Distinctions: “Randomness”

In our first distinctions video -- featuring biologists Sean Carroll and Kerry Fulcher, Smithsonian Human Origins Program director Rick Potts, and Old Testament scholar John Walton -- we look at the concept of randomness. While it is understood by many simply to mean blind, undirected and purposeless, in truth, randomness is far more complex and awe-inspiring than this overly-simplified definition.

To discuss the video, see our blog post.

Video Transcription

Loretta Cooper, The BioLogos Foundation: Part of the human experience is joy in that which is good, true and beautiful. Our eye seems to delight in shape, color and design. We witness these patterns now only in that which we create, but also in the work of God as creator, in the heavens and certainly in living things, So, the idea that evolution takes place through small random events seems shockingly out of place in such an ordered universe.

Dr. William Lane Craig, Talbot School of Theology: If the universe were the product of chance, the odds are overwhelming that the universe would be life prohibiting.

Dr. Stephen Meyer, Discovery Institute: If the idea is that you have a purely un-directed process producing the appearance of design and un-directed process is not guided or directed in any way.

Dr. Michael Behe, Lehigh University: When you look at biochemical systems, you see a lot of different things that don't look like they were unplanned, don't look like that were spontaneous. They look very much like they needed forethought and intelligence to produce them.

Cooper: The assumption in all of these observations is that randomness always leads to disorder or that randomness is the equivalent of purposelessness, but is that necessarily the case? As in most things involving science, the truth is much more complex and awe-inspiring.

Dr. Sean Carroll, Howard Hughes Medical Institute: Let's just kind of back up for a second and take a breath and talk about random processes. Here's a random process that I think we'll all celebrate. If you have, let's say, many children, are any two of them identical? Not twins. No. And why is that? That's a random process. That's the sorting of chromosomes in the making of sperm and egg. It's also a little bit of genetic recombination in the making of sperm and egg where the genes get shuffled just a little bit in each generation. That's random. That's a contributor to the diversity of people, even the diversity of individual families and that's the component of randomness.

Dr. Rick Potts, Smithsonian Human Origins Program: There's a lot of information out there that tries to redefine science and redefine evolution in ways that are simply untenable to people. So, for example, the idea that evolution is only a random process doesn't make any sense to scientists because look at all the order that exists in the biological world and the process of natural selection, which is upheld by some people as if it's a condemnation of science itself. In fact, it's a beautiful process that is the basic process of ordering of the natural world. That it's not random, but it's a matter of how organisms evolve their beautiful adaptations to the world and are tested when the world changes. We can see this through geological time scales and even in the present as the environment changes that it tests the survivor, the survivor ability of organisms.

Carroll: What's not random is the process of natural selection. So, Darwin perceived that those that competed a bit better, those that had a little bit of an advantage, whether you want to think about out on the savanna, the gazelle that's just a little faster than the other gazelles. That whatever genetic recipe goes into making that gazelle a little bit faster, that genetic recipe is going to be preserved over the other genetic recipes and that process of some genetic combinations being better than others, that's the non-random part of evolution.

Dr. Kerry Fulcher, Point Loma Nazarene University: I think God's creation is continuing to unfold and as it continues to unfold and we have new species that are being generated, that's not in absence of God's creative power and in God's creative work. My view is that he's using evolutionary processes to bring out more and more diversity along the way, just as using gravitational forces to hold the universe together in a way.

Dr. John Walton, Wheaton College: We've lost a lot of that because we kind of have God make the stuff. And then OK, that's done and we talk about creation as something from the past, a past activity of God that he's finished with. This view that sees the focus on God's functioning and control and reign as he rests in his temple is one that has a much more hands-on theology connected to it. In that sense, creation continues today. We usually think of it as God sustaining.

Cooper: Randomness creates the great variation we see in all living things, and yet the selection process isn't random at all. But what is most important to recognize is that these scientific explanations do not rule out God's intimate, purposeful involvement in his creation.

Understanding the role of randomness in evolutionary history is one of the challenges for us as Christians, but it's not unlike the daily events of our own lives, like a phone call from an old friend or a chance meeting on an airplane. All of these can seem like small random things in the moment, but when viewed through the lens of time and experience, we often see how God has worked through that which seems random.