Can Natural Selection Defy the Odds? Not When They’re This Long.
|June 8, 2011||Posted by Barry Arrington under Intelligent Design|
Alan Prendergast has this story in Westword about Robert Hannum, a professor of “applied probability” at the University of Denver. Recently the management of a casino hired Professor Hannum to investigate a roulette player whom they suspected might be cheating. The house has a huge mathematical advantage in roulette, which is why the casino suspected something other than random chance was involved when the player parlayed a few thousand dollars into over $1.4 million.
Professor Hannum crunched the numbers, however, and told the casino that while the player’s run was very unlikely (about an 80:1 shot), it was not so unlikely as to suggest cheating. And sure enough, over the next few gaming sessions the player blew his entire $1.4 million stack.
What was the key assumption underlying the casino management’s request of Professor Hannum? They assumed that some events are just too improbable reasonably to attribute them to the interaction of random chance and the physical laws of nature working on the roulette wheel (i.e., “physical necessity”), and and if an event is not caused by the interaction of chance and necessity, the most likely cause of the event is design by an intelligent agent. In the particular case of gaming “design by an intelligent agent” goes by the name of “cheating.” Finally, the very fact they hired Professor Hannum suggests they understood that design leaves behind indicia that can be sussed out objectively.
Consider an example from poker. Suppose a poker dealer deals himself 13 royal flushes in hearts in a row in a five card game. The odds of this happening are easy to calculate. They are about 2.74^-71. To put that number into perspective, the dealer could deal the same 13 hands to every atom in the universe, and it is less than even money that any atom would receive that same series of hands. Conclusion: It is not, as a matter of strict logic, impossible for random chance to result in 13 royal flushes in a row, but the odds of that happing are so low that the inference to design is overwhelming.
Now the odds of the information content of even the simplest strand of DNA forming though pure random chance are even less than the odds of dealing 13 royal flushes in a row. Yet Neo-Darwinian evolution (NDE) theorists routinely discount the design inference. How can this be?
It seems to me that NDE proponents have two responses to this question. First, they inform us that when it comes to evolution, chance is only half of the equation. Just as with the roulette wheel, the other half of the equation is physical necessity. And, NDE proponents go on to say that NDE has a force of nature working for it that roulette players do not — natural selection. Natural selection, they say, sorts though all the randomness and creates specifications, such as the information content of DNA, that only appear to be designed by an intelligent agent.
Natural selection is, of course, a real force of nature, as demonstrated by the development of drug resistance by the malaria microbe through purely Darwinian processes. But, as Michael Behe has convincingly demonstrated, the power of natural selection is limited. Natural selection can provide a selective advantage by degrading a genome, as it does in the malaria example. But its power to BUILD a complex genome has never been demonstrated in the laboratory. In fact, the laboratory has shown as that over countless trillions of reproductive events, natural selection has NOT created complex new additions to the genome.
When Darwin observed the beaks of Galapagos finches, he was observing small changes in an organism’s phenotype (i.e., the organism’s body plan) that gave the organism a selective advantage and thereby increased its predominance in the population. From this observation Darwin made an inference that has literally changed the world. He inferred that the same process was responsible for creating finches in the first place. Obviously, Darwin did not observe this process create finches. He reasoned, however, that a process that could create one small change in a population of organisms could create other small changes, and over time, those changes would accumulate, and when sufficient changes had accumulated over a long enough time, an entirely new species would emerge. This entirely natural process, Darwin reasoned, was responsible for the creation of all life, from the first single-celled organism on though to human beings themselves.
The important thing always to keep in mind is this: “Darwin inferred . . .” Again, Darwin did not observe one species morphing into another through the process of natural selection. The finches remained finches. They did not change into another kind of bird, much less another kind of species altogether. Nor has anyone since Darwin observed a species morph into another.
The main point is that the power of natural selection to create large, as opposed to small, changes in the genotype and the phenotype of organisms remains, to this day, an inference from the data, not the data itself. If any NDE proponent commenting on this post disputes this assertion, I invite him or her to cite a single example of one species being observed changing into another since Origin of Species was published in 1859.
This gets me back to our discussion of probability. As I said, NDE proponents assume that natural selection has the power to beat the odds and create, for example, highly complex and specified strands of DNA, the creation of which is beyond the power of mere chance. But since no one has ever observed natural selection create complex changes in a strand of DNA (much less create the strand of DNA from scratch in the first place), how can NDE proponents be so dead certain of the staggering, almost God-like powers of creation they attribute to natural selection? One would think they would be more modest in their claims for a process that has never actually been observed. Instead, they bombastically assert that their theory has the same epistemological standing as the theory of gravity.
And what happens when someone fails to bow at the altar of NDE? Well, this brings me to the NDE proponents’ second response that I mentioned above, which I call the “shut up and sit down” response. As I noted above, NDE proponents have inferred (as opposed to observed) from the data the vast creative powers of natural selection. Sadly, the more intellectually strident among them suggest that this is the ONLY allowable inference that can be made from the data. Why is this the only inference allowed?
Because, for those who worship at the altar of materialism, the creative power of natural selection is true as a matter of simple logic before we even get to the data. Indeed, there is no need to even look at the data, because the data are irrelevant. The metaphysics is what matters, and the metaphysics leads inexorably to the inference that NDE through natural selection or something very like it is true.
An unbiased review of the data might suggest there are substantial observational difficulties with NDE, not the least of which is the fossil record, which is characterized NOT by the gradual accumulation of small changes Darwin’s theory predicts, but by sudden emergence and stasis, exactly the opposite of what Darwin’s theory suggests should be the case. But, as I said, the data are irrelevant. This is why when the data do not fit the theory NDE proponents blame the data, not the theory. In other words, if the data do not fit the theory, so much the worse for the data. In the case of the fossil record, for example, no NDE proponent denies the data, on the whole, run counter to the theory. Instead, they say that even after 150 years of development, the record is far too incomplete to make any firm conclusions. In other words, even after 150 years, the problem is with the fossil record, not the theory.
And if an ID proponent stands up and says, “Wait a minute. There is another inference that can be drawn from the existence of specified complexity in DNA and the irreducibly complex structures we observe in all living things. In fact, the most plausible inference is that both the specified complexity and the irreducible complexity are designed.” In discussions of this sort between the two camps the NDE proponents invariable get around to saying something on the order of “IDiot! Shut up and sit down. Don’t you know that under our materialist assumptions, the truth of natural selection is actually derived as a matter of logic, and therefore any assertion that denies that truth is quite literally absurd.”
Never mind that, as I and others have demonstrated, ID theory works perfectly well even given materialist assumptions. NDE proponents insist that it cannot. Never mind that an argument (such as the creative power of natural selection) that rests on an unspoken metaphysical assumption that assumes the conclusion of the argument is not very satisfying. Sit down and shut up IDiots. We have rigged the game so that you can never win.
The history of ideas has shown, however, that strategies like this, while than can win in the short run, can never win in the long run.