Posts Tagged pseudoscience

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.


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…

*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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It’s just a theory!

Easily (and sadly) one of the more common claims amongst the… err.. “less intellectual” of the anti-evolutionist crowd, “It’s just a theory!” is roughly analogous, at least from my perspective, to “I don’t understand science, therefore Evolution is false!” or if I’m feeling less generous “Call me a moron again, I like it!”

For those looking for a simple, fast response to this claim: “So is [insert germ theory/atomic theory/the theory of gravity and/or the theory of general relativity]” suffices. Depending on the tone used, this simple statement can be expressed as anything from polite confusion (“But, hang on, isn’t gravity “just a theory” as well?”) to pure, scornful, unadulterated sarcasm (“By god, you’re right! What have we been doing teaching germ theory to the poor innocent children all this time? Teach the controversy!”).

For a more complex answer, you have to realise the common misconception this claim stems from: that “theory” in science means the same thing as it does in general usage. In general usage, “theory” can refer to anything from “If I keep working this hard I might just get a pay raise” (false) to “maybe if I show that person my gigantic genitals they’ll sleep with me” (false) to “I bet I can grow an aquatic super-soldier clone army by combining cuttlefish DNA with human DNA” (true). In scientific usage, it is just a wee bit different.

Many people believe that an idea starts as a “theory”, gathers evidence to become a “fact”, and finally gets proven to become a “law”. This flawed idea also explains a variant of the “it’s just a theory” argument, where the user claims they support teaching evolution, but not “as fact”. It is also part of the reason things like the Laws of Thermodynamics are so treasured by certain subgroups of evolution-denialism: they are seen as the immutable truths of science, the pillars on which the Lab Coat Of Knowledge sits, all shiny-white and glowing.

Back in reality, really real realistic scientists would stare at the above diagram with the expression of one trying valiantly to fathom just how anyone could possibly believe that. And then they’d laugh hysterically at your ignorance. Unless they were polite scientists (through selective breeding and various indoctrination techniques we finally managed to produce one of these. Unfortunately, attempts to introduce it into the wild populations were… unsuccessful. And messy).

Fact: A fact is an observation, a data point, something we can point to and say “that happens”. That things fall at a rate of 9.80665 m/s on earth is a fact. A fact never changes: it is an aspect of reality that must be accounted for. No matter how much we refine and change the theory of Gravity, it will remain true that things fall at a rate of 9.80665 m/s on the surface of the earth.

Law: A law is a mathematical representation of a physical phenomena. That things are subjected to the force of gravity at a rate of of Gm1m2/r2 is a law. A law, contrary to the above misconception of science, can change when our measurement tools get better and we discover that the law is only mostly correct. This is what happened to Newton’s laws (like the one above), and we’re now seeing it happen to Einstein’s laws.

A fact does not become a law: they are two entirely separate creatures. Laws can be derived from and supported by a number of facts, however.

Theory: A scientific theory is something far bigger and more important than either of these: it’s an explanation that ties together dozens, if not hundreds or even thousands of facts and more than a few laws as well. A theory grows in detail and scope as facts are added to it over time, and its strength is in them: new facts can change the specifics of the theory, but it takes something radical and contradictory to overthrow it entirely. And to make it even harder for the incoming theory, it has to provide an explanation for everything the old theory did.

If you want the scientific term for a drunken guess, that would be “hypothesis” (though, in all fairness, not all hypothesis’ are drunken guesses). Evolution has not been a hypothesis since Charles Darwin was first realising it: by the time he released Origin of Species it was a fully-fledged Theory, and it has only gotten stronger in the 150 years since then, thanks at least in part to the untiring efforts of its detractors attempting and failing to disprove it.


For the record there isn’t a warlike civilisation of cepholopod-men off the coast of Florida and it wasn’t us who put them there.

PS: We’re still having technical difficulties of the “computer == x_X” variety, so todays illustrations are brought to you by letter’s “F” and “U”.

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