Serendip is an independent site partnering with faculty at multiple colleges and universities around the world. Happy exploring!

Evolution/Science: Inverting the Relationship Between Randomness and Meaning

Paul Grobstein's picture

The past Sunday's NY Times Book Review has a review of a book by Anne Harrington called The Cure Within: A History of Mind-Body Medicine. Its interesting in its own right, directly relevant to a course I'm currently teaching, but connects in interesting ways to some other things bubbling around as well. The book is reviewed by Jerome Groopman, a cancer specialist, who writes ....

"Doctors like myself are schooled in the cause and effect of changes in DNA, cells, and tissues. We apply this biology to identify what is wrong with a patient, then recommend a medication, procedure, or behavioral change that will ameliorate the physical problem ...

Sometimes, of course, standard treatments don't work, or simply don't exist. And sometimes tests fail to uncover any physical cause for a patient's suffering at all. But such failures, Harrington argues, explain only part of the widespread dissatisfaction with mainstream medicine. Of equal or greater import, she writes, is medicine's failure to address the 'existential' aspect of illness, to answer the questions 'Why me? Why now? What next?' Doctors usually frame their answers to such questions in language that forgoes any meaning for the individual. Whether cancer will return is a matter of statistical likelihoods ... or in lay terms, "bad luck". There is no meaning in randomness, and for the patient no sense of control

As patients, we may be modern in many ways, but we find such uncertainty hard to accept. Throughout history, Harrington rightly argues, people have strained to make 'personal sense' of illness and suffering. Western cultures, like all cultures, have traditionally provided people 'a stockpile of religious, moral, and social stories to help them answer the great 'why' questions of of their suffering, and to connect their experiences to some larger understanding of their identities and destinies.' But today, she writes, the story offered by mainstream medicine 'is as impersonal as they come'.

Harrington concludes with the questions that students at Harvard regularly ask: 'Which mind-body narratives are 'true'? Are all the stories we tell ourselves about illness equally valuable? ... Harrington shows us that, whatever science reveals about the cause and course of disease, we will continue to tell ourselves stories, and try to use our own metaphors in find meaning in randomness".

In a New York Times op-ed piece written in 2005, before he became Pope, Christopher Schönborn wrote

"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."

And Albert Einstein famously said

"God does not play dice with the universe"

Perhaps following Spinoza's

"there is nothing accidental in nature"

But maybe Schönborn and Einstein and Spinoza were wrong? Perhaps there is actually something "accidental" in nature and in ourselves as well? Not only quantum physics but thermodynamics make sense in these terms

"All the physical and chemical laws that are known to play an important part in the life of organisms are of this statistical kind; any other kind of lawfulness and orderliness that one might think of is being perpetually disturbed and made inoperative by the unceasing heat motion of the atoms" ....... Erwin Schrodinger, What Is Life?, 1944

So too does biology in general, and evolution in particular

"Pure chance, only chance, absolute but blind liberty is at the root of the prodigious edifice that is evolution" .... Jacques Monod, Chance and Necessity, 1970

And brain function (Variability in Brain Function and Behavior, Indeterminacy in Brain and Behavior), and human behavior including creativity, scientific and otherwise

"We walk, so to speak, in the realm of science, and we pursue what happens to present itself accidentally to our eyes ... Claude Bernard, 1813-1878

" ... chance must be elevated to the status of primary cause. Logic, genius, and the zeitgeist still have significant roles to play but mainly operate insofar as they enhance, or constrain, the operation of a chance combinatorial process" ... Dean Simonton, Creativity in Science, 2004

"Chance, in the forum of more or less free associations, began to play a role in our conversations ..." ... Hans Richer, Dada: Art and Anti-Art, 1965

" ... you don't reach Serendib by plotting a course for it. You have to set out in good faith for elsewhere and lose your bearings ... serendipitously." ... John Barth, The Last Voyage of Somebody the Sailor, 1991 (see also Voyage to Serendip)

Perhaps then it is not only the ill who have to face the questions "Why me? Why now? What next?" but all of us, all of the time, who should be facing them more frequently and directly than we do. Maybe we all need a new kind of story, one that helps us to accept that randomness, and the "impersonal" are a constant undercurrent in all our lives, and so quite "personal".

That may seem a hard pill to swallow (cf Erich Fromm's Escape From Freedom), and perhaps that's part of the reason why not only evolution but science in general have serious detractors. No, we are apparently not specially situated at the center of the solar system (much less the universe). Not, we seem not to have been placed at the center of the living world either. Yes, its looking more and more like we are an accidental product of an accident prone universe lacking any plan or intention either for us or for anything else. There is, of course, some order in it but the developing scientific story is that such order is not enough so that either religion OR science can eliminate the "accidental".

There is though an important flip side to this story, a much more appealing one (to me at least) as described in From Complexity to Emergence and Beyond: Towards Empirical Non-Foundationalism as a Guide to Inquiry. If by "accidental" one means unintended, without purpose, then the same conditions that leave us vulnerable to the unpredictable and uncontrollable also give us the freedom to influence our own lives and the universe in which we find ourselves. In a "meaningful" universe, either one designed by someone else, or one fully governed by impersonal laws, our role is, at best, to discover the purpose of the designer or to decipher the laws. In a "meaningless" universe, we have the room to conceive and reconceive meaning ourselves. As Stephen Jay Gould said in a lecture in 1998

"When we fail to accurately predict, that is not our limitation, that is just nature's reality ... The massive and unpredictable contingency in nature gives us control, freedom and consequential responsibility. I find this view of life exhilarating; we are the offspring of history, of contingency. We must establish our own path in a universe quite indifferent to our suffering, but offering us maximal freedom to thrive, or fail, in our chosen way"

Or, in my own terms,

"a world in which everything follows from a set of first principles wouldn't, in any case, be a very appealing one in which to live, for me at least. I would prefer a universe in which there is enough uncertainty to assure that the future has new things in it"

and, I would add, one in which I myself can contribute to creating those new things.

We all have a tendency to think that the random, the accidental, is that which disrupts order and so is a challenge or threat to "meaning." The new story would have it that it is actually from the random, the accidental that the ability to appreciate meaning itself originally came into being, and that they continue to be an essential source of our own ability to both conceive and reconceive meaning. What we need to do is not actually to "find meaning in randomness" but rather to more fully appreciate and develop our abilities to make meaning from randomness.

Yes, of course, the accidental/random/impersonal can get in the way of possibilities we thought we had, and cause us to doubt meanings we thought were there. But they can, at the very same time, create opportunities that weren't there before and provide the grist for meaning that had yet to occur to us. The trailer for The Diving Bell and the Butterfly uses the tag line "let your imagination make you free". Perhaps that's a good operating principle not only for cancer patients and sufferers from cerebral hemorrhages but for the rest of us as well?




Relevant additional materials

Lisa Belkin, The Odds of That: Coincidence in an Age of Conspiracty, NY Times Magazine, 11 August 2002

Added 4 April 2008:

Losick, R. and Desplan, C. (2008) Stochasticity and cell fate. Science 320: 65-68.

Faisal, A. A., Selen, L.P.J., and Wolpert, D.M. (2008) Noise in the nervous system. Nature Reviews Neuroscience 9: 292-303.

Grobstein, Paul (1994) Variability in behavior and the nervous system. IN: Encyclopedia of Human Behavior, Vol. 4 (V.S. Ramachandran, ed). NY: Academic Press. pp 447-458.

Added 23 April 2008:

Expressing our individuality: the way E. Coli do, NYTimes Science Times, 22 April 2008

Added 6 May 2008:

Aronov, D., Andalman, A.S., and Fee, Michale, M.S. (2008) A specialized forebrain circuit for vocal babbling in the juvenile song bird. Science 320: 630-635.

Added 23 June 2008:

The Accidental Scientist. Review of Merton, R.K. and Barber. E. The Travels and Adventures of Serendipity: A Study in Sociological Semantics and the Sociology of Science. Princeton University Press, 2004.

Added 28 September 2008:

Mercury Rev: The Sound of Free Sounds

Added 14 December 2008

Uncertain Science ... Uncertain World by Henry N. Pollack, Cambridge University Press, 2003 

Added 18 September 2009

"Maybe we shouldn’t be so worried about an ultimate truth or final meaning to our lives. We just may be creating and making up meaning as we go along." ... Tima Vlasto

Added 23 September 2009

Highly variable spread rates in repeated biological invasions: fundamental limits to predictability, Science, 18 September 2009

Added 27 November 2009

The anatomy of a (fourth down) decision

"It is important to understand the criteria for a correct decision: the best choice is typically the one that provides the highest expectation of achieving one’s goal. ...  “Expectation” should not be confused with “guarantee.” This is because in science, as in life, there is no such thing as a 100 percent certainty.


Ask any physicist and he will tell you that all scientific facts are provisional. All reasonable people reject the notion that the earth is flat, but in theory there is not a 100 percent certainty. As the evolutionary theorist Stephen Jay Gould once said, fact can only mean confirmed so thoroughly that “it would be perverse to withhold provisional assent.” When choosing between two alternatives, we can only ask which is more likely to be correct, and which supporting argument is more plausible.


In the simple example, the coach had to play out only a single iteration in his head. Most humans would have a difficult time assessing more than three iterations in an attempt to calculate the parlay of probabilities and determine relative statistical expectations.

This is where computing becomes so important. Zeus is not a black box with a mysterious opinion. It simply can process more data, more quickly than a human. Its criteria is no different than the coach’s criteria for choosing the kick on the last play of the game. That decision tree had only two branches. When the tree has thousands of branches, humans become incapable and machines become reliable. Top chess and backgammon experts no longer have an edge against computers for this very reason. We as humans may accumulate a great wealth of knowledge and experience in our chosen field of expertise, but we cannot process information as quickly or as accurately as a machine.


In this particular situation, the required adjustment to overturn the decision was so far beyond the reasonable characteristics of the Patriots and the Colts you might say it would be perverse to withhold provisional assent. Is it safe to say it is far more plausible the pass was more correct than a punt would have been? Absolutely. Are we 100 percent certain it was correct to go for it?

Ask the physicist."

Added 29 Jan 2010

Stein, R.B., Gossen, E.R., and Jones, K.S. (2005) Neuronal variability: noise or part of the signal Nature Reviews Neuroscience 6: 389-397.

Added 8 June 2010

Whatever happened to Serendipity?  Lynell George, LA Times, 9 January 2005

Addded 25 October 2010

Stories vs statistics, John Allen Paulos, NYTimes Opinionator


Leo's picture

randomness and meaning

To your words,"What we need to do is not actually to "find meaning in randomness" but rather to more fully appreciate and develop our abilities to make meaning from randomness." I suggest to add "and finish with MAKING meaning IN randomness" by reverting to the state of total but meaningful randomness.

alesnick's picture


Anne, I will immediately be able to use this idea of neighboring plants helping others to flourish in my family life - "enabling symbiosis" is surely what I seek to nurture there.
Anne Dalke's picture

diverse collectivity

I'm very drawn to Alice's description of the sort of community (and we all know that there are other sorts of communities!) that can be identified as a "thinking collective." I would add to her catalogue of "some growing things we recognize" and some that are "new, or mysterious, or that exceed our languages and narratives" the ways in which interaction among ourselves can both enable us to flourish individually and create something new among us. The image below, painted by a friend who is gardener, records her experience, in a Quaker meeting for worship, of a garden in which certain plants, growing nearby, can help others plants to flourish. (I think there's a technical/botanical term for this sort of enabling symbiosis, though I don't know what it is....)


The counter to this sort of helping one-another-to-realize our individual idiosyncracies, and thereby make a diverse collective flowering, is the story told in Jane Smiley's Moo, where (as Alice also says, right on) the thinking collective becomes "exclusive through the concern to make it 'productive'" (in Paul's language, it's a place where insistent meaning-making trumps randomness). In Smiley's novel--for which I also have Alice to thank, a Jane-Austin-ish-quality satire of university life--the metaphor for greedy scholarship and policy is a hog that eats himself to death. Not to put too fine a point upon it....

Wil 's picture


enabling symbiosis = synergism? not sure if that was the word you were looking for.

alesnick's picture

collective ability to think

The recent writing here about community helps me think about Lucy's statement, above, that "there aren't answers, that social problems aren't ever 'solved.'" They aren't solved in the manner that purely abstract or purely mechanical problems can be solved. They can be more creatively and more dialogically understood, and we can create, sustain, and change communities of thought and action (gardens?) that work on them over time.

Safety and nurturance are no more necessary functions of community than they are of singularity. Rather than think of community as garden, or farm, I gloss it as "thinking collective." We need, and sometimes have access to, both individual and collective (current and over time) thinking in order to engage urgent circumstances. We also need different experiences to think with and about; different, and differing, experiences are part of what we make thinking out of -- they are a signficant part of the garden, in which we find some growing things we recognize and have names for and in which we find and bring about other growing things that are new, or mysterious, or that exceed our languages and narratives. Often, thinking collectives too quickly become exclusive through the concern to make them "productive" (whether of scholarship or of policy).


Anne Dalke's picture

translation: it's about community-building and binding?

I've been musing over these last few, complicated posts, trying to make sense of them...and want to try a translation. Is the suggestion that "luck is personal" a way of talking about the need, in a random world, to construct community, to develop structures that will nurture and hold us, allow us to flourish? (A well-run classroom is of course an excellent example of this: creating a place where students feel safe enough to think outrageously and freely.) Contrari-wise, is "the role of personal randomness" a caution about the limitations of such a community, an awareness of the ways in which those nets of holding can bind us, and prevent our free exploration? (An example here would be the ways in which habits of politeness, or fear of offending, might stifle free exploration in a course or on a forum like this one). Might it be fair to say that we are neither as bound as the last post fears, nor as free as the earlier one claims?
Paul Grobstein's picture

transpersonal/personal randomness = community building/binding?

Tor Norretranders, in the User Illusion, talks about exformation (in contrast to information): "everything we do not actually say but have in our heads when or before we say anything at all", and characterizes human communication in terms of a process of compressing what is in our heads into a message (information) which has no actual meaning until it is re-expanded in someone else's head by adding additional information (which may or may not be the same as the original exformation). The translation, in this case, has added something not in the original exformation (so far as I know).

I (at least) did not have in mind the benefits and hazards of "community" in reflecting on the relation between personal randomness and the "transpersonal". My point was instead that the "transpersonal" is often thought of as a way for people (individuals or groups) to defend themselves against oppression (by any force, including ones both external and internal to oneself), but that I think one is actually in general better off trusting the ability (not only individual but also, perhaps, collective) to make new meaning from randomness. "Transpersonal" in this sense is not equivalent to "community". An individual belief in God, or fate, or reality, or in some collective like a tribe or a discipline or a nation, are all examples of the "transpersonal".

Is "community-building and binding" relevant to thinking about personal randomness and the transpersonal? Of course. But it is, for me, a different question rather than the original question rephrased. Communities "can either enhance or inhibit" the inclination of individuals to decline the "transpersonal" approach to safety. And equally enhance or inhibit the inclination of individuals to make use of it.

Alice Lesnick's picture


I'm sorry I left these off the earlier post.

For a discussion of the role of universal values as protection for individuals, see
Martha Nussbaum (1994), "Valuing Values: A Case for Reasoned Commitment" Yale Journal of Law and the Humanities. For a discussion of reality as in part created by learning, see Davis, B. & Sumara D. (2000). Engaging Minds: Learning and Teaching in a Complex World. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum, p. 64.

Anne Dalke's picture

breaking from the tyranny of one's own point of view

Thanks for inviting me into a consideration of these mobile and contradictory truths. They invite not only a break from the tyranny of self--what Nussbaum calls "the need to look for a deeper consistency and unity in one's own commitment"--but also from the tyranny of one's own point of view. For more on this, see also a discussion going on close by on depression and self-construction, Buddhism, Hinduism and...?
Paul Grobstein's picture

The role of personal randomness in life, society, classroom

Interesting set of issues. I do think there is, in principle if not always in practice, a BIG difference between "the effort to understand laws or designs" and "the effort to make meaning from randomness". The former presumes there are "laws or designs" to be found that exist independently of our looking for them (and hence in turn require explanation in terms of something that gave rise to them). The latter doesn't, and so treats "meaning" (as well as "laws and designs") as always and inevitably of our own making (and so not requiring any other law giver, designer, or meaning maker).

That said, I fully agree that an "appeal to the transpersonal" has historically sometimes served well "to safeguard individual liberty ... against the tyranny of local/cultural norms and oppression." The protestant reformation is one good example. And another, of course, is the rise of science, with its insistence that "reality" as observed through through empirical testing, rather than revealed truth, should be the touchstone for wisdom.

I agree too that conceiving rules/designer/meaning makers outside oneself can indeed sometimes usefully "enlarge one's own imagination." That's basically the argument that William James makes in The Varieties of Religious Experience and The Will to Believe, that some possible avenues of exploration aren't accessible without first accepting as at least possible other things first. It could, perhaps, be that the very idea of making meaning from randomness depends for its existence on the prior idea of there being outside ourselves a meaning maker.

All that said, I'm sympathetic to the idea that "meaning" and "reality" are "co-created" by humans, ie that neither exists without the other. The big question though is, I think, not thereby settled. If humans feel threatened, ought they to defend themselves (either personally or interpersonally) by appeal to some external meaning? My inclination of course is to say no. They're actually probably better off defending themselves by their own ability to co-create reality and meaning using randomness to find the new possibilities (its probably relevant that I've recently been reading Victor Frankl's Man's Search for Meaning); that seems to me the surest defence against "being converted into a non-person". And, in any case, they're at least performing a service to humanity in its continuing quest to find ways to stop arguing over whose external meaning maker takes precedence. Yes, it isn't luck that is "impersonal" but "certain discourses of luck", in particular those that discourage people from recognizing and making use of randomness in their own unique creations.

Of what? "ideas, relationships, procedures, institutions, forms or objects of study"? Yes. And of course of "meaning" as well. As for the social grounding ... that actually necessarily comes in two, reciprocal forms, no? Yes, of course, imagination is necessarily translated into action which in turn impacts other people/communities. Reciprocally, other people/communities can either enhance or inhibit the generation of new .... "ideas, relationships, etc".

All this is pretty abstract/theoretical. Maybe worth testing with application to particular circumstances, such as the classroom? How much do we want students to generate new "ideas, relationships, etc" in that context? And what is the wherewithal that we'd need to provide to get them to do that?

Alice Lesnick's picture

Luck as personal?

Hi, everyone. As the second graders I taught years ago used to say, I have a comment and a question.

The distance between the effort to understand laws or designs and the effort to make meaning from randomness may not always be great, and it may be variable. In practice, they often feel like the same thing. Sometimes the appeal to the transpersonal -- as universal moral code, or God, or the way things work -- is a way to safeguard individual liberty (and safety) against the tyranny of local/cultural norms and oppression. Such an appeal may also (though it needn't) serve as a way to enlarge one's own imagination, to enlarge the narrative(s) in which one sees oneself at work, in the absence of pressing need. If we think of making meaning as part of "reality," as co-creating it rather than about or reflective of it, then it makes sense to say that the random is personal -- it's in the meaning of being a person.

Interestingly, it also seems to be in the meaning of being a person to be often threatened (and some people more often than others) with being converted into a non-person (as by medical statistics, or war, or bureaucracy). The challenge of responding to these threats is great, and may, as Paul suggests, lead to confusion in our thinking about whether the problem is randomness or the way it informs discourse. Maybe what is impersonal isn't luck but certain discourses of luck that negate the vitality of the personal.

My question is about what you mean, Paul, when you talk about "making new things." Do you mean: ideas, relationships, procedures, institutions, forms or objects of study? What is the social grounding of this independence through which imagination is translated into . . . artifact? action? change?

Fun -- thanks.


lucy's picture

I wouldn't call

I wouldn't call "chance" or randomness a choice, but rather an inevitability, as anyone working on the ground -- in the streets or in the classroom -- surely knows.  It's the way it is: we can't really control much about life.  I think Paul is pointing to what one does with that, and his suggestion is not just to take it in stride, but to eagerly anticipate it and be prepared to use it.  I agree that one is far better off setting things in motion with a sense of adventure rather than control.  And it is indeed sometimes the case that you get "appealing possibilities unthought of."  Not always, though.  Maybe it is the crowd I hang out with, but sometimes it is just "more wrong."
Anne Dalke's picture

Taking Chance Seriously

I was raised on a farm, and I like to say that the reason I became an academic was to get out of the garden. I found I much preferred spending my summers in an air-conditioned library, manipulating words on a page, to spending them in 100-degree heat, picking beetles off the beans. In the terms of this current conversation, I might say that I chose control over chance (or what, in the perverse language of the rural South, was known as "providence"): I liked being able to order and see the end of my work, rather than feeling subject to the bad luck of weather and infestation.

All of which is to say that I find this argument, about developing our abilities to make meaning from randomness, a stretch; it's a hard one for me to swallow. I'm getting some assistance in digestion, however, from a good book of literary criticism I'm reading now, called Standard Deviations: Chance and the Modern British Novel, by Leland Monk. Monk's argument is that the history of thinking about chance is in general a history of its marginalization. He suggests that--since we can't bear unpredictable--what we do is turn it into a narrative: make it into "providence," or fate, or the plot line of a novel, where what appears to be random turns out (think: Dickens) to exhibit a logic, to make perfect sense. Monk demonstrates this by looking @ the way in which George Eliot purges chance from her novel Middlemarch, @ the way Joseph Conrad calls established notions of causality into question in his novel Chance, and @ the way in which James Joyce's novel Ulysses marks a limit to the representation of chance in narrative.

What I'm realizing, from reading this text, is why I so like narratives with strong endings: they represent, for me, a way to get out of the hail--or whatever else might unexpectedly befall us. Chance is what cannot be represented in narrative, and defines the fundamental limit to its workings.

Emerging Genres: Form and Transformation

Dwight Brown's picture

stochastic processes

These have to do with random inputs into a process which
"sorts out" the ones which fit and discards the rest. Gregory Bateson in several books has spoken clearly of such processes as central to evolution. There is no mystery here. All of life uses such processes. In my case it is making Dwight out of some of the stuff which comes my way each day and leaving the rest for some other possible purpose.
And there is simply no need for design or designer here, any more than there needs to be a designer to make water go over a falls. Gravity is a nicely universal force to which things with some mass respond - it is in the nature of objects to do this, ask Newton. The river valley which results from the interaction of water and gravity requires no designer, just some one who can put two and two together. That is what we are for, and what we enjoy. No mystery here either. Our nervous systems are highly selective filters for all that flows through and around us. The difference between a worm and a human being does not require any special explanation, just a few hundred million years. A mere moment in the mind of the Joyful Lady I fantasy as running the Big Show. DB

lucy's picture

I think I have been trying

I think I have been trying to make a similar argument in the realm of social activism. I was talking with a colleague recently about how to solve problems of youth violence -- the distressingly high incidence of gun violence among African American boys -- and we were going back and forth around how and whether to structure mentoring programs and education programs and job training programs, and she finally said in some frustration, "I just don't know what the answer is yet." My response was -- and for some reason your articulation here reminds me of this -- that there aren't answers, that social problems aren't ever "solved."

Our task as activists and practitioners is like gardening: you can lay out a plan to plant roses here, geraniums there, you can plant sun-loving perennials in the full sun, you can water regularly -- but then you have to contend with all the unforeseen and uncontrollable forces around you. It doesn't rain, it gets too hot, there's a beetle infestation, flowers you didn't plant somehow come up in the middle of your carefully arranged beds. And even if the roses one year are absolutely splendid, they die and wither away in the end, and you start again the next year. The garden isn't ever done, and it doesn't ever follow your plan.

The random, the accidental -- they're a given, they're an inevitable ingredient in any plan, in any process, and they are necessarily what we have to work with, whether we are trying to stem youth violence, teach biology, or just live our lives.
Paul Grobstein's picture

gardening and randomness

Certainly agree that the story is as relevant to activism/life in general as to science and education, and like the gardening metaphor. Might though extend it just a tad. Isn't only that one accepts the inevitability of "flowers you didn't plant ... in the middle of your carefully arranged beds" but that one looks forward to the possibility that such unexpected events will in turn open appealing possibilities unthought of until the unexpected happened.