2010-11-01

Evolution and God go together like Newtonian physics and Hobgoblins

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by Neil Godfrey

I tried to explain a technical computer fix to someone once over the phone. I ended up saying something like, “Press the X and Y keys, and a little man inside the computer will do ABC for you.”

Isn’t that the sort of fantasy nonsense that is required to reconcile evolution with a belief in a personal God who has a special thing for humans?

How does evolution work?

The combined effects of mutation, natural selection and the random processes of genetic drift cause changes in the composition of a population. Over a sufficiently long period of time, these cumulative effects alter the population’s genetic make-up, and can thus greatly change the species’ characteristics from those of its ancestors.

That’s from Evolution: A Very Short Introduction by Brian and Deborah Charlesworth. The back cover blurb contains a panegyric by Richard Dawkins.

Now that makes humans no more unique, or pre-ordained, than sponges. There is no room for supernatural intervention in the terms “natural selection” or “random processes.”

If we like to think we can believe in evolution BUT God somehow guided it to make sure it produced us for Jesus Christ or Jehovah or Allah, then aren’t we kind of copping out, kidding ourselves, and really no different from the person who believes a computer works because there is a little man inside the thing making it work just right?

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  • 2010-11-02 02:55:43 UTC - 02:55 | Permalink

    I think many people believe that God has control over the effects of random chance.

    A more sophisticated doctrine might be that the earthly realm is affected by or sometimes mirrors the heavenly realm. On the subject of augury, the Bible seems to contain conflicting ideas. Is it OK to engage in divination, to try to discern the divine will via mechanical means? On the one hand, it’s against witches, seers, readers of entrails, etc. On the other, it appears that early prophets/judges divined God’s will by listening to the rustling of leaves or the babbling of brooks. The temple priests discovered the will of Yahweh using the urim and thummim, history’s first Magic 8-Ball. “Should we attack the Philistines?” … “Reply hazy. Try again.”

    Finally, if Luke can be believed, the Eleven’s first-round draft choice was determined by a process similar to drawing straws. The impression is that God can make his will known by determining the outcome of a game of chance.

    For people who think the supreme being of the universe can force the outcome of coin flips, lotteries, and hurricane landfalls, it isn’t a great leap to believe he also determined the outcome of natural selection. If this is the case, however, then they should be honest and call it “Supernatural Selection.”

  • GakuseiDon
    2010-11-02 06:19:52 UTC - 06:19 | Permalink

    Hmmm… the “little man did it” is the explanation for why things happen in the computer. But “God did it” isn’t the explanation for why there is evolution, anymore than “God” is the explanation for why the moon circles the earth. We Christians call that “gravity”.

    Let me rewrite your question:

    If we like to think we can believe in gravity BUT God somehow guides it to make the moon go around the earth, then aren’t we kind of copping out, kidding ourselves, and really no different from the person who believes a computer works because there is a little man inside the thing making it work just right?

    • 2010-11-02 11:04:52 UTC - 11:04 | Permalink

      Is this very different from the belief that angels or gods made the planets move?

      • GakuseiDon
        2010-11-02 14:31:27 UTC - 14:31 | Permalink

        Between “gravity does it” and “God does it”? I should hope so.

        • 2010-11-02 14:55:00 UTC - 14:55 | Permalink

          But does not the God believer want to have both? Gravity AND God do it? What would we think of an ancient pagan transported to a modern society and who opts to believe both gravity and the gods move the planets? The gods are using gravity as their plaything to make them move the way they want?

          • GakuseiDon
            2010-11-02 17:36:37 UTC - 17:36 | Permalink

            Is that what you believed when you were a believer? That gravity alone isn’t enough to explain the movement of the planets?

            It reminds me of the satirical website The Onion’s web article “Evangelical Scientists Refute Gravity With New ‘Intelligent Falling’ Theory”:
            http://www.theonion.com/articles/evangelical-scientists-refute-gravity-with-new-int,1778/

            Scientists from the Evangelical Center For Faith-Based Reasoning are now asserting that the long-held “theory of gravity” is flawed, and they have responded to it with a new theory of Intelligent Falling.

            “Things fall not because they are acted upon by some gravitational force, but because a higher intelligence, ‘God’ if you will, is pushing them down,” said Gabriel Burdett, who holds degrees in education, applied Scripture, and physics from Oral Roberts University.

            • 2010-11-02 23:46:20 UTC - 23:46 | Permalink

              No GDon, I did not believe “That gravity alone isn’t enough to explain the movement of the planets?” as you suggest, and I find it curious that you should twist my words to suggest that I could not possibly have believed the same as you or most other Christians who also believe in evolution. This is the sort of game McGrath plays.

              This is not really a McGrath-GDon game though. It is the sort of misrepresentation and twisting that one sooner or later learns riddles Christian apologetics across the board. It’s the avoidance game — the game of avoiding the clear challenges by deflecting them into semantic sleights of hand. It’s the sort of logicide that kept me trapped in biblical oriented thought for too many years.

              All I did was replace your “God” with a pagan “god” or Jewish or early Christian “angel”. That is enough to prompt the avoidance game.

              • GakuseiDon
                2010-11-03 06:05:23 UTC - 06:05 | Permalink

                Neil, I have no idea what I am avoiding, nor why I am avoiding it. Perhaps I misread your comment: “But does not the God believer want to have both? Gravity AND God do it?” If so, I apologize.

                Some early pagans thought that the orderly passage of the Moon and the sun indicated that they were living creatures. Since the sun (and the moon despite its waxing and waning) appeared eternal, it must also be a god. They moved themselves. Modern day Christians generally don’t believe that anything other than gravity moves the planets. Obviously God is the initiator of everything, so I suppose you can tack “AND God” onto any statement made about the natural world. It’s not something I do. I doubt you did it either, when you were a believer. If that is avoidance, then so be it.

                Let me rewrite your definition of evolution then, so we don’t avoid those clear challenges, and let me know if you see any issues:

                “How does evolution work?

                The combined effects of mutation, natural selection and the random processes of genetic drift ***AND God*** cause changes in the composition of a population. Over a sufficiently long period of time, these cumulative effects ***AND God*** alter the population’s genetic make-up, and can thus greatly change the species’ characteristics from those of its ancestors.”

                Any issues? Can you see any scope for misunderstanding?

              • 2010-11-03 06:16:34 UTC - 06:16 | Permalink

                Once you see how the crane works, you can put aside your theory of the sky-hook.

              • GakuseiDon
                2010-11-04 06:19:28 UTC - 06:19 | Permalink

                Ha! And what if someone said “cranes AND sky-hooks”? Explain to me what that means, without twisting words or avoiding implications. Good luck!

              • 2010-11-04 06:36:42 UTC - 06:36 | Permalink

                Suddenly, the overhead light turns on. “Holy Alternating Current!” says GakuseiDon, “It must have been a spirit, completing yonder circuit with his invisible, supernatural power!”

                “No,” I answer patiently, “There’s a second switch over here. Looky. See? I did it.”

                “Then it must have been you and the spirit who illuminated our fair room! Prove that it isn’t true!”

                “Um… Why?”

              • GakuseiDon
                2010-11-04 09:20:20 UTC - 09:20 | Permalink

                Exactly. The implication of “a AND b” is that “a” alone isn’t enough.

              • 2010-11-03 14:53:23 UTC - 14:53 | Permalink

                To complete the circle of where this is headed, just refer to the original post. Evolution precludes supernatural guidance. Once you have supernatural guidance it is no longer evolution. It is another variant of intelligent design.

              • GakuseiDon
                2010-11-04 06:17:56 UTC - 06:17 | Permalink

                Actually, that’s not the case. “Intelligent Design” and “guided evolution” are very different. The former is the concept that some features exist that could not possibly have come about via natural selection and mutation, i.e. “Irreducible complexity”.

                I don’t know anyone who argues “guided evolution” as an actual theory, but it is easy to imagine, e.g. God organized the meteorite 65 million years ago. Completely unprovable of course, but the mechanics of evolution is still enough to explain speciation.

  • 2010-11-02 09:38:38 UTC - 09:38 | Permalink

    Would you say Evolution: A Very Short Introduction is a good book worth reading?

    • 2010-11-02 10:56:45 UTC - 10:56 | Permalink

      The easiest book I have read on evoution is Jerry Coyne’s “Why Evolution Is True“.

      The Charlesworth book has a lot of detailed discussion of biology in the earlier chapters and that won’t be to everyone’s liking.

      But there are many such books. Shubin’s Your Inner Fish is also an easy introduction through the practical experience and methods of a palaeontologist. Shubin extends his discussion beyond just that one fish and demonstrates its relevance to supporting the larger picture.

  • rey
    2010-11-02 09:40:51 UTC - 09:40 | Permalink

    Isn’t that the sort of fantasy nonsense that is required to reconcile evolution with a belief in a personal God who has a special thing for humans?

    Not really. No matter what unguided evolution theorists say, evolution requires some kind of guidance. Look at evolutionary computing. It is impossible for a program to just evolve an algorithm out of nowhere. It has to have a guidance function. The simplest would be to take a string of fixed length and have the function compare the fitness of a population to how many letter match the target (but in this the evolution would be a show to produce an already exactly known result). A more complex implementation would be more generic, but guidance is always necessary none-the-less. It cannot be otherwise biologically. Evolution was guided to produce human beings, whether specifically or by a more generic fitness function. It cannot be any other way. And mere survivability is not a sufficient explanation either. But atheists are all idiots who waste their time attacking God (which is unprofitable) when they could be attacking religion. Immature.

  • rey
    2010-11-02 09:45:41 UTC - 09:45 | Permalink

    “If we like to think we can believe in evolution BUT God somehow guided it to make sure it produced us for Jesus Christ or Jehovah or Allah, then aren’t we kind of copping out, kidding ourselves, and really no different from the person who believes a computer works because there is a little man inside the thing making it work just right?”

    Again, your very question suggests its own absurdity. There is no man inside a computer making it work, but when we are talking about evolutionary computing there is always guidance in the form of a fitness function that guides the evolution, and although that fitness function is not a man inside the computer, it was created by a man outside the computer.

    A “Hello World!” Genetic Algorithm Example Maybe there should be a law that only computer programmers can comment on creation/evolution debate! Because honestly, those with degrees in the soft sciences (anything outside computer science) have no clue.

  • 2010-11-02 11:04:01 UTC - 11:04 | Permalink

    Evolution is not random. There are random elements in it, but natural selection preserves the structures that work. But it is “natural selection” that does this, not “supernatural selection”.

    Evolution predicts that humans will not be around in a few million years — intelligent life will either have proved itself a failure or there will be other beings instead of us.

    I don’t know how belief in a personal God can be truly reconciled with either of these fundamental propositions that are at the heart of evolution unless there is some fudging at the edges.

    • rey
      2010-11-02 11:46:24 UTC - 11:46 | Permalink

      But how did natural selection evolve? What process of selection was involved there?

      • 2010-11-02 12:15:28 UTC - 12:15 | Permalink

        It sounds as though you’re ascribing intentionality to a natural, non-sentient phenomenon. Terrain guides the river into the riverbed; but it doesn’t do so for a purpose. We don’t presume intentionality where none is needed.

        Computer programmers set limits to provide guidance to evolutionary programs. However, they’re mimicking natural phenomena. Just as we use pseudo-random numbers to approximate the reality of true randomness, programmers set intentional limits to approximate conditions in reality which have no intent.

        • rey
          2010-11-03 09:32:36 UTC - 09:32 | Permalink

          “Computer programmers set limits to provide guidance to evolutionary programs. However, they’re mimicking natural phenomena. Just as we use pseudo-random numbers to approximate the reality of true randomness, programmers set intentional limits to approximate conditions in reality which have no intent.”

          The “pseudo-random” mimicking of “true randomness” is about as random as the real thing. When you flip a coin it is all sort of factors that aren’t really random that are involved, the force you flipped it with, the moisture in the air, and so on. All of this creates the illusion of randomness. So “true randomness” is in reality “pseudo-random.”

          In the same way, the programmatic approximation of natural selection operates just as the real thing does. Natural selection has to have a goal even as the fitness function has a goal. Is is not a physical object like a riverbed but a function, and therefore what it “does” is not merely the result of physical properties (it has none).

          • 2010-11-04 04:52:41 UTC - 04:52 | Permalink

            You’re right. If we had access to all of the determinig factors that go into a coin flip, it would no longer be random. It would be deterministic; we would be able to predict each and every coin flip. As of now, we don’t actually know – or have the means of accounting for – every single variable that influences the results of a coin flip.

            But “natural selection” has no goal. Natural selection is a description. It’s just combining one random (or “pseudo-random”) thing with another random thing; the genotypical/phenotypical results of reproduction and the environment that this reproduced being lives in. It’s like saying “what’s the goal of addition?” Addition is just one number plus another number. What the result is depends on the two variables (in this case, the environment and the replicating entity) that go into the equation.

            Whichever replicated being produces more of its kind in a certain environemnt will be “selected”. An environment where having feathers is beneficial for reproduction will obviously produce more animals with feathers over time. An environment where having feathers is detrimental will obviously have less or no animals with feathers over time. That is natural selection.

            • 2010-11-04 05:14:46 UTC - 05:14 | Permalink

              J.Q.: It’s like saying “what’s the goal of addition?”

              It’s also like saying the goal of continental drift is to create a larger Atlantic ocean and create the Himalayas.

              As far as true randomness goes, it seems it only exists at the quantum level. For a great discussion of free will, intentionality, cause-and-effect, and neurobiology, see http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vCyKNtocdZE

  • 2010-11-02 15:40:30 UTC - 15:40 | Permalink

    I used to believe in God-guided evolution myself for many years, and it is only in more recent years and learning more about evolution I recognize this is an oxymoron. I don’t mean my question to be sarcastic.

    I posted something similar, with a more detailed argument and less catchy title, about a month ago, “What sort of God is compatible with evolution?

  • 2010-11-03 02:22:43 UTC - 02:22 | Permalink

    If believers think that a personal god is guiding evolution, this makes him out to be one of the most sadistic minds possible. The theory of evolution by natural selection makes sense of predation. A personal god who is the most benevolent being possible does not.

    Granted, you have to break a couple of eggs to make an omlette. But if a personal god really did guide evolution, he didn’t just break one or two eggs to make an omlette… he gathered every single egg ever produced by an egg laying species and broke every single one just to make an omlette that would satiate the appetite of a person with a stapled stomach.

    I think it was Alien 4 when Ripley walked into a room and saw all of the deformed clones of herself. She (along with the audience) was shocked at that sort of scene. How heartless would a person have to be to make living, breathing clones of someone and just keep them in a vat? But this is exactly what any sort of personal god who is guiding evolution has done. He’s maimed and tortured millions (possibly billions) of humans and non-human animals alike over the course of live on Earths 4 billion years of existence.

    What exactly was this personal god doing watching wolves eat a doe from the inside out 5 million years ago? Did he have some popcorn handy? What about the baby penguin who starves to death because its parents have died? How many atrocities as this god orchestrated over the past couple hundreds of millions of years? There is no way I would call a god who guided evolution “good”. There’s no way a god of love would design a world where for one living thing to live another living thing has to die; and most of the time die painfully.

    • rey
      2010-11-03 09:37:18 UTC - 09:37 | Permalink

      “There is no way I would call a god who guided evolution ‘good’.” That’s where the Gnostic concept of the Demiurge comes in then isn’t it?

  • GakuseiDon
    2010-11-04 14:10:54 UTC - 14:10 | Permalink

    No GDon, I did not believe “That gravity alone isn’t enough to explain the movement of the planets?” as you suggest, and I find it curious that you should twist my words to suggest that I could not possibly have believed the same as you or most other Christians who also believe in evolution. This is the sort of game McGrath plays.

    This is not really a McGrath-GDon game though. It is the sort of misrepresentation and twisting that one sooner or later learns riddles Christian apologetics across the board. It’s the avoidance game — the game of avoiding the clear challenges by deflecting them into semantic sleights of hand.

    Lovely! You know, I’m disappointed you went the “twisted words” and “misrepresentation” route again. We were talking about **explanations** for why things happen, and that’s how I read “Gravity AND God”. What’s your blog entry about if not to critique the notion of God playing an active part in what we can see today? OTOH, if “evolution” or “gravity” alone can explain what we see, why does “AND God” need to be included as part of the explanation? Isn’t that a bit confusing?

    You then followed up with the question:

    “What would we think of an ancient pagan transported to a modern society and who opts to believe both gravity and the gods move the planets?”

    Well, what would YOU think he means by saying “**both** gravity and the gods”? Wouldn’t you think he is saying that the gods play an active part? Wouldn’t you ask “what role do the gods play that gravity doesn’t?”? And wouldn’t you be slightly offended if he accused you of twisting his words?

    I’m not expecting an apology. It’s your blog, so you can make any comment that you like. But gee willikers you come across as a thin lettuce leaf short of a paranoid sandwich sometimes.

    • 2010-11-04 17:45:28 UTC - 17:45 | Permalink

      GDon, the question remains: Did God influence in any way the process of evolution to ensure humans were “the result”? That is what many God-believers certainly believe — they think to reconcile evolution with their faith by thinking God guided evolution. Now all your casuistry will not change that.

      And “that” compromise is really an oxymoron. If a process is “guided” it is not “evolution” according to a mix of random and natural selection processes. If it is something more than those processes then it is something else, and if it is said to be guided by a higher intelligence, then it is indeed another form or process of, one might technically say, “intelligent design”. Of course no ID person says this. But semantically it is the logical conclusion.

      • GakuseiDon
        2010-11-05 07:52:25 UTC - 07:52 | Permalink

        Neil, I think you are confusing the mechanics of evolution with the results of evolution. If God (assuming He exists) can influence nature and environment, then He can guide evolution. Let’s put it this way: over the last 10,000 years, have humans guided the evolution of, say, plant species like wheat and rice and animal species like dogs? The answer is yes. And that’s because we played a part in the “natural selection” process. Thus the mechanics of evolution are still in play, but the end result is designed.

        • 2010-11-06 04:48:17 UTC - 04:48 | Permalink

          No, us breeding dogs and plants is no longer natural selection. It is human selection. We rightly call it breeding, not evolution.

  • Trav
    2010-11-16 23:58:03 UTC - 23:58 | Permalink

    There is nothing more or less pre ordained about evolution than gravity.

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