Thursday, February 09, 2006

Natural Selection, Sparrows, and a Stochastic God

AUTHOR: Allen D. MacNeill

SOURCE: Original essay

COMMENTARY: That's up to you...

A priest and a nun are out playing golf; that is, he's playing, and she's carrying his clubs. The priest tees off, and slices his ball into the rough. "Damn." he says. The nun upbraids him, saying that the Lord God forbids such profanity. The priest trudges over to his ball, addresses it with a mashie-niblick, and hooks it across the fairway into the trees on the other side. "Damn!" he says again, and again the nun upbraids him. He searches for the ball among the trees, finally finding it in the underbrush. He smacks it once again, clearing the rough, but landing in a bunker just short of the green. "Damn!" he says once again, and now the nun dogs him to the sand trap, chewing him out for his repeated blasphemy. As he steps up to the ball, now nestled in a deep crater in the sand, the nun tells him that if he uses profanity one more time, the Lord God will surely smite him. Then she hands him his sand wedge.

He whacks the ball again, blasting it through a cloud of sand across the green and into the bunker on the other side. "Damn, damn, DAMN!" he shouts, and of course the nun lays into him, warning him of the imminence of Hellfire. Suddenly, there is an incandescent blast of purple lighting and an explosion of thunder...and the nun is instantly reduced to a pile of smoking cinders beside the priest. And from out of the rumble of thunder in the sky, an immense and overwhelming voice in the clouds (in a deep basso profundo) says "DAMN!"

Why is this joke funny (at least to some people)? One reason might be the incongruity of a priest and a nun playing golf. Another reason some find it funny is that the nun "gets what's coming to her." Furthermore, the priest gets away with his blasphemy, and at the expense of the nun. But funniest of all (in a way that may also send a slight shiver up the spine) is the idea that God's aim is as bad as the priest's.

Why does this last implication raise the hackles? Because it implies that God is a stochastic agent; He aims, but sometimes misses. A stochastic process (from the Greek stochos, meaning "a target") is any process that includes a random component; one aims at a target, but doesn't always hit it in the gold. In other words, a stochastic process is a probabilistic process, rather than an entirely determined one - there is a small, but irreducible probability that one will miss the target.

According to many who profess belief in the Western (i.e. Judeo-Christian-Muslim, or "JCM") concept of God, the idea that God operates stochastically is anathema. God is, according to this tradition, omnibenevolent ("all good"), omniscient ("all-knowing"), omnipotent ("all powerful"), and omnipresent ("present everywhere and everywhen"). To paraphrase Matthew 10:29, "not a sparrow falls, but that Thou art mindful of it." Even Albert Einstein, certainly not a believer in the mainstream JCM concept of God, believed that "God does not play dice."[1] An omnibenevolent, omniscient, omnipotent, omnipresent deity (call Him the "omni God") is ultimately responsible for all events in the universe, at all times and in all places.

Humor, according to Aristotle (among others), can arise from the juxtaposition of two mutually exclusive ideas. This is one of the sources of the humor in the "golfing God" joke - the God who aims at the priest but blasts the nun is not omnipotent. Funny, but perhaps not so funny, if one is a Christian Fundamentalist, or anyone who holds a belief in the existence of an omni God. To a Fundamentalist, the belief that their omni God "never misses" is a basic article of faith; an axiom, if you will.

Which brings me to the main point of this essay: the majority of soi-disant "creation scientists" (CS) accept the observable fact that natural selection happens. Indeed, natural selection (of a very limited sort) is absolutely necessary for most theories of "creation science." Rather than driving the characteristics present in a population of organisms away from the population mean and toward some new equilibrium state (i.e. an adaptation, according to evolutionary theory), natural selection operates to maintain the "created kind" or "type" of each species by means of "stabilizing selection." That is, all deviations from the original "created kind" are winnowed away, leaving the supernaturally specified "kind."

The new breed of creation scientists, those who devise and promulgate theories of "intelligent design," are believers in the same underlying idea: that an "intelligent designer" (identity usually least, in public) guides the evolution of groups all living organisms via some (also unspecified) quasi-magical means. Natural selection is also integral to their ID theories, but again it is resolutely not the source of "specified complexity" - the exquisite adaptations of living organisms to the contingencies of their environments. In ID theory, as in the older (and perhaps more intellectually honest) theories of "creation science," the only genuine function of natural selection is to "fix" the various characteristics of organisms within an "adaptive landscape" whose topography is specified essentially by an intelligent designer (i.e. an omni God).

But there's the rub: to believe the foregoing is perforce to believe that God "misses:" that He specifies the characteristics of organisms within an intentional boundary, but allows individuals to deviate sufficiently from that boundary that they...well, not to put too fine a point on it, they die (or fail to reproduce, which is effectively the same thing). This is the essence of stabilizing selection: although there are deviations from the population mean, such deviants are eliminated, thereby maintaining the population mean in perpetuity. To paraphrase Darwin, out of "famine and death," the creationist/ID "kinds" are specified and maintained.[2]

That would be scanned: a deity kills the deviants, and for that, He does the survivors maintain in perpetuity? Surely not impossible for an omni deity, but just as surely a fundamental contradiction in terms. To operate in such a fashion, this deity must be a utilitarian, whose intention (yes, intentions are essential to the argument) is to specify the ideal "kind" by first creating (or at least "specifying") a range of no-so-ideal individuals, and then mercilessly (even mindlessly?) eliminating all but the few that conform to the intended ideal. True, a lot of sparrows thereby "fall," and in the CS/ID version of this explanation, the JCM God is indeed "mindful" of them, at least insofar as He creates them in order to destroy all but a few of them.

And not just sparrows; most if not all intelligent design theorists (such as Michael Behe, William Dembski, Phillip Johnson, et al) willingly embrace the idea that natural selection operates upon humans. They just don't believe that it can possibly specify all of the complex attributes of humans. So, by the logic heretofore developed, ID theorists willingly embrace a utilitarian, stochastic deity who intentionally designs humans with sufficient genetic and developmental plasticity that some (the exact proportion is irrelevant) deviate from the population mean, and then causes them (indirectly or directly, it matters not) to suffer and die, in order to bring about and maintain that paragon of animals - ourselves.

Fundamentalists, creation scientists, intelligent design theorists, and their fellow travelers are therefore stuck. If they accept the operation of natural selection at any level, they must perforce accept that God (or the unidentified "Intelligent Designer") is a fundamentally stochastic entity, who of necessity obliterates the occasional nun and creates a skyfull of falling sparrows, an entity who is manifestly not omnibenevolent, omnipotent, omniscient, nor omnipresent, but is a utilitarian whose ends justify His means. Or, they must deny the operation of natural selection at any level; in other words, they must stare reality in the face and deny it. Either those individuals who deviate from the specified population mean are created in order to die, or they die by accident...they fall, and while He may be mindful, He just doesn't give a damn.


[1] Einstein, A. (1926) Letter to Max Born: "God does not play dice with the universe."

[2] Darwin, C. (1859) On the Origin of Species By Means of Natural Selection. John Murray, London, England. Ch. 14, pg. 490 URL:


Allen D. MacNeill


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At 2/09/2006 10:54:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Allen, this variety of theological "gotcha" is certainly less problematic than the chestnut of the existence of evil, and no doubt one of the common solutions to that would apply here as well, namely "God moves in mysterious ways". In other words, you are demanding a human-understandable solution to the workings of the divine, and what you see as a limit on God is actually all part of the Great Plan.

Sure, it's a cop-out. And it is an exquisite example of why religion isn't compatible with science. But don't kid yourself that this kind of argument will have any traction with true believers.

At 2/09/2006 11:05:00 AM, Blogger Brad Hoge said...

This reminds me of a poem written after hurricane Katrina,

Two Babies Slipped Into the Water

Two babies slipped into the water,
she said, as the mother too weak
to notice was pulled into the airboat,
and no one bothered to dive into
the toxic water, and they struggled
for just a little while, she said,
before disappearing into flood,
and it was at that moment, she said, she lost
faith in humanity, but not in God,
so it wasn’t the impersonal,
but the inept, not nature’s wrath,
but the lack of appropriate response,
because, she thought, God hadn’t
discriminated, but people had, and God
will welcome the babies into heaven,
while we will bury them in memories
less horrific, and bolster our suppression
of empathy with donations, and God will
continue unaffected, unadulterated,
while we rebuild, and we will praise
God’s work through us, his presence
in every heart, but two, which stopped
beating in the abyss.

The duplicity of ID arguments are astounding until you consider the source, the evolutionary psychology one might say, of fear of the unknown, and the need to comfort that fear above reason.

At 2/09/2006 06:59:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Got referred here from Dispatches from the Culture Wars. Always great to see another good science blog. Thanks.

I do somewhat agree with tulse though, I think you may be leaving yourself open to a counter attack such as the "gift" of free will.

At 2/09/2006 08:55:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Enjoyed the essay immensely Allen.

Of course, this isn't a problem for ID theorists since they don't really say who the designer is. "Hey, we didn't say it's god who designed us, just someone a lot more intelligent than us. He doesn't have to be infallible." For the hardcore creationist, they're merely supporting ID as part of a wedge strategy anyway.

But this is just the kind of thing that those on the fence need to read. If they understand there can be no half-measures, no compromise between literal creationism and evolution, they'll be forced to choose openly, and in doing so perhaps choose more wisely.

Anyway, glad to see your entrance to the blogging world, although it's strange how the world works sometimes. I find out about a former professor's blog from a random blogger's website. (this is Nick Rao btw).

I'll blogroll you and send an email sometime this weekend.

At 2/10/2006 01:47:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Umm, I don't know any Christian, Muslim or Jew who believes that God is omni-benevolent.
--an old ape

At 5/22/2006 08:27:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think CanuckRob hints at the problem as I see it. This seems to be a theological argument against JCM theism, and not ID. It hits JCM theistic evolutionists square in the eyes.

Not being a JCM theist, I don't see it as touching ID per se at all.

Or am I missing something?

At 1/31/2009 04:21:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

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