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Randomness versus Intent: the Lure of Security in Darwinian Evolution and Intelligent Design

Elise Niemeyer's picture

           The debate between advocates of intelligent design and Darwinian evolution is one that not only permeates modern legal arenas, but also reflects an underlying dispute about the nature of science, and the innate appeal certain scientific stories over others.  Randomness is at the heart of biological evolution.  It is integral to natural selection and genetic mutation, two of the cornerstones of the modern understanding of the evolutionary process.  While the bulk of scientific observations seem to support such randomness, many people find it unnerving and even improbable.  In an article in the New York Times in 2005, Christopher Schönborn articulated a position held by many people both inside and outside the scientific community, "Evolution in the sense of common ancestry might be true, but evolution in the neo-Darwinian sense - an unguided, unplanned process of random variation and natural selection - is not. Any system of thought that denies or seeks to explain away the overwhelming evidence for design in biology is ideology, not science” (“Science as a Story”).  This stance on the evolutionary process has come to be recognized as “intelligent design,” a subtle mixture of Darwin and religion.  It is compelling that both explanations seem to provide security to some and anxiety to others.  While many are reassured by the “hard facts” that support biological evolution, others see this enforced randomness as lacking in meaning and thus undermining human purpose.  Conversely, the supernatural beginnings of intelligent design provide security through order, while causing some people to question its narrow view of human potential and attending religious connotations.

             Intelligent design avoids the pitfalls of creationism by allowing for the existence of evolution, even over a very long period of time.  The essential difference is the assertion that initially, the whole process was put into motion by a designer, some say God, others leave it more open ended.  This claim is very difficult for Darwinians to fully refute since it deals with an occurrence billions of years in the past for which there would be no discernable evidence, accept life itself.  What evolutionists can do is continue to demonstrate the randomness inherent in the natural world that supports strictly biological evolution.  The random process of genetic mutation is essential to the modern understanding of evolution.  Errors in DNA replication, chromosomal inversions and transpositions affect the genotype and often the phenotype of an organism (Mayr 96-97).  These changes in turn can affect the organism's reproductive success and ability to adapt to its environment, thus altering the course of natural selection.  Despite its significant impact on the evolutionary process, genetic mutation is completely random, an observation that supports an overall pattern of randomness instead of design.

            The other major factor is natural selection itself.  While Ernst Mayr points out that in some ways natural selection is “an antichance process” (120), the result of a particular pattern of survival, there is still a great deal of randomness involved.  What characteristics that will prove favorable through natural selection are not predetermined, and easily change as the environment or population changes.  There is no drive towards a certain goal involved in natural selection; those organisms that are reproductively successful are essentially picked at random from the group based on countless circumstantial factors.  Though natural selection can be predicted within one set of circumstances, the “design” is constantly changing.  This fluidity and randomness is difficult to reconcile with intelligent design, as the designer would have to have taken all of these factors into account and created an ever-changing and largely unpredictable plan.

            For staunch evolutionists like Mayr, these observations are all that are necessary to assume its validity.  As he says, “Who does the selecting? ... strictly speaking, there is no such agent in natural selection” (117).  Inherent randomness manifested in genetic mutation and natural selection is the most secure explanation for many who view the world in this way.  It might be assumed that these observations and the processes they suggest would be difficult to ignore, however, there is still a large contingent of people who choose to view the world alternatively.  Intelligent design provides a different kind of security.  Instead of the concrete, observable “facts,” intelligent design relies on untestable assumptions that suggest a higher purpose, a very compelling combination.

            A prime example of the differences between advocates of each explanation is the legal dispute and subsequent ban on teaching intelligent design in the town of Dover, Pennsylvania in 2005.  The Dover school board had decided to teach intelligent design in biology classes and present Darwinian Evolution as an alternate theory ('Intelligent Design').  Several parents were incensed, sued the school board, and succeeded in banning intelligent design from being taught in Dover.  The trial exposed many issues dealing specifically with how different people find both stories equally valid.  The significant reasons given to support intelligent design were the “gaps in Darwin's theory” and “whether life at the molecular level could have evolved through natural selection” (School Defends).  Evolutionists have answered both questions to their own satisfaction, but admittedly not without room for doubt in some cases.  Ultimately, it was the inability of intelligent design to be separated from religion that rendered the verdict in favor of evolution, not because of absolute certainty about evolution itself.

            The conflict between intelligent design and Darwinian evolution is a dispute over what observations constitute a secure picture of the universe in the minds of different people.  Those who prefer to interpret the basic biological “facts” accept the randomness of Darwinian evolution as an accurate way of describing the world.  Others find the comfort of a higher purpose and plan of intelligent design more appealing and use the complexity of biology to support their views.  There may never be a defining observation that will undermine either theory, because people will always choose what to believe based in part on their own personal inclinations and perspectives.





“Intelligent Design teaching ban.”  20 Dec 2005.  <>.                   

Mayr, Ernst.  What Evolution Is.  New York: Basic Books, 2001.

“School defends teaching Intelligent Design.”  18 Oct 2005.                          <>.                                                                         

“Science as Story and Story Revision.”  23 Jan 2007.                                                                                              </sci_cult/evolit/s07/23jan07.html>.



Ralph Dratman's picture

The evolution of intention

Your interesting post discusses two opposing views of biological history, and some of the reasons for their popular appeal. But the concepts of evolution and intention are more deeply intertwined than that.

Both sides in the evolution vs design debate generally agree that there is such a thing as human intention. It seems obvious that humans and many other animals really do plan ahead, and make every attempt to influence the future. Yet it is also clear,, according to biological evidence, that animals' ability to display intentional behavior had to evolve over millions of years.

Thus we implicitly believe that chance itself brought about the evolution of intentional behavior! And there is more. Intentional behavior, in many kinds of living creatures, but especially in human creatures, has blossomed to an astonishing extent in the world, and now is obviously a major deteminant in the future process of evolution. What is happening here? Is the snake really eating his own tail?

Are we humans really capable of understanding the deep relationship between chance and intent? 

bogar's picture

Evoluvation is the choice between Intention and Environment.

Evoluvation is the combination of Human intention and Environment. Human is has a intention and the choices offered by the Environment. He has to choose the choice relevant to his intention, some choices are away from his intention but charming aggressively. If he choose that choice, he will deviate from his intention. His evolution as per his intention or by the environment is decided by choosing the choice by his intellect.
Excerpt from:

Paul Grobstein's picture

Preferring meaning or room to grow?

I think you've hit an important nail on the head in focusing on "randomness" as a key feature that distinguishes the stories of evolution and "intelligent design". And I like your characterizing the downsides of each: "randomness as lacking in meaning and thus undermining human purpose" for evolution and "narrow view of human potential" for intelligent design (cf /sci_cult/bridges/angier.html). I also agree with you that a choice between the two cannot be made in terms of a "defining observations that will undermine either theory" (cf /biology/evolution/grobstein.html). And so "personal inclinations and perspectives" are necessarily relevant. Perhaps those though have less to do with "concrete, observable facts" as opposed to "untestable assumptions" (both being, to one degree or another, a component of either choice?), and more to do with one's level of comfort with (even enjoyment of?) a somewhat unpredictable world that can be either feared as threatening or enjoyed as giving room for personal involvement in creating meaning and purpose (cf /sci_cult/lesswrong/descartes)?