Saturday, February 28, 2009

Professor Neil Strickland vs Pharyngula

Some time ago I wrote a blog entry suggesting that the idea that 97% of human DNA is junk is absurd. My argument was from an engineering perspective and was based on comparing the relative size of 3% of human DNA to the size of Microsoft Word. This blog entry was criticized by PZ Myer’s, a biology professor and prominent atheist, in Pharyngula, a popular blog that he writes. But there was more than criticism, there was ridicule. Many readers chimed with derogatory comments like the guy that said this about me:
God, what an imbecile. Not only does he not know anything about biology, his approach to programming is not particularly bright.
How would he know that from my blog entry? What’s funny is that I have been writing software for 27 years and this guy is thirty something and hasn’t even finished college yet. However, even though there was lots of ridicule, one person did come to my defense – Professor Neil Strickland from the Department of Pure Mathematics at the University of Sehffield. This is what Neil had to say:
Most of these comments are a bit over the top.

Firstly, despite various scathing comments from people who can't be bothered to check, it is a fact that C:\Program Files\Microsoft Office\Office11\Winword.exe has a size of 11.7MB. Moreover, it relies on many other dll's, so in some sense the size is much larger, and of the same order of magnitude as the coding part of the human or mouse genomes. Of course it is hard to compare what a mouse does with what MS Word does, but certainly it is a routine task to write word processing software, whereas no one has succeeded in writing software that matches a mouse in its ability to process visual information, navigate across rough terrain, interact socially and so on. There is an overwhelming mismatch in apparent power between computer software and biological organisms, especially when you remember that organisms have to assemble themselves.

Of course, none of this is anything more than the very beginnings of the story, and none of it can count against the enormous weight of evidence for the basic truth of the theory of evolution, but nonetheless it is extremely striking and provocative and surely points to some very interesting things waiting to be discovered. To ignore this one would have to be defiantly incurious, or so obsessed with dissing creationists as to be blind to all other considerations.

Of course, if I say "it is interesting that system A is much more powerful than system B", you can respond by giving me a laundry list of ways in which system A is different from system B. But that's a pretty weak answer unless you can explain why these differences make A much more powerful. Especially when enormous numbers of highly paid and highly intelligent people are doing their best to improve system B, and still not managing to match system A.


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