Words can take on different connotations and even meanings in different spaces. Right now, you and I have the ability to communicate with each other because we have agreed that certain words have certain meanings. When I say, “cloud,” you know that I am talking about a white or grey, fluffy-looking mass of water vapor up in the sky. But what happens when we don’t agree on the meaning of a word? We can’t communicate. We might fight, become confused, and feel unheard or misunderstood. We are limited in our ability to hold a discussion, to debate well, and to solve problems together.
This happens a lot at the intersection of science and faith and in many cases, we may not even be aware of our clashing definitions. If I told you to look at a “cloud” shaped like a turtle, but I didn’t mean “a white or grey fluffy-looking mass of water vapor in the sky,” you might search for a turtle-shaped white or grey fluffy-looking mass of water vapor in the sky for quite a long time before giving up… then never know that I was actually trying to bring something else to your attention. How would you ever know? You’ve always thought “cloud” meant “white or grey fluffy-looking mass of water vapor in the sky” and have no reason to think I may have meant anything else by the word.
In this series, I would like to survey key terms that pop up in science-faith discussions and wreak havoc. Defining our terms allows us to communicate, which in turn, allows us to discuss, debate, and solve problems together again.
term 1 : EVOLUTION
Oxford Languages defines “evolution” this way:
“the process by which different kinds of living organisms are thought to have developed and diversified from earlier forms during the history of the earth.”
“the gradual development of something, especially from a simple to a more complex form”
Campbell’s Biology, a leading university-level biology textbook, simply defines “evolution” as
“descent with modification.”
(It is worth noting that “evolution” is a scientific term, and therefore science gets the authority to define its meaning.)
Association ≠ Meaning
The word “evolution” brings with it several associations, including (but not limited to)”
- Charles Darwin and Darwinism
- Natural selection
- Humans from apes
- Scopes Monkey Trial and school science curriculums
- Opposite of Creationism*
- Random mutation
- Adaptation over time*
- Life happening by chance
Some of these associations capture the meaning of the word.* Some of these associations, though, are imposed upon it. It isn’t fair to assume these associations in the meaning of the word itself. They may further describe the details of “evolution,” but they aren’t necessarily encompassed in “evolution” on its own.
If you are a soccer enthusiast, when I say the word “ball,” you may picture a black and white sphere with a diameter of approximately 22 centimeters made of synthetic leather pentagon and hexagon shapes sewn around a rubber interior. Based on your interests and background, this makes sense. However, you would not assume that the ball I am talking about is a soccer ball, because the word “ball” really just means “sphere.” You would need to listen for more information to know the type of ball I am talking about.
But what if you came from a culture where the word “ball” is only used to describe a soccer ball and the word “sphere” is used in all other cases? It wouldn’t be a surprise–nor would it be solely your fault–that you assumed a soccer ball when you heard me say “ball.” Such is the case for many people in American Christian circles for the word “evolution.” I cannot speak to the experience of everyone but in my personal experience growing up in an American church, I learned there was no difference between “descent with modification” and the idea that humans are just another unintended life form with no purpose in the world.
In American Christian circles, “evolution” is most commonly mistaken as a synonym for “Darwinism” or “naturalism.”
“Naturalism” is defined as
“the philosophical belief that everything arises from natural properties and causes, and supernatural or spiritual explanations are excluded or discounted” (Oxford Languages)
“the belief that nothing exists beyond the natural world” (Vocabulary.com)
Naturalists, naturally, lean heavily on the theory of evolution to defend their worldview. If everything arises from natural causes, then elements of randomness and chance in evolution are required to explain life on earth in the absence of a Creator. Naturalism (and its inherent atheism) is the real demon that Christians are fighting. If “evolution” necessitates “naturalism,” of course you would oppose it when your whole worldview includes intimate involvement of the supernatural in the universe!
“Darwinism” is defined as
“the theory of the evolution of species by natural selection advanced by Charles Darwin“ (Oxford Languages)
Scientific understanding of evolution’s mechanisms is constantly growing and being refined. Darwin may have been the first to suggest natural selection as a mechanism, but he was not the first to suggest evolution in general, nor did he magically possess a superior understanding of biology that contemporary biologists must yield to. Darwin is not God, and his Origin of Species is not authoritative for all of time. I personally don’t consider pure Darwinism scientific; if it hasn’t changed or grown in 150 years, it’s probably not science. Suffice it to say, “evolution” ≠ “Darwinism.” Rather, “Darwinism” seeks to explain “evolution.”
American Christian circles are not the only ones guilty of over-defining “evolution,” however. Biology courses are equally responsible. While “evolution” is officially defined as a general phenomenon with room for further description and inquiry, textbooks and curriculums tend to paint a picture of evolution as being a quite specific and firmly established mechanism. Rather than tout the active areas of research in evolutionary biology, they basically say, “The work is done, we are absolutely certain this is exactly right in every way,” implying that questioning details makes you a science denier. From my perspective, it seems that the false certainty surrounding evolution is reactionary against fundamentalists/Biblical literalists’ flippant treatment of data and evidence. Ironically, such a rigid attitude is anything but scientific. Ignoring evidence is, of course, grossly unscientific, but questioning the interpretation of evidence is the very heartbeat of science.
Evolution does not require atheism.
Evolution does not even require random mutation and natural selection.
So, if you find yourself learning about, discussing, or debating the origins of life–if you find yourself struggling to find the truth in these matters–please judge “evolution” for what it is! Please don’t use the term to mean something beyond what it actually means! Add “naturalism” and “Darwinism” to your vocabulary! And please, for the sake of civil and effective communication, define your terms.