Creating Information Naturally, Part 3: Evolutionary Adaptation and Co-option

This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at

Hi Dr. Haarsma,

Interesting article. I can imagine, however, that ID proponents would take exception to three points you raised:

  1. Re your claim that the uniqueness of snowflakes illustrates informational complexity, ID proponents would point out that snowflakes don’t embody functional information. They don’t do anything useful, after all, whereas proteins do. Also, if you changed the conditions that led to the formation of a particular snowflake, you wouldn’t get that one any more, but you’d still get a snowflake. However, ID proponents would argue that at least some of the various kinds of proteins found in every kind of living organism are highly sensitive to changes in the conditions leading to their formation, to such an extent that if you changed these conditions even slightly, not only would you not get that particular protein, but you wouldn’t get a functional protein of any kind at all. In other words, life is fine-tuned in a way that snowflakes are not.

  2. Re your Pykaryotes program, you admit: “When we run this program under other conditions—for example, when the mutation rate is too high or too low, or when there are only weak rewards for increased fitness—the simple starting organisms do not evolve to greater and greater fitness, and the information content of their genomes does not grow.” You also acknowledge that the frequency of changes in the environment affects how big digital “proteins” can get. But an ID proponent would say that your program is front-loaded with information up-front, when you set the mutation rate, the strength of natural selection and the frequency of environmental change to be “just right” for evolution to occur. That’s a kind of evolution that ID proponents would have no problem with.

  3. Laws of nature, on the other hand, are different: ID advocates typically describe them as low in specified information, because they can be written out in a single equation. So if there is any fine-tuning of life which explains its origin in natural terms, an ID advocate would argue that it has to be a fine-tuning in the initial conditions and the values of the constants of nature, rather than the general equations.


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Vincent, thank you for your comments.

Regarding #1: I agree that snowflakes and proteins are different. A particular snowflake is an example of only the first two steps of information creation that I discussed: combinatorics and chance. The information content of a protein came about through those two plus the third: evolutionary adaptation, and I suspect most proteins today came about through a process that included the fourth: co-option. There are in fact numerous steps of information creation and transformation that lead to the specific information content of a protein. For these posts, I simplified the story to just four general steps. Snowflakes are useful for illustrating the first two steps that I discussed, but not the third or fourth.

Regarding #2: My Pykaryotes program doesn’t front load the information for the final states of the information-rich organisms that eventually evolve. The program front-loads just the first type of information. The program creates the rules for what Pykaryote genomes do and – thanks to the wonders of combinatorics – just a few simple rules creates a vast possibility space of potential organisms. The program also creates a few simple rules regarding mutation rates, rewards for fitness, stability of environment, and so forth. Those rules specify how organisms and their descendants can move from some locations in that possibility space to other locations. While the program is running, random events create the second kind of information I discussed, and evolutionary feedback causes the organisms to transform some of that information (information is useful for survival) and keep it in their genomes (the third step). Co-option is what enables multi-protein complexes to evolve. So when my Pykaryotes eventually evolve information-rich genomes and multi-protein complexes, all that information was not front-loaded. The information got there via a multi-step process. The only information that was front-loaded was the rules which created the rich possibility space and the rules which specify how the organisms can navigate that space. Chance, evolutionary feedback, and co-option were also necessary processes leading to the final information content of the digital organisms.

Regarding #3: Laws of nature may require only a small amount of information to describe, but they also create a vast space of possibilities for how fundamental particles can combine. Random events through the history of the universe navigate that space and bring some potential combinations into actual existence. The best analogy from my three posts is the rotating ring molecule of the second post. In order for rotating ring molecules to self-assemble, I need to fine tune the “constants of nature” but I do not need to fine tune the “initial conditions.” Random events plus sufficient time plus sufficient environmental space means the the probability of one or more rotating ring molecules self-assembling grows asymptotically to one, under a wide range of initial conditions. Information is no barrier to the eventual self-assembly of the ring molecule. The combinatoric possibility space and the random events that occur during history create more than enough information to create ring molecules. The only question is the probability of it happening in a certain amount of time and a certain amount of environmental space. And that probability is set by the fine tuning of the “constants of nature.” Information is not the question. We know where the information comes from. The real question is probability. The rules of my ring molecules are much simpler than the rules of particle physics. The combinatoric possibility space of my ring molecules is much smaller than the combinatoric possibility space of actual protons, neutrons, and electrons. The number of random events which occur when your run my program on a 23-by-80 screen for 500,000 screen cycles is far less than the number of random events which have occurred among the roughly 10^80 particles in our visible universe over the history of our universe. Even so, with my ring molecule program, given a certain set of “fine tuning” initial parameters, I cannot mathematically calculate the probability that one or more ring molecules will self-assemble. There are too many combinatoric possibilities. Too many possible paths through that space to their formation. I can’t calculate every possibility. So I’m not ashamed to say that I can’t start with the fundamental laws of physics and calculate the probability of a living cell self-assembling on some planet somewhere in the visible universe over the course of 14 billion years. It’s too difficult of a problem. I can say, with certainty, that information isn’t a barrier. What I don’t know is the probability. My point here is that the information required to self-assemble a more complex thing out of simple components does NOT all have to be front-loaded into fine-tuning or initial conditions. There are additional sources of information. There is a vast amount of potential information in the possibility space created by combinatorics. Random events explore some of that vast space. That is where the information comes from that allows my ring-molecules to self-assemble.


Sorry, I am really late picking up on this thread and am new to the forum. I just wondered if Dr Haarsma has tried setting up alternative computer models e.g. where the mutations are not random but always optimal. I would guess this would severely reduce the organisms ability to respond to any rapid and/or substantial changes in the environment (because of over-specialisation). So, is the present mechanism of adaptation the best option given that we live in an ever changing world?


I think this is a rather odd definition of “Front Loading”, even for the I.D. faction. This is equating “natural law” with “information”. Front-Loading in the I.D. sense usually refers to diverse genetic information lying dormant in a life form, waiting for it to be triggered by the necessary conditions.

Yet in Point 3 [below] you actually invoke the opposite view … that laws of nature are “low in specified information”.

Hi @gbrooks9,

My definition of front-loading is quite “orthodox” from an ID perspective, I can assure you. I discussed the question of front-loading back in 2011, in the following article (scroll down to Part 3, Fatal Flaws number 3 and 4):

Mike Behe’s front-loading scenario in The Edge of Evolution involves God selecting a particular universe with just the right set of initial conditions and laws.

Also, Behe himself, in his review of Paul Davies’ book, The Fifth Miracle, states that “laws cannot contain the recipe for life because laws are ‘information–poor’ while life is ‘information–rich.’” See here:

Initial conditions, on the other hand, can be arbitrarily fine-tuned, as can the values of fundamental constants. These are therefore potentially high in formation.


I stand corrected. I don’t know where I encountered my first impression … but obviously first impressions can be deceiving.

This discussion (link below) is certainly more consistent with our description than mine. What caught me by surprise is that your view of front-loading is quite similar to mine.

That doesn’t seem to mesh up with his claims about multiple residue adaptations. Behe seems to be saying that some evolutionary adaptations could not come about through initial conditions and natural laws because they are too improbable. From what I have read, Behe requires the God . . . ahem . . . the designer to step in and create DNA changes that would not have otherwise occurred.

@T_aquaticus ( & @vjtorley):

Indeed Behe does … and I am in agreement. I just don’t think there is any way to prove it.

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