"Waiting time problem" and imaginary hurdles for evolution

ID-creationists Ola Hössjer, Günter Bechly, and Ann Gauger have managed to get a paper published (Hössjer et al. 2021) in the Journal of Theoretical Biology, in which they argue that a complex adaptation would take a very long time to evolve given certain imaginary conditions.

JTB IDcreationist paper

They never give any evidence that any known complex adaptation had to evolve through their imaginary scenario, so the relevance of their paper to real biology is only that, imaginary.

While the paper does sort of casually mention by name a number of complex adaptations that evolved in a (geologically speaking) short amount of time, Hössjer et al. never give any evidence that any of these adaptations actually evolved or had to evolve through their imaginary scenario. Only this short section of the paper is what appears to try to connect their hypothetical scenario to the real world:

For more complex adaptations of a species, it is necessary that several genes are modified in a coordinated manner, either through mutations in the coding sequence, or through changed expression of these m genes. For instance, the fossil record is often interpreted as having long periods of stasis (Voje et al., 2018), interrupted by more abrupt changes and “explosive” origins (Bechly and Meyer, 2017). These changes include, for instance, the evolution of life (Bell et al., 2015), photosynthesis (Hecht, 2013), multicellularity and the “Avalon Explosion” (Shen et al., 2008), animal body plans and the “Cambrian Explosion” (Erwin and Valentine, 2013), complex eyes (Paterson et al., 2011), vertebrate jaws and teeth (Fraser et al., 2010), terrestrialization (e.g., in vascular plants, arthropods, and tetrapods) (Bateman et al., 1998), insect metamorphosis (Labandeira, 2011), animal flight and feathers (Wu et al., 2018, Yang et al., 2019), reproductive systems, including angiosperm flowers, amniote eggs, and the mammalian placenta (Chuong, 2013, Doyle, 2012, Roberts et al., 2016, Sauquet, 2017, Specht and Bartlett, 2009), echolocation in whales (Churchill et al., 2016, Park et al., 2016) and bats (Simmons et al., 2008), and even cognitive skills of modern man (Neubauer et al., 2018). Based on radiometric dating of the available windows of time in the fossil record, these genetic changes are believed to have happened very quickly on a macroevolutionary timescale. In order to evaluate the chances for a neo-Darwinian process to bring about such major phenotypic changes, it is important to give rough but reasonable estimates of the time it would take for a population to evolve so that the required multiple genetic changes occur.

If we read carefully with comprehension we see that none of these references even remotely indicate that the complex adaptations listed would have to evolve through the scenario Hössjer et al. go on to model. They start by simply asserting (my bold) that:

For more complex adaptations of a species, it is necessary that several genes are modified in a coordinated manner, either through mutations in the coding sequence, or through changed expression of these m genes.

They give no reference to substantiate that it is necessary for any of their following list of complex adaptations to have evolved with “multiple genes” being modified in a coordinated manner like the one they model.

This is really all one needs to say about this paper with respect to its relevance to real biology. It’s a typical example of GIGO, where the conclusion you derive from your calculation is entirely dictated by the reality of the assumptions you base them on.

It’s also another example of creationist papers focused on so-called “waiting time problems” with evolution, which are typically based on the entirely imaginary - and totally dubious premise - that there are “target sequences” that evolution must find and evolve towards without any input by natural selection, by mutating incrementally from some random ancestral sequence until the correct (or almost correct) “target” sequence is produced by the chance accumulation of mutations.

To nobody’s surprise, the longer the target sequence is, the longer it will take before chance mutations happen to produce it or something very near to it.

Unfortunately for creationists, this imaginary scenario has next to nothing to do with how potential new genes gain regulatory promoter sequences. In real biology the background low-level affinities between DNA binding proteins and DNA sequences ensures that there’s almost always some activity for selection to act on to improve the binding between a transcription factor and a promoter sequence.

Rather than try to calculate the probability of evolving this interaction with “targets” that have to match near-perfectly - from some random ancestor - with zero real chemical or biophysical input, biochemists have done even better and experimentally evolved promoters in the lab. It turns out this is surprisingly easy for evolution. In an experiment with E coli (Yona et al. 2018) approximately ~60% of random DNA sequences are one mutation away from turning into a selectively useful transcriptional promoter, and ~10% of random DNA sequences are functional promoters just by chance:

Random sequences rapidly evolve into de novo promoters Avihu H. Yona, Eric J Alm & Jeff Gore

Abstract How new functions arise de novo is a fundamental question in evolution. We studied de novo evolution of promoters in Escherichia coli by replacing the lac promoter with various random sequences of the same size (~100 bp) and evolving the cells in the presence of lactose. We find that ~60% of random sequences can evolve expression comparable to the wild-type with only one mutation, and that ~10% of random sequences can serve as active promoters even without evolution. Such a short mutational distance between random sequences and active promoters may improve the evolvability, yet may also lead to accidental promoters inside genes that interfere with normal expression. Indeed, our bioinformatic analyses indicate that E. coli was under selection to reduce accidental promoters inside genes by avoiding promoter-like sequences. We suggest that a low threshold for functionality balanced by selection against undesired targets can increase the evolvability by making new beneficial features more accessible.


Hössjer O, Bechly G, Gauger A. On the waiting time until coordinated mutations get fixed in regulatory sequences. J Theor Biol. 2021;524:110657. doi:10.1016/j.jtbi.2021.110657

Yona AH, Alm EJ, Gore J. Random sequences rapidly evolve into de novo promoters. Nat Commun. 2018;9(1):1530. Published 2018 Apr 18. doi:10.1038/s41467-018-04026-w