The Real Meaning of Evolution


7820 Santa Rosa Rd.
Buellton, CA 93427

"When I use a word," Humpty Dumpty said,
 in rather a scornful tone, "it means just what
 I choose it to meanóneither more nor less."
 "The question is," said Alice, "whether you
 can make words mean so many different things."
 "The question is," said Humpty Dumpty,
 "which is to be masteróthat's all."

From: PSCF 45 (September 1993): 182-186.

The purpose of this communication is to review the various meanings of the term evolution, to demonstrate that evolution means the direct opposite of intelligent design to the secular scientific community; and to plead for ASA members' adherence to ASA's 1991 resolution on "teaching evolution as science." In closing, I will comment on the two strategies proposed to teach evolution as science; one by Owen Gingerich and the other by Phillip Johnson.

The Meanings of Evolution

The ASA Resolution, "A Voice For Evolution As Science," was adopted by the ASA Executive Council on December 7, 1991. (For the full text of the resolution and its background, see PSCF, December 1992, p. 252.) In recognition of the fact that evolution has "evolved" into a word of multiple distinct and easily confused meanings, the pre-eminent recommendation of the ASA Executive Council was that "the terms evolution and theory of evolution should be carefully defined and used in a consistently scientific manner."

The background to the ASA Resolution lists five diverse examples of meanings of the word evolution that must be distinguished from one another. These are:

(1) the general concept of "change over time"

(2) the hypothesis that all "organisms are related through common ancestry"

(3) a theory setting forth "a particular explanatory mechanism for the pattern and process described in (1) and (2)"

(4) limited, non-controversial meanings such as the concept of populations adapting to changing environments

(5) A religiously value-laden tenet of naturalist faith, that "Man is the result of a purposeless and natural process that did not have him in mind."1

Meanings (1), (2), and (3) are those identified and described by biologist Keith Stewart Thomson in his article, "The Meanings of Evolution."2 To Thomson, "change over time is a fact," and descent from common ancestors is based on such unassailable logic that we act as though it is a fact. Thomson also states that "the third meaning for the word evolution is the totally different sense of a particular explanatory mechanism for the pattern and process described in the first and second meanings." (Emphasis added.) Furthermore, "the third meaning is currently confined to a particular explanatory hypo-thesis, Darwinism. The Darwinian mechanism [that] accounts for evolutionary change is natural selection, and has not seriously changed from his day to ours."

Meaning (4), "the concept of populations adapting to changing environments," is an example of a distinct and specific meaning that is well established and non-controversial. "Change in gene frequency" is another example in this category of non-controversial but limited meanings. The problem is that this and the first three meanings of evolution are often confused not only with each other, but with meaning (5), "Man is the result of a purposeless and natural process that did not have him in mind. He was not planned." This quotation is from Darwinist spokesman George Gaylord Simpson's The Meaning of Evolution, a book that was rated by the New York Times as "...without question, the best general work on the meaning of evolution to appear in our time."

The Real Meaning of Evolution

It is my contention that for most people the term "evolution" has come to mean exactly what Simpson says it means. The writings of leading contemporary evolutionists, science educators, and science popularizers reinforce that contention. Regrettably, their views are representative of many of those who control science education, publications, and organizations, i.e. the scientific establishment. Contemporary Darwinist spokesmen are generally very clear about the real meaning or message of evolution. A statement by Douglas Futuyma is typical of many others:

[If] the world and its creatures developed purely by material, physical forces, it could not have been designed and has no purpose or goal. The fundamentalist, in contrast, believes that everything in the world, every species and every characteristic of every species, was designed by an intelligent, purposeful artificer, and that it was made for a purpose. Nowhere does this contrast apply with more force than to the human species. Some shrink from the conclusion that the human species was not designed, has no purpose, and is the product of mere mechanical mechanismsóbut this seems to be the message of evolution.3

The above statement about evolution is from a book written for the general public. Futuyma makes substantially the same point in the opening chapter of his textbook for college biology students, where he cites Darwin, Marx, and Freud as those who have provided "a crucial plank in the platform of mechanism and materialism."4 Note also Futuyma's definition of a fundamentalist as one who believes that an intelligent, purposeful designer might have been active in the world. He contrasts that theistic world view with the message of evolution that human beings are "the product of mere mechanical mechanisms."

This view of what evolution really means not only is pervasive among evolutionary biologists, but is the conventional wisdom of most of those who control science education. Consider the revealing lament of science educator E. Peter Volpe at the first Science As a Way of Knowing (SAAWOK) symposium, which is the background symposium for Project 2061, a keystone project of AAAS, designed to make all Americans scientifically literate by the year 2061.

But even after a year of introductory college biology (or perhaps because of such exposure!), the average student is still disbelieving that the human species is simply an incidental and fortuitous episode in the age-long history of life....Darwinian evolution does indeed offer a new way of looking at nature and a new way of looking at life. Yet, our college students have not appreciated the potentially profound implications of Darwinism for developing a comprehensive view of human nature.5

Volpe further complains that some of those college students believe that "humans are the unique crown of the universe... with an ultimate destiny [afterlife]... and an immortal soul." He insists that science educators replace this naive religious mindset with the "scientific" view that humans are "simply an animalº an incidental and fortuitous episode in the age-long history of life."6

Through AAAS Project 2061 and state Science Frameworks, science educators are well on their way to correcting what some consider a defective understanding of what evolution really means. This agenda has been especially successful in California, where U.C. Berkeley paleontologist Kevin Padian, a principal author of the evolution section of the 1990 California Science Framework, complained that the "religious right" applied pressure to downplay or eliminate the treatment of evolution, but "the scientific and educational communities" were united in support of evolution. He then boasted, "As for the religious right, the new Science Framework leaves them totally disenfranchised from the public education system in California."7

It should be recognized that this fifth meaning of evolution, humans are nothing more than a fortuitous accident of history, is what the most highly respected and culturally important science popularizers are saying is the meaning of evolution. Carl Sagan attributes our human nature to "the result of apparently minor accidents in our immensely long evolutionary history" (Cosmos, p. 282) and also assures us that

... if artificial [intelligent] selection can make such major changes in so short a period of time [i.e., increased productions of wool and milk through domestication], what must natural [non-intelligent] selection, working over billions of years, be capable of? The answer is all the beauty and diversity of the biological world. Evolution is a fact, not a theory (Cosmos, p. 27).

The Cosmos television series has now been viewed by over 500 million people.

Carl Sagan's counterpart in Britain, Richard Dawkins, proclaims that human beings are not designed for a purpose but rather are the products of "natural selection, the blind, unconscious, automatic process which Darwin discovered, and which we now know is the explanation for the existence and apparently purposeful form of all life. [Natural selection] has no purpose in mind."8

The marketing flyer for the BBC video production of The Blind Watchmaker states that "the beautiful complexity of living things" was not produced by "an intelligent designer like God" but rather by "Evolution, the Blind Watchmaker." Notice that here "Evolution" and "the Blind Watchmaker" are used interchangeably. Stephen Jay Gould, in a recent article in Scientific American, argues that science and religion deal with two different realms, and that science is neutral with regard to religion.9 Gould views writers like Sagan and Dawkins as extremists who do not represent mainstream science. It is, therefore, rather curious that in his latest (1989) book, Wonderful Life, Gould closes with the statement that the lesson of the Burgess Shale is that "We are the offspring of history, and must establish our own paths in this most diverse and interesting of conceivable universesóone indifferent to our suffering, and therefore offering us maximal freedom to thrive, or to fail, in our own chosen way."10 Gould's self-proclaimed religious neutrality is also in conflict with his position that "In an entirely literal sense, we owe our existence, as large and reasoning mammals, to our lucky stars."11 Apparently Gould's use of the term religion (as in, "neutral with regards to... ") excludes the theistic religions of Christianity, Judaism, and Islam.

The Darwinian use of the term evolution rejects design, purpose, and "creation" (in the broad and meaningful sense of the term). Evolution as defined by the Darwinists means naturalistic evolution, limited exclusively to purposeless, unguided processes. Intelligent design, or creation in any meaningful sense, is the direct opposite of Darwinian evolution, and it is Darwinian evolution with all its ideological meanings that is being taught in the public school system.

What should ASA do about what most of us would label as evolutionism masquerading as science?

Two Strategies

In his article "Further Reflections on Darwin on Trial, (PSCF, December 1992), Owen Gingerich starts from his discussion with Phillip Johnson at the 1992 ASA Annual Meeting with a point on which there was unanimous agreement. "The issue is not evolution versus creation. The issue is design versus accident." Further, Gingerich acknowledges that "Phillip Johnson has impressively documented the extent to which much evolutionary teaching comes with philosophical baggage claiming that 'accident' is a real feature of the world, 'proven' by evolutionary doctrine," adding that we "reject [this] evolution as a philosophy."12 At that point, Gingerich offers his solution to the problem: "to launch the attack against the atheists who are using evolution to further their materialistic philosophies, against those who raise a reasonable structure of scientific explanation into a naturalistic ideology." This is the classic ASA solution, and one that we, the authors of Teaching Science in a Climate of Controversy, have pursued in our attempt to have evolution taught as science rather than ideology.

For example, in Teaching Science we take the position that science and religion are two separate disciplines answering two separate sets of questions. We stated that science answers the questions of how and when, and religion answers the questions of who and why. That position may be unrealistic, because Darwinists are answering the questions of who and why; their answers are the "Blind Watchmaker," and "for no purpose at all."13 In effect, the Blind Watchmaker functions as the creator in the "scientific" creation story of our culture. We may be naive in thinking that there is still a place in academia for the Creator of theistic religion.

In my opinion, the Gingerich/ASA strategy has failedóand it has failed because it is based on the false premise that the scientific establishment disagrees with the position of Futuyma, Volpe, Dawkins, and Gould. On the contrary, the evidence points to the conclusion that official science agrees with those spokesmen that unguided, purposeless evolution (the Blind Watchmaker) has outmoded any concept of design, meaning or purpose in the history of life. My primary evidence for this contention is that such writers are not criticized for their views: they are honored. For example, in 1990 Richard Dawkins was presented with the "Michael Faraday Award" by the Royal Society (the British equivalent of the National Academy of Sciences, NAS). This annual award is presented to "the scientist who has done the most to further the public understanding of science." Dawkins was further honored by being selected by the Royal Society to give the 1991 Christmas Lectures, which were broadcast by the BBC on Channel Two. Here in America, the biologists of the AAAS have now published the following official statement:

Earth abounds in a diversity of living creatures, which all interact to some degree. Each type shares properties common to all life, and yet each is different, as a consequence of millions of years of chance evolutionary events. Identifying the differences and tracing their origins provides the mental framework for comprehending the place we humans have in the biosphere, as well as our present impact on it.14

Note that this endorsement of "chance evolutionary events" (American rhetoric for the Blind Watchmaker) is our creator to whom we look for our "mental framework." The Blind Watchmaker thesis is endorsed, not criticized, by the scientific establishment.

The Gingerich/ASA strategy has also failed to take into account that, for the time being, the Darwinists not only control the professional and popular literature, but science education as well. They control the terms of the debate. They set the agenda and the rules. The Darwinists determine the meaning of the word "evolution." In effect, we are like Alice in Wonderland trying to convince Humpty Dumpty to use words correctly, to use words with precision and keep science within the limits of truth. The problem is that Humpty Dumpty is the master, and this is the main reason that our efforts to date have had negligible effects. We may in fact have been leading the Christian community into a false sense of security while the Darwinists use the institutional power of official science to tell our culture what evolution really means.

 Johnson's Strategy

Owen Gingerich states that Johnson's strategy "appears to invoke a frontal attack on evolution." His further description of Johnson's strategy is misleading because Gingerich neither defines the term evolution nor uses the term with consistency of meaning. I will therefore outline what the Johnson strategy is.

Johnson's strategy is not a frontal attack on the vague and meaningless term evolution. Rather, his strategy is the same as that endorsed by the ASA in its resolution, "A Voice For Evolution As Science." First, we should avoid the protean word "evolution." If we must use the term, we should do so only with precise definition and consistency of use.

Second, we should insist that unanswered questions be included in teaching "evolution." The specific question Johnson wishes to press is, "What is the empirical evidence for the power of unguided natural selection acting on purposeless, random genetic variability to create new organs and new organisms?" In other words, what is the evidence that the Blind Watchmaker can create biological complexity (in contrast to diversity)? To date, atheists and some theists have avoided answering this question by rhetorical maneuver, the most typical being shifting the meaning of evolution to "change," "genetic relatedness," or "populations adapting to changing environments."

Another standard maneuver to avoid the question is to shift the topic from scientific evidence to religion. For example, speculations as to how God would or would not have created serve to divert attention from the crucial issue of scientific evidence for the Blind Watchmaker thesis.

It is understandable why atheists should try to avoid placing on the table the issue of the warrant for the Blind Watchmaker thesis. Regrettably, through a failure to see or acknowledge what evolution has come to mean in the real world today, some theists have been lead into inadvertent support of the atheists' tactics. Perhaps the time has come for theists, guided by our love for truth, to cut through the rhetorical fog. We need to focus our attention on the scientific evidence, whether it supports or challenges the Blind Watchmaker thesis.

We have nothing to lose but our preconceptions.



1Simpson, George Gaylord, The Meaning of Evolution, 1967, p. 345.

2 Thomson, Keith Stewart, American Scientist, Vol. 70, pp. 529-31, Sept.-Oct. 1982.

3 Futuyma, Douglas, Science on Trial: The Case for Evolution, 1983, pp. 12-13.

4 Futuyma, Douglas, Evolutionary Biology, p. 3 (2nd ed. 1986).

5 Volpe, E.P., "The Shame of Science Education," American Zoologist, 1984, pp. 24, 435. From the symposium on Science as a Way of KnowingóEvolutionary Biology, presented at the Annual Meeting of the American Society of Zoologists, December 1983, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

6 Ibid.

7 "The California Science Framework: A Victory for Scientific Integrity," National Center for Science Education Reports, 9(6). For an analysis of the 1990 California Science Framework, see Hartwig, M. and Nelson, P.A. (1992), Invitation to Conflict: A Retrospective Look At the California Science Framework (Access Research Network, P.O. Box 38069, Colorado Springs, CO 80937. See also Wiester, J., "Teaching Evolution as Non-Science: Examples From California's 1990 Science Framework," PSCF, 43:3, 190, S 1991.

8 Dawkins, Richard, The Blind Watchmaker (1986), p. 1, 5.

9 Gould, Stephen Jay, "Impeaching a Self-Appointed Judge," Scientific American, July 1992.

10 Gould, Stephen Jay, Wonderful Life: The Burgess Shale and the Nature of History, 1989, p. 323.

11 Ibid., p. 318.

12 PSCF, 44:4, p. 253, D 1992.

13 A recent example of scientistic imperialism is to be found in Richard Leakey's 1992 book Origins Reconsidered, where Leakey phrases his "quest as finding out what plans, if any, God had for Homo Sapiens" (p. 342). His answer is that "God surely had no plans for Homo Sapiens and couldn't even have predicted that such a species would ever arise" (p. 349).

14 AAAS, Biological and Health Sciences: A Project 2061 Panel Report, Washington, D.C.: American Association for the Advancement of Science, p. 16. This report is one of six reports written as part of the first phase of Project 2061, a long-term, multiphase undertaking of the American Association for the Advancement of Science designed to help reform science, mathematics, and technology education in the United States. For an analysis of Project 2061, see "Project 2061: Visions of Science, Visions of Ourselves," Origins Research, Vol. 14:1, available from Access Research Network, P.O. Box 38069, Colorado Springs, CO 80937-8069.