James A. Choury of Haven Ministries
April of 2009
I recently read Richard Dawkins’ book “River Out of Eden”, (BasicBooks, a Division of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc., 1995). On pages 79 through 83 Dawkins uses a computer simulation experiment of the evolution of an eye (a vertebrate eye) published by two Swedish scientists to demonstrate how easy it was for evolution to produce over 40 different types of eyes within the 600 million years normally given for such a task. I had some real questions.
My undergraduate degree is in Mathematics and Physics and I did study Statistics as well. Dawkins states that it took the computer “only” 400,000 generations to produce the eye by random mutations, each of which brought about a small improvement. It seemed to me Dawkins was talking about independent, joint occurrences (like flipping a single coin four hundred thousand times and always getting heads). It seemed so preposterous that anyone would propose such a thing (400,000 continuous successful mutations in a row) or that anyone would accept such an idea that I thought I would consult an expert.
I made an appointment to talk to someone in the Statistics department at Colorado State University here in Fort Collins. We had a half hour conversation in which I got directly to the point. My question was: “Am I interpreting Dawkins correctly?” “Is he talking about independent joint occurrences and am I using the proper formulas to calculate the probability?” The Ph.D. in probability looked it over, got out his scratch pad, did some figuring and to my happy surprise said “yes”. Dawkins is talking about 400,000 tosses of the natural selection “coin” and coming up with 400,000 heads in a row*. Amazing! I mentioned to the statistician that the Swedish scientists who set up the computer simulation 1) began the simulation with an already existing photosensitive cell, 2) only allowed for favorable outcomes (albeit, small improvements) and 3) didn’t take into consideration that vision requires much more than just a functioning eye. Vision also depends on a very complicated (more complicated than the actual eye), well developed and properly functioning cerebral cortex (part of the brain). This very amiable and, I believe, competent man agreed with what I was saying and my time was up.
The back cover of Dawkins’ book has a quote from the A.L.A. Booklist that says the following about the “Science Masters” series of which Dawkins’ book is a member: “Aimed at busy, nonmathematical readers, this precise series evinces solid quality control and begins under highly favorable auspices.” I believe many “nonmathematical” readers have been and will be persuaded by Dawkin’s books. The math needed to see through Dawkins is not “rocket science” but few people take the time to understand probability. Of course, they are too busy and they are “nonmathematical”.
Many Christians are also quite nonmathematical and busy doing many things. Being prepared to give an answer for the hope that is in us (1 Peter 3:15) may demand more from us than we have grown accustomed to do and to be.
*The probability of tossing a coin and getting a heads is ½ or 50%. The odds in Dawkins’ example were actually much smaller, around 1/200 or about 0.5%.
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