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New Peer-Reviewed Paper Demolishes Fallacious Objection: “Aren’t There Vast Eons of Time for Evolution?”

When debating intelligent design (ID), there are countless times I’ve heard the old objection, “But aren’t there millions of years for Darwinian evolution?” Perhaps there are, but that doesn’t mean the Darwinian mechanism has sufficient opportunities to produce the observed complexity found in life. Darwin put forward a falsifiable theory, stating that his mechanism must work by “numerous successive slight modifications.” Michael Behe took Darwin at his word, and argued in Darwin’s Black Box that irreducible complexity refuted Darwinian evolution because there exist complex structures that cannot be built in such a stepwise manner. Darwin’s latter day defenders responded to Behe by effectively putting Darwinism into an unfalsifiable position: they put forth wildly speculative and unlikely appeals to indirect evolution. Largely based upon “exaptation,” these scenarios required that complex biological systems be built by spontaneously “co-opting” or borrowing multiple parts within the cell to suddenly to perform wholly different functions in an entirely new system. The only evidence for such speculative scenarios is typically “protein homology,” or sequence similarity between one part and another. The mere remote possibility of such a story is said to salvage evolution from falsification by Behe’s arguments.

But is “mere possibility” sufficient justification to assert “scientific plausibility”? A new peer-reviewed article in Theoretical Biology and Medical Modelling asks just this question. The abstract states:

Mere possibility is not an adequate basis for asserting scientific plausibility. A precisely defined universal bound is needed beyond which the assertion of plausibility, particularly in life-origin models, can be considered operationally falsified. But can something so seemingly relative and subjective as plausibility ever be quantified? Amazingly, the answer is, “Yes.” A method of objectively measuring the plausibility of any chance hypothesis (The Universal Plausibility Metric [UPM]) is presented. A numerical inequality is also provided whereby any chance hypothesis can be definitively falsified when its UPM metric of ξ is < 1 (The Universal Plausibility Principle [UPP]). Both UPM and UPP pre-exist and are independent of any experimental design and data set.

(David L. Abel, “The Universal Plausibility Metric (UPM) & Principle (UPP),” Theoretical Biology and Medical Modelling, Vol. 6:27 (Dec. 3, 2009).)

It’s not just prominent proponents of intelligent design who are publishing peer-reviewed articles that support ID arguments. Other scientists are doing the same–and this article by Abel in fact cites to the work of Douglas Axe, Stephen Meyer and William Dembski, eloquently explaining why the progress of science depends on our rejecting falsified theories and not retaining highly unlikely explanations:

But at some point our reluctance to exclude any possibility becomes stultifying to operational science. Falsification is critical to narrowing down the list of serious possibilities. Almost all hypotheses are possible. Few of them wind up being helpful and scientific ally productive. Just because a hypothesis is possible should not grant that hypothesis scientific respectability. More attention to the concept of “infeasibility” has been suggested. Millions of dollars in astrobiology grant money have been wasted on scenarios that are possible, but plausibly bankrupt. The question for scientific methodology should not be, “Is this scenario possible?” The question should be, “Is this possibility a plausible scientific hypothesis?” One chance in 10200 is theoretically possible, but given maximum cosmic probabilistic resources, such a possibility is hardly plausible. With funding resources rapidly drying up, science needs a foundational principle by which to falsify a myriad of theoretical possibilities that are not worthy of serious scientific consideration and modeling.

(David L. Abel, “The Universal Plausibility Metric (UPM) & Principle (UPP),” Theoretical Biology and Medical Modelling, Vol. 6:27 (Dec. 3, 2009).

The willingness of modern evolutionists to tolerate highly unlikely explanations in order to avoid the design inference has always reminded me of the great scene from “Dumb and Dumber” when Jim Carrey, who plays a socially awkward buffoon named “Lloyd,” asks his secret crush Mary about the odds that she will return his love. As the exchange goes:

LLOYD: I’m gonna ask you something flat out and I want you to answer me honestly: What do you think the chances are of a girl like you and a guy like me ending up together?
MARY: Lloyd, that’s difficult to say. I mean we hardly–
LLOYD: –I asked you to be honest, Mary.
MARY: But Lloyd, I really can’t–
LLOYD: –Come on, give it to me straight. I drove a long way to see you, the least you can do is level with me. What are my chances?
MARY: Not good.
LLOYD: You mean not good, like one out of a hundred?
MARY; I’d say more like one out of a million.
LLOYD: So you’re telling me there’s a chance?

Only an illogical emotional infatuation for Mary kept Lloyd hoping she would return his love. But if Lloyd understood how the world works, he would have realized Mary just told him that his chances of ending up with her are effectively zero, short of a miracle. Lloyd’s hopes of getting the girl should have been falsified.

Michael Behe responded to his critics by noting that like Lloyd, they need to learn when it’s time to acknowledge they’re not gonna get the girl. He thus writes:

[O]ne needs to relax Darwin’s criterion from this: “If it could be demonstrated that any complex organ existed which could not possibly have been formed by numerous, successive, slight modifications, my theory would absolutely break down.” to something like this:

If a complex organ exists which seems very unlikely to have been produced by numerous, successive, slight modifications, and if no experiments have shown that it or comparable structures can be so produced, then maybe we are barking up the wrong tree. So, LET’S BREAK SOME RULES!

Of course people will differ on the point at which they decide to break rules. But at least with the realistic criterion there could be evidence against the unfalsifiable. At least then people like Doolittle and Miller would run a risk when they cite an experiment that shows the opposite of what they had thought. At least then science would have a way to escape from the rut of unfalsifiability and think new thoughts.

(Michael Behe, “Answering Scientific Criticisms of Intelligent Design,” Science and Evidence for Design in the Universe, Proceedings of the Wethersfield Institute, Vol 9:146-147 (Ignatius Press, 2000))

Behe’s arguments are echoed by Abel’s new paper:

The same standard should apply in falsifying ridiculously implausible life-origin assertions. Combinatorial imaginings and hypothetical scenarios can be endlessly argued simply on the grounds that they are theoretically possible. But there is a point beyond which arguing the plausibility of an absurdly low probability becomes operationally counterproductive. That point can actually be quantified for universal application to all fields of science, not just astrobiology. Quantification of a UPM and application of the UPP inequality test to that specific UPM provides for definitive, unequivocal falsification of scientifically unhelpful and functionally useless hypotheses. When the UPP is violated, declaring falsification of that highly implausible notion is just as justified as the firm commitment we make to any mathematical axiom or physical “law” of motion.

(David L. Abel, “The Universal Plausibility Metric (UPM) & Principle (UPP),” Theoretical Biology and Medical Modelling, Vol. 6:27 (Dec. 3, 2009).

Abel then calculates the universal probability bounds wherein we are able to “falsify not just highly improbable, but ridiculously implausible scenarios.” According to Abel’s calculations, the probability bounds for various environments are as follows:

  • cu = Universe = 1013 reactions/sec X 1017 secs X 1078 atoms = 10108

  • cg = Galaxy = 1013 X 1017 X 1066 = 1096

  • cs = Solar System = 1013 X 1017 X 1055 = 1085

  • ce = Earth = 1013 X 1017 X 1040 = 1070

Thus, even though there are billions of years available in the universe, that does not imply that there are unlimited probabilistic resources. By calculating the maximum number of chemical reactions given the available time, Abel ably calculates the probabilistic resources. He concludes:

The application of The Universal Plausibility Principle (UPP) precludes the inclusion in scientific literature of wild metaphysical conjectures that conveniently ignore or illegitimately inflate probabilistic resources to beyond the limits of observational science. The UPM and UPP together prevent rapidly shrinking funding and labor resources from being wasted on preposterous notions that have no legitimate place in science. At best, notions with ξ < 1 should be considered not only operationally falsified hypotheses, but bad metaphysics on a plane equivalent to blind faith and superstition.

(David L. Abel, “The Universal Plausibility Metric (UPM) & Principle (UPP),” Theoretical Biology and Medical Modelling, Vol. 6:27 (Dec. 3, 2009).

Such clarity of thought will undoubtedly be bitterly opposed by the evolutionary scientific community.


Casey Luskin

Associate Director and Senior Fellow, 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.



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