Sunday, January 27, 2008

Arguments X - The Odds

OK, let's talk about odds, because that seems to be a recurring theme in arguments against Evolution. Now let me be straight, just because someone is arguing against evolution, that doesn't mean they are in any way supporting Creationism or Intelligent Design -- but sometimes they think that. I don't. I see them as two separate discussions, as you would know if you have been reading my blog.

So the odds. The argument goes something like an email sent to me by Barbara Price:

Perhaps you can tell what the odds against humans forming by “random mutations" is?
Then tell me the odds of this happening with 150 million living creatures?
On a planet that is located in just the right distance from the right type of star?
I suggest that you see the video Privileged Planet.
If, after answering the above questions accurately, you still believe that we are the result a chance happening, I suggest that you go to Vegas. You will find the odds of getting rich at the roulette table very believable.

Not sure why the email address was from Barbara Price, but the letter was signed by Dan, but that was neither here nor there.

The basic bottom line here is a typical argument from personal incredulity. In other words someone refuses to accept evolution as an explanation so it must not be true. Extended that if evolution isn't true, how do I justify that to myself -- well let's concoct some explanation that makes evolution not possible and then I can prove it to myself. This is also a form of tautology, but again arguments from logical fallacy are really a side note in this discussion.

Let's talk odds, what are the odds of life forming? I'll be honest with you, I have no idea! What are the odds of non-living matter forming into living and reproducible matter. Oh sorry, the main hypothesis of Abiogenesis says that nonliving matter may have been reproducing first and then the living part came later. But whatever the hypothesis, the odds aren't something I feel anyone can calculate. Here's the good part, I don't have to! Here is the one logical part of the whole odds argument folks like Barbara/Dan here forget. It doesn't matter how long the odds were, it happened! Even if Abiogenesis was the most far fetched, illogical, highest odds concept in the universe. I don't care if Las Vegas would bet the entire planet against it happening. The truth is, it happened! Odds are irrelevant because as low as the odds might be, they can still happen! I've drawn to an inside royal flush and got it -- talk about long odds!

William Dembski likes to throw out odds for various biological events, but his numbers haven't made it past the giggle test. I mean he loves to spout off of the odds of something like a bacterial flagellum appearing all at once and fully intact, ready to do it's motor-like job. But evolutionary theory has explained that parts of the flagellum existed previously and had a different function. When you take that into account, the odds drop down to something even he says are reasonable. Of course he bases his work on Michael Behe's work of irreducible complexity, so you know he will never admit that something came into being over a long period of time and as pieces and parts.

The other parts of the odds argument usually being out how slim the idea that human life could have formed at all. They point to things like a single evolutionary change and say the odds of that change happening are astronomical. Here is the other area their argument falls flat. Is there something about the human form that is so perfect you think evolution was heading in this direction on purpose? Touching the metaphysical wine a bit I think. So what if a specific change occurred and that is the change that propagated throughout a population. There is nothing that says that it is the best change, only a change. So if different evolutionary changes were made, life could be very different than it is today. But it would still be life. Someday we might find life on another planet, intelligent or not. We might find life that looks and acts very different than we do. Are they not life ? Or will our belief system relegate them to some lesser-life category? You see the odds are again meaningless because things could very well have happened a different way. Even most doctors agree we are still evolving to walking upright and many of our changes are still more adapted to being less on our feet.

BTW, if you watched the video he was talking about, it's another red herring. The number 150,000,000 is supposedly the number it would take to have a large enough gene pool to be able to reproduce to what we have today. He asks how 150 million creatures could have all mutated to DNA all at the same time and I guess all in the same geological area. Of course his argument doesn't recognize that DNA came well before the need for such a large gene pool. In fact if the theory is correct, RNA and DNA were formed before multi-cellular organisms. So again his odds argument is meaningless.

OK, so to me any discussion of odds is irrelevant. The odds may be long, but under evolutionary theory they aren't as bad as Dembski and company want you to think. And when you factor in a time frame of millions and billions of years, the odds aren't so slim at all. Let us also not forget that evolution is going on today. In a few thousand years we might not recognize the human race. It certainly would be interesting to see if we are still having this argument then.


  1. Sorry Ted, but you of all people should know the difference between "Micro" evolution and "Macro" evolution. No one has observed "Macro" evolution at work. The brilliant athiests who discount God can only tack on a bunch of Zero's (i.e. billions of years) and proclaim "it works." Just add time. To observe all the creatures of this world and think that somehow it came about from a "big bang" takes more faith than I can muster up... sorry.
    Eric Reinhold

  2. My problem isn't definitional, but usage. Micro-evolution describes small changes, usually within a species. But the mechanisms are the same when you are talking speciation, which is macro-evolution. Using it to divide evolution into two different points of view is disingenuous, it is all evolution! There is ample evidence of speciation in Paleontology, evolutionary developmental biology, comparative genomics and genomic phylostratigraphy. So when you say no one has observed it, you are talking about in a lab. So what? All science isn't about labs! Enough of evolution itself has been replicated in a lab and speciation is consistent with the evidence of many scientific disciplines, I have no trouble with it.

    I see the divide as artificial and designed as a way to market disbelief! The changing arguments from Creationists and Intelligent Design proponents is just more marketing without any science of their own.

    I do take exception to you "brilliant atheists" comment. Most biologists I know are devout and deeply religious. Yet, they have no trouble with Evolution on any scale. 11,000 Christian Clergy signed a letter supporting Evolution and the teaching of evolution to our young! Are you telling me they are not believers?

    You are helping the Discovery Institute with their marketing because you are buying into another artificial dichotomy that either you believe in God or you accept science. I completely disagree with that!