A Fine Tuned Universe? 8 (RJS)

A fine tuned Universe ds.JPG

Chapter 14 of Alister McGrath’s book A Fine-Tuned Universe: The Quest for God in Science and Theology deals with the question of teleology and directionality in evolution.

The neo-Darwinian paradigm, (that popularized by Richard Dawkins for example), is that evolution is an undirected, highly contingent, random process.  Evolution simply operates to preserve the replication of genetic information.

McGrath quotes Stephen Jay Gould:

“We are the accidental result of an unplanned process…. the fragile result of an enormous concatenation of improbabilities, not the predictable product of any definite process.” … The influence of contingency is such that what happens is the product of happenstance. “Alter any early event, ever so slightly and without apparent importance at the time and evolution cascades into a radically different channel.” (p. 189-190)

This description of the process poses serious problems for reconciliation with a Christian view of creation. But it is not at all clear that Gould or Dawkins are correct in this regard. The evolutionary process need not be highly contingent nor intrinsically unpredictable. In fact there appears to be a remarkably robustness in the outcome – a distinct directionality to the process. This does not deny the basic facts of evolution – as an explanatory tool evolution is essentially proven.  Yet the fitness landscape that governs the process may place tight constraints on key features of the outcome.  There are only so many ways to make an eye, or to harvest solar energy.  Similar themes recur, … independently…constrained by physics, chemistry, and biology; constrained by the nature of the universe.

Simon Conway Morris, a Cambridge paleobiologist,suggests that there is a convergence in the evolutionary process. Conway Morris has a number of lectures available online at the Faraday Institute (Search on Morris).  He has published several books including Life’s Solution: Inevitable Humans in a Lonely Universe.  He is also the editor of the recently published book called: The Deep Structure of Biology: Is Convergence Sufficiently Ubiquitous to Give a Directional Signal.

McGrath summarizes his argument as follows:

Conway Morris’s case is based on a remarkable compilation of examples of convergent evolution, in which two or more lineages have independently evolved from similar structures and functions. Conway Morris’s examples range from the aerodynamics of hovering moths and hummingbirds to the use of silk by spiders and some insects to capture prey. “The details of convergence actually reveal many of the twists and turns of evolutionary change as different starting points are transformed towards common solutions via a variety of well-trodden paths.” And what is the significance of convergent evolution? Conway Morris is clear: it reveals the existence of stable regions in biological space. “Convergence occurs because of ‘islands’ of stability, analogous to ‘attractors’ in chaos theory.”

The force of Conway Morris’s critique of Gould cannot be overlooked. While contingency is a factor in the overall evolutionary mechanism, it plays a significantly less decisive role than Gould allows. (p. 192)

The point Conway Morris hopes to make in assembling his matrix of convergence is that the number of evolutionary endpoints is limited. Time and time again, evolution “converges” on a relatively small set of possible solutions to the problems and opportunities that the environment offers to life. (p. 193)

A directionality to evolution, the presence of islands of stability, is not empirical evidence of design – it is a property of the universe, a nature of the evolutionary algorithm.  Yet it is entirely consistent with the existence of design and the presence of a designer.  Darwin’s theory of evolution may have removed the necessity of a designer, a creator God, to explain the complex structures of biology, yet it does not eliminate the possibility that a creator God exists.  John Henry Newman said “I believe in design because I believe in God; not in God because I see design.” and McGrath continues…

Theists are free to agree that natural processes are adequate to explain biological design, but they are also free to insist that theism provides another equally rational and plausible explanation which may ultimately prove to be the best explanation. Once more, the issue concerns the consonance or resonance of a Christian vision of reality with what is actually observed. (p. 196)

McGrath puts the key question like this:

Might not the evolutionary process, despite its contingency, still be consonant with the achievement of purpose on the part of a creator God?

Perhaps a certain amount of contingency, choice and chance, is an intentional and necessary part of God’s creation. God created a world capable of ongoing development and growth. His hand is active in the entire process. Yet choice and chance are required for a creation and a creature capable of relationship with the Creator. In science we perceive and study the natural processes designed by God.  God himself is seen only through eyes of faith. The evidence for God is found in relationship with God, we err when we expect to find it through empirical and detached observation.

What do you think?

If you wish to contact me directly you may do so at rjs4mail [at] att.net.

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  • RJS:
    I’m way out of my depth here. If I understand, there is directionality to evolution. It seems to be headed somewhere, to a limited set of endpoints. You say this does not necessarily indicate a designer guiding the process but allows for it.
    Then you say, “it is a property of the universe.”
    It seems such statements betray a problem. In order to avoid God language, is it common to say of things like, “the universe works this way”? How about “the universe works in mysterious ways” or “may the goodness of the universe protect you”?
    I’m not criticizing you. I’m just playing with the idea that existence and order are hard for me to imagine as purposeless.

  • RJS

    Look at it this way, a ball dropped off of a balcony will fall to the ground through the action of gravity modified by air pressure and wind currents. Gravity is part of the nature of the universe. I don’t think that we would claim that God caused the ball to fall, although of course through the design of the universe he did in some sense control the result.
    Could we not consider the evolutionary process a bit like gravity? God knows essentially what will happen, he designed the universe to create the world we inhabit. Except in the relationship between God and mankind created in his image, I think that we have difficulty distinguishing between the act of God through the nature of the universe he created and a “supernatural” intervention. I don’t see a smoking gun proof for the existence of God.
    This doesn’t mean that I think that God started the ball rolling, sat back and watched the result. Rather I think that there is a continuing personal involvement – but not one distinguishable from natural secondary cause except in relationship.

  • Doug Allen

    The Christian view is a teleological one, postulating or inferring design and purpose. On the other hand, a materialist of naturalist view postulates and infers no such design or purpose. Both admit that outcomes are constrained by physics, chemistry, biology: the nature of the universe. If one believes that the nature of the universe is an attribute of God or a “let there be…” decision of God, then I see no real conflict, certainly nothing amenable to logic, science, or “facts.” Rather than taking sides, I would hope that both sides are generous in their approach and reaction to the other. Am I missing something?

  • The really interesting thing will be if we ever discover extra-terrestrial life. If some moon of Saturn has creatures that are basically fish or lizards (or even just remarkably familiar microorganisms), that would bolster the view that, given life’s existence, certain creatures (humanity?) are actually inevitable.
    Obviously, interpretation is everything. Ditchkins (to borrow a phrase from Terry Eagleton) would simply say “Aha! Life on earth is nothing special.”

  • Larry

    We are the accidental result of an unplanned process…. the fragile result of an enormous concatenation of improbabilities, not the predictable product of any definite process.
    This is, of course, a statement of faith, I can’t imagine any kind of empirical experience that would falsify it. At least not in the lifetimes of anybody reading this post.

  • Doug Allen

    ooops: materialist OR naturalist, above
    RJS, isn’t the argument a sophisticated version of the argument from design. A fine tuned universe is consistent with either approach. The sceptical side of me embraces the materialist view; the “spiritual” and aesthetic side of me embraces and infers the teleological view.
    I have no problem and no need, and certainly no way, of resolving the conflict. I think I am much closer to being able to live the Jesus Creed when I live in the tension of the conflict rather than trupeting one side or the other. RJS, are you picking sides?

  • Rick

    Travis #4-
    “…that would bolster the view that, given life’s existence, certain creatures (humanity?) are actually inevitable.”
    Interesting thought/twist on that potential situation. I had always expected the response to be just the “Aha! Life on earth is nothing special”, but you are right, and especially in lieu of McGrath’s thoughts- there is another way to look at that.

  • James

    I have a son, Isaac. He’s just a little over 8 months old, and has brought immense joy into the life of my wife and I.
    He is very special to us.
    Would you then expect, that if we have another child, that little Isaac would no longer be special to us?
    I’m not sure the “if we find life elsewhere then…” arguments make a whole lot of sense…

  • pds

    RJS- You said,
    “This does not deny the basic facts of evolution – as an explanatory tool evolution is essentially proven.”
    We need to be clear what is “proven” and what is not. Darwin’s theory explains some things, but not others (origin of life, origin of DNA, origin of Cambrian animals).
    You said,
    “A directionality to evolution, the presence of islands of stability, is not empirical evidence of design – it is a property of the universe, a nature of the evolutionary algorithm.”
    RJS- It seems like you are bending over backwards to avoid acknowledging “empirical evidence of design.” Is that what we should be doing? How are you defining “directionality”? One definition is “relating to guidance in effort, behavior, or thought.” Another is “relating to direction or guidance especially of thought or effort.” (m-w.com) In these, design seems to be inherent in the meaning of “directionality.” What is your definition?

  • I find myself in line with “Doug Allen” in that I constantly float between materialism and faith whenever I try to assign an outside purpose to events or objects outside of my control. It makes me wonder if what we are trying to do is find concrete evidence that a “God” exists out there – is that the end goal? Or are we trying to discover how a God that we believe is out there interacts with the physical world around us? It certainly helps me to clarify what question I am trying to answer.

  • dopderbeck

    I think what McGrath is getting at here is nothing less than the traditional Christian notion of “providence.” And this is why I think McGrath’s approach is basically correct. Using the “spectacles of faith” (to use Calvin’s phrase), Christians can begin to discern God’s providential ordering where those who lack faith will miss it.

  • AHH

    I don’t know if it came from you are McGrath, but I think the way “neo-Darwinian” is used above is unhelpful. To those in the biological sciences, I believe “neo-Darwinian” simply means the combination of Darwin’s ideas about natural selection with modern genetics. It does not necessarily imply purpose-denying metaphysics, much as atheist extremists like Dawkins might try to smuggle in their metaphysics disguised as science.
    In general, throwing words like “Darwinism” or “neo-Darwinian” into science/faith discussions often confuses things, because the scientists think you are talking about the science (genetics, natural selection, etc.) but many Christian anti-evolutionists (in common with atheists like Dawkins) have invested the term with additional metaphysical meaning (denial of purpose). Which may accurately reflect Darwin’s own metaphysical interpretation, but is not helpful if what people hear is not an attack on the metaphysics but rather an attack on the science. Of course a related problem is that those on both extremes (atheist activists like Dawkins and many Christian anti-evolutionists) seem unable or unwilling to separate the metaphysics from the science.
    By the way, since I don’t know if anybody has posted the link yet in these threads, McGrath recently gave the famed Gifford lectures in the UK on this topic, and the texts are here:

  • RJS

    I agree that Darwinian evolution does not explain the origin of life or the origin of DNA. I am not convinced that it cannot explain the origin of Cambrian animals. While aspects of the evolutionary theory are mature other aspects are undergoing development, refinement, and maturation (i.e. we do not understand everything yet).
    Directionality simply means that there is a structure to the fitness landscape explored by evolutionary processes. Evolution is not a highly contingent process operating on a flat surface. Many paths will wind up at the same basic result or set of results.

  • Even Gould and Dawkins don’t actually think that evolution is as random as they posit it to be. They repeatedly argue that it is driven by the drive to preserve and potentially enhance genetic data. There is a purpose and goal even in their understanding. My problem has always been why DNA cares why it gets replicated…

  • I find it interesting that technotheology discussions, especially relating to evolutionary scientheology concerns, evoke more response than hunger or forgiveness issues. Not to say they are not necessary, whatsoever.
    It just strikes me a tad oblique – like when I am in a restaurant and hear a person ask a waitress, “So, you seem like an intelligent person, do you believe in evolution?” And then wander on and about a tense interaction without ever touching upon the “flesh” of God.
    Just an observation, I do not mean to imply anything negative.
    We are a curious lot.

  • Rick

    “They repeatedly argue that it is driven by the drive to preserve and potentially enhance genetic data. There is a purpose and goal even in their understanding. My problem has always been why DNA cares why it gets replicated…”
    Well said.

  • RJS

    AHH (#12)
    You are right – this use of “neo-Darwinian” is somewhat misleading. But in the science/religion discussion metaphysics often creeps in and this definition is not something that I made up – or that McGrath made up (and he uses it in the book, I did not impose it on the discussion).
    In fact several years ago a biology teachers organization tried to define evolution with the metaphysical insistence on blind undirected purposeless random chance embedded in the definition. Even the National Center for Science Education tried to get the language tamed a bit – but it was like pulling teeth to do so. (I read about this in the book Darwin and the Bible I posted on earlier in the summer. I am relating from memory here.)
    I think that we need to draw a line when people start to insert the metaphysical assumption of no purpose into the scientific discussion.

  • pds

    RJS (#13)
    You said,
    “Many paths will wind up at the same basic result or set of results.”
    Or you could say,
    “Many paths will wind up at the same basic [telos, end] or set of results.”
    If there is evidence of direction to a target result, you have a basis for a design inference. You can bend over backwards to talk around a design inference if you want to, but, as for me, I would prefer to avoid the contortions.
    AHH (#12)- I agree with you on the basic meaning of “neo-Darwinian.” Having said that, many scientists include “undirected” as part of their standard definition “evolution.” Many would say that if you say it is “directed,” you have left the realm of “science.” That is why defining our terms is so important to civil discourse.

  • RJS

    A ball will roll down hill – different initial conditions and trajectories will lead to the same result. Is this the basis for a design inference?

  • beckyr

    You write “Yet choice and chance are required for a creation and a creature capable of relationship with the Creator.” how is it choice and chance are required?
    Schaeffer used to say that the philosophical underpinnings of evolution are time + chance and that no one can live that way. We can’t live as if there’s chance, that would be like going out in the forest and picking any old mushroom. we can’t do that.

  • pds

    RJS (#19)
    “Same result”? It depends.
    A ball on a normal hill will not follow the same path each time and will not end up in exactly the same place each time. So there is no design inference.
    A ball rolling on a well-designed track will follow the same path each time. So there is a design inference.

  • Brian

    Is anyone familiar with Stephen Wolfram’s views? I know he is not exactly mainstream in some respects, but as I understand it, he thinks there is something like an algorithmic component to evolution, which explains why only certain ones of the apparently possible options actually occur. This seems similar to the ideas being presented in this discussion in regard to directionality.

  • RJS

    I think that evolution is more like your first example of a ball on a normal hill. The general trajectory will be similar every time – but it will not be identical. These are the islands of stability that Conway Morris talks about.
    From the data I make an inference of design, but my neighbor in the next office sees only natural process. However, we view science in the same way and practice it in the same way.
    Does design require a deterministic process (like your ball on a well designed track)?
    I think that there is an element of choice and chance in creation – but on a landscape (designed by God) such that God does/did know how it would turn out in a global sense. I think that the fact that we have five fingers rather than six is an unimportant detail and may be an “accident”, a random occurrence that was passed along – but the fact that we are sentient creative beings capable of abstract thought and capable of relationship with the creator is not an accident, but part of the design.

  • pds

    Relevant to a previous post by RJS:
    Sam Harris attacks Francis Collins in the NY Times. Seems like he misrepresents Collins’ position, suggesting that Collins is against some research. I find it interesting that the NY Times would print a piece that seems to advocate blatant religious bigotry in government: no Christian should be allowed to be head of NIH.
    Letters with link to original piece is here:

  • RJS

    I read that NY Times Op-Ed piece – and had a reader send me a link. I was (am) considering putting a post on it up …

  • Unaplogetic Catholic
  • AHH

    pds #18,
    I would agree with those who say that concluding that evolution is “directed” puts one outside the realm of science. Just like a conclusion that it is “undirected” would be outside science. Of course science is not the only path to truth.
    But we need to clarify what we mean by directed. In my paragraph just above, I was referring to statements of metaphysical purpose (something being directed or not in an ultimate metaphysical sense) as being outside science. Within science one might talk about a particular event as being random or undirected at the physical level, but that should not be extrapolated to the metaphysical level. Somebody has suggested “without apparent direction” as a qualifier for describing aspects of evolution, and I think the “apparent” helps a lot.
    But when Conway Morris talks about direction in evolution (if he uses that word) it is not really the metaphysical concept. So when you say “direction to a target result” your insertion of “target” adds a meaning that was not meant. It is more like the fact that the landscape of North America “directs” water from my home near Denver to the Gulf of Mexico near New Orleans, and if water starts in Iowa it ends up at about the same place. This cannot be used to prove that North America was designed to have an outflow of water at New Orleans (although it is not inconsistent with such an assertion).
    This is like what Conway Morris says in terms of the landscape of life that gets explored by evolutionary processes. He says the landscape is such that the life we see today (including humans), or something similar, is almost inevitable. This is consistent with the idea that God has designed the landscape to bring about this result (which is part of McGrath’s point), but isn’t scientific proof of such.
    I like dopderbeck’s assessment at #11 — with eyes of faith we can see God’s design but those outside can’t be expected to recognize it.

  • James

    “with eyes of faith we can see God’s design but those outside can’t be expected to recognize it.”
    That’s the inherent weakness in the “fine tuning” arguments, IMO. For those that know there is a creator, it is a great way to know Him better, and His great care, love, and intentionality in His creation. It reveals not only things about Him, but also about us and how we should treat His creation.
    For someone who has natural causes of life assumptions, then it is simply obvious that the life that springs up and survives in this universe/planet/time & place would be suited to live in that very environment. If it wasn’t, it wouldn’t have sprung up and wouldn’t have survived.

  • Has anyone else seen the video where he is interviewed by Richard Dawkins?

  • It doesn’t really matter if there is a convergence of our physical evolution or not. The fact is that we are here and scientists should be doing their best to use the available evidence to explain the great unknowns. The evolution that has occurred up to this point has provided humans with the ability to investigate them. For what it’s worth I believe that there is a convergence of specific attributes.
    D J Wray

  • RJS

    Unapologetic Catholic (#26)
    I probably won’t post on either. I admire Collins, but I don’t envy him.

  • Paul

    Quoting from this blog posting, “This does not deny the basic facts of evolution – as an explanatory tool evolution is essentially proven.”
    Wow. I hardly know how to respond to that, given the complete, absolute lack of _any_ evidence to support the notion of the evolution of species.

  • John Sutton

    “evolution is an undirected, highly contingent, random process”. It may well be but it does not rely on a random process. The process would go much faster if there were no random elements but, as there is no guiding hand, it has to cope with chance elements. It is this fact that tells us that there is no god involved in the evolution of life.
    There is no need for a god to create anything – it has always been there. God is just a fairy tale character so stop making up all this nonsense.

  • BenB

    Paul (#32)
    I’m not sure how to respond to your comment, given the complete, absolute lack of _any_ coherent argument by those who want to claim what you just claimed. Sorry for the sarcasm, it just seems that comments like yours are very unhelpful to the conversation. You gave no evidence to support your position, and the “evidence” given by those who try to do so has been repeatedly refuted, time and time again.

  • BenB

    I may be distancing myself a lot from the majority (almost all) of Evangelicals, but does anyone feel that the picture of God given by Process Theology helps a lot more in picturing a process which is similar to the one of the ball rolling down a hill, without prescribed – yet similar and directional – ends?

  • RJS

    I am no expert on Process Theology, but one of the problems with it in my understanding is that it locates God within time. So process theology claims that God changes and puts limits on what God can and cannot do accordingly – not simply on what God does and does not do.
    But time is part of creation – time began with the big bang. God is – as Augustine noted – outside of time although he can act within time as he can and does act in and within his creation.

  • James

    Thanks John Sutton #33,
    It’s comments like this, thoughtless, unsupported, and philosophically absurd in contrast with some fairly robust discussion and give-and-take that helps people come to the realization that atheism just isn’t a tenable position.

  • typo180

    @James (#37) – The actions of an arguer do not make the position untenable.
    “In science we perceive and study the natural processes designed by God. God himself is seen only through eyes of faith. The evidence for God is found in relationship with God, we err when we expect to find it through empirical and detached observation.”
    I agree with RJS that the “directionality” of evolution does not point solidly one way or the other on the God debate, but this final statement is troublesome. It effectively bypasses the evolution discussion and attempts to play a trump card: the evidence for God cannot be independently verified or tested in any way, but is true.
    Both this argument and the kind that attempt to include empirical evidence ask us to accept too many “new assumptions” (Occam’s razor) – the existence of a spiritual realm, that God interacted with humanity differently in the past (authority of scripture or scripture as evidence) – and asks us to accept the untestable, unverifiable, private, subjective experiences of individuals who agree with the conclusion (e.g. accept Christian testimony, but not Buddhist testimony or atheist testimony).

  • Bill Rohan Sr

    Religion is a reflection of the human capacity to believe in the impossible and ridiculous.
    The aim of education should be to help all members of a society move toward a frame of mind by which it is clear that the above statement is correct and self evident. Until then human society is going to be struggling against the negative impact of irrational and even insane socially accepted views. Most importantly we will not clearly recognize that there is no god to save us from our own destructive thinking and behavior and therefore we will not accept our responsibility to take good care of ourselves and this planet that supports us.