Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Darwin's Dilemmas: Debating Descent--Day One

I recently began a discussion over email with an old friend concerning evolution. In case any of my readers might find the discussion edifying (all 0 of you?), I figured I'd reproduce the relevant points here at my blog. For the sake of anonymity, I'll call my friend "Joe." Joe, if I misquote you or misrepresent your position, please let me know. Do continue to respond via email, however, rather than in comments in response to this post; I think the discussion will be clearer as individual blog posts rather than as a ridiculously long thread of comments with limited formatting options.

To my readers, know that I reproduce this discussion at some risk. If it turns out my friend presents an argument I am as of yet unable to refute, your faith and mine might be a bit shaken (if you disbelieve in evolution as I do). On the other hand, I am confident in the truth of God's Word, and in the poor quality of evolutionary theory.

Besides, I am a seeker of truth, and do not wish to worship a "sacred cow," and I want to encourage you to have the same attitude. As such, we should approach this discussion seriously, open to the possibility that we are wrong. Join me as we debate descent with my old pal, won't you?


I posted the following statement on Facebook recently: "Looking back I laugh at myself for ever believing in so ludicrous and absurd a notion as evolution." This proved to be the catalyst for the discussion which I'll be reproducing here. My friend saw this comment and contacted me via email. Here is how he began:

[Joe] As far as Evolution I'm not sure where you find fault with the theory so I can't counter point yet. To start I can state that there have been recorded instances of speciation in recent history, as little as 250 years ago. The Faeroe Island house mouse has not, that I know of, been subjected to testing for inter-breadability with "parent stock" so is not a prime example. It is just one of the most recent instances and show how fast Natural Selection can work in the presence of isolation on an island.

Here was my response to him:

[Theopologetics] With all due respect, I believe you are committing the logical fallacy of equivocation. Namely, you are giving an example of “evolution” as defined as “speciation” in an attempt to prove “evolution” as colloquially understood to mean “descent from a single, simple common ancestor.” But “speciation” and “descent from a single, simple common ancestor” are not the same thing.

The taxonomic classification system is a human construct, and categories like species, genus and so forth are not objective properties of organisms, but are merely attempts made by humans to classify similar creatures together hierarchically. Species, by virtue of being the most narrowly defined category, is the easiest category to “jump,” as it were, over the course of generations. In order for a new species to be formed, all that is required is that there be sufficient change over time for scientists to decide that a creature is dissimilar enough from its ancestors that it should be classified slightly differently. In other words, all that is required is “change;” the nature or quality of the change is irrelevant and subject to human interpretation. Thus, “speciation” is equal to, simply, “change.”

On the other hand, in order for all life today to have descended from a single, simple common ancestor, a specific kind of change is required—and a whole lot of it. Namely, a change resulting from the addition of new genetic information not present in one’s parents. For example, the four-winged fruit fly, what used to be a so-called “icon” of evolution (I don’t know if it is used as such any longer since the publication of the book, Icons of Evolution), has undergone a seemingly significant “change” from its parents. Whereas the parents have one pair of wings, the four-winged mutant has two pair. Yet, this cannot serve as an example of evolution because this change results from a loss of genetic information. The “normal” fruit fly’s second pair of wings is caused by certain genetic information to stop growing early in development, enabling them to serve as “stabilizers” of sorts. The four-winged mutant, on the other hand, is missing the genetic information that arrests the growth of the second pair of wings. As a result, it appears quite different from its parents with its second pair of wings, but because it has lost genetic information, and not gained new genetic information never before seen, it cannot serve as an example of evolution (and is a hopeless cripple, incidentally).

Here’s my point: “Change” and “evolution” are, quite simply, not synonyms. If you wish to attempt to present me with observed examples of evolution, you need to present examples of organisms containing new genetic information not inherited from its parents or coopted from another organism. New genetic information that resulted solely from errors which took place during the transcription and translation of DNA. Changes in the color patterns of hair, cyclical changes in the shapes and sizes of beaks (Darwin’s famous finches) and so forth do not cut it. If you have such examples, let’s discuss them. My understanding, however, is that no such observations have been made. The only claim I’ve seen made is that certain examples of bacterial resistance are examples of this kind of change, but upon closer examination it is discovered that the resistance was not the result of new genetic information.

In response, Joe wrote,

The taxonomic classification system is a human construct...

[Joe] A point I, and those supporting evolution, will agree with you completely on. Or they should. Simply saying "see, they are different now. Why? Because I said so" has no bearing on evolution. So ultimately that part is of no help or hindrance to my argument. On a similar note, it seems that scientist love creating new terms so speciation, evolution, and natural selection get blurred. As I understand it natural selection is the driving force of evolution. The result of divergent evolution is speciation (speciation still being a human construct).

On the other hand, in order for all life today...

The big picture of evolution is that all life evolved from a simple common ancestor. From there complexity of an organism is driven primarily by natural selection. A better definition of evolution is: Biological evolution ... is change in the properties of populations of organisms that transcend the lifetime of a single individual. Mutation does play a part, like with the fruit fly. The 4 winged fly is an example of how natural selection would never the genetic mutation prosper. It does not benefit the organism and will there for be removed from the gene pool. An example of beneficial mutation in the evolutionary process in an artificial environment is E. Coli. I will only give the brief version. Richard Lenski cultured over 60,000 generations of E. Coli using 1 group of common ancester. He had 12 populations that were identical to begin with in a set solution (glucose-limited medium that also contains citrate) for a set time before removing 10% from the expended solution to start the process for the new "generation". Aprox 30,000 generations in 2 random mutations had arose in one population at different times that allowed that one population to exploit citrate. The E. Coli had evolved to utilize citrate by random mutation and chance. After that had happened natural selection favored the new strain. This type of radical "jump" would be very uncommon. No new genetic information was added but the process of evolution happened right in front of them.

If you wish to attempt to present me with observed examples of evolution, you need to present examples of organisms containing new genetic information not inherited from its parents or coopted from another organism.

I think I see why you see evolution as absurd. I'm not sure what you mean by new genetic information. Genetic information will always be passed from parent to offspring in sexual reproduction. What genes are recieved greatly impacts the offspring's chances of survival and reproduction. Genes that are successful will usually spread through a population and less successful genes will sputter out.

Evolution is a very slow and methodical process. I think a good example, although long, is this:

If you were to take a female rabbit an line it up next to her mother and grand mother you would see minor differences, hair color, minor changes in dimentions, etc. Continue to do this for 1000 generations and the changes would from 1000 to 999 to 998 would be just as small. the same could be said for any 3 consecutive generations anywhere in the line. The difference between 1000 and 1 would be much more noticeable. Changes would be driven by natural selection. Not choosing what genes prosper directly but what animals survive to produce the most successful offspring to continue the genetic line.

Evolution does not have to mean a new species, just the improved success of a current one.

Even if you don't agree with the conclusion I think you will find the study of E. Coli interesting. Here is a short version

I responded as follows:

As I understand it natural selection is the driving force of evolution. The result of divergent evolution is speciation (speciation still being a human construct).

[Theopologetics] You are asserting that Natural Selection --> Evolution --> Speciation. My point is that in that sequence, “Evolution” is being used as a synonym for change (that gets passed down to subsequent generations), but that’s not really how that word is used in the debate at hand. Creationist or otherwise, nobody denies the reality of the phenomenon that is natural selection, nor the change in future generations that it produces. While “evolution” can be used in several ways, I think it goes without saying that it is more typically understood to mean, as you put it, “all life evolved from a simple common ancestor.” It is this process which I deny, and we’ll get to why momentarily.

Biological evolution ... is change in the properties of populations of organisms that transcend the lifetime of a single individual.
You see, this is what I mean when I say you are equivocating. This is not a process any creationist denies. It’s missing a vital component…

An example of beneficial mutation in the evolutionary process in an artificial environment is E. Coli… No new genetic information was added but the process of evolution happened right in front of them.

…and there it is. A beneficial mutation does not in and of itself support the notion that “all life evolved from a simple common ancestor.” One can conceive of a virtually limitless number of possible mutations which benefit the organism, but which nevertheless involve the addition of no new genetic information. My example of a four-winged fruit fly was a bad one since, as you pointed out, its mutation won’t be handed down to future generations. However, as I pointed out, cases in which a strain of bacteria develops a resistance often involve the loss of genetic information, in which case a benefit results from, at best, genetic regression, not evolution (I say “at best” because the prefix “re” in “regression” presumes reverting to a previous state, which of course begs the question of evolution).

So what qualifies a change as supporting evolution—again, defined as “all life evolved from a simple common ancestor”—is not whether or not the change affords subsequent generations a survival benefit. What qualifies a change as supporting evolution is whether or not it results from “new genetic information.”

I'm not sure what you mean by new genetic information.

The question of “new genetic information” is of vital importance in this debate. Before I give you my humble definition as it pertains to this discussion, allow me to suggest that you read Stephen Meyer’s Signature in the Cell. If you’d like, I could mail you my copy (if you promise to read it and get it back to me J). Meyer is a Christian like me, but unlike me he is not a creationist. He believes in evolution (I think), but his treatment of information is a good one and, at minimum, presents a scientific case for the existence of an intelligent designer.

In any case, the information in DNA is analogous to any other kind of “information.” Let’s take written English, for example. For any given 2-letter sequence of English letters, there are a possible 676 combinations thereof (26*26). Of these 676, how many of them are English words? A liberal list of acceptable 2-letter words in Scrabble ( contains 101. The chances of producing a 2-letter word at random, then, is less than 1 in 6. Now just add one additional letter, and you have a possible 17,576 combinations, out of which around 1,014 are words ( The chances, then, of producing such a word at random is less than 1 in 17. Add a fourth letter and around 5,454 of 456,976 combinations are words (, giving you a chance of just over 1 in 100. As you add letters, the chances decrease (exponentially?) of producing a word at random. As you combine words to produce sentences, your chances decrease further.

Thus, information is identified when there are an enormous number of possibilities with only a tiny percentage of them being “functional” or “meaningful,” and yet you see those very ones. If you see Scrabble letters arranged on the board to spell “is,” it’s conceivable they were placed their at random. Less so, however, for “ice,” and still less so for “hard.” Now imagine if you saw the phrase, “ice is hard.” A rough estimate at the likelihood of this phrase being produced at random is 1/6 * 1/17 * 1/100, or 1 out of 10,200.

Another example is a gambler who repeatedly wins at roulette. If he places his bet on a color, he has a 50/50 chance of winning. That’s one “functional” or “meaningful” possibility out of two. A single win would not raise any red flags. Neither, perhaps, would three wins in a row (1 out of 8 chance of that happening). But what if he won twenty times in a row? The chances of that happening are 1 in 1,048,576. Out of over 1 million possible combinations, then, there is only one “functional” or “meaningful” one, and it just so happens this one is the one the gambler produces. It is obvious why this would raise suspicion on the part of the establishment.

DNA is the same. Here’s a quote from a post I did some time ago at my blog (

Consider that a protein defined by a gene in DNA is comprised of a chain of amino acids. There are some 20 amino acids that form proteins, and on average a working protein is made up of some 150 amino acids. Further consider that only certain arrangements of amino acids will link and fold into a working protein.

Just as English words are comprised of sequences of 26 letters, so too are genes (“words”) comprised of sequences of 20 amino acids (“letters”). And just a small percentage of all possible sequences of letters are meaningful or functional, so too is a small percentage of all possible sequences of amino acids meaningful or functional. As I go on to say in my post,

This means we can determine the odds of random processes producing such a working protein, by calculating the ratio of the number of working proteins to the number of possible sequences. The chance of such a protein occuring at random is 1 out of 10 to the 74th power.

What does that number mean? Ten to the seventy-fourth power is a 1 followed by 74 zeroes. So for every working protein 150 amino acids long, there are 100,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000, 000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 (I had to insert a space just so the number would fit in the blog) other possible amino acid sequences. That's one hundred trillion trillion trillion trillion trillion trillion possible combinations. The odds are staggering.

To help illustrate the gravity of this number, it helps to consider that astronomers estimate that there are only 10 to the 65th total atoms in our galaxy. This is an exponentially smaller number than the number of possible combinations of 150 amino acids. What this means is, you would have an exponentially better chance of selecting a desired atom out of the entire Milky Way, than you would have at producing an average protein by random.

Okay, so big deal. DNA contains genetic information akin to English words and repeated winning bets. So what? Well therein lies precisely the reason why on scientific grounds I deny evolution. You explain that we have observed numerous examples of change which get passed onto future generations, and yet none of them involve the production of new genetic information. In cases of eye and hair color, dominant and recessive genes were already present. You have no functional or meaningful genes that did not previously exist. We see cases in which genetic information is lost, but not where it is gained, which is exactly what is required to go from the theoretical simple, single-celled ancestor to the mind-boggling volume of genetic information stored in human DNA.

Put simply, and in a way which reduces the problem to a fraction of that which is really faced, the phrase “A week in Hawaii!” with which you opened this email thread has to be changed through solely naturalistic processes into the entire content of this email thread thus far. If one were to look at this email thread, they wouldn’t in their wildest dreams imagine that it was produced from “A week in Hawaii!” through the random selection of characters and formatting options.

Now, Meyer’s argument in Signature is not against evolution, it is against naturalistic abiogenesis. That is, the idea that the vast content of genetic information required of the first living cell came about through solely natural means. With all due respect to you (I saw you are a fan of the American Humanist Association; forgive me if my assumption that you are a materialist/naturalist/atheist is incorrect), this idea defies credulity. When we see information remotely approaching the scale of that required of even the simplest first organism, we as humans know we’re looking at the product of intelligence. Apart from our presumption that evolution can produce information in biology, we are aware of no conceivable natural process which can produce any other sort of information. Through the scientific process of inference to the best explanation, then, we must conclude that at least the first living organism is the product of intelligence.

Now, once said information was present, Meyer might surmise that random mutations operated upon by natural selection caused life to evolve (I don’t know for certain, I don’t recall him discussing it in his book). However, I think that would be conceding a point without warrant. Even given some amount of information with which to begin, functional changes thereof resulting from solely natural processes are ridiculously unlikely. I’ve posited that we’ve observed no information-increasing mutations (if I’m wrong let me know), but we’ve observed information-decreasing ones which are preserved through natural selection and handed down to subsequent generations. And nobody can logically justify that hypothetical information-increasing mutations are likely to be more beneficial than information-decreasing ones. Consider the implications if I’m right for a moment.

What this suggests is that even if one were to conceive of the rare information-increasing mutation, such changes occur far less often than equally beneficial information-decreasing ones. Do you see the problem? It is like a man spraying a garden hose up a waterfall. The process of change through random mutations operated upon by natural selection works against evolution! It actually suggests that the genetic information in DNA decreases over time. This is consistent with biblical theology, but it is certainly not compatible with naturalistic evolution.

Okay, with that I’ll hand the ball back to you. But just to sum up: I don’t deny the reality that is change produced through random mutations preserved by natural selection. I deny that this process can explain how “all life evolved from a simple common ancestor.” And I do so because the production of new information cannot be explained through natural processes.

So that's it, at least as of 9pm my time. If I get a response before midnight, I'll include it in my next post in this series.


  1. Hi Chris!

    Nice post. I could hardly presume to add to that except for the following:

    I'll try to be succinct. When people use the term evolution, they really mean "micro-evolution" but try to apply it to "macro-evolution."

    The three forces credited as the driving forces behind "evolution" are natural selection, descent with modification, and random mutation.

    Creationists and Neo-Darwinists alike can (or at least should) agree that all three of these forces are observable phenomena and provide a sufficient and reasonable explanation for changes over time within a "species".

    However, they are insufficient to explain the kind of change required for "macro-evolution" or the transition from apes to man, for example.

    Then there's the argument that "macro-evolution" required millions of years. But it's not years that matters, but generations. After all, descent with modification occurs with subsequent generations, regardless of the number of years between generations. Since this is the case, we should expect to see greater variations in subsequent generations of organisms with shorter lifespans. If we did, that would prove macro-evolution. But we really don't.

    So the "millions of years" argument may seem to be a sufficient explanation for humans or other long-lived organisms. How much variation have we seen in all the generations of guppies (for example) that have been since they were first observed?

  2. Good points, Mike. We still need to get together for lunch :)