What is theistic evolution? Can a person believe in God and evolution at the same time?

Was Mount Rushmore designed?
Was Mount Rushmore designed?

Here’s a post on Evolution News that explains what theistic evolution is:

Three geologists stand at the foot of Mt. Rushmore. The first geologist says, “This mountain depicts perfectly the faces of four U.S. Presidents, it must be the work of a master sculptor.” The second says, “You are a geologist, you should know that all mountains were created by natural forces, such as volcanoes and plate movements, the details were then sculpted by erosion from water and wind. How could you possibly think this was the work of an intelligent sculptor? Only a person completely ignorant of geophysics could think those faces were designed.”

The third geologist says to himself, “I don’t want to be seen as ignorant, but the faces in this mountain sure do look like they were designed.” So he thinks a moment and says to the second geologist, “Of course you are right, these faces were sculpted by natural forces such as erosion. Only an ignorant person would think they were designed.” Then he turns to the first and says, “But what a magnificent result, there obviously must have been a master sculptor standing by and watching.”

The third geologist is a theistic evolutionist. Someone who thinks that God did nothing detectable by science in the whole history of the universe, but who also loves to talk about their religious experience and what hymns they like to sing in church. Synonyms for this definition of theistic evolution are “supernaturalist naturalism” and “theistic atheism”. I like the latter, myself. Theistic atheism. Atheism at work for my colleagues on Monday, and theism in the church for my pastor on Sundays.

Now if you call yourself a theistic evolutionist, but you think that intelligent design is detectable in nature by non-theists doing ordinary science with ordinary scientific methods, then you are not a theistic evolutionist according to this definition. This post is not describing you.

You can listen to a debate on theistic evolution between Michael Behe and theistic evolutionist Keith Fox right here to decide if theistic evolution is true. A summary is provided for those who prefer to read instead of listen.

14 thoughts on “What is theistic evolution? Can a person believe in God and evolution at the same time?”

  1. I’m not sure how accepting common descent and the modern synthesis is synonymous with atheism.

    Personally, I am swayed to my Christian theism by the cosmological argument (God is the best and most rational explanation for the existence of the universe) the fine tuning argument (the universe was created for conscious life) and the Christological argument (Jesus Christ demonstrated that God exists by his resurrection from the dead).

    I don’t ask this in a trollish fashion – I long ago abandoned my young earth creationism and at the time felt no need to argue against modern evolutionary theory, nor at any time feel that abandoning YEC meant abandoning my Christian beliefs.

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    1. I don’t think that YEC and naturalistic evolution are the only alternatives. The real question is whether you think that there is scientific evidence for an intelligence acting in nature subsequent to the Big Bang. All of these groups: YEC alone, YEC/ID, OEC alone, OEC ID, and ID alone think that there is evidence. I myself fit in with the OEC/ID camp. I think that we can use ordinary naturalistic methods of science to show that an intelligence HAS ACTED in nature, objectively. I.e. – the same way that we infer that the Rosetta stone was designed or computer code was designed.

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      1. Hi WCG,

        Like Michael Behe, I think the evidence for common descent is pretty strong. The ID argument that correlation among DNA across species can imply common design as well as common descent is a good one, but there are other issues involved that are currently tilting me more toward a common descent model.

        One of the biggest problems for me is the ease with which scientists have been able to go through the genome of different animals and identify certain genes, often inactivated, that are in the same precise places on the genome for a wide variety of animals and now sit in our genome in broken form. Genes that used to be functional are found to have lost their function due to mutation, but still reside in the genomes of later animals.

        I know the refrain will be “they have found function for junk DNA!”, and that is true to a point, but when you actually look at what they categorize as function for some of these genes it is pretty weak tea – as far as I’ve understood it, if a protein merely binded at the site, according to Encode, the gene was recorded as functional, even if it did nothing else. That protein binding could be a totally random, meaningless event in the cell nucleus, not real function. If that characterization is incorrect I would be very happy to know that, but so far that is what I have understood. So it really isn’t clear yet how functional “junk DNA” really is. Its function may be oversold by ID proponents seeking to avoid common descent.

        Also, it’s one thing to say that a piece of junk DNA has some kind of regulatory or structural function – that is fine, but when you actually look at the details it sure does support a common descent view, because of where and what these genes are. For instance, most mammals can make their own Vitamin C, but primates cannot. We have to get it from our diet. If you look in the genome, all the primates have the exact same gene that other mammals have that allow them to make Vitamin C in their livers, only the GULO genes in primates have been deactivated through mutation. The fact that it is the same gene, in the same place in the genome, and has the same deactivation points in all the primates certainly strongly suggests common descent. Clearly, somewhere in the primate line that gene was deactivated and all animals from that point forward, included humans, still retain the gene in the same place as all other mammals, but with certain parts knocked out that make it non-functional. Even if you can say it retains some kind of regulatory function or structural function, which I’m not sure if you can at this point, you have to ask why a designer would use a clearly broken gene that used to have another function, that sits in the same place on the genome as the functional versions do in other animals… isn’t the most simple explanation that the gene was common to all mammals but was made inoperative yet was retained as “junk” during primate evolution? I mean, it is the same gene other animals have, in the same place, only a non-working version.

        Similarly, human beings still retain a deactivated form of a gene, again in the same place on the genome as in other animals, that in other animals makes a protein to make the hard shells for laying eggs. Humans don’t lay hard shell eggs… why would we have a broken form of such a gene… in the same place no less… as do these other animals, unless it were just what it appears to be – a broken version of a no-longer used gene that helps earlier forms of animal life make shells for their eggs? That is in our genome.

        I’m very sympathetic to ID, but lately I’ve come to appreciate the Behe position much more as I’ve looked into issues such as this. If you have reasons that these points are mistaken I would love to hear them. I don’t see nearly the problem with theistic evolution that WK does (can get into that later), but I’d be happy to abandon common descent if the evidence allowed.

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        1. Thank you, David, for the outstanding reply! Just a few questions, mostly on the philosophical realm:

          1. Do you think that the high percentage of non-coding DNA / pseudogenes in the genome makes a better argument for common descent / indirect theistic evolution or creationism?

          2. If such a high percentage of pseudogenes are common in the same places in the genome between widely differing species (e.g., anemones versus humans), is that a fair argument that ‘junk’ DNA is really what decides the differences amongst species? Is this also a reasonable speculation that groups of such genes might, in addition, form the basis for immunity development or some other higher ordered species function?

          3. If the deactivated ‘eggshell’ gene is truly completely non-functional, why wouldn’t indirect theistic evolution have cleaned it out after all this time? As you stated, humans don’t lay eggs.

          4. How about the fact that humans and guinea pigs share a loss of GULO functionality in the same exons, yet are not supposed to be in the same ascent line (past rodents)? Is that a valid argument for undiscovered functionality?

          5. Do you consider the Bible in your weighing, either with regard to the Genesis account or the implications of indirect theistic evolution on Christian doctrine?

          Thanks, David, for your patience!

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          1. Hi WGC,

            I am not at all an expert here, so I must qualify my answers as such. I’m just a very interested layman on these matters, so if anybody would like to pipe in to make corrections I’d be happy to hear them. To answer your questions now (as best I can):

            1. I tread on the pseudogene issue lightly, as I am wary of Darwinian propaganda, which is rife and often overstated. So at this point I must say that, if it is indeed like the Darwinists claim, that pseudogenes are without any real function then I think that certainly points to common descent, which would most broadly be understood, I believe, as best fitting a theistic evolutionist or naturalistic paradigm because the various “kinds” are not arising de novo but coming in slight degrees from past animals.

            However, I think naturalism has a lot of other very serious problems, both in and out of the evolution debate, so if what I said above is the case then theistic evolution is clearly where I come down. Of course, there are many meanings to what constitutes “theistic evolution” – some descriptions of it come right up to the doorstep of what we call Intelligent Design. I actually don’t have any dog in the fight concerning HOW God created the animal kingdom and human beings. One spectrum would be God intervening in how certain things mutate and go together over time in a way that could not happen by random chance and natural selection, which is intelligent design in every respect except using common descent as its delivery system over time rather than de novo creation. This would be called theistic evolution by many, and I don’t see a problem with it theologically. It is ID with common descent – what’s the big deal?

            The other end of the spectrum is the idea that what seems like random chance and natural selection is a game that has really been “rigged” by God since the beginning of time to get His desired outcome. So the very nature of the laws and make up of the universe, down to the number of atoms, amount of energy, etc., were put in place from the begging of time in a way that would produce the biological outcome God wanted – even allowing for the later free will of creatures and the miracles and interventions God knew he would be performing in history to work alongside the natural laws. Again, this is just Middle Knowledge taken to its logical extreme, so I don’t see how Molinism can work for people and not for nature and biology – why can’t God get to where we are now through that same method in biology? This would be the other end of theistic evolution, and again, I don’t understand why it gets people so worked up. Naturalism fails on so many other levels that I don’t know why we find it necessary to restrict God to one human-preferred method of creation.

            2. This is a very interesting speculation. I’m afraid I am not versed enough in the issues here to be able to assess it, but my first inclination is that it may have some problems, because different animals also have vastly different amounts of DNA, and it has nothing to do with perceived complexity of the animal. Certain amoebas, for instance, has far more DNA than we do, and I believe onions and other such examples are the same way. So if you are saying there is a genetic plan that is endemic to all, with only some parts deactivated in some that ends up creating species, then I don’t believe that is correct, though it is a very neat idea. But somebody with more knowledge than myself can probably discuss this better than I.

            3. The idea with junk DNA is that a previously working gene is broken, but that the breaking of that gene has no deleterious effect on the organism – perhaps it was already being superseded by some other process or something, or its loss was easy to adapt to, or what have you, but the point is that the deactivation of the gene does not cause harm to the organism, so it keeps getting copied as organisms reproduce as a set of harmless “junk” that is just inherited in the genome. If the deactivation was harmful, then natural selection would weed it out. But since it was neutral, it can keep getting passed on with no problem, even though now it doesn’t do anything more than just take up space.

            But again, I don’t feel too comfortable discussing junk DNA, as ID proponents make a sharp case that it is functional and that we are finding more function for it all the time. They may be right. I don’t know. The only thing that got me thinking about it was the specificity of these pseudogenes, that they seem to be clearly broken genes from past parts a newer animal no longer needs. They look the same and are in the same places on the genome, etc. That seems to strengthen the common descent argument quite a bit, but again, I am not an expert here.

            4. That guinea pig GULO example is a good one. The naturalist would just say that this particular set of mutations is bound to happen in other animals and so it’s not surprising we see some other examples of the same deactivated points in other animals. They would not be unjustified in claiming this, as test on bacteria in the lab have shown that often times the same mutations will occur in certain prone spots on every strain they run a certain experiment on. So some mutations seem prone to occurring given a long enough timescale, it seems. Perhaps the GULO gene is one such case? Or perhaps it is a good example of some design feature we merely don’t understand yet at this point.

            5. I am here just talking about what we are seeing in the Book of Nature, so I’m not considering the Bible in terms of trying to falsify what science is showing. I do think one must consider the Bible in order to interpret some things, which is why I’ll gladly make interpretations of certain facts that run counter to naturalistic interpretations when they come up. For instance, the idea that common features can mean common design just as much as common descent. That is an interpretation that comes from a Biblical worldview. But some facts, such as some I’ve discussed here, are difficult to interpret in a more traditional way. I know that we are constantly expanding our knowledge of the Book of Nature, and I also believe we are still expanding our knowledge in the Book of Special Revelation through Scripture. I don’t at all think we “have it all figured out” there, and so I’m very willing to take a look at our assumptions on interpretation of revelation as well as with science. In the case of Genesis, there are longstanding disagreements in terms of the literalness of the number of days or age of the earth, say, and there are also difference in terms of what Christians believe the text is trying to communicate. I think theistic evolution fits fine in that framework. God created the Universe and Man, and Man’s sin nature through his free will has caused this to be a fallen place. That is what the first chapters of Genesis seem to be communicating and I don’t know why theistic evolution can’t fit with those truths.

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          2. I don’t have time to reply to all of this, but I think you are too skeptical of intelligent design.

            You write:

            But again, I don’t feel too comfortable discussing junk DNA, as ID proponents make a sharp case that it is functional and that we are finding more function for it all the time. They may be right. I don’t know. The only thing that got me thinking about it was the specificity of these pseudogenes, that they seem to be clearly broken genes from past parts a newer animal no longer needs. They look the same and are in the same places on the genome, etc. That seems to strengthen the common descent argument quite a bit, but again, I am not an expert here.

            I’m going to contrast your “I don’t know” with this:
            https://winteryknight.wordpress.com/2012/09/06/new-peer-reviewed-paper-in-nature-falsifies-darwinian-junk-dna-prediction/

            Quote:

            A groundbreaking paper in Nature reports the results of the Encyclopedia of DNA Elements (ENCODE) project, which has detected evidence of function for the “vast majority” of the human genome. Titled “An integrated encyclopedia of DNA elements in the human genome,” the paper finds an “unprecedented number of functional elements,” where “a surprisingly large amount of the human genome” appears functional. Based upon current knowledge, the paper concludes that at least 80% of the human genome is now known to be functional:

            The Encyclopedia of DNA Elements (ENCODE) project has systematically mapped regions of transcription, transcription factor association, chromatin structure and histone modification. These data enabled us to assign biochemical functions for 80% of the genome, in particular outside of the well-studied protein-coding regions. Many discovered candidate regulatory elements are physically associated with one another and with expressed genes, providing new insights into the mechanisms of gene regulation.

            (The ENCODE Project Consortium, “An integrated encyclopedia of DNA elements in the human genome,” Nature, Vol. 489:57-74 (September 6, 2012) (emphasis added))

            Although there is good evidence for common descent, there is also good evidence against it, specifically from convergence.

            Look here:
            http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2013/09/130904132548.htm

            Quote:

            The evolution of similar traits in different species, a process known as convergent evolution, is widespread not only at the physical level, but also at the genetic level, according to new research led by scientists at Queen Mary University of London and published in Nature this week.

            The scientists investigated the genomic basis for echolocation, one of the most well-known examples of convergent evolution to examine the frequency of the process at a genomic level.

            Echolocation is a complex physical trait that involves the production, reception and auditory processing of ultrasonic pulses for detecting unseen obstacles or tracking down prey, and has evolved separately in different groups of bats and cetaceans (including dolphins).

            The scientists carried out one of the largest genome-wide surveys of its type to discover the extent to which convergent evolution of a physical feature involves the same genes.

            They compared genomic sequences of 22 mammals, including the genomes of bats and dolphins, which independently evolved echolocation, and found genetic signatures consistent with convergence in nearly 200 different genomic regions concentrated in several ‘hearing genes’.

            […]Consistent with an involvement in echolocation, signs of convergence among bats and the bottlenose dolphin were seen in many genes previously implicated in hearing or deafness.

            “We had expected to find identical changes in maybe a dozen or so genes but to see nearly 200 is incredible,” explains Dr Joe Parker, from Queen Mary’s School of Biological and Chemical Sciences and first author on the paper.

            “We know natural selection is a potent driver of gene sequence evolution, but identifying so many examples where it produces nearly identical results in the genetic sequences of totally unrelated animals is astonishing.”

            And another:
            http://www.sciencemag.org/content/338/6109/968.abstract

            Quote:

            In mammals, hearing is dependent on three canonical processing stages: (i) an eardrum collecting sound, (ii) a middle ear impedance converter, and (iii) a cochlear frequency analyzer. Here, we show that some insects, such as rainforest katydids, possess equivalent biophysical mechanisms for auditory processing. Although katydid ears are among the smallest in all organisms, these ears perform the crucial stage of air-to-liquid impedance conversion and signal amplification, with the use of a distinct tympanal lever system. Further along the chain of hearing, spectral sound analysis is achieved through dispersive wave propagation across a fluid substrate, as in the mammalian cochlea. Thus, two phylogenetically remote organisms, katydids and mammals, have evolved a series of convergent solutions to common biophysical problems, despite their reliance on very different morphological substrates.

            I don’t think common descent is true because of convergence. But there are other arguments against it as well. The disagreements between molecular phylogenies and morphological phylogenies is another argument.

            And there’s also this:
            http://www.nature.com/nature/journal/v463/n7280/full/nature08700.html

            And this:
            http://www.evolutionnews.org/2012/03/gorilla_genome_057391.html

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          3. Thanks WK! Convergence seems to be a great argument. I saw something like that elsewhere. Here is a long article on pseudogenes that I found. http://www.detectingdesign.com/pseudogenes.html It is fairly deep – for me anyway, and I think it is going after pure naturalism more than theistic evolution. But, it does bring up some issues that relate to indirect theistic evolution, IMO.

            David, I just wanted to thank you for spending so much time and thought on your replies – I really appreciate that! The only thing I want to add on point 3 is that there seems to be an energy cost associated with carrying broken genes, even if neutral, and that this becomes more of a problem the longer the timespan. Doesn’t mean it can’t happen of course.

            On point 5, I do think there are doctrinal implications to indirect theistic evolution (not necessary direct theistic evolution) that go beyond the Genesis narrative and the “age of days” issue. These are bigger issues under Darwinism of course. I found this article on Biola when I was looking at Behe’s work: http://magazine.biola.edu/article/11-fall/theistic-evolution-isnt-fit-for-survival/ I have seen young earth attacked in several places, including Mark Whorton’s book “Peril in Paradise.” I do find his arguments to be very interesting, but not overly compelling.

            Thanks again, David! I learned tons from your replies!

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  2. Outstanding! That was me – the 3rd geologist – desperately trying to hold onto my Carl Sagan religion, even as God was dragging me kicking and screaming away from it.

    Our age desperately needs to learn the difference between intellect and wisdom. I fear we will – just as I did – the hard way.

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    1. Well, to be fair, the new evidence for things like origin of life, Cambrian explosion and habitability are NEW. Only in the last 60 years have these things come out clear.

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  3. Certainly there is design there but I wonder, what about the granite from which the faces are formed? Is the granite designed or random. I would argue that the granite was certainly the result of design. In fact everything in that picture is a product of intelligent design but what test could I make that would provide evidence to support my hypothesis? I am not sure. Joel

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    1. Clearly there is a combination of natural law and chance and intelligence at work. The main thing though is that intelligence is detectable objectively. It’s not a subjective opinion.

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  4. I’m in the middle of reading a book right now, it is a critical analysis of Charles Darwin by Jerry Bergman. While evolution does have some truths, especially when it comes to the geographical origins of mankind (East Africa), I think accepting the whole evolutionary theory could at some point clash with Christianity, if said person is a fundamentalist of some sort.

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