iSoul In the beginning is reality

Tag Archives: Evolution

evolution as a general idea (e.g., Spencer) and as a particular theory (e.g., Darwin)

Variationism vs. progressivism

Broadly speaking, there are two different paradigms concerning the history of the material world. One paradigm is that the material world has always been roughly the same as it is now. An ancient version of this said everything would eventually return to the same state. This cyclic version is rare now. What became more common is the idea that things change within limits. Call this variationism, because it says that everything is a variation of what came before.

The other paradigm is that the material world was very different from what it is now; whether that is seen as better before or better now. The idea of a former golden age was common in ancient times but has almost disappeared. The more common idea is that the world was once primitive and has become complex, which is seen as better. Call this progressivism, because it says that everything progressed from something different to what it is now.

There are metaphysical and theological implications of these two paradigms. Aristotle said that the world is eternal since an origin couldn’t be determined. That is compatible with variationism since an eternal world must always be a variation on what it was in the past. Many today would say there are eternal laws of nature that have operated on the natural world over time to generate the world of today. That is compatible with progressivism since it says everything is always progressing to something different.

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Wasmann on biology and evolution

From Modern Biology and the Theory of Evolution by Erich Wasmann, S.J.

Translated from the Third German Edition by A. M. Buchanan, M.A. London, 1910

Excerpts from Chapter IX, Thoughts on Evolution (with most footnotes omitted)

Note: creatio e nihilo means ‘creation from nothing,’ a slight variation on creatio ex nihilo, ‘creation out of nothing’.



For over forty years a conflict has been raging in the intellectual world, which both sides have maintained with great vehemence and energy. The war-cry on one side is ‘Evolution of Species,’ on the other ‘Permanence of Species.’ No one could fail to be reminded of that other great intellectual warfare regarding the Ptolemaic and the Copernican systems, which began about three hundred and fifty years ago, and raged with varying success for over a century, until finally the latter prevailed. Perhaps the present conflict between the theories of evolution and permanence only marks a fresh stage in that great strife, and, if so, how will it finally be decided?

The contest that we have to consider was stirred up by Charles Darwin, when he published his book on the ‘Origin of Species’ about the middle of last century. The theories advanced by Lamarck and Geoffroy St. Hilaire at the end of the eighteenth and the beginning of the nineteenth centuries may be regarded as causing preliminary skirmishes, but Cuvier’s powerful attacks soon succeeded in overthrowing the new ideas of evolution (see p. 28). It was not until the year 1859 that the great battle began, which has received its name from the commander-in-chief of the attacking army, Charles Darwin. The warfare with which we are now concerned centres round Darwinism, so-called.

I say, so-called Darwinism. A few words of explanation are absolutely necessary. The thick smoke of the powder, which hid the battlefield from our gaze, is gradually dispersing,

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Variation is a fact

One of the characteristics of post-modernism is the overlap between facts and theories. In modern science theories were based on facts, theories explained facts, and theories connected facts together. But post-modernism blurs the distinction between facts and theories. For example:

In science, a “fact” typically refers to an observation, measurement, or other form of evidence that can be expected to occur the same way under similar circumstances. However, scientists also use the term “fact” to refer to a scientific explanation that has been tested and confirmed so many times that there is no longer a compelling reason to keep testing it or looking for additional examples. Because the evidence supporting it is so strong, scientists no longer question whether biological evolution has occurred and is continuing to occur. Instead, they investigate the mechanisms of evolution, how rapidly evolution can take place, and related questions. The National Academies – Evolution Resources [The National Academies is also known as the (U.S.) National Academy of Sciences.]

It is easily seen that the term “evolution” is used in (at least) two different senses. Under Definitions, the above website provides the following:

Evolution: Evolution consists of changes in the heritable traits of a population of organisms as successive generations replace one another. It is populations of organisms that evolve, not individual organisms.

That is the factual part. But there is another part, the theory part, which is obscured by not distinguishing fact from theory. For example, their entire website only mentions common descent once, and that in reference to additional resources:

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Terms for science controversies

Controversies are more difficult than they need be. I have written about this before here and here. One challenge for dealing with controversies is that terminology is misleading, inaccurate, or loaded. Here are some examples from the creation-evolution controversy.

The term ‘evolution’ originally meant an unrolling, and was applied by Charles Lyell and Herbert Spencer to the idea that there was a natural progression over time from lower to higher organisms. Charles Darwin did not originally call his theory ‘evolution’ but others prevailed on him to use the term. Ever since people have confused the idea of progress with Darwin’s theory of unguided evolution.

Historically, Darwin’s theory is one of several theories of transmutation, which is any natural sequence of changes over time from lower to higher organisms. Darwin’s particular theory was that the natural variability of generations over a long time might result in some populations of lower species transmutating into higher species. In other words, varieties could become new species, which could become new genera, and so on.

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Christianity and science

A good summary of the myth of a long-running conflict between Christianity and science is in Timothy Larsen’s “War is Over, If You Want It” (September 2008). This warfare myth was invented in the 19th century by people such as TH Huxley who either should have known better or were purposely stirring up animosity. It is composed of individual myths that “support” it, such as the myth that Christians thought the earth was flat in the Middle Ages or the myth that Christians opposed the use of anesthesia during childbirth in the 19th century.

Larsen references Frank M. Turner’s “Contesting Cultural Authority” (Cambridge, 1993), as someone who “persuasively argued that the notion of a conflict between theology and science was generated as part of a campaign of professionalization by would-be scientists.” (p.150) It’s almost forgotten today, but the profession of a scientist didn’t exist until the late 19th century. Before that, science was developed by amateurs (including clerics) who had the leisure and interest. TH Huxley and others fought against such people because they stood in the way of a new class of professional scientists.

Although the warfare meme is vastly exaggerated, there are enough misunderstandings that the opposite idea of integration isn’t realistic. For example, it is said that many Christians quickly accepted Darwin’s theory of evolution in the 19th century and later. But what is overlooked is the fact that Christians misunderstood Darwin and substituted their own ideas of evolution by law or miracle.  Theistic evolution is common among Christians who either insert a law-bound version for Darwin’s undirected version or else invent undetectable miracles that make it God-directed.

Many have noted that modern science developed in a Christian matrix. If science jettisons its Christian roots, it loses a reason to expect an ordered universe that can be understood by human beings. It may either adopt a multiverse that just happens to have order in one universe or drift toward non-causal explanations in a chaotic universe.

Some scientists want to deepen the Christian roots of science rather than cut them off. They are mostly creationists or intelligent design proponents. Those who follow TH Huxley will have nothing of it. But some are willing to entertain new proposals. As the modern era comes to a close, we can expect that modern science will change into something else.

Seminar presentation

I’ll be a speaker this weekend at the Genesis Seminar in Bridgeville, Pa (near Pittsburgh). The keynote speaker is Dr. Andrew Steinmann of Concordia University, Chicago. The title of my presentation is History and Philosophy of the Science of Origins, in which I will try to organize a diversity of material in history, philosophy, science, and biblical studies.

I see a dialogue/dialectic between two opposites/extremes, represented by these two lists:

(a) Genealogy, generations, chronicle, narrative, diachrony, history, process, society, time

(b) Logic, principles, philosophy, theory, exact science, synchrony, structure, universe, space

Where does theology fit in this? Exegetical and historical theology fit with (a) and systematic theology fits with (b).

Where does biology fit in this? Platonic, Scholastic, scala naturae, fixed-species biology fits with (a) and Aristotle (not Aristotelian), developmental, adaptive, evolutionary biology with (b).

There is also a both-and (c) to go with this either-or of extremes:

(c) mean, moderate, combination, synthesis, duality, complementarity, space-time

In science (c) is the convergence of increasing precision, the duality of particle and wave, the synthesis of space and time.

Theologically (c) is the Old and New Testaments, Law and Gospel, direct and indirect creation, Word and Spirit, and the Trinity as a unity-of-duality.

Biologically (c) is a combination of process and structure, variation and permanence, bottom-up and top-down classifications.

The Bible is remarkably balanced version of (c).

From history to nature

Over the centuries the various sciences have developed from a focus on history to a focus on nature, that is from a temporal or diachronic focus to a spatial or synchronic one. Saussure saw this in linguistics and reoriented it from a focus on historical language change to language as a system. Both have their place but historic study finds few natures, i.e., invariants, whereas the study of natures discovers many invariants.

For example, astronomy and physics in ancient times focused on cycles and the “harmony of the spheres” but in modern times focuses on a four dimensional continuum. Chemistry has developed from an alchemical focus on transmutation to a modern focus on the periodic table and compounds. Biology still focuses on temporality with its concentration on origins and history; to further develop it will need to focus on the nature of biological kinds. Geology has a similar focus on temporality so it will need to focus more on the nature of geological features.

Both History and Nature have been used by atheists as substitutes for God — in the 18th century Newton’s system was seen as Nature in control, then in the 19th & 20th centuries Darwin’s evolution was seen as History in control. So both approaches can be carried to extremes and will be by some.

Biology — whether evolutionary or creationary — needs to move from defining species or created kinds in terms of descent from original organisms to defining them in terms of their nature, e.g., as either having something in common (an essence) or a some type of interconnectivity (a topological definition).

Secular science

The word “secular” can mean simply non-religious but really means more than that; according to the Online Etymological Dictionary, secular means

“worldly, pertaining to a generation or age,” from Latin saecularis “of an age, occurring once in an age,” from saeculum “age, span of time, generation.”

The basic distinction is between matters that pertain to the age and world in which we live and those matters which are beyond it — life after death, unseen spiritual reality, etc.

Modern science has always focused on the secular in this sense, and abstained from investigating metaphysical and spiritual matters — but that should include “deep time,” too. By definition “deep time” refers to ages of time before this present age, this age of human life. No human being ever lived in deep time. Human experience does not include deep time. A scientific organization (or a government) cannot promote belief in deep time and remain secular.

Secular science should exclude everything that is not part of the age and world in which humanity lives. That means secular science must remain within recorded history, the period of time covered by written sources. This may be extended slightly by the study of artifacts for societies without writing.

Since scientific creationism stays within recorded history, it is more secular than any deep time theory.


A dual biology

Evolutionists argue that, in general, homologous (similar) structures or genes are evidence of common (joint) ancestry between the species. They also argue that vestigial (useless) features show common ancestry between the species and a similar species in which they are functional.

Critics of evolution can equally well argue that, in general, heterologous (dissimilar) structures or genes are evidence of disjoint ancestry between the species. They can also argue either that alleged vestigial features are in fact useful or that our lack of knowledge about their utility does not make them useless.

These two groups could go back and forth ad nauseum, or they could call an armistice and accept that in some cases one of them is right and in other cases the other is right. What would biology look like in that case? Biology would admit a dual explanatory regime.

What would this dual biology look like? It would look like a common classification problem to determine for each pair of objects whether they are in the same class or in different classes. The answer is not: all objects are in the same class. Nor is it: each object is in a different class. The correct classification is somewhere in between.

Why is this so difficult for biologists? Perhaps because there are so many organic species that a simplistic answer to their relationship is better than no answer. But in that case it would be best to have both groups compete for the best answer. Don’t give a monopoly to one group (i.e., the evolutionists) but encourage their critics to give a better answer. Ironically, that’s close to where biology was before evolutionists took over.

Unfortunately, the academic world doesn’t do well with competition. So academic science tends toward monopolistic science. The competition takes place outside the academy, in independent research institutes. That’s where the cutting edge of biology is.


The problem with “evolution”

The first edition of Charles Darwin’s The Origin of Species published in 1859 did not contain the word evolution (though evolved was the last word). By the sixth edition the word evolution was used 15 times, yet it was not defined. Nor did he specify what he called “the great principle of evolution”. Alas, it is much the same today. One might say (in the manner of Mark Twain on the weather), “Everyone talks about evolution but no one defines it.”

Intelligent design proponents have noted several uses of the word evolution:

  1. Change over time — small-scale change in a population of organisms over time, often called “microevolution”.
  2. Universal common descent — the view that all organisms are related and are descended from a single common ancestor.
  3. Natural selection and random mutation as the main cause or mechanism of change during the history of life — the idea that an unguided process of natural selection acting upon random mutations is sufficient to produce the new forms of life that appear during that history as well as the appearance of design that living forms manifest.

Only definition #3 fits that of a scientific theory. Definition #2 has to do with the scope of a theory of evolution. Definition #1 is a very general and trivial statement, which is often used to make critics of evolution seem to oppose a truism.

Critics of evolution most commonly criticize the adequacy of definition #3. Definition #2 is actually the most deficient: it confuses a scientific theory with its scope.

Compare Isaac Newton’s law of universal gravitation. He did not claim that gravitation was by definition universal. Instead, he claimed that the scope of the law that he developed was universal. However, since the emergence of relativity and quantum mechanics, Newton’s law of gravitation is known to be limited. It is not universal.

Newton’s laws of motion are an example of what Werner Heisenberg calls a “closed theory.” While it was superseded, it is still valid within certain limits. An “open theory” is what he calls a theory whose limits are unknown.

In The Origin of Species Darwin proposed universal common descent by a general, basically philosophical, argument:

Analogy would lead me one step further, namely, to the belief that all animals and plants have descended from some one prototype. But analogy may be a deceitful guide. Nevertheless all living things have much in common, in their chemical composition, their germinal vesicles, their cellular structure, and their laws of growth and reproduction. We see this even in so trifling a circumstance as that the same poison often similarly affects plants and animals; or that the poison secreted by the gall-fly produces monstrous growths on the wild rose or oak-tree. Therefore I should infer from analogy that probably all the organic beings which have ever lived on this earth have descended from some one primordial form, into which life was first breathed.

Natural selection was the only mechanism he proposed to explain universal common descent, as if it were sufficient. Darwin was indirect in asserting the connection between natural selection and universal common descent, all the better to avoid arguing directly for its sufficiency. But evolution as universal common descent is not established by any mechanisms. They are independent assertions and must be established independently.

Science progresses from open to closed theories in Heisenberg’s sense. Every mechanism has its limits, which eventually will be discovered, though the limits of each mechanism are rarely admitted by the scientific community. Meanwhile the search for more mechanisms goes on, and the search for alternative theories is derided.