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Hubert Yockey, 1916-2016, and His Contributions to the Intelligent Design Movement


I was sad to recently realize that Hubert Yockey passed earlier (in January) this year. Hubert Yockey, though he personally was against Intelligent Design, made many contributions to science that many of us within the ID community view as pro-ID work. I wanted to take a moment to appreciate and reflect on his contributions as they relate to ID.

Yockey’s primary contribution to the ID movement was to rigorously apply information theory to both the origin of life problem and problems within evolution. Many people when they think of information theory and biology think of bioinformatics, but that is not what I am talking about. A lot of people use technology to catalog information about biology. They use it to compare and contrast different segments of biosystems. However, Hubert Yockey actually used information theory to talk about the transmission and evolution of the signal of the genetic code, and how information theory itself tells us about how those things could or could not work.

Yockey’s Papers Related to Intelligent Design

Yockey wrote a lot of interest for Intelligent Design. A lot of this is summed up in his paper, Origin of life on earth and Shannon’s theory of communication.

In this paper, Yockey:

  1. shows how the genome works like a Shannon communication system (Figures 1 and 2)
  2. uses the common idea of law vs randomness vs design, without saying design (bottom right of page 113), even using the same examples common in ID
  3. makes the ID claim that physico-chemical processes cannot generate codes (bottom left of page 116)
  4. uses probability calculations for the origin of life based on a minimal genome in the same way that ID’ers do (pages 119-120)

Ultimately, in this paper at least, Yockey plays the materialist mantra while not making any takeaways from it. He reiterates his commitment to materialism without providing any justification for it, and proclaims that there must have been an unknowable (even in principle) chemistry behind it.

So, one could say that Yockey’s paper validates pretty much every principle of Intelligent Design. He draws a different conclusion, but it is clear that if one wants to pursue the matter further, then one has to go to a field like Intelligent Design, since, as Yockey states, materialism can’t in principal go much further.

Yockey also made a calculation very similar to Dembski’s “specified complexity” in his paper “A Calculation of the Probability of Spontaneous Biogenesis by Information Theory“. It comes complete with discussions of Kolmogorov complexity, and, while not naming it the Universal Probability Bound, he performs a very similar calculation for the probability bound within the “primordial soup”. Dembski’s generalized argument simply extends it to all scenarios in the universe, not just in the primordial soup.

Yockey also made frequent reference in his writings to Shannon’s “Channel Capacity Theorem” to show that one can in-principle preserve a message for as long as you want. He was always quite coy to say why he thought that this was important. If, for instance, life came from a lucky accident, why do we need to preserve it? It seems to me that Yockey believed that the origin of life was imbued with a lot of information (which is basically an ID stance), but we do not need a designer at any other point because the channel capacity theorem allows for the preservation of the message going on into the future. However, Yockey seems to think that this is at odds with Intelligent Design, when it is not. If the coding system makes explicit use of the channel capacity theorem to preserve its message, that seems to be a clear indication of intelligent design.

These themes were expounded upon at length in Yockey’s papers and books.

Yockey’s Strange Cricitisms of Intelligent Design

On his website, Hubert Yockey makes a list of accusations against Intelligent Design. These accusations are, to say the least, very strange. In fact, in many cases Yockey comes out with the same position as Intelligent Design, and sometimes stronger, but derides Intelligent Design, not evolutionary biology, for not holding to his own position in the way he worded it, and because of that it is false.

As an example, Yockey lists as a “false” assertion of ID, “Intelligent design is an explanation of the origin of life that differs from Darwin’s view”. However, in his criticism of the claim, Yockey asserts that the origin of life cannot be solved! In other words, ID is 100% correct that the Darwinian view is failing, but the fact that they have a different idea than Yockey is a problem. But, honestly, the ID view is not that different from Yockey’s. Yockey says that life is “an axiom”. I presume him to mean that there is no mechanical way to produce life. Which is precisely what ID says. ID basically says that life is a holistic system which cannot be produced by bare physiochemical means. Which is what I presume Yockey means by “axiom”. Therefore, Yockey and ID are basically on the same page, but somehow that works out that ID is full of falsehoods. He also complained that ID used the term “Darwinian” since Darwin himself didn’t use the term, failing to recognize that “Darwinian” refers to the stream of thought, not the person (i.e., Newtonian mechanics refers to a whole field that includes things that Newton never knew).

However, from reading Yockey’s criticisms, I think I see why he disagreed with Intelligent Design. It is for the same reason many people disagree with Intelligent Design – he understood it entirely from the perspective of our critics, and thought that it was equivalent with creationism. First of all, many of his list of “claims of Intelligent Design” are complete misunderstandings of what Intelligent Design says. If he bothered to understand Intelligent Design, he would realize that ID says what he says, or at least is compatible with what he says.

For instance, Yockey says that ID says “Gaps in the fossil record constitute valid objections to Darwin’s theory of evolution because they are spaces for the miraculous appearance of species that have not evolved from any other source”. But this is false. ID says that the gaps show that the explanation cannot be Darwin’s theory, not that the gaps are necessarily places where miracles occur, nor that these organisms did not evolve from any other source. One option which ID definitely leaves open (and many ID proponents, including Behe, believe), is merely that the information was already there, it just got turned on at the right moment. That is, what makes it non-Darwinian is that the information did not come by gradual happenstances, but it was pre-existent. You can have “gaps” because the organs and body plans arose by pre-existing information that was merely switched on or off. Not all ID’ers hold to this (I hold to it partially), but nonetheless this idea is 100% within the realm of ID.

So what is Yockey’s criticism? That there is continuity within the genome (i.e., common ancestry). But this is not ID’s criticism. At a different point, Yockey states, “But once life has appeared, Shannon’s Channel Capacity Theorem (Section 5.3) assures us that genetic messages will not fade away and can indeed survive for 3.85 billion years without assistance from an Intelligent Designer”. In other words, the information was pre-existent. This is entirely within the realm of ID. Again, he misconstrues ID, as he assumes in this quote that ID presumes that Intelligent Design is needed at every stage. ID merely says that it is needed in at least one (the origin).

Yockey also makes claims against ID that are totally nonsensical. For instance, two of his complaints against “irreducibly complex” are that (a) it doesn’t mean what it means in mathematics, and (b) we can measure the size of the genome, therefore irreducible complexity is false. (a) is irrelevant, but also misses some deep connections between the two, which are not lost on Chaitin, who was one of the people who gave us information theory. (b) simply chooses to not understand what Irreducible Complexity is.


I don’t want to belabor Yockey’s criticisms of ID, you can read them for yourself and decide how legitimate they are. The reason why Yockey is important to ID is not his criticisms, but that he took information theory seriously as a way to study and analyze genomics and the origin of life. These are things which continue on in the Intelligent Design movement, and, to a large extent, only in the Intelligent Design movement (if someone knows of a non-ID book in the same vein as Biological Information: New Perspectives, please let me know in the comments).

Despite the fact that Yockey would probably be horrified by this fact, the Intelligent Design movement is the primary group that is working forward on his legacy. Despite our differences, my hat is off to Hubert Yockey – your work will continue to be remembered even by those you despised.

If Hubert Yockey made an impact on your thinking, please relate it below!

The fact Prof. Yockey used information theory, which only dealt with artificial, or intelligently designed systems, was an admission that biological systems are intelligently designed. Indeed we owe a lot to Yockey's scientific analysis and his rebuke of the materialistic attempts to explain life in physics/chemistry. Since Shannon got it started, no one had used information theory to deal with a natural phenomenon, except in biology. It may be useful in SETI or archeology, but people involved in these efforts do not deny that they are looking for intelligence. Yong Zhang
Thanks for documenting this, Jonathan. I didn't know Yockey had passed away. It's prompted me to examine his work properly again. Joshua G
Speaking of Henry Quastler Henry Quastler (November 11, 1908 – July 4, 1963) was an Austrian physician and radiologist who became a pioneer in the field of information theory applied to biology after emigrating to America. Essays on Information Theory in Biology (1953) Mung
I've been aware of Hubert Yockey for quite a few years, and have his books Information Theory and Molecular Biology (1992) and Information Theory, Evolution and the Origin of Life (2005). I also have another book which he edited: Yockey, Hubert P.; Platzman, Robert P.; and Quastler, Henry, eds. (1958) Symposium on Information Theory in Biology, New York, London: Pergamon Press. See also: http://www.informationphilosopher.com/solutions/scientists/gatlin/ Mung
JohnnyB thank you for the interesting article. I was reading up on Jockey and found another example of "very strange" reasoning, which is actually not uncommon to Darwinians: [source: "Information theory, evolution, and the origin of life" by Hubert P. Yockey, ch. 12 — "Does evolution need an intelligent designer?", first paragraph, p. 177.]
Today the most well-known comment on Intelligent Design evolved (please excuse! ) from the writings of the Reverend William Paley ( 1743-1805), a priest of the Church of England. His publication, twenty-two years after Hume, discussed finding a watch upon crossing a heath (Paley, 1802). The watch, of course, must have been made by a watchmaker for a purpose. Following the rules of analogy, Paley pursued that point with regard to the eye. How much more complex is the eye, and all living things, than a watch! The evolution of vision concerned Darwin (1872, Ch. VI): Organs of Extreme Perfection and Complication To suppose that the eye with all its inimitable contrivances for adjusting the focus to different distances, for admitting different amounts of light and for correcting spherical and chromatic aberration, could have been formed by natural selection, seem, I freely confess, absurd in highest degree.
Okay, so we have Paley's famous 'watch argument' and even Darwin is quite concerned. What to do? Fear not Darwinians, Jockey knows the solution, which was handed to him by Mayr. Hold onto your seats everyone, here it comes ....
Eyes based on the camera principle have appeared, almost universally in vertebrates, but also in cephalopods and in annelids. Vision also occurs in insects, spiders, lobsters, and so forth, but by the compound eye, a different optical principle (Mayr, 1982).
And with this the paragraph and his reflections on Paley's watch and Darwin's concerns ends. Origenes

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