Misconceptions about Randomness

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March 15, 2013 Tags: Divine Action & Purpose

Today's entry was written by Kathryn Applegate. Please note the views expressed here are those of the author, not necessarily of The BioLogos Foundation. You can read more about what we believe here.

Misconceptions about Randomness

Note: Originally posted April 7, 2010.

Christians often equate randomness with an atheistic worldview, but randomness is an essential feature of many God-ordained biological processes, from the union of egg and sperm during reproduction to the generation of antibodies by the immune system. In fact, based on its prevalence in the natural world, one might conclude that randomness is one of God’s favorite mechanisms for creating life!

Here I want to clarify a few misconceptions about randomness before moving on, in future posts, to describing other biological processes that make use of it.

Misconception #1

Randomness is like “God of the Gaps”. With time, advancements in science will allow us to make accurate predictions in previously “random” systems.

Isaac Newton’s famous three laws of motion, described in his 1687 classic Principia Mathematica, have empowered physics students for centuries. Using these and Newton’s universal law of gravitation, you can predict the trajectory of everything from pool balls to planets. By the early nineteenth century, the idea of a “clockwork universe” was firmly established, and scientists believed that with time, science would be unlimited in its predictive power.

Although it could be true that we live in a “clockwork universe,”1 two developments in the twentieth century shattered our hopes of having a fully predictable universe. The first was quantum mechanics, which describes how things work at an extremely small scale. One of the major discoveries in quantum mechanics was Werner Heisenberg’s “uncertainty principle,” which holds that the more certain one is about the location of a particle, the less certain in principle one can be about its momentum, and vice versa. At the quantum level, then, our predictive powers are ultimately limited.

Another discovery that destroyed all hope for a fully predictable universe was chaos. Mathematically chaotic systems are those which are extremely sensitive to changes in their initial conditions. Even fully deterministic systems can exhibit chaotic behavior and act in unpredictable ways. Consider a famous function, the logistic map2:

I know equations make people nervous, but stay with me! This one does some fascinating things. Here’s how it works: start with some initial value for x at time t = 0, and plug that in for x(t). Let’s start with = 0.2. R is just some constant value; let it be 2. Now we use the function to calculate the outcome in the next time step, t = 1:

We can use this value as input for the next step, and repeat this process over and over to find the output at each time point.

What happens? The answer is plotted in the figure below on the left. If we follow along the x-axis, which represents time, we see that the value of x goes toward 0.5 and stays there forever.

What if we start with the same , but increase R to 3.1? Following the same process as before, we get a very different result! The middle graph shows that the outcome oscillates between two values over time.

If you make R = 4, the function does something very strange. In the right-most plot, the function still fluctuates up and down, but it begins to look irregular. And if we change the initial condition, , just slightly, from .20 (blue solid line) to 0.2000000001 (red dotted line), we see they are virtually the same until somewhere around t = 14. After that point, they exhibit completely different behavior.

Several observations can be made here. First, the same equation can produce three different classes of behavior, simply by changing R and . These classes are called fixed-point (left), periodic (middle), and chaotic (right). Below the values of R that lead to chaos, the system is not sensitive to the initial value of . Over time, the system will either become a flat line or oscillate.

When R is greater than approximately 3.569946, however, the system becomes chaotic, and the outcome is extremely sensitive to changes in the initial value of . What this means is you would have to know the value of to infinite precision to predict its long term behavior. Since this is impossible in any kind of real-world application, the detailed behavior of a chaotic system is impossible to predict.

If this is true even for a simple, completely deterministic equation, how much more difficult is it to predict the behavior of a more complicated chaotic system, like a hurricane! Even the poor weathermen here in San Diego get it wrong sometimes, and the weather here doesn’t change very much.

So, between the uncertainty principle in quantum mechanics, and the sensitivity of chaotic systems, we now know that we are fundamentally limited in our predictive power––not just temporarily. Whether the systems we study are truly indeterministic is another (interesting) question, which of course has implications for divine action.

Misconception #2

Randomness means anything can happen, and all possibilities are equally likely.

People often think randomness means the outcome is completely open-ended, but you can’t roll a 7 on a 6-sided dice, nor draw a red marble from a bag of blue ones. Even random processes function according to rules. (The logistic map in the last section is another good example.)

Sometimes, the word random is used to mean unbiased. If you want to know who will win a political election, you make sure to poll a random sample of people, not just those hanging around a Tea Party rally. But the word random doesn’t have to mean that all possibilities are equally likely. When maternal and paternal chromosomes get together during conception, they exchange long sequences of DNA in a process called recombination. We now know that recombination happens more often in some places of the genome than others, but the specific sites where it will occur in a given embryo are impossible to predict. So recombination is random in the sense that it is unpredictable, but not in the sense that all outcomes are equally likely.

Misconception #3

Randomness always leads to disorder.

On the contrary, randomness often leads to exquisitely ordered and complex outcomes. In my next post, we'll watch a simulation of viral self-assembly from individual proteins bouncing around in a jar. You could repeat the simulation a thousand times and always get the same result, even though the particular assembly pathway would look different each time. That is, if the starting materials are present and the conditions (temperature, pH, etc) are right, you will always get a beautiful, highly symmetric virus. Random motion is the mechanism used to search “solution space” for a favorable outcome.

Fractals provide another great example of patterns emerging from randomness. Fractals are chaotic patterns with the same basic property: no matter how much you “zoom in,” the overall structure is maintained. Clouds, trees, crystals, and snow flakes are naturally-occurring fractals.

You can construct a fractal like the Sierpinski triangle shown at left by rolling a die and following simple rules.3 If 100 people in a room independently rolled a die 100 times and followed the rules, they would all have different sequences of rolls, but all would end up with the same pattern!

Thus, for many random processes, the fine details may be unpredictable along the way, but the macro-level outcome is foreseeable.

Summary

“Randomness,” when taken to mean unconquerable unpredictability, is inherent in many processes created by God, from hurricanes to viral assembly to genetic recombination to antibody production. Randomness means that the details of the future are unpredictable, and will stay that way regardless of scientific progress. That said, randomness is constrained by rules and often leads to complex patterns and macro-level order. More misconceptions about randomness no doubt lurk in all our minds, leading to suspicion when we hear phrases like, “evolution is random.” But hopefully, this post can help to clarify some of the confusion.

Notes

1. Philosophers of physics still debate whether there is some underlying deterministic structure to the universe, or whether events at the quantum level are indeterministic. See http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/determinism-causal/#QuaMec. In either case, we are fundamentally limited in our ability to make predictions about the outcomes of quantum events.
2. The logistic map is one of the best-studied equations in dynamical systems theory. The particular values used in the figure were taken from Melanie Mitchell’s excellent book, Complexity: A Guided Tour, and were created using MATLAB.
3. Thanks to Isaac Yonemoto for pointing this out.


Kathryn Applegate is Program Director at The BioLogos Foundation. She received her PhD in computational cell biology at The Scripps Research Institute in La Jolla, Calif. At Scripps, she developed computer vision software tools for analyzing the cell's infrastructure, the cytoskeleton.

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hanan-d - #77484

March 15th 2013

Let me extrapolate a bit here and you can correct me where I am wrong.

One of the things that believers show is the fine-tuning and amazing order to the universe. Isn’t the implication of your post that randomness will eventually always find some order or even “design”? Haven’t you just thrown out God from this very argument that believers always use?


lancelot10 - #77485

March 15th 2013

I cant believe in randomness as a Christian since God controls every single atom and knows the end before the beginning. God does not let go of any part of his creation to the laws of chance. To the human things might appear random but not to God - even a sparrow or a hair on our heads dying is known to God - who knew us before we were born.


Merv - #77509

March 16th 2013

The point in the post as I read it is that even phenomena that appear random to us (and even *are* random according to all the statistical criteria we have at our disposal) those phenomena are still within God’s sovereignty.  And to help drive this point home, since this agitates us and we Christians wring our hands in perplexity over the thought of God using something that appears entirely uncontrolled to us,—to help drive this point home, Dr. Applegate is reminding us that randomness does not always equal an end result of disorder or chaos (chaos in the Biblical sense).   In short, ‘random’ does not equal ‘wild or unconstrained’.  Or to draw an example from engineering terms:  just because fluid flow through a pipe is no longer laminar flow (smooth) but becomes turbulent (chaotic), doesn’t mean that the hose won’t still fill the bucket in a fairly predictable amount of time due to hose dimension, fluid viscosity, pressure parameters and so forth.  It just means that it has become impossible (for us) to predict or trace the path of a single particle coursing within that turbulence.  Knowing this might help relieve our fears that God’s sovereignty has been placed in jeopardy as if such a thing was so fragile as to warrant our concerned maintenance.

-Merv


Eddie - #77527

March 16th 2013

Yes, Merv, it is true that “random” processes can sometimes produce order in physical systems.  But neither here, nor in any of her other BioLogos columns (which are now being recycled), did Dr. Applegate ever establish that “randomness” could account for the origin of life, or that “random mutations” (even with the aid of natural selection) could build new body plans.  Physical and chemical systems are much, much simpler than biological systems, and one can’t simply apply the results of one to the other.  

In any case, when Dr. Applegate published these reprinted posts on “randomness” two or three years ago, many intelligent critical comments were appended to them by Biologos readers—comments which have now conveniently vanished down the memory hole.  She did not respond to any of the criticisms then, and I have no reason to think that she will respond to any now.  So I’ll give this series a pass.

I wish that the debate between Dr. Applegate and Dr. Behe, which took place at Wheaton a year or so ago, had been published on the internet.  Doubtless “randomness” came up during the discussion, with Behe trying to show its shortcomings and Applegate trying to defend it, but we don’t know what was said.  Indeed, none of the four debates between TE and ID people at that conference were published.  Does anyone know why?


Kathryn Applegate - #77608

March 19th 2013

Hi Eddie,

I’m sorry this wasn’t helpful to you. Randomness continues to be a troubling concept for many Christians, and in the original series, I attempted to provide a few ways to think about it from a scientist’s perspective.  It was never intended to be exhaustive or show how randomness “could account for the origin of life.”  I don’t think it can!  Selection, that other side of the coin, is decidedly non-random and very elegant indeed, in my opinion.

There was some discussion of randomness at the Wheaton event with Dr. Behe last year, but most of my talk focused on methodological naturalism (which was just published in the ASA journal).  We had a very congenial dialogue, I thought.

Best,

Kathryn


Eddie - #77612

March 19th 2013

Dear Dr. Applegate:

Thanks for your gracious reply.

Could you expand upon your remark about randomness and the origin the life? If you don’t think that randomness—by which I mean the unguided banging together of simple molecules (ammonia, methane, water, oxygen, nitrogen, carbon dioxide, etc.) in the primordial ocean, which produced slightly more complex molecules, which then banged about some more, producing still more complex molecules, eventually getting to self-replicating molecules—can account for the origin of life, what, in your view, is the best explanation of the origin of life?  And in answering, you don’t need to restrict yourself to “scientific” explanations.  I’m more interested in what you, as a whole, integrated human being, taking into account not just your scientific knowledge but also all your other knowledge, reason, and common sense,  think actually happened at the origin of life, than in whether your explanation should be classed as scientific, theological, philosophical, faith-based, etc.  I find that direct statements of “what I think actually happened” are extremely rare around here, and it would be refreshing if you offered one.


hanan-d - #77654

March 20th 2013

And just to expand on Eddie’s comment, where exactly IS God if as Eddie says:

“by which I mean the unguided banging together of simple molecules (ammonia, methane, water, oxygen, nitrogen, carbon dioxide, etc.) in the primordial ocean, which produced slightly more complex molecules, which then banged about some more, producing still more complex molecules, eventually getting to self-replicating molecules”

If Randomness can account for all of ordered life, is THAT big of a leap that we can eventually discover the origins of life through randomness and therefore literally dumping all notions for God? I hope you answer.


melanogaster - #77834

March 26th 2013

Gee, didn’t Dr. Applegate clearly state that she did not think that randomness, defined scientifically, could not account for the origin of life—that selection would be involved?

And do you think that your attempt to redefine “randomness” as a creationist’s cartoonish misrepresentation of an abiogenesis hypothesis contributes to meaningful dialogue?


Eddie - #78518

April 14th 2013

Dear Dr. Applegate:

I’m glad you had a congenial dialogue with Behe.  It would have been a boon for the people who could not make it to the conference if that dialogue had been preserved, even if only as a transcript of an audiotape.  Do you happen to know why the conference proceedings were not recorded?  

A question of contents:  are you implying that the origin of life can be accounted for by randomness combined with selection?  What sort of “selection” do you believe was operative prior to the existence of life itself?


Merv - #77510

March 16th 2013

My above post (77509) was intended as a reply to hanan-d (77484), not to Lancelot’s post.  Sorry for the  misplacement.


Merv - #77536

March 16th 2013

Ahh -now I see this was a recycled post.  I knew the other more recent one was but failed to look carefully at the top of this one.

I’m with you, Eddie, that this remains an open-ended question as to how many mechanisms are involved.  When some insist that randomness (even with ecological or adaptive constraints) tells the complete story I stand beside you in the skeptics corner.  But what if we just consider that randomness is at least part of the story?  I.e.—is “a” mechanism instead of “the” mechanism.  Would you find your concerns mollified?

-Merv


Eddie - #77539

March 16th 2013

Hi, Merv!

Randomness constrained within the context of a plan, I have no problem with, any more than I have a problem with natural laws operating within the context of a plan.  But by a plan I mean an overarching design—a structure for evolution that will determine the outcomes, at least all the major outcomes, if not every tiny one.  The problem with neo-Darwinism is that there are no “laws” governing the outcomes of evolution (only vague general principles such as that “unfit” creatures won’t survive); everything really depends on contingencies.  And the whole point of NDE is that design can be fully simulated by such a purely contingent process, even in the absence of any plan.  I see nowhere in any of Applegate’s columns here where she challenges or even shows hesitation about accepting this notion.  I see this as both scientifically and theologically problematic.

Some of her ideas about randomness producing order, she seems to get from Ard Louis.  But I’ve looked at Ard Louis’s research, and much of it is more about self-organization than about “randomness” as normally understood.  The capacity of matter for self-organization might well imply a high level of prior design; in the examples of viral capsids etc. used by Louis and Applegate, I think it does.  They aren’t just any old random particles that form nice capsids.  They are particles with a nice molecular fit.  The question arises where the fit comes from.  The universe just happens to be that way?  This is where more TEs should read Michael Denton.  I don’t find “just happens to be that way” a very plausible explanation for the fine tuning and multiple fits and overlaps that Denton describes, running from the Big Bang right up to the human brain.

So I keep coming back to design, and even more to “evidence for design”—a phrase which is the ultimate hot-button expression for certain TEs, especially those in the life sciences who have been taught (since their very first population genetics course) the biologist’s catechism that design is not necessary, and especially those amateur theologians who fancy themselves as “Wesleyan” freedom-lovers rather than “Calvinist” believers in Divine sovereignty, and who thus conclude that God would never do anything so tyrannical as to compel evolution to produce certain designed outcomes.  (A nice-guy God would let nature “do its own thing,” 1960s-style.)

Be that as it may, Merv, I would be interested in your reply to my lengthy piece on the other thread:

http://biologos.org/blog/searching-for-motivated-belief-understanding-john-polkinghorne-part-one

My reply was #77092, on March 3rd.  I’ll look there for a response every now and then.

Best wishes.


Merv - #77548

March 16th 2013

Tomorrow [Sunday] afternoon I should have a chance to look back at that and give a reply.  I’ve got too much I need to do yet tonight and don’ t like to feel rushed.  Thanks for the specific reminder.

-Merv


Jon Garvey - #77554

March 17th 2013

Think of a number - any number. You’ll be familiar with the party tricks that start there and use simple algorithms to produce an apparently telepathic solution.

The secret of the Sierpinski triangle isn’t the randomness of the dice throws, but  adherence to the organisation of the simple rules; just as the assembly of the virus is the result of the precise specification of its DNA, not the Brownian motion of the surrounding molecules.

It’s analogous to my making a list of wildflowers to collect, and picking them as I find them whilst wandering lonely as a cloud. My search is random, but the specification is highly organised. Would we have any sense of wonder that the bouquet ended up the same every time? In fact even my flower search is not random, because I could search Death Valley or the Atlantic Ocean forever without beginning to organise my collection.

Both examples confirm the intuition whoever it was who said that randomness merely represents a pattern we’ve not yet identified. The lesson they would actually suggest, vis a vis evolution, is that when we understand a process (eg mutation) to be random, it’s most likely that it represents a pattern of organisation we haven’t noticed (or maybe don’t want to look for).


melanogaster - #77843

March 26th 2013

“…just as the assembly of the virus is the result of the precise specification of its DNA, not the Brownian motion of the surrounding molecules.”

So then any artificial evolution experiment that deleted an essential part of this allegedly “precise specification” and regenerated viral infectivity would falsify your hypothesis, correct?


GJDS - #77578

March 18th 2013

Jon, (#77554)

I understand what you are saying, but I feel that it is important to be blunt with the treatment of ‘random’ – perhaps it is unkind of me but I cannot help but think of ‘hillbillies with degrees’ when I read these type of discussions.

I have just looked through a paper that takes a philosophical look at quantum mechanics – I do not pretend to understand all of the maths because this is not my specialised field – however the author makes the distinction between generalised treatments of maths and what science can deal with as a scientific fact. We have statements such as in this post: “Randomness means that the details of the future are unpredictable, and will stay that way regardless of scientific progress.” I cannot understand what this would mean.

To continue with my remark by giving a simple example, we can consider the general treatment of quantum mechanics (QM) (all maths included), and we find that the only general solution that scientists can achieve is for a hydrogen atom. Now I need to slow down here, by saying that this is implausible – by this I mean we cannot find any Universe (remember general treatment in maths means just that, no constraints) that consists of a single hydrogen atom. I speak as a scientist who has carried out QM molecular modeling for longer than I care to remember – the point to this is not ‘regardless of scientific progress’ but rather how science is done. We simply cannot speak as scientists who encompass the world within our concepts, mental gymnastics, or scientific activities. I get a little irritated when I am confronted with nonsense that seeks to explain notions such as random and unpredictability in so called scientific terms. I suspect this fault runs through the TE thinking. The paper I refer to examines the notion of emergence, but such thinking includes random, complexity, and similar notions. The author also shows us that solving the maths for even simple systems such as a small molecule is beyond our abilities, even with our supercomputers – think of what this means to systems of immense complexity such as the bio-world. The question should not be a matter of understanding (or not) and unpredictability, but rather what scientific understanding amounts to and how this provides insights of this world.


Jon Garvey - #77579

March 18th 2013

GJDS

Thanks for the corrective - I was thinking purely in terms of the examples given, in which order was being presented as arising from randomness (“think of a number” in case 1 and “Brownian motion” in case 2). In both cases, it seemed to me, whatever the cause of the unpredictability (“human freedom” or “statistical mechanics”) it was incidental to the ordered result, not causative.

I agree with your post. The subtext here is (if I too may be blunt) “hillbilly theology” to reassure Christians that the customary talk of  randomness in evolution doesn’t prevent God using it for the diversity of life. I

suppose there are may be a few naive people who hold that wherever the word “random” appears, disaster must result, but one doesn’t need a whole series of articles to defuse that: a couple of well-chosen Bible verses would do the job. But the big issue, not addressed at all in these articles (remember they’re recycled from a year or two ago), is in the phrase you quote “the details of the future are unpredictable.”

The epistemological limitations of science are one question, but a relatively trivial one. If indeterminate quantum events are, as they seem to be, a significant factor in genetic mutation, then the course of evolution would be intrinsically unpredictable. So the big issue is whether they are intrinsically unpredictable to God as well as to scientists, because if so it would be futile for God to “intend” mankind since he might, it is said, simply have to wait and see what turns up like the rest of us have to.

In other words, can God’s supercomputer do the maths on the molecules (I speak figuratively - it is only simple folk who think that God knows by computation)? This is the very issue on which many TEs shrug their shoulders and start to waffle about mystery, to pretend the Bible leaves the question open and so on.

They want to retain a high view of indeterminacy (so high as to subject God to it too) and yet they seldom clearly assert that God cannot plan the future in detail; to do so would close the door to God’s foresight and planning of the human race’s existence (which most want to retain), to his foresight of every event in salvation history, including the Saviour to be born in Bethlehem in the days of Herod, to his sovereignty over human history which is the warp and woof of the Bible, to the reassurance of his personal protection from future harm and to all the eschatological promises on which Christian hope depends.

Those are not the sort of issues over which one ought to be shrugging shoulders or telling stories about fractals.


GJDS - #77582

March 18th 2013

Jon, The short response is this: this subject matters commences with a poor understanding of science and goes to an even poorer understanding of theology. I prefer to start with the limitations of science, and within this see high quality scientific insights, and AFTER this ask if these can help us obtain deeper theological insights.


Seenoevo - #77748

March 23rd 2013

Eddie wrote:

“…certain TEs… and especially those amateur theologians who fancy themselves as “Wesleyan” freedom-lovers… thus conclude that God would never do anything so tyrannical as to compel evolution to produce certain designed outcomes.  (A nice-guy God would let nature “do its own thing,” 1960s-style.)”

 

I’ve never heard it put that way, but I like it.

I think Eddie’s on to something big here.


Prem Isaac - #78779

April 19th 2013

My interest in responding to this article is to contest Randomness as a metaphysical feature of the real world, as a necessary step to show why Intelligent Design can be considered as a viable option.

This article appears to reflect an unfamiliarity with the difference between considering the concept of randomness metaphysically, (i.e. as a feature of the way things really are), and epistemologically (i.e., a a feature of how or how much we know about something).

Specifically, the author first says that randomess is metaphysical i.e. an “essential feature” (as opposed to accidental or contingent) of many processes, and then switches it around to mean “unconquerable unpredictability” which is an epistemic issue.

The example cited from quantum theory illustrates the confusion between the two ways of looking at the concept. Clearly, the mathematical treatment of the motion of extremely small particles is a quantification of uncertainty. The Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle is a statement about the limits of our knowledge, not a statement about whether or not particles can or cannot have precise locations, velocities, and trajectories. By definition, it is a probabilistic theory, and the wave function merely tracks the evolution of the probability that a particle’s position or velocity will take certain values. It does not even claim to foretell actual positions or velocity. Metaphysically therefore, the theory is not a deterministic one.

The notion that randomness actually characterizes particles is due not to the Heisenberg Principle, but rather to the Copenhagen interpretation of Quantum mechanics, due to Niels Bohr, Max Born, and others.  This so-called “orthodox” interpretation re-works  the actual BEING of particles by holding that prior to observation, these particles exist simultaneously in distinct states of location and veloctiy. This is not a direct requirement of the theory itself, or an inevitable consequence of the mathematics.

It is a well known fact that not everything in mathematics has a corresponding correlate in physical reality. For example, one can set up a quadratic equation describing the area and perimeter of an actual soccer field whose length is presently unknown, and obtain 2 solutions to the length of the field which satisfy the equation. Are we to suppose therefore, that the the field actually exists simultaneously with 2 different lengths? And what if one of the solutions is a negative number? Is it necessary that we believe that the soccer field has a positive area and perimeter but somehow has a negative length in reality? Clearly, one is able to tell the difference between mathematical possibility and actual physical reality. Engineers routinely discard impossible solutions in favor of what actually corresponds to known experience.

Hence the Copenhagen Interpretation is not necessary, as Einstein, David Bohm, and others have stated. Even if we were not to consider Quantum Mechanics but simply the Many-body problem, or Statistical mechanics, we will find that our inability to track each and every particle in the ensemble is precisely that - it is WE who are UNABLE to keep track of them. In no way do physicists concede that our inability to know therefore implies that the trajectories of the particles (think of planets, asteroids, comets in the solar system) are actually random.


Furthermore, the important question isnt whether randomness always leads to chaos, but rather, when beginning with chaos, whether randomness can lead to order, not just once or twice, but on such a grand scale and on multiple levels so as to produce the immense biological diversity and functional design that we see. This the author has not done.

Thus, the tenability of “randomness” as an explanation for how processes actually work (as opposed to our limited knowledge about them) is quite thin. If on the one hand, proponents of evolution are unable to defend metaphysical randomness, and on the other hand ID proponents are able to show why the probability of our biological world appearing through chance is undeniably and unconquerably miniscule, then they are justified in calling  evolution into question at a very basic level, and Design remains on the table as an option.


Eddie - #78794

April 20th 2013

Prem Isaac:

Thanks for your clear post.  Other than the newfangled (and historically wrong) spelling “miniscule” (it’s properly “minuscule”), I thought it was great.

It’s unlikely Dr. Applegate will respond to your remarks.  Her habit in her columns is to respond at most only once, and only very early on, to commenters, and then not to return either for follow-up questions or for new questions.  She has not replied to any comment for weeks.  Further, this column is a reprint of one she issued a few years ago, and I don’t think she has much interest in revisiting it.

Her main point seems to be that mathematically random events can have predictable cumulative outcomes.  Well, no mathematician denies that.  But she is hinting at an application to evolution, i.e., even though the mutations are random, they can still produce a coherent outcome, e.g., man can come by a series of genetic accidents out of primitive ocean slime.  But of course, biology is not pure mathematics, and it’s not even physics.  Biological systems are different in kind from purely physical systems, and any claim that randomness in mutations can produce complex ordered phenomena over the long run needs to be discussed in detail in the biological context; nothing in this article accomplishes that; in fact, nothing in the entire series of articles Dr. Applegate wrote on “randomness” accomplishes that.

The reason BioLogos is so exercised about “randomness” (the concept is in the title of, or the main topic of, probably a dozen columns!) is that, in the outdated neo-Darwinian picture of evolution to which BioLogos subscribes, random mutations are the main engine of evolutionary creation, with natural selection acting as the filter.  “Randomness” has to be defended here because the geneticists here still subscribe to Mayr, Dobzhansky, Ayala, etc. as the great theorists of evolution.  But in fact evolutionary theory has moved on.  We have Sean Carroll who does evo-devo—not a column about him on the whole site.  We have Shapiro who thinks that organisms can re-engineer their own genomes in response to environmental stimuli—he’s never been mentioned here.  We have the Altenberg group of cutting-edge evolutionary biologists who are exploring the role of pure physics constraints in evolutionary change—nothing is said here about them, either.  Nor is the critique of neo-Darwinism by Lynn Margulis ever discussed here.  Basically, all these columns on randomness are of almost no relevance to the evolutionary theory of the 21st century.  They all spring out of the 20th-century neo-Darwinism in which the BioLogos life scientists were trained.  (And they aren’t even up to date on the 20th century stuff, as the failure to reference Margulis’s critique of neo-Darwinism shows.)

So it’s not just the physics of BioLogos that leaves much to be desired.  The biology is problematic as well.  Real evolutionary theory, in the research universities, carries on as if BioLogos does not exist, because BioLogos has not kept up with real evolutionary theory.


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