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Theistic Evolution vs. Intelligent Design

Theistic EvolutionI must be getting old - I'm becoming forgetful. Jerry Coyne recently wrote a post titled Does theistic evolution differ from Intelligent Design?. I left a comment on his site, and had already started to write a blog entry expanding on that, when I came across an old entry of mine that said almost exactly what I was planning to write, Difference Between ID Proponents and Theistic Evolutionists. Oh well, since I already have some of this written, I might as well go ahead and post it so as not to waste the effort.

Coyne stated his position right in the introductory paragraph.

My answer is that these two brands of bad science elide seamlessly into one another, with no sharp line to demarcate them. Nevertheless, I don't call people like Francis Collins advocates of ID simply because that term conflates them with the hard-core, get-in-your-school adherents of ID who populate the Discovery Institute. But let us remember that this is a quantitative and not a qualitative difference.

He went on to write in his penultimate paragraph:

If you think that an intelligent god intervened in the process of evolution, especially to ensure the appearance of human beings made in that god's image, then you're advocating intelligent design. If you accept even a little bit of divine tinkering in the evolutionary process, you're not standing on some inclusive middle ground--you are, as P.Z. Myers said, halfway to crazy town.

I understand that both concepts are related, and maybe there is a grey area in between them. But I think there is an important difference between the two positions. To a proponent of theistic evolution (TE), if you take away God, evolution continues to work, you just may not end up with humans. To a proponent of Intelligent Design (ID), if you take away God, evolution is vastly different, without any complex structures. In other words, a TEist accepts all the evidence for evolution, but adds in an extra mechanism on top of it to accommodate their religious belief. An IDist rejects all the evidence for evolution, and invents a mechanism to replace it.

Part of the problem is that ID is so poorly defined. But even someone like Michael Behe, who accepts a bit more of the evidence for evolution, still accepts irreducible complexity, and believes that some features of organisms just couldn't have come about without divine intervention (or alien intervention, if the less honest press releases from the Discovery Institute are to be believed). And if you look at something like the ID textbook, Of Pandas and People, it reads like straight up creationism. Here's a passage from page 22 of that book that I've quoted twice before on this blog.

Instead, fossil types are fully formed and functional when they first appear in the fossil record. For example, we don't find creatures that are partly fish and partly something else, leading gradually, in the dozens of characteristics which they exhibit, to today's fish. Instead, fish have all the characteristics of today's fish from the earliest known fish fossils, reptiles in the record have all the characteristics of present-day reptiles, and so on.

And here's another one from page 25.

There is, however, another possibility science leaves open to us, one based on sound inferences from the experience of our senses. It is the possibility that an intelligent cause made fully-formed and functional creatures, which later left their traces in the rocks.

And as I pointed out in that previous post of mine, what else can you expect of a theist? They see God's intervention in everything, from the weather to diseases to coin tosses. Why would they leave evolution out?

I also disagree with Coyne implying that because the two positions "elide seamlessly into one another, with no sharp line to demarcate them", that they shouldn't be considered as different. The same argument can be made for many things, from colors, to night and day. I'm especially surprised at an evolutionary biologist using this argument*. If you could get in a time machine and see every individual in the lineage from one of our ancestors from 6 million years ago to today, you'd never be able to pick out just exactly when one species transitioned into another. But I don't think anybody would try to argue with the fact that we're a different species than that 6 million year old primate.

So, while TE and ID may be related in that they both see the hand of God influencing the history of life on the planet, there is enough of a distinction between the two positions to merit separate labels.


*Don't take this as an attack on Coyne. I have great respect for the man, read his blog website almost daily, and think his book, Why Evolution Is True, is possibly the best introduction to evolution for people who don't know much about it.

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