Chance And Luck In Evolution
The question of the difference between chance and luck in evolution came up this morning in class (Tuesday 29/4/14).
My understanding is this (I may be very wrong, so I invite your corrections):
• Chance can be quantified as the probability of some specific event occurring.
• An event that is said to be random divides the probability of realization equally amongst all of the possible outcomes for that event.
• In biology, random mutations in DNA (& perhaps epigenetics) crop up from time to time. The four nucleobases in the DNA (or RNA) may have misrepresented configuration sequence in the duplicate compared with that of the parent DNA. Science tells us there is an absence of intention – the mutation is just a mistake of replication that occasionally occurs (even though there are measures in place to ensure this generally doesn’t happen). This is random chance at play.
• These genetic mutations usually result in cell death, but may up-scale holonically to a physiological change or even behavioural trait that may permit the “owner” of the DNA to survive. Whether the mutation sustains life is not a random event, but it is contingent upon the result of what the new DNA produces (the utility of the corollary protein synthesized).
• When the organism endowed with this mutated DNA is introduced to a competitive environment (nature’s struggle for existence), the new physiology or behavior may confer an advantage for the organism’s survival. The new genes may stay in the gene pool if the ecosystem permits and reproduction occurs. This part is not random – it is contingent upon the system the chance mutation is entering into, but some of these contingencies may themselves be random chance events (like finding a partner suited to progressing the mutation).

The welfare of some organisms (and species) is at stake then, due to the random chance events – the mutated organism itself, it’s potential progeny, and the organisms that its niche has effect upon.

We would not generally say that the DNA was “lucky”, but we would say that the organism was lucky to survive and possibly proliferate.
The difference being that luck is a perspective one takes on a chance event when there is hope that a desired outcome will eventuate. Luck is a derived from adding hope to chance.
We wouldn’t expect an amoeba to feel lucky, but there does exist in the biological world a certain drive to preserve life from within (both germlines and somatic bodies). So we would say that an amoeba and its lineage is lucky to exist in the struggle of life, as it doesn’t wish to die.

Life seems to work against the odds to stay on in the face of adversity.
It seems only humans and the occasional whale ever give up on life…. …. And importantly autolytic cells which suicide for the betterment of the whole at apoptic embryogenesis.

It is apparent through these examples, that germlines “want” their “goal” (the emergent holon’s proliferation) to survive, and organisms “want” to survive themselves, (I have trouble separating these two notions of “want”) but evolution will tell us that this is an illusion in creatures/molecules without will.
Self-concern (and even mind) does however eventually find its way into the story of evolution (somehow) and at this point, luck is undoubtedly introduced. At this level, once chance has thrown the die and a mutation has been offered to the world, the result is either disqualified or luck is introduced. If I am correct in my above assessment, then chance is a key element of evolution, but luck is also an inescapable element because there exists a will to survive. Every recipient of chance has a perspective of self-promotion/self-preservation.
Chance confers luck upon its self- interested recipients.

Luck in evolution for me then highlights the question of whether goal-orientation does actually exist in nature. Is there a drive towards a “desired” outcome to survive that evolution is employed to enact? For me, there seems a desire of “alive stuff” to experience diversity.

It also highlights something else I’ve pondered for some time: Why do mistakes occur? Why is DNA replication subject to mutation and inaccurate copying? The introduction of replication also introduces the existence of this concept of a mistake, because there is a comparison available with what we should expect. Accordingly some might say that my question here is wrong: mistakes are a potential conceptual consequence of the act of replication. But we could equally view it the other way around: mistakes are the driving force of evolution and they need not otherwise exist in a conceivable (albeit boring) “perfect” world. I would proffer that this is a more profitable way of viewing things because the concept of mistake-making is not required by replication.

We also saw in the lecture this morning that a defining characteristic of life may be the ability to self-replicate. Could we infer then that the possibility of mistake is a defining characteristic of life?

Throw into the mix the previous notion of goal orientation, and it seems we are seeing not only blunders in replicating units but desire or “vision” in things that are not generally agreed to be conscious (eg. chemotropic microbes) or even alive (eg. DNA molecules themselves). Consciousness in matter? I digress.

I have argued here that evolution may be considered a game of trial and error: the trial may be thrown up by random chance, but the error seems measured against a want and a will. The want is for the progression of the new mutated germline, curious and determined about expression. The will is for the survival of the self-interested individual organism, which is the vehicle of the mistakes that want to be tested.

Ordered diversity through mistakes in chaos. - It’s an interesting world!

I’d be very interested in the thoughts of others. I hope to stimulate debate and through that tease out and clarify my own thoughts. Please consider contributing here.


"I cannot think that the world, as wee see it, is the result of chance; yet i cannot look at each separate thing as the result of Design"
Charles Darwin,
(November 26, 1980 in a letter to Asa Grey)


Hi Senan,

Awesome - thanks for your thoughts, I had this question in the lecture yesterday and its great to read a response.

I was also thinking about it, and perhaps an obvious distinction could simply be that luck is the outcome of an event involving chance, when the event occurs in your favour. So perhaps luck merely describes the outcome of an event involving chance: it can be an unlucky outcome or a lucky outcome.

So to say that an event is lucky is merely saying that it involved chance and the chance happened in your (or the organisms, or genes, or whatever's) favour.

I'll try do some more thinking and perhaps can add something more later.

Grace :)