One of the ongoing discussions in evolutionary theory is the place that directionality holds, or even if it should hold any place at all. Directionality is, after all, the claim that evolution has a purpose of some sort. That purpose may be short-term or long-term. But if it exists at all then the traditional concepts underlying Darwinain theory are seriously undermined.

The traditional claim of the Darwinist, whether classical or any variety of neo-Darwinist, that that there is no purpose to evolution. Evolution just happened and happens today. It is just how the universe works. On the one hand there is an acknowledgement of directionality (Mayr, 2002, pp 11, 76), that evolution intends to better whatever is evolving. It may occur through a circuitous route but it happens. On the other hand Mayr held that randomness drives this direction. This was explained by Alan Templeton in 2006.

“As soon as you have interactions between genes and then change the frequencies of these genes through some random factor, you’re going to have a tremendous shift in where natural selection is directed in a genetic sense,” he said. “This is the underlying basis of genetic revolution.”[1]

Now we must pause for a moment to define randomness in the sense that the evolutionist uses it. We might think of it like the random password generator on our computers. The results are so unpredictable that the most powerful decrypting computer could not unravel the origination key in order to hack the system. But that’s not what they’re saying. What they speak of is more akin to contingency. “If this happens and that happens, totally apart from external intervention …” would be language consistent with their work. When they say “random” they mean undirected and without an external driving force. Random is their answer and alternative to God.

Jerry Coyne, a skilled scientist, takes a position very different from Mayr’s position yet having the identical conflict.

But evolution is, as far as we can tell, purposeless and unguided.  There seems to be no direction, mutations are random, and we haven’t detected a teleological force or agent that pushes it in one direction.  And it’s important to realize this: the great importance of Darwin’s theory of natural selection is that an unguided, purposeless process can nevertheless produce animals and plants that are exquisitely adapted to their environment.  That’s why it’s called natural selection, not supernatural selection or simply selection.[2]

For Dr. Coyne evolution is “purposeless and unguided. There seems to be no direction, mutations are random.” But his understanding of direction points to something a bit different. Seemingly taking his hints from the new atheists he directs his criticism not against directionality but against teleology. He is concerned about the influence of theism, specifically Christian theism, in the natural sciences.

What Dr. Coyne missed was his own statement of purpose. Adaptation is a purpose. The ability to produce is a purpose. It may not be the same category of purpose that the theist might argue for but it is purpose none the less. Dr. Coyne’s categorical error here, ironically, provides empirical evidence as to why scientists need to take some courses in basic philosophy and logic.[3]

This represents a core structural problem with all varieties of Darwinism. When one removes both randomness/contingency and any sense of directionality in favor of either determinism or imposed direction then the label “Darwinian” becomes vapid. One then enters the area of the post-Darwinist or non-Darwinist theory. There are formal alternatives at play (third wave) as well as informal conversations such as the course set in epitgenetics and the recursive constructs of Stephen Wolfram.[4]

The problem of the Darwinist is clear on the matter. It is far from resolved as long as one hangs onto the Darwinist structures. The challengers will continue pursue this and other questions. An alternative follow-up question is whether or not a direction might be set internally rather than externally. This is implicit in both Wolfram’s proposal and third wave theory. It seems to be the fruit of an information-based way of thinking and thus a corrective to the materialistic empiricism of Darwin’s era.

Plantinga argued that a system could not be undirected and directed at the same time. It seems intuitively obvious as well as being philosophically unsustainable. How can something lack direction yet at the same time maintain direction? How can a some pursue survival without survival for some end? Even the simple principle of survival for its own sake is a direction. Thus his “Big Question” states the challenge:

(BQ) Is there a path through organic space connecting, say, some ancient population of unicellular life with the human eye, where each point on the path could plausibly have come from a preceding point by way of a heritable random genetic mutation that was adaptively useful, and that could plausibly then have spread through the appropriate population by way of unguided natural selection?[5]

One reply that I can imagine would flow from Wolfram’s proposal:

What if the low-complexity structure that formed the beginning of a process grew to develop the rich data that would in the end produce vision?

This answer formulation would render moot Plantinga’s challenge to assumed randomness while introducing the philosophical desirability of a future non-Darwinian model. Thus one might maintain a godless evolutionary system without the baggage of the brokenness of Darwinism (at least on this issue).

That’s the next question: Can a system be internally guided absent some external guide?

Wolfram’s proposal answers the question through a recursive, algorithmic approach. That is, complexity builds on complexity. While it’s an appealing concept it would be more than difficult to verify biologically. There’s a big step between a functioning mathematical model and a biological mechanism. This is especially challenging because the model includes abiogenesis — the beginning of life. So to implement would require the successful creation of a life form. That would be one of strongest verification of a model one might ask for.

If we skip the abiogenesis matter and just stick with the directionality question as it might begin at a later point in the process then the model would again be difficult to sustain. Any mathematical application would have to at least assume that the current test conditions matched the initial model proposal so that the analogy between the test and the object are consistent. That not likely unless one dismiss a thousand assumptions. In short it seems Wolfram’s proposal is unverifiable.

A simpler approach is James Shapiro’s informational assumption. Think of it as a variation on Dawkin’s selfish gene but going one step further. The gene is not only selfish but smart, too. It’s the biological equivalent of Adam Smith’s economic self-interest. Genes may now be seen as producers and investors rather than as mere consumers.

Shaprio has provided the alternative: Directionality without guidance. The contents of genes set the course. Traits and features develop from the content. Species develop and expand. The rest is biological history.

It would be easy to just dismiss the theory by beginning with the first question: What is the origin of this biological and genetic information? While that question is a legitimate one it misses the point that the information is currently present and functional. The approach is consistent with a basic physicalism — it’s good science.

The better question would be: Is directionality consistent with the assumption that a system is unguided? Plantinga’s Big Question should again be asserted. Note that the original phrasing chosen by Plantinga is directed toward Darwinism’s principles. It needs to be qualified and rephrased to accommodate a non-Darwinist proposal.

(BQ.1) Is there a path through organic space connecting, say, some ancient population of unicellular life with the human eye, where each point on the path could plausibly have come from a preceding point by way of an inherited genetic feature that was advantageous, and that could plausibly then have spread through the appropriate population by way of unguided behaviors?

Plantinga’s Big Question is thus applicable to third wave and epigenetic principles when it comes to third wave principles. But it’s not really a defeater. Instead, like ID, the post-Darwinist information-based proposals are doing the same thing. They are both proposing a hard coded directionality. The ID proponent would allow for an external influence; the third wave, not so much. They share a set of assumptions but not a shared cause.

The third wave may be onto something at least with respect to their model structure. What remains is how such information might have come about. Was it through random means, in a manner similar to neo-Darwinist claims? Was it through developmental recursion as Wolfram suggests? Or was it some other method? The third wave high view of information leaves it stuck at the same place as is ID. That is, it has deconstructed a system to a base level the components of an object but cannot construct to that point.

If there is a strong criticism of both ID and third wave, this is it. It is essentially the same as the criticism of Darwinism, but turned one-hundred-eighty degrees.  The Darwinist has too low a view of information; the third wave and ID, perhaps too high. The Darwinist, has too high a view of randomness, chance, and contingency; the others, they might fall into some mathematical fatalism.

My conclusion? The development of new models — whether ID, third wave, or even just  the criticisms of Darwinism[6] — shows that people have seen the errors of Darwinsim and are looking for something that actually works. I’m certain that there is a model of origins and evolution (simpliciter) which is compatible with orthodox Christian theology. Not being a scientist I’ll just enjoy the show.




[3] see Roger Trigg’s Beyond Matter: Why Science Needs Metaphysics (2017) and and J. P. Moreland’s section “Why Science Needs Philosophy” in Theistic Evolution: A Scientific, Philosophical, and Theological Critique (2017).

[4] See Stephen Wolfram, A New Kind of Science.

[5] Where the Conflict Really Lies, Plantinga, p. 19

[6] What Darwin Got Wrong, Fodor & Piatelli-Palmarini and Mind and Cosmos, Nagel.