3/11/2005

Random Until Further Notice

I believe that much of the anxiety that people express about evolution is rooted in a single concept--its randomness. After all, if evolution accounts for the existence and diversity of life and is truly random, we have a number of theological difficulties on our hands. The scriptures clearly teach concepts of planning and foreordination, and so would seem to be at odds with evolutionary theory. As we shall see, if we really probe this problem to its depth we will get into unanswerable questions concerning the foreknowledge of God. These kinds of questions have been kicked around for a long time by people much smarter than I am. I doubt that definitive answers are available in this life. Rather than get into philosophical speculation I want to discuss the nature of science and its limitations.

Like many other fields of study, evolution is usually a study of history. Based on present experiments and observation, and on evidence from the past, scientists are able to reconstruct processes and events that have lead to conditions we see today. However just like other studies of history, reconstruction of the past is of limited use in predicting the future with precision.

Let's take climatology and meteorology as an example. If we wanted to learn about past weather conditions we would pursue several avenues of research. We would gather records that contained measurements of past weather data. We would look at things affected by weather such as agriculture. We might also look at remaining physical evidence, such as tree rings, for indications of flood, rain, or drought. All of this together would give us a good picture of what happened in past weather systems. But as we all know, it is of limited use in making specific predictions about future weather. This is because the number of variables involved are enormous. But we can ask a rhetorical question here: does God know whether it will rain on my house a year from today?

Let's look at a biological example: cancer. In many types of cancer the root genetic problem can be identified. While some people may have a predisposition to certain cancers, others apparently do not. Yet exact predictions about whether a person will get cancer cannot be made because of the enormous number of variables in play. On the predictive side, all we can do is talk in terms of probabilities.

Now let's ask some questions: Does God know who will get cancer? Does he know which particular cell will start the cancer? Does he know what the specific cause will be? Does God cause all cancers? Are all cancers a result of pure chance? If God did, from time to time, cause a person to get cancer (as a trial, for example), could we identify those instances by scientific means?

These same types of problems and questions apply not only to evolution, but other areas of biology, medicine, public health, multiple areas of physics, cosmology, astronomy, linguistics, anthropology, ecology, geography--all areas of life, really. We do not have a way to distinguish any direct role God has played in these things from natural processes, except through revelation. But since revelation is largely non-transferable, we prefer natural explanations until God specifically identifies his role. (These issues also touch on why I am not hot on the intelligent design movement.)

So let's not fret over whether life's origin and diversity is a result of chance or not. Scientists talk in terms of chance and randomness because, whether they believe it's the whole story or not, they cannot do otherwise.

5 Comments:

I think you hit the nail on the head in saying that perhaps the big objection comes from the notion of utter and undirected randomness. We want to believe that we, homo sapiens, were meant to be here, that it was all planned.

There are number of reasons for believing in random variation. 1) it works. It *can* explain what happened with out presupposing any other undetected "help." 2) We look at the genetic sequences of any given animal, especially their inactive segments, and they are completely random. If they were designed, somebody appears to have done a rather sloppy job. When we look at our sequences, they are sloppy too, just as sloppy as the chimpanzee's.

There are other scientific reasons, but we can also mention religous ones as well, as you in fact did. Some people get cancer. Some babies are born with defects. Do we want to attribute these things to the Designer? I sure don't.

Let's suppose, for the sake of argument, that mutations are not completely random. That there are patterns resulting from some undiscovered laws of physics. Does this somehow make evolution more directed by a designer?

3/12/2005 12:07:00 AM  

I don't want anybody to misunderstand--I do think we are meant to be here. It is just that without revelation from God telling us so, we wouldn't know it from the physical evidence.

Also, we have to be careful not to push chance too far. Although chance plays a large role in genetic variation, it plays less of a role in survival and reproduction. This is because the elimination of less fit types depends on the conditions of the environment. Ernst Mayr says, "To claim that natural selection is entirely a chance process reveals total misunderstanding." (What Evolution Is)

3/12/2005 07:40:00 AM  

I didn't think Jared did believe in those things. In fact, this is what this blog is about, trying to avoid some of those nasty conclusions I mentioned. They are points that must be mentioned however.

3/13/2005 10:10:00 AM  

Jared gives some good examples and raises some good questions about gods role in our history. In his 3rd and 4th paragraphs, he gives examples in climatology and biology. One point which should be mentioned relating to randomness in our natural world is that at its most basic level, nature appears to be truely random. This idea is laid out in the quantum theory of physics that was developed in the early part of the 20th century. Prior to this, it was thought that, for example, if one could know the location and velocity of every particle in the known universe, the entire future of the universe (including ourselves) could be predicted. This obviously raised issues of free will, although one might argue that it agreed perfectly with scripture since god would know all of our destinies since he would have a perfect knowledge of the universe. However, with the advent of quantum theory, it was realized that one can only predict future events with a given probability, not with absolute certainty. I am curious as to what the modern view of the LDS church is on this? Does god also know our futures only within a given probability? Does this seem to raise questions about scriptures then?
One final note about climatology: weather prediction is as Jared said a problem because of the enormous number of variables involved. But, even more problematic is the fact that weather models (the basic equations they rely on) are in fact chaotic. So, small changes in initial conditions lead to vastly different conditions (i.e., the butterfly effect).

3/15/2005 01:42:00 PM  

Interesting blog -- however I want to point out one fallacy you have made. The theory of natural selection does not propose "random" evolution but rather directed evolution. Whether you believe in evolution or not, it is important that you understand the facts and are making an informed decision.

To repeat myself: Natural selection is a DIRECTED process not a RANDOM process. Examples are out there (especially at the microbe and molecular level) but they can be hard to see because of the long time spans involved in any major changes.

A good example of what genetic selection can do is the large variety of dogs, although they have stemmed from human directed selection rather than natural selection. Compared to other dogs, bloodhounds have greater sense of smell, herding dogs are better adapted to herding, terriers are better adapted towards rodent catching (ie digging and scrappiness), salukis towards running, "toy" dogs are adapated to look pretty and please their owners. Yet based on DNA and molecular analysis all dogs came from wolves. How can we explain the huge diversity in such a short period of time? Because humans "selected" dogs based on characteristics they found most suitable. For example, in ancient Egypt dog racing was a very popular sport -- the fastest dogs would be revered, well-fed, and offered plenty of chances to breed. The dogs that lost would often be beaten or killed. The end result...the Saluki is amoung the fastest mammals alive. Each breed of dog was selected based on characteristics breeders found desirable. And new breeds are continuing to be created by selecting for new coat colors or body sizes etc. Results such this show that genetic selection CAN take place.

It isn't much of an intellectual leap to just change the selective force from humans to nature. Lets consider an ancestral species of wolf which had been living in a warm climate for centuries. However, one pack in the search for food wanders northward into a much colder climate. Among the offspring of the pack, due to chance, one happens to have a thicker fur coat. The original mutation might have been chance, but here is when selection jumps in. This wolf, due to his thicker coat, can stay out in the cold longer allowing him to hunt longer and be less prone to the affects of hypothermia. Thus, while some of his wolf mates die due to hunger or cold, he has become "alpha dog" and is busy "getting it on" with the pack females. Thus, the next generation has even more wolves with thicker coats. Fast forward maybe 5 or 10 generations and there are no short coated wolves left in the pack.

The amazing power of natural selection is that it is NOT just a chance phenomena but a way to explain how complex organisms can arise through DIRECTED change. 

Posted by J. Buelow

12/23/2006 01:08:00 PM  

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