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.
- After a death, there is a mourning.
- After the morning comes the night.
- Past the knight is the bishop.
- Beyond the bishop is the pope.
- The pope has serious convictions.
- After a serious conviction, you get life.
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.