What is Extended Evolutionary Synthesis? And What Christians Can Learn From It

For many people who have not given significant thought to evolutionary theory there is an all too common assumed understanding that nearly all non-religiously bound scientists believe that the overall theory of Darwinistic Evolution is beyond dispute. This is incorrect. To understand this we need to define what this Darwinistic understanding of evolution entails. Put simply Darwinism is the theory that all life has evolved from lower forms of life by the means of natural selection acting upon random mutation. The origin of the first life is something Origin of Species never sought to explain, though countless unproven theories now abound. Originally, Darwinism was not a direct theory about how life came to be, but how diversity of life occurred.

But are all evolutionary scientists buying Darwin’s account? The material here is vast, but lets look at three telling quotes by evolutionary theorists:

First up is invertebrate paleontologist David Raup, a former distinguished professor of evolutionary theory at the University of Chicago, “We are now about 120 years after Darwin and the knowledge of the fossil record has been greatly expanded. We now have a quarter of a million fossil species but the situation hasn’t changed much. The record of evolution is still surprisingly jerky and, ironically, we have even fewer examples of evolutionary transition than we had in Darwin’s time. By this I mean that some of the classic cases of darwinian [sic] change in the fossil record, such as the evolution of the horse in North America, have had to be discarded or modified as a result of more detailed information—what appeared to be a nice simple progression when relatively few data were available now appears to be much more complex and much less gradualistic. So Darwin’s problem has not been alleviated in the last 120 years.”1

Just in case that quote is too old for you listen to what more recent evolutionary theorist Eugene Koonin has to say, “Major transitions in biological evolution show the same pattern of sudden emergence of diverse forms at a new level of complexity. The relationships between major groups within an emergent new class of biological entities are hard to decipher and do not seem to fit the tree pattern that, following Darwin’s original proposal, remains the dominant description of biological evolutions.”2 He continues, “There is another and allied difficulty, which is much graver. I allude to the manner in which numbers of species of the same group, suddenly appear in the lowest known saliferous rocks… To the question why we do not find records of these vast primordial periods, I can give no satisfactory answer.”3

Okay, well is the problem just found in the fossil record? Not so much, says evolutionary biologist Eric Davidson of California Institute of Technology, “Neo-Darwinian evolution… assumes that all process works the same way, so that evolution of enzymes or flower colors can be used as current proxies for study of evolution of the body plan. It erroneously assumes that change in protein-coding sequence is the basic cause of change in developmental program; and it erroneously assumes that evolutionary changes in body-plan morphology occurs only by a continuous process. All of these assumptions are basically counterfactual.”4

I think you get the point: There are many highly credentialed evolutionary scientists who cast much doubt on the standard and assumed credibly of Neo-Darwinism. Enter Extended Evolutionary Synthesis or EES for short. Basically, EES is a current attempt to significantly reform evolutionary theory while still staying within the presupposed bounds of methodological naturalism. Let define that later term. Methodological naturalism, “asserts that, to qualify as scientific, a theory must explain by strictly physical or material—that is non-intelligent or non-purposive—causes.”5 Essentially no scientific explanations will be considered valid if they appeal to any supernatural causation. Therefore any gaps of understanding, be they in paleontology, biology, or wherever, will be filed  by unproven, and perhaps even unprovable, explanations within that naturalistic worldview. This is the standard reigning method within the scientific community and it is a philosophical position far before it is a scientific one.   

Therefore, EES is an attempt to find scientific explanations for life outside of Darwinism but inside of Naturalism. One cannot even appeal to divine action as being the most probable cause for the massive amounts of novel information found throughout the history of life. There are a variety of theories being discussed that fall within EES bounds such as Evolutionary Developmental Biology, Self-Organization Theory, or Neutral Theory to name a few.6 Is the term Punctuated Equilibrium starting to ring in any ears? That was a similar theory expounded in the the 1980s after an atheist evolutionary theorist declared Darwinian evolution “dead.”

So why does any of this matter to a Christian? It matters because many Christians believe that a reinterpretation of not just text, but important doctrine, is necessary due to the proven results of evolutionary theory. Yet, evolutionary theory has no sufficient mechanism to account for novel and complex information. It offers no compelling or even remotely plausible explanation for the origin of life. (Consider the scathing statement by synthetic organic chemist and National Academy of Inventors “50 Most Influential Scientists in the World Today” James Tour: “With each added step, difficulties are compounded by improbabilities so overwhelming that no other field of science would depend upon such levels of faith. Abiogenesis research would never be accepted in any other area of chemistry.”7) Furthermore, and most importantly for a person who confesses to believe in an active and rational creator God, it is a theory that is maintained only by holding to a philosophical position that rules out that creator God’s divine action a-priori to even contemplating all plausible explanations for massive information dumps in the history of life.

Evolution is more than “just a theory”. The average person who believes it is not stupid, it is based on a lot of evidence. Yet, when heavily scrutinized and closely examined it is a theory in major crisis. It is a theory, at the very least within its popularly conceived notion, that strikes at the heart of the historic Christian concept of God actively creating life in wisdom. (Genesis 1, Psalm 104:24) Now, I do believe Christinas should be careful and meticulous when asserting scientific facts from Biblical texts. When referring to interpreting Genesis 1, in only the 3rd and 4th century, the most influential Christian theologian (non-Biblical person) in history mourned the overzealous assertions by unlearned individuals specifically related to the natural world and Biblical interpretation when he stated, “Usually, even a non-Christian knows something about the earth, the heavens…this knowledge he holds to as being certain from reason and experience. Now it is a disgraceful and dangerous thing for an infidel to hear a Christian, presumably giving the meaning of Holy Scripture, talking non-sense on these topics; and we should take all means to prevent such an embarrassing situation… For then, to defend their utterly foolish and obviously untrue statements, they will try to call upon Scripture for proof and even recite from memory many passages which they think support their position, although ‘they understand neither what they say nor the things about which they make assertion.’”8 I believe that if more Christian were taught hermeneutics with a Christocentirc and Gospel focus this would be less of a problem as areas of uncertainty would be approached with far more patience and grace. Christians should not be ignorant to the scientific understandings of their day, this is a needed reminder, but we must remember also to, “See to it that no one takes you captive through philosophy and empty deception, according to the tradition of men, according to the elementary principles of the world, rather than according to Christ.” (Colossians 2:8, emphasis mine)

Evolutionary theory that is based on methodological naturalism is a philosophy that I whole-heartedly believe is not in accordance to Christ. The basic tenants of the average individual’s conception of evolution, natural selection acting upon random mutation, are under scientific attack from theist and non-theist alike. This is not a time for major Biblical reinterpretation in relation to God’s active roll in creation. But isn’t it just easier to concede evolution and move on from there, especially apologetically? There are bigger fish to fry right? Microbiologist and former Cambridge researcher Douglas Axe puts it well, “Jesus called his followers to surrender their lives, their pride, their earthly security and, at times, their possessions— right down to the shirt on their backs. He never, however, called them to surrender the truth. That they are charged with guarding, even if it costs them their lives. Sometimes, the pillars are exactly the things that need to come down if the truth is to be heard and received.”9 God’s word is truth. (John 17:17) “O LORD, how manifold are your works! In wisdom have you made them all; the earth is full of your creatures.” (Psalm 104:24) Christian believe that. Christian defend that.

Citations:

  1. D. Raup, “Conflicts between Darwin and Paleontology,” Bulletin of the Field Museum of Natural History 50 [1979]: 22-29, at 25 ; Quote taken from: J.P. Moreland, Stephen C. Meyer, Christopher Shaw, Ann K. Gauger, and Wayne Grudem, Theistic Evolution: A Scientific, Philosophical, and Theological Critique (Crossway, Wheaton, IL, 2017), 110
  2. Eugene V. Koonin, “The Biological Big Bang Model for the Major Transitions in Evolution,” Biology Direct 2 (2007): 1-17 ; Quote taken from: Ibid. 108
  3. Ibid. 396-397 ; Quote taken from: Ibid.
  4. Eric Davidson, “Evolutionary Bioscience as Regulatory Systems Biology,” Developmental Biology 357 (2011), 35-36 ; Quote taken from Ibid. 122
  5. J.P. Moreland, Stephen C. Meyer, Christopher Shaw, Ann K. Gauger, and Wayne Grudem, Theistic Evolution: A Scientific, Philosophical, and Theological Critique (Crossway, Wheaton, IL, 2017), Ch. 19 “Should Theistic Evolution Depend on Methodological Naturalism” by Stephen C. Meyer and Paul A. Nelson, 561
  6. Ibid. Ch. 8 “Theistic Evolution and the Extended Evolutionary Synthesis: Does It Work?” by Stephen C. Meyer, Ann K. Gauger, and Paul A. Nelson, 257-274
  7. Ibid. Ch. 4 “Are Present Proposals on Chemical Evolutionary Mechanisms Accurately Pointing toward First Life?” by James M. Tour, 188
  8. St. Augustine, the Literal Meaning of Genesis, vol. 1, Ancient Christian Writers, trans. and annotated by John Hammond Taylor, S.J. (New York: Paulist Press, 1982), 64-65 ; Quote taken from: The Enduring Authority of the Christian Scriptures, Edited by: D.A. Carson, Chapter 8: “Accommodation Historically Considered”, by Glenn S. Sunshine, 245 (Eerdmans, Grand Rapids, Michigan, 2016)
  9. J.P. Moreland, Stephen C. Meyer, Christopher Shaw, Ann K. Gauger, and Wayne Grudem, Theistic Evolution: A Scientific, Philosophical, and Theological Critique (Crossway, Wheaton, IL, 2017), Ch. 1 “Three Good Reasons for People of Faith to Reject Darwin’s Explanation of Life” by Douglas D. Axe, 103

Tree

Photo by Jeremy Bishop on Unsplash

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