I’m unfamiliar with the concepts presented by Sanford. But, as a supporter of design, here’s a brief summary of my understanding regarding biological information and evolution.
Information meeting the following three criteria is an indicator of Design.
(1) Should be in digital format. That is, digital information.
(2) The digital string must encode a specific function. I’m denoting the specific function encoded by this string as ‘x’. The collection of all strings that can encode ‘x’ should constitute a minute fraction within the total combinatorial space of strings.
(3) It must be the relative arrangement of discrete units within the string that imparts upon its function and no natural processes known to us should direct/bias the arrangement of individual units towards function. Any arrangement of units caused by natural processes must be random w.r.t the function ‘x’
I’m calling the information that meets the above three criteria as ‘FDI’ (short for Functional Digital Information). FDI is an indicator of Design. All digital strings that satisfies the other two criteria are examples of FDI.
However, an important point has to be considered. I’ll illustrate that point with an example. Imagine a computer program capable of generating meaningful English text from user-input letters, effectively creating new digital information. This program is an example of FDI and hence the product of direct and deliberate action of a designing intelligence. However, the generated English texts, while they may also be FDI, do not require the direct intervention of a designing intelligence.
Similarly, when contemplating the origin of new genetic information in the history of life, there is no necessity to invoke design in every instance. Pre-existing informational guidance can lead to the emergence of new genetic information. Cells inherently possess the capacity to create genomic changes, particularly in response to environmental stress. Genomic changes may be actively generated by cellular processes or may arise as an emergent property of complex multi-molecular interactions during stressful conditions. I’ve previously discussed some of these inherent mechanisms that demonstrate how organisms are designed to evolve. What is the creative potential of evolution mediated by built-in mechanisms? Can they produce complex features such as bacterial flagella, photosynthetic machinery or Cambrian body plans? At present, we lack empirical evidence to affirm this. Even if future studies demonstrates such potential, it would still be consistent with the Intelligent Design theory.
In essence, the question ‘can evolution create new genetic information?’ is incomplete. The question a design proponent should ask is ‘can evolution create ‘x’ in the absence of any built-in mechanisms?’
For that, the debate should be focused on a [hypothetical] period in life’s history when these built-in mechanisms were absent: the [hypothetical] evolution of a primitive self-replicating system that would eventually give rise to a modern-type cell. That is, here ‘x’ stands for first modern-type cells. Can evolution generate the information that encode ‘x’ without the aid of these built-in mechanisms? Zero emperical data to say “yes”. I call this problem the “evolutionary kick off conundrum”.
By “modern-type cell,” I mean a cell that encodes its genetic information in the DNA molecule, with gene expression orchestrated by a translation machinery involving ribosomes. All extant life forms serve as illustrations of modern-type cells. Even the microfossil signatures dating back approximately 4 billion years (such as stromatolites and hematite structures) resemble those produced by modern bacteria.
Now, let’s evaluate each of the above three criteria.
(1) In a modern-type cell, genetic information is primarily encoded in DNA as digital data in the form of sequences of nucleotides. Therefore, it constitutes digital information. The same applies to RNA & proteins.
(2) As previously stated, ‘x’ corresponds to first modern-type cells. The exact fraction of sequences that encode ‘x’ hasn’t been experimentally determined. Nevertheless, we do know that sequences encoding specific catalytic proteins larger than the average size are exceedingly rare in the sequence space. Given that a multitude of such sequences is needed to encode ‘x’, we can reasonably deduce that this fraction is infinitesimal.
(3) The impartation of function stems from the relative arrangement of nucleotides, and no known natural or non-intelligent causes can direct or bias this arrangement toward the function ‘x’.
All three criteria are met and therefore any sequences encoding ‘x’ serves as an example of FDI and evidence for the activity of a designing intelligence.