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ID Versus Darwinian Reasoning

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In response to my previous post here, great_ape made the following comments:

On the one hand, we must concede–we should concede, at least–that it boggles the mind how observed biological complexity can emerge from such a inherrently blind trial and error approach (BWM) [blind watchmaker]. Then again, given the timescale involved, the sequence/mutational space involved, the geographic scale involved–I do not even rule out interplanetary scale–well, those factors are also difficult to fathom as well.

I have yet to see a compelling argument–beyond “gee wiz, that’s sure a lot of complexity to generate”–that has convinced me the RM+NS [random mutation plus natural selection] process is *not* capable of generating observed complexity. Thus, I default to uniformitarianism, which holds that the forces in the past are effectively the same as those we see occurring today (i.e. RM+NS).

There are some key issues in these observations that I thought deserved a new thread, so here goes.

ID proponents are often accused of reasoning as follows: “It looks way too complex to me to have evolved by naturalistic means, so it must have been designed.” This is the classic argument-from-ignorance-and-personal-incredulity objection.

But this objection doesn’t hold water. Design is inferred not from what we don’t know, but from what we do know. ID reasoning is an inference to the best explanation, based on what is known about the nature of information-rich systems and functionally integrated machinery, as well as the causal adequacy and capacity of known mechanisms.

Is it possible to rule out RM+NS, beyond a reasonable doubt, as causally adequate to produce what we see in living systems? I argue that, yes, it is possible, and a trend in cosmology illustrates why.

Not very many years ago it was assumed that the universe must be teeming with life, because there are billions of billions of stars, and undoubtedly more billions of billions of planets. Surely, with those kinds of astronomically huge numbers, there must be lots of life-permitting planets, just by chance. (Of course, even though no one has the faintest idea how life got started, it is just assumed that if a life-permitting planet exists, life will also exist on it.)

But this reasoning left out the other half of the equation: You have to get lots of things exactly right for a planet to be habitable. How can we estimate these odds? Admittedly, we can’t be precise, but we can make some calculations based on unreasonably optimistic assumptions and see where the numbers lead.

As it turns out, since the probabilities of getting various life-permitting factors right are multiplicative, the power of mathematical combinatorics quickly swamps the probabilistic resources of the universe, even with the unreasonably generous assumptions. This is beautifully illustrated in The Privileged Planet. Complex-life-permitting planets are almost certainly extremely rare, and it may turn out that our earth is even unique.

To get a feel for the power of combinatorics, consider the game of chess. There are approximately 10^120 ways to arrange chess pieces on a chess board, and approximately 10^80 legal chess positions that can be reached in actual play. This is an interesting number, because there are an estimated 10^80 subatomic particles in the universe.

This is on a chess board with 64 squares, starting with 32 chess pieces, many of which are removed during the course of play.

In light of this, consider the complexity of proteins, DNA, the molecular machinery of the cell, and the human mind, which can create symphonies and computers.

The wrong people are on the defensive in this debate, at least in academia. Normal, reasonable people figure all this stuff out intuitively, which is why 85% of them don’t buy the blind-watchmaker stuff.

Now consider blind-watchmaker Darwinian reasoning: We observe minor changes caused by random mutation and selection, and three billion years is a long, long time, so mutation and selection extrapolated over this long period of time ought to explain all the complexity and diversity we see in living systems.

There is no reason to assume that this extrapolation is valid. Once again, the equation has two sides: time and the number of tries (probabilistic resources), versus the multiplicative, combinatoric improbabilities that must be overcome.

Note that three billion years is 10^17 seconds. Make some unreasonably generous assumptions, and see where the numbers lead.

The blind watchmaker doesn’t stand a chance against the designer.

Just to get some perspective on "an infinite number:" an infinite number of monkeys would produce the complete works of Shakespeare an infinite number of times, wouldn't it? As well as an infinite number of copies of every other literary piece which has ever been written. (Great_Ape wrote, "An infinite number of monkeys with typewriters would accidently reproduce the the works of Shakespeare numerous times over.") As GilDodgen points out, there is an immeasureably spacious gap between "very large" and "infinite." Lutepisc
Dave took the words out of my mouth: “The numbers are nowhere near infinite nor beyond understanding.” The math is actually quite simple, and you can calculate an upper probability bound for the entire universe as follows: Take the number of subatomic particles in the universe (10^80) times the number of seconds in the universe (approximately 4.3 x 10^17) times the number of smallest units of time in a second (5.4 x 10^-44 second is known as the Planck time, the smallest unit of time) = 2.3 x 10^142 This means that if every particle in the universe, for the entire history of the universe, at the fastest rate possible (10^44 tries per second), tried to solve a problem by chance, and those 2.3 x 10^142 tries were not enough to solve the problem, then you can be certain that the problem cannot be solved by chance. Obviously, this is way overkill for almost all situations, but it offers an upper probability bound. Some mathematicians have proposed that any event of less than one chance in 10^50 be classified as a miracle (if it is not the product of design). Note that in the article referenced above by Scott (comment #6), the probability of forming a single 100-amino-acid protein by chance ranges from one chance in 10^65 to one chance in 10^125, depending on how many factors are taken into account. GilDodgen
Good point about personal incredulity Stu. One commentator made the following observation: Imagine that a mathematician came up with a new theorem but had not proven it. A colleague challenges the theorem, saying that it doesn’t make sense. The first mathematician replies, “Just because you are personally incredulous about my theorem doesn’t make it false!” Would we expect this argumentation to convince the mathematics community of the validity of the theorem, and to base a new branch of mathematics upon it? GilDodgen

In Christian Forums, I have argued with atheists as strongly as I can that scientific methods should be encouraged to detect the difference between things created on purpose and things created by accident. It seems to me that is what Bill Dembski is trying to do. No atheist has persuaded me the effort is futile. However, an argument occurred to me recently that now persuades me that the effort is futile. Here it is:

An infinite number of monkeys with typewriters would accidently reproduce the the works of Shakespeare numerous times over. When the works were created by Shakespeare, they clearly were a product of intelligent design, but when the same works were produced by monkeys, it was by accident. Small probability becomes meaningless when faced with "infinite" occurrences. It is true, that the universe, the age of the earth, the number of generations, individuals, cell divisions, etc., are not infinite, BUT the numbers are so huge that they may as well be infinite. The numbers are virtually infinite because we cannot persuasively quantify them, and they are so large that they are as mind-boggling as the concept of infinity. Like the concept of infinity and the monkeys pounding out the works of Shakespeare, the large numbers convert what would seem to be an infinitesimally small probability into a virtual certainty.

So, if improbability cannot be used, are there other characteristics that are likely to help us distinguish between ID and accident? Can we look at what scientists do in archeology and geology to find the answer? Again, I doubt it. Most of what archeologists and geologists conclude about intelligently designed artifacts is a result of our knowledge about man and his needs and methods. We will never be able to scientifically infer that similar needs and method apply to a designer of the universe or life. Such a designer probably has no needs and he,she, or it certainly seems to work in mysterious ways, not like our ways at all.

As an admirer of scientific methods and accomplishments, I crave evidence to support my beliefs. Hearsay found in ancient writings that could have been created to manipulate and control others must be corroberated by other evidence to be persuasive.

I hope someone can disabuse me of these depressing thoughts, but I am skeptical.


It is true, that the universe, the age of the earth, the number of generations, individuals, cell divisions, etc., are not infinite, BUT the numbers are so huge that they may as well be infinite. The numbers are virtually infinite because we cannot persuasively quantify them, and they are so large that they are as mind-boggling as the concept of infinity This is simply not true. The numbers or nowhere near infinite nor beyond understanding. There are more individually addressable storage locations on a cheap computer hard disk drive than there are are years in the history of the universe. I have no problem whatsoever dealing with numbers of that magnitude. One can easily calculate the volume of all the oceans on the earth, the number of microorganisms that can occupy that volume, their frequency of cellular division, the number of years they've had to do it, and the frequence of point mutations in their DNA. Before I made my first comment on this blog I did that and compared the result to the probability of finding any specific protein with hundreds of amino acid bases by trial and error. The result is that it's unlikely for just one protein. Then multiply that by the hundreds of interdependent proteins essential to the simplest possible cell capable of reproduction and it quickly becomes evident that chance alone cannot possibly have done it in the limited time & space available on the earth. Interdependency of a couple of hundred proteins is the key to how big the problem really is. The next step is considering whether the evolution of the first cell could have happened on a different planet and somehow found its way to the warm waters of a young earth. NASA has done considerable research into this and the result is known as the GHZ or galactic habitable zone. It turns out this is a narrow band in the galaxy and adds about 4 billion years to the time available for abiogenesis on a presumbly large but not terribly large number of earthlike planets hospitable for organic chemistry. Even then, it's still dubious as to whether those are sufficient resources. But that's not the main problem in unintelligent panspermia. The main problem is getting the primitive life from there to here. The odds of a planet that has evolved primitive life on it exploding and ejecting it at over the escape velocity of its sun and then a scrap of that managing to land on another water world is practically impossible because empty space is so very, very large in comparison to the gravity wells of stars and planets. So even if the first cell evolved somewhere else in the galaxy there's no reasonable way for it to get to the earth without intelligent direction. -ds SamCJ
Good comments Gil. I think that a Darwinist will still retreat to the statement that a rejection of Darwinian evolution is because of "personal incredulity". But what's wrong with an argument from personal incredulity anyway? If I find someone's proposed explanation for something to be incredulous, what is necessarily wrong with that? It can't always be due to my lack of imagination, it’s just as possible due to a bad explanation. It's up to the one making the proposition to go beyond my rational incredulity, my skepticism, and convince me of their argument, and change my inference to the best explanation. In the case of the proponents of Darwinism, it's up to them to show the truth of their explanation for evolution and not just make appeals to imagination. Stu Harris www.theidbookstore.com StuartHarris

"There is no reason to assume that this extrapolation is valid. Once again, the equation has two sides: time and the number of tries (probabilistic resources), versus the multiplicative, combinatoric improbabilities that must be overcome."

But there is no reason to assume that it is invalid either, just because its implications make you uncomfortable. Don't forget that life cannot be treated like an inanimate chess piece, eithter.

Excellent point. Science is supposed to be agnostic. Sadly, it has become a fortress built upon a foundation of atheism. This is no more healthy than it being built upon theistic foundation. Maybe less so because I really don't trust that atheists keep the betterment of the human condition in mind as they go about their lives. -ds skeptic
“Also remember that if you walk outside and begin recording things, such as the succession of makes of models of cars passing by … when you subsequently calculate the odds of witnessing the particular pattern you observed, it will be vanishingly small. But, of course, that *was* the pattern you observed.” Not again! This sounds just like our friend PeeZee. What are the odds of that? Lurker

There are several "head on" criticisms made by mathematicians, computer scientists, and the like. In fact there is a long history of criticisms and Dembski's reactions to them. If you are interested you can Google something like: Dembski criticisms responses. The process to fairly evaluate the evidence is lengthy as there is much vitriol to wade through. I would stick to the formal crticisms from academia, most of which have been published, and the actual responses from Dembski. Any third party commentary should be taken with a chunk of salt.

That paper of Meyer's addresses ET's inadequacy in explaining the origin of life. This is someting that most every scientist would agree with and something that Great_Ape admitted to. We know next to nothing about how life as we know it formed. We have no idea what other kinds of life may or may not be possible. There were some heady days decades ago when some thought they could unlock the secret, but reality checked arrogance and no one pretends to be able to understand it anymore. As duly noted, it is unfortunate that this reality has not finished trickling down and some basic texts still mention the M-U experiment. Where Meyer and the majority of scientists differ is his belief that intelligent or active design is necessary to explain life. Most scientists still put there money on there being a mechanistic explanation. In reality it is impossible to say with conviction who is right. We just do not know nearly enough,,, yet.

I've yet to see someone address Dembski's argument head on - it's not complexity per se that is at issue in biological explanations. It's specified complexity. And Dembski has shown at book-length that evolutionary algorithms (including the one putatively operating in nature [rm/ns]) are no better than random search at producing specified complexity. So the argument is not on the level of "gosh gee, uniformitarianism is the default" or "gee, that looks highly complex, it's designed." It's at the level of "this artifact corresponds to an event exhibiting specified complexity, therefore we have warrant to conclude the artifact was at least in part the product of telic processes." jaredl

What grape-ape needs to learn is that Natural Selection has no creative power whatsoever. It maintains the status quo and ensures extinction, ultimately. He/she also needs to get familiar with CSI (Complex Specified Information) and the massive influx of information required in producing biological novelty. He/she should chew on facts like the mind-numbing probabilistic challenge in the production of one single protein molecule of 100 amino acids and the incredibly hostile prebiotic conditions that would have prevented life from happening on the early earth, sans intelligence.

Forgive me if I seem like I'm out of patience with biologists who look at the gross anatomy of phyla and draw erroneous conclusions about how it all got here because they fail to read the fine print. This steamboat-era, pseudo-enlightenment, unscientific balderdash about "just add some water and warmth and viola! You dun got yerself life! Now let the unguided purposeless mechanisms do their thing and watch what happens...". So many unwarranted assumptions. So little time.

grape-ape, this is a good place to start your learning:


great_ape (from the other thread): "...I rather find the cosmos more elegant if He doesn’t find it necessary or desirable to intervene (at that level)" j

I am unclear whether I should address the math/statistics applicable to biological diversity being generated by RM+NS, or, instead, those applicable to life ever having being initiated to begin with. Previously, when trying to explain why I considered it plausible that RM+NS could generate the observed levels of biological complexity, I was accused of side-stepping the "hardest part" (i.e. the formulation of ribosomes, the first replicating cells, etc) in making my case for darwinism. Personally ,I consider that response a touch unfair since RM+NS is only meaningful in the context of existing ribosomes, cells, etc. And as ds anticipated, I would argue that these "origins" questions are generally outside the darwinian evolution debate as typically framed--particularly in relation to teaching the vast body of knowledge concerning organismal and molecular evolution. Life's Origin, is typically a small, speculative paragraph in the textbook. That's not to say that it isn't important, but as scientists, we typically like to dwell longer on the things we actually have some evidence for.

Biologists--and here I use the broadest sense of the term--are by and large concerned with conveying to students in *no uncertain terms* that there is ample evidence for common descent with modification, random mutation, natural selection, and that, along with speciation processes (an entire and fascinating subdiscipline in itself (surveyed rather well in Coyne & Orr's "Speciation" text from 2004) that these are, in all likelihood, sufficient explanation for the complexity and diversity of biological life. It is rare that scientists (those that I know, at least) speak of the origins of life with anything other than a tone of bemused speculation. Of course, there is always the inherrent working assumption that a nonteleological/nondesign (i.e. materialistic/naturalistic) explanation exists and should be sought. (This I hold to be the proper default working assumption at the very core of our natural science tradition, but that's an entirely different (and long) argument to make.)

Nevertheless, the philosopher in me acknowledges that we should remain open to having that naturalistic/materialistic assumption overturned by _exceptional and overwhelming_ evidence. Such evidence has not been presented thus far. In natural science courses, we entertain plausible naturalistic explanations for the origin of life, its subsequent evolution, and the observed diversity and complexity of life. This is what is proper in the spirit of our natural science tradition, and few are arguing that it has not been a fruitful approach. Darwinism and the associated naturalistic explanations for observed biodiversity are all we have that fit the bill. I have never and will never claim that they are unquestionably correct--that's simply not the way science works--only that they are consistent with the available data and that there are no naturalistic contenders viable enough to be taught beside it as competing theories.

So why not teach ID and other competing explanation alongside evolution and naturalistic origins? Personally, I don't believe we should be ruthlessly dogmattic about anything, Darwinism included. That said, there remain a number of good reasons not to introduce these as "competing theories" alongside darwininan evolution and naturalistic (chemical/biochemical) origins, in our science classes. 1) I don't think any of these theories have broken the "exceptional and overwhelming" evidence barrier that would justify our deviating from tradition and introducing teleological-based arguments in a natural science course. 2) ID brushes up so close to theological considerations--in those cases where it doesn't invoke theological questions directly--that it runs the risk of provoking religious dialogue in a venue where it would be counterproductive. 3) nontheologically-inspired versions of ID have their own inherrent problems. These I try to elucidate below at the same time as addressing the ribosome/firstcell/origin issue.

The following are what I consider to be the options concerning the origin and evolution of biological complexity (including ourselves). Please correct me if I missed anything as I am interested to learn if there are any other theories that are considered with any frequency.

1. Weak panspermia, as I understand the concept, is fine with me. Teach it as a possibility in conjunction with evolution. Heck, they may already be teaching it in some places. It's naturalistic, it's not implausible or essentially incompatible with current evidence. But as far as origins go, it only pushes the problem further back in time. Enter "strong panspermia." As I understand it, this argues--in line with ID folks--that the complexity of biology could not occur by a RM+NS process. The complexity of life is thought (if I understand correctly) to be an eternal component of an eternal universe or of an eternal series of finite universes. It simply always was. Somehow the bio-complexity is seeded anew in a universe despite the big bang and its associated "liquidation" of matter. Perhaps this occurs after the bang, from another universe, through a wormhole. Now I can't say for certain that didn't happen. But I'm not sure I could say it was an equal enough contender to include in the textbooks and classrooms alongside evolution just yet. Can you? It would make an interesting Star Trek episode, though.

2. Yet another: God designed the universe. Problem: Your God or mine? Proposed Resolutions: heated argument, peaceful and enlightening dialogue, physical violence. I leave it to you to assign probabilities to these. In any case, this doesn't seem to belong in a science class. I will, ofcourse, rethink my position if we begin discovering astrological bodies with large "Made by God" stamped in them. Short of that, I'd be pretty reluctant to open this can of worms in the classroom.
It also begs the question: how can life be too complex to occur on its own when, at the same time, you posit that an omniscient/omnipotent of inconceivable complexity can exist de facto without any explanation? Our students then descend into to medieval dungeons of metaphysics.. This leaves little time for learning the amino acid structures.

3. Another possibility: It wasn't God who created biological complexity, but rather some superior alien being or group of such beings. Can't say that it didn't happen. Again, it pushes the origin of complexity back. Presumably this being (or beings) is/are intelligent and complex... who designed them? Perhaps there was an eternal chain of such creative beings stretching back... Is this the sort of discussion we want to have in Biology 101? This was even be questionable as a Star Trek episode.

4. Another possibility: Not often considered, but somewhat fitting with the anthro-friendly nature of the physical universe... An incomprehensibly deep multiverse in which the ridiculously unlikely event of life originating and actually flourishing (and becoming somewhat intelligent) occurred... and we're living in it a branch of it that was conducive to...well...us. Throw in some weak panspermia to boot. It's naturalistic. It's interesting. Note that this scenario would be virtually indistinguishable from Design b/c seemingly "irreducibly complex" bio-systems might be found ...only nothing is inherrently irreducibly complex in this inconceivably large multiverse where pretty much everything happens somewhere or another. If additional evidence for the many-worlds take on quantum mechanics is found, we might be hearing more along these lines. Until then, though, we might have another good episode of star trek on our hands, but not appropriate Bio-101 material.

5. Finally, as the evil Darwinist propaganda machine would have you believe, our own humdrum lonely universe was vast enough, contained materials and processes (nuclear and chemical) enough, to kickstart life one or more times. Be it in an RNA world, a clay world--pick your primordial soup. After said event, this deceptively simplistic blind algorithm of RM+NS generated an incredible wealth of biodiversity. Much of it was subsequently annihilated by giant rocks falling from space. From the remnants, life triumphantly emerged and new diversity arose. Then came more rocks. And so on and so forth until you find us here today, strolling above layers of buried bones, occassionally casting nervous glances above for giant rocks. Now I've read several accounts saying this history of biological diversity was mathematically and/or statistically impossible to have occurred "by chance alone" BWM via RM+NS. DaveScott indicated in his post there wasn't enough time for the appropriate number mutations to occur, etc. I've yet to see those calculations done properly. There is a parallelism inherrent to the real universe that makes doing this analytically, with pen and paper, impossible (so far as I can tell.) (Several have made the mistake of ignoring one or more dimensions (e.g. spatial extension) As I've argued elsewhere here, our lack of knowledge concerning parameters and other facts, as well as the shear scale involved, makes computational simulation impossible for the forseeable future as well. Mutation rates and generation time vary considerably across taxa. And bacteria... As a meditation sometime, reflect on the masses of bacteria that have existed, each on their own little evolutionary trajectories, since the dawn of life. Even if you think your combinatoric calculations are adequately accounting for the actual density of gene-trees across the planet over the entire history of life (do you?), there are plenty of other parameter values you don't have a clue about (b/c I don't have them, because nobody has them). And there are fluctuations in those parameter values (e.g. mutation rates, population sizes, fitness landscapes) that aren't even tractable to calculate with analytic methods. So I'd encourage you to check your math. Once its convincing enough, perhaps it will provide that exceptional and overwhelming evidence that will convince people to allow teleological ID arguments to be taught side by side with naturalistic Darwinism in our science classes. (But perhaps not before it battles the naturalistic multiverse theory for a that priveledged spot...). My guess is that you won't convince the academics any time soon. Biology, unlike physics, has a historical component than is fundamentally interwoven with its diversity and notoriously difficult to express in mathematical terms. That is why we are so fond of modelling these things on the computer and then discussing at length why we don't trust the models.

(p.s. Also remember that if you walk outside and begin recording things, such as the succession of makes of models of cars passing by ... when you subsequently calculate the odds of witnessing the particular pattern you observed, it will be vanishingly small. But, of course, that *was* the pattern you observed. Certain ways of posing the combinatoric problem concerning evolution fall into pitfalls associated with singular historical events. I haven't the time to go into this further (or the expertise, honestly) but consider that we are *somewhere* in that vast combinatoric space, and *however* we got there--even via BWM--would seemly ludicrously improbable if we framed the question in certain ways. In much the same way that the course our personal lives have taken would be ridiculously improbable, our particular wardrobe is most certainly ridculously improbable. Darn near every aspect of the world around us would be ridiculously improbable. Something to consider.)

If by all that you mean to say that RM+NS is so well proven that the law of the land should require that it be taught in a vacuum devoid of criticism or contrary ideas then I say you're out of line. In order to gain that kind of cocksureness you're going to have to do more than just speculate that unpredictable mutations, through serendipity and natural selection over the course of deep time, accumulate to turn bacteria into baboons, create novel cell types, tissue types, organs, and body plans. The theory of gravity has the kind of predictability (inside practical bounds) that warrants uncritical acceptance. NeoDarwinian bacteria to baboon evolution doesn't even come close. I don't see anything constructive to further discussion as you aren't fooling anyone here and I'm sure no one here is going to change your thinking. An hasta la byebye is in order. Don't let the door hit you on the butt on your way out.-ds great_ape
Well stated, Gil. There is no reason to grant a default position to RM+NS. Further, for anyone who is willing to actually do the math, the combinatorial problem becomes very impressive very fast. I cannot comment on great_ape specifically, but I think this kind of approach is representative of general intellectual inertia: "I like the ideas the ID folks articulate, but unless I am indisputably forced to accept their position, I'll just stick with my old comfortable position -- I can demonstrate how reasonable I am being in the debate, but, importantly, I'll ultimately play it safe and stick with the popular majority crowd." Eric Anderson
From great_ape: "Thus, I default to uniformitarianism, which holds that the forces in the past are effectively the same as those we see occurring today (i.e. RM+NS)." In light of general truths presented by GilDodgen and others, what bearing does a default to past dogma have on this argument? RM+NS has already been proven wrong - and not by ID proponents alone. To all those "great_ape"s out there: wake up and smell the roses! Nicely done, Gil. dougmoran
I think Great Ape nullifies his own argument. There is no evidence that rm +ns is working in the present except in some very narrow areas. According to Neo Darwinism, changes should accumulate over time and there is no reason why any one change should completely eliminate what preceded it. Therefore there should be a large number of instances of progressions of one species to another in the world today. But there are none. Hence according to Great Ape "I default to uniformitarianism, which holds that the forces in the past are effectively the same as those we see occurring today (i.e. RM+NS" cannot exist.) jerry

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