More noodling about evolution

I recently touched on the ambiguity of “random variation” as one of the basic principles of evolution. The word “random” appears to be something of a placeholder. From the point of view of any science, it seems that random events are simply events the science doesn’t try to explain that follow a normal distribution or some such so the science can state laws by reference to their probabilities. A criminologist, for example, might have theories about the incidence and causes of crime and be able to show various correlations, but he would treat many features of actual criminal activity, whether there were 4 murders last week and 5 this week or the reverse, as simply random. He wouldn’t be impressed if you told him that murder is intentional and so not random, because his science does not deal with specific intentions of particular criminals. Nor should the rest of us be impressed if a murderer says it’s unfair to hold him responsible for what a criminologist would call a very small random fluctuation in the crime statistics.

It’s not clear to me why something similar could not apply to random variation. As a general thing, the better an instrument the more user inputs will appear random as long as the user’s specific intentions are ignored. If one of the tires on my car is low, so it pulls in that direction, the direction in which I turn the steering wheel is not random but favors the opposite direction. If I pump up the tire my interventions once again appear random. If the car had an automatic accellerator that gave gas in accordance with typical patterns of usage then whether I stepped down on the accellerator or did the reverse would also appear random, assuming once again that you ignore my intentions in the situation.

The point could be extended, apparently indefinitely. So let’s suppose—to pick the strongest case—that God plans and decides and constantly brings about absolutely everything that happens in all its details, and that he made the universe as his instrument for that purpose. Assuming the universe is a perfect instrument for the purpose, it seems that from the standpoint of someone studying its mechanism God’s constant inputs—his constant turns of the steering wheel or adjustments of the accellerator—would appear to be simply random quantum fluctuations, happenstance mutations or whatever.

So once again, I fail to understand why there has to be a dispute. To all appearances, modern natural science, including any non-metaphysical version of neo-Darwinian theory, is altogether consistent with God exercising constant personal control over everything to bring about whatever purposes he might have. So far as I can tell it is also consistent with our knowing that to be the case, although by means other than modern natural science, just as we can know, by means other than the science of criminology, why Tom killed Dick and Harry. You just decline to take modern natural science as a comprehensive description of all knowable reality, which it can’t be in any case, and find other reasonable ways to make up your mind about things science doesn’t cover.

27 thoughts on “More noodling about evolution”

  1. Chaos Theory
    It is true that randomness became a questionable concept in the 1960’s because of the genius of people I cannot recall since I read Chaos over 10 years earlier. Perhaps it is like the ether (which has actually regained some respectability in the past decade).

    For those unaware, Chaos Theory holds that many apparently chaotic/random events actually are discoverable patterns that can be predicted statistically. So the exact motion of whirlpools are predicatable. A butterfly flaps its wings in China, and we receive a hurricane in the Gulf of Mexico; we just lack the knowledge to predict this “random” event.

    • Yes, it seems
      Yes, it seems “randomness” is a very difficult concept, and something on which there is little agreement in science. Its use in Darwinism is telling. In quantum mechanics, which relies heavily on statistical analysis, physicists use the term “uncertainty” rather than “randomness.” The “uncertainty” does not refer to nature, it refers to our capacity to predict.

      There are alternatives to random variation in evolutionary theory. For example, Mae Wan Ho, an English biologist, posits a biology of free will, in which organisms respond to their environment and participate in their own evolutionary path.

      A short quote from Mae Wan Ho:

      “The organism is indeed free from mechanical determinism, but it does not thereby fall prey to indeterminacy. Far from surrendering its fate to the indeterminacy of nonlinear dynamics (or quantum theory, for that matter), the organism maximizes its opportunities inherent in the multiplicity of futures available to it. I have argued elsewhere that indeterminacy is really the problem of the ignorance of the external observer, and not experienced by the being itself, who has full knowledge of its own state, and can readily adjust, respond and act in the most appropriate manner (Ho, 1993). In a very real sense, the organism is free to decide its own fate because it is a sentient being who has moment to moment, up-to-date knowledge of its own internal milieu as well as the external environment.”

      • Really Bad Theorist
        She is a nominalist. There is no biology of free will. Biology is the study of living organisms. Free will is not a study but a fact or an idea that human beings have choices. She tries to conflate ideas that just don’t go together except in some undefined language. I can’t believe people get paid for such musings. She needs to deal in the here and now and leave philosophical musings to experts.

        • Philosophical Musings
          Do Darwinists engage in “philosophical musings?”

          The question answers itself.

          In any case, the issue is not whether her theories are good, bad, or indifferent; the point is that she is theorizing at all.

          She is not alone; others are theorizing about some of the unresolved issues of evolution; see for example, the intellectual hodge podge at: See also Stove’s humorous skewering of Darwinism

          We could assume every proposed theory is wrong. But so what? At least people are thinking.

          In “A Brief History of Time,” Hawking recounts a variety of theories to address the singularity at the beginning of the universe (I’m sure there have been several more since the book’s publication). The point is that most of the theories were wrong, and some were monstrously wrong. Hawking, as a physicist, takes this state of affairs in stride, and merely recounts the give and take of mistake after mistake. To participate in this kind of thinking is to make mistakes.

          • Hawking Musings
            Thank you for the discussion of a book I have read years earlier (as if that were an excuse). I don’t recall much from his book, so I admit to ignorance. I enjoyed it although I was mostly clueless. I am not a mathematician, and his ideas are mostly mathematical although he tried to explain in English. My grandfather was a mathematical (especially geometric) genius, but I did not inherit.

            Oh you are so right. We don’t have it right and can only pursue what is right (true).

            Evolution, as far as I can tell, is inscrutable. Not that it will be forever so. You no doubt are aware of Chaos Theory; who would have known?


          • Unimportant Comments
            My granddad was a gifted, strange, and extremely selfish man. Fifty-eight years after he graduated high school (over two generations later), his high school held a grand celebration of his genius. He never invited or told his four beautiful daughters about it. He got the gold star in every subject he took. He tried to go to Tulane University to study engineering, but his professor told him he was wasting his time; he could be the professor. I suppose he was another “Beautiful Mind.” But he did not pursue an academic career. He was interested in money and holding on to it. So he built many landmark buildings as a contractor.

            Before that, he had an excellent job during the depression, but he let his four pretty, loving, little daughters go hungry, endure a tramp mother who was never home, and wait 14-hour days sitting in his office (more at home) before giving them money to buy shoes, which they had to stuff with newspaper to reduce water intrusion. Another of many examples—my 8-year old mother had to wash and press the same dress everyday. Another: if one of them fell and hurt themselves, the parents would say, “that’s good for you, you must have done something wrong.” This is a twisted idea that some Catholics used to profess. Oh, my granddad never missed Sunday Mass. I could go on and on and on about his grossness.

            I suppose the relevance is although some of the comments are interesting, they are unimportant to the here and now. The parts of evolution theory impenetrable to most of us just will never help my mother or her sisters or future families.

          • More Comments
            Lest anyone doubt my story, I will prove it if challenged since two of the four sisters are living. If I had talent, I would have a huge amount of material to write a screenplay for an independent film. I love Indies.

            I love my deceased grandmother despite her history thanks to my mother, who never told me these things until my grandmother died. Maw Maw was never a mother, but she was a real, doting grandmother. I still feel guilty for not visiting her enough.

            All the Best,


      • Sentient Being?
        Ms. Ho (no pun intended) says, “the organism is free to decide its own fate because it is a sentient being.” I don’t know her definition of sentient being. Does she refer to man, aware beings, or to the prokaryotic (bacterial) ability to respond to external stimuli, which is part of the definition of life? If she includes bacteria as beings, she belongs, at best, in an academic periodical that only academics read and not in a discussion here. This is like discussing a mathematics or a physics journal—impenetrable to the ungifted.

  2. Which Fortuna?
    I suspect that one’s approach to randomness reflects whether one thinks of Fortuna as that pious demigod from Boethius’s On the Consolation of Philosophy, or as that fickle strumpet from Orff’s Carmina Burana. The more annoying atheist popularizers tend to favor the latter view. I remember one anthropology professor who habitually tied evolutionary theory into his existential despair.

    • Wittgenstein
      I suspect you need to consult the master. Your response is gibberish even if it it is somewhat in English. You do not intend to communicate but to show off. Get with it. Write to communicate or don’t write.

      All the Best,


  3. I don’t doubt Darwinism but Darwinism can also be narrow-minded
    The log entry and the comments, for example Paul Henri’s of 7/20, 1:36am, nicely show how the possibility of ultimate purposes (nay, the certainty of them in the eyes of those with religious faith) may call true randomness into question, at least in some circumstances: no mortal of course knows what ultimateness for us entails but ultimateness may be the “key” that unlocks the interpretation of seemingly random events as purposeful instead.

    We can’t know ultimateness. We can only try to “know” it through faith (“know” here being in quotes because it refers to a kind of knowing different from usual).

    If you ask half a group of fifty motorcyclists starting off together to always bear left at forks in the road and half to always bear right, the paths they take at the first fork in the road will appear, to an onlooker unaware of the instructions they got, indistinguishable from a random outcome, twenty-five taking each fork. The purposefulness underlying that apparent randomness won’t be revealed until each group of riders comes to the next fork in the road.

    The words of biologist Mae Wan Ho quoted in MD’s comment seem to raise legitimate issues in this regard:

    “I have argued elsewhere that indeterminacy is really the problem of the ignorance of the external observer, and not experienced by the being itself, who has full knowledge of its own state, and can readily adjust, respond and act in the most appropriate manner (Ho, 1993).”

    (I certainly understand Paul Henri’s criticism of Mae Wan Ho’s notion of lower forms of life as being sentient. But I think Ho has in mind a different sort of sentience.)

    Long live free Flanders!

  4. Sailer today on part of the real meaning of the Scopes Trial
    Steve Sailer, in a log entry up this morning:

    “What’s most important to understand is that Bryan was highly concerned about the popular misuses of Darwinism, such as Social Darwinism and eugenics, especially by self-proclaimed Nietzscheites like Darrow, Mencken and Leopold & Loeb. Bryan was deeply worried about the spread of vulgarized Nietzscheism, […] All this, of course, is unfair to Nietzsche, as well, who would have been appalled by the misuse of his philosophy. But that’s no reason to ignore the fact that the Scopes monkey trial was about far more than pure science.

    That last link in the excerpt was added by me: where William Jennings Bryan’s involvement in the Scopes Monkey Trial was involved, there certainly was more than just pure science at issue. Bryan was a towering, multifaceted political figure in his day, and prairie populism was a huge groundswell movement during the three decades or so that preceded the outbreak of World War I. In the link the poet Vachel Lindsay tries to give a feel for the effect which Bryan and prairie populism had on people in those days, and what it meant to people back then was certainly a part—a non-scientific part, of course—of what was at issue in many ordinary people’s minds with the Scopes Trial, though that trial took place after the W. J. Bryan phenomenon had already peaked and begun to decline (in one sense, Bryan was viewed as defending ordinary people and what they held dear against the financial and cultural depredations of Northeastern élites; in a sense, obviously, that fight still continues today, though in different form):

    “And all the way to frightened Maine the old East heard them call,
    And saw our Bryan by a mile lead the wall
    Of men and whirling flowers and beasts,
    The bard and the prophet of them all.
    Prairie avenger, mountain lion,
    Bryan, Bryan, Bryan, Bryan,
    Gigantic troubadour, speaking like a siege gun,
    Smashing Plymouth Rock with his boulders from the West,
    And just a hundred miles behind, tornadoes piled across the sky,
    Blotting out sun and moon,
    A sign on high.”


    Long live free Flanders!

    • I’ve always liked Bryan…
      … he was a good man, who unfortunately for him, was swimming against the tide of history, alas. No matter; God will vindicate him…

      “Destiny is no matter of chance. It is a matter of choice. It is not a thing to be waited for, it is a thing to be achieved.”

      William Jennings Bryan
      US lawyer, orator, & politician (1860 – 1925)

  5. If you think God’s name is Jehovah you’re wrong. It’s Darwin.
    THOUGHT FOR THE DAY [posted today over at The Ambler:]

    “The Darwinian fundamentalists … cling to their absolutist position with all the unyielding certitude with which Southern Baptists assert the literal truth of the Book of Genesis or Wahabi Muslims proclaim the need for a universal jihad against ‘the Great Satan.’ At a revivalist meeting of Darwinians two or three years ago, I heard the chairman, the fiction-writer Ian McEwan, call out, ‘Yes, we do think God is an old man in the sky with a beard, and his name is Charles Darwin.’ I doubt if there is a historical precedent for this investment of so much intellectual and emotional capital, by so many well-educated and apparently rational people, in the work of a single scientist.”—Paul Johnson

    Long live free Flanders!

  6. God, Darwin, and my speculative, amateur theology
    I was pleased to find this as it made me feel less stupid. About a year after this post, I made a similar argument at VFR (not all of it was posted):

    “Isn’t God beyond the reach of Darwin ? I know your problem with Darwinism is that it states that the process and direction of life is random. But isn’t it just apparently random from our limited human perspective (the only perspective scientists can approach it from) ? I submit that no amount of progress by Darwinians can touch the God of the Bible. He is eternal, beyond time, space, the beginning and the end. Can’t life be a stochastic model that God wrote where he knows the general outcome (the highest creation is man) ? I have worked with folks who authored monte carlo computer models that produced an answer that could be arrived at deterministically. Couldn’t God have done the same thing with the stochastic input and residual randomness in the output appearing random to man (from his limited perspective) ?”

    The (admittedly clumsy and limited) example I was thinking about was a computer model that uses stochastic input and generates an approximate output, say the area or volume of a geometic figure. The exact answer could be arrived at through Calculus. But the stochastic-derived approximation has residual randomness in the answer. Couldn’t the Theistic equivalent of this residual randomness be the reason why we aren’t biomechanical robots or puppets controlled by God? Since He is omnipoent and beyond time and space and all we can possibly comprehend, He could see all that is to be but could have chose to leave residual randomness in the model.

    At the time I hadn’t thought about this, but it appears my treatment makes God sound more “hands off” than I think orthodox Christianity and Mr. Kalb’s “God’s constant inputs” does. Of course, the “random” input might have been determined in the beginning or God might decide here and there to change the input or whatever. It’s not for us to know. But I do have a question. Is a relatively “hands-off” God compatible with orthodox Christianity? Mr. Auster gave an example which made me think so:

    “A truer understanding is shown in the Lord’s Prayer: “Thy will be done on earth, as it is in heaven.” The petition implies that in the usual course of things, God’s will is not done on earth.”

    He also repeats this basic point about the Lord’s Prayer in several other VFR posts.

    God told us that he made us from the earth.

    • Divine laissez faire?
      I don’t think a completely “hands off” God is compatible with Christianity. It doesn’t seem to sit well with the Incarnation or the Resurrection for example, or for that matter our knowledge of God as personal. The creation of real things and our status as real agents who make real choices with real consequences does seem to indicate though that He’s “hands off” in the usual course.

      Rem tene, verba sequentur.

      • Then I would guess that
        Then I would guess that orthodox Christianity allows one to be relatively agnostic or speculative as to the exact degree or details of God’s involvement as long as it’s not a laissez faire God. At some point, it becomes impossible to do any more than speculate no matter how much knowledge we gain. What’s revealed to us is God’s will. Maybe the rest is none of our business.

      • God’s will

        Does your statement about God’s will square with Mr. Kalb’s statement: “The creation of real things and our status as real agents who make real choices with real consequences does seem to indicate though that He’s “hands off” in the usual course.”

        Does anyone know if the historic Church has had an orthodox or consistent teaching on this subject or has it been open to debate?

        • God’s will III
          I read Mr. Kalb’s comment to relate to our moral agency as creatures of God; in other words, we have “free will” and we have the responsibility for the content and exercise of that will.

          My comment was directed at a different existential level—that God’s will (in its goodness) establishes the conditions in which creatures like us can make sense of the world and ourselves. So long as God’s will “be done on earth,” we will be surrounded by and embedded in rationality, continuity, and coherence—we will be able to understand each other and our environment . In other words, we can enjoy the fruits of God’s goodness merely by participating in the Creation. Our faith will have an evident context. We will understand justice the same way on Friday as we did on Tuesday, and rocks won’t become gases on every other Wednesday, and all triangles will have three sides.

          As for your question, I interpret it to ask if the Church has some position on the general question of God’s relation to the Creation. I suspect Aquinas is the authority on this, although he doesn’t have a monopoly.

          It just so happens that Mr. Kalb tipped me off to a discussion of Aquinas, which includes his general treatment of Creation, not long ago and it gives some indications of how Aquinas thought about it.

          I defer to Mr. Kalb on the “orthodox position” question.

          • Mr. Kalb’s “The creation of
            Mr. Kalb’s “The creation of real things” made me think that he was talking about more than just our free agency.

            Rephrase my question. Is the frequency of God’s “inputs” debatable or did the Church settle it at some point? I want to know if my thoughts are heretical.

            The original discussion context was evolution but I guess another context could be Auster’s “God and the Tsunami” discussion with Heather MacDonald. So someone like MacDonald might ask “Are tsunamis God’s will or residual randomness in the model of creation?” The Darwinist might ask “Did God will the gamma ray that dislodged the base pair?” or “Does God will birth defects and trisomy?”

            Perhaps the modern, reductionist mindset is to blame here. Not only reducing God to will as MD suggests, but reducing His will to that which we personally experience or that which our limited minds and senses can grasp.

            Most of the Lord’s Prayer seems to be a series of requests so I guess the question is when in the prayer does the list begin? I’m not very good at dissecting and analyzing scripture.

          • God’s inputs
            I think the question’s mostly debatable apart from extreme positions (e.g., the clockmaker God or views that collapse the distinction between the positive and permissive will of God).

            Rem tene, verba sequentur.

          • Aquinas and God’s will
            Being no Aquinas scholar, I can’t vouch for the accuracy of this characterization of Aquinas’ views, but this is what Garver says about Aquinas’ view of the relation of God’s will to the particular actions and events of creation:

            “Another corollary of Thomas’ teaching on analogy is that the creation itself has its own integrity as a created whole so that creation itself explains further things within it. God effectively wills all that happens to happen as it does, but not in such a way that that the true secondary causation among creatures and free choices of intelligent beings are in any way compromised (how that precisely works out is another matter to be addressed at another time). Thus, while it is true that in one sense “God causes the change of seasons” it is more accurate to say that “God causes the world, with its changing seasons, to be,” allowing thereby for the full participation of all the created powers, secondary causes, and potentialities of the created order their proper role. While all things exist and continue to exist by the direct power of God, they are caused to exist, with all the qualities that they exhibit and exercise, in such a way that it is truly those things that do what they do and not that God makes them do what they do by a power that is extrinsic and external to them.”


          • theodicy
            Bruce wrote:

            “The original discussion context was evolution but I guess another context could be Auster’s “God and the Tsunami” discussion with Heather MacDonald. So someone like MacDonald might ask “Are tsunamis God’s will or residual randomness in the model of creation?” The Darwinist might ask “Did God will the gamma ray that dislodged the base pair?” or “Does God will birth defects and trisomy?” ‘

            Part of these questions go to Leibniz’s position: “God created the best of all possible worlds,” and its associated discussion. Did God create the best of all possible worlds, or could have he done better? And, what are the criteria for “best”?


            Another part raises the questions of theodicy, about which there is a long and voluminous literature.

            Finally, questions like “Does God will birth defects and trisomy” suggest that God has an arbitrary will, to which we and all of creation are irrationally subject. It is to this fear that the prayer (or affirmation) “thy will be done on earth” is addressed, as I said above. The Christian belief that God’s will and its effects are an incident of his love and intellect relieve the former pagan anxiety of an irrational, arbitrary cosmos, and obviate the accompanying fatalism.

    • God’s will
      I can appreciate Auster’s reading of the Lord’s prayer, but I disagree with it.

      I read it to say: “Thy will be done on earth (as a gift to us and as an affirmation of an intelligible universe).”

      If God’s will were not done on earth, then we would be living in an arbitrary cosmos, subject to irrational forces and fates (in other words, in the world of the pagans). This affirmation also entails the belief that God is rational (in fact, the source and guarantor of all rationality) and that the rational and grace are co-implicated in Creation.

      Just one added note: I am suspicious of reducing God to “will” and our experience or knowledge of God as an experience of his will (and the proof texting of one passage of the Lord’s Prayer can lead in this direction). My resistance goes back primarily to Duns Scotus, who was the first to do this in a systematic way, and erected the image of a God with an arbitrary will (and leading to such inanities such as “Can God make 2+2=5?” or “Can God create a rock too heavy for God to lift?” and so forth).

  7. More amateur theology.
    MD’s “The Christian belief that God’s will and its effects are an incident of his love and intellect …..obviate the accompanying fatalism” sounds like the orthodox understanding to me and a fundamental of the faith.

    To my embarrassment, I was not aware that the Church made a distinction between the positive and permissive will of God. I would think that such a distinction might support both Auster’s and MD’s reading of the Lord’s Prayer. That it’s both an affirmation that God’s positive (and maybe permissive?) will is reasonable and loving and a petition for God’s positive will (rather than his permissive will) to be done as it is in heaven.

    I think such a distinction (positive and permissive will) also supports the idea that non-metaphysical Darwinism isn’t incompatible with orthodox Christianity.

    Please let me know if I’m missing something here.

    • Darwin
      I’m not familiar with the details, but as far as I know the RCC adopted a position of neutrality with respect to some form of Darwinian or neo-Darwinian evolution, with one exception: the human soul is not subject to evolutionary process.

      I haven’t read the Church’s position on this matter; I take this information second-hand, having read it in an article in First Things.

      I also understand that the RCC does not require its members to believe in any kind of material evolutionary process.

      I cite to Wikipedia, with the usual disclaimers:

  8. Kant and Darwin
    I can agree with what you say, but as Phillip Johnson has observed Darwinian theory is committed to a metaphysics of philosophical naturalism.

    Being committed to naturalism, Darwinism must insist that the psuedo-concept of “randomness” be reified into a natural phenomenon with explanatory power.

    Having claimed the explanatory domain, other explanations (such as you propose) are either redundant or merely unnecessary.

    Insofar as Darwinism (or neo-Darwinism) limits itself to the description of phenomena, it’s perfectly adequate and unobjectionable. It encounters problems when it leaves this descriptive domain and purports to enter the domain of explanation.

    This conceptual move had been considered prior to Darwin, and had been rejected, most notably by Kant in his Critique of Judgment (as summarized by Voegelin):

    “Kant’s argument that the theory of evolution merely shifts the real origin of the species back to the origin of evolution not only takes the theory of evolution to its logical conclusion but also destroys it as meaningless as far as its explanatory purpose is concerned. It does not explain what it was intended to explain, in fact, it explains just as little as Leibniz’ principle of continuity or Herder’s or Goethe’s idea of morphological kinship.

    The kinship relationships of the living world are primary phenomena just as the life of the species and the life of the individual organism are primary phenomena, which one can see or not, but there is nothing about them that needs to be explained. The primary phenomenon of life becomes visible in a threefold way: in the living individual, in the species, and in the interconnectedness of the entire living world. It is impossible to use a part of this phenomenon to explain the same phenomenon in another of its manifestations.

    The life of the individual cannot be explained through the life of the species, as the theory of series has attempted to do; the life of the species cannot be explained by the totality of the phenomenon of life, as the theory of evolution attempts to do; and the totality of the phenomenon of life can most definitely not be explained through the laws of non-living nature. In the substantially genuine movement of the spirit, the theory of evolution has come to an end in the Critique of Judgment— although in the history of derivative theories on this issue, theories that move ever farther away from the center of the spirit, evolutionary theory did not flourish until the following century.

    Kant appended a note to his radical destruction of the explanatory value of any theory of evolution in which he conceded that the fact of bodily kinship was not impossible. It was not, he remarked, totally absurd and a priori impossible that, for example, certain water animals might gradually evolve into marsh animals and, after some further generations, into land animals. “However, experience gives no example of it; according to experience, all generation that we know is generatio homonyma. This is not merely univoca in contrast to the generation out of unorganized material, but it brings forth a product that is in its very organization like the one that produced it; and generatio heteronyma, so far as our empirical knowledge of nature extends, is found nowhere.” This sentence, written in 1790, still applies word for word today; biology has nothing to add to it. ”

    David Stove—the agnostic contrarian—also skewered Darwinism, for its extravagant claims and its logical fallacies, although is conclusion differed from Kant; to Stove, natural selection is a fairy tale.

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