Important Clarification: Science of "TOE" vs. Metaphysics of the Eucharist?

(George Brooks) #1

It has become important to note that for those who find it CONVENIENT to use the acronym TOE (as T.o.E., or the Theory of Evolution), that when you DO use the term TOE - - some people will get confused!

They will say there is no God in THE theory of Evolution. So a person can’t talk about TOE as short-hand for Evolution-assisted-by-God.

We don’t know what acronym we will be allowed to use for that … but I have always like the one coined by a fellow member: EGG. E.G.G., as Evolution-God-Guided.

So be warned. If you just type TOE … then detractors of the BioLogos position might conclude you MUST mean Evolution-without-God’s role.

Okay? Follow me?

Recent AIG video Attacking BioLogos' positions on evolutionary genetics and Common Descent
(Phil) #2

Hum. While memorable, I have always thought that most of the ones using TOE were really trying to be derogatory and passive aggressive in associating evolution with a lowly part of the body, much like another blog I read that refers to alternative medicine stuff as SCAM (supplements, complementary, and alternative medicine)

(Jon Garvey) #3

Sorry, George, but you’re not going to singlehandly change a usage which is current far beyond the whole science-faith debate. ToE occurs in scientific literature, newspaper stories and, in short, everywhere.

I disagree with James that it’s usually a term of abuse, but I agree with you that it’s commonly used so loosely as to be hopelessly misleading within the science-faith arena.

Joshua Swamidass, for example, says he uses it simply to mean “common descent”, with the actual theory - RM&NS, neutral theory (and presumably Lamarckian acquired characteristics) etc being interchangeable options of less importance. But to most people, “ToE” is tied more closely to Darwin’s theory. Joshua, when directly challenged, actually accepts that his is not the “official” BioLogos position, and that there is a diversity of views within the organisation - as one can see from other (common) definitions insisted upon by some here, like “change of gene frequency”, which defines “ToE” tightly in terms of Neodarwinian population genetics.

Joshua’s definition, of course, fits with the YEC useage, if they are seen as the opponents", since “common descent” is what they oppose on supposed biblical grounds of separate “kinds”. But others (such as many IDists), when they oppose “ToE”, are opposing not common descent but individual theories accounting for it that are perceived as undirected, or in some cases (for those with an OEC bent) any theories that are perceived as involving “purely natural causes”. Even the meaning of the last depends on whether natural means “God ultimately controls it” or “God ultimately lets it do its thing,” because “natural” is another ill-defined word - and has been throughout the modern scientific enterprise.

The different useages mean that people often talk past each other, so that a TE may assume that an IDist believes in supernatural interference in evolution, and the IDist may assume the TE believes God has no oversight of evolution. The problem is that, in each case, either may be true or false: the two might actually believe substantially the same. And in most cases, neither has a clear idea of what they mean, lacking clear understanding of the doctrines of creation and providence and their philosophical ramifications. The confusion is multiplied by each accusing the other of believing, or not believing, in “evolution”, without actually defining it properly.

But to add to the problems people also deliberately shift useage to confuse their opponents. For example, atheists (even apparently non-militant “science educators”) will commonly say that evolution is a “fact”, using the evidence for common descent, and then smuggle in their own theory, usually Neodarwinism, and their metaphysical baggage - undirectedness - under the same umbrella.

But it’s not just atheists. ECs will protest loudly that they are maligned by those who say their “ToE” excludes God’s direction - and yet fail to even to acknowledge those TEs who have specifically done just that, such as Ken Miller, Howard Van Till, John Haught, and many others. Or else they’ll just be so vague about what that “direction” means that it sits in a separate box from a ToE that sounds, for all the world, purposeless and undirected.

Since all these guys will continue to play their games with words, because it suits them, there’s no getting past the hard work of trying to hear what people really mean and not taking any labels at face value. Then you can agree or disagree with their views, rather than with the labels they wear.

(George Brooks) #4

There’s no way to succeed in HEARING what people are trying to say if we don’t acknowledge the need for more precise terminology.

If you are a BioLogos supporter, you can’t be caught using the term TOE without ALSO explaining whether you mean the atheistic version or the version WITH God.

(Jon Garvey) #5

I hope I’m usually sufficiently precise in that regard.

(Benjamin Kirk) #6

Hello Jon,
At what frequency does it occur without a limiting adjective preceding it? In the absence of such an adjective, it’s almost entirely a lay term.

You’re grossly misrepresenting this, maybe not deliberately. First, “gene frequency” is meaningless. It’s allele frequency, and the difference is pretty important, particularly since you are haughtily accusing others of inaccuracy.

Evolution is a fact: allele frequencies in populations change over time.

No, it’s simply an empirical measurement that’s the foundation of both Darwinian AND COMPLETELY non-Darwinian population genetics. Again, for you to accuse others of inaccuracy while twisting basic things like this is ridiculous.

Note that plenty of evolution happens even without the dreaded randomness of mutations, too.

“Darwinism” and “neo-Darwinism” are used by evolution denialists to confuse laypeople. Or maybe the denialists don’t really know what they’re talking about…

(George Brooks) #7

I avoid the use of the terms “gene frequency” AND “allele frequency” to avoid getting de-railed by fans of either.

I say “change in gene pool”… which is constantly changing anyway… just like genes and alleles.

Getting side-tracked on this is almost never productive.

(Jon Garvey) #8
“Population genetics is intimately bound up with the study of evolution and natural selection, and is often regarded as the theoretical cornerstone of modern Darwinism.”


I’ve always found that confusing because “TOE” to me is always “Theory of Everything.”

(Benjamin Kirk) #10

[quote=“Jon_Garvey, post:8, topic:5252”](numbering added)




  1. My question was, “At what frequency does it occur without a limiting adjective preceding it?” Since you had to go back to 1982 to find a case, you must agree that the frequency is low. So why are you playing word games with labels while accusing others of playing word games?

  2. Very bad. It’s essential to understand that one has two alleles for every gene to even begin to grasp evolution.

  3. Encyclopaedia of Philosophy? Are you kidding?

(George Brooks) #11

There were some nice moments of clarity in the Stanford encyclopedia link:

“3. Population-Genetic Models of Evolution
Population geneticists usually define ‘evolution’ as any change in a population’s genetic composition over time. The four factors that can bring about such a change are:
i) natural selection,
ii) mutation,
iii) random genetic drift, and
iv) migration into or out of the population.”

The 4th point can become relevant if a river that runs through a population’s territory suddenly has a shift in its course, dividing instead of containing the population in a particular area.

Then there’s this text:

3.2 Selection-Mutation Balance
Mutation is the ultimate source of genetic variation, preventing populations from becoming genetically homogeneous in situations where they otherwise would. Once mutation is taken into account, the conclusions drawn in the previous section need to be modified. Even if one allele is selectively superior to all others at a given locus, it will not become fixed in the population; recurrent mutation will ensure that other alleles are present at low frequency, thus maintaining a degree of polymorphism. Population geneticists have long been interested in exploring what happens when selection and mutation act simultaneously.

Deleterious vs. Beneficial Mutations

"3.2 Selection-Mutation Balance
Mutation is the ultimate source of genetic variation, preventing populations from becoming genetically homogeneous in situations where they otherwise would. Once mutation is taken into account, the conclusions drawn in the previous section need to be modified. Even if one allele is selectively superior to all others at a given locus, it will not become fixed in the population; recurrent mutation will ensure that other alleles are present at low frequency, thus maintaining a degree of polymorphism. Population geneticists have long been interested in exploring what happens when selection and mutation act simultaneously."

FOUR: Random Drift

"3.3 Random Drift
Random genetic drift refers to the chance fluctuations in gene frequency that arise in finite populations; it can be thought of as a type of ‘sampling error’. In many evolutionary models, the population is assumed to be infinite, or very large, precisely in order to abstract away from chance fluctuations. But though mathematically convenient, this assumption is often unrealistic. In real life, chance factors will invariably play a role, particularly in small populations. The term ‘random drift’ is sometimes used in broad sense, to refer to any stochastic factors that affect gene frequencies in a population, including for example chance fluctuations in survival and mating success; and sometimes in a narrower sense, to refer to the random sampling of gametes to form the offspring generation (which arises because organisms produce many more gametes than will ever make it into a fertilized zygote). "

FIVE: Population Genetics vs. Other approaches

"Population-genetic models of evolution have also been criticised on the grounds that few phenotypic traits are controlled by genotype at a single locus, or even two or three loci. (Multi-locus population-genetic models do exist, but they tend to be extremely complicated.) There is an alternative body of theory, known as quantitative genetics, which deals with so-called ‘polygenic’ or ‘continuous’ traits, such as height, which are thought to be affected by genes at many different loci in the genome, rather than just one or two; see Falconer (1995) for a good introduction. Quantitative genetics employs a quite different methodology from population genetics. The latter, as we have seen, aims to track gene and genotype frequencies across generations. By contrast, quantitative genetics does not directly deal with gene frequencies; the aim is to track the phenotype distribution, or moments of the distribution such as the mean or the variance, across generations. Though widely used by animal and plant breeders, quantitative genetics is usually regarded as a less fundamental body of theory than population genetics, given its ‘phenotypic’ orientation, and plays less of a role in evolutionary theorising. Nonetheless, the relationship between population and quantitative genetics is essentially harmonious.

A different criticism of the population-genetic approach to evolution is that it ignores embryological development; this criticism really applies to the evolutionary theory of the ‘modern synthesis’ era more generally, which had population genetics at its core. As we have seen, population-genetic reasoning assumes that an organism’s genes somehow affect its phenotype, and thus its fitness, but it is silent about the details of how genes actually build organisms, i.e. about embryology. The founders of the modern synthesis treated embryology as a ‘black box’, the details of which could be ignored for the purposes of evolutionary theory; their focus was on the transmission of genes across generations, not the process by which genes make organisms. This strategy was perfectly reasonable, given how little was understood about development at the time. In recent years, great strides have been made in molecular developmental genetics, which has renewed hopes of integrating the study of embryological development with evolutionary theory; hence the emerging new discipline of ‘evolutionary developmental biology’, or evo-devo. It is sometimes argued that evo-devo is in tension with traditional neo-Darwinism (e.g. Amundson 2007), but it is more plausible to view them as compatible theories with different emphases.

In a recent book, Sean Carroll, a leading evo-devo researcher, argues that population genetics no longer deserves pride-of-place on the evolutionary biology curriculum. He writes: “millions of biology students have been taught the view (from population genetics) that ‘evolution is change in gene frequencies’ … This view forces the explanation toward mathematics and abstract descriptions of genes, and away from butterflies and zebras, or Australopithecines and Neanderthals” (2005 p. 294). A similar argument has been made by Massimo Pigliucci (2008). Carroll argues that instead of defining evolution as ‘change in gene frequencies’, we should define it as ‘change in development’, in recognition of the fact that most morphological evolution is brought about through mutations that affect organismic development. Carroll may be right that evo-devo makes for a more accessible introduction to evolutionary biology than population genetics, and that an exclusive focus on gene frequency dynamics is not the best way to understand all evolutionary phenomena; but population genetics arguably remains indispensable to a full understanding of the evolutionary process.

Despite the criticisms levelled against it, population genetics has had a major influence on our understanding of how evolution works. For example, the well-known ‘gene’s eye’ view of evolution, developed by biologists such as G.C. Williams, W.D. Hamilton and Richard Dawkins, stems directly from population-genetic reasoning; indeed, important aspects of gene’s eye thinking were already present in Fisher’s writings (Okasha 2008). Proponents of the gene’s eye view argue that genes are the real beneficiaries of the evolutionary process; genotypes and organisms are mere temporary manifestations. Natural selection is at root a matter of competition between gene lineages for greater representation in the gene pool; creating organisms with adaptive features is a ‘strategy’ that genes have devised to secure their posterity (Dawkins 1976, 1982). Gene’s eye thinking has revolutionised many areas of evolutionary biology in the last thirty years, particularly in the field of animal behaviour; but in many ways it is simply a colourful gloss on the conception of evolution implicit in the formalisms of population genetics."

(sy_garte) #12

Number five is a very nice exposition of some parts of the Extended Evolutionary Synthesis, which might be summed up (not completely accurately) as a dethroning of the gene as the only significant player in evolution. This is not to say that genes are not central, of course they are, but it does allow for a large array of other environmental, ecological, physiological and cellular, including epigenetic mechanisms to impact evolution to a greater degree than has been admitted by strict neo Darwinism.

(Jon Garvey) #13


It would help if you weren’t so concerned to find malice or dishonesty in my post that you read it carelessly. Your habitually accusatory tone makes BioLogos a significantly less welcoming place than it ought to be, and I’ve seen it used on people with a less thick skin than myself, and find it contemptible for that.

You quote my “Since all these guys will continue to play their games with words, because it suits them, there’s no getting past the hard work of trying to hear what people really mean and not taking any labels at face value” as if it had any relevance to the suggestions I made to George in my opening paragraphs about why “ToE” is likely to continue to mean different things to different people, rather than (as the context makes perfectly clear) to those who deliberately obfuscate, in the two paragraphs preceding, none of whom are addressed in your three replies.

(1) So as was quite clear to any fair minded reader, the fact that even a few papers are loose with their definition of evolutionary theory makes my point - my sole point - that usage varies. I did not “have to go back to 1982” to find such a paper - I included the first one that I happened to have to hand, because it is unreasonable to word-search and statistically quantify the entire scientific literature to justify a casual observation in a blog comment. I could, I suppose, have answered your question “At a frequency of 0.2%” and dared you to prove me wrong, but in that case I would have been kidding. And I’m not in the mood.

(2) The “gross misrepresentation” that you consider worthy of railing at is that I happened to use the common term “change of gene frequency” (about 12,000 occurrences on a Google search) in a blog comment. Colloquial and imprecise it may be, but it’s used, which was my point. It doesn’t matter a toss if the paper I provided ought not to be using it, or is very bad for doing so. I was referring to the concept, and have nothing whatsoever against those who use it as a definition of evolution, whether with exactitude or as slovenly and “grossly misrepresenting” biologists, just so long as my readers understand it’s only one definition… the simple point I was making before you charged in with your pedantry… no, actually an accusation of “gross misrepresentation” isn’t pedantry, but rudeness, or perhaps intimidation. The accompanying pedantry is less exceptionable.

(3) “Encyclopaedia of Philosophy? Are you kidding”? No. I’m linking to an article which demonstrates my point. I know there are those who have a disdain for the Philosophy of Science (or in this case a philosopher specifically of biology), but I’m not one of them - in fact I consider such people rather bigoted. And I deny your right to bring your prejudices about someone else’s academic field as a criticism of my perfectly legitimate post, about which I didn’t ask your opinion in the first place.

I’ve never been banned from BioLogos since I came here in 2010 (though I suspect you may have been). Nevertheless, I’d consider it an honour if I were banned for telling you that, as a guide for the future, I really would prefer if you kept your opinions on my posts to yourself. They never contribute anything of value, always sour any conversations I’m having and only make me uncharacteristically angry.


We could all learn a lot of science from benkirk!

(Roger A. Sawtelle) #15


We need to separate the TWO aspects of evolution, Variation, which is based on genetic change, and Natural Selection, which is based on why some changes flourish and others do not.

Most scientists these days concentrate on the former, while people like me concentrate on the later, but they are both basic aspects of Darwin’s Theory, unless we have had a radical change somewhere along the way.

My view of Natural Selection is different from Darwin’s, but it is still apart of the scientific discussion if we are talking about scientific results.

(Benjamin Kirk) #16


You are literally accusing people of playing word games and smuggling. Period.

Don’t try to pretend that you’re sweetness and light. On top of accusing others of playing word games, while you are calling me “contemptible” for challenging your accusation.[quote=“Jon_Garvey, post:13, topic:5252”]
So as was quite clear to any fair minded reader, the fact that even a few papers are loose with their definition of evolutionary theory makes my point - my sole point - that usage varies.
Are you aware that copy editors often change titles, particularly to simplify them?

But you clearly were in the mood to adopt the accusatory tone you claim is contemptible in others:

Another example of your accusatory tone:

If you’re not playing word games, how can any “-ism” be a theory (singular), Jon? Please be specific and utterly accurate in describing this allegedly singular theory mechanistically.

Put simply,

  1. The evidence for common descent is overwhelming.
  2. The evidence for real-time evolution is overwhelming.
  3. The evidence for non-Darwinian genetic drift is overwhelming.

You appear to be the one playing word games by militantly lumping the sciences that provide this overwhelming evidence, including the evidence itself, together as a vague, merely philosophical “-ism.”

(George Brooks) #17

I didn’t realize there was any doubt …

@Jon_Garvey… could you clarify? Do you actually doubt that all populations are subject to this ?

(Christy Hemphill) #18

This is an example of where you pick apart people’s word choices and demand justification. It’s obnoxious. Were you honestly confused by anything Jon said? If not, then move on. Jon is right that this interaction style is pedantic and makes for a less welcoming atmosphere here. It’s antagonistic, and it very rarely accomplishes anything in a discussion.

@participants on this thread: Further posts that are essentially attempts to micromanage other people’s vocabulary, or complain about other people’s “tone,” or uncover nefarious motivations behind other people’s rhetorical moves are just going to be deleted.

@Casper_Hesp @BradKramer

(Peaceful Science) #19


It important to point out that my definition of “evolution” is not idiosyncratic. It is not particular to me. It is the the most consistent, correct, and scientific definition of evolution. Anyone who believes in common descent (not even universal) of most life believes in some form of “evolution.” This is the meaning germane to science and the history of science. This is really, in my opinion, the correct definition.

Of course, culturally speaking, everyone imputes their metaphysics into this when they talk of their personal understanding of evolution, and so “evolution” in pop culture, takes on many more meanings.

Consequently, there is a divide between the limited scientific definition and the broad and contested definitions. My response to this is to:

  1. Explain from history and science the correct scientific definition of evolution, pointing out science’s strict silence (rather than denial) on God’s involvement.
  2. Explain the strong evidence for common descent.
  3. Welcoming those that accept common descent, even though they reject the term “evolution,” as full members of the theistic evolution community.

To be clear, I do not deny that there are other definitions of evolution floating around in the scientific community (e.g. the pop genetics definition presented). However, these definitions are not as historically constant as “common descent” and create a distraction about the mechanism and whether or not God should appear in the scientific description (I do not think it should).

I think all these distinctions are important. I need to emphasize again that this definition (common descent) is not unique to me. I believe is it the normative definition of evolution and have at least one historian (@TedDavis) agreeing with me. Though, I do acknowledge, that this framing may not be widely appreciated, even within the BioLogos tent. Even if I am right, this may never be the agreed upon consensus here. (and I am okay with that).

(Peaceful Science) #20

This of course is entirely true. Intentional shifting of definitions for rhetorical ends is all too common. Which is why the fixed consistent definition of “common descent,” I believe, is so important. This is especially true because this framing is accepted within the scientific community. Evolution (in biology) is not really “change over time;” no, it is “common descent” of life to a single or a few progenitors.

Historically, this definition is the only want to make sense of the details of the Scope Trial and, for example, wide acceptance (even among YEC) of “microevolution.0” Anti-evolutionists justifiably cry foul when polemics conflate changes of allele frequency over time (which is not controversial) with common descent (which is at the center of the controversy). I avoid this fair critique of obfuscation entirely by use the more correct term: common descent.

Now regarding ID. I do not think I characterize them incorrectly. The whole movement is predicated prepositionally on the conviction that there exists strong scientific evidence for design. Without this conviction, you are not part of the movement. I, myself, believe that God design us all. After all, isn’t this the same as saying, “He created us all.” But because I am skeptical that there is strong scientific evidence to demonstrate this, so I now I’m flattered to be targeted by them.

Frankly, on both theological and scientific grounds I dispute the ID presupposition. It is an interesting notion that appears to be false, and we should have expected this with good theology. Though I have frequently been “definition” policed by them on evolution. Even though, ostensibly, evolution is compatible with design. Certainly nothing in science disproves design. ID arguments for design, however, that is another matter. Science often disproves those.

Nonetheless, the “common descent” definition helps us here too. It makes space for them to imagine God’s direction (by first cause) in evolution, and recognize that science (on a metaphysical level) does not disallow this interpretation, though it cannot prove it. Once again, the claim that evolution is by definition naturalistic is, I believe, demonstrably false. This is helpful among ID proponents.

All this is to say there is very good reason to insist on the correct definition of evolution: common descent.