not under the auspices of, Cornell University have migrated to World Scientific. You can read the volume online, free of charge.

The big surprise is that “Section Four: Biological Information and Self-Organizational Complexity Theory” comprises two dissenting papers, one by Stuart Kauffman (whose views on many things are similar to my own), and the other by Bruce H. Weber. Although editor Gordon is none too clear on the matter in his introduction to the section, it appears that Kauffman and Weber actually contributed to a previous secret meeting, the proceedings of which were never published.

Their involvement in this project traces back to a 2007 conference I organized in Boston under the auspices of the Discovery Institute’s Center for Science and Culture. The conference commemorated the famous 1967 Wistar Symposium on “Mathematical Challenges to the Neo-Darwinian Interpretation of Evolution.” [...] The general perception among the participants in the Boston symposium, as with the participants in the Cornell University conference giving rise to this compendium, is that the mathematical and biological challenges posed to the modern evolutionary synthesis (neo-Darwinism) have not been resolved, but actually have grown more acute as our knowledge of molecular biology, cell biology, developmental biology, and genetics has exploded.
Gee, that sounds like “these guys are on our side.” But here’s the second half of Weber’s abstract:
Presently, however, there is ferment in the Darwinian Research Tradition as new knowledge from molecular and developmental biology, together with the deployment of complex systems dynamics, suggests that an expanded and extended evolutionary synthesis is possible, one that could be particularly robust in explaining the emergence of evolutionary novelties and even of life itself. Critics of Darwinism need to address such theoretical advances and not just respond to earlier versions of the research tradition.
So Gordon contradicts Weber while trying to paint him as an ally. He makes a fine point of the inadequacy of the “modern evolutionary synthesis (neo-Darwinism),” which is hardly where Darwinian evolutionary theory stands today. Kauffman highlights in his abstract the essential reason that the information measures of Dembski and Marks go nowhere in biology.
Biological evolution rests on both quantum random and classical non-random natural selection and whole-part interactions that render the sample space of adjacent biological possibilities unknowable.
I’ve heard him put it more simply: We don’t know the phase space. This means that it is impossible to assign probabilities to evolutionary trajectories. And taking logarithms of probabilities is how Dembski and Marks get information.

I wrote “scientists and ‘scientists’” above because only two of the five editors are scientists, and because engineers, computer scientists, and mathematicians have contributed heavily.

Unsurprisingly, about half of the “new perspectives” are variations on old themes of why evolution doesn’t work. John C. Sanford, a young-earth creationist who believes that genomes have been going to hell in a handbasket since the Fall of Man, authored seven of the papers and one of the section introductions. Dembski, Marks, Montañez and Ewert continue to bash evolutionary computation, including artificial life.

Jonathan Wells shocks us by reporting, “Not Junk After All: Non-Protein-Coding DNA Carries Extensive Biological Information.” Other papers show that the genetic code is fine-tuned, and furthermore that DNA sequences and computer code look much alike, with appropriate visualization. I’m sure there are other sensations to be found on closer inspection of the volume.


  1. You'll find coverage of the 2007 Boston meeting at pandasthumb:

    1. That's what I linked to with "previous secret meeting." I knew the phrase was too vague. Thanks for making it explicit.

  2. It is despicable how such people call yourselves "open-minded" and scientists, yet proceed with nothing but ad-hominem and defamation. It would be nice, if there was a shred of intellectual honesty within any of you.

    It reminds me of papal reign that subdued theories of science considered to undermine papal authority. Rabid-Fanatical Evolutionary theorists...the new Inquisitorial church and religion. They brandish themselves most tolerant, while not accepting anything that even remotely challenges a theory they hold dear.

    1. No one prominent in the ID movement has ever accused me of intellectual dishonesty or defamation or ad hominem arguments. Prior to the Dover trial, Bill Dembski referred Kenneth Chang, a New York Times science writer, to me as a fair-minded critic of ID. When Baylor University gave the boot to Bob Marks' website for the Evolutionary Informatics Lab, I regarded that as infringement of his academic freedom. I contacted the regents and upper-level administrators of the school, and exchanged email and phone calls with some of them. I also protested by affiliating myself with the Lab for a time. Funny how that didn't make its way into the documentary Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed, ain't it?

      As for Biological Information: New Perspectives, you will see, if you follow the link at the beginning of this post, that I did not object to its publication. I suggested that Springer classify it as speculative philosophy, rather than science, and gave a good reason for doing so. You may disagree with me on the status of ID, but you cannot make me out to be intolerant or censorial. I'll add that Casey Luskin has fabricated a story of how the "Darwin Defenders" pressured Springer to cancel publication of the book. It happens that I was in communication behind the scenes with people he thinks were responsible, and know for a fact that they agreed to do nothing that the Discovery Institute might construe as censorship. (I think I still have the email notes filed away.) Of course, that didn't stop the fast-talking little shyster in Seattle from cranking out propaganda, did it?

      In short, you really should find out something about the individual you are addressing before dumping a load of boilerplate on him.