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“Darwin’s Dice” — Michael Flannery on the Role of Chance in Darwinian Evolution

Darwin's dice

Whether Darwinian evolution is at bottom a process driven by chance, happenstance, randomness is a question that Darwinian apologists have habitually sought to cloud in obscurity. That might be because, to our intuition, the world of life certainly does not present itself as a production of “chance.” As an illustration, the insistence that evolution isn’t “random” was the theme of a rebuke to Discovery Institute’s Stephen Meyer from Richard Dawkins following Meyer’s debate with cosmologist Lawrence Krauss.

However, as our historian colleague Michael Flannery notes in a new article in the journal Metascience, Darwin himself was absolutely committed to the “chance” view as the distinguishing characteristic of his theory. Flannery reviews Darwin’s Dice: The Idea of Chance in the Thought of Charles Darwin (Oxford University Press), by Curtis Johnson:

Johnson has meticulously examined the role of chance in Darwinian evolution and produced a superlative study. By dissecting the mass of Darwin’s writings back to his earliest notebooks, Johnson has concluded that “‘Darwinism’ had a single meaning . . . from beginning to end” (xii) and that chance formed the leitmotif of his thought from his Notebooks B and C commenced in July of 1837 to his death in April of 1882. “A designed world in all of its parts and operations,” he writes, “cannot be a chance world in any them; and a world in which chance plays any role at all seems to be one that excludes a place for an omnipotent designer” (67). Darwin had to choose between a designed world or a world of chance; he chose the latter and adopted a variety strategies aimed a concealing this atheistic proposition.

Focusing on chance allows Darwinian evolution to come into much sharper metaphysical focus. Johnson’s assertion that Darwin’s departure from Christianity was early and abrupt may be uncomfortable to some, but his detailed and exhaustive analysis makes it hard to argue against the fact that Darwin’s “chance-governed world seems tantamount to a godless world” (xviii). As such, Johnson’s bold and clearly argued thesis makes for an important addition to our understanding of the man and his theory.

Theistic evolutionists — or as Flannery calls them, Darwinian theists — are especially inclined to becloud the contradiction between chance and providence, as if there were no choice to be made between Darwin’s theory and any coherent understanding of Christianity or Judaism. Flannery cites Karl Giberson and Kenneth Miller as cases in point. “No matter what interpretation of Genesis one invokes, the tension between Darwin’s chance and God’s providence will be there.”

And that is surely true. Theistic evolutionary thinking is designed, whether intelligently or not, to reconcile religious believers to the denial of their own common sense as interpreters of their faith in relationship to science. Darwin himself, at least, was candid enough to admit that a fundamental choice indeed needs to be made. Read the rest of Michael Flannery’s very interesting review here.

Photo: Ivory dice, by Liam Quin [CC BY 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons.