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Our future, our universe, and other weighty topics


Thursday, September 24, 2015

New Scientific Paper Is Bad News for “Blind Watchmaker” Theorists

The “blind watchmaker” thesis advanced by people like Richard Dawkins is that we can believe the most remarkable products of evolution were produced without any intelligent designer being involved, because natural selection (with the help of random genetic mutations) is capable of acting like a designer. According to such a thesis, natural selection and random mutations are the “blind watchmaker.” But do we actually have good evidence that natural selection and random mutations are capable of such creative marvels, that they are capable of acting like a watchmaker?

Below I will look at some of the things that are typically cited as evidence that natural selection and random mutations can act like a watchmaker, and explain why they don't work to establish such a thesis.

You don't show that natural selection and random mutations acted like a watchmaker by discussing that some disease has evolved to be more antibiotic resistant.

One item commonly cited to support the idea of the power of natural selection is the fact that certain diseases have evolved to become more antibiotic resistant. But the changes that a microorganism needs to make to become antibiotic resistant are trivial from a structural standpoint (compared to the changes needed for the evolution of something like the human eye or the human brain). Antibiotics are designed in the lab to exactly conform to a particular microorganism, rather in the same way that a particular key is designed to match a particular lock. It is therefore often relatively easy for a microorganism to change in some way that makes it resistant to an antibiotic, just by changing a little so that the “key no longer fits the lock.” In other cases, the bacteria just chemically neutralizes the antibiotic, which doesn't require any new watch-like functionality in the microbe.

You don't show that natural selection and random mutations acted like a watchmaker by discussing some change in the appearance of moths.

Another item commonly cited to support the idea of the power of natural selection is the fact that moths have evolved to have camouflage that matches trees that have been blackened by industrial pollution. But any change in the appearance of an organism is a merely cosmetic type of change that is very trivial compared to the changes needed for the evolution of something like the human eye or the human brain. Color changes in moths may show that natural selection and random mutations may act as a “watch painter,” but does not show that they can act as anything like a watchmaker.

You don't show that natural selection and random mutations acted like a watchmaker by discussing some change in the digestive capabilities of microorganisms.

The longest ongoing lab experiment on evolution is one that has been run by Richard Lenski at Michigan State University. The experiment has recorded something like 50,000 generations of bacteria. The main example of evolutionary change shown is that somewhere along the line the bacteria developed an ability to “metabolize citrate.” But that is very trivial compared to the changes needed for the evolution of something like the human eye or the human brain. So such a finding does not at all show that natural selection can act like a watchmaker, nor does any other thing discovered by Lenski.

You don't show that natural selection and random mutations acted like a watchmaker by discussing some change in the lactose intolerance of humans.

The claim that there is evidence for a change in the lactose intolerance of humans is one of the first things that comes up when I do a Google search for evidence for natural selection. But even if such evidence exists, it is only evidence of a minor change, not something that can be used to establish the thesis that natural selection and random mutations can act like a watchmaker.

You don't show that natural selection and random mutations acted like a watchmaker by discussing some change in the age of first reproduction (AFR) for humans.

The claim that there is evidence for an earlier age of first reproduction (AFR) in humans is another of the first things that comes up when I do a Google search for evidence for natural selection. But even if such evidence exists, it is only evidence of a minor change, not something that can be used to establish the thesis that natural selection and random mutations can act like a watchmaker.

You don't show that natural selection and random mutations acted like a watchmaker by discussing any changes whatsoever in microbes.

Here I may simply note that to demonstrate that natural selection and random mutations acted like a watchmaker you actually have to show that they make dramatic innovations in visible organisms. No microscopic changes in organisms too small to see can properly be compared to the manufacture of a visible watch.

You don't show that natural selection and random mutations were like a watchmaker by discussing changes in the beaks of finches.

Darwin observed that on different islands in the Galapagos, different finches had different sizes for their beaks. But this doesn't show any “watchmaker” capability for natural selection and random mutations. For one thing, the gene pool may have already had a variety of genes for a variety of beak sizes, before such finches even got on these islands. For another thing, such a variation doesn't show that natural selection and random mutations produced the innovation of the finch beak. If Darwin had observed an animal without beaks evolve into an animal with beaks, that might have been a different matter.

You don't show that natural selection and random mutations were like a watchmaker by merely showing that natural selection has occurred.

Some scientists try to look for statistical evidence of natural selection in the genome. There have been many such studies, and the statistical approaches used are a matter of controversy. I merely note that you do not at all prove that natural selection and random mutations can act like a watchmaker simply by showing that natural selection exists or that it can have measurable effects. It's still perfectly possible that natural selection exists but is entirely incapable (even with random mutations) of producing impressive macroscopic biological functionality such as the human eye or the human brain.

When people try to show that natural selection and random mutations can act like a watchmaker, they typically follow the same general pattern. They present a few examples of microevolution (small scale changes) that they claim are caused by natural selection and random mutations, and then imply that we can assume that macroevolution (dramatic structural or intellectual innovations) are also caused by natural selection and random mutations. This is a little like someone showing that a horse can jump over a puddle, and then asking us to infer from this that a horse can jump over a lake. It is all too possible that natural selection and random mutations are capable of producing minor examples of microevolution but not capable of producing the more dramatic examples of macroevolution such as the appearance of the human eye and brain.

But is there any way that you could prove natural selection and random mutations act like a watchmaker? Yes, in theory there is. But it has never been done, and would be a nightmare to do, as it would take ages.

Imagine how the project might be executed. After building some special testing environment (perhaps some special large building or zoo), you would start out with a population of some large species with a lifespan of more than decade. You would take samples of the DNA of each organism in such a population. You would then monitor such a population over many generations, frequently taking DNA samples to see how the DNA was changing. Since a generation for such organisms would take at least a year, the project would have to probably last for thousands of years. All in all, it would be a project more difficult than landing men on Mars. No one has ever done such a project, or even one tenth of such a project.

Darwinists say that natural selection is aided by random changes in DNA caused by things such as random mutations and copying errors. There's a simple two-word phrase that we can use to concisely describe such random variations in a genome. The phrase is “DNA typos.” Even though such changes are not caused by someone typing the wrong key on a keyboard, the underlying effect is very much analogous to the effect produced when you type the wrong key on your keyboard – a random change is made in a previous body of information.

So here is the equation that Darwinists want you to believe in:

DNA typos + “survival of the fittest” = the appearance of amazing new functionality more intricate than a watch (for example, the human eye and the human brain).

There is something very implausible-sounding about this equation. It doesn't sound right; it doesn't ring true to our ears; and the validity of this equation has not been proven. One reason it doesn't sound right is that 99.99% of all typos degrade information rather than improve it. (As the paper cited in the next paragraph says, “It is now generally recognized that beneficial mutations are rare, and that high-impact beneficial mutations are extremely rare.”)

Last week four scientists (one from Cornell University) published a scientific paper entitled “The Waiting Time Problem in a Model Hominem Population,” which was published in the journal Theoretical Biology and Medical Modelling. Using a computer simulation, they “simulated a classic pre-human hominin population of at least 10,000 individuals, with a generation time of 20 years, and with very strong selection (50 % selective elimination).” They were basically trying to see how long it would take before you got a mutation consisting of two nucleotides (which is a fairly minor mutation, only some tiny fraction of the mutations needed for the evolution of human intelligence). This is called the “waiting time problem.” The authors summarize their results as follows:

Biologically realistic numerical simulations revealed that a population of this type required inordinately long waiting times to establish even the shortest nucleotide strings. To establish a string of two nucleotides required on average 84 million years. To establish a string of five nucleotides required on average 2 billion years. We found that waiting times were reduced by higher mutation rates, stronger fitness benefits, and larger population sizes. However, even using the most generous feasible parameters settings, the waiting time required to establish any specific nucleotide string within this type of population was consistently prohibitive. 

Here is a visual from their paper, which shows a "waiting time" of some 5 billion years to get a crummy little six-nucleotide mutation.



This is a result that positively screams at us that natural selection and random mutations aren't up to the job of being a watchmaker. In order for us to explain the marvels of evolutionary innovations, we should begin to think about principles far deeper than random mutations and natural selection. 

Part of the problem is that the early human population was believed to be very small, and the smaller the population, the harder it is to get natural selection and random mutations to work as an explanation for dramatic biological innovations. As the authors of the paper say at the end of their paper:

In small populations the waiting time problem appears to be profound, and deserves very careful examination. To the extent that waiting time is a serious problem for classic neo-Darwinian theory, it is only reasonable that we begin to examine alternative models regarding how biological information arises. 

But you may protest: I can't believe that our evolutionary biologists may have blundered by giving us the wrong explanation of the main cause of evolution. But consider all the silliness going on in theoretical physics and cosmology. Quite a few of our theoretical physicists try to sell the silliest theory imaginable (the groundless theory of parallel universes, that there are an infinite number of copies of you and me). Quite a few others bombastically sell theories such as string theory (for which there is no compelling evidence). Sometimes lacking in the intellectual humility they should have, our cosmologists often claim to know details about the first second of the universe's history, which they back up by overselling (and routinely describing as factual) a dubious, problematic theory (the cosmic inflation theory) for which there is no good evidence (although there is evidence for the broader idea of the Big Bang). Many of our theoretical physicists and cosmologists also try to sell us almost infinitely extravagant multiverse theories which actually explain nothing. Such thinkers even sometimes make highly incorrect statements while selling such groundless theories, such as this outrageous misstatement: “It is important to keep in mind that the multiverse view is not actually a theory, it is rather a consequence of our current understanding of theoretical physics."  So why should you not think that our swaggering evolutionary biologists such as Dawkins have been guilty of the same type of intellectual sins – sins such as explanatory overconfidence and overselling of dubious explanations which they haven't proven? 

Postscript: See the link here for a 2-sentence statement signed by hundreds of scientists and PhD's.  The statement states exactly the following:

We are skeptical of claims for the ability of random mutation and natural
selection to account for the complexity of life. Careful examination of the
evidence for Darwinian theory should be encouraged