I was sent the following argument by email.
A new breed of ID is in the process of supplanting the former fact-free versions on U.S. university
campuses. The new breed looks like this (from recent lectures on several University of California
The following design argument does not require evolution to produce a specific result. It calculates the probability that evolution reaches a certain level of biological complexity (measured in terms of the number of protein-coding genes) and compares this probability with the number of trials available for evolution to that level.
Any of the thousands of extant vertebrate species possesses at least 10,000 more protein-coding genes than the primordial single-celled organism from which all these vertebrate species evolved. Thus, at least 10,000 protein-coding genes must have been added during the course of vertebrate evolution. Assuming that the probability is 10-3 that a new gene useful for vertebrate evolution came into existence, the probability that evolution just happened to produce any one of the vertebrate species is 10-3 multiplied by itself 10,000 times, which equals 10-30,000.
To avoid concluding that God exists, 1030,000 evolution-supporting planets must now exist or have existed in the past, which requires: (A) a single large universe with that many planets, each of which exhibits some stage of evolution from the primordial soup up to vertebrates, or (B) nearly that many small universes, each of which has a few such planets, or (C) a small universe with a few such planets that had undergone nearly that many Big Crunches and subsequent Big Bangs. Regarding (A), only a few hundred extra-solar planets have been detected so far. Since it becomes more difficult to detect a planet the further from the earth it is, we can safely conclude that there is no way that even an insignificant fraction of 1030,000 evolution-supporting planets will be detected within the next few decades. The speed at which light reaches us and the speed at which electrons move through semiconductors in our computers impose fundamental limits on the speed at which even the best equipment can operate. Suppose this equipment can identify a new planet every pico-second (10-12 seconds), which is an outrageous rate far beyond present or conceivable technology. This still means that we must wait 1029,980 years to identify the number of planets needed for the chance hypothesis. Regarding (B), the unambiguous detection of a few other universes is presently considered difficult work, if it can be done at all, not to mention observing life on planets within those universes (Aguirre A. et al, “Towards Observable Signatures of Other Bubble Universes,” E-published 20 September 2007, Physical Review D.). Even if we had equipment capable of identifying a suitable planet in another universe every pico-second, we would still have to wait 1029,980 years to verify the existence of the number of evolution-supporting planets required for the chance hypothesis. Regarding (C), even if each pico-second we could verify that our universe had, in the past, undergone a cycle of Big Crunch and subsequent Big Bang, we would still have to wait 1029,980 years to verify the existence of the number of cycles required for the chance hypothesis. This means that the chance hypothesis is effectively unverifiable.
It’s pathetically bogus. Shall we take it apart?
The first paragraph is just weird. It’s an admission that prior formulations are fact free (and I agree!), but it tries to suggest that the following argument will contain facts. It will not.
The second paragraph is also non-specifically inane. It’s another admission: their argument will not be using any of the principles of evolution, and therefore it will have nothing to say about evolution — and the absence of any of the mechanisms of evolution that make it something more than simple random chance completely invalidates their line of reasoning.
Now we get into the substance of their claim. The premise is superficially legitimate: a reasonable number of genes for some single-celled organisms is about 5000, a reasonable number for many multicellular animals is about 15,000, so OK — the question is whether it is conceivable that there was an increase in gene number by about 10,000 in the evolution of animals. Well, sure. A tripling of gene number in half a billion years isn’t that big a deal, especially when you consider that simple polyploidy can do that in a single generation. It also overlooks the fact that there is wide variation and overlap in gene number within and between single-celled organisms and animals. What this creationist is setting up is a non-issue…and then it gets worse.
What is this 10-3 number, and where did it come from? It doesn’t make any sense! It’s saying that a new gene will be added with a probability of 1 in a thousand…what? Individuals? Populations? Per year, per generation? All I can guess from the context is that he is actually proposing this is an instantaneous probability of a newly generated individual having a new gene — he isn’t going to consider either time or the number of individuals in a population, two factors that are rather important in evolution. Just poof, the chance of a new gene in a single new individual is 10-3. This is not correct. The probability of some unspecified mutation in any one individual is basically a certainty. The probability of a gene duplication or a new initiation site is going to be lower, obviously, but it’s irrelevant — this creationist is plucking random numbers out of his butt to put up a pretense of quantifiability, but it’s still an exercise in creative invention.
Say, wasn’t this supposed to be the factual ID argument?
The next step is outright idiocy. Let’s give him his imaginary probability of one in a thousand. Let’s be even more generous and suggest that a population only adds one new gene every thousand years. How would you calculate the time it would take to add 10,000 genes to the species’ repertoire? Basic math: divide 10,000 genes by 1 gene per 10,000 years, and you should get an answer of 10 million years. That isn’t so hard. This kook doesn’t do that, though: he suggests that the probability is 10-310000, a number that you would only get if you what you are calculating is the probability that an individual has 10,000 independent gene creation events in one reproductive event — just blam, all at once, 10,000 brand new, functional genes magically appear in a newborn organism. That calculation is correct if that’s how you assume animals evolved from bacteria, in one abrupt swoop of vastly improbable hocus-pocus. That is not how it occurred, of course, and no one but dumbass creationists would propose that it was. What happened was incremental addition and selection over long periods of time, a gradual and stepwise process.
This is nothing new. It’s the same stupid (and soundly refuted) argument that creationists have been making for decades.
The rest of the argument spins off into further cockamamie blitherings. Assessing the probabilities of evolutionary events over the course of history on Earth does not depend on surveying alien worlds. What this really is is an excuse to wander off into science-fiction absurdities to make evolution look less likely by association, and to throw around more impressively huge numbers…never mind that they are based on uninformed guesses and a compounding of errors. This is all a bad argument, designed to bamboozle the innumerate with a cloud of bogus numbers.
I have to make a concession here. I don’t think even the clowns at the Discovery Institute would be stupid enough to push an argument this wretchedly incompetent. If we take the opening paragraph at face value, it implies that the rationale for ID is getting even dumber than it has been in the past.