William Dembski reviews a new book by two theistic evolutionists

From Patheos, an opening statement by William Dembski. This is the first part of a four-part debate with two scientists of the Biologos group, which advocates for theistic evolution. (And not to be confused with the Biologic Institute, which is supportive of intelligent design).


Throughout their book, Giberson and Collins overconfidently proclaim that Darwinian evolution is a slam-dunk. Thus one reads, “There has been no scientific discovery since Darwin–not one–which has suggested that evolution is not the best explanation for the origin of species” (21-22). No theory is that good. Every theory admits anomalies. Every theory faces disconfirming evidence. Repeatedly readers are informed that mountains of overwhelming evidence support Darwin’s theory and that the authors are “unfamiliar with any premier scientists who reject evolution.” And just so there’s no doubt, in that same paragraph, they reiterate, “There are certainly a few scientists who reject evolution . . . But these are never premier scientists.”

Oh, you reject Darwinian evolution; you can’t be a premier scientist. What counterexample would convince Giberson and Collins to retract such a claim? How about Henry Schaefer’s signature on a “Dissent from Darwin” list? Schaefer heads the computational quantum chemistry lab at the University of Georgia, has published over a thousand peer-reviewed journal articles, and is one of the most widely cited chemists in the world. Then again, Giberson and Collins look askance at this list (according to them, it has too many emeriti professors and not enough biologists). But why engage in such posturing about scientific pecking order in the first place? The issue is not who’s doubting Darwinism, but what are the arguments for and against it and whether they have merit. Giberson and Collins’ constant drumming of mainstream and consensus science is beside the point–science progresses by diverging from the mainstream and by breaking with consensus.

Because Giberson and Collins assert that natural selection is such a powerful mechanism for driving evolution–and one that admits no reasoned dissent–it’s worth recounting here briefly why the intelligent design community is so skeptical of it. It’s not, as theistic evolutionists often suggest, that we have a desperate need to shore up faith and morality and are using ID as our instrument of choice to accomplish that end. Rather, it’s that natural selection is, in essence, a trial and error tinkering mechanism for which all evidence suggests that its power is quite limited. Trial and error works fine when you have something that’s functional and are trying to enhance it or adapt it to a new situation.

But for natural selection, as a trial and error mechanism, to traverse vast swatches of biological function space, we need to see an extended series of small gradual structural changes (under neo-Darwinism, these are genetic mutations leaving effects at the phenotypic level) that continually improve, or at least maintain, function, with evolving functions and evolving structures covarying and reinforcing each other. But we know of no detailed testable (macro-)evolutionary pathways like this in any field, whether in the evolution of living forms or in the evolution of language or in the evolution of technologies. In fact, when we can trace such evolutionary pathways, we find that significant change happens in creative leaps, not via trial and error tinkering.

Everyone who has read Dembski’s opening remarks in this four-part series is raving about the quality of what he’s written. I was hoping to wait for the response before publishing his opening salvo, so we could balance it, but no reply has appeared yet. For me, there is only one issue in the debate about the origin of life: if natural causes can create life from non-life with the time and resources available on the early Earth, then show me the mechanism. That’s all I want to see – the evidence that natural causes can do the creating that the naturalists say that it can do. I don’t want to hear about feelings, possibilities, what God could or couldn’t do, philosophy, what church you attend, your favorite hymn, the way you were raised, your religious experiences, etc. I just want to see you prove that nature can do all the creating that you say it can do.

10 thoughts on “William Dembski reviews a new book by two theistic evolutionists”

  1. wintery knight what is your view on theistic evolution? is it compatible with New testament bible. (in a few sentences)


  2. Dude…really? John Lennox, Alistair McGrath, Alvin Plantinga, Frank Beckwith, Edward Feser…these guys are all atheists?

    I wasn’t sure about Plantinga – I know he’s a fan of intelligent design, but not necessarily Intelligent Design. Here’s a quote:

    Like any Christian (and indeed any theist), I believe that the world has been created by God, and hence “intelligently designed.” The hallmark of intelligent design, however, is the claim that this can be shown scientifically; I’m dubious about that. …As far as I can see, God certainly could have used Darwinian processes to create the living world and direct it as he wanted to go; hence evolution as such does not imply that there is no direction in the history of life. What does have that implication is not evolutionary theory itself, but unguided evolution, the idea that neither God nor any other person has taken a hand in guiding, directing or orchestrating the course of evolution. But the scientific theory of evolution, sensibly enough, says nothing one way or the other about divine guidance. It doesn’t say that evolution is divinely guided; it also doesn’t say that it isn’t. Like almost any theist, I reject unguided evolution; but the contemporary scientific theory of evolution just as such—apart from philosophical or theological add-ons—doesn’t say that evolution is unguided. Like science in general, it makes no pronouncements on the existence or activity of God.[41]

    41 “Evolution, Shibboleths, and Philosophers”. The Chronicle of Higher Education. April 11, 2010. http://chronicle.com/article/Evolution-Shibboleths-and/64990/. Retrieved 2010-04-28.


    1. I’m just giving my opinion. He asked, I answered.

      If you presuppose that no scientific evidence of intelligent causes could ever be found in the history of the universe and life, then I think that presupposition of naturalism makes you an atheist. I am not sure if the people in your list would presuppose that science can never find evidence that natural causes are incapable of producing some effect.

      And what did I say about “God could…”? I am not interested in what God could and couldn’t do, Stephen. :) I only want to know what the science shows. I don’t really want to hear whether Plantinga is or is not a Christian – that is useless info to me when it comes to science. I’m not interested in what Plantinga believes, personally – or what scientific picture of the world he is willing or not willing to accommodate, given his stated beliefs. I want to see Plantinga’s scientific publications showing the naturalistic origin of life, or his proof that intelligent causes are necessary for life. I only care about what he can prove in the lab, one way or the other.


  3. Is there a form of belief in evolution that is not atheism? Something like: “God made the first cell and used evolution afterwards?” or what about “God created a universe that would inevitably produce life.” Neither of those are atheistic views but are compatible with evolution, even Darwinian evolution. You say on your site it is possible to be a Christian without believing in inerrancy so by that I assume you think Christians can have origins views that contradict Genesis as long as they still believe in Jesus’ resurrection. I think Collins believes in a literal resurrection, which means he can’t be an atheist (or at least a materialist).


    1. Thing is, evolution is based on ‘chance’, the propagation of evolution is by ‘chance’, but ‘chance’ doesn’t exist.


    2. Christian Theistic Evolutionists would certainly propose that there is. The website mentioned at the beginning of this article is as fine a place for the defense of that view that I’ve seen (biologos.com).

      To be a Christian Evolutionist, you must make an important break with the darwinian position that random chance is the primary mechanism, and insert in its place the fine and minute control of a sovereign God. WK would like to disallow this move. I would prefer to let people speak for themselves and then examine whether what they say makes any sense.

      I’ve had some very nice conversations with one of the Biologos contributors who is also an experimental biologist at a major university, who openly admits that the observed limits of variation within a species (horses can only get so big w/o compromising health, certain traits of dogs can only be pushed so far w/o compromising health are easily understandable examples of this) and especially as that relates to no reliable observed cases of speciation, “are still major problems.”

      When your whole theory is that one species becomes another or many others, when speciation is a problem, it’s a major problem indeed.

      For me, this would make them inconsistent in applying their thoughts and evidence or unduly influenced by secular assumptions… but not atheists. That’s a bit harsh.


      1. “To be a Christian Evolutionist, you must make an important break with the darwinian position that random chance is the primary mechanism, and insert in its place the fine and minute control of a sovereign God.”

        Right. So the only question to be decided is this question: is the break something subjective – about the mental state of the person who is making the break – or is it objective? – about a rationally compelling state of affairs detected using the ordinary mechanisms of science? For a theistic evolutionist, the break is similar to the break where a child believes in Santa Claus because of wishing and peer pressure and the desire to be good to get more presents. For the theistic design theorist, the break is made on the basis of probability theory, information theory and lab experiments on proteins or fossils.

        If that Biologos guy thinks that the limits on speciation, which I fully agree with, constitutes objective evidence in the insufficiency of material and natural causes to account for the history of life in some respect, then he is no theistic evolutionist on my view, but a genuine theist.


        1. Right! Good! Man, I feel like giving you a hug right now. :)

          So the question, and the area that I’d urge caution in, is how far do we have to require people be absolutely consistent in what they say, think, and do before we’ll accept them as Christian enough for us?

          If someone confesses Christ as Lord, the only way to salvation, eternally a member of the Trinity, and by the power of the Holy Spirit seeks to glorify Him in word and deed, I’m inclined to call him or her brother, even if they interpret Song of Songs allegorically, believe that God used evolutionary mechanism, votes democrat, is left handed, likes Qeubecois, thinks Acts espouses socialism, thinks that Superman is better than Batman, prefers the Calvinist view of limited atonement, and plays rap music loudly.

          I think this particular dividing line, right along with young earth/old earth arguments, is very damaging to the unity to which Jesus calls us and unnecessarily so. We can talk about these things, present evidence for these things, press people for consistency in these things, and all within the family of believers who love each other.

          Impugning an explicitly Christian group (biologos writers) as atheistic just isn’t helpful. Given that you’d allow what I said to make them theists and not atheists, I wonder if you’d be willing to read what they themselves posit and amend some dividing statements?


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