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I was about fifteen when I began to think about evolution. I was then just discovering the sciences systematically, and took them as what they offered themselves to be, a realm of reason and dispassionate regard for truth. There was a hard-edged clarity to them that I liked. You got real answers. Since evolution depended on such sciences as chemistry, I regarded it as also being a science.
The question of the origin of life interested me. The evolutionary explanations that I encountered in textbooks of biology seemed a trifle weak, however. They ran to, “In primeval seas, evaporation concentrated dissolved compounds in a pore in a rock, a skim formed a membrane, and life began its immense journey.” I saw no reason to doubt this. If it hadn’t been true, scientists would not have said that it was.
Remember, I was fifteen.
In those days I read Scientific American and New Scientist, the latter then still being thoughtfully written in good English. I noticed that not infrequently they offered differing speculations as to the origin of life. The belief in the instrumentality of chemical accident was constant, but the nature of the primeval soup changed to fit varying attempts at explanation.
For a while, life was thought to have come about on clay in shallow water in seas of a particular composition, later in tidal pools with another chemical solution, then in the open ocean in another solution. This continues. Recently, geothermal vents have been offered as the home of the first life. Today (Feb 24, 2005) on the BBC website, I learn that life evolved below the oceanic floor. (“There is evidence that life evolved in the deep sediments,” co-author John Parkes, of Cardiff University, UK, told the BBC News website.”)
The frequent shifting of ground bothered me. If we knew how life began, why did we have so many prospective mechanisms, none of which really worked? Evolution began to look like a theory in search of a soup. Forty-five years later, it still does.
I was probably in college when I found myself asking what seemed to me straightforward questions about the chemical origin of life. In particular:
(1) Life was said to have begun by chemical inadvertence in the early seas. Did we, I wondered, really know of what those early seas consisted? Know, not suspect, hope, theorize, divine, speculate, or really, really wish.
The answer was, and is, “no.” We have no dried residue, no remaining pools, and the science of planetogenesis isn’t nearly good enough to provide a quantitative analysis.
(2) Had the creation of a living cell been replicated in the laboratory? No, it hadn’t, and hasn’t. (Note 1, at end)
(3) Did we know what conditions were necessary for a cell to come about? No, we didn’t, and don’t.
(4) Could it be shown to be mathematically probable that a cell would form, given any soup whatever? No, it couldn’t, and can’t. (At least not without cooking the assumptions.) (Note 2)
Well, I thought, sophomore chemistry major that I then was: If we don’t know what conditions existed, or what conditions are necessary, and can’t reproduce the event in the laboratory, and can’t show it to be statistically probable—why are we so very sure that it happened? Would you hang a man on such evidence?
My point was not that evolutionists were necessarily wrong. They simply had not shown that they were right. While they couldn’t demonstrate that life had begun by chemical accident, I couldn’t show that it hadn’t. An inability to prove that something is statistically possible is not the same as proving that it is not statistically possible. Not being able to reproduce an event in the laboratory does not establish that it didn’t happen in nature. Etc.
I just didn’t know how life came about. I still don’t. Neither do evolutionists.
Early on, I noticed three things about evolution that differentiated it from other sciences (or, I could almost say, from science). First, plausibility was accepted as being equivalent to evidence. And of course the less you know, the greater the number of things that are plausible, because there are fewer facts to get in the way. Again and again evolutionists assumed that suggesting how something might have happened was equivalent to establishing how it had happened. Asking them for evidence usually aroused annoyance and sometimes, if persisted in, hostility.
As an example, it seems plausible to evolutionists that life arose by chemical misadventure. By this they mean, I think, that they cannot imagine how else it might have come about. (Neither can I. Does one accept a poor explanation because unable to think of a good one?) This accidental-life theory, being somewhat plausible, is therefore accepted without the usual standards of science, such as reproducibility or rigorous demonstration of mathematical feasibility. Putting it otherwise, evolutionists are too attached to their ideas to be able to question them.
Or to notice that others do. They defend furiously the evolution of life in earth’s seas as the most certain of certainties. Yet in the November, 2005 Scientific American, an article argues that life may have begun elsewhere, perhaps on Mars, and arrived here on meteorites. May have, perhaps, might. Somewhere, somewhere else, anywhere. Onward into the fog.
Consequently, discussion often turns to vague and murky assertion. Starlings are said to have evolved to be the color of dirt so that hawks can’t see them to eat them. This is plausible. But guacamayos and cockatoos are gaudy enough to be seen from low-earth orbit. Is there a contradiction here? No, say evolutionists. Guacamayos are gaudy so they can find each other to mate. Always there is the pat explanation. But starlings seem to mate with great success, though invisible. If you have heard a guacamayo shriek, you can hardly doubt that another one could easily find it. Enthusiasts of evolution then told me that guacamayos were at the top of their food chain, and didn’t have predators. Or else that the predators were colorblind. On and on it goes. But…is any of this established?
Second, evolution seemed more a metaphysics or ideology than a science. The sciences, as I knew them, gave clear answers. Evolution involved intense faith in fuzzy principles. You demonstrated chemistry, but believed evolution. If you have ever debated a Marxist, or a serious liberal or conservative, or a feminist or Christian, you will have noticed that, although they can be exceedingly bright and well informed, they display a maddening imprecision. You never get a straight answer if it is one they do not want to give. Nothing is ever firmly established. Crucial assertions do not tie to observable reality. Invariably the Marxist (or evolutionist) assumes that a detailed knowledge of economic conditions under the reign of Nicholas II or whatever substitutes for being able to answer simple questions, such as why Marxism has never worked. This is the Fallacy of Irrelevant Knowledge. And of course almost anything can be made believable by considering only favorable evidence and interpreting hard.
Third, evolutionists are obsessed by Christianity and Creationism, with which they imagine themselves to be in mortal combat. This is peculiar to them. Note that other sciences, such as astronomy and geology, even archaeology, are equally threatened by the notion that the world was created in 4004 BC. Astronomers pay not the slightest attention to creationist ideas. Nobody does—except evolutionists. We are dealing with competing religions—overarching explanations of origin and destiny. Thus the fury of their response to skepticism.
I found it pointless to tell them that I wasn’t a Creationist. They refused to believe it. If they had, they would have had to answer questions that they would rather avoid. Like any zealots, they cannot recognize their own zealotry. Thus their constant classification of skeptics as enemies (a word they often use)—of truth, of science, of Darwin, of progress.
This tactical demonization is not unique to evolution. “Creationist” is to evolution what “racist” is to politics: A way of preventing discussion of what you do not want to discuss. Evolution is the political correctness of science.
I have been on several lists on the internet that deal with matters such as evolution, have written on the subject, and have discussed evolution with various of its adherents. These men (almost all of them are) have frequently been very bright indeed, often Ivy League professors, some of them with names you would recognize. They are not amateurs of evolution or high-school principals in Kansas eager to prove their modernity. I asked them the questions in the foregoing (about whether we really know what the primeval seas consisted of, etc.) I knew the answers; I wanted to see how serious proponents of evolutionary biology would respond to awkward questions.
It was like giving a bobcat a prostate exam. I got everything but answers. They told me I was a crank, implied over and over that I was a Creationist, said that I was an enemy of science (someone who asks for evidence is an enemy of science). They said that I was trying to pull down modern biology (if you ask questions about an aspect of biology, you want to pull down biology). They told me I didn’t know anything (that’s why I was asking questions), and that I was a mere journalist (the validity of a question depends on its source rather than its content).
But they didn’t answer the questions. They ducked and dodged and evaded. After thirty years in journalism, I know ducking and dodging when I see it. It was like cross-examining hostile witnesses. I tried to force the issue, pointing out that the available answers were “Yes,” “No,” “I don’t know,” or “The question is not legitimate,” followed by any desired discussion. Still no straight answer. They would neither tell me of what the early oceans consisted, nor admit that they didn’t know.
This is the behavior not of scientists, but of advocates, of True Believers. I used to think that science was about asking questions, not about defending things you didn’t really know. Religion, I thought, was the other way around. I guess I was wrong.
A few things that worry those who are not doctrinaire evolutionists. (Incidentally, it is worth noting that by no means all involved in the life sciences are doctrinaire. A friend of mine, a (Jewish, atheist) biochemist, says “It doesn’t make sense.” He may be wrong, but a Creationist he isn’t.)
To work, a theory presumably must (a) be internally consistent and (b) map onto reality. You have to have both. Classical mechanics for example is (so far as I know) internally consistent, but is not at all points congruent with reality. Evolution has a great deal of elaborate, Protean, and often fuzzy theory. How closely does it correspond to what we actually see? Do the sweeping principles fit the grubby details?
For example, how did a giraffe get a long neck? One reads as a matter of vague philosophical principle that a proto-giraffe by chance happened to be taller than its herdmates, could eat more altitudinous leaves than its confreres, was therefore better fed, consequently rutted with abandon, and produced more child giraffes of height. This felicitous adaptation therefore spread and we ended up…well, up—with taller giraffes. It sounds reasonable. In evolution that is enough.
But what are the practical details? Do we have an unambiguous record of giraffes with longer and longer necks? (Maybe we do. I’m just asking.)
Evolution is said to proceed by the accretion of successful point mutations. Does a random point mutation cause the appearance of longer vertebrae? If so, which mutation? If not one, then how many random point mutations? What virtue did these have that they were conserved until all were present? Have we isolated the gene(s) that today control the length of the beast’s neck? How can you tell what happened in the distant past, given that we have no DNA from proto-giraffes?
There may be perfectly good, clear, demonstrable answers to a few of these questions. I’m not a paleontological giraffologist. But if evolutionists want people to accept evolution, they need to provide answers—clear, concrete, non-metaphysical answers without gaping logical lacunae. They do not. When passionate believers do not provide answers that would substantiate their assertions, a reasonable presumption is that they do not have them.
The matter of the giraffe is a simple example of a question that inevitably occurs to the independently thoughtful: How do you get evolutionarily from A to B? Can you get from A to B by the mechanisms assumed? Without practical details, evolution looks like an assertion that the better survives the worse; throw in ionizing radiation and such to provide things to do the surviving, and we’re off to the races. But…can we get there from here? Do we actually know the intermediate steps and the associated genetic mechanics? If we don’t know what the steps were, can we at least show unambiguously a series of steps that would work?
Lots of evolutionary changes just don’t look manageable by random mutation. Some orchestrated jump seems necessary. How does an animal evolve color vision, given that doing so would require elaborate changes in eye chemistry, useless without simultaneous elaborate changes in the brain to interpret the incoming impulses, which changes would themselves be useless without the retinal changes?
Or consider caterpillars. A caterpillar has no obvious resemblance to a butterfly. The disparity in engineering is huge. The caterpillar has no legs, properly speaking, certainly no wings, no proboscis. How did a species that did not undergo metamorphosis evolve into one that did? Pupating looks like something you do well or not at all: If you don’t turn into something practical at the end, you don’t get another chance.
Think about this. The ancestor of a modern caterpillar necessarily was something that could reproduce already. To get to be a butterfly-producing sort of organism, it would have to evolve silk-extruding organs, since they are what you make a cocoon with. OK, maybe it did this to tie leaves together, or maybe the beast resembled a tent-caterpillar. (Again, plausibility over evidence.) Then some mutation caused it to wrap itself experimentally in silk. (What mutation? Are we serious?) It then died, wrapped, because it had no machinery to cause it to undergo the fantastically complex transformation into a butterfly. Death is almost always a discouragement to reproduction.
Tell me how the beast can gradually acquire, by accident, the capacity gradually to undergo all the formidably elaborate changes from worm to butterfly, so that each intermediate form is a practical organism that survives. If evolutionists cannot answer such questions, the theory fails.
Here the evolutionist will say, “Fred, caterpillars are soft, squashy things and don’t leave good fossils, so it’s unreasonable to expect us to find proof.” I see the problem. But it is unreasonable to expect me to accept something on the grounds that it can’t be proved. Yes, it is possible that an explanation exists and that we just haven’t found it. But you can say that of anything whatever. Is it good science to assume that evidence will be forthcoming because we sure would like it to be? I’ll gladly give you evidence Wednesday for a theory today?
Note that I am not asking evolutionists to give detailed mechanics for the evolution of everything that lives. If they gave convincing evidence for a few of the hard cases—proof of principle, so to speak—I would be inclined to believe that equally good evidence existed for the others. But they haven’t.
Evolution breaks down into at least three logically separable components: First, that life arose by chemical accident; second, that it then evolved into the life we see today; and third, that the mechanism was the accretion of chance mutations. Evolutionists, not particularly logical, refuse to see this separability.
The first, chance formation of life, simply hasn’t been established. It isn’t science, but faith.
The second proposition, that life, having arisen by unknown means, then evolved into the life of today, is more solid. In very old rocks you find fish, then things, like coelacanth and the ichthyostega and later archaeopteryx, that look like transitional forms, and finally us. They seem to have somehow gotten from A to B. A process of evolution, however driven, looks reasonable. It is hard to imagine that these animals appeared magically from nowhere, one after the other.
The third proposition, that the mechanism of evolutions is chance mutation, though sacrosanct among its proponents, is shaky. If it cannot account for the simultaneous appearance of complex, functionally interdependent characteristics, as in the case of caterpillars, it fails. Thus far, it hasn’t accounted for them.
It is interesting to note that evolutionists switch stories regarding the mechanism of transformation. The standard Neo-Darwinian view is that evolution proceeds very slowly. But when it proves impossible to find evidence of gradual evolution, as for example when sudden changes appear in the fossil record, some evolutionists turn to “punctuated equilibrium,” which says that evolution happens by sudden undetectable spurts in small populations. The idea isn’t foolish, just unestablished. Then there are the evolutionists who, in opposition to those who maintain that point-mutations continue to account for human evolution, say that now cultural evolution has taken over.
Finally, when things do not happen according to script—when, for example, human intelligence appears too rapidly—then we have the theory of “privileged genes,” which evolved at breakneck speed because of assumed but unestablished selective pressures. That is, the existence of the pressures is inferred from the changes, and then the changes are attributed to the pressures. Oh.
When you have patched a tire too many times, you start thinking about getting a new tire.
As previously mentioned, evolutionists depend heavily on plausibility unabetted by evidence. There is also the matter of implausibility. Suppose that I showed you two tiny gear wheels, such as one might find in an old watch, and said, “See? I turn this little wheel, and the other little wheel turns too. Isn’t that cute?” You would not find this surprising. Suppose I then showed you a whole mechanical watch, with thirty little gear wheels and a little lever that said tickticktick. You would have no trouble accepting that they all worked together.
If I then told you of a mechanism consisting of a hundred billion little wheels that worked for seventy years, repairing itself, wouldn’t you suspect either that I was smoking something really good—or that something beyond simple mechanics must be involved?
If something looks implausible, it probably is. Evolution writ large is the belief that a cloud of hydrogen will spontaneously invent extreme-ultraviolet lithography, perform Swan Lake, and write all the books in the British Museum.
Does the theory, however reasonable and plausible (or not), in fact map onto what we actually see? A principle of evolution is that traits conferring fitness become general within a population. Do they?
Again, consider intelligence. Presumably it increases fitness. (Or maybe it does. An obvious question is why, if intelligence is adaptive—i.e., promotes survival–it didn’t evolve earlier; and if it is not adaptive, why did it evolve at all? You get various unsubstantiated answers, such as that intelligence is of no use without an opposable thumb, or speech, or something.)
Those who deal in human evolution usually hold The Bell Curve in high regard. (So do I. It’s almost as good as Shotgun News or, more appropriate in this context, the Journal of Irreproducible Results.) A point the book makes is that in the United States the highly intelligent tend to go into fields requiring intelligence, as for example the sciences, computing, and law. They live together, work together, and marry each other, thus tending to concentrate intelligence instead of making it general in the population. They also produce children at below the level of replacement. (Perhaps fitness leads to extinction.)
Black sub-Saharan Africans (say many evolutionists) have a mean IQ somewhere near 70, live in wretched poverty, and breed enthusiastically. White Europeans, reasonably bright at IQ 100 and quite prosperous, are losing population. Jews, very bright indeed at a mean IQ of 115 and very prosperous, are positively scarce, always have been, and seem to be losing ground. From this I conclude either that (a) intelligence does not increase fitness or (b) reproduction is inversely proportional to fitness.
I’m being a bit of a smart-ass here, but…the facts really don’t seem to match the theory.
In human populations, short of concentration of the bright in the professions, do the fit really reproduce with each other? It is a matter of daily observation that men prefer cute, sexy women. It then becomes crucial for evolutionists to show that cute and sexy are more fit than strong, smart, and ugly. Thus large breasts are said to produce more milk (Evidence? Chimpanzees have no breasts yet produce ample milk.) and that broad hips imply a large birth canal. (But men are not attracted to broad hips, but to broad hips in conjunction with a narrow waist.) Curvaceous legs are said to be curvaceous because of underlying muscle, important for fitness.
Of course Chinese women do not have muscular legs or buttocks, wide hips, or large breasts, and seem to reproduce satisfactorily. (White and Asian women are more physically delicate than African women, as witness the lower rates of training injuries among black women in the American army. Thus European women, said to have emigrated from Africa and evolved to be Caucasians, lost sturdiness. Why?)
Then it is said that ugly woman are hypertestosteronal, and therefore have more spontaneous abortions. A sophomore logic student with a hangover could point out the problems and unsaid things in this argument.
There is an air of desperation about all of it. Transparently they begin with their conclusion and craft their reasoning to reach it.
To the evolutionarily unbaptised, it seems that evolution might occur slowly, by the gradual accretion of random point-mutations over millions of years, but certainly could occur rapidly by the spread of genes already available in the population. For example, genes presumably exist among us for the eyes of Ted Williams, the endurance of marathon runners, the general physical plant of Mohammed Ali, the intelligence of Gauss, and so on. (This of course assumes genetic determinism, which not all geneticists buy.) Are, or were, these becoming general? Perhaps. Show me. If not, one must conclude either that these qualities do not confer fitness, or that fitness does not become general. It seems odd to believe that massive structural changes can occur slowly through the accumulation of accidental changes, but much more rapid increases in fitness do not occur through existent genes. Can we get answers, please? Concrete, non-metaphysical, demonstrable answers?
With evolution the sciences run into the problem of consciousness, which they are poorly equipped to handle. This is important. You don’t need to consider consciousness in, say, physical chemistry, which gives the correct answers without it. But evolution is a study of living things, of which consciousness is at least sometimes a quality. Evolutionists know this, and so write unwittingly fatuous articles on the evolution of consciousness. They believe that they are being scientific. But…are they?
Obvious questions: What is consciousness? Does it have a derived definition, like f = ma? Or is it an undefined primitive, like “line” or “point”? With what instrument do you detect it? Is something either conscious or not, or do you have shades and degrees? Is a tree conscious, or a rock? How do you know? Evolution means a continuous change over time. How do you document such changes? Do we have fossilized consciousness, consciousness preserved in amber? Does consciousness have physical existence? If it does, is it electromagnetic, gravitational, or what? If it doesn’t have physical existence, what kind of existence does it have?
If you cannot define it, detect it, or measure it, how do you study its evolution, if any? Indeed, how do the sciences, based on physics, handle anything that is physically undetectable?
Speculation disguised as science never ends. For example, some say that consciousness is just a side-effect of complexity. How do they know? Complexity defined how? If a man is conscious because he’s complex, then a whole room full of people must be even more conscious, because the total complexity would have to be more than any one fellow’s complexity. The universe has got to be more complex than anything in it, so it must be motingator conscious.
Ah, but the crucial questions, though: (Again, the possible answers are, “Yes,” “No,” “I don’t know,” or “The question doesn’t make sense.”)
First, does consciousness interact with matter? It seems to. When I drop a cinder block on my foot, it certainly interacts with my consciousness. And if I consciously tell my hand to move, it does.
Second, if consciousness interacts with matter, then don’t you have to take it into account in describing physical systems?
Humans are said to have a poor sense of smell because they evolved to stand upright in the savanna where you can see forever and don’t need to smell things. This makes no sense: Anyone can see that the better your senses of smell and hearing, especially at night but even in daytime if you have lions that look like dirt and know how to sneak up on things, you are better off. I note that horses have good vision and eyes at about the same altitude as ours, but they have great noses.
Then the evolutionist says, well, people’s noses retracted into their faces, and there wasn’t room for good olfaction. How much olfactory tissue does a house cat have? They can sure smell things better than we can. Oh, then says the Evolutionist, a large olfactory center in the brain would impose too much metabolic strain and require that people eat more, and so they would die of starvation in bad times. Evidence? Demonstration?
My favorite example, which does not reach the level of plausibility, is such artifacts as the tail of a peacock which obviously makes the bird easier to see and eat. So help me, I have several times seen the assertion that females figure that any male who can survive such a horrendous disadvantage must really be tough, and therefore good mating material. The tail increases fitness by decreasing fitness. A Boy Named Sue.
Supposedly traits that kill off an animal die out of the population, and things that help the beast survive spread till they all have them. That makes sense. But does it happen?
That it does is certainly an article of faith. I once asked a doctor why Rh negative people stayed in the population. Fifteen percent of white women are negative, so they are usually going to mate with positive men, with the consequent possibility that children will suffer from hemolytic disease. Well, said the doctor, being Rh negative obviously must have some survival value, or it wouldn’t exist. (Then why hasn’t it become general? Or is it doing so?) She simply believed.
She then rolled out sickle-cell anemia, the poster child of evolution, which is caused by a point mutation on the beta chain of hemoglobin and, when heterozygous, helps people survive malaria.
Maybe Rh negativity does have some survival value, which can be shown to be greater than its non-survival value. Maybe asthma does too, and fatal allergies to bee stings, and migraines, schizophrenia, panic, cluster headaches, masochism, anaphylactic shock in general, homosexuality in males, allergies, a thousand genetic diseases, suicide, and so on. (I suppose you could argue that being a suicide bomber ensures wide dispersal of one’s genetic material.)
For that matter, why are there so many traits that have no obvious value? For example, kidneys have well developed nerves. Kidney stones are agonizing. Yet there is absolutely nothing an animal can do about a kidney stone. How do those nerves increase fitness? Traits that do not increase fitness, remember, die out.
Evolutionists don’t ask. Always the question is How does this fit in with evolution, instead of, Does this fit in with evolution?
An interesting thought that drives evolutionists mad is called Intelligent Design, or ID. It is the view that things that appear to have been done deliberately may have been. Some look at, say, the human eye and think, “This looks like really good engineering. Elaborate retina of twelve layers, marvelously transparent cornea, pump system to keep the whole thing inflated, suspensory ligaments, really slick lens, the underlying cell biology. Very clever.”
I gather that a lot of ID folk are in fact Christian apologists trying to drape Genesis in scientific respectability. That is, things looked to have been designed, therefore there must be a designer, now will Yahweh step forward. Yet an idea is not intellectually disreputable because some of the people who hold it are. The genuine defects of ID are the lack of a detectible designer, and that evolution appears to have occurred. This leads some to the thought that consciousness is involved and evolution may be shaping itself. I can think of no easy way to test the idea.
In any event, to anyone of modest rationality, the evolutionist’s hostility to Intelligent Design is amusing. Many evolutionists argue, perhaps correctly, that Any Day Now we will create life in the laboratory, which would be intelligent design. Believing that life arose by chemical accident, they will argue (reasonably, given their assumptions) that life must have evolved countless times throughout the universe. It follows then that, if we will soon be able to design life, someone else might have designed us.
To evolutionists I say, “I am perfectly willing to believe what you can actually establish. Reproducibly create life in a test tube, and I will accept that it can be done. Do it under conditions that reasonably may have existed long ago, and I will accept as likely the proposition that such conditions existed and gave rise to life. I bear no animus against the theory, and champion no competing creed. But don’t expect me to accept fluid speculation, sloppy logic, and secular theology.”
I once told my daughters, “Whatever you most ardently believe, remember that there is another side. Try, however hard it may be, to put yourself in the shoes of those whose views you most dislike. Force yourself to make a reasoned argument for their position. Do that, think long and hard, and conclude as you will. You can do no better, and you may be surprised.”
* An example, for anyone interested, of the sort of unlogic to which I was exposed by evolutionists: Some simple viruses are strings of nucleotides in a particular order. In 2002 Eckhard Wimmer, at the University of New York at Stony Brook, downloaded the sequence for polio from the internet, bought the necessary nucleotides from a biological supply house, strung them together, and got a functioning virus that caused polio in mice. It was a slick piece of work.
When I ask evolutionists whether the chance creation of life has been demonstrated in the laboratory, I get email offering Wimmer’s work as evidence that it has been done. But (even stipulating that viruses are alive) what Wimmer did was to put OTS nucleotides together according to a known pattern in a well-equipped laboratory. This is intelligent design, or at least intelligent plagiarism. It is not chance anything. At least some of the men who offered Wimmer’s work as what it wasn’t are far too intelligent not to see the illogic—except when they are defending the faith.
** Many Evolutionists respond to skepticism about life’s starting by chance by appealing to the vastness of time. “Fred, there were billions and billions of gallons of ocean, for billions of years, or billions of generations of spiders or bugs or little funny things with too many legs, so the odds are that in all that time….” Give something long enough and it has to happen, they say. Maybe. But probabilities don’t always work they way they look like they ought.
Someone is said to have said that a monkey banging at random on a typewriter would eventually type all the books in the British Museum. (Some of the books suggest that this may have happened, but never mind.) Well, yes. The monkey would. But it could be a wait. The size of the wait is worth pondering.
Let’s consider the chance that the chimp would type a particular book. To make the arithmetic easy, let’s take a bestseller with 200,000 words. By a common newspaper estimate of five letters per word on average, that’s a million letters. What’s the chance the monkey will get the book in a given string of a million characters?
For simplicity, assume a keyboard of 100 keys. The monkey has a 1/100 chance of getting the first letter, times 1/100 of getting the second letter, and so on. His chance of getting the book is therefore one in 1 in 100 exp 1,000,000, or 1 in 10 exp 2,000,000. (I don’t offhand know log 3 but, thirty being greater than ten, a 30-character keyboard would give well in excess of 10 exp 1,000,000.)
Now, let’s be fair to the Bandar Log. Instead of one monkey, let’s use 10 exp 100 monkeys. Given that the number of subatomic particles in the universe is supposed to be 10 exp 87 (or something), that seems to be a fair dose of monkeys. (I picture a cowering electron surrounded by 10 exp 13 monkeys.) Let’s say they type 10 exp 10 characters per second per each, for 10 exp 100 seconds which, considering that the age of the universe (I read somewhere) is 10 exp 18 seconds, seems more than fair.
Do the arithmetic. For practical purposes, those monkeys have no more chance of getting the book than the single monkey had, which, for practical purposes, was none.
Now, I don’t suggest that the foregoing calculation has any direct application to the chance formation of life. (I will get seriously stupid email from people who ignore the foregoing sentence.) But neither do I know that the chance appearance of a cell does not involve paralyzing improbabilities. Without unambiguous numbers arising from unarguable assumptions, invoking time as a substitute for knowledge can be hazardous.