Would God's Guidance Be DNA-Detectable?

How different is an unpredictable nuclear decay event from Lucretius’s “clinamen”?

That depends if God predicts or ordains it. As I said, you can have Epicurean chance. But that’s a choice.

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In science, one attempts to test one’s assumptions as much as possible. How are you sure your particular presumptions are better than those of a Muslim or Hindu? They seem to me to be dubious enough that any structure built upon them must be dubious itself.

Now, if you do indeed know how God might do things, do explain, in the current context, how that is and how you know it. If we have the mind of Christ, we have it only imperfectly, because we understand only a few things. Why the limitations, and why those particular limitations? I don’t think this actually explains anything.

And it seems only distantly related to the question of whether guided evolution should be detectable. Could you make the connection more explicit?

In theology, too, though the tests are primarily Scriptural.One does not test theological presumptions by science, any more than one tests scientific presumptions by theology.

However, if one is a Christian (and this is a Christian site) one is applying theology, not arguing for its worth against alternative theologies. And then one isn’t starting from “we have no idea of God” but "from “God is revealed in Jesus Christ”. And Jesus Christ is revealed both in Scripture and by the Holy Spirit to the believer.

But according to that Scripture, all men, including the Hindu and the Muslim, are created in God’s image, and so will have some natural affinity for the true God by creation, not by faith, rather than simply setting up a divine being as one postulate amongst others. To intuit that God is like us in certain respects is, in that context, simply to explore our roots. Fallible? Yes, but all human conclusions are fallible - and none more so

In this connection the Muslim not only believes in one God, but shares at least some of the Genesis tradition in the Quran. Behind the Hindu’s universe there is Brahma, who is at least broadly in line with the kind of “classical First Cause” of Greek philosophy. Both, and Christianity too, have God or gods who are involved in the business of the world, rather than distant and aloof like the Deist God.


It seems, then, since I reject your fundamental epistemological premise, that we can have no profitable discussion. Would you agree? I presume you do, since you make no attempt to link your argument to the ostensible subject.

To me, your house appears to be built on sand. And even though I’m created in God’s image, I do not seem to have any natural affinity for him.

I think you are missing why we care about this. We are not making an epistemological case. The reason I believe in God is not science, per se, and certainly not DNA. I believe in God because of other reasons: Peace Be With You. After coming to belief in God by other means, we are just imagining different possibilities. It is just fun to think about, and helps map out what science and the evidence do and do not tell us.


Sure, I can work with that. But when you’re imagining possibilities, there must be some justification for imagining one possibility rather than another. Even if that justification is entirely theological, it should at least be articulated and so subject to examination. So what is the justification for supposing the possibility that God’s guidance ought to be undetectable?

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I’ve given that justification. You just haven’t engaged it. Not sure what else to say.

Perhaps you are misunderstanding. I’m not starting from the axiom that it is undetectable. I’m merely starting from the axiom that it exists. Then I am asking if we would be detectable, and finding from understanding in biology that the answer is no.

By similar reasoning, we could ask if God’s guidance of evolution would leave evidence in the configuration of stars in the sky. The answer is no, because tweak DNA, or tweaking selective environments, does not make itself evident in the configuration of stars in the sky. Our intuition might tell us something different, but our intuitions are often wrong.

Understood, but I have missed the support for the answer being no. From our understanding of biology we can see that it would be possible for God’s intervention to be undetectable if he restricted himself to occasional tweaks that were indistinguishable from mutations followed by fixation. But “possible” doesn’t mean “expected”. What are the reasons for us to expect that guided evolution would be undetectable, other than that we observe, a posteriori, that it is?

Also, why is it your axiom that God guides evolution? What is the theological justification for active guidance as opposed to the setting of initial conditions? After all, even if God had a particular interest in some outcome, he should be capable of setting the initial conditions (of life, earth, or even the universe) so that the outcome would come about without further intervention. You might propose that theology tells us that God is active, but he clearly is not active in every single event. So how do you decide that he’s active in evolution, specifically?

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You have me there. There can be no evidence that any event, or every event, wasn’t caused directly by God. It’s possible that God is directly causing me to type this sentence, and I have no way to refute it. One can only appeal to Occam’s razor, which is apparently not popular around here.

Or one might appeal to theology. Is it your theological position that every event is in fact directly caused by God? If so, I think there are some bizarre theological implications, which many people would not like.

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Okay. I will try again.

Axiom is not the right word. Hypothesis is better. Let’s put it this way:

A Hypothesis Not an Axiom

H1: We hypothesize that God does not ever direct in the course of evolution.
H2: We hypothesize that God does direct evolution towards outcomes He desires.

That is not enough information to analyze H2. So, let’s articulate some specific mechanisms of guidance. If any of these are undetectable in DNA, than we know that God’s guidance would be undetectable.

H2.1: God alters the environment, changing selective pressures to bring about outcomes he desires.

H2.1 is obviously undetectable in DNA. For example, we know that the extinction of dinosaurs 65 million years ago, likely by an asteroid, enables the rise of mammals and of us. We have no way of knowing if the divine purpose of said asteroid was to enable our rise. Perhaps it was. H2.1 would not be detectable in our DNA, and can profoundly influence the course of evolution.

H2.2: God ensures the survival of specific individuals, carrying perhaps currently deleterious but long-term important mutations, so as to bring about outcomes he desires.

H2.2 is obviously undetectable in DNA. Perhaps God preserved some key mammal linages from extinction when said asteroid hit, to ensure that we also would eventually arise. H2.2 would not be detectable in our DNA, and can profoundly influence the course of evolution.

H2.3 God causes mutations that could have happened by other means, but He inserts these into genomes to ensure evolution produces outcomes he desires.

H2.3 is undetectable in DNA, but perhaps not obviously.

Let us start with the well grounded claim (in theology) that God desires animals with the “human-condition” to arise: which we will define here as written language, civilization, and a full theory of mind. Consider humans, chimpanzees, gorillas, bonobos, and orangutans, which all had the same starting point. However, neither chimpanzees, orangutans, bonobos or gorillas arrive at the the human condition.

We know that differences in these lineages are almost entirely explained by neutral evolution (let’s say, about 30 million bases of difference). Most differences between us are just neutral. Yet, we got to the “human condition” and they did not. We also know that some of these mutations caused us to be very different. Which mutations and how many? We are getting some answers, but from neutral theory we expect there to be on the order of just 1000s of mutations (let’s say 2 thousand bases of differences).

Perhaps God ensured that the right mutations would arise in our lineage so that the “human condition” could arise. Perhaps this could have happened on its own, but the chances were 1/100 or 1/1000, and God just made sure it would happen. What would have to do to ensure this? Not much. Let’s say He just made sure the right 100 mutations took place. There is no way we would find these mutations as anomalous against 30 million bases of neutral evolution, and 2,000 mutations of natural evolution. Therefore, H2.3 would not be detectable in our DNA, and can profoundly influence the course of evolution.

H2.4: God causes clusters of mutations that would not otherwise be likely occur simultaneously, to enable evolution to overcome difficult to cross “barriers,” so as to produce outcomes he desires.

H2.4 is probably least obvious.

What is the chances of starting from that point and becoming “human”? Perhaps we are tempted to say 1/5, but that is not quite right. We just do not have enough data to tell. The reality is that our best estimate is somewhere between 0 and 1/5, because we have no idea if our rise was a fluke or not. After all, there is just one example of animals with the “human-condition.” Perhaps the chances are 1 out of a million, or a billion.

Perhaps there is a specific set of 10 mutations that have to take place simultaneously in the same individual (or even group of individuals). H2.4 would not be detectable in our DNA, and can profoundly influence the course of evolution.

I am not at all saying that this is actually the case. Rather, we have no direct view of the precise genomic history of our lineage going back millions of years. We do not know the precise fitness landscape along these paths. Perhaps there is a barrier there we cannot expect to see. Before you call this fantastical, there are secular scientists who have proposed just this type of barrier. The existence of such a barrier would explain why humans alone are the only animals in all the earth’s history that appear to have arrived at the “human condition.”

Once again, I’m not making a strong claim that such a barrier exists, but just saying that there is no way of knowing from evidence one way or another. We do not know and we cannot know.

What this Means for ID

It appears that we have identified four types of guidance that God could use in evolution. Not one of these four guidance mechanisms is detectable in DNA, and all four would have a profound effect on the course of evolution. I am sure we could imagine more mechanisms too. It would be hard to find one that would be detectable

Based on what we know of biology, especially neutral theory, we do not expect God’s guidance to be detectable in DNA… I hope that @EricMH, @pnelson, @bjmiller, @AJRoberts, @Winston_Ewert, and @Agauger are reading along. They would see that it actually would take intentional effort for God to reveal Himself in evolution. There is no good theological reason to think that God would try to reveal His existence in DNA. That is just is not how the God of the Bible appears to work.

Given this analysis, the failure of ID to find strong evidence of guidance in evolution is not evidence against guidance. Despite their intuitions, we just do not expect nay evidence.

What This Means for Sufficiency

In the same way, we can’t say that evolutionary science demonstrates that “we don’t need God” to explain the course of evolution. That is not true at all. We just do not know. We have no control experiment that shows the evolution of earth with and without God. Instead, we know that evolution is profoundly shaped by contingency. God might just be one of those contingency. Maybe without His involvement, evolution would have taken a very different course. Or maybe not. It is also possible that God did not ever intervene, or that he does not exist.

Even if I’m not correct about one of these cases, you have to show how all are detectable to demonstrate that God’s guidance should be detectable. The case for undetectability is distinct in each case.

Science is Silent on God

Al this goes to say that science is silent on God’s guidance. @gbrooks9 has a totally scientifically consistent understanding of reality, even if it is ultimately a theological position because it invokes God. Science is neutral on God. It does not tell us if He guided evolution. Instead, it tells us there is no evidence one way or another.


@Wayne_Rossiter, @evograd, and @Zachary_Ardern, I’m curious your thoughts on this.

I don’t think that was clearly stated. If a particular mechanism would be undetectable, then we know that if that mechanism is the only mechanism he uses, God’s guidance would be undetectable. Or if every possible mechanism would be undetectable, we know that God’s guidance would be undetectable. Then again, if there is a possible detectable mechanism, and if we can’t say that God wouldn’t use that mechanism, then God’s guidance might be detectable.

What are the excellent grounds for this claim?

I disagree. It would be childishly easy. I have suggested a simple, detectable mechanism for large change: God inserts three de novo chromosomes into some primate, possibly into a large number of zygotes so that the problem of interfertility doesn’t arise. Why should this mechanism, or various other mechanisms one could easily imagine, not also be considered? I don’t see how it would take intentional effort to choose only undetectable mechanisms, and you would have to flesh out the justification for that. As for how the God of the bible appears to work, he seems to work in a variety of ways, some of them quite overt. It’s true that the easily detectable interventions seem to decrease sharply as we approach closer to recorded history, but the burning bush, the plagues of Egypt, Lot’s wife, the flood, etc. are all clear examples of gross intervention that couldn’t be ignored.

Now of course the failure to find evidence of guidance is not strong evidence against guidance. But I don’t see why guidance would be the preferred hypothesis. You have made no theological argument (and I believe we agree that the only possible argument would be theological) in favor of guidance that I can discern.

Not true. At the very most you can say that it’s possible for God’s intervention to be undetectable. “Should be” is a judgment about which mechanisms God would be likely to use, and I can’t see any way to discern that. You have considered only undetectable mechanisms, and you have not shown a reason to prefer those to other mechanisms.

Two objections: first, science may be silent on the bare fact of God’s guidance, but it places limits on the nature of that guidance, assuming again that God is not deceptive. One can say that he appears not to resort to fiat creation of species, for example, as every species appears to be related to every other.

Second, this claim seems to be applicable to everything, not just evolution; if science is silent on God’s guidance, it must also be silent on God’s intervention in every event. As johngarvey seems to be pointing out, we can’t point to anything at all as a natural event not directly caused by God. LaPlace may have had no need of that hypothesis, but he apparently couldn’t have ruled it out either. One must ask whether that perspective eliminates the foundation of science entirely. Is there any way at all to choose among hypotheses that allow for the same data? Can we ever choose between a linear regression and a 5th degree polynomial regression? Shall we reject the Akaike information criterion as useless?


First, why is God limited to “have to”? Because he doesn’t have to, does that tell you he wouldn’t? Second, why are you assuming a starting position of a human/chimp ancestor’s genome? The small number of necessary changes is only small if we accept an end point genomically near the starting point. Thus you assume that God is willing to work very gradually, not through large genomic transformations, as in my “3 de novo chromosome” scenario. I see no reason to rule that out other than that we don’t see it happening.

I think your claim is much stronger than that. You’re saying that we do have reason to think that we wouldn’t find evidence of guidance in DNA. I accept the claim you make above but reject the claim as stated elsewhere.

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I am appealing to the Genesis account, which is outside science. The grounding is in theology not science.

Ah, I see your confusion. What you have not shown is why God would need to do this. Clearly, we got here without any deus ex machina changes, so it does not appear such a change was necessary. You appear, instead, to be standing up a straw man to knock down. Congrats! You succeeded.

I did not say it is preferred. I said the evidence does not discriminate. The question of “preferred” is a theological question I’m not that concerned with in the end. It is more important, for me, to be honest about what the evidence is showing us. It is up to the theologians to sort through what is “preferred” in theology.

As I explained, I think I still can. I forgot to include the criteria that the change must also be important to what we observe in the biological world. You think that God did not intervene, so that means you think that all of it can be explained without him. I agree the evidence does not contradict you. It does not however support you. That claim itself puts in the position of saying that no detectable changes were required to give us the outcomes we see around us. We agree on that, and you can’t retract that agreement merely for the purpose of arguing about God. It would be self-inconsistent and self-defeating.

I entirely agree with this. It does put limits on how he guided.

That is right. Science is silent on God. I’m sure @Patrick will agree and I know the NSCE does.

No it does not.

This is even less a threat to science than string theory, which has the same problem within the gates of the scientific enterprise. I am not putting this forward in science, but in science-engaged theology. String theory has the inability to choose between different hypothesis and it is already part of science.

Some how, we trudge on, and it does not all come tumbling down. It turns out that despite our illusions of omniscience, we just can’t figure out that whole story from science.


We can completely agree that the grounding is not in science. But how have you decided what parts of the Genesis account should be taken seriously as indications of God’s actions and interests, and what parts are not? Why should we accept the story that he created humans (twice) as evidence that he was interested in creating humans, while rejecting almost everything about how that happened?

What you have not shown is why “need” is relevant to God’s actions. I’ve made this point more completely in the post just above this.

Agreed. I think you went to more trouble than you needed to in order to show that; one reasonable hypothesis would have been enough.

I appeal once more to Occam’s razor, but I agree that’s all the justification I can possibly have. Still, I think it’s crucial for science. If theology rejects that criterion, it’s an epistemological problem. Of course we disagree on the value of theology as a way of knowing for many reasons, some of them much more fundamental.

There is of course some controversy over whether string theory is science, for precisely the reason you mention.

The reason it doesn’t is that science ignores (or rejects) all hypotheses of divine intervention, including the hypothesis of direct intervention in every event.

Agreed, again unless you consider Occam’s razor as a criterion in science. And of course there is plenty that we don’t currently know and much that I suspect we will never know. I would also maintain that just because science can’t tell us everything is no reason to suppose that theology can tell us anything.


Thanks @John_Harshman, I can’t see anything here worth rebutting. I think we almost entirely agree, except in some value assessments about things external to science. I like this end point.

Thanks for being the loyal opposition here. I appreciate it. I’ll be referring back to this thread often.

Only a few points:

I entirely agree with this. This is “methodological naturalism,” and it is how science works. All the H2 hypothesis were not precisely science, but a type of theology-engaged science or science-engaged theology. The questions they answer arise from theology.

Except String Theory is plausibly part of science, and therefore has much more ability to undermine science than anything here, which is obviously outside of science. Still, even with that threat, science manages to go on. Therefore, we should be certain that the very foundations of science are not threatened.


@jack.collins you will likely want to see this post: Would God's Guidance Be DNA-Detectable?.

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I haven’t read everything here carefully, but some comments

  1. The neutral theory, e.g. the claim that the vast majority of substitutions [fixed?] are neutral, seems to be contentious - e.g. Kern & Hahn 2018 ‘The Neutral Theory in Light of Selection’. But it is likely that you, @swamidass know much that I don’t about this.

  2. “Occam’s razor” is not simple @John_Harshman … see e.g. “Occam’s Razor’s” book by Eliott Sober. I tend to think that theism is ultimately simpler than naturalism, as naturalism leaves a bunch of aspects of the world (at least some of: contingent reality, moral facts, fine tuning, applicability of mathematics, the mapping between mental and physical states) as ‘brute facts’, whereas theism potentially brings them together (the term consilience is useful here, from William Whewell, a big influence on Darwin). This is outside the realm of science, but still in the realm of evidence and reason.

  3. If, say, the genotype-phenotype map was (really) not friendly towards an unguided evolutionary search being able to result in interesting outcomes, this would be some kind of evidence for the idea that the search was not unguided. Conceivably then, the kind of information we are learning about the mechanisms of evolution could be relevant to the question of guidance, it seems to me.