Bad from the Bad Ideas Blog sent me a link to some clips from Ben Stein’s new Magnum Opus, “Expelled”. I went and took a look. Randomly, I picked one that looked like a clip from the movie rather than a trailer – it’s the one titled “Genetic Mutation”.
Care to guess how long it took me to find an insane, idiotic error?
It’s the old “evolution can’t create information” scam.
The clip is Ben Stein interviewing a guy named “Maceij Giertych”,
who is allegedly a population geneticist. (I say allegedly because looking
the guy up, he appears to be an agricultural biologist studying tree-growth
patterns in forests.) Said gentleman is not currently a working scientist,
but a policitian. He’s a leader of a right-wing nationalist political party
in Poland, and currently is a member of the European parliament representing Poland.)
What Giertych has to say is the usual dishonest claptrap:
Giertych: “Evolution does not produce new genetic information. and for evolution …”
Stein: “there has to be new genetic information. And where is the new genetic information going to come from?”
Giertych:”Well, that is the big question. Darwin(ists?) assume that the
information comes from natural selection. But natural selection reduces genetic
information, and we know this from all of the genetic population studies that we
It continues in the same vein for the remainder of the interview. I’ve written
about this particular line of bullshit so many times that I’m downright bored with
it. But it’s pure rubbish.
Before I get to the math part, there’s one obvious and obnoxious scam
in the above that it doesn’t take much to notice. “Darwinists assume that
the information comes from natural selection”. No, Darwinists don’t assume that.
Natural selection is an information reducer: because not all
individuals survive, and individuals with less adaptive traits don’t
survive, you’re pruning the information for the non-adaptive traits out of the
But evolution is not just natural selection. Evolution is change plus natural selection. Natural selection chooses from the
varieties that exist; change produces the new varieties. Change comes
from many places – basic mutations can be the result of copying errors,
of radiation or chemical agents altering the genetic code, of recombination,
etc. That’s the change – and that does introduce new information.
And that brings us to the mathematical part.
Never do they bother to define information. There’s a good reason
for that: because every scientific definition of information absolutely
defeats their argument. Copy something? You’ve got more information because
you copied it. Change something? The changed version is different information
than the original. So if you’ve got a population, and you measure the amount of
information in its genome; and then a new individual is born with a change
in one gene – there’s now more information in that population’s
They rely on a simple confusion: information versus meaning. As human
beings, we’re naturally quite obsessed with meaning. And there’s nothing wrong
with that. But we tend to attribute our intuitive notion of meaning
to things. Our intuitive idea of meaning doesn’t have any necessary relationship
to information – or even to an actual definition of meaning! Our intuitive notion of meaning is based on language and writing – on the way that we communicate with one another, and the properties of what we’re trying to express using that
One good way of thinking about meaning is Shannon information. Shannon’s
definition of information is based on the idea of reduction in uncertainty. That is, you pass a message to someone over some medium: the
quantity of information is the amount of uncertainty that you’ve eliminated
by sending the message. The meaning is the set of possibilities
that have been eliminated.
Anything can have information. Anything can ultimately have meaning. But recognizing whether something has meaning can be extremely difficult. For
example… Look at the two strings below.
One of those two strings is an except from the the result of
compressing this post up to the word “below”. The other is random. Which
one has meaning? How can you tell?
I can tell you that by one very naive view of information, they’ve
got exactly the same amount of information. (That’s using compressibility
via the LZW-2 encoding as the measure of information.) But one of them
has meaning as english text, and the other is random noise.
What people like Ben Stein want you to do is assume that
your intuition about information and meaning is correct. And then
they want to play on that – using scare tactics about mutation –
to make you think that mutations can’t generate new information – because
it doesn’t look like information from your intuitive perspective.
But then, neither does the genetic code of a living thing. How
much meaning does “CCA GCA TGC TGA GGT TCA” have to you? Does it look like
a meaningful string? How about “GAA GTT GTC ATT TTA TAA ACC TTT”?
One of the two strings right up there is an actual excerpt from
a human gene. The other is random stuff that I made up. Which one has
more meaning? Which one has more information?
Stein and Giertych won’t answer those questions. They can’t. And
they really don’t want you to know that they can’t. Because their argument
is a fraud. And if they answered questions like the ones I posed above, or
if they even bothered to actually articulate a definition of what
they mean by “genetic information”, they’d have to admit that it’s all