Friday, March 06, 2009

"Can Natural Selection Produce New Information?"

Here's another in a series of responses to some common assertions/misunderstandings of evolutionary biology by creationists and "intelligent design" supporters. One of the most common arguments against the theory of evolution is that natural selection cannot produce genuinely new information:
"Natural selection does not produce new information. On the contrary, it only reduces existing genetic information. Evolutionary biologists shouldn't invoke mutations as a source of new information, because all known mutations involve a net loss of information."

This viewpoint demonstrates a basic misunderstanding of the process of evolution bynatural selection. According to Darwin (and virtually all evolutionary biologists), natural selection has three prerequisites:

1) Variety, generated by the "engines of variation";

2) Heredity, mediated by the transfer of genetic material (either vertically - from parents to offspring - or horizontally - via viral transduction, retrotranscription, etc.); and

3) Fecundity, that is, reproduction, usually at a rate that exceeds replacement (according to Malthus).

Given these three prerequisites, the following outcome is virtually inevitable:

4) Demography: Some individuals survive and reproduce more often than others. Ergo, the heritable variations of such individuals become more common over time in populations of those organisms.

Natural selection is synonymous with #4; it is an outcome of the three processes listed as prerequisites, not a "mechanism" in and of itself.

Ergo, the real dispute between evolutionary biologists and "intelligent design" supporters is not over natural selection per se, but rather the properties and capabilities of the "engines of variation". I have written extensively about these here and here.

Yes, natural selection (i.e. #4, above) is conservative not creative. It produces no new genetic nor phenotypic information, which is why Darwin eventually came to prefer the term "natural preservation" rather than "natural selection". However, it is also clear that the "engines of variation" - that is, the processes the produce phenotypic variation among the members of populations of living organisms - are both extraordinarily creative and extraordinarily fecund. The real problem in biology is therefore not producing new variation, but rather limiting the production of new variation to the point that the "engines of variation" do not cause the inevitable disintegration of living systems.

As just one example of this problem, the genetic elements known as transposons generate a huge amount of new genetic variation, much of which is either phenotypically neutral or deleterious to the organism. There are biochemical mechanisms by which cells can monitor the incidence of transposition in themselves, and limit its consequences (up to and including the active self-destruction of the cell via apoptosis).

At the same time, there is very good evidence in the genomes of many organisms that retrotransposition events mediated by transposons have occasionally produced genetic changes that have resulted in increased survival and reproduction of the organisms in which such events have taken place. There is a large and growing literature on this phenomenon, all of which points to the inference that retrotransposition via transposons both creates new genetic and phenotypic variation, and that in some cases such variation can provide the raw material for evolutionary adaptations, which are preserved via natural selection.

So, if someone really wants to find out where the Intelligent Designer might create new variations, they should follow the lead of Darwin's good friend, Asa Gray, and look for the telltale evidence (if any) for such intervention in the "engines of variation". Of course, they would have to show pretty conclusively (using empirical investigations and statistical analysis) that such "creation events" are not the result of purely natural, unguided processes. If they can do this, they will undoubtedly win a Nobel Prize and a Crafoord Prize (plus a MacArthur or two).

Notice that this will involve looking carefully into the mechanisms by which new variations are produced, rather than pointing to the outcomes of such processes (i.e. natural selection) and simply asserting that "you can't get here from there". Simply asserting (without empirical evidence) that something can't happen isn't "doing science" at all. In fact, it's doing just the opposite...'s doing ID the way it's always been done up until now; by press release, rather than by empirical research.

As always, comments, criticisms, and suggestions are warmly welcomed!


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At 3/06/2009 11:05:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

"Simply asserting (without empirical evidence) that something can't happen isn't "doing science" at all. In fact, it's doing just the opposite..."

Yet it is "doing science" to simply assert that you CAN get from here to there.

At 3/07/2009 09:18:00 AM, Blogger Allen MacNeill said...

No, it's "doing science" to show, using examples, that you can get there from here. That's what most of the posts in this blog are for: showing you where to find those examples, so that you can educate yourself about them and see how they fit into the overall theory.

Start here:

and then check out each of the mechanisms listed in any reasonably well-stocked university library (you can get a good start on this by entering each mechanism listed into Google Scholar). Enjoy!

At 3/11/2009 06:28:00 PM, Anonymous tinyfrog said...

Last year, I wrote an article showing - with math - that mutations can create information.

At 3/23/2009 02:52:00 AM, OpenID John A. Davison said...

Natural selection produces nothing but intraspeific varieties. It never had anything to do with creative evolution because it is entirely anti-evolutionary. There is not a word in Darwin's opus magnus that ever had anything to do with the origin of species or of any other taxonomic category. All of organic evolution was emergent from within those relatively few organisms that were capable of leaving offspring substantially different from themselves. Gradualism is a myth and has n ever been demonstrated to be a creative evolutionary device. The entire neoDarwinian model is an explanatory disaster which does not even qualify as an hypothesis. Hypotheses are testable, Darwinism isn't!

Naturally, I do not expect this comment to appear.

At 3/23/2009 03:05:00 PM, OpenID jadavison said...

Well Mark, what a pleasant surprise. Here is what I really want. I want you to convince Barry Arrington to readmit me to Uncommon Descent so I can counter your Darwinian mysticism with my brand of evolutionary science. It really isn't right for UD to allow their mortal enemies to hold forth while they deny voice to those who share their belief in a purposeful evolution.

See what you can do for me. I think it would be great sport! I'll be looking forward to a password from Barry Arrington.

Best regards,

John A. Davison

At 3/23/2009 05:11:00 PM, OpenID jadavison said...

Woops. Sorry Allen, not Mark. I'm getting senile you know.

John A. Davison

At 3/23/2009 06:07:00 PM, Blogger Allen MacNeill said...

Sorry, Jon; it appears I've been moderated off Uncommon Descent as well. So it goes...

At 3/24/2009 12:07:00 AM, OpenID jadavison said...


I didn't get the impression that you had been muzzled.

I was hoping that once they got rid of the biggest bully in the history of blogdom that UD might return to thr realm of sanity but that doesn't seem to be in the cards.

If I can manage to be reinstated there, one of the very first things I will request is that you and all other enlightened Darwinians be allowed to speak so that I can expose the Natural Selection model for what it is, an anti-evolutionary force which has never had anything whatsoever to do with either speciation or the generation of any other taxonomic category.

In the meantime, if neither of us are welcome there, I guess we will just have to hold forth here or any place else where we are both welcome.

Everyone is welcome at my weblog. The only requirement is civility and full identity disclosure. A person who must hide his identity can never further the search for the truth.

So what do you say Allen? Everyone knows who we are.

Your place or mine?

"Truth is uncontrovertible. Malice may attack it, ignorance may deride it, but in the end, there it is."
Winston Churchill.

"A past evolution is undeniable, a present evolution undemonstrable."

At 3/24/2009 01:12:00 PM, Blogger Allen MacNeill said...

Here would be fine with me.

Apparently not all my comments at UD are being blocked, but since I can't be sure which ones will and which ones won't, I'm not going to comment there in the future.

At 3/24/2009 02:37:00 PM, Blogger Allen MacNeill said...

As you can clearly see, you haven't been banned from this blog. On the contrary, I am ready to discuss with you whatever you want to discuss, and agree to abide by your stated rules of civility and full disclosure. So , what would you like to discuss first?

BTW, I have not been able to register for your site, despite following the instructions listed. Please advise on how to do so.

At 2/05/2010 01:23:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

The job of humanity is to create new information which is proof enough to the creationists that evolution is in fact an informational evolution culminating in consciousness, the final tool by which life gains access to the set of unlimited information and, thus, assures its survival because behavioral responses become unlimited by any "design" constraints.

At 4/23/2014 01:21:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

even if you can argue that biological processes create new information (questionable)that's not the issue. The real point is, those processes cannot create information from scratch.Darwinism only works when the information is already there.


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