Skip to main content
Log in

On the Meaning of Chance in Biology

  • Original Paper
  • Published:
Biosemiotics Aims and scope Submit manuscript

Abstract

Chance has somewhat different meanings in different contexts, and can be taken to be either ontological (as in quantum indeterminacy) or epistemological (as in stochastic uncertainty). Here I argue that, whether or not it stems from physical indeterminacy, chance is a fundamental biological reality that is meaningless outside the context of knowledge. To say that something happened by chance means that it did not happen by design. This of course is a cornerstone of Darwin’s theory of evolution: random undirected variation is the creative wellspring upon which natural selection acts to sculpt the functional form (and hence apparent design) of organisms. In his essay Chance & Necessity, Jacques Monod argued that an intellectually honest commitment to objectivity requires that we accord chance a central role in an otherwise mechanistic biology, and suggested that doing so may well place the origin of life outside the realm of scientific tractability. While that may be true, ongoing research on the origin of life problem suggests that a biogenesis may have been possible, and perhaps even probable, under the conditions that existed on primordial earth. Following others, I argue that the world should be viewed as causally open, i.e. primordially indeterminate or vague. Accordingly, chance ought to be the default scientific explanation for origination, a universal ‘null hypothesis’ to be assumed until disproven. In this framework, creation of anything new manifests freedom (allowing for chance), and causation manifests constraint, the developmental emergence of which establishes the space of possibilities that may by chance be realized.

This is a preview of subscription content, log in via an institution to check access.

Access this article

Subscribe and save

Springer+ Basic
EUR 32.99 /Month
  • Get 10 units per month
  • Download Article/Chapter or Ebook
  • 1 Unit = 1 Article or 1 Chapter
  • Cancel anytime
Subscribe now

Buy Now

Price excludes VAT (USA)
Tax calculation will be finalised during checkout.

Instant access to the full article PDF.

Similar content being viewed by others

Notes

  1. See discussion in Auletta and Torcal, this issue.

References

  • Abel, D. L. (2008). The ‘cybernetic cut’: progressing from description to prescription in systems theory. Open Cybernetics and Systemics Journal, 2, 252–262.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Adamala, K., & Szostak, J. W. (2013). Nonenzymatic template-directed RNA synthesis inside model protocells. Science, 342, 1098–1100.

    Article  CAS  PubMed Central  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  • Arthur, W. (2002). The emerging conceptual framework of evolutionary developmental biology. Nature, 415, 757–764.

    Article  CAS  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  • Coffman, J. A. (2006). Developmental ascendency: from bottom-up to top-down control. Biological Theory, 1, 165–178.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Coffman, J. A. (2011a). Information as a manifestation of development. Information, 2, 102–116.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Coffman, J. A. (2011b). On causality in nonlinear complex systems: the developmentalist perspective. In C. Hooker (Ed.), Handbook of the Philosophy of Science: Philosophy of Complex Systems () (Vol. 10, pp. 287–309). New York: Elsevier.

    Google Scholar 

  • Coffman, J. A., & Mikulecky, D. C. (2012). Global Insanity: How Homo sapiens Lost Touch with Reality while Transforming the World. Litchfield Park: Emergent Publications.

    Google Scholar 

  • Copley, S. D., Smith, E., & Morowitz, H. J. (2007). The origin of the RNA world: Co-evolution of genes and metabolism. Bioorganic Chemistry, 35, 430–443.

    Article  CAS  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  • Darwin, C. (1859). On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection. London: Murray.

    Google Scholar 

  • Deacon, T. W. (2006). Reciprocal linkage between self-organizing processes is sufficient for self-reproduction and evolvability. Biological Theory, 1, 136–149.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Deacon, T. W. (2011). Incomplete Nature: How Mind Emerged from Matter. New York: Norton.

    Google Scholar 

  • Elsasser, W. M. (1972). A model of biological indeterminacy. Journal of Theoretical Biology, 36, 627–633.

    Article  CAS  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  • Frank, S. A. (2009). The common patterns of nature. Journal of Theoretical Biology, 22, 1563–1585.

    CAS  Google Scholar 

  • Gatherer, D. (2008). Finite universe of discourse: the systems biology of Walter Elsasser (1904-1991). The Open Biology Journal, 1, 9–20.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Juarrero, A. (1999). Dynamics in Action: Intentional Behavior as a Complex System. Cambridge: MIT Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Louie, A. H. (2010). Robert Rosen’s anticipatory systems. Foresight, 12, 18–29.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Monod, J. (1971). Chance and Necessity: An Essay on the Natural Philosophy of Modern Biology. New York: Vintage.

    Google Scholar 

  • Pattee, H. H. (2001). The physics of symbols: bridging the epistemic cut. Biosystems, 60, 5–21.

    Article  CAS  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  • Popper, K. R. (1990). A World of Propensities. Bristol: Thoemmes.

    Google Scholar 

  • Prigogine, I. (1978). Time, Structure, and Fluctuations. Science, 201, 777–785.

    Article  CAS  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  • Rosen, R. (1985). Anticipatory Systems: Philosophical, Mathematical and Methodological Foundations. Oxford: Pergamon Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Rosen, R. (1991). Life Itself: A Comprehensive Inquiry into the Nature, Origin, and Fabrication of Life. New York: Columbia University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Salthe, S. N. (1993). Development and Evolution: Complexity and Change in Biology. Cambridge: MIT Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Sanchez, A., & Golding, I. (2013). Genetic determinants and cellular constraints in noisy gene expression. Science, 342, 1188–1193.

    Article  CAS  PubMed Central  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  • Smith, E., & Morowitz, H. J. (2004). Universality in intermediary metabolism. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences U S A, 101, 13168–13173.

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  • Ulanowicz, R. E. (1986). Growth and Development: Ecosystems Phenomenology. New York: Springer.

    Book  Google Scholar 

  • Ulanowicz, R. E. (1997). Ecology, the Ascendent Perspective. New York: Columbia University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Ulanowicz, R. E. (2009). A Third Window: Natural Foundations for Life. West Conshohocken: Templeton Press.

    Google Scholar 

Download references

Author information

Authors and Affiliations

Authors

Corresponding author

Correspondence to James A. Coffman.

Rights and permissions

Reprints and permissions

About this article

Check for updates. Verify currency and authenticity via CrossMark

Cite this article

Coffman, J.A. On the Meaning of Chance in Biology. Biosemiotics 7, 377–388 (2014). https://doi.org/10.1007/s12304-014-9206-z

Download citation

  • Received:

  • Accepted:

  • Published:

  • Issue Date:

  • DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/s12304-014-9206-z

Keywords

Navigation