What Is Theistic Evolution?

Evolution as Change Over Time

Theistic evolution actually can be a number of different distinct ideas because the term evolution can have a number of distinct definitions. If you think of the most basic definition of evolution as just being change over time, there are a couple of different senses in which that’s true.

One is the idea that the organisms we see on earth today are different than the ones that are attested in the fossil record. So, we’ve seen change over time in that sense. We also see small scale variation within the limits of a genome, for example, in what’s called microevolution.
Again, it’s another change over time.

A good example of that might be the Galapagos finches, the beaks of which got smaller and larger in response to varying weather conditions in the Galapagos. Or, the peppered moth’s wings changed back and forth between light and dark. Or, antibiotic resistance. These are well-established, observable instances in which we’ve seen change over time.

So, that’s a definition of evolution that you could conjoin with theism and say, God causes change over time. Nobody really disputes that idea. Christians don’t dispute that God is causing change over time. Biologists don’t dispute the idea that change over time is happening, at least within limits, and has happened over time. That’s one sense of the term evolution and a corresponding sense of the term theistic evolution.

Christians don’t dispute that God is causing change over time.

Evolution as Gradual Change

The second idea of evolution is the idea that change over time has been continuous and gradual and has been occurring essentially without limits. This picture of biological history is best represented by Darwin’s figure of the tree of life. All the branches on the tree represent the forms of life you see today, and each one those forms has arisen through slow, small, gradual changes, going back to one simple form at the very beginning—maybe the trunk or the root of that tree.

So, you start with a one-cell organism, and then that morphs and changes, and incremental change accumulates over time, and it eventually causes a diversification of all the disparate forms of life you see today.

So, that is the theory of biological history sometimes called monophily or “one family” in which everything is connected by common ancestry. That’s the second sense of evolution.

Many theistic evolutionists are simply people who think that God caused that continuous and gradual change and that everything is linked together in this picture of biological history.

Evolution as Natural Selection or Random Mutation

A third meaning of evolution corresponds with the third idea of theistic evolution, and it’s probably the most contentious notion. That’s the idea that the process of natural selection, random mutation, and other similarly undirected natural processes have produced all that change implied by the tree of life, so that all the forms of life we see today are the result of this purely natural mechanism called natural selection and random mutation (and some others perhaps supplementing that).

This meaning asserts that mechanism has been sufficient to produce all the forms of life we see today, that it’s therefore creative, and that it also explains the appearance of design that all biologists recognize in living organisms.

Richard Dawkins says that biology is the study of complicated things that give the appearance of having been designed for a purpose. The key word for him is appearance. Things look designed, but they’re not really designed, because this purely naturalistic, unguided mechanism has produced that appearance or illusion. Rather, that mechanism merely mimics the powers of the designing intelligence, and is not accomplishing the goals of intelligence. It’s not goal-driven or purpose-driven.

So, that third meaning of evolution is standard, Neo-Darwinian theory today. Almost all evolutionary biologists adhere to the idea that a purely natural process—natural selection, random mutation, and maybe some other evolutionary mechanisms—have produced everything we see today.

Theistic evolution embraces that mechanism as a creative process and then thinks that in some unspecified way God is behind, part of it, or upholding it. Or, they may say that the mutation selection mechanism is God’s means of creativity. That would be a third meaning of evolution, and third possible sense of theistic evolution.

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