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“Crazy Stuff”? Dave Farina on the Waiting Time Problem

Günter Bechly
Photo credit: 13on via Unsplash

I now conclude my lengthy response to YouTuber “Professor Dave” aka Dave Farina, who published a video (Farina 2022) attacking Stephen Meyer and intelligent design. I have responded minute by minute, tracking my comments with timecodes in square brackets. I regret the length of this series, which is justified only by the fact that Farina is a popular would-be science educator. The video is tedious and grating, and thus I am glad to be done with it. This is the seventh and final post in this series. Find the rest hereherehereherehere, and here.

[TC 1:05:55] Last but not least, we definitely have to address another mathematical argument I currently happen to work and publish about (Hössjer et al. 20182021, Bechly et al. in prep.), which is the waiting time problem that Farina calls “crazy stuff.”

The formulation “crazy stuff” of course implicitly suggests that this is a pseudo-problem invented by evil and stupid creationists. Farina mostly relies on a silly and embarrassingly incompetent “debunking” video by another YouTuber, who has not even understood the problem. Both chaps seem to be totally unaware that the waiting time problem has a long history and has been much discussed in mainstream science (especially population genetics) and even plays an important role in cancer research. 

Farina would have done better if he had talked with Harvard professor Martin Nowak, who is an evolutionary biologist and expert on the waiting time problem. Here are just a few references of renowned scientists publishing about this “crazy stuff”: Bodmer (1970), Karlin (1973), Christiansen et al. (1998)Schweinsberg (2008)Durrett et al. (2009)Behrens et al. (2012), and Chatterjee et al. (2014). It was not before Behe & Snoke (20042005) and Behe (2007) that the waiting time problem was recognized as an argument for intelligent design. Durrett & Schmidt (2008) attempted to refute Behe but arrived at a prohibitive waiting time of 216 million years for a single coordinated mutation in human evolution, while only about 6 million years are available since the origin of the human lineage from a common ancestor with chimps. Behe arrived at 1015 years for such a mutation in humans (Behe 2007: 61) by translating empirical data of an actual waiting time for a coordinated mutation that conveyed chloroquine drug resistance in Malaria. He simply applied these empirical findings to humans, considering their much lower population size and much longer generation time. Durrett & Schmidt’s result was based on a mathematical model, which of course must make certain simplifications that can introduce errors. When such model calculations conflict with hard empirical data, we should trust the empirical data as pointing closer to the truth. Anyway, both numbers are prohibitive and refute the feasibility of a Darwinian mechanism of macroevolution.

Four Alleged Problems

[TC 1:07:23] Farina raises four alleged problems as objections against the waiting time argument:

First, he raises the dreadful objection that boils down to the “Texas sharpshooter fallacy” by saying that nature does not go for specific mutations as a target but is totally random. This argument fails because it presupposes the existence of many targets, which is contradicted by the rarity of function in the search space for proteins (see the work of Douglas Axe) and by the common phenomenon of convergence. The argument also fails to recognize that life cannot allow for periods of maladaptation only to descend a local peak of the fitness landscape to explore other ones. Instead, life has to further adapt to its local fitness peak, which requires specific solutions for specific problems. It’s not like any beneficial mutation will do. A stem whale would have no use for a mutation that would be beneficial for a stem bird, such as improving skeletal pneumaticity.

Second, he totally fails to grasp the concept of coordinated mutations by calling it meaningless. He thinks that every individual mutation can be selected for, which shows he didn’t get the point that in coordinated mutations each individual mutation is neutral and thus in principle cannot be selected for.

Third, he claims that the waiting time problem implies that mutations occur in a specific sequence, which is simply false.

Finally, he claims that the waiting time problem ignores recombination, which according to Farina “baselessly discounts the profound evolutionary benefit” and is “dramatically accelerating the accumulation of beneficial mutations.” This shows how unaware Farina is of the actual technical literature, because the influence of recombination on the waiting time problem has been studied by Christiansen et al. (1998), who have shown that: “Recombination lowers the waiting time until a new genotypic combination first appears, but the effect is SMALL [my emphasis] compared to that of the mutation rate and population size.”

[TC 1:08:25] Farina finally wonders how papers by ID proponents on the waiting time problem could somehow make it into peer-reviewed journals and shows our paper in the Journal of Theoretical Biology (Hössjer et al. 2021). Well, that’s easy: because it is good peer-reviewed science, which something Farina has never achieved.

Confused about Intelligent Design

[TC 1:08:48] Farina briefly elaborates on mechanisms of speciation and mentions observed speciation events like the marbled crayfish as “another dirty secret that many creationists don’t like to acknowledge.” Of course, such evidence for speciation is completely irrelevant, because neither intelligent design proponents nor even young earth creationists dispute speciation. Nobody doubts that, say, a founder species of Darwin finches could potentially speciate into more than a dozen relatively similar species (or semi-species) on the Galápagos Islands. So what? Farina obviously is very much confused about ID theory.

[TC 1:09:32] Farina then implies that speciation (microevolution) extrapolated over long periods of time can explain the origin of biological novelty (macroevolution). This is not only contradicted by the waiting time problem, but also by another problem that I recently introduced with the so-called “species pair challenge” (Bechly 2022g2022h). There clearly are limits to what neo-Darwinian evolution can achieve. Thus, Darwinism is not wrong per se, but has a much narrower realm of applicability than has been thought.

[TC 1:10:14] Farina lists examples of genes that are conserved and shared by different clades of organisms as evidence for an evolutionary scenario rather than design. Again, he confuses evidence for common descent, which is happily granted, with evidence for an unguided process of transformation, which is virtually non-existent. He simply does not get it.

[TC 1:11:13] Farina ends with the claim that the “concept of genetic information” as Meyer applies it “is so vague that it’s unusable” and that “there are no metrics for determining how much information any given sequence of DNA has.” This is nonsense. Very precise scientific measures for the information content of DNA have indeed been suggested already by Gatlin (1966) and by many other later studies (e.g., Rao et al. 1979Schneider 1997Dix et al. 2006, and Wills 2016).

[TC 1:12:03] Farina triumphantly concludes that he debunked Meyer’s two main arguments:

“1) Some lies about the Cambrian explosion means intelligent design is true.”

“2) I don’t understand genetics even a little bit so intelligent design is true.”

According to Farina, Meyer’s only strategy is:

“Premise: a lie about science”

“Conclusion: God did it!”

That’s not a joke or an exaggeration. Go to his video and check that he literally makes these ridiculous claims. Of course, Meyer’s argumentation isn’t anything remotely similar to this ludicrous caricature nor did Farina successfully debunk anything. Also, Meyer explicitly and thoroughly rejects a “God of the gaps” argument from ignorance (Klinghoffer 2018 and this video), which is by far the most trite stereotype against ID that Farina could bring up [TC 1:13:15]. Luskin (2014) carefully goes through Meyer’s argument for design as presented in Darwin’s Doubt and shows precisely why it is not a “gaps”-based argument. Instead of debunking Meyer, Farina only showed that he is not shy about using the crudest of crude propaganda tactics.

There is one last point. Farina predicts that ID proponents will desperately respond to his hit piece that he is just an “unqualified uncredentialled loser.” He said it, I didn’t. But who am I to disagree? However, the fact that Farina lacks formal credentials is not his problem. I know tons of non-PhDs who can speak authoritatively on scientific issues. Farina isn’t one of them, and his rudeness does not add to his authority, as he seems to think. He rightfully deserves to be called out for his behavior as well as his sloppy work. He is not just an off-putting communicator but also bad at appreciating scientific controversies, an unfortunate combo for someone who wants to teach science to young people.