Our Existence is Improbable, Therefore …

Here’s an opportunity that is ripe for quote mining and shameless distortion — in the service of The Truth. We read about it at PhysOrg: Evolution depends on rare chance events, ‘molecular time travel’ experiments show.

Wowie — rare chance events! That’s certain to appeal to the Discoveroids, who are forever claiming that if something functions, yet seems improbable, then it’s obviously overloaded with specified complexity and irreducible complexity (which no one understands except Discoveroids), and therefore, using their “explanatory filter,” they somehow know that it’s powerful and undeniable evidence for the existence and activity of their magical designer — blessed be he!

The preceding paragraph reveals what has happened to your Curmudgeon as a result of blogging in your service. Merely from the title of the PhysOrg article, we can imagine visions of sugar plums dancing in the heads of the Discoveroids. But that was just the title. Lets see what the story is actually about. We’re told, with a bit of bold font added by us for emphasis:

… a team of evolutionary biologists studying ancient proteins has turned speculation into experiment. They resurrected an ancient ancestor of an important human protein as it existed hundreds of millions of years ago and then used biochemical methods to generate and characterize a huge number of alternative histories that could have ensued from that ancient starting point.

Tracing these alternative evolutionary paths, the researchers discovered that the protein – the cellular receptor for the stress hormone cortisol – could not have evolved its modern-day function unless two extremely unlikely mutations happened to evolve first. These “permissive” mutations had no effect on the protein’s function, but without them the protein could not tolerate the later mutations that caused it to evolve its sensitivity to cortisol. In screening thousands of alternative histories, the researchers found no alternative permissive mutations that could have allowed the protein’s modern-day form to evolve. The researchers describe their findings June 16, online in Nature.

Here’s a link to the Nature article: Historical contingency and its biophysical basis in glucocorticoid receptor evolution. But they have another article about Thornton, one of the authors of that paper, that may cause the Discoveroids to hesitate to take him on. That’s here, Prehistoric proteins: Raising the dead, and it says:

Thornton wanted to delve deeper into the puzzle of how complex systems with tightly interacting molecular parts evolve. It was a long-standing conundrum. As Charles Darwin wrote in On the Origin of Species: “If it could be demonstrated that any complex organ existed which could not possibly have been formed by numerous, successive, slight modifications, my theory would absolutely break down.” And what was an evolutionary puzzle to biologists was a target for evolution’s critics. Michael Behe, a biochemist at Lehigh University in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, and a senior fellow at the Discovery Institute in Seattle, Washington, proposed in the 1990s that such systems — the blood-clotting cascade, for example, or the molecular motor called the flagellum — are so “irreducibly complex” that they could not have evolved step by step, and can only be the product of intelligent design. Thornton says that he didn’t set out to refute intelligent design, but the prospect of a fight hardly put him off. “Been there, enjoyed that,” he says.


The study flipped another finger to intelligent-design proponents — but “I’m sort of bored with them”, Thornton says.

That won’t stop the Discoveroids. If reality itself doesn’t impress them, nothing will. Let’s read on to see what PhysOrg says:

“This very important protein exists only because of a twist of fate,” said study senior author Joe Thornton, PhD, professor of ecology & evolution and human genetics at the University of Chicago. “If our results are general – and we think they probably are – then many of our body’s systems work as they do because of very unlikely chance events that happened in our deep evolutionary past,” he added.

You can see why this is ripe for plucking by the Discoveroids. We continue:

Thornton and others have previously shown that the evolution of modern-day proteins required permissive mutations in the past. But no one had ever investigated whether there were many or few other possible permissive mutations that could have happened, so it remained unknown how unlikely it is that evolution discovered a permissive pathway to the modern function.

Unlikely? If it’s even a little bit unlikely, then — by golly (and never mind that it can be shown how it happened) — the process must have required assistance from the designer! Here’s more:

To answer this question, Thornton and co-author Michael Harms, PhD, of the University of Oregon focused on the glucocorticoid receptor (GR), a key protein in the endocrine system that regulates development and stress responses in response to the hormone cortisol. They resurrected the gene for ancestral GR as it existed around 450 million years ago, before it evolved its capacity to specifically recognize cortisol.


Thornton and Harms then created millions of copies of this genetic template, using a method that introduced random mutations into every new copy, thus mimicking the variation that evolution could have produced in the protein under alternative scenarios.


Thornton and Harms tested many thousands of variants but found none that restored the function of GR other than the historical mutations that occurred in actuality. “Among the huge numbers of alternate possible histories, there were no other permissive mutations that could have opened an evolutionary path to the modern-day GR,” Thornton said.

We’ve been leaving out a lot. You’ll need to read it for yourself. All we’re trying to do here is show what’s likely to excite the Discoveroids. Moving along:

While most prior discussions of historical contingency in evolution have focused on external events such as asteroid impacts, mass extinctions, climate change, Thornton and Harms showed that the intrinsic complexity of proteins as physical objects also makes evolution depend profoundly on low-probability chance events.

Obviously (a creationist will conclude), were it not for the benevolent intervention of the designer, we wouldn’t be here. Interestingly, something like that (the “we wouldn’t be here” part) is also the researchers’ conclusion. Here’s one last excerpt:

“It’s very exciting to have been able to directly study alternative ancient histories,” Thornton said. “If evolutionary history could be relaunched from ancestral starting points, we would almost certainly end up with a radically different biology from the one we have now. Unpredictable genetic events are constantly opening paths to some evolutionary outcomes and closing the paths to others, all within the biochemical systems of our cells.

So there you are. Our existence is indeed improbable, which is no surprise to anyone who understands evolution. That’s what makes us so valuable — at least to ourselves. It’s the inevitable conclusion for an evolutionist. On the other hand, an all-powerful deity could poof us into existence whenever it wished, and then obliterate us if he were in the mood to do so. Afterwards, if his mood changed, he could re-create us all over again. Nothing to it. We’re no big deal in that kind of universe, little more than a toy, with which a supreme intelligence might become bored.

But did a mysterious designer really intend for us to be here, and guide events with that purpose in mind? It wouldn’t seem so — except to a creationist, and some of them are certain to make that claim about this research. Evolution may not be predictable, but the simple-mindedness of creationists definitely is.

Copyright © 2014. The Sensuous Curmudgeon. All rights reserved.

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28 responses to “Our Existence is Improbable, Therefore …

  1. Christine Janis

    Evolution is indeed improbable. That’s why it takes a long time to happen. Duh.

  2. Christine Janis

    I meant “improbable”. Silly me.

    [*Voice from above*] Your typo never happened, thanks to the all-forgiving Curmudgeon.

  3. And how is that a problem for evolution?

    Of course, Joe Thorton is one of the main writers at the talk.origins archive and has penned dozens of articles that explain evolution and refute creationism. I bet he’s laughing his tail off right now.

  4. Life is at all not improbable. For example: how many solar systems have we explored? One. How many of them had life? One. So the probability is 100%, see life isn’t improbable at all.

    What the morons above don’t take into account is the vast numbers of molecules laying around (there are more molecules of water in a couple of gallons of water than grains of sands on all of the world’s beaches), how fast they interact (in a gallon of water there are billions of billions of collisions between molecules every second of time), and the amount of time involved (I am 67 years old but I haven’t lived anything close to a billion seconds of time, yet there have been billions of years these molecules have been laying around bumping into one another and being struck by lightning).

    They use the statistical blindness of most ordinary citizens to veil the “truth” they tell. Basically it is bull pucky.

  5. “If evolutionary history could be relaunched from ancestral starting points, we would almost certainly end up with a radically different biology from the one we have now.”

    And so, if this had been the case, our “new biological forms,” whatever they might end up looking like, would likely result in the “new biological form” creationists making the same argument for ID against the “new biological form” scientists, that life was not possible without a designer.

    Note: Tomorrow is the summer solstice. I suspect/hope his Great Noodleness, the Flying Spaghetti Monster, just might make another personal appearance at the Fremont Solstice Festival in Seattle. I do have a rare picture of Him but I can’t put it in these comments.

  6. docbill1351

    Douglas Adams got it right:

    “Curiously enough, the only thing that went through the mind of the bowl of petunias as it fell was Oh no, not again. Many people have speculated that if we knew exactly why the bowl of petunias had thought that we would know a lot more about the nature of the universe than we do now.”

  7. So what if it’s “improbable” that a particular set of mutations could have happened? It’s improbable that you could throw a coin 20 times and have it come up heads every time, but given enough 20-coin runs, it will happen (the likelihood is 1 in 1,048,576). And we’re talking about a huge environment (the ancient Earth) and huge numbers of “tries” (every time an animal was conceived). In the meantime, though cortisol might not yet have its modern function, it would have its original one, and living things would manage without “modern” cortisol.

  8. The Discoveroids, who are already a veritable gang of Seven Dwarves, are going to have to work double shifts to also get through this mother-lode of potential misrepresentation: Cosmic inflation: Confidence lowered for Big Bang signal

    I can see Klingy and the Gerb now, pickaxes jauntily slung over their shoulders as they march along to the quote-mining face as they sing

    It’s off to distort we go!

  9. It’s certain that much of life today required some very improbable events in it’s long history. However, if those events did not occur, other events would have, and life would simply be different. It does not mean that the different life would have been less complex, or less improbable in its own right. Perhaps some path not followed would have resulted in multiple intelligent species, or a much more intelligent one. There is no reason to assume that the chain of events that led to us was the best one.

    Creationists should be split on this issue. The Discoveroids assume that we are the reason for the universe, and will thus point and ook-ook loudly that this is so improbable, and yet we exist, so it must be design. YECs, while agreeing that we are the reason for the universe, will reject the science entirely since there can be no primitive forms of human proteins.

  10. And lo! As our wise Curmudgeon foretold, the DI’s redoubtable Ann “Green Screen” Gauger is on this one like an octopus in heat: Playing Roulette with Life

  11. Oopsie yet again! The subtleties of HTML tagging have once again eluded my Neanderthal fingers–despite my massive keyboard….

    [*Voice from above*] Aaarrrrgggghhhh!!

  12. docbill1351

    I had this vision of Gauger in heat, rose in teeth, pressing Curmie in a black tux, tie loosened, backwards over the keys of a grand piano, his buttocks causing dissonant chords in D Minor, his mind frozen in fear as she runs her fingers down across his heaving chest, and lower, pausing at Middle C to whisper hoarsely, her breath reeking of ancient lavender, “Post this, Curmie!”

  13. If there was ever a need for a “[edited out],” it’s docbill’s last post.


  14. docbill1351 relates

    I had this vision of Gauger in heat, rose in teeth, pressing Curmie in a black tux [edited out]

    That’s not a “vision”; that can only be an account you gleaned at Imperial from Olivia, the sole and deeply unfortunate eyewitness to that ghastly scene. You only omitted the green screen back projection of rutting porcupines which accompanied that traumatising spectacle.

    No wonder poor Olivia still wakes up screaming sometimes and can only be comforted by ‘Neanderthal’ therapy….

  15. This is the problem with linear thinkers. They can’t distinguish between the fact that any particular outcome of evolution might be improbable, while at the same time, evolution as such is inevitable.

  16. Our perhaps I should have said “binary thinkers” instead of linear thinkers. In any case, I mean people who have trouble understanding things outside of rigid categories and who can’t adjust their thinking according to the context at hand.

  17. The date today is Friday 20 June 2014. Just think how improbable that is. It has never happened before and the chances of it ever happening again are miniscule.

  18. docbill1351 grosses out the world by saying: “I had this vision of Gauger in heat”

    I finally read her article at the Discoveroids’ blog: Playing Roulette with Life. It’s pretty much the reaction I predicted. Her last line is a winner:

    The odds are against it. I’m betting on design.

  19. docbill1351

    Curmie leaned against the parking meter on 2nd Street. Seattle at night. There were better places to be. The damp gloom settled on him like a wet blanket, Army issue, wool, pissed on by the entire platoon of deserters and thrown off the second floor of the Disco Tute like a discarded gerbil pelt.

    It was a dark and stormy night and suddenly there was a clickity-click. Not like a gun being cocked or a cricket wishing he was in San Diego but a noise that could only be made by a person who had trouble opening doors.

    He turned, and there she was, pressing her fleshy face against the glass door, twisting the key aggressively, which, in a strange way, was somewhat arousing and thrusting her ample hips against unyielding bar.

    Eventually, she stood back, panting, her breasts heaving and read the large sign in the middle of the door: Pull.

    Curmie gave Gauger the remains of his cigarette.

    “I saved you the best part.”

    Gauger snatched the butt and took a long drag burning down to the filter and said, “I thought you were the best part.”

    Suddenly, Doc Bill had an aneurism and just couldn’t finish this Gauger Noir evo-smut short story and cried himself to sleep.

    And that’s how it went down in the big city.

  20. OK. You flip a coin 1000 times, and you record the sequence of heads or tails that comes up. When you finish, you calculate the odds of your particular sequence happening to be, what — 2^1000? (Hey, I’m a retired science teacher, not a mathematician, so don’t jump down my throat if I’m wrong here. You get the point I’m making.)

    So anyway, the odds of your sequence happening are astronomical! But does that mean the Grand Ol’ Designer intervened? Of course not! All you did was flip a coin a whole bunch of times, and the odds were 1:1 that you would get some sequence or another. Now, if you flipped the coin another 1000 times and got the exact same sequence, that would truly be remarkable, and you might have reason to believe their was some kind of cosmic intervention, although it would not be proof.

    Putting this analogy to life — let’s say that at some time in the future we travel to (or make TV contact with) some life forms on a distant planet, and it turns out that they are genetically identical to us —Homo Sapiens. In other words, the exact same sequence of evolutionary occurrences happened twice. Now that would be against all odds, and similar to getting the same sequence of 1000 coin flips twice in a row.

    So the moral of the story is this — the DI has no reason to claim design just because life turned out on this planet the way it did. It was a 1:1 certainty that it would turn out some way or another; it just so happens it turned out in a way that includes us.

    If the DI wants to find evidence of design, they need to start looking for life elsewhere in the universe, and if that life looks a lot like us, well, maybe then they would have something to hang their design hat on, but it still wouldn’t be proof.

  21. And if you are someone from the DI and you just read my explanation above, well… you know I’m right. Your ingrained religious beliefs might not let you admit it to yourself, but nonetheless, you know I’m right.

  22. Let us assume that the odds that naturalist evolution would result in such-and-such are exceedingly small. What are the odds that a super-natural cause – one which, by definition, can result in more results than natural causes can do – what are the odds that a super-naturall cause would produce such-and-such? Remember, we have no information about what the supernatural cause can do, might do, did do, or will do. What are the odds?

  23. If one casts this research in Discorrhoid terms, it could be said that Thornton and Harms went looking for Ol Dandy Grandy’s footprints and handiwork on a great many of the possible evolutionary paths to our modern-day glucocorticoid receptor — but they didn’t find any.

    Aw heck, failed again.

    As for the probabilities associated with coin-tossing, any sequence specified up front is as likely (or unlikely) as any other of the same length; i.e. a patternless string such as HTTHTHHHTH is just as likely to occur as ten heads (or tails) in a row. This is why the “improbability” argument is such a pile of nonsense: Those who make it implicitly assume that life as we know it was specified up front when there is no reason whatsoever to suppose that it was. Moreover, they also implicitly assume that there is only one instance of such figurative coin-tossing going on, when in fact there is massively parallel coin-tossing going on with “unwanted” sequences continually being trimmed away and replaced with “wanted” ones copied from previous “wanted” ones.

    As meh has pointed out, it’s this cloistered thinking that leads them astray.

  24. The only thing I’ve learned today is that the probability of me ever reading a docbill comment without twitching is vanishingly small.

  25. If you are playing a game of poker, what you rate the probability of getting the hand 7spade and 5-4-3-2clubs?
    It depends.
    It depends on how you look at the hand. For example, when I described the hand, without any more information, it would be fair to assume that the order of the cards does not make any difference. And it would be fair to assume that the particular suits make not difference (as long as they are mixed). And, most of the time, it doesn’t make any difference as being a poor hand – who cares about the details of a “7-high”?
    But it makes a difference if you are playing deuces wild. And even more, if you are playing “high-low”, where the hand I described, as being the lowest possible, represents a winning hand.
    So, if you are concerned about there being a designer of the hand, those details make a significant difference in computing the probability of the hand.

  26. [With his last flicker of consciousness as he dropped to the ground, Doc Bill hurled his 1854 Waterman fountain pen—the very instrument Chuck Darwin had used to writeOn the Origin of Species–high into the air: it must not be dishonoured by touching the soiled sidewalk of Seattle! And fortunately, Megalonyx , who happened to be passing at that very moment (an event even more improbable than the spontaneous assembly of a 747 by a tornado passing through a junkyard), sprang at once into the air and, with his superhuman strength and outsized Neanderthal anatomical proportions, deftly snatched the pen out of the air and took up recording the chronicle Doc Bill had commenced:]

    As Gauger began to lasciviously twerk, bump and grind before him, Curmy lowered the brim of his fedora, trying to obscure his view as this bizarre spectacle unfolded.

    “A figure like this don’t come by accident, random mutation, or natural selection,” Gauger hissed seductively. “This is by design. Like what you see, Big Boy?”

    Curmy raised the collar of his trench coat and averted his horrified gaze.

    “C’mon, fella,” cooed Gauger, “I like the cut of your jib. Won’t you tell a girl who you are?”

    “…My name’s Curmy. I carry a grudge.”

    “Oh my!” she whimpered. “Will you hold it against me? Make my fairy tale dream come true!”

    “Don’t tell me fairy tales, Doll Breath,” Curmy snorted in reply. “Just the facts, m’am.”

    “…Well,” Gauger sighed, her lower lip starting to quiver, “the fact is, my pal Dr. Georgia is on her way over looking for a little two-on-one ‘blogging’ action. Let me show you what I mean. You do know how to blog, don’t you? You just drop your trousers, align yourself with magnetic north, spread your cheeks apart and…squeeze!…”

    [At this point, Megalonyx was also overwhelmed by disgust and passed out—but not before he managed, as Doc Bill had so valiantly set the precedent—to hurl the hallowed 1854 Waterman into the air. Who would be next to catch it? Cardinal Gary? Tomato Addict? Pope Retiredsciguy? A.N. Other? Remember: the pen is mightier than the [edited out].]

  27. docbill1351

    It’s alive! IT’S a-LIVE!

  28. Mark Joseph

    @Steve Ruis:
    One billion seconds is about 31.7 years, so you’re actually past the two-billion second mark.

    Yes, one in 2^1000. Pretty impressive if you’ve predicted the sequence before it happens. Afterwards, not so much. I believe this is known as the Lottery Fallacy. Interesting article here.