The Odds of Evolution

bonoboOne of the common Christian arguments against natural evolution concerns the odds of it happening without divine intervention.  Its an understandable objection, this is an amazing world we live in and the sheer variety and extraordinary nature of the life forms that share this planet with us are sometimes so unique in form and function that it is difficult to imagine them appearing by random chance.

But those who use this argument should understand that it is an ineffective and even counterproductive tactic for use on anyone knowledgeable about evolution.  The “odds” argument is used by both young-earth Creationists and by Intelligent Design proponents and it goes something like this (from the Institute of Creation Research):

One of the strongest direct evidences for special creation is the existence of innumerable highly complex systems in the universe, systems composed of components occurring in a pattern of “order” rather than disorder. Creationists maintain that highly ordered systems could not arise by chance, since random processes generate disorder rather than order, simplicity rather than complexity and confusion instead of “information.”

For example, consider a series of ten flash cards, numbered from one to ten. If these are thoroughly and randomly mixed, and then laid out successively in a linear array along the table, it would be extremely unlikely that the numbers would fall out in order from one to ten. Actually, there are 3,628,800 different ways in which these numbers could be arranged, so that the “probability” of this particular ordered arrangement is only one in 3,628,800. (This number is “ten factorial,” written as 10!, and can be calculated simply by multiplying together all the numbers from one to ten.)

It is obvious that the probability of such a numerically ordered arrangement decreases rapidly as the number of components increases. For any linear system of 100 components in specified order, the probability is one in 100!, or one chance in 10158 (a number represented by “one followed by 158 zeroes”).

The main problem with this argument is its failure to understand the clear, naturally-ordered process that is the heart of the theory of evolution.  The old saying “Know your enemy” is crucial here, because the ‘odds’ argument counts on a lack of knowledge or understanding of the theory (the “process”) of evolution in its audience, and thus is counterproductive in the extreme for the large group of people who do understand evolution, but who may not understand the message of Jesus.  Efforts by modern Christians to maintain as literal our ancient origins story is seriously interfering with the spread of the message of the love of Christ to people in the modern era.

That origins story fullfilled its purpose, it laid the groundwork for Judaism, the spritual tradition within which Christ was born and which was the foundation for his message of salvation to the entire earth.  Our salvation is based on our spiritual union with him, our belief in him.  That is the Christian’s foundation.  Our salvation does not depend on our beliefs about how literally we should accept the first few chapters of Genesis.

The ‘odds’ argument, however much it may comfort those with little knowledge of either statistics or the theory of evolution, ignores the simple, orderly nature of the process proposed by Darwin.  And if you cringed at me referring to evolutionists as the ‘enemy’, there’s hope for you.  🙂  We’re not the enemy, and many of us are indeed devout Christians.

The argument’s main problem is with the part that I underlined in the above quote from ICR, “…a pattern of ‘order’ rather than disorder.”  The problem is the implied premise behind it: that the theory of evolution relies purely on random, disordered chance, and that humanity and all of Earth’s variety of life forms got here in a disorderly and random fashion.

That’s not the theory at all.  The mechanism of evolution as proposed by Darwin in its earliest form was as simple as it was orderly:

  • Variation exists among individuals within species
  • Organisms produce more offspring than the environment can support
  • Competition exists among individuals
  • The organisms whose variations best fit them to the environment are the ones who are most likely to survive, reproduce, and pass those desirable variations on to the next generation

Source: http://www.agiweb.org/news/evolution/darwinstheory.html

Keep in mind that in Darwin’s time they didn’t know anything about DNA or genetic mutations.  Darwin’s time was the mid 1800s, the foundations of modern genetics didn’t really get established until about the mid-1900s with the recognition of DNA as the genetic material of life.  Yet this simple process described by Darwin remains the core of our modern understanding of evolution.

That process is not random chance.  It is a clear mechanism in which two factors: (1) the birth-reproduction-death cycle of life, and (2) the positive reinforcement of new genetic traits in various species that enhance that species’ ability to thrive in a wider and wider variety of environments, along with the negative reinforcement of traits that diminish an individual’s ability to survive in those environments.

That is an orderly process.  Its not a nice process, it is survival of the fittest, but there is nothing disordered about it.  If an animal is born that cannot survive the conditions it is born into, it dies and doesn’t pass on its genes.  If an animal can thrive in its environment, it lives and passes on its genes.  Simple, clear, and yes orderly.

Groups of the same species that are seperated over a long period of time gradually drift apart genetically, until there comes a time when they can longer reproduce with one another.  That can occur randomly.  Individual genetic mutations can occur randomly, but these happen within the constraints of that step-by-step process, the same way random variation in cloud shapes and sizes are still driven or constrained by well-understood weather processes to produce rain or sunshine or hurricanes or pleasant summer shade.

I know there’s a better analogy for this, but I think you get my point.  The process of evolution is an orderly process: survival and ability to compete for mates determines the success or failure of any new genetic trait.  Those constraints bring order to the chaotic rhytms of genetic movements and mutations going on within any like group of animals.

bonoboFor example when the Congo river formed in Africa ~2,000,000 years ago it seperated a large population of apes.  Those on the north side of the river are now the modern day Chimpanzees, those on the south side of it are the modern day Bonobos, which look similar to chimpanzees but their genes have sepearted to the point that interbreeding is generally not successful, and hybrid chimp-bonobos are rare.

I probably need a whole ‘nother post on the way species are distinguished in modern taxonomy.  At the species and subspecies level things are fluid, and classification is sometimes difficult and is often done using statistical comparisons based on agreed upon criteria.  That’s for another time.

All this is to say that solving problems with the theory of evolution is the bread and butter of evolutionary biologists.  Since Darwin mentioned “eyes” as being a potential problem in his theory, one he did not have the means to try to solve, eyes became the focus of a lot of subsequent research and the process by which the dozens of different types of eyes in the animal kingdom evolved are for the most part well understood now.

The body of research on evolution is massive, and I don’t believe that people who would attempt an ‘odds’ argument against it really understand what they’re arguing.  They’re often accused of arguing “god of the gaps”, where they find a problem that hasn’t been worked out yet and point to it as proof that God intended the first couple of chapters of Genesis to be taken as his personal lab notebook.  Such arguments might convince the faithful, but they do nothing to convince anyone who has a decent understanding of either modern biology or high school statistics.

And that’s a group that Christianity should be reaching out to with its real message, of the very real love of Christ, rather than actively trying to alienate.

2 thoughts on “The Odds of Evolution

  1. supersteveprice

    Do a post on the fact that Darwin’s Origin of the Species never discusses the origin. It discusses adaptation and change within existing life forms. He never discusses the origin if life.

    Steve Price Steve.Price1@me.com

    Reply
    1. notanist Post author

      Ha, yes that’s true. The biggest division in life forms is between plants and animals, yet all plants and all animals had to evolve from one original species. What I snipped out of this post (because it didn’t really fit) was that the single-celled organism that both plants and animals came from is still with us. Check out this paper:

      The origin of red algae: Implications for plastid evolution

      (From the abstract): “…Phylogenetic analyses provide strong statistical support for an early evolutionary emergence of the Rhodophyta that preceded the origin of the line that led to plants, animals, and fungi.”

      “Plastid” in the title refers to the part of these single-celled organisms where photosynthesis takes place. Plastid origin is thought to be a case of endosymbiosis, i.e. plastids were originally independent life forms of their own, with their own genes, that were ‘captured’ by the organisms we know as algae and established an internal symbiotic relationship that exists to this day, a billion years later.

      Algae can attack and eat other single celled organisms (like animals), or they can get their energy from sunlight through photosynthesis (like plants) thanks to the presence of plastids, so it is possible that all plant and animal life descended from pond scum. 🙂

      As to the original origins, there is a ton of research on that but its been a couple of decades since I studied this stuff seriously so I’ll need to get caught back up before I try to write something halfway intelligent about it.

      Reply

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