Evolution posts

Evolution for everyone

The word evolution is related to the terms evolve and evolute, and originally meant an unrolling. It acquired a sense of development in the 19th century and was associated with progress, especially as promoted by Herbert Spencer. Charles Darwin used it in print only once since his theory was not a theory of progress. “But Victorian belief in progress prevailed (and the advantages of brevity), and Herbert Spencer and other biologists after Darwin popularized evolution.” (source)

Today the basic meaning of the word evolution is change over time. That is, evolution refers to a process that changes one form into another form over time; in short, transmutation. There are various proposed means or mechanisms of evolution but they are all asserted to produce change over time.

Thus the concept of evolution is the opposite of the idea that forms do not change over time. What makes it complex is that some forms may change over time but not others. But no one today seriously alleges that there is no significant change over time. In that sense, we are all evolutionists.

Then we need terms to distinguish the different kinds of evolutionary concepts. One could simply attach the names of their originators, but their concepts are modified over time so additional terms would be required. We need simple terms to designate the main types of evolution. Three-letter acronyms would help, too.

Thus I propose the following terms and acronyms, starting with those who acknowledge no limits to evolution:

Unlimited universal evolution (UUE) – This is the concept most commonly associated with evolution, which is a process that started with the Big Bang and developed the physical universe of today.

Unlimited biological evolution (UBE) – This is the concept associated with biological evolution from “a few forms or … one” (Origin of Species, 1859) to the biological diversity of today.

There are limited versions of evolution, but those proposing limits are also proposing something else. Nevertheless, a general term for those who assert limits to evolution is:

Limited biological evolution (LBE) – This is the concept that biological evolution is limited in some way, whether that limit has been reached in the past or present, or will be reached in the future.

Specific versions of LBE are as follows:

Intelligent Design Evolution (IDE) – This is a limited form of evolution in which intelligent design is asserted to be required to explain the difference between some biological forms. The existence of a designer is not asserted.

Creator Designed Evolution (CDE) – This is a limited form of evolution in which a Creator is asserted to have made the initial form of the universe and initial forms of life, which contained in them a capacity to produce subordinate forms.

One question is where theistic evolution fits in. Is it UUE/UBE or CDE? Theistic evolutionists acknowledge the existence of a Creator and creation, which is CDE, but they also accept standard evolutionary theory, which is UUE/UBE. Creator designed unlimited universal evolution (CDUUE)? Yet since they acknowledge a Creator, they should at least allow the possibility that creation was designed for limited variation.

The origin of species terminology

Creationism in a philosophical/scientific context was first propounded by Socrates (David Sedley, Creationism and its Critics in Antiquity, 2007). Socrates did not provide specifics but it is often said that Plato and Aristotle did: biological species were like logical species and so did not change — species were fixed — and purportedly this is what creationists have said ever since. But that is an over-simplification which requires a two-part response: (1) what are species, and (2) what does species fixity mean?

The place to begin is with the book Species: A History of the Idea by John S. Wilkins. The author starts by rejecting what he calls “the Received View” which runs like this:

“Plato defined Form (eidos) as something that had an essence, and Aristotle set up a way of dividing genera (gene) into species (eide) so that each species shared the essence of the genus, and each individual in the species shared the essence of the species. Linnaeus took this idea and made species into constant and essentialistic types. Darwin overcame this essentialism.” p.4

Wilkins shows that the Received View is mistaken. Species have come down to us via a neo-Platonic, not an Aristotelian, route. Typology and essentialism were not bound together. Instead, what he calls the generative conception of species runs through pre-Darwinian thought.

Wilkins distinguishes two kinds of taxonomy: universal, which is classification in general by division, and biological, which is classification by generation. Plato classified things by diairesis (division) and synogage (grouping) according to their differences and similarities. The purpose was to “carve nature at its joints”.

Aristotle broadened Plato into a method that was later called per genus et differentiam — by the general type and the particular difference. For him “a species is a group that is formed by differentiating a prior group formed by a generic concept.” Aristotle accepts only the possibility (not the necessity) that species might be eternal. Similarly, the Epicureans held that “species are forms generated by the natures of their substances.”

In the modern era John Ray in the 17th century was the first to describe biological species. In his 1686 History of plants Ray was the first to produce a biological definition of species:

“… no surer criterion for determining species has occurred to me than the distinguishing features that perpetuate themselves in propagation from seed. Thus, no matter what variations occur in the individuals or the species, if they spring from the seed of one and the same plant, they are accidental variations and not such as to distinguish a species… Animals likewise that differ specifically preserve their distinct species permanently; one species never springs from the seed of another nor vice versa”. (Ernst Mayr, Growth of biological thought, p.256).

Carl Linnaeus ran with this in his Systema Naturae (“The System of Nature”) and other writings. While he later realized the species concept had its limits, it has provided a basis for natural history ever since.

The concept of permanent species came to be known as fixity of species and was the foil for Darwin, who focused on its lack of changeability. For Ray and Linnaeus change was variation that was not part of the species (the type or kind). For Darwin change is evolution which includes each species and more. It’s a question of which came first or is primary: change or type? For evolutionists, change is primary; for Darwin’s predecessors and opponents type is primary.

If type is primary, then the type or kind (which is what the word species means in Latin) is invariant. Science generally looks for and studies invariants such as conservation principles. But biologists after Darwin look for variance instead. That allows them to explain anything and everything as change. It’s a gain in explanatory ability at the cost of invariant principles. There are no laws of evolutionary biology, unless you want to make the non-law “everything is change” a law.

The Darwinian evolution paradigm

The Darwinian evolution paradigm is based on the evolution paradigm and forms a “bundle of theories” that are contrary to the special creation paradigm. It concerns the origin and development of organic life on earth.

  1. Science and History

The subject of natural history is primarily natural science and secondarily history. The laws and generalizations of science have greater significance than the purported actions and events of recorded history. If a scientific law or generalization is sufficiently attested, then it must be accepted, whether or not it fits any historical writing.

  1. Naturalism Assumed

Nature is all that exists or ever existed or ever will exist. Nature is self-existing, self-caused, and self-sustaining. Matter, motion, and the laws of nature are all there is.

  1. Uniformity of Natural History

Natural rates of change are uniform or nearly uniform and so may be extrapolated to large spans of time. Uniformitarianism is the main method of inference in natural history.

  1. Purposelessness of Natural History

Natural history has no purpose or center. Earth arose via the purposeless operation of natural laws. Life could have arisen elsewhere and probably has in some form.

  1. Unlimited Change

The laws of nature allow virtually limitless change to take place when there is sufficient time. Chance variations have occurred of the type and frequency needed to develop current species without any design or purpose other than survival.

  1. Biblical Insignificance

There is no singular document about ancient history. Human beings in the ancient past were more primitive than moderns, and so should not be expected to know much.

  1. Earth is Old

There have been vast ages of time in the past, on the order of billions of years. The biblical chronology is either wrong or must be interpreted to allow billions of years. In any case, it is science that determines the chronology of the earth, not any human writings (cf. #1).

  1. Life Began Naturally

Abiogenesis is the study of the origin of life from non-life. This is an area of active research. Whatever is determined, it is certain that life began naturally, with no supernatural intervention.

  1. Earth Began Primitive

The early earth was primitive. Organic life did not exist at first but developed over long ages of time via the operation of natural laws.

  1. One Kind of Life

All organic life developed from a single organism which evolved over long ages of time to evolve into millions of species. The difference between different organisms is only a matter of degree of complexity. They are all the same kind of entity with the same essence.

  1. Humans Not Special

Human beings are part of nature. The difference between humans and other organisms is solely a matter of degree, not kind or essence.

  1. Regional Catastrophes

Uniformity is the main theme of earth history. The catastrophic events that have occurred have all been regional, not universal. Death has always been part of life; there was no catastrophe that originated death. No world-wide catastrophe changed the geology of the earth, and nothing has happened to change all human languages. Any purported evidence to the contrary must be either false or falsely interpreted.

Darwin’s theory and Huxley’s science

It is common to read statements like this: “For the vast majority of biologists, the debate over whether evolution occurs took place in the 19th century and has long been settled — evolution won.” (1) The problem with this statement is that it was not a scientific position that won but a philosophical and political agenda that won.

Charles Darwin in his 1859 Origin of Species presented his “theory of descent with modification through natural selection” (later called evolution) in which he argued that universal common descent by natural selection was possible. He contrasted his theory with an alternative he called “the theory of independent acts of creation”. He was careful not to press his case too far, and basically argued that a theory of evolution was an alternative to one version of a theory of creation. Since he avoided controversy, he left it to others to defend his theory in public.

Thomas Henry Huxley is universally acknowledged as the leading defender of Darwin’s theory in the years after the publication of the Origin of Species. But he did much more. His main defense consisted in asserting that Darwin’s theory of evolution was science and the alternative theory of creation was not. He even claimed that evolution was the only possible scientific theory that explained the diversity of life.

Huxley framed his defense of the theory of evolution and put-down of any theory of creation in terms that avoided the appearance of redefining science, but that was what he was doing. He argued that science must be agnostic about non-empirical forms of knowledge, especially claims for God and the supernatural. This was an argument for what today is known as naturalism. Such a philosophy was already on the rise, with positivism, materialism, and secularism.

Not only were the alternatives to naturalism deprecated, they were considered pseudo-science. But if any theory of creation was not science, then Carl Linnaeus was not doing science when he developed his taxonomy, in which he endeavored to discover all of the created kinds of organisms. Somehow mathematics would still be available to Huxley’s science despite it being a non-empirical form of knowledge.

Another aspect of the controversy was the change in the status of the clergy. One of Huxley’s goals was to remove the clergy from influence over education. As the sciences became professionalized, Huxley was successful in keeping the clergy out. The result was that a thoroughly naturalistic science became ascendant in the universities.

Thus began the strategy of promoting naturalism under the guise of science. It was so successful that people to this day don’t know science was ever otherwise. Such is the historical ignorance of our time that such ideas reign virtually unchallenged.

Evolutionary theology

The problem with evolutionary theology — theology that accepts universal evolution — is not that it denies the creation of the universe (it doesn’t) but that it minimizes the role of the creator. From the evolutionist’s position that’s exactly the point: explain as much as possible without reference to God, the supernatural, or the miraculous.

The result of evolutionary theology is that other doctrines must be sneaked in later and kept as undetectable as possible. Human beings, for example, must have a soul. Christian theologians must affirm the resurrection of Christ at a minimum, and other cases of the miraculous or supernatural are hard for a theologian to avoid without sliding into deism or gnosticism.

The transcendence of God and the separation of God from creation are safe with all but the most extreme evolutionists. So that is not the issue, despite what so many keep saying. The issue is whether “the difference of man and the difference it makes” (to use Mortimer J. Adler’s phrase) is detectable at all.

Adler makes a philosophical case that mankind is detectably different from other animals in his book. There is a simple scientific case as well. From the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy article on negation:

Negation is a sine qua non of every human language, yet is absent from otherwise complex systems of animal communication.[1] While animal “languages” are essentially analog systems, it is the digital nature of the natural language negative operator … that allows for denial, contradiction, and other key properties of human linguistic systems.

Footnote 1. Some research suggests that apes and even non-primates can be trained to understand the functions of rejection, refusal, and even non-existence, corresponding to stages attested in children’s acquisition of negation, but not those of denial or truth-conditional negation (Heine and Kuteva 2007: 141–2). [Heine, B. and T. Kuteva, 2007, The Genesis of Grammar, Oxford: Oxford University Press.]

Other than apophatic (negative) theology I haven’t seen the theologians take up this difference but they should. It’s unnecessary to use the sledgehammer of Revelation when the mallet of science will do.

There are alternatives to evolutionism in which types or kinds take a leading role. Where do these types or kinds come from? The same question could be asked of chemical elements or fundamental particles: they must have been created. There is no other answer for how the structure of the universe came about.

There is no need for theologians to retreat when the scientific consensus turns against theology. Scientists have been wrong before, even for decades and more. There is no magic in consensus.