Theistic evolution

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This article is about a religious viewpoint in the "Creation–evolution controversy". For a discussion of the evolution of theism, see Evolutionary psychology of religion.

Theistic evolution, theistic evolutionism, or evolutionary creationism are views that regard religious teachings about God as compatible with modern scientific understanding about biological evolution. Theistic evolution is not a scientific theory, but a range of views about how the science of general evolution relates to religious beliefs in contrast to special creation views.

Supporters of theistic evolution generally harmonize evolutionary thought with belief in God, rejecting the conflict thesis regarding the relationship between religion and science – they hold that religious teachings about creation and scientific theories of evolution need not contradict each other.[1][2]


Francis Collins describes theistic evolution as the position that "evolution is real, but that it was set in motion by God",[3] and characterizes it as accepting "that evolution occurred as biologists describe it, but under the direction of God".[4] The executive director of the National Center for Science Education in the United States of America, Eugenie Scott, has used the term to refer to the part of the overall spectrum of beliefs about creation and evolution holding the theological view that God creates through evolution. It covers a wide range of beliefs about the extent of any intervention by God, with some approaching deism in rejecting the concept of continued intervention.

Just as different types of evolutionary explanations have evolved, so there are different types of theistic evolution. Creationists Henry M. Morris and John D. Morris, point out that there are different terms which have been used to describe different positions: "Orthogenesis" (goal-directed evolution), "nomogenesis" (evolution according to fixed law), "emergent evolution", "creative evolution", and others".[5] Morris and Morris consider that most[quantify] of such terms have been rejected - either by creationists because they seem somewhat "atheistic", or by modern evolutionary scientists, because they are "religious".

Morris[who?] lists another type of theistic evolution that he calls "biblical evolution", i.e., the belief that God created a set of "kinds" of plants and animals at the beginning of Creation.[citation needed] Proponents of this theory believe that many species have passed through biological changes in the course of time - as the result of adaptation (or microevolution) - but they retain the belief that human beings were literally created in God's image, so that evolution can be seen as completely consistent with the Biblical account in the Book of Genesis. Thus, the view of "biblical evolution" rejects the theory of Darwinian evolution, but openly accepts the possibility of transmutation of species.

Others argue that one should read the book of Genesis only metaphorically, and that the first humans (Adam and Eve) were ape-men; a view which has been widely criticized by some Christian apologetics institutions such as Answers in Genesis as merely "secular thinking".[6]

Others see "evolutionary creation"[7] (EC, also referred to by some observers as "evolutionary creationism") as the belief that God, as Creator, uses evolution to bring about his plan. The Jesuit paleontologist Pierre Teilhard de Chardin (1881-1955) was an influential proponent of God-directed evolution or "orthogenesis", in which man will eventually evolve to the "omega point" of union with the Creator. Eugenie Scott states in Evolution Vs. Creationism that it is a type of evolution rather than creationism, despite its name, and that it is "hardly distinguishable from Theistic Evolution".[2] According to evolutionary creationist Denis Lamoureux, although referring to the same view, the word arrangement in the term "theistic evolution" places "the process of evolution as the primary term, and makes the Creator secondary as merely a qualifying adjective."[8] Scott also uses the term "theistic evolutionism" interchangeably with "theistic evolution".[9] Divine intervention is seen at critical intervals in history in a way consistent with scientific explanations of speciation, with similarities to the ideas of progressive creationism that God created "kinds" of animals sequentially.[10]

Regarding the embracing of Darwinian evolution, historian Ronald Numbers describes the position of the late 19th-century geologist George Frederick Wright as "Christian Darwinism".[11]

Historical development

Historians of science and authors of pre-evolutionary ideas have pointed out that much before Darwin, the idea of biological change had been considered by religious scientists.

In the 17th century, the Christian priest and botanist John Ray, in his book The Wisdom of God Manifested in the Works of Creation (1692), had wondered "why such different species should not only mingle together, but also generate an animal, and yet that that hybridous production should not again generate, and so a new race be carried on."[12]

18th-century scientist Carl Linnaeus published "Systema Naturae" in his last years, a book in which he considered that new varieties of plants could arise through hybridization, but only under certain limits fixed by God. Linnaeus had initially embraced the Aristotelian idea of immutability of species (the idea that species never change), but later in his life he started to challenge it. Yet, as a Christian, he still defended what has been called the belief of "special creation", i.e. the belief that God created "every living creature" at the beginning, as read in Genesis, with the peculiarity a set of original species of which all the present species have descended.[13] Some have called his theory the "Linnaean theory of evolution", which is considered consistent with the view of "biblical evolution", (although the very term "evolution" was alien to him).

Linnaeus wrote:

"Let us suppose that the Divine Being in the beginning progressed from the simpler to the complex; from few to many; similarly that He in the beginning of the plant kingdom created as many plants as there were natural orders. These plant orders He Himself, there from producing, mixed among themselves until from them originated those plants which today exist as genera. Nature then mixed up these plant genera among themselves through generations -of double origin (hybrids) and multiplied them into existing species, as many as possible (whereby the flower structures were not changed) excluding from the number of species the almost sterile hybrids, which are produced by the same mode of origin."

— Systema Vegetabilium (1774)[14]

Linnaeus attributed the active process of biological change to God himself, as he stated:

We imagine that the Creator at the actual time of creation made only one single species for each natural order of plants, this species being different in habit and fructification from all the rest. That he made these mutually fertile, whence out of their progeny, fructification having been somewhat changed, Genera of natural classes have arisen as many in number as the different parents, and since this is not carried further, we regard this also as having been done by His Omnipotent hand directly in the beginning; thus all Genera were primeval and constituted a single Species. That as many Genera having arisen as there were individuals in the beginning, these plants in course of time became fertilised by others of different sort and thus arose Species until so many were produced as now exist ... these Species were sometimes fertilised out of congeners, that is other Species of the same Genus, whence have arisen Varieties.

— From his Fundamenta fructificationis (1742)[15]

Jens Christian Clausen (1967), refers to Linnaeus' theory as a "forgotten evolutionary theory [that] antedates Darwin's by nearly 100 years", and reports that he was a pioneer in doing experiments about hybridization.[16]

Later observations by Protestant scientists Gärtner[who?] and Joseph Gottlieb Kölreuter, denied the immutability of species, which, according to Christian apologists, the Bible never teaches.[17] Kölreuter used the term "transmutation of species" to refer to species who have had biological changes through hybridization,[18] although they both were inclined to believe that hybrids would revert to the parental forms by a general law of reversion, and therefore, would not be responsible for the introduction of new species. Later, in a number of experiments, the monk Gregor Mendel, aligning himself with the "new doctrine of special creation" proposed by Linnaeus,[18] concluded that new species of plants could indeed arise, although limitedly and retaining their own stability.

Static views of nature were disrupted in the early 19th century by Georges Cuvier's analysis of fossils and discovery of extinction, confirming geology as showing a historical sequence of life. British natural theology, which sought examples of adaptation to show design by a benevolent Creator, adopted catastrophism to show earlier organisms being replaced in a series of creations by new organisms better adapted to a changed environment. Charles Lyell also saw adaptation to changing environments as a sign of a benevolent Creator, but his uniformitarianism envisaged continuing extinctions and replacements. As seen in correspondence between Lyell and John Herschel, scientists were looking for creation by laws rather than miraculous interventions. In continental Europe, the idealism of philosophers including Lorenz Oken developed a Naturphilosophie in which patterns of development from archetypes were a purposeful divine plan aimed at forming humanity.[19] These scientists all rejected transmutation of species which was seen as materialist[20][21][22] Radicalism threatening the established hierarchies of society. The idealist Louis Agassiz was a persistent opponent of transmutation and saw mankind as the goal of a sequence of creations, but his concepts were the first to be adapted into a scheme of theistic evolutionism. In Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation published in 1844, its anonymous author (Robert Chambers) set out goal-centred progressive development as the Creator's divine plan, programmed to unfold without direct intervention or miracles. The book was a best-seller and popularised the idea of transmutation in a designed "law of progression". It was strongly attacked by the scientific establishment at the time, but later more sophisticated theistic evolutionists followed the same approach of looking for patterns of development as evidence of design.[23]

The prominent scientist Richard Owen, now leader of the scientific establishment, had earlier opposed transmutation. When formulating homology he adapted idealist philosophy to reconcile natural theology with development, unifying nature as divergence from an underlying form in a process demonstrating design. His conclusion to his On the Nature of Limbs of 1849 suggested that divine laws could have controlled the development of life, but he did not expand this idea after objections from his conservative patrons. Others supported the idea of development by law, including the botanist Hewett Watson, and the reverend Baden Powell who wrote in 1855 that such laws better illustrated the powers of the Creator.[24] In 1858 Owen in his speech as President of the British Association said that in "continuous operation of Creative power" through geological time, new species of animals appeared in a "successive and continuous fashion" through birth from their antecedents by a Creative law rather than through slow transmutation.[25]

On the Origin of Species

When Charles Darwin published On the Origin of Species in 1859, many liberal Christians accepted evolution provided it was reconciled with the design argument. The clergymen Charles Kingsley and Frederick Temple who were both conservative Christians in the Church of England promoted a theology of creation as an indirect process controlled by divine laws. For some strict Calvinists, as natural selection did not entail inevitable progress it was welcomed since humanity could be seen as a fallen race needing salvation. Aubrey Moore also accepted the theory of natural selection, incorporating it into his Christian beliefs as merely the way God worked. Darwin's friend Asa Gray defended natural selection as compatible with design.[26]

Darwin himself, in his second edition of the Origin, had written in the conclusion:

"I believe that animals have descended from at most only four or five progenitors, and plants from an equal or lesser number. Analogy would lead me one step further, namely, to the belief that all animals and plants have descended from some one prototype. But analogy may be a deceitful guide. Nevertheless all living things have much in common, in their chemical composition, their germinal vesicles, their cellular structure, and their laws of growth and reproduction. We see this even in so trifling a circumstance as that the same poison often similarly affects plants and animals; or that the poison secreted by the gall-fly produces monstrous growths on the wild rose or oak-tree. I should infer from analogy that probably all the organic beings which have ever lived on this earth have descended from some one primordial form, into which life was first breathed by the Creator.

— Chapter XIV: "Conclusions", page 428

Within a decade most scientists had been won over to evolution, but from the outset there was opposition to natural selection and a search for a more purposeful mechanism. In 1860 Richard Owen attacked the book in an anonymous review while praising "Professor Owen" for "the establishment of the axiom of the continuous operation of the ordained becoming of living things".[27] Sir John Herschel apparently dismissed the book as "the law of higgledy-piggledy", and in 1861 he wrote of evolution that "An intelligence, guided by a purpose, must be continually in action to bias the direction of the steps of change–to regulate their amount–to limit their divergence–and to continue them in a definite course". He added "On the other hand, we do not mean to deny that such intelligence may act according to law (that is to say, on a preconceived and definite plan)".[28] Christian scientist Sir David Brewster wrote an article called "The Facts and Fancies of Mr. Darwin" where he rejected many Darwinian ideas, such as those concerning vestigial organs or questioning God's perfection in his work. Brewster concluded that Darwin's book contained both "much valuable knowledge and much wild speculation", although accepting that "every part of the human frame had been fashioned by the Divine hand and exhibited the most marvellous and beneficent adaptions for the use of men".[29]

In the 1860s theistic evolutionism became a popular compromise in science, and gained widespread support from the general public. Between 1866–68, Owen published a theory of derivation proposing that species had an innate tendency to change in ways that resulted in variety and beauty showing creative purpose. Both Owen and Mivart insisted that natural selection could not explain patterns and variation which they saw as resulting from divine purpose. In 1867 the Duke of Argyll published The Reign of Law which explained beauty in plumage without any adaptive benefit as design generated by the Creator's laws of nature for the delight of humans. Argyll attempted to reconcile evolution with design by suggesting that rudimentary organs were being prepared by the laws of variation for a future need.[30]

Nonetheless, it is important to notice that it was not until 1872 that Darwin speculated that humans may have "descended from a hairy quadruped, furnished with a tail and pointed ears", or apes; an idea that historically led to more opposition to Darwin's theory from the religious community,[31] and to the arising of a different type of theistic evolutionists. An example of the latter type of theistic evolutionist is the Cardinal John Henry Newman, who wrote in 1868: "Mr Darwin's theory need not then to be atheistical, be it true or not; it may simply be suggesting a larger idea of Divine Prescience and Skill ... and I do not [see] that 'the accidental evolution of organic beings' is inconsistent with divine design — It is accidental to us, not to God."[32]


According to Eugenie Scott: "In one form or another, Theistic Evolutionism is the view of creation taught at the majority of mainline Protestant seminaries, and it is the official position of the Catholic church",[9] despite studies showing that acceptance of evolution is lower in the United States than in Europe or Japan (only Turkey had a lower rate in the 34 countries sampled).[33]

Theistic evolutionism has been described as a form of compatibilism, and as such it is viewed with disdain both by some atheists and many creationists.[34]


Hominization, in both science and religion, involves the process or the purpose of becoming human. The process and means by which hominization occurs is a key problem in theistic evolutionary thought, at least for the Abrahamic religions, which hold as a core belief that animals do not have immortal souls but that humans do.[35] Many versions of theistic evolution insist on a special creation consisting of at least the addition of a soul just for the human species.[36]

Scientific accounts of the origin of the universe, the origin of life, and subsequent evolution of pre-human life forms may not cause any difficulty (helped by the reluctance of science itself to say anything about what preceded the Big Bang) but the need to reconcile religious and scientific views of hominization and to account for the addition of a soul to humans remains a problem. Theistic evolution typically postulates a point at which a population of hominids who had (or may have) evolved by a process of natural evolution acquired souls and thus (with their descendants) became fully human in theological terms. This group might be restricted to Adam and Eve, or indeed to Mitochondrial Eve, although versions of the theory allow for larger populations. The point at which such an event occurred should essentially be the same as in paleoanthropology and archeology, but theological discussion of the matter tends to concentrate on the theoretical. The term "special transformism" is sometimes used to refer to theories that there was a divine intervention of some sort, achieving hominization.[37]

Several 19th-century theologians and evolutionists attempted specific solutions, including the Catholics John Augustine Zahm and St. George Jackson Mivart, but tended to come under attack from both the theological and biological camps.[38] and 20th-century thinking tended to avoid proposing precise mechanisms.[39]

Relationship to other positions

Non-theistic evolution

The major criticism of theistic evolution by non-theistic evolutionists focuses on its essential belief in a supernatural creator. These critics argue that by the application of Occam's razor, sufficient explanation of the phenomena of evolution is provided by natural processes (in particular, natural selection), and the intervention or direction of a supernatural entity is not required.[40] Evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins considers theistic evolution a superfluous attempt to "smuggle God in by the back door".[41]

Intelligent design

A number of notable proponents of theistic evolution, including Kenneth R. Miller, John Haught, George Coyne, Simon Conway Morris, Denis Alexander, Francisco J. Ayala, and Francis Collins are critics of intelligent design.

Young Earth creationism

Young Earth creationists including Ken Ham criticise theistic evolution on theological grounds,[42][43] finding it hard to reconcile the nature of a loving God with the process of evolution, in particular, the existence of death and suffering before the Fall of Man. They consider that it undermines central biblical teachings by regarding the creation account as a myth, a parable, or an allegory, instead of treating it as historical. They also fear that a capitulation to what they call "atheistic" naturalism will confine God to the gaps in scientific explanations, undermining biblical doctrines, such as God's incarnation through Christ.[44]

See also


  1. Numbers 2006, pp. 34–38
  2. 2.0 2.1 Evolution Vs. Creationism, Eugenie Scott, Niles Eldredge, p62-63
  3. "Building bridges". Nature. 442 (7099): 110. 2006. doi:10.1038/442110a.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  4. Stipe, Claude E., "Scientific Creationism and Evangelical Christianity", American Anthropologist, New Series, Vol. 87, No. 1 (Mar., 1985), p. 149, Wiley on behalf of the American Anthropological Association, JSTOR
  5. The Modern Creation Trilogy (1998), New Leaf Publishing Group, p. 36
  6. "Were Adam and Eve Ape-People?". Answers in Genesis.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  7. "Evolutionary Creation".<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  8. Denis O. Lamoureux (2003). "Evolutionary Creation: A Christian Approach to Evolution" (PDF). University of Alberta. Retrieved 25 April 2012. The most important word in the term evolutionary creation is the noun "creation". These Christian evolutionists are first and foremost thoroughly committed and unapologetic creationists. They believe that the world is a creation that is absolutely dependent for every instant of its existence on the will and grace of the Creator. The qualifying word in this category is the adjective "evolutionary", indicating simply the method through which the Lord made the cosmos and living organisms. This view of origins is often referred to as "theistic evolution". However, such a word arrangement places the process of evolution as the primary term, and makes the Creator secondary as merely a qualifying adjective.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  9. 9.0 9.1 Scott, 271
  10. The Creation/Evolution Continuum by Eugenie Scott, December 2000, National Center for Science Education; see also Scott, 271 for another definition
  11. Compare: Numbers 1993, p. 36
  12. On the Origins of New Forms of Life, A new Theory, by Eugene M. McCarthy.
  13. Todd Charles Wood, Paul A. Garner (2009), "Genesis kinds: creationism and the origin of species", p. 16.
  14. Alistair Cameron Crombie, Michael A. Hoskin (1988), "History of Science" Science History Publications. p. 43
  15. As quoted from Ramsbottom, (1938); in David Briggs (1997), "Plant Variation and Evolution", p. 16
  16. Jens Christian Clausen (1967), "Stages in the Evolution of Plant Species", Harper, p. 5
  17. "Do Species Change?". Answers in Genesis.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  18. 18.0 18.1 Pablo Lorenzano. ""An Analysis of the Work of Joseph Gottlieb Kölreuter and its Relation to Gregor Mendel's Work"" (PDF). Retrieved 2015-08-11.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  19. Bowler 2003, pp. 108–109, 113–118, 133–134
  20. (Bowler 2003, pp. 120–134)
  21. (Larson 2004, pp. 42–46)
  22. (van Wyhe 2007, pp. 181–182)
  23. Bowler 1992, pp. 47–49
  24. Bowler 2003, pp. 125–126, 139
  25. Desmond & Moore 1991, pp. 428–429
  26. Bowler 2003, pp. 203–205
  27. [Owen, Richard]. 1860. Review of Origin & other works. Edinburgh Review 111: 487-532, p. 500.
  28. Bowler 2003, pp. 186, 204
  29. Good Words (1862), Volume 3. p. 170.
  30. Bowler 2003, pp. 204–207
  31. "Wrestling with doubt - Christian History Magazine". Christian History Institute.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  32. [Letter of John Henry Newman to J. Walker of Scarborough, The Letters and Diaries of John Henry Newman, edited by C.S. Dessain and T. Gornall, vol. XXIV (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1973), pp. 77-78.]
  33. Miller, J. D.; Scott, EC; Okamoto, S (2006). "SCIENCE COMMUNICATION: Public Acceptance of Evolution". Science. 313 (5788): 765–6. doi:10.1126/science.1126746. PMID 16902112.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  34. Devine, Philip E. (2008). "Creation and Evolution". Religious Studies. 32 (3): 325. doi:10.1017/S0034412500024380.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  35. For example, the Catholic theologian Thomas Aquinas attributed "soul" (anima) to all organisms but taught that only human souls are immortal. See: Peter Eardley and Carl Still, Aquinas: A Guide for the Perplexed (London: Continuum, 2010), pp. 34–35. In contrast, Dharmic religions (Buddhism, Hinduism, Jainism) teach that all biological organisms have souls which pass from one life to another in the Transmigration of souls. See "Soul", The Columbia Encyclopedia, Sixth Edition. 2001–07. Retrieved 12 November 2008.
  36. Including the Catholic Church, see Rahner, section "Hominization" by Karl Rahner in entry on "Evolution", 484-485; Scott, 271-272. Note that "special creation of man" in Catholic references is a far more restricted concept than "special creation" (q.v.) in typical Creationist usage.
  37. Rahner, 484-488; see also Artigas, 19, 23, 24, 35 etc
  38. The six leading examples are the subject of Artigas's book. Each of these has a chapter in Artigas: Léroy, Zahm, Bonomelli, Mivart, the English Bishop John Hedley, and Raffaello Caverni. All are also covered by Brundell.
  39. Compare: Küng, Hans; Bowden, John (2008). The Beginning of All Things: Science and Religion. Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing. pp. 94–95. ISBN 9780802863591. Retrieved 2015-06-15. Meanwhile, theology had withdrawn from asserting the direct creation of the whole world by God: first to the direct creation of of the human body (not from the animal world); then to that of the human soul (in contrast to the human body). Finally - it seems today - a direct intervention in the development of the world and human beings is dispensed with altogether. The English philosopher Antony Flew was unfortunately right when he stated that through this constantly repeated strategy of protection and withdrawal with which we are familiar (and which for long decades kept young Catholics especially from the study of biology 'which endangers the faith'), the hypothesis of God was being 'killed by inches, the death of a thousand qualifications.' [...] Is such an attitude credible belief in God? It isn't surprising that it is increasingly being put in question.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  40. Krauss, Lawrence M. (2012) A Universe from Nothing Free Press, New York. ISBN 978-1-4516-2445-8 p.146 f.
  41. Dawkins, Richard. The Blind Watchmaker (1986) Longman, ISBN 9780582446946
  42. Chapter 3: Couldn’t God Have Used Evolution? Ham, Ken (2006). The New Answers Book: Over 25 Questions on Creation / Evolution and the Bible . Master Books. ISBN 978-0890515099
  43. The Serious Consequences of Theistic Evolution (excerpted from The Occult Invasion by Dave Hunt)
  44. Gitt, Werner (2006). Did God Use Evolution? Observations from a Scientist of Faith. Master Books. ISBN 978-0890514832


Further reading

Contemporary approaches

Accounts of the history

  • Appleby, R. Scott. Between Americanism and Modernism; John Zahm and Theistic Evolution, in Critical Issues in American Religious History: A Reader, Ed. by Robert R. Mathisen, 2nd revised edn., Baylor University Press, 2006, ISBN 1-932792-39-2, ISBN 978-1-932792-39-3. Google books
  • Harrison, Brian W., Early Vatican Responses to Evolutionist Theology, Living Tradition, Organ of the Roman Theological Forum, May 2001.
  • Morrison, John L., "William Seton: A Catholic Darwinist", The Review of Politics, Vol. 21, No. 3 (Jul., 1959), pp. 566–584, Cambridge University Press for the University of Notre Dame du lac, JSTOR
  • O'Leary, John. Roman Catholicism and modern science: a history, Continuum International Publishing Group, 2006, ISBN 0-8264-1868-6, ISBN 978-0-8264-1868-5 Google books

External links

Proponents of theistic evolution