Chesil Beach is high in algorithmic specified complexity

Winston Ewert, William A. Dembski, and Robert J. Marks II rebranded specified complexity as a measure of meaningful information, at the Engineering and Metaphysics 2012 Conference. In my mind, that was quite a remarkable event in the history of the “intelligent design” (ID) offshoot of “creation science” — particularly in light of the fact that Dembski and Marks changed the meaning of information in the Law of Conservation of Information from specified complexity to active information, back in 2008. But the organizer of that conference, Jonathan Bartlett, seems not to have noticed. He recently undertook to explain algorithmic specified complexity to the unwashed masses, but made no mention at all of meaning.

Jonathan approves of my observation, posted here in The Skeptical Zone, that the “conga lines” formed by hermit crabs are high in algorithmic specified complexity (emphasis added):

Tom English asked about Hermit Crabs forming a line. I agree that this exhibits high ASC for certain things (remember, ASC depends on what you are comparing it to). It gives a high ASC for the line compared to the hermit crabs just walking around. That seems like a success, not a fail, as you have successfully determined that they are lined up intentionally. Even though you don’t have all of the prerequisites for a design inference (at least in your post here), you have at least shown that intentionality on behalf of the hermit crabs is a live possibility. Since they are lining up for a particular purpose, that seems to line up with reality.

He has not responded to my main point (emphasis in original):

Distinguishable entities operating identically by simple rules can form structures high in specified complexity. That is, the crabs in the video differ in size, but not in the “program” they execute. Want more specified complexity? Just add crabs.

A short computer program models the relevant behavior of an individual hermit crab. No model of intentionality is required to obtain from the program (a description of) a very long sequence of shells, sorted in order of size. In any case, the purpose of the individual crab is to obtain a shell somewhat larger than the one it presently occupies, not to form a sorted sequence of shells. The crabs are not cooperating intentionally. They sometimes fight for positions in the line. The shells are sorted for the simple reason that smaller crabs are incapable of taking the positions of larger crabs. There is no master plan that accounts for the overall structure that emerges.

But let us turn our attention from crabs to beaches, where the red herring of intentionality clearly does not wash. Many critics of ID have noted that stones are sorted by size in shingle beaches, e.g., Chesil Beach. It used to be that ID defenders would invoke Dembski’s botched explanatory filter (which Dembski later acknowledged was botched), and dismiss the ordering as regularity, not design. Today, the methodology of Ewert, Dembski, and Marks can be used to assign large quantities of “meaningful information” to regularities in nature. And thus Jonathan Bartlett’s beliefs about ID theory are in need of revision. I submit, for your general delectation, the following passage from “The Shingle Movement” (1856), which appeared in Household Words: A Weekly Journal (Charles Dickens, editor).


Another important accumulation of beach-stones is at Portland, where the shingle movement is very curious. This place is very frequently visited as a natural wonder, and, perhaps, it is the most singular collection of beach-stones on our shores. Let us suppose a mass of rounded pebbles, composed of jasper, chert, limestone, and other substances partaking of the character of the rocks and cliffs of part of Devon and Cornwall. We will not stop to inquire by what means these stones travelled scores of miles along these shores, and ultimately rolled themselves up into a thin strip about seventeen miles long, a quarter of a mile broad, and about six feet deep, and so loose that a horse’s leg sinks to the knee at every step. This arrangement is curious enough, but by some process the stones are made to diminish in dimensions from west to east, as though nature had sorted them into parcels according to their size. At Portland, for instance, they are of the size of swans’ eggs, further on they diminish to hens’ eggs; then to pigeon’s eggs, then to the size of horse-beans; then they dwindle down to peas, and, ultimately, they pass through all the gradations of small shot, and finally vanish into mere dusty specks of blown sand.

An attempt has been made to explain how this diminishing process is brought about. It seems that the largest pebbles are always found to leeward, and this is accounted for by their being more easily moved by seas than those of small dimensions, and being usually found upon the surface, they offer nearly the whole of their bulk to the action of the waves. Whereas the latter being more uniform in size, and closer packed together, expose little more than their upper surfaces, over which the waves have a tendency to travel, rather than to lift them from their bed. Thus the larger pebbles are rolled about by every wave, whilst the smaller pebbles are only moved in a mass. This seems to account for the position of the largest shingles being always to leeward, and to a certain extent explains the diminishing process observable in this bar; but we confess it does not clear up the mystery altogether: for why is not this singular arrangement found upon other beaches? For here it is so clearly marked, that a Portland fisherman is said to be able to distinguish, in the darkest night, any precise spot on the beach by the size of the pebbbles.

It has been further noticed, that the action of the north-west winds clears away the pebbles in parts of this bar, and that the south-west wind restores them again. But how is it that the same sized stones are returned to their proper places, so as not to interfere in a perceptible degree with the diminishing process the shingles here are subject to? Nature never seems to make a blunder in returning the stolen shingle. She never mixes her swans’ eggs with her pigeons’ eggs or with blown sand. And it must be borne in mind, that these incessant changes and adjusting of particles is carried on during a zig-zag movement of the whole mass, without sensibly interfering with the proportions of an immense thin strip of shingles seventeen miles long, which still retains, in defiance of these operations, a gradation in the size of its pebbles from one end to the other.

36 thoughts on “Chesil Beach is high in algorithmic specified complexity

  1. But let us turn our attention from crabs to beaches, where the red herring of intentionality clearly does not wash.

    I sea what you did there

  2. Do I understand correctly that the ASC is in the ordering of shell sizes along the chain of fiddler crabs? And not in the match of shell sizes to crab sizes?

    If intact shells were more common, fiddler crabs could just go out and find one that is optimal for them: big enough for their body but not too heavy to carry.

  3. Joe Felsenstein:
    Do I understand correctly that the ASC is in the ordering of shell sizes along the chain of fiddler crabs? And not in the match of shell sizes to crab sizes?

    The former is what I had in mind. But the latter is an interesting take that had not occurred to me.

    If intact shells were mire common, fiddler crabs could just go out and find one that is optimal for them: big enough for their body but not too heavy to carry.

    I’m not winging it to the degree it seems in the post. I’ve read some articles, but can’t provide you with links at the moment, because I’m away from my desktop computer. The crabs need a fairly good fit of the shell, to retain moisture, and to defend against predators. They ideally cover up the opening with the big claw. They in fact modify the shells, as necessary. So previously occupied shells are generally preferable to newfound shells. And appropriately sized, intact shells are in short supply anyway, as I recall. I’ve seen this discussed as niche formation.

    In a very simple model, there are N crabs on the island, all with shells of different sizes, and the number of crabs participating in the shell exchange is a constant K \leq N. There are \binom{N}{K} possible sets of participants, and K! possible orderings of each set. However, there is only one possible ordering for the conga line. Assuming that all possibilities are equally likely, the ASC boils down to the log-ratio

        \[\ln \frac{K! \binom{N}{K}}{\binom{N}{K}} = \ln K! \approx K \ln K - K~\text{nats}\]

    (ignoring some additive constants). Increasing the realism of the model only drives up the quantity of ASC.

  4. What I would find interesting would be to take measurements of of the “crab lines” and compare them to measurements taken of corresponding lines drawn by humans and see if an observer could distinguish between the two and guess which was which.

    peace

  5. fifthmonarchyman:
    What I would find interesting would be to take measurements of of the “crab lines” and compare them to measurements taken of corresponding lines drawn by humans and see if an observer could distinguish between the two and guess which was which.

    Yeah, that sounds sooo interesting.

  6. It’s not Evolution Denial that’s the problem. The more I think about it, the more I realize the base problem is important. Reality Denial. Whether the particular detail is global warming, or evolution, or PaV on HIV, or supply-side economics, those are all variations on the same theme. Reality Is Not What You Fancy Liberals Say, It’s What I Want To Be True. There’s an underlying reality denial mechanism that all those beliefs depend on.

  7. Come to think of it, I grew up in the Deep South, it’s kinda similar to how most white people there will earnestly argue that the Civil War wasn’t really about slavery. Reality Denial abounds.

  8. I do have a weird optimism that people will understand that religion is dumb bullshit. I thing the demographics are showing that happening.

  9. Mung:
    Who said specified complexity could never be calculated?

    I don’t know, but I’d say instead that in so far as it can be calculated, it can’t be shown the evolutionary process can’t produce it. In so far as it is claimed evolution can’t produce it, it can’t be shown with a calculation using a specific example of an entity known from actual biology.

  10. Rumraket,

    If evolution is anything and everything, or whatever anyone wants to define it as, then of course it can do anything.

    If something can’t be defined it also can’t be disputed.

  11. phoodoo:
    Rumraket,

    If evolution is anything and everything, or whatever anyone wants to define it as, then of course it can do anything.

    If something can’t be defined it also can’t be disputed.

    Good thing that’s not the case.

  12. Richardthughes:
    She who should not be named: http://www.uncommondescent.com/intelligent-design/fixing-a-confusion/#comment-622226

    Oh, it! I was afraid you were not-naming the Click Whore of Babylon. She still gets me riled — which is a sad thing for me to admit, because she is only one rung up the ladder from it.

    Tristan got my pun, but no one noticed that I was providing a perspective from about the time of Darwin’s Origin. What was a “natural wonder” then is not so wondrous now. The passage is loaded with teleological talk, and I was hoping folks would notice how much it reads like ID.

    The example that actually interests me is the hermit crab “conga line.” Going from crabs to the beach started out as a pun. I had no idea that I’d hit on the old article. I should have explained what I liked about it, I guess.

  13. Rumraket: but I’d say instead that in so far as it can be calculated, it can’t be shown the evolutionary process can’t produce it. In so far as it is claimed evolution can’t produce it, it can’t be shown with a calculation using a specific example of an entity known from actual biology.

    I think this is an important point.

    At the risk of being branded an ID denier.

    I would agree that if it can be calculated it can’t be shown that evolutionary process can’t produce it. Evolution is an algorithmic process after all and we do calculations with algorithms. On the other hand if we could “identify” or “measure” it but not calculate it we have something that is beyond the capabilities of evolution.

    As far as a “specific example” of an entity known from actual biology. It depends on what you mean by “specific example”. If you mean an particular concrete structure like an actual line of crabs on a particular beach I would tend to agree with you .

    On the other hand if you mean something like identifying specified complexity in generic “Crab lines” in a species of hermit crab I think the jury is still out on that one but nothing rules it out.

    peace

  14. fifthmonarchyman: I would agree that if it can be calculated it can’t be shown that evolutionary process can’t produce it. Evolution is an algorithmic process after all and we do calculations with algorithms.

    Evolution is modeled using algorithms. It does not follow that it is an algorithmic process. Plus, algorithms are teleological. And we cant’ have evolution being teleological, can we?

  15. Mung: Evolution is modeled using algorithms. It does not follow that it is an algorithmic process. Plus, algorithms are teleological. And we cant’ have evolution being teleological, can we?

    Territory is modeled using maps. It does not follow that territory is a mapping process. Plus, maps are teleological. And we cant’ have territory being teleological, can we?

    That’s what passes for “logic” in Mung-land.

  16. phoodoo:
    Rumraket,
    If evolution is anything and everything, or whatever anyone wants to define it as, then of course it can do anything.

    If something can’t be defined it also can’t be disputed.

    “It is reputed that Philip II of Macedon sent a message to Sparta saying, “Surrender immediately, for if my armies capture your lands, they will destroy your farms, kill your people, and raze your city.” The response from Sparta was the single word, “If.”

    If.

  17. Mung: Evolution is modeled using algorithms. It does not follow that it is an algorithmic process.

    Interesting. If Evolution is not an algorithmic process does that mean we can never be sure of what it can or can not accomplish?

    Mung: Plus, algorithms are teleological. And we cant’ have evolution being teleological, can we?

    If there is no teleology then how do the crabs construct the line?

    peace

  18. Tom English,

    Maybe if Tom could have told Newton about crabs walking around or pebbles being pushed different distances by tides you could have convinced him of the simplicity of evolution.

    But then of course first you might have had to explain why the fuck crabs could learn to walk at all, or why anything could learn anything at all, or why do tides and gravity exist at all. Because although Newton had some ideas about gravity, one of his ideas wasn’t that gravity just exists because well… accident.

  19. Mung: I bet Hollywood stuntmen have a theory of intelligent falling.

    An example of natural selection, if ever there were one.

    ETA: With things going as they have for this thread, I had better say that I’m joking.

  20. I have observed that creationists love the word “accident”.
    It serves as a strawman and false dichotomy, all rolled into one word.

  21. Fair Witness:
    I have observed that creationists love the word “accident”.
    It serves as a strawman and false dichotomy, all rolled into one word.

    It has a twin partner in “mistakes”, as in all random genetic copying variations are mistakes.

  22. Tom English,

    Are shells on a beach a code Tom? Are they intricately placed as to work in perfect unison with each other? Do they combine to form great meaning and specificity? Does the whole perform a function which is much greater than its individual parts? Do the shells do ANYTHING other than exist in a pattern that is interesting to you?

    I call bullshit on your claim of saying anything meaningful about shells or pebbles on a beach. They have nothing whatsoever to do with the concept of specified complexity.

  23. Fair Witness:
    I have observed that creationists love the word “accident”.
    It serves as a strawman and false dichotomy, all rolled into one word.

    Its not a strawman whatsoever. That is just what evolutionists like to scream, because they know how absurd the idea that accidents can amount to anything meaningful. Its how they try to hide their meaning.

    But unplanned, random mistakes of copying can only be described as fortunate accidents. Now of course we know that modern evolution has no theory at all, but they used to have a theory that says these accidents can pile up until they become perfection. These days they don’t know what they want to say causes things to pile up to perfection.

    They want teleology without teleology, mistakes without mistakes, plans without a plan, design without a designer.

    Accidents. If you refuse to accept a designer, that is all you are left with. Live with it. Embrace it. Don’t be so afraid, its your theory (even if you can’t articulate it).

  24. phoodoo: Accidents. If you refuse to accept a designer, that is all you are left with. Live with it. Embrace it. Don’t be so afraid, its your theory (even if you can’t articulate it).

    The niche environment is the designer – the process that designs is called natural selection. It’s the bias that supplies the design.

  25. Alan Fox: The niche environment is the designer – the process that designs is called natural selection. It’s the bias that supplies the design.

    Alan you don’t have any evidence the environment designs. So why do you keep repeating that diatribe?

  26. Umm Dembski briefly did away with the EF because he thought he had a better method. Turns out he was wrong about that. The EF is a process mandated by Newton’s four rules of scientific investigation. It is a process archaeologists and forensic scientists have to use to determine the root cause of what they are investigating.

  27. Alan Fox,

    Like designing a car and each time selecting for an entirely different criteria based on a whim? Heavy, light, stable, fast, nimble, long, short, expensive, cheap, great for hauling things, to race F1, partially designed carburetor which then turns into a radiator, axle which becomes a fuel pump, software which has a different purpose each generation, six wheels, eleven wheels…..

    That would make one heck of a design Alan.

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