Another Intelligent Design Straw Man Attempt to Demonstrate a “Waiting Time Problem” for Evolution

The Intelligent Design (ID) crowd is jubilant over the publication of a paper by a trio of ID authors (Ola Hössjer, Günter Bechly, and Ann Gauger) in a sub-prime but legitimate journal. This paper is an example of a common straw man argument employed by ID. In the straw man approach, you set forth some weak or flawed “straw man” version of your opponent’s position, knock it down, and then proclaim victory.

The straw man in this case is a scenario where the evolution of a complex trait requires the prior accumulation (appearance and fixation)  of a large, predefined set of nonbeneficial mutations before there is any functional, selectable benefit from these mutations. ID folks keep proposing that this scenario is the way evolution proceeds, and then they present detailed calculations showing how probabilistically disfavored this process would be.

These calculations serve to knock down their straw man, so the ID theorists can claim to their supporters that they have (once again) vanquished “Darwinism”:  the “waiting time” for the accumulation of a large set of  predefined mutations in this disjointed manner is much longer than geological time permits for evolution. 

Unfortunately for their case, their straw man is a non-starter. Actual, practicing biologists have sound reasons to hold that this proposed genetic scenario is simply not how evolution proceeds in the real world. Biologists are not fooled or impressed by this waiting time argument, although the willing supporters of ID are.

I have summarized the key issues in very general terms. To put more meat on the bones of this discussion, I commend a short article, “Waiting time problem” and imaginary hurdles for evolution,  by Mikkel Rasmussen in Panda’s Thumb. Rasmussen critiques the Hössjer, et al. paper more explicitly. He starts out with the devastating observation:

[Hössjer, et al.] argue that a complex adaptation would take a very long time to evolve given certain imaginary conditions. 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.

Rasmussen goes on to provide a link to an experimental study that confirms that (contrary to the ID straw man) you don’t necessarily have to accumulate a lot of random mutations in a section of DNA before any selectable advantage is obtained. Bonus: the long string of informed comments on Rasmussen’s article is an education in itself.

About Scott Buchanan

Ph D chemical engineer, interested in intersection of science with my evangelical Christian faith. This intersection includes creation(ism) and miracles. I also write on random topics of interest, such as economics, theology, folding scooters, and composting toilets, at . Background: B.A. in Near Eastern Studies, a year at seminary and a year working as a plumber and a lab technician. Then a B.S.E. and a Ph.D. in chemical engineering. Since then, conducted research in an industrial laboratory. Published a number of papers on heterogeneous catalysis, and an inventor on over 100 U.S. patents in diverse technical areas. Now retired and repurposed as a grandparent.
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11 Responses to Another Intelligent Design Straw Man Attempt to Demonstrate a “Waiting Time Problem” for Evolution

  1. Don E Helland MD says:


    I have a question for you that is not really scientific, but is something I have been thinking about.
    You seem to relish greatly the fact that secular biologists and scientists agree with you and support your views on naturalistic materialistic evolution or neo Darwinism, etc. And you seem to relish the fact that they also put down and discredit ID thinking, etc.

    But most of these secular biologists and scientists would also think that YOU are a lunatic for believing in the miracles of the New Testament, divine nature of Christ, the resurrection of Christ, etc.
    How does this fact make you feel? And how do you integrate and reconcile this fact into your personal view of reality, faith, etc.

    Please note that this is a sincere question. I am not trying to be smart or sarcastic.

    As a physician, I obviously believe in scientific research, scientific facts, etc. And I also try to integrate the physical and spiritual worlds the best that I can.


    • Don,
      You are simply imaging that I “relish greatly” the fact that secular biologists share the same view of reality as I have come to. Because I appreciate truth wherever it can be found, I do appreciate their honest treatment of the facts. But it gives me no great pleasure to point out where my fellow Christians (promoters of ID and YE creationism) are practicing deception by withholding key facts from their readership. In this case, for instance, the key fact withheld is that there is no actual evidence for, and much evidence against, the straw man that there must be an accumulation of numerous nonbeneficial mutations before any beneficial effect of any kind is seen. I have detailed dozens of such deceptive omissions and denials by ID/YEC in my articles.

      This dishonest practice does great harm to the credibility of Christianity. If an educated person finds that Christians are trying to bolster their faith by false claims about evolution or other science, why would that person take seriously any other claims that Christians make?

      If you really want to know my emotions here, it is not the relishing or gloating which you imagine, but rather sadness over the extent to which (as polls show) the promotion of ID and YE creationism is helping to turn young people away from the faith. And, as an engineer, I cannot help feeling some dismay over all the time/money/energy that earnest Christians pour into promoting and consuming ID and YEC, that could be put to better use with, say, legitimate apologetics or ministry to the poor. So I will continue to do what I can to (a) help direct my fellow Christians away from these destructive positions, and (b) model for nonbelievers what integrity by a believer can look like.

      As a far as whether secular folks think I am a lunatic, well, I don’t greatly care whether people agree with me as long as I can defend my positions based on evidence, and after truly giving consideration to opposing positions. Regarding whether the physical universe/multiverse was created by and is sustained by a nonphysical being, that is simply not a question that the scientific method can possibly address. I happen to think that there are worthy metaphysical arguments in favor of theism, but ultimately it is a matter of faith, where my beliefs are as worthy as the next guy’s beliefs.

      Regarding the specifics of the life and work of Jesus of Nazareth, I have written up a summary of the documentary evidence that folks in the first century had reason to believe he taught and did certain things, and that a number of his followers had compelling encounters with him immediately after his death. See

      This does not amount to a scientific or mathematical proof, and I recognize folks may simply not find it compelling. However, it does provide a reasonable basis for those who, like me, choose to believe it. I have had stimulating dialogs in the Comments of this blog with various atheists on these matters. I appreciate their pointed questioning, since it forces me to clarify or (potentially) modify or abandon my positions. Again, I simply want to be aligned with the truth, whatever that is, rather than commit to some position for the sake of commitment.

      • Ark says:

        While Don’s comment contained a few somewhat emotive words, in principle his comment is right on the money, namely that, while you often go hammer and tongs at the ID/YEC crowd (justifiably so) there is absolutely no evidence for your …let’s say ‘mainline’ Christian beliefs, and especially the more prominent foundational claims.

        From the non-believer’s perspective your criticism comes across much like pointing out that the Emperor is wearing no clothes only in your case, you aren’t wearing any either!

        Again, I simply want to be aligned with the truth, whatever that is, rather than commit to some position for the sake of commitment.

        You could probably start with this alignment by acknowledging that, in essence the foundational basis of your Christian belief is no better than the proponent of ID or YEC, Just because the likes of Francis Collins considers himself to be a ”serious Christian” does not invest Christianity with any more credibility.

      • Hi Ark,
        I think we have gone over this ground already. Three comments in response.

        ( A ) God is not an entity within the physical universe, so it is a simple category mistake to go looking for the sort of evidence for God like you would for a new element or microoganism. If you could find direct physical evidence of God within the universe, like a divine toe protruding into 3D space in some wheatfield just west of Topeka, you would have succeeded in DISproving the God of the Bible.
        Many thinkers have pointed out that the more appropriate methodology for inquiring into whether there is a nonphysical being which sustains the physical universe in being is to do philosophical thinking on the nature of being, and so on. More than one atheist has become a theist by walking down that road. ( I am not smart enough/not philosophically educated enough to try to make a strong case from philosophy, I can just point to others who can do this).

        ( B ) One area where Christianity claims that the eternal, immaterial God did enter into the 3D universe is in the person of Jesus Christ, who did certain acts in our time-space history. These historical acts are well-documented. And yes, documentary evidence is evidence, despite your opinions here. I have summarized this evidence in “Historicity of Jesus” , .

        God, it seems, offers humans a chance to freely choose to love and appreciate him. In Jesus’ day, despite his performing public miracles, some chose to believe and others did not. I do not think the historical evidence for, say, Jesus’ resurrection is so overwhelming as to bludgeon any literate human into believing. Yet it is strong enough that, again, more than one atheist who examined this evidence with the intent of discrediting Christianity has become a believer.

        (C) My beef with YEC/ID is that the facts simply contradict their positions. YEC/ID can only sustain their positions by suppressing or denying the full fact set. Whereas with Christianity, the facts all line up with the core gospel message (don’t need to suppress/deny any contradicting evidence), whether or not the facts are so compelling that everyone must agree.

        Best regards, hope you have had a good summer.

      • Ark says:

        God, it seems, offers humans a chance to freely choose to love and appreciate him. In Jesus’ day, despite his performing public miracles, some chose to believe and others did not. I do not think the historical evidence for, say, Jesus’ resurrection is so overwhelming as to bludgeon any literate human into believing.

        Some of the presuppositions in this part of your reply illustrate the point I am making. The term: Begging the question comes to mind.

        There is no evidence to demonstrate the veracity of the claim that Yahweh exists, or that such an entity is responsible for anything in the universe.
        This is a faith claim.

        A similar case can be made regarding the claimed divinity of the biblical character Jesus of Nazareth.
        There is no evidence for the resurrection of Jesus. Only claims in a text riddled with error and falsity across almost every major discipline, which should imbue the average Christian with enough doubt to consider deconversion. And a great many have!
        Indoctrination and cultural affiliation are key to why so many remain within the fold.
        Similar reasons can be demonstrated why people remain Muslim, or Hindu or Jewish.
        But this is changing.

        ….more than one atheist who examined this evidence with the intent of discrediting Christianity has become a believer

        I disagree. Again, there is no evidence and every conversion was because of a strong emotional reason, usually because of some traumatic incident.
        Francis Collins is the perfect example: he suffered from death anxiety.

        And while there are a few notable examples of religious conversion there are tens of thousands who deconvert and walk away or are simply lapsed.

        While you know full well I am as hard nosed as they come over these issues, if you have the evidence you claim and couple this with with your educational qualifications, on the face of it, you should make mince meat of my position.

        So why not we discuss this like adults right here and you can start by presenting the evidence that convinced you.

        Regards to you and yours.
        I look forward to an interesting reply!

      • Ark,
        As you know, I have answered your issues multiple times now. Below I will copy (again) an earlier response I have made to you.

        ( 1 ) As noted above: to demand the sort of (physical) evidence which pleases you to demonstrate the existence of a nonphysical being is a plain category mistake. If you can’t see this, I can’t help you further here.
        God has made himself known in Jesus, where there is physical, documentary evidence. I just looked it up: there are three main categories of evidence used in American jurisprudence – – oral testimony, written documents, and physical objects. And of course historians rely mainly on documents to determine what happened in the past. If you continue to insist that documentation does not count as evidence, you are welcome to your opinion, but please allow the rest of us to differ.

        ( 2 ) I did not claim Francis Collins became a Christian because of examining evidence for the resurrection. But that is the case for two atheists I know of who were professional investigators (J. Warner Wallace, homicide detective, and Lee Strobel, investigative journalist) who looked into the evidence for the resurrection with the intent of discrediting it, and finding that it actually satisfied the canons of their investigative craft.
        And some years ago, a Brit named Albert Henry Ross, writing under the name of Frank Morison, who was skeptical of the resurrection, likewise came to faith in the Christ of the Bible through examining this evidence. (My impression is Ross was a theist of the liberal school, not a declared atheist). And then there was Sir William Ramsay, a British scholar who was convinced that the writings of the New Testament author Luke were riddled with error. Ramsay journeyed to the Near East to study inscriptions, etc., in person. To his surprise, he found archaeological evidence again and again which showed Luke to be precisely correct, even on fine points of titles and local customs. These confirmations of the Bible text led Ramsay ultimately to become a believing Christian.

        And so I repeat what I stated above: “… I do not think the historical evidence for, say, Jesus’ resurrection is so overwhelming as to bludgeon any literate human into believing. Yet it is strong enough that, again, more than one atheist who examined this evidence with the intent of discrediting Christianity has become a believer.”

        …As you know, we have already had this discussion played out in earlier comments. I’ll just repeat below what I wrote to you earlier. And, by the way, I was not indoctrinated with Christian beliefs. I came to them as a teen, after a spell believing in only the reality of the physical world.
        I don’t want to set off a full-on debate on the evidence for early Christianity (there are other sites where such discussions go on…and on), but will try to very briefly outline my thinking here. It is well-established that Paul wrote the New Testament book of First Corinthians to the church in Corinth, sometime around 55 A.D. ( e.g. Clement of Rome quoted from this letter and referred to it as still being in their possession when he wrote c. 95 A.D to the Christians in Corinth). In the fifteenth chapter of this letter, Paul is focusing on the importance of the (future) resurrection of Christians. As a lead-in to that topic, he reminds them of what he had already taught them about the foundations of Christianity:

        “Now, brothers, I want to remind you of the gospel I preached to you, which you received and on which you have taken your stand. By this gospel you are saved, if you hold firmly to the word I preached to you. Otherwise, you have believed in vain.
        For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Peter, and then to the Twelve. After that, he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers at the same time, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep.
        Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles, and last of all he appeared to me also, as to one abnormally born. For I am the least of the apostles and do not even deserve to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God.” (I Cor 15:1-9)

        Paul had visited the Jerusalem church about 37 A.D. and again around 50 A.D. (plus or minus a few years, but sources basically agree; see e.g. Galations 1-2) :

        (a) Within 5 years of Jesus’s death in c. 30 A.D., Paul (as a persecutor of the church in and around Jerusalem) had been exposed to the claims of the local Christians that some of them had seen the resurrected Jesus.
        (b) Within 10 years of 30 A.D., Paul had returned to Jerusalem as a friend of the church, and talked with local leaders and presumably other members.
        ( c ) He was back again for other visits over the next decades.

        From (a), (b), and (c) , Paul had extensive, personal knowledge of what the local Judean Christians were saying about Jesus and the resurrection. Per I Cor 15, Paul had passed on the Corinthians during his stay with them c. 51-52 A.D. that there were hundreds of people, some still alive, who said they had witnessed the resurrected Jesus. (Some of whom would hold to that profession under threat of prison and execution – – per ).

        Paul, in his letters, comes across as a straight shooter. Irascible, yes, but a guy who is telling the truth as he sees it, not holding back even on acknowledging his own misdeeds. So unless you treat this literary evidence with the same sort of unreasonable skepticism practiced by YE creationists regarding physical evidence, you must acknowledge that there were indeed a bunch of people who were close to the facts (located in Jerusalem and within a few years of Jesus’ death) who said they had seen the risen Christ. According to the Gospel accounts, Jesus told skeptics who demanded a sign that these reports of the resurrection would be the only sign they would get; he elsewhere noted that the typical skeptic would not be convinced even if they did have evidence that someone had risen from the dead.

        Whether or not you accept the claims of these witnesses is a different issue. I’ll hazard a guess that you do reject these claims, not because you have independent knowledge of the events of c. 30 A.D. , but because you have made up your mind ahead of time that they *can’t* be true – – presumably because you have decided that nothing supernatural exists. (Not meant to be a criticism – – we all have unprovable starting points in our thinking).
        Biblical documents are not physical artifacts, but they are documents like any other historical documents. In the case of the New Testament, the documentary evidence for the events of Jesus’ public ministry is far stronger than for many of the other events of ancient history. The apostle Paul knew in person Jesus’ brother and closest associates. These men were well-known personages in the early church. He summarized their testimonies in letters written around 25 years after the events in question, whilst these witnesses to the resurrection were busy being tortured and killed for their testimony. The time gap between when these events and when they were recorded, and between the writing of these documents and our physical copies of them are way smaller than for much of ancient history. I go through all of this in more detail here:

        If you don’t care how soon after the events these documents were written or how great is the testimony they contain, because they can’t possibly be true because they affirm some supernatural happenings, that is merely a statement of your personal prejudice. Again, this is not a criticism. In everybody’s worldview, there are some unprovable first principles. If you have decided that there is no reality beyond the observable regularities of the physical world, I cannot persuade you otherwise. No matter the weight of testimony for a supernatural event, you will be driven (by your logic, which is OK) to discount it.


        … We are getting into the just-repeating-ourselves zone. I already took some considerable time to summarize the documentary evidence. Nearly all “genuine scholars” agree that Paul wrote the letters I referred to, only about 25 years after the Jesus-events. (I realize there is a Jesus-myth fringe like Richard Carrier that might dispute this, but these folks are just clutching at straws; even Bart Ehrman has debunked their position). In these letters Paul conveys what he learned from a number of first-hand eyewitnesses (e.g. Peter, James, John) from his discussions with them maybe 5 years after the events. Documentary evidence hardly gets any better than that for almost anything in ancient history.
        If this were about some non-supernatural event in the eastern Roman empire in 30 A.D., you would surely find this level of evidence (reportage based on interviews with multiple eyewitnesses) to be highly compelling.

        “How could one possible accept on any level a statement that a corpse rose from the dead and was witnessed by 500 people?” – – Because all the available evidence supports this.
        Let’s turn this around: Why would someone possibly doubt that a corpse rose from the dead and was witnessed by 500 people, given this strong documentary evidence ?

        Probably because that someone has a faith commitment to a purely-physical universe. So yes, faith is involved in accepting the evidence for the resurrection, but it is also involved in rejecting it. As I said previously.

        Thank you for your many comments on this subject, and perhaps we can discuss another subject another time.

  2. The link in your first line to the offending paper is broken, although your link to PandasThumb, and PandasThumb to the paper, both work. The paper itself turns out to be yet another version of “Isn’t it improbable”, but, as Rasmussen points out, specific this time to one imaginary historical scenario. Very sciency.

    What a pity that Evolution News doesn’t have a comments section

  3. Don E Helland MD says:

    Fellow Christians are concerned about being killed in Afghanistan.

    Perhaps you and I should be more concerned about these issues. Than what some atheist secular biologists are saying about our fellow Christians in the ID camp.

    • Certainly, there are wider concerns. I try to do what I can in various spheres; besides my writings here to demonstrate that Christians are can be honest regarding science, I contribute substantially to refugee relief organizations and directly help recent immigrants in person. I assume that you likewise minister to these unfortunate folks in some ways, as well.

  4. Don E Helland MD says:

    I appreciate your replies.

    Things, such as how the Bible relates to the natural world/science, are not quite as “clear cut” to me as they are to you. But scripture does say “let every man be fully convinced in his own mind”.

    My only concern is that we not judge other fellow Christians too harshly, because their intentions and motives may be pure and well meaning. Regardless of their interpretation of Genesis and the natural world/science.

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