Skeptical Inquirer, Jason Rosenhouse, May/June 2022 issue: The Failures of Mathematical Anti-Evolutionism
And commenting on it,
Jerry Coyne, Why Evolution is True, 2 June 2022: The intellectual vacuity of mathematical arguments against evolution
Here’s a piece to set alongside Michael Shermer’s book Why Darwin Matters (reviewed here), which patiently details the tepid arguments of the intelligent design crowd.
The item in Skeptical Inquirer spells out the invalid reasoning of those who would use mathematical arguments to show that evolution is impossible. This corresponds to number 4 of the 10 ID arguments that Shermer examines and dismantles in Chapter 4 of his book, but Rosenhouse goes into more detail. I’ll quote some to provide the idea.
1.) The probability of evolution producing complex features, like bacterial flagella, is almost nil.
The ID argument rests on the idea that if the probability of an amino acid in a protein, say tyrosine, being in a specific position is small, then the probability of getting a protein of 100 amino acids with tyrosine in the right position and the other 19 amino acids in the other right positions is effectively zero. (They simply multiply probabilities for each site together.) But, as Jason shows, that’s not the way that evolution works. Proteins are built up step by step, with each step adopted only if it incrementally improves fitness. The probability-multiplying argument is so transparently false that I’m surprised people believe it, but of course most people don’t have a decent understanding of probability.
However, this argument is premised on the notion that genes and proteins evolve through a process analogous to tossing a coin multiple times. This is untrue because there is nothing analogous to natural selection when you are tossing coins. Natural selection is a non-random process, and this fundamentally affects the probability of evolving a particular gene.
To see why, suppose we toss 100 coins in the hopes of obtaining 100 heads. One approach is to throw all 100 coins at once, repeatedly, until all 100 happen to land heads at the same time. Of course, this is exceedingly unlikely to occur. An alternative approach is to flip all 100 coins, leave the ones that landed heads as they are, and then toss again only those that landed tails. We continue in this manner until all 100 coins show heads, which, under this procedure, will happen before too long. The creationist argument assumes that evolution must proceed in a manner comparable to the first approach, when really it has far more in common with the second.
The second issue in Rosenhouse’s piece concerns the ID claim that complexity can’t increase, that evolution can’t create new genetic information. He dismantles arguments by Dembski and others.
These technical arguments are fascinating, but the real interest here is how and why IDers and Creationists keep using such arguments — which, like the traditional philosophical arguments for the existence of God — have long since been debunked. Do they not understand these counter-arguments? Or do they not care, speaking or writing to crowds who they are certain don’t understand, that they can “bamboozle” (Rosenhouse’s word)? I’m not certain. I suspect it’s that their ideology overwhelms their capacity for critical thinking. They truly believe that if argument and evidence dispute their religious beliefs, then the arguments and evidence must be wrong.
Rosenhouse is a bit more direct, ending his article thus:
Everyone agrees that complex adaptations require a special sort of explanation. Scientists argue that actual biological systems show copious evidence of having resulted through evolution by natural selection. Anti-evolutionists reject this claim, but the ensuing debate, such as it is, has nothing to do with mathematics. This makes you wonder why anti-evolutionists insist on padding their work with so much irrelevant and erroneous mathematical formalism. The answer is that their literature has far more to do with propaganda than it does with serious argument. Mathematics is unique in its ability to bamboozle a lay audience, making it well suited to their purposes. But for all its superficial sophistication, anti-evolutionary mathematics is not even successful at raising interesting questions about evolution.