Perry Marshall: What is Random?

@Perry_Marshall my friend, that was an interesting blog post. I’m not planning to respond to it till you ask your questions here and engage. I just wrote a post to you. Please answer it here, or at least quote the key portions of your blog post here

Let’s sort it out here before make another post. What do you think? Look, if you really must do it this way, please at least explain why?

I looked at your interesting blog post. And I agree with parts of it. But, as Joshua said, it would be better if you bring that argument here.

I agree with what you describe Shapiro as saying, with one exception. I do not agree with “No sir. They’re not random at all.” Shapiro may have said that, but he is mistaken. His reasoning shows that the mutations do not follow a uniform distribution. But it does not show that they are not random.

You say “Everything I had ever seen was the result of some intentional process.” I agree with that. Biologists try hard to avoid mentioning “intention”. I understand why they do that, but I think it is a mistake. In any case, they fail. When they say that mutations are copying errors, they are implicitly asserting an intention to copy.

The theory of evolution, as understood by biologists, is a pretty good theory. It works well to guide the research. But it is a failure at marketing.

If you can bring some of your arguments here, I’ll try to engage with you in discussion of them.



You make frequent public statements about the Extended Synthesis (and on occasion, my work as well). Our discussions will likewise be in public - in full view of everyone. I need you to define “randomness” so I can understand exactly what you mean by a statement such as: “The mutations do appear to be ENTIRELY spontaneous. The fact they take place in a largely constant rate does not make them less random.” Please explain precisely what you mean by this.

@nwrickert :

You need to provide rigorous support for your assertion that said mutations are random. Shapiro provides abundant empirical support for all his assertions. I ask that you read Shapiro’s book before you continue to critique it.


I do make those statements. I’ve also found that @sygarte and I are largely on the same page about this. Though we do cross the same circles enough it would be great to sort this out. I’ve tried in person on this exact point, but it did not seem to make sense to you. Doing this on the forum could make progress.

This forum is public. I’m inviting you quote the key parts of your article here, and hash it out with me.

@nwrickert, I’d request also that you let me hash this one out with @Perry_Marshall alone first, before you jump in. It has to be a bit challenging to get critique from multiple angles, but the two of us need to clarify some points first. When we are done, certainly jump in at that point. Sound good?

I am happy to explain this, but you need to answer my last post here first, perhaps by quoting relevant sections of your blog response (or the whole thing if you like) here on this forum. We can hash it out here, then post on your blog what we came to.

Note, you still have not answered:

I really feel like this conversation could do loads of good lots of laypeople. I personally only feel like metaphysically naturalistic evolution is the only type of evolution that would truly be random in a sense that is problematic for Christianity. If neo-darwinism is true and mutations take place regardless of their benefit to the organism, this seems to cause no real problems for the Christian because God could still orchestrate the process to achieve His desired ends through either front loading at the big bang and/or origin of life or by periodically supernaturally directing the process (perhaps even through quantum events).

Yet I find this response just doesn’t do it for most Christians. Stephen Meyer will just go back to his “how can God direct a directionless process” line. Many Christians would follow. I think they’re dead wrong and Meyer’s repeated line strikes me as pretty silly. But most Christians hate the “random” word.

Yet if mutations aren’t even random in a scientific sense, then not only would evolution be metaphysically compatible with Christian theism, it would have science to back up the idea that mutations aren’t random! Christians could have something more tangible to grab onto than metaphysical jargon.

Nevertheless, even if Swamidass is correct, this understanding of randomness is far more at-home in Christian theology than is Dawkins’ “happy accident” theology (and it is theology).

So please keep at it you two. Other than the Adam question, and the death before the fall question, I feel like this one is the third biggest issue for Christians.

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Neo-Darwinism is not true: see The Neutral Theory of Evolution. Nonetheless the point bears repeating there is no claim of metaphysical, ontological, or epicurean randomness in science. Period. To say otherwise is to miss just the basic facts about the limits of science and statistics.

Yes I agree!

I’m hoping @Perry_Marshall will return. I’m still not sure why he started the conversation then left. Do you know why?

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I suspect he’s a busy guy! Evo2.0 is only one thing out of many that he does. :slight_smile:

Oh my, it appears that discourse decided @Perry_Marshall was spam for some reason, and silenced him. That might be why he did not respond. I just fixed that and unhid his posts. It appears that posting too many links to his own site triggered a spam flag?

I’m sorry about not catching that sooner @Perry_Marshall. We should be able to move forward now. Looking forward to your response.


I delayed responding to this, as requested by @swamidass

It is unclear what you are expecting when you ask for “rigorous support”. I am just using “random” in the ordinary way.

Think of a Las Vegas casino. They have roulette wheels that they spin for a random outcome. If they were to spin those roulette wheels twice as often, they would still produce random outcomes. What you quoted from Shapiro was about the rate of mutation. Changing the rate of mutation is like spinning the roulette wheel twice as often. The rate of producing random outcomes will increase, but they are still random outcomes.

I did not question any of his empirical assertions. I only questioned his characterization of them.

I have read Shapiro’s book, though it was a while ago. My main disagreement was that he tended to overstate his conclusions. I agree with Shapiro view, that there is intelligence in the cell.

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43 posts were split to a new topic: What are “Mutations”?

Evolutionary mutations are the ones you said were random and spontaneous, when you referred to the conversation between the man and Shapiro. (As described in my book and most recent blog post.) Joshua, Please define randomness.

I will post future replies on my blog.

@Perry_Marshall if you want a private conversation we can do that. If you want a public one, why blog posts? The exchange is much more difficult this way. If you can just devote a couple hours to an exchange I’m sure we can get on the same page. I can even make a thread for just the two of us if you don’t want to answer to others.

I might eventually get around to answering blog posts on another site, but they are a low priority now. There is a queue, @Agauger is ahead of you, and I’m not even sure the right way to respond to her. Also you are not answering questions directed your way. You are setting this up in a very adversarial, which is not necessary. Can you explain why?

So let me know how you want to proceed.

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8 posts were split to a new topic: Mark: Are Mutations Random?

So, @Perry_Marshall, I cleared out this thread to focus on your questions. Waiting for you to map a way forward.

The way forward is for you to define your use of the term “random”. This is not an unreasonable request.

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Are you going to participate in the conversation here or not @Perry_Marshall? Are you going to answer questions to or not?

If the answer is “no” and “no,” we will have to wait for another time.


@Perry_Marshall I find that post to be unnecessarily aggressive. It appears you are trying to create controversy where none need exist. When you are ready to communicate with me directly, let’s talk. I’m not willing to engage in a blog post war with you.


If you purposefully shuffle a deck a cards the result is still a random order of cards. That seems to be a concept that Shapiro and others fail to understand.


I’ll try a more detailed reply to @Perry_Marshall here.

I did look at your blog post, and my reaction is similar to that of @swamidass, but lets avoid repeating that and get to the question of randomness. In ordinary life, “random” is used with a range of different meanings. For biology, particularly evolutionary theory, the main concern is that mutations are random with respect to fitness. And that mostly means that mutations do not seem to be purposely oriented to improve fitness. If we found that mutations were usually beneficial (improved fitness), that would pose a problem for evolutionary theory, even if the mutations satisfied mathematical tests of randomness. So the use of the term “random” in evolutionary theory is mostly a way of saying that mutations do not appear to have any bias toward improved fitness.

If there is a locus on the genome where mutations are almost always fatal or seriously detrimental, then evolutionary theory already predicts that the mutation rate should be lower at such a locus. So variation of mutation rate is not consider non-random.

The traditional account of evolution says that mutations are copying errors. And it looks to me as if you are really arguing about that view of mutations. But random need not imply error. If I’m making a cake, I will stir up the cake batter. Stirring it up is a form of randomization, but it isn’t accidental or an error. Random is not the same as erroneous or accidental. I’m suspecting that you (and Shapiro and others) are making a mistake by arguing against randomness of mutations. If you were instead arguing that mutations are not accidents, but are instead part of how the system works, then I would probably be agreeing with you.

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