Theistic Evolution
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Defining Theistic Evolution

An Introduction to the book Theistic Evolution: A Scientific, Philosophical, and Theological Critique Published in Theistic Evolution

In the book Theistic Evolution, we provide a comprehensive scientific, philosophical, and theological critique of the idea known as theistic evolution. But before we can do that, we will need to define what the proponents of this perspective mean by “theistic evolution” — or “evolutionary creationism,” as it is sometimes now called. Indeed, before we can critique this perspective we will need to know what exactly it asserts. Is it a logically coherent position? Is it a theologically orthodox position? Is it supported by, or consistent with, the relevant scientific evidence? The answer to each of these questions depends crucially on the definition or sense of “evolution” in play. “Theistic evolution” can mean different things to different people largely because the term “evolution” itself has several distinct meanings.

This introductory essay will describe different concepts of theistic evolution, each of which corresponds to a different definition of the term evolution. It will also provide an initial critical evaluation (and conceptual framework for understanding) those conceptions of theistic evolution that the authors of this volume find objectionable. The frameworks in this essay will help readers understand the more detailed critiques of specific versions of theistic evolution that will follow in subsequent essays, and it will help readers to understand how the different critical essays to follow mutually reinforce and complement each other. Both here and in the essays that follow, we will focus most (but not all) of our critical concern on one particular formulation of the concept of theistic evolution—in particular, the one that affirms the most scientifically controversial, and also most religiously charged, meaning of evolution.

Since the term evolution has several distinct meanings, it will first be necessary to describe the meanings that are commonly associated with the term in order to evaluate the different possible concepts of theistic evolution that proponents of the idea may have in mind. It will be shown that three distinct meanings of the term evolution are especially relevant for understanding three different possible concepts of theistic evolution. Yale biologist Keith Stewart Thomson, for example, has noted that in contemporary biology the term evolution can refer to: (1) change over time, (2) universal common ancestry, and (3) the natural mechanisms that produce change in organisms.[1] Following Thomson, this introduction will describe and distinguish these three distinct meanings of “evolution” in order to foster clarity in the analysis and assessment of three distinct concepts of “theistic evolution.”

Evolution #1: “Change over Time”

Evolution in its most rudimentary sense simply affirms the idea of “change over time.” Many natural scientists use “evolution” in this first sense as they seek to reconstruct a series of past events to tell the story of nature’s history.[2] Astronomers study the life cycles of stars and the “evolution” (change over time) of the universe or specific galaxies; geologists describe changes (“evolution”) in the earth’s surface; biologists note ecological changes within recorded human history, which, for example, may have transformed a barren island into a mature forested island community. These examples, however, have little or nothing to do with the modern “neo-Darwinian” theory of evolution.

In evolutionary biology, evolution defined as change over time can also refer specifically to the idea that the life forms we see today are different from the life forms that existed in the distant past. The fossil record provides strong support for this idea. Paleontologists observe changes in the types of life that have existed over time as represented by different fossilized forms in the sedimentary rock record (a phenomenon known as “fossil succession”). Many of the plants and animals that are fossilized in recent rock layers are different from the plants and animals fossilized in older rocks. The composition of flora and fauna on the surface of the earth today is likewise different from the forms of life that lived long ago, as attested by the fossil record.

Evolution defined as “change over time” can also refer to observed minor changes in features of individual species—small-scale changes that take place over a relatively short period of time. Most biologists think this kind of evolution (sometimes called “microevolution”) results from a change in the proportion of different variants of a gene (called alleles) within a population over time. Thus, population geneticists will study changes in the frequencies of alleles in gene pools. A large number of precise observations have established the occurrence of this type of evolution. Studies of melanism in peppered moths, though currently contested,[3] are among the most celebrated examples of microevolution. The observed changes in the size and shape of Galápagos finch beaks in response to changing climate patterns provide another good example of small-scale change over time within a species.

Evolution #2: “Common Descent” or “Universal Common Descent”

Many biologists today also commonly use the term evolution to refer to the idea that all organisms are related by common ancestry. This idea is also known as the theory of universal common descent. This theory affirms that all known living organisms are descended from a single common ancestor somewhere in the distant past. In On the Origin of Species, Charles Darwin made a case for the truth of evolution in this second sense. In a famous passage at the end of the Origin, he argued that “probably all the organic beings which have ever lived on this earth have descended from some one primordial form.”[4] Darwin thought that this primordial form gradually developed into new forms of life, which in turn gradually developed into other forms of life, eventually producing, after many millions of generations, all the complex life we see in the present.

Biology textbooks today often depict this idea just as Darwin did, with a great branching tree. The bottom of the trunk of Darwin’s tree of life represents the first primordial organism. The limbs and branches of the tree represent the many new forms of life that developed from it. The vertical axis on which the tree is plotted represents the arrow of time. The horizontal axis represents changes in biological form, or what biologists call “morphological distance.”

Darwin’s theory of biological history is often referred to as a “monophyletic” view of the history of life because it portrays all organisms as ultimately related as a single connected family. Darwin argued that this idea best explained a variety of lines of biological evidence: the succession of fossil forms, the geographical distribution of various species (such as the plants and animals of the Galápagos Islands), and the anatomical and embryological similarities among otherwise different types of organisms.

Evolution in this second sense not only specifies that all life shares a common ancestry, it also implies that virtually no limits exist to the amount of morphological change that can occur in organisms. It assumes that relatively simple organisms can, given adequate time, change into much more complex organisms. Thus, evolution in this second sense entails not only change but also gradual, continuous—and even unbounded—biological change.

Evolution #3: “The Creative Power of the Natural Selection/Random Variation (or Mutation) Mechanism”

The term evolution is also commonly used to refer to the cause, or mechanism, that produces the biological change depicted by Darwin’s tree of life. When evolution is used in this way, it usually refers to the mechanism of natural selection acting on random variations or mutations. (Modern “neo-Darwinists” propose that natural selection acts on a special kind of variation called genetic mutations. Mutations are random changes in the chemical subunits that convey information in DNA. Modern neo-Darwinists would also affirm the role of other apparently undirected evolutionary mechanisms such as genetic drift, although such mechanisms are typically thought to be of minor importance in comparison with mutation/selection in generating the adaptive complexity of life.)

This third use of evolution entails the idea that the natural selection/mutation mechanism has the creative power to produce fundamental innovations in the history of life. Whereas the theory of universal common descent postulated a pattern (the branching tree) to represent the history of life, the mechanism of natural selection and random variation/mutation represents a causal process that can allegedly generate the large-scale macroevolutionary change implied by the second meaning of evolution (see above). Since proponents of the creative power of the mutation/natural selection mechanism see it (and other similarly materialistic evolutionary mechanisms) as explaining the origin of all the forms and features of life, this definition of evolution is closely associated with, or encompasses, another definition of evolution.

Evolution #3a: The Natural Selection/Random Variation (or Mutation) Mechanism Can Explain the Appearance of Design in Living Systems apart from the Activity of an Actual Designing Intelligence.

Evolutionary biologists since Darwin have affirmed that the natural selection/variation mechanism not only explains the origin of all new biological forms and features; they have also affirmed a closely related idea, namely, that this mechanism can explain one particularly striking feature of biological systems: the appearance of design. Biologists have long recognized that many organized structures in living organisms—the elegant form and protective covering of the coiled nautilus; the interdependent parts of the vertebrate eye; the interlocking bones, muscles, and feathers of a bird wing—“give the appearance of having been designed for a purpose.”[5] During the nineteenth century, before Darwin, biologists were particularly struck by the way in which living organisms seemed well adapted to their environments. They attributed this adaptation of organisms to their environments to the planning and ingenuity of a powerful designing intelligence.

Yet Darwin (and modern neo-Darwinists) have argued that the appearance of design in living organisms could be more simply explained as the product of a purely undirected mechanism, in particular the variation/natural selection mechanism. Darwin attempted to show that the natural selection mechanism could account for the appearance of design by drawing an analogy to the well-known process of “artificial selection” or “selective breeding.” Anyone in the nineteenth century familiar with the breeding of domestic animals—dogs, horses, sheep, or pigeons, for example—knew that human breeders could alter the features of domestic stock by allowing only animals with certain traits to breed. A Scottish sheepherder might breed for a woollier sheep to enhance its chances of survival in a cold northern climate (or to harvest more wool). To do so, he would choose only the woolliest males and woolliest ewes to breed. If, generation after generation, he continued to select and breed only the woolliest sheep among the resulting offspring, he would eventually produce a woollier breed of sheep—a breed better adapted to its environment. In such cases, “the key is man’s power of accumulative selection,” wrote Darwin. “Nature gives successive variations; man adds them up in certain directions useful to him.”[6]

But, as Darwin pointed out, nature also has a means of sifting: defective creatures are less likely to survive and reproduce, while those offspring with beneficial variations are more likely to survive, reproduce, and pass on their advantages to future generations. In the Origin, Darwin argued that this process—natural selection acting on random variations—could alter the features of organisms just as intelligent selection by human breeders can. Nature itself could play the role of the breeder and, thus, eliminate the need for an actual designing intelligence to produce the complex adaptations that living organisms manifest.

Consider once more our flock of sheep. Imagine that instead of a human selecting the woolliest males and ewes to breed, a series of very cold winters ensures that all but the woolliest sheep in a population die off. Now, again, only very woolly sheep will remain to breed. If the cold winters continue over several generations, will the result not be the same as before? Won’t the population of sheep eventually become discernibly woollier?

This was Darwin’s great insight. Nature — in the form of environmental changes or other factors — could have the same effect on a population of organisms as the intentional decisions of an intelligent agent. Nature would favor the preservation of certain features over others — those that conferred a functional or survival advantage upon the organisms possessing them — causing the features of the population to change. The resulting change or increase in fitness (adaptation) will have been produced not by an intelligent breeder choosing a desirable trait or variation — not by “artificial selection” — but by a wholly natural process. As Darwin himself insisted, “There seems to be no more design in the variability of organic beings and in the action of natural selection, than in the course in which the wind blows.”[7]

Or as the eminent evolutionary biologist Francisco Ayala has argued, Darwin accounted for “design without a designer,” since “It was Darwin’s greatest accomplishment to show that the directive organization of living beings can be explained as the result of a natural process, natural selection, without any need to resort to a Creator or other external agent.”[8]

Indeed, since 1859 most evolutionary biologists have understood the appearance of design in living things as an illusion—a powerfully suggestive one, but an illusion nonetheless. For this reason, as briefly noted above, Richard Dawkins insists in The Blind Watchmaker that “biology is the study of complicated things that give the appearance of having been designed for a purpose.”[9] Or as Ernst Mayr explained, “The real core of Darwinism … is the theory of natural selection. This theory is so important for the Darwinian because it permits the explanation of adaptation, the ‘design’ of the natural theologian, by natural means, instead of by divine intervention.”[10] Or as Francis Crick mused, biologists must “constantly keep in mind that what they see was not designed, but rather evolved.”[11] Likewise George Gaylord Simpson, one of the architects of neo-Darwinism, in The Meaning of Evolution, wrote that neo-Darwinism implies that “man is the result of a purposeless and natural process that did not have him in mind.”[12]

But if apparent design is an illusion — if it is just an appearance — as both Darwinists and modern neo-Darwinists have argued, then it follows that whatever mechanism produced that appearance must be wholly unguided and undirected. For this reason, the third meaning of evolution — the definition that affirms the creative power of the natural selection/random mutation mechanism and denies evidence of actual design in living systems—raises a significant issue for any proponent of theistic evolution who affirms this meaning of evolution.

Assessing Different Concepts of Theistic Evolution (or Evolutionary Creation)

The three different meanings of evolution discussed above correspond to three possible and distinct concepts of theistic evolution, one of which is trivial, one of which is contestable but not incoherent, and one of which appears deeply problematic. In the last case, special attention is due to the important issue of whether theistic evolutionists regard the evolutionary process as guided or unguided.

If by “evolution” the theistic evolutionist means to affirm evolution in the first sense — change over time — and if, further, the theistic evolutionist affirms that God has caused that “change over time,” then certainly no theist would contest the theological orthodoxy or logical coherence of such a statement. If a personal God of the kind affirmed by biblical Judaism or Christianity exists, then there is nothing logically contradictory in such a statement, nor does it contradict any specific theological tenets. The Jewish and Christian scriptures clearly affirm that God has caused change over time, not only in human history but also in the process of creating the world and different forms of life.

Given the extensive scientific evidence showing that the representation of life forms on Earth has changed over time, there does not seem to be any significant theological or scientific basis for questioning evolution, or theistic evolution, where evolution is defined in this minimal sense. Similarly, since God could create different organisms with a built-in capacity to change or “evolve” within limits without denying his design of different living systems as distinct forms of life, and since there is extensive scientific evidence for change of this kind occurring, there does not seem to be any significant scientific or theological basis for questioning evolution in this sense. Understanding theistic evolution this way seems unobjectionable, perhaps even trivial.

Another conception of theistic evolution affirms the second meaning of evolution. It affirms the view that God has caused continuous and gradual biological change such that the history of life is best represented by a great branching tree pattern as Darwin argued. Theistic evolution thus conceived is, again, not obviously logically incoherent since God as conceived by theists, including biblical theists, is certainly capable of producing continuous and gradual change.

Nevertheless, some biblical theists question universal common descent based on their interpretation of the biblical teaching in Genesis about God creating distinct “kinds” of plants and animals, each of which “reproduce after their own kind.” Those who think a natural reading of the Genesis account suggests that different kinds of plants and animals reproduce only after their own kind, and do not vary beyond some fixed limit in their morphology, question the theory of universal common descent on biblical grounds. Some biblical theists likewise question that humans and lower animals share a common ancestry, believing instead that the biblical account affirms that humans arose from a special creative act, thus excluding the idea that humans originated from nonhuman ancestors.

In addition to these theological objections, there is a growing body of scientific evidence challenging such a “monophyletic” picture of the history of life. These scientific challenges to the theory of universal common descent are reviewed in the biology textbook Explore Evolution: The Arguments for and against Neo-Darwinism[13] and discussed in various scientific articles.[14] On the specific question of human origins, and scientific challenges to the idea that humans and chimps (for example) share a common ancestor, see the book Science and Human Origins.[15]

An even more foundational issue arises when considering the cause of biological change and the question of whether theistic evolutionists conceive of evolutionary mechanisms as directed or undirected processes.

Some proponents of theistic evolution openly affirm that the evolutionary process is an unguided, undirected process. Kenneth Miller, a leading theistic evolutionist and author of Finding Darwin’s God has repeatedly stated in editions of his popular textbook that “evolution works without either plan or purpose. … Evolution is random and undirected.”[16]

Nevertheless, most theistic evolutionists, including geneticist Francis Collins, perhaps the world’s best-known proponent of the position, have been reluctant to clarify what they think about this important issue. In his book The Language of God, Collins makes clear his support for universal common descent. He also seems to assume the adequacy of standard evolutionary mechanisms but does not clearly say whether he thinks those mechanisms are directed or undirected—only that they “could be” directed.

In any case, where theistic evolution is understood to affirm the third meaning of evolution—the creative power and adequacy of the neo-Darwinian mechanism and its consequent denial of actual design—the concept becomes deeply problematic. Indeed, depending on how this particular understanding of theistic evolution is articulated, it generates either (1) logical contradictions, (2) a theologically heterodox view of divine action, or (3) a convoluted and scientifically vacuous explanation. In addition to this dilemma (or rather “tri-lemma”), a huge body of scientific evidence now challenges the creative power of the mutation/selection mechanism, especially with respect to some of the most striking appearances of design in biological systems. Let’s examine each of these difficulties in more detail.

A Logically Contradictory View

In the first place, some formulations of theistic evolution that affirm the third meaning of evolution result in logical contradictions. For example, if the theistic evolutionist means to affirm the standard neo-Darwinian view of the natural selection/mutation mechanism as an undirected process while simultaneously affirming that God is still causally responsible for the origin of new forms of life, then the theistic evolutionist implies that God somehow guided or directed an unguided and undirected process. Logically, no intelligent being—not even God—can direct an undirected process. As soon as he directs it, the “undirected” process would no longer be undirected.

On the other hand, a proponent of theistic evolution may conceive of the natural selection/mutation mechanism as a directed process (with God perhaps directing specific mutations). This view represents a decidedly non-Darwinian conception of the evolutionary mechanism. It also constitutes a version of the theory of intelligent design—one that affirms that God intelligently designed organisms by actively directing mutations (or other processes) toward functional endpoints during the history of life. Yet, if living organisms are the result of a directed process, then it follows that the appearance of design in living organisms is real, not merely apparent or illusory. Nevertheless, chief proponents of theistic evolution reject the theory of intelligent design with its claim that the appearance of design in living organisms is real. Thus, any proponent of theistic evolution who affirms that God is directing the evolutionary mechanism, and who also rejects intelligent design, implicitly contradicts himself. (Of course, there is no contradiction in affirming both a God-guided mechanism of evolution and intelligent design, though few theistic evolutionists have publicly taken this view—see Ratzsch, Nature, Design, and Science for a notable exception.[17])

Theologically Problematic Views

Other formulations of theistic evolution explicitly deny that God is directing or guiding the mutation/selection mechanism, and instead see a much more limited divine role in the process of life’s creation. One formulation affirms that God designed the laws of nature at the beginning of the universe to make the origin and development of life possible (or inevitable). This view is scientifically problematic, however, since it can be demonstrated that the information necessary to build even a single functional gene (or section of DNA) cannot have been contained in the elementary particles and energy present at the beginning of the universe.[18] Another formulation holds that God created the laws of nature at the beginning of the universe and also affirms that he constantly upholds those laws on a moment-by-moment basis. Nevertheless, both of these understandings of theistic evolution deny that God in any way actively directed the mutation/selection (or other evolutionary) mechanisms. Both formulations conceive of God’s role in the creation of life (as opposed to the maintenance of physical law) as mainly passive rather than active or directive. In both views, the mechanisms of natural selection and random mutation (and/or other similarly undirected evolutionary mechanisms) are seen as the main causal actor(s) in producing new forms of life. Thus, God does not act directly or “intervene” within the orderly concourse of nature.

Yet, this view is theologically problematic, at least for orthodox Jews and Christians who derive their understanding of divine action from the biblical text. This is easy to see in the first of these two formulations, where God’s activity is confined to an act of creation or design at the very beginning of the universe. Such a front-end loaded view of design is, of course, a logically possible view, but it is indistinguishable from deism. It, therefore, contradicts the plainly theistic view of divine action articulated in the Bible, where God acts in his creation after the beginning of the universe. Indeed, the Bible describes God as not only acting to create the universe in the beginning; it also describes him as presently upholding the universe in its orderly concourse and also describes him as acting discretely as an agent within the natural order. (See, for example, Gen. 1:27, “God created [bara] man”; Ex. 10:13 (NLT), “and the Lord caused an east wind to blow.”)

The version of theistic evolution that affirms that God created and upholds the laws of nature, but does not actively direct the creation of life, is also theologically problematic—at least for those who profess a biblical understanding of God’s nature and powers. If God is not at least directing the evolutionary process, then the origin of biological systems must be attributed, in some part, to nature acting independently of God’s direction. This entails a diminished view of God’s involvement in creation and divine sovereignty at odds with most traditional readings of the Bible (whether Jewish or Christian).[19] Indeed, if God did not at least direct the process of mutation and selection (and/or other relevant evolutionary mechanisms), but instead merely sustained the laws of nature that made them possible, then it follows that he did not know, and does not know, what those mechanisms would (or will) produce, including whether they would have produced human beings. Accordingly, many theistic evolutionists who embrace this view have insisted that the evolutionary process might just as well have produced “a big-brained dinosaur” as opposed to a big-brained bipedal hominid — i.e., human beings.[20] Since God does not direct or control the evolutionary process, he cannot know what it will produce—a conclusion at odds with God’s omniscience and providence. Similarly, since God does not direct the evolutionary process, what it produces cannot be said to express his specific intentions in creation—a conclusion that also stands at odds with the biblical claim that God made man expressly in his own image and “foreknew” him.

A Convoluted (and Scientifically Vacuous) Explanation

Perhaps because evangelical Christian advocates of theistic evolution have not wanted to embrace either the logical, or the theological, problems associated with affirming the third meaning of evolution, they have typically declined to specify whether they think the natural selection/random mutation mechanism is a directed or an undirected process. Instead, many affirm a scientifically convoluted and vacuous formulation of theistic evolution — at least insofar as it stands as an explanation for the appearance of design in living organisms.

Recall that from Darwin to the present, leading evolutionary biologists have acknowledged the appearance of design in living organisms and have sought to explain its origin. Darwinists and neo-Darwinists have sought to explain this appearance of design as the result of an undirected and unguided mechanism (natural selection acting on random variations or mutations) that can mimic the powers of a designing intelligence. Theistic evolutionists who affirm the creative power of this (and, perhaps, other related) evolutionary mechanism(s) have been loath to argue that God actively directed the evolutionary process in any discernible way. That, of course, would constitute a form of intelligent design, and most theistic evolutionists reject this idea outright.

Francis Collins, for example, has explicitly rejected the theory of intelligent design. Yet, the theory of intelligent design does not necessarily reject evolution in either of the first two senses above, but instead argues that key appearances of design in living organisms are real, not illusory. In rejecting the theory of intelligent design, Collins would, therefore, seem to be affirming the contrary, namely, that the appearance of design is not real but just an appearance.

He thus seems to commit himself to the position that the process that produced the appearance of design in living organisms is undirected. That would follow because, again, if it were otherwise — if the process were directed or guided — then the appearance of design in living organisms would be real and not just apparent.

Yet, in The Language of God, Collins does not specify whether the evolutionary process is directed or not, only that it “could be” directed. As he explains, “evolution could appear to us to be driven by chance, but from God’s perspective the outcome would be entirely specified. Thus, God could be completely and intimately involved in the creation of all species, while from our perspective … this would appear a random and undirected process” (emphasis added).[21]

That God could have acted in such a concealed way is, of course, a logical possibility, but positing such a view, nevertheless, entails difficulties that proponents of theistic evolution rarely address.

First, this version of theistic evolution suggests a logically convoluted explanation for the appearance of design in living systems. Like classical Darwinism and neo-Darwinism, this version of theistic evolution denies that anything about living systems indicates that an actual designing intelligence played a role in their origin. Why? Theistic evolutionists, like mainstream neo-Darwinists, affirm the third meaning of evolution—i.e., the sufficiency of the natural selection/mutation mechanism (possibly in conjunction with other similarly naturalistic evolutionary mechanisms) as an explanation for the origin of new forms and features of life. Since natural selection and random mutations can account for the origin of biological systems (and their appearances of design), theistic evolutionists steadfastly deny the need to propose an actual designing intelligence.

Yet, having affirmed what classical Darwinists and neo-Darwinists affirm — namely, the sufficiency of standard evolutionary mechanisms — they then suggest that such mechanisms may only appear undirected and unguided. Francis Collins suggests that “from our perspective” mutation and selection “would appear a random and undirected process.” Thus, his formulation implies that the appearance or illusion of design in living systems results from the activity of an apparently undirected material process (i.e., classical and neo- Darwinism) except that this apparently undirected process is itself being used by a designing intelligence—or at least it could be, though no one can tell for sure. Or, to put it another way, we have moved from Richard Dawkins’s famous statement that “biology is the study of complicated things that give the appearance of having been designed for a purpose”[22] to the proposition that “biology is the study of complicated things that give the appearance of having been designed for a purpose, though that appearance of design is an illusion (classical Darwinism), even though there may be an intelligent designer behind it all—in which case that appearance wouldn’t be an illusion after all.”

This tangled — indeed, convoluted — view of the origin of living systems adds nothing to our scientific understanding of what caused living organisms to arise. As such, it also represents an entirely vacuous explanation. Indeed, it has no empirical or scientific content beyond that offered by strictly materialistic evolutionary theories. It tells us nothing about God’s role in the evolutionary process or even whether or not he had a role at all. It, thus, renders the modifier “theistic” in the term “theistic evolution” superfluous. It does not represent an alternative theory of biological origins, but a reaffirmation of some materialistic version of evolutionary theory restated using theological terminology.

Of course, theistic evolutionists who hold this view do not typically spell out its implications so as to reveal the convoluted nature of the explanation for the appearance of design that their view entails. Instead, they typically avoid discussing, or offering explanations for, the appearance of design in living systems altogether — though this appearance is so striking that even secular evolutionary biologists have long and consistently acknowledged it.[23]

Theistic evolutionists such as Collins also deny what advocates of intelligent design affirm, namely, that the past activity of a designing intelligence, including God’s intelligence, is detectable or discernible in living systems. Yet, denying the detectability of design in nature generates another theological difficulty. In particular, this view seems to contradict what the biblical record affirms about the natural world (or “the things that are made”) revealing the reality of God and his “invisible qualities” such as his power, glory, divine nature and wisdom. As John West has explained,

[Francis Collins’ version of theistic evolution] still seriously conflicts with the Biblical understanding of God and His general revelation. Both the Old and New Testaments clearly teach that human beings can recognize God’s handiwork in nature through their own observations rather than special divine revelation. From the psalmist who proclaimed that the “heavens declare the glory of God” (Psalm 19) to the Apostle Paul who argued in Rom. 1:20 that “since the creation of the world His invisible attributes are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made,” the idea that we can see design in nature was clearly taught. Jesus himself pointed to the feeding of birds, the rain and the sun, and the exquisite design of the lilies of the field as observable evidence of God’s active care towards the world and its inhabitants (Matt. 5:44-45, 48; 6:26-30). . . . to head off a direct collision between undirected Darwinism and the doctrine of God’s sovereignty, Collins seems to depict God as a cosmic trickster who misleads people into thinking that the process by which they were produced was blind and purposeless, even when it wasn’t.[24]

This Book: A Critique of Two Key Meanings of Theistic Evolution

In the chapters of Theistic Evolution, we will provide a much more extensive critique of theistic evolution in three distinct sections of this book. Our three sections will not correspond to the three different meanings of the term evolution, but rather to three distinct disciplinary sets of concerns: scientific, philosophical, and theological. In each section of the book, however, our authors will carefully define the specific formulation of theistic evolution they are critiquing.

In the first section we provide a scientific critique of theistic evolution. But neither in this section, nor in any other, do we critique theistic evolution where evolution is defined as meaning merely “change over time.” Instead, our scientific critique will focus first on the version of theistic evolution that affirms the sufficiency (or creative power) of the mechanism of mutation and natural selection as an explanation for the origin of new forms of life (and the appearances of design that they manifest). The first group of essays (chapters 1–9) will show that the versions of theistic evolution that affirm the creative power of the natural selection/random mutation mechanism (as well as other purely materialistic evolutionary mechanisms) are now contradicted by a wealth of scientific evidence from an array of biological subdisciplines, including molecular biology, protein science, paleontology, and developmental biology.

We start our scientific critique of theistic evolution discussing the alleged creative power of the main mechanisms of evolutionary change because theistic evolutionists want to argue that God has worked undetectably through these various evolutionary mechanisms and processes to produce all the forms of life on our planet today. They equate and identify evolutionary processes such as natural selection and random mutation with the creative work of God. Yet, we will argue in the opening section of this book, chapters 1–9, that the main mechanisms postulated in both biological and chemical evolutionary theory lack the creative power necessary to produce genuine biological innovation and morphological novelty.

In chapter 1, Douglas Axe argues that people do not need specialized scientific training to recognize the implausibility of Darwinian (or other materialistic) explanations for the origin of living forms—though he also argues that rigorous scientific analysis reinforces our intuitive conviction that the integrated complexity of living systems could not have arisen by accidental or undirected processes. Consequently, he suggests that people of faith who yield core convictions about the intelligent design of life—out of deference to the supposed scientific authority of spokesmen for Darwinism—do so unnecessarily and with a substantial apologetic cost to their faith.

In chapter 2, I (Stephen Meyer) follow up on Axe’s argument by showing that a rigorous scientific and mathematical analysis of the neo-Darwinian process does, indeed, reinforce the pervasive intuition to which Axe appeals. I show, based in part on some of Axe’s own experimental work, that the random mutation and natural selection mechanism lacks the creative power to generate the new genetic information necessary to produce new proteins and forms of life.

Matti Leisola extends our critique of the sufficiency of the neo-Darwinian mechanism in chapter 3. He shows, citing some of his own experimental work on DNA and proteins, that random mutational processes produce only extremely limited changes, even with the help of natural selection.

In chapter 4, we briefly shift our focus from biological evolution to chemical evolution, the branch of evolutionary theory that attempts to explain the origin of the first life from simpler nonliving chemicals. In this chapter, organic chemist James Tour shows that undirected chemical evolutionary processes and mechanisms have not demonstrated the creative power to generate the first living cell from simpler molecules. Basing his argument on his extensive knowledge of what it takes to synthesize organic compounds, Tour shows why known chemical processes do not provide plausible mechanisms for the synthesis of the complex bio-macromolecules and molecular machines necessary for life. We should make clear, in introducing his chapter, that Tour does not regard himself as a partisan to the debate over theistic evolution, one way or another. He has, nevertheless, kindly given us permission to publish an abridged version of a previously published essay in order to make more widely known the scientific problems associated with chemical evolutionary theory—in particular, its lack of any demonstrated mechanism for generating the molecular machinery necessary to the first life.

In chapter 5, Winston Ewert shows that attempts to solve the problem of the origin of biological information by simulating the evolutionary process in a computer environment have also failed. Instead, he shows that, to the extent that well-known evolutionary algorithms (computer programs) simulate the production of new genetic information, they do so as a consequence of information already provided to the program by the intelligent programmer who wrote the code—thus simulating, if anything, the need for intelligent design, not the sufficiency of an undirected evolutionary processes.

In chapter 6, I critique the idea that God carefully arranged matter at the beginning of the universe so as to ensure that life would inevitably evolve without any additional intelligent input or activity. In this chapter, I show why this version of theistic evolution, though attractive as a potential synthesis of the ideas of creation and evolution, fails for demonstrable scientific reasons to account for the origin of the information in the DNA molecule—and, thus, the information needed to build new forms of life.

Next, in chapter 7, Jonathan Wells shows that, in addition to new genetic information, building new organisms requires information not stored in DNA—what is called “epigenetic” (or “ontogenetic”) information. He argues that this fact alone demonstrates the inadequacy of the neo-Darwinian mechanism. Whereas neo-Darwinism asserts that all the new information necessary to build new forms of life arises as the result of random mutational changes in DNA, developmental biology has shown instead that building new forms of life also depends on information not stored in the DNA molecule. For this reason, the “gene-centric” mutation and natural selection mechanism simply cannot explain the origin of anatomical novelty.

In chapter 8, I team up with Ann Gauger and Paul Nelson to show that many mainstream evolutionary biologists have now rejected orthodox neo-Darwinian evolutionary theory precisely because they recognize that the mutation/natural selection mechanism lacks the creative power to generate novel biological form. In support of this claim, we describe some of the new theories of evolution (and evolutionary mechanisms) that mainstream evolutionary biologists are now proposing as alternatives to textbook neo-Darwinism. Yet we also show that none of these new evolutionary theories have mechanisms with the power to produce either the genetic or the epigenetic information necessary to generate novel forms of life.

In chapter 9, Sheena Tyler describes the exquisite orchestration necessary for the development of animals from embryo to adult form. She argues that nothing about these carefully choreographed processes suggests that they might have originated as the result of random mutational tinkering or other undirected processes. Instead, she argues that they exhibit hallmarks of design.

For advocates of theistic evolution (where evolution is understood to affirm the third meaning of evolution), the growing scientific skepticism about the adequacy of the neo-Darwinian and other evolutionary mechanisms presents an acute problem, quite apart from the logical and theological considerations outlined above. If many evolutionary biologists themselves no longer agree that the mutation/selection mechanism has the creative power to explain novel biological forms, and if no alternative evolutionary mechanism has yet demonstrated that power either, then the claim that apparently unguided evolutionary processes are God’s way of creating new forms of life is, increasingly, a relic of an obsolete scientific viewpoint. But that raises a question: if the evidence doesn’t support the creative power of evolutionary mechanisms, why claim that these mechanisms represent the means by which God created? Why attempt to synthesize mainstream evolutionary theory with a theistic understanding of creation?

After critiquing versions of theistic evolution that affirm the sufficiency of various naturalistic evolutionary mechanisms, the second part of the science section of the book (chapters 10–17) critiques versions of theistic evolution that assume the truth of universal common descent, the second meaning of evolution discussed above. These chapters also take a critical look at the claims of evolutionary anthropologists who assert that human beings and chimpanzees have evolved from a common ancestor.

In chapter 10, paleontologist Günter Bechley and I examine the logical structure of argument for universal common descent, with a particular focus on what the fossil record can tell us about whether all forms of life do, or do not, share a common ancestor. Though theistic evolutionists often portray this part of evolutionary theory as a fact, even as they may acknowledge doubts about the creative power of the neo-Darwinian mechanism, we have become skeptical about universal common descent. In this chapter we explain why, and use the fossil evidence to illustrate how a scientifically informed person might reasonably come to doubt the arguments for universal common ancestry.

Then in chapter 11, Casey Luskin shows that a wealth of evidence from several different subdisciplines of biology, not just paleontology, now challenges this universal common descent and the “monophyletic” picture of the history of life it presents.

In chapter 12, Paul Nelson argues that the theory of universal common descent rests less upon supporting evidence than upon a number of questionable scientific and philosophical assumptions. He argues that the theory of universal common descent has been insulated from critical testing largely because these questionable assumptions have rarely been questioned.

In this same section of the book, we also offer several chapters challenging the idea that chimpanzees and humans, in particular, share a common ancestor. Chapter 13, by Ann Gauger, explains what is at stake in the debate about human origins. Chapter 14, by Casey Luskin, shows that the fossil record does not support the evolutionary story about the origin of human beings. Chapter 15, by Ann Gauger, Ola Hössjer, and Colin Reeves, shows that the genetic uniqueness of human beings contradicts that story as well. Chapter 16, also by Gauger, Hössjer, and Reeves, challenges theistic evolutionists who claim that evolutionary theory and its subdiscipline of population genetics have rendered untenable any belief in an original male and female pair as the parents of the entire human race.

Finally, in chapter 17 Christopher Shaw, the science section editor of this volume, concludes this section of the book with an interesting article on the role of bias in science that helps shed light on why so many scientists have found neo-Darwinian evolutionary theory persuasive despite its evident empirical difficulties.

Our critique of theistic evolution, does not stop with scientific concerns, however. In the second section of the book, we address philosophical problems with the versions of theistic evolution critiqued in our science section. Given the known scientific inadequacy of the neo-Darwinian mutation/natural selection mechanism, and the absence of any alternative evolutionary mechanism with sufficient creative power to explain the origin of major innovations in biological form and information, we argue that theistic evolution devolves into little more than an a priori commitment to methodological naturalism—the idea that scientists must limit themselves to strictly materialistic explanations and that scientists may not offer explanations making reference to intelligent design or divine action, or make any reference to theology in scientific discourse.

In chapter 18, J. P. Moreland notes that, for good or ill, philosophical assumptions necessarily influence the practice of science. He argues that science and scientists, therefore, need philosophy, but also need to be more self-critical about the philosophical assumptions that they accept, lest they adopt assumptions that impede scientists in their search for the truth about the natural world.

In chapter 19, Paul Nelson and I critique the principle of methodological naturalism and also critique how theistic evolutionists invoke this methodological convention to justify their commitment to contemporary evolutionary theory despite its evident empirical shortcomings. Methodological naturalism asserts that, to qualify as scientific, a theory must explain all phenomena by reference to purely physical or material—that is, non-intelligent or purposive—causes or processes. We show that, though many scientists adhere to this rule, attempts to justify methodological naturalism as a rule for how science should function have failed within the philosophy of science. In this chapter we also critique the way theistic evolutionists invoke the God-of-the-gaps objection to reject all nonmaterialistic explanations for the origin of new forms or features of life as illegitimate—that is, we critique the use of this objection as a way of justifying methodological naturalism. We show how this objection begs the question by assuming that alleged gaps in materialistic accounts of the origins of life and the universe must be filled by materialistic causes whatever the evidence, which is just the principle of methodological naturalism in other words. Most importantly, we show how methodological naturalism impedes the truth-seeking function of scientific investigations of biological origins, and should, for that reason alone, be jettisoned.

In chapter 20, Stephen Dilley argues that a logically consistent theistic evolutionist should reject methodological naturalism. Dilley notes that methodological naturalism prohibits the use of theology-laden claims and that it denies that non-naturalistic theories (such as intelligent design or creationism) are “scientific.” Yet, he argues, key scientific arguments for evolutionary theory—from the Origin to the present—either rely on theology-laden claims or attempt to provide evidence-based refutations of non-naturalistic theories—thereby, inadvertently implying that such theories do make scientific claims.

In chapter 21, J. P. Moreland argues that adopting theistic evolution undermines the rational plausibility of Christianity. By assuming that only scientific methods and evidence produce knowledge, and that theological and biblical teaching do not, theistic evolutionists propagate a form of scientism that forces theists to constantly revise biblical truth claims in light of the latest scientific findings or theories—however unsubstantiated, provisional, or speculative they may be. In so doing, theistic evolutionists undermine Christian confidence in the teachings of Scripture and contribute to disdain or contempt for Christian truth claims among nonbelievers.

In chapter 22, Jack Collins lays out the biblical understanding of how God works in the natural world, explaining the Bible’s implicit and explicit theology of nature (its “metaphysic”). He also explains how the biblical writers, and biblically based theologians, conceive of such terms or concepts as “nature,” “miracle,” “science,” and “design.” He argues that a careful consideration of a biblical view of divine action (and interaction with nature) establishes criteria for discerning miraculous events without downplaying God’s role in all natural events, and without committing the God-of-the-gaps fallacy. He shows that, whereas the theory of intelligent design is fully compatible with this biblical view of how God interacts with nature, theistic evolution is not.

In chapter 23, Garrett DeWeese points out that moral evil, caused by free moral agents, and natural evil, caused by impersonal forces in the environment, are both used as evidence against the existence of God. He argues that adopting theistic evolution makes answering these objections to Christian belief immeasurably more difficult. It does so, he explains, in the case of natural evil because theistic evolution cannot distinguish between God’s original (good) acts of creation and the ongoing or current natural processes. Instead, theistic evolutionists regard the natural processes we currently observe as the means by which God created. Thus, insofar as those processes cause harm to human beings—whether through destructive mutations or through such things as earthquakes or hurricanes—theistic evolutionists must maintain that God is responsible for such “natural evil.” By contrast, creationists acknowledge a distinction between God’s original good acts of creation and current processes of nature that may have been affected by the acts of sinful moral agents. This distinction, DeWeese argues, allows for coherent explanations of the existence of natural evil that does not impugn God’s goodness. DeWeese offers one explanation that he favors.

In chapter 24, Colin Reeves examines the so-called “complementary” model for the interaction of science and Scripture, commonly assumed by those who promote “theistic evolution.” This view of the relationship between scientific and biblical truth claims has led many theistic evolutionists to accept evolutionary claims about human origins uncritically. They do this, Reeves argues, because they assume that all scientific claims can be made “complementary” to biblical truth claims since the two different types of claims describe reality in two fundamentally different nonintersecting (though complementary) ways. This assumption has led many theistic evolutionists to deny biblical claims about the existence of Adam and Eve as real historical figures and to deny any discernible evidence of design in living systems. Instead, many theistic evolutionists reinterpret the biblical passages about Adam and Eve as allegories, rejecting their existence as the first parents of the human race. Consequently, they also cast doubt on the doctrine of the fall and undermine the biblical rationale for the substitutionary atonement of Jesus Christ. Reeves argues that the complementarity model in effect sanctions this doctrinal revisionism because in practice it demands the subordination of scriptural claims to scientific claims—in contrast to the Reformation emphasis on the primacy, authority, and clarity of Scripture, an emphasis that actually played a key role in the development of modern science.

In chapter 25, Tapio Puolimatka argues that current evolutionary accounts fail to explain the origin of moral conscience. He explains why the human capacity to discern moral truths cannot be reduced to merely a product of a random search through a vast set of combinatorial possibilities—in other words, a search of the sort that random mutation and natural selection allegedly can accomplish. Although theistic evolutionists assume that the idea of moral conscience as an expression of God’s design for humans is fully compatible with various naturalistic causal stories about the origin of the conscience, they fail to specify a natural process that could plausibly explain its origin.

In chapter 26, John West examines how C. S. Lewis, the beloved Christian author and former tutor and “reader” in philosophy at Oxford University, viewed the theory of evolution. Though many theistic evolutionists claim him as an authoritative proponent of their view, West shows—based on original archival research as well as a careful reading of key Lewis books and essays—that he was far more skeptical of Darwinian evolution than current apologists for theistic evolution claim.

In the final section of the book, we examine specifically theological and biblical difficulties associated with those versions of theistic evolution that affirm either universal common descent, the adequacy or creative power of the mutation/selection mechanism, or both—where the two notions of evolution affirmed jointly are sometimes simply referred to as “macroevolution.” Wayne Grudem, the theological editor of this volume, will introduce these chapters in his “Biblical and Theological Introduction,” which follows.

In summary, just as there are different meanings of the term evolution, there can be different concepts of theistic evolution. In the chapters that follow we highlight the versions of theistic evolution that the authors of this book regard as problematic or untenable. We highlight several different types of difficulties—scientific, philosophical and theological—facing the most problematic formulations of theistic evolution, and focus on the tensions that arise as theistic evolutionists attempt to reconcile an essentially materialistic theory of biological origins with a theistic understanding of creation.


[1] Keith S. Thomson, “The Meanings of Evolution,” American Scientist 70 (1982): 521–539.

[2] Peter J. Bowler, “The Changing Meaning of ‘Evolution,’” Journal of the History of Ideas 36 (1975): 99.

[3] Jerry Coyne, “Not Black and White,” review of Michael Majerus’s 1998 book, Melanism: Evolution in Action, Nature 396 (1998): 35–36; Jonathan Wells, “Second Thoughts about Peppered Moths,” The Scientist 13 (1999), 13.

[4] Charles Darwin, On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, facsimile of the first ed. (London: John Murray, 1859; repr., Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1964), 484.

[5] Richard Dawkins, The Blind Watchmaker: Why the Evidence of Evolution Reveals a Universe without Design (New York: Norton, 1986), 1.

[6] Darwin, On the Origin of Species, 30.

[7] Charles Darwin, The Life and Letters of Charles Darwin, ed. Francis Darwin, vol. 1 (London: John Murray, 1887), 278–279.

[8] Francisco J. Ayala, “Darwin’s Greatest Discovery: Design without Designer,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA 104 (May 15, 2007): 8567–8573.

[9] Dawkins, Blind Watchmaker, 1.

[10] Ernst Mayr, Foreword in Michael Ruse, Darwinism Defended: A Guide to the Evolution Controversies (Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley, 1982), xi–xii.

[11] Francis Crick, What Mad Pursuit: A Personal View of Scientific Discovery (New York: Basic Books, 1988), 138.

[12] George Gaylord Simpson, The Meaning of Evolution, rev. ed. (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1967), 345.

[13] Stephen C. Meyer, Paul A. Nelson, Jonathan Moneymaker, Ralph Seelke, and Scott Minnich, Explore Evolution: The Arguments for and against Neo-Darwinism (London: Hill House, 2007).

[14] See, e.g., Michael Syvanen, “Evolutionary Implications of Horizontal Gene Transfer,” Annual Review of Genetics 46 (2012): 339–356; W. Ford Doolittle, “The Practice of Classification and the Theory of Evolution, and What the Demise of Charles Darwin’s Tree of Life Hypothesis Means for Both of Them,” Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B 364 (2009): 2221–2228; Malcolm S. Gordon, “The Concept of Monophyly: A Speculative Essay,” Biology and Philosophy 14 (1999): 331–348; Eugene V. Koonin, “The Biological Big Bang Model for the Major Transitions in Evolution,” Biology Direct 2 (2007): 21; Vicky Merhej and Didier Raoult, “Rhizome of Life, Catastrophes, Sequence Exchanges, Gene Creations, and Giant Viruses: How Microbial Genomics Challenges Darwin,” Frontiers in Cellular and Infection Microbiology 2 (August 28, 2012): 113; Didier Raoult, “The Post-Darwinist Rhizome of Life,” The Lancet 375 (January 9, 2010): 104–105; Carl R. Woese, “On the Evolution of Cells,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA 99 (June 25, 2002): 8742–8747; Graham Lawton, “Why Darwin Was Wrong about the Tree of Life,” New Scientist (January 21, 2009): 34–39.

[15] Ann Gauger, Douglas Axe, and Casey Luskin, Science and Human Origins (Seattle: Discovery Institute Press, 2012).

[16] Kenneth R. Miller and Joseph S. Levine, Biology (Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall: 1998), 658.

[17] Del Ratzsch, Nature, Design, and Science (Albany, NY: SUNY Press, 2001)

[18] Stephen C. Meyer, “The Difference It Doesn’t Make,” in God and Evolution: Protestants, Catholics, and Jews Explore Darwin’s Challenge to Faith, ed. Jay Wesley Richards (Seattle: Discovery Institute Press, 2010), 147–164.

[19] Traditionally, theologians have understood the Bible to affirm the sovereignty of God and the absolute dependence of his creation upon him, not only for its ongoing existence (as in, “in him all things hold together”; see Col. 1:17) but also for its origin in the first place (as in, “Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made”; John 1:3 [NIV]). Logically speaking, that means that God’s action is both a necessary and a sufficient condition for the origin of the universe and created order. By making a natural process causally responsible (i.e., sufficient) to produce various novel biological structures, systems, and their appearance of design, this version of theistic evolution renders God’s action and causal powers at best a merely necessary (but not sufficient) condition for the origin and existence of living things. This entails a diminished and unbiblical view of divine sovereignty.

[20] Kenneth Miller, Finding Darwin’s God: A Scientist’s Search for Common Ground between God and Evolution (New York: HarperCollins, 1999); Miller, comments during “Evolution and Intelligent Design: An Exchange,” at “Shifting Ground: Religion and Civic Life in America” conference, Bedford, New Hampshire, sponsored by the New Hampshire Humanities Council, March 24, 2007; see also John G. West, “Nothing New under the Sun,” in God and Evolution: Protestants, Catholics, and Jews Explore Darwin’s Challenge to Faith, 40–45.

[21] Francis Collins, The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief (New York: Free Press, 2006), 205.

[22] Dawkins, Blind Watchmaker, 1.

[23] Ibid.; Crick, What Mad Pursuit, 138.

[24] West, “Nothing New under the Sun,” 46–47.

Stephen C. Meyer

Director, Center for Science and Culture
Dr. Stephen C. Meyer received his Ph.D. from the University of Cambridge in the philosophy of science. A former geophysicist and college professor, he now directs the Center for Science and Culture at the Discovery Institute in Seattle. In 2004, Meyer ignited a firestorm of media and scientific controversy when a biology journal at the Smithsonian Institution published his peer-reviewed scientific article advancing intelligent design. Meyer has been featured on national television and radio programs, including The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer, CBS's Sunday Morning, NBC's Nightly News, ABC's World News, Good Morning America, Nightline, FOX News Live, and the Tavis Smiley show on PBS. He has also been featured in two New York Times front-page stories and has garnered attention in other top-national media.