Oh yes, Willam Dembski who teaches creationist apologetics at a seminary and grades his students on how well they troll popular science blogs which have a less than favorable view of his theories, is back. And this time, he published a peer reviewed paper about algorithms in a speculative journal. Even though the final product contains no references to creationism or ID, he tries to use it to ridicule software being used to clarify how evolutionary change happens. The implication is, of course, that an “evolutionist” is using the wrong tools for the job and misses the true meaning of his results.
It’s a key line of argument for the creationist movement. Everything is proof of creationism if you twist a few words around and add a rather hefty dose of pareidolia and poetic license. It seems that creationists have been taking a lesson from conspiracy theorists who can turn anything into a sign that evil cabals of Illuminati/ Masons/Satanists/alien overlords are conspiring in the shadows. In the case of evolution, those who realize that denying the vast collections of hundreds of museums and labs is like insisting that the sky is purple, don’t attack the evidence itself and instead, go after its interpretation.
That was Dembski’s trick in a previous paper in which he insisted that because a set of theorems which show that any search algorithm that doesn’t receive specific information to guide it, ends up being no better than any other, these No Free Lunch theorems prove that evolution could never work because no matter how many random mutations there are, the result would just end up a muddled mess. Hence his assertion that for evolution to work, there has to be someone to guide the information and that someone must be a designer. His newly published paper is pretty much the same junk in a new wrapping, but minus the meaningless, subjective philosophical pontifications that he tries to cram into his math. And it’s still just as wrong as it was before, when computer science expert Mark Chu-Carroll tore it apart.
Like all creationists, Dembski steadfastly refuses to grasp two very important things about the evolutionary process. Random change is not all that there is to it. Mutations in organisms are random but whether those mutations are useful and can be passed on to future generations, is not. This is why when he keeps referring to the entirety of the process as “Darwinian evolution,” I want to howl. Darwin’s work was describing the non-random part of the modern theory, natural selection. The ideas which Dembski is trying to fight with his stunning ignorance came out of the modern synthesis, long after Darwin, who knew pretty much nothing about genetics, was dead and gone.
The second point that always goes ignored by creationists is the fact that life didn’t need to evolve the way it did, it just happened this way. So when they try to somehow calculate the probability of the entire multi-billion year cycle of evolutionary change happening at random, of course they’re going to get odds a zillion to one against. Same with every protein, every amino acid and every change in gene expression. When they turn around and present it as proof that evolution couldn’t have happened at random, all they’ve done is showed that doing a molecule for molecule repeat of the last several billion years is next to impossible. That’s obvious and beside the point.
It really doesn’t matter if during the start of life on Earth we had a different amino acid here or there, or a different handed bias as long as the end result could persist and propagate. Humans didn’t have to evolve. Neither did animals. We just did because at every step, a certain set of mutations useful in the environment in which they happened, survived and were passed on. And this is a crucial note that sends ardent creationists into sheer hysteria. In order for them to make sense of their lives, they need to be a special project conceived by a supernatural being. Without that, they think that existence has no meaning and rather than simply try to contribute to the progress of our civilization and explore their spiritual views in the context of the real world, they want to pull the safety blanket of religious literalism over their heads and insist everyone does the same. This is, at its core, the game Dembski plays.
Since evolution isn’t a randomized universal search but a process in which random trials are a variable, the argument being pushed here is pointless, and without the flimsy philosophical underpinnings that try to hold it as a single thought, almost absurd. Evolutionary models and theoretical work done with the aid of computers explore parts and subsets of evolutionary theory. And like all software, they’re built to do a few things and to speed up what would be otherwise very tedious manual work. There is no functional requirement for them to replicate the entire evolutionary process from scratch on a molecular level. To pretend otherwise and tackle only a tiny little script done by Dawkins to illustrate a single point about the role of random mutations in evolution, and do it by misrepresenting what it does and how, is simply misleading.
In the end, Dembski presents us with a blatantly dishonest argument which is built on a very obvious lack of understanding of the subject matter he’s writing about. There’s a reason why I don’t write posts on advanced chemistry. I’m not a chemist and lack the specialized knowledge needed to provide any sort of valid or meaningful critique of a concept being discussed by those who do. But like all self-aggrandizing cranks who think of themselves as brilliant visionaries, Dembski doesn’t let his lack of skill or education in the area stop him from blathering into the digital aether. Then, our self-proclaimed “Issac Newton” of information theory refuses to take the hint that he needs to spend a few more years getting himself up to speed, hides behind moderators on ID blogs and daydreams about the collapse of evolutionary science which will punish those snooty PhDs who dare criticize the work of the Great William Albert Dembski.
[ applicable illustration by Denis Zilber ]