A common attack upon evolutionary biology, from ranking clerics in the Catholic church to the meanest creationist blogger, is that it implies that life arose and came to result in us by accident. We are asked to believe, they say, that three billion years led to us as a series of accidents. No matter how often evolutionary biologists and informed respondents try to point out that the sense of “accident” in biology is based on the lack of correlation between the future needs of organisms, the trope is repeated ad nauseum.
The reason is deep in the history of western thought. In reaction to the teleological views of the early Greek philosophers to Aristotle, the atomists held that the nature of things, including living things, arose from the properties of their parts (the atoms) in combination. This was deeply offensive to the teleological tradition, which held that the purposes of things made them what they were, and in particular the hylomorphism of Aristotle, in which form, and purpose, imposed themselves upon the substance, or as a recent metaphysician has called it, “gunk”, that made them.
Epicurus was perhaps the most offensively ateleological of the philosophers attacked by this tradition. He had, as reported by Lucretius in On the nature of things, proposed that once you knew the atoms from which things were made, and their properties, you had nothing remaining to explain. But Epicurus held that in the beginning of things developing, the universe was composed of atoms falling through the void in parallel, until a “swerve”, by uncaused accident, caused them to combine and form the earth and all living things.
Sound familiar? It should. It’s the modern “the universe cannot be accidental and life has to have meaning” canard that creationists proffer with such predictable regularity. It is supposed that evolution requires all the diversity of the world to have happened due to an accident.
Now evolution is indeed based on a number of kinds of randomness. But not the kind of randomness that means things “just happened”. The modern theological objections to evolution are just the latest in a series of attacks upon Epicurean philosophy. First the Greek and Roman philosophers and theologians, people like Cicero, attacked it for impiety. Then the Jewish and Christian theologians attacked it for atheism, and the Islamic philosophers inherited this from them. When Darwin published, he, too, was attacked for being an Epicurean.
Thing is, in a charitable and updated form, Epicurus was right about the natures of living things – science shows us (not just evolutionary biology, but all of science) that the natures of living things really are composed of their parts and the combinations of those parts. Once you have given a molecular, physical, explanation of what organisms do, there is nothing left over to explain. And the principle of natural selection shows us that any apparent teleology in biology is indeed due to physical, mechanical, processes.
So, what is left over that theology can be brought to bear on? Nothing.
The randomness of biology is not mere accident. There’s a causal explanation for all of it, at least in principle. Sure, evolution proceeds by contingent events in one sense. There’s no general reason why a certain mutation had to happen, or a given population lost this or that gene, but this is because either we do not know the conditions or because there is a stochastic scatter in physical processes (which does not rely on evolutionary biology, but upon the nature of things – the world is largely scattered as a matter of fact, in physics and sociology as well as in biology). No law tells us that a gamma particle had to hit a gene while a sperm or an egg was being formed, but if one does, then we know there will be a determinate outcome, a mutation, and selection and drift will happen to it.
It is my view that physical things are determinate – which means that if event A happens, result B will follow (although B may be a statistical distribution). Molecular properties tell us why metabolism, replication and mutation happen. If we have enough data, we can even predict what that will be in fine detail. Epicurus was right and Aristotle was wrong.
So the canard is in large part due to a failure of theology to catch up with the physical world. And they had better catch up soon, or they lose all semblance of intellectual respectability. Of course there is also the moral claim that if everything is an accident, there is no meaning to life, but we can let them have the view that life has meaning from some nonphysical source for now (though I don’t believe it for a moment). It’s time they dropped this once and for all.
A final note: “accident” is itself a questionable concept. We talk about a motor vehicle accident, but we explain the event in terms of the vehicle, the conditions or the driver quite determinately when we investigate the causes of it. In Aristotle’s metaphysics, and accident was something that could be otherwise without changing the nature of the thing. In that sense, there are no accidents in a physical explanation, because (i) there is nothing that is essential to being, say, a dog (which is the contrast class for “accidens”), and (ii) all causes are determinate in some manner in science. A mutation, that will later confer immunity to a disease or to injury, is an accident only in that it might have been otherwise, not because it has no cause or was not a necessary result of the conditions that did obtain.
Time to get with the 21st century in your metaphysics…