Podcast: A Christian Scientific Perspective on Evolution
This article is part of the The Crossway Podcast series.
Engaging with the Evolution Debate
In this episode, Stephen Meyer discusses the controversial topic of theistic evolution. He explains what the term does and doesn't mean, describes the amazing digital code at the heart of all life on earth, and highlights significant scientific and philosophical problems with many forms of theistic evolution advocated today.
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Topics Addressed in This Interview:
- Evolution: One Word, Many Interpretations
- Growing Skepticism of Evolution
- An Appeal to Secular Science
- The Discovery of Digital Code in DNA
- Arguments against Theistic Evolution
- Why This Conversation Matters
- The Age of the Earth and Biblical Interpretation
- Arguing about Propositions, Not about People
01:32 - Evolution: One Word, Many Interpretations
Stephen, thank you so much for joining me today on The Crossway Podcast.
It's awfully nice to be with you, Matt.
Evolution. It's one of those hot-button words that people on all sides can very quickly get pretty riled up about. I'm sure you've experienced that and seen that dynamic. I think one of the tricky things about it is that people mean different things by that word when they use it. It's a somewhat vague word when you really get into it; so as a place to start, what do you mean by the word evolution—just that one word—when you use it?
I don't use it in a singular sense. In Theistic Evolution I started the book by defining the different meanings that are associated with the word evolution. The first meaning is the most basic which is just the idea of change over time. In biology, that has two separate senses of change over time. There's the change that we've seen over time in the representation of fossilized forms of life in the stratigraphic column in the rocks. The fossil record documents that there have been different forms of life living on the planet at different times, so that's a sense of change over time. And that's an uncontroversial sense—most people accept that we don't have triceratops' and T-rex's today, but we have other animals on the planet. Another sense of change over time is the idea that the organisms can adapt to their environment in very modest ways, but in discernible ways. The famous example that has been used by many evolutionary biologists is that of the finch beaks that get a little longer or a little shorter in response to varying weather patterns, or the coloration of peppered moths. This sort of micro evolution is also quite uncontentious—people don't dispute that. So that's one sense of the term evolution as just change over time. But we've already seen that there's two senses of that one sense, right? A second major meaning of the term evolution is the idea that all the forms of life that have existed on earth are descended from a single common ancestor such that the change over time that we see is continuous and gradual, that the history of life is therefore best depicted by a great branching tree where the trunk of the tree represents the first one-celled organism from which all other forms of life morphed and changed over time in a very gradual way. That's a very specific Darwinian sense of the meaning of evolution, and Darwin equated that idea with what he called “common descent” or “common ancestry.” That's a more controversial definition of change over time. Evolutionary biologists have long accepted it, but increasingly because of the discontinuity that we see in the fossil record and discontinuities that we're detecting in the genetic sequences of different organisms, many scientists now question the idea that all forms of life are related by common ancestry. So with the Darwinian view, we think of one great tree of life; now there's another view that says there are multiple trees and multiple separate groups of organisms. We have a distinction that's drawn in evolutionary biology between the monophyletic (one tree) view and the polyphyletic (multiple tree) view where there's discontinuities and separate origins for different groups of organisms. So that's the second meaning of change over time. The third one is the most controversial of all, and that's the idea that gradual and continuous change described by evolution meaning #2 was generated, or produced, by an unguided, undirected mechanism known as natural selection acting on random mutations. In Darwin's time they were described as random variations. Biologists today refer to not only variations in the genes that are passed on to new organisms but also changes in those genes produced by random events called mutations. The idea there is that all the changes described by Darwin's tree of life has been produced by the mechanism of natural selection acting on random mutations, or similarly undirected purely materialistic mechanisms. There are other mechanisms that evolutionary biologists talk about today under the heading of the extended synthesis, going beyond the Darwinian and neo-Darwinian synthesis in evolutionary biology to invoke other mechanisms. But the key idea there is that the case of the change is unguided, undirected, and purely natural. That leads to an implication of the third meaning of evolution, which is that there's no actual design in living organisms, only the appearance of design. Richard Dawkins, the great modern Darwinist, has said that biology is the study of complicated things that give the appearance of having been designed for a purpose. This is a central commitment of Darwinian evolution, right back to Darwin himself, and has continued right up to the present day—that things look designed; but they're not really designed because there's a purely unguided, undirected mechanism (usually thought to be natural selection and random mutations) that is producing the appearance of design in all these different forms of life. But it's not actual design because, of course, the mechanism that produced it was not guided by an intelligent agent. So, mutation and selection are thought to be a kind of designer substitute. They can mimic the powers of a designing intelligence without being guided or directed in any way. That's also associated with the term evolution, and it's kind of an implication of the third meaning—an unguided, undirected process produced all the new forms of life and the appearance of design they manifest; therefore, there's no actual design. It's a loaded term. It's got lots of different meanings, so if someone asks you if evolution is true or false, you need to ask them: What do you mean by evolution?
How does theistic evolution fit into all of this? There's another word we're adding to the mix that maybe inherently isn't super specific.
This is why I wrote a fairly detailed introduction to the whole volume because the first thing we wanted to do was define the position that we meant to critique. You can see that you could combine the term theism with any one of those meanings of evolution. You could be a theistic evolutionist in the sense that you believe that God exists and that God is in some way responsible for change over time. But God could be responsible for change over time by specially creating new forms of life at different times. That first meaning of evolution—one that no one disputes—could be meaningfully synthesized with the notion of special creation. But typically, theistic evolutionists affirm either evolution #2 or evolution #3 and then have a difficult time explaining what their position is concerning the appearance of design in nature. The most common theistic evolutionist's position is to say, I accept the scientific evidence for evolution, which usually means common ancestry and the creative power of the mutation selection mechanism and other similar supplementary mechanisms. That's usually the position. Some theistic evolutionists will say, I'm skeptical about evolution #3, but I accept common ancestry. Because so many mainstream secular evolutionary biologists are now skeptical about the creative power of natural selection and random mutation, many theistic evolutionists today will tacitly affirm the creative power of that mechanism because its the only thing on offer scientifically within a materialistic framework. But they won't defend it because they know it's been so roundly criticized even within mainstream evolutionary biology; so they'll typically defend common ancestry and nothing else and say that God is somehow behind that whole process. They don't want to say he's actively guiding it because if he's actively guiding it then that's a form of intelligent design. Typically they'll say that God exists, he's maybe upholding the laws of nature in some generic sense in the background, but the evolutionary mechanisms are doing the creative work and producing the picture of the tree of life that affirms common ancestry.
11:08 - Growing Skepticism of Evolution
I have a quick question related to your comment about how there is maybe a growing, even secular, scientific questioning of natural selection as being a sufficient mechanism for evolution happening. It seems like that's the kind of thing that you just don't hear in the broader culture. As a non-scientist, when I hear scientists talk about evolution in the news or I see a documentary about something where evolution is often referenced, I've never really heard someone acknowledge that maybe there are some real scientific problems with this as a dominant theory. Why do you think that might be?
Evolution—in all senses, but in that third sense especially—is an indispensable plank (or supportive proposition) in favor of a larger materialistic worldview, or a naturalistic worldview. That worldview dominates the intellectual landscape of our culture—in the universities, the law schools, the courts, the media. Most people presuppose a naturalistic worldview that excludes the possibility of a person such as God and that God played a meaningful role in creation and so forth. So I think there's a tremendous amount of philosophical predisposition to accept whatever creation story makes that worldview plausible. At the same time, many evolutionary biologists who themselves will openly explain the materialistic implications of their theory are now acknowledging that the main engine of creation—the mechanism of natural selection acting on random mutation—is insufficient to produce fundamentally new forms of life. This isn't just a little evidence around the edge, some anomalies here and there. There are fundamental challenges to this mechanism. For example, in 2016 I attended a conference at the Royal Society in London. It was a conference examining new trends in evolutionary theory and evolutionary biology. A very innocuous title, but the conference was called by people who are part of the so-called “third way”—they don't want to affirm intelligent design or any non-naturalistic theory of origins, but they're completely dissatisfied with the modern neo-Darwinian theory of evolution. They are specifically unsatisfied with that theory because they doubt the creative power of the natural selection and random mutative mechanism. These are evolutionary biologists who were convening this conference, and the opening talk of that conference was given by a man named Gerd Müller, a leading Austrian evolutionary biologist who started by listing the explanatory deficits, as he called them, of the new-Darwinian synthesis. One of those deficits had to do with the inability of the standard Darwinian mechanism to produce complexity, anatomical novelty—in other words, all the things that Darwinian theory is supposed to explain. Where does new biological form come from? And the answer was, From a new-Darwinian point of view we don't know. The conference was essentially called to explore other supplemental, or alternative, evolutionary mechanisms that might provide a basis for believing in the creative power of some naturalistic undirected evolutionary process. At the end of the conference, one of the people who has been very prominent in this third way movement characterized the conference by it's lack of momentousness. Essentially, the dissatisfaction was that we did a really good job of characterizing the problems with neo-Darwinism, but we really haven't come up with or settled on any kind of alternative mechanism that has the creative power required to explain the origin of fundamentally new forms of life—the new body plans, anatomical structure, phenotypic complexity (the complexity of the visible body type) that we see emerging over time in the fossil record. If you get into the technical literature in biology you find that this is widely admitted, and yet there's this huge disparity between the public presentation of the theory on the one hand and what you find in the technical peer-reviewed literature.
16:11 - An Appeal to Secular Science
How would you respond to a secular scientist who would hear that and say, You're right. This current theory that has been the dominant theory for a long time is showing its age perhaps, but give us some time. This is the way science works. We improve our theories over time and right now we don't really know how it works, but we will. We'll figure that out?
Our response is: Fine. We'll give you the time, and we want you to give us space in the discussion. What's been going on tacitly over decades now since Darwin first formulated his theory in The Origin of Species is that the enterprise of science has been subtly redefined to include only materialistic explanations of all events, even major origins events. Creative intelligence, which we detect all the time in our ordinary experience the effects of creative intelligence, has been taken off the table as a possible explanation for biological phenomena. Yet, in biology prior to Darwin it was part of the framework and explanatory framework of biology, especially as pertaining to the origin event. So this convention that's taken root in science has a name—it's called methodological naturalism. It says if you're going to be a real scientist, you must explain everything—including human action, human behavior, the origin of the universe, the origin of the fine tuning of the universe, the origin of life and major groups of animals—by reference only to strictly materialistic processes. You cannot refer to creative intelligence or a mind or the activity of a designing agent as an explanation for any event. That fits the sensibilities of our modern age, but it's actually profoundly anti-intellectual. It very well may be that the origin of, for example, the digital code at the foundation of life is the product of a master programmer. We may have evidence of that precisely in the information-bearing properties of molecules like DNA and RNA and proteins and the larger information processing system in the cell. In other words, we're seeing at the foundation of life distinctive hallmarks of intelligent activity, things that have not been explained by natural selection and random mutation or any other materialistic process. And yet we're being told by the scientific community, with its affirmation of these tacit conventions, that we can't consider that alternative explanation. We want to say, Fine. Continue to explore materialistic explanations for these phenomena that have not been explained by neo-Darwinism, but also be open to considering an alternative explanation that is currently not being permitted but which is intellectually possible and for which there is good evidence—and that's the idea of intelligent design.
19:24 - The Discovery of Digital Code in DNA
Could you briefly unpack that term that you used a couple of minutes ago: digital code. I think that's one of the most fascinating arguments against theistic evolution and the broader Darwinian system, that there's this digital code at the heart of all living organisms that seems to suggest that there was an intelligence behind it. Can you unpack that for us?
Here's the story: In 1953 Watson and Crick elucidate the structure of the DNA molecule. It's a fantastic discovery. They know it has something to do with hereditary traits, but as they elucidate the structure of the molecule, they realize that it's perfectly suited for storing information in a digital form. In 1957 Crick extended their idea and proposed something called the sequence hypothesis in which he proposed that the four chemical subunits that run along the interior of that famed double helix molecule—the subunits are called nucleotide bases, or just bases for short. He posited that these bases are functioning like alphabetic characters in a written text, or the kind of digital characters that we use in computer software today—0’s and 1’s. But instead of a two digit binary code, which we use in the computer world, or a twenty-six letter alphabetic system that we use in English language, the genetic text uses a four character code. Crick was proved over the ensuing years to be correct about this, that DNA stores the information—the sequence and instructions—for building the protein molecules that are necessary to keep cells alive. The proteins do all of the important jobs in the cell: they process information, they build the structural parts of molecular machines, they form enzymes which catalyze important reactions and biosynthetic pathways and metabolic systems. So proteins are critical, but they're built from instructions, and the instructions are encoded in this molecule. What we know from experience is that whenever we see information, especially in a digital or alphabetical form, we trace it back to its ultimate source whether we're talking about computer software or hieroglyphic inscription or a paragraph in a book or information embedded in a radio signal. Whenever we see information, especially in a digital form, it always comes from a mind not an undirected material process. What I found in my research on the origin of the first life (this is what my first book was about) is that all attempts to explain the origin of life had reached an impasse because they had been unable to explain the origin of the information necessary to produce it. Think of it this way: if you want to give your computer a new function, you've got to provide new code. The same thing turns out to be true in life. If you want to build the first one-celled organism or new forms of life subsequent to that, you have to provide information for building the proteins that service the cells that make the anatomical structures.
22:53 - Arguments against Theistic Evolution
What would you say is the strongest argument against theistic evolution—a distinctly Christian approach to using the ideas of neo-Darwinian evolution and maybe modifying them as needed so that they fit into a Christian framework? What would be the strongest argument that you have against that?
It depends on what we mean by theistic evolution. If we're just saying that God caused change over time, I have absolutely no problem with that. With that definition I would be a theistic evolutionist. The idea that God caused continuous, gradual change over time is not something that poses any great theological problems. There might be reasons to doubt it if you have a particular reading of the Genesis account, but God could be actively causing gradual change over time. I think there are scientific reasons to challenge universal common ancestry. The fossil record shows nothing of the kind. It shows a decidedly discontinuous pattern of sudden appearance and what's called stasis—changelessness over long periods of time. The genomic data we have are now suggesting profound discontinuities between major groups of organisms. There's a new discovery of what are called “orphan genes”—genes that are unique to specific taxonomic groups that have no sequence similarity to any other known genes. In that Darwinian picture of the history of life, every gene should be slightly similar to some other, indicating that continuous pattern of change. Instead we have these abrupt changes in the genomic sequences where we see very unique genes in different taxonomic groups. You've got a lot of evidence of discontinuity. So for that second sense of theistic evolution, I think there's a strong scientific challenge. The third meaning of evolution, conjoined with theism, would be the idea that God exists and that God is perhaps upholding the laws of nature that allow for this process of natural selection and random mutation to take place. But that mechanism is otherwise entirely unguided and undirected. You could say that God is upholding the laws of nature, but is he doing anything active to create new forms of life? Is that process guided or unguided? At this point our friends in the theistic evolution camp get famously vague. They don't want to say that God is not guiding the process of mutation and selection because he's doing something—he's upholding the laws of nature. He's not doing anything active in creation, so it certainly involves a kind of diminished view of divine sovereignty, which is inconsistent with a robustly biblical theology. So most theistic evolutionists are a little bit diffident—they don't want to say that God is not actively guiding the process, but they also don't want to say that he's guiding the process because that would be a form of intelligent design and they've been explicitly critical of the theory of intelligent design. In saying that God is actively guiding the evolutionary process, they would also be breaking with the mainstream scientific view as affirmed by secular evolutionary biologists, and they're very explicit about affirming the science of that view. So, there's been a bit of a dilemma, and we've been pressing our friends for clarity on that issue—exactly where do you stand? My take on it is that if you do press, typically what happens is that people will say, We think God is upholding the laws of nature, and we can't really tell whether God is guiding or not guiding the process. So they'll say that God might be guiding it, but it's undetectable to science. So then it becomes not really any kind of explanation for the appearance of design. At that point it really lacks any empirical content because there's no proposition there. They're not affirming that God is or isn't doing anything. They're just saying he might be or that he's in the background somehow and we can't say. At that point, theistic evolution loses any relevance as an explanation for actual biological phenomena.
27:48 - Why This Conversation Matters
Speak to the person listening right now who is maybe thinking: Does all this really matter? As long as we all agree, as Christians, that God made everything, who cares how he did it—how long it took, the mechanisms that he did or didn't use in that. You're coming at this as a scientist with a long career in science. You understand some of the biology here: you studied cells and you understand the wonder of DNA and this genetic information. But speak to the person, maybe the lay Christian, who maybe feels at times just overwhelmed by this. Why is this such an important conversation to have, especially within the church?
Every worldview has to answer the question What is the thing or the entity or the process from which everything else came? Darwinism, and its affiliated theories and sub-theories, has been a crucial part of the support for the worldview of scientific naturalism—the idea that the universe is eternal and self-existing and self-organizing. Therefore, there is no need for an external creator or designing intelligence of any kind. Naturalism has been the worldview that's dominated the culture. Naturalism has made almost all Christian affirmations seem untenable because naturalism says there is no God to act; therefore, miracles are impossible; therefore, the Christian story makes no sense; there's no need for redemption. None of that makes sense within a naturalistic framework. The other thing I would say is that what happens once you adopt the Darwinian schema and say, We can reconcile this with theology, invariably what happens is that as you then read scriptural texts, you bring the evolutionary theory that you've affirmed into your hermeneutic and you start to read the text with an evolutionary hermeneutic. What you find is that theistic evolutionists will say, We can reconcile biblical theology with evolutionary theory*. When you look at what they've done to reconcile, invariably they've reinterpreted passages of Scripture in light of evolutionary theory. The controlling hermeneutical framework is not biblical theology or even a neutral theology. It's decidedly evolutionary. If you remove the evolutionary assumptions, the reconciliation that is provided by these reinterpretations of the passages doesn't make any sense. There's no warrant for those reinterpretations of Scripture apart from the evolutionary theory that they've already adopted.
30:52 - The Age of the Earth and Biblical Interpretation
On this topic of how we should allow science to influence our interpretation of Scripture, I've heard some who would probably be more on the theistic evolution side point to the issue of the age of the earth as a good example of how if you look at Scripture itself, they argue, you probably wouldn't come away from reading the Bible with the idea that the earth and the universe is millions, if not billions, of years old. We have these famous Christians of old who counted up all the genealogies and came up with some number in the thousands for the age of the earth since creation. But science—geology, astronomy, etc.—have given us strong evidence that the universe is much older than that, and that's okay to allow that to help us better understand what Scripture is trying to teach us and maybe what it's not. So how do you see this as being different than maybe questions of just the age of the earth?
I'm not convinced that the Scriptural text, read very carefully, is teaching a young earth. I did a piece in the Four Views book with one of your competitors—Zondervan—where I explain my view on this, responding to both Deborah Haarsma (a theistic evolutionist) and Ken Ham (a young earth creationist). To me, when you read the Genesis account, you get to day four and there's a very important clue that not only tells us that we didn't have the sun and the moon—either they didn't exist or were invisible—until the fourth day of creation in the Genesis account. It also tells us that the sun and the moon were time markers for the days, the years, and the seasons. That's a very strong indicator to me that the yoms (the days of creation) that were established independently before the sun and the moon and which are described throughout the Genesis account—from day one to day six and onto day seven—are periods of indiscriminate length from a human point of view. The means by which we mark time were not present when those days of creation were established. There's a wonderful biblical scholar, Jack Collins at Covenant Seminary, who has often been asked the question, Were the days of creation short Ken Ham days or long Hugh Ross days? He says, Neither. They were days of indiscriminate length from a human point of view citing this very passage from Genesis. So I think we have to be very careful not to impute our own assumptions about the meaning of words without a careful analysis of the text—that's number one. Number two, because I read the Genesis text that way, I think that our best science is entirely appropriate to help us understand how old the earth is. I've come to the view that the earth is very old, humans are relatively recent in age in comparison to the age of the cosmos itself and the age of the earth, and I think there's a very nice synthesis between science and Scripture, taking our best science and our best scriptural interpretation at hand, understanding that both our best science and our best scriptural interpretation are always provisional and we may need to revise as we get new information. I call that the qualified agreement model of science and faith interaction.
34:39 - Arguing about Propositions, Not about People
You've already talked to the person who maybe wonders why this is all so important. Speak to the other side of that equation, maybe the person listening who, wherever they fall on these issues of evolution and creation, tends to think of this as a foundational, defining issue for the church. They might even view this as a test of orthodoxy. Someone could say, I'm a Christian. I believe what the Bible says is true, but I also believe in some kind of Darwinian evolution. I don't really know how to fit those together, but I think they're both true; and this person would say, I don't really know if you're a Christian then, because that seems like a pretty big problem. What would you say to that person?
Doubling back to the earlier question about the importance of the issue, I maybe didn't pay that off as succinctly as I should have when you first asked me, but the point I was making about worldview formation is really important. Every worldview has to answer what James Sire called “the prime reality question”—what is the thing, entity, or the process from which everything else comes? Our ideas about biological and cosmological origins play a huge role in the worldview we end up adopting. I think that's one of the central reasons why it's important. At the same time, all of us have a variety of views on a variety of topics that may or may not be completely consistent with a biblical worldview and with biblical teaching. Our claim has never been that our scientific colleagues who hold to the theistic evolutionary view are not Christians or are somehow morally or otherwise deficient. But rather, the view is either inconsistent with our best understanding of Scripture and our best biblical theology, or that it's contrary to the scientific evidence. This is an argument about propositions, not about people. Obviously, people hold propositions and so we argue with the people who hold them, but we're not questioning people's sincerity of belief or their orthodoxy. Especially as it pertains to things concerning the gospel, most theistic evolutionists would want to say, Yeah, we believe all the core tenets of the gospel. Our ideas about how things came to be (our ideas about creation) do bleed over into very important tenets of biblical faith. I should say that not all proponents of intelligent design are biblical Christians. I happen to be both: I'm a proponent of intelligent design and I hold to a biblical faith. So speaking as a Christian layman, I am concerned about what happens when people say, I think that Darwinian evolution is the way things happened . . . therefore, I have to re-conceptualize my notion of the fall, which makes it then very difficult to make sense of the atonement. So there can be a knock-on effect as far as orthodoxy. People think very seriously about one of the key propositions that they may have accepted on alleged scientific grounds about origins. So, these things are connected.
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