What are the odds? Is intelligent design more plausible than chance?
February 14, 2013 3:46 PM   Subscribe

I'm a cataloging librarian who works a couple hours a week on the reference desk. This morning I had a patron come in to ask me for sources that back up the claim that the probability that life on earth formed by random chance is so small that some kind of divine intervention is more likely.

I've spent about an hour trying to find good resources, but a) there is just so much out there on this topic and I literally don't have the time to sift through it all to find the good stuff; and b) everyone seems to have an agenda.

This just seems like a huge scientific/philosophical/religious debate that I don't have a good enough grasp of to separate wheat from chaff efficiently. I understand that DNA is really, really intricate and that that seems to be the driving force behind many arguments against random chance: it's just too complex to have formed by chance!

Does anyone know of good, reliable, well-reasoned (maybe academic / peer-reviewed?) books or articles which address this topic?

He already has Proof of heaven : a neurosurgeon's journey into the afterlife by Eben Alexander.
posted by rabbitrabbit to Science & Nature (33 answers total) 13 users marked this as a favorite
 
I only know of resources that claim that the opposite is true. He's referencing more or less the blind watchmaker argument. Basically the standard counter argument to what he's looking for sources on goes that, while the chances of things unfolding in such a way that life happened is small, given an infinite number of attempts, life would have to come about at least once.

Popular type books that go through this argument in more depth are things like Dawkin's The Blind Watchmaker and Dennett's Darwin's Dangerous Idea.

When I was a kid my parents had me read a lot of those Evolution Debunked! type books, but the argument from pretty much all of those is that the chances are just so small that it's impossible (but the eyes! how could the eyes have happened!), which things like the evolving universe theory, et al., basically put to rest.

Of course, everyone has an agenda, including me...so.
posted by Lutoslawski at 3:52 PM on February 14, 2013 [1 favorite]


You can't calculate the odds of divine intervention.

You can, however, calculate the odds that a suitable mix of elements under the right conditions will get together to form amino acids; and then the odds that a soup of such amino acids will randomly form a simple self-replicating protein. And once you have that, bam, just a matter of time.

I don't happen to have those odds handy, but basically, it doesn't come out at all low - More like so likely that you have to seriously wonder why don't we see life waving back to us from every CHON-rich corner of the universe.
posted by pla at 3:53 PM on February 14, 2013 [5 favorites]


The Blind Watchmaker by Richard Dawkins spends much of its time refuting the belief that evolution is "chance" and showing just how evolution beat such "unlikelihood". Obviously this is a Dawkins book, so the name itself may put the reader off.
posted by Jehan at 3:54 PM on February 14, 2013 [2 favorites]


I don't know papers on this, but the Miller-Urey experiment is something he would probably want to take a look at. It's a simulation of Earth's early atmosphere that produced amino acids (the building blocks of life). It also mentions how amino acids are found in meteorites -- it's not so hard to create life after all.
posted by DoubleLune at 3:55 PM on February 14, 2013


You can, however, calculate the odds that a suitable mix of elements under the right conditions will get together to form amino acids; and then the odds that a soup of such amino acids will randomly form a simple self-replicating protein.

Oh, no you can't. Not without wild speculation and completely unjustified assumptions. There are a bunch of people working on this, but they haven't gotten very far. I, like the majority of scientists who have though about this problem, currently favor an RNA world hypothesis. But there are still so many things to explain. For instance, ribozymes appear to be awfully bad polymerases: slow and error-prone. So how did replication evolve?

OK, ignoring that tangent...

rabbitrabbit, you're looking for work by a guy called William Dembski. He really pioneered trying to make this line of thinking rigorous. He's wrong, of course, but it takes a bit of effort to show he's wrong.

You won't find anything like this in mainstream academic or peer-reviewed publications. It's simply not mainstream. (Also, it's wrong).

OK, another tangent...

I don't know papers on this, but the Miller-Urey experiment...

This was interesting early work, but it's not really current, and probably not particularly relevant. Cyanide chemistry is where it's at currently.
posted by mr_roboto at 4:10 PM on February 14, 2013 [5 favorites]


A Universe from Nothing specifically counters the intelligent design argument as well.
posted by perhapses at 4:31 PM on February 14, 2013


A Universe from Nothing


Does this book have anything to do with abiogenesis specifically? Krauss is an astrophysicist, and I wouldn't find him particularly credible here.
posted by mr_roboto at 4:35 PM on February 14, 2013


The problem is that any individual thing, if you are sufficiently specific about what kind of event you're looking for, is fantastically unlikely, but the likelihood that something will happen is pretty high.

A quick, easy illustration. Take a die and roll it 10 times, writing down the numbers you roll. What you wrote down had a mere one-in-sixty-million chance of happening, and yet it happened, right there, in front of you! But of course one of sixty million different things of that likelihood was going to happen, and there's not too much remarkable about the fact that one of them did.

Getting back to your original question: the likelihood of human-like life, specifically, here, on this particular planet? Astonishingly miniscule. The likelihood of life, somewhere, reaching a point where it looks back on the necessary processes for its own formation and says, "wow, that's really unlikely!"? Considerably less tiny. I'm not sure we have the numbers to say exactly by how much, but the point is that, looking back on something, we tend to overspecify and find it far more remarkable than it is.
posted by jackbishop at 4:36 PM on February 14, 2013 [24 favorites]


Bill Bryson's "A Short History of Nearly Everything" I don't know if it is exactly what you are asking for, but I walked away from reading it thinking that life is so tenuous that there MUST be divine intervention at work, for it to have been created and also still exist. It was a marvelous book.
posted by molasses at 4:48 PM on February 14, 2013


We don't really know for certain where life came from, although there are lots of rational, evidence-based hypotheses. The RNA world theory is quite popular.

If the question is whether things can evolve from one state to another by random chance through intermediate steps, the answer is yes and lab experiments have been done, for example, with phage viruses to prove it.

Another real-world example is the evolution of antibiotic-resistant strains of common pathogens, like MRSA and MDR-tuberculosis, through chance mutations that confer resistance and natural selection (overuse of antibiotics) that has filtered out non-resistant strains.

Richard Dawkins wrote a book called The Blind Watchmaker that discusses this in more detail. If your visitor is genuinely interested in the subject, it is a very good layperson's read on the subjects of mutation and natural selection.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 4:52 PM on February 14, 2013


the probability that life on earth formed by random chance is so small that some kind of divine intervention is more likely.

This question is not really answerable. There have been efforts by various people [as others have answered] to figure out the likelihood of life arising via natural mechanisms.

Not so much for the other end of the equation - generally most of the people framing the question like this are thinking:

Odds of life arising by chance = 0.0000000001%
Odds of an uber-powerful life-creating dude existing by chance = 100%

Realistically, the odds of a fully formed sentient being with the ability and will to create life just happening to exist would seem to be vanishingly small - but there's no way to put an actual number on it.

However if you want to know which is 'more likely' you have to be able to evaluate both terms of the equation, and if someone is assuming the odds of 'divine intervention' are 1:1, they're not really interested in thinking this through.
posted by HiroProtagonist at 5:22 PM on February 14, 2013 [5 favorites]


I can't personally vouch for any book, but I would search for "intelligent design" on Amazon to find the resources that were most well reviewed by readers and to read through the basic premise of the book. Obviously as a librarian you're 1. not likely to have read every book in the world and 2. going to have to be somewhat impartial when providing a patron with references regardless of what you believe about the world's beginnings.

Good luck!
posted by donut_princess at 5:38 PM on February 14, 2013


From an academic perspective, Richard Swinburne of Oxford is one of the leading defenders of the proposition that theism and intelligent design are more probable than not. It should be easy enough to start with his work, find opposing papers, and pick up the thread of the academic argument.
posted by gd779 at 6:11 PM on February 14, 2013 [2 favorites]


This book unfortunately isn't out yet, but it seems likely to address this question once it's released in April. (Preorder it here.) It claims to be "the first accessible volume to cover a wide range of possible reasons for the existence of all reality, from over 50 renowned thinkers, including Plato, Aristotle, Aquinas, Descartes, Leibniz, Hume, Bertrand Russell, Stephen Hawking, Steven Weinberg, Robert Nozick, Derek Parfit, Alvin Plantinga, Richard Swinburne, John Polkinghorne, Paul Davies, and the Dalai Lama."
posted by John Cohen at 6:23 PM on February 14, 2013


Speaking strictly in the sense of "as a librarian, you want to provide recommendations relevant to your patron's specific request, regardless of your opinion of the request," Darwin's Black Box and The Edge of Evolution by Michael J. Behe and No Free Lunch: Why Specified Complexity Cannot Be Purchased Without Intelligence by William Dembski are three books I very often see cited as "scientific proof" of Intelligent Design.

I haven't read them myself, so I can't say to what extent they specifically address your patron's interest. From reading various synopses & excerpts, I'd say they do address the concept of Irreducible Complexity, which is basically the heart of the argument that there's no way life on earth could have evolved through random chance.


Does anyone know of good, reliable, well-reasoned (maybe academic / peer-reviewed?) books or articles which address this topic?

Here is a list from the Discovery Institute (the organization currently at the heart of the U.S. Intelligent Design movement) of "Peer-reviewed and peer-edited scientific publications." Again, having read none of these articles, I can't say to what extent they may be good or well-reasoned or reliable or reviewed by actual peers or published in journals relevant to evolutionary theory.
posted by soundguy99 at 6:28 PM on February 14, 2013 [3 favorites]


jackbishop: "The problem is that any individual thing, if you are sufficiently specific about what kind of event you're looking for, is fantastically unlikely, but the likelihood that something will happen is pretty high.

The example I've always liked was bridge. It would be pretty ridiculous if every time I was dealt a hand, I stood up and exclaimed: "The deck must be rigged! There's only a one in 635 billion chance of me getting this particular hand by random chance!" You have to get some hand, and every one is improbable.

Similarly, every universe is improbable. If you want to say something interesting about the probability, you need to show not just that our specific universe has low odds, but that within all possible universes, those like ours are rare.

For the case of evolution, that means you're trying to show that out of all planets that house beings who can think about evolution, it's extremely rare that they'll have evidence of evolution, like a tree of life. I'm not sure how anybody can say anything useful about that likelihood!
posted by vasi at 7:05 PM on February 14, 2013 [1 favorite]


jackbishop has it exactly.
I'm looking at a table leg as I type. The odds of that object, with its curves and angles and tangents, appearing anytime, anywhere is low indeed, even in a quadrillion years -- and even with intelligent design.' Yet there it is.
It's a false construct. The requestor needs to learn HOW to think, not WHAT to think.
posted by LonnieK at 7:05 PM on February 14, 2013 [1 favorite]


Back to the point of resources for the library patron, Darwin's Black Box as soundguy99 suggests is what I always see referenced as the most popular scientific argument for this.

My parents own it, I've read... some. It's basically exactly what is being said above; lots of explanations about how very very complex and interdependent various aspects of biological life are. It's interesting, but the underlying argument begs the question, as many have already stated... I personally don't think this is something that can really be proven/disproven scientifically.
posted by celtalitha at 7:12 PM on February 14, 2013


I have a book called 'Cosmic Coincidences' by John Gribbin and Martin Rees. It is decidedly technical / scientific as opposed to philosophical, but the underlying aim of the book is to show just how perfectly all the strange things in the universe and its laws fit together to allow for us - as well as the universe itself - to be here, and how the odds of that happening by chance are incredibly small. No persuasive commentary on what that all means, it simply presents it as an observation.

It's also quite a dated book, having been published in 1989, but still may be an interesting read if someone is not too concerned about state-of-the-art science theories.
posted by SquidLips at 7:49 PM on February 14, 2013


to ask me for sources that back up the claim

Consider the possibility that he might be asking for validation, not information.
posted by justsomebodythatyouusedtoknow at 8:43 PM on February 14, 2013 [2 favorites]


Try The Language of God by Francis Collins. He headed the Human Genome Project and is now the head of the National Institutes of Health. In his book he describes how early in his medical career he was a diehard atheist, but working on the human genome changed his mind.
posted by thank you silence at 8:58 PM on February 14, 2013


The technical term for that idea--that the chances of (intelligent) life occurring are so remote that divine intervention is the most likely explanation--is known as the anthropic principle. This link should give some reputable academic sources on both sides of the argument.
posted by reverend cuttle at 9:26 PM on February 14, 2013 [1 favorite]


The anthropic principle is something the requester might find interesting but my understanding is that it means the exact opposite of what reverend cuttle said. We might naively think "Wow, it's really lucky we happen to have evolved on a planet which exactly fits the narrow range of conditions which we can survive in - it must be intelligent design!" However, we have actually evolved to require the narrow conditions of the planet so it's not at all lucky but rather completely inevitable that whatever life evolved on earth would be similar to ours.
posted by neilb449 at 1:44 AM on February 15, 2013


Here is a list from the Discovery Institute (the organization currently at the heart of the U.S. Intelligent Design movement) of "Peer-reviewed and peer-edited scientific publications." Again, having read none of these articles, I can't say to what extent they may be good or well-reasoned or reliable or reviewed by actual peers or published in journals relevant to evolutionary theory.

The list is chewed on a bit here:
http://scienceblogs.com/pharyngula/2012/02/02/more-bad-science-in-the-litera/

Popular type books that go through this argument in more depth are things like Dawkin's The Blind Watchmaker and Dennett's Darwin's Dangerous Idea.

I'd ask the patron for a bit more context: "Have you read any books discussing evolution in general? There's a culture war going on about this stuff right now. Here's Behe's 'Darwin's Black Box and The Edge of Evolution', and here's Carl Zimmer's 'Evolution: The Triumph of an Idea' - you'll like the bit about the separate evolution of the vertebrate and invertebrate eye, which isn't discussed in Behe's discussion of the biochemistry of the eye.
...
Coming back to the culture wars issue, Behe testified about this stuff in court as part of the defence in the Dover case:"
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Darwin%27s_Black_Box#Peer_review_controversy
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kitzmiller_v._Dover_Area_School_District
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Michael_Behe#Dover_testimony
In the same trial, Behe eventually testified under oath that "There are no peer reviewed articles by anyone advocating for intelligent design supported by pertinent experiments or calculations which provide detailed rigorous accounts of how intelligent design of any biological system occurred".[23] The result of the trial was the ruling that intelligent design is not science and is essentially religious in nature.

"Darwin's Black Box and The Edge of Evolution" is what he's looking for, but the historical context of the book in this case matters a bit, since it was partially the subject of a court case. I'd be annoyed as a layperson to be given a book and not told this.
posted by sebastienbailard at 1:56 AM on February 15, 2013 [1 favorite]


Philosophy prof here. Robin Collins has some very good papers on fine tuning. Also. John Leslie's Universes is good. My own assessment is that either this universe is one of many, many universes; or there is at least one designer. Quantum gravity points in the direction of the first.

The evidence of design from gaps in evolution is nonexistent. But the fine tuning argument is to be taken seriously.
posted by professor plum with a rope at 2:15 AM on February 15, 2013 [1 favorite]


You can MeMail if you want more suggestions. I work in this area.
posted by professor plum with a rope at 2:16 AM on February 15, 2013


Probability is a good word because it sounds mathematical/scientific but when used in normal speech has no precise meaning. Improbable things happen every day. When ever someone wins the lottery, that number coming up was extremely improbable. Probability assumes some kind of model which assumes some kind of regularity which is where the agendas get hidden. See if you can calculate the probability that I would answer your question in the way I did.
posted by Obscure Reference at 4:59 AM on February 15, 2013 [1 favorite]


When I read Richard Dawkin's The Selfish Gene it highlighted for me the importance of the phrasing of this question. The statement that life on earth formed by random chance is a misunderstanding.
For example, the human eye did not just pop up all at once by random chance - it was gradually developed over a long time starting with simple light dark sensitive cells and very gradually progressing.
To me, this model makes it a lot easier to understand that complex systems can develop through gradual small chance mutations which are very likely.
posted by Naib at 5:54 AM on February 15, 2013


This isn't something that can be argued in terms of probability. You simply can't calculate the probability that life was created by divine intervention. So you can't determine that it is more likely than anything else.

Theoretically, if you could calculate the probability of life forming from the right inanimate chemicals under the right conditions and it was REALLY REALLY low, you could argue that statistically it's not likely to have happened yet. But you really can't and that argument doesn't end with "... and so God" anyway.

Finally, the only thing amenable to chance is the commonness of conditions that can lead to life. Once those conditions are present, natural laws take over. Unfortunately we still don't have a precise enough understanding of what conditions led to it in our case, and enough examples to determine all sets of conditions that are necessary and sufficient.

So the best you can do is a sort of Drake Equation that lets you plug in certain assumed values so you can play with the idea but which doesn't really tell you anything.
posted by rocketpup at 7:23 AM on February 15, 2013 [1 favorite]


Thanks, guys, I think I have enough here to get the patron started. I might check out a couple of these books myself.
posted by rabbitrabbit at 8:00 AM on February 15, 2013


Am I reading the same question as everyone else? The patron wants books on intelligent design, so the answer is not to tell him how wrong he is while shoving the Richard Dawkins corpus in his face.

Dembski and Behe are what he wants. I happen to think they are wrong, and maybe you do, too, but that's not relevant to the patron's question.
posted by Tanizaki at 8:01 AM on February 15, 2013 [1 favorite]


The anthropic principle is something the requester might find interesting but my understanding is that it means the exact opposite of what reverend cuttle said. We might naively think "Wow, it's really lucky we happen to have evolved on a planet which exactly fits the narrow range of conditions which we can survive in - it must be intelligent design!" However, we have actually evolved to require the narrow conditions of the planet so it's not at all lucky but rather completely inevitable that whatever life evolved on earth would be similar to ours.

The anthropic principle has come to mean many things, and defined in teleological (design) and ateleological (chance) terms. See here, from the very wikipedia article you cite. The OP's patron wants strong anthropic principle a la Barrow and Tipler.
posted by reverend cuttle at 8:48 AM on February 15, 2013


molasses: Bill Bryson's "A Short History of Nearly Everything" I don't know if it is exactly what you are asking for, but I walked away from reading it thinking that life is so tenuous that there MUST be divine intervention at work, for it to have been created and also still exist. It was a marvelous book.
This answer is perfectly worthless to the question originally asked.

Question (paraphrased): "What are the odds that intelligent design is more mathematically likely than evolution?"

Your answer: "I really enjoyed reading this book*, so I believe its premise."

* ...written by a non-technically trained college dropout with no professional credentials in any field of biology whatsoever, nor for that matter in religious studies.
posted by IAmBroom at 10:50 AM on February 18, 2013


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