Monday, May 16, 2011

Rarity vs. Isolation, a problem for Intelligent Design

Douglas Axe is a scientist, and a creationist, judging from his affiliation with Biola University. (Biola requires signing a faith statement.) He has occasionally published studies relating to the occurence of protein folds, using mutation as a way to determine the frequency of functional folds. His overall research program is to show that functional folds are so rare in nature that they could not arrive by chance mutation from an existing fold (killing evolution) or by chance from random polypeptides (killing abiogenesis).

Axe's most recent peer reviewed work is Axe 2004. Of course, anything even mildly supportive of ID in the peer reviewed literature gets a lot play, and this did. It has recently gotten some more, as Doug has blogged about some reactions to it from Steve Matheson and Art Hunt. Here are some of my observations.

Side point 1 - As with Guillermo Gonzales, advocating creationism seems to be negatively correlated with publishing. Gonzales couldn't get tenure because his publishing and grants dried up, and Axe publishes very infrequently.

Side point 2 - Axe's argument is essentially a variation on the argument from improbability - the universe doesn't possess the time/resources required for evolution to work. As such, it is a "bignum" argument, and the most important bignum in the ID memenet is Dembski's Universal Probability Bound. This UPB is usually stated as the odds of something happening have to be greater than 10^-150 before an ID supporter will allow that they might have natural causes. Well, Axe's work is well within that bound. The number usually plucked from Axe is 10^-77 as the "chance" for a functional protein. That is 80 orders of magnitude more likely than UPB, so Axe is really not supporting ID if these folks could keep their bignums straight.

The main point - rarity is not isolation. Even if we grant for the purposes of argument that Axe's rarity number is correct, that doesn't mean proteins, and the genes that make them, are isolated.

Here's an analogy. Gold is rare. But on land, gold is not isolated. If I find a piece of gold in one spot, my expectation (hope) is to find another piece of gold nearby. Lots of people will come and try to find gold nearby. Now there might actually be more gold in the ocean than on land, but if I find one gold atom in a bucket of seawater, I'm not going start my next gold mine where I found that one gold atom.

The difference is the distribution, and isolation is far more about distribution than it is about rarity. Gold on land is very unevenly distributed, rare but not isolated. Gold in seawater is evenly distributed and isolated. At another level, nucleons are extremely rare within the volume of an atom, but not isolated at all. They are all in one lump in the center of the atom.

Of course, there is an underlying process that accounts for this uneven distribution. And if you want to challenge evolution or abiogenesis, you have to challenge the underlying processes, not make hand waving arguments that always assume a uniform distribution. Rarity is not isolation.

Quintessence of Dust: Exploring the protein universe: a response to Doug Axe: ""

No comments: