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Massimo Pigliucci Ignores ID Research, Claims “Random Alteration” of DNA Creates New Information

Casey Luskin

Discovery Institute senior fellow William Dembski is apparently living inside the heads of intelligent design critics.

A recent opinion article by Massimo Pigliucci in EMBO Reports, published by the European Molecular Biology Organization, states, “In some quarters, ‘information’ seems to be a magical word: Intelligent Design proponent Bill Dembski, for example, keeps repeating that evolutionary theory cannot explain the production of new information…” Aside from the “magical” slur, Pigliucci’s description of Dembski’s view is reasonably accurate. Pigliucci, who apparently knows Dembski well-enough to call him “Bill” in one of the world’s most prestigious science journals, attempts an explanation of the talk about the origin of information:

As for the claims that Dembski and others make about information and evolutionary theory, it is well understood that biological information of the type stored in DNA is created and destroyed all the time. Destruction comes, for instance, with the death of a given organism–which, accordingly, corresponds to a sudden increase in the entropy level of that organism. Creation and change of information occur every time there is a mutation in DNA, that is, a random alteration to the structure of the molecule. Again, nothing magical is going on, and there is certainly no need for conscious agents to be involved–be they supernatural or otherwise.

(Massimo Pigliucci, “What about ‘information’?,” EMBO Reports, Vol. 12:92 (February, 2011).)

Pigliucci misses the point on multiple levels. Of course no ID proponent denies that material causes can destroy information. That point is trivially obvious.

But where does new information come from? According to Pigliucci the answer is simple: “random alteration” of the DNA molecule.

Perhaps random mutations can generate inconsequential changes in DNA. But can such random mutations generate new information that is functional?

One can pick Scrabble letters out of a bag all day long and call that “information.” But unless those letters spell words, the information is useless. The ability of mutations to impose a “random alteration” of DNA is perfectly useless if that information doesn’t perform some function.

Other scientists agree that we need to measure biological information by its function, not by its mere DNA sequence.

In 2003, Nobel Prize-winning origin-of-life researcher Jack Szostak wrote a review article in Nature lamenting that the problem with “classical information theory” is that it “does not consider the meaning of a message” and instead defines information “as simply that required to specify, store or transmit the string.” According to Szostak, “a new measure of information– functional information–is required” in order to take account of the ability of a given protein sequence to perform a given function.

In 2007 Szostak co-published a paper in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences with Carnegie Institution origin-of-life theorist Robert Hazen and other scientists, furthering these arguments. Attacking those who insist on measuring biological complexity using the outmoded tools of classical information theory, Szostak and his co-authors write, “A complexity metric is of little utility unless its conceptual framework and predictive power result in a deeper understanding of the behavior of complex systems.” Thus they “propose to measure the complexity of a system in terms of functional information, the information required to encode a specific function.”

Where does this new functional information come from?

Pigliucci says that natural selection acting on those random mutations can do the job, but he just asserts this claim as true. Rather than making assumptions, let’s perform tests. Douglas Axe’s recent research in BIO-Complexity shows that if a mere 6 or more mutations are necessary to evolve a given biological function, such a function would be unlikely to arise in the history of life, given maximum probabilistic resources. It would seem that not all levels of functional information are within the reach of random mutation and natural selection.

These results fit with Axe’s previous work. As a post-doctoral fellow at the University of Cambridge, Axe performed mutational sensitivity tests on enzymes to measure the likelihood that a sequence of amino acids would yield a functional protein fold. He published that research in the Journal of Molecular Biology, showing that amino acid sequences that yield functional protein folds may be as rare as one in 1077 sequences.

He described the implications of those numbers as follows:

I reported experimental data used to put a number on the rarity of sequences expected to form working enzymes. The reported figure is less than one in a trillion trillion trillion trillion trillion trillion. Again, yes, this finding does seem to call into question the adequacy of chance, and that certainly adds to the case for intelligent design.

Since Dembski is clearly influencing the thought patterns of Pigliucci, why doesn’t Pigliucci review any of Dembski’s peer-reviewed research showing intelligence is required for the origin of information? If Pigliucci is reviewing ID thinking on the origin of new complex information, why doesn’t he mention any of the relevant research from the ID camp? It turns out Pigliucci has his own agenda.

In what the Darwin lobby group “Oklahomans for Excellence in Science Education” calls the “Anti-Wedge Plan,” Pigliucci lays out a political strategy which he describes as a “multi-pronged, multi-year strategy to oppose creationism and intelligent design in the science curriculum of public schools.” According to the “anti-wedge document,” scientists must defend evolutionary theory as “the fundamental conceptual framework for all biological sciences.” I always thought education was about exposing students to multiple viewpoints and teaching them how to think–not unilaterally “oppos[ing]” certain ideas. I guess Pigliucci feels otherwise.

Pigliucci’s incomplete discussion in EMBO Journal now makes more sense. He might accuse others of having political motives, but it’s clear that he has motives of his own. Pigliucci’s edge against intelligent design is seen in this concluding comment in his article: “there is nothing mystical about information, and the concept cannot therefore be invoked as a way to defeat materialism.”

Pigliucci is right: There’s nothing mystical about information or its origin. We know exactly where new functional biological information comes from. The problem for Pigliucci is that its source isn’t a material cause. It’s intelligence.

If anything is “magical” here, it’s the claim that random alterations in DNA can generate complex multi-mutation features. How that happens is a question no one has answered.


Casey Luskin

Associate Director, Center for Science and Culture
Casey Luskin is a geologist and an attorney with graduate degrees in science and law, giving him expertise in both the scientific and legal dimensions of the debate over evolution. He earned his PhD in Geology from the University of Johannesburg, and BS and MS degrees in Earth Sciences from the University of California, San Diego, where he studied evolution extensively at both the graduate and undergraduate levels. His law degree is from the University of San Diego, where he focused his studies on First Amendment law, education law, and environmental law.



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