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Randomness and Probability

Updated on February 23, 2015

What are the Chances?

The General Theory of Evolution requires that chance occurrences be the driving force of everything. Chance provides not simply the building blocks of life, but the rules by which those blocks are assembled into functional units. But does chance actually work that way?

The idea that chance can drive evolution has sometimes been pictured as millions of monkeys typing on keyboards for millions of years until they produce a Shakespearean sonnet. Everyone focuses on the sonnet (as did the British National Council of Arts, their experiment with six monkeys produced fifty typed pages without so much as the words I or a being produced), but the sonnet is not the problem, it is the typewriter or much worse, a word processor which must be produced before a sonnet can be considered. We could even simplify the process and suggest the game of Scrabble. It is not that we must reach into the bag and produce at least three tiles which can form a word, we must first have a game board with its marked squares and understandable words, then tiles must be produced which are an appropriate size and shape, then we must randomly create either an ink or a paint which can be flung randomly onto the tiles in the hope that a recognizable letter of the alphabet will be produced (and also a point value). As you can see it is not simply the individual pieces that must be produced but also the rules that allow them to function together.

Robert Shapiro in his book Origins: A Skeptic’s Guide to the Creation of Life on Earth, points out that regardless of the odds, an event is only required to happen once. While the odds of winning the lottery are extremely low people still win the lottery, some on their first try. But lottery numbers have no function, they can be just random numbers put together in a random fashion. For there to be a functional biochemistry the chemicals must be placed not only in a specific order but a specific environment. That means that the solar system, our planet Earth, and then ourselves all must come about in a random manner, but in a specific order.

It was the implausibility of such a scenario that convinced Antony Flew, the self proclaimed world’s most notorious atheist, to change his mind. Not that he became a Christian or even a theist, but he did become a deist and a believer in Intelligent Design. It was not that the odds were against any one of the above mentioned things from happening, but that the odds of all of them happening were too much for him, something had to be giving a guiding hand.

Were we to apply the principles of Darwinian evolution to mechanical or electronic systems we would be faced with catastrophic failure. A randomized car winds up either in the body shop or garage. A randomized computer program will freeze. Complex systems are adversely affected by randomness, and we see the results of such randomness and we know that it is bad (the lottery is a random number generator and therefore does not fit in this discussion). Yet this is the guiding principle of neo-Darwinian evolution.

When Darwin wrote his Origin of Species, he stated that a good analogy meant we understood the principle. Unfortunately what happens is that we move from analogy to plausibility without considering the possibility. We may be able to imagine a way for something to happen, but that doesn’t mean that that is the way it happens. Some years ago travelling down a gravel road, my young sons wondered why people would throw rocks onto the road to make it so bumpy. It was a plausible explanation but that’s not how the road was made. Random mutations may seem plausible, but our experience with randomness indicates otherwise.

Just as randomness cannot assemble this hub, randomness cannot assemble genetic information or complex systems. Chances are we are not the product of chance.


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