Students everywhere face this challenge. So do adults. It is a hard question – what if “evolution” is true? The consequences are serious no matter how one answers the question. But the world does not end if we get the question wrong. (Many evolutionists have difficulty with some of the issues that come up, so don’t worry.) And evolution is not a system that can be either built up or destroyed in a single bit of writing. The alternative is to help define terms so that we understand both science and evolution for what they are.
#1 Evolution is a big term. It has several uses. But unfortunately it is often used in such vague manner that the listener might get confused. The first meaning in science is “common descent with modification.” That is both specific (it is talking about life and transitions) and general (it says nothing about how things happen). It is also used to say “any change” and thus mean something even more vague. Like “the team evolved into something better this season.” Scientists do get more specific and use it to refer to their preferred “evolutionary model” as a way of describing the process.
A little discernment can be useful. Here’s a hypothetical situation, a trap that is sometimes set: Students will be asked by a teacher if they accept genetics as the source of change for things like eye color and hair color. After affirming that statement the teacher will suggest that they now accept “evolution” and then proceed to discuss the development of species. This is deceptive at best. While genetics is certainly a contributor to the evolutionary process it is not the same thing as the development of a new species. Genetics is not evolution. They are two different animals. In this hypothetical situation the teacher uses the term in two different senses for the purpose of persuasion. It may have been a persuasive argument but it was not a good one.
#2 Darwin did not originate the idea of evolution. He is also not the source for our modern ideas on the subject. In ancient Greece there were several descent theories though they were not at all the same as Darwin’s “common descent.” And in the 1700s Carolus Linnaeus built hierarchy of apparent animal relationships. Around the same time Jean-Baptiste Lamarck suggested that the use of an organ could change its characteristics, like the height of a giraffe’s neck. All of these and more contributed to Darwin’s theory.
This is nothing new. These ideas came and went as cultures and societies changed. Darwinism came came about while two important while Western society was going through two phases. First, the industrial revolution provided a very mechanical view of life. It was efficient. It was productive. And society accepted it this as the norm. Along with this came a progressive view of history. It is both theological and political. It was believed that the world can be made better and that it is getting better.
These two movements blended nicely. Both of these can be seen as contributing to Darwin’s materialistic view of life and his sense that somehow, in some way, species must evolve into something better. This is the principle of direction that is a part of all evolutionary theory. Of course there is no explanation as to why this direction is there. It is accepted without question and often without an awareness that the question even exists.
#3 Not all modern evolution is “Darwinian.” Darwin proposed that common descent with modification had its source in behavior. Some of that behavior was sex selection as with humans. With other creatures it was the behavior struggles to survive which improved the species. He left some questions unanswered and he was missing some information that came to be understood much better at a later time. The unanswered questions and missing information got some possible answers through the next two principles.
#4 The “neo-Darwinists” suggested that genetics played a major role. Scientists such as Gould, Eldridge, Mayr, Haldane, and others gave Darwin’s theory this new twist. Behavior was no longer the sole determiner of change. Genetics is now a co-participant in change. But like Darwin’s theory this new system was unguided and without purpose.
The work of Mendel contributed heavily to this idea. His famous cross-breeding of peas and such contributed greatly to early twentieth century work in this new field. So scientists blended the behavior theory of Darwin with the genetics of Mendel. This came to be known as the “synthesis.”
There are two different versions of this synthesis. There was the original by Mayr, Haldane, and others, and the later one from Gould and Eldridge. The difference is in understanding how fast things must act once genes get involved. Gould and Eldridge said that these changes would occur quite quickly – they had to because that’s the nature of genes. Features change quickly when genes change. Gould and Eldridge suggested that in history some periods of change went slowly (equilibrium) and in other periods things happened quite quickly (punctuated). Hence “punctuated equilibrium” became their version of the synthesis.
The twentieth century also became the century of empirical science. Genetic material was being worked with in hands-on experiments. This capacity provided strong support for Darwin’s materialistic worldview. It also promoted the idea that only those things that can be tested are real. Things which cannot be tested are assumed to not exist.
#5 New proposals from Stephen Wolfram (mathematics, A New Kind of Science) and James Shapiro (genetics) take this a step further. They have suggested a driven system. Wolfram explains this drive in terms of a complex computer program that progressively adds to itself, continually growing more and more complex. James Shapiro suggests that the complex structure of DNA and other complex genetic materials drive the system. No longer is evolution an unguided system. It is now an internally guided and driven system.
This approach attempts to answer the question of why anything must evolve. This question is a tough one for evolutionists although I suspect few really understand the seriousness of its implications. For any entity to have its own purpose programmed into its system raises serious concerns about how unguided the system really is.
#6 All of these theories are scientific. Of course all of them might be wrong and each of them might be correct to some degree. The difficulty is figuring out which is most correct or on the right track to being correct. There are competent scientists who hold to each of these suggested explanations. Just because something is scientific does not mean that it correct.
#7 “Darwinism” is no longer the best or even the most common term to describe evolution. Though there remain a few who accept his behavior-driven suggestion, the remainder have accepted one of the neo-Darwinian options. We are in the age of “neo-Darwinism.”
#8 Naturalism is the idea that the material world, the world that we can test, is all that exists. (That’s short for “metaphysical naturalism” as some readers might take issue.) Naturalism is not evolution. Naturalism is not even science. Naturalism says that there is no God (or that at best God is not involved). When someone suggests that in all of the tests being done that they have never seen God, just remind them there are no physical tests for God. There are also no physical tests for the mind. Some subjects occur outside of physical testing.
All science is done in the context of presuppositions – things that are assumed to be true. This is where naturalism exists. Even these exist in historical context. Darwin wrote in one context where the mechanical world directly affected his thoughts and ideas. The neo-Darwinists wrote in another world, one where physical testing was the new rule of the day. And today’s mathematically driven theories are coming about in the era of computing power and a digital view of the world. None of the three may be separated from their history. Each may be viewed as limited by their history. When we leave this era of computing then the ideas of Wolfram and Shapiro will be rejected just as were their predecessors.
#9 Evolution is not empirical science, the practice of testing the physical world. Some science is done by way of hands-on testing — that’s what “empirical” means. But it is also done by building a “model” to explain events. A “model” is a way of framing information so that it makes sense. The “evolutionary model” is an historical model. Other models include predictive models like weather forecasts, emulation, and a couple other types. Evolution was not built according to the rules of the hands-on tests that we did in high school. At the same time, neither are questions about God subject to that same old rule.
#10 No evolutionary model is absolutely conclusive in its results. Sherlock Holmes’ “deductive” reasoning does not apply here. Evolution is an explanatory historical model. It seeks to explain history of the biological world. Models are an argument from inference. It is an attempt to assemble information to reach a desired conclusion. That conclusion is the assumption which started the process.
Many times these inferences are in error because the model itself is built around some faulty assumptions. Sometimes the information that is used to construct the model is wrong – like the never-existing brontosaurus. But bad information does not mean that the model is entirely wrong. It does means that conclusions drawn from the model will be in error.
Courtroom situations also use explanatory model. The conclusion that one might arrive at is by way of inference from the evidence – is there enough evidence to rule one way or the other? But this inference does not come from the information in the model – it comes from the model itself. So while a conclusion may be “beyond reasonable doubt” that does not mean it reflects reality. We hear of these regularly: There may be enough evidence to convict a person though that person may be completely innocent of the crime. So also without the right evidence and the right amount of evidence the guilty sometimes go free. That is one of the issues with an argument from inference. The weight that the jury gives evidence may be different than what the prosecutor or defense attorney anticipate. The “facts” used may be unchanged for either situation. But in the end it is not so much about the facts but about how the facts are framed and the weight given. The weight given evidence and the sufficiency of evidence are equally serious issues in evolutionary theory and contribute to its changes over the past 150 years.
Science is not the search for knowledge and truth. It has no answer to the questions of right and wrong. It is the study of the natural world. Science is not something we serve but something which serves us. The Christian need not fear an approach to a science which is generally unwilling to ask itself doubting questions but instead sets itself up an the unquestionable orthodoxy. It is the ability to ask these questions which can make the Christian the more productive scientist.