Mutations Don’t Increase Information

Warning: the following contains high levels of derision, for which Qu apologises. He is apparently not the biggest fan of the Intelligent Design movement. Either that or he’s just grumpy today.

LIKE HELL THEY DON’T

Another fun argument from the antievolutionists who fancy themselves smarter than your average bear, this one has become much more common since the rise and subsequent fall of the Intelligent Design movement and the release of Nazi propaganda film Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed*. It’s patently absurd on the very face of it, but that doesn’t stop it from getting about. Here’s a quick, dirty refutation:

AGCT => point mutation => ACCT

This mutation could have all sorts of effects, but it has clearly changed the information content. Of course, how it has changed the information content depends on how you define “information” (something the anti-evolutionists are very careful never to do). There are fewer characters used, so it’s got less information (by one definition). But it’s now more ordered, and it could replace the word “Act” and be legible to an English-reading person, so it’s got more information (by another definition). And there’s still the same number of digits, so it’s got the same amount of information (by yet another definition). But that’s not particularly important for the argument. What is important, is this:

ACCT => point mutation => AGCT

The above can be applied to almost any mutation. Point mutations can be undone by new point mutations, addition and copy mutations can be undone by deletions, deletions can be undone by additions and copies.

Mutations can be undone by subsequent mutations. This is a fact, an observation, a truth, something indisputable. It happens. So if an anti-evolutionist claims that mutations can decrease total information content, then they’re also claiming the inverse: that mutations can increase it.

There is a second even more patently absurd variant of this argument that says “mutations can’t be beneficial”, and usually cites things like sterility and cancer. Yes, cancer. The mutation that causes individual cells to reproduce very rapidly. I would hope I didn’t have to explain that a multicellular organisms “cancer” is a single-celled organisms “beneficial mutation”, but I’ve long since stopped being that naive. The moment you assume a certain level of minimum-intelligence amongst others, one of them will go out of their way to prove you wrong.

“There are two things in the universe that are infinite: the universe, and human stupidity, and I’m not sure about the former.”
– Albert Einstein

Now, for the sake of fairness, I should point out that the people making this argument do have a glimmering of a smidgeon of a speck of a fraction of a gram of an interesting point, though it’s highly doubtful they actually noticed it. The point in question is this: most mutations are indeed harmful or neutral. Very few are beneficial.

Now for an denialist, that’s enough. Case closed, end of story, entire theory of evolution completely disproven because we found some small problem and didn’t bother/didn’t want to/aren’t capable of thinking about it in any depth. For a scientist, it’s a challenge. Why are most mutations harmful? Why doesn’t this stop anything from evolving?

The answer to the first question is a combination of factors, but the primary one is this: we’re already using most of the beneficial mutations for our environment. We’ve stabilised and plateau’d, at least in comparison to the rapid evolution associated with population explosions. I’m actually seeing this in action with Species right now: creatures will very quickly develop simple legs and features, but evolution will then slow down significantly.

The second question, ”Why doesn’t this stop anything from evolving?” can be answered with two words: natural selection. Natural selection works as a ratchet: allowing movement to the left, but not the right. If a beneficial mutation occurs, it will help its host survive and result in it being kept and propagated throughout the population. The hundreds of negative mutations that also occurred were not kept: their hosts didn’t survive, so they were culled from the population.

Not that any of this means anything to the propaganda artists. “Mutation doesn’t increase information” is a useful soundbite because, as I’ve just demonstrated, it needs quite some time to demonstrate to be false. In the time it takes a scientist to refute it, the denialist can have repeated it and other soundbites like it to hundreds of people.

After all, why drop a perfectly good persuasive soundbite just because it’s dishonest?

So… yeah… meh, I dunno… this post kinda got out of hand… whatever…
Qu

*footnote: Oh dear, I’m sorry. Expelled features lots of images and references to nazi’s and is a propoganda film. These two things are not connected in any way. Well, okay, they are, but not in the way my wording implied. I apologise for any confusion my completely accidental wording may have caused, which is more than the films producers have done.

Uh oh… he got through an entire post without referencing time travel, eldritch abominations, zombie armies, orbital weapons platforms or the end of the world. That’s a bad sign. I’d better go check the cynical bastards not about to do something stupid, like join a secret society or a cult or a political party or all three…

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  1. #1 by Gravel on September 13, 2011 - 2:22 pm

    That’s nonsense. Even if point mutations were the only mutation type, I could still get to new information. All you need is a point mutation that alters the stop/start codon, and you’re suddenly reading a whole different set of nucleotides. Alter the wrong binding site or make a mistake with a regulatory protein? You’re probably going to get some unexpected duplication of genes, helpfully respliced by your repair mechanisms. From there, it’s a straight shot to more information.

    Never mind stuff like viruses or plasmids. Even if *we* only had point mutations, we’d still be getting the potential for more space from the extra DNA some viruses oh-so-helpfully drop into our DNA.

    What’s infuriating is that I can show this to people. I can show you bacteriophages that insert their genes into their hosts, literally increasing the length of the bacterial genome. A few point mutations, and bam, it’s no longer latent virus at all. We know this. We have numerous examples of it. ARJS:KD:LJK:WEJHLSDF. Sorry. Ahem.

  2. #2 by ququasar on September 13, 2011 - 3:13 pm

    Yep. And yet creatio– anti-evolutionists will crow on and on about how “Dawkins couldn’t answer this very question” in the aforementioned totally-not-nazi-propaganda film.

    And, (speaking from experience), were you to show them everything you just mentioned, the responce would be something along the lines of “those just add more randomness, it’s not like they’re beneficial or anything”. And if you follow that and show them beneficial mutations, they’ll switch back to “information” again.

    Maybe it’s good for my blood pressure I stopped looking for debates on the internet. Now I just need to get all the rants out of my system and I’ll be practically Zen.

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