Oxymoron definition: a combination of contradictory or incongruous words (such as cruel kindness)
broadly : something (such as a concept) that is made up of contradictory or incongruous elements
Is the term “Theistic Evolution” an oxymoron? You might be surprised to learn that the answer to this question depends on the appropriate definition for the word “random.” Or, more specifically, what evolutionary biologists mean when they use the word “random.” At least, this is the argument being posed by those whose goal it is to assert that the modern concept of evolutionary theory does not contradict or preclude the Genesis account of creation in any way.
It’s All Just a Big Misunderstanding?
In Part 28 of his series on Life and Biodiversity titled, “Is Genesis 1 in Conflict with the Theory of Evolution,” this is precisely the claim that William Lane Craig advances to assert that there is no incompatibility (outside of Young Earth Creationism or a literal interpretation of Genesis 1) between the Bible and the theory of evolution:
Some Christians would disagree with this because according to the standard theory of evolution the mutations which serve to drive the evolutionary process are random and therefore cannot be designed or occur for a purpose. But this inference involves a fundamental and very important misunderstanding about what evolutionary biologists mean when they use the word ‘random.’ When biologists say that the mutations responsible for evolutionary change occur randomly they do not mean by chance or purposelessly.
On what grounds does Craig advocate this argument? After all, as Casey Luskin points out in his article, Unguided or not? How do Darwinian Evolutionists Define Their Theory?:
…a review of how mainstream biology textbooks define Darwinian evolution reveals it is defined as a ‘random,’ ‘blind,’ ‘uncaring,’ ‘heartless,’ ‘undirected,’ ‘purposeless’, and ‘chance’ process that acts ‘without plan’ or ‘any goals,’ where we are ‘not created for any special purpose or as part of any universal design,’ and ‘a god of design and purpose is not necessary.’ This is not simply my opinion- this is a review of biology textbook definitions of neo-Darwinian theory.
According to Craig he came by this revelation in the process of preparing for his intelligent design debate with evolutionary biologist, Francisco Ayala. Craig goes so far as to say that this semantic confusion is a “fact, which is ignored by both critics of theistic evolution as well as apologists for naturalistic evolution.”
What Do Evolutionary Biologists Mean by the Word “Random”?
Craig lists two sources for support: Francisco Ayala and Ernst Mayr. Luskin cites the relevant portion of Ayala’s definition from his paper titled, “Darwin’s greatest discovery: Design without designer:”
However, the meaning of ‘random’ that is most significant for understanding the evolutionary process is (iii.) that mutations are unoriented with respect to adaptation; they occur independently of whether or not they are beneficial or harmful to the organisms. Some are beneficial, most are not, and only the beneficial ones become incorporated in the organisms through natural selection.
Craig also references Plantinga’s citation of evolutionary biologist Ernst Mayr’s definition:
When it is said that mutation or variation is random, the statement simply means that there is no correlation between the production of new genotypes and the adaptational needs of an organism in a given environment.
What Are the Stakes?
According to Craig, what exactly does utilizing the appropriate definition of “random” mean for proponents of theistic evolution? It appears that he is arguing that this is the difference between compatibility or incompatibility with Genesis 1: “Such a definition of ‘random’ is wholly compatible with God’s willing or even causing mutations to occur with a certain end in view.” He refers to the discrepancy as “hugely significant.”
But, what if Craig’s assertion is wrong? What if evolutionary biologists do, in fact, use the word “random” to mean “undesigned,” “unguided,” or “purposeless”? In that case, Craig says:
…then evolutionary theory would be enormously presumptuous since science is just not in a position to say with any justification that there is no divinely intended direction or goal of the evolutionary process…then evolutionary theory would be philosophy not science.
Is Craig Correct?
Luskin points out:
The problem is that Ayala’s paper makes it clear that under the definition of Darwinian evolution, there’s a lot more that’s ‘random’ than the fact that mutations arise without respect to the needs of the organism. In that same paper Ayala explicitly defines Darwinian evolution in undirected, non-teleological terms.
In the very same paper Ayala elaborates:
It was Darwin’s greatest accomplishment to show that the complex organization and functionality of living beings can be explained as a result of a natural process- natural selection- without any need to resort to a Creator or other external agent…The scientific account of these events do not necessitate recourse to a preordained plan, whether imprinted from the beginning or through successive interventions by an omniscient and almighty Designer. Biological evolution differs from a painting or an artifact in that it is not the outcome of a preconceived design.
In fact, Luskin goes on to cite this additional quote from Ayala’s paper:
In evolution, there is no entity or person who is selecting adaptive combinations.
No matter how many semantic obstacle courses those who wish to align Genesis 1 with modern evolutionary theory may construct, the word “theistic,” when paired with modern evolutionary biology’s definition of “evolution,” is an oxymoron.
At the end of the day, modern evolutionary theory entails the belief that, as Ayala explains: “Biological evolution differs from a painting or an artifact in that it is not the outcome of a preconceived design.” Conversely, as Francis Collins, eminent founder of theistic evolutionist think tank Biologos states: “…evolution occurred as biologists describe it, but under the direction of God.” These two statements are undeniably mutually exclusive.