Contingency in Guided Evolution

I mentioned in my last post that I would now, in this current post, give an example of embracing natural selection so as to determine how we were created. I lied. I will get to that in my next post (that sounds familiar) I must first discuss a little bit more about what evolution is. I have mentioned in past posts the evolutionary algorithm. I have emphasized how evolution isn't some sort of 'model' akin to what we find in anthropology or other social sciences. Natural Selection and Mendelian Genetics are sciences which can be modeled using mathematics. Evolution is a physical science, not a social science.

This is what leads to the inherent non-directiveness in evolution. Evolutionary laws describe relationships between physical entities in a way very similar to Newton's laws of mechanics. We can't attribute words like "purpose", "progress" or "direction" to laws, be they astronomical or biological. We can view things from the design or intentional stances, but this is out of mere convenience. Such views do not describe any ontological reality.

We can, however, say that God used evolutionary laws to His advantage. We, for example, use the laws of gravity to our advantage all the time, from satelites in orbit, to car tires on the highway. For millennia people have been using the laws of selection and genetics to their advantage in their domestication of both plants and animals. It was with this in mind that I wrote, to Jared's great aparent delight, "Pointing to perceived inadequacies in Darwinism doesn't tell us anything about what God did. Pointing out what is true about Darwinism can tell us a lot about what God might have done."

This comes from our embracing evolution as a law which can produce results (be they intended by a "somebody" or not) as opposed to viewing it as a mere historical phenomenon. If we only try to reconcile the evidence of evolution with the gospel, we will, in the end, short change ourselves of much.

Before any of us go on to suggest any mechanisms of "divine intervention" we need to be clear on what constraints we are working with. We can say that God created the universe, but not out of nothing. God works within the constraints which universal laws place upon us. This is not necessarily a bad thing as we saw from the example above. It is because of these constraints that many good things can happen.

What are the constraints in evolution which cannot be ignored? We talk of God guiding mutations and the like and assume that this is enough, but is it really? I doubt it. Mutation is not the only "random" thing involved in evolution. What is it that produces the non-directionality in evolution.

1) First of all, and most popular, are the random mutations. These mutations are not random in the sense of being uncaused, but are a natural result of living in a "dirty" world which is not digital, but analog. These mutations are random in that they do not appear according to need or demand. It is for this reason that evolution comes not from mutations, but from variety which was originally caused by mutation.

Could God have controlled mutation? This is a difficult question which should be refined before we even try to answer it. Could God have controlled the mutation rate in a population? This has a lot to do with the complexity theory which some IDers think suggests a "designer". But complexity theory is based on mathematical relationships just like evolution and Newtonian mechanics. There is no purpose or directionality in it either. In other words, complexity theory limits what God did just as evolution does. This, as we said, is not necessarily bad.

So, could God have controlled the mutation rate in a population? I doubt it. Could He have controlled the mutation rate in a particular organism? I see no reason to doubt this at all. This is, after all, what genetic engineers are currently at work on.

Can He control which particular mutations happen in a population? Again, I doubt it. Even if God could act as a genetic engineer to control mutations to a certain extent, mutation continues, controlled or not. And these mutations are by no means few and far between. They occur by the truck load, not only in each individual but throughout the entire population of the species. Could God have controlled which particular mutations happen to certain organisms? Sure, why not, but I wouldn't be too anxious to make the number of organisms too big.

We should also be very cautious about our suggesting that God introduces "needed" mutations in too large a quantity or "size". I'm not trying to limit God, here, only work within the constraints which evolution places upon us and God. The reason why Darwin recognized that evolution must be gradual is that mutations which are "too big" will simply over-shoot their targeted niche, thus becoming deleterious.

Niches are not simply filled by species who are gradually exploring 'design space' as Dennett calls it. Species not only fill niches, but create them as well. When evolutionary biologists talk about a 'fitness landscape', they are no longer speaking of a static topological map with various species in arms races to the top of nearby peaks. The fitness landscape in continually in motion being altered by both the niches which exist and are being created. Introducing a mutation which 'aims for higher ground' in the fitness landscape, does not usually necessarily produce greater fitness. The bigger the jump through design space, the more dangerous it is and less likely to produce a benficial mutation.

2) This is closely related to and caused by the second element of contigency: natural selection. Mutations do not happen in a vacuum. Even if a good mutation is introduced in the population, this is no guarantee of safety. Natural selection, according to Darwin, states that given the vast variety which exists in any population, the organisms which have variations better suited for a particular struggle for survival will tend to survive more than those who don't. The 'strong' don't always survive, they will only tend to based on a number of factors, the most influential being luck.

Remember, in evolution we do not necessarily call those with 'good mutations' the strong. The call those who survive the strong, period. We then reason that those who survived to reproduce did so for a reason, namely their mutation which happen to turn out to be 'good'. This whole process is very opportunistic with there being no 'good' or 'bad' until after the fact.

Does this mean that the whole idea of 'survival of the fittest' is a joke? No. Over the long run, the fittest will reign. We just need to keep in mind that it is very difficult (impossible from a perspective such as ours) to tell who, in any given population is the fittest until the struggle for survival has played out.

This is part of why introducing mutations is such a difficult way to guide evolution. In order to guide such mutations past the struggle for survival it will be necessary to have this mutation be present in numerous hosts, not just a couple. This will almost surely involve many generations, each generation altering the mutation to a certain extent.

3) Again closely related but distinct still is the third form of non-directionality: external circumstances. Droughts happen. Asteroids happen. Earthquakes happen. Other animals are introduced into an ecosystem causing temporary chaos. The same can be said for diseases.

We think of the exinction of the large mammals that once roamed Australia until early man showed up. We think of the earliest mammals who were little more than nocturnal scavengers until the asteroid wiped out the dinosaurs. And these are only the more documented cases, the first due to its being relativey recently (12,000 years ago) the latter due to it grandeur.

Bad things happen, even to the 'fittest.' Could God have uncaused some earthquakes or prevented some floods? I suppose we can say yes, He could, but the fact is He doesn't. If He doesn't prevent them now, why would He back then when His 'children' were not around?

Now are any one of these elements of non-directionality absolutely impossible to overcome? No. But together they do present serious obstacles if we are to suggest a way in which God 'guided' evolution to produce modern man. Dennett is very found of pointing out how absolutely lucky we are to be alive. Out of the millions upon millions of generations which have succeeded each other since life began billions of years ago, not one of our ancestors died without reproducing.

Some might suggest that this requires God, but unfortunely the same thing can be said bor every bacteria as well. This is only a miracle if we insist that humans were the intended outcome, an assumptions for which we have no evidence. If we were intended, as Mormons will insist, then we must work within these boundaries. We must believe that if evolution was guided in any way in was bound by immense amounts of contingency so as to ensure not only that every one of our ancestors, whoever they may have been from 4 billion years ago to today, survived to reproduce, but that there would be a suitable niche avaiable for us as well. Both of these goals would be immensly difficult to achieve.

Only with these things in mind can we speak meaningfully of God guiding evolution in any way.

Summary: Before we even suggest any kind of mechanism for how God could have used evolution to produce us, we must first fully recognize what constraints would be inherent in such an endevour. Mutation, Natural Selection and External Circumstances are very powerful factors which should not be ignored.


It will probably not be inappropriate here to also mention Stuart Kauffman's 4 proposed biological laws which would also effect how evolution plays out:

"Coevolutionarily constructible communities of molecular autonomous agents may evolve to four different phase transitions:

Law 1. Communities of autonomous agents will evolve to the dynamical edge of chaos within and between members of the community, thereby simultaneously achieving an optimal coarse graining of each agent's world that maximizes the capacity of each agent to discriminate and act without trembling hands.

Law 2. A coassembling community of agents, on a short timescale with respect to coevolution, will assemble to a self-organized critical state with some maximum number of species per community. In the vicinity of that maximum, a power law distribution of avalanches of local extinction events will occur. As the maximum is approached the net rate of entry of new species slows, then halts.

Law 3. On a coevolutionary timescale, coevolving autonomous agents as a community attain a self-organized critical state by tuning landscape structure (ways of making a living) and coupling between landscapes, yielding a global power law distribution of extinction and speciation events and a power law distribution of species lifetimes.

Law 4. Autonomous agents will evolve such that causally local communities are on a generalized 'subcritical-supracritical boundary' exhibiting a generalized self-organized critical average for the sustained expansion of the adjacent possible of the effective phase space of the community."

While it might take a time or two to figure out what he is saying, it is more than apparent that 'self-organization' is hardly the knight in shining armor creationists have hoped it would be. Kauffman, as well as his fellow students of "complexity theory" are evolutionists through and through. 

Posted by Jeffrey Giliam

5/10/2005 11:19:00 AM  

At issue here may be the confusion that Mormons get into regarding God's omniscience and His controlling and determining everything (or anything). He is likely able (in a way we don't comprehend) to see what will occur without actually influencing the pathway at all. This is another reason that evolution fits well as a model for creation of the earth. Once one understands the laws at play as profoundly and thoroughly as God does, there is no guess work and yet no need to influence to outcome.


Posted by Mike Wilson

5/10/2005 03:02:00 PM  

While I have issues with the nature of God you seem to be positing, I can see how most members who think that. That said, we must recognize that knowing that humans will be an outcome, and causing humans to be an outcome are two very different things. It seems to me that we are seeking not only for the former, but most importantly the latter. 

Posted by Jeffrey Giliam

5/10/2005 03:14:00 PM  

Jeffrey: I'm not sure which we  is being referred to in the last sentance, whether it is you and I or we as Mormons.  

Posted by Mike Wilson

5/11/2005 06:30:00 PM  


You seem to be arguing that if God guided evolution, with us as the intended outcome, then he must have ensured that every one of our ancestors reproduced. I don't think this is a necessary argument, at least not at the individual level.

It's like arguing that since Joseph Smith was foreordained in his role, God had to ensure that every one of Joseph's ancestors did not die before giving birth.

In both cases, I think there is more flexibility than you seem to be allowing. Your argument seems akin to the creationist argument that certain features of life have the same odds of existing (by natural means) as a tornado making an airplane out of a junkyard. One such flaw in these kinds of arguments is the assumption that there is only one way from point A to B.

Maybe I'm misunderstanding you. 

Posted by Jared

5/12/2005 07:45:00 AM  

You did misunderstand me, but it was my fault not yours. I knew that it was going to end up sounding that way, but even so I didn't change it for some reason. I completely agree with the point you seem to be making, namely that all long as there were organisms of any kind, God could still work with those. He didn't have to follow a direct, fully planned out route.

Thanks for the clarification.


The we was meant to refer to Mormons in general, which I would assume would include you and me. 

Posted by Jeffrey Giliam

5/12/2005 09:40:00 AM  



<< Home