Everyone knows these verses from Genesis 1:26-27, King James version:
And God said, Let us make man in our image, after our likeness …
So God created man in his own image, in the image of God created he him; male and female created he them.
That’s lovely. It’s very nice to think that we’re special. But are we? Suppose that some other species had evolved to occupy our dominant niche on this world — wouldn’t they think that they were special? It’s almost a certainty that they would, because it’s a difficult conceit to avoid. What accounts for it?
We call it the “Survivors’ Fallacy,” and it’s not only rampant in the world of creationism, it also shows up in a variety of other contexts.
A good example can be seen in the old stock market prediction scam, which works like this: A con man prints up some phony letterhead, hires a mail-forwarding service in another city, and sends out, say, 4,000 stock market prediction letters to a readily-available mailing list of investors. He loads his letters up with some gibberish-laden description of his infallible computer model that perfectly predicts stock market behavior.
For half of the initial list of 4,000 potential victims, he predicts that stock X will go up during the next week; for the other half he predicts it’ll go down. A week later, when the scammer knows what stock X did, he purges half the names from his list — those who got the wrong prediction and who know that he’s an idiot.
Then he writes again to the remaining 2,000. He tells them that he was correct the week before, and now he predicts — to half of them — that stock Y will go up. To the other half he predicts that it’s going down.
He waits another week, discards the names who got the wrong prediction, and now he’s left with 1,000 people — those to whom he appears to have been uncannily prescient twice before. Using this greatly reduced list he does the same thing again, this time with a prediction about stock Z. A week later that diminished sucker list of 1,000 names will be slimmed down to 500 for whom the mysterious expert seems to have made an amazing three successful stock market predictions in a row. But he knows they’re not yet convinced. Many could be thinking that he was just lucky.
So he does it for a 4th week with yet another stock, after which he’s whittled his original 4,000 names down to the statistically inevitable remnant of 250 dazzled people who think he’s done the impossible — he’s miraculously made four successful stock market predictions in a row. Now what?
Now the scammer moves in for the kill. He tells the remaining 250 that his next tip will cost them money. He asks for $1,000 in advance. Several of them will oblige: “Golly, Martha, this here feller has been right four times in a row. He’s got something that works, that’s fer sure. I’m gonna pay him the $1,000, and when we get his advice I’m gonna bet all of little Billy’s college fund.”
So the scammer collects a cool $250K, or whatever his list will yield. Simple, huh?
The scammer knows that it’s only a numbers game, and it was mathematically inescapable that he’d be left with 250 names on his mailing list out of the original 4,000. If the “lucky” remnant of 250 had been aware of the whole scheme, they’d understand what happened — well, most of them would. Some will probably insist that the scammer had a magic method. Hey — for half of them he actually would be correct yet again. Their faith would be unshakable.
That’s an everyday example of the Survivors’ Fallacy. Those who find themselves at the lucky end of a string of events tend to imagine that their circumstances aren’t due to mere statistics. They think that destiny somehow ordained their good fortune.
We aren’t the first to describe this phenomenon. Wikipedia has an entry for survivorship bias. They say:
Survivorship bias is the logical error of concentrating on the people or things that “survived” some process and inadvertently overlooking those that didn’t because of their lack of visibility. …
Survivorship bias can lead to overly optimistic beliefs because failures are ignored … . It can also lead to the false belief that the successes in a group have some special property, rather than being just lucky.
We see this in the world of business. For every successful product, there are, perhaps, hundreds of others that competed with it but have failed in the marketplace. Yet critics of free enterprise point only at the survivors, imagining that their success is the result of a rigged game. (Sometimes the game is rigged, but ideally that seldom occurs; and when it does, it doesn’t survive for long.)
Another example of this fallacy is often seen whenever someone is the lone survivor of a disaster, like a plane crash. It’s not at all unusual for the survivor to say that “Someone upstairs was looking out for me.” The only difficult thing to understand is why the relatives of those who didn’t survive don’t strangle the arrogant survivor.
In creationism, the belief that a successful group has a special property — being the result of a pre-existing design caused by divine planning — is especially prominent. That belief has been thoroughly debunked, but creationists don’t seem to care.
In Origin of Species, Chapter 3 – Struggle for Existence, Darwin says:
Owing to this struggle for life, any variation, however slight and from whatever cause proceeding, if it be in any degree profitable to an individual of any species, in its infinitely complex relations to other organic beings and to external nature, will tend to the preservation of that individual, and will generally be inherited by its offspring. The offspring, also, will thus have a better chance of surviving, for, of the many individuals of any species which are periodically born, but a small number can survive. I have called this principle, by which each slight variation, if useful, is preserved, by the term of Natural Selection, in order to mark its relation to man’s power of selection.
We behold the face of nature bright with gladness, we often see superabundance of food; we do not see, or we forget, that the birds which are idly singing round us mostly live on insects or seeds, and are thus constantly destroying life; or we forget how largely these songsters, or their eggs, or their nestlings are destroyed by birds and beasts of prey … .
A struggle for existence inevitably follows from the high rate at which all organic beings tend to increase. Every being, which during its natural lifetime produces several eggs or seeds, must suffer destruction during some period of its life, and during some season or occasional year, otherwise, on the principle of geometrical increase, its numbers would quickly become so inordinately great that no country could support the product. … It is the doctrine of Malthus applied with manifold force to the whole animal and vegetable kingdoms … .
So there you are, dear reader. Darwin’s description of life is far more accurate than the warm and cozy feeling that we were supernaturally chosen to be here, but the latter view certainly feels better. It’s up to you — and we’ll understand if you prefer the comforting belief that your existence was ordained by Providence. But if that’s your choice, you may one day learn that reality doesn’t exhibit any sympathy, and the universe may behave contrary to your wishes.
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