Theistic Evolution: A Scientific, Philosophical and Theological Critique

Written by J. P. Moreland, Stephen Meyer, Chris Shaw, Ann Gauger, and Wayne Grudem, eds. Reviewed By David Snoke

Theistic Evolution, no matter what its detractors may say, is clearly an important book, one that everyone with a serious interest in the evolution/intelligent design debate should read. As its subtitle indicates, it is a tome that brings together a broad collection of essays on many aspects of the debate by well-known scholars associated with the intelligent design movement. After years of weighty attacks against creationism and intelligent design, and years of similarly weighty attacks against atheistic evolutionism, this volume brings forth a coherent and comprehensive attack on a viewpoint that has largely escaped focused criticism until now, namely the purported middle way of theistic evolution.

While not all the articles are equally significant or uniformly interesting, the book has plenty of solid arguments that address up-to-date issues. Right off the bat, the introductory article by Stephen Meyer shows that the book is not attacking a straw man. Theistic evolutionists sometimes follow the “no true Scotsman” approach, denying that any of a number of versions are the real thing. Meyer carefully delineates a wide range of conceptions of theistic evolution, giving examples and citations of each, and the aspects of each that lie open to critique. This chapter is well worth reading even if one does not have the time to read the rest of the book.

Section II surveys the present state of the scientific arguments, addressing very recent work. Part 1 of this scientific section provides a good overview of the seemingly insurmountable problems for a spontaneous origin of life. The intelligent design argument is sometimes criticized for this type of argument because it is purely negative—it only shows the absence of a good quantitative model and does not provide an alternative; therefore, it is not science. As someone who has practiced experimental science for over three decades, I can testify that this critique is nonsense; negative arguments occur all the time in science. I and others in my field often point out the flaws in each other’s theories without any idea what the correct replacement should be. I’ve often heard, “I don’t know what the right theory is, but I know that one is not it!”

Stephen Meyer’s chapter in this section is the first work I have seen that directly addresses the proposal of many theistic evolutionists, including intelligent design proponent Michael Behe, that God could have “front loaded” the universe with exactly the right initial conditions to bring about the origin of life, with no need for later intervention. Meyer shows that this proposal is problematic, but this chapter feels like an opening shot; much more thought deserves to go into the physics of this scenario. At first blush, his argument seems sound. Physical law has many information-erasing mechanisms, so that without miraculous preservation, any impressive fine tuning of the initial conditions of the cosmos would normally be washed away.

Part 2 of Section II discusses the surprisingly strong case against universal common descent. For example, the evidence of many life forms that arose and disappeared over millions of years is overwhelming, which is why most of the authors of this volume (and I) are old earth creationists. But the evidence that all these life forms arose by gradual transition from one into another is still very weak. For every gene that looks shared between two species, there is an example of two genes that look shared but cannot be, because they appear on two non-overlapping branches of a larger tree, so that the similarity must be accidental, a “convergent evolution”; for every example of a gene that looks inherited, there is another example of a whole gene appearing de novo, fully formed with no precursors. Contributor Günter Bechly, a new voice in this field, does not easily fit into most people’s preconceptions. Starting as an atheist, he came to believe in intelligent design late in life through scientific arguments, including his own scientific work on paleoentomology at the German State Museum of Natural History in Stuttgart, and eventually became a theist and then a Catholic. I had the privilege of meeting him personally some years ago before he was a Christian, and it was clear that the science issues drove his thinking.

Sections III and IV of the book present philosophical and theological critiques of theistic evolution. The chapter by Stephen Dilley makes the notable argument that theistic evolutionists cannot claim to adhere to methodological naturalism and also make critiques of intelligent design arguments on the basis of science—if God is not allowed in the picture at all, then one cannot use scientific data to argue either for or against his intervention in the world. Yet the scientific and theistic evolutionist literature is full of arguments that God would not have done such-and-such, starting with a theological premise of how God would have done something (perfectly efficiently, for example, or uniquely for each species) and then showing that the data show otherwise (See, e.g. C. G. Hunter, Darwin’s God [Grand Rapids: Brazos, 2001]). Such arguments are not methodological naturalism; they take seriously the scientific nature of a theory of divine intervention and attempt to refute it on the basis of theological premises and evidence.

Overall, whether or not one agrees with any or all of the book, one must agree that theistic evolution is not an obvious or easy default position for Christians; it has its own strengths and weaknesses, which deserve to be examined under the microscope like any other theological and philosophical position. This book takes that task seriously.

David Snoke

David Snoke
University of Pittsburgh
Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, USA

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