Saturday, January 16, 2010

Questions to a Scientist


Several years ago I exchanged email with Douglas L. Theobald, a Postdoctoral Fellow in the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry University of Colorado at Boulder and the author of 29 proofs of macroevolution . He was kind enough to answer two questions which I have concerning evolution. I greatly appreciate his patience.

My first question concerned the probability of evolution occurring:

It seems to me that the concept of evolution might be compared to the concept of an illiterate author.

Let's say that someone wanted to publish books and become a great author. But he was totally illiterate. He could not read or write one word; letters looked to him like meaningless scratches on the page.

So he came up with a solution. He would buy a printing press, open a bookstore, start printing and make more copies of whatever sold. At first he just arranged his printing type at random, printed and put the results on the shelves. No one bought anything since it was all gibberish. He threw all these failures into the recycling bin and continued printing. Eventually, purely by chance, one small booklet actually made sense and in fact became a best seller. So he kept printing more copies of it. Occasionally, there would be some typographical error in the printing, purely by chance. A page would be smudged, a line would be missing. Generally these errors would cause the book to be unpurchased and it would be thrown into recycling. However once in a while a typo would add more meaning to a copy of the book - a few interesting new sentences. People would ask for more copies of it. That typo would be then be faithfully reproduced by the illiterate author. Gradually entire new books developed through this process of random typographical errors and customer selection. Eventually, the inventory in the book shop had expanded to include tens of millions of titles including novels, plays, poetry, scientific textbooks, history, biography, huge dictionaries and encyclopedias and so on. In fact, these books were actually far more beautiful and profound than books ever written by any human author. All produced by a totally illiterate author through a process of random printing, typos and customer selection over a very long period of time.

Needless to say most people, including most mathematicians, would be very skeptical about this story of an illiterate author. Even given billions of years and billions of illiterate authors making the attempt it seems to be ridiculously unlikely that it could ever happen. However this is exactly what evolutionists consider to be the origin of life - nature is a mindless engineer, combining molecules at random until some became self reproducing. Then random mutations and natural selection combine together to create all the diversity and complexity we see in life around us.

Dr. Theobald answered me as follows:

Your analogy is, for the most part, sound. However, there are several points to be made. First, just because you think something is astounding has very little relevance to its scientific validity. There are all kinds of things in science that amaze me: particles behave as waves and tunnel through walls, Euclidean geometry does not work in the real world, stars are billions of miles away, invisible radiowaves are carrying messages all around me (and through me) right now, etc. Our amazement is irrelevant; the real question is whether the amazing thing is true or not. Second, your insinuation that "most mathematicians [are] skeptical" of random mutation and natural selection is false. As it turns out, the mathematics of genetics is extremely rigorous and a large field in its own right (and has been for 100 years), and there is no contradiction between what the math says and what biological genomes show. For example, see morphological rates and genetic rates.


As far as the Internet references which Dr. Theobald provides, as I understand them, the first demonstrates that if we measure the rate of change which is observed to occur within species, as a result of selective breeding or environmental pressures, and extrapolate this same rate of change over geological time, we should in fact see evolution progressing far more rapidly than the geological record indicates. In other words, if a breeder can breed a Great Dane from a coyote in 200 years, he should be able to breed an elephant from a coyote in 5,000 years. I think most animal breeders would be highly skeptical of such an assertion.

The second reference indicates that genetic mutations occur sufficiently frequently to account for the transformation of an ape into a human in approximately 6 million years. This seems to assume that all mutations add reproductive value to their recipient (or, in my analogy, they are good typos which add to the marketability of the book), while in reality few if any do. Click here for more detail.

As I understand it, Dr. Theobald is conceding that the evolution is difficult to believe, however, like many other amazing events, it may nevertheless actually have taken place. It should be obvious however that extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. If I claim that I ate breakfast this morning with my wife, little evidence would be required to convince someone. If I claim that I ate breakfast this morning with President Obama, stronger evidence would be needed.

Since evolution allegedly occurred during eons of prehistoric time, the only possible direct evidence of evolution would be the fossil remains of animals in the process of evolving. Therefore I asked Dr. Theobald about the strength of this evidence:

Animals which have only soft body parts, of course, may not be preserved as fossils. Also, terrestrial animals may seldom be fossilized because when they die their bodies lie exposed and are usually quickly destroyed. However marine animals which have bones or shells are often fossilized as they die and their bodies fall to the ocean floor and are covered by sediment. This sediment turns to stone and creates fossils. According to Darwin, we should therefore today have a beautiful record of the gradual transition, in millions of tiny steps, from the earliest vertebrates over 510 million years ago up to modern fish about 200 million years ago. There should be a detailed record in the fossils of every branch of fish evolution. In fact, that is not the case. New species appear suddenly in the fossil record. And to claim that indeed fish evolution did take place, however new species always originated in small, isolated bodies of water whose fossils have been lost is a poor excuse. Darwin wrote in "Origin of Species" chapter 10 at the end: "Those who believe that the geological record is in any degree perfect, will undoubtedly at once reject the theory [of evolution]." Not very much has changed since then.


Dr. Theobald answered me as follows:

Actually, much has changed since then, as we have found many many more fossils, esp. transitional forms that were predicted by evolutionary theory. Darwin was correct in his statement above -- but it is the highest absurdity, given what we know about geology and fossilization, to think that "geological record is in any degree perfect".


As I understand him, Dr. Theobald is agreeing that some, however not very strong, direct evidence of evolution exists.

For more details about the problem of transitional fossils, click here.


I would suggest that each reader review the above dialogue carefully and draw his own conclusions.

33 comments:

Anonymous said...

according to a recent study, it would take 200,000,000 for an adaptation that requires only two mutations to spread through a population of organisms that repoduce at the rate of humans.

Alex said...

For the edification of your readers, kindly post a link to Ashby Camp's rebuttal, plus Theobald's counter-rebuttal, plus Camp's counter-counter-rebuttal.

(PS, I assume Anonymous above means 200,000,000 years.

Anon2 said...

JP, I must compliment you on a thoughtful and honest post.

Given what you have said, here is why I do accept evolution:

1. First, regarding what you term "direct evidence", the fossils. Everything we know about the past will consist of evidence that is incomplete, fragmented, with gaps. So direct physical evidence (which is still circumstantial since we cant directly observe it happening) will always be weak, by your definition, including the fields of geology, archeology, etc. There is no perfect complete physical record of anything from long ago. How do we know that Herod's Temple existed? The physical evidence is certainly incomplete, but when you complement that with other documentation, you get an overwhelming picture that it existed and more or less how it looked.

2. I would agree with you that if the fossil record were the only evidence for evolution all by itself, that would not be enough. But when you combine it with the overwhelming evidence of common origin of species, including physical morphology, many intermediate forms in the fossil record, and in the DNA coding, along with the evolutionary drift that we are able to observe in our present time frame, the evidence becomes much stronger.

3. Finally, what makes evolution "difficult to believe"? I think it is the time frames involved which are extremely difficult for the human brain to conceptualize. Think about that we use scientific notation so that the mantissa is between 1 and 9 because that is what we are most comfortable with. We can imagine 10 or 20 things but even 100-200 starts becoming difficult to create a picture, so imagine 100s of billions of years, and in statistics, can you conceptualize a 1 in a 10 million chance?

But, as you said, the math actually does work out, in terms of rates of mutation and time. There are alot of paradoxes like that. (The "shell game paradox" comes to mind)

So if the physical conditions on earth are favorable, evolution can and does happen.

Now with all of physics, you can say its god behind it if you want and I have no problem with a naturalistic definition. Same with evolution (which is what people like Collins do).

But it cannot be reconciled with the Biblical version of creation.

Anonymous said...

Anon2:

What makes evolution difficult to believe the tremendous, highly complex nature of life at every level. It is very difficult to accept that this is all the result of a random process.

jewish philosopher said...

In my opinion, the problems with evolution are insurmountable.

It's the rough equivalent of saying that since in the Library of Congress very old books are different than newer books, yet all books show some similarities we may presume that books were not intelligently written but rather evolved spontaneous through copying errors and customer selection. Of course no one sane would suggest this.

I don't see a problem with the fossils
http://jewishphilosopher.blogspot.com/2008/09/how-i-understand-genesis.html

Anonymous said...

Since we are talking about big numbers, I thought I'd mention some. Scientists say that proteins can evovle from homologpus proteins without a lot of difficulty. The problem is that proteins can be called closely homologous even if they are up to 20% different in there amino acuid sequences. Now that means that in a protein of 100 amino acids long, which is actually small for a protein, you might have to change up to 20 amino acids in a very specific way. You will have to chnage more if it is not closely homologous. The chances of changing 20 amino acids in a specific way is 20^20 which is ~10^26. The universe is only ~4.7*10^17 seconds old. That means that if a new amino acid configuration appears every second, it would still tale ~10^8 lifetimes of the entire universe before there is a good chance it will happen. Please correct me if I'm mistaken.

Anonymous said...

Alex;

Yes, that was a typo. I meant 200,000,000 years. That's way too long. And that's just for two mutations.


Behe discusses mutation rates in his book "The Edge of Evolution." His work is based entirely on empirical observations. He concludes that micro-organisms, due to their numbers and rapid reproduction, can evolve adaptations that require only two mutations. More than that, and there just isn't enough time.

Anon2 said...

Its a question of using inference and deciding which theory makes the most sense of the facts.

Ahavah Gayle said...

The problem with "breeding a great dane from a coyote" is that the breeder has to diligently work extremely hard to overcome the livestock breeder's bane: reversion to mean. In nature it could simply never occur. The one creature with the desireable trait would necessarily mate with one that didn't have it - and it would be washed out in only a couple of generations unless it was (accidentally and randomly) an extremely strong dominant gene that reproduced itself perfectly - not likely for a self-confessed mutant.

Anon2 said...

Anonymous, I don't know about your numbers, but it is not consistent even with the rates the JP mentions in his post, and is also contrary to common sense. 200 million years for an adaptation to spread?

And, since you are skeptical of scientists, maybe the author of your study was lying.

Alex said...

OK, I'll give the links myself:

http://www.talkorigins.org/faqs/comdesc/default.html 29+ evidences for Macro Evolution by Douglass Theobald

Rebuttal by Ashby Camp: http://www.trueorigin.org/theobald1a.asp

Rebuttal by Theobald: http://www.talkorigins.org/faqs/comdesc/camp.html

Counter-rebuttal by Camp:
http://www.trueorigin.org/ca_ac_01.asp

Beware, find a spare hour or two.

If anyone finds a rebuttal to that fourth link, please do share it.

Anonymous said...

Anon2:

Here's the original paper:


http://www.genetics.org/cgi/content/full/180/3/1501


And, again, I don't always assume scientists are lying, but when people tell me to believe what they say, even if it goes against the evidence and common sense, then I say that I am justified in being skeptical.

Shalmo said...

Quick queston. Why do we believe in the Holocaust?

Because there are thousands of corroborating records for it. Same with evolution. Unless there is a conspiracy I don't know about, all these millions of scientists the world over can't all be coming to same conclusion through the biological sciences unless there was some truth in what they are seeing.

Where atheists get it wrong is their claim on the magic of randomness. Randomness does not produce the complexity of life we have today.

Life would be easier for all parties involved if they accepted God-driven evolution as only true solution to the whole scenario

jewish philosopher said...

"Unless there is a conspiracy I don't know about, all these millions of scientists the world over can't all be coming to same conclusion through the biological sciences unless there was some truth in what they are seeing"

Sure they can. People all the time see things and then interpret them in a way that makes them happy. Scientists look at fossils, conclude there is no God, evolution made us, therefore the clergy are irrelevant and we should lead society.

Anonymous said...

Sure they can. People all the time see things and then interpret them in a way that makes them happy.

...like the story of a national revelation?

jewish philosopher said...

A revelation is not really subject to interpretation - it happened or it didn't. Like the Holocaust for example. It's not the "interpretation" of the survivors that millions died in Auschwitz. They are either honest or lying.

anon2 said...

"A revelation is not really subject to interpretation - it happened or it didn't. "

Here you have chosen to have black and white thinking. But its not binary.

A revelation can be a subjective experience, as it was for the prophets. Granted, the Torah version of the Sinai revelation involves some very specific physical things happening, but even that could be explained naturalistically.

I think lots of people who have claimed to have revelations are not necessarily lying. They might be hallucinating, or dreaming, or whatever. Mohammed's followers obviously didn't think he was lying, and neither did Jesus'.

In modern times a person claiming revelation would probably be seen as a crackpot, but in ancient times this sort of thing was accepted much more easily. But even today, in some Jewish circles, you have mystics who claim to have some sort of ruach hakodesh and they have their followers.

jewish philosopher said...

"but even that could be explained naturalistically"

Care to try?

"They might be hallucinating, or dreaming, or whatever."

I suppose a Holocaust denier could as well claim that the Second World War was an incredible traumatic experience, so people just hallucinated a lot of things.

"in ancient times this sort of thing was accepted much more easily"

I'm not so sure. There are plenty of gullible people now too. And if ancient Jews were so easily convinced by every phony, why didn't they all become Greek pagans or Christians?

Larry Tanner said...

An interesting post that reveals how the scientific method invites continual self-questioning and strives to get to true statements. Dr. Theobald's honesty is refreshing, as is his understanding of the unknowns yet to be resolved by science.

Unfortunately, I have never ever heard a religious person talk about the logical, evidential and moral failings of his/her faith. This is too bad.

At the risk of asking a silly question: what is the probability that god exists? Remember, god as conceived by OJ (as opposed to the thousands upon thousands of other deities that we reject without blinking) is utterly singular - there's only one god and nothing else at all is like god. God is therefore the most improbable thing in the universe, unless you believe that there's only one universe, too, in which case both god and the universe are the most improbable things. Of course, then I guess this makes the universe kind of like god, which is not supposed to happen.

In any case, when I compare the probability of evolution occurring with the probability of god existing and then creating a universe and then creating our planet just as we see it today - well, evolution is surely more likely.

So, I think a probability argument goes against theism - at least OJ-brand theism. And then OJ brand theism seems to be incoherent when it's examined.

If we compare the reasons to think that evolution reflects the reality of the past with the reasons to think that god is real, then there can be little doubt that we have less cause to believe god exists. Some people may not want to believe that evolution is what happened to life on Earth, but we have empirical reasons from many difference sciences pointing us in the direction of evolution.

Yet we have no empirical methods that help us infer the existence of god, do we? And beyond this, we have no methods to help us discriminate whether one religion or the other is "right." Jews, Christians, and Muslims have all had their miracles. They've all had their prophecies confirmed. How are we to tell which is the One True Faith?

jewish philosopher said...

"I have never ever heard a religious person talk about the logical, evidential and moral failings of his/her faith."

That's called an agnostic. And I didn't notice that Dr Theobald has any doubt whatsoever about evolution.

"what is the probability that god exists?"

What is the chance that the watch you are wearing was made by a man named Jeremiah Bloombury who lives at 15 W. 57 Street, New York City.

Well, that fact that the watch was made by an intelligent designer is obvious. And if it comes with a card certifying that it was made by a watchmaker named Jeremiah Bloombury who lives at 15 W. 57 Street, New York City the chances are pretty good that he made it. Same thing with God. Life must have had an intelligent designer and the Torah tells us who.

"How are we to tell which is the One True Faith?"

Simple. Millions of witnesses are more reliable than one.

Thespian said...

Larry Tanner writes: "Unfortunately, I have never ever heard a religious person talk about the logical, evidential and moral failings of his/her faith. This is too bad."

What's too bad? That this person doesn't exist, or that you don't get out enough?

Shalmo writes: "Quick queston. Why do we believe in the Holocaust?

Because there are thousands of corroborating records for it. Same with evolution. Unless there is a conspiracy I don't know about, all these millions of scientists the world over can't all be coming to same conclusion through the biological sciences unless there was some truth in what they are seeing."

But are there any anti-corroborating records for the Holocaust? I'm not sure. But with evolution, there could be. That's where the analogy falls short. Actually, you seem to confirm this when you write "unless there is some truth in what they are seeing."

Indeed there is some truth to evolution.

Larry Tanner said...

I asked: "what is the probability that god exists?"

You answered "What is the chance that the watch you are wearing was made by a man named Jeremiah Bloombury who lives at 15 W. 57 Street, New York City."
---------------------------------
(a) This answer doesn't give a probability. I am asserting that the existence of God should be more improbable than anything else, including evolution. If you think evolution is unlikely, how much more unlikely is the existence of God?

(b) Your watchmaker example doesn't apply to the question of God's probability. It looks backward ans assumes that the way things worked out was the only way they could have worked out.

(c) You claim that life must have had an intelligent designer, but what do you mean by life?

(c1) Do you mean the first living cells from billions of years ago?

(c2)Or do you mean humans like us, who are "designed" according to the chance combination of male and female cells, and their respective chromosomes?

(d) According to your "millions of witnesses" reasoning, Christianity and Islam should be preferable religions, as

(d1) Christian miracles have been reported and confirmed for millenia. So have the miracles of Islam.

(d2) You have admitted before that we have no physical evidence testifying to any event at Sinai, and that this lack of evidence does not trouble you.

(d3) But since we only have a self-interested report of a miracle from texts that were written perhaps 250-750 years after the miracle supposedly happened, why exactly do we believe that the report is reliable?

Thespian, way to troll.

jewish philosopher said...

"how much more unlikely is the existence of God?"

As I explained, based upon the evidence available, the likelihood of the existence of God is 100%.

"what do you mean by life?"

Here's a basic definition.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Life#Definitions

"Christian miracles have been reported and confirmed for millenia. So have the miracles of Islam."

Even according to their claims, those religions were only revealed to one person.

"You have admitted before that we have no physical evidence testifying to any event at Sinai, and that this lack of evidence does not trouble you."

As is true of most past events. Is there physical evidence of your birth for example?

"But since we only have a self-interested report of a miracle from texts that were written perhaps 250-750 years after the miracle supposedly happened, why exactly do we believe that the report is reliable?"

The text was written at the time of the miracles and was unanimously accepted as accurate.

Anon2 said...

Hey Larry,

"there's only one god and nothing else at all is like god. God is therefore the most improbable thing in the universe... "

I don't follow that logic. Please explain. There's only one earth. Does than mean that earth is the most improbable thing? In relation to what?

jewish philosopher said...

In my opinion, asking "Which is more probable, God or evolution?" is like asking "Which is more probable, Barak Obama or a Boeing 747 being created when a tornado hits a junkyard?"

Like, huh?

Larry Tanner said...

"I don't follow that logic. Please explain. There's only one earth. Does than mean that earth is the most improbable thing? In relation to what?"

Planets. Earth belongs to a class of things called planets. The Jewish conception of God is that only God is God. It exists necessarily as a class of one, so the thinking goes.

Larry Tanner said...

'In my opinion, asking "Which is more probable, God or evolution?" is like asking "Which is more probable, Barak Obama or a Boeing 747 being created when a tornado hits a junkyard?"'

Barak Obama belongs to a larger class of entities we call people or human beings. The focus should not be upon a specific individual, but on the class to which that individual belongs.

Evolution is a natural physical process of slowly accumulating traits that promote survivability in species for their time and place and conditions.

When we talk about evolution being highly improbable - though you might actually mean abiogenesis - why don't we also consider that God is by definition the ultimate improbable?

Or are you saying that God is probable and therefore either (1) one god of other possible or actual gods or (2) constrained by mathematical laws?

jewish philosopher said...

There exists only one universe (as far as we know). Therefore, the universe can't exist? This is just some babbling.

Larry Tanner said...

"There exists only one universe (as far as we know). Therefore, the universe can't exist? This is just some babbling."

There's a difference between "improbable" and "can't exist." I did not reason that God doesn't exist or can't exist.

All I'm saying is that God existing would be more improbable than evolution occurring.

Is the universe unique in the same way that God is unique?

jewish philosopher said...

Again, I'm lost here. Why are unique things improbable? Pretty much everything is unique, snowflakes, fingerprints, etc. Once we know that a watchmaker named Jeremiah Bloombury who lives at 15 W. 57 Street, New York City exists, as I mentioned in the example above, there is nothing improbable about him.

Larry Tanner said...

I'm not going to say it's a great or sustainable argument. But even bad philosophy can be instructive!

You are right that many things are unique on an individual level. But with snowflakes, for example, even though you have a unique single snowflake you also know that other snowflakes do exist. There is a class of things called snowflakes and we can imagine that over the lifespan of the earth, billions upon billions of snowflakes have fallen to Earth.

God, on the other hand, is supposed to be a class of one. There are many snowflakes but there is supposed to be only one God and absolutely no others.

To take the example of fingerprints: just by looking at your hand you will see five unique prints. But these are five variations of what a finger print can be.

With God, there ae supposed to be no variations on what he can be or on what he is. He is supposed to be God and that's it.

This is why I am saying that by definition, there is supposed to be nothing more unique than God.

The real question is whether the most radically unique thing is also the most unlikely. But even without knowing the answer to this, I think that a tornado tearing through a junkyard and tossing together a working machine may not even be so incredible as would be the existence of God.

In your example, we know that the watchmaker Jermme Bloombury exists, but we cannot say that we know God exists. Bloombury left us his card; God didn't leave a card. Instead, some people made up a card and claimed it belonged to God.

jewish philosopher said...

"The real question is whether the most radically unique thing is also the most unlikely."

I don't see why. The universe is apparently radically unique but no one seems to be shocked by that.

"God didn't leave a card."

It's right here.

http://www.mechon-mamre.org/e/et/et0220.htm

"some people made up a card and claimed it belonged to God."

Only if you believe that the Jews and Samaritans about 2,500 years ago all conspired together to fabricate the Torah with no one recorded as having dissented. Holocaust denial or moon landing conspiracy theories make more sense.

Anonymous said...

Larry:

Probability is a mathematical concepts. So could you place a number figure on just how unlikely G-d's existance is? Is it 100/1? 2/1? 10/1? Since you're getting all mathematical, you should provide some numbers.