Fisking Dembski: Ulam and the Wistar Conference

Ever since I read Dembski’s comments on how mathematician Ulam had commented on the low probability of evolution, something kept nagging at me. Familiar with the common creationist affliction of quote mining, I decided to do some additional research.

Remember what Dembski wrote? Ulam wrote in his contribution to the Wistar conference that:

“[Darwinism] seems to require many thousands, perhaps millions, of successive mutations to produce even the easiest complexity we see in life now. It appears, naively at least, that no matter how large the probability of a single mutation is, should it be even as great as one-half, you would get this probability raised to a millionth power, which is so very close to zero that the chances of such a chain seem to be practically non-existent.” (Ulam’s remark on page 21 of the Wistar conference Proceedings.)

As people pointed out already, the phrase, “naively at least”, should have raised some concerns. And for good reasons.

A major problem was my lack of access to the Wistar Monographs, however, Ulam did write a paper soon thereafter in which he revisited some of his earlier work and not surprisingly, the paper paints a very different picture.

The paper is called Some Elementary Attempts at Numerical Modeling of Problems Concerning Rates of Evolutionary Processes Stanislaw Ulam and R. Schrandt (LA-4573-MS, December 1970):

In this report, we shall present an abbreviated account of calculations performed by us in the mid 1960’s. These calculations were preliminary and intended merely as the zeroth approximation to the problem concerning rates of evolution-a process which we have here severely stylized and enormously oversimplified. A mention of the results of such calculations in progress at that time was made at a meeting in 1966 at the Wistar Institute in Philadelphia by one of us. The discussion there, as reported in the proceedings of the meeting, was rather frequently misunderstood and the impression might have been left that the results somehow make it extremely improbable that the standard version of the survival-of-the-fittest mechanism leads to much too slow a progress. What was really intended was indications from our computations-simple minded as they were-that a process involving only mitosis, in absence of sexual reproduction, would be indeed much too slow. However, and most biologists realize it anyway, the Darwinian mechanism together with mixing of genes accelerate enormously the rate of acquiring new “favorable” characteristics and leave the possibility of sufficiency of the orthodox ideas quite open. Numerous requests addressed to us for the elucidations and details of the numerical setup made us decide to give this account of our computations.

Seems that creationists have been quote mining the Wistar proceedings and have ignored the circumstances under which the comments were made and the follow-up after the conference.

While browsing the internet I also ran across the following message which addresses similar comments made by Phillip Johnson in his book “Darwin on Trial”

This quotation seems to be typical of the general quality of scholarship Johnson displays in his book. In the first place, he gets the name wrong. Stanislaw Ulam (or S.M. Ulam) was a well-known and highly respected mathematician. He was also the only person with that surname to have presented a paper at the meeting which Johnson was referring to. In the second place, Johnson’s claim, “…Ulam argued that it was highly improbable that the eye could have evolved by the accumulation of small mutations…”, is simply false; Ulam did no such thing.

Not a bad start. But things get better, or should we say worse

Near the beginning of his paper, Ulam explicitly stated that the mathematical models he was going to present were “certainly … not correct in a realistic sense”, to use his own words. His main aim was to present some models which might serve as a starting point for the development of better ones, and to challenge the biologists present to find ways of determining the values of various parameters that would be needed for any such models to be useful.

Since I do not have access to the original proceedings, I have to take the word of this poster at face value and observe how his comments match the description given by Ulam in a later paper.

Of course, it is no surprise that similar claims and arguments can be found in other creationist literature such as the book “ By Design Or by Chance?” written by Denyse O’Leary (p93-94)

Once again we see how a careful checking of the sources, even when lacking access to the original sources, can paint a picture very different from how it is portrayed by creationists. In fact, creationists have often referenced the Wistar proceedings as somehow showing that Darwinian theory was found to be flawed, when in fact, the reality seems to suggest a far different conclusion.

Sadly enough I lack the $170 needed to buy the monograph but I will see if I can get access to the Wistar monographs via a local library.