How Is Evolution Defined? Part 1

Post Author: Bill Pratt

One of the first things I was taught in my seminary classes was to carefully define terms and concepts before launching into a debate over them.  So many times, when I see two people arguing about a topic, they are using different definitions for the same words.  It’s impossible to have a productive discussion with someone when you don’t agree on how to define terms.

Recently I read a great article in the Christian Research Journal (Vol. 35 / No. 1 / 2012), written by Jay Richards, on the topic of evolution and its varying definitions.  The article is entitled “Thinking Clearly about God and Evolution.”  I thought I would excerpt some portions of the article because I think it will be helpful to all of us when we discuss this controversial subject.

Richards writes:

It’s a lot easier to define theism than to define evolution. It’s been called the ultimate weasel word. In an illuminating article called “The Meanings of Evolution,” Stephen Meyer and Michael Keas attempt to catch the weasel by distinguishing six different ways in which “evolution” is commonly used:

1. Change over time; history of nature; any sequence of events in nature.

2. Changes in the frequencies of alleles in the gene pool of a population.

3. Limited common descent: the idea that particular groups of organisms have descended from a common ancestor.

4. The mechanisms responsible for the change required to produce limited descent with modification, chiefly natural selection acting on random variations or mutations.

5. Universal common descent: the idea that all organisms have descended from a single common ancestor.

6. “Blind watchmaker” thesis: the idea that all organisms have descended from common ancestors solely through unguided, unintelligent, purposeless, material processes such as natural selection acting on random variations or mutations; that the mechanisms of natural selection, random variation and mutation, and perhaps other similarly naturalistic mechanisms, are completely sufficient to account for the appearance of design in living organisms.

As Christians, what are we to make of these 6 different definitions of evolution?  Definitions 1-4 are almost universally accepted by young earth, old earth, and theistic evolutionists.  They all agree that plant and animal populations have changed over time, that there is limited common descent, and that natural selection acting on random mutation does affect plant and animal populations.

Definition number 5 is where young earth and old earth creationists get off the boat.  These folks believe that God specially created different kinds of plants and animals at specific moments in earth’s history.  Old earth creationists stretch out those creative acts over some 3.5-4 billion years, whereas young earth creationists compact those creative acts into a 6-day period.  In either case, it would be impossible for  universal common descent to be true.  Finally, theistic evolutionists would have no problem with definition 5.

Definition 6 is where even theistic evolutionists disembark.  Why?  Because they do not accept that evolution is “unguided, unintelligent, [and] purposeless.”  God is behind evolution and He planned it out and executed on the plan through the initial conditions and physical laws that he put in place.

In part 2, I will excerpt some further insightful comments from Richards on definition 6, which is by far the most controversial definition of evolution.

  • I think if you polled evolutionary biologists, you’d find over 95% would favour #6. Of course, when you use a source that thinks Meyer – director of the Discovery Institute’s Center for Science and Culture and the most important fellow at the Discovery Institute who advocate for creationism a la Intelligent Design – you’re already way outside the mainstream and teetering on the fringe.

    A rather obvious clue too often missed by those with an agenda other than an honest and accurate portrayal to what evolution means in both theory and practice is the necessary ingredient: natural selection. This highlighted word reveals why #6 is actually the only one that is not some form of creationism (although, to be fair, #2 is often used for simplicity’s sake).

    Your careful use of the term ‘limited’ is completely inappropriate regarding evolution and reflects a deep bias towards an assumed agency whose presence is absent in any compelling evidence found in reality. To then paint definition #6 as somehow ‘controversial’ is simply – to be perfectly blunt – not true among evolutionary biologists. It’s only true among people who wish it were the case and who then try to manufacture controversy where none exists. This is the raison d’etre for the Discovery Institute, trying by fair means and foul to promote their wedge strategy. Richards is playing his role to do just this: falsely present evolution as if it were controversial by using sources dedicated to this goal.

    It’s not science that offers us any reason to assume natural selection is false; in fact, there is nothing but compelling evidence that it is so. What drives creationism is – plain and simple – religious belief contrary to what reality arbitrates is true about it.

  • Boz

    Jay Wesley Richards is an American analytic philosopher and advocate of Intelligent Design. He is a Senior Fellow at the Discovery Institute and formerly the Program Director of the Discovery Institute’s Center for Science and Culture (CSC), which has as its primary role the advocacy of intelligent design.[1] Richards is a former member of the Apologetics Faculty of Biola University.[2]

  • Andrew Ryan

    “God is behind evolution and He planned it out and executed on the plan through the initial conditions and physical laws that he put in place.”

    That’s fine, but from that view wouldn’t the same reckoning apply to ANY natural process? For example, presumably you would equally object to describing soil erosion as “unguided, unintelligent”, given that it is following ‘initial conditions and physical laws’ put in place by God? Likewise the movements of the tides or the planets, or the process of decay, or even the way the shards of glass fall when a jam jar smashes. Do any of them NOT count as part of God’s plan?

    What you’re actually apparently objecting to is the phrase ‘unguided, unintelligent’ full stop.

    If so, why pick out evolution/natural selection for objection?

    If not, which processes/situations DO qualify for a description as ‘unguided, unintelligent’, and how do you calculate when intelligence/guiding is introduced or necessary?

  • tildeb,
    Read the comments guidelines and adjust your comments. Consider this your first warning.

  • As far as I can tell, the only questionable element of my comment is in regards to perceived motives or intentions. To differentiate between a perceived motive or intention and an actual motive or intention, I gave the link to show the evidence that promoting this supposed ‘controversy’ is an actual motive laid out by the Discovery Institute in their Wedge document and directly supported by those employed by it… most especially by Director Meyer and Senior Fellow Richards. What they have to say about evolution by natural selection is deeply suspect not because any claims they present as ‘controversial’ have any scientific validity but because these claims advance the Institute’s stated motives. In this sense, any claims about design are not based on scientific consensus (that evolution enjoys, let’s be clear, and upon which modern biology and its many offshoots depend – like medical therapies and genetics) but on religious belief contrary to the central tenet of evolutionary theory, namely, natural selection (not ‘limited’ selection, which implies some limiting agency for which there is zero evidence).

    How any of this commentary contravenes your comment policy remains a mystery to me. You will have to explain what it is you think I have done contrary to the policy or I run the risk of repeating my infraction through ignorance.

  • Here are the things that are objectionable in your comment:

    1. “A rather obvious clue too often missed by those with an agenda other than an honest and accurate portrayal to what evolution means in both theory and practice is the necessary ingredient: natural selection.”

    You are accusing Richards, me, and whoever else holds the positions in this post as being dishonest and inaccurate on purpose. Why not deal with our arguments or statements without these kinds of slanders?

    2. Your whole third paragraph again questions my motives and Richards’ motives. You accuse us of “manufacturing” controversy. You accuse the Discovery Institute of using “foul” means to advance an agenda. You claim that Richards is “falsely” presenting evolution, just to advance an agenda.

    3. Finally, you completely misunderstand how the word “controversial” is used in the post. It is used with regard to Christians, not with regard to evolutionists. In fact, the audience for the post is Christians who are are interested in evolution. If you had waited to see part 2, instead of jumping in and guessing what I meant, you might have avoided this blunder.

  • Thank you for that clarification.

    Your first post said it was about “the topic of evolution and its varying definitions” that you had read fro the article entitled Thinking Clearly about God and Evolution from which you “would excerpt some portions of the article because I think it will be helpful to all of us when we discuss this controversial subject.”

    Please note that nowhere do you tell us that you are presenting evolution only in the religious sense of how it causes theistic angst for any kind of belief in creationism for life on earth. You presented it as if this “controversial subject” involved some scientific discrepancies. Clearly, it doesn’t. The discrepancies are wholly religious and not scientific.

    #1 The clue I refer to is the word ‘natural’, which is an integral part of any accurate scientific definition for evolution by natural selection. To include such an incompatible word as ‘limited’ is not accurate except as a religious belief. It is an addition of a term that does not belong scientifically to the theory. In the world of evolutionary biology, there is no ‘limited’ notion of natural selection whatsoever (because there is no evidence for any limitation other than this natural process subject to the interaction of biology with environment)… except from those with a religious agenda.

    I point this out because it reveals a clear religious bias to try to present the science of ‘natural’ selection as somehow and legitimately controversial, which it is not in in scientific terms – meaning there simply is no evidence for any scientific controversy. You didn’t say this so I did. It is only controversial in the minds of the religious who are uncomfortable with what this explanation means: no evidence for guiding agency, no evidence for some kind of limiting agency whatsoever, an agency somehow able to intervene in this natural process where it is not responsible for for small but is for large changes. This IS the science.

    To intentionally present it any other way than the way it honestly is is… what’s the best word to use here that doesn’t in some way impinge on the religious motivation to present it differently than the way it honestly is? I used the word ‘dishonest’ as well as ‘inaccurate’ because it does not honestly reflect an accurate scientific reflection of what ‘natural’ selection means.

    #2 I didn’t write the Wedge Document and I don’t fund the Discovery Institute and its fellows. They have a well defined motivation to manufacture controversy: “To replace materialistic explanations with the theistic understanding that nature and human beings are created by god.” That is the agenda, Bill. I’m not making this up. It is not a scientifically motivated agenda. I’m not falsely accusing anyone of anything here; I’m pointing out that this agenda is not driven by any legitimate scientific concerns about evolution by natural selection. Because you did not clearly enunciated this scientific fact, I did. There is no scientific controversy. None. Not one bit. At all. This is purely a religiously motivated, and intentionally manufactured one, to appear as a scientific controversy. But appearances can be deceiving, especially when it is done intentionally to try to create controversy where none exists in scientific terms, one that does not match up to the evidence science has revealed from the reality we share.

    When we see the Discovery Institute language inserted into state legislation concerning science education to “teach the controversy” and allow for “academic freedom” to do so as we find in Louisiana and now Tennessee, then I call foul. This religious controversy has no place in public science classrooms because it has no legitimate science to do so, science based on evidence from reality to back it up. This is an abuse of science education… to promote a religious agenda. And I’m not alone here. Legal judgement after legal judgement continues to produce the same verdict, and that this agenda is still being promoted and imposed on science education is a foul method of pretending there is some scientific controversy, which we know is is neither accurate nor honest.

    What words would you like me to use to describe those who continue to present this religious controversy as if it were a scientific one?

  • tildeb,
    How many pro-ID books have you read? How many articles have you read that pro-ID folks have written? Do you listen to the “ID the Future” podcast, put out by the Discovery Institute?

    I have read numerous pro-ID books, numerous articles, and listened to over a hundred Discovery Institute podcasts, so I am in a very good position to comment on whether they are purely about religion, and not science.

    The answer is that the vast majority of things written by pro-ID folks deals with scientific issues, not religious issues. Do they discuss religious issues sometimes? Yes, they do, but that amount of time is dwarfed by their scientific output.

    When you claim that ID proponents and the Discovery Institute only have a religious agenda, you are not basing that on the accumulated evidence of what they have produced since 1996, but basing it on one single document out of hundreds they have produced. Yes, many pro-ID people are also theists of some sort, but not all of them are (e.g., Bradley Monton and David Berlinski).

    But what of it? The fact that many pro-ID folks are theists has absolutely nothing to do with their scientific arguments. Most of the pro-Darwinists that comment on this blog are atheists, so should we claim that Darwinism is 100% motivated by atheism? I think not.

    By the way, if you think that there is no controversy about definition 6 in modern biology, pick up James Shapiro’s book, Evolution: A View from the 21st Century. He regards the neo-Darwinian mechanism of random mutations coupled with natural selection as completely inadequate to explain the evidence. Shapiro is no friend to ID, but is one of the most highly respected evolutionary scientists alive.

  • Andrew,
    The position you’re quoting is that of theistic evolutionists. I do not hold that position; I fall into the old earth creationist camp. I was merely explaining what they would find objectionable in definition 6.

  • Andrew Ryan

    Ok, but none of the theists I know see anything controversial about evolution at all in the sense you describe. No more than they see it as controversial to describe any other process in science as blind or natural. I think creationism in America is an anomaly as far as Christian views of evolution is concerned – it’s mostly accepted as uncontroversial among Christians in the rest of the Western world.

  • If ID had ANY scientific merit, then why did Judge Jones (Kitzmiller v Dover) rule:

    (1) ID violates the centuries-old ground rules of science by invoking and permitting supernatural causation;

    (2) the argument of irreducible complexity, central to ID, employs the same flawed and illogical contrived dualism that doomed creation science in the 1980’s; and

    (3) ID’s negative attacks on evolution have been refuted by the scientific community.

    Jones also noted that “every major scientific association which has expressed any sort of opinion on the matter has agreed that Intelligent Design is not science.”

    This isn’t about me, Bill. And it isn’t about what you believe is cause for any scientific controversy. I will reiterate: there is no scientific controversy about evolution by natural selection… except in the minds of those with a religious agenda to make room for creationism. Pretending there is a scientific controversy serves no purpose if one is trying to be honest and accurate about what’s true in reality. And if this is not the goal, then what is?

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