After nearly 10 years of reading the writings of American TE/EC leaders, especially those at BioLogos, I’ve come to the conclusion that there is an unwritten code of conduct (probably the product of unconscious consensus rather than conscious collusion) which governs the public behavior of ECs. This code of conduct is rarely breached, at least on BioLogos (though Joshua Swamidass’s challenge to BioLogos regarding Adam and Eve provides a refreshing counterexample, and Darrel Falk’s principled dispute with Robert Bishop over Stephen Meyer’s second book constitutes another), and it could be stated in the form of a rule: “No EC leader shall directly contradict another EC leader in public, or at least, not in any public setting where ID or creationist people might be listening and taking note of the disagreement.” In my experience, this rule holds about 90% of the time.
Thus, for example, though some EC leaders are at least formally within the Calvinist theological tradition, and other EC leaders are clearly and proudly within what they call a “Wesleyan” tradition, we almost never see those EC leaders debating each other, arguing from their differing traditions over how God’s sovereignty is related to the process of organic evolution. Thus, under the Falk-Giberson dispensation at BioLogos, when Darrel Falk and others asserted a “Wesleyan” view that God would not “tyrannize” over nature but would leave nature to its “freedom”, no Reformed or Calvinist EC uttered a peep, even though that assertion must have struck any Calvinist as a gross misrepresentation of the traditional Christian doctrine of divine sovereignty.
The example I want to talk about today, however, concerns not theology but science. The BioLogians have for a long time now sung the praises of the purported creative powers of “randomness” in evolution; probably over a dozen columns have used “random” or “randomness” in their titles or have “randomness” as their main subject. Ard Louis, Kathryn Applegate, and others, most recently Loren Haarsma, have returned to this theme. What is interesting, however, is that Loren Haarsma’s most recent statement on randomness actually amounts to a partial correction of Kathryn Applegate’s view of the matter. Haarsma does not himself draw attention to the disagreement, perhaps due to not knowing of her earlier statements, or perhaps due to the aforementioned unwritten rule regarding EC-EC public discourse. But the disagreement is instructive, and I think it should be set forth.
As a sample of Applegate’s public statements on the creative powers of randomness, I take this column from April 8, 2010 (reprinted on March 16, 2013, with the original comments from readers stripped away).
In the column, Applegate argues that evolution can be driven by randomness because random events can produce elaborate forms of order. She offers video clips to illustrate this. The clips (which seem to mysteriously alternate so that now one, and now the other, is available in the box inserted within her article), purport to model viral self-assembly. A group of shaped pieces, all magnetized, are shaken in a jar, or tumbled in a sort of lottery machine, and after (in the first case) less than a minute or (in the second case) about three minutes of recombinations and fallings-apart, they stabilize into one (in the first case) or two (in the second case) roughly spherical viral capsids with regular pentagonal faces.
Now, Applegate wants the reader to draw the conclusion that since “randomness” can assemble viral capsids, “randomness” could also drive evolution from bacterium to man — or perhaps even from non-life to man. But let’s pause for a moment. How “random” is the behavior described in these models?
First of all, in the models, the parts are magnetized (as an analogy of the electronic attraction between the parts of real viral capsids); but the builder of the model hasn’t magnetized the parts with just any old degree of magnetic strength; too much attraction, or too little attraction, and the parts would never cohere into the final shape, or might eventually cohere but take a vastly longer time. The degree of magnetic strength is selected by the model designer, who is intelligent and takes into account his goal of having the pieces end up together in the right shape within a length of time suitable for instructional purposes. Second, the shape and size of every piece is exactly the same, and such that the pieces will fit tidily into the final capsid shape. Were the shapes and sizes of the pieces generated randomly, it would be much less likely that even with the magnetism they would come together into the capsid shape. In other words, both the pieces and the forces are designed by the model-maker in such a way as to “tilt” the behavior of the model toward order, and in fact toward a particular order. While the motion of the tossing and jumbling pieces is “random” in the sense of undirected and unpredictable, the properties of the pieces are such that they have a predisposition, even under random shaking, to come together in a certain very particular kind of order. They never come together in the shape of an elephant, or the Eiffel Tower, or the head of a famous movie star or US President. The only coherent form they ever achieve is that of the viral capsid, and this unique orderly end dictates to the model-builder the shape and size of the pieces and the strength of the magnetic force.
So this example is not akin to, say, a rockslide of a million randomly-shaped and randomly-sized boulders which one might set in motion in hopes that at the bottom of the hill, the rocks will spell out the Declaration of Independence. In the case of the rockslide, no model-designer has imbued the rocks with a calculated attractive force to cause them to line up in any particular way, or ensured that their shapes and sizes are such that they can form straight lines to make up the strokes in English letters. It’s for this reason that no human being has ever seen, or ever will see, a rockslide that spells out the Declaration of Independence, whereas the model with the magnetized pieces, with its designed features, easily produces the capsid shapes.
But, one might object, “Wait! Isn’t it the case that that the magnetized-piece model is based on biological facts, i.e., the geometrical shape of viral capsids, and the attractive forces that actually exist between real viral capsid-fragments, and the randomness of the motion of the capsid fragments as they tumble about in the cell? And if so, can’t one say that nature itself behaves ‘randomly’ in producing the capsids?”
The answer is: Yes and No. To the extent that no conscious agent in the cell is steering or tinkering with the scrambling motion in order to achieve a desired outcome, randomness is involved. But why is it that the capsid fragments have the shape that they do, and why are the attractive forces between them exactly are what they are? Those facts aren’t explained by “randomness”, but by other things, including physical/chemical laws that determine molecular shapes, and by electronic properties of atoms and molecules determined at the time of the origin of the universe. So one logically consistent interpretation of the event is that the universe is “set up” to be capable of producing the forms of living things such as viruses. A different universe, with different rules, might not, and likely would not, have that capacity. So along with “randomness”, it may be that cosmic “fine tuning” is partly responsible for what happens in the formation of viral capsids. (For development of this general line of argument, see Michael Denton’s Nature’s Destiny, a book which argues for both design and evolution.)
Now this line of criticism was expressed by the commentator “Rich” under Applegate’s column (though as mentioned earlier, the comments having been stripped away, the criticism is no longer visible). Rich’s comments were limited to empirical and rational argument, and free of ad hominem comments or personal abuse of any kind, but at the time, Applegate remained silent and did not engage Rich’s argument. (Odd behavior for a scientist whose model is being coherently criticized, but as Applegate’s dialogical behavior is not my subject here, I let that pass.)
Now, however, Applegate’s article faces a new opponent — this time no ID proponent, but a prominent EC leader who, in addition to being a major EC figure in the USA (important in ASA circles and a contributor to the key EC book Perspectives on an Evolving Creation), happens to be married to BioLogos’s current President. The EC I’m speaking of is Loren Haarsma.
When I read the first column by Haarsma, I was disappointed, because it seemed as if he was going to repeat the well-worn tropes employed by Applegate, Ard Louis, and other EC leaders about the unlimited creative power of randomness. I commented (in agreement with Joshua Swamidass) on the inadequacy of Haarsma’s first column here. However, reading his second column, I see that he is aware of the considerations I’ve explained above. He writes:
“In order for complex things to self-assemble out of simpler components, several things must be in place. First, there needs to be a steady input of orderly energy (such as sunlight). Second, something must cause the pieces to move about randomly and encounter each other in a variety of ways (such as thermal energy). Third, the pieces themselves must have the right properties so that, when they encounter each other in just the right way, with neither too much nor too little energy, they remain stuck together in new combinations.” [emphasis added]
He later in the piece refers specifically to the “magnetized-pieces-in-a-jar-become-model-virus-capsid” example (even providing the same video clip), and writes:
“Another man-made example of self-assembly is this set of plastic pieces with embedded magnets which, when put into a jar and shaken, self-assembles into a spherical construct. This sphere was inspired by how the protein coats of viruses self-assemble. For self-assembly to happen, the individual pieces must be crafted properly, with pieces of the right shapes and magnets neither too weak nor too strong, and the amount of shaking must be neither too small nor too great. This is yet another example of the importance of fine-tuning.”
It certainly must provide a sense of vindication to “Rich” when one of America’s leading TEs, and the husband of the head of BioLogos, confirms the analysis which he presented to Kathryn Applegate 8 years ago, i.e., that randomness alone, in the absence of constraints, does not create elaborate and sophisticated systems of interacting parts.
But will Dr. Applegate read Dr. Haarsma’s analysis? Will she see the point? Will she write a new column, indicating that her previous columns on the subject, which exaggerated the creative powers of sheer randomness and failed to mention the non-random structures and rules operating in the relevant environment, were oversimplifications and need modification? Time will tell.
In the interim, it seems, the unwritten rule I mentioned above still applies. Dr. Haarsma, in stressing the need for certain conditions in which randomness must operate, did not (as one would expect when previous BioLogos statements claimed something different) add, “I have to disagree with my esteemed colleague Dr. Applegate on this point”; he did not mention the defects in the discussion of randomness in her earlier columns, or in the writings of Ard Louis. To be sure, as I said above, it is possible that he had not read those specific columns, and it might be over-interpreting his silence about them to suggest that he was delicately avoiding public disagreement; yet, as Dr. Haarsma has long been one of the leading ECs in America, and knows just about everyone in the movement (having met most of them multiple times at ASA conferences and in other contexts), and knows all the typical arguments that have been advanced by EC leaders over the past 20 years, and is married to a woman who works in the same office as Dr. Applegate, it’s hard to imagine that he isn’t aware of exaggerated, unqualified claims for the power of randomness coming from her and from others in the EC camp. One would therefore expect him to refer to these claims, if only in an aside, and to gently chide those ECs who make them. But if he has done that here, I don’t see it. The important disagreement is passed over in silence.