We write to rebut the conclusions of a recently published paper in the Journal of Theoretical Biology (Thorvaldsen and Hössjer, 2020). The central claim of this paper is that because biological systems are complex then they must be fine-tuned. This inference is flawed and is not supported by the evidence.
What does this paper contribute to our understanding of theoretical biology? The primary claim of Thorvaldsen and Hössjer is that protein complexes, molecular motors, and biological networks are not random. This is true – in a mathematical sense – but is not a new discovery. What they claim to be novel is the conclusion that the existence of these specific systems amongst the space of all possible systems is so rare as to only possibly exist by ‘fine-tuning’ – a proxy for intelligent design. That components of living systems – or systems themselves – are exceedingly rare does not suggest agency or intent. Furthermore, irreducible complexity ignores the idea that evolution and natural selection act on a pool of variation: any number of individuals within the pool will not pass on their genes because their specific complement of protein complexes and cellular networks do not accomplish the necessary functions for life to continue. Hence, neither fine-tuning nor intelligent design is required when sample spaces are viewed through the lens of evolutionary dynamics.
Notably, the authors of this paper list “Intelligent Design” as a keyword and repeatedly return to the idea of irreducible complexity, a hallmark of creationism. These ideas have been repeatedly debunked in the past. In the words of Carl Sagan: “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence”, a threshold that is not met in this paper. Large sample spaces do not imply biological systems are ‘fine-tuned’Joseph Lachance, Corinne N.Simonti, Joshua S.Weitz https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jtbi.2020.110457
Karsten Pultz writes from Denmark to respond:
The recent rebuttal of Hössjer and Thorvaldsen’s paper in JTB promotes the view that since we have a pool of variation and the mechanism of natural selection, we don’t need to infer that the fine tuning in biological systems came about through intelligent agency.
This is nothing but a “natural selection-of-the-gaps argument”, – we don’t know how fine tuning arose, therefore natural selection did it.
If the authors of this extremely short rebuttal applied the same rigorous mathematical methods to their view as Thorvaldsen and Hössjer did to theirs, we would all realize which explanation is best supported by the evidence. Choosing an inference to the best explanation can only be done if both sides of this issue are treated the same way.
The problem with the rebuttal is this. The pool of variation which natural selection can act upon is very small. First the overall mutation rate is extremely low; that’s why species are stable. Second, the vast majority of mutations are deleterious, leaving natural selection with not a pool, but a tiny puddle of beneficial variations. Third, recent research done by Michael Behe reveals that those variations are caused by loss of information and are therefore not adding new functions to an organism, hence not on their way to building complex fine tuned functional systems
As long as the opponents of ID do not demonstrate, using math, that random mutation and natural selection provide the required probabilistic resources for the fine tuning of biological systems, they have not given us a science-based rebuttal. What they offer is just a “because we say so” rebuttal.
Now the three points above for which there exist mathematical quantifications ought to be addressed by the critics of Hössjer and Thorvaldsen to show that mathematically the evidence rather supports random variation and natural selection as causal explanation for the fine tuning of biological systems.
The rebuttal did not do that, it simply provided a natural selection-of-the-gaps argument. It simply states that because we have a pool of variation and the mechanism of natural selection, we don’t need intelligent agency. How is this different from saying that because we don’t know how fine tuning arose it must have been God who did it? If you think about it; the saying that extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence can just as well (in my eyes even better) be applied to the view that natural selection is sufficient causal explanation for the fine tuning of biological systems.
It is stated that components of living systems – or systems themselves – are exceedingly rare does not suggest agency or intent. This is sort of true, probabilities do not in themselves provide evidence, but that is only superficially speaking. If it can be shown that random mutations provide sufficient probabilistic resources for fine tuning to arise that way, we have evidence to back up the hypothesis of unguided evolution. If on the other hand it can be shown that the probabilistic resources simply not are there, which I believe is what Thorvaldsen and Hössjer have done, we can rule out unguided evolution as the causal explanation for the irreducibly complex systems.
All empirical evidence we have access to, the world of manmade machinery, suggests that complex fine tuned purposeful machinery only can arise from intelligent agency. This fact makes the claim of neoDarwinism the extraordinary claim, namely that an unguided process can produce irreducible complex machinery. Hössjer and Thorvaldsen have shown that getting the finely tuned systems is out of reach for random processes to achieve, and hence shown that the extraordinary claim of neodarwinists is most likely wrong, leaving us with the only other causal option – intelligent design.
We are told that the idea of irreducible complexity is the hallmark of creationism. Well then, every engineer must be a creationist because IC is not a phenomenon restricted to biological systems, it is a feature of all systems which have multiple different parts that are precisely fitted together to acquire function. IC is a fact in all manmade machinery and Behe’s great accomplishment was that he could point to the the same properties in the world of biology as those which had been recognized in engineering since the dawn of time.
IC is an undeniable fact; the question is therefore not whether it exists or not, but whether it can arise via random mutation and natural selection. Hössjer and Thorvaldsen have provided mathematical evidence for this being very unlikely. We now need to see the neoDarwinists using the same approach to show that the probabilistic resources actually exist for natural selection to build those finely tuned systems.
Regarding JTB’s disclaimer, the call for retraction by Retraction Watch, and the above mentioned rebuttal, it is worth mentioning that three great mathematicians Newton, Maxwell and Planck all adhered to the view that the universe and life were products of intelligent design. I think we can rule out the possibility that there would have been called for their works to be retracted.
It should also be considered that in his book Der Teil und das Ganze, Werner Heisenberg expresses his own and also Niels Bohrs’ doubt that random mutations could have produced any of the complex biological systems. Heisenberg wrote: so ist es doch immer noch schwer zu glauben, dass so komplizierte Organe wie etwa das menschliche Auge nur durch solche zufälligen Änderungen allmählich entstanden sind. – Thus it is still difficult to believe that complex organs like the eye could arise gradually solely through random changes. Bohr adds that while natural selection obviously occurs it is the idea that new species come about by random changes, which is very hard to imagine, even if this is the only way science can explain it.
Taking into account these five giants’ views on intelligent design and evolution, it seems to me that it is not the claims of Hössjer and Thorvaldsen which require extraordinary evidence, it’s the neodarwinian claims that are extraordinary. Let us therefore see a real rebuttal where the neoDarwinian claims are being backed up by the extraordinary (mathematical) evidence scientists like Heisenberg, Bohr— and by the way also von Neumann— would very much have liked to see.
See also: That notorious ID paper was the one most downloaded from the journal… Yeh, the Banned in Boston effect. Eventually, people, we are going to have to start rewarding the Darwinians for banning and persecuting advocates of design in nature. Look, guys, it’s only fair. Mediocrities steam themselves into near oblivion to destroy the idea and their efforts only fan the flames. Sadly, all we wanted was a serious discussion. We never asked them to be Roman candles.