Some population-genetic arguments used by creationists

This is material originally assembled for the PopGenLunch weekly seminar at the University of Washington, Seattle, for a talk by Joe Felsenstein on 7 June 2016, and susequently supplemented and edited. It lists different arguments based on population genetics that creationists and Intelligent Design advocates have tried to use to refute evolutionary theory (these are usually not different people, but some of the same people using different arguments).

  1. Hardy-Weinberg prevents change in gene frequencies.

  2. Sal Cordova's demonstration that natural selection has little effect on fixation probabilities

  3. William Dembski's 2002 conservation-law argument that Complex Specified Information cannot be achieved by natural evolutionary forces, owing to a Law of Conservation of Complex Specified Information

  4. William Dembski's revision of his argument to define Specified Complexity (essentially CSI) as that which cannot be achieved by natural evolutionary forces.

  5. Walter Remine's "cost of natural selection" argument -- he actually independently reinvented Ewens's and Crow's version of the cost of natural selection.

  6. William Dembski's 2002 No Free Lunch argument

  7. William Dembski and Robert Marks published a peer-reviewed article in IEEE Transactions on Systems, Man and Cybernetics A, Systems & Humans in 2009. It defined a quantity called "active information" which reflects how much information is provided to the evolutionary process by the smoothness of the fitness surface. This was by way of arguing that information needed to be "front-loaded" for an evolutionary process to work in improving fitness. At Panda's Thumb, I noted briefly that their argument did not establish that there needed to be any Design Intervention in the evolutionary process, and that the smoothness of the fitness surface does not need to result from previous design, but can simply be the result of the weakness of long-range forces in ordinary physics. William Dembski replied to this at Uncommon Descent, which was then his blog, and I replied to that at Panda's Thumb.

  8. Dembski, Ewert and Marks's argument that most "evolutionary searches" can do no better than random wandering among genotypes. By the way, the volume, Biological Information: New Perspectives is available online for free, here and is another valuable source of technical arguments by creationists. It is the papers from a 2011 conference arranged by John Sanford in a meeting room rented from Cornell University's School of Hotel Management, and represented by its organizers as a conference "held at Cornell University".

  9. Wolf-Ekkehard Lönnig's argument that natural selection will be unable to favor the genotype of highest fitness at Evolution News and Views in March, 2016 The argument that natural selection is unlikely to find the best genotype that has ever appeared is cited by Lönnig to a book by Lucien Cuénot in 1951. Cuénot was a great pioneer of Mendelian genetics early in the 20th century. To what extent is Lönnig's (and Cuénot's) argument showing that natural selection cannot greatly increase fitness, or effectively find adaptations? And to what extent is it simply worrying that it might not?

  10. William Basener and John Sanford's paper in Journal of Mathematical Biology in 2017 which argues that R.A. Fisher's famous (or notorious) Fundamental Theorem of Natural Selection needs to have additional terms added to account for mutation, and that when this is done the mean fitness of populations tends to steadily decline.

  11. A major Intelligent Design argument, the Irreducible Complexity argument of Michael Behe, has a part which argues on population-genetic grounds that an adaptation that requires that several individually-deleterious mutations be occur that are, in combination, advantageous cannot occur in real populations. This is summarized in his book The Edge of Evolution (which you will find here, at Amazon)

  12. Another argument, this one in defense of young-earth creationism, is by John Sanford, a sometime faculty member at Cornell University. He has published a book, Genetic Entropy and the Mystery of the Genome on how mutation rates in humans are too high and too deleterious for humans to have been around before 4004 BC. He and his co-thinkers believe that continuation of that deleterious mutation imply that The End Is Nigh. (Really! I am not making this up).

Searches on the names of William Dembski, Robert Marks, and others mentioned above will also disclose YouTube videos of talks by them putting forth their arguments. For more on their views see Marks's website for his Evolutionary Informatics Lab.

Graduate courses on these arguments

There are, as yet, no courses on the above arguments and counterarguments. Understanding these issues really should be part of the education of every graduate student in evolutionary biology.

Why should we care? Why do you need to know these arguments? Because maybe they are correct (if they were, wouldn't you want to at least know?). Also they get used to persuade others, and many biologists who participate in the online debates are a bit scared of technical population genetics and unsure how to answer them. And you will see that all this does really matter, if, under a government friendly to the Religious Right, creationists use them to justify cutting off your funding. You may not care now, but if that happens, you will really care then!