Refuting fallacious ID arguments and explaining randomness in biology for students

I am trying to put together INTEGRATE lessons on two topics: One on randomness (if possible with a tie-in to self-organization in cell biology), and one on ID design arguments (where they resort to fallacious arguments to discredit natural selection, specifically ones that rely on bad math/probability, by pretending that natural selection is totally random instead of a non-random selection process that has randomly generated mutations to work on.)

Any ideas about good resources for high school students? Short explanatory videos or demonstrations or object lessons? Any lay-level articles that address the errors in ID claims in these areas, preferably with specific examples?

Feel free to tag people you think might have ideas.

I have some articles, but I am hoping to find some things that could be turned into hands-on type activities or something that has visualizations/demonstrations or allows students to evaluate quotes or claims and not just be “read this and discuss.”

I am happy to provide feedback on any ID errors you find, especially on the math and probability, to make sure there isn’t any misunderstandings. I have a PhD in computer engineering with emphasis in information theory, and have read pretty much all the relevant material pro and con ID, so am qualified to speak on the information theory arguments made by ID and the legitimacy of the crticisms. I also have a MSc in AI with emphasis in evolutionary algorithms and my advisor is one of the world experts in the topic. So, I am also qualified to provide feedback in that regard.

I also recommend Introduction to evolutionary informatics. It is pretty accessible, even to advanced highschoolers.

The point would not be to say all ID is bad and misguided. More to address the things that get carelessly thrown around as “gotchas” in creationist circles under the guise of “design is the only rational option.” Like the tornado in the junkyard or monkeys at a typewriter producing Shakespeare analogies. The audience is high school freshman and the goal would be to kind of orient them to the vocabulary and context of the things they will hear if they decide to explore the topics further.

Tornado in a junkyard argument was not originated by IDists or creationists. In fact Dawkins makes the same argument to justify the appearance of design is a real phenomena and not just a sharpshooter fallacy.

Additionally, make sure you are labeling an argument as ID that ID movement actually makes. I would be happy to review to make sure there is no misunderstanding.

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Yes, that would be great. Probably we will label things generally, “arguments for design.”


I think it might also be worth including Dawkins appearance of design argument to make it clear there is a real scientific puzzle here, along with Dawkins’ proposed solution and explanation why he thinks it is a good (and only possible) solution to thd design puzzle.

Do you know of a good place where it is summarized?

For example, where can I find a good (accessible and basic) discussion of the non-ID response to stuff like this?

All this means that as a mechanism for the production of novel genetic information, natural selection does nothing to help generate functional DNA base (or amino acid) sequences. Rather it can only preserve such sequences (if they confer a functional advantage) once they have originated . In other words, adaptive advantage only accrues after the generation of new functional genes and proteins — after the fact, that is, of some (presumably) successful random mutational search. It follows that even if natural selection (considered separately from mutation) constitutes a non-random process, the evolutionary mechanism as a whole depends precisely upon an ineliminable element of randomness, namely, various postulated or observed mutational processes. (Nor is any of the above particularly controversial within evolutionary biology. No less friendly partisans to Krauss and Dawkins as Professors Larry Moran and P.Z. Myers both criticized Krauss for mischaracterizing the neo-Darwinian mechanism as wholly non-random, with Moran specifically blaming Krauss’s uncritical reliance upon Dawkins as the source of his misinformation.2)

In any case, the need for random mutations to generate novel base or amino-acid sequences before natural selection can play a role means that precise quantitative measures of the rarity of genes and proteins within the sequence space of possibilities are highly relevant to assessing the alleged power of mutation-selection mechanism. Indeed, such empirically derived measures of rarity are highly relevant to assessing the alleged plausibility of the mutation-selection mechanism as a means of producing the genetic information necessary to generating a novel protein fold. Moreover, given the empirically based estimates of the rarity (conservatively estimated by Axe3 at 1 in 1077 and within a similar range by others4) the analysis that I presented in Toronto does pose a formidable challenge to those who claim the mutation-natural selection mechanism provides an adequate means for the generation of novel genetic information — at least, again, in amounts sufficient to generate novel protein folds.5

Why a formidable challenge? Because random mutations alone must produce (or “search for”) exceedingly rare functional sequences among a vast combinatorial sea of possible sequences before natural selection can play any significant role. Moreover, as I discussed in Toronto, and show in more detail in Darwin’s Doubt ,6 every replication event in the entire multi-billion year history of life on Earth would not generate or “search” but a miniscule fraction (one ten trillion, trillion trillionth, to be exact) of the total number of possible nucleotide base or amino-acid sequences corresponding to a single functional gene or protein fold. The number of trials available to the evolutionary process (corresponding to the total number of organisms — 1040 — that have ever existed on earth), thus, turns out to be incredibly small in relation to the number of possible sequences that need to be searched. The threshold of selectable function exceeds what is reasonable to expect a random search to be able to accomplish given the number of trials available to the search even assuming evolutionary deep time.

As with a hypothetical thief who is confronted with many more combinations than he has time to explore (in my offending bike lock analogy), the mutation and selection mechanism is much more likely to fail than to succeed in generating even a single new gene or protein in the known history of life on Earth. It follows that the neo-Darwinian mechanism — with its reliance on a random mutational search to generate novel gene sequences — is not an adequate mechanism to produce the information necessary for even a single new protein fold, let alone a novel animal form, in available evolutionary deep time.

Or to put the point differently, the hypothesis that a random search (aided after the fact by natural selection) did produce the genetic information necessary to morphological innovation in the history of life is overwhelmingly more likely to be false than true. That is one reason why so many mainstream evolutionary biologists are now abandoning neo-Darwinism and looking for other evolutionary mechanisms to account for fundamental innovations in the history of life.7

Why? Who else uses it? Everyone loves crapping on Dawkins’ philosophy, and for good reason, but because he said the word design, design proponents promote this argument of his because they can say, “ See? Everyone sees design! We just disagree on the cause of it.” Read Sober. Or Oppy. You will never see that type of argument being made in response to design arguments by the best opponents of design arguments. The Dawkins “appearance of design” stuff isn’t that important.

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The first and last chapters of Dawkins’ TBW are a good summary of why:
A. there is a real problem of appearance of design in biology
B. in principle incremental random variation and natural selection are the only possible materialistic solution to this problem

Do you disagree with his argument in TBW?

Even if many scientists do in fact disagree with Dawkins’ argument, it will show highschoolers there are real, highly respected scientists making the precise argument that ID is responding to. I think this is valuable to point out ID is not responding to a strawman, but a real position held by real scientists who are held up as spokespersons for evolutionary theory. And ID proponents are themselves highly qualified individuals makin cogent counterpoints, many of whom are not even religious, nor making the argument based on religious agenda.

To portray the design side fairly, it is very important to make clear to highschoolers the true context of the debate, as opposed to the common representation in popular media.

UC Berkeley has a good website for general education on evolution:

As to specific responses to specific ID arguments, I don’t know of any resources aimed at high school students. Most of that material is aimed at foolish people like us who spend too much time on internet discussion forums.

There are a couple of go to resources that I use when discussing the topic found in the OP. First, a peer reviewed paper demonstrating how a beta-lactamase can emerge out of randomized sequence in just 10^9 trials, more than 60 orders of magnitude less than Axe claims:

Then there is the amazing article written by @glipsnort that discusses the differences between the genomes of different species and how those differences are consistent with the mechanisms of mutation we see operating in living species.

Random searches can find function, and the differences between species are due to random mutations.


I would say that is too strong a conclusion. His prediction is consistent with differences due to biochemically probable mutations. But, to say they are truly random requires more analysis, i.e. tests for uniform distribution.

The results in the game of craps are not uniformly distributed because you will get 7 more than any other result. However, the results are still random with respect to the chips on the table. Putting a bet on the pass line will not produce a statistically significant increase the chances of rolling a 7 or 11. Mutations are random in precisely the same way. Randomness doesn’t need uniform distribution. I will also stress that we are talking about statistical models and we aren’t delving into metaphysics. Could God’s actions appear statistically random? Yes.


I am not talking about metaphysics, but whether the mutations are distributed along the genome as we would expect given the biochemical probability distribution.

Yes, uniform is the wrong word here.

Otherwise, I fully endorse Scaffner’s article as a good piece of testable evidence towards demonstrating random mutations.

Mutations can be random and not be equally distributed within chromosomes. Lottery drawings are not equally distributed throughout the week, and yet they are still random.

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Yes, but then Schaffner’s article is insufficient to demonstrate randomness. An uneven distribution means the global distribution is different than the biochemical distribution, so biochemistry is insufficient to explain the changes. Therefore, the conclusion of randomness from the biochemistry distribution is logically invalid. The argument is missing a key premise.

I would agree. The point of Schaffner’s article was to show that the same processes causing mutations right now were acting in the past, and were responsible for creating the differences between species.

What you are looking for are the two classic experiments for random mutations:

In both cases, beneficial mutations occurred in the absence of the selection pressures for them. This is what demonstrated the disconnect between the needs of the organism and the mutations that happen. Since this applies to the mutations we see occurring now, and Dr. Schaffner demonstrated that these processes are responsible for the differences between species, we can conclude that the differences are due to random mutations.


That could be the case, but it seems a big jump to extrapolate from bacterial mutations to change in species across the eons of evolution. I think the question can be settled simply by running a test for randomness across the changes that we know of, e.g. in my mtDNA dataset. If the mutations are purely due to the biochemical probability distribution then we shouldn’t be able to find any other aspects that correlate with the mutations.

Here’s an example. Say x1,x2,x3,…,xN is DNA sequence #1 and y1,y2,y3,…,yN is DNA sequence #2. The sequences are aligned somehow so that we know x1 and y1 share the same ancestor site, x2 and y2 share the same ancestor site, and so on.

Schaffner’s argument is that the biochemical distribution means certain letters will mutate into each other more frequently to other letters. Thus, we expect these frequent pairs to be aligned more often than not. Hence, if we do observe the more frequent alignment of these pairs, then this provides evidence for the mutations occuring due to the biochemical distribution. This is not a deductive conclusion, since that would be the fallacy of affirming the consequent. It is an abductive argument, like the inference to design.

So, to make this abductive conclusion stronger, we can make sure there are no other conditions that change the distribution. E.g. P(Y(i)=y|X(i-1)=x1,X(i)=x2) = P(Y(i)=y|X(i-1)=x1,X(i)=x2,X(i+1)=x3). If adding more conditions changes the distribution, then that means the biochemical distribution is not solely responsible for the mutations, and we cannot say the mutations are purely driven by the random biochemical process, so Schaffner’s argument wouldn’t work.

This is pretty easy test to run, I’ll probably do it when I get a bit more spare time.

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