Random patterns

I have to sympathise with new BioLogos poster hanan-d, who is trying to discover whether theistic evolution implies or allows for God’s directive will or not. He’s mentioned on several occasions that his enquiry arises from a crisis of personal faith, not simply intellectual curiosity, and yet he continues to be met with dismissive one-liners from beaglelady, and accusations of ignorance, cowardice and bad faith by melanogaster. Admittedly those responses are what everybody gets from that particular double-act, but one might have wished for a more straightforward set of explanations, and perhaps more empathy.

After all, as the survey currently headlining the forum shows, theistic evolution is the firm option on origins of only 3% of US Protestant pastors, so if only out of self interest a more user-friendly apologetic would be helpful. By the way, hanan-d’s e-mails to the original poster and other BioLogos leaders have, he says, elicited no response at all. I admire his stickability in persisting, which seems greater than my own. At the heart of hanan-d’s difficulties, and of the obfuscatory replies he has received, is the role of randomness in evolution. And as BioLogos readers will know, randomness has been covered in a number of posts there, without really casting any light on what most Christians want to know – how does it relate to God’s purposes?

Something Bill Dembski wrote from his research on randomness has stuck with me: that randomness is actually a negative property, that is it is the the absence of a discernible pattern. Dembski points out that random number generators (which are designed to mimic randomness – an interesting philosophical concept in itself) are tested by a series of pattern-finders. If it passes them all, a machine is considered to be generating random numbers. But sometimes a new test will reveal an underlying pattern missed by the other algorithms. The conclusion might well be that, given an infinite number of such tests, all random patterns would be found to be non-random.

Randomness, then, is a pattern we haven’t yet identified. Which explains why randomness itself cannot be a cause of anything, because it isn’t anything. That illusion of randomness is true of mutations in evolution, taken in themselves.

Melanogaster, for example, is eager to show that with regard to how, when and where they arise, point mutations are not random at all. Evolutionary theory only requires that they be random with respect to fitness.

I find myself wondering how one could prove that in real situations, where mutations are only identified because they have survived (and thereby shown themselves at least approximating to fitness, even if near-neutral), and in which “fitness” cannot be quantified with reference to any particular feature of the environment, but only to survival or reproductive success. Where’s the target to measure your randomness from?

Googling this topic for enlightenment, I found on an “Evolution 101” website the example of head lice and their resistance to permethrin. The very instance exemplifies the problem I raised about the real natural situation: were it the case that headlice had some kind of James Shapiro natural genetic engineering capacity to mutate to respond directionally to common environmental stresses, they could hardly be expected to have developed the ability to respond to artificial poisons. It would be like accusing the US government of incompetence for not mounting an adequate response to alien mind parasites.

Be that as it may, the website proposed two hypothesis: the first that permethrin resistance was due to the selection of existing resistant variants of head louse, and the second that they developed a new, targeted, mutation for resistance. Not surprisingly, the first scenario turns out to be the case.

That doesn’t actually teach  us anything positive about mutations being random with reference to fitness, as no new mutations were actually involved at all. But even so, the first hypothesis wouldn’t explain away the very first head-louse that developed resistance before exposure to permethrin, but in anticipation that it would become a problem years later.

You’ll laugh at that last point – who in their right mind would attribute prophetic ability to a natural evolutionary process? Permethrin resistant mutations first arose entirely by chance – presumably as neutral mutations… there’s that randomness again, only this time with clairvoyant ability.

The trouble for theistic evolutionists is that we’re not talking about a natural process, or at least not merely a natural process in the sense that it is entirely independent of God. That, indeed, is the very question under discussion: is evolution independent of God’s purpose or not? If God, in some way, directed the mutation that conferred permethrin resistance, then the fact that permethrin was invented maybe centuries later would be entirely consistent with his foresight. And that at least would be an explanation, as opposed to chance, which is no explanation at all: after all, why should evolution have produced, naturally, resistance to a synthetic compound?

Know your enemy - permethrin

Know your enemy – permethrin

To put that rather more logically, the core question in theistic evolution is final causation. Classic Christianity attributes the final causation in all events to God, “according to the plan of him who works out everything in conformity with the purpose of his will.” In Thomistic terms, a natural process is one in which the final purpose of God is achieved by natural processes of law, whose pattern we may observe, and by chance, whose pattern we don’t discern, which is why it’s called chance at all.

A couple of biblical examples suffice to demonstrate this: arrows fired “at a venture” presumably, as their efficient causes, include the average strength of bows and human arms, the workings of the human mind, and would, I suppose, be traceable to some sort of Gaussian distribution plotted on a map. But the final causation of each is a plan in the mind of God, as final cause, which in one instance at least included the death of King Ahab.

Similarly, the casting of a Urim-Thummin lot, which I believe probably had a simple yes-no answer pattern according to the actual design, nevertheless had its every decision “from the Lord.” So if that biblical theology is true, then the whole discussion of whether or not mutations are random with respect to fitness is simply meaningless. If it were somehow possible to pin down the parameters of the mutations and the fitness landscape enough to measure them, some kind of distribution pattern, like that of random arrow shots or random lot casts, would no doubt result… although I’m not sure that’s actually been proven, and Shapiro would deny it.

All that would tell us was that science was ignorant of the pattern underlying that distribution. But theology is not so ignorant – unless one adopts that kind of theology that makes God subject to randomness because he has limited his own knowledge so that his final causality no longer exists. But in that case, if God isn’t causing the pattern behind the mutational randomness, then who is?

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About Jon Garvey

Training in medicine (which was my career), social psychology and theology. Interests in most things, but especially the science-faith interface. The rest of my time, though, is spent writing, playing and recording music.
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4 Responses to Random patterns

  1. I too was distressed by the way beaglelady and melanogaster responded to hanan-d. His questions appeared mostly polite and genuine whereas their responses appeared obtuse and ill-mannered.

    I liked this post, not least because I could understand it, and also because it lacked the usual references to philosophers and others whom I have never read (!) Perhaps if I was retired ….. 🙂

    Also it made me think (as intended, I expect). On the subject of permethrin resistance I ended my musings by wondering what, if any, relationship our ancestors might have had with the ancestors of the Chrysanthemum and whether pyrethrin resistance might have evolved.

  2. Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:

    Hi Peter

    No doubt I’ll have all the non-medics complaining they don’t understand the post! Retirement’s definitely an advantage – any philosophy I’ve read has been since that fateful deed. At least you” have a reading list here when you finally gain your leisure!

    Just to be clear, I’d not be bold enough to pontificate on the the evolution of drug resistance. There may indeed be very plausible reasons to be uncovered scientifically (as there are for antibiotics, which the website I visited seemsed to gloss over in favour of a simple population genetics explanation). The point is that as soon as nature contains final causation (which is hard to deny effectively, whether it be divine action or secondary “natural” teleology, the story simply has to be seen differently.

  3. seenoevo says:


    Maybe when we evolve to be much more intelligent, we’ll retire the use of the word “random”.

    And lotteries and casino games, formerly called “games of chance”, will be renamed “games of patterns” (or “Games of patterns we have yet to discern; more evolution of intelligence needed”).

  4. Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:

    Seenoevo –

    Chance, like the poor, will always be with us. When the Lord returns, though, I’m quite certain games of chance will be nothing but an embararrassment for putting him to the test. In fact, I’d be prepared to bet on it …

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