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New Book, Probability’s Nature and Nature’s Probability, Provides Accessible Introduction to Technical Aspects of Intelligent Design

Casey Luskin

Probability's Nature and Nature's ProbabilitySince the beginning of 2008, we’ve seen the publication of some excellent popular books introducing the topic of intelligent design (ID), including Intelligent Design 101 (with contributions by Phillip Johnson, Michael Behe, J.P. Moreland, William Dembski, and Jay Wesley Richards) and William Dembski’s Understanding Intelligent Design. Another book just out is a small self-published book that is a gem, titled Probability’s Nature and Nature’s Probability, by Donald E. Johnson. Johnson holds two Ph.D.’s — one Ph.D. in Computer & Information Sciences from the University of Minnesota and another Ph.D. in Chemistry from Michigan State University. Given Johnson’s background, it was unsurprising that he has a good grasp of the issues. What was pleasantly surprising was Johnson’s ability to communicate some of the technical aspects of ID in an easy-to-understand form that is extremely well-referenced. Johnson’s introduction to ID shows his grasp of the subject:

In recent years there has been much controversy concerning ID (Intelligent Design). Many in the scientific community have dismissed the concept as Creationism warmed-over. Many in the Biblical Creationism community have dismissed the concept as irrelevant since the God of the Bible is not portrayed as the Designer. This book will deal with the scientific aspects of ID, not addressing its implications. … If it is argued that ID is compatible with (though not requiring) a deity, and therefore should be excluded from science, then by the same reasoning no atheist should be able to publish anything in support of undirected naturalism (which includes Darwinism) since that is a primary belief of those holding the atheistic view. This book will show that undirected naturalism lacks known scientific facts in several critical areas, and that some intelligent agent better accounts for many observations. (p. 4)

Probability’s Nature and Nature’s Probability starts off by explaining simple topics, covering the basics of probability theory and scientific notation for expressing large numbers. Building on this foundation, Johnson takes his readers on a tour of the scientific evidence for ID, starting with the evidence of cosmic fine-tuning. He then discusses the basic workings of the cell, and the evidence for design in the basic structure of life, particularly looking at the odds of naturally forming the information required for life via blind chemical processes.

Johnson then moves to the evidence for design in higher-level biological systems, examining the ability of Darwinian evolution to produce new biological information. As Johnson writes regarding the origin of new genes:

While the mutation mechanism for gene formation makes an interesting story, there are a number of scientific difficulties with the scenario. Blind chance is the only known mechanism possible for such gene formation since a selective advantage was thought to require some manifestation that is genetically coded (such as making a particular protein). Since nothing prevents what would have become a mutated ‘correct’ codon from mutating again to become useless (mutation is by chance), the probability for a useful mutated gene is that all required mutations take place in one organism before or during reproduction. (p. 65)

Thus Darwinian selection cannot account for the origin of a novel gene because before you have a functional gene, there’s nothing to select for.

Neo-Darwinians realize this problem, at least implicitly, and thus assert that new genes arise from pre-existing genes via gene duplication. But does that really change anything or solve this problem? Their whole point of generating a gene-duplicate is so that selection pressure can be relaxed so that one of the duplicated genes is free to mutate. But how does the duplicate acquire the requisite code for the new function in the first place? With selection pressure now essentially gone, the pressure driving this gene-duplicate to mutate and find some new function is really no better than blind chance, or a random walk. Stephen Meyer explains this point, albeit more technically:

[N]eo-Darwinists envision new genetic information arising from those sections of the genetic text that can presumably vary freely without consequence to the organism. According to this scenario, non-coding sections of the genome, or duplicated sections of coding regions, can experience a protracted period of “neutral evolution” (Kimura 1983) during which alterations in nucleotide sequences have no discernible effect on the function of the organism. Eventually, however, a new gene sequence will arise that can code for a novel protein. At that point, natural selection can favor the new gene and its functional protein product, thus securing the preservation and heritability of both.

This scenario has the advantage of allowing the genome to vary through many generations, as mutations “search” the space of possible base sequences. The scenario has an overriding problem, however: the size of the combinatorial space (i.e., the number of possible amino acid sequences) and the extreme rarity and isolation of the functional sequences within that space of possibilities. Since natural selection can do nothing to help generate new functional sequences, but rather can only preserve such sequences once they have arisen, chance alone–random variation–must do the work of information generation–that is, of finding the exceedingly rare functional sequences within the set of combinatorial possibilities. Yet the probability of randomly assembling (or “finding,” in the previous sense) a functional sequence is extremely small.

(Stephen C. Meyer, “The origin of biological information and the higher taxonomic categories,” Proceedings for the Biological Society of Washington, Vol. 117(2):213-239 (2004).)

Neo-Darwinians have recognized (again, at least implicitly) this problem as well. In an attempt to get around this problem, some evolutionists suggest that a gene first acquires the two functions and then duplicates, and then each duplicate loses one, or the other function, leaving 2 genes with 2 different functions. But this speculative scenario solves nothing, for again it just pushes the problem back: It only takes one function for a gene to persist due to stabilizing selection, so why would a gene acquire a second function? Like the duplicated gene seeking an entirely new function that we discussed above, there is no necessary selection pressure on a gene to acquire some new, second function. Sure, once the second function is there, the gene gains a selective advantage, but that’s not the point; the point is that until the second IS there, there’s no selective advantage. Thus, when trying to create a duel-functioned gene, we’re back to right where we started: relying on a random walk and blind chance.

Johnson grasps this basic obstacle for Darwinian evolution, and explains it in terms that any lay reader can understand: no matter how evolutionists try to push the question back, acquiring a new genetic function where previously there was none must face the fact that “[b]lind chance is the only known mechanism possible for such gene formation since a selective advantage was thought to require some manifestation that is genetically coded (such as making a particular protein)” and thus “the probability for a useful mutated gene is that all required mutations take place in one organism before or during reproduction.” Can evolutionists provide a compelling — or even plausible — explanation for the origin of new genes?

Probability Nature and Nature’s Probability also introduces the fossil evidence for design, irreducible complexity, and discusses junk-DNA in various sections. Johnson closes by explaining the importance of preserving academic freedom to follow the evidence wherever it leads. I don’t necessarily agree with everything that Johnson writes, but his book is succinct enough and lucid enough on so many important ID topics that I would recommend it as an introduction to ID. As Johnson writes in his closing chapter:

The benefits of an ID model are potentially wide-ranging. If ID had been accepted, virtually all data recently found concerning the universe’s fine tuning, the complexity of life, and the information of life (including in “junk DNA”) would be seen as confirmation of the ID model. (p. 108)

Finally, the book has one unique quirk that distinguishes it from many other books introducing ID: Johnson’s writing is extremely heavy with quotations from authorities in this debate. While some might view his heavy use of quotations as distracting or unorthodox, for those who wish to see direct documentation of the evidence from ID’s most vociferous critics or its most qualified proponents, it’s refreshing. Either way, Johnson provides more-than-ample documentation for his points via quotations and citations.

Probability Nature and Nature’s Probability is a unique introduction to the debate over ID, written by a highly qualified author who has a lucid grasp of the issues and is able to communicate core ID concepts for any reader. Check out Johnson’s website at


Casey Luskin

Associate Director, Center for Science and Culture
Casey Luskin is a geologist and an attorney with graduate degrees in science and law, giving him expertise in both the scientific and legal dimensions of the debate over evolution. He earned his PhD in Geology from the University of Johannesburg, and BS and MS degrees in Earth Sciences from the University of California, San Diego, where he studied evolution extensively at both the graduate and undergraduate levels. His law degree is from the University of San Diego, where he focused his studies on First Amendment law, education law, and environmental law.



Donald L. Johnson