A Critique of Pure Randomness

Random MemeThe notion of randomness brings about many interesting considerations. For statisticians, randomness is a series of events with chances that are governed by a distribution function. In everyday parlance, equally-likely means random, while an even more common semantics is based on both how unlikely and how unmotivated an event might be (“That was soooo random!”) In physics, there are only certain physical phenomena that can be said to be truly random, including the probability of a given nucleus decomposing into other nuclei via fission. The exact position of a quantum thingy is equally random when it’s momentum is nailed down, and vice-versa. Vacuums have a certain chance of spontaneously creating matter, too, and that chance appears to be perfectly random. In algorithmic information theory, a random sequence of bits is a sequence that can’t be represented by a smaller descriptive algorithm–it is incompressible. Strangely enough, we simulate random number generators using a compact algorithm that has a complicated series of steps that lead to an almost impossible to follow trajectory through a deterministic space of possibilities; it’s acceptible to be random enough that the algorithm parameters can’t be easily reverse engineered and the next “random” number guessed.

One area where we often speak of randomness is in biological evolution. Random mutations lead to change and to deleterious effects like dead-end evolutionary experiments. Or so we hypothesized. The exact mechanism of the transmission of inheritance and of mutations were unknown to Darwin, but soon in the evolutionary synthesis notions like random genetic drift and the role of ionizing radiation and other external factors became exciting candidates for the explanation of the variation required for evolution to function. Amusingly, arguing largely from a stance that might be called a fallacy of incredulity, creationists have often seized on a logical disconnect they perceive between the appearance of purpose both in our lives and in the mechanisms of biological existence, and the assumption of underlying randomness and non-directedness as evidence for the paucity of arguments from randomness.

I give you Stephen Talbott in The New Atlantis, Evolution and the Illusion of Randomness, wherein he unpacks the mounting evidence and the philosophical implications of jumping genes, self-modifying genetic regulatory frameworks, transposons, and the likelihood that randomness in the strong sense of cosmic ray trajectories bouncing around in cellular nuclei are simply wrong. Randomness is at best a minor contribution to evolutionary processes. We are not just purposeful at the social, personal, systemic, cellular, and sub-cellular levels, we are also purposeful through time around the transmission of genetic information and the modification thereof.

This opens a wildly new avenue for considering the certain normative claims that anti-evolutionists bring to the table, such as that a mechanistic universe devoid of central leadership is meaningless and allows for any behavior to be equally acceptable. This hoary chestnut is ripe to the point of rot, of course, but the response to it should be much more vibrant than the usual retorts. The evolution of social and moral outcomes can be every bit as inevitable as if they were designed because co-existence and greater group success (yes, I wrote it) is a potential well on the fitness landscape. And, equally, we need to stop being so reticent to claim that there is a purposefulness to life, a teleology, but simply make sure that we are according the proper mechanistic feel to that teleology. Fine, call it teleonomy, or even an urge to existence. A little poetry might actually help here.

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