Egnor Does Math

Two weeks ago I joined the chorus of Science Bloggers bashing Michael Egnor for his posts at the Discovery Institute’s blog. I pointed out a fairly straightforward error in one of his posts. At that time I mentioned that I hadn’t jumped in earlier because Egnor’s arguments revolved around medical practice, which is a subject I know little about. I also wrote this:

I figured I would weigh in when he started parroting those insipid probability arguments creationists find so appealing.

At the time I was being facetious. I didn’t think he would really go there. I mean, really, no one with a medical degree could possibly be that foolish? Right?


Now, this essay was posted on April 1. Therefore, some caution seems prudent. Nonetheless it certainly sounds serious, and I will treat is as such. Egnor writes:

I think intelligent design is true because of the science. I believe that some biological complexity — the genetic code, the cellular nanotechnology, the astonishing integration of organs and systems — is best understood as the consequence of intelligent agency. Those who claim that randomness can generate biological complexity seem to lack an understanding of the vastness of what statisticians call “combinatorial space.” A grammatically correct, meaningful twenty-word English sentence cannot be generated by chance without an intelligently designed target that captures grammar and meaning. Did randomness generate the human beings who write English sentences? I have not seen any scientific evidence that would even suggest that it could or that it did.

Oh, for heaven’s sake.

Egnor, like most creationists, does not bother to formulate his arguments carefully. Consequently, we are left to fill in some of the details. Evolutionists do not, of course, say that radomness generated anything. Rather, it is the prolonged interplay between random variations and nonrandom selection that can lead to biological complexity. That aside, Egnor lectures us about the vastness of combinatorial space, and then talks about generating twenty-word sentences (a very long sentence indeed). I think this is meant as a reference to Richard Dawkins’ famous METHINKS IT IS LIKE A WEASEL experiment. Sadly, Egnor never actually gets around to explaining the relevance of this observation to evolution.

Presumably the combinatorial space he is referring to is the one that contains various complex molecules; hemoglobin perhaps, or maybe DNA. The precise sequence of amino acids or DNA bases or whatever comprising the molecule is then recognized as one of a vast number of possible sequences. In creation land this observation is said to be an argument against the idea of such complexity evolving gradually.

Of course, there is an obvious problem with this. The fact that one specific sequence was realized out of the vast number of possible outcomes is relevant only if you assume that all sequences are equally likely. That is manifestly untrue in the case of DNA sequences or what have you. The whole point of natural selection is that it alters the probabilities of finding particular sequences in living organisms after long periods of evolution. The vast majority of sequences lead to nonfunctional or severely compromised organisms. Consequently, natural selection gives them a probability very close to zero of being found in nature. What is relevant is not the size of the space but rather the probability distribution on the space. Natural selection ensures that the probability is concentrated almost entirely on the small set of functional sequences rather than on the vastly greater space of nonfunctional proteins.

We need to compare things to an intelligently designed target? Hardly. What is needed is some consistent selection criteria that continually guides you towards a tiny subset of the set of all possible outcomes. That is precisely what natural selection provides.

Incredibly, this was not the dumbest thing Egnor said in this post:

I’m a faithful Catholic. I’ve often thought: what if Darwinism were true? I don’t mean all of the philosophical materialism that Darwinists drag along with the science. Materialism is nonsense, because if matter and energy are all that exist, then truth doesn’t exist (it’s neither matter nor energy). If truth doesn’t exist, then materialism can’t be true.

I’m reminded of a Games Magazine contest from many years ago asking for examples of Chop Logic. Here’s a typical example:

Proof That There is Life After Death.

  1. After a death, there is a mourning.
  2. After the morning comes the night.
  3. Past the knight is the bishop.
  4. Beyond the bishop is the pope.
  5. The pope has serious convictions.
  6. After a serious conviction, you get life.
  7. Therefore, there is life after death.

Click Here for a similar proof that snow is white.

That’s a real zinger Egnor’s got there. Looks like he’s really got the goods on those dumbass materialists.

Except that materialists do not say that matter and energy are all that exists. Rather, they say that everything that exists comes about as the result of interactions of matter and energy. That distinction is probably too subtle for Egnor, but it is significant nevertheless.

They’re such children, these creationists.


  1. #1 Blake Stacey
    April 2, 2007

    Just thought I’d throw in that all but two of the first two pages of Google hits for “Michael Egnor” are scathing blog entries. Keep it up, yo.

  2. #2 _Arthur
    April 2, 2007

    By the by, there’s a dig for Egnor to chew on in the latest episode on the neurosurgeons series “3 Lbs”.
    During a brain operation, one of them, (Indira Varma), remarks:
    “The downside to Evolution is that all the new stuff in our brains got stuck right on the outside: intelligence, tool making, impulse control, it’s all right down on the surface, just like candy coating.”
    –”If these things were really important, they’d be right at the center, in the brain stem.”
    –”The frontal lobes are what make us human, they’re everything we are ?”
    –”They’re probably an evolutionary accident.”
    — “or an aftertought.”

    Rolling on my floor laughing, I noticed I should vacuum more often.

    That’s on eps S01E05 of “3 Lbs”, “The God spot”, aired April 1. I can’t find it on iTunes, but it’s afailble from your nearest Torrents pusher.

  3. #3 Koray
    April 2, 2007

    A spectacular example of argument by analogy and ignorance of the basics of another field. He must be thinking that every mathematician/statistician that has ever read the theory missed this genius rebuttal.

    What I really wonder is if I were to ask him an unrelated probability theory question, would he excuse himself by saying that he is not qualified to answer? If he does, then you could use that response to point that he should not be so confident in his reasoning. If he doesn’t, then he probably would look ridiculous by giving a wrong answer.

  4. #4 _Arthur
    April 3, 2007

    Any biological creature consumes available energy locked in chemical compounds, and (or) energy provided by sunlight. The net effect of a living creature is to degrade energy concentrations into more diffuse energy and waste heat, at the cost of a transitory order, with a net entropic result.

    Before life happened, Earth was cursed with energy-rich chemicals, like amino-acids and nitrates, that accumulated in the sterile oceans, unless some dried on land and chanced to burn. Fortunately, a chance combination of chemicals found a way to burn (consume) all that crud, and that “flame” still burns bright as of today.

  5. #5 Enigman
    April 3, 2007

    Were I walking through the country, only to look down and find a cola can, I would not imagine that it was the presence of intelligence that explained its being there…

  6. #6 Ginger Yellow
    April 3, 2007

    How does someone graduate from university without the ability to distinguish between physical objects and abstract concepts?

  7. #7 Mark Hudson
    April 3, 2007

    What was so fabulous about his article was in the very first paragraph:

    “…because if matter and energy are all that exist then truth doesn’t exist.”

    This is, simply put, amazing. I am *so* convinced. How could I have been wrong for so long. In fact, this even proves the eternal virginity of Mary and enables me to derive the length of Ganesha’s trunk.

    It’s utterly astounding.


  8. #8 mark
    April 3, 2007

    All of this scorn directed toward Egnor and his fellows is making Baby Luskin cry.

  9. #9 realpc
    April 3, 2007

    “everything that exists comes about as the result of interactions of matter and energy”

    But what does that mean? What are matter and energy the result of? What are fields? What is gravity? Materialism doesn’t explain anything.

  10. #10 Jason Rosenhouse
    April 3, 2007


    “Materialism” is not intended to explain anything. It is a metaphysical assumption about how the world is. Egnor misstated the nature of the assumption being made and I called him on it. That is all.

  11. #11 ScienceAvenger
    April 4, 2007

    Hamburger is better than nothing.
    Nothing is better than steak.
    Therefore, hamburger is better than steak.

    Mistaking concepts like truth and physical objects is part and parcel of the IDer/creationist repertoire. So is constantly playing word games rather than performing experiments and publishing in the peer-reviewed literature. They have no respect for the scientific process and the accumulation of knowledge we have at our disposal. Thus, their belief that it is even plausible that someone could find a semantic flaw that undermines a hugely fruitful field for research.

  12. #12 shiva
    April 4, 2007

    I wonder why this creationist nutters and IDiots get so worked up over ‘maeningful’ and ‘maeaningless’ patterns. The grammar and semantics we have helps us make sense of 20-word sentences and such like. As for other collections of words and characters there is a lot of meaning that can be read into it. For instance what is the exact sequence of, say, natural events that brought them together, or what natural event initiated it etc., Just because we can’t make sense of a certain arrangement of cards or characters we can’t call it random and something else design.

  13. #13 Enigman
    April 7, 2007

    Re the eminently Egnorable: “Materialism is nonsense, because if matter and energy are all that exist, then truth doesn’t exist (it’s neither matter nor energy). If truth doesn’t exist, then materialism can’t be true”

    As I’m reading Simon Blackburn’s “Truth” at the moment, the fallacy leaps out at me: were only matter (and its relatives) to exist, truth would be a property of matter (insofar as material structures such as ourselves say of other material structures, such as ink scratches, that they are true), and materialism would therefore be true in just such a way, rather than in one of the ways that are incompatible with materialism being true.