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Incremental improvements
Laszlo Bencze  

 

There is an assumption of evolution buried so deep that it is invisible. Rarely is it mentioned and even less often discussed. This fundamental assumption deserves to be examined as a hypothesis to see how well it accords with reality. It is the claim that improvements progress incrementally. What "everybody knows" might be expressed as follows:

 

Small incremental improvements link all of technology. If we look closely at human artifacts we will see that they have reached their current state of perfection through incremental improvements. If we worked backwards we could trace the modern automobile back to its ox cart origins step by small step.

 

Similarly, incremental improvements link all living things. If we possessed perfect knowledge of the past we could catalogue every single stepping stone (every species and sub species) which links all living things in a continuous, unbroken sequence requiring no miracles nor tinkering by an intelligent agent.

 

 

Let's look at this assumption via analogy. Let's choose an analogy which is very friendly to evolution. Let our subject be an essay written by an average high school student. Now let us attempt to transform this essay into one of publishable quality not by using random changes as is the case for biological evolution but by using intelligence (and a dictionary) to make word substitutions. (And again we must remember that in biological evolution not words/genes but merely letters of the DNA code are changed.)

 

Surely we ought to be able to transform that awkward, ill-conceived, poorly organized, semi-literate bit of writing into a great essay worthy of Montaigne or Aldous Huxley by using our superior abilities to substitute one word at a time. Perhaps it would even be a trivial task. Certainly that's what faith in evolution would lead us to believe.

 

The catch is that (as in evolution) each word substitution must immediately improve the essay, making it wittier or more informative or just plain "better". I suspect that there would indeed be a few such substitutions possible. But how many? A dozen? Two? It might even be possible to pluck a phrase from one part of the essay and put it into a better place. This maneuver would mimic genetic recombination.

 

But after these few changes, mind you all produced with intelligent design, I think you would hit a brick wall. No further improvement could be effected without a major rewrite which would involve crafting new sentences and changing the entire structure of the essay. Moreover, the changes which could be made via single word substitution would be trivial and certainly not the way any professional editor would go about the task.

 

In short even under these favorable conditions the exercise would reveal that step by step improvement soon reaches a dead end. The significant improvement called for is simply not accessible to this plodding, limited technique. The way to transform a student essay into a mature and polished essay is to rethink it and write it from scratch. My guess is that only a few words and phrases would survive the rewrite. 

 

But now let's approach the problem from another direction. Perhaps we will have greater success if we reverse the procedure and try to degrade great writing incrementally, one word at a time. Then the reverse path to success will be clear. 

 

Let's take as our example Hamlet's line, "To be or not to be: that is the question". Thus:

 

To be or not to be: which is the question.
To be or not to be: which is a question.
To be and not to be: which is a question.
To be and not to be: which is a certainty.
To see and not to be: which is a certainty.
To see and not to understand: which is a certainty.
We see and not to understand: which is a certainty.
We see and will to understand: which is a certainty.
We see and will to understand: which raises a certainty.

 

At this  point we are (or already have) entered the land of gibberish. It's impossible that anyone could ever follow such a lineage in reverse and arrive at Shakespeare's famous line. The entire project is silly.

 

Nor does this manner of degradation truly mimic how felicitous expression turns into clumsiness. Degradation occurs conceptually. The true path of degradation is more like:

 

Is it worthwhile staying alive: that's what I ought to ask myself.
I wonder if I should commit suicide.
Hey, why bother?
Whatever.

 

The decline is not incremental, one word at a time, but conceptual, one thought at a time, each thought being progressively more vacuous and less perceptive.

 

So what would it take to begin with the adolescent shrug, "Whatever," and end up with the line from Hamlet? I propose that it takes Shakespeare to get us there. In other words, there is no incremental route. Rather it requires the fully functioning faculties of a genius to produce genius level writing. 

 

Logic suggests: "the lesser cannot produce the greater." There are no stepping stones from ineptitude to genius. There is instead a great chasm which cannot be bridged. Improvements do not proceed incrementally in small steps. They proceed conceptually in great leaps! It is only to the untrained eye that these leaps appear to be incremental.
 
The "evolution" of the car provides many examples. Viewed from afar, it seems as if automobile technology improves incrementally one small step at a time. But the illusion dissipates under close scrutiny. Take the change from a hand cranked engine to Charles Kettering's battery starter (ca., 1911).  There never was an intermediate stage in which a starter motor was bolted to the front bumper of a car with a lever attached to the hand crank. Such an "incremental improvement" would have been ridiculously clumsy, unsightly, and trouble prone.

 

Kettering's chasm leaping concept was based on the insight that the starter motor had to produce only a very short burst of high power. Since there was no need to design it for sustained power it could be small enough and light enough to fit under the hood next to the engine block.

 

During Darwin's lifetime, developments with steam engines, trains, firearms, and machine tools were proceeding with amazing rapidity. Improvements in such things were widely publicized and discussed in the popular press. It would have been easy for an outsider unfamiliar with the engineering details to have mistaken these leaps for incremental improvements. Perhaps his misunderstanding of the world of technology seduced Darwin into imagining that the incremental changes he there perceived also existed in the biological world. After all, an increment is a tiny thing which might well have happened by chance even in the realm of human technology (so  a non-engineer might imagine). So why wouldn't random incremental improvement be a perfectly acceptable explanation in biology?
Conclusion
 
The term "incremental" is used much too loosely in discussions of evolution whether referring to human or biological artifacts. Close examination reveals that so-called incremental improvements are no such thing. Great inputs of intelligence and reengineering are needed to advance any technology. It is time to dispel the myth of incremental improvement and point out how rare it actually is in the realm of human technology. And if it is rare in a realm that allows for intelligence and goal seeking, then it can have no influence on the creation of species.
Appendix: Mathematical considerations

 

Let's add some simple numeric considerations from the point of view of intelligent design theory (ID). Consider, for example, a system that contains one million bits of complex specified information. The history of its incremental production can be represented as the sum of addends giving 1,000,000 bits.

 

The first trivial note is that the addends must be integer numbers (greater or equal 1). For example, it cannot be real numbers: 0.0007 + 32.45 + 0.0000977 + 0.9335 + ... = 1,000,000. In fact the minimum information is 1 bit, which is the "atomic" minimal decision (1/0, on/off, true/false, yes/no, etc.). By the way, in the electronic logical circuits, to change the status of a signal from 1 to 0 (or vice versa) one needs a device (an inverter) that is, yes, the simplest technological gate but not so simple after all.

 

To be precise, in biology, each single base of DNA, having four possible values (A, T, G, C), represents not 1 bit, but rather 2 bits. As a consequence a single point mutation changes 2 bits in the DNA. But to keep our reasoning simple let's continue to consider the minimum amount of information as 1 bit.

 

Evolutionists claim that our model one-million-bit biological system is obtainable by summing unitary increments: 1+1+1+1+...=1,000,000 (say it "evo sum"). It is crucial that the addends be small (even single bits) because they must have a random origin. It is easier to justify the random natural origin of 1 bit than to justify the natural origin of, say, 9,592 bits. Evolutionary understanding decomposes one complex thing into many simple things. In other words, the overwhelmingly large problem that any complex design implies is reduced to many single-bit decisions which chance can presumably account for perfectly well. In the face of such simplicity Darwinian theory cannot be doubted. So we are told.

 

On the opposite side, ID supporters doubt the validity of the 1+1+1+1+... = 1,000,000 decomposition. They rightly note that in the development of human artifacts (similar to but simpler than  biological systems) the incremental improvements are not 1 bit but are great leaps of n bits that need engineering intelligence. So, for example, the "ID sum" of the one-million-bit system is more like:9,592+34,877+1,266+123,998+...=1,000,000.

 

Intelligent design theory proposes the concept of irreducible complexity (IC): a system which must be perfectly assembled as a whole just from the beginning before it can function. This concept, applied to the ID sum above, means that the vast majority of addends are not 1 bit but n bits!

 

In fact if a sub-system contains, say, 123,998 bits and it cannot be decomposed because it is irreducibly complex, then its complexity measure is indivisibly 123,998, and not a mere sum of 1s. Therefore the first four addends of the above ID sum (9,592, 34,877, 1,266, 123,998) represent the information of four irreducibly complex sub-systems. To sum up, irreducible complexity leads us to deny the possibility of attaining a complex system in small increments. In ID theory it is IC which strikes at the root of the evolutionist claim that tiny discrete changes can create biological complexity.

 

Evolutionists further propose that the bits of their evo-sum 1+1+1+1+...=1,000,000 are fully independent and uncorrelated  with each other. Chance is blind and without memory, so there cannot be any causal relationship between bits of information. The nth bit neither knows the existence of the (n-1)th bit nor the existence of the (n+1)th bit. The bits are as independent as hits in a roulette game. In a sense we can say that evolutionism implies the maximum dispersion of biotechnical realities.

 

By contrast, from the ID-engineering point of view, a complex system is always understood as a nested functional hierarchy, which must be designed from the highest to lowest level, not vice versa as in evolution. Consequently not only is the ID sum composed of integers greater than 1 but the expression representing the sum needs brackets to represent the functional nesting:

 

{9,592+34,877+[1,266+123,998+(86,500+34,665)]}+...=1,000,000

 

Brackets clarify that the top system is composed of n sub-systems, which in turn are composed of other sub-sub-systems, and so on.

 

We have traveled far from the seductive simplicity of adding single bits to achieve complexity. Our bracketed integers begin to reveal structure and organization. Complexity cannot be achieved by tossing random bits together like potatoes into a bag.