Test of Faith … Is Evolution a Random Process? (RJS)

A couple of weeks ago I pointed to a resource available from the Faraday Institute for Science and Religion. The web site, Test of FAITH, was put together to provide introductory resources for those who are interested in or troubled by the interaction between science and faith. There is a DVD: Test of Faith, Instructor’s Bundle: Includes Book, Leader’ S Guide, Study Guide, and DVD, a book: Test of Faith: Spiritual Journeys with Scientists, resources for group discussions with a leaders guide and study guides Test of Faith: Science and Christianity Unpacked, a version for youth 11-14 and 14-18 (here) and a version for kids planned, a YouTube Channel and more.

This short excerpt from the DVD features Dr. Ard Louis and Prof. Simon Conway Morris, both Christians whose research involves topics relevant to the debate about evolution. Dr. Ard Louis is a Reader in Theoretical Physics at Oxford University.  His research is in theoretical biophysics, on the border of physics, chemistry, applied mathematics, and biology.  Prof. Conway Morris, Professor of Paleobiology at Cambridge University, specializes the emergence of complexity and construction of the major animal body plans in the Cambrian explosion. In this clip Dr. Louis and Prof. Conway Morris discuss randomness and convergence in evolutionary processes.

The point being made in this clip is that the scientific definition of randomness does not imply that something is is open-ended and purposeless. The evolutionary process is an efficient search algorithm optimizing for specific functions. In fact, the evolutionary process follows well defined roads and paths constrained by the nature of chemistry and physics. Not everything is possible, there are a limited number of possible solutions, stable points in biological space. There is no reason to conclude that evolution demonstrates that we are accidents of nature.

Do you think that “randomness” in evolution poses a problem for a created universe? For the Christian faith? Why or why not?

Ard Louis elaborates on randomness in biology in the context of his own research in this clip, available on YouTube and on the Test of Faith website, but not included in the DVD.

Another short clip of the interview with Professor Conway Morris is available on the Test of Faith web site: What would happen if the tape of evolution were rerun? In this clip Conway Morris elaborates on the idea of evolutionary convergence.

Dr. Conway Morris tells of his PhD research on the Burgess shale with Stephen Jay Gould and how and why he disagrees with Gould’s well known claim that if we were able to rerun the tape of time, restart the process of evolution, something entirely different would emerge. It is not at all clear that Gould was correct – individual events have an element of chance, there is randomness, but the overall landscape for evolution may be, not rough and exquisitely sensitive to initial conditions, but constrained and relatively smooth with the flexibility to find solutions independent of the fortunes of chance.

Evolutionary convergence in some form is an idea that is gaining traction in scientific circles. It has nothing to do with design, a designer, or religious faith. It is simply an attempt to read the evidence and determine the forces that shape the world we see. Nonetheless the idea has a certain appeal from a position of faith – while theoretically at least God could use and control any means in creation, there is a reasonableness in the idea that evolution is a process that leads to a defined result.

Is an evolutionary creation where God defined the path, but didn’t control every detail consistent with the Christian faith?

Would your answer change if we discussed the forces that control our weather instead of the evolution of humans? Why or why not?

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

If interested you can subscribe to a full text feed of my posts at Musings on Science and Theology.

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  • Dan

    Statement 1:
    The evolutionary process is an efficient search algorithm optimizing for specific functions.

    Statement 2:
    It has nothing to do with design, a designer…

    Just my opinion, but those two statements are contradictory. But I have a regular job and I’ll leave it at that for the rest of the day.

  • Josh T.

    Do I think that “randomness” in evolution poses a problem for a created universe?

    I’ll answer with a question: did randomness pose a problem for the Jews in the Old Testament when they cast lots, or for the apostles in Acts when praying, then casting lots for Judas’ replacement, Matthias?

    I think any discussion of randomness must deal with the God’s will vs. randomness issues that were apparently present in the Bible (and not considered problematic).

  • Dan – Take a look at “Darwin’s Dangerous Idea” by Daniel Dennett. He explains the concept of an algorithm as used here. (As noted recently here, it makes sense to study what proponents of an idea actually say.)

  • rjs


    My point here, and that of Ard Louis and Simon Conway Morris, is that the evolutionary process is not highly contingent with widely divergent possibilities. The conclusion that we are nothing more than accidents is not an undisputed scientific fact, and is less and less consistent with what we know of chemistry, physics, and biology.

    But this does not mean that the processes must be supernatural and constitutes a proof for the existence of God.

    On the other hand, the idea that evolution is constrained to produce certain kinds of creatures is consistent with a God who designed the universe for a purpose.

  • John W Frye

    Ray (#3), thanks for the link to RJS’s previous post. That was excellent counsel for engaging in this level of conversation. Does this illustration work for evolutionary convergence? We pour water on a mild inclined hill covered with rocks. We watch the water make its way down. There is no *design* to the flow, but a seeking for the suitable path around the obstacles. The problem is: If we rewind the tape and pour the water again, the path most probably will not be the same.

  • Rick

    John #5-

    “If we rewind the tape and pour the water again, the path most probably will not be the same.”

    But unless some new elements or situations have been introduced, should not the path be the same?

  • Joe

    “If we rewind the tape and pour the water again, the path most probably will not be the same.”

    Perhaps not exactly, but (1) it will always end up at the bottom of the hill; and (2) if this experiment is repeated often enough there will be one (or a few) paths that will predominate (otherwise there would be no such thing as rivers, the Grand Canyon, etc.).

    Likewise with evolution, playing the tape again might not yield exactly the same solution, but there would be a number of common elements. That, as I understand it, is what is being proposed here.

  • normbv

    Rom 11:33-34 O the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and knowledge of God! how unsearchable are his judgments, and his ways past finding out! (34) For who hath known the mind of the Lord? or who hath been his counsellor?

  • normbv

    copy and paste failed me on previous post


    Thanks for continuing to introduce subjects such as this. I’ve read Morris’s book and I find his examination of recurring and duplicating themes within biological life fascinating. When coupled with the recognition of the near extinction of life on planet earth a couple of time then it becomes self-evident that there is an unseen hand at work to bring us to fruition. It’s not randomness as we might like to think of such, but randomness that is producing beautiful flowers of life in so many different ways. When you think of the physical catastrophes’ regarding planet earth that have been needed to bring us to the pinnacle it becomes a breathtaking and highly suspenseful story. If we had intercepted life and stepped back in time 65 million years ago who would have thought those little mammals that survived that holocaust would hold within them the seeds for our presence. The glacial ages coming and going have all worked together for the good for His Good purpose and timing.

    Rom 11:33-34 O the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and knowledge of God! how unsearchable are his judgments, and his ways past finding out! For who hath known the mind of the Lord? or who hath been his counsellor?

  • RJS –

    My point here, and that of Ard Louis and Simon Conway Morris, is that the evolutionary process is not highly contingent with widely divergent possibilities.

    I’d say that’s rather an overstatement. It’s not false, certainly, but it’s only partially true.

    Look at eyes. Lots and lots of organisms have eyes. But there are a broad range of implementations. Compound eyes vs. ‘simple’ (non-compound) eyes, for example. Even in ‘simple’ eyes, there are some basic traits imposed by the function – you’ve got to have a retina, and something to focus light; and stereo vision requires two eyes – but a lot of variation in how those functions are carried out. Tapetum or no? How is the retina innervated? Is there a lens or a pinhole? Is there a pupil, and how does it work?

    There are definite ecological ‘niches’, I’ll grant as well – it appears the saber-toothed tiger evolved at least twice, independently, for example. But on the other hand, look at Australia – mammalian evolution in particular took a fairly different path there, isolated from the rest of the world.

  • C. Ehrlich

    “The evolutionary process is an efficient search algorithm optimizing for specific functions.”

    “Efficient” is a tricky term. Can you blame one for thinking that the evolutionary process is rather inefficient relative to the other possibilities at God’s own disposal?

  • rjs


    It seems to me that you are looking at minor difference and making them mountains. There are only so many kinds of molecules that make good chromophores, there are only so many kinds of conformational changes, there are only so many ways to make levers, there are only so many ways to create focusing optics,…the solutions found in the diversity of life represent this range of possibility. That we find the solutions we find are not highly contingent accidents…

    Complex eye, camera eye, the relative values of each … these are not contingent accidents.

    Even the differences between mammals in Australia vs the rest of the world – the kinds of solutions identified are minor variations on a general theme.

    Some of the details are contingent – the themes are not.

  • rjs

    C. Ehrlich,

    No, I don’t blame one for thinking that the evolutionary process is rather inefficient relative to other possibilities at God’s own disposal.

    I also don’t blame one for thinking that the whole of human history is a rather inefficient and painful way to get to the final consummation given the other possibilities at God’s own disposal.

    I assume that what we see is the optimal choice for God’s own purpose.

  • RJS –

    Some of the details are contingent – the themes are not.

    Of course, a lot of those ‘themes’ that get variations were set rather a while back. Gould specifically spent a lot of time talking about the Cambrian and pre-Cambrian, were there was a lot of diversity – more in some measurable ways than today. A lot of different ‘body plans’ were in evidence.

    To use the ‘water flowing downhill’ analogy, consider the ‘continental divide’ in the Rockies. A raindrop that lands slightly to one side or the other will end up, eventually, in an ocean. But which ocean it ends up in depends critically on which side it lands on.

    The mammal/marsupial/monotreme divide is quite a ways ‘downhill’ from the Cambrian.

  • C. Ehrlich

    “I assume that what we see is the optimal choice for God’s own purpose.”

    How does this assumption interact with your assessment of efficiency? Efficiency, I take it, is a somewhat relative term. Whether a given process is “efficient” depends on the available alternatives for achieving the same end. Now, by dismissing many alternatives to the evolutionary process via the assumption that such alternatives are unavailable to God (by virtue of their assumed sub-optimality), one can greatly shorten the distance to the conclusion that the evolutionary process is efficient. But what an assumption!

  • Edward Vos

    I once read a book that made a strong point about evolution being a man made term for how God created the universe and the world. It strongly implied that evolution was not a tool that God used to create the world. That being said, all the science that has allowed us to discover evolution, and nature’s mutations / permutations or random acts of nature that appear to be chaotic, does not mean God is not involved in the details. If our creator could conceive of a natural order from the vastness of the universe to the smallest DNA molecule and genome without the element of time, then what appears to be chaos in nature could truly be a well thought out interacting life force that transcends all our wildest imaginations.

  • rjs

    C. Ehrlich,

    I suggest this is an efficient algorithm because it is found to be an excellent way to identify regions of fitness in a rough landscape with a large number of available optimization parameters. Similar man-made algorithms are used in a wide variety of applications.

    I don’t know if it can be mathematically proven to be the optimal algorithm. I am not posing that question.

    You didn’t address the second half of my comment though. Why are we stuck here in the middle of a very messy human history? After all, if we are going to be perfect in the age to come, why couldn’t God have just started there? It would seem oh so much more efficient, and require a great deal less pain and suffering.

    The point isn’t really to get a pat answer to that question – but to suggest that there seems to be an aspect of becoming that is part of God’s plan.

  • rjs


    Sure – the water drop will end up in one ocean or the other. But if both oceans serve the same function, does it matter?

    Likewise, would it matter if we had a pouch? Or six fingers? Or blue hair? or no hair? Or two stomachs? Or an additional set of cone cells to be sensitive to a broader light range? Some animals are tetrachromats, while we are trichromats.

    These differences are not the point – they are incidental.

  • John M.

    Has anyone done any thinking or made a connection between openness theology and the top of this discussion? I’m not expret in either science or theology, but from my arm chair, I see a lot of similarities. Does what is being observed in nature by scientists inform our understanding of God’s nature and how he “runs” the universe, including how he deals with humans and their wills and choices? Just thinking out-loud…

  • John M.

    “topic” of this discussion

  • rjs

    John M,

    John Polkinghorne argues along these lines – not that God is becoming or changing, but that he allows an openness in creation as part of his plan to achieve his purpose.

    This is rather controversial (no surprise) and others would see God at work in evolutionary process with more direct control than I am suggesting in this post – but that direct control would not be empirically obvious to us.

  • C. Ehrlich


    “I suggest this is an efficient algorithm because it is found to be an excellent way to identify regions of fitness in a rough landscape with a large number of available optimization parameters. Similar man-made algorithms are used in a wide variety of applications.”

    This is an argument for effectiveness, not efficiency per se–unless a lot of work is supposed to be done by your evaluative term “excellent,” which is of course another tricky term, one which is again highly sensitive to the available alternatives (and, at least for the theist, this means availability to God, not just to human engineers).

    The second half of your earlier comment only shows that your efficiency claim faces problems as deep as the age-old “problem of evil” which faces those theists who insist that ours is the best of all possible worlds. But such confirmation of the extremely problematic nature of your claim about efficiency isn’t exactly a justification.

    Lest I come across as combatively critical, let me add I really respect your endeavors here. I take myself only to be making a minor point: from a theistic perspective, your particularly claim about efficiency is highly problematic. Now, you are perfectly right to reply that the very same theistic perspective has always faced an almost perfectly analogous problem: the problem of evil. As such, your assertion that the evolutionary process is efficient is very much like the assertion that the seemingly “gratuitous” suffering of a baby animal in a remote wildernesses is never less than absolutely necessary (in our world, which is the best possible one). But to my mind this tells against your efficiency claim in a very important way: it is only your very strong initial and overriding assumptions that allow you, as a theist, to make such claims. As a theist, you make these claims DESPITE all the empirical evidence you find, not because of it.

  • rjs

    C Ehrlich,

    I made the claim that “the evolutionary process is an efficient search algorithm optimizing for specific functions” on scientific grounds, not theological grounds. If you don’t know the answer ahead of time, if the landscape is rough (meaning you can’t simply give the command to head “downhill”), and if there are too many parameters to allow a systematic search, then evolutionary algorithms are efficient at finding solutions to problems.

    I am not trying to make any kind of theistic claim with the statement at all. I am trying to counter the notion that evolution necessarily includes attributes such as purposelessness and unpredictability.

  • yea, I think it’s easy to confuse randomness and purposelessness. The distinction is that a random process can be generated with a purpose or intent.

    The problem I have is that often in the scientific community (on a popular level) evolution is discussed as a ‘purposeless’ process. But to imply ‘purpose’ in the process is to suggest intent, and that is beyond what science can claim.

  • C. Ehrlich


    No one denies that we can be mistaken about efficiency. My first observation is that efficiency claims involve assumptions about available alternatives. My second observation is that available alternatives presumably change if we introduce God. My third observation is that any continued insistence by the theist that the evolutionary process is still efficient (still efficient, that is, in light of every alternative available to God) is not simply based on the empirical evidence.

    Since claims about efficiency do involve assumptions about the available alternatives, and–at least for the theist–the claim here about available alternatives is a claim about available alternatives to God, your claim about the efficiency of the evolutionary process involves assumptions about God. In particular, they assume severe restrictions on what God can do.

    One way to avoid such assumptions is to severely qualify your efficiency claim, perhaps restricting it to a claim about efficiency relative, e.g., to other naturalistic or man-made processes. Such qualifications would of course reduce much of the claim’s punch, at least towards building a case for the compatibility of traditional theism and evolution (and not just towards making a very minor point about evolution and one sense of “randomness”). Since that stronger goal, I take it, is not your intention here, such a qualification might be exactly the thing to add (or at least clarify).

  • rjs

    C. Erlich,

    I am not trying to make any assumptions about what God could do or could not do. I certainly wasn’t trying to make any such assumption implicitly or explicitly in the statement that evolutionary algorithms are efficient search algorithms.

    I also wasn’t trying to suggest that we now know definitively why God did what he did. In fact I think it is a mistake when we make such a claim about anything as an attempt to “rationalize” God.

    I am trying to counter a popular view that evolution, because of the random element, is incompatible with purpose in creation.

    On another level the theistic assumption I make personally is that God did and does what he deems best – whether we understand it or not. We can speculate as to why, but we may never know. This goes for the method of creation, for the nature of mankind, and for the course of human history.

  • C. Ehrlich


    But again, no one is claiming that you are *trying* to do any of this. The observations are rather about what assumption and implications that your claims do in fact imply (i.e., regardless of what you are trying to do). As I suggest, given what you are actually trying to do, it seems perfectly advisable to explicitly qualify your claims about the efficiency of the evolutionary process so as to avoid the undesirable and indefensible implications (unless, of course, you do want to tie your efficiency claim to your “theistic assumption” on “another level”–in which case, my critical warnings will probably come into play again).

  • DRT

    I only had time to scan the other comments so I apologize if this is covering old ground.

    I find it amazing that people could look at evolution and see it as a blunt tool. God let it bring forth life! How else would he let it do that? I think it is a fundamental theological point of Genesis that the nature of God’s interaction with creation is one were he lets things happen. That is the nature of our God.

    I find it ironic that we have a Calvinist post and this one here today. I would say evolution must be heretic for a Calvinist just because they feel god is a controlling entity, not a permissive entity.

  • rjs


    The view I am taking is not the only possible way to look at the action of God in creation. I summarized three views in the post Evolution, Entropy, and Human Beings 2

    I lean toward #3 – but Calvinists would tend, I think, to lean toward #1 or #2. All are consistent with evolutionary creation.

  • DRT

    rjs, thanks for pointing that out.

    I agree, 1 and 2 allow for direct planning and control, good options to have available.

  • RJS –

    Likewise, would it matter if we had a pouch?

    There are insects that inseminate once, when the female is juvenile, and she stores the sperm for the rest of her life. There are other insects that literally pierce the female with horrifying spiked genitalia in what’s called – accurately, I’m afraid – “traumatic insemination”.

    It’s not a huge stretch to imagine combining those traits. What if we reproduced by child rape? Would that matter?

  • rjs

    Well Ray, this brings us into a whole different realm of discussion.

    As to whether it is worth speculating on combining this or say cannibalism or any of the other traits found within the animal kingdom with evolution of a conscious creature capable of abstract thought (brains, emotions, morals etc.) … I’d say, we don’t know enough to even begin to speculate. I rather suspect that there is a reason for the variation of the kinds of traits we find in various levels of creatures.

    I am eliminating any theological reasoning here, because I am rather sure you are not pushing us in that direction.

  • R Hampton

    Operationally, Free Will and Randomness present the same kind of problem to Christians regarding God’s ability to plan and control.

    The argument against Evolution:
    If Nature can truly can determine its own fate by contingent processes, then God can not plan nor control the outcome. This would be true for every roll of the dice as well as every genetic mutation.

    The argument against Free Will:
    If Man can truly can determine his own fate by an autonomously, then God can not plan nor control the outcome. This would be true for every decision made by every human being throughout history.

    But others see things differently:
    “it is important to note that, according to the Catholic understanding of divine causality, true contingency in the created order is not incompatible with a purposeful divine providence. Divine causality and created causality radically differ in kind and not only in degree. Thus, even the outcome of a truly contingent natural process can nonetheless fall within God’s providential plan for creation. According to St. Thomas Aquinas: “The effect of divine providence is not only that things should happen somehow, but that they should happen either by necessity or by contingency. Therefore, whatsoever divine providence ordains to happen infallibly and of necessity happens infallibly and of necessity; and that happens from contingency, which the divine providence conceives to happen from contingency” (Summa theologiae, I, 22,4 ad 1).

  • ard

    Hi, just saw that you were discussing clips from Test of Faith by Simon Conway Morris and I on randomness — a fun topic — you might like this post I did on the Biologos website which also (very briefly) touches on the topic

    see also the excellent book by David Bartholomew

  • DRT

    rjs#32, how can you do that with a straight face?

  • rjs


    What do you mean?

  • DRT

    rjs, it is clear that the traits that Ray is talking about are physical adaptations while your example of cannibalism is strictly a behavior adaptation. We all know that behavioral adaptations not illustrative of evolution. Ray is talking about physical adaptations that would warrant ….. something.

    Well, that’s the best I can do.

  • rjs


    I wasn’t thinking of human cannibalism – I was thinking of other behaviors in the insect world, like here: http://www.livescience.com/7063-cannibalism-rife-mormon-cricket-swarms.html or here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sexual_cannibalism

    I can see where I wasn’t entirely clear though. I don’t know why you’d think such behavioral adaptations were not illustrative of evolution.

  • DRT –

    Ray is talking about physical adaptations that wuld warrant…

    …that would warrant a rather radical difference in relations between the sexes, not to mention between adults and children, than obtains among humans as they are constituted.

    Look up “traumatic insemination” in Wikipedia, and you can see things like this even in mammals. There are squirrels where the male, after mating, ejaculates a substance that literally glues the female shut – apparently to deny other males a shot, so to speak. This is at a ‘level’ rather different from the insects, if I understand RJS’s meaning of ‘level’ correctly. (Let alone naked mole rats…)

  • rjs


    I don’t know enough biology to comment extensively – but the reference to the squirrel in that wikipedia article was rather peripheral … an example of a trait that seems foreign to us, but not traumatic insemination.

    You are probably interpreting what I mean by “level” correctly.

  • RJS – I didn’t say it was ‘traumatic insemination’, but I would say it trends in that direction. As the article points out, one evolutionarily-stable ‘response’ is to develop more aggressive means of insemination.

    The point being that biology isn’t exactly destiny, but it sure has a lot of implications and consequences, and while I’m delighted with our existing mating patterns (and equipment), they weren’t mandated by any physical or biological constraints I’m aware of.

  • Anna

    Of course, another evolutionary response is for females to develop strategies to avoid trauma. 😉

    Also, what constitutes child rape versus what constitutes a reproductive strategy is in the eye of the beholder.

    In those cultures where girls are still married off at 12 and 13, instead of child rape or child abuse, it’s called ‘tradition.’

  • Anna –

    Of course, another evolutionary response is for females to develop strategies to avoid trauma.

    Such as here: http://scienceblogs.com/grrlscientist/2007/05/a_reproductive_arms_race_betwe.php

    (Also an example of a rather dramatically different mating regime at a high ‘level’.)

    Also, what constitutes child rape versus what constitutes a reproductive strategy is in the eye of the beholder.

    DRT already pointed out – rather explicitly – the difference between varied behavioral options and physical adaptations that – to repeat the very specific word I’ve used – mandate particular strategies.

    Humans have the option to be gentle or not. Not every species has that choice available. Take a look at the picture here: http://scienceblogs.com/notrocketscience/2009/03/horrific_beetle_sex_-_why_the_most_successful_males_have_the.php

    Again, the point is that while it’s very likely that evolution will produce things like pairs of lensed eyes, or pairs of ears, there are other factors – fundamental ones – that seem to be a lot more variable and not mandated by any natural constraint.

  • DRT

    rjs#38, agreed, those did evolve.

  • Ishmael

    If you want to play around with some of these ideas, consider a game — you start with two randomly selected letters and then randomly change one or two of them. Repeat the process until you arrive at a word found in your dictioary. Now add a random third letter and begine the process again until you find a three-letter dictionary word. Continue adding letters until you get tired. Now start with a different random two letters and repear the exercise. You will likely not get the same sequence of dictionary words.

    The dictionary is our value function and randomly changing some number of letters is our mutation engine. “Viable” mutations must be dictionary words. Even in this simple game, there are patterns that are more likely to lead to dictionary words (e.g., in English, two consonants separated by a vowel).

    For a theistic view, imagine that youa re the oracle standing outside the game and control the random number sequence used to pick the letters that are changed at each iteration. To the player, the selection appears to be random (a very slippery term, BTW, but let’s assume it just means that the player cannot reliably predict the next value the oracle supplies). You can roduce any arbitrary word you choose in any sequence you choose.

    As the player within the game, you cannot prove the existence of the oracle. A rationalist would reject the existence of the oracle because the game works just fine without the oracle and a game without an oracle is a simpler explanation. If s/he were philosophically honest, s/he would say it is impossible to know if the oracle exists and leave it at that.

    I look at life on this planet and see the fingerprints of God everywhere (a conclusion of faith) while some see the fortuitous interaction of stochastic processes over a long timescale.

    — Ishmael

  • Anna

    Ray, when it comes to unfeeling reproductive brutality among insects, I always think first of the praying mantis and wonder why that is necessary.

    No disagreement with you about varying factors. And with reproduction, I suspect the only constraint is whether or not it, well, produces.

  • Darren King


    I have checked out of most of these conversations over the last few months because they seems to me to be retreading old ground. However, this particular post caught my attention. I think this is a great contribution to the discussion. And you’re right, sometimes unchecked assumptions can be really problematic. Sometimes completely fresh soil can be exposed by introducing an idea that questions an unconsidered (or less than adequately considered) assumption. And I think you’re right that “random = no god/creation” is an assumption that’s right at the top of the list in terms of its importance.