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As Richard Dawkins Takes on Stephen Meyer, Other Scientists Join the Melee over "Random" Evolution


Following up on Richard Dawkins's attempted takedown of Stephen Meyer's bike-lock analogy ("It's irrelevant...because natural selection is a NONRANDOM process"), our Biologic Institute colleague Douglas Axe joined the conversation over at Why Evolution Is True. (That is Jerry Coyne's blog.)

Dawkins posted his original comments there, following a post by Coyne on the Toronto debate. He concluded by asking, "[A]re they cynically playing to the gallery, dazzling the naive audience with big numbers like 10^77, while knowing full well they are irrelevant?" Following that, a reader called chrisbuckley80 thought he had cleverly nailed the problem with Meyer's comparison, with an analogy of his own:

I think I can play this game. How's this for dazzling? I walk a mile from my train station to my office every day. If I just randomly took enough steps to walk a mile, I could end up anywhere in a 3.14 square mile area. My cubicle is only about 20 square feet. This leaves about a one in 4.4 million chance of finding it. I've done this 1000 straight days which equates to a 1:10^6641 chance of this having randomly happened.

The obvious conclusion is that my commute isn't random. Why is it so hard for these people to come to the same conclusion about evolution, especially when it is repeated to them ad nauseam?

Not so fast, writes Dr. Axe:

Equally obvious is that your commute isn't random because you know where you're going. When I read The Blind Watchmaker as a student (and enjoyed it very much, I might add) I was under the distinct impression that "blind" meant not knowing where one is going.

So, let's look at your analogy again. You receive benefit in the form of a paycheck for showing up at your cubicle every workday. If instead you were to meander blindly from the train station (meaning, without using any knowledge of where you're supposed to go) do you really think your employer would give you 0.1% of your pay if you happened to end up 0.1% closer to your cubicle than your starting point? And then 0.2% if you happened to make it a little closer the next day?

Of course you don't. You get paid after making it the whole way and doing your work.

That's the glaring problem with natural selection. It's huge weakness has nothing to do with randomness and everything to do with the fact that it only rewards good work after that work has been done. Consequently it has absolutely nothing to do with how that work gets done in the first place.

Speaking of ad nauseam repetition, this obvious shortcoming of natural selection has been repeated over and over for well over a century. As it was put in a quote offered by Hugo De Vries in 1904: "Natural selection may explain the survival of the fittest, but it cannot explain the arrival of the fittest."

At a guess, I would say that Dawkins entered the debate at all -- something he usually avoids -- because Lawrence Krauss in the Toronto event was basically channeling Dr. Dawkins on the point that Darwinian evolution isn't a "random" process. The truth is it's both random and nonrandom. The fuel is random genetic variation. The winnowing process, natural selection, is nonrandom. But as scientists have recognized for more than a century, that only helps with the "survival" not the "arrival" of biological novelties.

Dawkins stands by his man (Krauss), but other Darwinists with less of a personal stake in the matter have dismissed this particular move by Krauss/Dawkins.

In a post offering "A suggestion for debaters," PZ Myers is of course snide but clearly wishes Krauss hadn't drifted so far beyond his depths as a cosmologist -- "Meyer cunningly got the debate unto the track of molecular biology and the human genome," "I have approximately zero interest in hearing [Krauss] lecture about biology." He's equally dismissive of the ID advocate, but if the atheist Krauss had successfully scored, you can be sure atheist Myers would be happy to admit that.

Fellow ID critic Larry Moran, a University of Toronto biochemist, says similarly, "You need to understand biology if you are going to debate an Intelligent Design Creationist." In a comment under his post, Moran addresses the randomness issue (as Ann Gauger noted earlier):

During the debate, Stephen Meyer emphasized [the] random nature of evolution and its inability -- according to him -- to come up with new protein folds and new information in a reasonable amount of time.

Krauss misunderstood the argument, which was based on the frequency of mutations, and tried to dismiss it by pointing out that evolution is not random -- it's directed and guided by natural selection.

Meyer corrected him by pointing out that the issue was the probability of mutations and not the probability of fixation once the mutation occurred. (This was when he was struggling with a migraine so he didn't do as good a job as he could have.) Krauss stumbled on for a bit emphasizing natural selection and the fact that evolution is not random.

That was embarrassing. I think Krauss gets most of his information about evolution from Richard Dawkins so he (Krauss) probably doesn't know about random genetic drift or historical contingency or any of the other features of the history of life that make it "random" (in the colloquial sense).

I suspect that Krauss still holds on to the Dawkins view that life has the appearance of design. Truth is, in the big picture, life really doesn't have the appearance of design. Certainly our genome doesn't look designed and my back was not designed for walking upright as it let's me know every morning when I get out of bed.

The Toronto event struck many of us initially as a lost opportunity. Aside from the distress of seeing a colleague in pain, Dr. Meyer in the middle of a migraine attack was not what you'd hope for going in. But the ripples from the evening are shaping up in all kinds of interesting ways that, frankly, might not have emerged had Steve Meyer been at the top of his game.

Image credit: Mike Cornwell [CC BY-SA 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons.