Re: Genes and Development Conference

Brian D Harper (
Thu, 01 Apr 1999 15:09:29 -0800

At 08:17 PM 3/30/99 -0700, Kevin wrote:

>>To the point, I would like to pose two questions to the group.
>>The first is aimed primarily at ID'ers. I am assuming (correct me if
>>I'm wrong) that ID people by and large are anti-reductionists....

>That may be generally true. I for one, however, am a reductionist and an ID
>person, at least in so far as I believe that God designed the laws and
>forces by which the universe operates. It's just that reductionism is a
>good first step in understanding that design, at least until we know enough
>to start piecing everything together so that we can take a larger view.

Good point. This issue has been discussed extensively in the
past and I have to thank Howard Van Till for making the issues
so clear (at least to me). Thanks Howard :).

I think its best to just give a brief excerpt from one of
Howard's posts. The complete post can be found in the archives

==============begin excerpt from Howard Van Till==============
As I watch the discussion on "intelligent design," I am led to the judgment
that little progress will be made until the participants come to some
agreement on the meaning of the central term.

What does it mean to be "intelligently designed? I see two principal ways in
which the term is being used:

(1) To be "intelligently designed" means to be the outcome of thoughtful
conceptualization (which, or course, implies purpose). The focus of attention
here is on the action of mind (or, more appropriately, of Mind).

(2) To be "intelligently designed" means to have been assembled in time by
extra-natural means. The focus of attention here is on the action of "hands,"
or the divine equivalent thereof.

I would think that all Christians, who see the entire universe as a
Creation--that which has been given being by the Creator, agree that the
universe is "intelligently designed" in the sense of meaning (1).

The disagreements arise when meaning (2) is considered. As I understand them,
both the ID Theorists and Special Creationists (including both young-earth
and old-earth species) presume that to be "intelligently designed" means both
(1) and (2).

>>there seems to be an inconsistency in approach especially during
>>discussions regarding information and/or complexity. Let me give
>>an example. In discussions of spontaneous increase in complexity
>>one often sees the example given of a seed growing into a tree
>>without any apparent violation of natural law or intervention from
>>an intelligent agent. The inevitable rejoinder is that this does not
>>involve an increase in complexity (information) since the information
>>required to direct the growth is contained in the DNA. Thus the
>>information (complexity) remains constant. But another way of saying
>>the same thing is to say that the growth is directed by a genetic
>>programme. So, my question is whether this is a fundamental
>>inconsistency or am I missing something?

>For my part I'm not sure I understand the question. It's probably just me,
>but I do not see what is suppose to be inconsistent.

Well, perhaps my thinking is muddled, let's try again. The "rejoinder"
I mention above is a perfectly legitimate (as far as I can tell)
response if one is using the definition of complexity from
algorithmic information theory. Here complexity has to do with
the length of an algorithm and not its output. No matter how complex
the Mandelbrot set may appear, it is actually very simple since
it comes from a short algorithm. For this reason, I never use
ice crystals or snow flakes as examples of spontaneous increases
in complexity since actually the opposite is the case. A much
better example is melting of a snow flake :).

Back to the case of growth, this would not be an increase in
complexity since this growth is the output of an algorithm,
the genetic programme. But, if one rejects genetic reductionism
then one can no longer say that growth from a seed is not an
example of spontaneous increase in complexity consistent with
natural laws and without intervention of intelligence. IOW,
it is inconsistent to base ones argument on a principle that
you have rejected.


>>OK, so one of the lofty goals (yet to be attained of course)
>>of Webster, Goodwin and many others belonging to "that tradition
>>in biology" is to develop a rational theory of form which would
>>(among other things) explain homology in terms of fundamental
>>theory, independent of history. My question then is, supposing
>>for the moment that they are wildly successful, what effect would
>>such a theory have upon the theory of common ancestry?

>I guess for me it would make evolution predictable in the same way that
>chemistry is predictable: knowing the starting conditions, we can say for
>certain what the results will be. We wouldn't need to dig up transitionals,
>because we could accurately predict how a new species would evolve from an
>old species. However, I'm not sure that will ever be possible.

Your answer reminded me of a comment made during the discussion
session following one of Goodwin's papers:

"I find your conjecture very attractive, because it holds out
the prospect of learning a hell of a lot of biology by just
studying a little math." -- Epstein

Yes, I'm sure there are biologists tearing their robes and
gnashing their teeth after reading that ;-).

But I don't think your answer is quite to the point I was
trying to make. How could we predict ancestry ["how a new species
would evolve from an old species"] from a theory which decouples
form from ancestry?

Brian Harper
Associate Professor
Applied Mechanics
The Ohio State University

"All kinds of private metaphysics and theology have
grown like weeds in the garden of thermodynamics"
-- E. H. Hiebert