Frank Turek’s Criminally Bad C.R.I.M.E.S. Argument: Information

Frank Turek’s Criminally Bad C.R.I.M.E.S. Argument: Information November 19, 2016

This is a continuation of a critique of Frank Turek’s arguments in favor of Christianity made in his latest book. See the beginning of the discussion here.

The I in CRIMES is Information

Turek said, “Darwinists say we all evolved from a one-celled amoeba.”

If by “Darwinists,” he means “biologists,” I’m pretty sure that biologists say that we share a common ancestor with amoebas.

Turek likes to pick and choose his science. When it pleases him (the Big Bang, for example), he’ll point to the scientific consensus. When it doesn’t (evolution), he points to what he wishes were true, hoping that you won’t notice the contradiction. Frank: is science a reliable tool or not?

There is no pushback against evolution within the biological community, but not to worry. He has a scathing schoolyard taunt: that evolution means “from the goo to you via the zoo.” (Here, he relies on the well-known rule, “if it rhymes, it must be true.” Or something.) Somehow, “goo” is supposed to be derogatory, but Turek has no problem with making Man out of dirt, as God did in Genesis 2:7.

The choice of the amoeba is the absolute worst category of animal Turek could’ve chosen to make his point. Protozoa, which includes amoebas, have DNA that ranges in size over five orders of magnitude—from 3 million to almost 1 trillion base pairs—broader than any other category of animal.

Let’s pause for a moment to consider this animal that Turek thinks shows the hand of an all-wise Designer. The animal with the longest DNA isn’t Homo sapiens. Salamander DNA can be ten times longer, but it’s not salamanders, either. How about fish, with DNA up to forty times longer? Wrong again. No, it’s the amoeba species Amoeba dubia, which has DNA 200 times longer than human DNA. Can this amoeba possibly need all that information, or is most of it (dare I say it?) junk?

DNA—no evidence for a Designer

The marvelous DNA that Creationists so often point to is a Rube Goldberg machine riddled with sloppiness. I discuss that more here. Here is a summary.

  • You know how humans get scurvy if we don’t get enough vitamin C? Almost all other mammals can synthesize their own vitamin C. We also have the gene that does that … except that it’s broken. Every cell of your body carries the DNA encoding of this broken, useless gene. That’s just one of 20,000 pseudogenes (broken genes) in human DNA.
  • You know how viruses can’t copy their own DNA but must force cells to do it for them? If the infected cell is a sperm or egg cell, that snippet of viral DNA gets passed on to children. It’s happened so often that 8% of our DNA is now inactivated viral DNA.
  • You know how the human appendix is vestigial (no longer used for its original purpose)? Other animals have vestigial structures, too—the pelvis in whales or eyes in blind cave fish. What’s really spooky are atavisms—archaic structures that get inadvertently switched on. Examples are humans with tails, dolphins with hind limbs, chickens with teeth, and snakes with legs.

Design Hypothesis

The Design Hypothesis argues that nature looks as if it were designed by an all-powerful Designer. How would we tell whether something is designed or not? We’d look for evidence of the principles followed by the designers that we know of, human designers. For example, designers might want to balance cost, strength, durability, beauty, and so on. But designers never put junk in their designs. The excess length of the protozoa DNA, pseudogenes, viral DNA, vestigial structures, and atavisms are traits that no designer would put in DNA. (I explore this more here.)

This doesn’t mean that God couldn’t do his work in ways that we don’t understand, but the Design Hypothesis—life shows the hand of an all-wise Creator—is now defeated.

Messages and minds

Turek gives an example of information. Suppose you saw on the kitchen table Alpha Bits cereal spelling out “Take out the garbage, Mom.” Clearly this was intelligent design, he says, and I agree. We’ve seen people compose text just like this countless times.

“Messages come from minds,” Turek says. “Where I come from, codes always come from coders.”

And where I come from, minds are housed in brains. Is this true for God’s mind as well?

Text made with cereal is just one of many similar examples. But where are the examples of people sending messages with coded chemicals (besides doing it in DNA)? Where’s the proof that this can’t come from nature? Turek merely been provocative and has dodged the hard questions.

Turek wraps up: “To believe that [the amoeba’s DNA] resulted by natural forces is like believing that the Library of Congress resulted from an explosion in a printing shop. I don’t have enough faith to believe that.” Snap! Respond to that, atheists!

But anyone who’s studied evolution knows that it proceeds by mutation (which is random) and natural selection (which is not). An explosion in a printing shop is only random, and Turek’s analogy fails completely.

I want to interpret Turek’s points charitably, but I can’t believe that he hasn’t been corrected on this point already, probably many times. I’m guessing he deliberately prefers the useful to the accurate. Accurately characterizing evolution doesn’t suit his purpose, so he mischaracterizes it. It’d be refreshing if he would take his medicine and drop these flawed arguments.

Continue on to M = Morality.

What I see in Nature is a magnificent structure
that we can comprehend only very imperfectly,
and that must fill a thinking person with a feeling of “humility.”
This is a genuinely religious feeling
that has nothing to do with mysticism.
— Albert Einstein

(This is an update of a post that originally appeared 8/7/13.)

Photo credit: J.K. Califf, flickr, CC

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  • Michael Neville

    Many creationists believe that DNA, the genetic code, and all living or extinct life forms are optimal. Instead, as Bob shows, DNA is not optimal. It works, often in a kludgy, inefficient, sloppy manner, but it works. The same is true of genes and life forms in general.

    Creationists make a big deal out of “information”, a concept they explain poorly. One of their favorite claims is that this information cannot be created but only can be lost. Apparently mutation has no effect on information. All I’ve seen from creationists is attempts to hand-wave this idea away.

    • RichardSRussell

      … as Bob shows, DNA is not optimal. It works, often in a kludgy, inefficient, sloppy manner, but it works.

      Oh, yeah, I’ve seen computer programs like that, too. And I’m extremely leery of fiddling with them, because they’re often so convoluted that you never know if tugging on a strand of spaghetti over here is gonna wiggle a meatball over there. But they do work, so we often just shrug and leave well enuf alone.

      I’m reminded of this aphorism:
      Theory is when you know everything and nothing is working.
      Organization is when nothing is working and everyone knows why.
      Practice is when everything is working and no one knows why.

      • Michael Neville

        Your aphorism reminded me of a bit of U.S. Navy doggerel:

        When in danger or in doubt,
        Run in circles, scream and shout!

      • Greg G.

        A program is either so simple there are obviously no bugs or it is so complex there are no obvious bugs.

  • Tony D’Arcy

    What on Earth makes Turek think the first critter was an amoeba ? For all its apparent simplicity compared with “higher” life forms, the amoeba is in fact incredibly sophisticated . Never let biological facts get in the way of a story that tells us that a Jewish carpenter built the universe.

    • Michael Neville

      Turek would disagree with you. The Jewish carpenter’s daddy built the universe.

      • Tony D’Arcy

        Ah but remember that the three are One !

        • Michael Neville

          One for all and all for one, including d’Artagnan.

    • Good point. I suppose they think that humans’ brain improvement from our common chimp ancestor 6M years is far more important that creating a nucleus like the first eukaryotic cell did.

  • Thanks4AllTheFish

    Maybe I’m just being obtuse or not smart enough to understand Creationists and/or Intelligent Designers. I know they want to show all of us that god did everything and evolution is bunk but IMO they are going about it the wrong way. Instead of spending so much time trying to make pseudoscience out of real science (you know, the science that has been tested, retested and proven over and over again) why don’t they just end the argument by showing all of us how men can be made out of dirt or clay or whatever, and women can be made out of men’s ribs. Then show us a talking serpent/snake (even though they lack vocal chords and a larynx), how to turn people into a pillar of salt and maybe for good measure point out the firmament to us on a stellar chart. Hell, I’d settle for a flying pig at this point. Just put up or shut up.

    • Dannorth

      Hell, I’d settle for a flying pig at this point.

      Be careful what you ask for.

    • Rt1583

      They know there’s nothing they can produce which will definitely prove their version is the correct version and if they attempted to do so in the face of absolute failure they’d have to concede their worldview is false and their lives would fall apart.
      It’s pretty much the same thing I see on a daily basis over on a FE discussion forum I frequent.

      • Thanks4AllTheFish

        I just don’t get their end game of teaching (and I use that term very loosely) ID or Creationism in a science classroom. What is there to teach? Besides all the pseudoscience nonsense shown in creation museums and the Ark Encounter, what could possibly be taught in a cosmology, biology, anatomy, geology, physics, etc. classroom that would be of any use to expand actual knowledge and advance human beings through science? Saying “God did it” ends the discussion, class over, everyone go home. Just because science doesn’t have answers to all the questions in the universe doesn’t mean that god did it. It just means science doesn’t know yet and maybe never will know. But at least it leaves the door open to learn. C’mon creationists, I know you’re out there. Defend your position.

        • MNb

          “What is there to teach?”
          Indeed I remember one biology teacher being OK with teaching creationism, because it can be summarized in five minutes.
          That’s why creacrappers spend so much time at “proving” Evolution Theory wrong – they have nothing to say.

        • Michael Neville

          Many of them can’t even give a coherent description of intelligent design or creationism. A vague hand-wave at Genesis isn’t a description.

        • Rt1583

          Their end game is to indoctrinate. They know there’s nothing to teach. They are pretending on this aspect so their idea seems to have some form of legitimacy. They tried once before and it was blatant that what they were doing was Christian indoctrination and they were shot down in court so they changed tack to “teaching the controversy” as if it were equivalent to science.

          Rationalwiki has some pretty good information on it. A couple of interesting points in the second link.

          If you like wiki walks you can lose yourself in their multitude of articles relating to creationism/ID/religion.

        • Thanks4AllTheFish

          Rt1583 thank you for the links. I guess my frustration stems from the absurdity that Creationists/IDs have the chutzpah to make all these pseudo-scientific claims and attack scientists because they don’t have ALL the answers but yet they have absolutely zero valid proof of their alternative claims and that makes their pseudoscience somehow better.

          Their first mistake is trying to equate Biblical verses as equivalent to the scientific method.

          Their next mistake is to not have any proof of their pseudoscience other than gaps in some areas of science.

          Their next and most glaring mistake is they work backwards from an un-refutable position of certainty thereby limiting and biasing their results.

          Lastly, they lack the ability to accept when they are wrong even and especially when the overwhelming body of facts and evidence formulated by the greatest minds of our time continually point out the glaring flaws in all of their arguments. How the hell can you get to people when they choose ignorance over knowledge?

        • Rt1583

          “How the hell can you get to people when they choose ignorance over knowledge?”

          More often than not you can’t (at least that’s my experience). Sometimes what you say or do will break through but in actuality those that break away from that way of thinking do so of their own accord for their own reasons.

          It’s much the same as an addict. The addict has to want to change for the change to occur and take hold.

          If you want more reading on the topic, dig into the Discovery Institute. Rational Wiki has quite a lot of information on them. All of what you said just above is basically what the DI is built upon.

    • Other questions: How did God create the universe? What known laws of nature did he break, and what unknown-to-us laws did he use?

      “God dun it!” answers questions very nicely, but it does create a lot of new questions (like “How?!“) in its wake.

      • Thanks4AllTheFish

        They answer the “How” question with “it isn’t for man to know”

        Really useful, that. Put it as a disclaimer on every science book.

        • Avoiding scientific questions? That’s the attitude with which we beat the Ruskies to the moon!

  • Sophia Sadek

    And then there is the information on how the Church fashioned the material Creator of the flat and immobile Earth in the image of Caesar during the fourth century.

  • Mr. A

    It’s amazing how they like to cherry pick thier sciences based on what they want. It’s complete and utter top down approach, make a conclusion then find evidence to support i while ignoring everything else.

    • Dannorth

      It’s complete and utter top down approach, make a conclusion then find evidence to support i while ignoring everything else.

      Subsumed in one word: theology.

    • Rt1583

      Everything about them is top down.

      Their bible is their truth and they cherry pick it as it fits their circumstances so it’s not too much of a stretch that they would cherry pick everything else as it fits their circumstances.

  • se habla espol

    As usual, the creationists have it backwards: information often (usually?) comes from trial and error. The child sticks the bobby pin into that funny hole in the wall (the trial) and winds up across the room (the report of the error). A germ cell experiences a mutation (not all trials are purposeful) and the resulting phenotype can now produce vitamin C (not all errors are bad, just different). A sloppy biologist allows his bacteria culture to get contaminated with P. notatum (trial) and observes that the contamination has ruined the culture (error), killing off the bacteria: he consequently discovers Penicillin by examining the information.

    TL;DR: evolution, as a special case of learning, produces information.

  • Rt1583

    “Here, he relies on the well-known rule, “if it rhymes, it must be true.””

    This is the true basis of science but the scientists remove the rhymey part and replace it with all the boring words to make us think it’s really, really difficult to do science.

    • Kevin K

      It’s the Chewbacca Defense!!

    • Shhhh! Loose lips, y’know.

  • Doubting Thomas

    “Information” is a purposefully nebulous term. I can gain information from all sorts of natural processes. I can get information regarding wind direction by looking at sand dunes. I can get information about past geologic events by looking at rock types. “Information” is created by natural processes all the time, no god required.

    • MNb

      Depends. Mathematicians are perfectly capable of specifying what they mean with information.

      • Hans-Richard Grümm

        True. But what mathematicians like Shannon or Kolmogorov mean by “information” is best produced by totally random processes (“white noise”).

        • MNb

          Just curious – why the “but”?

        • Greg G.

          Right. The spectrum of a star should be should be smooth in its frequency drop offs but the constituent atoms and molecules absorb certain frequencies. That is a loss of Shannon information but it allows us to identify the atoms and molecules as well as the frequency shift that allows us to determine the relative velocity of the star to us. The loss of Shannon information actually creates information.

      • Rt1583

        Two statements close together in the linked article kick it right back to what Doubting Thomas said.

        “the Kolmogorov interpretation”

        “I like this version of information theory because”

        Both of these statements reinforce the nebulous aspect of information.

        • MNb

          Nope. They only show that different interpretations and different versions can use different meanings, not that those meanings are nebulous.

        • Rt1583

          Nebulous – (of a concept or idea) unclear, vague, or ill-defined.

          By your own words “different interpretations and different versions can use different meanings” you’re saying the term information is nebulous.

        • MNb

          Merely repeating your error does nothing to remedy it.
          None of the different meanings of information is unclear, vague or ill-defined. They are just different. All different meanings of information as used by mathematicians like Kolmogorov and Shannon are clear, specific and unambiguously defined. They are just different.

        • Rt1583

          Let’s agree, for sake of argument, that there are ten different meanings for information.

          I speak of information and you speak of information and we each stand on/by a different meaning. This makes the term information nebulous. It remains nebulous until you know which meaning I stand by and which meaning you stand by. At that point in time the term and/or idea of information is no longer nebulous to us. Introduce a third party who stands by their own meaning and is oblivious to ours and the term/idea of information again becomes nebulous.

          Nowhere above have I or DT stated that the definition of information is nebulous, only the term.

        • MNb

          “This makes the term information nebulous.”
          Nope. Again: repeating your error does nothing to remedy it. Nebulous is not synonymous with different.

          “Nowhere above have I or DT stated that the definition of information is nebulous, only the term.”
          Semantics is boring.

          According to your illogica the term table is nebulous as well.

          Just like we are perfectly capable of specifying which table we are talking about so are mathematicians perfectly capable of specifying what they mean with information.
          Hey – exactly what I wrote above.

        • Rt1583

          Would you find semantics so boring if I simply bowed down and agreed with you?
          Pretty cool that mathematicians know exactly what other mathematicians are talking about when they are talking about information. Now what about all other people who talk about information? Does it carry the same meaning with them as it does with your precious mathematicians or is it a different meaning/idea?
          By what you’re saying information is the same regardless of who is dealing with it. How is this true?

        • Pretty cool that mathematicians know exactly what other mathematicians are talking about when they are talking about information.

          Then how would we modify this conversation so that they’d know what we were talking about? Are you talking about Shannon information? Kolmogorov complexity?

        • MNb

          Usually it’s clear from context what we were talking about. When you open a book and you read the word table you won’t be thinking of something you put your dishes on so you can have dinner.

        • MNb

          “Would you find semantics so boring if I simply bowed down and agreed with you?”

          “By what you’re saying information is the same regardless of who is dealing with it. How is this true?”
          It isn’t, because that’s not what I’m saying. Neither am I saying that a table is the same regardless of who is dealing with it. I’m saying the exact opposite.
          Are you getting dishonest now? Apparently, because you’re not even addressing anymore what I maintain: information is not necessarily a nebulous term, because mathematicians are perfectly capable of specifying what they mean with it – just like you and I are perfectly capable of specifying what we mean with table.

      • Great stuff. I agree that Creationists whine about information without specifying (or even knowing) what they’re talking about.

        Nevertheless, I don’t think I have a discussion-ending response. It still seems that the simple, “But doesn’t DNA look like software?” has some rhetorical weight. One answer is that this is the most software-ish thing in nature; so what? That doesn’t mean there was a designer.

        Do you have other ideas?

        • MNb

          No. My point is indeed that creationists need information to be nebulous for their non-argument. In my experience we can bring up whatever we like, they will rather lie than give up their point. In more than six years engaging in debates with creationists on internet I yet have to meet the first honest one.
          So there can’t be a discussion-ending response. I have written it before: our purpose must rather be exposing their dishonesty, hypocrisy, ignorance and stupidity.

        • I agree with you that the best argument on our side won’t shut up their anti-science blather. What I’m hoping for is an argument that will satisfy the mythical objective observer. I think this observer would look at my response and say that it was OK but that the naive “DNA = software!!! 🙂 ” is still provocative and compelling if (at best) this comparison is scientifically irrelevant.

        • MNb

          “an argument that will satisfy the mythical objective observer”
          That’s a noble enterprise. It’s also necessary for my purpose as described above, because I can’t give any creationist the opportunity to expose my dishonesty, hypocrisy, ignorance and stupidity if I want to mock him/her.

        • I can’t give any creationist the opportunity to expose my dishonesty, hypocrisy, ignorance and stupidity if I want to mock him/her.

          Good luck keeping your evil heart hidden.


        • MNb

          You know me better – I don’t want to hide my evil heart at all!

  • RichardSRussell

    Suppose you saw on the kitchen table Alpha Bits cereal spelling out “Take out the garbage, Mom.”

    I would never be so rude as to order my mom around like that!

  • Kevin K

    If DNA were optimal, there would be no life beyond the initial single-celled organism. Because it is the non-optimal error-prone duplication process that results in change over time — aka, evolution. Creationists cannot grok the fact that for the VAST majority of time life has been extant on Earth, it was single-celled organisms and nothing else.

    Also, if DNA were optimal, there also would be no cystic fibrosis, our bodies would be able to make all the vitamin C we need…and about a bazillion other examples.

    • Rt1583

      I don’t think it’s only a question of DNA being optimal or not. To me it’s more a question of DNA being optimal for the environment it’s found in.

      Take your initial single-celled organism for instance. That organism and its DNA were optimal for its environment. An error introduced into the DNA stands a chance of either killing the organism or allowing it to continue to survive in the environment in which it is already optimal with the added benefit of being/becoming optimal for a different environment.

      Regarding vitamin C production. We evolved away from our ancestors to have a diet which is different from and possibly more varied than theirs. Optimally if this thing that was once coded for can be had from an outside source the best response is to stop coding for that thing which, ultimately, makes the process of copying DNA more efficient (optimal).

      As to genetic diseases showing DNA to be sub-optimal, this too is driven more by environment. There are a number of genetic diseases which, prior to modern medical care, would kill a person before they reached the point of having children and passing their genes on. Not saying there were no genetic defects in the past, only arguably fewer instances where the genes for said defects could be passed on.

      • Kevin K

        Sorry, but that’s just completely full of wrong-headed misinformation and non-scientific assumptions.

        You can start with understanding that “error” is the complete wrong term for “genetic drift”. Most genetic drift has zero impact on the fitness of an organism. You have about 100 “mutations” that are unique to you, for example, but you’re probably 100% within the phenotypic norms of homo sapiens sapiens.

        • Rt1583

          So errors and genetic drift are mutually exclusive? Good to know that one can’t be the other and that one only affects an organism in a detrimental way while another affects an organism in a beneficial way.

        • Kevin K

          Please look up the First Rule of Holes. It’s pointless to discuss genetics with someone who hasn’t the first clue and demonstrates it clearly twice in a row.

          If you look at my first reply to you, I said that most genetic differences from one organism to another have zero impact on their phenotype, which means it also has zero impact on their fitness. Which is exactly and precisely the opposite of your contention that an “error” must be either detrimental or beneficial.

          Until you understand the first mistake you make, it’s pointless to fisk the rest of your equally uninformed post.

        • Rt1583

          Your first reply to me dealt with most genetic changes within an organism having little to no impact on the organism. Now you’re talking about genetic drift between different organisms.

          You tell me I’m wrongheaded and misinformed yet you’ve done nothing to show that I’m actually wrongheaded and misinformed.

          Let’s keep it simple. Regale me in your explanation for how genetic drift occurs if not for errors entering the function and how is DNA less than optimal simply because it goes with the most efficient route of no longer coding for something that it doesn’t need to make.

          “Until you understand the first mistake you make, it’s pointless to fisk the rest of your equally uninformed post.”
          I don’t think you know as much as you’d like people to believe. If you did you’d be able to point out exactly what was wrong with each statement I’ve made.

  • MadScientist1023

    Your DNA argument actually understates the case. In fact, ~50% of the human genome is of retroviral origin. You are correct that ~8% is endogenous retrovirus, however another ~40% of the human genome is made up of other retrotransposons. The latter is also a stretch of DNA that originally came from a retrovirus, but it doesn’t count as an “endogenous retrovirus” because it doesn’t code an “envelope” protein.

    • I can’t find that. Can you point me to a source?

      I’ve found bits like this:

      TEs [Transposable Elements] can be separated into two major classes: DNA transposons and retrotransposons. DNA transposons, which make up ~3% of the human genome (FIG. 1a), are able to excise themselves from the genome, move as DNA and paste themselves into new genomic sites4. Although they are currently not mobilizing in the human genome, they were active during early primate evolution, until ~37 million years (My) ago5. Retrotransposons duplicate via RNA intermediates that are reverse-transcribed and inserted at new genomic locations4. Retrotransposons can be subdivided into two groups, distinguished by the presence or absence of long terminal repeats (LTRs). Human LTR elements are endogenous retroviruses which account for ~8% of the genome

  • Mark Dowd

    But isn’t faith a virtue for these religious nutters? Every time one of them confesses “I don’t have enough faith!”, they are admitting that they believe atheists are more virtuous than them.