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Unlumping the Various Creationists

. . . 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.

  1. The earth is old, about 4.5 billion years old, in fact
  2. All life on earth is related (common descent)
  3. 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:

  1. The Bible provides accurate scientific information
  2. The earth is young, 6,000 to 10,000 years old (young earth creationists who deny the great age of the earth)
  3. 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)
  4. 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?

10 comments to Unlumping the Various Creationists

  • On the other hand, there are some of us “theistic evolutionists” (ie. the guided part of evolution is not necessarily detectable) that have no problem with the term “evolutionary creationists” .. ie. we are creationists too. Denis Lamoureux has been popularizing this term .. in fact, he has a new book out (soon) call “Evolutionary Creation”.

  • Jeff Hebert

    A nice summary Henry, thank you.

    Steve Martin, while I think the term “evolutionary creationist” is nice, it obscures more than it illuminates. It seems unnecessary when “theistic evolutionist” is already in general use and covers the same territory, while having the unfortunate effect of further clouding the threat traditional creationism poses for science education.

    In other words, I don’t quite see the point of coining a new phrase that makes things harder to understand, when there’s a perfectly good phrase already out there.

  • Hi Henry,
    Sorry .. I didn’t see your reference to Evolutionary Creationism. I do agree with you discomfort with the term Theistic Evolutionist. And that all labels have their weaknesses.

    Jeff: I understand that coining a new phrase can be confusing. There have been a bunch of discussions on this on the ASA (American Scientific Affiliation) list in the past with many seeing the TE term is here to stay & no need to change. Others (and I guess I feel this way too) would much rather use the EC term (there are quite a few people that do – it is not all that new). The main issue is not in fact the problems with the term TE. The main issue that is the disrepute brought on the Christian doctrine of creation. I discussed this awhile back my post Reclaiming and Proclaiming Creation. For the popular term “creationist” I prefer the term “anti-evolutionist” because that is probably a more accurate description (including for the position of most ID supporters). Maybe a more accurate term would be antievolutionary creationists. (And yes, I understand this label war is equivelant to the anti-life vs. anti-choice wars. But it makes the point & makes people think).

  • King of Ireland

    Henry,

    I was looking through your blog and you were giving a review of a book and stated:

    ” In this early chapter she also intends to draw a distinction between what is solid and what is still questionable or “squishy” in evolutionary theory. That promise is very interesting, as is her distinction between the “real” controversies, which are in the details and in the leading edge of evolutionary theory, as opposed to the fake controversy created by intelligent design.”

    I am new to this discussion. I am the King of Ireland on Ed’s blog today. I get my terms mixed up and people have a hard time understanding me. But I do see some controversy among Scientists that has nothing to do with Intelligent Design and it seems like people on Ed’s blog are lying or deceived when they tell me that there is not any.

    I have learned that Ed’s crowd has there own lingo that I do not understand and give the benefit of the doubt now that this is a confusing matter. When I saw your quote it intrgued me. So here is my question:

    What is the “controversy” that ID proponents are talking about and how is it different than what you termed “real” controversies?

    I could have sworn these guys were liars months ago but I am starting to realize that half the time we are talking about two different things when I think we are talking about one. I am not very Scientifically educated so a clear simple yet complete explanation would help. If that is even possible. Thank you.

    • What is the “controversy” that ID proponents are talking about and how is it different than what you termed “real” controversies?

      First, let me note that one of my complaints in that book review was that the author was not very clear on precisely that question.

      Some genuine controversies in evolutionary theory as I understand it (and I’m not a scientist either), include the role of genetic drift versus natural selection, the level at which natural selection operates (individual, group of whatever size and so forth), and innumerable issues about specific lineages. There’s a lot of research to be done within the theory of evolution, and many questions to be answered.

      ID, on the other hand, sets up a controversy between ID and evolutionary theory, from which comes the battle cry “teach the controversy.” But ID has not accomplished the necessary work to put up an alternative theory.

      Let’s take the bacterial flagellum, for example. Evolutionary scientists do not know all the steps in its development, though they have made some progress on it. This is not surprising–the cell is enormously complex, and knowing every step of the evolutionary process of every part requires huge amounts of research.

      ID responds “Aha! It’s too complex! You don’t know how it developed! It must have been an intelligent designer.” (In my view, you can do a global replace on ID literature replacing “intelligent designer” with “God.”)

      That is, in fact, the sum of the contribution of ID to science–pointing out those things which evolutionary scientists have not yet fully answered. Pages of biology or math simply serve to obscure the tiny little piece at the center which says, “If it’s too complex, it must have been designed.” Bill Dembski has a PhD in Math, but it’s wasted because of a simple principle that any computer programmer would know: Garbage in, garbage out. Without knowing the process, any estimate for the probability of its occurrence is garbage.

      Identifying a real controversy in science is simple. A real controversy involves two theories explaining the data, and those proposing each will be working the data and examining new data in order to determine which is correct. If that is not happening, then it’s not a real controversy.

      ID actually makes no proposal, so there is nothing to study. ID is simply a stop sign put up in the road of scientific learning and progress.

    • “Real” controversies tend to come up when you have more than one possible mechanism, and people disagree as to their actual importance in living systems. Joan Roughgarden’s ideas about evolution are controversial, not because she proposes a new mechanism, but rather, because she suggests that an existing mechanism (sexual selection) is far more important that most people believe. The gene-centered versus evo-devo controversy is another one like this – both happen, but the question is which one has played a more important role.

      A different sort of controversy played out about 20 years ago over the “Out of Africa” hypothesis. The conclusion that humans shared a common ancestor in the last 100,000 years was revolutionary, and controversial. People took a hard look at the data supporting both views, and within a decade or so the Out of Africa model gained general support. The controversy was resolved (for the most part) by additional data, and by reanalysis of older fossils.

      Looking at real scientific controversies, the way that they are built and the way that they are resolved says a lot about how science works. It also says a lot about why ID fails. A decade ago Behe might have had some valid questions. But instead of modifying this hypothesis in light of new data, he ignores the counterarguments and instead raises new ones. Not the immune system? Well what about the flagellum? No? Well what about malaria? No? How about HIV?

  • Pete Dunkelberg

    I don’t know what is going at Ed’s but here is a very real current controversy in biology:

    http://scienceblogs.com/pharyngula/2008/04/coyne_and_wray_at_the_oregon_s.php

    There are genuine arguments in physics over things like dark matter and string “theory”.

    In IDC they raise fake problems like “irreducible complexity”. Behe, a chemist who managed to switch to the Lehigh biology department just in time to be a biologist when his book came out, defines IC as essentially co-adapted parts, a natural result of evolution, but gives a rhetorical argument along with his suggestive terms and concludes that evolution can’t produce IC, so by IDis implication the Designer did it.

    Over and over creationists including IDists will insist that “information” cannot be produced by natural processes, and by ID-implication the Designer did it. {Strart by calling DNA information, or saying it ‘contains’ information, but then forget chemistry and talk of information as an indescribable abstraction and say any bizarre thing you want to.} example:
    http://pandasthumb.org/archives/2007/04/the-silliest-th-3.html

    Of course nature creates and modifies DNA via quite natural processes.

    With such rhetoric a large public controversy over evolution is created. It bears no relation to science.

    ====
    The God of creationism is a small one who couldn’t make nature right in the first place, and so has to keep tinkering to make it work. He’s not very nice either. Since evolution can’t do anything very complicated, the Designer must be directly responsible for serious microbe-caused diseases. Why is creationism still promoted? Who wouldn’t be better off without it?

  • Larry B

    Henry,

    Here is an article that I think is relevant to your post here.

    http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2008/04/080408085508.htm

    What is a little concerning for me about this article is the language it uses in it’s conclusion paragraph. The article is intended to talk about a “machine” that demonstrates evolutionary principles in the laboratory. The concluding paragraph makes the following statement:

    “This beautifully illustrates what about evolution is random and what is not. While the end point is predicted by the selection pressure–i.e., the decreasing concentration of ingredients determines that enzymes will evolve to cope with decreased concentration–the actual mutations that allow this are completely random and cannot be predicted at the outset”

    This kind of discussion leaves open the door for an ID position that says evolution can’t be successful without a determined input. I’m sure that the scientists who developed the machine didn’t intend to leave that conclusion with people, but it does.

    Evolutionary scientists have an extra burden to choose their language carefully to avoid providing ammunition for those who would push ID theories as science rather than speculation.

  • Henry,

    Great post!

    When I first started my own blog, I briefly discussed some of the differences between theistic evolution (TE) and evolutionary creationism (EC), highlighting some of Lamoureux’s and Howard Van Till’s objections to the TE term in favor of something else.