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February 02, 2009

Debunking Darwinism #1: Natural Selection

Dnastructure (First in our twelve-part series.)

Central to Darwinian evolutionary theory is “natural selection.” Specifically, that nature “selects” modifications, based on evolutionary “fitness,” that arise from an unsupervised process of random variation. Over time, those accumulated modifications lead to ever more complex and “fit” life forms.

There’s just one catch. Before the selection process can begin, there has to be something to “select.” And that something is genes. If evolution can be thought of as manufacturing process whose product is increasingly complex organisms, then genes are its raw materials.

Genes are regions of DNA that consist of thousands to hundreds of thousands of base molecules arranged in a precise sequence. Needless to say, producing such a highly organized structure from a random, undirected process is a tall order. In fact, the chance of getting the correct sequence of molecules by happenstance is about one in ten to the thousandth power, even for the smallest gene. (Those are the same odds as landing heads on 3,000 consecutive coin flips!)

But what if the base molecules were shuffled not once, but repeatedly? Specifically, if the molecular sequence was re-arranged in every moment of time, the production of the nascent gene would be guaranteed, correct? Let’s see.

For a 15 billion year-old universe, there has been about 1017 seconds for Nature to get the arrangement right.  According to quantum theory, each of those seconds can be divided into 1043 moments of time (known as Planck time), giving Nature a whopping 1060 chances to win the “gene lotto.” Unfortunately, that is far short of the 101000 chances needed.

Okay, then; what if the shuffling process occurred in every particle of matter instead of just one? If we let all of the known 1080 particles in the cosmos in on the game, then Nature’s chance of success is increased to 10140. Still far less than what is needed. And none this accounts for the time it would take for the building blocks of matter (quarks and leptons) to form atoms; and atoms to form the molecules necessary to create something to shuffle. 

In light of all of this, even atheists like Sir Fred Hoyle have admitted, “The idea that life originated by the random shuffling of molecules is as ridiculous and improbable as proposing that a tornado blowing through a junkyard would cause the assembly of a 747!”

Hoyle is among many who now concede that the universe is neither old enough nor large enough to produce even the most elemental gene. And without genes, evolution is like a factory assembly line without anything on the conveyor belt.

(Image © U.S. National Library of Medicine)

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Earth calling Regis

Er... evolution is a cumulative process. It doesn't rely on things emerging fully-formed by chance in an instant - indeed, that's pretty much the opposite of what evolution is about. You also haven't much of an idea about probability (do you imagine that if you have a 1 in 6 chance of rolling 3 on a die, then 6 rolls are necessary to roll a 3?). And you clearly haven't done your research on Fred Hoyle, either: he certainly wasn't an atheist when he published his (faulty) 747 analogy. And are you aware that he died in 2001? Your use of the present tense suggests not.

Steve (SBK)

Just to clarify for dear "EtR",
Regis was discussing the emergence of the first genes (the building blocks for evolution):
"Before the selection process can begin, there has to be something to “select.” And that something is genes"

Interestingly, on average, 6 rolls are needed for each number to appear on a die - though of course a mindless chance enumerator wouldn't know which of the 6 is needed. But if you asked a Causal agent to turn the die to show 3, guess what?

God to Earth: "Hey! I'm a Causal agent! Sweet!".

Also, your punctilious reading ignores the robustness of the English language re: tenses and who it applies to. But, blinders are required if one wants to ignore the vast, glorious, landscape.

LeeQuod

"Earth calling Regis" wrote: "Er... evolution is a cumulative process."

One of the joys of science is all the ad hominem, couched in the sneer of "I know more about this than you". I.e., if you make the slightest mistake, or even say something that could possibly be misconstrued, then clearly you're an idiot and everything you say can be dismissed.

And in Regis's series, right out of the blocks, it's begun.

However, "Earth", Regis isn't talking about the evolutionary process. He's talking about the advent (and yes, carefully chosen word) of biochemistry, and specifically about the formation of base-pairs for DNA and RNA.

Fred Hoyle was most definitely an atheist until 1981, at which time he began to consider this very problem. After that, Hoyle became a believer in intelligent design. (Regis, do you happen to know if Hoyle was the first to use that term?)

The snarky bit about not knowing when Hoyle passed away is simply another example of "you're an idiot and I can prove it because you make mistakes and I don't". But in this case Regis said "even atheists like Sir Fred Hoyle", for whom the present tense would be entirely appropriate, covering as it does both the living and the dead. And if you pounce on "Hoyle is among many", note that this can refer to someone who held this position until his death, as Hoyle evidently did. To say "Hoyle was among many" would imply that Sir Fred held this opinion but later recanted - which he did not.

Sadly, "Earth", your posting alludes to what has been called "Hoyle's Fallacy", but you fail to show us which (if any) of Ian Musgrave's five errors has been committed by Regis. Besides, Regis is not referring to abiogenesis, but specifically to the formation of replicable base pairs.

In fact, "Earth", now you've raised my curiosity; I'll go read Dawkins's book "Climbing Mount Improbable". I'm really curious to see how one gets from polypeptides to proteins to genetic material and all the way up to a prokaryotic cell. I would wager ;-) that there is a "just so story" involved, where one must assume that the early Earth (your great-grandfather, perhaps?) was so completely different from what is observable today that all manner of improbable conditions can be carried in.

To toss a bone to those English Lit majors, if any besides Gina may have got this far, I'll say that I'm far too much like Alice to be an atheistic believer in abiogenesis. "Why, sometimes I've believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast" seems to be a requirement for believing in Darwin.

csc

I don't see a problem with the probability as stated. The author describes the probability of building a single (small) gene. How many trillions of more genes would need to form in order to survive the time/location parameters of building even a simple organism? Don't miss the gravity of the argument in analysis and presumption about the author. To assume that complex organisms arise by the combination and permutation of simpler forms defies the 2nd law of thermodynamics.

James Willis

I am glad you are doing this series, and I agree with your basic argument in principle. However I need clarification about one thing. Are you saying that Natural Selection does not occur? My understanding of Natural Selection is that it does occur, but only results in a loss of genetic information and variation within a species. This does not result in new useful information that would be necessary for Evolution to occur.

Peter Pike

Actually, Natural Selection doesn't operate on the gene level; it operates on the "population" level, at least according to Ernst Mayr in "What Evolution Is" (p. 119). This actually makes it even less likely for N.S. to come about by chance in my opinion since you're not just dealing with genes, but with many organisms of similarly grouped genes.

In any case, genes don't exist "out there"; they only have meaning within an individual organism. And then competition can only take place amongst those individuals.

Of course, by the time you are dealing with individuals in a population, beneficial genetic mutations become less relevant. That is, organisms are so complex that it is difficult to say "This particular individual survived because of this specific genetic mutation."

This is part of why Natural Selection can never *PREDICT* what will happen. Regardless of what changes you make, the individual "most adapted" to the environment (including predators, etc.) is the one that will survive, and the reason we know that is because whichever one survives must be the most adapted to the environment or else it wouldn't have survived. It's a vicious circular reasoned logic that is impossible to falsify because all evidence is taken as evidence FOR the theory, period.

So while Mr. Nicoll's math is interesting, it unfortunately doesn't deal with N.S. (as it deals with things that happen pre-N.S., according to the neo-Darwinists); but it's still useful in that it points out that even granting Darwinists a bunch of free capital they have a bankrupt system.

LeeQuod

James Willis wrote: "Are you saying that Natural Selection does not occur?"

James, asking for clarification here (with its appearance of ignorance on your part - or at least, willingness to be educated) is equivalent to offering a raw beefsteak to a pride of lions; they may not distinguish between where the steak ends and where your arm begins.

"Natural Selection", like "evolution", is a term that is sufficiently flexible that it can mean whatever the speaker wishes. You are correct in that it reduces variation, but one might call this lowercase "natural selection". Uppercase "Natural Selection" refers to what happens when a variation occurs that provides better fitness to the environment; variations that are suddenly somewhat less fit are removed.

It's interesting to think about who it is that is making the judgment call that a species is "more" or "less" fit. I remember spending a weekend contemplating how cockroaches are not currently a dominant species in terms of their proportional consumption of natural resources versus that of humans, but nonetheless cockroaches are far more prepared to survive a nuclear holocaust. So a genus (Blatella) that was surpassed yesterday by another species (Homo sapiens sapiens) and therefore apparently be less "fit" can actually be just biding its time.

Puns similar to "this topic bugs me" left to the non-scientists.

Mike D'Virgilio

I am certainly no scientist, but it seems like so much of modern science, especially as it relates to origins, is driven by unprovable assumptions and inferences that lead to supposedly what they call "fact". Can't tell how many times I've read and heard that evolution is a "fact" as if anyone who questions it is a regressive idiot. I have a post on a couple of very annoying articles (http://thecultureproject.org/the-culture-project-blog?mode=PostView&bmi=89790) about evolution that state exactly that, but in a more polite way.

When speaking of the chance that random, undirected processes could produce something as complex as a human being, let alone a slug, I don't care how many zeros one tags on a ten. Impossible is still impossible, and an infinite amount of time would not make it any more possible. If that makes me a benighted religious troglodyte so be it.

BTW, great idea for a series of posts.

Regis Nicoll

LeeQuod--The term "Intelligent Design" pre-dates Hoyle by over a century (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Intelligent_design#Origins_of_the_term). Of interest to this particular discussion is this 1873 reference by botantist Geo. Allman (this is a time, mind you, when the biolgical cell was thought to have the complexity of grandma's homemade jelly):

"No physical hypothesis founded on any indisputable fact has yet explained the origin of the primordial protoplasm, and, above all, of its marvellous properties, which render evolution possible—in heredity and in adaptability, for these properties are the cause and not the effect of evolution. For the cause of this cause we have sought in vain among the physical forces which surround us, until we are at last compelled to rest upon an independent volition, a far-seeing intelligent design."

Gregor

Regis, I respectfully submit that your blog does not actually address what is in the title, i.e., natural selection. It seems to be directed at calculating the probability of getting a gene sequence by chance. How we got the original genetic material is a very good question related to the whole subject of evolution, but it does not address natural selection. There are many documented examples of natural selection having occurred. For example, emergence of drug-resistant strains of HIV in response to drug therapy; emergence of antibiotic-resistant bacteria in response to use of antibiotics; and emergence of new strains of crop diseases and pests as a result of the widespread cultivation of monocultures of genetically-identical plants starting with a particular resistance gene. For those who are interested, Jonathan Weiner has written a delightful book, The Beak of the Finch (1994, Vintage Books) documenting scientists studying natural selection in finches on the Galapagos Islands.

If you want an easy to see example of the power of selection on organisms, look at all the breeds of dogs. All the variety in dog breeds is the result of human selection over several hundred years. In natural selection, the natural environment is the one doing the selection, rather than people.

What I am dreading in this 12 Days of Debunking Darwinism is Christians bashing the theory of evolution--actually it has already started in the blog responses. I offer the observation that most Christians who are biologists actually believe that the biological theory of evolution is the best explanation for HOW God created the diversity of life on this planet. As Chuck Colson’s Breakpoint, “The Proper Role of Science”, explained the other day, there is a difference between science and “scientism”. “Scientism”/”evolutionism”/”naturalism” is not consistent with a Christian worldview. However, I submit to you all that the biological theory of evolution can be consistent with a Christian worldview. I hope those with an open mind will consider this. Christians should not throw the baby of evolution out with the bathwater of evolutionism. There is a massive amount of evidence for evolution—just look in a college biology textbook, or look around you.

I suggest two excellent sources for those willing to consider this view. First, a short article written by Dr. Francis Collins, an evangelical Christian and former director of the Human Genome project. Can an Evangelical Believe in Evolution? See: http://www.ijfm.org/PDFs_IJFM/20_4_PDFs/109_Collins.pdf. Second, a book by Darrel Falk, a Christian biology professor, Coming to Peace with Science (2004, IVP Academic Press).

My concern is two fold. First, that Christians would have as accurate a view of the world as possible, and second that our witness to those in science would not be hindered by unnecessary baggage. I finish with a quote from St. Augustine (about 400 A.D.) from the Collins article:

“It is a disgraceful and dangerous thing for an infidel [unbeliever] to hear a Christian, presumably giving the meaning of Holy Scripture, talking nonsense on these topics; and we should take all means to prevent such an embarrassing situation in which people show up vast ignorance in a Christian and laugh it to scorn … If they find a Christian mistaken in a field which they themselves know well, and hear him maintaining his foolish opinions about our books [Scriptures], how are they going to believe those books in matters concerning the resurrection of the dead, the hope of eternal life and the kingdom of heaven, when they think their pages are full of falsehoods on facts which they themselves have learnt from experience and the light of reason?”

Ken

Gregor: Is Christianity consistent with "an unsupervised, impersonal, unpredictable and natural process of temporal descent with genetic modification that is affected by natural selection, chance, historical contingencies and changing environments"? I don't see how.

Take it from evolutionary biologist George Gaylord Simpson: "Man is the result of a purposeless and natural process that did not have him in mind."

Unsupervised, impersonal, purposeless. Sure sounds like the creative Word to me!

Mike D'Virgilio

"There is a massive amount of evidence for evolution." Really? There is a ton of evidence for micro-evolution, like in dogs and finches, but please show me where natural selection and random mutation actually created (oh, sorry) a new species.

You would think after zillions of years, or whatever, the proponents of evolution could show us all kinds of transitional species in the fossil record. But that's not a problem, because they'll show up some day. Until then, just trust us. Talk about a god of the gaps!

Separate science, true empirical evidence, from inference, conjecture, philosophy in the guise of science and untested assumptions, and I'm in. So would most every other Christian on earth. But what we are told is to accept what cannot be proved as fact. Further we are told to accept their interpretation of the evidence and where it leads. Then we are told to shut up lest the enlightened see us as backward Neanderthals. I'll take that risk.

Gregor

Ken, these quotes represent evolutionism, not theistic evolution. Simpson's comment extends into philosophical naturalism. This is where people like Dawkins go farther than the scientific evidence and extrapolate philosophically to an atheistic worldview.

LeeQuod

(begin genetics in-joke)
Welcome, Gregor! It's an honor to comment alongside you. I do hope the abbey's crop of peas is doing well.
(end genetics in-joke)

Your comment, Gregor, exposes several issues that I believe will bedevil Regis's series. One is a loose usage of the term "evolution". One of our fellow commenters has pointed out in another thread that even Young Earth Creationists believe in evolution - in fact, they (and I) believe in hyper-evolution that must have occurred to produce all of today's species from a few "kinds" aboard Noah's Ark.

So please be clear when you use the term.

Second, it is indeed possible for Christians to believe in evolution. One way that this can occur is for the Christian to do as Dr. Collins did: to leave problems with Genesis 1 as simply unsolved. Another is to ask why this question matters at all to any but the specialized scientist; one might well wonder how the Church survived for 1500 years until Galileo got that business about the movement of the Sun straightened out.

But to Regis's point, natural selection and the origin of genetic material are very much related. The main argument against Regis's position claims that precursors of genetic material were made abundant on Earth, and that proteins and nucleotides were "selected" from many "unfit" possible precursors. (See, for example, http://www.toarchive.org/faqs/abioprob/abioprob.html . And note that this posting tool, Typepad, has the habit of attaching punctuation to URLs, making them invalid - as with your link to the article by Dr. Collins.) Regis claims that even if the Earth were awash in prebiotic soup, the chance of any of that soup producing nucleotides is vanishingly small. I personally believe that even if proteins and DNA appeared, the chance of any of it being enveloped in a functional cell wall - a bilipid layer that includes both an import and an export mechanism - is even less likely - the ultimate "just so story".

(begin final wink and nudge)
My best to the other monks, and to Messrs. de Vries and Correns.
(end final wink and nudge)

Regis Nicoll

Gregor—“Natural selection” is a misnomer because, first off, “selection” implies (nay, requires!) intent, purpose, end—in short, intelligence. Since Nature is un-intelligent, it can’t “select” anything. And…even if it could, it would not, as I have shown, have anything to select. Your examples of drug-immune bacteria, pesticide-resistant insects, and the like are examples of genetic inheritance and adaptation within in-built limitations—i.e., micro-evolution -- not “natural selection” or macro-evolution. As you seem inclined to theistic evolution, you may be interested in a short piece I wrote addressing it in relation to the micro and macro varieties. (http://www.breakpoint.org/listingarticle.asp?ID=868)

labrialumn

Gregor, please remember that this is a 12 article series. It doesn't help much for you to address articles that have not been posted as a distraction, does it?

As to theistic evolution - you can have it, but you have to have a different god than the God of the Bible to do so. You have to have a god who can look at death, suffering, theft rape, murder and so forth and call that "Very Good" You can't have a God Who calls those things sin, and Who sent His only begotten Son to die in our place in atonement for those sins - for they would not be sins.

LeeQuod, even if you got a bilipid envelope, proteins and DNA, you still have no life. You have no *instruction set* written upon the blank slate of the DNA. You have no cellular mechanisms to read the DNA and produce whatever proteins, enzymes, lipids or hormones are required at a given time, or error-correction protocols and machinery, etc. The single cell is a self-replicating, computer-driven factory far more complex than humanity has ever designed.

Ken

Gregor: So who gets to be in charge of defining the word "evolution"? The first quote is from the National Association of Biology Teachers. That's what they said should be the definition of evolution taught in the public schools. This is the public face of evolutionary biology.

Theistic evolutionists have had a long and weary experience playing monkeys in the middle, if you'll pardon the pun. They are considered useful idiots by the hardline naturalists in evolutionary biology and compromisers by the creationists. They occupy an unenviable place.

LeeQuod

labrialumn wrote: "LeeQuod, even if you got a bilipid envelope, proteins and DNA, you still have no life."

Y'know, lab old friend, I hardly expected to be told "Get a life!" by anyone in this particular thread. ;-) But you do it nicer than anyone else, and even with data...

And of course you're absolutely right that a cell is far more than a bilipid sac with biochemicals mixed in. My point was to even get to that nonliving phase - a necessary but insufficient condition - requires far more "non-supernatural miracles" than I can tolerate.

labrialumn

LeeQuod, LOL, yes, I burst out laughing. I didn't see that reading of what I wrote when I posted it! :-)

I was just adding on (as EtR unwittingly did) that even if you somehow achieve the utterly improbable (beyond the number of possible actions within the entire hypothesized lifespan of the universe) you still have unimaginably far yet to go to have even a single living cell, than you have yet achieved. Which you agree with.

James Willis

Thank you for your comment about the Lions, but I was curious about Regis' take on whether "Natural Selection" occured. I realize that as soon as we define a term those on both sides will try to twist that definition to suit their arguments, but I also believe words do have actual meanings. I actually respect Darwin and believe he made some important discoveries, but as other scientists have done in the past he went beyond science into the realm of Philosophy and belief in his conclusions. All untestable, unobservable theories fall into this realm.

Regis Nicoll

James--Take at look at my response to "Gregor."

Rick Frank

Fred Hoyle's Book, The Intelligent Universe, is an interesting read. I read it when it came out, and still have a copy. He doesn't really say much AGAINST evolution - but he does say that he believed that viruses from outer space drove evolutionary change, and that life was probably COMMON throughout the universe. The viruses come from cosmic dust and asteroids, and this was the beginning of the panspermia thinking. Yes, he did use the 747 analogy, but as someone else pointed out, that is about ultimate creation, not about evolution. Or, you might say it's about initilal conditions - that is, conditional probability P(a|b) that is to say, given the initial conditions of the universe (b) what is the probablity that life would arise (a). I don't think Natural Selection is really about origins of life. It is about evolution of species, and the conditional probabilities. So, given P(a|b), if b is that the universe is created friendly to carbon based life, the the likely hood of certain types of biology is higher than others.
Fred Hoyle's book also has, to my recollection, really nothing to say about religion. His concept of an intelligent universe really reminds me of Buddhism, and the work of Alan Watts. I am not religious, but that doesn't mean I can't think that the "Universe" is intelligent. If I consider myself "Intelligent", and I am part of the Universe (how could I not be), then the Universe is at least somewhat intelligent, at least as expressed by my doing this and that in what I think is an intelligent manner. The Universe is at least "conscious" of itself through my eyes (and yours).

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