In a comment on a previous post about the role of creation in the origin of species, Noah asks:
What would you say about the randomness we observe in the process of evolution? …I guess it’s similar to our discussion on why it takes thousands/millions of sperm to fertilize an egg if God intends me to exist. We’re presented with a reality that sure as heck seems to involve a ton of randomness, not just in events (car crashes, etc.) but in being (how many things had to happen by chance for me to exist?).
I answer: Chance can only be meaningfully discussed relative to a particular agent. It is no more an absolute than velocity is in Einstein’s physics.
That is part of why it can never be considered a cause, since it is only ever an expression of someone, or something’s, ignorance of the true causes of an event. Thomas Aquinas used the example of a master (representing God) sending two servants out on separate errands, and their meeting “by chance” in the market. With reference to the servants, it was a chance meeting – with reference to the master, it was the result of his purposeful will.
Take another example, of a lion in a theme park. The park’s aim is to make the environment as natural as possible, for the sake of both the spectators’ experience and the lions’ wellbeing. So the lion roams around and finds its food “by chance”, since it has no idea where the carcase will show up. That is entirely analogous to the wild, where the considerable hunting skills of the lion are moderated by the uncertainty of the availability and behaviour of prey. But in the park the food is placed where the lion will find it according to the specific purpose of the park’s human owners, which of course is primarily to make sure the lion doesn’t starve, or get tempted to eat the tourists.
Likewise a dice throw is random with respect to a human operator, but is not at all random in relation to the laws of physics. God, governing those laws, can predict exactly what forces will be involved, even if the thrower cannot, and will know the future outcome (I speak at a mechanical level – God’s knowledge is intuitive and complete, not deductive). Under the doctrine of providence one can even say that God determines what forces will be used in the dice throw – but that providence also encompasses the ignorance of the thrower, and hence to that individual, with his particular relationship to secondary causes, the chance is real.
Similarly an immune system generates variants randomly with respect to the operation of the mechanism, but purposefully with respect to the function of the system as a whole, and theologically with respect to God’s intention to design an immune system that serves its defensive purpose well. The organism is not created to “know” in advance what immune challenges it will face, but rather that all kinds of assaults may occur, requiring protecting against every eventuality, as far as possible. That’s very like the lion patrolling around opportunistically knowing that prey will turn up somewhere.
So in the context of evolution, to speak of random variation or mutation, without a context of agency, is simply meaningless. It is indeed reasonable to envisage things happening to organisms “by accident”, from their own viewpoint. The organism has a built-in goal of preserving its nature, including its genome, intact, so that a mutation from some copying error or viral assault is “accidental”, and may even harm it (just as a lion may starve by bad luck, or be killed by its prey’s horn). But, of course, the mutation would be “intentional” from the point of view of a pathogenic virus following its natural goals.
It might even be less than “random” for the organism itself, even if the mutation proved deleterious in the event. James Shapiro marshalled much evidence that many mutations in response to severe stresses like ionising radiation are adaptive – the changes stand at least some chance of leading to survival in adverse circumstances. In that case, the question of where that teleological purpose arises or resides is rather mysterious. Shapiro has no real answer to the evolution of this “teleological evolution” (which he called “natural genetic engineering”) other than a postulated prior stage of random mutations and natural selection… which is only to fudge the issue that evolution isn’t actually random by saying it was random once: another example of evolutionary biology living on extended credit.
But without a frame of reference, “randomness” means no more than “velocity” does in relativity, ie nothing. As soon as you provide that frame of reference though, it has true meaning: in my car, on earth, I can travel at 50mph. And I can randomly be killed by a truck whose brakes fail. But both the velocity and the chance disappear outside the particular frame of reference. In the theological view, my life is in the hands of my Creator, and no hair of my head will perish apart from his will.
In that theological context chance is doubly meaningless, for nothing is unknown or unexpected to the Christian God. That a mutation may be random with respect to fitness is of trivial significance in explaining the teleological origin of species, just as a swallow flying a “random” search pattern in its flight tells us nothing about the serious teleology of its feeding strategy.
The swallow is, if you like, a secondary cause with its own unique viewpoint (I’m thinking of the whole organism and its nature, not just what it “thinks”). That viewpoint includes how it sees the world, and what it doesn’t see, such as exactly where all the insects will be when it’s feeding. It is part of its nature to fail sometimes – to suffer poor feeding, to have broods taken by jays, to get shot in its migration, and so on. Those things are what constitute “chance” to a swallow.
But to God, overseeing the whole universe, they serve goals and aims for the good of the whole, some of which may be obvious, and some entirely opaque to mere humans. Amongst the obvious, swallow populations have numerical optima, jays need to feed their families too, Maltese “traditionalists” (apparently) have good reasons to blast songbirds out of the sky.
In principle, discovering deleterious mutations (occurring “by chance” as far as the organism is concerned) is no more mysterious than the sparrows in the gospel falling to the ground. It is a random mischance to the sparrow – and, note, a random event to a human observer, too – though not, perhaps, random to the sparrowhawk that eventuated its fall. But it is nevertheless fully known to God (and therefore not “objectively” random, even apart from his providential willing of it). And this is true of every event in the universe: there is therefore no randomness in God’s frame of reference as Creator.
Which is a bit of luck.