More on selection, optimization and doubt

I want to expand a little on why I have conceptual problems with standard Neodarwinian evolution as a more-or-less complete explanation for the origin of the species, touching again on optimization, which I dealt with recently in the context of formal causation.

For those new to the site, or the forgetful, let me reiterate that these problems are not about the godlessness of evolutionary accounts or the impossibility of “natural” causes being sufficient for the creation of life. Classical Christianity, with its strong doctrine of special providence, has no problem coping with complete chains of efficient causes (though it may, on other grounds, prefer God to act directly in some cases – to Aquinas, for example, causes beyond nature were an important way of showing that God creates freely and not by necessity).

No, the issues are about whether the current ToE is secure enough to be a good account. At least in part, the freedom to question that comes from not being bound to natural selection as the only possible option, from a prior commitment to naturalism. So if you’re sitting comfortably, then I’ll begin.

Remember that Darwin’s theory was not intended to explain variation alone, but adaptation. What that means is that his initial observation from decades of field-study was the superb congruence of species to their roles. A previous explanation for this universal observation, which he challenged, was special creation by an infinitely wise creator (he did little to contest, and even accommodated, alternative explanations for adaptation like Lamarckianism). The analogy he chose for this was selective breeding by skilled breeders. And, finally, his proposed explanation was natural selection of constant, limitless variations in effectively infinite time, simulating such intentional breeding.

The stock-in-trade of field naturalists is still the same superb adaptation that impressed Darwin. Overall fitness cannot easily be quantified: it is a relative attribute, and so there is always the possibility that a fitter organism for any one environment may occur in the next generation. That’s why optimization is such an interesting phenomenon (see the links I put here and another new example here). In optimization function can be measured against the fixed standard of the limits of physical laws, or as in the last case against the best that human intelligent design can achieve. Of course, a sub-optimal design might actually be fittest in any given situation (for example, speed of reproduction might outweigh engineering perfection as a priority), but it is hard to claim that theoretically maximal performance does not represent fitness.

However, the trajectory of evolutionary theory (in keeping with the demise of C S Lewis’s Myth of Progress!) is that evolution is a tinkerer or a bodger, doing just enough to ensure survival, but no more. “Bodging” and “optimization” don’t self-evidently fit together, especially when some of the work on the limitations of natural selection is examined. I now want to glance at some of the research I’ve stumbled across over the last year or two in that regard.

First, let me comment on the limitations of recombinational breeding. Although some ultra-conservative population geneticists maintain that evolution doesn’t require mutation at all, even in Darwin’s time his comparison of evolution to livestock breeding was severely criticised, because the constraints were well known to all breeders. I mentioned that in a medical context on the optimization thread, but it’s a commonplace even in the popular press that the more extremely one selects cattle or dogs, the less fit overall they become. Although TEs will sometimes talk about the morphological differences between chihuahuas and great danes as evidence for evolution, the fact remains that they are all mere varieties of the subspecies Canis lupus familiaris: after 10,000 years (or possibly as much as 100,000) of selective breeding they remain inter-fertile with wolves, and more prone to genetic disorders. We have long passed the stage when “Just give us a few more centuries” is a sufficient answer to these problems.

Mutation entered evolutionary thinking through Hermann Muller’s 1927 discovery of X-ray mutation, if you don’t count Darwin’s “sports”, and his hypothesis that beneficial mutations might have evolutionary significance. It became steadily more entrenched as the basis for long-term evolution in the contemporaneous Modern Synthesis (“mutations replenish the gene pool”), and was given a theoretical treatment in population genetics. Mutation would overcome the objections of the livestock breeders that evolution could not produce new features. Meanwhile, plant breeders were doing it for real, with very different outcomes.

As shown in this paper by Wolf-Ekkehard Lönnig, who was the lead scientist and group leader of plant mutation research at the Max Planck Institute (1992-2008), in plant mutation breeding work over 40 years, approx 1:25000 mutations proved of some benefit. A realistic equivalent figure for animal mutations would be 1 in 100,000-400,000 beneficial mutations.

Remember that this refers to optimal conditions involving selective breeding from mutated organisms. In the wild, most benefical mutations will be lost before fixation, on standard population genetics models. And of course, in many cases speciation of animals is believed to happen in relatively small and isolated populations. But that’s not all:

“The larger the mutant collections are, the more difficult it is to extend them by new mutation types. Mutants preferentially arise that already exist.” In other words, the number of mutants with new phenotypes asymptotically approaches a saturation line in persistently large mutation experiments.

So 40 years of lavishly-funded mutation experiments were more than enough to show not only that there were in reality (as opposed to in population genetic modelling) few possible beneficial mutations, but that most of them had been found during that short time.

It may also be pointed out in this connection that – as far as the author is aware – neither plant breeders nor geneticists have ever reported the origin of any new species, or just any new stable races or ecotypes either surviving better or at least as well in the wild in comparison with the wild-type, in which the mutation(s) have been induced (Lönnig 1993 2001 2002a 2006, Lönnig and Becker 2004).

A new paper by Ard Louis’s team adds significantly to this. I’ve said in the past that population genetics is limited as a model for macroevolution by its simplifications and assumptions, and this work by Louis addresses one aspect of this by modelling the known fact that some mutations occur much less frequently than others. Positively, as in the abstract, the paper shows that this bias can “steer populations to local optima”. More pessimistically, though, he concludes:

We explicitly showed how phenotypes with a high local frequency can fix at the expense of locally rare phenotypes, even if the latter have much higher fitness. Taken together, these arguments suggest that the vast majority of possible phenotypes may never be found, and thus never fix, even though they may globally be the most fit: Evolutionary search is deeply non-ergodic. When Hugo de Vries was advocating for the importance of mutations in evolution, he famously said “Natural selection may explain the survival of the fittest, but it cannot explain the arrival of the fittest”. Here we argue that the fittest may never arrive. Instead evolutionary dynamics can be dominated by the “arrival of the frequent”.

Louis is a Christian and an ardent defender of a purely Darwinian type of theistic evolution. But his press release is candid in suggesting that significant rethinking of evolutionary assumptions may be necessary in the light of this work. On the one hand, it seems evolution need not search the whole space of possibilities. On the other, it becomes less plausible for evolution to explore new functions at all since natural selection is a strong stabilizing force for existing (and not even the best) configurations.

Fitness doesn’t have to be 100%, of course, even if one could measure it. But does “frequent and faulty” fit either with what is so often seen in nature and what inspired Darwin, or with the many examples now known of optimization? I have a problem squaring the circle.

Natural selection has theoretical numerical limits, too. Susumu Ohno’s 1972 paper, in which he coined the unfortunate term “Junk DNA”, was actually based on the theoretical conclusion that only a maximum of 30,000 genes could be subject to selection at any one time without the mechanism being swamped by the vastly more common deleterious mutations, extinction being the eventual result.

Until now, that has agreed quite well with the 20K coding genes thought to be present in the human genome, and even (just about) with the additional number of definitely functional genes gradually added via ENCODE and other research. But even without the possible function of far more of the genome, as ENCODE predicts from the level of transcription, Ohno was unaware of the sheer extent of alternative splicing, gene overlap, and  other types of multiple coding.

This is especially important given the emerging importance of genes as control switches rather than as protein blueprints. However robust such complex systems are, it is inevitable that each gene is representing a vastly greater number of phenotypic variables that are under, at least, purifying selection. And of course, the real point at issue, long term, is adaptive selection to account for the swallow’s wings working out of the box, the hummingbird’s wings outperforming drones, or the insect’s wings mimicking exactly the leaves it rests on.

If, as now seems the case, genes are involved in the coding of an average of half a dozen proteins, then the fitness of half a dozen separate phenotypic features must be affected by any one rare beneficial mutation. How often would it be beneficial or neutral for all half-dozen traits, given that the overall rate of frankly deleterious mutations is 70%?

Ohno’s work led directly to Kimura’s neutral theory – the saturation of selection alone meant that the vast majority of genetic changes must be unselected. Current near-neutral theory still evokes heated argument, but it seems to be preferred over strict adaptationism by a majority now. As Eugene Koonin writes in his “state of the union” paper:

According to the neutral theory, a substantial majority of the mutations that are fixed in the course of evolution are selectively neutral so that fixation occurs via random drift…

For “substantial”, one should in the light of the plant mutation paper really read “vast”.

Of course, the neutral theory should not be taken to mean that selection is unimportant for evolution. What the theory actually maintains is that the dominant mode of selection is not the Darwinian positive selection of adaptive mutations, but stabilizing, or purifying selection that eliminates deleterious mutations while allowing fixation of neutral mutations by drift.

In other words, Darwin’s adaptive selection is a mere bit-part player in evolutionary change. Furthermore, other research predicts that of all beneficial mutations, the slightly beneficial escape adaptive selection, and the highly beneficial swamp it at the expense of other traits – for example if only white polar bears ever survive, all lesser beneficial traits become invisible to selection. Back to Koonin on neutral theory, though:

Subsequent studies refined the theory and made it more realistic in that, to be fixed, a mutation needs not to be literally neutral but only needs to exert a deleterious effect that is small enough to escape efficient elimination by purifying selection—the modern ‘nearly neutral’ theory. Which mutations are ‘seen’ by purifying selection as deleterious critically depends on the effective populations’ size: in small populations, drift can fix even mutations with a significant deleterious effect.

As I’ve already pointed out, in higher animals speciation can only take place in relatively small populations, because most species only exist in small populations, especially if speciation is allopatric – remember those population estimates of 10,000 or so throughout the dawn of human history. Did most of the changes leading to rational humanity, then, come from random drift? Or did they arise as Stephen Jay Gould’s spandrels? It seems to make little difference, because the queue for adaptive selection capacity remains just as long once they have arisen, if we want to claim that adaptive selection is the final common path for evolution. And if it is not, then our only possible designer-substitute has gone: the watchmaker is not blind, but dead.

Koonin’s paper also speaks of gene and genome duplication “sounding the death knell” for Darwinian gradualism. The fossil record has always cast doubt on it, as Darwin acknowledged, and Gould’s punctuated equilibria work emphasises that, observationally, in most cases macroevolution occurs below the resolution of palaeontology – involving a thousand generations, maybe, of that few thousand individuals. This paper  provides confirmatory genetic evidence that most speciation events do not occur by gradual accumulation of change, or even by the kind of “accelerated gradualism” usually invoked (with a suitable flourish of the hand) to account for punc eek:

78% of the trees fit the simplest model in which new species emerge from single events, each rare but individually sufficient to cause speciation. This model predicts a constant rate of speciation, and provides a new interpretation of the Red Queen: the metaphor of species losing a race against a deteriorating environment is replaced by a view linking speciation to rare stochastic events that cause reproductive isolation.

So we have a low population, in a short time window (or even a single stochastic event, on this evidence), achieving speciation of the magnitude of, say, the change from H. erectus to H. sapiens. That’s either a lot of adaptive selection for a limited-capacity genome, or an extremely fortuitous set of near-neutral changes getting fixed non-selectively. This paper  suggests that, in some cases at least, it may be the latter… once they find room in the selection queue.

But do moderately deleterious, neutrally-fixed mutations really achieve “sophisticated designs” of scorpion burrows? OK, all these things no doubt fit together somehow, but whether they do so by orthodox Neodarwinian mechanisms I have my doubts. On the one hand the bar of adaptive perfection has, at least in many cases, been raised by the study of optimization. At the same time, the capabilities and capacities of selection have been chipped away bit by bit, and the populations and times available have shrunk since Darwin’s easy assumption of infinite variation, ample geological time and limitless natural selection. If there isn’t an issue of plausibility there, I’m not sure why not, apart from wishful thinking.

Just one more citation along these lines. Everything we’ve looked at so far depends above all on DNA. And according to this paper the code itself is close to optimal. OK, 1 in a million codes may be better, so it’s not (on present knowledge) fully optimized. The writers say that the biases in the code suggest it’s been subject to selection … so not to neutral drift, then?

This is not an example of evolution doing just enough to get by. It must be one example of adaptive selection not being swamped by the other demands of the metabolism of the first DNA lifeforms, but proceeding smoothly to optimization. But tell me, just how does a genetic code mutate or vary when it’s what’s encoding all the other genes in the first place?

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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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42 Responses to More on selection, optimization and doubt

  1. Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:

    To see the same problems addressed by a TE who is a working population geneticist, see this by David L Wilcox. See also the reply linked from it by Arthur Shapiro suggesting that Wilcox is retreating to a “God of the Gaps”, and Wilcox’s own rejoinder.

    The nature of Shapiro’s accusation seems to confirm the point made by Wilcox and in my post – that natural selection is defended tooth and nail because it is the only safely materialist game in town.

  2. Jon

    To return to a comparison from a few posts back, why do Christian commentators not bore in on the unknowns about planetary formation as evidence of naturalistic bias among astrophysicists? Maybe they do but I have not seen it.

    God created planet earth. God created life upon planet earth. Astronomers will continue to work on a naturalistic model of planet formation while generally advocating the best hypothesis they currently have. So will evolutionary biologists. Atheist astronomers will be loathe to wring their hands over gaps in the scientific story of planet formation, but my guess is that few Christian astronomers will seize upon those gaps in order to indict the profession for taking a godless approach to astrophysics. Nor will many parse various naturalistic planet formation hypotheses for their subtle theological implications. Why in principle should it be different for evolutionary biology?

    • Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:

      Hi Darek

      There are reasons why biology is different from astrophysics – particularly in the metaphysical baggage added to Darwinian evolution since its very inception by Huxley and his successors. For that very reason, it is interesting that until the Big Bang theory, cosmology was largely wedded to an eternal Universe from the same naturalistic commitment, without creating a culture war. That’s worth close examination to see why (rather than simply bemoaning the difference). A post sometime, maybe.

      But that has nothing to do with my post, as I explained from the outset. Neodarwinism will work fine with classical theism – if it works at all. Until a paradigm change, though, evolutionary theory is wedded to natural selection as its central tenet, and the only one that gives it explanatory power for adaptation. But I don’t believe, after 50 years or so of thinking about it, that it’s ever been sufficiently demonstrated to possess that overriding capacity to underpin evolution.

      As I see it the situation here is not “godless natural selection” v “intervention”, but the equivalent of drawing back from Hoyle’s continuous creation theory when the evidence is piling up for Big Bang. If one is not persuaded by the evidence, then one is quite rational not to accept the theory – and there again is a difference from astrophysics, because doubters of core accretion theory don’t get accused of scientific heresy.

      • Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:

        PS the nebular hypothesis does get some adverse commentary from YECs, I believe, as does the Big Bang. Logically, it would be good to see scientific theists refining their doctrine of providence on astrophysics as well: the same issues of contingency apply.

        Indeed, the flip side of that does happen: there’s a depressing trend in BioLogos comments from TEs to a view of the Universe in which life, seen as an unlikely chance, is spotted by God wherever it happens to occur, so that it’s blind luck that Christ became Man on earth rather than becoming Zug on Sirius IV.

    • Avatar photo Edward Robinson says:


      You make a good point. I can’t speak for Jon, but speaking for myself, I would have no objection if a Christian astrophysicist pointed out that all existing explanations for the origin of the universe, or stars, or the earth-moon system, were seriously defective, and that such explanations in fact slyly relied on metaphysical naturalism. In other words, if the scientific “consensus” were in effect saying, “OK, we admit we don’t know how this happened, but we can be SURE that however it happened, it was entirely NATURAL,” then I think a Christian challenge would be entirely appropriate.

      It’s one thing to ask, “If this thing had its origin in purely natural causes, what might those natural causes have been?” and then to employ the normal methods of natural science, trying out various natural causes, always genuinely (not merely formally) open to the conclusion that more than natural causes were involved. It’s another thing entirely to ask, “By what purely natural causes did this thing arise?” which makes an unwarranted metaphysical assumption, i.e., that all things in this world have adequate causal explanations of a natural scientific kind.

      Of late I’ve seen some discussion of the origin of the earth/moon system on the internet. I’ve not yet seen a plausible account; all of the theorists seem willing to resort to absolutely desperate measures to explain the thing. (Better a naturalistic explanation, no matter how far-fetched, than a non-naturalistic one.) Interestingly, Boyle and Newton, the founders of modern chemistry and physics, just took it for granted that more than natural activity was involved in setting up the solar system; they did not think such an assumption was at all incompatible with the practice of natural science. The modern metaphysical bias was not yet fully in place; Descartes and Kant had not yet worked their evil upon the world. Indeed, when I read TE literature I often smell Kant all the way through it, whereas ID literature always reminds me more of Newton, Boyle, and Kepler.

      I want to be clear that I am not demanding a supernatural explanation for anything in particular. For all I know, there may be fully natural explanations for all origins, and God may have willed nature to be self-unfolding from the time of the Big Bang. I don’t see any in-principle theological objection to such a choice of God’s. I do, however, find the TE/EC determination to push purely natural explanations for all origins to be obsessive, given their backgrounds in the evangelical world where purely natural explanations are by no means insisted upon. It is as if, more than anything else, TE/EC folks fear being called “unscientific.”

      There are doubtless biographical reasons for this. Many of the TE/EC leaders (Giberson, Lamoureux, Venema, Falk, Isaac, and possibly Murphy) were at one time creationists, and the taunt of not understanding science was doubtless thrown at them regularly during those years. I think the constant refrain of “good science” “consensus science” “natural events have natural causes” etc. in TE/EC writing has something to do with this personal history. Just as the former capitalist often goes out of the way to dramatically show that he is now a good communist, or as the former meat-eater often goes out of the way to vilify meat-eating and preach vegetarianism, so the former creationists go out of their way to be as fully naturalistic regarding origins as the most ardent atheistic/materialistic biologists and cosmologists.

      I, on the other hand, was not raised in a heavily evangelical or Biblical setting, and was brought up by the surrounding culture to insist on purely natural explanations for everything as the only scientific and intellectually respectable kind of explanation; yet I do not seem to find the notion of divine “hands on” activity in the origin of the universe and life nearly as problematic as the TE leaders do. Strange.

      I also don’t understand how a TE/EC can with a perfectly straight face say that a man violated the fundamental conservation laws of the universe by feeding 5,000 people with the mass of maybe half a dozen meals, and then sternly admonish evangelical Christians, “We mustn’t unscientifically allow a God of the gaps as an explanation for the origin of life or the Cambrian Explosion.” The New Atheist leaders, Coyne, Dawkins, etc., just snicker at the inconsistency, and I don’t blame them. To accept the Hebraic idea of nature (which is that the world exhibits constant personal interaction between God and nature) when it comes to the Gospels, but to replace the Hebraic idea of nature with an effective Deism (God sets up natural laws and sustains them but doesn’t dirty his fingers personally) when it comes to the (presumably Hebraic!) accounts of creation in the Old Testament, is a stunning example of theological doublethink.

      By the way, Darek, I assume that your breaking off our earlier conversation about liberal evangelicals and evolution had a good reason behind it; I would have liked to read a reply from you to my last rejoinder. But of course, it was your right to bow out whenever you wished.

  3. Ed

    Please remind me of what the thought was in the thread you referred to. I do these posts on the fly, on an extremely tight time budget, and a bit of searching failed to yield what it was. Refresh my memory and I will do my best to respond.

    As for your other thoughts, I question the analogy between the loaves and fishes and creation. Jesus was making a particular point and giving signs of his empowerment in the Spirit. The OT regularly refers to God as carrying out his will through what we would call laws of nature or law-like regularities. He “forms the mountains and creates the wind” (Amos 4:13). We can measure mountains rising by satellite. God creates the wind with earth’s rotational stirring, solar-induced temperature differentials, and other law-like means.

    Are there critical gaps in our understanding of plate tectonics and mountain building? Of course. Does science perfectly understand the weather? Clearly not. However, the progress that science has made in untangling both geology and meteorology, progress that is truly remarkable over the course of just a couple of centuries, points in the direction of law-like regularities as God’s typical means of creating mountains and weather. I would say the same about biological origins. However, the more obsessively believers strain at every gap in knowledge of stellar origins or geology or biology, the less credibility they have when they say that God’s hand is evident in the laws of nature as undeniably as in the exceptional works we call miracles.

    • Avatar photo Edward Robinson says:


      The previous discussion I was referring to was:

      You didn’t reply to my rejoinder there, and I don’t know whether it was because you didn’t see it, or because you thought there was nothing more to be said on the subject, or whether you thought I was stark, raving mad.

      If you get a chance to look at your last comment there, plus my reply, and think there is anything still to be worked out, by all means throw in another comment.

    • Avatar photo Edward Robinson says:


      You write: “The OT regularly refers to God as carrying out his will through what we would call laws of nature or law-like regularities.”

      If all you mean is that the OT makes note of regular patterns in the world — seasons and movements of heavenly bodies and rainy seasons and plant growth and so on — I don’t contest that. But there are no examples in the OT (to my knowledge) where the ORIGIN of anything is attributed to the regular patterns that humans now observe in the world. The regular patterns occur AFTER God has created the things that exhibit the regular patterns.

      The example you give of the mountains is telling. You say that God forms the mountains, then juxtapose that Biblical statement with the fact that modern scientific equipment can measure the rising of mountains. But such a juxtaposition doesn’t prove that the Hebrew writer conceived of the birth of mountains as a natural phenomenon governed by impersonal laws (as we do today); the natural sense of the text is that God creates, establishes, or fixes in place the mountains by a special act of his power.

      Yes, God makes the winds in general, and your claim that this could refer to God’s general working through natural causes is a possible reading; but the wind that parted the Red Sea, and held it apart for a precise length of time geared to human needs, was no natural wind, as is clear from its effects. And the spirit or wind of God that moved across the face of the waters, before there was any earth to rotate and create wind by “natural causes”, was surely no natural wind, either.

      I think we always have to carefully separate “what the Biblical author is trying to teach” from “what we would like the Biblical author to teach, in order to harmonize with our current ideas of nature, the world, geography, science, causality, etc.” I see no evidence anywhere that the Biblical author was trying to teach that the present order of the world — what we call the creation — arose out of the impersonal operation of the same sort of natural forces that God has employed as his ministers AFTER the creation.

      And indeed, this is the watershed, the divide between modern thought and pre-modern thought about origins. Up to about 1700, everyone, including the great early modern scientists such as Galileo, Boyle, Kepler, and Newton, distinguished between the unfathomable divine causes of the creation of the world and the fathomable laws which have ordered the world since it was created. But starting in the late 18th century and carrying on to the present, the intellectual movement has been to extend current modes of causality (“purely natural causes”) back to the very beginning of the universe. Kant did this for the solar system, Lyell for geology, Darwin for species, Oparin and Haldane for life itself, Hubble and Lemaitre and Sandage and other cosmologists for the universe itself. I am not saying that this movement is necessarily wrong; I’m saying that it is certainly not what the Bible is consciously trying to teach, and probably in the final analysis it is not compatible with Biblical thought about origins.

      In fact, a close comparison of the Hebrew language in, say, Genesis and Exodus indicates that the Biblical writer saw a strong parallel between the “mighty acts of God” in the life of Israel (acts which even TEs generally ascribe to miracles, interventions, etc.) and the acts by which God created the world. The language of miraculous control over water, for example, is a powerful element in the Exodus story (and later on in the New Testament), and is a major theme in the Flood story (which is clearly a “decreation story”) and in Genesis 1. So I find the TE separation (God works through natural causes in creation, but sometimes breaks natural causality in OT and NT miracles) to be artificial and programmatic, and governed by the desire to harmonize the Biblical doctrine of creation with the results of modern natural science. It is not a separation that one would be inclined to make if one worked on, say, the Reformed principle that the guide to interpreting Biblical texts is other Biblical texts.

      The need to reinterpret God’s might acts of creation as “natural” rather than “supernatural” was not felt until very recently, and the Biblical exegesis that results from it tends to look ad hoc and forced. I prefer to keep my Biblical exegesis entirely separate from my science, do the two activities separately, then compare them and let the chips fall where they may. I think that is methodologically more honest than determining a priori that the Bible will never teach anything about nature that is in conflict with the latest theories of modern science, and then trying to beat the Bible into shape so that it harmonizes.

      So again, the horror which TEs feel at the thought that God might have directly inserted new biological information into the world in the Cambrian Explosion does not match the smiley, amiable way in which the TEs treat the direct insertion of new information (and maybe new matter as well!) into the world in the story of the feeding of the 5,000. In the case of the Cambrian explosion, it’s “God act directly upon nature, outside of the natural laws he established? NO WAY!” but in the case of the Jesus story it’s “God act directly upon nature, outside of the natural laws he established? NO PROBLEM!” It doesn’t smell right to me, Darek, it just doesn’t smell right.

      The very selective “will to believe” in law-breaking, scientifically incomprehensible miracles of Jesus which have no support from contemporary non-Biblical sources, combined with the very selective “will to disbelieve” that God would have chosen to act outside of natural laws in order to establish the world is unparallelled in Christian history. Premodern Christians believed that God acted in special, non-natural ways BOTH in creation AND in the history of Israel; early modern philosophers and Biblical critics such as Spinoza believed that God acted in special, non-natural ways NEITHER in creation NOR in the history of Israel; it is only in the late 1990s through to the early 2000s that there have arisen a group of Christians (TEs) who think that God acted in special, non-natural ways in the history of Israel but NOT in the creation of the world. Does this bizarre, historically unheard of combination of skepticism and credulity not strike you as a bit suspicious? And as very much externally motivated?

  4. Ed

    In the post you mentioned I was responding to the idea that when evolution comes up TEs engage in “mystery mongering” in a way they don’t when talking about gravity, for example. This at least implies that as a general rule they conceive of evolution as taking place outside the laws of nature governing physics and chemistry. If so, that would not be a fair indictment to make of TEs in general. Evolution, like the weather, is mysterious to the extent that the causes are so complex that humans lack the resources to untangle them predictively. God suffers no such limitation.

    Regarding your last point, I don’t feel it is wise to take the position that we are limited to the understanding the Bible writers had when they wrote. Did Isaiah understand from his own prophecy at 7:14-16 that it was indicating a miraculous conception without a human father many centuries after the writing? Did David understand a literal resurrection of the Messiah in the words of Psalm 16:10 (cf Pss 49:15; 86:13)? Was it really necessary that the writers understand the entire depth and extent of what they wrote? Cf. Dan 12:8.

    Did the writers need to have our modern understanding of astronomy in order to reveal divine truth? And if they did not, how could they have interpreted such statements as Ps 19:4-6 as apparent-but-not-strictly-literal? If we take the position that we don’t dare employ knowledge from outside the Bible to help understand the Bible we are left in the place where the Christian fixed earth astronomers are. Visit or similar sites for their point of view.

    Psalm 74:17 says that God has made summer and winter. Didn’t summer and winter emerge from the outworking of the physical laws God has established? Did the Psalmist need to have a modern knowledge of geophysics and meteorology to understand the general point that God brings about whatever it is he wants in ways of his own choosing? Job says that he and his servant were alike fashioned by God in the womb (Job 31:15). Isn’t that “fashioning” done by the various law-like regularities reflected in organic chemistry?

    I thought I made it clear in my previous post that God works both through law-like regularites and through irregularities or exception cases such as the feeding of the five thousand. He who gives seed to the sower and bread to the eater can provide it in whatever way he chooses–but in the vast majority of cases he provides it through the working of the law-like regularities he has established for the very purpose.

    • Avatar photo Edward Robinson says:


      First, regarding the earlier post I wanted you to comment on, you have just written:

      “In the post you mentioned I was responding to the idea that when evolution comes up TEs engage in “mystery mongering” in a way they don’t when talking about gravity, for example. This at least implies that as a general rule they conceive of evolution as taking place outside the laws of nature governing physics and chemistry. If so, that would not be a fair indictment to make of TEs in general. Evolution, like the weather, is mysterious to the extent that the causes are so complex that humans lack the resources to untangle them predictively. God suffers no such limitation.”

      Please go back to the column in question; you and I are not talking about the same discussion. You had challenged my characterization of the US evangelical world; you had argued that the conservative evangelical world’s rejection of evolution per se (regardless of mechanism) was so thorough that my claim (that it was not evolution per se, but the particular focus on randomness and nondirectionality typical of BioLogos, that accounted for BioLogos’s almost complete failure to make any converts among evangelicals) was not credible. In response to your challenge, I defended my claim by analyzing the evangelical world into conservatives, liberals, and moderates. I said that the “conservatives” like Ken Ham would reject evolution no matter what the mechanism (thus agreeing in part with you), that the “liberals” were already onside with BioLogos, and that the “moderates” were the people at whom BioLogos should be aiming, but whom BioLogos was utterly failing to convince — not because BioLogos affirms “evolution” but because it refuses to CLEARLY put God in charge of all the results of evolution. You never responded to that analysis. I’m hoping you will do so, not here on this thread, but in the appropriate place, i.e.:

    • Avatar photo Edward Robinson says:


      I now respond to the main thrust of your post above.

      With genuine respect, I think you are not really wrestling with my argument here. I am saying that you, like many TE leaders, appear to be making a distinction that has never been made in the entire history of Christian thought, a distinction which has God creating the cosmos, earth, life, species, and man wholly through natural laws, i.e., through what used to be called “secondary causes”, but has God interacting in the life of Israel (in both Testaments) directly, i.e., bypassing secondary causes, acting through primary causation, “performing miracles” in Humean language. NO Christian theologian made this distinction until modern times. Indeed, such a distinction was not even conceivable until the rise of the “historical sciences” (cosmology, geology, evolutionary biology), which is why I referred to that historical change. When Ken Miller, Darrel Falk, Karl Giberson, Dennis Venema, etc. make this distinction, they are stepping way outside of the Christian tradition. In the Christian tradition, the creation of the world, life, and man was seen as the classical example of God’s acting outside of secondary causation, doing things that no secondary cause could do.

      And it’s not just tradition I’m arguing from, but the Bible itself. One of my scholarly areas of expertise is the Hebrew Bible, and in particular the doctrine of creation, about which I’ve written a couple of books and some articles. I see no evidence at all that the Hebrew Bible teaches that God created exclusively or even primarily through “secondary causes” or “natural laws” — which is exactly the claim of BioLogos and of TEs generally. And I have not in your argument so far seen any Biblical passages which suggest such a “naturalistic” mode of operation of God, where it comes to the ORIGIN of things (as opposed to the everyday operation of things after they are created). Since you are the one who is trying to convince me that God created the world exclusively (or at least primarily) through what we call natural laws rather than through direct divine action, and since you have invoked the teaching of the Hebrew Bible in support of your claim, I’m asking you to provide some passages from the Hebrew Bible to confirm your claim.

      What you are doing, instead of showing me that the Bible teaches that God worked in creation only through natural causes, is quoting me passages (such as your example from Job) where the Bible speaks of divine action, and then layering atop those passages a modern scientific explanation, in hopes that I will concede that the Bible means to teach us that God works (when it comes to origins) exclusively through natural causes. But I don’t concede that the Biblical writer meant this or even would have consented to this.

      But let us say, for the sake of argument, that the Biblical writer would have accepted that gestation (to use your Job example) is a natural process, and would have agreed that God does not magically create things out of nothing in the womb, but works through developmental processes as outlined in modern biology. That still does not help you; for I am not talking about how gestation works today. I am talking about the ORIGIN of the gestational system itself.

      I grant entirely that the reproduction of human beings or of any animal or plant occurs through natural processes. I grant that God works through nature in these cases. But reproduction could not take place without wombs, DNA code, epigenetics, developmental signals, etc. This is an incredibly complex system with all kinds of tricky feedback mechanisms, far beyond what our best engineers today are able to devise. So who set up that whole system?

      According to neo-Darwinian evolution, blind groping achieved it all. Some crude proto-cell, blindly stumbling through search space, produced over time the mammalian reproductive system, through random mutations and natural selection. No one was steering this proto-cell, no one was helping it; it just got lucky.

      This is not the Biblical view. The Biblical writer did not think there was any “chance” element in the origin of the stars, earth, life, or man. The Biblical writer conceived of God as very much hands-on, when it came to origins. The attempt to portray the Biblical view of creation as “God creates exclusively through natural causes” is massive revisionism, motivated by the desire to protect Christianity from being embarrassed by modern science. But that’s a silly motivation. If you can believe that a man (a man who was actually God) got up from the dead, or violated the laws of conservation by feeding 5,000 people, you can believe that God directly manipulated some genomes in the Cambrian Explosion. There is neither theological nor philosophical barrier to such a belief.

      The distinction — God acted directly in the Gospel miracles, but only through secondary causes in creating the world — is artificial, arbitrary, and motivated not by a desire to understand the Biblical revelation in its own terms, but by a desire to harmonize Biblical teaching with modern science. And it’s a distinction that was invented only recently, basically about 15 or 20 years ago, by American TEs, so that they could have their evolutionary biology and their Jesus, too.

      As a Biblical scholar, trained in Hebrew and narrative studies, I resent this sort of external motivation being brought to the study of the Scriptures. Our job is first to understand what the Scriptures teach, and only secondarily to worry about how that fits in with the alleged irrefutable truths of modern evolutionary biology or modern science generally. BioLogos, and TE generally, has its priorities backward: it puts the acceptance of “consensus science” as the first priority for evangelical Christians, and then, as a subsidiary and secondary matter, asks, “Now, how can we reinterpret the Bible and 2,000 years of theological tradition so as to baptize our current natural science?”

      If you don’t agree with my argument here, by all means, show me where it is wrong. Show me where the Bible teaches that in creation, God restricted himself entirely (or even mainly) to natural causes. Go through all the creation passages — Genesis 1, Genesis 2, Psalm 8, various other Psalms, passages from Isaiah, Job, and so on — and produce evidence that the writers conceived of divine creative action as action through natural causes, as “general” rather than “special” divine action. Don’t bother enumerating passages where the Bible teaches that nature as it is now works regularly, because that is not the point of contention. Find the passages that show that God never departed from purely natural causes even when he was first bringing earth and sky and sun and moon and plant and animal and man into existence. For this seems to be your claim — and certainly it is the belief of Venema, Falk, Giberson, Ken Miller and others — that God did not need to, and did not in fact, depart from purely natural means to bring about everything that exists. I want to see the Biblical textual evidence for this position.

  5. Ed

    I provided you biblical examples of God creating through law-like regularities. You did not refute them, you simply tried to invoke a category distinction for which there is no biblical warrant that I am aware of. If God can form an individual through law-like regularities, then how is it obvious that he did not form other objects and processes similarly? If God created the seasons through processes, who is to say that he could not have generated landscapes, seascapes, and life forms through processes? You seem to be saying that because in some cases God acted outside the regularities he himself established to accomplish his purposes, he must have created outside those regularities–a non sequitur.

    I don’t claim that God never departed from his law-like working, merely that nothing in Scripture rules out his use of natural processes in creation. The Bible leaves that case open for investigation. The Bible says much about illness, none of which teaches the germ theory of disease. The germ theory of disease is not thereby ruled out, it must be investigated. The Bible does make clear that creation is God’s work, whatever his methods, and that the permanent cure for disease is in his hands, whatever its physical causes.

    I also cited examples to show that our interpretations need not be constrained by the limitations in knowledge of the biblical authors.

    However, I am more than willing to admit that we will not have a meeting of the minds in these areas.

    • Avatar photo Edward Robinson says:


      You write:

      “I don’t claim that God never departed from his law-like working, merely that nothing in Scripture rules out his use of natural processes in creation. The Bible leaves that case open for investigation.”

      I have no disagreement with this statement. I’ve not ruled out the possibility of God’s working through natural laws, even in creating new things. But what TE/EC displays is something much stronger than “let’s keep an open mind to the possibility that God employed natural laws rather than miracles to create things.” TE/EC displays a very strong preference for explanations of origins in terms of natural laws, a preference so strong that, for all practical purposes, it has become an axiom.

      You see this in Dennis Venema’s latest series of columns, speculating about the naturalistic origin of life. Aside from the fact that this subject is WAY outside of Venema’s field of biological training, which makes it an odd thing for him to be writing about, one wonders why he shows such eagerness to find a naturalistic origin of life. He gives no evidence that his eagerness springs from a specifically Biblical or Christian theological premise. He gives every impression of simply preferring a wholly naturalistic, Big Bang to man, explanation of origins, and of bringing that preference to the Bible. And this is typical of TE as a whole.

      As I said, this preference was unheard of in Christian thought until recent centuries, and even Darwin was not confident that the origin of life itself would be explained without special divine action. The TE preference for wholly naturalistic origins is very, very, modern and reflective of modern thinking — both modern science and modern philosophy.

      Does the Bible allow for the possibility that some things originated through natural processes, with God as the remote rather than the direct cause? Yes. But does the Bible give any indication that it inclines to that possibility? I see no such indications, and even here, in your reply, you have provided none.

      You’re giving a purely passive justification for the naturalistic preference. You’re saying, “the Bible doesn’t rule out naturalism in origins.” Well, that’s true. But it doesn’t follow that the Biblical writers taught, or even would have accepted, wholly naturalistic accounts of origins. When I talk about “the Biblical teaching,” I’m talking about what the Biblical writers wanted their readers to understand, not all the possible teachings about nature and creation that are not explicitly excluded by the Bible. I’m asking you for textual evidence that the Biblical writers wanted their readers to understand that God worked exclusively or primarily through natural causes in creation.

      We have to ask what sort of discussion we are having. I think the discussion you want to have is: “How did God, using exclusively or largely natural causes, bring life and species and man into being?” The discussion I want to have is: “What does the Bible teach about God’s role and activity in the origins of life and species and man?” The latter kind of discussion must necessarily be heavily Bible-focused, and doesn’t need to talk much about modern science at all, whereas the kind of discussion you want to have easily lends itself to talking mainly about natural scientific speculations about origins, with a Biblical gloss thrown now and then into the discussion.

      This is the big gulf which separates TE/EC folks and their Christian critics. There is a very big difference between, on the one hand, spending years of your life working out a Biblical understanding of life, and then, in your latter years, asking how that fits in (or doesn’t fit in) with the current opinions of most scientists, and on the other hand spending years of your life studying genomes or fossils and convincing yourself of a neo-Darwinian view of origins, and then, in your later years, hopping and skipping through the Bible to find points of harmony with views you’ve already committed yourself to in your professional scientific life. The TEs want to start with neo-Darwinism as given and then insert that neo-Darwinism as the “method of creation” that the Bible is allegedly silent about; others think the Bible is less silent about God’s direct role than the TEs do, and are much more critical of the soundness of the neo-Darwinian biology that TEs accept.

      If you doubt that TEs have the prejudice I’ve indicated, simply go back a couple of years on BioLogos, when Darrel Falk and Dennis Venema, both geneticists, neither one with any publications or even training in origin of life research, with the aid of Francisco Ayala (again a geneticist with no expertise in origin of life research) led a campaign of savagery against Stephen Meyer’s book, Signature in the Cell, in which Meyer had argued that intelligent design was necessary to explain the first life. Despite that fact that Ayala (who appeared not to have even read Meyer’s book, and did not successfully defend himself against the charge of not reading it) and Venema and Falk failed to rebut even a single argument regarding the origin of life adduced in Meyer’s book, they were SURE Meyer was wrong, and that Meyer should not have concluded that life required intelligent design. Aside from the obvious question why any CHRISTIAN would even WANT to deny a role for intelligent design of the first life (and Falk and Venema, unlike Ayala, claim to be Christians), the question arises: why are these geneticists, talking way out of their scientific specialty, so eager to show that Meyer is wrong? Why is it so important to them personally to urge — in a field where they have no training and therefore should not be offering strong opinions — that life did not need intelligence to arise, that it could easily have arisen from blind chemical actions, accidents without a plan?

      And even now, years later, Venema is speculating irresponsibly about RNA world. He in effect admits that he doesn’t really have a clue how life could have originated without design — yet is trying slyly to push Christian evangelical readers into thinking that eventually science will be able to show that it did in fact originate without design. Where does he get this a priori preference, a preference which he nurses in the teeth of his own inability to provide a non-design explanation? Certainly not from the Bible.

      I’m not against scientists investigating natural-cause origins for things. What I’m against is a prejudice (whether it’s overt or expressed only between the lines, but still very much there) in favor of a God who works only through natural causes. That is in fact the prejudice of modern TE/EC. This prejudice is not a natural consequence of the Biblical world view, but is something that TE/EC folks have learned from the modern world. Their Biblical exegesis is almost entirely a reflection of this prejudice.

      • Ed

        You said:

        “I’m talking about what the Biblical writers wanted their readers to understand, not all the possible teachings about nature and creation that are not explicitly excluded by the Bible.”

        We’re now intellectually back to the point where modern astronomy entered. Should astronomy begin with what the Bible teaches about earth, sun, moon, and stars on a plain sense reading? And once we determine that–without the intrusion of so-called scientific evidence and the speculations of godless astronomers–should we blindly cling to it out of fear of compromising God’s word? The charging document against Galileo, to the extent it can be reconstructed, accuses him of teaching contrary to Holy Scripture in his description of earthly motion.

        Genesis 1, on any plain sense reading, locates the heavenly waters above the expanse where the stars are placed. Must we insist on a great mass of water above the stars, whatever “above the stars” could possibly mean in the context of modern astronomical knowledge (but that’s all the speculation of godless astronomers anyway, right?). In his Lectures on Genesis, Martin Luther states that when we encounter statements difficult to understand, “like those before us concerning the waters above the heavens . . . we must believe them rather than wickedly deny them or presumptuously interpret them in conformity with our understanding.” Well, that is one approach.

        Here in western Colorado, we have a group that calls itself the “Church of the Firstborn.” Two of their members, a young couple, went to prison a few years ago for refusing to seek medical care for their young baby, who subsequently died. Their church teaches that all we need know about disease and its treatment is contained in the Bible, and nowhere in it are worldly medical practices recommended (2 Chron 16:12; Mk 5:26). Prayer and anointing by church elders are sufficient if God wants to provide healing (Jas 5:14-15). The church members are not interested in accommodating the Bible to modern medicine; whatever the Bible says about disease is all they need to know or care to know.

        Rejecting any evidence from science or history that might influence use in the slightest away from a plain sense interpretation of Scripture has a long pedigree.

        I have talked to believers who think that all languages today originated at the Tower of Babel because that is the only information the Bible gives us about language origins. Would we ever conclude from the Bible alone that languages can evolve the way Spanish, French, Italian, and Portugese evolved from Latin? If we would not reach that conclusion solely from the Bible, then presumably we should reject linguistic evolution.

        I cannot defend or even intelligently comment on every statement of every TE and will not try. Every Christian point of view will be held by those who succumb to human error and uncharity (Jas 3:2). We must do our best to separate ideas from personalities.

        • Avatar photo Edward Robinson says:

          Thanks, Darek.

          You’ve misunderstood my position. I’m not saying that everything the Biblical authors believe about nature is true. Far from it. I think the writer of Genesis was just plain wrong in imagining a canopy of water above the heavens. But my approach is different from the TE approach. Instead of trying to sublimate the Biblical teaching so that it somehow ends up teaching something close to modern science, I just say the Biblical authors were wrong. They misconceived the way the world was.

          Of course, that need not affect the teaching of any particular story. For example, the author of the Flood story imagines that rain comes through gates in the heavens that let in the cosmic waters above; he thinks that it rained so long and hard because God opened a larger than usual number of the gates, and held them all open longer, so that virtually the whole upper waters inundated the earth. But the author of the Flood story was in error; he did not understand where rain comes from. He did not know what the water cycle was. But that doesn’t affect the point of the story, which is that God destroyed the earth with rain because of man’s wickedness. The exact mechanism of rainfall is unimportant to what the story teaches.

          That is why I prefer those Christian confessions which speak of the Bible’s being true “in matters of faith and morals” to those which call themselves “inerrantist” (and thus have to twist the text into pretzels to get around waters above the heavens and so on). I think it is pointless to try to “defend” every statement in the Bible in such a manner.

          So I grant a good deal of what you are saying. Still, I will one last time press a distinction upon you which you are resisting, a distinction between “the way the world operates now” and “the way the world came into being.”

          I am saying that for modern secular science, this is a false distinction: for the likes of Carl Sagan and Richard Dawkins, there is only long natural process, from the Big Bang to the present. The natural laws that make the planets orbit the sun are the same natural laws that turned a cloud of gas into the solar system, and the natural laws that generate meiosis are the same natural laws that turn bacteria into human beings, and the natural laws that make sodium combine with chlorine made ammonia and methane and water combine into the first cell. There aren’t, for a modern secular scientist, two separate things, creation and preservation. They are all one.

          I’m saying further that most of the TE leaders accept this teaching of modern secular science. They accept no distinction at all between origins and operations, between the causes that bring planets and life and species and man into being and the causes that keep planets in orbit and bring a baby from zygote to birth. They look at the history of the universe in exactly the same way that Carl Sagan and Jacques Monod look at it, except that they “gloss” that history with talk of God and Jesus — talk which has no bearing at all on the explanatory level, or on anything they will ever do as professional scientists, but which they keep in a private compartment they call “faith.”

          Now, what I’m saying to you about this TE view is:

          1. The vast majority of past Christian thinkers, including not only theologians and Biblical commentators, but Christian scientists, including some of the very greatest scientists who ever lived — Newton, Boyle, Kepler — did in fact make a distinction between “how the world came into being” and “the means used to conserve the world in being.” For “how the world came into being,” they posited supernatural action, special divine activity above and beyond what we find in the natural world of today; for “the means used to conserve the world in being” they posited natural laws. It is only very recently in human history that this distinction has been collapsed.

          2. There is every reason to think that this distinction, i.e., between “natural” means used to sustain the order of the world and special divine action used to create that order in the first place, was upheld by the Biblical authors. Thus, I would argue that the Biblical authors understood God’s control over the waters in creation in the same way as they understood his control over the Sea in Exodus or Jesus’s control over the sea in the Gospels. That is, they understood God’s action in creation as no mere conservation of existing laws, but as extraordinary divine action. I am open to evidence to the contrary, but you have not provided it; nor, in six years of columns on BioLogos, have any of the elite TEs provided it.

          Now, regarding point 2: you are of course free to say, as I have said about the waters above the heavens, that the Biblical writers were wrong to think of origins in that way. You can say that in your view, God created only through natural causes, but that the Hebrew writer was insufficiently versed in science to grasp how things could have originated from natural causes, so he understandably thought about origins in miraculous terms. Fine. Then you are accusing the Hebrew writer of lack of understanding. And that’s OK with me. I may not agree with you, but it’s a coherent position.

          But you seemed to me to be saying something different from that. What you seemed to me to be saying, or hinting between the lines, was that Christians have been misreading Genesis and the rest of the Bible all along, that the Bible never actually says, in precise words, that God created supernaturally, and perhaps its silence on this matter was meant to “leave the door open” for purely natural explanations of origins; i.e., perhaps the real intention of the Bible was to present an account of origins that would be compatible with modern science, when later on modern science was discovered.

          If that is what you are saying, I don’t buy it. I think the Biblical writers were very clear in their own minds that the acts of creation were the mightiest of the mighty acts of God, that they were acts of divine freedom unconstrained by any limitations God might put on himself later (i.e., guaranteeing the seasons through natural laws), and that they were to be thought of in parallel to the Red Sea event, the miracles of Jesus, etc., not in parallel to the thought of Neil DeGrasse Tyson.

          As a Biblical scholar, I’m concerned first and foremost to understand what a text teaches. The question whether the teaching of the text harmonizes with modern science, modern historical studies of the Near East, modern anthropology, modern ethics, modern feminism, or modern anything else, while certainly an important question, is in my view not a question which should be in the front of the Biblical scholar’s mind. The Biblical scholar should immerse himself in the thought-world of the text, learn to feel and think (as far as possible) like the author of the text and/or the intended Hebrew-reading ancient recipients of the text.

          So my first question is “What does Genesis teach?” not “How can we find an interpretation of Genesis that will not make Christianity look ridiculous to people trained in modern science, and thus hamper our efforts to win more converts to Christ?” The latter question, however, is the fundamental motivating force behind the modern TE movement.

          I submit, with all due respect to the TEs, that they give their question a very misplaced priority. I think that Biblical exegesis, and then systematic theology, should come first, and theology/science considerations afterward. Otherwise, there is a very great temptation to let currently accepted scientific theories drive theology and exegesis, and thus to let science actually alter the material contents of the Christian faith.

          We certainly see this in the writings of several TEs, e.g., Polkinghorne, Miller, Venema, and Falk, who have in various ways denied or severely weakened the doctrines of providence and of sovereignty in their explications of God’s role (or rather, absence of a role) in the evolutionary process. Nothing can check this sort of development, except theological orthodoxy. And nothing can produce theological orthodoxy, except for rigorous Biblical and systematic study — study which most of the BioLogos TEs have steadily refused to undertake.

          • Ed

            It is odd to think that faithfulness to Scripture entails branding portions of it as merely false, as opposed to believing that all of it contains truth if interpreted with discernment.

            Also, you seem to imply that the Dawkins’ philosophy of blind, purposeless forces is well and good if adopted for the world as it is at present but false if projected back to creation. The believer does not, like the atheist, assume that the regularity of forces and powers of nature entails their purposelessness either now or in the past.

            I don’t deny that it’s a commonplace God’s creative acts must all have had a miraculous character. That position is intuitive but is thin on biblical support.

            “Who made [Heb, sim] man’s mouth, or who makes [Heb, sim] the dumb or deaf . . . ” (Exod 4:11). God similarly describes the original gift of speech to man and his own sovereign appointment of the circumstances—including impairments–of individuals throughout history. The dumb and deaf are often so because of what look like accidents superintended only by the laws of physics and chemistry. But that is the outward appearance only. All lawlike regularities are empowered by God.

            “When you give it to them, they gather it up; when you open your hand, they are filled with good things. When you hide your face, they are dismayed; when you take away their breath, they die and return to their dust. When you send forth your Spirit, they are created, and you renew the face of the ground” (Ps 104:28-30). Here God’s ongoing renewal of the living world is not sharply distinguished from acts of creation.

            “And God said, ‘Let the waters under the heaven be gathered together unto one place, and let the dry [land] appear: and it was so’” (Gen 1:9) Does this really imply that the forces that now separate land and sea, namely, gravity and the convection in the earth’s mantle that generates elevation of the continents, could not have been the means of originally separating continents and oceans? If gravity and the other geophysical forces are expressions of God’s will (his “word”), why could not those expressions both bring about and maintain the land-sea pattern on the earth? (Cf. Job 38:11; Prov 8:29)

            “For this they willingly are ignorant of, that by the word of God the heavens were of old, and the earth standing out of the water and in the water. Whereby the world that then was, being overflowed with water, perished. But the heavens and the earth, which are now, by the same word are kept in store, reserved unto fire against the day of judgment” (2 Pet 3:5-7). In this passage the express word of God that accomplished the creation of the pre-deluge world (heavens-and-earth of old, that “then was”) also maintains the post-deluge world (heavens-and-earth “which are now”) until its divinely appointed end.

            “And the LORD God formed [yatsar] man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils [‘aph] the breath [neshama] of life; and man became a living soul” (Gen 2:7).

            “I also am formed out of the clay” (Job 33:6). “The Spirit of God has made me, and the breath [neshama] of the Almighty gives me life” (Job 33:4). “All the while my breath is in me, and the spirit of God in my nostrils [aph]”. “But now thus says the LORD who created you, O Jacob, and he that formed [yatsar] you, O Israel: Fear not, for I have redeemed you” (Isa 43:1). Similar language is used for the creation of individuals and nations in history as is used of Adam in Genesis.

            • Avatar photo Edward Robinson says:


              At least now you are attempting to address my point about the Bible, which is good.

              You speak of my case as being “thin on Biblical support,” but based on your examples here, it is your case that is thin on Biblical support.

              I agree with you that “let the waters be gathered,” being in the passive voice and not specifying an agent, could be read in the naturalistic way you would like me to read it. Remember, though, that I’m not objecting to a combination of naturalistic causation with special divine action when it comes to origins. I have no problem if God makes use of properties already present in the first matter that he created. What I’m against is the desperate determination of TEs to ignore all the passages where the plain sense appears to be one of direct divine action, as opposed to God’s mere viewing of the outworking of natural causes. Such determination, such forcing of the text, suggests an agenda, and Christians shouldn’t be bringing their agendas to the text; they should be learning from the text, not telling the text what it ought to say if it is to be compatible with the current “consensus science.”

              Notice that, while the waters and land under the firmament seem to separate themselves (though it’s hard to escape the sense of at least mild cajoling by God), the firmament itself does not appear in that way. We are told that God made (active voice) the firmament; “let there be” apparently was not enough for the firmament to appear of its own accord, by “natural” means. The same is true of the lights in the firmament, God again says “let there be” — but he still has to make the lights. Later on, God gives a command to the earth to bring forth living creatures, but it is not precisely carried out; earth does not of itself bring forth living creatures (as it brought forth plants); God goes on to make them. Thus, whereas “dry land” and vegetation are described in such as way as to fit in with your naturalistic preference, heavenly bodies and land animals are not.

              So Genesis 1 at best supports a combination of “creation through natural laws” and “special divine action.” But that is not the message that TE/EC people want to hear from Genesis. They want it to fit with a wholly naturalistic account.

              Regarding the formation of man from the ground, it counts against your view rather than for it. True, man is made of dust from the ground; well, no traditional reader of Genesis denied that; no one ever denied the material composition of the human body. But you seem to think that is some sort of codeword for naturalistic evolution “from molecules to man.” Yet the active verb, predicated of God, is still there — “formed.” It does not say “God caused to emerge from the ground a man” — which Hebrew can easily do with a hiphil verb form; it says that God did the forming. The unforced way of reading the passage is as a case of special divine action — and that is the traditional way.

              The Roman Church, still today, while admitting that “dust from the ground” may warrant speculations about evolutionary origin of the human body, still insists that the human spirit comes from God — as the passage indicates. So again we have special divine action.

              Your reference to Peter is strange; he speaks of a coming day of judgment by fire. Do you think that judgment will occur “naturalistically” (perhaps the sun will go supernova?) or will be a special action of God? The unforced reading of all New Testament passages connected with final judgment and the end of the world is that the NT is talking about a special action of God. And if special actions of God will bring about the end of the world, then literary and philosophical symmetry suggests that it was special actions of God that brought about its beginning.

              That the “word” of God can have more than function — originating or preserving — I do not deny. It does not follow that they are same function. A ruler can give the “word” to build a new garden or city; a ruler can also give the “word” to his servants to maintain the garden in its beautiful state (by watering and weeding it) or maintain the city in its strong state (by guarding the walls, securing the gates nightly, keeping the streets clean, etc.). The action of making a clock, and the action of maintaining and repairing a clock, are not the same, and there is no reason to assume that, for the Biblical authors, the action of making a world, and the action of maintaining a world, are the same.

              I’ve already pointed out the strong parallels in water-imagery between the Gospels and the creation narrative, Exodus and the creation narrative. Even TEs admit that God in the Bible does intervene in special ways, and they count at least the Gospel miracles (though some of them show deep secular humanist skepticism about the Red Sea episode) as special divine actions, so if God’s action in the Exodus or on the Sea of Galilee is a “mighty act” then so would his control over water in the creation and Flood stories be thought of as a “mighty act”.

              Your parallel between the formation of Israel and the formation of man is instructive. The formation of Israel is anything but “natural.” Whereas a Hegelian account of history might try to explain the rise of Israelite law and religion in “natural” terms, the Bible represents the eruption into the world of the covenant and Law as anything but “natural.” No one can read the Exodus story of the reception of the Law (the mountain, etc.) and not feel the presence of the “numinous”; God’s relationship with Israel is hardly natural; it is the product of a decisive intervention of the divine will.

              The attempt by TEs to de-personalize YHWH, to make him a remote “delegator-God” who gives nature sufficient powers to create the world by itself, and then sits back with his popcorn and watches the show, shows a lack of literary care, and a lack of feeling for the Hebraic understanding of God. The TEs think far more like Kant or Descartes or Leibniz than like the authors of the Bible — not just about nature, but even about God. TEs describe a tamed, domesticated God, not the God of furious energy of the Old Testament. Maybe they should read less of Bonhoeffer and Cardinal Newman, and more of Rudolf Otto.

              Again, I am not against the idea that God could have used innate natural tendencies in creation. I have no a priori theological opposition to that. (In fact, having been brought up on a steady diet of people like Carl Sagan, that is my natural inclination, to think that God would have used gradual natural processes rather than showy miracles.) What I am against is not the idea of a naturalistic process, but the abuse of the text of the Bible in the service of an extra-Biblical agenda. I am against the proof-texting, the yanking of isolated bits of the Bible out of context, in order to “naturalize” divine action so that it fits better with modern science. I think it borders on intellectual and scholarly dishonesty. The Bible says what it says. Reject it, accept it, say it’s half-right and half-wrong, do whatever you want with it — I’ll not judge you. All I ask is that TEs not manipulate it to serve their “molecules to man by natural causes alone” agenda.

              If I want a purely naturalistic creation story, I’ll read Carl Sagan, not a TE rewrite of the Bible to make it say what it never intended to say.

              • Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:

                I won’t put my oar into this dialogue – good points aired on both sides, hopefully to the public benefit. But I did come across a specific example of Ed’s “proof-texting” in an ASA overview of the origins question.

                The writer suggested a couple of biblical passages where mountains are called “ancient”, “everlasting” etc, which implies “more than just a few thousand years”, as these are words also used of God.

                A quick check in Young’s showed that the words have such general application as to mean nothing of the sort (for example being used of “ancient boundaries”).

                The temptation to do special pleading from dubious proof-texts is a temptation for us all to avoid.

              • Ed

                I don’t believe the writers of the Bible draw as hard a demarcation as you do between “natural” and “supernatural.” There is much more a sense in the Scriptures that what we call “natural” processes are God’s doing–not some distant clockwork that God merely watches. Psalm 104 is a good example, but there are in fact too many to recount.

                Also, your point about Israel being brought out with a “strong hard” through dramatic divine action is well taken. God can use such dramatic actions to drive home a particular point. But Scripture assures us that he need not work so dramatically for the work to be his in every sense:

                “Are you not as children of the Ethiopians to me, O children of Israel? says the LORD. Have not I brought up Israel out of the land of Egypt? and the Philistines from Caphtor, and the Syrians from Kir?” Amos 9:7.

                The question is not whether the Bible “teaches” specifically that God used lawlike regularities to create, much less that it teaches evolution. The question is whether it excludes such creative means. The Bible does not teach heliocentrism or the germ theory of disease or plate tectonics, but neither does it exclude them.

              • Jon

                As to your comment about misuse of proof-texting by the ASA, while I would not use passages about mountains being ancient as “hard proof” I would use them as a softer “proof” in the sense that evidence for the extreme age of geologic formations throws such texts into bold relief rather than diminishing them.

                To use another example, Psalm 8:3-4 contemplates the immensity of the night sky and the smallness of humans in comparison. Do the staggering cosmic distances that are known through astronomical science negate the feeling expressed by the Psalm? Or amplify it?

                It would hardly seem reasonable to chastise someone for invoking the sentiment of Psalm 8:3-4 regarding the immensity of the universe simply because the psalmist was not privy to the revelations of astronomical science.

                Likewise, while “ancient” or “everlasting” can be understood in relative terms in the Scriptures, the revelations of geological science as to deep time only reinforce the wonder expressed in the written word at the the scale of the Creator’s work–in time as well as space.

  6. Lou Jost says:

    This is an interesting post. It’s helpful to see all your major doubts about evolution in one place. I’d like to try to examine some of these doubts over the next week or so if my time allows.

    • Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:

      Fine – but bear in mind these are not my major doubts about evolution, but some of my major doubts about natural selection as a complete and sufficient explanation for it.

      There are already too many people answering the wrong questions (see the post on “Rescuing Darwin).

      I’ve barely touched on the issues of development and morphology here, for example. But no doubt they’ll crop up again down the line.

  7. Lou Jost says:

    I’ll go in order. The first substantive paragraph is on the limitations of recombinational breeding. I’m glad you mention recombination; much short-term evolution is due to this rather than to mutations. There is a huge coding space that can be searched by recombination and crossing over, producing evolutionary change without the need to wait for mutations. People often forget this.

    “…even in Darwin’s time his comparison of evolution to livestock breeding was severely criticised, because the constraints were well known to all breeders.”

    Darwin used domestic breeding examples to show that there was a lot of plasticity in the population. He was clearly right about this, as the range of forms and sizes and personalities of domestic dogs shows. Of course, if the breeding goal is to make wiener dogs that can hardly walk, the result will be less fit than the wild type in the wild environment (though the wiener dog may do better than the wolf on an island with prey that lives in burrows). Natural selection, in contrast, selects not for particular traits but for fitness itself.

    Yes, excessive inbreeding can cause severe problems in domesticated animals. In nature this is not often seen until populations become tiny.

    And yes, there seem to be limits to short-term recombinational breeding. I doubt we’ll see flying dogs anytime soon. But these limits are seldom hard limits. They are more often just drastic reductions in the rate of change. And this reduced rate of change looks small only in comparison to what came before; over time, even these small rates could add up to significant change.

    You seem to imply that Great Danes and Chihuahuas are not evidence of evolution, just because they can still interbreed. But they clearly are examples of evolution, since they are very different from their quite recent common ancestor. What you perhaps meant to say was that they are not evidence of speciation. Even then, they are more different morphologically than many commonly-accepted species pairs, and I am not sure they could interbreed without physical assistance. Physical and behavioral barriers to interbreeding count just as much as genetic barriers. In orchids, many of the barriers to interbreeding among closely related species and even genera are physical rather than genetic (hence the availability of multigeneric orchid hybrids involving dozens of species from up to five or six genera).

    • Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:

      You seem to imply that Great Danes and Chihuahuas are not evidence of evolution, just because they can still interbreed.

      The whole point of this is that change of gene frequency does not explain the origin of species. What I was citing, Lou, was a discussion on BioLogos to the effect that the differences between dog breeds were evidence for macroevolution – the comparison being made, I believe, being between the similarities of chimps and humans and the differences of chihuahuas and great danes. If I remember, the “pro-evolution” guy implied that one must regard the latter as separate species. His interlocutor didn’t dispute that.

      His whole argument falls apart on taxonomy: all domestic dogs are part of one subspecies (some taxonomists even deny the subspecies). There are no exceptions to that observation from selective breeding – evolution always slows down to the point where speciation never happens.

      • Lou Jost says:

        “There are no exceptions to that observation from selective breeding – evolution always slows down to the point where speciation never happens.”

        That is wrong. There are exceptions in every orchid greenhouse, including mine. Selective breeding can produce physical or chemical barriers that prevent proper mating with the wild type. In addition, selective breeders of plants often end up selecting polyploids because they tend to have bigger flowers. These polyploids have low or no fertility in the second generation when crossed to the wild diploids, but are fully fertile with other polyploids with the same ploidy. Polyploid speciation has also been confirmed in wild populations of some plant species.

      • Lou Jost says:

        “His [Darwin’s] whole argument falls apart on taxonomy…”

        Take any two canid species, say a fox and a wolf. Pick any bone you like and look at the difference in that bone between fox and wolf. That difference is almost invariably much smaller than the difference between that same bone between a wolf and some dog breed. There are dog breeds with shorter leg bones than foxes, dog breeds with more slender proportions than foxes, etc. The same applies to many other characters. And that differentiation from wolf to given dog breed was produced in the blink of a geological eye. That is the point of Darwin’s argument.

  8. Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:

    Reply to Darek at the end of the nest…

    If by your remark you mean that the Bible writers perhaps had an atemporal understanding of Genesis 1 within their culture, I’d agree it’s worth studying because it would guide the interpretation of Genesis 1.

    OTOH, if someone interpreted the remark as meaning God’s that God inspired the writers to slip in some 21st century science and “correct” their (supposed) ANE assumption that the earth was young, I don’t believe that’s how inspiration works – it’s the trap the Day-Age theory falls into by comparing the Days of creation to geological epochs of which Israel knew nothing and cared less, and which TEs fall into by reading evolutionary interpretations into the text, as if Spirit felt it important to leave a 2nd Millennium BC text open to a 3rd Millennium AD materialistic spin.

    Unfortunately I don’t think the passages in question say anything more than that the hills have been there “from time immemorial”, a term which was legally defined in 1275AD as the time before 1189AD. If both hills and boundary markers can be ancient, then the term is too flexible to make any sort of case about geological time.

    One always has to ask what the original writer understood by a term, because God inspires through human authors’ mental processes – and when he uses more direct prophetic oracle, he still works within their conceptual frame of reference. So Joel’s army of locusts is going to have be about the symbolism of locusts, not (as someone once suggested) a misinterpretation of a vision of Russian tanks.

    I’d say that view of inspiration is a much firmer principle than the idea of God’s creating through “natural” processes.

    All that said, such passages as you cite show that the Bible writers were not daft: their sense of awe was not found to be misdirected by, perhaps, a finding that the sky was only 5000 feet up and painted on canvas. But that surely tells us that God’s works are always greater even than human wonder, rather than that the writers of the Bible had a superhuman sense of wonder because privy to a science from outside their culture.

  9. Avatar photo Edward Robinson says:


    Since the columns of the replies have grown too skinny, I’m replying to your last posts above with a full-width column.

    I agree with much that you say.

    Certainly in some cases the Bible does not exclude certain modern scientific insights, but rather is neutral toward them. Where that is the case, I agree that science has a completely free hand to conclude what it will, without worrying about the Bible teaches.

    On the other hand, some of its statements do clash with modern understanding. You yourself gave the example of the waters above the heavens. At that point, the Biblical writer (unless he is being self-consciously “poetic” and knows that he is not describing the world as it is) simply misunderstands cosmography, meteorology, etc. At that point, the Bible has no room for modern science, and only one of the two can be correct — about the workings of nature, I mean. Now I don’t say that this destroys the theological teaching of the passages in question, but it does put the Biblical understanding of nature in conflict with the modern scientific understanding. So you can’t say that there is a guarantee of non-clash between Biblical and scientific pictures.

    I agree with you that the distinction between natural and supernatural can be overdrawn. Certainly the language of “natural” and “supernatural” is not Biblical, but post-Biblical. Nonetheless, the Bible certainly understands the distinction between “the way the world normally works” and “some things that are so darned unusual that God must be behind them.” The very fact that “signs and wonders” are so often appealed to, both by people in the Biblical stories and even by the narrators of Biblical stories, as evidence for the action of God, reveals this. (And yes, I’m aware of the passages warning of the possibility of false prophets who also do wonders, but for the most part there is the clear sense that “only God — not the normal powers of created things — could have done this.”)

    I think your example from Amos is a fair one; but so are my examples of parallels between creation and historical miracles. I think the Biblical authors stress similarities and differences as suits their purposes. So, in your Amos example, I don’t find it odd that God would stress his control over the history of ALL nations, and therefore the similarity between the rise of Israel and the rise of other nations would be noted; but in other contexts, where he is trying to remind Israel how different it is, God will stress the unique actions that brought it into being, e.g., a control over waters that quite obviously recalls God’s control over the cosmic waters in the creation of the world. The Bible tells NO stories of such actions in the history of any nation other than Israel.

    Of course, part of the problem in debating with any TE is that I can never tell how seriously the TE takes Biblical miracles, or whether the TE picks and chooses between Biblical miracles. I’ve conversed with TE leaders who swear on the Bible that Jesus physically rose from the dead as Napoleon fought the battle of Waterloo, but when asked about the Red Sea event, suddenly start shuffling their feet, fail to meet one’s glance, and mumbling about sea-symbolism in the Old Testament. Well, obviously, if the Red Sea incident is denied, or regarded as a greatly exaggerated natural event of some kind, then I lose my “supernatural” parallel between the Red Sea incident and the language of the Creation. But as a faithful Jew, would Jesus have treated the Red Sea incident (central to Jewish faith as he knew it?) in that way? Can anyone, without trivializing the historical uniqueness of Israel? My point here is that, since there is a wide range of TE belief regarding the historicity of Old Testament miracles (and even New Testament miracles, I add), it becomes hard to use Scriptural examples to make any point at all about divine action in relation to nature. But back to the main issue.

    Regarding the understanding of natural processes as God’s work, I’m in agreement with you. The Bible does indeed understand natural processes as part of God’s work. That has never been in dispute between us. What has been in dispute is whether the Bible regards ORIGINS as the product of “natural processes.” I think that for the most part — and allowing for the fact that the language of “natural” and “supernatural” is not Biblical — the Biblical writers think of the origins of things as extraordinary rather than ordinary actions of God. That is, if you asked a Biblical writer, “Was the first creation (not subsequent procreation) of the cattle and creeping things more like the rising and setting of the sun each day, or more like the parting of the Red Sea?” I think they would, to the extent that they could grasp the question, say that reproduction of living things according to their kind was more like the rising and setting of the sun each day, but that the first creation of land animals was more like the parting of the Red Sea. I cannot of course compel you to agree with my conjecture here; but it is a conjecture based on years of scholarly study of the Bible in the original Hebrew, not one based on any theological commitment such as creationism. (I am certainly no “creationist” in the typical American sense, nor a fundamentalist or literalist of any kind.)

    I agree with you that the Scriptures do not portray nature as a distant clockwork that God merely watches; but that is my beef with many TE leaders, especially the biologists, they do in fact treat nature as a clockwork driven by natural laws, in which God’s involvement is in effect limited to some vague sustaining or support of those natural laws. There is not one difference in the way a deist, an atheist, or a TE biologist does natural science. The TEs may, unlike the others, often wax eloquent about God, as a sort of pious overlay upon their natural science; but the natural scientific description is that of the detached observer. In the Bible, however, the God/nature relation is not one of detachment.

    If what I am saying is not true, then why do TEs, not a bit less than atheists, inveigh against a “God of the gaps”? Why does anyone inveigh against a “God of the gaps” unless he believes that nature is a seamless whole, driven entirely from the Big Bang to the appearance of man by inexorable natural laws? Unless he believes that God not only doesn’t jump in personally to make it rain (he lets the laws of physics produce evaporation and condensation), but doesn’t jump in personally to create life or man either? Why is Dennis Venema so obsessed with proving that the genetic distance between man and chimpanzees is so small that man could easily have evolved from a common ancestor by a series of naturally occurring genetic accidents, without God having to “tweak” anything? And why is he now trying to push for a purely naturalistic origin of life, despite himself being ignorant of even the first baby steps which could have done such a thing? In fact, TEs are simply embracing naturalism, not in the sense of atheism, but in the sense that nature, though in some general way sustained by God, is a self-running system, capable of producing everything “by itself” from the Big Bang onward. And that is not the Biblical picture of nature.

    My problem with the TEs is that, when they are doing their science, they want to employ self-contained ideas of nature that come to us from Leibniz, Kant, etc., but when they are evangelizing, want to employ ideas of nature (involving something like personal interaction between God and nature) that come from the Bible; and they are unwilling to do the serious Bible study that would enable them to see the difference between (and incompatibility of) Kant’s nature and Moses’s nature, or Leibniz’s nature and nature as seen by the author of Samuel and Kings.

    This is where, in a certain way — though for entirely different motivations — I think more like Lou than like many TEs. Lou notices inconsistencies within the language, metaphysics, ethics, etc. of people who profess a “Biblical” world view. I notice those inconsistencies, too. I notice that Jeffrey Schloss, nominally the second-in-command at BioLogos (but who has done virtually nothing on the web site since his appointment to justify his “Senior Scholar” status — “Absent Scholar” would be more like it), has the gall to speak of the Biblical God as “mightily hands on” in creation; but Schloss rejects ID with all the rest of the BioLogos crew, because in his view ID posits a “god of the gaps” (it doesn’t, but leave that aside). Well, if you believe that God is “mightily hands on” you wouldn’t be speaking of a “God of the gaps” in the first place! “God of the gaps” suggests a metaphysical picture in which nature is a self-sustaining entity driven by impersonal “natural laws”, so that for God to do any particular personal action (e.g., create life at an arbitrary point where nature would not have generated it) is a no-no; but a God who is “mightily hands on” (Schloss’s phrase, not mine) is certainly not forbidden to put his oar into nature in creation, as if doing so would violate its integrity or be some low-class magical gimmick unworthy of the divine. Either Schloss simply has not thought out the philosophical and theological implications of his own language, or his “mightily hands on” phrase is just a syrupy evangelical gloss, an emotional appeal without intellectual substance.

    In a Biblical perspective, the criticism of a “God of the gaps” is inadmissible. You might as well argue that a chef who breaks the eggs himself, and turns the mixer with his hands, and puts in salt and various other spices to taste, is not a true chef, but a “chef of the gaps” for not throwing all the eggs, flour, spices etc. into a machine, setting the dials of the machine on automatic, and letting the machine make the meal. The horror of TEs for a God who is involved in creation not merely in a “sustain the general laws” way, but in a personal, choice-making, energy/matter shaping way, is a horror that comes from accepting the naturalistic world view of the Enlightenment. It is not a Biblical sentiment at all.

    I don’t object to TE because it says that God might have used a natural evolutionary process. I object to TE because it is horrified at the thought that God might have used anything but natural processes. I object to TE because its fundamental metaphysical and epistemological premises come from the Enlightenment, not from the Bible. On top of the Enlightenment metaphysics and epistemology, TE slaps a Biblical soteriology (I believe in evolution, but I love Jesus, too) and an American style of evangelical worship, and then declares that all is well. I’d like TE theology to be not nearly so heavily based on current ideas of natural science, and much more heavily based on a deep and thorough study of the Bible and of the great historical Christian traditions.

    • Ed

      I’ll try to make this brief because we are repeating ourselves.

      It is unreasonable to maintain that our guide to interpreting Scripture must be the understanding of the human writer at the time of the original writing, but you continue to make that your touchstone. I have addressed this elsewhere. We have many examples in which later biblical writers invest deeper meaning into verses than would reasonably have been understood by earlier writers. Did the biblical writers conceive of the stars as being immensely larger than earth or as objects small enough to fall to earth? And if what they thought of as “stars” is so far removed from our conception, do we dismiss all biblical statements about stars as false or irrelevant? Or toss out our scientific knowledge of astrophysics as illusion?

      In Genesis God says that he puts his rainbow in the sky. How did the human writer likely understand God’s placement of the rainbow? Probably he did not understand it as an “automatic” result of diffraction under scientifically describable atmospheric conditions. He likely understood it as what we would call a miraculous event.

      You continue to make a strong technical distinction between natural as meaning in some sense “hands off” on God’s part as opposed to his mighty works such as the parting of the Red Sea. Rather, I would say that God makes his purposes more immediately discernible in some of his works than in others.

      I would turn it around and say that ID proponents give the impression of siding with secular-minded evolutionists in saying that IF something occurs in a law-like manner then God’s hand is NOT evident in it . . . or only faintly evident. To see a process as “natural” in the sense of law-like is either to exclude God altogether or to make him a clock-winding technician who doesn’t sully his hands in his creation. Once we adopt that point of view, any development that brings a phenomenon (like the rainbow) into a law-like framework pushes God back. That’s the idea the TEs at Biologos are determined to resist and I don’t blame them.

      The problem of the Enlightenment is not of scientific explanation so much as of theodicy. If God knits together each embryo in the womb, why do birth defects occur? I would move in the direction of our limited view of what God is accomplishing and what his time scale is for accomplishing it. But not toward separating God from his law-like working.

      As for your last comment, maybe our approach to the causes of disease, also, should focus less on “current ideas of natural science” and more on what the Bible says. Personally, I would rather not make that an either/or choice.

      • Avatar photo Edward Robinson says:

        Thanks, Darek. You are right; we are repeating ourselves. I’ll therefore try to focus mainly on new points that you’ve brought up.

        1. I’ve already conceded that where the Biblical author holds a misconception about how nature works, Christians aren’t bound to hold that misconception. They would be, if that misconception was central to the theological teaching, — but I can’t think of a case where that happens. For example, the theological teaching of the Flood is independent of the mechanism God used to make it rain.

        2. However, where a theological point is central, I don’t think Christians have the freedom to modify the Biblical teaching because modern science, modern philosophy, modern ethical or social views, etc. are putting pressure on them to do so. I think that God’s sovereignty and providence are central to Biblical teaching and that many TE leaders compromise on this in many ways, whether it is to accommodate “randomness” in neo-Darwinian evolution or on other occasions. Jon Garvey has ably criticized the TE flirtations with Open Theism here and elsewhere; I concur with his critique, and I agree with him that many TE leaders have been unconscionably evasive in responding to his critique (which is not his alone).

        3. Regarding your antepenultimate paragraph, I sometimes think that you have not read as much TE literature, or even as many BioLogos columns (and comments) as I have. Some of the things you accuse ID of, the TEs are flagrantly guilty of, yet it has escaped your notice. Examples:

        i. You write:

        “I would turn it around and say that ID proponents give the impression of siding with secular-minded evolutionists in saying that IF something occurs in a law-like manner then God’s hand is NOT evident in it . . . or only faintly evident.”

        Francis Collins and others on BioLogos have said many times — speaking explicitly against the ID argument that design in nature is sometimes detectable — that only the eye of faith can detect design in nature. In other words, God’s hand is NOT evident in nature — except for a Christian, and even then, only through faith, not reason. ID people, on the other hand, side solidly with the Biblical view (Romans 1, Psalm 19, etc.) which is that design in nature is evident, even in “lawlike” behavior such as the movements of the heavens. E.g., Michael Behe certainly thinks that we have naturalistic biochemical explanations for what happens inside the cell — but STILL argues that the cell is a designed entity, not one that arose by chance mingling of molecules.

        ii. The clock-winding technician who doesn’t sully his hands in the creation — that is a good description of the position of many TEs. TE goes back, philosophically, to the argument of Leibniz that if God has to “tinker” with his creation afterward to get it right, he’s a clumsy or stupid designer; therefore (so many modern TEs reason) God must have made creation at the beginning so that the universe was self-evolving after the Big Bang, with God never having to put his hand to the world afterward.

        iii. I find it amusing that you see ID as “pushing God back” — that is EXACTLY how ID people (many of whom I know personally) see TE/EC. They see TE/EC as pushing God back to the moment of the Big Bang: he packs all the matter into a dense mass, lights the match, and then the process happens entirely naturally after that, i.e., through the powers he has delegated to matter. From that point on, God is an observer, except for the brief period (cosmically speaking) when he intercedes in the history of Israel, and has himself Incarnated, crucified, and resurrected, and give the Church the Holy Spirit. Then he “retires” again (a good number of TEs are cessationists), not to take an active hand until the end days.

        The universe of many TEs is thus the universe of the Deist or the atheist, with a private, internal faith in Jesus superadded, a faith which makes no difference to the practice of science or to how one thinks about nature. To most ID proponents, this vision of the world (deistic, except for a few centuries, and even then only in the geographical environs of Israel) is sub-Christian and does not do justice to the dynamic, active, personal God of the Bible, the Lord of nature and history.

        4. The Enlightenment hardly discovered theodicy. The Fathers were very conscious of evil and suffering in the world, and wrote much about it. And their accounts were generally more sophisticated than those of either the Enlightenment philosophers (who thought they were so clever in employing evil to prove there was no God) or those of modern TEs (whose theological writing is in all but a handful of cases an embarrassment to the Christian Church).

        5. Finally, I did not ask you to make an either/or choice between medical science and the Bible. I spoke of comparative weight, rather than an absolute choice. I was also speaking of theology, not medicine. I said that TE theology needed to be based more on the Bible than on the conceptions of current science.

        Right now, TE theology is based very little on the Bible, but mostly on modern science coupled with an implicit Enlightenment metaphysics. As someone who is well-trained in the history of ideas, I can tell you that when I read TE theologizing — whether in the ASA journal or on BioLogos — I often find myself saying, “that’s Kant speaking” “that’s straight out of Leibniz” “that’s Lessing’s view of revelation” “this is Spinoza’s Biblical criticism” “that’s Voltaire’s critique of theodicy” etc. (On the other hand, when I read ID theologizing, I often find myself saying, “that’s classic Calvinism” “that’s the essential position of Aquinas” “that’s standard Augustinian theology” etc.)

        Best wishes.

        • Ed

          I’ll wind this down with a brief follow-up.

          Per a point of mine you chose to ignore, do you think it is a theological “compromise” or “pushing God back” to give a scientific account of the rainbow?

          • Avatar photo Edward Robinson says:

            I didn’t ignore your point; I thought my remarks on the waters above the heavens established the necessary principle: some of the stories contain fanciful science, but that doesn’t matter to the theology. In this case, the science is wrong because rainbows would always have existed, and would not have come into existence for the first time after the Flood. But the appearance of a rainbow is remarkable, and its connection with rain makes it a fitting sign of God’s promise not to flood the earth again. So whether we see a non-inspired human writer as taking the same mythological liberty (aetiological myth) as the Greek mythologists did, or whether we see an inspired writer as telling us that the rainbow, though a natural phenomenon, has a deeper religious meaning, I don’t perceive any theology/science conflict here.

            I take much in Genesis 1-11 to be meant with less than strict historicity. I don’t take all the imagery in the Garden story, for example, as photographic, nor do I read the “days” as normal temporal divisions. What can’t be eliminated, in my view, is strict divine intentionality regarding the outcomes of creation, and that is what Falk, Venema, Miller, and Polkinghorne have denied or slyly cast suspicion upon, with their variations on Open Theism — the biologists driven by their slavish devotion to neo-Darwinist anti-teleology, and the Anglican priest-physicist driven by theological considerations (free will, etc.).

            By the way, you appear to have “chosen to ignore” quite a few points of my own. But I agree it’s time to move on. No doubt some of my points will be taken up in future discussions. Thanks for keeping it civil.

            • Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:

              Edward, Darek – you may be interested that St Bede, who wrote both a commentary on Genesis and a natural history, regarded the rainbow as a sign from God, but also gave it a “scientific” explanation (which was wrong, being based on Aristotle’s elements, but still “naturalistic”).

              My own thought is that if, in a pre-scientific age, he could regard a sign as a divine designation, rather than a repeated miracle, that’s some indication of the way the ancient Hebrews might have viewed it.

  10. Lou Jost says:

    Part 2: The next bit of Jon’s article complains that mutation is unlikely to be sufficient to support the evolution of beneficial complex structures. His main source is a linked paper by Wolf-Ekkehard Lonnig, which emphasizes the limitations of induced mutations as a plant-breeding technique. Jon says this paper shows that population-genetic modelling is unrealistic because beneficial mutations are vanishingly rare. The important quote from Lonnig:

    “It may also be pointed out in this connection that – as far as the author is aware – neither plant breeders nor geneticists have ever reported the origin of any new species, or just any new stable races or ecotypes either surviving better or at least as well in the wild in comparison with the wild-type, in which the mutation(s) have been induced…”

    Why might this be? Lonnig himself inadvertently supplies the answer elsewhere in this same paper: “Given similar genetical preconditions, the spontaneous mutation process in the wild will produce the same large but limited spectra of mutants, which have appeared in mutagenesis experiments. Although the mutation rate under natural conditions is usually decidedly lower, species consisting of large populations realize their potential of point mutations virtually in every generation…” The population has been doing these mutagenesis experiments on its own over millions of years, so most of the clearly-beneficial point-mutations have already been incorporated into the wild type.

    However, Lonnig’s statement about not finding mutants that survive at least as well as the wild type oversteps his evidence by quite a lot. He forgets that many (perhaps most) mutations are neutral or nearly neutral, and since he did not sequence his treated plants, he would not have detected these mutants. These mutants would have survived as well as, or nearly as well as, the wild type, and in a new environment some might have an advantage over the wild type. Nothing in Lonnig’s experiments addresses this, as far as I can tell.

    It is worth pointing out that Lonnig throughout his paper repeatedly contradicts Jon’s statements about the limits of recombinatorial breeding. Lonnig paints recombinatorial breeding as a still-successful method, which it is. Jon’s complaint that this kind of breeding reaches a barrier is wrong. It only slows down. And even at its slowest, that rate is still faster than the rate needed to explain typical morphological differences between a pair of species separated from each other by millions of years.

    Lonnig concludes in this paper that “all the models and data recently advanced to solve the problem of completely new functional sequences and the origin of new organs and organ systems by random mutations proved to be grossly insufficient in the eyes of many researchers upon close inspection and careful scientific examination…” Here he cites Dembski, Berlinski, Behe, and others. That’s remarkable since Dembski’s and Behe’s specific objections have been repeatedly refuted. But even more remarkably, his list of citations supporting this claim included one name of a real scientist, Lenski. I felt I better check what Lenski et al really wrote.

    Here is the whole abstract of Lenski et al (2003) “The evolutionary origin of complex features”, Nature 423: 139-144.

    “A long-standing challenge to evolutionary theory has been whether it can explain the origin of complex organismal features. We
    examined this issue using digital organisms—computer programs that self-replicate, mutate, compete and evolve. Populations of
    digital organisms often evolved the ability to perform complex logic functions requiring the coordinated execution of many
    genomic instructions. Complex functions evolved by building on simpler functions that had evolved earlier, provided that these
    were also selectively favoured. However, no particular intermediate stage was essential for evolving complex functions. The first
    genotypes able to perform complex functions differed from their non-performing parents by only one or two mutations, but differed
    from the ancestor by many mutations that were also crucial to the new functions. In some cases, mutations that were deleterious
    when they appeared served as stepping-stones in the evolution of complex features. These findings show how complex functions
    can originate by random mutation and natural selection.”

    One can criticize the findings of this paper or the relevance of its computer model, but it is hard to see any way to draw from this paper the conclusions that Lonnig attributes to it. It says just the opposite of what Lonnig claims.

    Interestingly, Lenski’s now-famous long-term evolutionary experiment with real bacteria eventually acquired a new ability in exactly the way that his abstract above described.

  11. Lou Jost says:

    For a somewhat more optimistic assessment of mutagenesis as a tool for plant breeding, see Lagoda (who is cited by Lonnig):

    Note that the question whether mutagenesis can provide plants of higher fitness in the wild (Lonnig’s point) is different from the question of whether it can provide useful novelties (Lagoda’s point). The different answers to these two questions may give a clue about the drivers of phenotypic evolution in the wild—if the fitness landscape changes dramatically, then mutations will be important drivers of morphological change. In a long-lasting stable environment, a large population such as we typically have with plants will quickly reach a local fitness maximum and stay there.

    This sort of thing is also suggested by punctuated equilibrium, and by Jon’s next point, that organisms find only local and not global fitness maxima. This latter point is not disputed. However, species are not necessarily trapped forever there; fitness landscapes shift with time and also geographically. Subdivided populations can find different maxima in different places. Limited migration between subpopulations, each on a different local maximum, can move local maxima towards the global one.

  12. Lou Jost says:

    Jon next implies that the restriction to local fitness maxima contradicts the high degree of optimization seen in nature. But a local fitness maximum could also show a high degree of adaptation. It is difficult or impossible to find something in nature that is really at a global maximum of perfection. Take the eye, Jon’s recent example of optimization. Jon mentioned in his post on the eye that it is prone to quality-control problems. This implies it is not as well-designed as it could be. It is not on a global maximum of perfection. I would hardly describe my own crappy eyesight as sitting on the global maximum of fitness…

  13. Lou Jost says:

    The next paragraphs discuss neutral theory and the limits of selection. Part of this discussion is right: when populations are small, variations that cause tiny differences in fitness are nearly invisible to natural selection, so that drift is more likely to control their fate. In fact population genetics can precisely quantify the efficacy of natural selection as a function of population size.

    But parts of the discussion of this are misleading or wrong. First, as in some of your other posts here, I think you may be confused about the controversy between the neutralists and selectionists. The controversy is not whether most evolution is due to neutral drift. That is not controversial, if by “evolution” we mean “changes in gene frequencies over time”. Most molecular evolution is neutral or nearly so, partly because most of the genome in most multicellular organisms is almost or completely indistinguishable from junk (in the sense that it can be deleted without causing observable effects) and so mutations there have no detectable effect on fitness. What is controversial is the relative number of MORPHOLOGICAL traits that have evolved due to drift and are selectively neutral. Some people, like Larry Moran (a biochemist and lab person with no experience observing nature in the wild), argue that many traits are selectively neutral. Most field biologists think this not true.

    Jon, when you conclude this section by saying “Darwin’s adaptive selection is a mere bit-part player in evolutionary change”, you are right if you are talking about molecular change but probably wrong if you are talking about morphological change. An additional quote from Koonin’s article (which you quote extensively) is helpful here: “Importantly, in the later elaborations of the neutral theory, Kimura and others realized that mutations that were (nearly) neutral at the time of fixation were not indifferent to evolution. On the contrary, such mutations comprised the pool of variation that can be tapped into by natural selection under changed conditions, a phenomenon that could be potentially important for macroevolution…” And as for whether selection can “see” nearly neutral variation in genes, Koonin notes that for humans, “the majority of the protein sequences seem to be subject to substantial purifying selection.”

    Jon, you wrote “If, as now seems the case, genes are involved in the coding of an average of half a dozen proteins, then the fitness of half a dozen separate phenotypic features must be affected by any one rare beneficial mutation. How often would it be beneficial or neutral for all half-dozen traits, given that the overall rate of frankly deleterious mutations is 70%?”
    It would be important to know whether this 70% refers to 70% of all mutations or 70% of all detectable mutations.The very next sentence in the Wikipedia article you cite for this says “Studies have shown that only 7% of point mutations in non-coding DNA of yeast are deleterious and 12% in coding DNA are deleterious. The rest of the mutations are either neutral or slightly beneficial.” Anyway, products produced by alternate splicings of a given gene would be expected to have chemical similarities, so that the fitness consequences of a mutation in that gene would probably be at least weakly correlated across the range of its products.

    You mention ENCODE. As you probably know, the original claims of the ENCODE team have been roundly criticized, and the authors have softened the claims substantially now. Larry Moran has an excellent set of articles on his Sandwalk blog about this issue. The main point is that extremely rare transcriptions do not equal “biological function”, they equal “chemical noise”.

    Lastly, you say “As I’ve already pointed out, in higher animals speciation can only take place in relatively small populations, because most species only exist in small populations, especially if speciation is allopatric…”
    This is not true. First, lots of animals have population sizes in the billions. Second, there is no reason that speciation should be restricted to small populations. A common mode of speciation involves some kind of barrier that subdivides a formerly-continuous population. The barrier could be an inimical vegetation, a rift or mountain, or something more subtle. In this kind of speciation, population size does not have to be small. In fact, speciation can be facilitated if population sizes are large, since (as you explained in your discussion of neutral theory) then natural selection can better act to cause each population to evolve in different directions to become better adapted to their own region.

    An interesting example of the early stages of this process recently came out involving two subspecies of Swainson’s Thrush:
    In this case, the two forms hybridize where they meet, but the hybrids are less fit than the pure forms.

  14. Lou Jost says:

    Continuing, Jon, you make a remark about how ineffective selection would be on humans since there was a bottleneck of 10000 people at one point. The bottleneck reduces variability, and this could have long-lasting effects. But a bottleneck is temporary and will not limit natural selection in the long run. You also say populations of higher animals are small generally. I answered above that many higher animals have populations in the billions. Even many large predators, such as lions or leopards in Africa, have populations in the hundreds of thousands (though the effective population sizes are smaller).

    Then you say “Koonin’s paper also speaks of gene and genome duplication “sounding the death knell” for Darwinian gradualism.” The implication you leave is that something is deeply wrong here with evolutionary theory. You should use your Biblical interpretation skills and remember what Darwin’s writing responded to: instantaneous creation of fully-formed species. The real point of Darwin’s use of gradualism is that evolution is a step-by-step process (in contrast with straight creationism), and this still stands. Darwin himself dealt extensively with non-gradual “sports”, as you noted above. As Koonin himself points out in the article you quote, the non-necessity of strict “gradualism” had already been pointed out to Darwin by his friend Huxley. Evolutionary theory today is often explicitly non-gradual (ie mutations, polyploid speciation, gene inversion, etc). This doesn’t lead to teleology.

    Next, to further scare us into thinking something is wrong with evolutionary theory, you use a paper by Venitti et al to say that “most speciation events do not occur by gradual accumulation of change, or even by the kind of “accelerated gradualism” usually invoked (with a suitable flourish of the hand) to account for punc eek.” You are misrepresenting the paper, which looks at the causes of speciation, not the rate of divergence once reproductive isolation occurs. The paper says that single rare events (such as a climatic event that produces a barrier between populations, or a genomic reshuffling like the polyploid speciation I mentioned in an earlier comment here) are the original cause of most speciations. Once the populations are reproductively isolated, the paper has nothing to say. There is no discussion about whether they subsequently differentiate rapidly or slowly, gradually or saltationally.

    Then you say “But do moderately deleterious, neutrally-fixed mutations really achieve “sophisticated designs” of scorpion burrows?” Yet virtually all biologists would agree that sophisticated, adaptive burrow designs are the result of positive selection and not neutral drift or fixation of deleterious mutations. The positive selection could have been on novel combinations of existing alleles, or on rare beneficial mutations.

    I remember you doubting that genes could code behavior in such fine detail to account for scorpion burrows. The Swainson’s Thrush example I mentioned above is relevant to that. Complex migration routes were clearly under genetic control, as shown by the migration routes of hybrids of the two subspecies (the two subspecies had different migration routes, and hybrids followed a chaotic intermediate route).

    Jon, if your claims were true that random mutations and random processes like gene inversions, reshuffling, etc, are insufficient to explain the differences between species today, then it ought to be possible to demonstrate this by looking at the genome differences between closely related species, and checking whether population genetic models are sufficient to account for these differences given the fossil-calibrated time of separation of the two species. To my knowledge there has never been an article in Bio-Complexity or elsewhere showing that these mechanisms are insufficient to explain the observed differences. Of course this does not prove that there is no teleology involved, but it is important to be clear that our non-teleological theories are falsifiable, and so far have not been falsified.

  15. Lou Jost says:

    Finally, you make a sarcastic comment about the optimization of the DNA code: “The writers say that the biases in the code suggest it’s been subject to selection … so not to neutral drift, then?” This, along with much of the rest of your post (eg the bit about scorpion burrows) shows that you still don’t understand the relative roles of drift and selection. Drift always acts, and selection acts on top of it. It is not either-or, and the modern neutral theory emphatically does not say that adaptive change is normally caused by neutral drift.

  16. Lou Jost says:

    Parting thought: Your assessment of evolution in this post reminds me of a young-earth creationist who picks out quotes from the literature and concludes that there are deep problems with the dating of the earth. Yes, there is a lot we don’t know about evolutionary mechanisms. In fact, you left out some of the real puzzles, like the possible role of group selection. We are also surely going to continue to discover new mechanisms for generating variation (like stress-induced mutations or some of the other things Shapiro discusses) and probably new mechanisms of speciation. However, so far these do not seem to support the human-centered, goal-directed view of evolution that many religious people hope for.

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