The Case for a Creator: The Poker Player’s Fallacy

The Case for a Creator, Chapter 8

In my review of Darwin’s Black Box, I listed three ways that an irreducibly complex system can evolve:

The first can be summed up as scaffolding: extra parts which support a partially functional system until it is completely assembled, at which point the extra parts become unnecessary and are pruned away by selection. The second is the case of improvement becomes necessity, where an adaptation is at first merely beneficial, but as later changes build on it, it becomes indispensable. The third, possibly the most important, is change of function, also called cooption… A system which originally evolved to perform one function may take on a new function, starting out with multiple functioning parts rather than having to acquire them one piece at a time.

In his interview with Lee Strobel, Behe doesn’t address the first two. But Strobel does ask about the third, in reference to Behe’s account of the cilium:

“Maybe these three components were being used for other purposes in the cell and eventually came together for this new function… Isn’t it possible that they might all come together by chance?” [p.203]

Behe’s response is as follows:

“It’s extraordinarily improbable,” he replied. “Let me illustrate it for you. Say there are ten thousand proteins in a cell. Now, imagine you live in a town of ten thousand people, and everyone goes to the county fair at the same time. Just for fun, everyone is wearing blindfolds and is not allowed to speak. There are two other people named Lee, and your job is to link hands with them. What are the odds that you could go grab two people at random and create a link of Lees?” [p.203]

This is a clever argument, and probably seems very convincing to people who don’t understand how evolution works. It can’t be doubted that the odds against random chance giving rise to the right mutations to produce a cilium must be incredibly large. Has Behe put his finger on a critical flaw in evolution?

Let’s say you’re a poker player playing a game of five-card draw. In the initial deal, you get a full house:

9♦ 9♥ 9♣ Q♣ Q♠

The betting begins, and none of your opponents fold. The showdown comes, and one of them has two pair:

2♦ 2♥ 7♣ 7♠ K♥

One has three of a kind:

3♥ 3♦ 3♣ 8♠ 6♥

and one has a lowly ace high:

A♥ 10♦ 6♠ 4♣ 3♠

You win. Success!

At first, you bask in your victory and congratulate yourself for your good luck. But then you make a dramatic realization – the probability of getting the specific hand you were dealt was astoundingly small. After all, there are 52 cards in a standard deck! The odds of being dealt the exact hand that won you the round can be computed as just one chance in 2,598,960, or 0.0000003847693%. Given that you triumphed despite such improbability, is it really believable that your victory came about by chance? Especially if you win more than one hand, shouldn’t you consider the hypothesis that there’s an Intelligent Designer influencing the workings of the game?

When it’s put in these terms, the fallacy is obvious. The odds of drawing one particular hand are low, but the question you should be asking is the odds of drawing any winning hand. There are many different winning hands in any particular round, and depending on what your opponents were dealt, your chances could be quite high.

This is the exact fallacy that Behe is committing. He’s trying to calculate the odds of one specific set of mutations occurring to produce the cilium as it exists today. That probability, like the poker player’s probability of his one exact winning hand, is fairly low. But that number is completely irrelevant, because the real question is this: what are the odds of evolution putting together any system, from any set of interactions among those ten thousand proteins, that could result in a unicellular organism gaining increased mobility? Needless to say, this number is much harder to calculate, but it’s also certain to be much larger.

Behe has no excuse for not knowing this. Someone with his level of education and scientific background should be fully aware that this is how evolution works. And there’s no chance that this is just a sloppy paraphrase or misquotation on Strobel’s part, because Behe has used this same argument on at least two other occasions: once in his own book, and once in the paper that I alluded to in my previous post – the only peer-reviewed journal article that Behe has published in more than ten years. It appeared in 2004 in Protein Science, with the title “Simulating evolution by gene duplication of protein features that require multiple amino acid residues“.

The contributors on The Panda’s Thumb, in a lengthy reply to this paper, point out the numerous unrealistic and restrictive assumptions that Behe makes:

…the paper says that if you have a protein function that requires two or more specific mutations in specific locations in a specific gene in a specific population, and if the function is not able to be acted on by natural selection until all mutations are in place and if the only form of mutation is point mutation, and if the population of organisms is asexual, then it will take a very large population and very long time to evolve that function. This is not unexpected.

The reply also castigates Behe for buying into the creationist myth of the “one true sequence”:

The evolution of new functions is not a process that requires a certain target to be hit. There can be multiple new functions that any starting protein can acquire. Likewise, there can be multiple ways of acquiring any given function.

…the fact that [Behe and Snoke] only consider specific changes at specific locations makes their model meaningless because it assumes a fundamentally different process than the one that occurs in nature.

Ironically, as the PT post also points out, even Behe’s artificially restrictive assumptions still imply that new protein functions should be easy to evolve in a relatively small population of bacteria!

By the standards of creationists who think “why are there still monkeys?” is a clever gibe, this is a far more sophisticated argument. But it’s still an argument whose huge flaws should be apparent to anyone who knows even a little about evolutionary and molecular biology. Yet Michael Behe still treats it as not just valid but devastating. The only conclusions I can see fit to draw are that he’s either an incredible incompetent, despite his education, or he’s deliberately misleading his readers with an argument that he knows is fallacious. Which of these is more likely to be the case?

Other posts in this series:

A Christian vs. an Atheist: On God and Government, Part 11
Atlas Shrugged: The Rapture of the Capitalists
Repost: The Age of Wonder
Rosetta’s Comet Rendezvous
About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, City of Light, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.

  • Valhar2000

    Well, accepting Jesus as your lord and saviour can do all kinds of weird things to the mind. Maybe he has carefully crafted canals in his mind that steer all rational thoughts about biology and chemistry well away from his thoughts about religion, so the two never meet, and he never notices that he is full of shit.

  • Steve Bowen

    I’ve had conversations about evolution with other scientifically literate friends where the same fallacy arises. Behe may be being ingenuous, but his world view means he will start with a bias towards specific outcomes. After all we are meant to be here.

  • Dan

    I suspect he’s just grossly incompetent. After all, one needs only two qualities to obtain a doctorate: curiosity and persistence. His scientific curiosity was muted when he mixed in religion’s dogma, so he’s become this husk of a “scientist.”

  • John Nernoff

    The one true sequence fallacy is equivalent to the wind through a junkyard assembling a 747. That’s magical thinking. It assumes the end product must be a 747 but many other planes and cars and buses and a lot of other conveyances exist. This type of thinking requires a specific prediction to be produced all at once, whereas what actually happens is the piece by piece retention of small assemblies which happen to be marginally useful to which are attached additional components making them more useful. Failures are discarded. This is done economically since many more progeny are produced than can be retained. For every successful assembly 999 failed mutations go by the way. Humans are accidental end products of billions of years (in billions of locations) of such chance assembly. This fact bothers a lot of people, who turn to creationism for a false answer.

  • Ric

    I think you forgot a

  • Roi des Foux

    This may be my bias as a scientist, but I don’t think that you can be that incompetent (you can disprove most of The Edge of Evolution with knowledge obtained in an advanced high school biology class) and still earn a PhD. I think he’s either willfully deceptive, or some combination of religious fervor and/or desire for notoriety gives him an incredibly thick blind spot.

  • Quath

    As a scientist, I have only met two other creationist scientists. One was very religious and science took a backseat to belief. The other would argue probability. He really thought it was too improbable. I even pointed out the mistakes in his assumptions, but he felt it was still too impossible. So I think he blinded himself to seeing beyond the conclusion he already believed in. I have a feeling that Behe is doing the same thing.

    One of the main things you have to learn in science is never to fully trust your gut feeling. Always question it and work extra hard to make sure it does not cloud your judgement. In this respect, I think Behe has failed.

  • Erika

    Every day I believe more and more strongly that probability and statistics should be a required part of mathematical education. (Of course, given the limited time of high school students, that would require a change in college admissions criteria, but that’s a different discussion.)

  • Mathew Wilder

    Your summary of three ways “irreducibly complex” things can envolve is excellent, but, and this is no slam against you, ought to be obvious to anyone with any brains at all. It’s a testament to the human will to be gulled that anyone can still think “irreducible complexity” is a challenge to evolutionary theory in any way. Creationists must be the least imaginitive people on earth.

  • Matteo

    In order for your argument to be convincing, one would first have to answer such questions as: what proportion of all possible polypeptide sequences have any conceivable useful biological function? Plausibility is supported for such fractions as one in a million, one in a billion, one in a trillion, but not for numbers such as one in 10^70.

    So the cogent question is: what is this ratio? If the odds of being dealt a full house were one in 10^70, then your argument from poker wouldn’t really hold up.

    In fact, the only proper argument would be to show that the probabilities are, in fact, high enough. Arguing from a poker example that uses relatively huge probabilities is simply irrelevant. And I say that the poker probabilities are relatively huge because although the probability of any particular hand is low, the proportion of useful hands to all hands is high. If it weren’t poker wouldn’t be a game.

    To reiterate, your argument doesn’t really address the relevant question.

  • Archimedez

    If we accept for the sake of argument Behe’s apparent assumption that something extremely improbable must be due to intelligent design, we should be able to apply this to the question of the existence of the intelligent designer. If the intelligent designer is extremely improbable, we would be led to conclude that the designer must have a designer, and so on, on into an unresolvable infinite regress of designers.

  • Alex Weaver

    The only conclusions I can see fit to draw are that he’s either an incredible incompetent, despite his education, or he’s deliberately misleading his readers with an argument that he knows is fallacious. Which of these is more likely to be the case?


  • Ric

    It didn’t show my html tag, but what I meant to say was I think you forgot to close a bold tag.

  • Superhappyjen

    Ok, why does the “Case for the Creator” have to begin by debunking evolution, a well-established theory? Why aren’t they going around testing for some evidence of a higher power, or looking at what we know and building on it to speculate how “God” could have helped things along or set it in motion. The arguments made by actively ignoring science,lying, and skewing info, aren’t all that convincing to me.

  • Thumpalumpacus

    Ok, why does the “Case for the Creator” have to begin by debunking evolution, a well-established theory?

    Because the case for a Creator is so devoid of evidence that the only way to sell it is by posing a false dichotomy, pretending you’ve negated one choice, and assuming the alternative must be true.

    Either that, or their publisher pays by the word.

  • BJ Marshall

    Why aren’t they going around testing for some evidence of a higher power, or looking at what we know and building on it to speculate how “God” could have helped things along or set it in motion?

    I’d say they can’t do it because it’d make them look incredibly stupid (since they obviously won’t find such evidence), but they already look stupid. Perhaps the stupid would just burn a little brighter if they actually applied science to their hypotheses.

  • D

    Jeez, Ebon. You’re really slipping in your old age. That hand’s not even irreducibly victorious: you can still drop up to two of those Queens and take the whole pot. So, because your analogy isn’t perfect, Behe wins. This is how argumentation works, right? :)

    @ Matthew Wilder (#9): Actually, you’re not that far off. A general lack of imagination and curiosity pervades the sort of mindset that just puts its head down and follows leader. Creationists don’t think for themselves, they really just parrot their own shit back and forth in what is probably the stupidest and most pointless circle-jerk of dumb ideas ever.

    I was highly resistant to this idea at first, but reading The Authoritarians kind of opened my eyes. Altemeyer’s conclusions sound like about the worst things you could ever say about a person’s intellect, but so long as he has not fabricated his results, his methodology is impeccable.

  • Polly

    Let me try

    testing 1 2 3

    Nope. Still bold.

  • Ebonmuse

    I fixed the runaway bolding, though I should observe it didn’t happen in either Opera or Firefox. Get a real browser, people!

    Also, I absolutely love “irreducibly victorious”. D wins the thread for that one. :)

  • Mathew Wilder

    This is OT, Ebon, but are you a facebook user? Have you considered creating pages for your blog and/or Ebon Musings? I don’t know if you think that would help publicize your blog, but I thought it might be helpful (and the more publicity your blog gets, the better, I think). If you’re not interested in doing so, would you mind if I took the initiative to do so?

  • Chris Hallquist

    Adam, I think you give Behe too much credit. It isn’t obvious to me what Behe’s analogy has to do with anything, not even with a “one true sequence” fallacy. To my ear, it almost sounds like an argument about the kinetics of molecular interactions, but if that were the right interpretation, Behe would be arguing complexes of multiple proteins can’t form, even with the help of a divine genetic engineer, and clearly Behe doesn’t believe that.

  • Reginald Selkirk

    Matteo: In order for your argument to be convincing, one would first have to answer such questions as: what proportion of all possible polypeptide sequences have any conceivable useful biological function? Plausibility is supported for such fractions as one in a million, one in a billion, one in a trillion, but not for numbers such as one in 10^70.

    That more than one flaw can be pointed out in Behe’s reasoning is not an argument in its favour. Even from a pure probability poker perspective, Behe gets it wrong, and Ebonmuse aptly points out.

    But as most of us know, the genome of any organism alive today was not dealt randomly, it evolved over many generations from a predecessor which was presumably much simpler. I.e. it is the result of following a certain path, not from a random deal.

    Arguing from a poker example that uses relatively huge probabilities is simply irrelevant. And I say that the poker probabilities are relatively huge because although the probability of any particular hand is low, the proportion of useful hands to all hands is high. If it weren’t poker wouldn’t be a game.

    Where a “useful hand” is defined as a hand rated higher than those of your three opponents. Making the usual assumptions about a fair deck and no one cheating, the probability that the player in question will get a winning hand are exactly 1 in 4.

  • Zietlos

    I just had the most amazing thing happen today. I was rolling a 20-sided die, and it came up as 17, 3, 18, 20, 1, 10, 1, 13, 11, 19, 17, 3, 10! The odds of getting that result are only 1 in 81920000000000000, like, I must be blessed by god to have overcome probability by such a wide margin to get such a specific and probability-mocking result!

    Of course, the possibility I am lying and only rolled “1″ once is about 1 in 2, so the fact I’m telling the truth makes it twice as unlikely a result! On top of it all, a wind gust hit just as I rolled the 13, and those only occur about once every five minutes, or a probability of 1 in 288, added to the others, makes this roll so amazingly rare that there’s no explanation OTHER than I was blessed by god. And it happened at 11:53 pm exactly, the odds of any given minute is 1:1440! Now that just seals the deal! My god-blessed dice skills must prove God exists!

    Messing with probability theory is fun! Extra credit: determine the probability of exactly the events happening to everyone and thing on Earth, in one given week. Extra credit here is because God gave humans free will, so if we can will something that improbable (including atom movements!), it means irreducible complexity cannot ever lead to a god, since without any effort at all we and our world did something more improbable than St Patrick’s ghost coming down to tell us the afterlife doesn’t exist.

  • Caiphen

    I personally think Behe from a young age has been deeply influenced by religious dogma. He’s desperate for his belief to be true like all creationists but he knows he’s wrong and just doesn’t want to admit it.

    I remember when I was in the throes of religion deep down I knew it was all crap but because I invested so much time into it, I was carried away by the nonsense. I believe most people who profess creationism are the same, so the only way to get through to them is the way atheism got through to me, through scientific reasoning and other rational thought. Creationists are actually not ignoramuses the way Dawkins says in his latest book, they’re just in a state of denial. Books like The Case for a Creator just give a little respectability to their irrational belief, just what Strobel is trying to achieve.

  • Nathaniel

    People are bad at math, and even worse at calculating probability. Heels like Behe take advantage of that.

  • Slater

    I wonder this with all religious poeple. I just can’t wrap my head around them truly believing what they profess to, but what else could be the reason?

    Besides, there are so many things that indicate that they don’t really believe.
    If you put a gun to a Christian’s head, if he really, truly believed he was going to heaven to be with his god, he should be thrilled, but that’s not what they tend to do in those situations. They’re scared just like the rest of us.
    Likewise, if they fully believed the Bible, why are they unwilling to drink poison as Mark 16:18 says they can? Not to mention, why do they look before crossing a street? If it’s all God’s will, why try to preserve yourself? Suicide may be forbidden, but being murdered or dying of carelessness should be a good thing.

    No matter how much I think about it, I can only conclude that nobody, or at least only the clinically insane, really believe in God(s). Now, I don’t want to sound like those annoying “atheists believe in God, they just won’t admit it”-idiots, but it’s obvious that nobody fully trusts in god.

  • Brent Rasmussen

    Adrian Barnett articulated a version of the Poker Player’s Fallacy back in 1997:

    [link] “Shuffle a deck of playing cards, and lay them out on a table. The probability of the sequence you see appearing is 1/52 for the first card, 1/52 x 1/51 at the second card, 1/52 x 1/51 x 1/50 by the third card and so on. The probability that you produced the sequence you just did is 1/52 x 1/51 x 1/50……x 1/3 x 1/2 x 1/1 ( more simply, 1/(52!) ), or 1.2398e-68 (which is an incredible 0.000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000012398). How can this be?!? Maybe you are hallucinating and it did not actually occur?
    You have just done something statistically impossible, trillions of times more unlikely than the formation of life (some say 1e-50 is the “impossibility threshold” instead, but we’ve beaten that as well). You could even do it six times before breakfast every day!”

  • Lenoxus

    Okay, so it certainly seems to be the case that probability arguments against evolution are easy to demolish.

    What I’m starting to wonder is this: is there a “possible world” where a probability argument would hold up? In other words, is “true” irreducible complexity at least logically possible?

    If not, then it’s starting to seem like the counter to the probability argument isn’t falsifiable. In other words, no matter what the genome of a given organism was, biologists could declare it perfectly feasible to have developed by chance.

    Or to put it another way, at what point do you determine a poker player is in fact cheating — can this determination be made on the basis of extremely low probabilities?

    I’m just saying this because that’s usually the counter-counter argument — that life evolving by chance is like the same guy winning with exactly the same hand (down to the suit and rank) five games in a row. (Or the image, I don’t know whose it is, of someone blindfolded before a firing squad, everyone shoots, and not a single bullet hits the guy.)

    It would seem that there needs to be an imaginable point at which the IC argument holds water, even if that point is never actually reached.

  • OMGF

    Why does a refutation itself need to be falsifiable? If you claim that gravity no longer works on top of some mountain, does my demonstration that an object still falls up there need to be falsifiable?

  • DuckPhup

    The question of whether Behe really believes those astronomical odds, or is being disingenuous, is moot. Why?… Because Intelligent Design is a fraud, and was a fraud from the get-go… and Behe was in on it from the beginning. There isn’t a single thing about the claims of ID that is genuine and honest.

    Intelligent Design was conceived as a political strategy… a Trojan Horse… a red herring… a stalking horse… whose aim was/is to undermine science education and (ultimately) science itself via deception and the bamboozlement of school boards, legislators and their stupid, gullible, scientifically-ignorant constituency… i.e., Christians. Its claims are not scientific… they are merely sciencey-sounding bullshit.

    Look up: ‘wedge document’

  • Lenoxus

    #29 OMGF: In that example, the claims that objects do always fall from Mount Ungravity would be falsified dropping an object and seeing it float. Obviously this would not “disprove” gravity, but call for lots of further investigation.

    I guess I’m just wondering whether, in the DC Comics adaptation of the Amazing Adventures of Behe and Dembski, there’s a parallel universe where their arguments make some kind of sense — a universe where certain biochemical structures really couldn’t have evolved, and this could be shown mathematically. Otherwise it feels like the epistemological deck is already stacked in Darwin’s favor, with nothing too unlikely for it.

    (Of course, even if that is the case, that doesn’t mean that evolution is unfairly unfalsifiable, or ID unfairly impossible to prove — just show us a Designer designing things, darn it! Proponentistism has been a movement in intellectual retreat for over a hundred years, not something that’s been exponentially increasing its knowledge of the world the way actual biology has.)

  • OMGF

    Then all you need to do is find a Precambrian rabbit.