Order, Randomness & Evolution

Fellow orthospherean blogger Chester Poe (of Occidental Traditionalistcommented:

… something I have long wondered. What are the opinions of Kristor, bonald, and Mr. Roebuck, on the issue of Evolution v. Creationism? What about the age of the earth?

I responded briefly (for me). But then I had some further thoughts, which I here set forth.

Evolution, properly speaking, is just a term to indicate the literal “out-rolling” of time. Despite my focus on eternity of late, I do indeed believe that temporal events really happen, and are causally related to each other in orderly fashion, which is all that belief in “evolution” properly connotes.

The vernacular idiom of these latter days, however, takes “evolution” to connote the concurrent operation of two quite different procedures: random mutation and natural selection. “Evolution” in the modern sense therefore urges two different metaphysical propositions: that what happens in the world is the outcome of a process of selection, which determines what characteristics of organisms are lethal by killing them off sooner or more often; and that novelty of form in nature is the result of random errors of replication, to which the practical circumstances of the entity in which such novelties are first manifest (whether molecule, organism, or species) are completely irrelevant.

I do not have any difficulty with the notion of natural selection, which so far as I can tell is tantamount to saying only that things fall out the way that they fall out. Survival of the fittest is nothing more than survival of what happens to survive. Who could argue with that? While it gives us a way to constrain the set of credible just so stories about how the leopard got his spots, the dolphin his blowhole, and so forth, by forcing us to come up with a theory about how any given feature of an organism was adaptive, it doesn’t itself explain anything. As tautologically true, it allows us to filter out explanatory noise, but is not itself informative.

What I do have a problem with is the notion that there is in nature any such thing as sheer randomness. If there were anywhere any raw randomness in the world, there would the world then fail of its orderly causal cohesion. And that would render it less than a world. The notion of “world,” properly speaking, rules out the possibility that a universe could be at all chaotic, that there could be anywhere in it any causal loose ends (among other things, any such loose ends would make an utter hash of the conservation laws, and thus of mechanics and thermodynamics).

But there is a far more fundamental problem with the notion of randomness: it is absolutely unintelligible, for by definition it is wholly disordered. So it is impossible to make any sense of it, at all. There is nothing there in randomness to be understood (one consequence of this is that sheer randomness turns out to be equivalent to sheer nothingness, but that’s a subject for a different post). Randomness, then, is the zero of understanding; and a scientific theory that adduces disorder as the source of things has effectual recourse to utter mystery as an explanans, and this is to refute science per se.  

NB that this is not to say that nature is wholly determined. I don’t think it is. Nature seems to be ordered probabilistically, rather than to be determined ex ante. But probability is a species, not of chaos, but of order.

Being ordered through and through, the world is nowhere random. It seems clear then that novelty in nature cannot arise from randomness, for this would amount to a sheer absence of order that nowhere exists giving rise to concretely actualized order. This would make every novel occasion something from nothing, a free lunch, a causal loose end; and would be to decohere the world. 

Novel order must therefore, rather, arise from some prevenient order. To the extent that an event represents true novelty – to the extent, that is, that it represents a configuration of properties that has never before arisen – its order must therefore derive from an order which is prior and superior to history, in its every detail and as a whole.

But *every* moment of becoming represents just such an utter novelty. If it were not so, then the present moment could be just like some past moment in every detail, and this never ever happens.

Orderly becoming as such, then, must derive from an order prior and superior to the whole of orderly becoming.

None of this is to argue that the neo-Darwinian account of the evolution of species is wrong, qua natural history. It is only to argue nature cannot explain itself, as neo-Darwinism would urge that it can.

20 thoughts on “Order, Randomness & Evolution

  1. Biologists have never argued that mutations are “random” in the strict, ontological sense in which you seem to be understanding that word. They are random the way a throw of the dice is random. Dice of course follow the orderly laws of physics, and any given throw of the dice could in principle (by Laplace’s demon or something of the kind) be explained without reference to random chance — each die landed as it did because the gambler held it just thus in his hand, and because the air was moving just thus, and so on.

    Nevertheless, there is no intelligible answer to the question “Why did I roll a six rather than a five?” If you imagine the set of all possible worlds in which the die comes up six, the members of that set would have nothing in common, nothing to distinguish that set as a set from the set of all possible worlds in which the die comes up five. Neither set is intelligible as a set. As Aquinas says, “it is not true that every happening has a natural cause, for chance happenings have no active natural cause, since they don’t actually exist as unified things” (Quaestiones Disputatae de Malo, 6).

    Actually, when Darwinian biologists say mutatations are “random,” all they really mean is that mutations occur for reasons unrelated to the functional results of those mutations. When a giraffe (to use the standard Darwin-vs.-Lamarck example) is born with a mutation that gives it a slightly longer neck, it isn’t because it needs one, or because its mother stretched a lot to try to reach leaves, or anything like that. The mutation happens for some reason, obviously, and falls out in accordance with the non-random laws of physics and chemistry, but it does not happen for any reason that is relevant to the narrative of adaptation.

    Really, though, Darwinian theory doesn’t even really depend on “randomness” in that more limited sense. All that Darwin is really saying is that natural selection is sufficient to explain adaptation even if we assume that the source of variation is totally random. If there are in fact intelligible regularities in the way mutations occur (and I assume there probably are), that does not undercut the Darwinian hypothesis.

    • If nature is neither predetermined nor random, it must be guided, no? And this in its every particular; this being just what we discover at the fundamental level, where events tend toward equilibria around strange attractors.

      It seems to me therefore that the presumption that variation is due *only* to factors that have nothing to do with adaptation is unwarranted. And recent developments among evolutionary biologists seem to bear me out.

    • May I ask, what would undermine Darwin’s hypothesis? While I have no problem with the concept of natural selection, is seems to me that some of the modern statements about the theory of evolution are really metaphysical in nature, as being unfalsifiable.

  2. I also notice that you haven’t actually answered the question Mr. Poe posed. Do you accept the Darwinian theory of the origin of species (qua natural science)? And do you accept that the earth is orders of magnitude older than a literal reading of the Bible would suggest?

    • I tried to answer those questions in my first response to Mr. Poe, linked above. If having read it you are still unsure of my position, let me know where you are still unclear and I’ll try to help.

      • Thanks. I missed that. The color for links on this blog is very close to the color for normal text, making it easy not to notice them.

    • Well, QM is not strictly random. It is probabilistic. And probability is a species of order.

      As for the weirdness, well; that’s a vast subject, calling for many pages of difficult metaphysics, that boil down to, “common sense is weirder than you thought.” Fun! But I have to get some work done in 2013. I’ll try to post on that. Just thank your lucky stars you are not being asked to opine on QM with an astrophysicist looking over your shoulder …

      Actually – so I say to myself, reassuringly – that’s a *good* thing. bonald will shoot down my mistakes.

    • I have an easy fun shortcut answer on that one: GUT.

      Q M is only “weird” as long as we don’t understand it, and if you want to understand it using a Grand Unified Theory or anything else, then it will no longer be “weird” once we understand it; it will hopefully be unified with classical mechanics.

      If you don’t think we can ever understand it, or you believe it is really actually “weird” or “random” or “magic” then I would ask you why you hate science and reason so much. And I would throw in a comment about you believing the world is flat too, and a round world would be “weird” to you, and that you probably think that the laws of physics issue forth from the forehead of Zeus, etc.

      (Hat tip on the Zeus line to a commenter here last week.)

  3. Randomness seems to mean simply unpredictable–by which, at least on biological size scales, we really mean: not predictable given current measurement technology. On much smaller scales of course, quantum effects seem to preclude (human) prediction altogether, by which we get a stronger: unpredictable even in principle. But that still doesn’t add up necessarily to randomness per se–more like an immovable, unscalable, and opaque wall about the innermost workings of reality.

    Deeming “randomness in nature” to mean “a lack of telos” tells us more about one’s pre-rational metaphysical commitments than it does about nature.

    • Good, yes. Mike Flynn put up a good post the other day about the recent developments in Natural Genetic Engineering (NGE) – really amazing stuff, mind-blowing even. We’re talking total paradigm change, and a door flung open to teloi.

      He quotes James Shapiro, who is at the center of the recent developments:

      NGE operations are not random. Each biochemical process has a set of predictable outcomes and may produce characteristic DNA sequence structures. [But t]he cases with precisely determined outcomes are rare and utilized for recurring operations, such as generating proper DNA copies for distribution to daughter cells.

      It is essential to keep in mind that “non-random” does not mean “strictly deterministic.” We clearly see this distinction in the highly targeted NGE processes that generate virtually endless antibody diversity.

  4. Evolution makes sense but is also quite dangerous because the theory of evolution leads to a general view that somehow human societies go in a linear path towards ever more perfection and advancement (aka progress), instead of a cyclic path (decadence -> decline -> fall -> vacuum -> rebirth -> rise -> accumulation and back again), and most moderns consider themselves “progressives” (evolutionists). Cycles also take a while and aren’t as utopian nor as fast as “progressive” mores.

    Things such as feminism for example existed in the late Roman Empire, late Greek civilization and other civilizations in decay. I think even Islam was more feminist than now back in the past when it was in decay. There were maybe a couple of feminists in ancient East Asian places. Feminism isn’t necessarily new. It’s just more intense, predominant and stationary (permanent) in Enlightened liberal modernity.

    And that’s just one example. Think about it, because if you have always existed, and we are evolving, how can one be so permanent as well? It’s almost like the Devil is trying to mimic God himself when it comes to this social aspect.

    But the Devil is but a part and partial, reductionist. God is whole and knows generalities.

    Evolution also discards the transcendent, and makes us think that we weren’t created by God nor in his image, and that somehow we came from apes, when in reality perhaps some humans among the planet degenerated towards ape like behaviors.

    I don’t find it impossible that some humans become quite degraded, after all sin multiplied after the fall of man in the Garden of Eden.

    It doesn’t mean that suddenly we lose the image of God, and become non-human, but that maybe some humans (for whichever reason) lose his likeness and start resembling another state.

  5. Discussions about randomness, probabilistic processes, etc. seem to involve abstract and mysterious processes that we can’t fully understand. I think the real challenge that evolution poses to Christianity is that it teaches that we are on a (physical) continuum with the animals and early hominids. I’ll be more direct and ask this time. Is the idea that we descend from animals incompatible with Christianity? Are Adam and Eve literally our primordial mother and father and, if not, what does this do to the Orthodox understanding of Christianity?

    • I don’t consider our animal nature a particular challenge to our dignity. Christianity, after all, teaches that we arose from mud. There is no problem, apparently, with being at the same time material, animal, human, and divine. Jesus did it, and as the Second Adam and the first fruits of them that sleep, he shows us what is possible to our nature.

      So, no: the idea that we are, among other things, animals, and descended from animals such as our parents, is not incompatible with Christian orthodoxy. That we are descended from x does not mean that we are *nothing but* x. It means only that x is in our past.

      Were Adam and Eve real? I don’t see how their concrete existence is ruled out by anything in biology. One possibility often floated is that Adam and Eve were a couple in a band of hominids. Alone among their fellows, they were endowed by the Holy Spirit with rationality. The existence of the other members of the band would explain where the children of Adam and Eve got their spouses.

      Mike Flynn has posted a brilliant disquisition on the reconciliation of the story of Adam and Eve with modern paleoanthropology.

      • This is an excellent post. If scientists can determine that matter (an electron) can exist in two places at the same time without knowing how, Christians can believe in Adam and Eve and be left with the mystery of how we descended from them without violating the Ten Commandments. And Christians also have an enormous library: established, scientifically inexplicable events, that is, miracles.

  6. Interesting thoughts on randomness. Is a truly random number possible? I cannot offer a proof either way, though I am inclined by experience to believe that it is so.

    “Evolution makes sense but is also quite dangerous because the theory of evolution leads to a general view that somehow human societies go in a linear path towards ever more perfection and advancement (aka progress)…”

    Evolution does not require that subsequent generations are “better” in the sense of more perfect or more advanced, only that they are “better adapted to survive and reproduce” in the contemporary environment. The immediate successors to the dinosaurs were not necessarily more advanced than their predecessors, just as civilization after the fall of the Roman Empire was not necessarily more advanced than before that collapse. There is no law in biology or sociology against devolution. This was recently in the news.

    See http://www.evolutionnews.org/2013/03/the_modest_hous069951.html and
    http://www.dailymail.co.uk/sciencetech/article-2291228/Have-scientists-discovered-reverse-evolution-Study-shows-house-dust-mites-abandoned-parasitic-lifestyle-free-living-just-like-ancestors.html

  7. Ilion writes:

    Evolution, properly speaking, is just a term to indicate the literal “out-rolling” of time. … The vernacular idiom of these latter days, however, takes “evolution” to connote the concurrent operation of two quite different procedures: random mutation and natural selection.

    The word ‘evolution’ was originally coined as a term of embryology. It denoted the orderly development of the embryo according to an apparent pre-existing plan. That is, the term denoted the expression of and outworking-in-time of some plan, toward an end, that was already there implicit in the embryo from the beginning.

    Thus, when the pre-Darwinian evolutionists, such as Erasmus Darwin, were blathering on in rhapsodies about their “Great Chain of Being”, they had in mind a teleological hierarchy of species, by which the “higher” species developed out of the “lower”, toward some apparent end, according to some apparent plan or design that was already there implicit in the species from the beginning. The basic idea was much like the “front-loading” idea of some ID-evolutionists.

    This pre-existing teleological meaning of the term ‘evolution’ is why Charles Darwin avoided using the word as much as he possibly could; this is why he generally used the clumsy locution of his invention, “descent with modification” — he wanted to deny teleology in the world, in favor of “stuff just happens, for not reason whatsoever” … though, as was his habitual practice, without actually taking up the cause of openly and explicitly presenting any argument against the one idea or for the other.

    I do not have any difficulty with the notion of natural selection, which so far as I can tell is tantamount to saying only that things fall out the way that they fall out. Survival of the fittest is nothing more than survival of what happens to survive. Who could argue with that?

    I wonder if their heads would explode were the people who like to denegrate the Bible as “a (primative) Bronze Age religious text” to find out that the concept of ‘natural selection’ is contained therein? And also, the concept of ‘variation within populations’ … and the two together resulting in a ‘change in allele frequency within a population’?

    Of course, the Bible attributes a certain reported ‘change in allele frequency within a population’ (to wit: Jacob earning/winning his flocks out of Laban’s herds) to God’s agency, rather than to mere happenstance. How very Bronze Age those Bronze Age people were in their thinking!

    What I do have a problem with is the notion that there is in nature any such thing as sheer randomness. If there were anywhere any raw randomness in the world, there then would the world fail of its orderly causal cohesion. It would not be a world at all. …

    Exactly!

    To speak of ‘randomness’ is to speak of a lack of correlation between things. So, to speak of a “random cause” is literally to speak non-sense: it is precisely to speak of a cause which does/did not cause an effect, and of an effect which is/was not the effect of any cause.

    … The notion of “world,” properly speaking, rules out the possibility that a universe could be at all chaotic, that there could be anywhere in it any causal loose ends (among other things, any such loose ends would make an utter hash of the conservation laws, and thus of thermodynamics).

    Exactly! Surely, the whole world would unravel were there in it even one event without cause, even one event that was not an effect of some cause. But, even could the world survive were there indeed random events, we could not understand anything going on around us …

    … Randomness, then, is the zero of understanding; and a scientific theory that adduces disorder as the source of things has effectual recourse to utter mystery as an explanans, and this is to refute science per se.

    … and ‘science’ would be impossible. But then, the ‘Science!’ fetishists, those who insist that “randomness” can “cause” events, don’t really care about ‘science’ in the first place. It just looks to them like a handy stick with which to beat “religion”.

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