Reflecting on a discussion with a friend who said, a propos the theory of Evolution, and the origin of everything, “You can’t think it happened by chance”.
It’s a standard way of rejecting Evolution, on the surface. Digging further in, it appears that “by chance” really meant “without purpose”. And so we came to some agreement in the end.
Do I believe in purpose? Yes I do. Do I believe there’s some point to life other than one we create to overlay the chaos, death, waste and terror of the observable Universe? Again, I do. I look at the beauty and elegance and simplicity that underlies the anarchy, and I look at a man/God on a cross defying it while taking part in it, and I really do believe I can trace a rainbow through the rain.
But do I believe it all happened by chance? Again, at the bottom level, yes I do.
Important to define terms, though. You see, the low-level randomness I’m thinking of here underlies the larger scale apparent determinacy, just as the simple laws of physics, multiplied to a large scale, can produce the third movement of a symphony or a late-night fight in a kebab house.
What you have to consider if we’re talking Evolution is the cumulative effective of billions of changes over millions or hundreds of millions of years. And where those who say evolution couldn’t evolve something as complex as an eye, for instance, miss it is because they can’t grasp the time involved, or the concept of small incremental changes each making a difference.
So a slimy thing in a primeval ocean has a tiny mutation that means it develops the ability to detect light. Just a bit of photosensitivity – not the full David Bailey. But it’s enough that the slimy thing heads towards it. Of course, light is the thing that makes algae grow. So if it heads towards the light, it finds food. In a competitive environment, the slimy-thing-with-photosensitive-cell wins. It eats. It divides. It produces horrible offspring with light sensitivity. It’s a winner.
Then one of the light-detecting slimy things develops a small change in its make-up. Just enough that, when it ingests another slimy thing, it can digest it properly. Full of the new energy that the high-value slimy-thing diet gives it, the carnivorous slimy thing grows like Topsy, and reproduces rapidly. It’s a winner’s winner.
But one of the non-slimy-thing-eating slimy things develops another subtle change in its light-detecting cells. It has a few more, and can detect changes in the light patterns. Just enough to run away from moving blobs in its vision, and towards stationary ones. It selectively goes to algae rather than other slimy things. It’s a peaceful winner.
Meanwhile, all sorts of other mutations happen to the slimy things, as they float in their slimy sea, bathed in the slimy sunlight and gently battered by the slimy background radiation. Some get genes for hair, pimples, ingrowing toenails abd anxiety. Many of these changes make the slimy things worse adapted to the environment, so they die and the “twerking”, “smelling of cabbages” and “planking” genes do not make it through the genetic funnel. One slimy thing develops what the serious geneticists – the real ones, not the ones that get quoted in the Mail – refer to technically as the “Gay Gene”. Since the slimy things reproduce by binary fission, and have not developed specialized sexual organs, this just leaves the slimy thing confused, without affecting its reproductive chances one bit.
But then two slimy things bang into each other, rupturing their cell walls and sharing their genetic make up. The resultant hybrid slimy things are more resistant to the slimy viruses that are suddenly becoming common. Over a few generations, the slimy things that like banging into each other produce offspring that are generally healthier. The Boris Gene wins. Now we have vegetarian slimy things, carnivorous slimy things, and the new sexy slimy things.
And so on. And so on. When the slimy things are washed up a creek, the ones which are able to balance their internal chemistry better in fresh water conditions survive, while all their mates explode. When the first slimy thing crawls onto land, its wet skin means it can still “breathe”. But it has to dip back into water. One day a slimy thing develops a thicker cell wall and a breathing hole, that guides the air inside its body where it’s nice and slimy all the time. It doesn’t have to dive in the water the whole time. It survives in drought conditions, and heads inland where there’s no competition.
And, as slimy things explode, and eat each other, and dry out when they discover unexpected flaws in their cells, and bang into each other to roll the genetic dice, where is God in this? Other than, presumably, waiting for one of the slimy things to walk on its hind legs, followed shortly afterwards by burning another slimy thing for heresy?
Where God always is, I reckon. Beneath, and within, and between, and sustaining everything. The designer and the upholder, the developer and the run-time environment, the one within which the slimy things live, and move, and have their slimy being.
And the waste, and the wholesale deaths and the dehydrating and exploding slimy things, and all the rest of it – that’s not only been a shock since we discovered the Theory of Evolution. That’s been known since forever – since the prophets noted that a wolf may leave only a fragment of a sheep, that Leviathan has pointy teeth, or that the ones who bashed the brains out of Babylonian children would be blessed. The sheer dumb cruelty of this world isn’t news. It’s been known all along.
So at the bottom, it is all just chance. As you add it up, you gradually find a grim determinism – the triumph of statistics, and sheer weight of time and numbers. And when the slimy thing does stand on its slimy appendages and makes its first slimy altar to its slimy god, that’s its little slimy response to something that it can’t prove, can’t see and can’t eat. But it knows it’s there, nonetheless, deep in its slimy little heart.