Thanks for the questions, @Cris_DeLoach. Here is my attempt at an answer. In the words of Michael Crichton so memorably expressed by Jeff Goldblum in Jurassic Park: “Life finds a way.”
Actually, that’s not much of an answer; it is little more than a restatement of the question. But sometimes rephrasing the question makes it easier to find or express the answer. By unpacking that statement, I believe we will find three properties that have a lot do with why evolution is successful.
- Life is abundant
- Evolution is extravagant
- Life is connected
Life is abundant
When we say “Life finds a way” what do we mean by “life”? We don’t mean specific living organisms; it is not a statement about the cleverness of dinosaurs. We mean the more abstract property of being alive. All life as we know it is mediated by atoms and molecules, and so takes the form of a set of self-sustaining and self-propagating chemical reactions. That is not all there is to life, but it is one consistent feature of everything we consider alive.
These self-sustaining, self-propagating chemical reactions are a subset of all chemical reactions. There is lots of chemistry that isn’t alive. At the same time, we can look around and see that there is great diversity in the combinations of chemistry that can be alive. And so the abstract space of all possible chemistry seemingly teems with (equally abstract) life. Thus evolution is successful because there is abundant life to find.
Evolution is extravagant
When we say “life finds a way”, “finds” implies a search. Searching has become a technical topic of study in the realm of computer science and machine learning, and there is some question as to whether evolution, as an algorithm, qualifies as a search in this technical sense. At the same time, it is clearly a process for exploring that abstract space of all possible chemistry. And from what we observe, that exploration is extravagant.
Some approaches to exploration or search focus on efficiency. They seek to find the most direct path to the or a solution, and stop when they reach it. Evolution is not like this, at least not in all cases. It does not stop when it finds a single instance of life; it does not appear to have halting criteria of any kind. It just continues exploring and finding more and more solutions. At the same time, it is not an exhaustive exploration; it is not guaranteed to find every instance of life, or to explore in a systematic fashion. So, neither efficient nor exhaustive, it is extravagant. We attribute its success to this extravagance in the sense that when drastic change occurs, some of the versions of life it has found may still be able to persist in the new context.
Life is connected
If “life finds a way” there must be a way for life to find. Life may very well be abundant in the space of all possibly chemistry, but if there are broad expanses of nonliving chemistry in between, how does evolution get from one life form to another? Evolution may very well be extravagant in its exploration of the space of all possibly chemistry, but it can only occupy the living portions of that space. It must also be the case that the abundance of living chemistry is contiguous in some way, so that evolution can move from life to life. Thus evolution is successful because there is a way to success for it to follow.
Now of course there are other technical considerations. Evolution is successful because the sun is a hot spot against the backdrop of otherwise cold space, allowing the Earth to persist far from thermodynamic equilibrium. Evolution is successful because Jupiter is so large, reducing the number of catastrophic asteroid impacts on Earth and giving life and evolution time to extravagantly expand into the abundance of life that exists in the space of all possible chemistry. Evolution is successful because atoms behave according to consistent patterns such that living chemistry today is living chemistry tomorrow. And so on.
And of course we can probe further. Why is life abundant? Why is evolution extravagant? Why is life connected? We can answer these questions for a while in terms of the periodic table and the properties of subatomic particles and so on. At some point we will reach the limit of such explanations. In parallel, we might say that life is abundant and connected because God intended for physical reality to bring forth a diverse array of life as indicated in the Bible. I think these are complementary explanations and all true.