New Mexicans for Science and Reason present


The C-Files: John Baumgardner

Continental Sprint ?

New Mexico is home to creation geophysicist John Baumgardner.

The Answers in Genesis Baumgardner page can be found here.

Baumgardner is also an Adjunct Professor of Geophysics at the Institute for Creation Research.

His Revolution Against Evolution interview can be found here.

Read the "Great Debate in the Los Alamos Monitor," here.

Baumgardner is well known in the continental drift modeling community. He has found that drastically changing certain physical parameters in his modeling of continental drift really speeds up the process - thus "Continental Sprint," all connected to the Deluge of Noah. But most complex computer codes are very sensitive to the input parameters. If the parameters required to set up Noachian "Continental Sprint" are not justified (and I've seen no credible justification), this is just a classic example of GIGO: "Garbage In, Garbage Out."

Baumgardner also prides himself on his analysis of the "low probability" of assembly of a typical protein from chemical reactions. Here is a recent description of this argument, from the article "Highlights of the Los Alamos Origins Debate"

Can Random Molecular Interactions Create Life?

Many evolutionists are persuaded that the 15 billion years they assume for the age of the cosmos is an abundance of time for random interactions of atoms and molecules to generate life. A simple arithmetic lesson reveals this to be no more than an irrational fantasy.

This arithmetic lesson is similar to calculating the odds of winning the lottery. The number of possible lottery combinations corresponds to the total number of protein structures (of an appropriate size range) that are possible to assemble from standard building blocks. The winning tickets correspond to the tiny sets of such proteins with the correct special properties from which a living organism, say a simple bacterium, can be successfully built. The maximum number of lottery tickets a person can buy corresponds to the maximum number of protein molecules that could have ever existed in the history of the cosmos.

Let us first establish a reasonable upper limit on the number of molecules that could ever have been formed anywhere in the universe during its entire history. Taking 1080 as a generous estimate for the total number of atoms in the cosmos [2], 1012 for a generous upper bound for the average number of interatomic interactions per second per atom, and 1018 seconds (roughly 30 billion years) as an upper bound for the age of the universe, we get 10110 as a very generous upper limit on the total number of interatomic interactions which could have ever occurred during the long cosmic history the evolutionist imagines. Now if we make the extremely generous assumption that each interatomic interaction always produces a unique molecule, then we conclude that no more than 10110 unique molecules could have ever existed in the universe during its entire history.

Now let us contemplate what is involved in demanding that a purely random process find a minimal set of about one thousand protein molecules needed for the most primitive form of life. To simplify the problem dramatically, suppose somehow we already have found 999 of the 1000 different proteins required and we need only to search for that final magic sequence of amino acids which gives us that last special protein. Let us restrict our consideration to the specific set of 20 amino acids found in living systems and ignore the hundred or so that are not. Let us also ignore the fact that only those with left-handed symmetry appear in life proteins. Let us also ignore the incredibly unfavorable chemical reaction kinetics involved in forming long peptide chains in any sort of plausible non-living chemical environment.

Let us merely focus on the task of obtaining a suitable sequence of amino acids that yields a 3D protein structure with some minimal degree of essential functionality. Various theoretical and experimental evidence indicates that in some average sense about half of the amino acid sites must be specified exactly [3]. For a relatively short protein consisting of a chain of 200 amino acids, the number of random trials needed for a reasonable likelihood of hitting a useful sequence is then on the order of 20100 (100 amino acid sites with 20 possible candidates at each site), or about 10130 trials. This is a hundred billion billion times the upper bound we computed for the total number of molecules ever to exist in the history of the cosmos!! No random process could ever hope to find even one such protein structure, much less the full set of roughly 1000 needed in the simplest forms of life. It is therefore sheer irrationality for a person to believe random chemical interactions could ever identify a viable set of functional proteins out of the truly staggering number of candidate possibilities.

In the face of such stunningly unfavorable odds, how could any scientist with any sense of honesty appeal to chance interactions as the explanation for the complexity we observe in living systems? To do so, with conscious awareness of these numbers, in my opinion represents a serious breach of scientific integrity. This line of argument applies, of course, not only to the issue of biogenesis but also to the issue of how a new gene/protein might arise in any sort of macroevolution process.

One retired Los Alamos National Laboratory Fellow, a chemist, wanted to quibble that this argument was flawed because I did not account for details of chemical reaction kinetics. My intention was deliberately to choose a reaction rate so gigantic (one million million reactions per atom per second on average) that all such considerations would become utterly irrelevant. How could a reasonable person trained in chemistry or physics imagine there could be a way to assemble polypeptides on the order of hundreds of amino acid units in length, to allow them to fold into their three-dimensional structures, and then to express their unique properties, all within a small fraction of one picosecond!? Prior metaphysical commitments forced him to such irrationality.

Another scientist, a physicist at Sandia National Laboratories, asserted that I had misapplied the rules of probability in my analysis. If my example were correct, he suggested, it "would turn the scientific world upside down." I responded that the science community has been confronted with this basic argument in the past but has simply engaged in mass denial. Fred Hoyle, the eminent British cosmologist, published similar calculations two decades ago [4]. Most scientists just put their hands over their ears and refused to listen.

In reality this analysis is so simple and direct it does not require any special intelligence, ingenuity, or advanced science education to understand or even originate. In my case, all I did was to estimate a generous upper bound on the maximum number of chemical reactions -- of any kind -- that could have ever occurred in the entire history of the cosmos and then compare this number with the number of trials needed to find a single life protein with a minimal level of functionality from among the possible candidates. I showed the latter number was orders and orders larger than the former. I assumed only that the candidates were equally likely. My argument was just that plain. I did not misapply the laws of probability. I applied them as physicists normally do in their every day work.

Why could this physicist not grasp such trivial logic? I strongly believe it was because of his tenacious commitment to atheism that he was willing to be dishonest in his science. At the time of this editorial exchange, he was also leading a campaign before the state legislature to attempt to force this fraud on every public school student in our state...."

The main flaw with this argument is that it has absolutely NOTHING to do with how real proteins develop biologically. Life on earth didn't develop as the result of some supernatural experimenter banging together billions of atoms every femtosecond, looking to produce one particular protein. In real life, complex proteins evolve from simpler ones. Baumgardner purposely minimizes all of the components of evolution - reproduction of generation upon generation, occasional mutations, and most importantly, natural selection. Modern proteins don't have the complex structure they possess because anyone "required" them to have that structure - rather, they possess their complex structure because proteins have been evolving from simpler precursors for 3.5 BILLION YEARS. Baumgardner's analysis of the improbability of a specific protein is like shuffling a deck of cards, laying out all 52 cards in a row, and demanding that "nature" must be able to produce the same sequence of cards. This argument has nothing to do with biology - why, it doesn't even explain how you can occasionally win at poker!


Critique of Baumgardner's Protein Argument by Marshall Berman

The Sandia physicist mentioned by Baumgardner in his letter above is Dr. Marshall Berman. Here are two letters published in a lengthy debate in the pages of the Los Alamos Monitor in 1997 between John Baumgardner and several Los Alamos and Albuquerque writers. See if you think Marshall's arguments are science-based, or evidence of a "tenacious commitment to atheism" instead. - DT


Published May 7, 1997

To the Los Alamos Monitor:

John Baumgardner in his letter of April 3 attempts to give Llewellyn Jones a lesson in arithmetic. However, it is clear that Baumgardner needs lessons in probability and in how to submit technical papers on creation "science" to reputable scientific journals.

Mark Twain said: "There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies and statistics." Baumgardner purports to calculate the probability of life arising due to random interactions over the life of the universe. If true, Baumgardner would turn the scientific world upside down. But it is not true. Baumgardner uses statistics and probability theory improperly. He assumes randomness that doesn't exist. Indeed, by assuming randomness for non-random processes, one can show that almost any event is extremely improbable.

Let's run a scientific experiment. Go outside and pick up a small rock. The probability of that rock being on that spot on the earth *by chance alone* is roughly the area of the stone divided by the surface area of the earth, or about one chance in 10 to the 18th power (one followed by 18 zeros). If picking up the stone took one second, the probability of such an event occurring at this precise moment over the lifetime of the universe is now even smaller by another factor 10 to the 18th power! This simple event is so incredibly unlikely (essentially zero probability) that one wonders how it could be accomplished!

How can such an "unlikely" event occur? The problem is our initial false assumption of randomness. The rock and you arrived at that spot at that time by mechanistic processes. Probability theory fails when used improperly, as Baumgardner has done. Probability theory, like evolution theory, is valuable because it works under the appropriate conditions. Evolution theory explains the origin of species, but not the laws of gravity nor the origins of life. Probability theory works for random processes, but has no applicability to deterministic events.

Questioning the origin of life is indeed scientific, and a new science has arisen to address it: abiotic chemistry. Life did arise on earth about 3.5 billion years ago under the CONDITIONS prevailing at that time. The key science questions are: What were the initial conditions, and can these conditions be simulated and tested in the laboratory? No scientist is addressing the probability of life on this planet (but perhaps others). Nor does science address whether a creator created the necessary conditions for life to arise. These are questions outside science.

Baumgardner should present his arguments to the science community. Spouting such nonsense is an affront to the readers of the Monitor. By the way, check the April 17 issue of the respected science journal Nature, p. 638, where Baumgardner is mentioned. Baumgardner's views do not inspire respect for either Los Alamos National Laboratory or for the state of New Mexico.

Marshall Berman


Published August 19, 1997

To the Los Alamos Monitor:

I define critical thinking as a three-part process for determining the truth of a proposition or belief: evidence, logic, and probability. Evidence represents the data and models we have. The best evidence is scientific, meaning that it arose as a result of empirical or historical studies in concert with validated hypotheses. Logic is simply the application of reason and common sense to determine what conclusions can be drawn from the data. Probability is of importance since real data are often incomplete, fragmentary, or in dispute. It is essential to carefully define terms throughout the critical reasoning process.

What conclusions can we draw when we apply critical reasoning to John Baumgardner's protein "probability" calculations (Los Alamos Monitor, 8/15/97)? He says there are 10 to the 260th power proteins that can be created from 20 possible amino acids, if each protein contains 200 amino acids.

Baumgardner assumes that half of the amino acids are of no importance. He computes a much smaller fraction of possible proteins constructed from only 100 amino acids. He then claims that this new number is an insignificantly small fraction of the number of possibilities when using 200 amino acids. But of course it is! Baumgardner has solved a hypothetical problem which has no relevance to real biological evolution.

Baumgardner employs the word "function" in a confusing way. He claims to seek "a single new protein type with some new cellular function." This protein must lie in the relatively tiny subspace of proteins composed of 100 "functioning" amino acids in the much larger sea of proteins composed of 200 amino acids, 100 of which are not "functional." But this is a natural consequence of the way in which the problem was formulated, not any fundamental observation of biochemistry or biological probabilities.

Consider a ten-card hand dealt to a gambler, out of which he is to pick the best 5-card poker hand (that is, 5 of the cards are non-functional, 5 are "functional.") The number of possible 10-card hands is about 15.8 billion. The number of possible "functional" 5-card poker hands is "only" about 2.6 million, a tiny island in the subspace of possible 10-card hands! Is the probability of a functional poker hand only 2.6 million divided by 15.8 billion or 0.00016 (about one chance in 6000)? Of course not! The probability is one. And don't bother to equate the gambler with an "Intelligent Designer." Every 10-card hand contains a "functional" 5-card poker hand, whether the gambler/designer exists or not! The probability of "winning" (another possible definition of functionality) would depend more on the number (and skill) of the players than on the probabilities of the hands.

The analogy of poker to evolution is even better. Less than a pair might only represent inanimate matter. A straight might allow an organism to just barely function in its environment. A flush or a full house could produce a very sturdy species, capable of adapting to a wide variety of environments. And in draw poker, like mutations and natural selection, the hand can get better or worse when you throw away some cards and draw others!

Marshall Berman


To his credit, Baumgardner doesn't think the odd-looking natural formation on Mt. Ararat is really Noah's Ark. Read his analysis of this formation here.




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