Creationists rarely come up with any new arguments. Rather, they keep repeating the same flawed assertions that have been disproved thousands of times in the past. Sometimes, however, they attempt to reinvent themselves. Not by discovering evidence or presenting new arguments, but by dressing up previous arguments in a cheap tuxedo. Claims about “what use is half a wing or half an eye?” gets changed to “what use is half a flagella?”, claims about evolution somehow contradicting the second law of thermodynamics gets replaced by appeals to an imaginary conservation law about information and so on. Another common creationist trope is asserting that evolution is just “random chance”. Since random chance cannot produce complex adaptations, creationists argue that there has to be an intelligent designer behind life. In reality, selection is a non-random process and it is the generation of genetic variation that is essentially random. Because this creationist trope can readily be debunked, they had to throw out some smokescreens in an effort to rehabilitate this approach.
That smokescreen is the abuse of the so-called No Free Lunch (NFL) theorems. Simplified, intelligent design creationists claim that these show that no evolutionary algorithm can outperform a random search, so therefore, evolution is not better than “random chance” and since “random chance” cannot produce complex adaptations, evolution cannot do it either. However, this is based on a key misunderstanding of the NFL theorems. Mark Perakh (2004, p. 102) explains:
The NFL theorems establish that performance of all algorithms is the same if averaged over all possible fitness functions. Dembski illegitimately applies this results to the algorithms’ performance on specific fitness functions where different algorithms can (and do) perform very differently. Dembski’s assertion that no evolutionary algorithm can outperform a random search because of the NFL theorems and that therefore Darwinian evolution is impossible is absurd. The NFL theorems in no way prohibit Darwinian evolution.
In other words, one evolutionary algorithms cannot outperform another averaged over all possible fitness landscapes. However, real-world evolution occurs on a specific subset of fitness landscapes not averaged over all theoretically possible fitness landscapes.
Even David Wolpert, one of the discoverer of the original NFL theorems, rejects Dembski’s false characterization:
Perhaps the most glaring example of this is that neo-Darwinian evolution of ecosystems does not involve a set of genomes all searching the same, fixed fitness function, the situation considered by the NFL theorems. Rather it is a co-evolutionary process. Roughly speaking, as each genome changes from one generation to the next, it modifies the surfaces that the other genomes are searching. And recent results indicate that NFL results do not hold in co-evolution.
The fitness landscape is thus not independent of the evolutionary algorithm, and the NFL theorems do not apply.
Recently, the pseudonym scordova wrote a post on the intelligent design creationist blog Uncommon Descent (UD) about the NFL theorems and Dawkins’ Weasel algorithm (another classic creationist obsession). Because the UD post shows (1) that intelligent design creationists, like their ideological predecessors, continue to appeal to claims that have long since been debunked and (2) that there is a large overlap between scientific creationists and intelligent design creationists in terms of what kind of arguments they use, let us go through it point-by-point. Read more of this post