The other day, the Time magazine blog strongly criticized the DI’s list of irrelevant, unqualified scientists who “dissent from Darwin”, and singled out a surgeon, Michael Egnor, as an example of the foolishness of the people who support the DI. I took apart some of Egnor’s claims, that evolutionary processes can’t generate new information. In particular, I showed that there are lots of publications that show new information emerging in organisms.
In addition to showing that PubMed lists over 2800 papers relevant to his question, I singled out one: an analysis that showed that insecticide resistance in mosquitos was generated by a mutation of an acetylcholinesterase gene, and that they also had a duplication of the gene—this is a classic example of how to generate new information. Duplicate one gene into two, and subsequent mutations in one copy can introduce useful variants, such as resistance to insecticide, while the original function is still left intact in the other copy.
Egnor foolishly rejects this, claiming it does not address his challenge, with a shift of the goalposts that he doesn’t seem to realize still leaves me scoring.
So what’s the threshold, quantitatively? It seems to be a threshold of information generating capability. But the information in living things is specified; it does things, specific things. In that sense, it differs completely from Shannon information, which is a measure of randomness and the extent to which a message can be compressed. Shannon information is not relevant to biological information.
Notice the sneaky move. He’s going to demand a quantitative measure of an information increase, but at the same time, he’s going to argue that mathematical measures of information, such as Shannon information, can’t be used. He’s saying “Give me a number, but you aren’t allowed to use any procedures that produce a number”—heads he wins, tails I lose.
Unfortunately for Egnor, I didn’t say anything about Shannon information; a gene duplication itself represents an increase in Shannon information, of course, but that wasn’t my point. I gave him an example of a change in genetic information of a specific organism that “does things, specific things”! The mosquitos have a new property, pesticide resistance, and they achieved it by adding a new gene, a copy of an old one with significant changes. It answered his demands, both the old one on the Time blog and the new one in his comment, perfectly.
His other tactic was to claim that my search of PubMed as invalid and didn’t meet his requirements.
Regarding your PubMed literature search, I must not have used the words ‘Information’, ‘Measurement, and ‘Random’ often enough in my discussion with Mike Lemonick, and you thought I said ‘gene’ ‘duplication’ and ‘evolution’. I understand; we all make mistakes. If you actually want to answer my question, type ‘information’, and (not ‘or’!) ‘measurement’, and ‘random’, and the name of the species in which you wish to look for experimental measurement of information generation by random processes.
I did a PubMed search just now. I searched for ‘measurement’, and ‘information’ and ‘random’ and ‘e coli’. There were only three articles, none of which have any bearing on my question. The first article, by Bettelheim et al, was entitled ‘The diversity of Escherichia coli serotypes and biotypes in cattle faeces’.
Anybody who uses a database search function knows that there is a skill to defining search terms; you’re going to be frustrated if you use the terms that you think everyone should be using, rather than the terms that they actually use. It’s an astonishing bit of hubris that Egnor can design an incompetent search that by his own admission fails to turn up any relevant articles, and he thinks that is superior to my search, based on knowledge of terms that relevant researchers in evolutionary biology would use, that turned up over 2800 good articles. The real test is to look at the articles you get, and see if they answer your question; Egnor did not do that. My search turned up articles describing mechanisms of evolution of new proteins and whole new clades by genetic and molecular processes; he apparently prefers to close his eyes to that and instead tailor a search that excludes anything that might conflict with his preconceptions.
Nick Matzke has also thrown in his two cents on that thread, and it’s a good reply so I’ll promote it here.
Michael Egnor, despite being cited fawningly yet again on the DI blog, has yet to respond to my simple answer to his silly question about the origin of new genetic information.
Here’s my answer again:
The Discovery Institute blog just linked to this thread, so I am just now coming to it.
Regarding Egnor’s question about the ability of random mutation and natural selection to produce new genetic information —
Michael Egnor is just ignorantly repeating some of the dumbest lines from the ID propaganda manual. This paper explains the origin of new genetic information, reviewing 20+ examples where the origin of new genes with new functions has been reconstructed in detail:
Long M, Betran E, Thornton K, Wang W. (2003). The origin of new genes: glimpses from the young and old. Nature Reviews Genetics. 4(11):865-75.
The paper is free online in various places — as is Manyuan Long’s vita, which contains dozens of papers specifically on this topic.
Egnor has probably never read this paper or any similar work, which is why he has such a beknighted view of the relevant science. Dr. Egnor: admit you were wrong on your very first argument, and that the headquarters of the ID movement, the Discovery Institute, was also wrong in praising your argument here, and let’s start this discussion over.
(PS: Regarding gene duplication — sure, an exact duplicate isn’t “new” information. But after duplication — sit down for this shocker — mutation and selection can change a copy. Now you have two genes with divergent sequences and different functions. This is new information in anyone’s book.
As for a “limit” — why should anyone think there is any particular limit to the amount of information this process can generate? If evolution can generate three new genes (known as of 2003) in the Drosophila melanogaster genome in 3 million years (see Long et al. 2003, Table 2), it can obviously do much more with millions of species and billions of years. Any arbitrary line can be crossed by saying “add one more new gene”. Game over, man.)
(PPS: Dr. Egnor, did you ever work on animal models in any of your training or research as a neurosurgeon? Just why do you think humans share so many anatomical details with other animals, anyway?)
Egnor is not only wrong, but he’s pretty damn arrogant about it—how else to explain someone who is proud of the fact that he knows nothing about a subject, and is proud of his inability to find sources that would correct his ignorance, even when they’re pointed out to him directly? He’s like Michael Behe, in that we can plop mountains of information in front of him, and he’ll just blithely claim it doesn’t exist.