Christianity and Science, Theistic Evolutionism

The Life Dialogue: Theistic Evolution 4

This is part of a series of posts on the “Life Dialogue” within Christianity. Check out other posts in the series here.

I recently read a very interesting article on theistic evolution by Loren Haarsma and Terry M. Gray entitled “Complexity, Self Organization, and Design.” Interestingly, I found what I think are some of the most interesting arguments for the theistic evolutionist position, but I also found some of the hardest objections to the position (scientifically) that I have stumbled across.

I’ll start with the interesting evidence for their position. First, they note that the word “design” doesn’t belong exclusively to the Intelligent Design theorists, because theistic evolutionists argue that God designed the initial laws which gave rise to evolution and eventually humanity. In other words, God foreknew and intended for mankind to evolve, and set up the laws such that we would (or at least that some sentient beings with which God intended to interact would arise, 289).

They further argue that “With the right set of rules, a random, iterative process can start with a simple environment and self-assemble a complex environment” (293, emphasis theirs). The arguments for this position are interesting to me, and I am no scientist, but it seems to me that the three ways from which they argue for this possibility make more sense to me if there is some kind of intelligence behind the process.

The three strategies for self-organized complexity they argue are:

1) Preprogrammed self assembly– “…pieces are designed so that random interactions between them eventually lead to assembly of the desired complex object(s)”

2) Information transfer from the environment– objects incorporate information from the environment through “a process of random exploration and feedback”

3) Interaction among agents– “random interactions and feedback” lead to “increased productivity or survivability” (290)

It seems to me that 1) could be simply incorporated into laws at the beginning of the universe  (but these laws would have to be designed, as the authors point out). 2) seems to me as though it simply couldn’t be totally random. For evolution to work, on the understanding I’ve gleaned from my readings, the complexity would have to aid the survivability of the entity. I think a problem here is that there is no way to determine when/why/how the random interactions suddenly latch onto those things which are helpful. If it truly is a random process, then it would randomly continue to select for characteristics, casting off old ones and making room for new ones.

Incorporating natural selection doesn’t seem like it would help much here either, because then those random selections which are negative would terminate the species. So my problems with 2) are twofold (even granting that God Designed the laws such that these interactions would occur): 1. there doesn’t seem to be an explanation for the process stopping the random selections (and therefore keeping the trait); 2. we aren’t talking about computer algorithms here, we’re talking living entities–if they select the wrong traits, they die.

Ultimately I found these arguments interesting reading, but I just don’t see how they support Theistic Evolutionism more than, say Intelligent Design. The authors do make the interesting point that it could have been the case that God set up/designed the laws such that life would arise, but the ways that complexity is integrated into the process seems to me, at least, to demand further explanation.


Haarsma, Loren and Terry M. Gray, Complexity, Self-Organization, and Design, in Perspectives on an Evolving Creation, edited Keith B. Miller, p. 288-309.


The preceding post is the property of J.W. Wartick (apart from citations, which are the property of their respective owners) and should not be reproduced in part or in whole without the expressed consent of the author.


About J.W. Wartick

J.W. Wartick is a Lutheran, feminist, Christ-follower. A Science Fiction snob, Bonhoeffer fan, Paleontology fanboy and RPG nerd.


6 thoughts on “The Life Dialogue: Theistic Evolution 4

  1. You said: “Incorporating natural selection doesn’t seem like it would help much here either, because then those random selections which are negative would terminate the species.”

    If I can correct something, the selection of a characteristic is not random. It is the appearance of the characteristic that is random, and it only occurs in one animal of one species. The question is whether that animal will survive long enough to reproduce, and whether that feature can be spread through reproduction. If it can, then its offspring will have that feature, then their offspring and so on. If it’s advantageous, then eventually all of that species will have it; if it is not, then its prevalence will be random. If it is negative, then it will be automatically bred out of the population.

    Consider one mutation in a female rat that results in no teeth, and another rat with a mutation that results in shaper teeth. One mutation is negative and the other is positive. The one with sharper teeth might live longer than other rats, and hence live to reproduce more times. By producing more than the average offspring, the new feature will eventually take over. The rat without teeth might reproduce once or twice, but it will surely die early, and so will its offspring. Eventually, it will die off.

    In conclusion, the mere appearance of the mutation is random. The selection for it is based merely on how well that mutation aids in survival.

    One other point, on the difference between a Theistic Evolutionist’s perspective on design and an IDer (i.e., a member of the Intelligent Design movement):
    A TE starts with God’s existence, observes order, and concludes God designed it. An IDer however starts with order, observes the apparent design, and concludes God must exist.

    The contention between a TE and an IDer is that for a TE, God is the premise; for an IDer, God is a scientific conclusion. The problem for IDers (in my opinion) is that the appearance of order does not lead unescapably to the conclusion that God exists, unless your heart is at work. Take your heart out of it, and the conclusion is that the order exists because there is an advantage to its existence… pretty cold and stark, which is why many Christians see science as a path away from God. A TE however already believes God exists, and isn’t trying to prove it. Everything they observe is assumed to be a manifestation of God’s glorious design… nothing cold and start about that.

    Posted by Mike | September 30, 2010, 9:14 AM
    • Mike,

      Thanks for your comment! I find your discussion of the differences between ID and TE particularly interesting… I’d always kind of thought of it fairly differently–TE seems to me to assume God exists, and then go about constructing ways that He set up nature such that it runs on its own–which seems to eliminate the need for God in the process, while ID seemed to allow God more dynamic interaction with nature. Perhaps I’ll need to rethink this a bit.

      Thanks for the clarification on the random mutations, also. I’ve continually throughout this dialogue said I’m not a scientist, just an interested lay person, so any clarifications are welcome. I think that my objection stands, at least as far as their article is concerned, because the wording they used explicitly states “A relatively simple object can become more complex by incorporating information about its environment into itself, via a process of random exploration and feedback”. This seems to me to be suggesting that the organism itself randomly selects things from the environment and incorporates them. I know of no mechanism which would allow this to occur, but even leaving that aside, I think the random nature implied here would tend to lead towards termination of a species, rather than prolonged survival. I could be wrong, but it just doesn’t make a lot of sense to me.

      Posted by J.W. Wartick | September 30, 2010, 9:32 AM
  2. “This seems to me to be suggesting that the organism itself randomly selects things from the environment and incorporates them.”

    There aren’t exactly a set of “things” to select from. Simply, every being is born a little a different. That’s all. Some differences make it easier to survive, some make it harder, and some are neutral. The wording in the article is a bit unfortunate, implying a will or a force on the part of the organism.

    However, I completely agree that most TEs believe God is absent from the process He set up. I’m in the middle. I believe God set up a process that will run independently without His intercession. Yet, He intercedes… like nudging a rock while it rolls down the hill.

    Posted by Mike | September 30, 2010, 10:35 PM
  3. Just now found this discussion. First, I think the comments by Mike are profound, and the best argument against ID I’ve heard in less than a hundred words. TE (I prefer Evolutionary Creationism) unashamedly starts with God. Then we look at the world around us and (as in Colossians) see him everywhere. Absolutely everywhere. He is no more missing in his creation than he is in the weather or the health of my children. (Both of which I often pray for–but I still rely on the Weather Channel, and I’ve devoted my career to medicine.)

    I hope you took to heart what he was saying about selection. Evolution takes place through three processes: natural selection; mutation; and genetic drift. Most (but not all!) mutations are bad. Genetic drift can be dramatic, but usually only applies to small populations. Most evolution is driven less by these two factors and more by natural selection. (NOT “random selection”…not sure what that even is. Blind dating?)

    Natural selection is in no way random. If orange and green bugs live in green grass, the orange bugs are more likely to be eaten, and the orange gene may very well be lost. UNLESS they can find some dead leaves to hide in! BUT NOW the only bugs in that population will be the ones that can 1) find the orange leaves and 2) digest and metabolize the orange leaves. Now, this population has not one, but three traits distinguishing it from the green bugs: orangeness, leaf hunting, and leaf digestion.

    And now you have evolution! Okay, okay, “adaptation”. But now the two populations have separated. And over time, multiple small changes will eventually make it impossible for the orange bugs to mate with the green bugs. Now you have evolution! Okay, okay, speciation. Yes, speciation. I’m not sure what else my brothers and sisters want. Instead, they’ll keep meandering around words like “kind” and “genetic information” which mean whatever they decide it means at the time. (For example, OEC and YEC both have to claim that wolves and chihuahuas are the same “kind” but wolves and foxes are not! Go figure.)

    Keith Miller is a molecular geneticist. It’s molecular genetics that finally pushed me fully into the evolutionary viewpoint. Jumping genes, transposons, ERV’s and pseudogenes ain’t intelligent. (But they are glorious!) I’d also recommend you read the synopsis of the evolution of the whale at The case for evolution is massive, convincing, and glorious.

    You’re a talented writer. I hope you’ll spend some more time at with scientists of faith. The science has become so massive, even in just the past ten years, that educated seekers rarely take YEC and OEC seriously. I’d rather let them know they can revel in both of God’s revelations: scriptural and natural; so that we can move on with the discussion. (i.e. Let us now turn our attention to the Gospels!)

    Posted by Brute Wolf | March 15, 2012, 12:08 AM


  1. Pingback: The Origins Debate Within Christianity « - October 20, 2010

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