by Bradford McCall
In his book, The Uncontrolling Love of God, Thomas Jay Oord says randomness and chance are real occurrences in the natural environment. I agree. I find the notion of randomness and chance as operative in nature consonant with my view of a God who lures creation to higher levels of complexity through the processes of biological evolution.
As I see it, God does not determine the outcome of random events, but God does constrain randomness by setting broad boundaries. God empowers particles, systems and organisms to interact according to natural laws within these set boundaries and this produces a wide range of beautiful results.
Various sciences suggest randomness shapes the world, but there is debate about how much of reality is random. In his magnum opus, The Structure of Evolutionary Theory, Stephen Jay Gould emphasizes the importance of recognizing both the reality of structural constraint and the historical origin of structures. Life’s pathway includes many features predictable from the laws of nature, but these aspects are too broad and general to explain evolution’s particular results – such as cats, horses, lilies and people..
According to Gould, the history of life is not necessarily progressive and it is certainly not predictable. The earth’s living systems have evolved through a series of unexpected and unplanned accidents.
Humans, for example, arose as a contingent outcome of thousands of linked events. Any one of those events could have occurred differently, thereby leading evolutionary history on a pathway making consciousness impossible.
There are many examples of massive randomness in evolution.
- Had Pikaia not been among the survivors of the initial flourishing of multicellular animal life in the Cambrian explosion some 520 million years ago, it is unlikely vertebrates would have inhabited the earth at all.
- Had a small group of lobe-finned fishes not evolved with a radically different limb skeleton capable of bearing weight on land, vertebrates possibly would never have become land-dwelling.
- Had a meteorite not struck the earth about 65 million years ago, dinosaurs would probably still be dominant today. Other animals would still be small creatures living within the dinosaurs’ world
- Had a small lineage of primates (i.e. monkeys, baboons, gibbons, apes) not evolved the ability to walk upright just two million years ago, human ancestry might have wound up as a line of ecologically marginal apes.
Simon Conway Morris offers perhaps the most sustained critique of Gould’s radical randomness argument. Conway Morris argues that similar patterns regularly appear in widely divergent groups, and calls this “convergence.”
We find many examples of convergence in life. These multiple patterns and repeated histories suggest, despite some randomness, evolution is more predictable than Gould envisioned.
However, Conway Morris argues the likelihood of the same cognitive creatures – with five fingers on each hand, a blind spot in each eye, thirty-two teeth, and so on evolving again if, somehow, the Cambrian explosion could be rerun is remote in the extreme.
Convergence operates at all levels of biological organization. Humans are one of the best examples of the power of convergence. We are not entirely the products of a cosmic accident, but we are also not the result of a meticulously ordained plan.
Evolutionary convergence notes the repeated tendency of biological organization to arrive at the same “solution” to a particular “need.” What we regard as complex is usually fundamental in simpler systems, thus the real novelty in evolution is how things are put together. The number of evolutionary end-points is limited, which means not everything is possible. What is possible has usually been arrived at multiple times. Evolution takes billions of years to become increasingly inevitable.
In sum, convergence tells us evolutionary trends are real. Adaptation is not some occasional component in the machine, but is central to the explanation of the emergence of life.
So what does this brief analysis of Gould’s and Conway Morris’s writings mean for those of us who insist on God’s uncontrolling love? I suggest two things.
First, there is genuine randomness in nature. God does not control even nonhuman creatures and entities. God uses this randomness in order to achieve the filling of creation by maintaining dynamic stability in complex systems.
Second, this genuine randomness does not exclude the expression similar form, even among widely different evolutionary lines. Randomness isn’t the same as absolute chaos. Continuities emerge over time. In fact, constraints are part of the evolutionary process. Even considering elementary forms of life, the pattern of convergence dominates.
All of this suggests, even though God’s love is uncontrolling, God still acts with purpose. God woos and lures creation forward toward greater complexity.