. . . or not, as the case may be.
Almost two years ago I wrote about my difficulties with the term theistic evolutionist. (I dealt with these definitions more recently here.) My problem was, and is, that the theory of evolution I accept is not different from that accepted by non-theistic evolutionists. The theory of evolution explains a variety of natural processes and brings them together in a theoretical framework. My theism doesn’t alter anything there.
Today Ed Brayton has elevated a discussion between himself and commenter King of Ireland about this issue to a full post. In his case it’s kind of the opposing sphere, and the question is whether it’s right to lump together a large group of people from intelligent design (ID) advocates to young earth creationists and call them all “creationists.” Would it be useful to add those who believe in guided evolution into the same crowd?
Let’s look at this just a bit. Evolution involves a group of concepts. I’m going to list them in the order of how thoroughly established they are. Understand that I regard all of these elements as well established; I require them in an order to deal with division of the creationists below.
- The earth is old, about 4.5 billion years old, in fact
- All life on earth is related (common descent)
- The relatedness of all life can be substantially explained by variation and natural selection
I call anyone who accepts all these points an evolutionist. I don’t like the “ist,” but “someone who accepts the theory of evolution” gets clumsy after a few repetitions. There are a couple of variants that should be mentioned.
First, there is the notion of guided evolution. There is an important divide here between those who think guidance can be detected, and those who do not. The latter are still generally evolutionists, and could carry out research within the theory. Guided evolution in that sense is a philosophical view, not a scientific one as I see it. Those who believe that the guided evolution is detectable, on the other hand, step outside the theory of evolution, and should be expected to provide hypotheses and test them.
Second, there is that group of people who expect natural causes to explain everything, but don’t think the current explanations are sufficient. They might, for example, assume that life came here from outer space, but believe it formed elsewhere under unknown conditions. Aside from noting that the actual origin of life is not part of the theory of evolution, while this is a bit perverse, it is nonetheless a natural type of explanation. Lacking evidence for or against, it is simply speculation. Again, the proponents need to get down to the hard science.
Now for creationists. There are several key breaking points, which I list below in less logical order:
- The Bible provides accurate scientific information
- The earth is young, 6,000 to 10,000 years old (young earth creationists who deny the great age of the earth)
- There is a substantial barrier to variation so that new “kinds” cannot be produced (generally old earth creationists, though the point is applicable to all)
- God has intervened repeatedly in the history of life to produce new kinds, and this interference can be detected, or at least the need for it can be demonstrated. (I regard “it might be a space alien” as just a silly attempt to distract us from the religious nature of the claim.)
Are there substantial differences between these views? Absolutely. The fourth option does not require one to accept that the Bible conveys accurate scientific information, nor does it expect one to deny the overwhelming evidence of the age of the earth. One might argue that it doesn’t even require one to deny common descent, as claimed by Michael Behe.
So is it fair to group these people together as “creationists” and to exclude the people I described as evolutionists from the camp, even though they might believe in God as ultimate creator?
There is, in fact, one huge common denominator between all of the groups of creationists: They believe that God has intervenes in the world on an ongoing basis in a way that can be detected. Generally this takes the form of claiming that certain levels of changes in organisms cannot be explained through natural means, thus requiring intervention of the intelligent designer. I’d be unsurprised if someone came by to tell me yet again that this designer need not be God, but I find that explanation so contrived that it’s hard to imagine it is being seriously presented.
The ID proponents themselves, however, have contributed to this lumping, even though they regularly complain about it. In creating a big tent, they have brought young earth creationists, old earth creationists, and guided evolutionists into the same big tent. Then they complain if they are all called by the same label. The odd thing is that ID is a proposition that can sound good to people with such a wide variety of viewpoints. The sneaky part of it is that it manages this by failing to propose anything very substantial.
Consider the vast differences there would be in nature if there had been a world wide flood. I can’t see how you get believers in a world wide flood under the same tent as those who propose a more local event. Actually covering the entire planet with water would leave such an indelible mark that it would be unmistakable, and no explanation of the geological record that didn’t take it into account would get anywhere. Yet supposedly both work together under ID.
Someone might say that I have been terribly unfair, because ID says nothing related to a global flood. ID could be true, whether or not such a thing happened. And certainly ID would be true in all cases. That’s how in combines Michael Behe on the one hand and someone like Paul Nelson on the other. It doesn’t say very much.
But what it does say is very, very powerful–to the creationist mind. It provides the one single thing that all these views have in common: God intervened repeatedly in the history of life in the world.
All varieties of creationist agree that natural processes, whether or not one postulates they were created by God, are insufficient to explain the diversification of life on earth. ID is not merely creationism; it is distilled, bottled, and aged creationism.
Based on this I believe it is entirely fair to refer to this entire group as creationists. They may distance themselves from one another, and it is also good to distinguish them from one another when that is signification, young earth, old earth, believer in a universal flood, and so forth.
ID is the essence of creationism. It is creationism. It’s proponents have been careful to gather the widest variety of creationists possible under their umbrella. All we are doing in calling them creationists is going with what they, themselves have done. They’d prefer we didn’t, and that should tell us something as well. What sort of people like to disguise their identities?