The is and is nots of evolution

The subject of evolution has defined many debates and discussions since Darwin released his theory. Many scientists accept it as true whilst others raise questions. This isn’t really any different to most scientific theories but evolution is one that seems to directly challenge the doctrine of creation. Indeed, the likes of Professor Richard Dawkins pitches evolution (and indeed science) against creation and Christianity and some Christians do this as well.

Reading through some of these discussions, there seems to be some confusion over what is meant by evolution, what it is and what the theory of evolution is based on. There are also statements concerning evolution being incompatible with Christianity. These can cause a lot of friction and heated debates, especially when those who are studying the subject identify statements made by those who are not so knowledgeable. Their statements are just wildly inaccurate, and those who are trying to work their way through questions of compatibility get caught in the middle.

Speaking as a person who is caught in the middle, the aim of this blog is to try and provide some definitions and a framework within which we can work in when having these types of discussions. I’m not looking to say whether the theory of evolution is true though I will be commenting on the evidence that supports it. With this in mind, lets start with looking at the usual place for definitions; the dictionary.

 

  1. The process by which different kinds of living organism are believed to have developed from earlier forms during the history of the earth.
  2. The gradual development of something:
    the forms of written languages undergo constant evolution
  3. Chemistry the giving off of a gaseous product, or of heat:
    the evolution of oxygen occurs rapidly in this process
  4. [count noun] a pattern of movements or manoeuvres:
    flocks of waders often perform aerial evolutions
  5.  Mathematics, dated the extraction of a root from a given quantity.

 

Origin:

Early 17th century: from Latin evolutio(n-) ‘unrolling’, from the verb evolvere (see evolve). Early senses related to movement, first recorded in describing a ‘wheeling’ manoeuvre in the realignment of troops or ships. Current senses stem from a notion of ‘opening out’, giving rise to the sense ‘development’ [1]

 

With the exception of definition 1, which I’ll come back to in a moment, all the others simply mean ‘change over time’ in various contexts. First we had state a, now we have state b. Changes in species have been observed albeit in smaller organisms. Some viruses have evolved to now be resistant to most anti-biotics which I will refer to later.

Now definition 1 is generally what is meant by the theory of evolution. The view that life on earth has evolved from something to what it is now over a long period of time (note that it has to pre-suppose the existence of something to evolve, it offers no explanation for where that came from, a point to which I return) At this point I need to bring in the concept of common ancestry. I will be quoting definitions from chapter 5 an article by Dr Allan Harvey [2] The parts I am quoting are in italics:

This is central to what scientists usually mean by “evolution.” Common ancestry (or common descent) means that life has branched out, so dogs and wolves are distant cousins, dogs and cats are more distant cousins, and if you go back far enough dogs and fish, or dogs and trees, had a common ancestor. You can put humans in the family tree as well – related to chimpanzees, more distant from other mammals, and so forth. This says nothing about how or why this occurred, merely that life has branched out in this way. Sometimes people distinguish between evolution as “fact” and as “theory,” and the distinction is between common ancestry as the “fact of evolution” and the “theory of evolution” that tries to explain how it happened. Many people don’t appreciate that the evidence for common ancestry is overwhelming. It might have been reasonable to question it 50 years ago when it was just based on things like fossils and anatomy, but now DNA technology has provided powerful independent confirmation.

For a readable overview of common ancestry, I recommend The Language of God by Francis Collins, former director of the human genome project [3]. Coming back to the fact that viruses have evolved, another definition involves the mechanisms behind this:

This refers to specific natural mechanisms (first proposed by Darwin, although in a primitive way because genetics was not yet understood) that cause species to change. Genetic variation is the fact that (due to mixing of parental genes and to mutations) children have different genes and different traits. Natural selection refers to the fact that the traits will make some children more likely to survive and pass their genes on to future generations. This is clearly correct on some scales, as it can be directly observed (for example, the evolution of bacteria resistant to certain antibiotics) or studied at the level of individual traits (for example, a recent study traced the evolution of lactose tolerance in humans as milk-producing animals were domesticated in different societies).

So now that we have established some definitions (change over time, common ancestry, evolutionary mechanisms) lets look at what is meant by the theory of evolution:

Mechanisms account (physically) for common descent. This is typically what scientists mean by “the theory of evolution.” We know these mechanisms produce changes in species, but do they account for all the evolution (in the common ancestry sense) that has happened through the history of life on Earth? Most biologists, including most Christians working in these areas, would say “yes,” but it is certainly not as 100% established as the previous meanings. It is very important to note the word “physically” in our E-4 definition. When we say the mechanisms account for what happened, that is at the physical level – it says nothing about whether this is nature acting by itself (of course for a Christian there is no such thing as nature acting by itself!) or whether God is working through nature. Essentially it brings together the 3 established previous definitions of evolution and offers a theory to explain them.

The last sentence of the previous definition brings us onto the world view known as Evolutionism:

I use that term to refer to a meaning that is not science at all, but rather an ideology that sometimes masquerades as science. This starts with the philosophical position that natural explanations exclude God. Since science has produced these natural explanations for life, those with this ideology claim to have pushed God out of the picture. Of course these metaphysical conclusions are not science in any way – those who advocate this meaning are simply pushing atheistic philosophy, and it is wrong to try to claim it is a result of science. The age of the earth is a different question and the evidence for which will not be found in biology.

We need to take extreme care to be clear in what we mean when talking about evolution. Are we referring to changes over time, the theory of evolution, or the evolutionism world view? They are 3 very different things. Regarding how this fits with the Christian faith, there is no conflict since the central claim of the Christian faith is that Jesus died for our sins and was raised again. How does it fit in with the Genesis creation account? Well that’s a massive topic for another time and beyond the scope of the purpose of this blog. Before winding up, I think we need to touch on what is meant by a scientific theory. In common English usage, “theory” means something like “guess” or “hunch”. It means something speculative, uncertain. In science, however, the meaning is almost exactly the opposite. In science, a theory is an idea that has stood the test of time. This difference between the common usage and the scientific usage of the word is a frequent source of confusion for non-scientists. In science, a theory is a well-tested idea – an explanatory framework that makes sense of the current facts available, and continues to make accurate predictions about the natural world [4].

The theory of evolution, regardless of whether we think it’s true or not, is a scientific theory; it is not a religion and it is not a worldview. Many Christian scientists have no issues with the theory and do not see it as being in conflict with their faith, Francis Collins being one [5]. In short, evolution is a mechanism, God is an agent and a designer; the 2 are not in conflict. On that note, I would like to end with one of my favorite quotes from the late Stephen Jay Gould about how evolution is neutral [6]:

Darwin himself was agnostic (having lost his religious beliefs upon the tragic death of his favorite daughter), but the great American botanist Asa Gray, who favored natural selection and wrote a book entitled Darwiniana, was a devout Christian. Move forward 50 years: Charles D. Walcott, discoverer of the Burgess Shale fossils, was a convinced Darwinian and an equally firm Christian, who believed that God had ordained natural selection to construct a history of life according to His plans and purposes. Move on another 50 years to the two greatest evolutionists of our generation: G. G. Simpson was a humanist agnostic. Theodosius Dobzhansky a believing Russian Orthodox. Either half my colleagues are enormously stupid, or else the science of Darwinism is fully compatible with conventional religious beliefs—and equally compatible with atheism, thus proving that the two great realms of nature’s factuality and the source of human morality do not strongly overlap.

 

References:

[1] http://oxforddictionaries.com/definition/english/evolution?q=evolution

[2] http://steamdoc.s5.com/sci-nature

[3] The Language of God. Collins, Francis. Pocket Books; New edition edition (21 May 2007)

[4] http://biologos.org/blog/evolution-basics-evolution-as-a-scientific-theory

[5] http://www.evidence2hope.com/apps/videos/videos/show/16318342-francis-collins-the-language-of-god

[6] http://www.stephenjaygould.org/reviews/gould_darwin-on-trial.html

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One thought on “The is and is nots of evolution

  1. […] [3] http://evidence2hope.wordpress.com/2013/12/14/the-is-and-is-nots-of-evolution/ […]

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