Randomness and Other Metaphors in the Theory of Evolution
Popular descriptions of evolution can employ many value-laden metaphors such as survival of the fittest, selfish genes, or random mutations.
Popular descriptions of evolution can employ many value-laden metaphors such as survival of the fittest, selfish genes, or random mutations. While these can have precise scientific meanings, they are unfortunately often misappropriated in popular natural (a)theological arguments, used both by religiously motivated anti-evolutionists and metaphysical naturalists, that look at the natural world and then extract theological meaning (or lack of meaning) from it. In this talk I will re-consider some of these metaphors. For example, the word “random” can have overtones such as purposeless. But in science and engineering we often use methods that employ random number generators to precisely calculate well-defined properties. There are many parallels between these methods and the way that evolution works. Technically these are often called “stochastic” methods, so it might have been better if we scientists had used the term stochastic mutations, instead of random mutations, since the former term is scientifically correct but runs less risk of carrying unnecessary metaphysical baggage. Helping people avoid misunderstandings of these metaphors may allow them to better appreciate just how beautiful the science of evolution really is.