Recently I came across a fascinating biography of Lord Kelvin over on the creationist Website, crev.info. That article gave me the idea for an interesting hypothetical question, which I’d like to put to evolutionary biologists and other defenders of Darwinism. If Professors Jerry Coyne, Larry Moran or P. Z. Myers want to weigh in, I’d be delighted.
Darwin’s biggest problem in the nineteenth century: there wasn’t enough time for his theory of evolution to work
First, a little bit of background. Charles Darwin’s theory of natural selection had numerous critics in the nineteenth century. By far the most formidable of these critics was Lord Kelvin (1824-1907) (pictured above, portrait by Sir Hubert von Herkomer, Glasgow Museum, image courtesy of Wikipedia). I’d like to quote an excerpt from the biography of Lord Kelvin at crev.info:
Thomson applied his expertise in physics and thermodynamics to argue that the earth could not be as old as Darwin required for evolution. Darwin needed many millions of years to produce a man from a “warm little pond” of chemicals. Janet Browne explains the seriousness of Thomson’s challenge, and describes how combatting anti-Biblical claims (and bad science) was not a new avocation for the physics professor:
While working on this fifth edition [of The Origin of Species], Darwin also encountered major intellectual problems over the age of the earth. William Thomson (the future Lord Kelvin) had asserted on the basis of experimental physics that the earth was not sufficiently old to have allowed evolution to have taken place. To some extent, Thomson was tilting at Lyell—he had never liked Lyell’s endless geological epochs stretching back into eternity. Earlier on, he had attacked Lyell’s gradualism and uniformitarianism, saying that geologists ignored the laws of physics at their peril and that the earth was much younger than usually thought….
In 1866, thoroughly frustrated by what he regarded as pig-headed obtuseness from the Lyellian-Darwinian fraternity, and propelled by anti-evolutionary, Scottish Presbyterian inclinations, Thomson launched a vigorous polemic against the lot of them, stating that 100 million years was all that physics could allow for the earth’s entire history. As Darwin noted, Thomson intimated that the earth had a beginning and would come to a sunless end.
(Browne, Charles Darwin: The Power of Place (Princeton, 2002, p. 314; emphasis added).
… It was not that Thomson himself believed the earth was as old as 100 million years. But he was convinced that physics itself set an upper limit on the age of the earth that falsified Lyell’s and Darwin’s claims.
Browne next describes the hubbub this caused in the Darwin fraternity. Lyell tried to answer Thomson’s challenge in the tenth edition of his Principles of Geology. Huxley, in what Browne calls one of his “froth and fury” speeches, tried to claim that it didn’t matter, because all Darwin would have to do was speed up the rate of variation. “That,” she claims, “was just what Darwin could not do”—
In the first edition of the Origin of Species he had calculated that the erosion of the Sussex Weald must have taken some 300 million years, a breathtaking length of time that, taken with the rest of the stratigraphic table, provided ample opportunity for gradual organic change. But Darwin’s calculations were wrong. The actual time was much shorter. “Those confounded millions of years,” he had complained to Lyell and deleted the entire example.
So no wonder that “Thomson’s views of the recent age of the world have been for some time one of my sorest troubles.” The 100 million years that Thomson allowed was not nearly long enough for the exceeding slow rates of change Darwin envisaged in nature. The fifth edition of the Origin bore witness to his discomfort. Rattled, he tried various ways to speed up evolution. He was aware that he was becoming more environmentalist, more Lamarckian, as it were, and producing a poor-spirited compromise. He roped in George [his son], with his Cambridge mathematics, to make alternative calculations, telling him that the age of the earth was the single most intractable point levelled against his theory during his lifetime.
Five years later Darwin was still protesting that Thomson’s shortened time-span was “an odious spectre.”
(Ibid., pp. 314–315, emphasis added).
Respected geologists, like Archibald Geike, James Croll and Clarence King, confirmed Thomson’s calculations. The evolutionists were up a creek and running scared…
Thomson kept up the attack. To make matters worse for the Darwinians, he calculated a maximum age for the sun, based on calculations of energy due to gravitational potential energy, resulting in a sun far too young for their requirements. He demonstrated irrefutably that the laws of thermodynamics dictated that the universe and the sun and the earth had a beginning, requiring a Creator, and would come to an utter end – a heat death – barring a supernatural intervention. Darwinians could not assume an infinitely old universe…
Darwin died in 1882, never finding a way out of this vexing corner Thomson had put him in. Browne wraps up this episode, saying, “Decades of continuing debate over the age of the earth were resolved only with the discovery of radioactivity early in the twentieth century, that, broadly speaking, allowed the earth to be as old as evolutionists needed it to be” (Ibid., p. 315, emphasis added). In addition, the age of the sun became extendable to billions of years when thermonuclear reactions were discovered. Darwinians breathed a collected sigh of relief…
…Kelvin fought like a gentleman. Even his adversaries respected the fact that he never became personally vindictive. Even “Darwin’s bulldog” Thomas Huxley, praised Kelvin as a gentleman, a scholar, and a formidable opponent: he called him “the most perfect knight who ever broke a lance.”
But a gentleman can be a warrior, too. Known for his self-confidence, Kelvin held the Darwinists’ feet to the fire of scientific rigor and didn’t let them get by with mere storytelling.
My question for neo-Darwinian evolutionists
So here’s my question. Scientists currently set the age of the Earth at 4.54 billion years (with an accuracy of plus or minus 1%), and the age of the universe at 13.798 billion years. However, Scientology founder Lafayette Ronald Hubbard (1911-1986) (pictured above in 1950; public domain image, courtesy of Wikipedia) proposed a much longer timescale: in his chronology, Incident I, which may have corresponded to the beginning of the universe, took place four quadrillion years ago. That’s about 300,000 times longer than the currently accepted age of the universe, and nearly one million times longer than the currently accepted age of the Earth. (I should add that I personally accept the modern scientific estimate, just as I accept common descent.) So here’s my hypothetical question:
Imagine that a flaw is discovered in currently accepted methods of estimating the age of the Earth and of the universe. Imagine that Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard’s chronology is vindicated, and that the universe turns out to be 4 quadrillion years old. That’s 4,000,000,000,000,000 years. Neo-Darwinian evolutionists now have one million times as much time to play around with than before. On the basis of modern evolutionary theory, can you show me why this would be too much time? And can you set an upper limit to how much time evolutionary theory will allow for the evolution of life on Earth?
In an earlier post of mine, titled, At last, a Darwinist mathematician tells the truth about evolution, I quoted from a talk given by Professor Gregory Chaitin, a world-famous mathematician and computer scientist, on 2 May 2011, titled, Life as Evolving Software. In that talk, Professor Chaitin describes a mathematical problem he had with his toy model of Darwinian evolution: it seemed to require too much time. He used a Busy Beaver (BB) function, and he modeled it using three scenarios: (i) intelligently guided evolution, which reaches fitness BB(N) in time N, which is the fastest possible time; (ii) Darwinian evolution, which requires a time of between N^2 and N^3 to reach the same level of fitness; and (iii) a blind search, which reaches fitness BB(N) in time 2^N. At first, Chaitin was pleased that Darwinian evolution performed so much better than a blind search. But he continues:
But I told a friend of mine … about this result. He doesn’t like Darwinian evolution, and he told me, “Well, you can look at this the other way if you want. This is actually much too slow to justify Darwinian evolution on planet Earth. And if you think about it, he’s right… If you make an estimate, the human genome is something on the order of a gigabyte of bits. So it’s … let’s say a billion bits – actually 6 x 10^9 bits, I think it is, roughly – … so we’re looking at programs up to about that size [here he points to N^2 on the slide] in bits, and N is about of the order of a billion, 10^9, and the time, he said … that’s a very big number, and you would need this to be linear, for this to have happened on planet Earth, because if you take something of the order of 10^9 and you square it or you cube it, well … forget it. There isn’t enough time in the history of the Earth … Even though it’s fast theoretically, it’s too slow to work.” He said, “You really need something more or less linear.” And he has a point…
So there we have it. The amount of time currently available for life to evolve is of the order of time N (billions of years), but according to Chaitin’s toy model, Darwinian evolution should take at least time N^2, or quintillions of years. That fact troubles Chaitin, and it should. But at least he has the honesty to admit there is a problem.
Another honest evolutionist is Dr. Eugene Koonin, whom I wrote about recently in my post, Hoyle’s fallacy? I think not. Dr. Koonin is a Senior Investigator at the National Center for Biotechnology Information. Koonin is the author of a peer-reviewed article, The Cosmological Model of Eternal Inflation and the Transition from Chance to Biological Evolution in the History of Life, Biology Direct 2 (2007): 15, doi:10.1186/1745-6150-2-15. In that paper, he uses a toy model – which he admits is not realistic, but which is intentionally over-optimistic in its estimates of how it would take for life to originate on Earth – and concludes that even in a region the size of the observable universe (which he refers to as an O-region, or observable region), the chances of life emerging within the time available are vanishingly remote:
In other words, even in this toy model that assumes a deliberately inflated rate of RNA production, the probability that a coupled translation-replication emerges by chance in a single O-region is P < 10-1018. Obviously, this version of the breakthrough stage can be considered only in the context of a universe with an infinite (or, at the very least, extremely vast) number of O-regions.
So I would like to ask the evolutionists again: what would you say if you had one million times more times to play around with? Would your response be “That’s wonderful!” or “No, thank you, that’s too much time”?
My point about setting an upper limit to how much time evolutionary theory will allow for the evolution of life on Earth is a vitally important one. It’s no use having a scientific theory that says you need more than 100 million years (say), if that theory is unable to come up with even a ballpark estimate for how long evolution should take, from the first living thing to the life-forms we observe on Earth today. Any theory of origins that could cheerfully accept billions, trillions or even quadrillions of years for the age of the Earth, doesn’t deserve to be called a proper scientific theory.
N.B. In the interests of clarity, my main question to Darwinian evolutionists is: how much time do you think it should take to get from the earliest life-forms to life-forms like ourselves? Or more generally, how long should it take for complex animals to evolve from the first organisms? If the neo-Darwinian theory of evolution is a scientific theory, it should be able to calculate that – at least to the nearest order of magnitude (e.g. billions of years, but not tens of billions). Of course, the question of how long it should take for life to evolve from simple chemicals is also of interest, but of lesser relevance, as one might argue that it falls outside the province of biology proper.
So the ball’s in your court, Darwinists. Who will rise to the challenge?