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Can information theory help us understand the Cambrian explosion?

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British physicist David Tyler considers that question in the second half of his review of Darwin’s Doubt:

The starting point is the search for ways of measuring biological information representing different body plans. Shannon’s theory of information (when applied to the animal genome) has the merit of mathematical rigour, but Meyer shows that this approach gives insight only into a sequence’s capacity to carry information. Whether the sequence is functional is undetermined ? so discussion of biological information must extend far beyond quantitative measures. Meyer discusses the number of cell types as an indicator of complexity of embedded information. With reference to the genome, which uses digital codes, he uses the term “specified information”, meaning that a genetic sequence can only be functional if the codons have a specific arrangement. Is the neo-Darwinian mechanism adequate to explain the origins of novel specified information associated with the Cambrian Explosion? Meyer describes this as a challenging question for Darwinists and claims that the necessity of “vast amounts” of specificity makes their explanations implausible.

Darwin's Doubt

To show that this argument is real, and not an argument from ignorance, Meyer devotes the next chapter to unpacking the issues surrounding specificity. In the early 1960s, Murray Eden (a professor of engineering and computer science at MIT) realised that there was a problem with neo-Darwinian theory and organised a conference to explore the issues at the Wistar Institute in Philadelphia. The theme was: “Mathematical challenges to the neo-Darwinian interpretation of evolution”. The participants came from many disciplines and included Ernst Mayr (one of the architects of neo-Darwinism) and Richard Lewontin (Professor of genetics and evolutionary biology). Chairing the meeting was the Nobel laureate Sir Peter Medawar. The discussion provided by Meyer is extremely helpful in clarifying the nature of the problems and summarising some of the suggestions for resolving the dilemmas. The most favoured possible solution is explained in the quotation below, and is significant for stimulating a design-based research programme discussed in the subsequent chapter.

“The solution was this: even though the size of the combinatorial space that mutations needed to search was enormous, the ratio of functional to non-functional base or amino-acid sequence in their relevant combinatorial spaces might turn out to be much higher than Eden and others had assumed. If that ratio turned out to be high enough, then the mutation and selection mechanism would frequently stumble onto novel genes and proteins and could easily leapfrog from one functional protein island to the next, with natural selection discarding the non-functional outcomes and seizing upon the rare (but not too rare) functional sequences.” (page 178) More.

Usually, the big Shut Up intervenes to end the worthwhile discussions. But when it doesn’t, things can get interesting.

See also: “Software mogul calls technology growth a “Cambrian explosion” (“What’s interesting in the context is simply that he assumes that readers will know what he means by the term. Culturally, that’s important.”)

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3 Replies to “Can information theory help us understand the Cambrian explosion?

  1. 1
    bornagain77 says:

    Though no substitute for buying the book If anyone has not read Darwin’s Doubt yet, Dr. Paul Giem has done a chapter by chapter ‘cliff notes’ video series on the book here:

    Darwin’s Doubt – Paul Giem – video playlist

    Of particular interest from the video playlist is this segment:

    Darwin’s Doubt – Chapter 12 – Complex Adaptations and the Neo-Darwinian Math – Dr. Paul Giem – video;index=7

    Here are more thorough looks at the major flaws in all the critical reviews of ‘Darwin’s Doubt’:

    Darwin’s Doubt – Reviews – Part 1 – by Paul Giem – video
    Darwin’s Doubt – Reviews – Part 2 – by Paul Giem – video
    Darwin’s Doubt – Reviews – Part 3 – by Paul Giem – video
    Darwin’s Doubt – Reviews – Part 4 – by Paul Giem – video

  2. 2
    bornagain77 says:

    OT: Marine sponge forms a glass filament with a perfect periodic arrangement of nanopores – Feb 24, 2014
    “Mesoporous glass structures are among the most studied materials. This makes it even more exiting to find them in nature,” says Igor Zlotnikov. “Presumably, this structure is not limited to M. chuni, but can also occur in other glass sponges.” However, not only does M. chuni produces a mesoporous material that is technologically relevant; the sponge sets standards in terms of size distribution and arrangement of the pores.,,,
    But what surprised the researchers even more than the periodicity of the structure that was revealed is the way in which M. chuni produces it: “It’s absolutely astonishing that nature and mankind converged on a similar manufacturing method independently”,,, (‘nature’ had nothing to do with it),,,
    Since the protein molecules, which serve as a kind of a model for the surrounding glass structure, are all in the same size, the pores in the obtained material also have the same diameter and form a completely uniform structure. Achieving this precision via synthetic methods is difficult, even though the mesoporous glass is created in a very similar manner.,,,
    the pore size in synthetic mesoporous materials varies, and the cavities don’t arrange themselves into a perfectly regular pattern.
    “With silicatein or other proteins, it would be possible to produce mesoporous materials having a completely uniform pore size and a perfectly periodic arrangement”, says Igor Zlotnikov. “That would be very expensive.,,,

  3. 3
    CuriousCat says:

    There is one issue which, as far as I have seen, has never been raised. Let me try to explain it below.

    In his book (I’m on page 279 right now), Dr. Meyer makes very good cases (actually, as Dr. Tyler has pointed out) by introducing us to different problems in Darwinian paradigm and then reporting various solutions suggested to solve these problem, and then again showing the implausibility of these solutions, all in a step by step manner (a kind of Darwinian fashion :)). Mathematical challenge to Darwinian view, mapping from the dense sequence space to sparse functional space, is one of these good cases. However, even Dr. Meyer takes the novel protein functionality (actually represented by novel folds in the 3-d space) as granted, and tries to show that these functionalities are almost impossible to be attained using an unintelligent search of sequence space. That’s the point I would like to point out.

    The way I see it, even before there are no proteins, these functionalities (folds) exist (in a Platonic sense), that is they exist ontologically. A directed/undirected search may/may not find this ontological “thing”, but it is there. I find the EXISTENCE of 3-d folded protein structures interacting with each other, i.e. the whole system of protein interactions, a highly “miraculous” (for lack of a better term) event, itself. What Darwinism, at most, tries to explain is that that functionality may be reached by undirected search in sequence space, while Dr. Meyer (IMO successfully) refutes this idea. However, no one seems to consider the Platonic idea of these functionalities, how is it possible that these complicated 3-d forms and the resulting functions “exist” in the very first place? What we have been discussing now is whether it is possible for a Darwinian process to reach these functional forms. Of course, it is impossible to quantify the probability of existence of these beings, but I believe that is one of the reasons why nature seems to be wondrous to a non-scientist, while a scientist scrutinizing the causalities between events (referring to natural laws) thinks that he/she has found the solution to this mystery. What is the probability that a complex interaction system can be realized using 3-d structures of proteins? What is the probability of these interactions may lead to the thing we call “life”? What is the probability that any 2-d sequence based system could yield such a 3-d structure based system?

    That may be total nonsense I’ve written above, but that is an idea I’ve been thinking about for a while so I’ve wanted to share it.

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