Re: [asa] philological notes on randomness (was: Re: What my tiny little brain was thinking...)

From: Schwarzwald <>
Date: Sun Nov 15 2009 - 00:47:23 EST


It feels like we're talking past each other. I know what the qualifications
regarding "random" are. I, and I think Cameron and everyone else here,
realize the vast gulf of difference between this qualified sense of "random"
("here random means no correlation and not no purpose") and "random" in the
sense of "unguided", "without purpose", etc. I'm not objecting to that. John
West was not objecting to that. The fact that West explicitly lays Barr's
view of "darwinism" aside as *not the kind of evolution he, and presumably
other ID proponents, take issue with* should be a flashing neon sign for you
illustrating that the problem isn't with this qualified sense of random. The
concern is that this "qualified sense" is not what was meant by Darwin, nor
by many others since then. Yes, I know that these "unguided" "unplanned"
"unpurposeful" claims are not essential to evolutionary theory. But again,
to remove them results in a theory that was not what Darwin was driving at.

Here's another part of John West's exchange with Stephen Barr that you may
have missed. Emphasis added is my own.

"Barr first claims that Joe Carter and I “are trapped in a false dilemma”
because we wrongly think that random processes cannot be directed by God.
Barr points out that even random events, properly defined, are part of God’s
sovereign plan. *Just because something is random from our point of view,
doesn’t mean that it is outside of God’s providence. Barr may be surprised
to learn that I agree with him. Indeed, most, if not all, of the scholars
who believe that nature provides evidence of intelligent design would agree
with him.* The problem with Barr’s argument is not with his understanding of
the proper meaning of random, but with his seeming blindness to the fact
that* the vast majority of evolutionary biologists do not share his view*.
Barr’s ultimate disagreement here is not with me or Joe Carter, but
with*the discipline of evolutionary biology itself.

Here's West again, with his own emphasis:

"The insistence that evolution acts without plan or purpose has been a
standard refrain by evolutionary biologists over the past century. The view
expressed by famed Harvard paleontologist George Gaylord Simpson was
typical: “Man is the result of a purposeless and natural process that did
not have him in mind.” [Simpson, *The Meaning of Evolution: A Study of the
History of Life and of Its Significance for Man*, revised edition (New
Haven: Yale University Press, 1967), p. 345] Or to cite a more recent
example: In 2006, 38 Nobel laureates sent an open
letter<>to the
Kansas Board of Education insisting that evolution is “the result of
an *unguided, unplanned* process of random variation and natural

Now, I realize West is making a claim here about the views of "most
evolutionary biologists", etc, that you may disagree with. Great, take issue
with that. But let me ask you this. If West (who I cite mostly because he's
part of the DI here, and this was a very public exchange) is right... then
isn't there a big problem here? Better yet, if West and company truly
believe this, then doesn't that make some of their criticisms (At least of
"Darwinism" in the sense West qualifies it) vastly more reasonable at least
given their perspective?

On Sat, Nov 14, 2009 at 10:47 PM, Rich Blinne <> wrote:

> On Nov 14, 2009, at 6:47 PM, Schwarzwald wrote:
> I agree that "truly random", "truly unguided", etc is unscientific, and not
> what any scientific theory does or can say (not while also remaining
> 'scientific' at least). But I think Cameron has made a very strong case in
> the past that as far as Darwin was concerned, these things were *essential*
> to his "theory" - such that, if you strip out these claims (on the grounds
> that they are not scientific), you're left with a theory that, however
> useful, is not what Darwin was driving at. Not by a longshot
> It's not essential to the theory. In population genetics the time sequence
> of inherited genes are modeled as a Markov chain which is a random
> process where all information about the future is contained in the present
> state. As I stated before science defines random differently than the OED.
> Here random means unpredictable in detail though likely predictable in its
> statistical properties. A computer program like PSI-BLAST finds the hidden
> Markov states and reconstructs the common descent. (One of the key evidences
> for macroevolution is BLAST reconstructions based on genetics *give the
> same answer* as BLAST reconstructions based on fossils.) Another way
> randomness is used is to test for positive selection. Normally what you see
> is random drift in the genome. If you don't see random drift that indicates
> that gene was selected. Here random means no correlation and not no purpose.
> When ID tells scientists that evolution is random they laugh because it is
> when you see non-randomness is when evolution via positive selection is
> occurring.
> I use Markov chains in my job. That's because I design hard disk
> controllers and we have to extract the signal out of the noise. We use
> what's known as a Viterbi algorithm which uses a MCMC (Markov Chain Monte
> Carlo) algorithm to extract the real set of symbols from the noisy ones. The
> question is why do I use Markov chains? Because it goes all the way back to
> 1948 when Shannon created information theory. Here he applied random Markov
> chains to a sequence of symbols. (A clue that randomness is involved here
> is that information content is related to entropy.) ID theory uses Shannon
> extensively. In the same way as evolutionary theory ID is dependent on
> randomness because they both use Markov chains. What this means is that ID
> theory just proved that the genome is truly random and unguided! Of course
> this conclusion is positively silly but is the result of conflating the
> popular understanding of random with the scientific one. You can rightly cry
> foul with the claim that ID was trying to show that the information in the
> genome was truly random and purposeless, and *I *can rightly cry foul when
> you do the same with evolutionary theory. If the ID proponents would just
> get off their anti-evolutionary high horse for a moment they can see that
> they could use science and evolutionary theory against the New Atheists.
> Namely, the conclusions of truly unguided evolution is neither scientific
> *nor* in keeping with current evolutionary theory. Miller knew and knows
> it and is why he testified the way he did in Dover. Miller and not Dawkins
> reflects what mainstream science believes about evolution and is why the NAS
> and AAAS have stated that evolution and religious faith can be compatible.
> Miller is also right that the Levine misread Gould vis-a-vis randomness and
> made a critical mistake.
> Rich Blinne
> Member ASA

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Received on Sun Nov 15 00:47:48 2009

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