Is Theistic Evolution Intelligent Design?

Well, there’s a lot of fuss that’s been kicked up over a post by Karl Giberson criticizing a post by Michael Zimmerman, and I hope to get around to talking about these in more detail later.  But what I’ve noticed — and it follows from previous things that have been said — is that there’s a question of where theistic evolution should fit.  Does it count as accepting evolution, or is it the same as — or at least shares the underpinnings of — intelligent design as equated to creationism.

I think that theistic evolution is a view that should be counted as accepting evolution, and so it isn’t ID in the sense of ID where one claims that ID opposes evolution.  And to start talking about that, I’m going to reference Zimmerman’s post since he actually gives a definition of what has to be accepted to be ID:


“The basic concept of intelligent design comes in two parts and is as simple as it is satisfying for those unwilling to think deeply about the natural world, science, or the nature of religion. Part one, stretching way back to the ancient Greeks, notes that nature is so perfectly integrated that it must have been designed just as we see it. Part two, largely attributed to Lehigh University biologist Michael Behe, says that while some aspects of nature might certainly have changed (evolved?) over time, others are so complex that they must always have existed in the form we find them in today. Indeed, he coined the term “irreducibly complex” to explain such structures. Change anything at all in these irreducibly complex structures and they fail to work.

Both parts of ID are spectacularly wrong.”


Okay, so let’s start here.  I’ll argue that theistic evolution need not accept either of those contentions in full, mostly because both of those contentions seem to implicitly or explicitly argue that things have to start as is in total, which would, in fact, contradict evolution (since that says they develop over time).

So first, let me outline what I think is the basic requirement of a theistic evolution:  evolution occurs as described by science, but at least some portion of it was built, created or tweaked by a God to get to the desired ending state.  This could include initial conditions (ie setting the initial state of an organism so that certain results simply were going to occur), the environment, or even tweaking or manipulating particular mutations so that certain traits spread properly.  Underlying all of this, though, is the main thrust: evolution proceeded as we discovered, and no traits that science does not claim happened “all at once” have always been that way.

So, let’s turn to the first claim.  Is theistic evolution forced to accept that the world is perfectly integrated to the extent that it has to be designed?  No, not at all.  They can accept that the world’s integration could arise through the selective processes identified by science.  They can even accept that the world is not perfectly integrated, which might have theological implications — why didn’t God make a perfect world? — but doesn’t impact that portion of the debate.  And they certainly need not accept that it was always this way.  So that part of ID isn’t one that theistic evolution has to accept.

So what about the other?  Well, theistic evolution doesn’t have to accept irreducible complexity at all.  But irreducible complexity is, in fact, something that theistic evolution would like to see, but only in a very special way.  What they’d like to have — at least — is that there is some trait that could have climbed Mount Improbable … but not under the conditions that the organism was actually in.  A trait that it seems quite unlikely to have had enough of a benefit to be selected for, or that was introduced just in time for an environmental change to make it beneficial, or anything that means that something made that trait survive when it really probably shouldn’t have.  In some cases, of course, randomness dictates that these sorts of odd things will occur, but if they keep happening and are required for things to end up how they ended up, we have to start wondering if there was a reason for things to be as they were and if something, then, was responsible for guiding it.  But note that this could apply to portions of the one overall thing, and so it wouldn’t have to be created all at once.  Theistic evolution doesn’t have to ever say that some organ or trait ever sprung into existence out of whole cloth.  It can accept completely climbing Mount Improbable.  All it need say is that at some point, someone left a rope to make the climb easier or possible, and that rope was left by God.

I don’t claim we have any such cases or proof now, because I don’t think we do and, in fact, think these things impossible to find (practically).

So it seems to me that theistic evolution fits more into an evolutionary side than a creationist side.  All it shares with creationism is the believe that God was involved.  But that it isn’t atheistic and may not be precisely Darwinistic isn’t enough to say that it isn’t an evolutionary perspective, or that it and ID can’t be distinguished (and so both must be attacked and destroyed equally).  It seems to accept evolution, and the claim is that ID doesn’t accept evolution.

Is it still religious?  Well, duh.  But that’s not all that interesting a claim, as we’ve discovered.

So we must make certain that TE doesn’t get lumped in with ID and dismissed because of the issues with creationism.  It’s a different theory than those, and must be treated as such.  This doesn’t make it right, but it should mean that it isn’t simply refuted by association.

One Response to “Is Theistic Evolution Intelligent Design?”

  1. Kirth Gersen Says:

    I think you’re spot on in this case. If one wants to ride a bicycle and add red streamers to the handlebars, well, not everyone else accepts that the streamers are necessary, but who cares what they think? The streamers in no way interfere with the functioning of the bicycle.

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