Why I don't like the term "evolutionist"

(Brad Kramer) #1

Continuing the discussion from The Popular Use of "Creationist" and "Creationism" in American Debates over Origins:

I think this is an important question, but it looks like the discussion has (very quickly) moved in a different direction since you posted, so I’m starting a new thread.

I don’t agree with folks like Ken Ham about many things, but I do agree with them that it’s important for all Christians to be creationists, in the sense that they full-heartedly affirm God as creator of all things. I also agree that who (or what) we credit as ultimate creator has many consequences in how we see the meaning of life. Of course, I disagree with young-earthers about what it means to be a creationist, but I like their emphasis on the importance of creation.

I’m not an expert on the history of the origins discussion (that would be @TedDavis), but my sense from my limited knowledge is that “evolutionist” and “creationist” developed as opposites of each other in the early 20th century as a result of complex cultural and religious factors. “Evolutionist” should theoretically just mean “one who accepts evolutionary theory”, just as “Copernican” means “one who accepts the science of Copernicus about earth’s place in the solar system.” In that sense, there’s no linguistic conflict between creationist and evolutionist. If one can be a Copernican creationist, why not an evolutionary creationist? But, of course, “evolutionist” became to symbolize a way of looking at the world that prioritized evolution (and science generally) over revelation. I have an old (1928) book on my personal shelf called “Creation by Evolution”, written by scientists and liberal clergy. In that book, it’s made brutally clear that modern science, and in particular evolutionary theory, has removed God to the periphery of creation. In fact, “Nature” and the “Universe” (note the capitalization) are mentioned far more than God. And orthodox beliefs about creation and eschatology are not far behind. And if I understand correctly, this was the dominant view among liberal clergy in that time, and led to the reaction by conservatives/fundamentalists.

The term “theistic evolutionist” has been the normative term for these people of faith until very recently. BioLogos has rejected that term because it feeds into the sense that “evolution” and “creation” are two completely different ways of looking at the world. And BioLogos is dedicated to showing that evolution as science and evolution as ideology/worldview can be separated. In fact, the great bulk of our work at BioLogos is exposing false dichotomies. Creation vs. evolution is only one of them. Bible vs. science, God vs. nature, myth vs. truth, and so on.

The problem with ID is it’s drawing on the same unhelpful categories and definitions that drag down the faith/science discussion. ID is all about demonstrating what science can’t explain, and how that points to a designer (the Christian God, for the vast majority for ID authors and followers). Seriously, every single major ID book could be paraphrased as “Science can’t explain X, and this points to intelligent design.” No matter how you slice it, ID’s strategy is to find the designer in what science (or more specifically, natural processes) can’t explain. Creationists, ID proponents, and atheists all agree that God/designer must be found in what natural processes can’t explain. They share that common premise. They just disagree about how much science can explain. And this all springs from the same false dichotomy of nature vs. design that BioLogos rejects.

So no, I don’t think using the word “evolutionist” improves ID at all. I don’t think it solves any of the deeper problems.

(George Brooks) #2

I agree with everything you posted, @BradKramer … but with one exception.

I’m not proposing a unifying label to “make Intelligent Design better” … I’m proposing it to give OUR kind of “Christian Creationists” a place to BE.

We frequently hear mysterious references to ID folks … “who really are just like us” … but all their associates are ID folks … and their views are frequently “trapped” into the ID mold.

If there was a formal category that EMBRACED :smile:


    God Created All of It (one way or another)
  • Millions of Years of Evolution is God’s main Process
    o ________________________________________________ o


We may find it easier to get support from within sections of the ID community …

Just sayin …

(Brad Kramer) #3

You mean, like evolutionary creationism? This is exactly what we say. The reason Behe and Denton aren’t in our camp is that we don’t think design is necessarily detectable (at least, that’s not our starting point).


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(George Brooks) #6

I don’t think I can endorse this description as 100% perfect from a descriptive point of view … but as a point of entertainment ? One of Eddie’s best to date !!!




I have referred to myself, more often than not, as a theistic evolutionist (when I have been forced to give a label.) I won’t be doing that again after reading your post, lol.

That is a terrific distinction. In reading your words, the word “agnostic” popped into my head. I think the TE designation may be more fitting for someone who thinks that “something” must have created us. The EC designation brings us more to that place of unity in Christ as Christy was speaking of in the other thread.

So thanks for that:-)

The thing that drew me most to the work of Biologos is that they are working to correct the multiple false dichotomies that you mentioned, which surround this topic. We don’t need science to prove God. We don’t even need science to defend God. Science reveals God. To touch the heart, we need the Word, we need Jesus. We don’t want science to be a stumbling block. Beyond that, we can just enjoy the science.

I truly believe that it will be a more properly developed theology that will be paramount for people to accept the science. One of the reasons Ham has so much influence is not because of his great wisdom, but because people want to be faithful to the Lord. When I get frustrated in a conversation on this subject, I find comfort in that.

(George Brooks) #8

So, @BradKramer, you don’t think this is a silly reason to have our camps divided?

It reminds me of reading about Calvinists who feud with other Calvinists that don’t accept the full TULIP position …

Feuding over MINUTIA like “the provability of design” is a FOOLISH WASTE OF RESOURCES!

We need all our resources to feud over Evolution … not “provability” …

(Henry Stoddard) #9

I will go and purchase Brad a monkey suit for Easter. What is his size? I’ll ask Christy if she could help me. Nancy and I could meet her in Texas. :laughing:

(Henry Stoddard) #10

I concur with you, professor. If MD’s can concur, PhD’s should be able to also. Seriously, I believe what you say is correct. To me, TE is more liberal theologically than EC. Evolutionary creation says directly that God through Jesus brought about creation. Do you concur?



I think it definitely has the potential to suggest that, yes. What Brad said just touched me in a way that jarred that thought.

(Phil) #12

I’ve always thought the term “integrated creationist” would be better. It would describe the integration of scientific knowledge with the acts of creation, and avoid some of the emotional baggage. It would also be inclusive of the other scientific fields that impact our understanding, such as geology, astrophysics, etc.

(Henry Stoddard) #13

I have not thought of that before. That might be a good idea. It would separate Christian evolutionist from those who are atheist or agnostics. You may have a good thing there.

(Brad Kramer) #14

It sounds like the term “scientific creationist” might encapsulate your integrative model. However, it’s very emblematic of the modern origins debate that the term “scientific creationist” is already taken, referring to those who reject most of the findings of modern science.

(George Brooks) #15

My dear Brothers and Sisters …

If you don’t have the word “evolution” in the unifying label, NOBODY is going to trust the Intelligent Design fans within the designation.

It has to include the term Evolution or Evolutionist.

Conversely, I would argue that “Design” also needs to be included so that Design proponents trust OUR intentions …


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(Brad Kramer) #17

Just because the leaders of a group try to reject a characterization doesn’t mean that characterization is inaccurate.

ID is about finding objective evidence for an intervening force of some kind that has designed features of nature that could not have appeared by “purely natural” means. This was exactly how I understood ID when I loudly defended it for years of my life. And its exactly how ID has portrayed itself on a popular level. Naturalistic processes vs. design.

The problem, of course, is that ID has an impoverished view of design. Let’s say God designs a world in which complex structures evolve without the sort of interventions that can be detected scientifically. Then is nature intelligently designed, or not? By the standards of ID, if design can’t be detected, then there’s no reason to speak of it—even if the whole of nature speaks in other ways of a telos.

So here’s the core problem in my mind: ID doesn’t move the conversation forward among its audience. You’ve got a movement primarily catering to American Evangelicals. American Evangelicals draw false dichotomies everywhere, as it pertains to origins. ID does not directly challenge these false dichotomies, but instead subtly encourages ignorant mindsets, even as it softens some of the creationist rhetoric. Again, I would know.

I wish ID wasn’t like this. I wish the Intelligent Design movement would spend all its time talking about teleology in natural processes (a la Conway Morris). In other words, I wish their message would be, “this is what science has discovered, and we think this suggests meaning and purpose in the universe” instead of “this is where science has failed so far, and this suggests a designer”. The emphasis on science failing is egging on all the wrong impulses in evangelicals. Even as ID has distinguished itself from creationism, it has certainly watered the creationist soil (I’m speaking here of anti-evolution creationists).

One last thought. You keep pointing to Behe and Denton as poster children of the side of the movement you like the best. Fair enough. But one of the ironies of the ID movement is that, even though theoretically it’s a big tent, it would absolutely collapse if it were suddenly overrun by a majority of outspoken pro-evolution scientists. The funding would dry up. I know for a fact that the homeschool group of my childhood would never have promoted ID materials if the majority of ID authors were openly pro-evolution. No way. And the same goes for many of the Christian groups that use ID materials. So ID’s big tent is held up by the people on one side. :circus_tent:

(George Brooks) #18

Brad, I think there is no question about this conclusion.


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Any Chance of an ID Movement Reboot & Rename?

Yes, I don’t like the term “evolutionist” either. But “IDist” and “IDer” bugs me even more—even though I wish I could somehow embrace the concept without taking on such a hopelessly baggage-laden term. (Yes, the OP is about “evolutionist” but the thread immediately drifted into the identity of the ID movement and the actual “broadness” of the tent. So the questions I raise here are inevitable and I’ve been looking for knowledgeable forum participants who are more up to date than I am on what is happening with the ID movement. Why don’t they address the issues I engage below?)

I say with great sadness that the term “intelligent design” has become so inextricably linked with pseudoscience, empty propaganda, poorly written philosophy masquerading as science [Yes:him], and worse, that I don’t see how the subject can even be productively discussed without moving on to some new term which is devoid of the unnecessary baggage.

I do believe God “designed” everything and that he certainly did so “intelligently”. But “intelligent design” reminds me of another descriptive term that was similarly corrupted beyond all redemption: “Christian science”----and the associated profession, “Christian scientist.” When I was a young science professor long ago (before a transition to the humanities side of the College of Arts & Sciences), it frustrated me to no end that I had to apply word gymnastics in order to say “I’m a science professor who is a born-again Christian” because I couldn’t say “I’m a Christian scientist” and “I’m a scientist-Christian” sounded strange. (The later would annoy me almost as much as “theistic evolutionist” and “theistic gravitationalist” or even “theistic Copernican”!)

I feel much the same when I absolutely CANNOT risk saying, “I affirm Intelligent Design” without appearing to endorse all sorts of lamentable nonsense!

I find myself following the lead of a colleague who leans toward “I affirm Ultimate Design”—because it at least utilizes the “ultimate cause” vs. “proximate cause” nomenclature familiarity. And because it connotes a topic from philosophy and not science, it has the advantage of appearing to to imply if not outright acknowledge that *at least at the present time there is no such thing as a scientific theory of Intelligent Design! (Lots of people associated with the Discovery Institute try to claim that they’ve established an ID theory but everything I’ve seen from them is a poorly defined philosophical position, not a scientific theory subject to falsification testing. (And the fact that they can’t seem to acknowledge this tells me that they don’t know what science is. Yes, I’m talking about Stephen Meyer yet again, even though I wish I wasn’t. I truly do. Arguments from Personal Incredulity fallacies are NOT the basis of a valid scientific theory!)

I would love to see someone publish a valid Scientific Theory of Intelligent Design (but use a less baggage-laden term.) Such a published theory would hopefully include heuristic rules which tell me what tests I can apply to any X to determine whether or not it is a product of Intelligent Design.

Of course, some will immediately lambast even the suggestion of a hypothetical ID Theory because of the baggage I’ve already mentioned. Yet, they forget that scientists in many fields already have to make determinations about intelligent design on a regular basis. For example, an anthropologist and a geologist are collaborating at some excavation site. They find object X and ask the question: “Is object X the product of geologic processes? Is X a product of biological processes? Is X a product of human manufacture? And if X appears to be a product of a tool-making animal, is that animal human, or non-human?”

Obviously, for “intelligent design” to be a valid attribute of some object, how do we define intelligence and how do we define design? And anybody who has written genetic algorithms, evolutionary algorithms, or what my AI colleagues call generic population-based metaheuristic optimization algorithms knows that incredibly efficient and spellbindingly impressive designs can be produced by incredibly mindless and “unintelligent” algorithms/machines! (At this juncture one can always count on somebody with absolutely no experience in or knowledge of metaheuristic optimization algorithms to blurt out, “But the human who designed the program gave it intelligence!” without having any idea of just how stupid that sounds to those of us who have written them!)

I don’t claim to keep up with everything published by the “ID community” but what I have read has left me sorely unimpressed—and absolutely amazed that few even begin to broach any of these most basic topics. (So I was not in the least surprised when the Dover Trial absolutely destroyed any remaining shred of credibility one might have expected of the “typical” ID theory proponent.) Indeed, is anyone in the evangelical Christian world addressing the heuristic topics I just mentioned?

If not, has the embarrassing legacy of what has fallen under the Intelligent Design “scholarship” thus far—let’s be honest and face it: the “Wedge Document” Sideshow and Discovery Institute debacles, including the R.A.T.E. Project—frightened everyone away from a legitimate field of scientific inquiry? Will the field be paralyzed until we find new terminology and can separate the mega-ministry entrepreneurs from the serious scholars? After all, who can blame even the brave and prestigious Templeton Foundation [yes, I applaud their boldness] from risking association with propagandists masquerading as serious scholars?

I’m sure I’m not the only academic who carefully chooses his words by saying, “Yes, I’m very interested in intelligent design but CERTAINLY NOT what has been passing for ‘ID theory’ thus far!” (Perhaps it is like being a physicist who finds “cold fusion” an exciting possibility but knows that we aren’t even close to room temperature fusion generators of electricity and doesn’t term say “cold fusion” for fear of being heard.)

P.S. Invariably when I post something like this on a Christian forum, somebody will say, “Dr. ____ says many good things about Stephen Meyer’s book!” As if that matters. I evaluate ideas, not the politics of public relations and keeping donors happy. (This is one of the many blessings of retirement. Yes, I use to get paid to hold my nose and pretend nothing stank, no matter how odoriferous. Whether one is a pastor or a seminary president, getting along with everybody comes with the job. Don’t confuse the fact that somebody can’t publicly declare, “That book was a load of nonsense” as an endorsement by default.) By and large the “intelligent design community” has been a terrible embarrassment to Christian scholarship. That’s what happens when legitimate peer review is replaced by donor-driven entrepreneurs and a regional transportation lobbying organization which discovered that there was much more money in origins ministry propaganda. (Yes, the history of the ID community is extremely revealing and explains a lot. I wish it were not so. Ever notice how many ID website authors are attorneys with no significant scientific or theological CV entries? That’s far more embarrassing than the laughter over green-screens. I couldn’t care less about green-screens. )

Why DON’T intelligent design advocates ever address the basic questions of Intelligent Design? If ID is real science, then tell me how for any entity or process X, I can apply empirical testing (i.e., science) to determine when X is the product of an intelligent mind (for lack of a better term)? Don’t waste our time with nonsense about whether you think the construction of X can be reduced to obvious step-by-step sequences. (Not knowing how something came to be is a philosophical argument based on Personal Incredulity fallacies.)

Keep in mind that I’m a Christian theist who definitely believes God the Ultimate Designer of everything. But just because I hold to a particular theology does not mean that I am going to pretend that philosophical arguments are the same thing as the scientific method. (Besides, even if “ID theory” were the best possible philosophy, that wouldn’t make it valid science. If you can’t help me determine if any entity X was/is the product of intelligent design, I’m not likely to think your “ID theory” is a scientific theory. A real scientific theory explains the data.)

Believe me: I would love to be shown an ID theory was actual, falsifiable science. (HINT: If you think the Theory of Evolution is not science because it isn’t subject to falsification testing, I’ll know you are a wannabe comedian and not a scientist.)