Jan 07 2009

CCET – 4: Random Nature

Published by at 12:16 pm under evolution,language

[This is the fourth post in a series, Clever Criticisms of Evolution (specifically, and the naturalistic worldview in general). Intro post here.]


A true atheist must deny evolution because that seemingly scientific description of nature assumes a certain order to things that an utterly random universe cannot support. Hence, evolution is religion.

A few weeks ago an old friend of mine posted a blog entry containing the above lines. Reading it planted a seed in me for this series of posts I’ve been writing. I think the topic is important.

Along the same vein he wrote,

Any self-respecting atheist will insist that the rise of the first cell was purely happenstance.

“Straw man” wording aside (i.e., defining what the opposition thinks in a manner that makes it easier to refute) the commonly made argument is false. You may have encountered a different version of this argument in a form something like this: “Believing in evolution is tantamount to believing that a tornado ripping through a junk yard could produce an airplane.”

I think I speak for many if not most atheists when I say that I don’t believe evolution is purely random. And that stands for talk of the first chicken or the first cell. True, the term “random” is sometimes used to quickly (and poorly) counter the “by design” argument. But evolution is far from random. There are real-world properties to the materials involved that constrain/enable the process. Coupled with that is the whole selection side — which is huge. One might say that even proto-cells were selected via the success of their continued existence. While the process is likely unintentional (and maybe that is the real bone of contention), it is not random. In so many fields of study the word “random” is merely a band-aid placed over variables that are poorly understood and/or terribly complex.

The inanimate substances from which the animate arose are not fully inert. Additionally, the selection process keeps truly random life-forms from developing. Survival is the test all forms must pass. And what makes a form able to survive is not arbitrary. Nor is it absolute or even pre-defined.

Evolution is not a neat and clean linear progression. The tree of life is more of a dynamic, entangled bush. In and on your body right now you’ve got more bacteria than you could shake a very tiny stick at. In all of your cells you’ve got an organelle – mitochondria – that originated as its own life-form but was co-opted by other cells. What you don’t have in each of your cells is, say, a random bit of minerals. Sapphires in some and diamonds in others.

While it is true that the transition from (and line drawn between) inanimate matter and biological life is mind-bogglingly complex, it is not true that we can chalk it up to pure happenstance.

A yellow snake giving birth to a blue pine cone — now that would be random. The world makes sense not because it follows a blueprint or is guided by an over-arching intention or singular force, but because the characteristics of the materials and natural processes involved create patterns. Patterns we can observe; patterns we can test.


Update: My old backpacking buddy, Walt, has today posted a clarification of his view of evolution on his blog, Woods Wanderer.


3 Comments to “CCET – 4: Random Nature”

  1. [...] the arguments will continue to spew forth. Luckily The Evolving Mind is there as the Clever Criticisms of Evolution arise – criticisms that aren’t so clever that he [...]

  2. Mike Haubrich, FCDon 04 Feb 2009 at 6:56 am

    It seems to me that abiogenesis is poorly understood, and I have been frustrated by evolution’s defenders who say that “Evolution starts with the first life.” As you point out, there is no easy way to make a solid enough definition of where life begins and protolife ends.

    I don’t see how the process was anything other than the same sorts of selection and flow that we still see in evolution today. There may even have been many false starts over the course of millions of years before life finally and irreversibly took hold.

    This is an excellent rejoinder to the “random” strawman.

  3. Andrewon 04 Feb 2009 at 12:57 pm

    Mike -

    I share your frustration. Thanks for the comment.

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