I found this on the internet while looking up info on the Richard Dawkins tape, in which a creationist video crew set up an interview with Dawkins under false pretenses. The interviewer asked him a question, which they falsely claim he could not answer, and due to the editing of the film it appears that Dawkins is unable to answer the question in the interview footage. For reference, here is the deceitful video:
Here is another video I found, which shows more of the original creationist video called "From a Frog to a Prince", the anti-evolution video, where the deceptive footage of Dawkins was used. This video actually combines two videos, into one. The smaller picture shows some of the original footage that was used in the creationist video, while the other one shows the video which has circulated widely in creationist circles (the same one I have above actually) on the internet.
I also find it odd how this happened over ten years ago (1997), and yet, these lies still aren't dead, and it also shows just how desperate these lying creationists are.
NOTE: The URL in the video is no longer active, but I did some digging and found this webpage (tinyurl.com/2ns2d8) archived. The website doesn't lead you to anything special; in fact, it simply had Dawkins' reply about this whole incident posted online; the same one I have below, called The Information Challenge. So, don't worry about that broken URL.
This article can be found online at: http://www.skeptics.com.au/journal/1998/3_crexpose.htm
UPDATE - 1-29-08: I recently found (I think) the entire video that this clip was taken from. The creationist film is called From a Frog to a Prince, and I found it here. These people are despicable for spreading these lies. Here is the video:
"From a frog to a prince. Some evolutionists claim that man evolved from amphibians due to "selective accumulations of lucky mutations." Dr. Werner Gitt, an information scientist, and Dr. Batten, a biologist, show that there are clear limits to biological change. As they say, "Frogs will always be frogs." This well produced documentary shows that the only reasonable explanation for the origin of life is an active creation by God." (Produced by American Portrait Films)
Creationist Deception Exposed
the Skeptic, Vol 18 No 3
by Barry Williams
A small apprehension often lurks in the back of the mind of any Skeptic who has ever given an interview for later publication or broadcast; "What if the interviewer wants to show me, or the Skeptics, in a bad light?" With the technology now available to the media it would not be at all difficult to rearrange the words one has used to change one's meaning completely.
Perhaps we should mention here a little about the technicalities of the TV interview. In any news or current affairs type interviews, pre-recorded outside a studio, a small technical deception is not uncommon. Normally only one video camera is used, and that camera is usually focused on the interviewee, but if the interview is played like that, with disembodied questions coming from `off camera', it tends to make the subjects look like they are talking to a wall. So, at the end of the interview, the camera changes places to focus on the interviewer, who then asks some of the questions again, or gives their reactions to something the interviewee has said. These are known as "reaction shots" (or "noddies" in the vernacular) and are designed to include the interviewer in the final product. This is technically a deception, but it is a harmless one used to make the segment more viewable. In documentaries, however, this quite often does not apply, and it is usual for the people speaking to be seen expounding their views without the intervention of interviewers.
Of course, in all such cases there must be an element of trust between the interviewee and the interviewer. It would be quite simple, technically, for the interviewer or the tape editor, to record a totally different set of questions and splice them together with the interviewee's answers, thus making the interviewee look like a complete idiot. However, to do so would be a gross breach of a journalist's professional ethics, and it doesn't happen often. Personally speaking, I have usually found that those ethical rules are scrupulously observed. I don't believe I have ever been misquoted, nor taken out of context, in the many interviews I have given, although I might sometimes feel that my main point has not received the prominence it deserves. That is only personal opinion, however, and usually good editing has often made my answers sound more coherent and less prolix than I am sure they deserved, and they have always retained the sense of what I said.
Some exception to the rule may be made in the case of comedy programmes, where some prominent identity is seen as giving answers to some question the host throws up, for example, his genuine answer to a complex economic question might be seen as a response to a query about his sex life (Clive James uses this to good effect in his late night talk show). This is all good clean fun and is hardly likely to cause the respondent any serious heartburn, because it can clearly be seen to be a deliberate manipulation of data for comic effect. That this is not always the case is exemplified by a recent experience of Richard Dawkins.
Richard Dawkins is the Charles Simonyi Professor of the Public Understanding of Science at Oxford University. He is one of the world's leading evolutionary biologists, the author of several highly regarded books on evolution through natural selection, including The Selfish Gene, The Blind Watchmaker (to my mind, the very best explanation of evolution for the lay person), The Extended Phenotype, River out of Eden and Climbing Mount Improbable, and is constantly in demand as a public speaker, and by the media as an advocate for good science.
Given his position and his professional expertise, it is hardly surprising, then, that he is also a cogent and trenchant critic of the anti-scientific dogma that masquerades under the title "creation science".
In June this year, Professor Dawkins contacted the Skeptic office, seeking assistance in locating an Australian TV production company. His story will demonstrate the depths to which the creationist movement will stoop in order to try to discredit its critics.
Recently Professor Dawkins had been made aware of a video tape being circulated in creationist circles, in which he appears, and on the cover of which is his photograph. Titled From a Frog to a Prince, it is distributed in the Australia by Answers in Genesis, of Acacia Ridge, Queensland and in the USA by American Portrait Films, Cleveland, Ohio. Copyright is held by "A.I.G. - I.C.R. - Keziah" and it was produced by "Keziah".
AIG, as regular readers will recognise, refers to Answers in Genesis, the new trading name of the Queensland based Creation Science Foundation; ICR is the Institute of Creation Research, a prominent US creationist outfit, and the source for much of what passes for information in such circles; Keziah was then unfamiliar to us.
Prof Dawkins was puzzled, and not a little perplexed, to be informed by a Christian contact in the USA that his appearance on the tape included a question being posed to him, whereupon he pauses for 11 seconds, and then answers an entirely different question. His contact, having viewed the tape, and having noticed the long pause and seeming evasion of what was a pretty simple question about evolution, was convinced that it had been a set-up.
As he hadn't then seen the tape, it was difficult for Richard to comprehend the full details, but he was suspicious of the circumstances, and sought our assistance in tracking down Keziah, which he thought was an Australian company. We had no information about Keziah, though we did recall a request from a woman purporting to represent American Portrait Films, for an interview with Richard while he was in Australia as our special guest at the 1996 Australian Skeptics annual convention in Melbourne. Subsequently, we managed to track down Keziah Productions to Peregian in Queensland.
Prof Dawkins then acquired a copy of the tape and became even more incensed as the details of what had been done to him became clearer. In correspondence to me (published here with his permission) he recounts what had happened:
As a preamble, I should explain that, following the advice of my colleague Stephen Jay Gould, I have a policy of not granting interviews to creationists or flat earthers. This is not because I cannot answer their arguments, but because I have better things to do with my time and I do not want to give them the oxygen of publicity.
On September 16, 1997, Keziah Video Productions, in the persons of Gillian Brown and Geoffrey Smith, came to my house in Oxford to film an interview with me. I had agreed to see them, on the misapprehension (as it later turned out) that they were from a respectable Australian broadcasting company. I had no idea they were a creationist front and I would not have granted them an interview had I known this, because of my policy as mentioned above.
The interview began. I have considerable experience of television work, and I was initially surprised at the amateurishness of their filming technique, but I carried on without voicing my surprise. As the interview proceeded, I became increasingly puzzled at the tone of the questions. Puzzlement gave way to suspicion that Keziah was, in fact, a creationist front which had gained admittance to my house under false pretences.
The suspicion increased sharply when I was challenged to produce an example of an evolutionary process which increases the information content of the genome. It is a question that nobody except a creationist would ask. A real biologist finds it an easy question to answer (the answer is that natural selection increases the information content of the genome all the time - that is precisely what natural selection means), but, from an evolutionary point of view, it is not an interesting way to put it. It would only be phrased that way by somebody who doubts that evolution happened.
Now I was faced with a dilemma. I was almost certain that these people had gained admittance to my house under false pretences - in other words, I had been set up. On the other hand, I am a naturally courteous person, especially in my own house, and these were guests from overseas. What should I do? I paused for a long time, trying to decide whether to throw them out, and, I have to admit, struggling not to lose my temper. Finally, I decided that I would ask them to leave, but I would do it in a polite way, explaining to them why. I then asked them to stop the tape, which they did.
The tape having stopped, I explained to them my suspicions, and asked them to leave my house. Gillian Brown pleaded with me, saying that she had flown all the way from Australia especially to interview me. She begged me not to send her home empty handed, after they had travelled such a long way. She assured me that they were not creationists, but were taking a balanced view of all sides in the debate. Like a fool, I took pity on her, and agreed to continue. I remember that, having had quite an acrimonious argument with her, when I finally agreed to resume the interview I made a conscious effort to be extra polite and friendly.
Now perhaps it could be argued that Prof Dawkins' memories of the events might have deteriorated with the passage of time since the interview, so let us consider the general plausibility of what the tape purported to show. A question was asked relating to "evolutionary process which increases the information content of the genome". This question was not asked of just anyone, but of a biologist whose speciality is precisely in that field, who has been teaching biology at Oxford University for 27 years, and who is very experienced in answering the far more complex questions of some of the best students in the world. It beggars belief that someone of Richard Dawkins' stature in the field would have been stumped by such a simple question or would have evaded it.
Anyone who has ever been interviewed will recognise that 11 seconds of silence is an inordinately long hiatus in any interview. Even if one is not an expert in the field, or is unfamiliar with the question being asked, the normal human reaction is to say, "Well, I don't know much about that ..." or "That's an interesting question ..." or to generally waffle on a bit, while arranging one's thoughts. What one does not do is just sit there saying nothing. Even in the case of a total media neophyte, stricken by "mike fright", they might react that way, briefly, but it is highly unlikely that anyone would remain mute for such a length of time. However, Richard Dawkins is far from being a media neophyte, having been the subject of hundreds of media interviews, and he was not asked a question he couldn't answer, merely a question he regarded as being put in an ill-informed way.
Richard puts it into better context in his letter:
As it happens, my forthcoming book, Unweaving the Rainbow, has an entire chapter (`The Genetic Book of the Dead') devoted to a much more interesting version of the idea that natural selection gathers up information from the environment, and builds it into the genome. At the time of the interview, the book was almost finished (it is to be published in November, 1998). That chapter would have been in the forefront of my mind, and it is therefore especially ludicrous to suggest that I would have evaded the question by talking about fish and amphibians.
If I'd wanted to turn the question into more congenial channels, all I had to do was talk about `The Genetic Book of the Dead'. It is a chapter I am particularly pleased with. I'd have welcomed the opportunity to expound it. Why on earth, when faced with such an opportunity, would I have kept totally silent? Unless, once again, I was actually thinking about something quite different while struggling to keep my temper?
If it had been left at that, it might merely have been evidence of professional incompetence on the part of the producer and editor of the tape. Further evidence of incompetence includes the tape showing the male "interviewer" in a completely different room from the Dawkins' drawing room where the interview took place, and with entirely different lighting. Moreover, the person who interviewed Prof Dawkins was named as Geoffrey Smith, while the "interviewer" shown in this clip is identified as Chris Nicholls, the narrator of the entire tape. However this, of itself, is not evidence of malice. While it is doubtful if any professional video producer would inadvertently leave a silence of that length in a tape, the fact that the long silence ends with an answer to an entirely different question, one about fishes, amphibians, and common ancestry, speaks strongly of malicious intent.
This becomes even more apparent when one views the tape, particularly if one has had the pleasure of spending any time in the company of Richard Dawkins, as I did as his Sydney host during his Australia in 1996.
Throughout this tape, Richard Dawkins speaks about his field of expertise in his usual polite and informative way. Then, suddenly, we see the interpolation of an "interviewer", quite obviously inserted at some later stage of production, posing a question directly to Richard [see box on previous page]. The tape then cuts directly to Richard and holds on him for 11 seconds, while he is shown looking uncomfortable, then cuts back to the "interviewer" briefly, while Richard begins to (seemingly) answer an entirely different question, during which the tape cuts back to him.
There are several clues pointing to deceptive intent here. Nowhere else in the tape is an interviewer shown directly asking a question of any of the other four people who speak, nor is an interviewer seen posing any questions to Richard in his previous pieces. Richard does not react as one would expect him to, had he merely been asked a difficult question; his reaction is much more believably one of someone who has just realised he has been conned into giving an interview he would not normally have given, ie he doesn't look nonplussed, he looks angry. To compound this, there is another brief insert of the "interviewer" with Richard's voice coming from off camera, before returning to Richard, looking as urbane and polite as ever. Such is the dramatic change in Richard's demeanour between the two segments, that it is utterly inconceivable that the second piece of tape followed immediately after the first.
Quite clearly, this tape has been manipulated, and rather ineptly done at that. But by now it is asking too much to blame it all on simple incompetence; it begins to reek of deceitful intent.
Stronger evidence of this has subsequently come to light. In an advertisement in Creation magazine, the official mouthpiece of Answers in Genesis, the tape From a Frog to a Prince, is touted as a "brilliant new documentary" and contains the following excerpt:
.. Then the documentary shows a question put to the highly fluent evolutionist Dawkins, which is really the crucial question: can he point to any example today in which a mutation has actually added information? (If there is such an example, surely an Oxford zoology professor, promoting neoDarwinism around the world, would know of it!) This is actually the dramatic high point of the whole presentation.
We think that the Dawkins response on screen (we won't spoil it for potential viewers) makes a more powerful point against evolution than volumes written by Creationists! Even a ten year old watching it in our Brisbane office, got the point.
And we also get the point. Because their volumes of unscientific dogma are having no effect in the scientific debate, they resort to trickery in order to denigrate their critics, and to mislead unsophisticated minds.
The nature of the plot
It was mentioned earlier that some comedy programmes use the interposed question for comic effect, but the Keziah tape is not being sold as a comedy tape; it purports to be a serious discussion of a scientific issue; it purports to show that there is no biological evidence for evolution. By selectively editing this tape, the producer clearly seeks to show:
a) that Richard Dawkins, an eminent biologist, was unable to answer a question he was asked about biology; and
b) that he then evaded the question by answering a completely different one.
This tape seeks to denigrate Professor Dawkins' professional reputation, and it is difficult to believe that it was not deliberately done.
It begins to look, then, that this is a piece of crude propaganda (see note below), deliberately manipulated to give the false impression that the fact of evolution is seriously under scientific question, and that the fanciful notions of creation `scientists' are contributing to that debate.
There is further evidence that this is the line being pursued in creationist circles. In recent times, both the Australian Skeptics web site and at the Skeptic office, we have fielded questions from a number of individuals who have posed questions couched in the terms, "Can you give one example of new information being added to the genome by mutation today?" We have no way of telling whether the callers are asking this question because they have seen (and been misled by) this deceitful video tape, or because creationists have been otherwise spreading the word that it is "a question evolutionists cannot answer". It does, however, seem too much of a coincidence that it should all be happening in such a short space of time.
From our experience of answering such questioners, it becomes clear that they have little knowledge of biology, and when asked to clarify what it is they are asking, they invariably flounder around the point. Clearly this has not been a question that just popped into a selection of enquiring minds all at once; it seems obvious it is something they have been told will "baffle the evolutionists".
Certainly this is by no means the first occasion on which the creation `science' movement has sought to misrepresent the words of eminent scientists to bolster their own inept grasp of scientific matters, and to mislead their own unfortunate followers.
In the early 1980s, the Creation Science Foundation published and sold a pamphlet entitled The Quote Book. This publication contained some 120 quotations from prominent scientists (among others) whose words were considered (by the CSF) to call evolution into question. When one academic, Dr Ken Smith a mathematician at the University of Queensland, and a member in good standing of the Baptist Church, took the trouble to track down the sources the quotations used (he could find only 80 of the 120, such was the poor level of scholarship used in the compilation of the magazine) he found that only one of the 80 could be considered to be a completely accurate reflection of the original statements. Much of this book consisted of quotations taken out of context, or so badly mangled as to entirely misrepresent the positions of those quoted.
In that case, adverse publicity forced the CSF to withdraw the item from sale, and to produce a substantially revised version; one that paid somewhat more attention to truth, and which thereby lost much of its propaganda value. Even there the organisation was less than honest, in that copies of the discredited book were still being sold at a discount, with no warning that it was inaccurate, some time after it had supposedly been withdrawn.
Professor Dawkins has taken steps to reduce the harm done by the Keziah tape, both to his reputation and to the public understanding of science. On July 2, he wrote to the Institute for Creation Research in California, pointing out in detail how the tape had dishonestly misrepresented his position, and requesting that the Institute investigate his complaint and immediately withdraw the tape from circulation. At the date of publication, he has not even received an acknowledgement from the ICR. Nor can we be entirely surprised by this. As the titles roll at the end of the tape, we see that Dr John Morris and Dr Carl Wieland, chief executives respectively of the Institute for Creation Research and Answers in Genesis, are shown as "consultants".
So much for the supposed impartiality of Gillian Brown, the producer of the tape, or for her protestations of "balanced view", of which she assured Professor Dawkins when seeking to continue taping in his home.
What does it mean?
So what is one to infer from this exercise? This tape, From a Frog to a Prince, purports to be a serious discussion of a scientific issue, but how is a scientific issue addressed by what clearly appears to be a deliberate misrepresentation of the position of one of the protagonists? That is not the way science works, and anyone who makes any pretence of being engaged in scientific discourse should be well aware of that. But then, science has very little to do with what creation `scientists' are about.
This is, sadly, typical of the less-than-honest political propagandist approach creationists use in their "mission". Unlike genuine scientists they conduct little, if any, scientific research in support of their contention that the natural processes of the world are as a direct result of a supernatural creation event within the past 6-10,000 years, and of a global flood some 3,000 years ago. What they do seek to do is to attack the credibility of evolutionary (and other) theories that show up their claims for the poorly thought-out and simple-minded religious dogma they really are. Because they are not engaged in scientific research, and thus cannot hope to succeed on the scientific level, they resort to ad hominem attacks on the genuine scientists who have exposed their myths.
What are the effects?
What effects will the dissemination of this particularly egregious example of that tactic have in the real world? What effect would it have, for example, on Richard Dawkins' professional reputation among his scientific peers? We would suspect practically none, because no professional biologist, nor any other competent scientist, would be hoodwinked for a moment into thinking that Prof Dawkins had been baffled by such a crudely easy question.
But that misses the point of the tape. This propaganda is not aimed at professional scientists who would not be fooled by the implied message. Richard Dawkins' academic chair deals with the "Public Understanding of Science" and, as such, he is among those academics who are sometimes referred to as "public intellectuals", those scientists, and others, who make their expertise and knowledge available and comprehensible to the public.
So what of his public reputation? Less scientifically literate members of the public, who have the misfortune to be subjected to this propaganda, may be led to believe that he had been stumped by a simple question and, as a consequence, they might be misled into believing that creationists are actually engaged in scientific debate. Nothing could be further from the truth - their purpose, pure and simple, is political.
There is yet another consequence - in some ways more serious. There are many people whose strongly held religious beliefs make them prime targets for creationist propaganda. Should these people see this video tape, and, by it be encouraged to believe that creation `science' has found a fatal flaw in the theory of evolution, then they have been cruelly deceived by people they have been led to believe they can trust.
Most scientifically literate people, and even many of those whose understanding of it is slight, have long recognised creation `science' for the infantile religious dogma that it is, so this crude propaganda is unlikely to have a great deal of lasting effect on them. But those who have little understanding of science, and particularly those who have trusted the creationists' claim that they are engaged in science, have had their trust betrayed. The nature of the calls we have received from people who have seemingly swallowed this line leave us in no doubt that that is precisely what has happened.
This is not the way of science - it is the way of political propaganda - yet another blatant example of "telling lies for God".
The etymology of the word "propaganda" is interesting. Now generally used to mean "the organised dissemination of information, allegations, etc to assist or damage the cause of a government, movement, etc" (Collins English Dictionary), the word derives from the 18th Century Italian use of the Latin title Sacre Congregatio de Propaganda Fide, (Congregation for Propagating the Faith), a 17th Century congress of cardinals set up by the Roman Catholic Church to propagate their faith overseas through missionary activity. That this word evolved from a purely religious beginning into its present wide use in a political context seems to make it particularly apposite in this case.
- For more information on this topic, see below for an article called, The Information Challenge, which is by Richard Dawkins about this subject. I found this article here: http://www.skeptics.com.au/articles/dawkins.htm
The Information Challenge
by Richard Dawkins
In September 1997, I allowed an Australian film crew into my house in Oxford without realising that their purpose was creationist propaganda. In the course of a suspiciously amateurish interview, they issued a truculent challenge to me to "give an example of a genetic mutation or an evolutionary process which can be seen to increase the information in the genome." It is the kind of question only a creationist would ask in that way, and it was at this point I tumbled to the fact that I had been duped into granting an interview to creationists - a thing I normally don't do, for good reasons. In my anger I refused to discuss the question further, and told them to stop the camera. However, I eventually withdrew my peremptory termination of the interview as a whole. This was solely because they pleaded with me that they had come all the way from Australia specifically in order to interview me. Even if this was a considerable exaggeration, it seemed, on reflection, ungenerous to tear up the legal release form and throw them out. I therefore relented.
My generosity was rewarded in a fashion that anyone familiar with fundamentalist tactics might have predicted. When I eventually saw the film a year later 1, I found that it had been edited to give the false impression that I was incapable of answering the question about information content 2. In fairness, this may not have been quite as intentionally deceitful as it sounds. You have to understand that these people really believe that their question cannot be answered! Pathetic as it sounds, their entire journey from Australia seems to have been a quest to film an evolutionist failing to answer it.
With hindsight - given that I had been suckered into admitting them into my house in the first place - it might have been wiser simply to answer the question. But I like to be understood whenever I open my mouth - I have a horror of blinding people with science - and this was not a question that could be answered in a soundbite. First you first have to explain the technical meaning of "information". Then the relevance to evolution, too, is complicated - not really difficult but it takes time. Rather than engage now in further recriminations and disputes about exactly what happened at the time of the interview (for, to be fair, I should say that the Australian producer's memory of events seems to differ from mine), I shall try to redress the matter now in constructive fashion by answering the original question, the "Information Challenge", at adequate length - the sort of length you can achieve in a proper article.
The technical definition of "information" was introduced by the American engineer Claude Shannon in 1948. An employee of the Bell Telephone Company, Shannon was concerned to measure information as an economic commodity. It is costly to send messages along a telephone line. Much of what passes in a message is not information: it is redundant. You could save money by recoding the message to remove the redundancy. Redundancy was a second technical term introduced by Shannon, as the inverse of information. Both definitions were mathematical, but we can convey Shannon's intuitive meaning in words.
Redundancy is any part of a message that is not informative, either because the recipient already knows it (is not surprised by it) or because it duplicates other parts of the message. In the sentence "Rover is a poodle dog", the word "dog" is redundant because "poodle" already tells us that Rover is a dog. An economical telegram would omit it, thereby increasing the informative proportion of the message. "Arr JFK Fri pm pls mt BA Cncrd flt" carries the same information as the much longer, but more redundant, "I'll be arriving at John F Kennedy airport on Friday evening; please meet the British Airways Concorde flight". Obviously the brief, telegraphic message is cheaper to send (although the recipient may have to work harder to decipher it - redundancy has its virtues if we forget economics). Shannon wanted to find a mathematical way to capture the idea that any message could be broken into the information (which is worth paying for), the redundancy (which can, with economic advantage, be deleted from the message because, in effect, it can be reconstructed by the recipient) and the noise (which is just random rubbish).
"It rained in Oxford every day this week" carries relatively little information, because the receiver is not surprised by it. On the other hand, "It rained in the Sahara desert every day this week" would be a message with high information content, well worth paying extra to send. Shannon wanted to capture this sense of information content as "surprise value". It is related to the other sense - "that which is not duplicated in other parts of the message" - because repetitions lose their power to surprise. Note that Shannon's definition of the quantity of information is independent of whether it is true. The measure he came up with was ingenious and intuitively satisfying. Let's estimate, he suggested, the receiver's ignorance or uncertainty before receiving the message, and then compare it with the receiver's remaining ignorance after receiving the message. The quantity of ignorance-reduction is the information content. Shannon's unit of information is the bit, short for "binary digit". One bit is defined as the amount of information needed to halve the receiver's prior uncertainty, however great that prior uncertainty was (mathematical readers will notice that the bit is, therefore, a logarithmic measure).
In practice, you first have to find a way of measuring the prior uncertainty - that which is reduced by the information when it comes. For particular kinds of simple message, this is easily done in terms of probabilities. An expectant father watches the Caesarian birth of his child through a window into the operating theatre. He can't see any details, so a nurse has agreed to hold up a pink card if it is a girl, blue for a boy. How much information is conveyed when, say, the nurse flourishes the pink card to the delighted father? The answer is one bit - the prior uncertainty is halved. The father knows that a baby of some kind has been born, so his uncertainty amounts to just two possibilities - boy and girl - and they are (for purposes of this discussion) equal. The pink card halves the father's prior uncertainty from two possibilities to one (girl). If there'd been no pink card but a doctor had walked out of the operating theatre, shook the father's hand and said "Congratulations old chap, I'm delighted to be the first to tell you that you have a daughter", the information conveyed by the 17 word message would still be only one bit.
Computer information is held in a sequence of noughts and ones. There are only two possibilities, so each 0 or 1 can hold one bit. The memory capacity of a computer, or the storage capacity of a disc or tape, is often measured in bits, and this is the total number of 0s or 1s that it can hold. For some purposes, more convenient units of measurement are the byte (8 bits), the kilobyte (1000 bytes or 8000 bits), the megabyte (a million bytes or 8 million bits) or the gigabyte (1000 million bytes or 8000 million bits). Notice that these figures refer to the total available capacity. This is the maximum quantity of information that the device is capable of storing. The actual amount of information stored is something else. The capacity of my hard disc happens to be 4.2 gigabytes. Of this, about 1.4 gigabytes are actually being used to store data at present. But even this is not the true information content of the disc in Shannon's sense. The true information content is smaller, because the information could be more economically stored. You can get some idea of the true information content by using one of those ingenious compression programs like "Stuffit". Stuffit looks for redundancy in the sequence of 0s and 1s, and removes a hefty proportion of it by recoding - stripping out internal predictability. Maximum information content would be achieved (probably never in practice) only if every 1 or 0 surprised us equally. Before data is transmitted in bulk around the Internet, it is routinely compressed to reduce redundancy.
That's good economics. But on the other hand it is also a good idea to keep some redundancy in messages, to help correct errors. In a message that is totally free of redundancy, after there's been an error there is no means of reconstructing what was intended. Computer codes often incorporate deliberately redundant "parity bits" to aid in error detection. DNA, too, has various error-correcting procedures which depend upon redundancy. When I come on to talk of genomes, I'll return to the three-way distinction between total information capacity, information capacity actually used, and true information content.
It was Shannon's insight that information of any kind, no matter what it means, no matter whether it is true or false, and no matter by what physical medium it is carried, can be measured in bits, and is translatable into any other medium of information. The great biologist J B S Haldane used Shannon's theory to compute the number of bits of information conveyed by a worker bee to her hivemates when she "dances" the location of a food source (about 3 bits to tell about the direction of the food and another 3 bits for the distance of the food). In the same units, I recently calculated that I'd need to set aside 120 megabits of laptop computer memory to store the triumphal opening chords of Richard Strauss's "Also Sprach Zarathustra" (the "2001" theme) which I wanted to play in the middle of a lecture about evolution. Shannon's economics enable you to calculate how much modem time it'll cost you to e-mail the complete text of a book to a publisher in another land. Fifty years after Shannon, the idea of information as a commodity, as measurable and interconvertible as money or energy, has come into its own.
DNA carries information in a very computer-like way, and we can measure the genome's capacity in bits too, if we wish. DNA doesn't use a binary code, but a quaternary one. Whereas the unit of information in the computer is a 1 or a 0, the unit in DNA can be T, A, C or G. If I tell you that a particular location in a DNA sequence is a T, how much information is conveyed from me to you? Begin by measuring the prior uncertainty. How many possibilities are open before the message "T" arrives? Four. How many possibilities remain after it has arrived? One. So you might think the information transferred is four bits, but actually it is two. Here's why (assuming that the four letters are equally probable, like the four suits in a pack of cards). Remember that Shannon's metric is concerned with the most economical way of conveying the message. Think of it as the number of yes/no questions that you'd have to ask in order to narrow down to certainty, from an initial uncertainty of four possibilities, assuming that you planned your questions in the most economical way. "Is the mystery letter before D in the alphabet?" No. That narrows it down to T or G, and now we need only one more question to clinch it. So, by this method of measuring, each "letter" of the DNA has an information capacity of 2 bits.
Whenever prior uncertainty of recipient can be expressed as a number of equiprobable alternatives N, the information content of a message which narrows those alternatives down to one is log2N (the power to which 2 must be raised in order to yield the number of alternatives N). If you pick a card, any card, from a normal pack, a statement of the identity of the card carries log252, or 5.7 bits of information. In other words, given a large number of guessing games, it would take 5.7 yes/no questions on average to guess the card, provided the questions are asked in the most economical way. The first two questions might establish the suit. (Is it red? Is it a diamond?) the remaining three or four questions would successively divide and conquer the suit (is it a 7 or higher? etc.), finally homing in on the chosen card. When the prior uncertainty is some mixture of alternatives that are not equiprobable, Shannon's formula becomes a slightly more elaborate weighted average, but it is essentially similar. By the way, Shannon's weighted average is the same formula as physicists have used, since the nineteenth century, for entropy. The point has interesting implications but I shall not pursue them here.
Information and evolution
That's enough background on information theory. It is a theory which has long held a fascination for me, and I have used it in several of my research papers over the years. Let's now think how we might use it to ask whether the information content of genomes increases in evolution. First, recall the three way distinction between total information capacity, the capacity that is actually used, and the true information content when stored in the most economical way possible. The total information capacity of the human genome is measured in gigabits. That of the common gut bacterium Escherichia coli is measured in megabits. We, like all other animals, are descended from an ancestor which, were it available for our study today, we'd classify as a bacterium. So perhaps, during the billions of years of evolution since that ancestor lived, the information capacity of our genome has gone up about three orders of magnitude (powers of ten) - about a thousandfold. This is satisfyingly plausible and comforting to human dignity. Should human dignity feel wounded, then, by the fact that the crested newt, Triturus cristatus, has a genome capacity estimated at 40 gigabits, an order of magnitude larger than the human genome? No, because, in any case, most of the capacity of the genome of any animal is not used to store useful information. There are many nonfunctional pseudogenes (see below) and lots of repetitive nonsense, useful for forensic detectives but not translated into protein in the living cells. The crested newt has a bigger "hard disc" than we have, but since the great bulk of both our hard discs is unused, we needn't feel insulted. Related species of newt have much smaller genomes. Why the Creator should have played fast and loose with the genome sizes of newts in such a capricious way is a problem that creationists might like to ponder. From an evolutionary point of view the explanation is simple (see The Selfish Gene pp 44-45 and p 275 in the Second Edition).
Evidently the total information capacity of genomes is very variable across the living kingdoms, and it must have changed greatly in evolution, presumably in both directions. Losses of genetic material are called deletions. New genes arise through various kinds of duplication. This is well illustrated by haemoglobin, the complex protein molecule that transports oxygen in the blood.
Human adult haemoglobin is actually a composite of four protein chains called globins, knotted around each other. Their detailed sequences show that the four globin chains are closely related to each other, but they are not identical. Two of them are called alpha globins (each a chain of 141 amino acids), and two are beta globins (each a chain of 146 amino acids). The genes coding for the alpha globins are on chromosome 11; those coding for the beta globins are on chromosome 16. On each of these chromosomes, there is a cluster of globin genes in a row, interspersed with some junk DNA. The alpha cluster, on Chromosome 11, contains seven globin genes. Four of these are pseudogenes, versions of alpha disabled by faults in their sequence and not translated into proteins. Two are true alpha globins, used in the adult. The final one is called zeta and is used only in embryos. Similarly the beta cluster, on chromosome 16, has six genes, some of which are disabled, and one of which is used only in the embryo. Adult haemoglobin, as we've seen contains two alpha and two beta chains.
Never mind all this complexity. Here's the fascinating point. Careful letter-by-letter analysis shows that these different kinds of globin genes are literally cousins of each other, literally members of a family. But these distant cousins still coexist inside our own genome, and that of all vertebrates. On a the scale of whole organism, the vertebrates are our cousins too. The tree of vertebrate evolution is the family tree we are all familiar with, its branch-points representing speciation events - the splitting of species into pairs of daughter species. But there is another family tree occupying the same timescale, whose branches represent not speciation events but gene duplication events within genomes.
The dozen or so different globins inside you are descended from an ancient globin gene which, in a remote ancestor who lived about half a billion years ago, duplicated, after which both copies stayed in the genome. There were then two copies of it, in different parts of the genome of all descendant animals. One copy was destined to give rise to the alpha cluster (on what would eventually become Chromosome 11 in our genome), the other to the beta cluster (on Chromosome 16). As the aeons passed, there were further duplications (and doubtless some deletions as well). Around 400 million years ago the ancestral alpha gene duplicated again, but this time the two copies remained near neighbours of each other, in a cluster on the same chromosome. One of them was destined to become the zeta of our embryos, the other became the alpha globin genes of adult humans (other branches gave rise to the nonfunctional pseudogenes I mentioned). It was a similar story along the beta branch of the family, but with duplications at other moments in geological history.
Now here's an equally fascinating point. Given that the split between the alpha cluster and the beta cluster took place 500 million years ago, it will of course not be just our human genomes that show the split - possess alpha genes in a different part of the genome from beta genes. We should see the same within-genome split if we look at any other mammals, at birds, reptiles, amphibians and bony fish, for our common ancestor with all of them lived less than 500 million years ago. Wherever it has been investigated, this expectation has proved correct. Our greatest hope of finding a vertebrate that does not share with us the ancient alpha/beta split would be a jawless fish like a lamprey, for they are our most remote cousins among surviving vertebrates; they are the only surviving vertebrates whose common ancestor with the rest of the vertebrates is sufficiently ancient that it could have predated the alpha/beta split. Sure enough, these jawless fishes are the only known vertebrates that lack the alpha/beta divide.
Gene duplication, within the genome, has a similar historic impact to species duplication ("speciation") in phylogeny. It is responsible for gene diversity, in the same way as speciation is responsible for phyletic diversity. Beginning with a single universal ancestor, the magnificent diversity of life has come about through a series of branchings of new species, which eventually gave rise to the major branches of the living kingdoms and the hundreds of millions of separate species that have graced the earth. A similar series of branchings, but this time within genomes - gene duplications - has spawned the large and diverse population of clusters of genes that constitutes the modern genome.
The story of the globins is just one among many. Gene duplications and deletions have occurred from time to time throughout genomes. It is by these, and similar means, that genome sizes can increase in evolution. But remember the distinction between the total capacity of the whole genome, and the capacity of the portion that is actually used. Recall that not all the globin genes are actually used. Some of them, like theta in the alpha cluster of globin genes, are pseudogenes, recognizably kin to functional genes in the same genomes, but never actually translated into the action language of protein. What is true of globins is true of most other genes. Genomes are littered with nonfunctional pseudogenes, faulty duplicates of functional genes that do nothing, while their functional cousins (the word doesn't even need scare quotes) get on with their business in a different part of the same genome. And there's lots more DNA that doesn't even deserve the name pseudogene. It, too, is derived by duplication, but not duplication of functional genes. It consists of multiple copies of junk, "tandem repeats", and other nonsense which may be useful for forensic detectives but which doesn't seem to be used in the body itself.
Once again, creationists might spend some earnest time speculating on why the Creator should bother to litter genomes with untranslated pseudogenes and junk tandem repeat DNA.
Information in the genome
Can we measure the information capacity of that portion of the genome which is actually used? We can at least estimate it. In the case of the human genome it is about 2% - considerably less than the proportion of my hard disc that I have ever used since I bought it. Presumably the equivalent figure for the crested newt is even smaller, but I don't know if it has been measured. In any case, we mustn't run away with a chaunvinistic idea that the human genome somehow ought to have the largest DNA database because we are so wonderful. The great evolutionary biologist George C Williams has pointed out that animals with complicated life cycles need to code for the development of all stages in the life cycle, but they only have one genome with which to do so. A butterfly's genome has to hold the complete information needed for building a caterpillar as well as a butterfly. A sheep liver fluke has six distinct stages in its life cycle, each specialised for a different way of life. We shouldn't feel too insulted if liver flukes turned out to have bigger genomes than we have (actually they don't).
Remember, too, that even the total capacity of genome that is actually used is still not the same thing as the true information content in Shannon's sense. The true information content is what's left when the redundancy has been compressed out of the message, by the theoretical equivalent of Stuffit. There are even some viruses which seem to use a kind of Stuffit-like compression. They make use of the fact that the RNA (not DNA in these viruses, as it happens, but the principle is the same) code is read in triplets. There is a "frame" which moves along the RNA sequence, reading off three letters at a time. Obviously, under normal conditions, if the frame starts reading in the wrong place (as in a so-called frame-shift mutation), it makes total nonsense: the "triplets" that it reads are out of step with the meaningful ones. But these splendid viruses actually exploit frame-shifted reading. They get two messages for the price of one, by having a completely different message embedded in the very same series of letters when read frame-shifted. In principle you could even get three messages for the price of one, but I don't know whether there are any examples.
Information in the body
It is one thing to estimate the total information capacity of a genome, and the amount of the genome that is actually used, but it's harder to estimate its true information content in the Shannon sense. The best we can do is probably to forget about the genome itself and look at its product, the "phenotype", the working body of the animal or plant itself. In 1951, J W S Pringle, who later became my Professor at Oxford, suggested using a Shannon-type information measure to estimate "complexity". Pringle wanted to express complexity mathematically in bits, but I have long found the following verbal form helpful in explaining his idea to students.
We have an intuitive sense that a lobster, say, is more complex (more "advanced", some might even say more "highly evolved") than another animal, perhaps a millipede. Can we measure something in order to confirm or deny our intuition? Without literally turning it into bits, we can make an approximate estimation of the information contents of the two bodies as follows. Imagine writing a book describing the lobster. Now write another book describing the millipede down to the same level of detail. Divide the word-count in one book by the word-count in the other, and you have an approximate estimate of the relative information content of lobster and millipede. It is important to specify that both books describe their respective animals "down to the same level of detail". Obviously if we describe the millipede down to cellular detail, but stick to gross anatomical features in the case of the lobster, the millipede would come out ahead.
But if we do the test fairly, I'll bet the lobster book would come out longer than the millipede book. It's a simple plausibility argument, as follows. Both animals are made up of segments - modules of bodily architecture that are fundamentally similar to each other, arranged fore-and-aft like the trucks of a train. The millipede's segments are mostly identical to each other. The lobster's segments, though following the same basic plan (each with a nervous ganglion, a pair of appendages, and so on) are mostly different from each other. The millipede book would consist of one chapter describing a typical segment, followed by the phrase "Repeat N times" where N is the number of segments. The lobster book would need a different chapter for each segment. This isn't quite fair on the millipede, whose front and rear end segments are a bit different from the rest. But I'd still bet that, if anyone bothered to do the experiment, the estimate of lobster information content would come out substantially greater than the estimate of millipede information content.
It's not of direct evolutionary interest to compare a lobster with a millipede in this way, because nobody thinks lobsters evolved from millipedes. Obviously no modern animal evolved from any other modern animal. Instead, any pair of modern animals had a last common ancestor which lived at some (in principle) discoverable moment in geological history. Almost all of evolution happened way back in the past, which makes it hard to study details. But we can use the "length of book" thought-experiment to agree upon what it would mean to ask the question whether information content increases over evolution, if only we had ancestral animals to look at.
The answer in practice is complicated and controversial, all bound up with a vigorous debate over whether evolution is, in general, progressive. I am one of those associated with a limited form of yes answer. My colleague Stephen Jay Gould tends towards a no answer. I don't think anybody would deny that, by any method of measuring - whether bodily information content, total information capacity of genome, capacity of genome actually used, or true ("Stuffit compressed") information content of genome - there has been a broad overall trend towards increased information content during the course of human evolution from our remote bacterial ancestors. People might disagree, however, over two important questions: first, whether such a trend is to be found in all, or a majority of evolutionary lineages (for example parasite evolution often shows a trend towards decreasing bodily complexity, because parasites are better off being simple); second, whether, even in lineages where there is a clear overall trend over the very long term, it is bucked by so many reversals and re-reversals in the shorter term as to undermine the very idea of progress. This is not the place to resolve this interesting controversy. There are distinguished biologists with good arguments on both sides.
Supporters of "intelligent design" guiding evolution, by the way, should be deeply committed to the view that information content increases during evolution. Even if the information comes from God, perhaps especially if it does, it should surely increase, and the increase should presumably show itself in the genome. Unless, of course - for anything goes in such addle-brained theorising - God works his evolutionary miracles by nongenetic means.
Perhaps the main lesson we should learn from Pringle is that the information content of a biological system is another name for its complexity. Therefore the creationist challenge with which we began is tantamount to the standard challenge to explain how biological complexity can evolve from simpler antecedents, one that I have devoted three books to answering (The Blind Watchmaker, River Out of Eden, Climbing Mount Improbable) and I do not propose to repeat their contents here. The "information challenge" turns out to be none other than our old friend: "How could something as complex as an eye evolve?" It is just dressed up in fancy mathematical language - perhaps in an attempt to bamboozle. Or perhaps those who ask it have already bamboozled themselves, and don't realise that it is the same old - and thoroughly answered - question.
The Genetic Book of the Dead
Let me turn, finally, to another way of looking at whether the information content of genomes increases in evolution. We now switch from the broad sweep of evolutionary history to the minutiae of natural selection. Natural selection itself, when you think about it, is a narrowing down from a wide initial field of possible alternatives, to the narrower field of the alternatives actually chosen. Random genetic error (mutation), sexual recombination and migratory mixing, all provide a wide field of genetic variation: the available alternatives. Mutation is not an increase in true information content, rather the reverse, for mutation, in the Shannon analogy, contributes to increasing the prior uncertainty. But now we come to natural selection, which reduces the "prior uncertainty" and therefore, in Shannon's sense, contributes information to the gene pool. In every generation, natural selection removes the less successful genes from the gene pool, so the remaining gene pool is a narrower subset. The narrowing is nonrandom, in the direction of improvement, where improvement is defined, in the Darwinian way, as improvement in fitness to survive and reproduce. Of course the total range of variation is topped up again in every generation by new mutation and other kinds of variation. But it still remains true that natural selection is a narrowing down from an initially wider field of possibilities, including mostly unsuccessful ones, to a narrower field of successful ones. This is analogous to the definition of information with which we began: information is what enables the narrowing down from prior uncertainty (the initial range of possibilities) to later certainty (the "successful" choice among the prior probabilities). According to this analogy, natural selection is by definition a process whereby information is fed into the gene pool of the next generation.
If natural selection feeds information into gene pools, what is the information about? It is about how to survive. Strictly it is about how to survive and reproduce, in the conditions that prevailed when previous generations were alive. To the extent that present day conditions are different from ancestral conditions, the ancestral genetic advice will be wrong. In extreme cases, the species may then go extinct. To the extent that conditions for the present generation are not too different from conditions for past generations, the information fed into present-day genomes from past generations is helpful information. Information from the ancestral past can be seen as a manual for surviving in the present: a family bible of ancestral "advice" on how to survive today. We need only a little poetic licence to say that the information fed into modern genomes by natural selection is actually information about ancient environments in which ancestors survived.
This idea of information fed from ancestral generations into descendant gene pools is one of the themes of my new book, Unweaving the Rainbow. It takes a whole chapter, "The Genetic Book of the Dead", to develop the notion, so I won't repeat it here except to say two things. First, it is the whole gene pool of the species as a whole, not the genome of any particular individual, which is best seen as the recipient of the ancestral information about how to survive. The genomes of particular individuals are random samples of the current gene pool, randomised by sexual recombination. Second, we are privileged to "intercept" the information if we wish, and "read" an animal's body, or even its genes, as a coded description of ancestral worlds. To quote from Unweaving the Rainbow: "And isn't it an arresting thought? We are digital archives of the African Pliocene, even of Devonian seas; walking repositories of wisdom out of the old days. You could spend a lifetime reading in this ancient library and die unsated by the wonder of it."
1 The producers never deigned to send me a copy: I completely forgot about it until an American colleague called it to my attention. (back)
2 See Barry Williams (1998): "Creationist Deception Exposed", The Skeptic 18, 3, pp 7-10, for an account of how my long pause (trying to decide whether to throw them out) was made to look like hesitant inability to answer the question, followed by an apparently evasive answer to a completely different question.
- I also have, in a PDF, the response that the filmmaker gave to Skeptic magazine about these articles if anyone is interested.