Buzz Rubisco on the moon

One Single-Step for Man, One Cumulative Selection for Mankind

topdogBeliefs, Unpopular Opinions

Last week John Wilder presented a challenging post talking about the protein/enzyme RuBisCo (you can read his post here). It is the remarkable protein in plants that breaks down CO2 and is essential to life on Earth. In the post he argued that the probabilities of RuBisCo folding itself properly to do what it does were astronomically high and therefore signified the intentional actions of a higher power, God.

Here is John’s summation:

It is readily apparent, based on logic and mathematics alone that there are only a few possibilities:

  • That the Universe has been created with intent and a pattern (the big G God),
  • this is all a simulation (the little g god),
  • that life (and thus humanity) was designed and seeded among the stars (which begs, by who or what?)
  • that the purpose of the Universe may be solely for the creation of the Ultimate PEZ® dispenser which may take the form of Yosemite Sam®, or
  • that there are forces that exist in realms in which we cannot yet discern through any physical means.

Random choice is out, mathematically.  Every single time I see it resorted to, it’s a kludge and requires more faith than that which would be required for God.

My initial response was composed while pushing out a stink pickle on the toidy, and it stunk almost as bad. I was a bit preoccupied and didn’t fully grasp the argument John presented.

But I’ve been thinking about John’s post for a few days now, and my brain was able to mostly stay on track to the extent that I think I have a more cogent response.

Speaking of staying on track, I confess that when confronted with big numbers, my brain derails like an NS train in Ohio. From my math-challenged perspective, it helps to seek alternative routes to understand and (maybe) solve the problem.

One thing that stood out to me is John’s repeated insistence that random chance is useless when the odds are so stupendously large. 

On this we agree. 

But Natural Selection is not the same as Random Chance, a point I tried to make in my comment, which I neglected to explain further.

What John refers to as random chance is really Single-Step Selection, in which the entity (in this case the RuBisCo protein/enzyme) beats the universe-sized odds and creates itself in one amazing and odds-defying moment. One minute it’s just a bunch of amino acids floating around and the next, POOF! the RuBisCo appears and folds precisely as needed.

He calculates the odds against this based on the 1x10300 possible folds calculation, and seems to imply this is the only possibility, and because it’s so improbable, there must be a designer with an intent and a pre-determined pattern. 

Or PEZ®. John is obsessed with PEZ®.

But there is another possibility, and it has the potential to beat the 1x10300 odds in astonishingly fewer steps. It is the process of Cumulative Selection, in which tiny but useful changes (mutations, I guess you could say) are adopted and passed on in generations, slowly improving the entity with each selected change.

Richard Dawkins demonstrates this process in his book “The Blind Watchmaker” (Chapter Three, “Accumulating Small Change”) in which he calculates the Single-Step Selection odds of random typing monkeys composing a line from Shakespeare, “Methinks it is like a weasel”. The odds of the monkeys succeeding Dawkins calculates are about a million, million, million, million, million years, or about a million, million, million years longer than the universe has been around (he does some math to show it, so you should read the chapter if you doubt him because, you know, ATHEIST).

He then compares that to a Cumulative Selection process in which a computer program spits out a random collection of letters, which successively is “mutated” one letter at a time. If the letter isn’t “useful” that is, if it isn’t the correct letter or in the correct space it is not locked in and passed on in further iterations. If the letter is “useful” that is, if it is the right letter in the right place, it is kept and passed on to the next iteration. Of course, in this experiment the term "useful" has a pre-determined meaning as we are attempting to create a certain configuration, but in nature, the "useful" is not pre-determined; it arrives naturally through minor mutations. In Dawkins’ computer experiment which he ran three times, the phrase “Methinks it is like a weasel” appeared after 43 iterations, 64 iterations, and 41 iterations respectively.

Now it’s not the specific number of iterations that matters here, and certainly there are variables not accounted for in the simple computer program, but what is remarkable is the radical difference between “random chance” that requires nearly incalculable amounts of time versus tiny selectively beneficial changes that accrue in comparatively few generations. It demonstrated the odds-defying power of slow and steady evolution that selects for positive traits and passes them on to the benefit of the organism.

Does this alone “prove” Natural Selection over Design? I’m not smart enough to say. But in my view it makes a strong case for how some very “improbable structures” can come about naturally (the eye, for example). As a means of introducing change, Cumulative Selection is clearly superior to random chance, and faith is not needed to see its benefits.