Science Reader Question: Evolutionary Project Management

Photo of Niagara Falls

The rain falls everywhere, so why does so much water go over these falls? (Photo by Jodi Walsh)

A few months back, I received some questions here on the blog about evolutionary biology and its implications for Christian theology. They probed broadly and deeply, covering original sin, the problem of evil and many of the topics everyone asks about and indeed have been asking about since long before anyone conceived of a theory of evolution. These questions warrant more detailed answers than a few comments can provide, so I will be taking a look at them in some depth over the next few weeks. Looking ahead, I expect that will include some discussion of the upcoming film X-Men: Apocalypse, since Apocalypse is obsessed with survival of the fittest and since the film declared its theological ambitions already. I’ll start this series with the questions I received previously, but feel free to chime in with others as we go along.

Let’s start with the question of what it looks like for God to create (in my view, continuously) via evolution. If a key element is random mutation, how can God claim credit for anything resembling design? Alternatively, if God is actually causing all the mutations, why does he seem to get so many wrong?

I certainly can’t deny that mutations can be harmful. Cancer alone is sufficiently devastating to indict mutations. At the same time, I understand why it is so impressive and awe-inducing that the human body can do what it does; I wouldn’t be a biologist if I didn’t find biology fascinating. There are the bits that suggest mechanical contraptions–pumps and valves and filtration systems–and the chemistry that transmutes all manner of tasty delicacies into energy and spare parts. And then there are all the clever things we can do with our brains; even as we replicate some of those capabilities with our nifty computers, we still marvel that our human Go champions run on a peanut butter sandwich or two while their digital counterparts need the energy equivalent of about an acre of peanuts. What kind of a creator could be simultaneously competent enough to confound computer engineers and inept enough to let a few rogue cells bring down a whole person?

From my day job, I’ve learned a thing or two about how software is built. New programming projects generally begin with specifications for what the new computer program will be required to do. Ideally, those requirements can be defined in terms of an interface, either between the human user and the program or between two programs. These interfaces, broadly speaking, specify what input the program will receive, such as music files or e-mails or user keystrokes, and what output it will produce, including sounds or images on the screen or other files. At this level, lots of implementation details are left unspecified, open to the judgement of the programmers. The important part is defining the relationships that the new program will have.

Photograph of a waterfall

When your wife takes such great pictures, it can be hard to pick just one. (Photo by Jodi Walsh)

Perhaps God expresses his intentions in this relational fashion. This is a very different paradigm than God-as-artist, where he directly selects every detail of the final product. A relational requirements approach leaves some freedom and creativity for creation to express itself in response to God’s intent. God can have a plan for his creation to produce creatures who can worship him and fellowship with him without specifying the biology embodying these capabilities.

This approach has further implications for theology, such as what it means to be created in the image of God, that we will revisit. For now, just consider whether this model seems plausible. For me, it feels consistent with a God who regularly allows his people to shape the ways in which his plans are realized, whether it’s allowing Moses to bring Aaron with him to Pharoah’s court, allowing Israel to become a monarchy or allowing David to decide which priorities were most significant when it came to consecrated bread. Even the Bible itself was written by human hands and minds at the inspiration of God rather than directly dictated or even outright inscribed. A God who specifies interactions and interfaces is also a way in which God employs time as his medium of creation, a theme I’ve explored previously.

In addition to theological plausibility, we might also wonder whether this model is coherent scientifically. If creation’s freedom is expressed with random mutations, can the end result follow any particular plan, even one loosely specified? For me, the answer is ‘yes’ because random mutations are not the end of the evolutionary story. Physics and chemistry place certain global constraints on what will work biologically, which bias evolution in certain directions. Environmental conditions, interactions with other organisms and the need to work with other components within the same organism provide additional context-sensitive constraints. All of these constraints manifest in what we call selection, the process by which certain mutations proliferate preferentially. Since selection is driven by these constraints, it is not random.

For a rough analogy, consider rain drops making their way to the ocean. Initially, where they land is fairly random (at least for a given storm). Once they land they still have a fair amount of freedom but there are constraints that provide some direction. There are global constraints like gravity that keep water from flowing uphill. The details of the terrain will make some paths more likely than others. These preferential paths might become streams and rivers which make it easier for future rain drops to follow those same paths. Those rivers will in turn attract humans to build cities near them, cities with storm drains and sewers that further guide the water in particular directions. And so even with a random input, we get non-random results–not just in terms water flow, human settlements as well! Similarly, physics and chemistry and environment funnel random mutations towards certain kinds of creatures.

This picture of how God creates is painted with very broad strokes, but I hope it gives you a flavor of how I think God can create within an evolutionary framework that preserves an expression of intention without requiring God to specify every last mutation. I think this image is theologically plausible in that it can be reconciled with scripture. I also think it is scientifically plausible; in fact, I think it is the model most consistent with our current scientific understanding. I hope you find it useful in some fashion, and will join me in exploring further implications of evolutionary biology for a Christian theology.

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Andy Walsh

Andy has worn many hats in his life. He knows this is a dreadfully clichéd notion, but since it is also literally true he uses it anyway. Among his current metaphorical hats: husband of one wife, father of two elementary school students, reader of science fiction and science fact, enthusiast of contemporary symphonic music, and chief science officer. Previous metaphorical hats include: comp bio postdoc, molecular biology grad student, InterVarsity chapter president (that one came with a literal hat), music store clerk, house painter, and mosquito trapper. Among his more unique literal hats: British bobby, captain's hats (of varying levels of authenticity) of several specific vessels, a deerstalker from 221B Baker St, and a railroad engineer's cap. His monthly Science in Review is drawn from his weekly Science Corner posts -- Wednesdays, 8am (Eastern) on the Emerging Scholars Network Blog.

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6 Comments

  • Gerry Rau commented on May 4, 2016 Reply

    Andy,
    I agree with much of your argument, but the part where I disagree is the same thing most biologists (and biology textbooks) leave out – that not all change is due to random variation/mutation. There is a lot that happens in development that can cause much more rapid and possibly even directed change. I don’t have time to write more now, but look at Evolution, the Extended Synthesis (Pigliucci and Muller) for a starting place on this fascinating field.

    • drandrewwalsh@gmail.com'
      Andy Walsh commented on May 4, 2016 Reply

      Gerry,

      Thanks for the input. Since evolution is a big, broad topic, I wanted to start from what I think people will be familiar with and move from there. Since the motivating questions mention random mutations frequently, I figured I’d begin with that language. Over the course of this series, I also intend to introduce some ways in which evolutionary biology is much richer than popularly understood, including topics from the extended synthesis. Of course, even then I won’t be able to do the topic justice, but I hope you and others will continue to find it worthwhile.

      I’ve not yet read Pigliucci and Muller, but I’ve read other books from extended synthesis advocates. I just finished Carroll’s “Endless Forms Most Beautiful”. I should remember to include some further reading links when I’m done. Feel free to nominate other resources. (“Mapping the Origins Debate” is obviously relevant.)

      • Gerry Rau commented on May 7, 2016 Reply

        Andy,
        Good to hear it. Pigliucci and Muller is the compendium from the conference that has come to be known as the Altenberg 16, often correctly cited by ID as a challenge to Darwinism without the recognition that those attending in no way challenged evolution, an important but often obscured distinction. One other book I would recommend that a lot of US readers may not have seen is Creation or Evolution: Do we have to choose, by Denis Alexander (also highly recommended by J.I. Packer). He says, “I am a great believer in reading carefully the writings of any movement to understand what claims are being made by its chief proponents, …” which he seems to have done. He does seem to have missed the exact meaning of ‘irreducible complexity’ as used by ID, but otherwise represents various positions quite accurately and fairly.

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          Andy Walsh commented on May 11, 2016 Reply

          Gerry,
          Thanks, that’s another good recommendation. Yes, the ongoing conversations about neo-Darwinism and the extended synthesis have created a number of opportunities to claim that evolution is in crisis, a sentiment few if any evolutionary biologists seem to share.

          For the time being, I will be staying away from irreducible complexity, since it is so difficult to describe in a way that is broadly satisfactory.

  • kennethdlitwak@gmail.com'
    Kenneth D. Litwak, Ph.D. commented on June 26, 2016 Reply

    Having been a computer programmer for far too many years (a friend compared it to Joseph languishing in prison, but I digress), I get the analogy well. Having been on numerous projects with poor specifications, incorrect specifications, ambiguous specifications, and more, I know that sometimes, the goal simply cannot be reached (I have been on some big canceled projects). At other times, because programmers either a) don’t get enough information about how something should work or are left to their own intuition about what is needed, the end result is often something that “works” (it does not crash the program) but is totally unsuitable for its purpose. I’ve just been through that with a library software conversion and the new system was clearly written by developers with no clue how libraries work. Projects often fail to live up to the expectations of the requestors.

    The point of all this is that, assuming God created a perfect specification, can we say that it has been implemented through random mutation correctly, or is even close to what God wanted? Also, in well-run IT projects, uses are kept up-to-date with what is happening and can cause changes to the direction of the programmers. Can we see evidence that God has been making sure that core elements of his specification, whatever those may be, are implemented satisfactorily? One could assume that God made the first functioning cell (at least could never accept that such a thing came into existence by chance–it’s far too complicated, but I digress) and somehow that reflected his specification as a prototype (another common programming technique) and then stepped back to let it run its course? I’m no scientist, but from what I do see in nature, it could be the result of the god of the Deists. This god started everything rolling according to his specification, and since then has sat back and watched what happens. I may be getting ahead of what you are dong in this series, but I wonder if being “fearfully and wonderfully made” is the result of God making sure that his specification produced a correct result or if our human nature biologically is a fortuitous accident.

    If you see points where the Designer ?obviously” did something that changed the way the specification was implemented, would that be consistent with the current scientific model that asserts, as I understand it, everything can be explained as a random event? Just some queries from a former programmer..

    Ken..

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      Andy Walsh commented on July 7, 2016 Reply

      Ken,
      Thanks for the questions. Sorry it took a little while to get back to you. I wrote a whole reply, but apparently forgot to hit the button to post it, so we’ll try this again.

      You’re absolutely right to point out that specifications, requirements, and the resulting implementations have a complicated reputation in computer science, with at least one website dedicated entirely to a daily dose of stories about all the ways they can go wrong. My analogy has its limitations, so I appreciate your willingness to interpret it in the best possible light.

      Theologically, I think it is reasonable to say that if God is dealing in specifications then his specification is perfect. I think it is also reasonable to say that the implementation has not perfectly matched the specifications; at a minimum, that seems like one way to describe sin. And we can point to at least one instance where God intervened in order to adjust for creation’s deviations from the specification, namely the incarnation of Jesus. So in principle it seems possible to imagine God doing so at other times also.

      At the same time, I wish to avoid either a Deistic model of creation or even an interventionist model of creation, anything which suggests that God is sometimes active but most of the time hands-off. For one, such models invite questions of the type “If God intervened to make sure X happened, why didn’t he also intervene to make Y happen?” For another, they create the impression that we might be able to detect those interventions scientifically; I don’t think science is well-equipped to do satisfactorily. Instead, I wish to describe a model in which God is always interacting with his creation in a way that permits creation to freely choose how to respond. I tried to sketch out that idea in some more detail in this post from this series.

      If there is freedom, though, isn’t it much more likely that creation will wander far away from God’s specifications rather than coming even close to satisfying them? Rather than imagining that God has to occasionally ‘right the ship’ to get creation back on course, I think God created a framework wherein his intentions, such as a beings capable of bearing his image, will be realized through that freedom rather than in spite of it. I touch on that a little bit more in this post from this series, and I got into the science of it a bit more in this post from a previous series on miracles. I think what science is revealing to us is that certain outcomes are “baked in” to creation such that even with the opportunity for creation to demonstrate freedom (or randomness), those outcomes will still be realized.

      I hope that helps address your questions. Thanks for taking the time to engage with my ideas.

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