Creative math

Creationists sometimes try to incorporate math into their arguments. The use of Greek letters, complex formulas, and arithmetic jargon might seem to make an impressive argument, or at least a confusing one, depending on one’s mathematical abilities.

In an article for Skeptical Inquirer, Jason Rosenhouse identifies three ways creationists use a numbers-based approach: Through the fields of probability theory, information theory, and combinatorial search.

With regard to the first of these, find yourself a quarter. Or a Walking Liberty Half Dollar if preferring more of a scavenger hunt. Flip it and there is a 50/50 chance of if landing heads and 50/50 that it hits on tails. Although in a backyard football game once, I called for the coin to land on its side, and it did by getting stuck vertically in the muddy ground. Let a mathematician somewhere calculate the odds on that one.

At any rate, one anti-evolutionist assertion goes thusly: Genes are a sequence of DNA bases represented by the letters A, C, G, and T. The genes can further be seen as a series of letters, comparable to repeated tossings of the Walking Liberty. Therefore, if a specific gene results in 100 straight bases, that occurrence is too remote to be chance, and therefore intelligent design is responsible.

First, this is the god of the gaps fallacy. More importantly, this argument is based on the mistaken notion that genes and proteins evolve through a process similar to flipping coins. But as Rosenhouse noted, natural selection is a non-random process and this impacts the probability of specific genes evolving.

Using analogous coins again, Rosenhouse asks us to envision tossing 100 of them simultaneously. Getting all of them to hit on heads at once would require exponentially more attempts than one could manage in a million lifetimes. But if we are allowed to put aside the 50 or so that landed on heads, then re-toss the rest, then do the same with the roughly 25 that are left, then the 12.5 and so on, we would have 100 heads within a few minutes. Under this procedure, we would have all heads after an average of seven coin-flipping iterations. “The creationist argument assumes that evolution must proceed in a manner comparable to the first approach, when really it has far more in common with the second,” Rosenhouse explained.

Now we move on to how creationists end up wrongly thinking that complex functions like flagellum (which some bacteria use to propel themselves) points to design. By way of note, the flagellum comprises numerous individual proteins working in concert. Creationists insist that this function being arrived at by chance is too remote to be reasonable. But evolution does not have an end-point in mind and the flagellum, while irreducibly complex, could have served another function in a less-advanced stage.

So creationists sometimes try another approach, employing information theory. They argue that genes encode meaningful information, and insist that such information is indicative of design. This is another instance of the god of the gaps fallacy, besides being an affirming of the consequent. Beyond that, this posits that natural processes can only lead to erosion and eventual collapse. Therefore, creationists continue, complex genetic information cannot be natural.

However, known mechanisms are adequate to explain genetic information growth via evolutionary processes. For example, Rosenhouse wrote, “When a gene duplicates itself, it leaves the organism with two copies of a gene that had occurred only once. The second copy is capable of acquiring mutations without harming the organism since the first gene still maintains the initial function.”

That leaves creationists with trying to embrace what is known as a combinatorial search. According to Rosenhouse, during the evolutionary process, the potential number of possible gene sequences is staggeringly high. But, he continues, this is irrelevant since natural selection “shifts the probability distribution dramatically toward the functional sequences and away from the nonfunctional sequences.”

So while claiming to embrace mathematics, creationists are instead accepting only select parts they find convenient, and even then, are misapplying it.

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