Creationist Wisdom #241: Food for Thought

Today’s letter-to-the-editor appears in the Daily Reflector located in Greenville, North Carolina. The letter is titled Cartoon on evolution misses fact. We’ll give you a few excerpts, enhanced with our Curmudgeonly commentary, and some bold font for emphasis. As we usually do we’ll omit the writer’s name and city.

The letter begins by referring to a cartoon the newspaper published a few days earlier, and although we’ve tried we can’t seem to find it. Here’s what today’s letter says:

The cartoon on the April 19 Opinion page featuring a science teacher contrasting evolution and creationism merits comment. The implied message is that those who believe we are the result of a long series of random unsupervised events are intelligent thinking people, while those who believe we are here through the deliberate act of a being outside of space and time are naive primitive thinkers.

That must have been a great cartoon! Anyway, the letter continues:

However, this message misses the fact that the more we study the universe, the more evidence we find for a creator.

BWAHAHAHAHAHA! Okay, here it comes:

One of the more stunning discoveries was announced 20 years ago this month — that measurements from the cosmic background explorer (COBE) confirmed the Big Bang creation event, the beginning of the universe indicated by Albert Einstein’s equations of general relativity. The COBE project leader declared, “It’s like looking at God.”

Cute bit of quote-mining there. Three seconds with Google reveals that he’s talking about George Smoot, who actually said: “”If you’re religious, it’s like looking at God.”

Let’s read on in today’s letter:

Turning our focus from the cosmos to the cell, the more we discover about the incredible code of life programmed into our DNA …

Yeah, yeah. It’s a miracle. The letter continues:

Evolutionary biologist Francisco Ayala estimated the probability of intelligent species arising from single-celled organisms at 10 to 1 million (or 999,999 zeros between the decimal point and the “1”).

Huh? To begin with, Francisco Ayala is a big critic of creationism and intelligent design. Then there’s that number alleged to be what Ayala calculated as the odds against the emergence of an intelligent species. What’s the number? Is it “10 to 1 million”? That would be one in 100,000. We can’t find where Ayala said that, but even if he did, it’s not a bad estimate. Or did the letter-writer (not Ayala) mean to say “10 to the one millionth power”? Maybe. Creationists toss around numbers like that. Does that translate to the letter-writer’s “999,999 zeros between the decimal point and the 1”? We don’t care. Here’s more:

Calculations by others yield even smaller probabilities. The more we learn about the details of life, the closer these probabilities come to zero.

Jeepers! And here’s the letter’s conclusion:

This should give us all plenty of food for thought.

Go ahead, dear reader. Let your brain feed on that.

Copyright © 2012. The Sensuous Curmudgeon. All rights reserved.

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33 responses to “Creationist Wisdom #241: Food for Thought

  1. I wonder what their source of information was, given it clearly wasn’t reality. Were they half remembering things they’d heard from creationists or just making things up.

  2. unsupervised events

    That’s the second time in a few weeks I’ve seen a creationist assert the need for, essentially, an “intelligent supervisor”.

    Apparently not only are one or more intelligent designers required to design the universe, and things like flagella, but one or more intelligent supervisors are needed to check up on things and make sure the designed events occur as planned — as opposed to unplanned and un-designed events, .

    With all that attention given to making sure things work as “designed”, how did things like smallpox and bubonic plague make their way into the universe? Were some intelligent supervisors asleep on the job, letting undesired “unsupervised events” occur?

    If so, I hope whoever they work for gave those responsible a black mark on their performance review.

  3. Ceteris Paribus

    “Anonymous unsupervised events” sounds like a reasonable retort to a creationist shouting “Divinely directed design”.

  4. Ceteris Paribus

    Oops, SC already deleted Jack’s anonymous post.

  5. Sheesh, it’s a cartoon, and it appeared on the newspaper’s Opinion page. When did the world become so touchy? Hopefully no one will attempt to murder the cartoonist with an axe, like in Denmark.

  6. I don’t know where the writer got his huge improbability figure, but Francisco Ayala believes intelligent life is so improbable that we are likely the only ones in the universe. He does accept that life itself may be common. Here’s an interesting discussion of the issue, in which he states his position… http://season1.closertotruth.com/topics/universemeaning/214/214transcript.html

    I would give the writer some slack in picking someone who thinks intelligent life is vanishingly rare, although he mischaracterizes him finding some fault with evolution, which he doesn’t.

    All these odds, however, are just numbers pulled out of people’s nether regions. When we have a statistically valid sample of what we consider habitable worlds, and the ability to determine whether they are actually inhabited or not, then we can make predictions as to how probable life is.

    Creationists can toss around all the big numbers they want, but with a sample size of one – as far as we know, life is everywhere. For example, if you were blindfolded, and told to reach into a swimming pool full of marbles and select one, and you pulled out a black marble, would you conclude that you held in your hand the only black marble in the pool? No, the odds of drawing out the only black marble in the entire pool are extremely small. You would conclude that black marbles must be relatively common in the pool. That has to be the default position with respect to life on other habitable worlds, at least until we have more information.

  7. docbill1351

    I know for a fact that “unsupervised events” can create life.

    Three times before I figured out what was going on.

  8. Tomato Addict

    There are lots of claims about impossible odds for something to occur. If these same methods of calculation are applied to any series of historical events, it will also appear to be seemingly impossible. What good is any calculation that can only tell you that all of history is impossible?

    I’ve made essentially the same comment here many times, but this is a slightly different take on it, and less mathematical. I think this might be a better way to respond to that particular fallacy, because it demonstrates these calculations are useless without diving into probability theory.

  9. Tomato Addict says: “What good is any calculation that can only tell you that all of history is impossible?”

    I’ve gone into this in detail elsewhere. If you calculate the odds against your own conception, and then figure that for each of your ancestors, then it’s obvious that the odds against your existence are ridiculously high.

  10. The odds may be five million to one against any one person winning a lottery, but that doesn’t mean it’s impossible to win it at all — and somebody will. Should the eventual lottery winner then think, “Gosh, the odds were five million to one against me winning! I must have some invisible friend in charge of the lottery who made it come out in my favor because I couldn’t have won it otherwise!” What you aren’t seeing are the 4,999,999 people who lost. Actually, the impossible odds argument against evolution seems to me like an implicit concession that evolution is at least possible, just unlikely. Creationists might be better served by arguing that evolution is just plain impossible, because once they’ve admitted it’s at least possible, those wicked but clever Darwinists can start whittling down the figures. (You know the old joke: “Would you go to bed with me for a million dollars?” “Well, sure.” “How about ten dollars?” “What kind of girl do you think I am?” “We’ve established that. Now we’re dickering about the price.” The Creationists surrendered their virtue by trying to quote odds.) Heck, evolution isn’t even random. We’re forgetting what the learned old gentleman said back in 1859. It’s natural selection — adapt or die before you can reproduce. Life isn’t a passive victim of random forces, it actively games the system in its favor by adapting to resist (or eat) whatever the environment throws at it. How do you come up with mathematical odds for that?

  11. retiredsciguy

    If we look at life with an open mind, just about any species in the animal kingdom could be considered intelligent. For instance, we know that dolphins, porpoises, and other cetaceans are highly intelligent. How intelligent? Unfortunately, we haven’t been intelligent enough to figure that out yet.

    Consider also the brainpower needed to find food, and to avoid being found as food. Think too about the degree of intelligence needed to migrate successfully.

    I’m sure you can think of many more examples. All in all, it would seem that the competitive nature of living as an animal is driving all species with brains to higher levels of intelligence. Isn’t that how we would expect evolution to function?

  12. @Doc Bill: Once AGAIN, I almost lost a keyboard and monitor from your comment!
    @TA & SC: I believe the one thing we have to hammer home constantly is that the probability that something is going to happen is, has and always will be… 1.

  13. ***”random unsupervised events”***

    Natural selection isn’t random, of course; this is where these Creationist “what are the odds?” statistical arguments fall flat on their face (that, and they simply make up the numbers, anyway).

    It’s like talking about the odds of winning the lottery as though Evolution were a single event, whereas Evolution is a very large number of events, selected by Nature in a non-random fashion (the idea of non-intelligent agency or non-intelligent selection is a concept the Creationists simply can’t, or won’t, grasp).

    If every time you got one number right on the lottery and you were allowed to keep that number as a “partial win”, and so on each time you got a number right you kept it, until you got all of the numbers right and “won” the lottery, that would be more like natural selection, in action.

    At that point winning the lottery isn’t random or against the odds; it is inevitable because the winning numbers are selected for and the losing numbers are selected against.

  14. docbill1351

    There are lots of claims about impossible odds for something to occur. If these same methods of calculation are applied to any series of historical events, it will also appear to be seemingly impossible. What good is any calculation that can only tell you that all of history is impossible?

    I know! I mean what are the ODDS that I would go to three parties in three different years in a decade and hook up with the same woman and have the same accident resulting in a life? It must be ten to the minus zillioin trillion times a few beers and tequila shots. Oh, and that evil spinach sour cream dip. And Doritos. Don’r dorget the Doritoz.

    Maybe if it had been two or three tequila shots insteaD of four-ish or nine-something and maybe if I weren’T SUCH A STUD chemistry thing guy person chick magnet. Like, who knows?

    OK, must stop. SOMEBODY is looking at me and saying, “What have you done?” Well, I’ve heard that before! Oh, did someone say FOUR?????

  15. retiredsciguy

    meh:

    “If every time you got one number right on the lottery and you were allowed to keep that number as a “partial win”, and so on each time you got a number right you kept it, until you got all of the numbers right and “won” the lottery, that would be more like natural selection, in action.

    At that point winning the lottery isn’t random or against the odds; it is inevitable because the winning numbers are selected for and the losing numbers are selected against.”

    What a perfect analogy! It would seem then that once the first nerve cell appeared in an early form of life, higher intelligence became an inevitable consequence.

    Perhaps the reason some people have a hard time grasping the concept of evolution is that they think all change must come about solely by random mutation. If that were actually the case, change would be exceedingly slow. The beginning of sexual reproduction around the Early Cambrian immensely accelerated the rate of evolutionary change. No longer was each newly formed individual organism a clone of its one parent; sexual reproduction mixes up the genes of two parents so that nearly each offspring is unique.

    Hey, DocBill, the sexual revolution may have brought some fun your way, but the real sexual revolution happened 600 million years ago.

  16. cnocspeireag

    The odds quoted in the linked letter do come up as one in one to the millionth power on my computer. As many people have written, it doesn’t really matter as the statement meaningless anyway.

  17. retiredsciguy says: “What a perfect analogy!”

    I rather like it myself. See: The Inevitability of Evolution (Part III).

  18. Ah, I found it. A letter in today’s Reflector, here, indicates that this is the cartoon.

  19. Tomato Addict

    Deklane wrote: “Life isn’t a passive victim of random forces, it actively games the system in its favor by adapting to resist (or eat) whatever the environment throws at it. How do you come up with mathematical odds for that?”

    Easy, you lie about your assumptions and what the result means. This is why you never see this sort of calculation used for any legitimate science. [soapbox]This is not how statistical inference is done/[/soapbox]

  20. aturingtest

    One thing I’ve noticed about all these “odds against evolution” calculations, with their “impossibly huge numbers against it”- they always seem to be added-up odds against specific steps in the process, rather than against the process itself. I don’t think any biologist has ever said that the specific outcome we have today is anything other than very unlikely- but that ‘s not the same thing as saying the process itself is. No doubt, if it were all to start again, the outcome of the process would be totes different- but this says nothing at all about the process. I guess this falls under the header of SC’s “collapsing continuum.”
    This is, of course, all beside what seems to me to be the main point- that “odds” and “probability” are distinctively predictive concepts, and are totally useless, hairsplitting, time-wasting exercises in a retroactive context. Kind of like going to the race-track, betting on the horse that already won a race already run, and demanding your winnings.

  21. aturingtest says: “Kind of like going to the race-track, betting on the horse that already won a race already run, and demanding your winnings.”

    You’ve inspired me to suggest that evolution operates somewhat like a bookie does. A bookie doesn’t try to pick out all the winners ahead of time. The odds against doing that are too high. He takes bets on all the horses, so it doesn’t really matter to him who wins. As long as there are races, he’s going to make a living. The same analogy works for the stock market. The broker gets paid for the trade whether the investor is right or wrong. He doesn’t need to really care which stocks gain or lose.

    What I’m getting at is that evolution is the game itself, which is quite indifferent to who actually wins and who loses. But the intelligent designer’s function is to rig the game so that it has a specific outcome.

  22. “…the more we study the universe, the more evidence we find for a creator.”

    Ironically, it’s the opposite that’s true. The more we study the Bible, the more evidence we find for the non-existence of the creator. At least that was my experience.

  23. Thanks for the cartoon link – that was good!

    Creationists have no sense of humor.

  24. Gabriel Hanna

    The odds against any particular human being born are huge as well. Each human’s parents had DNA with 3 billion base pairs in it. Each contributed 50% to the fertilized egg. That means that there are 4^(1.5 billion)*4^(1.5 billion) possible offspring they could have produced. Your chance of being born was 1 out of 10^(1.9 billion). Now multiply that by the odd of your PARENTS having been born. And THEIR parents.

    Clearly every single human who was actually born must have had their DNA individually created by God.

  25. Gabriel Hanna

    What I’m getting at is that evolution is the game itself, which is quite indifferent to who actually wins and who loses. But the intelligent designer’s function is to rig the game so that it has a specific outcome.

    I like your analogy, SC. Consider the following two statements:

    The house comes out ahead if you play long enough.
    The house doesn’t win every time.

    The Discoveroids are arguing that the house can’t possibly come out ahead, because the odds are astronomically against its winning every time–because the house does come out ahead someone must be rigging the game.

    Of course, it is not a contradiction to say that the house comes out ahead and that the house doesn’t win every time, but the Discoveroids try to confuse people into thinking that those two statements are contradictory.

  26. Gabriel Hanna says:

    Consider the following two statements:

    The house comes out ahead if you play long enough.
    The house doesn’t win every time.

    That’s interesting. A casino is a special case because the payoffs for each bet (I’m think of roulette) are somewhat rigged. For example, you can’t find a casino that runs a coin-toss game where the payoff is based on a pure 50-50 calculation, because there’s no edge for the house. So for the games it offers, the house will eventually win after a sufficient number of plays.

    Evolution is generally like that, because if life is prolific enough, and if there are enough mutations each generation, then (barring a mass extinction event) there are likely to be survivors in each generation, no matter what the environment throws at them.

    Unlike the intelligent designer, however, the house doesn’t try to predict who will win. It doesn’t care. The winners are happy, and many may think lady luck was on their side. The losers’ opinions don’t matter. For the house, the game’s the thing.

  27. Gabriel Hanna

    Well if your bet is your genome, and your genome makes you tasty to tigers and too slow to outrun them, then I guess you could say the game is “rigged” against you in the sense that the casino doesn’t offer you even money on your bets.

    But the DI is saying that the house stacks the deck, loads the dice, etc, or it couldn’t come out ahead. But the house doesn’t have to.

  28. Gabriel Hanna says:

    But the DI is saying that the house stacks the deck, loads the dice, etc, or it couldn’t come out ahead. But the house doesn’t have to.

    The key thing is that there isn’t any house. No one makes the rules, no one rigs the game, and no one is sitting back and calculating the odds. That’s what creationists can’t grasp.

  29. SC says: “The key thing is that there isn’t any house. No one makes the rules, no one rigs the game, and no one is sitting back and calculating the odds. That’s what creationists can’t grasp.”
    Actually, I don’t think it’s the grasping of the concept that is their problem- it’s the accepting of that non-normative nature of nature that ties them in such knots. It’s an easy concept- the only reason to not get it is deliberate avoidance of it. In a way, I think I understand. I’m no scientist, of course, or psychologist or anything, but… it seems to me that the basis of that rejection is in the normative nature of any intelligence. The “mind” (as opposed to just the brain) seems to operate by goal-oriented standards and means, and it’s easier for an “intelligence” to extrapolate that nature to natural processes, and attribute results as “aims” always, than to accept the alternative. That’s the basis of religion, I guess.
    Anyway, SC, your Inevitability Of Evolution series is something I would urge all first-time readers of this site to look at. It’s that good, I think- it’s on my favorites list, kind of like Pink Floyd’s Animals and Robin Trower’s Bridge Of Sighs on my iPod playlist- my go-to’s.

  30. retiredsciguy

    SC: “… if life is prolific enough, and if there are enough mutations each generation…”

    Wait a minute — the advent of sexual reproduction 600 million years ago greatly reduced the need for mutation to create individual variation within a species. (Refer to Gabriel Hanna’s post above calculating the possible combinations of human DNA for any one offspring.)

    It’s not mutations so much as it’s sex. Hey — maybe that’s another reason why the creationists are so set against evolution. It relies so heavily on sex!

  31. RSG: “Hey — maybe that’s another reason why the creationists are so set against evolution. It relies so heavily on sex!”
    That, and understanding and accepting it rely so heavily on thinking.

  32. Tomato Addict

    aturningtest wrote: “One thing I’ve noticed about all these “odds against evolution” calculations, […] odds against specific steps in the process, rather than against the process itself. I don’t think any biologist has ever said that the specific outcome we have today is anything other than very unlikely- but that ‘s not the same thing as saying the process itself is. No doubt, if it were all to start again, the outcome of the process would be totes different– but this says nothing at all about the process.”

    This is difficult for many people to grasp, but yes. Essentially any evolutionary outcome that leads us to being able to ask these questions is a valid outcome, and should be counted.

    If we had evolved so to have six fingers on each hand, that is about as likely as five fingers. We might count in base 12, and type faster, but we could still be asking this same questions and having the same argument with Creationists. Any other viable biological arrangement you choose is equally valid, and they all count.

    Of some interest, W. Dembski alludes to this problem in his description of Complex Specified Information. He briefly states that all alternate outcomes of evolution would need to be accounted for in the statistical “rejection region” for his test, which is correct, but he never details what this really means. He sweeps the whole problem under the rug, saying (in my words) “We don’t yet have all the information needed to fully calculate this.”
    Of course he doesn’t yet have enough information – no one sane would even consider that they could calculation the probability of all such evolutionary outcomes.

  33. retiredsciguy says: “What a perfect analogy!”
    SC says: I rather like it myself. See: The Inevitability of Evolution (Part III).

    Thanks for the link to your great essay from April 2008. Curmy, if you ever publish a collection of your best essays, be sure to include it.