Evolution and Poker

Continuing the previous discussion so as not to derail the other thread…

No, certainly not, that is nearly the opposition of what I was trying to illustrate with my analogy…evolution broadly understood doesn’t need royal flushes or anything close… anything that improves relative fitness in an incremental fashion is reasonable, like my illustration of swapping cards… if you have a pair, you don’t need to get a royal flush to see an improvement. My analogous “evolution” here simply needs any improvement. If you have a pair of 3s, a 6, a 9, and a Jack, swapping out the 6 for a 7 would “improve fitness”, and could be a legitimate stepwise improvement.

But what this illustrates is one very core difficulty I have with the way many conceive of evolution. I hear people say, in effect, “see! see! There is a stepwise path to some certain complexity.” And to be sure, there may well be. But that doesn’t answer my doubt.

As discussed in the other post, if we started with a the hand above… let’s say (3,3,6,9,J)…yes, it is conceivable for my stepwise evolution simulator to arrive at a royal straight (let’s keep out flushes just to simplify things)…


So sure, that pathway exists. But the relevant question is still the likelihood of that particular outcome compared to all the others.

So just for fun, I tried this simulation again (with a real deck of cards and a die), and set myself up for success by starting each time with a 4-J-Q-K-A. I ended up with:

All I needed was a “10” to show up to randomly replace that first card… but my die rolls and random cards, this experiment at least, kept giving me pairs in the other cards, which the rules of this evolution simulation found more “fit” than an “almost” straight, and we’d be on the evolutionary path to 4ofakind. I ended up with…


Even setting up an almost straight… but five times, five failures to get that royal straight, because alternate incremental pathways that lead to something else “very good” are more numerous than the paths that lead to our royal straight.

So when I observe some biological feature which is stunning and intricately complex, the biological equivalent of a royal straight, it doesn’t help me if someone says, “but there is an evolutionary path that could lead there.” Fine, let’s assume there is. But we must have some sense as to how likely or unlikely it is for blind chance to have stumbled upon that particular pathway. If the odds are 1/2, then this may well be a legitimate explanation. If 1/10^30, then this is hardly a good explanation.

And if we don’t know, then it is simply presumptuous to claim it is or is not a good explanation.

The fact I see so many evolution sympathizers jumping on these explanations and dismissing the question of probability is worthy what strengthens my skepticism.

If I understand your objection correctly (and if you don’t mind me mixing in different metaphors midstream here), you’re noting that, since evolution can’t see it’s long-term goal (the royal flush or straight off as a distant mountain peak to aim for) it meanwhile just tries to improve on “where it’s at” which may involve ascending to a lesser peak (a better hand, but not the gold), and once it is there it would have to ‘back down’ off that peak again in order to reach another higher peak. Is that also a fair comparison for the difficulty you see?

It’s been a while since I’ve read it, but I think you would really benefit from Dawkins’ book “Climbing Mt. Improbable” where he provides extensive discussions for how something like an ‘eye’ might be arrived at incrementally. Of course this is already way past the abiogenesis question and presumes life already in place (I don’t recall that he particularly addresses abiogenesis). But as far as evolutionary pathways for already existing life, it is a wonderfully educational read that gets at just this type of stuff we’re discussing. You have to set aside any of his embarrassing anti-religion nonsense that finds its way in of course, but that topic is obviously not his strength like the mere science is. I have learned a lot from his work … “River Out of Eden” as well.

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Additional mountain metaphor is precisely the point, yes, another good analogy… I’d only add that my real issue with it is that you turned a blind mountain climber loose - with instructions that he can only go up, never down - in a terrain that had no less than 100,000 different peaks. If you came back two days later and found him calmly eating lunch at the top of that one highest peak, you might rightly suspect he had some additional assistance of some form or fashion.

I will indeed put the Dawkins book on my ever growing reading list… hopefully will get to it in the next 15 years or so… but realize I start reading Dawkins rather dubiously… this the same Dawkins that seriously proffered his “METHINKS IT IS LIKE A WEASEL” program without noticing he had intelligent intent and teleology built into his program… never noticing he was actually proffering an excellent analogy for intelligent design…

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I thought Jay’s suggestion of Yahtzee as a game that more aptly fit the process of evolution was a good one. Yahtzee captures the element of opportunism and next steps inherent in evolution.

I agree with Daniel that it is hard to envision evolution as a reliable engine for arriving at teleologically pre-determined ends.

Yeah … whenever Dawkins starts going toward philosophy/religion/teleology questions he tends to go off the rails, and I’m with you that he is certainly not a trustworthy resource on the bigger questions. So my recommendation is definitely qualified - his evolutionary science (and the science only) is where I think he shines.

But what happens if the variability involved in any population results in changing the mountain peak you are on. Or a mutation occurs that pushes you off the mountain peak. Or the environment changes. What was once a mountain peak can become a valley and you are off looking for another mountain.


Thanks for the thoughts… someone may briefly have to give me specific basics of how Yahtzee is played, and what is analogous here. I won’t have time to hunt down the rules and learn them myself anytime soon…

But the basics are that if selection choices are made based on what is immediately beneficial, regardless of considerations toward final arrangement or score, there could be something analogous… if a player makes each or any selection with any consideration being made to a final or distant score, arrangement, or the like, I will probably not find such a comparison convincing.

Hi Daniel -

You have heard of neutral mutations and neutral evolution, right?

Also, every population is climbing dozens, maybe even hundreds or thousands of peaks simultaneously. I say this because most populations have thousands of genes which influence thousands of characteristics, which in turn means thousands of mountain ranges. And populations often engage in a kind of coopetition with one another, as for example the microbiota in your very own digestive system that manufacture all sorts of important vitamins and antifungals and whatnot. And then you might get diverticulitis, and those little critters in your gut become your worst enemies!

In other words, the fitness landscape is orders of magnitude more complex than your analogy, and moreover it is constantly changing as cooperating populations, competing populations, and the environment change. There are always lots of new mountains to climb. Thus it is vital for populations to have a means of adaptation. This is accomplished through changing alliances with neighboring populations, sexual reproduction, horizontal gene transfer, and genetic mutation.

Biologists, please correct anything I have misunderstood or omitted.


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Beginners would only consider the immediately beneficial move. But why do you think evolution does this? Evolution doesn’t think of course but sometimes the changes made are not immedately beneficial and in fact can sometimes be mildly detramental or just neutral, but with changes in the environment or other changes in the genes the initial change can become beneficial.

Two comments. First, we generally have no reason to think that evolution is reaching globally optimum peaks, since we have no idea what those are. Second, our intuitions about exploring fitness landscapes come from 3-d analogies like climbing mountains, and those intuitions can be seriously off, since real fitness landscapes are of very high dimension. One feature of high dimensional landscapes (or so I gather) is that peaks are typically much more connected than in our 3-d cartoons. Also, neutral variation in a population opens up much larger parts of the adaptive landscape than is searchable from a single genomic starting point (see various work by Andreas Wagner, in particular his book Arrival of the Fittest).


What do you think was his intention with this program?

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His intention, I believe, was to show that an unguided, unintelligent process could naturally select for some otherwise improbable and complex result by the repeated introduction of variation and subsequent selection and accumulation of those variations that “benefitted” the process, according to a certain standard of “fitness.”

Thus why I think it supremely ironic that he used a method that rather demonstrated intelligent design theory. He demonstrated (quite well, indeed), that an otherwise unguided and seemingly random process could arrive at extremely unlikely yet very useful outcomes when that outcome is preprogrammed and frontloaded into the process by a purposeful, intelligent agent.

In short, he demonstrated that random variation can in fact achieve remarkable outcomes when guided by an intelligent agent. But I doubt this was his intention…

Forgive me for going back to my favorite illustration, but it is just something I have at least some familiarity with…

But in our military research, we have some goals and ideas for what “globally optimum peaks” are in terms of the technology behind aquatic sonar, particularly in the HF range. Enough to know that when we examine what dolphins do, we are like cavemen trying to make sense of the cockpit of a 747.

We are seeking certain peaks in technology that are ridiculously difficult, given the speed of sound in water, the signal to noise discrimination, the very precise discrimination of very minute return angles of sound echos, etc., etc. our best HF can tell us, essentially, “yes, it looks like… something is there.”

But being able to detect a single shrimp… much less discriminate between a large and jumbo shrimp at significant distance, is not even in our wildest dreams. In our world at least, that would certainly be “globally optimum.” And in this case at least, I would argue that evolution has achieved what we would certainly describe as a globally optimum peak, a peak we aren’t remotely close to.

Appreciate your and others qualifications about changing terrain, etc. this is a most necessary qualification, so I apologize if my illustration suggested there is only one peak and no variation is possible after that. Of course certain peaks themselves can theoretically become the new “base camp” for new variation, etc., especially as the landscape changes… and this I fully accept for wide ranges and aspects of evolutionary variation.

However, for the particular achievements that depend on a series of proverbial royal flushes, I find it unconvincing… perhaps another game illustrates… have you ever seen this “maze” game…?

One could say that the marble itself found its way to the finish purely by following basic blind laws of physics… inertia, gravity, etc. but that it was the “
Constantly shifting “changing landscape” that helped it achieve what otherwise would have been an otherwise remarkable and extremely unlikely path…

When I played this game some 30 years ago, it was very likely for the ball to go into hole 1-4. Now yes, one could argue that making it to the royal flush of the finish line is just a matter of the changing landscape…

When I think of the technology behind dolphin sonar, I could conceivably imagine all these variations happening just right “simply” because of variations in environment that helped select certain traits, shapes, organs, and all the rest… but only if someone was so intelligently and finely tuning ridiculously minute and intentional changes to the environment that would help the ball navigate all the countless other dead ends and alternate pathways, and so that blind evolution “just happened” to navigate that maze and arrive at the technology these animals currently utilize…

If Christian theology is right …
and God upholds all things …
and has designed the “fixed laws of nature” …

then nothing about the variation or natural selection in earth’s biosphere would be outside of His purview and design.

Does this make sense to you, @Daniel_Fisher?

Hope you find this helpful,

Appreciated…God upholds and orders all things, to be sure, and I’m the Calvinist that believes these things probably more firmly than most here. However, there is a point where, I simply don’t find God’s overarching guidance of all things to be an adequate explanation… it is a basic question about how we can tell if anything in creation is intelligently ordered or explicable solely by natural causes…

if I had happened to have been there when a voice cried out, “This is my beloved Son,” I would have taken issue with anyone who claimed that those sounds were entirely and completely explicable by the natural variation that happens within the fixed laws of nature that God designed, and that we need not attribute those sounds in any way whatsoever to some sort of “direct” intervention on God’s part or to any sort of intelligent agency whatsoever; rather that these sounds are entirely and completely explicable by the laws of nature as God upholds them. I’m afraid I would say that, whatever natural means God used, the fact that the sound waves at that moment happened to correspond to the very same waves that made an intelligible language simply could not be attributed to the regular variation within natural laws alone. There had to have been some additional, intelligent, helping hand involved.

Or, imagine if we had been there watching the original ten commandments being carved into stone (“by God’s hand.”)… perhaps we could attribute the actual carving itself to some sort of natural phenomenon that was under God’s purview, entirely explicable by the regular laws of nature you mention. Perhaps lightning, erosion, lava, sandblasting, natural brittle flaking from the rock, some combination of all of those…all occurring as could happen under the natural variation and progression of natural laws, whatever. This I would have no issue with. But, once that process was done, if we looked at the stones and examined the dozens of Hebrews words & sentences themselves (whatever natural means got them there), and you insisted that the words themselves were explicable simply by the basic laws of the universe that God himself wrote, sustained, and upholds, at that point I would demur. natural forces, following the natural variation that God wrote into the universe and which he upholds, in and of themselves, can certainly be a completely adequate explanation for scratches in rocks. They are not an adequate explanation for Hebrew sentences.

Similarly (and to the point of this post), if we were playing poker, and you wound up with a royal flush every single time you dealt, I’m afraid, yes, I would not attribute this remarkable occurrence to the fact that this completely possible natural variation within the deck of cards is explicable entirely given God’s purview and design of nature’s laws and his upholding all things.

Rather, I’d still suggest you were cheating… :open_mouth:

Or, consider one more thought. I agree of course with everything you said above…

Nonetheless, if you were speaking with some SETI scientists who were proudly explaining to you they picked up a signal that they clearly felt could not have been produced by natural phenomena, and which clearly (to them) bore all the hallmarks of intelligent agency…

I doubt you would remind them that, because God upholds all things, including the laws of nature, that nothing about the natural variation of radio signals is outside of God’s purview and design, thus they ought abandon even any consideration that said signal could be the result of intentional intelligent agency, no…?

In the case of dolphin sonar, there is one respect in which it is pretty straightforward: the advantage of each minute improvement in the dolphin’s hearing/sonar abilities would be immediately relevant to its welfare. Even human hearing is sufficient for a certain basic level of echolocation (see the blind skateboarder) and the basic traits of being able to make high-pitched noises and honing a sense of hearing for hunting in a watery environment need no special pleading.

Keep in mind too that the circuitous path taken to the dolphin’s present-day excellence may not represent the best route it could have taken, just the route it did take. You don’t want to fall into the trap of seeing something complicated and believing intricacy is a sign of intelligence. Sometimes true genius is in simplicity. :smile:

But I do know what you mean, I’ve stared at my biology textbooks and wondered how…? I think one big difference between new technology and new biology is that technology tends to be very feature-focused—how can I make it bigger, faster, add more bells and whistles? While those things almost wind up being incidental to the massive part of the work that goes on biologically, most of which is about making us robust to whatever unexpected things happen to a creature. Damage repair, redundancy so that losing the use of one eye or ear or leg doesn’t crash the system, making sure we can survive famine or falls or swim to shore. And most of that work was done long before we started tottering around on two legs.

That’s why I never think it’s weird that evolution took so long perfecting a single cell before multicellular life expanded, or spent so long with just insects or fish or lizards or anything else. It only makes sense that all the stuff under our hood that we take for granted would take the better part of the history of the world to get right.

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The SETI scientist situation is not hypothetical. The scientific community always reserves judgment on SETI anomalies. So far, almost all the anomalies have been explained, and there is no reason to think that the trend will not continue.

You will no doubt find these anecdotes interesting:


Sure. But we do not believe that God spoke out audibly at the Jordan because of scientific observations being made today. Instead, we believe in this miracle and others because of the testimony, preserved in the Scripture, of those who observed them.

There is not a single miracle cited in the Scripture that I believe in because of scientific observations being made today. In every case, I believe in those miracles because of the eyewitness testimony, and because of my personal encounter with Christ.

Since we’re “dealing” (hehe!) with analogies, let’s change the analogy so that it’s a little bit more like biology. Suppose we’re at a casino, and the mechanical card shuffler deals me 10 better-than-average hands in a row. What conclusions would you make about me and the machine?

Another analogy that is more akin to the subject we are discussing is the weather. Suppose the National Hurricane Center says that there is a less than 5% chance that even a small slice of Alabama will experience tropical storm force winds. But then Dothan gets hit with 2 minutes of wind at 35 knots at the very edge of the storm. Do we regard the winds as proof that God intervened in favor of the politician who warned Alabama residents to watch out? Or is it just one more meteorological phenomenon that we affirm is ultimately in God’s providence, but we can’t draw any conclusions about God’s intentions from the 2 minutes of 35 knot winds?


That is well within the expected statistical distribution, I believe, to the degree that, given enough iterations, such an occurrence is nearly bound to happen. In just a hundred coin tosses it is extremely likely to get 6 of the same in a row, if I recall? People win the lottery, too. Given the number of people buying tickets, even against lottery odds, someone is bound to win the lottery before long.

And that really is the crux of the question… if we take the rules of probability, natural laws, and principle(s) of natural selection, and add to all that a single fortuitously generated self-replicating molecule and all the energy and resources it needs… is sentient intelligent life, with all the capabilities of love, literature, communication, reading comprehension, music appreciation, music performance, composition, poetry, morality, mathematics, engineering, science, logic, and the like a practically foregone conclusion? I fear I do not see these as the inescapable conclusion of a self-replicating molecule, even if given 5 billion years and near limitless energy and resources, in a similar fashion as random distribution of cards will, by sheer probabilistic necessity, hit 10 above average hands in a row with relative regularity.

I realize this is essentially what many people here believe, but I simply don’t share the belief. Even with all the principles at work, these utterly ingenious feats of stunning intricacy do not seem like the foregone and inescapable results of probability coupled with natural selection, acting on a self-replicating molecule while giving it 5 billion years of energy and resources.

You are completely wrong, and you would know that if you had read the less than 5 pages in The Blind Watchmaker that are devoted to the Weasel illustration. I am sure that the reason you believe such falsehood about that illustration is that you have read about it from people who use it to mislead. I’ve written about the Weasel program here.

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