Sunday, August 23, 2009

Intelligent Design, or orderly universe?

Also from The Panda's Thumb

William Dembski and Robert Marks have published what Dembski describes as a “peer-reviewed pro-ID article”. It is in the computer engineering journal IEEE Transactions on Systems, Man and Cybernetics A, Systems & Humans in the September 2009 issue. In a post at his Uncommon Descent blog (where a link to a PDF of the article will also be found) Dembski describes it as critiquing Richard Dawkins’s “Methinks it is like a weasel” simulation and that “in critiquing his example and arguing that information is not created by unguided evolutionary processes, we are indeed making an argument that supports ID.” But what does it really say about ID?

In effect, the picture the article paints is that information is out there in the shape of the fitness surface — the way fitnesses change as we move among neighboring genotypes. So, on this view, natural selection does not create information, it just transfers it into the genotype. The information is out there already, lying around. Dembski and Marks at one point say that “the active information comes from knowledge of the fitness”. If the fitness surface is smooth, as in the Weasel case, natural selection will readily be successful. D&M would then regard the information as provided by a Designer in advance.

In that case natural selection works. If a Designer has structured our genotype-phenotype space so that fitness surfaces are often smooth, if mutations do not typically instantly reduce the organism to a chaotic organic soup, if successful genotypes are often found to be close in sequence to other successful genotypes, then the Designer is not designing individual organisms — she is leaving natural selection to do the job. Dembski and Marks’s argument would then at most favor theistic evolution and could not be used to favor ID over that.

One can wonder whether one needs any particular Designer to structure reality in that way. The laws of physics do not make all objects interact intimately and strongly. When I move a pebble in my back yard, the dirt, grass, trees, and fences do not instantly reorder themselves into a totally different arrangement, unrecognizably different. If they did, of course natural selection would not be able to cope. But as they interact much less strongly than that, only a few leaves of grass change noticeably. I can cope, and so can natural selection. Does the smoothness of fitness surfaces come from this weakness of long-range interactions in physics? If so, then Dembski and Marks’s argument ends up leaving us to argue about where the laws of physics ultimately come from, and most evolutionary biologists will not feel too worried.

And from the comments...

So, on this view, natural selection does not create information, it just transfers it into the genotype. The information is out there already, lying around.
Exactly. So as long as there is an environment, no intelligence is needed in order to create information, in genomes, complex, specified or any other. This guy has just disproven all of his own previous nonsense. And of course, now that it is in a journal for all to see, I’m sure that many people are going to point this out to him.

Why would someone with absolutely no knowledge whatsoever about genetics, population genetics, selection or fitness try to make such obviously flawed arguments? Who exactly does he think he is fooling? Who does he think is going to read this journal? Does he think that he can get away with calling this evidence for ID? Next thing you know he will be trying to patent phylogenetics!

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