Is Evolution Guided?

“I’ll argue that what biologists mean, or ought to mean, when they say that mutations are
unguided says nothing about whether God ever causes a mutation to occur.” Eliot Sober.

Some of you will be aware that I’m in the process of enrolling in a PhD where I’ll continue to look at genomes formed through laboratory evolution experiments in ‘baker’s yeast’ (extending the project I had intended to finish in Dec. as an MSc), and also explore various ideas around evolutionary trade-offs and chance and necessity in evolution more broadly. I am absurdly fortunate to be able to engage in this endeavour, and it certainly wouldn’t have been expected given the way things started out for me around about 24 years ago (perhaps more on that another time), but it seems that God is able to direct things in unexpected ways!

Tree of Life – from Wikipedia

Christians believe that God is in charge of the world, and created it in its entirety. Is this consistent with there having been an evolutionary history to the biosphere; and if so, why would anyone believe that God was behind the processes of evolution, when it seems less messy to just leave God out of it?

Here are some introductory remarks on the appropriate context in which to discuss this, followed by some thoughts on the evolutionary process that have accumulated in my mind as I’ve read intensively on the processes of adaptation over the past year and a half. I’m not an expert, but I have (most probably) read more on this topic than you. 🙂 I had plans to write a proper essay on this, but I’ve had too much actual work to do, so this will do for now!

My position on evolution:
Many well-meaning Christians will take offence or be discomforted any suggestion that we need to come to peace (albeit carefully) with evolution, and may be convinced that in making such a suggestion I’ve sold out to secularism or anti-biblical intellectualism for the sake of my own pride, or such. They may well be right, but I don’t think they are. I’ve had the discussion a few times, and sometimes it highlights an irreconcilable difference, but more often there is room for persuasion. I have come to believe that life has an evolutionary history, most probably including human kind. I cautiously affirm common descent (‘cautious’ as I’m not sure where the border lies between intervention and discontinuity in a biological lineage), am intrigued by the mechanisms at work (enough to do a PhD on the topic), and completely deny, repudiate and abhor naturalistic evolution. If the distinction seems too nuanced or slippery, then consider whether you accept there is a distinction between a non-theocratic nation and an atheistic state. I hope you do!

The context:

Science: we live in a purposeful, rationally ordered and rationally intelligible universe of remarkable complexity, functionality and beauty; other than the words “rationally ordered”, none of this should be controversial from the perspective of any scientist who engages with the natural world. Of course, one may dispute that there is purpose in this world, but it seems to me that organisms (and people like me) clearly have purposes, and any hard core reductionism that believes otherwise is simply false – I’d like to write more on this, but we can surely admit that it at least looks like there’s a lot of purpose in Earth’s biosphere. Belief in a creator makes good sense for a scientist.
One aspect I would discuss if I were writing a book on this would be the fitness of the environment for life – found in the popular ‘fine tuning’ argument of course, but more interestingly for me, presented in a different way by Michael Denton (an agnostic geneticist formerly based in NZ, whose brilliant book ‘Nature’s Destiny’ helped get me in to molecular biology), e.g. here [link]

Special revelation: the best story ever told is the gospel, the good news that God has been finally revealed in a person, Jesus, and that he has made a way – the only way – for humans to be right with God. It’s the best story because it turns the world upside down and because it’s true. It’s also intimately tied up with the reality of Jesus as creator and end-point of the universe, so scientists as much as anyone else should be absolutely enthralled by it. 🙂

Is there a conflict? [the neo-Darwinian mechanism]:

Not necessarily. Eliot Sober, arguably the world’s foremost philosopher of biology, who is not a theist, agrees here – see this interesting paper, from which the opening quote of this post was taken [link] and similarly here [link]. So does John Wilkins, another philosopher of biology [here].

Interesting features of life’s history which don’t prove anything:
-origin of life – seems extremely unlikely without guidance or fine tuning
-convergence – evolution is clearly constrained, with many repeating patterns (e.g. 17+ origins of multicellularity, 40+ origins of eyes (according to Dawkins, River out of Eden), numerous origins of flight, … [more here – link though I don’t agree with their approach to theology/religion])
-exaptation all over the place; gives the appearance of a creative process – perhaps!
-an apparent trend towards greater co-operativity

Some random thoughts on the mechanisms:

Options for ‘interventionist’ direction:
*directed mutation of cryptic sequences (for long-term goals) (cryptic sequences are discussed, e.g. here [link])
*guided environmental shifts
*(in general), direction for long-term goals [facilitating exaptation, e.g. through alterations which are neutral in the organism’s current context]
*non-random transposable element insertions
*recombination of available genes across lineages through sex, horizontal gene transfer, and endosymbiosis

Note that if God is actually sovereign as I believe, and is not bounded by the flow of time that we experience, then such ‘tinkering’ mechanisms aren’t required – a process which appears completely undirected can still end up at God’s desired result. I just thought these possibilities were interesting anyway.

A metaphor I find interesting: if the ‘directed’ organism is a business, then perhaps in quiet back rooms or after work, staff are experimenting with new organisational structures that could be of benefit in the future. Extending this analogy to the population level, perhaps subsets of useful structures are being tinkered with in different companies, and only when information is transferred (via sex/HGT etc) do these sections coalesce into something useful.

Concluding remarks

So yeah, I think evolution was guided – those were some scattered thoughts on the topic. More to come later on, perhaps. Maybe I’ll even write a book on it one day 🙂


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