Chapter 11: Assessments of Theistic Evolution

Some of the same intellectual heavy-hitters who have introduced us to the wonders of life at the molecular level have strong opinions about ‘theistic evolution’. Their words are important, as these particular individuals are committed Christians and experts in their fields as well.

Michael Behe, in The Edge of Evolution1, addresses ‘theistic evolution’ in a manner that suggests he might well call it ‘the edge of Christianity’:

“How was the design of life accomplished? That’s a peculiarly contentious question. Some people (officially including the National Academy of Sciences) are willing to allow that the laws of nature may have been purposely fine-tuned for life by an intelligent agent, but they balk at considering further fine-tuning after the Big Bang because they would fret it would require ‘interference’ in the operation of nature. So they permit a designer just one shot, at the beginning – after that, hands off. For example, in The Plausibility of Life Marc Kirschner and John Gerhart hopefully quote a passage from an old article on evolution in the 1909 Catholic Encyclopedia: ‘God is the Creator of heaven and earth. If God produced the universe by a single creative act of His will, then its natural development by laws implanted in it by the Creator is to the greater glory of His Divine power and wisdom.’

“This line of thinking is known as ‘Theistic Evolution’. But its followers are just kidding themselves if they think it is compatible with Darwinism. First, to the extent that anyone – either God, Pope Mary’s physicist, or ‘any being. . . external to our universe responsible for selecting its properties’2 – set nature up in any way to ensure a particular outcome, then to that extent, although there may be evolution, there is no Darwinism. Darwin’s main contribution to science was to posit a mechanism for the unfolding of life that required no input from any intelligence – random variation and natural selection. If laws were ‘implanted’ into nature with the express knowledge that they would lead to intelligent life, then even if the results follow by ‘natural development,’ nonetheless, intelligent life is not a random result (although randomness may be responsible for other, unintended features of nature). Even if all the pool balls3 on the table followed natural laws after the cue struck the first ball, the final result of all the balls in the side pocket was not random. It was intended [via the specific arrangement of the balls on the pool table before the shot was made].

“Second, ‘laws’, understood as simple rules that describe how matter interacts (such as Newton’s law of gravity), cannot do anything by themselves. For anything to be done, specific substances must act. If our universe contained no matter, even the most finely tuned laws would be unable to produce life, because there would be nothing to follow the laws. Matter has unique characteristics, such as how much, where it is, and how it’s moving. In the absence of specific arrangements of matter, general laws account for little.

“Finally, a particular, complex outcome cannot be ensured without a high degree of specification. At the risk of overusing the analogy, one can’t ensure that all the pool balls will end up in the side pocket just by specifying simple laws of physics, or even simple laws plus, say, the size of the pool table. Using the same simple laws, almost all arrangements of balls and almost all cue shots would not lead to the intended result. Much more has to be set. And to ensure a livable planet that actually harbors life, much more has to be specified than just the bare laws of physics.

Phillip Johnson, in Darwin on Trial, approaches the topic of ‘theistic evolution’ rather softly, but ends up quite firmly against it, for the reasons given below:

“Experience with this continual use of vague terminology4 to cloud the issues led me to introduce a more specific terminology that would help readers and lecture audiences to grasp the really important point of Darwinian evolution. Beginning with lectures in early 1992, I made a point of avoiding the term ‘evolution’ and described the central doctrine of Darwinism as the ‘blind watchmaker thesis’, after the famous book by Richard Dawkins. Dawkins set out the issue with splendid clarity. ‘Biology’, he wrote, ‘is the study of complicated things that give the appearance of having been designed for a purpose.’ This appearance is misleading, according to Dawkins, because the purposeless forces of mutation and selection were in fact responsible. ‘Natural selection is the blind watchmaker, blind because it does not see ahead, does not plan consequences, has no purpose in view. Yet the living results of natural selection overwhelmingly impress us with the appearance of design as if by a master watchmaker, impress us with the illusion of design and planning.’

“Metaphysics and science are inseparably entangled in the blind watchmaker thesis. I think that most theistic evolutionists accept as scientific the claim that natural selection performed the creating, but would like to reject the accompanying metaphysical doctrine that the scientific understanding of evolution excludes design and purpose. The problem with this way of dividing things is that the metaphysical statement is no mere embellishment but the essential foundation for the scientific claim. This is because the creative power of mutation and selection is never demonstrated directly; rather, it is thought to exist by necessity, because of the absence of a more satisfactory alternative. If God exists, on the other hand, and has the power to create, there is no need for a blind watchmaker mechanism to exist – and the lack of evidence that one does exist becomes worthy of notice.

“I have found it very difficult to get theistic evolutionists to discuss the blind watchmaker thesis. They prefer to speak vaguely of ‘evolution’ and to comfort themselves with the thought that this term can be defined in ways that are not totally naturalistic. Behind this reluctance to sharply define the philosophical issues lies a much larger question. Should theists (Christian or otherwise) try to compete with scientific naturalists at the task of describing reality, or should they tacitly accept the naturalistic picture and try to find a place of safety within it? Various kinds of fundamentalists have taken the former route, and their example is not encouraging to anyone who wants to be a respected participant in the worldwide community of scientists and intellectuals. Scientific naturalism, on the other hand, does leave a place for ‘religious belief’, provided that the religious believers do not challenge the authority of naturalistic science to say what is real and what is not. Some scientific naturalists like Richard Dawkins are aggressive atheists, but many others recognize that humankind does not live by science alone and that a (carefully restricted) place must be left for the satisfaction of spiritual yearnings. If a fundamentalism that is at odds with genuine scientific knowledge is the only apparent alternative, blurring the issues a little to save a place for theistic religion in a naturalistic intellectual culture may seem like a sound strategy.

“Of course, I do not agree with that strategy. I do not think that the mind can serve two masters, and I am confident that whenever the attempt is made, naturalism in the end will be the true master and theism will have to abide by its dictates. If the blind watchmaker thesis is true, then naturalism deserves to rule, but I am addressing those who think the thesis is false, or at least are willing to consider the possibility that it may be false. Such persons need to be willing to challenge false doctrines, not on the basis of prejudice or blind adherence to a tradition, but with clear-minded, reasoned arguments. They also need to be working on a positive understanding of a theistic view of reality, one that allows natural science to find its proper place as an important but not all-important part of the life of the mind.

“There is a risk in undertaking such a project, of course, as the theistic evolutionists constantly remind us by referring to the need to avoid resorting to a ‘God of the gaps’. If the naturalistic understanding of reality is truly correct and complete, then God will have to retreat out of the cosmos altogether. I do not think the risk is very great, but in any case I do not think theists should meet it with a preemptive surrender.

“Darwinian evolution with its blind watchmaker thesis makes me think of a great battleship on the ocean of reality. Its sides are heavily armored with philosophical barriers to criticism, and its decks are stacked with big rhetorical guns ready to intimidate any would-be attackers. In appearance, it is as impregnable as the Soviet Union seemed to be only a few years ago. But the ship has sprung a metaphysical leak, and the more perceptive of the ship’s officers have begun to sense that all the ship’s firepower cannot save it if the leak is not plugged. There will be heroic efforts to save the ship, of course, and some plausible rescuers will invite the officers to take refuge in electronic lifeboats equipped with high-tech gear like autocatalytic sets and computer models of self-organizing systems. The spectacle will be fascinating, and the battle will go on for a long time. But in the end reality will win.”

William Dembski, in Intelligent Design, goes out of his way to deny the compatibility of his views with those of the ‘theistic evolutionist’5:

“Where does intelligent design fit within the creation-evolution debate? Logically, intelligent design is compatible with everything from utterly discontinuous creation (e.g., God intervening at every conceivable point to create new species) to the most far-ranging evolution (e.g., God seamlessly melding all organisms together into one great tree of life). For intelligent design the primary question is not how organisms came to be (though as we’ve just seen, this is a vital question for intelligent design) but whether organisms demonstrate clear, empirically detectable marks of being intelligently caused. In principle the evolutionary process can exhibit such ‘marks of intelligence’ as much as any act of special creation.

“That said, intelligent design is incompatible with what typically is meant by ‘theistic evolution’ (or what is also called ‘creative evolution’, ‘teleological evolution’, ‘evolutionary creation’ or most recently ‘fully gifted creation’). Theistic evolution takes the Darwinian picture of the biological world and baptizes it, identifying this picture with the way God created life. When boiled down to its scientific content, however, theistic evolution is no different from atheistic evolution, treating only undirected natural processes in the origin and development of life.

“Theistic evolution places theism and evolution in an odd tension. If God purposely created life through Darwinian means, then God’s purpose was ostensibly to conceal his purpose in creation. Within theistic evolution, God is a master of stealth who constantly eludes our best efforts to detect him empirically. Yes, the theistic evolutionist believes that the universe is designed. Yet insofar as there is design in the universe, it is design we recognize strictly through the eyes of faith. Accordingly, the physical world in itself provides no evidence that life is designed. For all we can tell, our appearance on planet earth is an accident.

“Now it may be that God has so arranged the physical world that our native intellect can discover no reliable evidence of him. Yet if this is so, how could we know it? Scripture and church tradition are hardly univocal here. Throughout church history we find Christian thinkers who regard our native intellect as hopelessly inadequate for finding even a scrap of reliable knowledge about God from the physical world, and others who regard our native intellect as able to extract certain limited though still reliable knowledge about God from the physical world. Thus in the early church we find Tertullian inveighing against our native intellect, but Basil the Great and Gregory of Nazianzus defending it. In the Middle Ages we find Occam’s occasionalism undermining the posers of our native intellect and Thomas Aquinas raising it to new heights. In the modern era we find Blaise Pascal, Soren Kierkegaard and Karl Barth making the Deus absonditus a fundamental plank of their theology, yet Isaac Newton, Thomas Reid and Charles Hodge asserting how wonderfully God is revealed in [the] physical world. The current theological fashion prefers an evolutionary God inaccessible to scientific scrutiny over a designer God whose actions are clearly detectable.

“How then do we determine whether God has so arranged the physical world that our native intellect can discover reliable evidence of him? The answer is obvious: Put our native intellect to the task and see whether indeed it produces conclusive evidence of design. Doing so poses no threat to the Christian faith. It challenges neither the cross, the tomb, the resurrection on the third day, the ascension into heaven, the sitting at the right hand of the Father nor the second coming of Christ. Indeed the physical world is silent about the revelation of Christ in Scripture. On the other hand, nothing prevents the physical world from independently testifying to the God revealed in the Scripture. Now intelligent design does just this – it puts our native intellect to work and thereby confirms that a designer of remarkable talents is responsible for the physical world. How this designer connects with the God of Scripture is then for theology to determine.

“Intelligent design and theistic evolution therefore differ fundamentally about whether the design of the universe is accessible to our native intellect. Design theorists say yes; theistic evolutionists say no. Why the disagreement? To be sure, there is a scientific disagreement: Design theorists think the scientific evidence favors design whereas theistic evolutionists think it favors Darwin or one of his naturalistic successors. Nonetheless in discounting intelligent design, theistic evolutionists tend also to appeal to philosophical and theological considerations. Pessimism about the powers of the native intellect to transcend the physical world is a dominant theme in certain theological traditions. Often aesthetic criteria for how God should create or interact with the world take precedence (e.g., A worthy deity wouldn’t have done it that way!). My own view is that it is much more shaky to speculate about what God would have done or what the world might in principle reveal than simply to go to the world and see what it actually does reveal.

“If theistic evolution finds no solace from intelligent design, neither does it find solace from the Darwinian establishment. For the Darwinian establishment the ‘theism’ in theistic evolution is superfluous. For the hard-core naturalist, theistic evolution at best includes God as an unnecessary rider in an otherwise purely naturalistic account of life. Thus by Occam’s razor, since God is an unnecessary rider in our understanding of the physical world, theistic evolution ought to dispense with all talk of God outright and get rid of the useless adjective theistic. This, at any rate, is the received view within the Darwinian establishment.

“It’s for failing to take Occam’s razor seriously that the Darwinian establishment despises theistic evolution. Not to put too fine a point on it, the Darwinian establishment views theistic evolution as a weak-kneed sycophant that desperately wants the respectability that comes with being a full-blooded Darwinist but refuses to follow the logic of Darwinism through to the end. It takes courage to give up the comforting belief that life on earth has a purpose. It takes courage to live without the consolation of an afterlife. Theistic evolutionists lack the stomach to face the ultimate meaninglessness of life, and it is this failure of courage that makes them contemptible in the eyes of full-blooded Darwinists. (Richard Dawkins is a case in point.)

“Unlike full-blooded Darwinists, however, the design theorists’ objection to theistic evolution rests not with what the term theistic is doing in the phrase ‘theistic evolution’ but rather with what the term evolution is doing there. The design theorists’ objection to theistic evolution is not in the end that theistic evolution retains God as an unnecessary rider in an otherwise perfectly acceptable scientific theory of life’s origin and development. Rather their objection is that the scientific theory which is supposed to undergird theistic evolution, often called the neo-Darwinian synthesis, is itself problematic.

“The design theorists’ critique of Darwinism begins with Darwinism’s failure as an empirically adequate scientific theory, not with its supposed incompatibility with some system of religious belief. This point is vital to keep in mind in assessing intelligent design’s contribution to the creation-evolution controversy. Critiques of Darwinism by creationists have tended to conflate science and theology, making it unclear whether Darwinism fails strictly as a scientific theory or whether it must be rejected because it is theologically unacceptable. Design theorists refuse to make this a Bible-science controversy. Their critique of Darwinism is not based on any supposed incompatibility between Christian revelation and Darwinism. Instead they begin their critique by arguing that Darwinism is on its own terms a failed scientific research program – that it does not constitute a well-supported scientific theory, that its explanatory power is severely limited and that it fails abysmally when it tries to account for the grand sweep of natural history.”


1.Behe, The Edge of Evolution, pp, 229-231

2.Ibid., pp. 228, 229. Here Behe continues to quote from a fictional essay published in Nature entitled “The Abdication of Pope Mary III . . . or Galileo’s Revenge” by R. J. Sawyer, 2000.

3. Ibid., p. 205. Here Behe refers to an earlier analogy he made involving pool balls to help the reader understand the term consilience.

4. Johnson, Darwin on Trial, pp. 167-170. In speaking of the use of vague terminology, Dr. Johnson is referring to the ambiguity of the term ‘evolution’, which can range from the workable portion to large creative events such as life from non-life.

5.Dembski, Intelligent Design, pp. 109-112


One response to this post.

  1. […] In his book, The Edge of Evolution (The Free Press, 2007), Professor Michael Behe writes: […]


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