Another day, another creationist

My conversation with Perry Marshall about “evolution 2.0” is now online on the radio show Unbelievable.

Marshall is sales and marketing guy who has written a book titled Evolution 2.0: Breaking the Deadlock Between Darwin and Design, in which he claims to have worked out a reconciliation between science and religion based on arguments he had with his missionary/theologian brother, that hints at the quality of the science you’ll find in it. He has a superficial view of a few biological processes, like DNA error repair and transposition, and has shoehorned them into his religious belief that these are the tools used by some kind of engineering force that makes them purposeful.

He has a challenge with a $100,000 prize. All you have to do is show an example of Information that doesn’t come from a mind. Basically he’s making the clueless argument that there are no processes in genetics that produce novel information. I think Jeffrey Shallit ought to step up and claim it. Actually, he might have to fight through a mob of information theorists to get his money (if it exists, and if the judging wasn’t rigged).


  1. Reginald Selkirk says

    Another prize you can expect not to win: The Mustafa Prize

    The Mustafa Prize is a top science and technology award granted to the top researchers and scientists of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) member states biennially…

    They actually have a category for “Life Science and Medical Sciences.” I suspect all the winners of that one are going to be for medical technology, not basic biological science, and I suspect Darwin will not receive prominent mention in the research descriptions.

  2. Nerd of Redhead, Dances OM Trolls says

    I’m still waiting for evidence of the “designer” that doesn’t depend upon presuppositionalism. Funny, how if you don’t presuppose a deity, one isn’t needed to explain the diversity of life.

  3. Reginald Selkirk says

    To date, no one has shown an example of a naturally occurring encoding / decoding system, i.e. one that has demonstrably come into existence without a designer.

    Well that will be tough if the judges are Creationists, because they believe literally everything had a designer. Suppose for example that I suggested “the weather” as a source of information. A creationist would believe that weather was created by God.

  4. slithey tove (twas brillig (stevem)) says

    A creationist would believe that weather was created by God. — @3
    Pat Robertson comes to mind, who told us God sent tornadoes because of our support for Haiti, and because the US laws are supporting gays, he sent us Hurrycane Katrina. etc etc ad infinitum.
    Just yesterday, I saw a report that one bibblefool redirected a tornado away from her house “using the force from God”

  5. slithey tove (twas brillig (stevem)) says

    funny (aka “interesting”) that insurance policies allow a default option of “act of god” to account for anomalous weather events such as lightning strikes, tornadoes, hurricanes, earthquakes, etc.

  6. zibble says

    I was curious what the hell he means by “Information” since you could call pretty much fucking anything in nature “Information” – the blips of a pulsar, the barks of a dog, the color of light reflecting off an object. So I found their definition:

    “Information” is defined as digital communication between an encoder and a decoder, using agreed upon symbols.

    Which means even the human mind isn’t capable of producing information, because our brains are analogue, not digital.

    These people are morons.

  7. says

    His definition of information also presumes an “encoder”, so by circular logic, it is impossible to win Marshall’s prize.

  8. zibble says

    Hey, wait a minute. Doesn’t an ear drum encode analogue sound waves as digital signals to be decoded by the brain? It’s experienced by a mind, but not produced by it.

    Can I have my 100,000 plz?

  9. shallit says

    Yeah, they asked me to appear on that show. I refused, because I think the interviewer is not honest. As an example I pointed to this:
    15:10 Justin Brierley, talking about Expelled: “The film starts out with the case of one particular scientist who lost his job at the Smithsonian Institute. This was Richard Sternberg, and he published a paper of yours in a peer-reviewed journal and lost his job for it.”

    Of course, this is blatantly false. Sternberg did not lose his job (and he was at the Smithsonian Institution, not the “Smithsonian Institute”).

    When I pointed this out to him, Brierley suggested to me it was simply ridiculous to add a note to his broadcast description correcting this error.

    That’s the difference between Christian evangelical broadcasters and people with integrity.

  10. y4dar says

    Full disclosure, I haven’t finished listening to the episode yet. Despite that, I have a few comments so far.

    First, the best part so far is when Perry accuses you of imposing your preconceived notions onto the data (24:03). That’s rich coming from someone who is trying desperately to fit a god/designer into a world that is so obviously not designed.

    Second, as a PI whose laboratory focuses on transposable elements (, I completely agree with PZ that this guy hasn’t got a clue about the way that these things work. That being said, he’s right in saying that TE integration is not necessarily random (20:36). For example, L1 elements have a target site preference for the sequence TTAAAA. Thus, they will tend to insert into regions that are A-T rich. However, within that set of constraints, their insertions are pretty much random, as PZ suggests.

    Third, the whole discussion of randomness led to a tangent about how to determine whether some process is random or not. Perry starts talking about how to prove that a process is random. I’m thinking that randomness in this case is the null hypothesis. In other words, we assume randomness and then propose an alternative hypothesis, which could be supported if the null hypothesis is rejected. The guy has it backwards.

  11. edmond says

    A deer walking through the woods will leave behind hoofprints. A hunter tracking that deer will use those prints as information to find her. But the deer didn’t deliberately, mindfully put those tracks there so she could be found. It didn’t BECOME information until the hunter wanted to use it to kill her. “Information” is in the eye of the beholder.

  12. Matt G says

    Sounds like a step down from James Shapiro and his weird teleological model of evolution.

  13. says

    If he’s saying that information was created by god, and that god was there all along, that makes god part of nature. Which means that god is naturally occurring information.

    I mean, if you’re accepting fucking stupid reasoning, there’s a plateful right there! That was easy!

  14. Menyambal - "Bah! Humbug." says

    For a while, I was moving refrigerator magnets around to keep track of my laundry progress. My code meant nothing to anyone else, I changed it a couple times, and the magnets are still there. Where’s the information in that? (By the way, I lied. It never happened. The previous information was not really information.)

  15. unclefrogy says

    (if it exists, and if the judging wasn’t rigged).

    sure if you believe that I got a bridge to sell you
    uncle frogy

  16. shallit says

    I listened to this. PZ kicked this creationist’s butt… but that’s what happens when you get an “online marketing strategist” writing about stuff way outside his competence and an interviewer eager to find anything sciency that supports his stone-age superstitions.

    Perry Marshall has simply no idea what he is talking about.

    7:40: “…error correction and error detection were absolutely critical to any kind of communication process and any kind of DNA replication; yet the Darwinian view was that random copying errors, among other things … were major drivers of evolution”. This is bullshit and a non sequitur: lots of communication processes use no error correction at all (ever use two tin cans and a cord?). Furthermore, there is nothing to suggest that the earliest replicators must have used error correction. Furthermore, we know from hundreds of examples in genetic algorithms and evolutionary computation that random errors , coupled with selection, can and do result in better solutions to problems.

    17:47: “The rules of information entropy and all of that work”. Yet Marshall is not able to demonstrate any violation of these supposed “rules” in biology. If biologists have incorporated
    information theory since the 1960’s as Marshall says (actually it was earlier: Quastler’s book was published in 1953, fer chrissake), then why haven’t they noticed these supposed violations?

    20:47 “PZ’s claim that it is random is not mathematically provable. And what I found that in every instance when I tried chasing things down I found a pattern instead of evidence of randomness.”
    Marshall doesn’t seem to know what “random” means; it is not a synonym for uniform distribution.
    And the “mathematically provable” stuff is an irrelevant distraction; nothing is provable in science the way it is done in mathematics. (In mathematics we can prove randomness and we do so all the time — for example, the in Kolmogorov theory. For example, it is possible to prove there is a Kolmorogov-random binary string of every length.)

    33:20 “There’s no way to prove randomness in mathematics.” Same bullshit as before.
    “There are certain places that they are more likely to go to than others.” That just means the distribution is not uniform.

    “Ergodic patterns”: this is pretentious jargon that Marshall implies is in common usage. But it isn’t. Mathematical Reviews, which attempts to review every significant mathematical paper, finds exactly two usages of this term in the entire mathematical literature since 1940, and google scholar finds only a couple of handfuls of usage.

    51:00 “when somebody violates a basic mathematical principle—mainly information entropy, and I know that in all of the other analogous systems, what he’s saying would never work”. Bullshit. Nothing in biology violates “information entropy”. If it does, let’s see an article in a peer-reiewed journal that says this.

  17. blf says

    The definition of “information” (encoder, decoder. digitial, symbols, et al) is not information, it is data(-representation). One counter-example: A stream of random values can be so represented, but contains nothing anyone would recognize as information (a blueprint, the value of π, Homer’s Odyssey, DNA, a deer’s trackway, et al).

  18. shallit says

    Actually, blf, in the Kolmogorov theory a random string is precisely an information-full string. Don’t confuse “information” with “meaning”. The former has a well-developed mathematical theory; the second, not so much.

  19. blf says

    shallit, Yes, you are correct. I did get myself confused with my counter-example. Yet my point still stands, the definition of “information” these bozos claim to use is just an example of data-representation. What this error perhaps also brings out is the bozos are making a similar mistake?

  20. shallit says

    If one defines, as Marshall does, ““Information” is defined as digital communication between an encoder and a decoder, using agreed upon symbols.”, then you deserve what you get. “Information” has two well-understood mathematical formulations (Shannon and Kolmogorov) and neither of them correspond to Marshall’s. In Shannon’s theory information is based fundamentally on a probability measure. In Kolmogorov there are no “encoders” or “decoders” at all; the universe is binary strings.

    Marshall should not be surprised to get a negative reaction when he redefines words that are already used differently by the cognoscenti. If he wants “information” to mean “digital communication”, why not just call it “digital communication”?

  21. rietpluim says


    If he wants “information” to mean “digital communication”, why not just call it “digital communication”?

    Because it would make moving the goal posts a lot harder for him to do.

  22. aaronbaldwin1 says

    Here is an example I keep presenting online that is repeatedly ignored by ID supporters:

    At one of our labs the scientists are working with stable isotope analysis of fish otoliths (ear bones we collect for aging, but are proving to have more value. They are drilling through the bones and collecting micro-layers of the calcium/phosphate/Nitrogen etc. composites of the bones. With this they are using stable isotope ratios to determine, sometimes on a weekly basis, a history of the depth, temperature, and diet of the fish being analyzed. So with that background…

    Bob has a permanent underwater camera on a rock pinnacle where a particular yelloweye ockfish (Sebastes ruberrimus) has set up territory. Once a week Bob accesses the camera and spends two hours watching the fish, noting what it eats, the water temperature, etc. He records this in a notebook for a total observation time of two years.

    Susan collects an otolith from a yelloweye rockfish and performs a stable isotope analysis. From this she gets monthly data, sometimes better, of diet, temperature, etc. over a two year period.

    So does Bob’s notebook count as information? Does Susan’s otolith data count as information? Did an intelligence create Bob’s notebook? Most people would answer yes. But what intelligence created the SAME information via differential fractionation of stable isotopes?

    Best answer I’ve gotten so far from the ID crowd: “How do you know they weren’t designed to show that information?”