Why Not Theistic Evolution?
Updated: Jul 25
With a review first of Creationism Types
"Science wants to know the mechanism of the universe, religion the meaning. The two cannot be separated." ~ Charles Townes, Physicist
Creationism refers to those who believe God had a hand somehow in the formation of species. Of course it also entails other topics such as the origin of the universe and the origin of life (see my posts about the Big Bang and also abiogenesis). I will argue that with what science has discovered the only viable creationism left for theists is theistic evolution, or as some prefer to rebrand it, evolutionary creationism. I will refer to this creationism with it’s older, better known term theistic evolution (TE) but acknowledge the advantages of the new term for them. I will also assert that although this is the only creationism that can accommodate science now, it suffers from other mortal flaws, leaving all forms of creationism ultimately unable to form a foundation for religious and agnostic worldviews. Lastly I will further posit that all forms of creationism will be unable to ever have a viable origin narrative that is both scientifically sound and also not suffering from other refutations. These will be detailed.
The major creationism types that have tried to accommodate science and also stay true to their Abrahamic scriptures number about 4.2 billion believers of the 8 billion humans alive today. I am not addressing the 1.2 billion Hindus and 500 million Buddhists (1) but plan to write about major religious beliefs in the future.
The major types of Biblical creationisms today in my opinion are Gap, Day-Age, Figurative, Young Earth (AIG, ICR, CMI organizations), Progressive (RTB organization), and Theistic Evolution (TE). Young Earth Creationism (YEC) claims the universe and earth are less than 10,000 years old, that there was a global Noachian Flood, an Ark and other literal interpretations of Genesis. All the others are various Old Earth Creationisms (OECs).
Gap creationism proposes that there are billions of years between Genesis 1:1 and 1:2. Day-Age Creationism suggests that each day of the creation week can be millions or billions of years based on 2 Peter 3:8 (a day to the Lord is as a thousand years). These two attempts to accommodate Genesis with science addressed mainly the geological findings and radiometric dating but did not adequately deal with evolution well and so are not popular today.
A Figurative approach basically assigns Genesis to metaphor, analogy, hyperbole, or other more liberal interpretations. It is rejected by the conservative Abrahamic religions as sacrificing too much of the scriptures to literature and mythology and so is usually not acceptable to them.
Progressive creationism, championed by Hugh Ross and Reasons to Believe (RTB), accepts an old universe and earth but further explains the geological column as successive whole extinction events and repeated complete new creations by God. This idea of repeated cycles of mass extinctions by God so new species could be de novo created each time without evolution. Thus the denial of transitional fossils existing (for example to prepare the earth for humankind's need for fossil fuels) traces back to Cuvier (d. 1832) He postulated the same solution to explain all the fossils he was identifying. He called these episodic mass extinctions "revolutions". Before Cuvier most people rejected fossils and extinctions because that idea did not fit with their concept of Biblical creation, as God declared everything good at the end of the creation week. Reasons To Believe also holds tightly to a historical Adam and Eve and denies human evolution.
YECs are the most scientifically radical. In order to hold to this interpretation of Genesis, they must redefine laws of physics (radiometric decay and red shift, for example), redefine geology and anthropology (glaciation, plate tectonics, the geological column, etc.), reject all of evolution and it’s evidence including DNA findings and paleontology, and insert a global year long flood, an Ark, a Tower of Babel to explain languages, belief in a talking snake and donkey, and belief that people once lived to nearly nearly 1,000 years. To them women have extreme pain and sometimes die in childbirth because two people ate fruit suggested by a talking snake from the wrong tree God specifically put in the middle of a special garden so they would not miss it. They reject the evolution of bipedalism and changes to the female pelvis documented in the fossil record that makes giving birth to a large headed primate difficult. They are also prodigious in their publications and probably account for 95% or more of the creationism articles and videos on the Internet. I will be writing in the future about how YECism basically must thus wrap themselves with a cloak of conspiracy thinking at this level of denial and rejection of settled science.
The other consideration is that many people construct a personal and unique creationism (and also worldview) of their own, often combining many different aspects of an origin narrative thus producing a mosaic or mash-up of ideas. This may be very true of the “nones” in America, that although not religious, often are spiritual or agnostic towards theology in some way. So it is vital that when discussing origin narratives, assumptions are not made about what the person believes; ask them specifics. Unfortunately, many people may not be aware of inconsistencies in their species origin narratives. Their simple answer may just be an insufficient “Goddidit”.
Theistic Evolution/Evolutionary Creationism
I have demonstrated on this site with just two examples - whale evolution and a DNA discovery that rises to the level of proof of human evolution (see ERVs; also see Human Chromosome 2 fusion, DNA repair patches and pseudogenes) - that evolution is true. Evolution is settled science (see Evolution. Also see "How We Found Out Evolution Is True," a wonderful short TEDx presentation by John van Wyhe ). Mechanisms for how it occurred are still debated but not that it did occur. Given that evolution is no longer debated in science, all creationisms except TE suffer from rejecting evolution, almost always rejecting human evolution and in some cases not even addressing it. Figurative creationism is generally rejected by Abrahamic believers themselves since it sacrifices too much in their view of the original scriptural meaning. It makes a mockery of their core beliefs by assigning too much to mythology.
There are a few variations of TE - the idea that God used or allowed evolution to create extinct and extant species. The leader of the Catholic Church has accepted evolution officially, but still needs a historical Adam for "The Fall", and a "soul" that somehow was imparted at one time into the human race or our ancestors. Recall that genomics has demonstrated that humans never were down to 2, or 8 off a boat; we never went below 3,000 - 10,000 individuals. The Pope can zap a person called Adam into a past population but not everyone will be derived from this man thus making original sin negated. Well respected physicists now argue that physics demonstrates that people can't have a "soul". I will be writing about that in the future. Michael Behe, of Intelligent Design fame who is also a Catholic, accepts evolution but rejects Darwin’s natural selection mechanism as not being powerful enough to change species above the Family level of classification. He posits that God must be involved in evolution at higher levels. God the Great Tinkerer - and there is no evidence for that. The evangelical William Lane Craig, one of the most prodigious debaters for conservative Christianity, now publicly accepts human evolution in his writings but has a modern Adam being created by God at the time of Homo heidelbergensis and then somehow replacing that hominin population with the new, modern guy on the block that is injected into earth's history from above. Joshua Swamidass accepts human evolution but has God creating a garden and Adam 6,000 years ago only to see Adam’s DNA spreading around the world and completing its journey just in time for Jesus to arrive and save the world 2,000 years ago. All of these variations of TE contain unproven religious desires injected into evolution, hoping again to save certain religious beliefs in the face of robust evidence for evolution, and especially human evolution. A theory and fact for species origins that neither has evidence for the supernatural nor needs it. For the vast number of conservative Abrahamic theists, and probably others, the real enemy of evolution is it's implied naturalistic and materialistic conclusions. The history of the earth and life written in the rocks and in the DNA reveals no planning or goals to evolution. Those, along with the must-have Adam to curse us all with original sin, demands the need for a savior and are religious presuppositions they cannot compromise on.
The above variations of TE are not evolution as science has found and described it. Evolution relies on random mutations, brutal natural selection plus other naturalistic mechanisms, and there is no evidence of a “soul” or a historical Adam/Eve. As I've written, genomics indicates the human population never went below 3,000 - 10,000 and certainly not all the way down to 2, or 8 off an ark with a brutal and cruel genocidal reboot by drowning. Nor has science revealed a God reaching down and tinkering with the process of evolution at just the right moments. The only major group of theists I’m aware of that accepts evolution as science describes it are the scientists and academic Christians at Biologos (2), the site founded by Francis Collins in 2007 with a Templeton grant to showcase especially the DNA evidence for evolution. They posit that God used evolution as science has found it to create life on earth. They also interpret Genesis as more mythology or figuratively/symbolically, including the Biblical Flood as a local event for example. Thus, for theists to be integrated and consistent with actual evolutionary science, this last form of TE is the only form of creationism left to theists that truly accommodates science. YEC literature bemoans the growth of TE in churches but I have not seen that. Perhaps it's in the younger generations and the "nones", and I am just not aware of it. In evangelical circles and other conservative religion writings I have not seen the message of Biologos changing theist minds to any great significance.
Below, I will discuss why in my opinion this latter form of TE touted by Biologos, the only one left to theists to adopt to be well aligned with science, also fails. Not from a scientific analysis which it is consistent with, but from common sense and an abandonment of it’s own Abrahamic scriptures.
Why TE Fails
"And after millions of years of mutations, mass extinctions, devastating diseases, and violent death, God saw all that He had evolved and behold it was very good!"
~ Dan Lietha (Young Earth Creationist)
In the form of TE that Biologos and some other theists propose, speciation occurred by all natural means. There is no evidence of the supernatural and the claim is that God set up the initial conditions and then God’s design unfolded from there. I hope I am not misrepresenting their position. Notice that there would be no way to tell this narrative from a scientific analysis without a God. It appears Collins rests his appeal to God now mostly to fine tuning and the moral argument, but I understand that he has downplayed or abandoned the moral argument due to all the evidence that morality evolved in us and other social species by natural means and then was refined culturally, especially in our case. Thus, there are some moral provisional standards that transcend the individual, society, and species (see Morality). The last thing people should do is base their morality on the Bible, which describes God as a cruel and horrible immoral deity who loves to kill innocent children, sometimes torturing them first, and often displays the human qualities of anger, jealousy, and even remorse. That seems incredibly inconsistent for an all knowing deity getting upset (?) at events he surely knew were going to happen. (see Immoral Biblical God)
I assert that if God used evolution to create or allowed it after a “Fall”, then this God is not worth worshipping. He would then be incompetent, indifferent to the waste and suffering or malevolent having enjoyed all the waste, death and suffering. Let me explain by looking at how natural selection and evolution actually work.
As I wrote in the Introduction to Evolution, evolution is when a population genetically changes from a previous one. Specifically, more individuals happen to inherit certain genes that code for certain characteristics. This occurs because natural selection selected which offspring variants are best fitted for the current conditions and live long enough to produce more viable offspring than other variants in the population. In order for this system to work, nature produces lots of offspring. Given time, adaptations will arise and spread throughout the species.
For example, populations tend to be stable from generation to generation. Despite thousands of eggs laid by a fish, only one or two will survive into the next generation to reproduce. Dogs have many puppies and cats kittens but on average if a population is stable, over the life of the parents only two on average in sexual species of all those offspring will survive to reproduce. An oak tree will produce millions of acorns each year and billions over its life only to have one replace itself in a stable forest. What about humans? From the time of fertilization until a child grows to a reproductive age there is nearly an 80% death rate before modern medicine and societies. Many fertilizations don’t implant. Some of those that implant miscarry (a spontaneous abortion in medicine). Some offspring die at birth and more later before reaching reproductive age. Around the world a woman dies every 2 minutes during pregnancy or giving birth. Human parents needed to have many children even a hundred years ago because so many died before adulthood. The waste and suffering is incredible to just get a few offspring into the next generation in nearly all the species that live or have ever lived. In a theistic world, this God either designed this system of death or allowed it. People want to worship this horrible architect?
When we look at the history of life on earth, 99.99% of species that have ever existed have gone extinct. There have been at least five huge mass extinctions. Sometimes it's a rock from space. Another time huge lava flows in Siberia cover the planet for millions of years and poison the air. Some species can’t compete against other species, especially if a new species is introduced. This can happen due to continental drift or a pregnant founder species onto an island for example.
A system of creation that depends on evolution is one that is incredibly wasteful. Children die of starvation, infection or cancer by the thousands for example. This is why I assert that although TE/EC does accommodate science with their creation-evolution narrative, it paints this God as incompetent because this method is hardly worth embracing by anyone. One can’t hold up awesome redwoods and beautiful butterflies without also mentioning childhood cancer, malaria, and Ebola. Or, this deity is indifferent to all the waste and suffering and offers nothing better. The “Fall” as an excuse means all those innocent children and animals are just collateral sacrifices? Lastly, perhaps God likes the suffering and waste and is really malevolent. In contrast to this theistic way of looking at nature via a God designed creative evolution, the way we find the world and universe is exactly what we would find if evolution were true and there was no Engineer and Designer at the wheel of the evolution bus. Indeed the history of life as written in fossils and our DNA, essentially a second "fossil record", shows no planning, no goals and no supernatural interventions.
The malevolent Designer?
Is God Good?
"I go into a lab and create a unicellular eukaryotic organism that will kill millions
I infect flying insects to serve as the delivery system
If I release it, would I be evil? Without exception every theist I asked replied yes
I then ask then to explain malaria."
~ Author unknown.
Attempting to explain malaria with "The Fall", and absolve God won't work. Who created the very complex parasitic Plasmodium species? We are told by creationists that nature can't increase complexity or add new information. If not God, who or what? Did it "de-evolve"? How? Did God then at least allow it? What happened? From what? What are the steps we can reconstruct in it's DNA to show this?
Thus, if God used or allowed evolution to create, this means He/She/Them/It is not worth worshipping. This is the best He could do? He doesn’t care or can’t do anything about the waste and suffering? TE/EC fails as a viable creation narrative option in my view because it not only sacrifices too much of its scriptures to mythology, but is irrational. Thus, Christians and other theists are left with no choices for an origin narrative that is believable and accommodates science. Origin narratives serve as foundations to our worldviews. In my opinion, theists will never be able to formulate an origin narrative that will stand up to science, not compromise their scriptures with too much mythology, and withstand a rational evaluation. It’s not the fault of science that religion keeps making claims that are falsifiable, and trespassing into areas that science and philosophy study.
Lastly, evolution has been studied from isolated islands down to the DNA level. From rocks billons of years old to present populations. And there is no planning or goals. Five huge extinctions, including a rock from space and the largest of all involving the outpouring of huge flows of lava from the Siberian Traps. Mutations are random. Thus, if TE/EC is correct, this God appears to be absent and not involved - the antithesis of the God of the Bible. Again, incompetent, indifferent, or malevolent.
One of the most comprehensive reviews of the multiple failed attempts by Christian apologists to accommodate Genesis with Evolution and science is the book “Evolving out of Eden” by Price and Suominen. (3)
It should be noted that some atheist scientists are very willing to support theistic evolution because in their view believers endorsing evolution means at least science will no longer be under ongoing attacks from religious fundamentalists. That is a pragmatic approach to take when considering the long struggle for evolutionary theory acceptance, especially in America. But the form of TE/EC that is being accepted is often not the Theory of Evolution as it is taught and practiced in science. It remains to be seen if short term goals met in this scenario brings only long term confusion and problems later. This may be just kicking the Evolution can down the road.
Major forms of creationism are reviewed. Most are Old Earth Creationisms which accommodate a universe and earth billions of years old but usually deny evolution and especially human evolution. Young Earth Creationism rejects nearly every significant finding of science in regards to origins; it is the one type that clutches its beliefs mainly through denial. All the major forms of creationism reject large scale evolution, "macroevolution", and human evolution except for Theistic Evolution or its newer name, Evolutionary Creationism. Thus, the agnostic or theist who wishes to ascribe the origin of extinct and living (extant) species to a creator and be consistent with science has only a secular TE/EC to adopt. The problems with TE as a viable option to explain species origins for Abrahamic creationists are numerous and include painting the divine Designer or Engineer with incompetent, indifferent, or malevolent colors. That many of the "nones" may be adopting TE without a sound knowledge of how evolution really operates and how TE is thus not a viable option, is troubling. In addition, so much of the theist scriptures need to be compromised with analogy, metaphor and appeals to mythology that the Abrahamic God fades into history to join Norse, Greek, and Roman stories as literature and mythology only. For "nones" this latter problem may not be an issue.
"We cannot escape our origins, however hard we try" ~ James Baldwin