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Friday, October 04, 2013

David Klinghoffer Wants Clear Definitions

A few days ago I mentioned that definitions were important and I asked my students to look at twenty definitions of "evolution" [The Many Definitions of Evolution]. I was surprised to discover that some of you don't think it's very important to agree on how we define important terms and concepts.

David Klinghoffer agrees with me. He recently posted an article on Evolution News & Views (sic) where he called for clear definitions [Terry Mattingly: In the Evolution Debate, Clear Definitions Are Among the Casualties]. Let's see what he has to say ...
The point cannot be hammered home too often: In media coverage of the evolution debate, a standard trick, the one that stands out the most for slipperiness, is the refusal to define common terms. What is "evolution," or "creationism," or "intelligent design"? Readers may think they know. The reporter may think he knows. Usually, the shades of meaning get blurred, with the suspiciously consistent effect of casting evolution skeptics into a bad light.
Oh dear. Klinghoffer thinks that we are guilty of using definitions that make creationists look bad. He quotes from an article by Terry Mattingly who says ....
[T]he committee that produces the Associated Press Stylebook needs to urge mainstream journalists to be more careful when using the words "evolution" and "creationism." Each of those terms has a half dozen or so finely tuned definitions, depending on who is using them at any given moment.

For example, a person who accepts a creation narrative with a "young earth" and a timeline with seven 24-hour days will certainly embrace the creationist label. But what about a person who believes that creation unfolded over billions of years, involved slow change over time, a common tree of descent for species and ages of micro-evolutionary change?
That's simple. Both are creationists [On Describing IDiots as Creationists] [Creationism Continuum] [What Is Creationism?] (The last two posts attempt to deal with some Sandwalk readers who think that their preferred definition is the only correct definition.)

Mattingly then tackles a more difficult definition ....
Similar things happen with the term evolution, which as the Blessed Pope John Paul II once observed, is best discussed in terms of different schools of evolutionary thought, some of which are compatible with Christian faith and some of which are not...

The word "evolutionist" certainly applies to someone who believes life emerged from a natural, materialistic, random process that was without design or purpose. But what about someone who accepts that theory on the biological front, but believes that there is scientific evidence that our universe was finely tuned to produce life? What about someone who says that creation contains evidence best thought of as the signature of its creator (Carl Sagan, for example). What about people who insist they are doctrinaire Darwinists, but still see cracks in the old neo-Darwinian creeds? Are "theistic evolutionists" really believers in "evolution" in the eyes of the truly secular academic powers that be? And so forth and so on.
This is definitely a problem. As we see, Mattingly is terribly confused about the meaning of "evolution" and the difference between it and "evolutionary theory." I agree that we need to be clear about what we mean and I've tried to do that [What Is Evolution?]. (BTW, "theistic evolutionist" is just a euphemism for a particular kind of "creationist.")

Mattingly doesn't give us an answer. I guess he was too busy complaining.

Let's see what Klinghoffer has to say since he's convinced that this is an important issue. How do the IDiots define "evolution" and "Darwinism" and what do they have to say about modern evolutionary theory? How do they define "creationist"?

Waiting .........


  1. Let's make a distinction. It's important for us to know what we're talking about. But does that knowledge have to be encapsulated in a sound bite? If I wanted to come up with a definition that incorporated everything I would consider evolution and excluded everything I don't, it would be quite long and complicated. You're looking for something nice and pithy, but your preferred definition excludes some things we both agree should be included. The important thing isn't the sound bite, but that we agree what we're pointing to.

  2. Fully agree on the "theistic evolution is still creationism" part.

    Pretty much everyone is so scared to say that (or are not even able to understand it) that it is almost never pointed out. And that's a big problem

    1. "Theistic evolution" encompasses a huge range, from god personally tweaking each and every genome to god making a universe in which evolution happens naturally. Somewhere along this continuum, things start to look more like evolution and less like creationism, or at least takes the creationism entirely out of the realm of biology and into cosmology. Definitions that arbitrarily divide a continuous spectrum can be useful nevertheless, but we should at least be a bit more willing to live with ambiguity. If I had to draw an important distinction it wouldn't be between me and Ken Miller but between Miller and Michael Behe.

    2. If I understand it correctly, according to Miller God intervenes on the quantum level (whatever that's supposed to mean, and ignoring the problem of how that fits with what we know about physics) to guide evolution. That's creationism to me.

    3. I don't think Miller has presented that as more than an idle speculation, but that isn't important. Sure, it's on the creationist spectrum somewhere short of the end (which I would take as no divine intervention anywhere, any time). But it's way closer to that end than to the other end. What do we gain by the clearly pejorative label? Miller, for all practical purposes, has the same view of biological processes as any other evolutionary biologist. Calling him a creationist is to strip the term of meaning when you use it to refer to Meyer, Wells, or even Ken Ham.

    4. 1) I don't really care what we gain or lose in this case, I care about the accuracy of the terms.

      2) I don't think he has the same view of biological processes - his is one in which evolution is directed. This is a very different view

      3) We've had a lot of discussion here on neutral evolution recently. Now what is a good example of a lineage in which the long-term N_e has been very low for a very long time? Ours is a very good one. This has certain implications when you start thinking about theistic evolution. It's a lot easier to accept God affecting the environmental conditions so that a certain outcome is favored by selection. But if we consider molecular evolution and drift, and all the quite important features of our biology that seem to have been fixed by drift and not by selection, then we have to posit a God intervening countless times to directly engineer the genome and to ensure certain things get fixed and other don't. That is pretty much equivalent to the view of the subset of intelligent design proponents who accept common descent.

      4) In general, it is extremely poor science to believe in God and we want to promote good science.

    5. The BioLogos Foundation, which was started by Francis Collins, seems to prefer the term "Evolutionary Creation" to "Theistic Evolution":

      John, when you say "Miller, for all practical purposes, has the same view of biological processes as any other evolutionary biologist," I think that actually argues against the term "Theistic Evolution." If the evolution that he accepts does not differ from that accepted by an atheist like Larry, then what meaning is added by prefixing the adjective "theistic" to "evolution"? Miller's fight is with the other creationists, and by calling his position "evolutionary creationism" it properly situates it as an alternative view of theism, not as an alternative view of evolution.

      Of course, the choice of terms might depend on whether one is primarily concerned with persuading theists to accept evolution or with persuading "evolutionists" to accept theism.

    6. Georgi,

      If you're interested in the accuracy of terms, are you also interested in the usefulness of terms? You are making "creationist" accurate only by extending its meaning to be inclusive of, apparently, everyone who believes in a god of any sort. We already have the word "theist" for that. Further, creationism is a political movement much more than anything else, and creationists are more properly defined by their political allegiance to that movement. Michael Denton, who at last count appears to be a deist, nevertheless comes down on the creationist side, while Miller, who has at least flirted with more active divine intervention, comes down on the anti-creationist side.

      As far as I know, Miller's claim is also that any divine intervention of the sort he imagines is in principle undetectable and we might as well ignore the possibility. The difference between his view and yours is significant only if you think the arguments over interpretations of the meaning of quantum theory are significant. To me it seems like distinctions without differences.

      Why would you say the human Ne has been low for a long time? By comparison with bacteria? Ants?

      Belief in god isn't antithetical to science, per se. But the manner of arriving at that belief always is, as far as I can tell, whether it's claimed to be through rational argument and evidence or just faith. I certainly think religion should be discouraged. But what's the relevance to the present discussion?

    7. If intelligent design is creationism so is theistic evolution of the kind that Miller believes in. You can actually construct TE versions that I would not call creationist, but those would be incompatible with the Christian view. And Miller is definitely Christian.

      Human Ne has been low compared to bacteria for the last probably a billion or even more years. Perhaps it went up a little bit when we were small mesozoic mammals but for most of the last 500 million years it has been among the lowest on the planet (compared to the tree of life as a whole).

      But the manner of arriving at that belief always is, as far as I can tell, whether it's claimed to be through rational argument and evidence or just faith.


    8. You didn't actually respond to my points. ID is creationism because of its political connections (and because it's a big tent that incorporates YECs and tries not to alienate them). But if we pretend it's just ideas, how do you decide where on the continuum to make the break? Isn't it arbitrary?

      I asked about how belief in god was relevant to the present discussion too.

    9. I am talking about ideas and if we're talking about ideas, anything that does not involve unguided evolution is creationism.

      I can't see the point in asking how belief in God is relevant to the discussion when the discussion is about creationism...

    10. You may be talking about ideas, but ideas are not what creationism is about. You seem uncomfortable with fuzzy boundaries too.

    11. Not at all, I am well aware of the subtleties. But there are subtleties and then there is the essence of things. The essence of TE is indistinguishable from ID. I don't see why it has to be a crime to point that out

    12. Biologists really shouldn't talk about essences. Anything that can be graded along a continuum doesn't have an essence. Anyway, as I've said several times already, this isn't about ideas; it's about politics.

  3. Creationism means one thing.
    A thinking being created this or that .
    Then different species of what they think this being created.
    Mankind has always been creationist.
    Christiandom always said it had a signed witness paper called the bible.
    Today some stick close to the witness and others pick and choose.

    Evolutionists simply think things came about without a creator and so natural processes.
    Then different species segregate on whether all evolved or this and that.
    So it happens that there is cross fertilization between the spectrums in both groups.
    Takes a YEC to put it into right words.

  4. I would say it's less important to agree on such concepts (particularly those not readily reducible to a soundbite), as to understand what the other means. The several 'what is evolution' threads illustrate only that people are likely to fail to agree 'is this evolution?' to a particular degree of fine-scale precision, even though we are talking of the same set of phenomena. If you want agreement, you have to agree that my definition is superior ;)