Friday, October 28, 2005

Information Leaks into Creationist Thinking

I'm struggling to expand my knowledge of Biology so I can get my mind around the origin of life. I can certainly agree that it's a mind-blowing subject. I'd say "awesome" -- some would say "miraculous".

I don't think that bickering about Biblical "teachings" gets us anywhere. People who believe in the literal truth of the Bible are a small minority of Christians -- mostly confined to the US The creation debate needs to be re-framed in more concrete terms.

I think that Werner Gitt has done us all a big favour by being so spectacularly wrong about just the right question: Where did all this information come from? Boil away the froth from Gitt's argument and you get that the world is a message from God. This is sophistry at its finest, but I think he's on the right track.

Information and entropy are paired. Things tend to run downhill, decreasing information and increasing entropy (Laws of Thermodynamics). Increasing information corresponds to orderd, unlikely situations. For example, proteins are made of common elements, but they don't form on their own. You need to invest energy. Proteins and their constituents are very unlikely configurations of matter. In our world, they are created only by life. Of course, life can't exist without proteins, so we have another problem that can easily be turned into recruiting propaganda by the fundamentalists.Personally, I think it's a very, very interesting problem and it's right at the root of the creation debate. It boils down to (a) Where did the energy come from (b) what were the conditions of the reaction and (c) what, exactly was the sequence of steps that lead to the first protein being formed? We don't know the answers to these questions, but I don't expect to find them in the Bible.

Personally, I find that biologists talk their way around this problem in much the same way that fundamentalists talk their way around DNA. There's a lot of dogmatism on both sides. I think we'll eventually figure this out and there will be some big surprizes. Even so, I don't expect to find God's fingerprints in the solution. I do expect that the fundamentalists will happily absorb the new information into their world view.

One more comment on evolution:
As I read it, Darwin didn't make his case for the "Origin of Species". He nailed the case for evolution, but (as far as I know) didn't provide strong evidence for the formation of species. This is a loophole that creationists like to drive through, pretending that evolutionary thought ended with Darwin. The embarassing similarity of the human genome with chimpanzees and even mice and crayfish is the "missing link". The problem is that fundamentalists would rather fight "straw man" evidence such as "gaps" in the fossil record. They thrive on areas where lots of uncertainty exists and steer clear of evidence that blows them out of the water.

It's clear from DNA that we all descended from a common "family tree". The evolutionary record is complete down to the last protein. The only question is how did evolution occur? Survival of the fittest doesn't answer this question, but the question is easily answered. All you need to do is break up an existing population so sub-populations can't interbreed. Natural selection and genetic drift will very quickly drive the sub-populations in different genetic directions, resulting in different species. Fragmentation of populations tends to occur in times of major environmental upheaval, which gives you the "punctuated equilibrium" picture. No great mystery. Continantal drift, asteroid strikes and major climactic changes are all well-documented influences that can break up populations and kick off a flurry of genetic "experimentation".

I've built some computer models that illustrate genetic drift and survival of the fittest. They're worthless as serious Scientific work, but they've convinced me that major gene pool changes take place very quickly. For example, in one of my models a gene has an allele that's slightly less adaptive (10% fewer young). It's flushed out of the populatin in 20 generations. Slow in terms of a single lifetime, but lightning quick in geological time. It just give me a feeling for the subject -- nothiing more.

All about Werner Gitt:


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