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Darwinian Evolution, Chance and Design

August 28th, 2009 by Matt

In a previous post, God, Darwinian Evolution and The Teleological Argument, I argued that evolution does not refute the teleological argument. Also, even if it did, a lot more significant philosophical work over and above any appeal to natural selection would be needed to infer from this that theism is rationally untenable. There is, however, a second concern lurking in this area; it is that Darwinian evolution shows that evolution occurs by chance. Chance is incompatible with design; hence, Darwinian evolution shows that biological organisms were not created by God. Del Ratzsch summarises the argument succinctly,

[I]f it is genuine evolution, then the theory itself demands that the processes be governed by natural law and random chance … On the other hand, if its genuinely guided [by God], then the process must involve not chance but deliberately designed intervention.[1]

The argument has two premises,

[1] If evolution is guided [by God] then the processes must not involve random chance;

[2] Genuine evolutionary theory demands that the processes be governed by natural law and random chance.

I think this argument is mistaken. To be a valid argument, the word “chance” would need to be used the same way in both premises. The kind of chance that is incompatible with creation in [1] would have to be the kind of chance that is part of genuine evolutionary theory in [2].

Alvin Plantinga has argued that when one examines how the word “chance” is being used in this kind of argument it is evident that the word is not being used the same way in both premises and that when the ambiguity is cleared up the kind of chance that is involved in contemporary evolutionary theory is compatible with the idea that God created human beings.[2]

Let us turn to the first premise; [1] the claim that if evolution is guided [by God] then the processes must not involve random chance. This statement is true only if chance is defined a certain way, both that its existence is incompatible with the idea that God caused the event to happen (either immediately or indirectly via normal secondary causation) and that God did so intentionally and with purpose. To say then that an event occurs by random chance, on this definition, is to say the event was not caused, intended or planned by God.

The problem is that if chance is defined this way premise [2] is false; genuine evolutionary theory does not demand that mutations are not caused by chance, when chance is defined in this way. According to Eliot Sober, when the word chance is used in the context of evolutionary theory it means, “there is no physical mechanism (either inside organisms or outside of them) that detects which mutations would be beneficial and causes those mutations to occur.” Ernest Mayr makes a similar point, “When it is said that mutation or variation is random, the statement simply means that there is no correlation between the production of new genotypes and the adaptational needs of an organism in a given environment.”

Defined in the manner of Mayr and Sober, chance is entirely compatible with the idea that evolution is caused, intended or planned by God. The fact that there is, “no correlation between the production of new genotypes and the adaptational needs of an organism in a given environment” and “no physical mechanism (either inside organisms or outside of them) that detects which mutations would be beneficial and causes those mutations to occur,” does not mean that the events had no cause and it certainly does not mean that they were not intentionally caused by God.

To show that evolution occurred by chance, where chance is incompatible with divine design, contemporary biologists would need to show not just that no physical mechanism detects which mutations are beneficial and causes them and it would have to do much more than fail to produce a correlation between the “production of new genotypes and the adaptational needs of an organism in a given environment.” It would have to show that there was ultimately no supernatural cause to the process that intended evolution of human life to occur. Contemporary biology has not done this and it is certainly very difficult to see how it could do so without stepping outside the bounds of science, as currently practised, and venturing into controversial areas of philosophy and theology.

[1] Del Ratzch Battle for Beginnings: Why Neither Side is Winning the Creation Evolution Debate (Downers Grove IL: Intervarsity Press, 1996).
[2] Alvin Plantinga “Evolution and Design” in For Faith and Clarity: Philosophical Contributions to Christian Theology ed. James Beilby (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2006) 201-217.

This post draws from parts of my paper “Does Evolution Make Belief in God Untenable?” given at the recent TANSA conference, Faithful Science? – Just How Well Do Science and Faith Get Along?

RELATED POSTS:
God, Darwinian Evolution and The Teleological Argument

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39 responses so far ↓

  • Matt, Being able to argue that God could have used evolution to create the universe is one thing. Proving that he did; is quite another. Nobody argues that mutations and adaptation within species doesn't happen. However, those types of changes do not create universes or new species. New species require new genetic information. I've never seen any scientific evidence to support the theory that new genetic information has ever evolved by chance (whether that mechanism of chance was created by God or otherwise). Without proof that new genetic information can evolve; the theory of evolution falls on its head.

    Regards, Andrew

  • How exactly do you propose that biologists prove a negative? Should it be your burden to prove the positive instead?

  • You could really just shorten these posts to "science can't provide final proofs". When people weigh up the probability of God's hand in the making of life on earth I doubt they are saying "is it possible that this system arose from God" so much as "given there is an entirely naturalistic explanation for the origin of species, do I really need to introduce some supernatural causation".

    Andrew, I've asked many creationists this question but am yet to get an answer, can you please define 'information'?

  • Guest, science can prove negatives. For example, the claim that "there is no planent between mars and earth" is a negative and science has proved it as far as I can tell. Science I think also gives us reason to think there are no 1000,000 klm high terrestial rabbits.

    Moreover, your suggestion that the burden of proof is on those who make a positive claim seems problematic. The claim "there is at least one uncreated object in the universe" is a positive so the burden of proof must be on those who assert this claim and not on those who make the negative "nothing uncreated exists in the universe" .

    I could also point out the numerous skeptical conclusions that follow from the claim that "the burden of proof is on the postive" the claim that morality exists is a positive so presumably the burden of proof is on those who affirm it. The existence of other people is a positive so the burden of proof is on those who affirm it. The existence of the past is a positive claim, so the burden is on those who affirm it etc. By this reasoning the rational person does not affirm the existence of anything at all untill he has proof. Which would mean there were no facts one could appeal to to prove anything.

  • <span>Matt, Being able to argue that God could have used evolution to create the universe is one thing. Proving that he did; is quite another.</span>

    <span>Agreed, my paper was on wether evolution makes belief in God untenable. It was not about wether evolution was true or false. </span>

  • <span>You could really just shorten these posts to "science can't provide final proofs". When people weigh up the probability of God's hand in the making of life on earth I doubt they are saying "is it possible that this system arose from God" so much as "given there is an entirely naturalistic explanation for the origin of species, do I really need to introduce some supernatural causation</span>

    <span>David, this raises a seperate argument, one I discussed in the paper which this post is taken from and which I will post up in the future. </span>

  • Matt,

    I'll look forward to it. As long as it's not based on Plantinga's silly arguments about "The Grand Evolutionary Myth" 😉

  • No its not based on that, and btw  Plantinga is using the word myth in a technical sense in that phrase, not in the common sense whereby myth entails false.

  • Oh I know, I just don't like his reasoning and that title seemed like the easiest way to identify the argument.

  • Using the word "uncreated" still means that it is a negative claim. Using silly word games to shift the burden of proof is rather childish.

  • davidw says: "I've asked many creationists this question but am yet to get an answer, can you please define 'information'?"

    First up, I'm not a scientist and will not pretend to be. The 'information' I was referring to relates to the DNA sequensing present in all living organisms. Wikipedia: "A DNA sequence or genetic sequence is a succession of letters representing the primary structure of a real or hypothetical DNA molecule or strand, with the capacity to carry information as described by the central dogma of molecular biology."

    To give an example in layman's terms: Every dairy farmer knows that the best cow usually comes from the first cross. e.g. the offspring of a jersy and a frestian parent. The reason for this is the offspring carries some of the genetic information from two different breeds, thereby using the genes from a wider gene pool than just breeding from frestian stock alone. Both frestian and jersey breeds come from a common ancestor, but over time due to interbreeding from a small gene pool, genetic information is lost, resulting in the various breeds we have today. Note: genetic information is lost to create the different breeds. The theory of evolution presumes that over time organisms became more complex, to enable for example a cow to turn into a whale. However, this trend has never been observed or proven.

    Regards, Andrew

  • "uncreated"? What does it mean? Example of usage?

  • Guest, if it's true that nobody can prove a negative, then you should agree that nobody should claim that evolution provides a mechanism to which chance (a mechanism not contributed to by design) contributes. At least – not when presuming to speak scientifically. At best, if you're right, they shoudl remain agnostic and never affirm atheism.

  • So something that could happen by chance can also happen by an outside agent if the outcome is not necessitated by the organism?

    I still think that evolution is a challenge to Christian theology.

    I also think that the term evolution has much more variability within it than the word chance as used above.

  • david w <span> I've asked many creationists this question but am yet to get an answer, can you please define 'information'?</span>

    It depends on what you wish? Do you wish to have a general explanation of what is meant, or do you wish to have a tight mathematical like definition. The latter is more difficult as message theory is much newer than material theory (physics).

    Information is the concept that explains design, or description, or meaning. It is what is conveyed during discussion. It is the concept of code, language and interpretation. It is not a material substance.

    In terms of a more scientific explanation, the concept of specified complexity has been used. That is a code that is not necessitated; and that is both not predictable and carries meaning.

    A crystal is necessitated.

    A shuffled pack of cards is complex, but not specified.

    A computer instruction to delete data by writing 0's continously is specified, but not complex.

    The play Macbeth is complex and specified.

  • Hi Andrew,

    Not sure quite what's happened with the comments here, hopefully this winds up somewhere sensible.

     "A DNA sequence […]  a succession of letters the capacity to carry information as described by the central dogma of molecular biology."

    Well information in this sense is easy! Take a gene, duplicate it, mutate one copy, now your coding a new protein. Can't be this informtion that evolution can't generate…

    Every dairy farmer knows that the best cow usually comes from the first cross.

    Except when it's not. The reason F1 hybrids are sometimes (actually, not all that often) stronger than their  parents is recessive deleterious genes can be 'masked' by dominant genes from the other side of the cross. That's because really stong selection pressures (natural or artificial) get rid of genetic variation all over the genome because even the genes that aren't being selected get dragged along with the selected genes. But when populations aren't subject to massive selection pressures and have large population sizes genetic variation increases, so again, this can't be the kind of information that evolution can't make.

    If you mean that selection always acts to get rid of standing variation from an ancestral 'kind' then I'm afraid you may missed about 50 years of genetic and evolutionary research. We know, for instance, that lactose tolerence in humans arose from new mutations at least twice, and recently we witnesses the evolution of a brand new cheimcal function in E.coli So, again what is the limit that stops the sorts of changes we've observed adding up to the sorts of differences that we see?

    bethyada,

    I just want to know what sort of information it is that life has and evolution can't make. CSI is a perfect example of the way creationsits use the term as a away of making untestable claims, complexity, information and probablity are all different things and Dembski uses them interchangably…

  • david w, your opinion of Dempski's grammar is irrelevant. Information has been known about some time. Specifity and complexity are useful ways of describing it.

    DNA is both specified and complex. It qualifies as information. The question is whether mutation and natural selection is capable of increasing information.

    You can mutate a gene, but if it doesn't bring about new information it doesn't qualify. One needs to show the ability to fly from not flying, or the production of an eye from no vision.

  • bethyada.

    Could you giue a brief exact description of the words "specified", "complexity" and "information."?

    I get the impression creationists throw these terms around without a clear understanding of their meaning. And I can't find a clear defintion from Dembski, either. Particularly specified and complexity.

    ["Information" is often used precisely (and usually as -k*entropy) although Dembski seems to use it differently.]

    Still, I can't see how claims like evolution is incaopable of producing information can be jsutified – or even argued – if there is no clarity in the defintions.

  • <span>So, again what is the limit that stops the sorts of changes we've observed adding up to the sorts of differences that we see?</span>

    So you claim that there is nothing to stop it? I find that this kind of statement is double standard. If claim is made by other people, it will be called negative claim and the burden of proof will be on you.

    How are we supposed to prove that there is nothing stopping the changes from adding up?

  • <span>bethyada,</span>

    It's not grammar, Dembski is trying to make a mathmatical argument it sort of matters that whether he uses those terms in thier mathmatical senses!
    <span>
    You can mutate a gene, but if it doesn't bring about new information it doesn't qualify. </span>

    Duplicate a gene. Mutate one copy so it makes a new protein, new information. See if the new mutant survives better than the wild type, new information. Find that one copy is able to preform so chemical function better than it's sister-copy, new information. All observed, all inferred to ahve happend thousands of times in our own genome.

    <span>One needs to show the ability to fly from not flying, or the production of an eye from noeye</span>

    And here you've admitted that the information thing is a complete red herring, if all you want is evidence that this or that function could have evolved then you don't need to bring 'information' into it at alll – you just need to see if there evidence that it could arise by increments, flight and sight obviously can (we can even see examples of intermediate forms in modern animals).

    I'm sure you'll disagree but I think your comment that evolution poses problems for you theological views rather gives the game away when it comes to where your objections stem from.

  • <span>Duplicate a gene. Mutate one copy so it makes a new protein, new information. </span>

    It's not new information. If you copy a book, changed some letters randomly, it does not become new book. It becomes a book with incorrect spellings that will be corrected on the next edition.

    <span>See if the new mutant survives better than the wild type, new information. Find that one copy is able to preform so chemical function better than it's sister-copy, new information.</span>

    It's like saying you could randomly mutate bits of DOS operating system and one day it could become Windows Vista. It is mathematically impossible.

  • <span>Using the word "uncreated" still means that it is a negative claim. Using silly word games to shift the burden of proof is rather childish.</span>

    You don’t refute an argument by calling people names like childish.
    But to your point,  if saying "there exists a person that is uncreated " is negative because uncreated is negative. Then the claim "there exists a person who is unlimited in knowledge, power, and virtue, has no beginning, no end and is immaterial" must be negative because unlimited, immaterial, no beginning are also negative.  Hence by your reasoning the burden of proof is on those who deny such a person exists.

    I note also you did not address my other point about skepticism. Take the claim “nothing exists” this is clearly a negative claim, hence the burden of proof must be on those who deny it and the rational default position is to assume its true until such proof is forthcoming.

    I’d be keen to know how one could argue for the existence of anything if you start with assuming nothing exists. What facts could you appeal to?

  • Hey Sid,
    1. DNA is not a computer program, or a book.
    2. The evolution of new functions from exising genes, and even RNA sequences, has been documented many, many  times.
    3. You're forgetting about selection, which is kind of the important bit…

  • Madeleine, this commenting system is a bit of a pain. Last night my comment was duplicated, so I deleted one, and now both are gone! I know you are not too happy with it either. Note it is displaying the comments in reverse time order.

    david w, DNA is not a book, but nor is a book a computer program. But they are all analogous, they carry information. DNA is probably more analogous to a computer program than a program is to a novel.

    New functions from existing genes have to be observed not inferred. The latter assumes evolution. You can't assume your conclusion in your premises.

    One has to eleidate the function of the mutated gene. Increased fitness may not be increased information. Mutation tends to lead to decreased specificity of enzyme. Our genome is not evolving, it is devolving.

    Ken, I have given a definition earlier on this thread with examples.

  • <span>I am not certain evolution is a challenge to theism, as Matt has shown theism is compatible with Darwinism even if it is not necessary. And even if evolution were true and not an argument for God, there are other reasons for the existence of God. The origin of the first cell, the origin of the universe, the existence of morality. 
     
    I think theory of evolution conflicts with Christianity, but not theism. 
     
    And information is not a red herring, it is central. "Flight from non-flight" is a generic example, "information increase" potentially allows for more precision.</span>

  • <span>The evolution of new functions from exising genes, and even RNA sequences, has been documented many, many  times. </span>

    Where?

  • Tell me about it Bethyada. Yesterday the comments were displaying in one order, today, with me doing absolutely nothing to the code, they are in reverse. The good news is that JS Kit have finally released all our comments caught in their system so it's full steam ahead to the WordPress move where such problems will no longer exist.

  • "It would have to show that there was ultimately no supernatural cause to the process that intended evolution of human life to occur."

    Presumably they also have to show there is no Martian cause in order to disprove that aliens are constantly modifying life on Earth as well.  Yoiu know full well that this sort of logic is faulty.  It is the worse sort of 'god of the gaps' logic I have seen for a while.

  • Actually I guess if all you are trying to show is that it is not "incompatible" then fair enough… but i can make up a thousand stories which are not incompatible… but so what.

  • Max

    I agree if people were to claim that 'evolution showed Martian's are not constantly modifying life on earth, then they would need a cogent argument from evolutionary theory to this conclusion.

    Of course the failure to do this does not mean Martians exist, or that they are not other reasons for thinking this is not the case. It does show however that evolutionary theory does not provide grounds for the conclusion.

  • Sid, this is likely the last comment from me, as ever the genuine scientific questions in evolution are much more intersting convincing people that it even happened at all (you guys kind of remind me of the scientists from the Empire in Asimov's Foundation books – happy to sit back and declare that this or that couldn't  happen without bothering to do such crazy things as looking at the evidence…)

    here is one page on the RNA world hypothesis which includes references to some of the key early papers, just this year we had an example of an RNA enzyme evoling into a a system that can self-replicate indefinately without the aid of anything else in the cell…

    <span>Bethyada,</span>

    <span>Increased fitness may not be increased information. Mutation tends to lead to decreased specificity of enzyme. </span>

    So, if a mutaton from A to G can decrease information then it follows the back mutation, G to A will increase it. Mutation can increase information. If specificity in that enzyme if a good thing in the present environment mutation stands a good chance of being  fixed. Evolution can increase the information in a species genome. Thank you and good night.

  • <span>full steam ahead to the WordPress move where such problems will no longer exist.</span>

    because there won't be any of this nasty JS at all? *fingers crossed*

  • because there won't be any of this nasty JS at all? *fingers crossed*

    Hell no.

    All I wanted was CommentLuv and I ended up with this nightmare and now CommenLuv no longer works and getting rid of JS Kit from my blogger template would be very difficult as its coding is riddled through the html.

    I would have moved us today but for today being one of the worst pain days I've had in a long time.

  • Matt.  I totally agree.  It is not logically incompatible.  But I am not sure if even Dawkins would disagree with that.  He would just say it is very very improbable.

    Personally I have no problem with the idea that our evolution has been guided.

    But here is an interesting thought.  Is God not also master over chance?  What does it mean for things to be 'random' in a world sustained by God.  I am not sure it a contradiction to say that a process in completely random and at the same time completely controlled by God.

    Thoughts?

  • <span>david w So, if a mutaton from A to G can decrease information then it follows the back mutation, G to A will increase it. Mutation can increase information. </span>

    I am aware of this. I wrote in an article recently:
    <ul>
    <li>Information is always the result of an intelligence</li>
    <li>Loss of information can mean improved fitness within a specific environment, that is loss of function can result in improved likelihood of survival.</li>
    <li>Lost information cannot be recovered without reintroduction of the same information (save trivial examples) by breeding or design</li>
    </ul>

    This last point mentioned trivial examples like your claim above. But usually the G to A mutation is a reversion of the previous mutation. That is you start with high information, you lose this degree of information by a minor mutation, thus you have less information. The reversion back is just to what you started with.

    But the fact that a copy of Hamlet has a minor misprint, and in photocopying the play the misprint is misprinted to look like the original word is a far cry from coming up with Hamlet from nothing!

    I stand by my claim that information does not come from non-information. Examples that show change in enzyme activity always show a decreased specificity for the substrate compared with the original enzyme and the original enzyme's substrate.

    If these examples start with high information and end up with less information, how worse is the case when you start with non-information.

    (Matt, this is getting a little off topic, let us know if this debate is for another thread).

  • <span>What does it mean for things to be 'random' in a world sustained by God.  I am not sure it a contradiction to say that a process in completely random and at the same time completely controlled by God. </span>

    I'd say "God does not play dice". Technologies have helped us see patterns in what we thought were random events. Like, migration patterns of some animals, DNA pattern, etc.

    The more we understand, the more we see that things aren't so random as we thought they were.

  • Right Sid I agree.  The processes are so complex that from our point of view we can only ever model them as though they were random – but from a God's eye view I agree that nothing would be 'random' in the way we mortals see randomness. 

    But then this is only a futile guess at what God's perception would be like.

  • Close but not exactly what I was saying.

    Throughout the history we kept discovering patterns in things we thought were random. The trend is, understanding reveals patterns, so may be when we say something is random, that just mean we don't understand it enough?

  • […] a previous post, Darwinian Evolution, Chance and Design, I argued that the contention that Darwinian evolution occurs by chance does not entail that it […]