The Word “Evolution” and the Problem of Equivocation
by guest blogger Eric Chabot
Many Christians have lost count of how many times they have been asked the question, “Do you believe in evolution?” It is pretty clear we have an equivocation issue here. So the good news is that Jay W. Richards has given us some help in the book God and Evolution. Here are the various ways we might attempt to approach this issue:
First, the word “Evolution” has many different meanings, not all compatible with each other, and only a few of which are theologically significant. Among the meanings of evolution are the following:
1. Change over time; history of nature; any sequence of events in nature.
2. Changes in the frequencies of alleles in the gene pool of a population.
3. Limited common descent: the idea that particular groups of organisms have descended from a common ancestor.
4. The mechanisms responsible for the change required to produce limited descent with modification, chiefly natural selection acting on random variations or mutations.
5. Universal common descent: the idea that all organisms have descended from a single common ancestor.
6. “Blind watchmaker” thesis: the idea that all organisms have descended from common ancestors solely through unguided, unintelligent, purposeless, material processes such as natural selection acting on random variations or mutations; that the mechanisms of natural selection, random variation and mutation, and perhaps other similarly
naturalistic mechanisms, are completely sufficient to account for the appearance of design in living organisms.
7. A metaphor describing the rise, development, success, and collapse of sports careers, business enterprises, nations, and so forth, through a process of competition.
8. Progress or development through time of something that existed initially in a nascent form, such as a child emerging from an embryo or an oak tree from an acorn. This idea was common in pre-Darwinian views of biological evolution, which led to Darwin avoiding the word “evolution” in his Origin of Species. Contemporary Darwinists, following Darwin, generally reject this understanding of biological evolution, which suggests a purposeful or teleological process. Nevertheless, language that implies progress frequently appears even in the writings of those who officially reject it.
Meaning 6 (the blind watchmaker thesis) is the least compatible with theism. Meaning 8 is implicitly theistic or at least teleological.
Teleology: refers to a system, event, or process that is purposeful and goal oriented. There are teleological and non-teleological versions of cosmic and biological evolution. A central purpose of Darwinian Theory is to explain the apparent teleology of life as merely apparent rather than real.
Darwinism: the theory that every form of life on Earth is descended from one or a few common ancestors, and that the adaptive complexity of life is largely the result of natural selection acting on random variations. Darwin proposed his theory as an alternative to the idea that species had been specially created, and most modern Darwinists have followed Darwin’s lead. Strictly speaking, it is Darwin’s mechanism of natural selection and random variation, and not common ancestry, that contradicts the intelligent design of life.
Neo-Darwinism: the modern version of Darwinism, according to which random variations are identified with random genetic mutations.