"If the misery of the poor be caused not by the laws of nature, but by our institutions, great is our sin."
- Charles Darwin

Sep 4, 2007

Parsimony and the Origin of Life in the Universe

The all-too-common descent to arguments from personal incredulity

The micro-manager at work in His workshop (Monty Python's The Meaning of Life).

Intelligent Design creationists are fond of using the strategy of denial based on personal incredulity. “I can’t explain how protein motors with multiple parts could evolve so, therefore, no one can and Darwin was wrong.” However, while Michael Behe may not have been able to explain the bacterial flagellum others seemed to have no difficulty. That Behe abandoned this centerpiece in his latest book suggests that he was smart enough to realize he was wrong.

William Dembski and friends haven't figured that out yet and proudly display the flagellum as their website image at Uncommon Descent. Today they've found a new fallacy to flog with the recent Biology Direct paper on multiverses as an explanation for the improbability of life's origin.

Origin of life is a chicken and egg problem: for biological evolution that is governed, primarily, by natural selection, to take off, efficient systems for replication and translation are required, but even barebones cores of these systems appear to be products of extensive selection. . . In an infinite universe (multiverse), emergence of highly complex systems by chance is inevitable. Therefore, under this cosmology, an entity as complex as a coupled translation-replication system should be considered a viable breakthrough stage for the onset of biological evolution.

Invoking the argument of parsimony, or the idea that the simplest explanation requiring the fewest number of steps is the better explanation, BarryA asks:

The question for the class today is which is the most parsimonious hypothesis: One designer or infinite universes?

BarryA is correct in bringing up parsimony to critique this paper but he's ludicrously foolish in assuming his position is somehow a less complex explanation. The designer God that ID proponents taut is a micro-manager that assembles bacterial power supplies, initiates the catalyzing cascade in blood clots and directs the maddeningly complex interactions of organic evolution (Behe accepts human ancestry with apes but thinks God intended humans to emerge). This would mean that the designer is ultimately more complex than the design itself.

I'm glad BarryA isn't teaching my class, or any class for that matter. It's bad advice to propose a hypothesis that is more complicated than the question you're trying to answer. All this hypothesis does is lead to the next question of what or who created the designer? The more parsimonious hypothesis IS that the universe always existed. BarryA can't explain how this could be (and frankly I can't either) so he descends to the position of personal incredulity.

However, invoking the infinite multiverse as an explanation for how life evolved is the same misguided argument that has been used for years as the anthropic principle. It basically boils down to the statement, "Life exists because we happened to live in a universe with physical laws that made it possible for life to exist." It's no more clever than that, just fancied up with metaphysical flourishes.

Rather than invoking an infinite multiverse as an explanation for a coupled translation-replication system, I think that a more parsimonious explanation is that we don't yet fully understand the conditions under which RNA trancription could evolve from basic amino acids in the chemical soup of early Earth. You shouldn't rush to a "God of the gaps" or an "everything is possible with multiverses" argument until you're sure all other explanations have been eliminated.

I only wish I could use this multiverse explanation for difficult problems I'm working on. "The least-squares regression line is correct for this data set because we live in a universe where least-squares regression lines are able to be correct." Brilliant!


Eugene V. Koonin (2007). The cosmological model of eternal inflation and the transition from chance to biological evolution in the history of life. Biology Direct 2:15. doi:10.1186/1745-6150-2-15

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John - Evolutionary Middleman said...

"(Behe accepts human ancestry with apes but thinks God intended humans to emerge)."

Behe, and just about every other proponent of ID. This makes it very interesting that Creationists would in any way tie themselves to ID! They don't believe THAT. It shows their desperation to have anyone on their side who speaks in ANY way against Darwinian evolution.

By the way, I heard someone (and I THOUGHT it was Behe) just recently trotting out the old flagellum again. Maybe it was Dembski.

Jeremy Pierce said...

I'm trying to figure out what notion of complexity you have in mind. Dawkins gives a strange argument much like this in his recent book on religion, and I couldn't figure out what he had in mind there either.

The classical view that God is absolutely simple is perfectly consistent with the view that God has a providential plan covering every event that happens in history across all time. So I'm not sure at all why you and Dawkins think such a view requires God to be more complex than the designed thing. It surely requires God's plan to be more complex than individual parts of that plan, but that's nearly tautological, and it doesn't imply that God is more complex or that God is complex at all. It's just a non sequitur.

Eric Michael Johnson said...


As I'm sure you're well aware, the tautological argument is from the religious proponents. "How do you know there's a God? Because the universe appears designed. Why does the universe appear designed? Because a design needs a designer, therefore God." Pointing out that a designer is necessarily more complex than the design is not a tautology, it's a logical truism. Even if you're assuming a deist God who sets up a few physical principles and never intervenes again, this entity would still require enough complexity to envision what these physical properties would eventually lead to. Intelligence is complexity, so where did this complexity come from? It's more parsimonious to assume elemental particles sprung into existence by yet unknown physical principles than it is to assume an advanced intelligence sprung into existence. Or if you want to assume that God always existed, what's the difference in just assuming that the universe always existed? Without evidence whatsoever suggesting a supernatural origin of the universe (and personal incredulity is not a valid argument) than the parsimonious assumption must be that the universe had it's origin through natural principles.