Like Watching a Hummingbird Fly

As previously mentioned, here is my second installment on chapter two of Coyne’s book. As this chapter makes apparent, long stretches of time are essential to the project of evolutionary hand-waving, a process whereby impossible things are made more plausible to us by having them happen very, very slowly. Don’t think I can walk across that swimming pool? Watch this as I inch my way out there. Bet I can do it if a spend three months at it. Time fixes all implausibilities.

Going with Coyne’s figure of 600 million years of evolution in 4th gear, after leaving out those halcyon days of one-celled organisms just bobbing about, not to mention the subsequent time of the eukaryotes (p. 28), and not messing with leap years, we come up with, using a simple arithmetical process, 219,000,000,000 days available for evolution. Roll that around in your mind for a moment. All the marvels that evolution has wrought were accomplished in a matter of countable days. This has ramifications.

I said earlier that I was going to be offering a variation on Haldane’s Dilemma, but before getting to my version, let my brother Gordon (the scientist) explain Haldane.

“That said, we know the entire genomes of both humans and chimps. There are 40-45 million nucleotide bases present in humans that are missing from chimps, as well as about the same number present in chimps that are absent from humans. This amounts to ~40 million separate mutation events that would need to occur to separate these two kinds. These two creatures are supposedly separated by 300,000 generations. This means that about 133 mutations need to be fixed in a population’s genome every generation. This is a huge problem and is called “Haldane’s Dilemma” because it is empirically untenable to assume that that staggering number of mutations could be fixed in comparatively few number of generations. ‘Fixed in a population’ means that it can’t just happen to one individual. A beneficial mutation needs to spread to most members of the population and that has to happen by passing it down to your descendants with the help of natural selection promoting the mutation’s success. This of course requires several generations to let it spread.”

In this form, evolutionists think they have enough of an answer to dismiss creationists as chumps for advancing it, and for those interested, you can always pursue it further. In my view, this kind of response is just more hand-waving, but allow me to restate the problem in a variant form. Here the problem is more statistical and mathematical, while Haldane’s problem was more strictly biological. The common factor in these arguments is the amount of time available for what needed to have happened.

Coyne tells us that the estimated number of species that have lived could be as high as 4 billion (p. 22). Let’s take that number to illustrate the point, knowing that the same point can still be made with a different number.

With four billion species out there, let us surmise a crazy low number of genetic changes in one species to turn it into another one — ten changes, let’s say. But ten changes per species with four billion species means that we need forty billion beneficial mutations in order to account for all these different species that showed up at one time or another. So let’s divide this 40 billion into how many days we are working with. That means that in the history of evolution, a beneficial mutation would need to be happening, on average, somewhere on earth to some critter every 5 or 6 days or so.

But wait. In order to “register” as a beneficial change, making room for the next change to also register, it has to confer a survival advantage — because the central mechanism that makes evolution go is natural selection. But it has to confer this survival advantage in less than a week.

Now I am not assuming that all species are lined up in a series, with a direct line from our most distant ancestor straight down to us. In short, I am not assuming “no cousins.” I am not lining all these species up in a straight line, as though there were no cousins or distant cousins. I am just saying that something marvelous has to be happening in evolutionary history constantly, somewhere on the planet. A number of these lines can be running in parallel, but the ones that successfully make it to the next species have to be running in series for their ten changes at some point. The bridge has to make it all the way across the river.

In order to register in the fossil record, in most instances it has to make it all the way across the bridge to the next species, since we have very few transitional forms in hand. But this means that the statistical average time span for the transition from one species to another would be just over a couple of months. It needn’t be this quick for all of them, of course. I am just talking about the averages.

If evolution happened in a matter of countable days, and if we have had as many species as we have, we can calculate what the average pace of beneficial evolutionary events would have to have been. And remember, if you stretch out the time for one transition to happen with any ancestor, you are shortening the time available for any descendants.

One other thing. The odds of flipping a coin to heads ten times in a row is 1 in 1024. Those are the odds for our ten changes from species to species if each change presented itself as a simple heads/tails possibility. But of course, mutations present many more options than just two. I will leave the rest of that to our statistician friends out there. Suppose at each genetic fork in the road there were just ten options instead of two. The coins have 9 sides other than heads. What would the odds be of flipping the right choice ten times in a row then? And remember, when you have flipped, you don’t just look at it and say heads. You have to wait 6 days (on average) to see if any survival advantage was conferred.

Now make the final adjustment. Ten changes from species to species is absurdly low. A one in ten chance for the mutation to be beneficial is absurdly low. The chances that we will get identifiable survival advantage in less than a week is absurdly low. Get yourself a real calculator, one that goes up to the decillions, and enter the real numbers. The one thing you will not be able to do after that point is dismiss as an idiot someone who has trouble believing in this high speed miracle of yours with no God around. For mark my words, once the real numbers are entered, observing the process of evolution would be like watching a hummingbird fly.

The trouble for evolutionists is that they set the evolutionary chronology back when we had no idea of the staggering complexities that go into even one-celled organisms. The chronological framework was set for them, and poured into concrete, back when we thought 600 million years was plenty of time. It reminds me of the time when I had a computer that had 10 megabytes of memory, which I thought cavernous. And the more complexity we find, which we are doing all the time, the more we have to fit into our 219,000,000,000 days. That’s days, people.

It is starting to look as though we won’t have to even speed that time lapse camera up, and what I really want to do is go watch it in an IMax theater.

That’s A Rabbit, You Doofus

Comes now chapter two of Jerry Coyne’s book, called Written in the Rocks. It will take a post or two to deal with this chapter, so patience, all of you.

My first post will address the structure of his argumentation, and later I will look at the time involved in all this — my own variation on what is called Haldane’s Dilemma.

First, we may take as an indicator of how Coyne represents data generally by how he represents the position of his adversaries. He refers to the “creationist prediction that all species must appear suddenly and then remain unchanged” (p. 32). As stated, this is simplistic and wrong, and when he tries to qualify it a moment later, he misrepresents even as he qualifies.

“Even some creationists will admit that minor changes in size and shape might occur over time — a process called microevolution — but they reject the idea that one very different kind of animal or plant can some from another (macroevolution)” (pp. 32-33)

It is not “some creationists admit that changes might happen.” It is all creationists insist changes have happened. Variation within kinds, including significant variation, is not something that any competent creationist denies. Indeed, it is an essential part of the creationist model.

That said, here is the problem with the structure of Coyne’s argument. Recall the elementary school exercise where the teacher would give you ten vocabulary words and your job was to write a creative little story using those words. But with such an exercise, it is hard to get things wrong, as long as you complete the assignment. The story is yours to write. But suppose the situation were more like what we have before us in the fossil record. Suppose you had a set number of vocabulary words, and your job was to reconstruct the book they came from — War and Peace, say. The fossils we have are the vocabulary words we have to use, and the entire history of all living organisms is the book we must reconstruct. Suppose further that the words we had to work with came down to us entirely and completely by chance, brought to us by wind and tide.

How much do we know? What happens when we hold it up against what we don’t know? Coyne acknowledges part of this, and is oblivious to the other. Here they are — one, two.

“We can estimate that we have fossil evidence of only 0.1 percent to 1 percent of all species — hardly a good sample of the history of life” (p. 22).

Well stated, good start, but . . .

“Nevertheless, we have enough fossils to give us a good idea of how evolution proceeded” (p. 22).

The results of the rest of the chapter are akin to what happened with the Piltdown man — building up quite a story about Mr. and Mrs. Piltdown, and all from the tooth of an extinct pig. There is no dispute that Coyne is using all his assigned vocabulary, and he is doing so creatively and with great ingenuity. He is a learned man. But the novel he has reconstructed is not War and Peace, but rather Tom Swift and the Alien Robot.

It might be complained that my illustration of a novel is unfair because words don’t have a lineage from earlier words used in the book, and what we have with evolution is a huge, gigantic family tree. Right — and 99% of the tree is missing, and you are trying to reconstruct it, on the supposition that it is a tree, and you don’t even know that, and you are doing it with a dogmatic and serene aplomb.

“No theory of special creation or any theory other than evolution, can explain these patterns” (p. 29).

Oh. Glad somebody told us. There we were, wasting our time . . . Actually, I would be glad to acknowledge that the creationism he has in his mind is not able to explain these patterns, because the creationism he is fighting with in there is unable by definition to explain anything.

So let me change the illustration. You are doing genealogical research of a family over 100,000 years, and all you have is photographs of .01 percent of the noses, and no, no records, no family Bibles, and so on. You don’t even know if it is a family line. Now comparing what you actually know (your nose photographs) with what you acknowledge you do not and cannot know (everything else), could we have a little humility please?

One final comment, not so much an argument.

“Asked what observation could conceivably disprove evolution, the curmudgeonly biologist J.B.S Haldane reportedly growled, “Fossil rabbits in the Precambrian!” (p. 53).

I just want to state for the record that if I ever found one, I wouldn’t bother to take it in, knowing that I could not be believed. “What do you mean Precambrian? That’s a rabbit, you doofus.”

Occam’s Shaving Kit

Jerry Coyne’s first chapter of Why Evolution Is True begins with something of a patronizing quotation from Jacques Monod. “A curious aspect of the theory of evolution is that everybody thinks he understands it” (p. 1) Well, excuse us.

But after that, he starts at the right place, which is the appearance of design. Coyne quotes Paley’s form of the argument from design, which he then calls “both commonsensical and ancient” (p. 2). Beginning this way, Coyne acknowledges that evolutionists must walk up something of an incline until we all come out on the sunny uplands of enlightenment. That incline is the fact that the appearance of design is all around us. Coyne believes, however, that if we just define our terms properly, the problem evaporates.

Let me begin with his definition of evolution, followed by a brief definition of the six constituent elements of it.

“Life on earth evolved gradually beginning with one primitive species — perhaps a self-replicating molecule — that lived more than 3.5 billion years ago; it then branched out over time, throwing off many new and diverse species; and the mechanism for most (but not all) of evolutionary change is natural selection” (p. 3).

The six components of this are as follows — evolution, gradualism, speciation, common ancestry, natural selection, and evolutionary change by nonselective means (p. 3). Evolution means that genetic changes occur over time. Gradualism means that the time involved is a long time. Speciation means that different groups split, and go their separate ways, developing in different directions over time. Common ancestry is the “flip side of speciation” (p. 8), pointing out that all these variegated species didn’t used to be variegated — they came from a common source. Natural selection is what accounts for the appearance of design. It is that when there are genetic mutations in a group, and some of those differences provide a survival advantage, then those helpful differences will be passed on down the line. Survival-friendly genes have a “unfair” advantage. The last tenet is that some events may help out with evolution without using natural selection, as, for example, when different groups have differing numbers of offspring. This means that some changes “have nothing to do with adaptation” (p. 13).

Okay, so back to Paley. When we find a watch in the woods, we may infer a watchmaker. Not so fast, Coyne says, and then provides us with an alternative way of getting to the watch. Now most creationist critiques at this point show that it is not quite so simple as all that, and argue with the alternative way of getting to the watch. I am entirely on board with all of that, but want to make another point. But before getting to my different point, however, let me just tip my hat to the traditional critiques — which I will no doubt be offering myself later on in this book review. For one example, the chasm between inorganic and organic is enormous, and it is a gap for which Coyne’s six component parts of evolution have absolutely no relevance. So what happened there? For another example, why should any of the genetic changes confer any survival advantage at all? And so forth.

But here is the different point, one that grants, for the sake of the argument, that Coyne has offered us a way of getting to a watch without a watchmaker. That still doesn’t prove that there was no watchmaker . . . but Coyne thinks it does.

Once the mechanism of natural selection was pointed out, Coyne thinks the discussion is over.

“The more one learns about plants and animals, the more one marvels at how well their designs fit their ways of life. What could be more natural than inferring that this fit reflects conscious design? Yet Darwin looked beyond the obvious, suggesting — and supporting with copious evidence — two ideas that forever dispelled the idea of deliberate design. Those ideas were evolution and natural selection” (p. 3).

Now look at what he does here. There are two possible explanations for something, one kind of obvious, and the other far-fetched. Darwin, and Coyne after him, show that the far-fetched option is a possibility, yay, and Coyne therefore thinks this “forever dispelled” the other option. But to show that something with the appearance of design might have been the result of an impersonal process does not show that it had to have been the result of an impersonal process. How could that follow? To go from the possibility of no God to the certainty of no God is an exercise in wish fulfillment.

If Paley’s companion, arguing with him, showed (with copious evidence) that the watch could have assembled itself, why can Paley not still reply that he thinks it is simpler to surmise that somebody lost his watch. “Look. There is a name inscribed on the back of it. William of Occam. And here’s his shaving kit. It has a razor in it.”

This is to argue, in effect, that if there is the slightest possibility that there is no God, then we must conclude decisively that there is no God. But to go from “there might not be a designer” to “there must not be a designer” is a great leap — almost as great as the leap from inorganic to organic, and like that earlier chasm, there is no natural selection to help you get across it.

This is because bad arguments, being inorganic, don’t have any genetic material.