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Comparing the Odds: The Seahawks Game Versus…Evolution?

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Even the most die-hard Seattle fans would agree that the odds of last week’s Seahawks win were quite small. They had to come back from a 12-point deficit in the last three minutes of the game. At that point the odds for a win were only 0.1 percent.

CBS Sports said:

According to the win probability graph from ProFootballReference.com, the Seahawks only had a .70 percent chance of winning the game after Wilson’s pick [interception at 5:04 to go] — that’s less than one percent.

Believe it or not though, things actually got worse after that. Seattle’s chances of winning fell to .10 percent at the 3:07 mark after Wilson threw an incomplete pass to Jermaine Kearse.

So what won the game? For the Seahawks to take the championship a combination of intelligence, skill, and luck had to come together. But I’m betting it was mainly intelligence and skill that gave the breathtaking win to the Seahawks. It would be highly unlikely to have happened by chance alone.

Why? A chance of 0.1 percent means, for example, that if you have a thousand footballs in a room, with a 0.1 percent chance any are inflated, then only one football out of that thousand would probably have any air in it.

Do you think the Seahawks could have overcome odds of a thousand to one? I know there are true believers out there who would say yes. Go Seahawks! But what if the odds were 100 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 to one? One out of 1077. Those odds are impossible in any real world.

I’m not being arbitrary here. Those are the odds of finding a protein capable of carrying out a particular function by chance alone.

Can natural selection beat the odds? Remember, natural selection can only move toward the place of highest fitness. It is blind with respect to distant goals. It also tends to remove individual organisms with low fitness, even if they are on a path leading to a major innovation.

Let me illustrate this with a thought experiment. Imagine that Russell Wilson and all the players are blindfolded and do not know where their goal is. What if the only thing they have to guide them is the sound of the crowd, who are themselves blind to the goal?

Finally, instead of the goal posts being about 50 yards away, they are anywhere in a cubic search space of roughly 1�1025 meters on a side (using the number 1 in 1077 as a guide for the relative size of the space to be searched compared to the target). 1�1025 meters is approximately one billion light-years, so the space to be searched is a cube one billion light-years on a side. Even if a trillion trillion trillion blindfolded players and proportionately more 12th person fans yelling loudly were dropped randomly into that (oxygenated) space, they still couldn’t find the goal. They’d each have a cube 10 trillion meters on a side to search.

Clearly the only way to get the team to the cosmic goal would be to get some very specific intelligent guidance from someone. Luck wouldn’t win the game.

Neither would evolution.

Image: By Larry Maurer [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons.