Theologians Lobby Successfully to Change Definition of Evolution

If anyone wants an example of why some of us object strongly to the “accommodationist” strategy of downplaying the incompatibility of science and (many types of) religious belief, Jerry Coyne’s blog post will help you out. A bit too much, actually — the more you really think about it, the angrier it will make you feel. No wonder why these atheists are all so strident!

Apparently the National Association of Biology Teachers characterizes used to characterize the theory of evolution in the following way:

The diversity of life on earth is the result of evolution: an unsupervised, impersonal, unpredictable and natural process of temporal descent with genetic modification that is affected by natural selection, chance, historical contingencies and changing environments.

That’s a good description, because it’s true. But some religious thinkers, along with their enablers within the scientific establishment, objected to the parts about “unsupervised” and “impersonal,” because they seemed to exclude the possibility that the process was designed or guided by God. Which they do! Because that’s what the theory of evolution says, and that theory is far and away our best understanding of the data. (Dysteleological physicalism.)

The shocking part of the story is that the objectors won. The National Association of Biology Teachers officially changed their description of evolution, to better accommodate the views of theologians.

This isn’t a brand new story, but I had never heard it before. Jerry seems a lot more calm about it than I am, so you should read his post for more. I’ll just quote one short paragraph from him:

In my classes, however, I still characterize evolution and selection as processes lacking mind, purpose, or supervision. Why? Because, as far as we can see, that’s the truth.

The truth still matters.

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74 Responses to Theologians Lobby Successfully to Change Definition of Evolution

  1. David George says:

    Truth?

    I thought the school of physics favors dealing with consistency with evidence rather than “truth”, which is more like “proof”. Is “truth” now in the realm of the school of physics?

  2. mandeep says:

    Sean- good points, but i find this a somewhat incomplete post — what *was* the final version of that passage? I would’ve liked to compare it exactly. Did they only take out those two words (which i agree, is quite a backwards step indeed), or do further damage?

    I couldn’t find the changed passage in Coyne’s post either, though the way he describes it makes it sound like that’s exactly what they did, just remove the two ‘offending’ (in their alernate-multiverse world) words, but your description above is not as clear about this.

    Just wondered — thx for the heads up (and all the posts in between too — i tend to be more of a reader than poster of late, though i do skim most all your fine posts — but you guys get plenty of responses all around i see, so i don’t think you’re hurting for that, for sure, and i think i just happened to catch this one at the right moment to be the first responder.. 🙂 But i do btw “digg” many of the pieces, so i guess that’s gotta be helpful and supportive of you guys in some quiet implicit way.. ).

    -M

  3. chris says:

    David,

    it is simple historic truth that the *theory of evolution* implies undirected, impersonal change. whether this is actually the truth in the sense of being realized in nature is up to scientific discussion, but the very definition of the theory of evolution just does not have a god in it. period.

    or how would a creationist react if the definition of creationism is modified from “god created all species” into “god or Chuck Norris or the spaghetti monster created all species”?

  4. Katharine says:

    I find it bizarre how these people think life has no meaning without their deity. Very cultish.

  5. Mike says:

    I believe in science, I believe in religion and I believe in evolution. But I have a hard time understanding why it’s so important to some scientists to make sure that not only do we not mention God in science, but we must specifically reject him outright. I agree that there is no evidence that God is there. If there were evidence, then it would be pretty easy to believe in God. I’ll accept that. I don’t expect you to believe in God. But since there is also no evidence that he doesn’t exist, then I expect science to leave the topic alone. Let the Atheists discuss the absence of God. Science is about evidence, not belief.

    But I do expect you to state conclusions based on good evidence. There is no evidence that God didn’t have some small hand in the evolutionary process. Perhaps evolution is the mechanism by which he created a diverse ecosystem on this planet. That’s what the theologians are asking for. The National Association of Biology Teachers is overstating what science knows about evolution.

    The words unsupervised and impersonal are quite problematic. “Unsupervised” implies the absence of some intelligence involved. Well, what is intelligence? Once humans showed up did evolution stop? We can discuss a number of situations where humans had a clear hand in the evolutionary process. What about other possibly intelligent animals? How much intelligence do you need before you’re a “supervisor”? And “impersonal”, which would mean that no person was involved. Well, since humans didn’t show up until pretty late in the game, that’s sorta obvious, but has the same problems as “unsupervised”.

    I’m really getting tired of two things in the scientific community. One, the alliance with the atheists which some in science seem to think is the only way it can be. Science and religion can coexist peacefully you know. And two, the accusations of stupidity at anyone who doesn’t accept everything a scientist says without question. I understand you’ve studied your field in more depth than anyone else, but that doesn’t alleviate the need to explain your reasoning to those you’re speaking with.

  6. valatan says:

    @Chris:

    While I agree with you, your counterfactual pretty much is intelligent design.

  7. Mike 2 says:

    “There is no evidence that God didn’t have some small hand in the evolutionary process. ”

    And what would that evidence be? What could it be?

    There’s no evidence that my great grandfather didn’t have some small hand in the evolutionary process, and I can’t think of any evidence that could even be presented and would settle the issue.

    Please, if you want to believe in superstitions, feel free to do so; but don’t try and make arguments for them based on any thing other than superstition itself.

  8. Norm says:

    Mike:

    There is no evidence that God didn’t have some small hand in the evolutionary process.

    True, but there’s also no evidence that “X” didn’t have some small hand in the evolutionary process (where “X” can be anything you want). Why mention something for which there is no evidence?

    On the other hand, I don’t fully see the need for including terms like “unguided” or “purposeless”. These terms are implicit in our understanding of the process. For example, if I were to explain how ice crystals form, I certainly wouldn’t expect anyone to suggest that somehow God directs the formation of ice, nor would I feel it necessary to explain that the process is blind and unguided. Having described the process and the mechanisms behind it, it should be obvious that it’s not “guided” in any meaningful sense. Same goes for the mechanism of natural selection.

  9. That the theory of evolution describes a process that is unsupervised and impersonal is undoubtedly true. But the statement is not describing the theory. The statement is making a claim about the cause of the diversity of life on Earth, with no disclaimers about “as far as we can see” or “within the empirical evidence.” The upshot is that, in its original form, it is making a religious statement. So, I grant you, is a statement about the rotundity of the Earth (flat-earthers) or the germ theory of disease (Christian Scientists). But this particular religious statement comes up against a constituency too big to dismiss. It’s probably a constituency that includes some biology teachers who do not want a religious (or anti-religious) position made a part of an organizational statement.

    Frankly, you should be grateful they ascribe the diversity to evolution at all.

  10. Chris says:

    Who do you think threw that asteroid at us 65 million years ago?

  11. Science and religion can coexist peacefully you know.

    There is no evidence that God didn’t have some small hand in the evolutionary process.

    The second statement demonstrates why you think the first one is correct.

  12. David George says:

    chris,

    So the truth is found not in the theory but in the historical fact that it implies something. So the atheists are not saying that the “theory of evolution” is true. I have no problem with that. But the implication of undirected, impersonal change is hazy, as others note. Would a self-directed system undergo “undirected” change? What if the method of self-direction is by the favoring of harmony over chaos? So “evolution” is directed by the achievement of harmony. But the “theory of evolution” doesn’t seem to recognize any such harmonic principle.

    It is also a fact that the Big Bang cosmology purporting to describe the evolution of the universe (of which the “theory of evolution” would presumably be a class) does not have a god in it. So no god is included in any physics-based “theory”. Perhaps this is because T = 0 is specifically excluded from consideration in any physics-based “theory”. The “physical” universe begins a short time after its own creation. It doesn’t make much sense. Maybe that’s why people who don’t believe in tribal myths don’t believe in such “scientific theories” either. It’s the nonsense factor.

  13. Mike says:

    @Norm I think we generally agree here. A scientific statement doesn’t need to make religious statements, either for or against.

    @Naked Bunny with a Whip The first statement is a belief. The second is a statement of fact that you’re welcome to falsify. Why don’t you try instead of being dramatic?

  14. Robert Frye says:

    I was drawn to this blog by the rather inaccurate headline of a change in the definition of evolution. After reading the blog I see they are not talking about the definition of evolution but a description of possible outcomes of evolution. Sean, there is no theory of evolution, rather biological evolution is a phenomena of nature like gravity. Biological evolution is simply a change in gene frequencies in a population over time. We see it everywhere, dogs, cats, corn, wheat and countless other species humans have changed over the years. We can also see evolution occurring in the laboratory, in nature, and even in humans. Natural selection is a theory and when evolution occurs through natural selection it is the environment and/or its change that is directing or supervising the evolution.

  15. Jason Dick says:

    @Mike,

    That evolution has no purpose whatsoever is absolutely central and essential to understanding evolution. Fail to understand that crucial point, and you are bound to make many mistakes regarding evolution. Furthermore, it is also a point that can be and has been directly tested in the lab: mutations are random with respect to selection. That simple fact is all you need to know to understand that evolution is undirected. If you want to talk about some god stepping in and changing something, then that is not evolution. The salient fact of the matter is that evolution, without any magic man, explains all of the diversity of life that we see.

    So no, dropping that language is an absolute bastardization of the very meaning of evolution that should not be allowed. If it conflicts with your religious views, then your religious views are wrong. Deal with it.

  16. Charles Schmidt says:

    Your idea that your truth equals proof, without giving that proof is just an opinion and we all have one. Will you next tell us that yours is the only view that counts? That is not to say that I do or do not agree with the idea but telling me what you think with out giving any proof does not make it a truth just your opinion.

  17. Katharine says:

    Mike, teleological assumptions contradict the evidence around evolution: traits have appeared and disappeared in varying lineages as the environment changes. Animals have gained legs; animals have lost legs. From whence do you suppose tetrapods came, and alternatively, from whence do you suppose cetaceans came? Cetaceans are a group that evolved from animals who evolved bony limbs (it is alleged that the ancestor of tetrapods was a lobe-finned fish), which then lost its legs when it re-entered the water.

    You can’t prove a negative, either. The burden of proof is always on the person who makes the positive claim, and ‘positive’ in this situation means someone claiming something is, rather than is not.

    You presuppose the existence of a deity. The probability of your deity existing is approximately as likely as the existence of a giant invisible-to-humans-and-their-technology cosmic lobster, and why you pick one absurd imaginary entity over another I don’t know.

    To everyone else, I think it is a sign that the world needs to do a lot of growing up when people’s feelings and insecurities get bandied around in talk of whether something exists or in talk of scientific facts. We can talk about facts compassionately and tactfully, but that doesn’t change the fact that they are what they are.

  18. Katharine says:

    Your belief in a deity without concomitant evidence is patently nonsensical.

  19. germanman says:

    There’s no evidence that my great grandfather didn’t have some small hand in the evolutionary process

    Mike2, arkward as it may seem, your great grandmother might want to argue that point.

  20. David George says:

    Jason Dick wrote,

    “That evolution has no purpose whatsoever is absolutely central and essential to understanding evolution. Fail to understand that crucial point, and you are bound to make many mistakes regarding evolution. Furthermore, it is also a point that can be and has been directly tested in the lab: mutations are random with respect to selection. That simple fact is all you need to know to understand that evolution is undirected.”

    If we look back at the path of evolution, with ourselves at the current “end” of it, we can identify ourselves as the purpose of evolution; i.e. the end of the process so far. If “purpose” does not require some “end”, how would you define “purpose”? Then what distinguishes us from the creature we evolved from? For one thing, we are immensely complex; for another, we are conscious of immense complexity that has evolved in the course of evolution. So one purpose of evolution is the evolution of complexity and consciousness. Do you seek some “higher” purpose?

    Mutations are not random. (I don’t know what you mean by “with respect to selection”.) I believe it is now recognized that cells operate not by simply following instructions emanating from DNA. Their component systems send signals back to the DNA in response to environmental conditions, and the DNA changes in response to their signals. Would you still call mutations “random” if they are the result of a conversation between DNA and cell systems?

  21. surprised_to_agree says:

    I thought I would be up-in-arms together with Sean here, but I find myself in favor of the change in language, if that change is limited to removing the words ‘impersonal’ and ‘unsupervised’. (I might also remove ‘natural’). The words are irrelevant qualifiers.

    This is because these words are unnecessary to convey the essence of evolution: it doesn’t actually matter whether it is occurring under the aegis of some omniscient being. Just as that being is not required (under the old or new language), it is not excluded either. Evolution just doesn’t have anything to say about its own impersonal nature or supervision. It just is (removing the ‘natural’ which is also imho editorializing):

    an unpredictable process of temporal descent with genetic modification that is affected by natural selection, chance, historical contingencies and changing environments.

    and it leads to:

    The diversity of life on earth

    Perfect!

  22. Jason Dick says:

    @David,

    We are not at the “end” of evolution in any way, shape, or form. Evolution is an ongoing process that will still occur long after we are all dead and gone. We are just a single species among a great many species, and a single snapshot of that species. We are no more the “purpose” of evolution than snow in winter is the purpose of summer.

    But the more important point to make is simply that the future does not affect the past.

    The rest of your post is pure anti-science creationist claptrap. You could really stand to learn what actual mutations are.

  23. Lord says:

    Does that mean artificial selection is not evolution?

  24. V. Abbass says:

    Mike says

    “I believe in science, I believe in religion and I believe in evolution.”

    Is this a mantra you repeat daily?

    Of course you believe in science, religion and evolution; science, religion and evolution are nouns. Could you be more specific: do you believe what science and evolution teach us about the world? If so, how can you believe what religion teaches about the world?

  25. It’s too bad that God won’t appear for us and settle this question once and for all. It would be great if I could get him to be a guest on my talk show “the multiversal news” but he’s kind of shy. Maybe we could conduct an experiment that would show “the hand of God” changing a chromosome. We have never seen that happening in a lab even though we have been witness to changes in microbial DNA.

    Maybe God decided in his infinite wisdom not to do one damn thing at all or influence us in any way what so ever. He was so smart that he created a universe {or multiverse} that created itself and saved him the trouble of constantly having to monitor everything and nudge cue balls one way or the other.

    I think it is a blasphemy against God to pretend to speak for him or ascribe a behavior for him when you really don’t know if it’s true or not. Scientist merely make judgments based on observable data. This empirical evidence may not agree with your view of God and if it doesn’t, maybe your view of God is at fault here and not the observable data.

    If you say to us that God has to make “adjustments” in order for his plan to be complete then you would have to admit that God was too incompetent to make it right at the beginning, and that is blasphemy.

    Leave science to the scientist and go back to your church and pray for wisdom.

    Oh and by the way why don’t you watch Buddy Ratner on my talk show.
    http://www.ustream.tv/recorded/12721719