Levels of certainty

The 2009 Rescuing Darwin survey, to which I referred in a previous post,  was linked to a long essay by Nick Spencer and Denis Alexander, both theistic evolutionists by persuasion. Their own spin on the survey results is evident from early on in their essay (and perhaps even in the project’s title):

In 2009, the evidence for evolution by natural selection is overwhelming, although of course the theory itself continues to evolve as new data come to light. The fossil record, although incomplete, firmly supports the theory, revealing impressive series of transitional forms. More recently, advances in genetics have hugely strengthened evolution, to the extent that, in scientific circles at least, it is now incontestable.

But only, it seems, in scientific circles. According to a recent, detailed quantitative research study commissioned by Theos and conducted by the polling company ComRes, only 37% of people in the UK believe that Darwin’s theory of evolution is “beyond reasonable doubt”. 32% say that Young Earth Creationism (“the idea that God created the world sometime in the last 10,000 years”) is either definitely or probably true, and 51% say that Intelligent Design (“the idea that evolution alone is not enough to explain the complex structures of some living things, so the intervention of a designer is needed at key stages”) is either definitely or probably true.

As it stands, that passage seems to be saying that evolution by natural selection is as near as dammit a fact, but that (tragically) most people in Britain haven’t realised it and prefer special creation. But that, in my view, is not what the survey shows – and it’s not clear that’s even what it asked.

The authors suggest the public came out against natural selection. But in fact, that phrase was used only once in the entire survey, the word “evolution” being used everywhere else, so that all the subsequent questions were about a completely undefined process – it’s not to be expected that the lay public would keep in mind that single mention of natural selection. In fact the very structure of the questions confuses the issue. After some preliminary general questions, the first “meaty one” offers participants a choice between:

1. Humans evolved by a process of evolution which removes any need for God
2. Humans evolved by a process of evolution which can be seen as part of God’s plan
3. Humans evolved by a process of evolution which required the special intervention of God or a higher power at key stages
4. Humans were created by God some time within the last 10,000 years

Then comes the sole “natural selection” question whose responses are what our authors find so disquieting:

Darwinian evolution is the idea that life today, including human life, developed over millions of years from earlier species, by a process of natural selection. Which one of the following statements comes closest to your opinion of Darwinian evolution?
1. It is a theory so well established that it’s beyond reasonable doubt
2. It is a theory that is still waiting to be proved or disproved
3. It is a theory with very little evidence to support it
4. It is a theory which has been disproved by the evidence

Now, how is that question supposed to relate to the previous one? Is Darwinism just one particular kind of evolution, equivalent perhaps to the category removing the need for God? Does Darwinian evolution claim that only natural selection caused life today, in which case most ordinary folk would conclude God is excluded? Or is it merely a claim that there is a real thing called natural selection that plays only some part, in which case God might play a different part… as might neutral theory or other processes, which to the scientifically initiated seem to be as marginalized as God is?

Given that confusion, Darwin actually got a pretty good result. True, only 37% of respondents agree that Darwinian evolution is beyond reasonable doubt – which as an exclusive explanation it is not: ask Moto Kimura, Eva Jablonka, Lynn Margulis, Stuart Kauffmann, Denis Noble or James Shapiro. But 36% said it’s awaiting proof (does that not embody the healthy virtue of “scientific doubt”?), making a 73% majority apparently well-disposed towards it. Only 19% believed it has little or no supporting evidence, leaving a mere 8% believing it to be disproved.

As the authors say, only 32% of Brits were YECs (and actually only 11% said it was definitely true): the rest (although the totals added to more than 100%) were atheist evolutionists, theistic evolutionists or those is the (rather faulty) Intelligent Design category who believed that a designer intervened at key stages of evolution.

So what exactly is the authors’ problem with this? That a good proportion of people do not think natural selection alone is a complete explanation of evolution? So what? An increasing number of biologists believe the same. Even Darwin believed it, supporting sexual selection and Lamarckian mechanisms at the very least as well.

Or is it a problem that people think God should be guiding or intervening in the process? Given that most lay-people have little idea of philosophical and theological concepts of double-causation to enable evolution both to be natural and guided, is that not what most ordinary Christians believe? And why should it be shocking that so many see the “designer’s” intervention as necessary for key stages like the origin of life (which cannot possibly have occurred through Darwinian evolution) or the origin of human consciousness (for which evolution provides no credible explanation whatsoever)?

Those of us within the discussion rightly want to make our theology and philosophy watertight, but one can’t expect the same precision of participants in a public poll. It seems that all except the 32% (or 11%) of YECs, exercising their God-given right to free will, accepted some significant role for evolution. I can understand why the anti-theists want to tender an oath from us all that naturalistic science has the only complete and unquestionable explanation, but I’m not sure why Christian scientists should require the same pledge before they consider the population to be properly educated.


What annoys me most in the whole public discussion is the willful vagueness of the terminology used. Was Rescuing Darwin about the modern theory of evolution? Why then was only natural selection mentioned, and not current views on the prevalence of neutral evolution, of the predominance of purifying selection over adaptation etc? Are they too complicated for the lay public? If so, evolution is too complex to be a simple “Yes/No” issue anyway. Was the survey about the theory of natural selection alone, then? Then why only mention the term in one question out of twenty-five? If it was just about “evolution”, then as Wikipedia‘s article on Evolution as Fact and Theory  reminds us, that’s too vague to mean anything much at all:

Evolution has been described as “fact and theory”, “fact not theory”, “only a theory, not a fact”, “multiple theories, not fact”, and “neither fact, nor theory”. The disagreements among these statements, however, have more to do with the meaning of words than the substantial issues and these are discussed below.

True, but it’s usually not the substantial issues, but the mere words, that get tossed around in public debate. The same article talks sensibly about the “facts” of evolution, as distinct from the theoretical explanations. Taking the “substantial issues” rather than the words, it’s the “facts” that should be in Rescuing Darwin’s category of “beyond dispute”, for theory is always  (in theory, anyway) tentative. So Wikipedia says:

The facts of evolution come from observational evidence of current processes, from imperfections in organisms recording historical common descent, and from transitions in the fossil record.

Do you notice that, apart perhaps from the first (which can only deal with change of gene frequency within existing species), these “facts” are indeed evidence for common descent, not even necessarily universal common descent, and for transformism, but not in any way for natural selection, which is what is being held up as “incontestible” by Spencer and Alexander. But it isn’t incontestible, and it seems the British public, at least in 2009, contested it. That may have been through ignorance, but it would have been more ignorant to vote for “certainty” where only “substantial evidence”, at best, exists.

When I first started seriously studying the origins question, one of the theological “assured certainties” was the radically degraded state of natural creation from the Fall, a stumblingblock to Creationists accepting deep time and a motive for heterodox re-interpretation of the origin of evil by TEs from the nineteenth century to the present. Having grown up with that assumption it took a while for me to notice that no good case for it can be argued from Scripture, and a fair bit of research to  find that no case for it was argued in the first 1,500 years of the Church. Once it is cleared out of the way a number of log-jams to the rapprochement of theology and evolution break up.

As I’ve said from the start, given a strong doctrine of providence and a concurrentist view of divine action, no natural process need be excepted from God’s control. But there’s no doubt that to many believers, natural selection is a similar log-jam, because it’s touted not only as a complete and sufficient mechanism of evolution, but very widely as a substitute for God, rather than as his tool. Indeed, much modern theistic evolution of the Van Till/Haught/Giberson/Miller school has endorsed that secularist view by trying to make the autonomy of natural processes from God’s control a theological requirement. There are troubling hints of such ideas in Rescuing Darwin, which is not surprising as they have become quite prominent in Christians in Science, the British equivalent of the ASA which sponsors the Theos think-tank that produced the report.

If, on the other hand, natural selection is assessed more soberly as just one of a number of mechanisms of evolution, rather than as a theory-of-everything, another log-jam to the acceptance of evolution by theists is removed . The irony is that if it were removed, evolution would in any case cease to be intrinsically much more controversial than astrophysics (a useful comparison drawn by our friend Darek Barefoot recently). Nobody would lose out, except those for whom all-conquering natural selection makes it possible to be intellectually fulfilled atheists.

And maybe also for those who’ve hitched their creation theology to it.

Jon Garvey

About Jon Garvey

Training in medicine (which was my career), social psychology and theology. Interests in most things, but especially the science-faith interface. The rest of my time, though, is spent writing, playing and recording music.
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