Progressive Creation = Evolutionary Creation

Before it got diverted on to US party-politics, Joshua Swamidass’s thread on BioLogos  looked for common ground between the four common Christian origins positions (YEC, OEC, ID and EC). This was in the light of bridgebuilding discussions he has set up between representatives of all but ID (so far – given that many IDists are also believers in evolution, this ought not to an irremediable omission).

I tried to set the ball rolling with some suggestions:

  • All four groups accept changes in species over time (even if only after the Fall/Flood).
  • All four groups accept hereditary variation within species.
  • All four groups accept that natural selection is a real mechanism under some circumstances, but not the only cause of change.
  • All four groups agree that life looks designed.
  • All four groups agree that there is a creator.
  • All four groups agree that some features of life are explained by design (even if that just means their bare physical existence).
  • Where rare events occur for which no probability distribution can be estimated, all four groups admit phenomena which, empirically, are equally explicable by chance or miracle.

And on the down side –

  • All four groups have a tendency to divide the world up according to outmoded and unbiblical Enlightenment deistic concepts of “natural” and “supernatural”.

The conclusion most of these lead to is the fact that microevolution is not really theologically controversial (the main arguments about that are within science itself). The disagreement is over whether, and how, speciation and innovation has occurred – and as some observers of the recent Royal Society conference pointed out, this is also where the science is also most sketchy. The tendency still is, a century on from population genetics, simply to describe a microevolutionary process and pronounce, “Scale it up and you’ve explained everything!” But “the arrival of the fittest” is still as much an active conundrum as when Hugo de Vries coined the phrase in 1904.

tourOne of Joshua’s “candidates”, who cannot accept the consensus assurances that there is no problem, is the noted chemist and nano-technologist James Tour, who is said to embrace “progressive creation”. Tour’s website has an apologetics page which is well-worth perusing. It’s clear that his views on origins are faith-based but informed by science and also, most importantly, tentative. In other words, like us here at The Hump, he believes in the theistic God of the Bible, but accepts an old earth and doesn’t preclude any particular model of creation in principle. He pleads insufficient knowledge of both theology and evolution to pontificate – but also (as has been well-publicized) he doubts that any scientist truly understands enough about macroevolution to pontificate convincingly.

In particular he doubts the ability of the accepted undirected Neodarwinian mechanisms to produce the richness we see in the biosphere, and on that he is prepared to cite his own professional experience:

nanocarFor several decades I have been building molecular cars with functional motors, wheels, axles and chassis, and molecular nanosubmarines with light-activated motors and fluorescent pontoons, where many parts have to work in unison, and be planned to work in unison during redesign of major features. Even small changes in desired function can send the synthesis all the way back to step 1. In biology, the mechanisms for such transformations are complete mysteries. I posit that the gross chemical changes needed for macroevolution (origin of the major organismal groups, i.e., of the body plans,) are not understood and presently we cannot even suggest the mechanisms, let alone observe them. Any massive functional change of a body part would require multiple concerted lines of variations. Sure, one can suggest multiple small changes ad infinitum, but the concerted requirement of multiple changes all in the same place and at the same time, is impossible to chemically fathom. One day the requisite chemical basis might become apparent so that the questions can be answered. But present-day biology is far from providing even a chemical proposal for body plan changes, let alone a data-substantiated chemical mechanism.

Now if this leads him to a view called “progressive creation”, as Joshua Swamidass’s résumé states, what does this entail? Firstly some degree of agnosticism about “process”, apparently, but there is little in his “apology” that would exclude the transformation of species in itself, or commit him to believing that God simply creates new forms ex nihilo from time to time. In fact, consider his affirmation of Adam and Eve as historical figures, albeit within (as he confesses) a flexible physical context:

Based upon my faith in the biblical text, I do believe (yes, faith and belief go beyond scientific evidence for this scientist) that God created the heavens and the earth and all that dwell therein, including a man named Adam and a woman named Eve. As for many of the details and the time-spans, I personally become less clear.

A literal understanding of Genesis would have Adam formed from dust, and Eve partly transformed from the cellular material of Adam. This would be the transformation of one form to another, by God’s creative act on existing matter. So that when Tour goes on, regarding the creation of the species:

So, in addition to my chemically based scientific resistance to a macroevolutionary proposal, I am also theologically reticent to embrace it. As a lover of the biblical text, I cannot allegorize the Book of Genesis that far, lest, as Tevye in Fiddler on Roof said, “If I try and bend that far, I’ll break!” God seems to have set nature as a clue, not a solution, to keep us yearning for him,

it seems that his sticking point is not “creation from nothing”, and certainly not “six-day creation”, but simply the active, creative input of the theistic God of Christianity, and that accords with both his faith and his experience as a nano-chemist.

How does that not agree with Evolutionary Creation? I would answer that it is against some forms of it, in that it cuts right across the deistic or semideistic “free process” theology that has been something of the default position for theistic evolution in the BioLogos era. This has God setting up the laws governing evolution back at the Big Bang and simply letting it run, its ability to fulfil his creative wishes being dependent on how deterministically one sees nature, and how deterministically one sees his will, ie that perhaps he doesn’t care much what emerges, as long as something does.

But theologically, as we have frequently pointed out here, such a view has its roots more in Deism and Socinianism than in the historical Christian God who providentially governs his world. And so we reject it, although continuing to believe that evolution has occurred over time. In other words we fly the flag for theistic evolution, denying that deism can be properly so described.

Since that view is also intrinsically Epicurean – God setting up, or allowing, ontological randomness to stumble upon innovations on which natural selection can act – we have sometimes expressed doubt about it as a scientific proposition too. Aristotle objected to Epicurus because chance cannot produce order, Gray echoed this at the outset of Darwinism, and James Tour believes the same from his long experience of monkeying with actual functional molecules. I would also add that it is misleading to call it evolutionary creation either when you actually mean evolutionary indeterminism.

But at the same time on The Hump we’ve been exploring the true nature of randomness in a theistic view of nature, for example here. And one conclusion is that any contingent evolutionary event, that is one that does not reduce to explanation by law, or to a lawlike probability distribution, is formally indistinguishable as either an ontologically random event or a providential act of God. That would be equally true for a point mutation under Darwinian gradualism, or for some saltational event such as a hybridization.

Only, having already discounted the theological propriety of ontological randomness within Christian theism, one really only has left the category of “providential act of God”. Divine action, then, is hiding in plain sight in every such contingent event in nature. And that, surely, when it means innovation, is just another way of saying “creation”.

Now, one might conclude (in agreement with gradualistic theories of evolution) that such providential changes accumulate more or less infinitesimally before some mechanism triggers a speciation, or some new organ can be said to have appeared. Such would be the case with the accumulation of adaptive point mutations, and would also be the case in those situations where non-functional DNA sequences become ORFan genes. That would be creation, and it would be progressive.

Or one might conclude that things happen more suddenly and saltationally – as the fossil record overwhelmingly indicates. In that case innovation would be more dramatic, but one would see the change in the suites of species replacing each other over time. That, too, would be creation, and it would be progressive.

Seen through a scientific lens, such processes would involve demonstrable, or potentially demonstrable, changes to existing forms over time – the fittest would be arriving. They would therefore be examples of evolution, and yet they would be truly theistic. Or to put it in other terms they would be creation, and yet truly evolutionary.

Can anybody tell me, then, why Tour’s evolutionary creation and our theistic evolution are not essentially the same position?

Provisional tree of progressive creation

Provisional tree of progressive creation

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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6 Responses to Progressive Creation = Evolutionary Creation

  1. Robert Byers says:

    its possible for micro evolution to occur. Yet YEC would possibly see it as not the origin of species. in short it never happened, after the flood, to justify the diversity found just a few centuries after the flood.
    Its possible but only in a simple;e way that its not impossible.
    So scaling it up is rejected by YEC more then just crossing thresholds of biology that need mutations to help.
    Good thread and good idea about common ground.

    • Jon Garvey Jon Garvey says:

      Thanks for the compliment Robert – though we have to thank Joshua Swamidass for raising the “common ground” subject and doing something constructive about it.

      I think that for the two positions I’ve sought to reconcile in the OP to find common ground with YEC (not forgetting, of course, that many ID people are also YECs), the discussion will have to be at the level of interpretation of Scripture, more than of science, because that’s where the different interpretations of the science arise.

      But to do that, the goodwill to do so must come from the theology lying behind the interpretation of Scripture. The first issue is whether we all really believe that God is the sole Creator, and I think many Christians, not without justification, suspect that some TEs are not far from the materialists in fudging that question.

      But even more fundamental, if that agreement is achieved, it’s more possible to see disagreements as just differences amongst brethren, rather than diametrically opposed worldviews. It’s certainly possible, as my good relationship here with YECs Arthur Jones and David Tyler exemplifies.

      As a parallel (the subject of my next post, God willing) the big controversy over heliocentrism, in the century or so from when Copernicus proposed it until Newton more or less demonstrated it, turned out to be an important scientific issue, and not an important doctrinal one. It was inevitable that people would disagree – but not that it should be a life-and-death theological issue.

  2. Henry Tudor says:

    Hello Dr. Jon.

    I hope that the Lord Jesus will be good to you this Christmas. I just want to ask a question about Progressive Creation and Evolution Creation. Are you saying that the two are practically one and the same. I hope you do not mind me asking this question, but I do get somewhat lonely sometimes. If it were for my wife, I don’t know what I should do. Please keep the US in prayer. Since the presidential election, I am worried about the future of the Anglo-Saxon world.

    Edward Miller, BA, Old Dominion University; MAR, Liberty University School of Divinity

    • Jon Garvey Jon Garvey says:

      Hi there Henry – blessings of the season to you too.

      My point is that there’s at least a lot of common ground (which is Joshua Swamidass’s interest) and that, conceptually, it’s hard to see exactly where they differ.

      So long, that is, as the two views are understood as:

      (a) on the Evolutionary Creation side, meaning that God providentially directs the outcomes of evolution, which is what the early theistic evolutionists believed, but which is (as I suggested) often replaced nowadays with a rather woolly and open-ended idea not much different from atheoistic evolution. And

      (b) on the progressive creation side, meaning that the broad picture of the fossil record is accurate, and that one is willing to consider that God’s creative acts were modifications of existing forms, eg he makes mammals from reptiles, birds from dinosaurs, etc, rather than out of thin air.

      Hope that explains what I mean well emough.

      • Henry Tudor says:

        I wish to thank you for your great answer. Perhaps we will have contact in the new year.


  3. Jon Garvey Jon Garvey says:

    Joshua Swamidass commented on the post following this one:

    As I am often seen doing, I once explained how providence, God’s direct action, design and creation are all compatible with theistic evolution. In response, tour asked me, “If what you are saying is true, what exactly is the difference between progressive creation, aren’t they just the same thing?” I laughed, and said it came down to the word “evolution” and whether or not we liked it, and if we wanted to be warring with mainstream science. We’ll see how the common ground event goes. It would be great for him to go on the record with an answer to your question.

    That’s interesting, Joishua – he must think the same way I do (only better, given his academic record).

    You may well have a point about like/dislike for the word “evolution”. So many disagreements (and confusions), between Christians, at least, seem to arise from whether the word is taken with or without the accustomed metaphysical baggage. It was more than a scientific theory even in Darwin’s writings, it is in Lewontin’s and it is in Cornelius Hunter’s.

    The word itself isn’t even that good a descriptor for the current theory (which is possibly why Darwin held off using it until later editions – it’s better applied to Lamarck’s “general” theory): etymologically it implies an unfolding of the implicit, rather than an exploration of the possible. Even beyond the matter of scientific theory and metaphysical interpretation, the word has acquired such sociological and even mythological status that I don’t think I’ve ever had a conversation about it where people weren’t using it differently.

    As I argued with somebody with a definitional mind here and at BioLogos maybe five years ago, nobody is going to tighten its usage now. One can only try (with difficulty) to define it in any particular conversation – but even then, people on the Internet will lift ones comments, apply a different usage of “evolution”, and misrepresent you.

    I can imagine, for example, Panda’s Thumb at some future date scoring points off Uncommon Descent by saying James Tour endorses evolution – failing to mention the subleties of progressive creation. Or, of course, your own name being taken in vain as not actually believing in evolution because you’re a closet creationist. C’est la vie.

    My humble suggestion for your forthcoming conferencing is that you could each lay out, in some detail, the way you use the word “evolution” (yours, I suspect, would be strictly within the “limited constraints of science” approach) and label them, say “E1, E2… En“, rather as the analytic philsophers do with complex ideas.

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