Is Evolution about chance? (Part 1)

When ordinary lay-people (as in non-scientific specialists and particularly non-evolutionary-science specialists) like you and me talk about evolution, we are likely to talk about chance.  So, when I first wrote about creation, I named one of the lies that we believe about Creation/the Universe as that:

“This world is just here by accident or chance.”[1]

I then went on to suggest that there are two different ways in which people throughout history have come to that conclusion.

“that this world is just here by accident or chance. In earlier times, people saw this world as being the by-product of the wars and love affairs of gods. In modern times, we are more likely to see the world as it is resulting from atheistic evolution.”[2]

In ancient times, this belief was rooted in the origin myths about gods battling it out for supremacy. To their way of thinking, we are here by accident because the purpose of the gods was not to make humans as the focal point of a good and intentional creation. We are the by-product of their family squabbles.  In a similar way, a modern worldview with the emphasis on atheistic evolution leaves us in a similar position. There is no purposeful creation of human beings, rather we are the by-product of what Richard Dawkins might describe as the selfish gene’s fight for survival.

This applies generally to humanity but also to each one of us specifically. Why am I here?  The correct answer surely has to be that there isn’t a reason or purpose for my existence.  That’s why we are likely to think in terms of accident or chance.

Now, whilst that’s the normal way of talking about evolutionary outcomes among people generally, a number of evolutionists are not so keen on using the language of chance, especially if we add the word “random” in. Here for example is a quote from Richard Dawkins

“Darwinism is not a theory of random chance. It is a theory of random mutation plus non-random cumulative natural selection. . . . Natural selection . . . is a non-random force, pushing towards improvement. . . . Every generation has its Darwinian failures but every individual is descended only from previous generations’ successful minorities. . . . [T]here can be no going downhill – species can’t get worse as a prelude to getting better. . . . There may be more than one peak.”[3]

Now, I’ve noted a few seeking to rebut Christianity and Creationism by saying “look you are accusing evolution of being about random chance and it is not.”  I think there are three problems here.

  1. That the defenders of evolution have not allowed for the use of everyday language to sum up a point or to describe the perception that arises out of their theory.
  2. That a lot of people don’t really know how things like chance and probability work.
  3. That whilst it would be reductionist to think of evolution purely in terms of random/blind chance, it would be similarly reductionist to ignore the element of chance present in evolutionary theory as well.

Let’s expand on point 3 a little.  Michael Le Page when responding to the statement “Evolution is random” responds:

“No and yes. Natural selection is a rigorous testing process that filters out what works from what doesn’t, driving organisms to evolve in particular directions. However, chance events play a big role too.”[4]

He explains a little further:

“Evolution by natural selection is a two-step process, and only the first step is random: mutations are chance events, but their survival is often anything but. Natural selection favours mutations that provide some advantage (see Evolution promotes the survival of species), and the physical world imposes very strict limits on what works and what doesn’t. The result is that organisms evolve in particular directions.”[5]

This is similar to Dawkins point above that evolution

“is a theory of random mutation plus non-random cumulative natural selection”

Really what we are starting to think about here is probability.  This is important because the risk when we talk about “chance” is that we think in terms of “anything can happen” because everything is completely random and chaotic. However, that’s not the assumption we work on in life.  Let me give you two examples.

First of all, let’s take gambling.  Now some people gamble by just throwing the dice and seeing what is happening but that’s not how the serious gamblers work – or the bookies.  Rather, the serious gamblers recognise that there are a number of factors at work.

If Bradford City were to play Chelsea in the FA cup (to again take a random example), then someone putting a bet on the game -and the bookmakers when deciding the odds would consider the following:

  1. The form of the two teams – is one on a winning streak and one on a losing streak
  2. The relative ability of the two teams, Chelsea play in the Premier League and Bradford in League 1.
  3. Who has home advantage because this seems to lead to a level of psychological motivation or intimidation in sport.

Those are the normal factors and they are knowns. However, there are some “unknown knowns” to quote Donald Rumsfeld. For example, what if a key player gets injured in the run up to the game or sent off in the first few minutes, what if a few players are under-par because of injury, ill-health or exhaustion. Also, there are things that can go one way or the other. Sometimes, the inferior team are simply over-whelmed, they freeze and the premier league team get an extra advantage. This happened when Bradford got to the League Cup final and met Swansea. They froze under the Wembley spotlights and were turned over 5-0.  However, when Bradford turned up to play Chelsea at Stamford Bridge, the opposite happened. The Premier League stars came out over-confident and complacent. The visitors found something extra from within because of the motivation to get a big-name scalp.

Now, here’s another example. When you are running an engineering programme, you have to come up with a Risk Management plan. Risk assumes that there are certain possible outcomes that may not definitely take place. However, those risks are possible and we can predict a level of probability. Again, we would look at the possible outcomes and we would identify a level of probability.  We would look at the different factors that could affect the project.  We would then assess the likelihood of the event happening. However, risk management means that we weren’t just looking at that possible outcome. Rather, we knew that if something happened then that would have an impact leading to other potential outcomes in terms of cost, time delay, damage etc.  We assessed and managed the risk on the basis of probability.

Now, this is important when we come to evolutionary theory because in effect, the evolutionist is doing something similar. They are saying that there are a number of factors in the Universe, some would have been known/predictable factors and others unpredictable.  That’s the chance element.[6]

So, Dawkins writes about evolution as starting with the infamous primordial soup with lots of molecules replicating each other.

“At some point a particularly remarkable molecule was formed by accident. We will call it a replicator. It may not necessarily have been the biggest or the most complex molecule around, but it had the extraordinary property of being able to create copies of itself. This may seem a very unlikely sort of accident to happen. So, it was. It was exceedingly improbable. In the lifetime of a man, things that are that improbable can be treated for practical purposes as impossible. That is why you will never win a big prize on the football pools. But in our human estimates of what is probable and what is not, we are not used to dealing in hundreds of millions of years. If you filled in pools coupons every week for a hundred million years you would very likely win several jackpots.”[7]

Notice here that there is a “chance” dynamic.  The original forming of a different type of molecule was “by accident.” It was either unexpected or at least, not guaranteed. Dawkins argument is that we cover the probability of this seemingly improbable event by allowing for lots and lots of time and lots and lots of chances.[8]

The point is that this is when natural selection is meant to kick in. Chance means that within the population of molecules that there will be x % of molecules that have certain characteristics. However, from that point in, we can predict with a much higher degree of probability how many of those molecules will survive. And probability is very good at that. You can have a fair idea that if 10 English men enter the Australian Tennis open how many are likely to survive to round 2, round 3 and so on.

Does this mean that the “chance” objection to Evolution is invalid? I want to suggest not for the following reasons.

  1. Because Evolutionists cannot ignore the point that chance, and in fact accident are at the starting/entry point into the system. Chance does not fully explain evolutionary theory – but most evolutionary models seem to need chance in the explanation.
  2. Because I would suggest that we need to be careful about reading probability backwards. The purpose of probability is to help us make predictions looking forward. However, I’m not that convinced that it is as helpful as some assume in assessing whether past events occurred.  What are the chances that Bradford City will get to a major Wembley Cup final next season? They are very small in deed. What are the chances that Bradford  City did get to a major cup final a few years ago? Well, they did!
  3. Because, when we talk about chance in the context of creation and evolution, we are not just talking about the probability of events happening. We are talking about human identity, meaning and purpose. It isn’t just “what is the probability of ‘me’ existing?” It’s if I am here because of chance plus natural selection then I don’t actually have a reason to be here. I have not been intentionally created. I am an accidental by-product.

Here’s a final example to think through.

In 1970, my mum and dad married. My mum was from Biggin Hill in Kent. My dad was from Derby in the Midlands.  Dad went to University in Oxford and then moved to Bradford to complete his MSC. Mum travelled in a forces family and circumstances brought her to the same city.  They found themselves in the same church.  2 years later, my sister was born. Then I came along in 1974.

Now, I am about 5’9 tall with fairish brown hair and weigh about 13 stone. I am short sighted and have to wear glasses. I also have asthma. I’m University educated. Oh, and I support Bradford City.  Now, to some extent you can predict that in the population there will be people like me.

You can predict to some extent that people with a certain genetic make up and with particular interests are likely to be attracted to people who fit another particular genetic make up -assuming they share similar interests. You can also assume that the result will be offspring that carry certain genetic characteristics. Furthermore, you can also predict that the offspring will develop their own interests based on the environment they are in. So, yes you can predict that there will be a certain number of brown haired, 5 ft 9 tall male Bradford City supporters in the population (you can probably predict our survival rate too).

But that’s not the sum total of who I am is it? I’m not just the product of the union of one cluster of atoms with another cluster of atoms. So, my parents brought their own unique interests and values into their relationship and then passed them on to me, some of which I chose to continue with and others which I didn’t.  Yet, there are so many reasons why they might not have ended up together in Bradford of all places and yet they did.

So, is it by chance that this specific 5’9″ 13 stone, brown haired, short sighted Bradford City supporting male exists. Without belief in God, I think we would have to say “Yes, I am an accidental by-product of chance.”

However, the Bible says different. It tells me that I am made by God’s good pleasure, I am fearfully and wonderfully made, he knit me together in my mother’s womb. He chose me and loved me before the world began.

[1] https://faithroots.net/2018/02/08/applying-creation/

[2]  https://faithroots.net/2018/02/08/applying-creation/

[3] The quote is from “Climbing Mount Improbable” I came upon it by random chance at this website https://www.goodreads.com/quotes/926505-darwinism-is-not-a-theory-of-random-chance-it-is

[4] https://www.newscientist.com/article/dn13698-evolution-myths-evolution-is-random/

[5] https://www.newscientist.com/article/dn13698-evolution-myths-evolution-is-random/

[6] NB it is helpful to note that the OED defines chance in terms of “1. A possibility of something happening. 2. (chances) the probability of something happening. 3. An opportunity. 4. The occurrence of events in the absence of any obvious design.”  I would suggest that evolutionary theory is actually interested in all 4 of those definitions. The 4th is closest to what we think of as “by accident” and note that the theory does assume some accidental or random occurrences -but also that there are possible and probably outcomes in the light of what we know about how the Universe works.

[7] Dawkins, The Selfish Gene, 15.

[8] There is a separate point to consider here which is that possibility needs to precede probability. Creationists are not saying that evolution is impossible because it is improbable, they are saying it is improbable because it is impossible. You can have as many chances as you like but if certain factors are simply not there then the event will not happen.

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