Stephen Barr on "The Design of Evolution"

In the October issue of First Things Magazine Professor Stephen Barr takes Christoph Cardinal Schönborn (and other defenders of Intelligent Design) to task for the latter's misunderstanding of much of the terminology in modern science, and how it can be misconstrued and misunderstood by the layman. For this reason, Barr's article, The Design of Evolution (in which Barr draws heavily on the Vatican's document COMMUNION AND STEWARDSHIP: Human Persons Created in the Image of God) is an important reminder to all engaged in the debate over neo-Darwinianism and Intelligent Design that the language of science must be understood on its own terms. Thus, for example, Barr tells us:

By saying that “neo-Darwinism” is “synonymous” with “‘evolution’ as used by mainstream biologists,” Schönborn indicates that he means the term as commonly understood among scientists. As so understood, neo-Darwinism is based on the idea that the mainspring of evolution is natural selection acting on random genetic variation. Elsewhere in his article, however, the cardinal gives another definition: “evolution in the neo-Darwinian sense [is] an unguided, unplanned process of random variation and natural selection.” This is the central misstep of Cardinal Schönborn’s article. He has slipped into the definition of a scientific theory, neo-Darwinism, the words “unplanned” and “unguided,” which are fraught with theological meaning.

This is an important caution for all of us, as Barr explains in his later elaboration (I found his analogies to be especially helpful in making the point):

But Communion and Stewardship also explicitly warns that the word “random” as used by biologists, chemists, physicists, and mathematicians in their technical work does not have the same meaning as the words “unguided” and “unplanned” as used in doctrinal statements of the Church. In common speech, “random” is often used to mean “uncaused,” “meaningless,” “inexplicable,” or “pointless.” And there is no question that some biologists, when they explain evolution to the public or to hapless students, do argue from the “randomness” of genetic mutations to the philosophical conclusion that the history of life is “unguided” and “unplanned.” Some do this because of an anti-religious animus, while others are simply careless.

When scientists are actually doing science, however, they do not use the words “unguided” and “unplanned...”

...The word “random” as used in science does not mean uncaused, unplanned, or inexplicable; it means uncorrelated. My children like to observe the license plates of the cars that pass us on the highway, to see which states they are from. The sequence of states exhibits a degree of randomness: a car from Kentucky, then New Jersey, then Florida, and so on—because the cars are uncorrelated: Knowing where one car comes from tells us nothing about where the next one comes from. And yet, each car comes to that place at that time for a reason. Each trip is planned, each guided by some map and schedule. Each driver’s trip fits into the story of his life in some intelligible way, though the story of these drivers’ lives are not usually closely correlated with the other drivers’ lives.

Or consider this analogy. Prose, unlike a sonnet, has lines with final syllables that do not rhyme. The sequence those syllables form will therefore exhibit randomness. But this does not mean a prose work is “unguided” or “unplanned.”

Barr continues in this vein, helping the reader to understand what the scientist means when he speaks of "statistical randomness."

We should distinguish between what we may call “statistical randomness,” which implies nothing about whether a process was planned or guided, and “randomness” in other senses. Statistical randomness, based on the lack of correlation among things or events, can be exploited to understand and explain phenomena through the use of probability theory... Entire subfields in science (such as “statistical mechanics”) are based on these methods: The properties of gases, liquids, and solids, for instance, can be understood and accurately calculated by methods that make assumptions about the randomness of molecular and atomic motions.

Very simply, "random" does not, for the scientist, mean "unplanned," "blind chance," or "non-designed." Going back to Barr's examples, the appearance of "random" licence plates on the highway does not point to a lack of design in placing each of them there at that moment and place.

If I may offer my own analogy here, consider the letters of the English language alphabet. To a Chinese person who has never encountered English, such lettering would appear to be both entirely random, and completely meaningless. The letter "A" in no way points by necessity (or causally) to the letter "B", any more than "B" points to "C", and so on through to "Y" and "Z" (and if we move to the formation of lower case lettering, one can only imagine the confusion of trying to explain how "B" is related to "b" in the same way that "D" is related to "d", or "N" is related to "n"!). Yet no one would argue that the English alphabet is the construct of blind chance. The randomness of the physical appearance of the letters simply does not point to their being generated by unguided chance.

Thus we come to Barr's concluding arguments (which should form the basis of any scientific argument for Intelligent Design):

Why is there statistical randomness and lack of correlation in our world? It is because events do not march in lockstep, according to some simple formula, but are part of a vastly complex web of contingency. The notion of contingency is important in Catholic theology, and it is intimately connected to what in ordinary speech would be called “chance.” is one thing to say that the whole world is a product of chance and the existence of the universe a fluke, and quite another to say that within the universe there is statistical randomness... (since) to employ arguments in science based on statistical randomness and probability is not necessarily to “oppose” the idea of chance to the existence of God the Creator.

Those of us who support Intelligent Design must remain conscious of what ID can, and cannot, demonstrate, scientifically. We must also refrain from making the same mistake as does the materialistic atheist, and confuse statistical randomness with blind chance. They are not the same thing. The means by which life originated and developed on this planet can be seen to point to how God has worked within His creation. Just as someone invented and created the alphabet, so too, God could have created life using evolutionary tools. We must not forget, as Barr reminds us:

The possibility of an evolutionary process that could produce the marvelously intricate forms we see presupposes the existence of a universe whose structure, matter, processes, and laws are of a special character. This is the lesson of the many “anthropic coincidences” that have been identified by physicists and chemists. It is also quite likely, as suggested by the eminent neo-Darwinian biologist Simon Conway Morris, that certain evolutionary endpoints (or “solutions”) are built into the rules of physics and chemistry, so that the “random variations” keep ending up at the same destinations, somewhat as meandering rivers always find the sea. In his book Life’s Solution, Morris adduces much impressive evidence of such evolutionary tropisms. And, of course, we must never forget that each of us has spiritual powers of intellect, rationality, and freedom that cannot be accounted for by mere biology, whether as conceived by neo-Darwinians or their Intelligent Design critics.

When we use the language of science, we must be careful to understand its meaning. Only then can we be certain to keep our own arguments powerful and relevant, even as we can use that same care in spotting the fallacies and false assumptions of the atheistic defenders of neo-Darwinianism.



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