World Scientific is pitching Introduction to Evolutionary Informatics, by Robert Marks, William Dembski, and Winston Ewert, to a general readership, but with particular note of enthusiasts of apologetics. The book features the Conservation of Information Theorem, which was the centerpiece of Dembski’s religio-philosophical treatise Being as Communion: A Metaphysics of Information (2014). So there is no denying that the authors regard their mathematical arguments as support for their religious views. And there is no great surprise in learning that the nonprofit Center for Evolutionary Informatics, operated by Marks and Dembski, has the alternate name Arbor Ministries in public records. The forthcoming book includes a section titled “The Genesis,” and this leads me to hope that the authors, mindful of the canonical teachings of Jesus, have made a clear statement of faith.
No one lights a lamp and hides it in a clay jar or puts it under a bed. Instead, they put it on a stand, so that those who come in can see the light. For there is nothing hidden that will not be disclosed, and nothing concealed that will not be known or brought out into the open. Therefore consider carefully how you listen. Whoever has will be given more; whoever does not have, even what they think they have will be taken from them.
The Library of Congress has, on prepublication review of the book, classified the authors’ technical contributions as I did in a post last year: “Engineering mathematics. Engineering analysis.” Not scientific analysis. The Conservation of Information Theorem does not apply to scientific modeling of an evolutionary process as it does to engineering of an evolutionary computation to solve a problem. Marks, Dembski, and Ewert cannot use their math to demonstrate that an evolutionary process was formed to serve a purpose, because the math itself prespecifies a purpose. Everyone, no matter how uncomfortable with math, knows that a proof of a theorem is not a proof of what the theorem assumes to be true in the first place. Put less abstractly, you cannot identify an event that occurred in an evolutionary process, analyze the process under the assumption that the event was specified in advance as an objective, and derive support for the claim that the process was engineered to achieve that objective. In my post, I identified a theorem that applies when scientists model a process given by nature, not when engineers design a process to solve a given problem, and used it to show that the “information” addressed by the Conservation of Information Theorem is not conserved.
Now, if you’re a Christian who would like very much to believe that two Christian engineers and a Christian mathematician can use engineering analysis to provide evidence that evolution is engineered, how are you going to respond to what I have to say? What you need to do is to grapple with their mathematics, and interpret it for yourself. But, unless you’ve studied quite a bit of college-level math — material in courses that students in engineering and computer science take after they’ve completed courses in calculus — you’re not going to understand it. I’m quite sure of that, having read everything that Marks, Dembski, and Ewert have published on evolutionary informatics, having published a half-dozen papers of my own that are related to theirs, and having taught much of the requisite math. The advertisement for Introduction to Evolutionary Informatics makes the claim:
Built on the foundation of a series of peer-reviewed papers published by the authors, the book is written at a level easily understandable to readers with knowledge of rudimentary high school math.
But you need only take a whiff of the very next sentence to detect the stench of a salesman.
Those seeking a quick first read or those not interested in mathematical detail can skip marked sections in the monograph and still experience the impact of this new and exciting model of nature’s information.
How convenient. I am telling you that the devil is in the detail, and that you should not place your trust in a gloss, no matter how godly.
When I was working with the geneticist Joe Felsenstein on a response to “A General Theory of Information Cost Incurred by Successful Search” (2013), in which the Conservation of Information Theorem is proved, I advised him to ignore what the authors wrote in plain language about the math, because it was positively misleading. (Last year, in an exchange here in The Skeptical Zone, Joe recognized Markov’s inequality in my attempt at explaining the theorem — with a very helpful prompt from Alan Fox, I should add. The upshot is that we have reduced the theorem to something much simpler than what the authors have identified, and that I have found easy derivations of results much stronger than any that they have published.) The “conservation of information” rhetoric remains much the same as it was in Dembski’s No Free Lunch: Why Specified Complexity Cannot Be Purchased without Intelligence (2002), even though Dembski and Marks changed the meaning of information from specified complexity to active information in “Life’s Conservation Law: Why Darwinian Evolution Cannot Create Biological Information” (2010; preprint 2008). Active information is loosely the opposite of specified complexity. Yet Dembski and Marks have never mentioned that they made the change, let alone explained why it was necessary. Dembski opens his most recent (2014) treatment of conservation of information with a gobsmacking denial of reality:
Being as Communion is the final book in a trilogy. The two earlier books were The Design Inference and No Free Lunch.
His only reference to specified complexity, the main concern of the two earlier books, is in a list of examples of “materialist-refuting logic,” buried in footnote 30 of Chapter 8.
I submit that the authors of Introduction to Evolutionary Informatics have been more concerned with preserving the story of “intelligent design” (avoiding any suggestion that Dembski blundered horribly in his earlier work) than with providing a clear explanation of what the math actually says. Of course, I have not read their forthcoming book. I would love to see them turn over a new leaf. Dealing with intellectual psychopathy is a royal pain in the tuckus. I would love to see them succeed in making their work “easily understandable to readers with knowledge of rudimentary high school math.”
Nothing would suit me better than to engage you in terms of the math, and not in terms of the misleading rhetoric that they attach to the math.
But I know, from considerable experience as a student and an educator, that understanding the math takes a great deal more work than most people are willing to do. The authors have already issued a number of accounts of their “new and exciting model of nature’s information” through the Discovery Institute, e.g., “Conservation of Information Made Simple” (2012). They have not yet found the magic words to imprint mathematical abstractions on the minds of the mathematically uninclined. But all things are possible with God, and hope springs eternal: the faithful will not rule out miracles in the new book.
Stay tuned to this “Evo-Info” series for basic insights into evolutionary informatics that almost certainly will not appear in Introduction to Evolutionary Informatics.