Randomness and Disenchantment

[A comment posted to Majikthise, which kinda stands on its own. Concerning why more people (elided qualifier here: ‘in the US’) don’t believe in evolution, and considering both its random component and how it might be seen to take meaning away from human life.]

All of the above, of course, to some degree. Most dichotomies are false. (Or maybe they’re not. It’s definitely one of the two.)

I can’t help noticing that woolly thinking has a very odd relationship with the concept of randomness: extreme distaste when it’s presented as a necessary component of evolution; extreme glee when quantum uncertainty is leapt upon as science’s Achilles heel and used to justify all manner of new age hooey. I don’t think there’s a consistent reaction towards randomness. I think it’s accepted or rejected mostly based on whether it supports or denies one’s preferred thesis.

Having said all that, something I think is often missed is just how badly evolution by natural selection is understood, specifically the extent to which randomness plays a part, and more generally the extent to which the entire process or complex of processes ought to be thought of as random. Even to the extent that people might reject evolution based on their personal distaste with randomness in their origins, if they’re honest and well-informed they can only do that insofar as evolution is random. There are problems at both ends here. I think educators — and the informal educators of the mass-media might be most to blame here — often fail to appropriately qualify the randomnesses in evolution by carefully explaining the cumulative, ratcheting effect of natural selection. Also, there’s an obvious willful ignorance in the still-current and still-way-off metaphors of hurricanes in junk yards and such, which clearly reveal a focus on the random and a lack of appreciation for the cumulative selection.

That evolution remains so clearly misunderstood in the public mind — its focus far too weighted towards the random element rather than the selection element — licences the latching onto the randomness as a target, whatever reason someone might have for wishing evolution not to be true. And though evolution might not necessarily conflict with theism, it absolutely conflicts with much conventional theology. I think Paul Myers is right to identify socially-received anti-evolutionism as a strong effect. I’d just pair it with poor understanding; the combination of the two gives a complex concept like evolution by natural selection little chance.

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