Myth 5: Darwin thought evolution relied on accidents and chance

This myth says a lot about the default views of western thinking, rather like the issue of teleology.

One of the constant and incessant complaints made against Darwin by theists in particular, is that he introduced chance and purposelessness into our worldview. I don't believe in such entities as worldviews, but leave that for now: did he introduce chance, and if so, does it imply a general lack of purpose in the world?

Here are some classic examples of that complaint. From Is Darwin Right? Or, The Origin of Man in 1877, William Denton wrote:

... it has been said that those who advocate evolution are desirous of driving God out of the world, and so reducing man to the level of the brutes, from which they believe him to have been derived. The belief in a mechanical or day-laboring God must die with increasing intelligence, and it is worse than useless to attempt to save it; but this is no hap-hazard world, nor is man a mere come-by-chance. We are not the accidental result of a million accidents, each fortunately, yet accidentally, contributing to the grand result. [p109]

And this by theologian Rudolf von Schmid in The Theories of Darwin and Their Relation to Philosophy, Religion, and Morality (1883)

This is a grave and deeply important subject. Far, far beyond the question how living things have come into being, is the all-absorbing one as to the highest of created things, and his position in the world around him. His past, his present, his future are realities which have been consecrated upon the altar of a great belief, by the most profound scholars and the deepest thinkers of ages which boasted of greater men than the present generation has seen. This belief is the soul of man's existence on earth. It is that which exalts him far above all other organised things. It is the beautiful but mystic light which has shone upon his otherwise unknown future. It is that which supports him in misfortune and sorrow. It is that which gladdens his heart when all around him is dark and cold and cheerless. For the sake then of what we value here and hereafter, let us not cast away such a belief for the weak and illogical and unproved, and, as I believe, unprovable hypothesis which tells us that the world around us has risen in its majestic beauty at the bidding of blind force or a chance variation. [p51]

The Darwinian psychologist James Mark Baldwin noted this in 1909:

To Darwin's opponents 'chance,' 'fortuitous or spontaneous variation,' was to take the place of intelligent creation, Providence, God. If there be no rule of selection and survival save that of utility, and no source of the useful save the overproduction of chance cases, where is the Guiding Hand? Does not Natural Selection dispense with a ruling Intelligence altogether? [p82]

Much of the unease with which theists regarded evolution comes from this, although the real wave of objections to transmutation as such based on its use of chance seem to appear after 1900 as natural selection becomes more widely accepted. What is this problem with chance? It undercuts Providence and Design. If things are down to accident rather than design, or as Samuel Butler put it, Luck or Cunning?, then there seems to be no place for a deity at all. I have argued against this before, rather recently, but as it's a myth, let's consider Darwin's own views in more detail.

Initially, according to Dov Ospovat (1980), chance played no place in Darwin's view of evolution, but he soon came, by 1840, to introduce "chance variation". Even so, by the 1844 Essay, it hardly plays much of a role, getting only two mentions. What counted was variation, which he had empirical reason to think was ubiquitous. But even with that, he still made appeal to the cosmological argument - that the universe was itself ordered and probably created, though individually living things were not. He wrote

I cannot persuade myself that a beneficent & omnipotent God would have designedly created the Ichneumonidae with the express intention of their feeding within the living bodies of caterpillars, or that a cat should play with mice. Not believing this, I see no necessity in the belief that the eye was expressly designed. On the other hand I cannot anyhow be contented to view this wonderful universe & especially the nature of man, & to conclude that everything is the result of brute force. I am inclined to look at everything as resulting from designed laws, with the details, whether good or bad, left to the working out of what we may call chance. Not that this notion at all satisfies me. (Darwin to Gray, 22 May 1860)

The phrase "of what we may call chance" is particularly interesting, as it indicates Darwin did not really think that chance was a metaphysical actor. In fact elsewhere, when discussing the origins of variation on which natural selection operated, he wrote

I have hitherto sometimes spoken as if the variations—so common and multiform in organic beings under domestication, and in a lesser degree in those in a state of nature—had been due to chance. This, of course, is a wholly incorrect expression, but it serves to acknowledge plainly our ignorance of the cause of each particular variation. [Origin, p131, first edition]

...we are far too ignorant to speculate on the relative importance of the several known and unknown laws of variation... [p198]

He did think the causes of variation were due to environmental influences on parents, which turned out to be right in a weird kind of way - as mutations are usually the result on environmental insults during gametogenesis, but that's not at all what he or his contemporaries meant.

John Beatty thinks, correctly in my estimation, that Darwin meant by "chance" what historians now call "contingency", which is a kind of counterfactual property - had things been slightly different, the outcome would have been different also. Beatty reckons that Darwin's empirical work that established this was his book On the Various Contrivances by which British and Foreign Orchids are Fertilised by Insects (1862):

The multiplicity of possible outcomes of evolution by the natural selection of chance variations, and hence the contingency of the actual results (like us), is surely one of the most unsettling aspects of the Darwinian revolution. Darwin chose to demonstrate this contingency empirically in a book on . . . orchids.

Baldwin correctly summarises the matter, I think, in the passage that follows the one above:

We have only to understand the present-day statement of this problem to see the enormous concession to naturalism which the theory of Darwin has forced. Instead of 'chance' in the sense of uncaused accident, we now have the notion of 'probability,' a mathematically exact interpretation of what is only to superficial observation fortuitous and capricious; instead of an interfering Providence, we have universal order born of natural law. And it is within such conceptions as these, now taken as common ground of argument, that the discussion of teleology is conducted. The world is no longer thought of as a piece of mosaic work put together by a skilful artificer—as the old design theory looked upon it—but as a whole, a cosmos, of law-abiding and progressive change. A philosopher who knows his calling today seeks to interpret natural law, not to discover violations of it. The violations, if they came, would reduce the world to caprice, chance and chaos, instead of providing a relief from these things.

So Darwin's view, while administering a coup de grâce to theories of chance and special creation, both equally desultory, capricious and lawless, replaced them once for all with law. [p83]


Baldwin, James Mark. Darwin and the Humanities, Library of Genetic Science and Philosophy. Vol. 2. Baltimore: Review Publishing Co., 1909.

Beatty, John. "Chance Variation: Darwin on Orchids." Philosophy of Science 73 (2006): 629–41.

Butler, Samuel. Luck, or Cunning, as the Main Means of Organic Modification? An Attempt to Throw Additional Light on the Late Mr Darwin's Theory of Natural Selection. London, 1887: Trübner & Co., 1886.

Denton, William. Is Darwin Right? Wellesley, MA: Denton Publishing Company, 1881.

Ospovat, D. "God and Natural Selection: The Darwinian Idea of Design." J Hist Biol 13, no. 2 (1980): 169-94.
Schmid, Rudolf von. The Theories of Darwin and Their Relation to Philosophy, Religion, and Morality. Translated by Gustav Adolf Zimmermann. Chicago: Jansen McClurg & Co., 1883.


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Intelligent Design Rules Out Godâs Sovereignty Over Chance

âWhat proponents of so-called intelligent design have cynically omitted in their polemic is that according to Biblical tradition, chance has always been considered God's choice as well.â

By David White (not verified) on 20 Feb 2009 #permalink

Excellent post.

Nowadays, the hobby horse of respectable scientists looking for evidence of a Creator seems to be the Strong Anthropic Principle.

By Antonio Manetti (not verified) on 20 Feb 2009 #permalink

A minor quibble ...

He did think the causes of variation were due to environmental influences on parents, which turned out to be right in a weird kind of way - as mutations are usually the result on environmental insults during gametogenesis, but that's not at all what he or his contemporaries meant.

That's not how I see it. The vast majority of mutations are due to errors in DNA replication. Those mistakes occur at a (nearly) constant rate throughout the history of life. While it's true that certain toxic chemicals can cause mutation, that kind of mutation is unlikely to be a significant factor in the observed history of life.

I agree with you that Darwin was not thinking of chance when discussing the origin of variation. He seemed to think that it had an observable cause, such as use and disuse.

However, I think it's important to remember that our views have changed so that in 2009 we attribute a great deal of evolution to chance and accident [see, Random Genetic Drift and Evolution by Accident]. This worldview perspective would have been quite foreign to Darwin.

I believe it would be interesting and useful to look with compassion at the issues underlying the belief in Creationsism or Intelligent Design. (To me, doing so without seeming to be condescending seems like a tall order.)

I don't mean this in any sort of disparaging or contemptuous way whatever. After all, the vast cosmos that science presents to us can be a scary place compared to the cozy, spirit-filled universe of Ptolemy, Aristotle and Aquinas. For better or worse, the earth-centered universe meant that God's focus was on strictly on humanity, the pinnacle of His creation.

When the Pope recently felt obliged to reassure believers that there really is a personal, caring God in the cosmos, I believe he was responding to just those unspoken anxieties.

By Antonio Manetti (not verified) on 21 Feb 2009 #permalink

"For better or worse, the earth-centered universe meant that God's focus was on strictly on humanity, the pinnacle of His creation."

I don't know - even in a theological/creationist context, nothing is said about humanity being an exclusive project. Perhaps there were others. Wouldn't angels (and in particular Lucifer, the most brilliant of them) rank higher in the chain of being, and thus closer to the pinnacle of creation?

Wouldn't angels (and in particular Lucifer, the most brilliant of them) rank higher in the chain of being, and thus closer to the pinnacle of creation?

Satan, of course, has vowed eternal rebellion while the angels are safely within His ambit.

I'm no kind of philosopher or theologian, but it seems to me that in such a cosmos one could readily believe that the attention of a loving God would therefore be focussed on trying to salvage rebellious humanity for much the same reason that the rebellious child often receives the most parental attention.

By Antonio Manetti (not verified) on 21 Feb 2009 #permalink

Sorry to disagree a bit again with one of your myth busters... but first let me say the way in which I do agree -- I agree that many people have overstated and misrepresented the sense in which Darwin's views involved chance. But there is also the risk of understating them, which I think you've done here.

First, with respect to chance variation: you cite Beatty, but you've overlooked Beatty (1984, p. 186-7), where he makes it clear that by "chance variation," Darwin actually meant a number of different things, including: variations are chance in the sense that they are not in response to environmental need, they are not "intelligently intended," they are coincidental, that there is ignorance about their causes (or rather, there was in Darwin's time).

Second, as for selection itself, again I invite you to search the online copy of the Origin, this time for the word "chance." Again, it is an oft-repeated term, and I have yet to find a case in which Darwin didn't say that the organisms with the most advantageous variations would have the best chance of survival in the struggle for existence. If there is any such, I think it is rare. Now, Darwin doesn't say what he means by chance here -- I suspect that he means that accidents happen, so that the fitter organism isn't always the one to survive. And of course, this doesn't mean that selection is a purely chance process; the fitter organism is more likely to survive. But there is an element of chance to it.

The role of chance in evolution being one of my favorite topics, of course...

Roberta, I did precisely that for this post. Nearly every single use of that word are of the form "has a better chance of survival", which merely implies a distribution of variants with differing fitness as we would now say. The only passage that discusses the nature of chance is the one above on p131 of the Origin, so I ignored all the other cases. I may have missed one or two - this is a blog, after all. Please bring them to my attention.

As to the earlier Beatty, I think that is true - there is a lack of intentional direction in Darwin's use of "chance", but I think a lot of that is tainted by later debates over teleology; I don't think that initially Darwin thought chance was necessarily unintended; his ideas on primary causes versus secondary causes indicate to me that he actually was appealing to distributional facts rather than anything metaphysical. In fact, having read Gigerenzer's Empire of Chance I suspect Darwin was in fact influenced by the burgeoning field of "statics", or statistics, and that Baldwin's comment is right on.

John, it seems to me that you've got some prior notion of "real" chance, and so dismiss other conceptions of it, even though those other conceptions are quite common. I realize that for the purposes of replying to creationists -- and this is clearly part of your purpose -- perhaps only one or two are relevant. But for the broader scholarly purpose of understanding the role of chance in Darwin's thinking, I don't think those other senses can be dismissed.

I also think that for broader scholarly purposes, it's important to distinguish chance mutation from chance selection (which I don't think is captured by "a distribution of variants with differing fitness" unless you think that fitness is actual reproductive success).

Also, I wouldn't assume that what Darwin says about chance in one place applies to all of the places where he the term chance.

As for "lack of intentional direction," if you look at the Darwin cite that Beatty gives on p. 186, it's very clear that Darwin is contrasting accidental variation with purpose, even while he (Darwin) is emphasizing that the variations have all been "determined by events and circumstances, all of which depend on natural law." Now, the Darwin cite is 1887... but I am baffled why you want to stick to what Darwin "initially" thought here, whereas in your reply to my comment about slight variations, you replied that Darwin changed his views on that over time. So, when we debunk Darwinian myths, do we look at early, middle, or late Darwin?

Sorry to go on and on -- but again, this is an important subject to me.

Keep it up, Roberta. I need the mental challenges, not to mention I learn from you.

I deliberately chose the first edition, because I wanted to see what Darwin would need to make out his case before all the blending/use inheritance challenges, and before anyone started to get too metaphysical about evolution.

I don't have "real" conception of chance, but I think in the context of the time, it was held to mean something like "unintended". Consider the Paley quote many folk use:

"Nor does it mend the answer to add, with respect to the singularity of the conformation, that, after the event, it is no longer to be computed what the chances were against it. This is always to be computed, when the question is, whether a useful or imitative conformation be the produce of chance, or not: I desire no greater certainty in reasoning, than that by which chance is excluded from the present disposition of the natural world. Universal experience is against it. What does chance ever do for us? In the human body, for instance, chance, i.e. the operation of causes without design, may produce a wen, a wart, a mole, a pimple, but never an eye. Amongst inanimate substances, a clod, a pebble, a liquid drop might be; but never was a watch, a telescope, an organized body of any kind, answering a valuable purpose by a complicated mechanism, the effect of chance. In no assignable instance hath such a thing existed without intention somewhere."

It's an interesting question which Darwin to analyse. The later Darwin is much more concerned with the metaphysical implications of his views, I suspect because others like Gray and Hooker brought them up with him as well as the "squib" from the Manchester Guardian. If the issue is "what did Darwin eventually conclude?" then of course we should look at the later ideas. But the question I was trying to answer, only partly because of creationists - I'm much more interested in theism generally, was "What did Darwin need of chance?" I'm sorry if I didn't make that clear.

The latest theist strategy bypasses the chance question altogether by positing that engineering constraints on natural selection, and hence the "inevitability" of certain outcomes, specifically human-type intelligence. Trailblazed in its current form by Simon Conway Morris, this strategy delivers the required outcome (ie us) regardless of any arguments about the role of chance and contigency.

This line of argument has a more than superficial appeal since it both reinforces a popular view that is independent of theistic convictions (you just have to look at science fiction) and marshals some apparently compelling scientific arguments about convergence.

However, for a variety of reasons that I won't go into in this post, I believe it is fundamentally mistaken, and Gould's (mainstream) view that if you reran the "tape of life" you would get a fundamentally different outcome is in fact correct.

In the end, I think SCM's view is crippled by both a lack of imagination due to the fact that the only example we have is of "this tape" run only once, and a fundamental underestimation of the scope and role of chance and contingency in our life history. And it is of course pre-conditioned by a theistic commitment.

I don't see how Darwin could have not "needed" variations to be chance in some sense; again, if organisms always get exactly the variations that would promote their survival and reproduction in a given environment, then there is much less need for natural selection. He at least needs them to be chance in this sense -- thus, in the first edition, he makes it clear that variations can be advantageous, deleterious, or neutral -- which implies that they are undirected. Aside from what he needed, prior to writing the Origin Darwin spent quite a bit of time getting handle on variation in natural and domesticated populations, and I think he came to believe that there was extensive variation in both populations, much of which did not seem to be beneficial. In other words, I think he genuinely believed that variations were chance (in this sense), and also, that selection was partially a chance process (in the sense described above).

I think that at the time, chance meant many different, yet related things, just as it does now. It's certainly clear that Darwin meant more than one thing by it. That's a big reason why there is so much confusion on this issue.

Darwin needs variation to be random with respect to the organisms' needs, but he clearly think variation is due to lawful behaviours of stuff. A better way to express it is that he thinks the causes of variation are not correlated to functionality, not that they are random accidents. They are only spontaneous in the context of adaptation.

This is one of the few points at which I fully agree with Dawkins, somewhere expressed.

John, maybe now we're starting to talk past one another, but I'll give this one more try. I agree that Darwin thought that "variation is due to lawful behaviours of stuff." And you agree Darwin held "variation to be random with respect to the organisms' needs." But with respect to the latter, you want to say, "that's not really chance." And what I want to say is, no, that is chance, in one sense -- and it is one of the several senses in which Darwin did think that variations were chance. We can say this while acknowledging that he didn't think that variations were chance in every sense -- because, as you note, he thought that the variations were lawfully caused. Again, I'll assert that you seem to have a notion in mind of what constitutes "real" chance, and so dismiss the other meanings.

He did think that variations are "accidents," however, if accident is understood as "coincidence." Think of a car accident -- if we assume determinism, the actions of both cars are due to cause, but there was no guiding cause that led them to collide at a particular time and place. Similarly, if a variation "happens" to be beneficial, it is accidental in the same sense -- due to cause, yes, but not causally connected to the environment.

Yes, in that sense his notion of "chance" is "accidental", but again I reckon that is just the same thing as "contingent". Theists have been concerned that Darwin introduced, or reintroduced, Epicurean chance. I think this is misplaced, and in order to make that claim they have had to rather egregiously misinterpret him, relying mostly on secondary sources and a few quotes out of context. I don't know why you want to think I hold to a view of "real chance", when I'm merely responding, as I tried to make clear, to their concerns, not my own. I personally think strict determinism is false anyway.

No, I disagree that contingency is the same thing as accident. Of course, all of these sense of chance overlap a bit, but generally contingent means something like "could have been otherwise."

When I say that you hold a view of "real chance," I don't mean that you are a determinist or an indeterminist. What I mean is that you seem to want to reserve the label "chance" for only one meaning, and I am saying that it has multiple meanings.

Let me try to put it in your terms... suppose I came along and said that there was no set of morphological characters that were necessary and sufficient to delineate a species, and concluded that therefore, there were no species. You would rightly take me to task for only considering one concept of species and ignoring the others. That's what I am saying that you are doing with "chance." Just as there are many concepts of species, there are many concepts of chance. (The analogy isn't perfect, but it's close enough to make my point, I think).

Again, I agree that people often egregiously misinterpret what Darwin meant by chance. But I don't think the response is to say, no, Darwin didn't think that variations were chancy or that he didn't think that selection was a chance process. The answer ought to be to clarify what he did and didn't mean by those claims. And again, my claim is that Darwin meant a number of things by chance variation (as I outlined above).

I'll give it one more try, then. Roberta it's not me who is saying there is a "real sense of chance" here - it's the theistic tradition that deprecates Epicurus; all I am trying to do is show that Darwin did not hold anything like that sense. Of course there are other meanings. Of course they apply to Darwin - he himself uses the term so he must mean something by it. But it is not the metaphysical undetermined event that makes the universe meaningless, which is what theists traditionally think (falsely) of Epicurean chance and occasionally apply to Darwin.

I am not saying Darwin did not think variation was chance driven - he obviously did. But it isn't that metaphysically nasty sense of chance that theologians hate, or that some of Darwin's apparent followers often assert they love. Darwin himself was a determinist, and thought that variation would be lawfully explicable. He just thought that variation did not correlate with adaptedness, need or fitness.

If we can't communicate after this, then one of us has problems. It may not be you...

Heh... no doubt it's both of us. I agree with everything you say in the above two paragraphs, so maybe we've worked it out. But I still wouldn't say that "Darwin thought evolution relied on accidents and chance" is a myth. I'd say, "Darwin thought evolution relied on accidents and chance" needs to be understood properly to know what it does and doesn't mean. And it didn't seem to me that your original characterization did that. So thanks for indulging me and discussing it further. :-)

Sorry for intruding on the conversation but as a layman, I wonder why the theists object to invoking chance.

After all, while the outcome of rolling dice is surely determined by chance, the range of possibilities is inherent in the dice themselves. Similarly, can't one simply make note of the self-evident fact that the possibility of life is obviously a property of the universe?

Thus, to me, the role of chance in the eventual occurrence of life is immaterial. In my opinion, the only thing that ought to be germain to theists is the fact of the universe's life-generating potential.

Again, sorry for butting in.

By Antonio Manetti (not verified) on 24 Feb 2009 #permalink


You've hit on the key issue that everyone insists on ignoring.

If the Bible says that all chance is God's will (Pv. 16:33 and many others), the Bible supports theistic evolution in principle by purely natural means.

Creationist/IDers would rather ignore what the Bible says and stigmatize chance than admit that there is no legitimate theological objection to evolution by natural processes.

Atheists don't seem to want to go there either, even if it means that they can call the creationism/ID lobby heretical as well as dishonest and unscientific.

(Did you see my original comment...#1 above?)

By David White (not verified) on 24 Feb 2009 #permalink

As you said in your Salon piece:

God can roll the dice infinitely and win at every turn. Much as I cringe at feeling compelled to disagree with Albert Einstein, I have to consider, along with Ralph Waldo Emerson, that perhaps God does play at dice with the universe, but only with those ontologically loaded dice.

I wasn't clear on what you meant by "ontologicallt loaded dice". As I see it, the distinction is between a God who tampers with the game to get the results He wants and a God who designs the game such that all possible results reflect His will. I think you meant the latter but, to me, the loaded dice methaphor implied otherwise.

By Antonio Manetti (not verified) on 24 Feb 2009 #permalink

By "ontologically loaded dice" I intended chance occurrence which can bring all material things into existence and evolve them as well.

It would take a much more clever concept of God to play and win a chess game of infinite moves, than to screw around when it goes bad, so I prefer this option since it's purely a matter of personal religious belief anyway. In either case the house always wins.

Creationist/IDers can't crab-walk this one away, try as they might, which I have seen myself.

By David White (not verified) on 25 Feb 2009 #permalink

First and formost my claim to intellectual fame is that I am an 85 year old retired Electrician.
Now as to wether or not Darwin in his beliefe system is theistic or athiestic is not the issue. The issue is that to days "scientist", in the main hold to an evolutionary view of origins and progression, are athiest. One of these men made the statement "We canot allow a devine foot to enter the door way" [or some such statement] For these people intelligence has no place in the launching of the evolutionary ship. They appeal to their two gods of "Accident and chance" The statement "intelligent Design" for them introduces the possability of a "Designer" as the first cause, therefore in the teaching of origins in the area of education, lower or higher, the theory of intellegint design must not be broached!
Because of the science law of cause and effect, I ask this question "What or who caused "Accident and Chance" to be initiated in the first place?
My presentation may not be too well prosed but I think you get the point.
Regatds from old man

By Fred Inglis (not verified) on 15 Apr 2009 #permalink