Evo-Info 1: Engineering analysis construed as metaphysics

Introduction to Evolutionary Informatics, by Robert J. Marks II, the “Charles Darwin of Intelligent Design”; William A. Dembski, the “Isaac Newton of Information Theory”; and Winston Ewert, the “Charles Ingram of Active Information.” World Scientific, 350 pages. January 30, 2017.
Classification: Engineering mathematics. Engineering analysis. (TA347)
Subjects: Evolutionary computation. Information technology–Mathematics.

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.

129 Replies to “Evo-Info 1: Engineering analysis construed as metaphysics”

  1. Tom English Tom English
    Ignored
    says:

    colewd: Evolution has to come up with advantage out of an almost unlimited search space.

    The size of the sample space is not what matters in the engineering analysis of Marks et al. What matters is the proportion of elements of the sample space that constitute solutions to the given problem. That is, if there are N elements in the sample space, k of which are solutions to the given problem, then the relevant quantity is the ratio of the number of actual solutions to the number of possibilities under consideration,

        \[p = \frac{k}{N}.\]

    Marks et al. express p on a logarithmic scale, and call it the endogenous information of the problem. Changing the scale of measurement does not change what is actually measured. What we have in p is the proportion of the possibilities under consideration that actually are solutions to the problem. Nothing magical happens when we write -\log_2 p instead.

    Neil Rickert: Evolution isn’t a search.

    In his swan song at the University of Chicago, Dembski stamped his foot, and whined, “If it isn’t a search, then what is it?” What appear in his very own models are sampling processes.

    Mung: Then why is it presented as a search and modeled as a search?

    By whom, and in what context? The cheesiest thing that Dembski the Scholar did in his seminar talk at the University of Chicago was to give the number of Google hits for “evolutionary search.” Try plugging the term into Google Scholar, as I have. The vast majority of the hits are in engineering papers. As for the hits in scientific papers, a small number of investigators, including Gerald Joyce and Andreas Wagner, account for disproportionately many of them.

    As I have told you before (too many times), even in engineering analysis, it is the person deploying the sampling process that does the search, not the sampling process itself. The essential meaning of “no free lunch in search” is that only the sampler-selecting agent can justify the decisions of the sampler. The sampling process is itself absolutely uninformed. (I was wrong to speak of conservation of information, twenty years ago, because there is no information at all.) What is missing from the analytic frameworks of Marks et al. is a model of the potentially-informed agent that selects the sampler.

  2. Mung Mung
    Ignored
    says:

    Richardthughes: Good luck operationalizing that. Are you new to science?

    Scientists ought not claim that they have the ability to know, perceive or understand anything until they have first operationalized those terms. Is that your point?

  3. Mung Mung
    Ignored
    says:

    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 couldn’t agree more.

    I would love to see them succeed in making their work “easily understandable to readers with knowledge of rudimentary high school math.”

    Me too!

  4. phoodoo
    Ignored
    says:

    Neil Rickert: So when photons of light, coming from the sun, randomly strike parts of the world, then it must be that the light that enters your eyes is random and it must be that you are completely blind, since only random photons reach your eyes.

    That’s an implication of your reasoning.

    If one believes evolution.

  5. phoodoo
    Ignored
    says:

    newton: It only has to be better than its competitors

    Better at what?

  6. Adapa
    Ignored
    says:

    phoodoo: Better at what?

    Surviving long enough to reproduce.

  7. Mung Mung
    Ignored
    says:

    phoodoo: Better at what?

    Better at being better!

  8. phoodoo
    Ignored
    says:

    Mung: Better at being better!

    Yes. It seems there should only be one kind of animal on the entire planet. The one that is best at being better.

  9. Adapa
    Ignored
    says:

    phoodoo: Yes.It seems there should only be one kind of animal on the entire planet.The one that is best at being better.

    Is there only one environment on the whole planet?

  10. Richardthughes Richardthughes
    Ignored
    says:

    phoodoo, evolution is too hard for you.

  11. phoodoo
    Ignored
    says:

    Adapa: Is there only one environment on the whole planet?

    So each environment has only one animal?

    And what constitutes and environment?

  12. phoodoo
    Ignored
    says:

    Richardthughes:
    phoodoo, evolution is too hard for you.

    It could be. Once someone decides what it is.

    Some said it those that have a positive advantage thrive. Then someone asked, “What is a positive advantage?”

    And the answer to that was “Thriving.”

    Hm, interesting…

    But then some said, “Well, actually, sometimes those with a positive advantage thrive, but sometimes its not things that have a positive advantage that thrive, sometimes things that happen to thrive, thrive.”

    Oh, very interesting. Wait, what was the definition of a positive advantage again?

    This could be quite complicated to comprehend indeed.

  13. Adapa
    Ignored
    says:

    phoodoo: So each environment has only one animal?

    Yet you wonder why people think you have shit for brains.

  14. Adapa
    Ignored
    says:

    phoodoo: This could be quite complicated to comprehend indeed.

    Far beyond your feeble powers of comprehension apparently.

  15. phoodoo
    Ignored
    says:

    Adapa: Yet you wonder why people think you have shit for brains.

    Imagine those I outcompeted!

  16. Adapa
    Ignored
    says:

    phoodoo: Imagine those I outcompeted!

    Better to be lucky than good.

  17. newton
    Ignored
    says:

    phoodoo: Yea, you might want to take that up with Neil,not me.He is the one who is struggling to define every word in the English language.I think he is in a support group with Lizzie.

    Check out the dictionary, a word can have several meanings.

  18. Rumraket Rumraket
    Ignored
    says:

    colewd: When I think about the 100k+ nucleotides that are required to code for Behe’s bacterial flagellum it is very hard to conceive of that code coming about by trial and error.

    What you find personally challenging to concieve of is an irrelevancy.

    All the computer power on our planet could not even begin to explore the number of possible DNA sequences in a small fraction of the flagellum’s total DNA sequence space.

    Isn’t it great, then, that the flagellum is not postulated to have evoled by an exhaustive computational search of the total sequential space of that DNA?

    How does natural selection factor into your “conceptions”?

    It is hard to imagine that code being developed without knowledge of what the result of certain strings of amino acid paired together would fold into.

    Just as hard as imagining melting snow on a mountain coalescing into a river without knowldge of what the terrain below is like.

    How does the water know? Clearly there must be a river-designer somewhere!

    This would be the only way to avoid an exhaustive search. I would go out on a limb and say that this project most likely required intelligence.

    Or natural selection.

  19. Patrick Patrick
    Ignored
    says:

    colewd:

    I am arguing against a trial and error process where that ultimate successful sequence is unknown at the beginning of the process and must be generated.Do you have a counter argument or are you satisfied trying to discount my argument on technical grounds.

    You’re not arguing against anything, you’re simply professing personal incredulity. The counter argument is all of biology for the past 150 years.

  20. Patrick Patrick
    Ignored
    says:

    phoodoo:

    You’d end up with a bunch of different cars, each specialized for a particular niche.Does that remind you of anything?

    There is no such niche which only has one survival criteria.

    Exactly. So there are different combinations of characteristics that can lead to survival in a given niche.

    So instead of different “cars” for different niches, you would have a car made for fifty different purposes, including being able to vacuum well, being used for a night light, and tasting good.

    You really need to study the basics of evolution. Incremental change with constant feedback doesn’t lead to what your unfounded intuition expects.

  21. Mung Mung
    Ignored
    says:

    phoodoo: Imagine those I outcompeted!

    lol

  22. Mung Mung
    Ignored
    says:

    Rumraket: Isn’t it great, then, that the flagellum is not postulated to have evoled by an exhaustive computational search of the total sequential space of that DNA?

    Yes, somehow the search was restricted to those areas that just happened to hold promise. 🙂

  23. Mung Mung
    Ignored
    says:

    Patrick: You’re not arguing against anything, you’re simply professing personal incredulity.

    I guess that’s what happens when all you have is unbelief.

  24. Joe Felsenstein Joe Felsenstein
    Ignored
    says:

    Tom English:

    In his swan song at the University of Chicago, Dembski stamped his foot, and whined, “If it isn’t a search, then what is it?” What appear in his very own models are sampling processes.

    As I have told you before (too many times), even in engineering analysis, it is the person deploying the sampling process that does the search, not the sampling process itself. The essential meaning of “no free lunch in search” is that only the sampler-selecting agent can justify the decisions of the sampler. The sampling process is itself absolutely uninformed. (I was wrong to speak of conservation of information, twenty years ago, because there is no information at all.) What is missing from the analytic frameworks of Marks et al. is a model of the potentially-informed agent that selects the sampler.

    To agree with you, Tom:

    Evolution can be modeled by population-genetic processes. Sometimes it is useful for it to be described as a “search”, most of the time it is not useful to do so. Getting one’s “knickers in a twist” over whether it is really a search seems mostly a waste of time. However it seems very important to Dembski and Marks. As you point out, this is for reasons of their theology, as is the description of the whole process as involving Information. In a post of mine at Panda’s Thumb a year ago I documented the way they claim that their theorems are not aimed at addressing anything about evolution but when they describe them to their blog audiences they argue that the theorems are a barrier to the validity of naturalistic views of evolution.

    And, as you and I have discussed in previous posts here and at PT, the space of all possible “searches” that they examine includes tons of processes that aren’t searches by any usual definition, as they go weird places, ignoring closeness to the “target”.

  25. Rumraket Rumraket
    Ignored
    says:

    Mung: Yes, somehow the search was restricted to those areas that just happened to hold promise.

    It would be pretty weird if natural selection was selecting for something nonfunctional you gotta admit.

  26. OMagain
    Ignored
    says:

    colewd,

    I would go out on a limb and say that this project most likely required intelligence.

    Great. You’ve said it. Now what?

  27. Allan Miller
    Ignored
    says:

    Mung,

    Yes, somehow the search was restricted to those areas that just happened to hold promise

    Not only that, it found most of these different proteins in the same place. Almost as if they were related in some way.

  28. Rumraket Rumraket
    Ignored
    says:

    Allan Miller: Not only that, it found most of these different proteins in the same place. Almost as if they were related in some way.

    Good point I often forget myself. Many of the flagellum proteins are actually homologous to each other and to other membrane proteins and transporters.

  29. OMagain
    Ignored
    says:

    Rumraket: Many of the flagellum proteins are actually homologous to each other and to other membrane proteins and transporters.

    colewd, what do you make of that? If this “project” required intelligence what stopped that intelligence using parts from the entire tool kit at it’s disposal? Why does this “intelligence” seem limited in it’s ability to create, only choosing to use components already available ‘nearby’ in some form?

    Other designers we are familiar with are not constrained in such ways.

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