David Lack and Darwin’s Finches

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August 1, 2012 Tags: Christianity & Science - Then and Now

Today's entry was written by Thomas Burnett. You can read more about what we believe here.

David Lack and Darwin’s Finches

Note: Not only are evolution and biblical faith compatible, but committed Christians have been at the forefront of evolutionary science ever since Darwin published On the Origin of Species in 1859. This week we'll examine the lives of two devout Christians—David Lack and Asa Gray—who each made an enduring impact on modern biology. Today we feature the first of two posts on British ornithologist David Lack.

Darwin’s Finches?

Darwin’s finches are some of the most visible and recognizable symbols of evolution in the world today. Biology textbooks feature them prominently, and the National Academy of Sciences has enshrined them in the entrance of their headquarters in Washington, DC. Surely the finches that Darwin collected on the Galápagos islands were a central feature of his evolutionary theory, right?

Lobby of the National Academy of Sciences
Lobby of The National Academies Building. Courtesy of CPNAS. Photo by Robert Lautman

Actually, the Galápagos finches are never even mentioned in Darwin’s famous work On the Origin of Species. Nor do they appear in Darwin’s famous notebooks on “Transmutation of Species”, in which he formulated the idea of evolution by natural selection.1 Even Darwin’s private diary of his voyage on the HMS Beagle only mentions the Galápagos finches briefly in passing.2

It was only in 1845, in the second edition of The Voyage of the Beagle, that Darwin included a tantalizing sentence about the Galápagos finches:

Seeing this gradation and diversity of structure in one small, intimately related group of birds, one might really fancy that from an original paucity of birds in this archipelago, one species had been taken and modified for different ends.3

However insightful this statement may have been, Darwin never published anything else about the Galápagos finches for the rest of his life. Nor did he publically present these birds as direct evidence for this theory of evolution.4

If these finches were so important to Darwin’s evolutionary theory, why did he remain silent about them? One of his comments in The Voyage of the Beagle provides us with a clue:

Unfortunately most of the specimens of the finch tribe were mingled together; but I have strong reasons to suspect that some of the species of the subgroup Geospiza are confined to separate islands.5

When Darwin was exploring the Galápagos himself in 1835, he had not formulated his theory of evolution yet, and thus he did know what data would be necessary to make definitive conclusions about finch evolution. In particular, he did not keep careful track of which of his specimens came from which islands. Moreover, as was customary among naturalists at that time, Darwin only collected a small number specimens—he brought home only 31 finches and 64 total birds from the Galápagos.6

Though Darwin sensed that these birds were truly special, he lacked sufficient evidence to reach any specific conclusions about their evolutionary origins. It would be up to the rest of the scientific community to carry out the necessary empirical research. Subsequent expeditions in 1868, 1891, 1897, and 1905 brought back thousands of Galápagos finch specimens, but instead of unlocking the mysteries of evolutionary theory, the Galápagos finches became a great enigma.7

A century after Darwin's voyage, scientists still struggled to explain the staggering variety of finches on this tiny, remote archipelago. By the mid-1930’s, British Museum ornithologist Percy Lowe argued that the finches presented a "biological problem of first class importance", and he told the British Association for the Advancement of Science that the finches displayed a "bewildering diversity, intergradation, and distribution".8 Who would be up to the challenge of making sense of such tremendous biological complexity? It was David Lack.

David Lack

Ornithologist David Lack
Ornithologist David Lack

David Lack had an exceptionally keen eye for bird-watching, and he possessed a passion to match it. By age 15, he had already observed 100 distinct species of birds, and before entering college, authored his first scientific paper. At Cambridge University in the early 1930’s, Lack was disappointed to find that his zoology professors taught “nothing about evolution, ecology, behavior or genetics, and of course nothing about birds.”9 In fact, at that time, there were only two professional ornithologists in all of Britain!

Thus David Lack took it upon himself to create his own learning opportunities. As an undergraduate, he became the president of the Cambridge Ornithological Club, traveled to Greenland for a bird-watching expedition, and cultivated a relationship with the prominent biologist Julian Huxley (grandson of Thomas Henry Huxley). Huxley was an inspiring mentor and encouraged Lack to expand his research further by studying tropical birds.10 Following this advice, Lack embarked on a research trip to Tanzania in the summer of 1934, but his greatest adventure was yet to come.

In 1937, Lack became fascinated by the scientific mysteries surrounding the Galápagos finches. But in order to study their behavior, Lack would need to travel to remote islands halfway around the world. How could he possibly get there? Once again, Julian Huxley was tremendously supportive and raised funds from two prominent scientific societies to pay for his expedition. After a long delay, David Lack and five companions finally set off on their journey.

Instead of residing in comfortable quarters aboard a royal naval ship, Lack’s group subsisted on a shoestring budget, traveled on commercial steamers, and stayed with local settlers. Their experience was definitely not a romantic tale of imperial expedition:

The Galápagos are interesting, but scarcely a residential paradise. The biological peculiarities are offset by an enervating climate, monotonous scenery, dense thorn scrub, cactus spines, loose sharp lava, food deficiencies, water shortage, black rats, fleas, jiggers, ants, mosquitoes, scorpions, Ecuadorian Indians of doubtful honesty, and dejected, disillusioned European settlers.11

Whereas Charles Darwin spent only nineteen days on the shores of the Galápagos, Lack and his crew conducted more than five months of meticulous and exhausting study in the harsh climate. At that time, even the finches themselves provided little solace. Lack wrote,

Darwin’s finches are dull to look at, not only in their orderly ranks in museum trays, but also when they hop about the ground or perch in the trees of the Galápagos, making dull unmusical noises. Only the variety of their beaks and the number of their species excite attention.12

Large Cactus Finch–the Galapagos.
Large Cactus Finch on Española Island in the Galápagos Islands

The repetitive tedium requisite for important scientific discoveries is rarely discussed in public, and even today many bright-eyed science students become disillusioned by the painstaking work demanded by their Ph.D. programs. But one of the things that distinguishes great scientists is their unwavering commitment and tenacity in completing major projects. David Lack's efforts were not in vain:

"Despite his personal discomforts (or perhaps because of them), Lack did see something on the Galápagos that no one had ever seen before—natural selection at work among its finches through interspecies competition." 13

When the birds’ breeding season ended in 1939, Lack was ready to return to his home in England. But the captive finches that he had brought with him fared so badly on the voyage home that he detoured to San Francisco and put them in the care of the California Academy of Sciences. Turning this mishap into an opportunity, Lack stayed there for five additional months to study the Academy’s enormous collection of Galápagos finch specimens.14

To complete his systematic research, Lack then travelled across the United States to study the Galápagos finch collection housed at the American Museum in New York.15 Altogether, Lack examined more than 8000 specimens and specifically measured the length, width, and depth of all their beaks.16

Lack’s final obstacle was in getting his research published. Though he completed his academic manuscript “The Galápagos Finches—A Study in Variation” in 1940, paper shortages during World War II delayed its publication by the California Academy of Sciences until 1945. Were he only interested in making an original contribution to science, Lack could have stopped here and congratulated himself on a job well-done. However, his motivation sprung from a deeper source:

David Lack's illustration of 14 Finches
David Lack's drawing of 14 species of Galápagos finches, p. 19 of Darwin’s Finches

"I did not watch birds primarily for scientific reasons but for sheer enjoyment, and from the age of 15 onward returned day after day in a glow of excitement after seeing a new bird or a new habit." 17

Lack’s joyful fascination with the Galápagos finches inspired him to continue developing his conclusions long after returning from his expedition. While waiting for his academic paper to be published, he began writing a book that would enable students and the general public to share his excitement about these remarkable birds and the evolutionary processes that shaped them.

First published in 1947, Lack’s book became tremendously influential. Before this time, biology textbooks had never even mentioned the Galápagos finches. But after David Lack’s study, the finches became a primary example of evolution by natural selection, specifically adaptive radiation. Not only did textbooks fully rely on Lack’s findings, they also followed his lead in calling them “Darwin’s finches”, the title of Lack’s famous book.18

Iconic Finches

What was it about these birds that made them such a prominent symbol of evolution? As Darwin himself pointed out, the numerous Galápagos finch populations each have distinctive beaks, and he speculated that they could have evolved from an ancestral species that came to the islands. But a complete picture of finch evolution would have to wait another hundred years, when David Lack arrived.

During his five months on the Galápagos, including both the rainy and dry seasons, Lack observed that these beak differences enable the finches to subsist on different kinds of food:

The beak differences between most of the genera and subgenera of Darwin's finches are clearly correlated with differences in feeding methods. This is well borne out by the heavy, finch-like beak of the seed-eating Geospiza, the long beak of the flower-probing Cactornis, the somewhat parrot-like beak of the leaf, bud, and fruit-eating Platyspiza, the woodpecker-like beak of the woodboring Catcospiza, and the warbler-like beaks of the insect-eating certhidea and Pinaroloxias.19

Lack's image of beak adaptations from Darwin’s Finches

Specializing in such different sources of food enables these finches to live in close proximity without directly competing with each other or driving populations to extinction. The fact that so many of these closely related finches are able to co-exist is a remarkable fact in itself. As Lack himself put it, “It is not only the origin, but also the persistence, of new species which require explanation.”20

But it is also fascinating to consider how these birds got to be so different in the first place. How did a finch come to have a beak like a “parrot”, “woodpecker”, or “warbler”? The answer lies in the distinct characteristics of the Galápagos. Because the islands are so remote, no actual parrots, woodpeckers, or warblers ever settled on it. In the absence of these species, the Galápagos finches were able to adopt feeding habits and forms that they would never have taken on a large continent full of other birds competing for food. The isolation of these islands offered just the right conditions for us to see living examples of adaptive radiation.21


Considering the immense popularity of the Galápagos finches, it is quite surprising to learn that Charles Darwin himself had so little to say about them. In fact, it was actually David Lack, one century later, who conducted the critical research that immortalized the finches in biology textbooks and popular lore. By naming his landmark book Darwin’s Finches,22 Lack paid homage to the man whose voyage on the HMS Beagle helped transform the study of natural history. But at the same time, Lack also obscured the fact that evolutionary biology is an enterprise conducted by a large community of brilliant scholars, not just the product of one man’s efforts.

This tendency to immortalize “great men of science” has also led many people to refer to modern evolutionary theory as Darwinism, despite the fact that it has substantially changed and developed over the past 150 years. It is important to give credit where credit is due, and if that’s the case, we should seriously reconsider how we refer to the Galapagos finches. Evolutionary biologist Dolph Schluter, who studied the finches several decades after David Lack, had this to say:

I find Lack's intuition really stunning given how little information he had. He's my hero actually… They should be called Lack's finches.23

In the second part of this series, we’ll explore the fact that David Lack, in addition to being a world-renowned evolutionary biologist, was also a devout Christian. His study of evolutionary theory did not cause him to lose his faith; in fact, he actually converted to Christianity after completing his Galápagos finch research.

For Discussion

We’ve seen in this essay that the term “Darwin’s finches” is misleading, especially since Charles Darwin himself didn’t make the Galapagos finches famous. Is it also problematic that people refer to modern evolutionary theory as “Darwinism”? What misunderstandings can arise by associating an entire field of science with just a single person? Share your thoughts in the comments section below.

Further Reading

  • Grant, Peter R.; Grant, B. Rosemary. How and Why Species Multiply: The Radiation of Darwin's Finches, Princeton University Press, 2008.
  • Sulloway, Frank J. (Spring 1982), "Darwin and His Finches: The Evolution of a Legend" (PDF), Journal of the History of Biology 15 (1): 1–53.
  • Weiner, Jonathon. The Beak of the Finch: A Story of Evolution in Our Time. Vintage Books, 1995.


1. Sulloway, F. (1983). "Darwin and his finches: The evolution of a legend." Journal of the history of biology 15(1): 32. Darwin’s notebooks on transmutation mentioned Galapagos tortoises and mockingbirds, not finches.
2. Lack, David. Darwin’s Finches. Cambridge University Press, 1947: 9. Confirmed by Sulloway (1983), p5.
3. Darwin, Charles. Journal of researches into the natural history and geology of the countries visited during the voyage of H.M.S. Beagle round the world. London: John Murray. 2d ed. 1845: 379-80. This edition of the book also contained the drawings of four different finches that have become enshrined in biology textbooks and on the walls of the National Academy of Sciences in Washington, DC.
4. Sulloway, p35. Sulloway points out that the first published evolutionary account of the Galapagos finches was not until 1876, by Osbert Salvin: "On the Avifauna of the Galapagos Archipelago." Trans. Zool. Soc. London, 9:447-51.
5. Darwin (1845), p395.
6. Sulloway, p40.
7. Sulloway, p40.
8. Larson, E. J. Evolution's Workshop: God and Science on the Galapagos Islands. New York, Basic Books, 2001: 166-67.
9. Lack, David. (1973) “My life as an amateur ornithologist.” Ibis: 424.
10. Lack (1973), 425-27.
11. Lack (1947), p1.
12. Lack (1947), p11.
13. Larson, 167-68.
14. The California Academy of Sciences sponsored an expedition to the Galapagos in 1905-06 and collected nearly 9000 Galapagos finch specimens (Sulloway, p40).
15. In New York, Lack roomed with the curator of the finch collection—German émigré zoologist Ernst Mayr. By developing this relationship, Lack had close ties with two of the biggest figures in the neo-Darwinian synthesis, Julian Huxley and Ernst Mayr (Larson, 168).
16. Larson, p168.
17. Lack (1973), p424.
18. Larson, p198.
19. Lack (1947), p60.
20. Lack (1947), p158.
21. See Lack’s concluding chapter on “Adaptive Radiation”, pp146-159 of Darwin’s Finches (1947).
22. British ornithologist Percy Lowe originally proposed the name “Darwin’s finches” in 1935, but the name did not catch on until Lack used it in his book. See P.R. Lowe, (1936) "The Finches of the Galapagos in Relation to Darwin's Conception of Species." Ibis, 13th ser., 6:310-321. (Cited in Larson, p287)
23. Schluter, in an interview with Edward Larson, 16 March 2000.

Thomas is a former BioLogos Associate Editor. As a science writer, he has also worked for the American Scientific Affiliation, National Academy of Sciences, and the American Association for the Advancement of Science. He has degrees in philosophy and the history of science from Rice University and University of California, Berkeley.

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Jon Garvey - #71781

August 8th 2012


“What would you say their reasons were, Jon, for associating Darwin’s name with the MS?” To be prosaic, it might not have been primarily ideological at all. One reason was that Mendel was convinced that species did NOT change, and that his genetics showed change-within-limits in a mathematical way. The modern synthesis assumed Darwin’s limitless variation and natural selection, tied loosely to the new idea of mutation as the source of the variation, and so put the origin of species on a mathematical footing. Maybe Darwin’s name seemed more suitable for the scope of the theory, though its mechanisms were essentially Mendelian.

Incidentally the dissolution of Mendel’s evolutionary limits was an unproven assumption which remains contentious to this day - Michael Behe follows the tradition of Mendel in that.

I used “Mendelian” and “Darwinist” purely because because the latter was the term under discussion. “Darwinian” would have been better, but then leads to “Darwinianism” as the rather unwieldy, and seldom used, noun instead of “Darwinism”.

The truth is these usages have all become so bogged down that we will never impose any order until some distant time when it’s all history and hearts and minds are not so involved. The most we can do is understand what has gone on and is going on, defining our terms as well as is possible as we go along.

Jon Garvey - #71782

August 8th 2012


On theistic evolution, I am somewhat puzzled by the term; this is because I take all theistic notions from Biblical teachings and also as matters of the Faith, and thus have not focussed on a notion that somehow synthesises theism with evolution.

Like “Darwinism” terms like “theistic evolution” are as slippery as they are useful. Synthesising theism with evolution is easy or hard, depending on what you understand by the terms.

For example, if “evolution” presupposes Dawkins’ “undirected and purposeless process” you end up playing somersaults with your theism or rejecting the effort out of hand. At the other extreme, if evolution means only “change of species over time” even the YECs would accept it.

So for me the process is indeed a synthesis, but an attempt to synthesise “What Christian doctrine really teaches” (much narrower than bare “theism”, because I believe Christianity, not theism, to be the spiritually true part of the equation) and “what nature really teaches” (which might question if evolution is true, or how it is true, by taking a critical but positive attitude to science).

There are some distinctives amongst my axioms which are going to shape my approach differently from others: on the “Christian” side, as an Evangelical, the fundamental reliability of Scripture, interpretation being informed by, but not dictated by, other authorities (which would clearly not please the late lamented Francis but may well find agreement with many of traditional faith outside Evangelicalism).

On the “nature” side of my personal axioms is what one might call an “open naturalism” (not to be at all confused with open theism or “freedom” in nature), ie that the scientific investigation of nature’s order is a fruitful pursuit but not exclusive of divine activity as the naturalist metaphysics claims. There may well be a commonly accepted term better than “open naturalism”.

Straddling both areas is a theistic concept of nature as being other-than, but intimately related with, God. That too, of course, owes its origin to the Bible but underpins the whole scientific endeavour.

Where I have ended up currently can be described as “theistic evolution”, but the trouble is that the term ties me in with people with very different presuppositions. So the ideas are more important than the terms, even though we need the terms as shorthand for the ideas. That’s why, to me, to ask people to own or disown a term like “Darwinism” has little value except to get them to think about what their ideas actually are and how they have been formed.

GJDS - #71786

August 8th 2012


“Straddling both areas is a theistic concept of nature as being other-than, but intimately related with, God. That too, of course, owes its origin to the Bible but underpins the whole scientific endeavour.”

The subject matter can encompasse science, theology, and almost every aspect of human existence; with this qualification, I take the view:

1) The Christian faith values truth to such an extent, that anything scientific, if shown to be true, adds to our understanding, and is not a source of conflict.

2) Notions about creation are covered by the opening statements in Genesis and the Gospel by John.

3) Instead of a sysnthesis between ‘theism’ and ‘sciences’, I have taken an approach regarding the laws of science (or nature) to see how these may ‘point’ to the Law of God. I do not favour the ‘mind of God’ outlook. However our recent discussions have shown me that historically the notion of law may have been mixed-up (law of nature with law of God).

4) The fundamentals of science consist of relatively simple staements; the profound ‘aspect’ of science, in my view, is that human beings access knowledge that is the foundation of the creation. e.g. constants that are universal (speed of light, Plank’s constant, the uncertainty principle, energetics that govern all chemical reactions, and so on,).

5) Finally, I have taken the trouble to identify matters essential to salvation and Faith in Christ, and consdier these seperate from matters that are of interest, and of culture that enriches our life and perhaps enable us to endeavour a worthwhile existence, but do not form the foundation of the Christian faith. While such a view may be overly analytical, it is helpful when consdiering potential conflicts such as discussed between science and religion.

This may shows why I tend to emphasise theory and laws of science. I understand that we human beings tend to have a more or less ‘mixed’ outlook - after all we have to spend most of our time earning a living. So we will discuss terms even though the ideas and what they are is of greater relevance.  

Roger A. Sawtelle - #71798

August 8th 2012


You right.  We do not need a synthesis of science and theology.  This is what Creationists try to do.

In my view we need a theology, a philosophy, and a science which are in basic harmony and act in a complementary fashion.  We don’t have this now which makes our way of life vulnerable. 

In my opinion it is the philosophical view that is the key problem.  Hardly anyone has addressed this problem and the timid recent dialogue between the SBC and BioLogos could be a beginning, but right now it doesn’t look that way.  

I immodestly suggest my book, Darwin’s Myth, as a model for thinking about this issue. 

GJDS - #71810

August 9th 2012

Reply ro Roger (I lost the initial reply window!)

It is easy to wish for a new synthesis and even more for a philosophy that harmonises such diverse opinions and views; such an undertaking is daunting and well outside of my meagre intellectual powers. I note that Kant in his Critique tried to reconcile Plato with Aristotle and I am still trying to recover from that book (perhaps the philosophical world did not have such difficulties!) I have taken some time, now and then, to read some papers outside my field, but even these mainly deal with some aspects of Science; e.g. Polkinghorne, “The Anthropic Principle” Faraday Institute, is an interesting approach to dealing with a fine tuned universe, but I am mulling the implications in his paper. Nonetheless, he is a philosopher and I guess I am happy to receive from such sources. Note, that although we may argue for a fine tuned approach, the supposition is still questionable, in that we use arguments such as “if this was changed by a small amount (e.g. orbit of earth) then such and such would have been vastly different”. The counter may be that our understanding is limited and what we may understand could be subjected to errors adding and negating themselves – in other words, how sure can we be of such arguments. Universal constants, on the other hand, are measured with great precision (e.g. speed of light and so on) and thus we may have confidence in these scientific matters, perhaps even regard these as brute facts.

I agree that discussions in these forums are useful and certainly good to hear other opinions.

Roger A. Sawtelle - #71814

August 9th 2012


A bit of humility and scepticism is always good, however we still need to go with the best information and studies that we have.

Humans can see that the universe works remarkably well for us.  As you have said admirably and clearly our biosystem is so intricate and complex that it is next to impossible to comprehend. 

If one of the factors or constants were different by what seems to us a small amount it would have catastrophic consequences for the whole system.  And of course there are many of the constants which must be considered. 

Does this mean that God might be able to construct a livable universe in another way?  Far be it for me to say that God could not. 

However our task is to deal with what we know and understand, not to speculate on what might or might not be.  I have found that some people are more interested in raising sand concerning what we don’t know rather than working from what we do know.  We can cross that bridge when we come to it, if ever.

Again my suggestion was just that, a suggestion if you are interested in a different approach to the issue of the Meaning of Life.   

wesseldawn - #71824

August 9th 2012

Like all of science, evolutionary theory has morphed into a more complicated issue but the basic premise of Darwinism was to give credit to the man that began the idea. What’s complicated about that?

Gregory - #71828

August 10th 2012

Jon wrote: “‘Darwinian’ would have been better, but then leads to ‘Darwinianism’...”

To the first part - YES, I agree that is the right answer. To the second part, no, I don’t see why. Could you please explain what ‘Darwinianism’ would mean? It just sounds like an attempted neologism by someone who hasn’t (yet) made a clear distinction between ‘Darwinian’ and ‘Darwinism’ in his own mind.

The way I understand it is that ‘Darwinian’ refers to ‘Darwinian evolution,’ which signifies a particular theory of evolution within the broader sciences of biology, botany, ecology, geology, etc. and ‘neo-Darwinian’ refers to the modern evolutionary synthesis (MS). People sometimes don’t add the ‘neo-’ though they are really speaking about the MS, which tends to confuse things a litte. But how much should cosmology or anthropology be influenced by ‘(neo-)Darwinian evolution’ is a major challenge remaining today (i.e. stars don’t ‘reproduce’ with ‘sexual selection’ like animals or plants do, and human beings are conscious, goal-oriented, purposeful creatures, unlike mere genes).

‘Darwinism’ and ‘neo-Darwinism’ are ideologies attached to Darwinian evolution and the MS, or they could involve separate claims from Darwinian evolution and the MS. The key is to recognise ‘(neo-)Darwinism’ as an ideology (and to hold a responsible definition of what ideologies are in contrast with science and theology), then there is no danger of confusing ‘(neo-)Darwinism’ with good modern biological science, when it clearly is not.

Do you not agree that distnguishing -ian and -ism serves a specific technical semantic purpose?

I do not share your fatalism towards defining terms properly, Jon, as in its all “bogged down” and we’ll have to wait “until some distant time” to understand. That’s just being intellectually lazy, when they key is asking the right fields to properly distinguish an -ism from an actual (if debated) natural scientific theory. If you go to the right people, your cloudiness on the definitions will dissipate, which is an encouraging thought.

“There may well be a commonly accepted term better than ‘open naturalism’.” - Jon

Yes, I’m quite sure there is. To call yourself a ‘naturalist’ is not what I understand by ‘naturalist’ and to link yourself with ‘naturalism’ is unnecessary from what I understand of your position from reading your blog and your other on-line discourses. It’s not that you are not a collector of insects and inspector of species, like D. Attenborough or D. Suzuki that makes you a non-naturalist. But that you don’t subscribe to the ideology of ‘naturalism.’ Isn’t that a simple and accurate conclusion?

Why do feel a need to qualify yourself as an ‘open’ naturalist when you’re not even a ‘naturalist’ to begin with? 

“the profound ‘aspect’ of science, in my view, is that human beings access knowledge that is the foundation of the creation.” - GJDS

Yes, exactly. And in this case the ‘creation’ can be capitalised ‘Creation,’ and thought of as an on-going creation in which we are living our part. This is where the notion of ‘evolutionary creation’ comes in. Note however that it is not ‘evolutionistic creation’ or ‘evolutionary creationism.’ It is just ‘evolutionary creation,’ knowledge about which human beings access partly through science, philosophy and theology, among other major realms.

“it is the philosophical view that is the key problem.” - Roger

What is badly lacking in the U.S. context (not that it is so much better in other contexts, but I would argue it is indeed much better in some places) is education in Philosophy of Science (PoS). I didn’t realise you were trained in PoS, Roger. Are you?

BioLogos aquired the services of Ted Davis, who is a historian of science (HoS). Now Thomas Burnett is posting here, someone who is trained in PoS, though unfortunately he has yet to address the importance of Ideology, or to engage in much dialogue on his own threads (!). Let us be clear HoS asks different questions and comes up with different answers than PoS.

Discussions of ‘Darwinian evolution’ and ‘Darwinism’ can be dealt with using HoS, as Jon has mostly done in this thread. However, taking a PoS approach to these topics opens fertile ground not found in HoS.

GJDS - #71836

August 10th 2012

Gregory (the reply window has decided not to function)

This is where the notion of ‘evolutionary creation’ comes in. Note however that it is not ‘evolutionistic creation’ or ‘evolutionary creationism.’ It is just ‘evolutionary creation,’ knowledge about which human beings access partly through science, philosophy and theology, among other major realms.

Since you are focussed on terms and definitions, the term ‘evolutionary creation’ is highly problematic. My lengthy posts on the theory, and how terms are commonly used, shows that whatever groups of people one uses as a source (including the Aus. Academy of Science), we will not find a definition of evolution that may be compared in clarity to major scientific theories using verbal, and/or mathematical terms. Thus it is dubious that, “If you go to the right people, your cloudiness on the definitions will dissipate.” What happens is that various definitions are given reflecting the ‘angle’ these groups may adopt.

To then ask for a notion of evolutionary creation, if taken as some sort of definition, amounts to an oxymoron, since the creation (or creation as such) can only mean something that has been created. The activities (phenomena) of parts of that creation may be studied by various disciplines, including scientific. A search shows the term ‘evolutionary creation’ is equated with theistic evolution, which is not the product of philosophical discussions, but a term coined to identify the groups such as this running Biologos. I have searched various Journals (including the US Philosophy of Science Journal) and so far I come up with the following terms: “Darwin and Darwinism” “Ecological-evolutionary theory”, “ID and the nature of science”, and “Evolutionary economics”, but no mention of evolutionary creation.

I do not claim these are exhaustive searches, but they show the term you are suggesting is not easily recognised. Obviously a student of history would shed light on major activities undertaken over time on relevant biological and geological evolution theories; the arguments between theists and atheist over Darwin’s theory, particularly the ascent or derivation of humans, would form the bulk of the material. However, I emphasise my previous point that, if taken seriously, the notion of evolutionary creation (or a similar version) requires a synthesis, and if anyone were to attempt such a synthesis of ideas, I for one predict failure. I note considerable activity by ‘philosophers of biology’ as they labour on identifying the explanatory approach and interdisciplinary emphasis for this endeavour, even suggesting an educational program to serve this so called ‘brute fact’ of Darwinism. I suggest that more focus on these type of activities by us is fruitful, by asking, “How can science require such activity if the subject has been proven – indeed proven as a brute fact?” This is where you suggestion of ideologues has merit. On accessing knowledge, I again state that science (and other disciplines) obtain knowledge of the Creation, Revelation (as given in the Bible) provides knowledge on the Creator. Some of the scientific knowledge may be termed evolution by many people, but that can only be rationalised as (for sake of previty) neo-Darwinism. I do not see revelation in this context.

Jon Garvey - #71844

August 11th 2012


Grammatically: Darwin - Darwinist - Darwinism

or Darwin - Darwinian - Darwinianism

Darwinianism isn’t a neollogism, but it is horribly unwieldy. However, Google its definition and it’s used simply as a synonym for “Darwinism” - it’s a real word, whether one likes it or not.

Google Darwinism’s definition and as often as not it’s referred simply to Darwin’s theory, ie the same as Darwinianism.

Ask a biologist, and he’ll usually agree with that last definition, or claim “Darwinist” is a Creationist invention. The Creationist, of course, will have in mind the package of theory-plus-ideology in his useage, which is equally valid given the unconscious commitment to naturalist ideology of a good proportion of biologists.

So one will be misunderstood, in different ways, by anybody one’s involved with, who hasn’t already acceptedones own definitions because they agree with oneself. But they’re not the ones one wants to engage with.

There are only two ways to impose a new meaning:

(a) Some academic conclave regarding it as important enough to hammer out firm definitions (of a completely infirm theory, as GJDS rightly says) and make a pronouncement through all the world’s media.

(b) A committed lobby group dedicated to pushing a new definition worldwide, as homosexuals have for that late-lamented word “gay”.

I can’t see either of those happening, so we’re stuck in the world of language rather than termini technici, where useage defines meaning (as with ordinary words like “everybody”, “the world”) etc.

Jon Garvey - #71845

August 11th 2012


I’d say the same to you as to Gregory - it’s going to prove impossible to find consistent, universally agreed terms for what may, indeed, be coherent viewpoints, so an element of flexibility is inevitable.

But as I think about it, “evolutionary creation” is indeed an oxymoron at least on some definitions of evolution (creation being pretty universally understood in this context as purposive bringing into existence by God).

If (a) evolution is used in one of the very loose ways like “change over time” (as wrongly applied to intentional human activity) then change over time could be how something might be brought into existence (eg God creates Israel by bring the patriarchs into Egypt, nurturing them into a people and then delivering them through Moses). I’d say “evolutionary creation” could make sense on such a definition, though the term would be too vague to convey anything much.

If on the other hand (b) “evolution” is taken as” random mutation and natural selection”, then both processes are taken out of God’s hands in the words “random” (=non-purposive) and “natural” (=not divine). Creation has been ousted by the definition of evolution.

But what if a middle path were taken, as in Warfield’s view of evolution? If “evolution” meant, say, (c) “descent with modification”, with the modifications being purposively brought about by God, would “evolutionary creation” still be an oxymoron? If not, does that not mean that for the term to be meaningful, the TEs who coined it need to define it more tightly. After all, was it not invented by Denis Lamoreux, whose own position, I believe, is closest to (b)?

Gregory - #71846

August 11th 2012

Jon, re: #71844

You’ve asked me to use internet search engines, and to ask biologists. Thus, it seems the bottom line is you don’t want to accept a clear difference between -ian and -ism, in this case wrt Darwin. It looks as if you prefer to conflate Darwinian and Darwinism and to throw up your hands saying ‘we’ll never be able to get agreement.’ That’s your prerogative, of course, but I find it unsatisfactory.

Are you willing to answer the question: Do you not agree that distnguishing -ian and -ism serves a specific technical semantic purpose? 

I gave a clear-cut distinction: (neo-)Darwinian evolution = scientific theory; (neo-)Darwinism = ideology. You are not obliged to agree with this. But please don’t say it is not clearly stated.

“The Creationist, of course, will have in mind the package of theory-plus-ideology in his useage, which is equally valid given the unconscious commitment to naturalist ideology of a good proportion of biologists.”

A major issue is that creationists often don’t realise they have invested ideology in their position. That is one of the biggest challenges for BioLogos in its mission to reach evangelicals who are creationists (particularly YECs). It must help them to rid themselves of their creationistic ideology, while encouraging them to keep their (evangelical) Christian faith in Creation. You may criticise BioLogos for their theology, but you are in turn confusing the discussion with ideology, e.g. calling yourself an ‘open naturalist.’

You speak of ‘imposing’ new meanings, by academic conclave or lobby group. I’m not sure why you would not promote education and learning as a way of improving clarity and accuracy of expression. In this case, it would be by learning more philosophy of science, which would help with general ‘meaning by usage’ on the topic of -isms like Darwinism and naturalism. They do have a program in history and philosophy of science at Cambridge, in case you’re interested to learn more about ideology, Jon.

Gregory - #71847

August 11th 2012

As to whether the prospect of finding “consistent, universally agreed terms” is possible or not, I don’t think GJDS was suggesting that is possible and neither was I. Again, for me, the topic of this discussion is: “Is it [also] problematic that people refer to modern evolutionary theory as “Darwinism”? What misunderstandings can arise by associating an entire field of science with just a single person? Share your thoughts in the comments section below.”

What I meant by “go to the right people” was to suggest that there is a particular field (along with subfields) that deals specifically with distinguishing science from ideology and worldview. In general, this is philosophy of science (PoS); more specifically it would be something like ‘philosophical-semiotic study of ideology related to science’. Those not trained or familiar with PoS therefore might wish to consults those who are to learn more about how the distinctions are professionally made.

Biologists are certainly not the ones that should be consulted; they are often guilty of confusing the conversation by conflating terms. Medical doctors are likewise not in a position to lecture about ‘Darwinianism,’ which obviously shows they don’t recognise a logical difference between -ian and -ism. Next is Jon going to say ‘Marxianism’ or ‘Copernicanianism’ are ‘real words’ (because ‘thefreedictionary’ says so)?!

Regarding ‘evolutionary creation,’ I share some of the reservations expressed by both GJDS and Jon. Whether or not it is “highly problematic” to the people that use it is another story; they seem to think it has merit. As for me, I think it is still caught on the horns of the 20th c. debate where evolution and creation were pitted against each other. ‘Evolutionary creation’ has yet to move the debate forward into the 21st century, though the term ‘BioLogos’ may hold more promise.

Darrel Falk seems to want to move the debate forward, using the term ‘evolutionary creation’ coined or ‘popularised’ (how popular, since GJDS indicates he couldn’t find much about it on the internet?) by Denis Lamoureux. BioLogos is a primary vehicle for that, but then again, since Falk is leaving at the end of the year and Ted Davis prefers to speak of ‘theistic evolution,’ who knows what the future holds for ‘evolutionary creation.’

The main point I raised the term was not to discuss its merits or flaws. The point was to show what difference it makes if an -ism is added to creation. Evolutionary Creationism is a different topic than Evolutionary Creation. Just like Evolutionism is a different topic than Evolution. I’m guessing we are in basic agreement about that semantic topic, aren’t we?

GJDS - #71848

August 11th 2012


It is generally accepted that scientists (and I suspect more so for Philosophers) enjoy using well defined terms; however general usage (and worse still popular use) of various terms makes shipwreck of this endeavour. My interest is to understand Theistic Evolution as identifying an idea. I will try to make a simple statement on this, if I can. Evolution (whatever term we use) begins as a scientific idea with a basic premise - that events viewed over geological periods, coupled with data obtained from fossils, and observations of variations in species, provides a coherent understanding of bio-lifes in past and presently found on earth. I have made criticisms based on the breadth of the idea, and the paucity of data/proofs relative to this breadth. However, to use a phrase found on this web site, I see this as ‘theologically neutral’ (or more accurately theologically un-necessary) for my point of view because I have addressed my concerns within the basic ideas of science and the scientific method. Thus Science has one purpose, to come to a sufficient approximation to give confidence that the observation, theory, and data, are close to the truth. The truth I mean of the basis for the Universe (the creation). Theologically, I profess that God created the Universe. I think this is clear. On evolution, I consider it has not met my criteria - that does not mean others share my view, so we enjoy our discussions. Thus, you can see that even ‘theistic evolution’ has little meaning for me. I suspect that others may have a different view - but this means necesarily that such terms and phrases will be subject to argument and variations in meaning (I have not checked this, so apologies in advance for typo errors).

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