I haven’t waded in to the comments on Jim Manzi’s series of evolution posts, so I hope this isn’t repetitive with stuff that’s been said there; and I haven’t read Bob Wright’s book (nor plan to; I’ve got this trilogy to tackle right now), but I think Jim’s defense of his own position against Matt Steinglass here rather misses the thrust of his post. (You can follow the whole chain so far starting with that link.) So I’m going to wade in myself on the question now.

1. We have to distinguish between factual and hermeneutical claims. Factual claims are claims about the nature and operation of reality: “how” things work, not “why.” Darwin’s theory, which is the basis of all modern biology, makes factual claims: that the various forms of life we observe on earth today came to be via the operation of natural selection on populations of organisms that experience random variation. The question, “does life have a purpose” or “are we put here for a reason” is not really a factual question; it’s a hermeneutical one, an interpretive one. The same factual claims could, potentially, sustain different hermeneutical claims. Scientists do, sometimes, noodle about with hermeneutical claims because they turn out to have factual claims buried in them, in which case they may be investigated scientifically. But if there are no such claims buried in them, then the questions aren’t really scientific.

2. I’m not 100% clear on whether Jim is making a factual or a hermeneutical claim. He presses several times on the question of randomness. “Random” is, indeed, a funny word. (Personal anecdotal aside: my first task at my first job on Wall Street was to organize regular lunches with the staff for the CEO. “The company’s now too big for me to really get to know everyone personally through normal business interactions,” he said, “so I want to meet on a monthly basis with random groups of staff to stay in touch with everyone and with all the different parts of the firm.” I asked if, rather that “random,” didn’t he really mean “mixed” groups of staff. That won me a gold star. Took a few more years to realize that, on Wall Street, you’re not competing for gold stars – you’re competing for money.) But I think the way he is using it nothing – with the possible exception of events on the quantum level – is truly random. That’s not the way we use the word normally, and I wonder whether Jim’s argument could be reduced to the statement “nothing is actually random if you believe God is behind everything.”

In any event, mutations are, in the sense that we normally use the word, random. In fact, I think they are random at least to some extent in the way that Jim means it – that is to say, they are caused by quantum mechanical events that are in principle unpredictable (because the underlying reality is actual uncertain rather than merely unknowable) rather than merely practically unpredictable (because so complex and chaotic as to be beyond human powers of calculation, even with the application of all currently engineerable technology).

Some people have also tried to make that claim that the selection process itself may be guided – that, basically, some overseeing intelligence could be determining who survives and prospers and who dies without reproducing, and thereby guiding evolution. I don’t think Jim is making that claim, but I don’t see how, in principle, it’s any different from the claim that some overarching intelligence is guiding the process of mutation. In either case, if there’s a factual claim here – that something other than chance is guiding either the mutations or the selection – that claim can, in principle, be tested. To take an overly simple example: suppose one believed that the overarching intelligence had set up the universe as a genetic algorithm to produce blue algae. You would expect some evidence of that preference – say, that mutations in green algae to produce blue offspring were more common than the other way around. In the absence of any such evidence, you’d say that, in fact, the overarching intelligence (if any) doesn’t appear to prefer either color of algae. In other words, if random mutation plus natural selection accounts for the facts, there’s scientific reason (Occam’s Razor and all that) to reject any other force in operation. And, in that case, Jim is reduced to saying that what appears to be random – and what is indistinguishable scientifically from randomness – is, in fact, caused by an overarching intelligence. This is akin to the claim that, if it were not for God, the strong and weak nuclear forces would not function, and therefore the universe would have no structure whatsoever. You can perfectly well believe that, but it’s not the kind of claim that will generate much interesting discussion.

3. With hermeneutical claims, the question that arises is not truth but persuasiveness. You can’t prove that the strong nuclear force would not operate without God standing behind it – and you can’t prove that it would operate. You can’t really argue about it. But you can talk about why you do or don’t find such a claim persuasive. The Anthropic Principle and the Many Worlds Hypothesis are competing hermeneutical frameworks for “answering” the question of why we live in a universe with intelligent life as opposed to one without intelligent life. The first interpretation, in effect, says that our intelligence is the first as well as the ultimate cause; our very existence and ability to observe the universe “caused” the primordial wave-function collapse that led to there being a universe to observe; we’re here because we’re here because we’re here because we’re here. The second says that, no, there’s nothing special about us; we’re here because we’re here but there are other “here”-s, equally real, where we are not, because we aren’t; everything that could ever be, is, somewhere. These are hermeneutical rather than factual claims, because they cannot, in principle, be tested. So I’d say they aren’t science. But people have passionate opinions about them nonetheless.

So the real question is whether Darwin’s theory radically undermined the persuasiveness of the idea that we are the pinnacle of creation – an idea that comes up again and again in the Abrahamic religions. And I think you’d have to argue that it does, for three reasons: first, because the idea of a natural heirarchy no longer is persuasive; second, because the mechanism of natural selection is repugnant to our usual conception of the Abrahamic God; and third, because if evolution is the mechanism of creation, then creation has not come to an end. Let’s take these in order.

The account of creation in Genesis, and the understanding of the natural order in Aristotle, alike partake of the idea of a natural heirarchy in which lower organisms are followed by higher organisms. But the modern scientific account differs. There are any number of species as young or younger than human beings. Evolution is not the story of an ascending ladder; it’s the story of a branching tree; and everything living is at the top. This doesn’t prove we aren’t the aim of creation. But it undermines the persuasiveness of the idea because what seemed to be supporting evidence from the natural world turns out not to be supportive at all.

To take the second point: the problem of natural evil is core for all the Abrahamic faiths, and each tradition has produced multiple answers. But natural selection implicates natural evil in the process of creation. We exist because we are the result of a struggle for survival. God created us by pitting our ancestors against each other in a (literally) genocidal struggle. Genghis Khan was the most successful man in history in evolutionary terms – he would appear to be the favored of God. But his creed is very far from the creed articulated in Amos, or the the gospels. Now, I don’t want to overstate the point. As I already said, the problem of evil is an old one, not a new one raised by Darwin. But I do think the problem is raised to a much higher level if we go from “natural evil is part of creation” to “natural evil is the core mechanism of creation.”

As for the third point: it is very difficult to believe we are the pinnacle of creation if creation is perpetually unfinished. New species are still coming into being, and old ones are, of course, going extinct (at an increasing rate, thanks to us). We are shaping the evolution of the world’s creatures through our own actions upon the environment – and we ourselves are also still evolving. Moreover, as Steinglass points out, some of our own creations are now “interesting” enough that one can plausibly wonder whether they, rather than we, are the real “object” of creation. Abrahamic time is linear: a story with a beginning, a middle, and an end. Creation began, and then ended; history then began, and will eventually end. The Big Bang theory was applauded by the Vatican precisely because it gave apparent empirical support to this conception of time, as against the Steady State theory that appeared to undermine it. Darwin’s theory does the opposite: creation is ongoing, not finished. And if it is not finished, it is very difficult to say with confidence that we know we are its object.

Bob Wright’s book, as I understand it, attempts to address at least some of the points above, and particularly attempts to “turn” the last one, making ongoing evolution a reason to believe in a purpose or guiding intelligence to the universe rather than an obstacle to such belief. It’s hard for me to comment on the persuasiveness of his argument given that I haven’t read the book. But I wouldn’t come to the book well-disposed towards the idea that, for example, the decline of intra-species violence among humans over time is evidence that of a guiding intelligence behind the universe. I’m just not that much of a progressive optimist.

4. Before moving on to my conclusion, I should point out that I’ve been very careful to talk about the Abrahamic God or Abrahamic religion rather than religion in general. I think Darwin’s theory is far more compatible with the Hindu understanding of reality than it is with the Jewish, Christian or Muslim understanding. But this is not really an argument with Hindus. Coyne’s big argument is with the idea of human beings as the special object of divine concern, and the special purpose of divine creation. And those are not central concepts to Hindu religion – indeed, I’d argue that both contentions are not merely foreign but actively denied.

And there certainly are voices within the Abrahamic traditions that have grappled with these very same questions, and sometimes in ways that I find highly persuasive. My favorite book of the Bible includes the following passage:

Behold now behemoth, which I made with thee; he eateth grass as an ox.
Lo now, his strength is in his loins, and his force is in the navel of his belly.
He moveth his tail like a cedar: the sinews of his stones are wrapped together.
His bones are as strong pieces of brass; his bones are like bars of iron.
He is the chief of the ways of God: he that made him can make his sword to approach unto him.

But I think anyone honest would argue that the Book of Job cuts very much against the grain of most of the Bible – and, indeed, this passage all but directly says that we are not the pinnacle or object of creation; God is at least as interested and pleased with Leviathan and Behemoth as He is with us.

5. To conclude: if I understand the gist of Jim’s argument, it’s this. Genetic algorithms are a very efficient way of reaching a solution in certain cases, as proven by their use by software engineers to solve a variety of problems that are otherwise intractable. Therefore, it’s plausible to believe that God is, in fact, using a genetic algorithm to produce His desired solution – which we, presumptuously, think is us. Even if God is not “determining” the timing of mutations (which I would argue are truly random inasmuch as they are caused by events at the quantum level like the timing of decay of uranium atoms or the precise path of cosmic rays), He did create the “space” which structures the selection process – the physical universe itself. The original conditions of the universe may have been very precisely calibrated to produce precisely our world, and precisely the evolutionary path that unfolded thereon, precisely to produce beings that could pursue the purpose for which the universe was created. Darwin’s theory does not, therefore, preclude believing in a God or who created the universe with a purpose, a purpose related to us.

This is, once again, a hermeneutical claim, not an empirical one. And so the question is whether it is persuasive, not whether it is provably true or false. I could point out that, in the lab, people use genetic algorithms to solve problems that are otherwise intractable; in Jim’s hypothetical, God is doing the opposite, solving the intractable problem of what original conditions are necessary to result in human evolution in order to create human beings by means of a genetic algorithm, in which case the question must be asked why He bothered (or, put a different way, it throws the question of the place of natural evil in the process of creation into high relief). I could also point out that the role of mass extinctions in evolution – for example, the asteroid strike that wiped out the dinosaurs and 95% of the other species on earth – raise real questions about the plausibility of the claim that the initial conditions were set up efficiently to lead to our evolution. But I think a better approach is to turn to parody.

Jim is not the first author to posit that we are part of a complex algorithm related to the purpose of the universe. As no doubt all our readers know, there is an answer to life, the universe, and everything. We just don’t like it. It’s the title of this post.

As no doubt our readers are also aware, human beings are not, in fact, the supreme life form on earth. The second-most-advanced life forms are the dolphins. The most advanced are the mice, who created the earth to be a giant algorithm working over billions of years to work out the question to which the inexplicable answer to life the universe and everything corresponds.

The program was running along quite well, until the earth was unexpectedly hit by the “B” ark of the Golgafrinchans. Not having been part of the original design of the algorithm, their presence no doubt ruined any chance that Earth would be the source for the question to the answer to life, the universe and everything. But it hardly matters as before the algorithm could complete its operation the Earth was destroyed by Vogons building a hyperspace bypass in the path of which our planet unfortunately lay.

Douglas Adams’ account of creation is a lot more persuasive than the mythology of the Pastafarians. Is it more persuasive than Jim’s posited concept of evolution as a genetic algorithm with a defined goal, the concept which, I think, it is parodying? You make the call.