"Quantify, quantify, quantify!" Why Intelligent Design is a proper scientific theory, and why neo-Darwinism is not


A micrometer sleeve, with vernier, indicating a reading of 5.783 millimeters.
Courtesy of Glenn McKechnie and Wikipedia.

Table of Contents Part One Part Two Part Three Part Four Part Five Part Six Part Seven
Part Eight Part Nine Part Ten Part Eleven Part Twelve Part Thirteen Part Fourteen Conclusion

1. Science is nothing without quantification


Lord Kelvin. Courtesy of Hubert Von Herkomer (1849-1914) and Wikipedia.

Many people have written about the definition of science during the past few years, in the wake of the Dover trial. One aspect of science which, I believe, has been overlooked in the literature, is quantification. Without quantification, it is impossible to test either the neo-Darwinian theory of evolution or the theory of Intelligent Design.

In this post, I'm going to explain why Intelligent Design is a scientific theory and neo-Darwinism is not. In a nutshell: it all boils down to numbers. Any scientific theory has to be capable of quantifying its statements. As Lord Kelvin once put it, "When you can measure what you are speaking about and express it in numbers, you know something about it" (Lecture to the Institution of Civil Engineers, 3 May 1883).



2. Why Intelligent Design theory is a genuinely falsifiable, scientific theory


Three views of one of the two parts (monomers) of the protein triose phosphate isomerase. Intelligent Design theory would be falsified if proteins like this one could be shown to have a probability of at least 1 in 10 to the power of 150 of having evolved as a result of purely natural processes, given the known laws of physics and chemistry, and starting from a random assortment of organic chemicals (i.e. no special initial conditions). Left, an all-atom view colored by atom type; middle, a cartoon view colored by secondary structure; right, a solvent-accessible surface view colored by residue type (acidic residues red, basic residues blue, polar residues green, nonpolar residues white). Image courtesy of "Opabinia regalis" and Wikipedia.

Intelligent Design is capable of quantifying its key assertions regarding precisely how improbable a system whose molecular structure makes it suitable for performing a specific function has to be, in order for us to reliably infer that it was produced by an intelligent agent. (Of course, even a highly probable system might have been designed, but we have no scientifically reliable way of knowing that.) By contrast, as we'll see below, Neo-Darwinism is totally incapable of quantifying the amount of time needed for evolution to work. We may therefore conclude that while Intelligent Design might be a valid scientific theory, Neo-Darwinism doesn't even get to first base.

For Intelligent Design theory, the cut-off point in terms of probabilities is 1 in 10 to the power of 150. That's a very low number. Why do Intelligent Design proponents use that number? Because the total number of events (or "elementary logical operations") that could have occurred in the observable universe since the Big Bang has been calculated as no more than 10 to the power of 120 by MIT researcher Seth Lloyd, in his 2002 article, Computational capacity of the universe (in Physics Review Leters 88 (2002) 237901, DOI: 10.1103/PhysRevLett.88.237901 ). 10 to the power of 120 is 2 to the power of 400, so in binary terms that's 400 bits. Let's be generous and make it a round 500. That's 10 to the power of 150. All that Intelligent Design proponents are asking for, then, is a physical or mathematical demonstration that an event that can reasonably be expected to be happen at least once, somewhere, in the lifetime of the observable universe.

Intelligent Design makes two kinds of quantifiable assertions.

First, it asserts that for systems exhibiting a high degree of functional specificity, whose probability of occurrence falls below a certain threshold (1 in 10 to the power of 150), we can be certain beyond reasonable doubt that these systems are the work of an intelligent agent. Intelligent Design would therefore be falsified as a method of identifying artifacts produced by intelligent agents if someone came up with a system exhibiting a high degree of functional specificity, whose probability fell below the 1 in 10 to the power of 150 threshold, but which could be shown to be the result of blind processes (chance, necessity, or a combination of both).

Second, Intelligent Design theory asserts that living things contain lots of biological components exhibiting functional specificity, whose probability falls below the critical threshold of 1 in 10 to the power of 150. Indeed, ID proponents claim that even a single protein often fall below this threshold. The theory of Intelligent Design would therefore be falsified if it could be empirically demonstrated that the biological components of living things aren't that improbable after all.

Below, I've listed four conditions under which my belief in Intelligent Design would be falsified. All four conditions involve a demand for quantification from the proponents of neo-Darwinian evolution - a demand which they have so far been unable to meet. Here's my list of conditions that would partially or totally falsify Intelligent Design as a biological hypothesis:

1. An empirical or mathematical demonstration that the probability of the emergence of a standard, 150-amino-acid protein on Earth during the past four billion years as a result of purely natural processes, given the known laws of physics and chemistry, and starting from a random assortment of organic chemicals (i.e. no special initial conditions), is greater than 1 in 10 to the power of 150.

2. An empirical or mathematical demonstration that the probability of the emergence of cell-based life on Earth during the past four billion years as a result of purely natural processes, given the known laws of physics and chemistry, and starting from a random assortment of organic chemicals (i.e. no special initial conditions), is greater than 1 in 10 to the power of 150.

3. An empirical or mathematical demonstration that the probability of any of the 40 molecular machines listed on this page arising on Earth as a result of non-foresighted ("blind") processes - i.e. random mutations culled by natural selection - is greater than 1 in 10 to the power of 150, over a four-billion-year time period.

4. An empirical or mathematical demonstration that the probability of either of the following events occurring on Earth as a result of non-foresighted ("blind") processes - i.e. random mutations culled by natural selection - is greater than 1 in 10 to the power of 150, over a four-billion year time period:

Let me emphasize that I already accept common descent. Showing that these events happened in the past won't impress me; what a neo-Darwinian evolutionist will need to show is that they could have occurred as a result of unintelligent (i.e. non-foresighted) natural processes.

I would like to emphasize that I'm not asking for a detailed step-by-step pathway for any of the major transformations in the history of life that I described above. I'm not asking for a calculation of the number of steps involved, either. I'm not even asking for a detailed description of the starting point or end point of these transformations. I'm not asking for a detailed description of the evolutionary mechanism. And I'm not asking for proof that the proposed mechanism (commonly dubbed "random mutations plus natural selection") would work. All I want is a feasibility demonstration what we might call a "proof of concept." What I want is a rigorous mathematical and/or empirical argument showing that there's a probability greater than 1 in 10^150 that it could work, over a four-billion-year time period. I think that's a pretty reasonable demand.

Even a "back-of-the-envelope" calculation showing the adequacy of unintelligent processes to bring about any of the above evolutionary transformations would satisfy me, if it were to the point. A scientific model of the changes involved, which allows a rough calculation of the probability of their occurrence as a result of "random mutations plus natural selection" over a four-billion time-period, would be even nicer.

However, I refuse to be excessively generous to my Darwinist opponents: I won't accept attempts to explain away the astronomical improbability of life by appealing to unobservable universes inside some larger multiverse. It's not that I object to the multiverse as such (after all, it may exist, for all we know); what I object to is the ad hoc appeal to the multiverse, in order to explain life. Neo-Darwinists have repeatedly ridiculed appeals to unobservable processes by Intelligent Design proponents (e.g. a Designer who may well be immaterial and even supernatural) as "unscientific", so why should I let neo-Darwinists resort to what they themselves call "unscientific" explanations, for no other reason than to make the emergence of life seem less improbable? That's an ad hoc move, and it's cheating in my book.

By contrast, appealing to a Intelligent Designer if all other explanations fail is not cheating, any more than it would be cheating to appeal to an intelligent designer to explain the monolith in Arthur C. Clarke's 2001, if you stumbled across it. By definition, intelligence is a process that is capable of generating things like that - i.e. items with a high degree of specificity, whether functional (means-end specificity, which we find in the world of biology) or mathematical (exact ratios, which we find in Arthur C. Clarke's monolith). Nobody would invoke a multiverse to make the monolith's appearance less unlikely, and nobody should do that for the emergence of life, either.



3. Why neo-Darwinian evolution is not a scientific theory


The Nobel Prize winning physicist Wolfgang Pauli. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Neo-Darwinian evolution refuses to make quantifiable predictions regarding the amount of time needed for evolution to work. If you ask a Darwinist, "How much time should it take for natural processes to produce life from simple organic chemicals? How much time should it take for Darwinian natural selection to produce a complex eukaryotic cell from a relatively simple prokaryotic cell, or to produce complex animals from sponge-like creatures, or to produce a whale from a land animal?" you will be met with silence. Darwinists have no method of coming up with even approximate estimates for the answers to these questions. That's their dirty little secret. Darwinists can't quantify the time needed for their mechanism to work.

The Nobel Laureate scientist Wolfgang Pauli, who won the Nobel Prize for physics in 1945, astutely identified this weakpoint in Darwinism. Pauli's open skepticism towards Darwinism is discussed by Harald Atmanspacher and Hans Primas in their article, Pauli's ideas on mind and matter in the context of contemporary science (Journal of Consciousness Studies 13, 5-50, 2006). In section 7.1, the authors identify the target of Pauli's criticism: the Modern Synthesis, which, like neo-Darwinian synthesis of 1959, insists that mutation is random, and not adaptively directed:

Before the advent of molecular biology in the 1940s, the mainstream position with respect to biological evolution was referred to by the term Modern Synthesis. A key concept of this position was that the genetic variation within a population arises by random mutations, not by adaptively directed mutations and recombinations (Mayr, 1982).

The authors go on to point out that Pauli was not convinced that the evolution of life could be explained by random mutations only, and that he questioned this aspect of the Darwinian model of natural evolution on mathematical grounds:

"As a physicist, I should like to critically object that this model has not been supported by an affirmative estimate of probabilities so far. Such an estimate of the theoretical time scale of evolution as implied by the model should be compared with the empirical time scale. One would need to show that, according to the assumed model, the probability of de facto existing purposeful features to evolve was sufficiently high on the empirically known time scale. Such an estimate has nowhere been attempted though."
(Pauli, W. 1954. Naturwissenschaftliche und erkenntnistheoretische Aspekte der Ideen vom Unbewussten. Dialectica 8, 283301. Quoted passage from p. 298.)

Darwinists know that their theory is incapable of coming up with the hard numbers. To cover up their embarrassment on this score, they often put forward proposals for the origin of proteins, the origin of life and the origin of complex animals which are highly speculative. But a good mathematical argument should only appeal to processes that are already known to generate results. As they say in Missouri, "Show me."


Table of Contents Part One Part Two Part Three Part Four Part Five Part Six Part Seven
Part Eight Part Nine Part Ten Part Eleven Part Twelve Part Thirteen Part Fourteen Conclusion