The Delusion of Special Creation

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.

Copyright © 2010. The Sensuous Curmudgeon. All rights reserved.

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21 responses to “The Delusion of Special Creation

  1. It’s even worse than that because anti-evolution scam artists routinely bait-and-switch 2 different senses of “special creation.” Even if they were right that our species is somehow “divinely selected,” it simply does not follow that our species did not descend with modification from others. Indeed, the Discoveroids, who are argably even more obsessed with our supposed “divinely selected” status than the Biblical creationists, do not officially deny common descent, and those Discoveroids who have clearly stated their position have conceded that the evidence supports it.

  2. Nearly all religions also predict their own success. Many fail, and, well, clearly they made the wrong prediction–but who cares, they would almost certainly have failed either with or without that prediction.

    The people in religions that succeed are impressed by the success of this religion, and are sure that it must be true. Of course, had Mithraism survived the vagaries of history, it, too, would point to its success as evidence of its veracity and power.

    But whatever, I’m not much concerned with either the succes or failure of religions, so long as they’re not opposed to openness and knowledge. It’s creationism that matters, because the survival of that religious fakery gives credence to it in the minds of many individuals. The majoritarian fallacy, coupled with the survivor fallacy, with which it overlaps greatly, convinces many that there must be some truth in creationism, at least, or it would have failed.

    I remember Scott Adams, who often acts like a kind of skeptic in his Dilbert strip, taken to task at Pharyngula for making essentially that argument against evolution–not so much in favor of IDiocy/creationism. Well, if evolution is so correct, why do so many not believe it? It’s not an infrequent “argument” from purveyors of that garbage.

    Obviously organized idiocy and threats of hellfire for anyone who even considers evolution are a pretty good answer for why so many don’t believe it, and this shouldn’t be a difficult thing for anyone to understand, except, well, organized idiots who fear hellfire for any open-mindedness. And those are numerous.

    The loop of fallacies is closed for most of them, however, and there’s no reaching them at all.

  3. I once used the stock market survivors scenario as you described it above in a talk to the local Chamber of Commerce. In a crowd of roughly 80 I got 7 takers at $1,000 each. Totally pissed off the stock broker who introduced my talk. :)

  4. RBH says:

    I once used the stock market survivors scenario as you described it …

    It’s also commonly used in rhetorical assaults on “the rich.” Those who succeed (in the absence of government support) are somehow presumed to have done so because of various schemes and conspiracies. So the Survivors’ Fallacy can be used not only to praise the survivors but to demonize them.

  5. I liked the story about the con but I don’t get the connection to free enterprise.
    You say:

    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.)

    I would suppose that some critics might say free enterprise is a rigged game, but I would say that many don’t. If you consider free enterprise to be more like natural selection, as discussed in the Darwin excerpt you cite, then it is little more than barbaric. Many people who accept evolution agree that social Darwinism is generally repellent when considering current moral values.

  6. Lynn Wilhelm says:

    If you consider free enterprise to be more like natural selection, as discussed in the Darwin excerpt you cite, then it is little more than barbaric.

    Wow! I was merely saying that there’s no designer, no destiny. How the players behave is a different issue. Personally, I haven’t noticed competing stores in shopping centers engaging in shoot-outs. Maybe you live in a bad neighborhood.

  7. Gabriel Hanna

    For $50 dollars I will predict the sex your unborn child. Full refund if I’m wrong. I predict a boy.

    @Lynn Wilhelm:Many people who accept evolution agree that social Darwinism is generally repellent when considering current moral values.

    Since when is free enterprise a form of social Darwinism? Free enterprise is how buyers find sellers and vice versa and where prices come from.

    @SC:Yet critics of free enterprise point only at the survivors, imagining that their success is the result of a rigged game.

    In many cases it IS rigged:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rent_seeking

    Getting the government to pick economic winners and losers is a game played by everyone, Left and Right–I wouldn’t call what we have “free enterprise” so much as “free enterprise-ish”.

  8. Gasp!

    Well, I would like to say, most emphatically, that “social darwinism” is not the same as free-enterprise, whether it is about product/business differential survival or not. That selecting people for survival is immoral, does not mean that actual semi-darwinian processes applied to businesses is immoral. Come on. It is a non-sequitur. Bad businesses and bad products are better off outcompeted.

    Now, whether there is true free-enterprise or not, whether it is a fair game or not, is another story. I still had to make sure we were thinking correctly here. I would not feel any sorrow for a bad business or product going into the extinction category. No moral problem here.

  9. “And Man said, Let us make god in our image, after our likeness …

    So Man created god in his own image, in the image of Man created he him; the many, many various gods created he them.”

    There, fixed that.
    :P

  10. SC: It’s also commonly used in rhetorical assaults on “the rich.” Those who succeed (in the absence of government support) are somehow presumed to have done so because of various schemes and conspiracies.

    I have heard the survivor’s fallacy be used as an assault on the rich and successful, but never because of conspiracy. The more common assault I’ve heard is to say that this fallacy shows that some percent of successful people and corporations has almost certainly become successful by luck. The fallacy contains lessons for both owners and investors. Owners should not get too arrogant or self-assured, as what they percieve as their own skill may not be the reason they got where they are. And consumers should not invest in a corporation or take someone’s advice based merely on past record. You need to look into what sort of strategies and methods they use to make their decisions. Success with a bad (or nonexistent) business plan might mean genius, but more likely it means this was the one company out of 2^N to survive N decisions.

  11. P.S. while I’m not arguing capitalism is darwinian, its worth noting that the same fallacy often rears its head in evolutionary science. There’s a tendency to assume that any adaptation we see must be positive (or, the package of adaptations must be net positive in value). This assumption sends biologists on quests to find the utility of any and every adaptation they see. However, like in the investment case, its worth remembering that the selection process is almost inevitably going to produce some number of ‘winners by luck,’ i.e. variants whose adaptations are no better or worse than those of the competitors who failed.

  12. “And Man said, Let us make god in our image, after our likeness …

    So Man created god in his own image, in the image of Man created he him; the many, many various gods created he them.”

    I think that was the liner notes for Aqualung. You’d be too young to remember that…

  13. eric said:

    I have heard the survivor’s fallacy be used as an assault on the rich and successful, but never because of conspiracy.

    I was probably thinking of standard class-warfare accusations of racism, sexism, etc.

  14. Sorry, I didn’t mean to comment and run away–just no time to come back until now.

    SC: Since when does natural selection involve shoot-outs? I was thinking that the survivor’s fallacy coupled with the Darwin quote about the destruction involved in life was not a pleasant way to think about our social/economic structure. I’m sure you agree that our social structure is connected to our economic structure.

    I agree that bad products and services should be selected out in business–and that in itself is not “ammoral”. I simply don’t like the implications that selection has for the “regular people” that suffer for the business’ lack of survival. It sounds all namby pamby to say that I don’t think that’s fair. I think humans are at an evolutionary/technological/industrial stage that we can work to make life more fair for everyone.

    Right now, I’m a self employed designer (I support my child alone) and I don’t have an entrepreneurial bone in my body. I’m doing OK, but would like to be able to do my design work without worrying about the business side of things.

  15. Lynn Wilhelm says:

    Since when does natural selection involve shoot-outs?

    You mentioned barbarism.

    I was thinking that the survivor’s fallacy coupled with the Darwin quote about the destruction involved in life was not a pleasant way to think about our social/economic structure.

    Businesses compete to attract customers — which benefits the consumer. There’s no “destruction” involved if some business shuts down and the people move on to some more rewarding activity. There’s a net gain, actually, because unproductive work ceases, and resources are re-allocated to where the demand is greater. There’s not much about it that’s really “Darwinian,” except by rough analogy.

  16. Gabriel Hanna

    @Lynn Wilhelm:I’m doing OK, but would like to be able to do my design work without worrying about the business side of things.

    Wouldn’t EVERYONE want to be able to do they work they love without having to worry about the bills? But there has never been any economic system devised that can DO that.

  17. Gabriel says:

    Wouldn’t EVERYONE want to be able to do they work they love without having to worry about the bills? But there has never been any economic system devised that can DO that.

    LOL, of course you are right. But I think if everyone’s skills (and desires) can be assessed couldn’t we work out the best way to have everyone producing something. Utopian, I know but maybe someday…

  18. Gabriel Hanna

    But I think if everyone’s skills (and desires) can be assessed couldn’t we work out the best way to have everyone producing something.

    A pipeline has two ends–you produce something but if no one wants to consume it, you can’t expect to get very much for it and in the worst case you might have to pay to have it thrown away. Likewise there may be something you want that no one can or wants to produce, and so you can’t expect to get it very cheaply. So if you want to rectify this, because there aren’t infinite resources, something has to be taken away from the things that people want to produce and consume.

    How many people have you met who really, really wanted to be poets? And how many really wanted to read their poetry? The things that people need and want to consume are not necessarily going to be the ones they want to produce. No one, for example, thinks that scrubbing toilets is the best thing they are suited for, yet toilets need to be scrubbed all the same.

    Until some bright young person develops a little robot that can scrub toilets; the International Union of Toilet Scrubbers then demands legislation restricting their use. (You think I’m kidding? It’s illegal to pump your own gas in Oregon, which surprises me every time I’m there.)

  19. Sy- Are you referring to a music group with Jethro Tull in it? I’m 36, so it might be a little before my time, but my stepdad likes to blast Jethro Tull on his concert-quality speakers whenever I go home. So I’m most definitely up on Jethro Tull. Against my will.

    LOL!

  20. Hanna,

    I think that perhaps you have not been in Oregon for some time. I was there in September. I pumped my own gas in both Astoria and Portland. Now in New Jersey you cannot pump your own gas. What a dumb rule!

    Perhaps Oregon has evolved?

  21. Gabriel Hanna

    @techreseller: I was there last November. I don’t know if it’s been repealed in some places or if some gas stations just break the law. Wikipedia says it’s still illegal–but you can pump your own DIESEL, for some reason.

    No, it’s not bloody likely that Oregon has evolved.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Filling_station