Evolution proceeds by a long series of improbable events. So, does that mean evolution is unlikely? Or that we are lucky? Or this just divine providence?
In Mere Theistic Evolution, Murray and Churchill respond to the theological objections of Christians skeptical of evolution. One objection to which they respond is the apparent contradiction between “random” evolution and the doctrine of providence.
How do we understand a long series of improbable events? Unlikely? Luck? Or Providence?
Stephen Meyer is one of the most prominent Intelligent Design scholars. He argues an improbable series of events demonstrate that evolution is unlikely. Therefore, we need not determine if evolution is in conflict with Christian theology.
William Lane Craig is a leading philosopher, and he disagrees. He writes,
Properly understood, random mutations are entirely compatible with teleology and a robust doctrine of divine providence.
This fact became clear to me in the course of my preparation for my debate with the eminent evolutionary biologist Francisco Ayala on the tenability of Intelligent Design in biology.8 According to Ayala, when evolutionary biologists say that the mutations that lead to evolutionary development are random, they do not mean “occurring by chance.” Rather they mean “occurring irrespective of their usefulness to the organism.” Now this is hugely significant! The scientist is not, despite the impression given by partisans on both sides of the divide, making the presumptuous philosophical claim that biological mutations occur by chance and, hence, that the evolutionary process is undirected or purposeless. Rather he means that mutations do not occur for the benefit of the host organism. If we take “random” to mean “irrespective of usefulness to the organism,” then randomness is not incompatible with direction or purpose.
This does not, however, mean that mutations cannot also be considered random in the sense of occurring without direction or purpose of any sort. If God were causing specific mutations to occur because he wanted them to, would we be able to detect this? I don’t think so, which would mean Craig has a point. But that seems a very slender thread on which to hang an argument: Divine providence is indistinguishable from random chance, so we are free to believe in divine providence when what we see is fully consistent with random chance.
While this is true, the said direction or purpose would appear not to be the benefit of the organism. So where’s the benevolent deity in that? What would be the direction or purpose inherent in what appears to be a random walk?
I’m guessing Craig could say that God wanted specific beneficial mutations to occur, particularly those necessary for an organism to arise with the mental capacities possessed by humans, but would arrange things so that these mutations occurred at no more than the frequency with which such mutations would be expected to occur by chance.
That’s the best I can do. It all seems unnecessarily contrived to me, a bit like saying God could have created a nested hierarchy if he wanted to. Sure, but why would he want to?
I believe this may derive from a stock phrase of the DI (which both WLC and Meyer are members of): “scientists and scholars” – designed to obscure the fact that many of their more prominent apologists, such as Meyer himself, aren’t actually scientists, in spite of the fact that they opine frequently on scientific topics.
This has led me to subconsciously interpret “scholar” as ‘dodgy apologist with a PhD’, which has in turn led me to react with somewhat less than awed reverence when some academic (often with what appears to be an apologetic axe to grind) is introduced here as a “visiting scholar”.
On a vaguely related note: Several years ago the Royal College of Physicians and Surgeons of Canada launched an initiative where they identified six distinct roles that should be undertaken by someone to be considered a medical expert. When they sought the opinions of medical trainees about these roles, “scholar” was the one that evoked the least positive response.
It seems that many Christians have no problem reconciling this. Craig, for instance, believes God is only known thru something called “the personal witness of the Holy Spirit”. I’m not sure what that is, but presumably it has little to do with totaling up mutations in a genome.