Random chance

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Creationists commonly portray evolution as nothing but random chance — and then follow up by claiming that there is no way random chance could produce a particular phenomenon or adaptation or animal. This approach occurs most commonly in association with an argument from design.

The "random chance" criticism is actually a straw man argument, since evolution does not rely only on random chance. While some elements of evolution are random (most notably mutation), the cornerstone of Charles Darwin's theory is natural selection, which is the opposite of chance. Natural selection is non-random and is one of the primary shaping forces for adaptation in nature. By ignoring natural selection in evolution, creationists are better able to argue that a god or a committee of gods must have intervened — a completely fallacious conclusion.

Any scientific explanation, indeed any explanation, is the contrary to "random chance" as "anything goes". Random chance more closely resembles what is called an "act of God".

Interestingly, because skeptics make no attempt to describe any regularities about the universe (for that would represent a merely human limitation on divine power), or to discriminate between what might happen and what might not happen as a consequence of creation (or intelligent design), there is no difference between the results of divine creation and random chance. While evolutionary biology virtually rules out certain things — it is extremely unlikely that evolutionary processes would develop a rabbit with ceramic armor or a supersonic hawk (unless a mad scientist attempted to design such) — there is nothing that is less plausible than anything else in a skeptic's world.

If we can say that "random chance" operates in evolution, we can say that it operates elsewhere in the world of life. The action of the adaptive immune system in jawed vertebrates offers a striking example. We jawed vertebrates have bodies which protect against diseases caused by certain viruses, fungi, bacteria, and parasites by changing our immune system to meet novel assaults. The adaptive immune system is the reason why vaccination works, and why we get certain diseases only once. The adaptive immune system generates great numbers of cells to detect alien biological molecules, and by "random chance" eventually one of these cells makes a match. This then allows our immune system to destroy the source of this novel alien molecule. As it turns out, relying on this "random chance" (which is actually a non-random selection of the fit enough) provides better protection against certain diseases than anything that we humans can "intelligently design". (Actually, humans learned how to use the process of selection in general, rejecting the projects and elements that are inefficient, and focusing on those that provide the most desirable results; but you can actually falsify the existence of a single human designer.[citation needed])

"Random chance" is not incompatible with "intelligent design" or with the achievement of goals. CreativeWikipedia artists often avail themselves of chance effects. The crackle glaze in pottery, for example, provides artistic effects by encouraging the random patterns in the cooling of the pottery on removal from a kiln. Sculptors design bronze outdoor works to acquire a patina. Stage performers respond to the unpredictability of audiences. Composers and playwrights release control over their works to the interpretation of performers. Photographers and other visual artists respond to what is presented to them — for example, the appearance of a model.

Malaria: A case study[edit]

The efficacy of evolution vs. design can be studied with respect to the malaria parasite and the ways of combating it.[1] The standard evolutionary explanation for the development of sickle-cell anemia in humans is that it provides protection against the malaria parasite. Sickle-cell anemia is generally recognized as a result of a random mutation. It can cause a debilitating disease in humans, yet it also, more often, provides a defense against malaria. There are also several other random mutations in humans which can both cause diseases and defend against malaria. In the hemoglobin alpha chain, there are point mutations HbS, HbC, HbE; in the hemoglobin gamma chain, there is HPHF; in various parts of hemoglobin, there is thalassemia; and others.(page 39)[1] These various random mutations have provided defenses against malaria which have been working for a long time. We may characterize the competition between the random human evolution and the random malaria evolution as a stand-off. In contrast, there are the human-designed defenses against malaria. It is famous how malaria has evolved resistance to just about everything that we can design to go against it. Despite our best designs, not limited to drugs, the deaths from malaria continue in great numbers. (page 17)[1] "Resistance to one recent drug, atovaquone, arose in the lab scant weeks after a small culture of malaria was exposed to it. Almost a hundred thousand times as many clicks of the clock have passed since [the first appearance of sickle-cell]. About that much time since [HbC] ... and since thalassemia first appeared. Yet they are all still effective against malaria."(page 52)[1] On the other hand, the drug which was not designed seems to be somewhat intermediate: "Quinine, the natural drug that first turned the tide of battle toward humanity's side, is still pretty effective against [the malaria parasite]. But the bug is slowly gaining ground ... ."(page 260)[1]

In summary, in a contest between "random evolution" and "design", random is not just effective, but more effective; the closest contest is between the "random evolution" and the "chance discovery" of quinine.

So what does the Bible say about random chance?[edit]

Are the two elements needed for natural selection — time and chance — heretical or biblical? Bible thumpers should check out Ecclesiastes 9:11.

I returned, and saw under the sun, that the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favour to men of skill; but time and chance happeneth to them all.[note 1]

Whereas this verse is agreeable when read on its own, it's got problems when read in context. If one were to read the next verse, we would see:

For man also does not know his time: Like fish taken in a cruel net, Like birds caught in a snare, So the sons of men [are] snared in an evil time, When it falls suddenly upon them.

The point of the verse and all of Ecclesiastes (if one was to actually read it) would be that man is nothing but random chance without God, that there is no value in a life without God. That is exactly the point of creationists. If this is taken in context with the rest of the Bible, we know that God is all knowing, so things to man may seem random, but they aren't to God. God creating the world with purpose would mean there would be no random chance, or selection.

Huxley and Infinite monkey theorem[edit]

In response to the watch-maker analogy, Huxley is purported to have said that six eternal apes typing on six eternal typewriters with unlimited power and ink, given enough time, could produced a psalm, a Shakespearean sonnet, or a book by random striking. Huxley probably didn't say this. Either way, it is completely beside the point as it fails to address the fact that there is no evolutionary pressure to produce such a work. Dr. Wilensky put it best, "We all heard that a million monkeys banging on a million keys will produce Shakespeare's work. Now thanks to the internet we know that this is not true."[2]

Littlewood's law[edit]

See the main article on this topic: Littlewood's law

Littlewood's law is the conjecture that related to the duration of a person's life, the occurrence of seemingly improbable things (what Littlewood dubs as "miracles") is expected to happen on a semi-regular basis. It's all about the odds of large numbers. To use a baseline minimum of people's wakeful periods, which is for our standards eight hours, and as there are thirty thousand seconds in a day, and a million in a month, it should be expected that improbable things are going to by experienced by the average person during that timeframe. An event with one-in-a-million-odds in other words can be expected to occur roughly once every month.[3]:327

See also[edit]

External links[edit]


  1. Emphasis added.


  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 1.3 1.4 The information presented here is taken from: Michael J. Behe, The Edge of Evolution: The Search for the Limits of Darwinism, New York: Free Press, 2007, ISBN 978-0-7432-9620-5, chapters 2 and 3 and appendix B. Behe is not responsible for this use of the data. He was making a quite different point: indeed, he claims that this shows a very narrow limit to the range of possibilities open to evolutionary development. Whether his point was made is irrelevant to the topic of this article.
  2. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cEbX8EM3IEU
  3. The Scientist as Rebel: A New York Review Collection by Freeman Dyson (2008) Random House. ISBN 1590172949.