Is Evolution a Random Process?

Jurassic dsA question that comes up quite frequently in discussions of evolution and Christian faith deals with the apparently purposeless randomness of the evolutionary process. One of the most famous images is the tape of time given by Stephen Jay Gould. Run the tape over and something entirely different will emerge. From his 1994 article in Scientific American (v. 271, pp. 84-91) The Evolution of Life:

History includes too much chaos, or extremely sensitive dependence on minute and unmeasurable differences in initial conditions, leading to massively divergent outcomes based on tiny and unknowable disparities in starting points. And history includes too much contingency, or shaping of present results by long chains of unpredictable antecedent states, rather than immediate determination by timeless laws of nature.

Homo sapiens did not appear on the earth, just a geologic second ago, because evolutionary theory predicts such an outcome based on themes of progress and increasing neural complexity. Humans arose, rather, as a fortuitous and contingent outcome of thousands of linked events, any one of which could have occurred differently and sent history on an alternative pathway that would not have led to consciousness.

The idea that we are products of random chance and historic contingency seems at odds with any reasonable Christian theology.

But is this right – does evolutionary biology lead inevitably to the conclusion that we are the products of nothing but random chance and historic contingency?

The Faraday Institute for Science and Religion has put out a DVD, Test of Faith, with an accompanying website (Test of Faith) to provide resources for those who are interested in or troubled by the interaction between science and faith. The short excerpts below feature Dr. Ard Louis and Prof. Simon Conway Morris, both Christians whose research involves topics relevant to the debate about evolution. Dr. Ard Louis is a Reader in Theoretical Physics at Oxford University. His research is in theoretical biophysics, on the border of physics, chemistry, applied mathematics, and biology. I’ve had the opportunity to meet and talk with Ard a number of times. He is equally at home discussing science or Christian faith and takes both very seriously. Prof. Conway Morris, Professor of Paleobiology at Cambridge University, specializes the emergence of complexity and construction of the major animal body plans in the Cambrian explosion.

In this clip Dr. Louis and Prof. Conway Morris discuss randomness

The point being made in this clip is that the scientific definition of randomness does not imply that something is is open-ended and purposeless. The evolutionary process is an efficient search algorithm optimizing for specific functions. In fact, the evolutionary process follows well defined roads and paths constrained by the nature of chemistry and physics. Not everything is possible, there are a limited number of possible solutions, stable points in biological space. There is no reason to conclude that evolution demonstrates that we are accidents of nature.

Ard Louis elaborates on randomness in biology in the context of his own research in this clip, available on YouTube and on the Test of Faith website, but not included in the DVD.

Another short clip of the interview with Professor Conway Morris is available on the Test of Faith web site: What would happen if the tape of evolution were rerun? In this clip Conway Morris elaborates on the idea of evolutionary convergence.

Conway-Morris-ds

Dr. Conway Morris tells of his PhD research on the Burgess shale with Stephen Jay Gould and how and why he disagrees with Gould’s well known claim that if we were able to rerun the tape of time, restart the process of evolution, something entirely different would emerge. It is not at all clear that Gould was correct – individual events have an element of chance, there is randomness, but the overall landscape for evolution may be, not rough and exquisitely sensitive to initial conditions, but constrained and relatively smooth with the flexibility to find solutions independent of the fortunes of chance.

Evolutionary convergence in some form is an idea that is gaining traction in scientific circles. It has nothing to do with design, a designer, or religious faith. It is simply an attempt to read the evidence and determine the forces that shape the world we see. Nonetheless the idea has a certain appeal from a position of faith – while theoretically at least God could use and control any means in creation, there is a reasonableness in the idea that evolution is a process that leads to a defined result.

Is an evolutionary creation where God defined the path, but didn’t control every detail consistent with the Christian faith?

Would your answer change if we discussed the forces that control our weather instead of the evolution of humans? Why or why not?

If you wish to contact me directly you may do so at rjs4mail[at]att.net

If you would like to comment please see Is Evolution a Random Process? at Jesus Creed.

(This is a somewhat edited repost.)

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