Why “Evolutionary Creation” is a poor term.

Michael Denton’s book Evolution: Still a Theory in Crisis, on which I’ve been drawing in the last few posts, opens up some interesting thoughts on a divinely-ordained evolutionary process, because its emphasis on a law-driven structuralism and more or less saltational changes frees one up from having to concentrate on the dodgy metaphysics of open-ended Neodarwinism (it’s undirected, but mysteriousy produces order – purely Epicurean, as N T Wright stresses). And if that order is intended, it’s not even Epicurean, but incoherent: God doesn’t aim at anything, and hits it every time.

As I have suggested in the last couple of posts, the kind of complex emergent laws Denton posits, which are held to produce detailed outcomes (such as bauplans) that occur only once in evolutionary history and cannot be reproduced experimentally, are very far from the simplicity of “e=mc^2″, and begin to look more like God’s detailed project management schedule. Or as I also suggested, like a more detailed version of the words of command of Genesis 1.

In other words, the contentious line that has been drawn in the last two centuries between”natual” and “supernatural” begins to look very blurred: when a law looks for all the world like a fine-tuned miracle, then what traction does the word “natural” actually have? The words “natural “and “supernatural” have become prevalent to exactly the same extent that the word “theism” has lost its content and been confused with deism.

But given the subject in question – the origin of the world we live in – then rather than “miracle” I ought to have said “act of creation”. But the two are actually comparable, which is what I propose to explore here. I can’t remember if it was Denis Lamoureux or someone else who first suggested the term “Evolutionary Creation” as a better expression than “theistic evolution”, apparently because it embodies more the biblical concept of creation. “Evolution is the means God uses to create” is the catchphrase. Putting God in the noun rather than the adjective has, I suppose, some merit – but it has been achieved only at the expense of coining a concept that, on close examination, mischaracterises what is going on.

The fact that, at most, evolution (whether one considers that Darwinian, Dentonian, Lamarckian or anything else) is only applicable to the changes in living varieties is a severe limitation that reveals people’s preoccupation with the “creation v evolution” debate, rather than with the broad issue of reconciling the study of the whole Creation with the study of God. Most things that God creates do not evolve, so you would need to invent lots of additional terms for the types of non-evolutionary creation – suggesting that God’s creation is a piecemeal set of techniques, rather than an act of divine simplicity producing a unified cosmos.

But that limitation should alert us to a greater flaw – not only is evolution not God’s universal means of creation, but it is not a “means” at all, but a result. Creation, properly understood, is the inscrutible interface between God’s invisible intentions and their instantiation in physical reality. In Genesis terms, “creation” was God’s word of power – what appeared next was the result of creation, and never the “means”. The creative act was “Let the earth bring forth” – not the obedience of the earth in doing so.

A partial analogy would be God’s creative activity in normal generation, and another (perhaps more illustrative) the parallel with miracles – and particularly, since we are examining evolution over time, miracles that did not occur instantly.

First, consider generation. If we believe that we were created as total individuals by God (and not just our “eternal souls”), even though the natural processes of development were involved, we do not expect to “see” miraculous events in studying reproductive and developmental biology. We may well see astonishing processes that appear currently to defy scientific explanation, and which certainly demonstrate the wisdom and power of God. But properly speaking, these are not the means by which God creates, but the results of his desire to create us. In that sense, those TEs like, recently, Professor S. Joshua Swamidass who wonder why ID doesn’t claim divine intervention in embryology as well as evolution have a point. But so do IDists who say that design inferences have nothing whatever to do with processes, and that it is not reasonable to insist that they explain “how God did it.”

If I am right, then the full answer to that last question is “How God did it was by a simple act of creation in eternity”. The only scientific question to be answered is “What did God do, and how much can we know of how it works when he’s done it?” Answers to that could include, “He created astonishing emergent laws of development” or “He enacted occurrences indistinguishable from chance or even miracle except by their good outcomes,” but never “by the means of process A,” because “process A” is inevitably what God, in fact, created – not how he created it.

However, since I think miracles illustrate this more clearly, let me turn to a couple. Most biblical miracles appear to occur more or less instantly, or else off-stage. One moment there is a man with a withered hand, and the next there is a man with a normal hand. If we imagine a team of scientists somehow travelling with Jesus, they would be able before the healing to determine, perhaps, the pathology. And afterwards, to their astonishment, the absence of that pathology. But you’ll quickly see that it would be pretty lame to publish their results concluding “Jesus heals by means of the disappearance of pathology.” Jesus, instead, heals by divine power, with the result that pathology disappears.

Some miracles are not instant. For example, God caused a gourd to grow up overnight to shelter Jonah (and later to wither). Our intrepid scientists, granted unprecedented access to God’s works, would be able to sample that gourd as it grew. It seems unlikely they would detect abnormal levels of whatever growth hormone gourds possess, given the unique creative power involved, but I suppose it’s possible. What is certain is that they would be able to confirm a gourd growing, quicker than usual. But they would be laughed to scorn if they reported that God’s means of creating the quick-growing gourd was growth. Instead it was a creative miracle that, in itself, was invisible – only its “natural” results, an unusual growth, would be physically detectable.

Likewise the interesting two-stage miracle of the blind man who first saw “men as trees, walking” until a second work of Jesus. Again, imagine our science team pushing Jesus aside at each stage, first to diagnose the cause of blindness, lastly to confirm the resolution of that pathology, and in between to answer the intriguing question (to the theologically challenged who fail to realise what Jesus was teaching his disciples by this) of exactly what was going on with his visual acuities and the optical system in between. For simplicity’s sake, suppose it was a traumatic cataract accompanied by retinal damage. Clearing the cataract and in a second-stage procedure sorting out the retina were not so much the means by which Jesus restored his sight, but what had to done miraculously to restore it.

And so with evolution. If we come to accept that species arise from similar species, and if we determine this occurs by some scientific process either gradually, involving a certain sequence of mutations and selection, or by Denton’s saltations – it doesn’t much matter which to the discussion of “evolutionary creation” – then those processes are not the “means” by which God creates a mammoth or a man. They are the teleological processes which are themselves created (for his own good purposes). They are ends, not means, albeit being in themselves secondary causes, just as hydrogen and oxygen are secondary (material) causes of water – but not “the means of creating water”.

As Denton intimates and I have stressed, what is necessary for what we see looks increasingly “hands on” – a fine tuned universe with laws, or Aristotelian forms, tailored for the requirements of each particular time and place, rather than a few simple rules, and inert particles arranged to make a Deistic cosmic clock, as early science imagined (and largely still imagines in its crude concept of “methodological naturalism”).

It’s that intimation of God’s immanence that the term “evolutionary creation” tends, in fact, to mask. It is innately deistic, suggesting that creation is a process within the world, rather than the biblical teaching that creation is God’s bringing into existence of the world. It is always ex nihilo, even when God is making something out of something else, such as (to use biblical instances) when God creates his people Israel from the rabble of Jacob’s descendants, or a “new creation in Christ” out of a sinner who is “by nature an object of his wrath”. The creation is of what is discontinuous, not of what persists from before: a people, rather than “some people”, or a “child of God”, rather than a “seed of the serpent”.

“Theistic evolution”, as a term, has its own shortcomings. There are many holding that position who still don’t admit to anything in its content that differs from a-theistic evolution. If guinea worms, viruses and other “undesirables” are held not to be God’s work, then ones evolution is at best “semi-theistic”. And oh, how I long for the day when one of them even hints at a rule for detecting which bits are God’s work, and which aren’t – but of course, that would mean admitting to joining ID in design detection.

But at least “theistic evolution”, semantically speaking, simply implies that God has some role in evolution, whereas “evolutionary creation” elevates “evolution” to the divine act itself. Granted, most ECs don’t use it in quite that way – but the subject of God’s creation is too crucial for scattergun buzzwords.

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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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