Re: Not enough info for your brain (was Re: Dawkins video)

Brian D Harper (
Thu, 18 Jun 1998 23:25:04 -0400

At 08:29 PM 6/17/98 -0500, Glenn wrote:

>At 02:42 PM 6/17/98 -0400, Brian D Harper wrote:
>>>but if you have information in the environment affecting development and
>>>morphology, then you are an evolutionist. :-) This is precisely what the ID
>>>folks are trying to evolve. And besides, information in the environment is
>>>fluid as opposed to their concept of a static set of info in the DNA.
>>Glenn, I think this is overly simplistic and unfair. There are a
>>number of creationists with background in developmental biology
>>and I find it hard to believe they don't understand the importance
>>of context in development.

>OK, I don't want to be unfair. But it isn't context of the information that
>I am arguing about. I don't think. Obviously they know that the
>dorsal/ventral split in developmental programs depends upon location. But
>that is not quite what I was trying (very poorly) to say. The information
>for the dog, was not originally on earth except in the potential of the
>environment to alter the development pland of some pre-canid. Getting
>information from the environment in a feedback loop is evolution. The way I
>saw it was that those who hold to progressive creation, special creation or
>variants thereof, argue that information HAD to have been placed into the
>cells of the various animals by God, not by the environment. Am I wrong?

I think you are right on this. In my previous message I was taking
environment and context as synonymous, i.e. I was taking environment
to mean the local environment or context of development. The argument
being that not all information had to be stored in DNA. From the above
its apparent that by environment you mean external environment. I would
tend to agree that information induced from the external environment would
not be amenable to the ID position. But it seems that your own position
has been weakened somewhat. It seems to me anyway that there is a much
greater potential for information storage if one considers the DNA and the
developmental context. Is it enough to completely specify the
structure of the brain? My own view is that it is not. But there
seems to be another alternative to your competition scenario, although
I must admit that that idea is really interesting. The alternative
is that the developmental process itself generates new information.
I doubt though that this alternative would be appealing to the
ID'er as the spontaneous generation of information by a natural
process is probably somewhat counter to what they are hoping for :).

>>I believe (correct me if I'm wrong) your conclusion comes from
>>the following type of argument: Against the claim that irreducible
>>complexity cannot arise by natural mechanisms someone gives the
>>counter example of the development of an oak from a seed. The
>>counter to this is that the development is directed by an
>>intelligently designed irreducibly complex genetic program. The
>>fault here lies in not thinking carefully enough about the
>>answer. In my understanding of ID, the cell and its biochemical
>>machinery is irreducibly complex and thus designed. Thus, from
>>the ID point of view both the genetic information and its context
>>(the cell) are part of the irreducibly complex system.

>I think you are correct in your assessment, but often the IDers start with
>the need for information first.
>"Information theorist Hubert Yockey argues that the information needed to
>begin life could not have developed by chance; he suggests that life be
>considered a given, like matter or energy."~Michael J. Behe, Darwin's Black
>Box, (New York: The Free Press, 1996), p. 29
>Now, I will state, that this may very well be so, that something needs to
>kick-start the system and radical reductionists have not proven the case
>where it comes to the origin of life. But they may someday.

The quote of Behe regarding Yockey's position is very interesting.
Let's divide into two separate statements as follows:

< 1) "Information theorist Hubert Yockey argues that the information
< needed to begin life could not have developed by chance;"
< 2) "he suggests that life be considered a given, like matter or energy."

There is no doubt that each of these statements, taken separately,
accurately describes Yockey's views. He does not believe life could
have originated by chance. This does not mean that he does not
believe life could have originated by natural means and without
the intervention of an intelligent agent, i.e. for Yockey there are
more than two possibilities (chance and intelligent design).
Paradoxically, Yockey actually proposes multiple origins of life
as a possibility.

The second statement is more difficult to understand. The term
Yockey uses is axiom, "life must be accepted as an axiom." This
has the same meaning of course as life being "considered a given".
Hopefully people will have some recollection of our previous
discussions of undecidability. Another way to express Yockey's
position is to say that life is undecidable. What does he mean by
this weird statement? Life is undecidable? Really? Here we are, surely
everyone can decide on that :). To illustrate, suppose that you are
trying to develop a mathematical system which contains say four axioms.
You want to draw a certain conclusion A from these axioms but
find that it cannot be done, A is undecidable given the four
axioms. Therefore, you add A to your list of axioms, you now
have five axioms. The point wrt life is that given only the
laws of chemistry and physics and a suitable prebiotic environment,
one cannot decide whether life will arise or not.

Creationists seem to enjoy this quote by Yockey, but seem to
forget that undecidable means undecidable, it is not a synonym
for intelligent design.

Oh, I forgot what one of my points was going to be :). The two
statements above are both accurate but difficult to understand
and thus very easy to arrive at the wrong conclusion. Things
are made worse when you combine the two. For example, your
assesment "that something needs to kick-start the system" may
very well be what Behe is driving at but it is not in any way
a conclusion that Yockey would endorse. Undecidable is undecidable.

GM quoting Behe:==
> " "Future research could take several directions. work could be
>undertaken to determine whether information for designed systems could lie
>dormant for long periods of time, or whether the information would have to
>be added close to the time when the system became operational. Since the
>simplest possible design scenario posits a single cell- formed billions of
>years ago--that already contained all information to produce descendant
>organisms, other studies could test this scenario by attempting to
>calculate how much DNA would be required to code the information (keeping
>in mind that much of the information might be implicit). If DNA alone is
>insufficient, studies could be initiated to see if information could be
>stored in the cell in other ways-- for example, as positional information."
>Behe, Darwin's Black Box, p. 231

In view of this quote, I think I'll have to retract, to some extent anyway,
my criticism that you were being overly simplistic. It does seem that Behe
is proposing just what you suggested, at least as a starting point.

At first it seems so surprising but perhaps it isn't. In fact, the idea
seems very similar to a very old notion of development (I forget the name)
wherein it was thought that every individual that has ever existed and
that could exist or will exist in the future has actually always existed
in the seed of the first created representative of each kind. Behe's
notion seems a somewhat reduced form of this. The individual does not
pre exist, but the information required to construct the individual

GM quoting Gange:===
>"Prigogine won the 1977 Nobel Prize for mathematically showing that under
>certain conditions physical matter can undergo a change from a disorganized
>state to one of greater organization. He later inferred (without proof)
>that life could have come into being this way; and he also failed to
>identify any source for the information that it required. Furthermore, in
>discussions regarding the question of life, his equations do not account
>for the vast magnitude of information existing within biological
>structures, which enables them to coherently function as efficient oxygen
>burning organic machines." ~ Dr. Robert Gange, Origins and Destiny, (Waco:
>Word, 1986), p. 81

I guess my main criticism of this quote has to do with Prigogine's
supposed failure to identify the source for the information. In a sense,
there may be some question begging here. Demanding a source for the
information presupposes a static situation where instructions are
imposed from without and then followed. This fails to recognize the
spirit of the self-organizing paradigm. Information is dynamic and
can arise spontaneously. I'm not saying that this view has been
established conclusively or anything, only that its a possibility.
I don't see any reason to assume _a-priori_ that information is
immutable and can only be passed to a system from an outside source.

This reminds me of an insight I gained awhile back from some book
I was reading, forget which one at the moment. The author was
warning against the use of metaphors and in particular a confusion
between reality and the metaphor. He mentioned that there was a
time when the brain was thought to act like a complex pneumatic
device. It is probably not surprising that this metaphor was in
vogue at precisely the time when this happened to be high technology.
Today we think of the brain as a computer and DNA as miniature
floppy disks .... All of our thinking seems directed by whatever
happens to be the high tech of the moment. Maybe the analogy is
just as horrible as the idea of a pneumatic brain. Maybe brains
are not really like computers at all. I appreciate the comments
that Greg has been making. What's really going on in the cell
may be much too complicated to be captured by simple analogies.

>>Truth be known, I believe the type things you and Greg are
>>discussing are at least as problematic (probably more so)
>>for the ultra-Darwinian. Here the concept of a genetic
>>program which directs development seems to me to be crucial.

>If we are talking about the origin of life, then I fully agree. But once
>you have a replicative system, mutation and selection can take over as my
>computer programs on my web page show.

This is true but this skirts the point I was trying to make wrt the
complexities of developmental processes posing potential problems
for neo-Darwinism. The potential problems have to do with developmental
constraints. These would obviously not show up in a model like yours
as there is no analog to development in the model. One goes directly
from genes to phenotype in one fell swoop without an intermediate
developmental stage. This is not really a criticism of your models,
just a comment that they do not model the type things I'm interested
in here.

Let me illustrate what I mean by returning to the example of
spiral phyllotaxy which I discussed awhile ago. But we have
to forget for the moment some of the previously mentioned details.
Suppose you are a neo-Darwinist, adaptationist extraordinaire and
you observe in nature 13 different divergence angles in spiral
phyllotaxis with one being predominant. What would you conclude?
Probably that the predominantly observed angle conferred some
advantage and was thus selected for. You might then develop an
historical narrative to explain this form. But what about the other
forms? Historical narratives can also be constructed for these,
most likely involving historical contingencies (accidents). Evolution
cannot plan ahead after all, and it can only work with what it has,
it cannot start over from scratch. etc. etc. etc. The important
point here is that the preferred answer to the question "why this
particular form" for neo-Darwinists is history. And the factor
which provides for historical continuity, descent with modification,
is genetics. Thus the central role for describing development in
terms of a genetic program.

OK, now for an alternative view. You develop a sophisticated model
describing the process of growth during phyllotaxis. The model
contains some stochastic features, is highly nonlinear and has
multiple solutions. Due to a seeming quirk in the model it turns
out that one divergence angle is highly preferred. Others are
possible but much less probable. You work out the probabilities
of each divergence angle and find that those probabilities agree
very well with the frequencies at which the forms are observed
in nature. Now what is your answer to "why this particular form"?
The answer seems obvious. The form is determined by the generative
laws of morphogenesis. What does history have to do with it? Nothing.
Does natural selection play a significant role? No. So you see
how such a view produces anti-Darwinians.

But there is another, perhaps more important anti-Darwinian implication.
If development is in general highly constrained then there are no
longer a vast near infinitude of potential forms that have to be
sifted out over time by the Grand Reaper, er I mean the Blind
Watchmaker. This could allow evolution to proceed very quickly
in some cases. Not so quickly as to be saltational, but perhaps
quickly enough that the effects of Natural Selection are not
significant. Yes yes, very speculative thoughts, but interesting
I think.

But all clouds have their silver linings. The notion that natural
selection is a tautology that is unfalsifiable is put to rest.
IMHO, the example above does indeed falsify the position that the
divergence angle in spiral phyllotaxy results from natural selection.

>>I haven't kept any statistics on this, but my reading
>>suggests that an inordinately large proportion of anti-Darwinist
>>evolutionists come from a background of developmental or structural
>>biology. Is this coincidental? I don't think so. Come to think
>>of it, I found out something about Denton that I hadn't
>>known previously. For some reason I thought his training was
>>in molecular biology, but according to the jacket of his
>>new book his PhD is in developmental biology. Another data
>>point :).
>Who else?

The best way to introduce the "who else's" is probably by way of
giving the following quote which is the first sentence of the
preface of Webster and Goodwin's book <Form and Transformation>

< "In a summary of his discussion of morphology in the <Origin of
< Species> Darwin concludes that "On this ... view of descent
< with modification, all the great facts in morphology become
< intelligible" (1859, p. 433). This book is a contribution to
< that tradition in biology which disputes this conclusion."
< --Webster and Goodwin, <Form and Transformation>, Cambridge
< University Press, 1996.

"that tradition" has been traditionally made up of individuals
in the developmental or structural biology field with some
exceptions of course. Let me emphasize though that this
"tradition" seems to be a minority view among developmental
biologists, i.e. I'm not trying to argue that most developmental
biologists are anti-Darwinian though it does seem that being
part of this "tradition" does necessarily make one an anti-
Darwinist. Some of the past leaders of the tradition are,
according to Webster: Driesch, Bateson, D'Arcy Thompson,
Woodger, Waddington and Goldschmidt. Current members are
(this is obviously an incomplete list) Goodwin and Webster
of course, Peter Saunders, Rene Thom, Mae-Wan Ho, Belloussov,
Walter Fontana, Leo Buss, Per Bak, Stuart Kauffman. I think
Gould had a membership in this group for a while, but was
tossed out because he didn't pay his dues ;-).

>>On this we agree. In fact, if we are discussing design in the
>>engineering sense I think organisms are much too complex to
>>have been designed.
>When I saw you use that argument several months ago, I was absolutely
>astounded that nobody had thought of that before (at least no body that I
>had read and I read a lot). I was very impressed with your argument and
>have used it a couple of times (always saying I saw a guy observe that
>biological systems are too complex to be designed.). Unfortunately, it
>always gets silence (which is often a sign that an argument is a real
>stumper to the anti-evolutionist.

Thanks Glenn. In humility though I must also point out that the
silence may be due to the fact that everyone is too polite to
tell me what a stupid idea it is ;-). Just kidding. The argument
is paradoxical and for that reason perhaps difficult to answer.
Part and parcel of this argument is another paradoxical idea that
I've been working on, namely that organisms do not have the typical
features that one generally associates with machines. IOW, the
machine metaphor as part of the argument from design is not
particularly good. I'm continuing to work on this idea and,
interestingly enough, I think I will have some new ammunition for
the argument from Denton's new book.

Brian Harper
Associate Professor
Applied Mechanics
The Ohio State University

"It appears to me that this author is asking
much less than what you are refusing to answer"
-- Galileo (as Simplicio in _The Dialogue_)