Is Evolution directionless/random?

(Emily) #1

Is the process of Evolution/natural selection random? I’ve heard some people (atheists) think it is. I don’t see how a blind process could produce the life we have today even if over billions of years.

My two cents was that God put it into place.

(Jon) #2

(James McKay) #3

There’s one thing you need to realise about evolution. It is a powerful and efficient search algorithm for optimum solutions to extremely complex problems. As such, it is not the antithesis of design, but a methodology for design.

It’s actually widely used as such in computer science and software engineering. There is a whole category of evolutionary algorithms that are based on the combination of random changes (mutations) and a non-random filter (natural selection).

To give one example here – I’m typing this post using an alternative keyboard layout called Colemak. It is much more tightly optimised for touch typing than the standard 140-year-old qwerty layout, being both more comfortable and much more accurate, and making proper disciplined touch typing much more natural. It took me about a week or so to learn it well enough to use it full time.

It was designed using an evolutionary algorithm.

Optimising a keyboard layout is a very complex problem – you have to take into account several competing factors, and then test the candidates against a corpus of text for suitability. But by making small, incremental changes to the standard qwerty layout, swapping keys around (mutations) and evaluating successive candidates for fitness (natural selection), you can come up with something that’s much more tightly optimised than anything you would achieve otherwise.

(Emily) #4

so Evolution isn’t directionless?

(Jon) #5

It isn’t random. It is directionless in the same way that rain is directionless.

(sy_garte) #6

There is some evidence that evolution may be constrained to follow certain pathways and not others. A phenomenon called convergence has been shown to operate during evolution whereby the same phenotypic properties and characteristics (like wings) evolve separately many times in totally different lines. For wings it includes insects, birds, mammals, reptiles. Not everyone agrees with this idea, but I think the evidence is pretty strong.

(Andrew M. Wolfe) #7

I think @jammycakes explained this pretty well, but to boil it down, as best I understand it: Mutations are random, as best we can discern, but which mutations survive is not random, because the environment naturally tends to favor certain sorts of things and not others.

The recently posted video about antibiotic resistance illustrates this beautifully. You have millions and millions of microbes. If you have even one that develops the ability to survive in the antibacterial environment, it will not just survive but massively reproduce. 99%+ of the microbes might die off when they hit the antibacterial substance, but the one that survives will conquer the new environment, and that’s all it takes.

This means that the overall pattern that emerges over time will be one of life adapting amazingly well to new environments. This overall pattern is not random! But it uses a random algorithm to get there. Does that make sense?

(Thanh Chung) #8

Maybe before we ask, “Is evolution directionless/random?” we should ask, “What is randomness?” I typed in “random” in BioLogos search bar, and I saw a bunch of helpful articles like for example:

I really like the Randomness and God’s Governance series below

(Roger A. Sawtelle) #9


Emily, why do you keep reasking the same basic questions every now and then?

However it is still a good question

Evolution is dot directionless. The dinosaurs are not coming back, because evolution is guided by Natural Selection and Natural Selection is based on the ecology. Humans, and many mammals and many plants did not live and could not live at the time of the dinosaurs, because the ecology was wrong for us and right for them.

God created our world one step at a time through many changes of the physical world and the organic world. This how God created evolution through genetic change and ecological change. This is the direction of natural history, just as human history has direction, even though it might be difficult for us to see…

(Marvin Adams) #10

Good idea to search the site for randomness definition. The Applegate series is interesting. However, the statement :" Even though the freedom inherent in nature sometimes produces unintelligently-designed structures (like viruses, which can kill us), we see that God has made, and continues to oversee by his providence, a good creation that, at least in part, is capable of creating itself." makes me wonder. Sure water is also unintelligently designed by her standards.

(Marvin Adams) #11

I guess mobile phones could not exist at the time of the dinosaurs either because there was no network :slight_smile:
Whilst time has direction and does not behave randomly I do not think this is what Celticroots looks for.
It is interesting that nearly a year after the comment:
“I believe that God used Evolution to create all things. Even though, as science states, evolution is a completely natural process and random chance. I read somewhere that you can’t hold the view that God created everything through Evolution, because of what I stated above.” the question still appears unanswered to Celticroots.

Ted Davis at the time provided the link

which might have been too difficult to understand but it should have been apparent by now that whilst the emergence of mutations is a random process the selection of their persistance is not random at all. Perhaps it was not made sufficiently clear that the control of it is selection by their benefit, not for the individual, but for the system. It is the ability to love thy neighbour, e.g.the fitness to support life that controls the purpose. Perhaps it is not surprising that it makes the process look blind for those who cannot see love.

(Roger A. Sawtelle) #12


Marvin, you should know by now that it is crystal clear that evolution is not driven by random chance, but by ecological change. which is Natural Selection.

For some yet unexplained reason people have a great deal of trouble accepting that fact. Maybe because it does not fit into the Western dualistic world view.

As you point out we see things as Natural or Supernatural. If God is Love, then the natural cannot be guided by Love without becoming Supernatural.

As @Jonathan_Burke pointed out evolution is not a random process, it is a mixed process, both random and determinate. The problem still is science has not defined how the determinate aspect or Natural Selection works, which is the reason we have the confusion described in the article by Barr. There is a sound scientific expalanation for how Natural Selection works, but scientists have failed to accept it.

(Jon Garvey) #13


Defintely one to wonder about - not a single part of that statement is scientific, but it’s entirely based on a particular slant on theology. In other words her definition of “random” has absolutely nothing to do with science, and ought to be clearly labelled “my theological opinion”.

Less problems are caused by taking seriously this scientific definition of randomness:

[S]cientists use chance, or randomness, to mean that when physical causes can result in any of several outcomes, we cannot predict what the outcome will be in any particular case. (Futuyma 2005: 225)

In philosophical terms, Futuyma correctly treats randomess in science as exclusively epistemological (what we can know) whereas Applegate’s definition is entirely ontological (what the true cause is).

Applegate’s involves some contradictions - firstly according to Futuyma, we don’t know the cause of random events through science; yet Applegate tells us the cause - a creation that can create itself, though unintelligently. Whence comes that knowledge?

Secondly, there are theological and philosophical problems with her statement: philsophically, for something to cause itself is absurd. Theologically, what does it mean for a “good creation” to be left to create, unintelligently, harmful things - and what does it actually mean (if anything) to invoke God’s providence in that?

Thirdly, this “capability to create itself” appears to mean nothing more than “ontological randomness”, that is, the stuff happens not just unintelligently, but for no actual reason at all. Now if one were to say that I have the “capability”, every now and then, to do something entirely without cause - like punching staff in supermarkets, or jumping off buildings - you would say that’s not a capability, but an affliction. The autonomy of madness is no freedom at all. And for the irrational creation to act mad is even less than that - it’s God himself relinquishing control to insanity, if that were possible… it certainly doesn’t sound “good”.

Me, I prefer intelligently designed water - as you appear wisely to do!

(Charles E. Smith) #14

See “Genetic Algorithm Optimization vs Random Search” in the Open Forum section of Biologos (11/09/2015), where the efficiency ratio for an example problem is 42,800,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 to 1. In other words, evolutionary processes use randomness, but aren’t random. God designed evolution very well.

(Roger A. Sawtelle) #15


How is evolution not random? What guides Natural Selection?

(Charles E. Smith) #16

Natural selection is “guided” by the relative survivability of offspring. Those offspring with low probability of reproducing reduce the “sampling probability” of their offspring, under-sampling vast areas of the genetic space. Ecological change is unnecessary for natural selection to operate. Even in a static set of environmental characteristics, natural selection can continue to produce more efficient offspring.

(Jo Helen Cox) #17

Randomness probably does not exist in nature. A random event is one that does not follow natural laws thus cannot be predicted. Spontaneous generation and magic exist in a universe that has truly random happenings.

Instead we should start visualizing these events using Chaos Theory. It describes an apparent randomness in events. If we could follow each atom we would find they obey all the natural laws, nothing truly random there. That lets us make generalized predictions and models of these systems. We perceive randomness because of our limitations to follow or understand fully. God does not have that problem.

The universe evolved into what we see today by following the laws of nature set at the beginning. Life did the same. It follows the same laws. We may not know what all the laws are, but we can make predictions on what we will find or what to look for in nature.

(Jon Garvey) #18


Scientifically speaking, a random event has simply to do with its predictability - what limited human scientists can measure and know. Any assumption that this is because it does not follow natural laws is an extra-scientific claim (because science can only find, or fail to find, natural laws - ie repeatable patterns - as explanations). “Not-finding” cannot be held to imply “not-existing”.

You’re speaking here of ontological randomness, that is uncaused events, as not existing in nature, and I agree with your statement (a) because Christian theology says that God governs and orders all things, which is incompatible with ontological randomness and (b) because science has no competence to judge such matters and © because it’s philosophically incoherent for events to have no cause.

However, by the same token I can’t accept your statement:

How do we know that every event in history follows “natural law”, which is only a concept invented by early-modern scientists to describe regularities observed in nature? It may be a working assumption, useful to the pursuit of science, that laws underlie all events, but it cannot be demonstrated by science, is dubious philosophically (cf Alvin Plantinga on this), and of course it flies in the face of the Christian theology of God’s freedom and sovereignty over nature.

Intellectually the idea of universal natural law belongs to the Enlightenment philosophy that all things could be grasped by reason. Theologically that idea became Deism. But why should it have any traction for Christians in these days?

(Jon) #19

No. It’s found in Second Temple Judaism and early medieval Jewish and Christian commentary, well before the Enlightenment.

(Charles E. Smith) #20

“Openness of God” Christians believe that God refrains from controlling all things, allowing free will, and watching for good results in His great experiment. Romans 8:20 says, “For the creation was subjected… in hope…” (NIV 1978).