Why Specificity In Intelligent Design Is Useless – Guest Post by Smilodon’s Retreat

Why Specificity In Intelligent Design Is Useless – Guest Post by Smilodon’s Retreat February 25, 2016

Here is a guest post from a friend of mine from my days of blogging at the Skeptic Ink Network. I thought it would be apt given the huge discussion going on here, and some other discussions involving evolution and Creationism here at ATP.

Thanks to Smilodon’s Retreat for this! Check out his other posts at his blog – click on the categories menu to select evolution. This piece can originally be found here.

This is a brilliant Venn Diagram! By Liftarn (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
This is a brilliant Venn Diagram! By Liftarn (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Many of the thoughts in intelligent design revolve around the concept of information. Which, sadly, is not what most of the ID proponents think that it is. I’ve talked about this before. They frequently (read: almost always) conflate information with meaning and the two are not the same.

But that aside, they have tried to develop this concept of Complex Specified Information (CSI).

Intelligent design begins with the observation that intelligent agents produce complex and specified information (CSI). Design theorists hypothesize that if a natural object was designed, it will contain high levels of CSI. Scientists then perform experimental tests upon natural objects to determine if they contain complex and specified information. One easily testable form of CSI is irreducible complexity, which can be discovered by experimentally reverse-engineering biological structures to see if they require all of their parts to function. When ID researchers find irreducible complexity in biology, they conclude that such structures were designed. from whatisid

Now, we all know that random processes can produce very complex information. This is trivial to show mathematically[1] and I don’t know of any ID proponent who does not accept this.

So, the concept of Complex, Specified Information actually hinges on the “specified” part. I will explain why this is also nonsense in a very easy to understand method.

What is the best bolt? That’s a specification. I want the best possible bolt. This link is probably the best bolt, the only thing I could think of to make it better would be to coat it in iridium or carbon nitride or something like that. Still, $80 for a grade 7 titanium bolt. Even surgical bolts for holding bones together are only a couple of dollars.

OK, that’s a pretty highly specified piece of equipment, right? I am now going to destroy all of the ID proponents issues with specificity. Ready?

The bolt can’t cost more than thirty cents.

While that solid titanium bolt is an amazing piece of engineering and could probably hold a blue whale out of the water, it doesn’t meet the specification anymore, so it’s value is exactly zero.

Now, this is me intelligently changing the specification. But what if there is no intelligent source changing the specification. What if, as evolutionary science shows, the environment determines what specification is best?

Let’s look at that old standby hemoglobin. There are some 537 hemoglobin B alleles. The majority of these have little to no clinical effect (that we know of). There are a couple of variations that have greatly improved oxygen carrying efficiency.

So, while a lowlander may have a perfectly reasonable hemoglobin, Tibetans and others may have hemoglobin that is much more efficient. Specificity wise, it would make sense that we all have the most efficient hemoglobin, but alas, we do not.

So let’s say the specification for normal humans is the minimum specification for hemoglobin. I think that’s fair. There are a few people with better hemoglobin and a few people with worse hemoglobin, but it all carries oxygen through the body.

There’s a problem though. The majority (and no, I haven’t examined every one of the 537 alleles) are just point mutations. The amount of information in the gene hasn’t changed, just the specificity. Which lends support for my claim that the specificity is the important part of the ID argument.

Here’s the problem. I’m going to change the specification again. Well, I’m not going to… the environment is.

Now, the specification for hemoglobin isn’t only carrying oxygen, it’s also preventing disease.

There is a version of hemoglobin that does this. It’s the sickle-cell anemia mutation. We should all know the story. In carriers, it acts as a preventative for the malaria causing parasite.

No designer changed the specification. The environment changed. With that change, people who have the sickle-cell mutation are at an advantage. They don’t get the disease. In an environment with the malaria causing parasite, the specification for hemoglobin isn’t just oxygen carrying, it’s also disease prevention.

For those environments, people without that mutation are at a terrible disadvantage.

Think of it this way. It’s an equation.

In the normal world, the equation is simple:

X = O2Eff

The higher the O2 transport efficiency, the better off you are (probably). A case could be made for too much oxygen being bad, so we could set some arbitrary value as the “best value”… the specification.

But in malaria areas, the equation for ‘best’ becomes

X = O2Eff + diseaseResistance

Highly values of x are better. Hemoglobin without the sickle cell gene now has a much lower x value than the sickle cell allele.

OK, I’ve beat a dead horse enough.

Why does this destroy the ID argument? Because the specification is not controlled by a designer. We aren’t cars that need to get a minimum fuel economy and carry four people and luggage and have a 5-star crash rating. We are organisms that have a long evolutionary history that we cannot ignore.

The “best” specification changes based on the environment. I’d be rubbish in a foot race. I know that. But I’d be near the top in internet research, general science knowledge, and game playing. So is my specification wrong or flawed?

No, because I have a long evolutionary history that, when combined with the environment, results in some degree of survivability.

This is where ID proponents have got it wrong. It is not correct to view anything in isolation. Not only does the discussion have to involve the entire genome, plus epigenetic factors, but it also has to include the environment of the organism. Things like competition, stress, pathogens, food, reproductive ability play huge roles in what an organism looks like and how it behaves.

They can’t just say some value means that an organism (or anything else) is designed. Because they aren’t considering anything else about the organism.

We all know that they are just making stuff up that sounds sciency and complicated. Mathematicians have shown that the work produced by ID proponents in this area is massively flawed. Unlike their claims, they have never produced a value of CSI or fCSI or anything else for any organism and certainly not taking in to account the genetic history and environment of that organism.

Honestly, I’m not sure it’s possible and even if it was done, it still wouldn’t be evidence of a designer. Because, as we have seen and it is trivial to show, complexity and specificity do not require a designer.


[1] Kolmogorov complexity is one measure of the complexity of a data set. A purely random data set cannot be created by a simpler system. For example if we had ababababababababababab, then we could reduce that to “ab 11 times” while M45xQDcMWEkdl01UElOD7F is truly random and cannot be reduced to a smaller system for describing it.

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