|Wesley R. Elsberry
Joined: May 2002
Luskin on Information: Part 0
Casey Luskin has decided to treat us to an agony in eight fits, wherein he will whine mightily concerning “information”. I don’t know how many of those I’ll be taking note of, but I might as well have a look at the first one.
It does not augur well for the series. Luskin leads with a lot of bluster, claiming that citations to the scientific literature on the topic of genetic information were “bluffs”. It seems dubious to me that Luskin will be able to do more than try to spin armchair philosophy stuff from William Dembski and Stephen Meyer as somehow putting actual research in doubt.
Here’s an example of Luskin innuendo, complete with scare quotes:
Virtually all of those “publications” mentioned by Judge Jones came from one single paper Miller discussed at trial, a review article, co-authored by Manyuan Long of the University of Chicago.4 The article does not even contain the word “information,” much less the phrase “new genetic information.” 5
Well, a publication is still a publication, and a peer-reviewed one to boot, even if it is cited in a review article, so it is unclear what, exactly, Luskin is trying to do with the scare quotes. Usually the Discovery Institute (DI) is all for counting any odd scrap of paper with print on it as a publication, even inventing meaningless phrases like “peer-edited” to try to put some cachet on obvious partisan near-vanity press dreck. Perhaps the DI respect for articles and books only goes so far as to cover those that toe the “intelligent design” creationism (IDC) party line.
One can see that Luskin managed to shoot himself in the foot in that sentence-as-paragraph. Notice the footnote. That goes down to this text:
[5.] The word “information” appears once in the entire article—in the title of note 103. Id. at 875 n. 103. See Manyuan Long, Esther Betrán, Kevin Thornton, and Wen Wang, “The Origin of New Genes: Glimpses from the Young and Old,” Nature Reviews Genetics, Vol. 4:865-875 (November, 2003).
So, Casey, how is it that you can get all huffy about someone not including a specific phrase of “new genetic information” when the title promises that the article is about “new genes”? Do you suppose that “new genes” are never associated with new genetic information? If you were that nit-picky about things being different you wouldn’t have been making those claims about the degree of “near-verbatim” passages in the Kitzmiller decision. It appears that the one trait that runs through both of the aspects of Luskin’s text discussed above is hypocrisy.
It gets worse from there.
But are Judge Jones’s, Ken Miller’s, and the NCSE’s bold proclamations supported? Does Long et al. actually reveal the origin of new biological information? Is Explore Evolution wrong? A closer look shows that the NCSE is equivocating over the meanings of the words “information” and “new,” and that the NCSE’s citations are largely bluffs, revealing little about how new genetic functional information could originate via unguided evolutionary mechanisms. This bluff was accepted at face value by Judge Jones, who incorporated it in his highly misguided legal ruling.
No, Casey, the equivocation about “information” comes from antievolutionists like your colleague William Dembski. As for “new”, this point can be found in the transcript of the Kitzmiller trial, where Scott Minnich was cross-examined by Pepper Hamilton’s Stephen Harvey. When asked about the evolution of a DNT breakdown system that evolved in bacteria, Minnich agreed that the multi-part system developed naturally, but dismissed it as an “adaptive response” rather than being evolution per se. But the IDC mindset comes through clearly there, as Minnich testified:
Q. And if you look on — at figure 1, which is on page 113. And Matt, perhaps if you can bring that up for us. These researchers, based on their own original data, have published the organization and evolution of the bacteria that breaks down DNT?
A. Right. This is an adaptational response.
Q. And that’s a DNT — this process by which these bacteria breakdown DNT, that’s a biochemical pathway?
Q. So we do have published information in this scientific literature about the evolution of biochemical pathways?
A. Steve, you’re extrapolating from the data here. I mean, not all these enzymes evolved specifically to break down this compound. I mean, you’re mixing and matching enzymes, I’m sure, from pathways that had some other property.
It’s pretty simple, really. A gene is new if it was not there in the population before but is now. A system is new if it does something that was not done before. Evolution, if Luskin had paid attention in class (and I don’t know what excuse Minnich could claim), works by modification of what exists. And sometimes those modifications result in novel functionality.
As for the stuff we don’t see happening in living systems, as alluded to in Minnich’s testimony, the de novo injection of systems that had no precursors, that’s what is known as “special creation”. It’s pretty ironic that when trying to figure out what they want from evolutionary science, quite commonly the antievolutionists are really asking that biologists demonstrate that creationism is observed.
Casey Luskin again:
In fact the origin of new functional biological information is perhaps the most important question in biology. As origin of life theorist Bernd-Olaf Kuppers stated in his book Information and the Origin of Life, “The problem of the origin of life is clearly basically equivalent to the problem of the origin of biological information.”8
Now, I think someone introduced the word “equivocation” into the discussion. Right, that would be Casey. And here we see why Luskin introduced “equivocation” into the discussion: he’s projecting. There’s something a bit different between the processes that we see happening in the evolution of living things (the subject of discussion) and pre-biotic chemistry when talking about new genetic information. That would be that there is a system of inheritance established and operating in living things, something that is not available as an assumed starting position in origin-of-life research. So dropping origin-of-life into the discussion is simply a non sequitur, though one that has strong misleading properties.
Judge Jones was not merely in error. Worse than any simple mistake, the misinformation he propounded in his ruling entered media and academic culture, becoming enshrined as a Darwinian myth, alongside many others. This myth holds that perhaps the most important question in biology has been solved, when really (as this series of 8 total posts will show), that is far from being the case.
This is what the lawyers call “an appeal to facts not in evidence”. In fact, parts of this have already been proven false just in the discussion above, and Luskin hasn’t even gotten around to much more than a quote-mine, some projection, and a double dollop of hypocrisy. Nor do I have any expectation that the parts yet to be published will do any better than Luskin’s initial poor showing.
"You can't teach an old dogma new tricks." - Dorothy Parker