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Endless Forms Most Beautiful, Part 1

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June 17, 2013 Tags: History of Life
Endless Forms Most Beautiful, Part 1

Today's entry was written by Sean Carroll. Please note the views expressed here are those of the author, not necessarily of BioLogos. You can read more about what we believe here.

Note: Today and tomorrow on the BioLogos Forum, we feature excerpts from biologist Sean Carroll’s book, Endless Forms Most Beautiful: The New Science of Evo Devo, a well-wrought account of how the field of evolutionary development biology, or Evo Devo, has shaped our understanding of how animals evolve, by studying their development. The Psalmist wrote of how God knits us together in our mother’s womb, and thanks to the methods and tools now available to biologists, these processes that were once hidden are being revealed through this exciting field. While we cannot attest to the author’s faith persuasion, Sean Carroll does an outstanding (and witty) job of making a complex set of ideas more manageable to understand, and we encourage you to read this book in its entirety.

In today’s post, Carroll introduces a bit of Evo Devo history, as well as the concept of how animal form can be understood as the product of two processes—development and evolution.

The editorial policy used in these excerpts can be found at the bottom of this post.

Embryos and Evolution

The first approach naturalists took to dealing with the great variety of animals was to sort them into groups, such as vertebrates (including fish, amphibians, reptiles, birds, and mammals) and arthropods (insects, crustaceans, arachnids, and more), but between and within these groups there are many differences. What makes a fish different from a salamander? Or an insect from a spider? On a finer scale, clearly a leopard is a cat, but what makes it different from a domestic tabby? And closer to home, what makes us different from our chimpanzee cousins?

The key to answering such questions is to realize that every animal form is the product of two processes—development from an egg and evolution from its ancestors. To understand the origins of the multitude of animal forms, we must understand these two processes and their intimate relationship to each other. Simply put, development is the process that transforms an egg into a growing embryo and eventually an adult form. The evolution of form occurs through changes in development.

Both processes are breathtaking. Consider that the development of an entire complex creature begins with a single cell—the fertilized egg. In a matter of just a day (a fly maggot), a few weeks (a mouse), or several months (ourselves), an egg grows into millions, billions, or, in the case of humans, perhaps 10 trillion cells formed into organs, tissues, and parts of the body. There are few, if any, phenomena in nature that inspire our wonder and awe as much as the transformation from egg to embryo to the complete animal. One of the great figures in all of biology, Darwin’s close ally Thomas H. Huxley, remarked:

The student of Nature wonders the more and is astonished the less, the more conversant he becomes with her operations; but of all the perennial miracles she offers to his inspection, perhaps the most worthy of admiration is the development of a plant or of an animal from its embryo.—Aphorisms and Reflections (1907)

The intimate connection between development and evolution has long been appreciated in biology. Both Darwin, in The Origin of Species (1859) and The Descent of Man (1871), and Huxley in his short masterpiece, Evidence as to Man’s Place in Nature (1863), leaned heavily on the facts of embryology (as they were in the mid-nineteenth century) to connect man to the animal kingdom and for indisputable evidence of evolution. Darwin asked his reader to consider how slight changes, introduced at different points in the process and in different parts of the body, over the course of many thousands or a million generations, spanning perhaps tens of thousands to a few million years, can produce different forms that are adapted to different circumstances and that possess unique capabilities. That is evolution in a nutshell.

For Huxley, the nub of the argument was simple: we may marvel at the process of an egg becoming an adult, but we accept it as an everyday fact. It is merely then a lack of imagination to fail to grasp how changes in this process that are assimilated over long periods of time, far longer than the span of human experience, shape life’s diversity. Evolution is as natural as development. [SNIP]

While Darwin and Huxley were right about development as key to evolution, for more than one hundred years after their chief works, virtually no progress was made in understanding the mysteries of development. The puzzle of how a simple egg gives rise to a complete individual stood as one of the most elusive questions in all of biology. Many thought that development was hopelessly complex and would involve entirely different explanations for different types of animals. So frustrating was the enterprise that the study of embryology, heredity, and evolution, once intertwined at the core of biological thought a century ago, fractured into separate fields as each sought to define its own principles.

Because embryology was stalled for so long, it played no part in the so-called Modern Synthesis of evolutionary thought that emerged in the 1930s and 1940s. In the decades after Darwin, biologists struggled to understand the mechanisms of evolution. At the time of The Origin of Species, the mechanism for the inheritance of traits was not known. Gregor Mendel’s work was rediscovered decades later and genetics did not prosper until well into the 1900s. Different kinds of biologists were approaching evolution at dramatically different scales. Paleontology focused on the largest time scales, the fossil record, and the evolution of higher taxa. Systematists were concerned with the nature of species and the process of speciation. Geneticists generally studied variation in traits in just a few species. These disciplines were disconnected and sometimes hostile over which offered the most worthwhile insights into evolutionary biology. Harmony was gradually approached through an integration of evolutionary viewpoints at different levels. Julian Huxley’s book Evolution: The Modern Synthesis (1942) signaled this union and the general acceptance of two main ideas. First, that gradual evolution can be explained by small genetic changes that produce variation which is acted upon by natural selection. Second, that evolution at higher taxonomic levels and of greater magnitude can be explained by these same gradual evolutionary processes sustained over longer periods.

The Modern Synthesis established much of the foundation for how evolutionary biology has been discussed and taught for the past sixty years. However, despite the monikers of “Modern” and “Synthesis,” it was incomplete. At the time of its formulation and until recently, we could say that forms do change, and that natural selection is a force, but we could say nothing about how forms change, about the visible drama of evolution as depicted, for example, in the fossil record. The Synthesis treated embryology as a “black box” that somehow transformed genetic information into three-dimensional, functional animals.

The stalemate continued for several decades. Embryology was preoccupied with phenomena that could be studied by manipulating the eggs and embryos of a few species, and the evolutionary framework faded from embryology’s view. Evolutionary biology was studying genetic variation in populations, ignorant of the relationship between genes and form. Perhaps even worse, the perception of evolutionary biology in some circles was that it had become relegated to dusty museums.

Such was the setting in the 1970s when voices for the reunion of embryology and evolutionary biology made themselves heard. Most notable was that of Stephen Jay Gould, whose book Ontogeny and Phylogeny revived discussion of the ways in which the modification of development may influence evolution. Gould had also stirred up evolutionary biology when, with Niles Eldredge, he took a fresh look at the patterns of the fossil record and forwarded the idea of punctuated equilibria—that evolution was marked by long periods of stasis (equilibria) interrupted by brief intervals of rapid change (punctuation). Gould’s book and his many subsequent writings reexamined the “big picture” in evolutionary biology and underscored the major questions that remained unsolved. He planted seeds in more than a few impressionable young scientists, myself included.

To me, and others who had been weaned on the emerging successes of molecular biology in explaining how genes work, the situations in embryology and in evolutionary biology were both unsatisfying, but they presented enormous potential opportunities. Our lack of embryological knowledge seemed to turn much of the discussion in evolutionary biology about the evolution of form into futile exercises in speculation. How could we make progress on questions involving the evolution of form without a scientific understanding of how form is generated in the first place? Population genetics had succeeded in establishing the principle that evolution is due to changes in genes, but this was a principle without an example. No gene that affected the form and evolution of any animal had been characterized. New insights in evolution would require breakthroughs in embryology.

Today’s blog was an excerpt taken from the Introduction of Endless Forms Most Beautiful, (c. 2006), which was a finalist for both the Los Angeles Times Book Prize and the National Academy of Sciences Communication Award, as well as being a Discover magazine and USA Today “Top Science Books of the Year.” Learn more here.

In tomorrow’s blog, we move to the concluding chapter, where Sean Carroll summarizes some of the most exciting lessons learned from research in Evo Devo.

Editorial Policy: The editing for these excerpts involves removing the odd sentence or two—indicated by putting [SNIP] at the appropriate point(s)—and sometimes inserting annotations where warranted [also enclosed in square brackets] to provide background information.


Sean Carroll is a Professor of Molecular Biology, Genetics, and Medical Genetics at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. He studies the evolution of cis-regulation in the context of biological development, using Drosophila as a model system. He is a Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigator. Since 2010, he has been vice-president for science education of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute.

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Eddie - #81150

June 17th 2013

Congratulations to BioLogos for publishing this excerpt.  It’s good to see a piece by Carroll, who is a leading evolutionary biologist.  It is also refreshing to read a column that promotes a view of evolution that is critical of the Modern Synthesis (Julian Huxley, Dobzhansky, Mayr, etc.) for its overemphasis on population genetics and its underemphasis on the origin of new biological form.  I hope that we will see more columns written by those contemporary evolutionary biologists who have in various ways criticized the neo-Darwinian model and called for significant modifications to it.  If evolutionary theory is to be related to Christian theology, it ought to be a rich, balanced, and sophisticated version of evolutionary theory, not the oversimplified model of evolutionary theory (random mutations filtered by natural selection) which prevailed (as Carroll indicates) up into the 1970s, and in many quarters up until much more recently,  and is still the main conception of evolution in the popular mind today.  Hopefully we will see excerpts or articles from Margulis, Newman, Shapiro and others as times goes on.  Evolutionary thought is not a monolith any more than Christian theology is a monolith, and it’s important for readers here to understand not merely the points on which evolutionary biologists agree but also the points on which they disagree.

A good call by BioLogos here, to move the discussion from the evolutionary biology of the 20th century to that of the 21st.  Thumbs up.

PNG - #81152

June 17th 2013

“a view of evolution that is critical of the Modern Synthesis (Julian Huxley, Dobzhansky, Mayr, etc.) for its overemphasis on population genetics and its underemphasis on the origin of new biological form.”

I’m not sure that Carroll would agree that this a fair characterization of his view, based on the quote below and Carroll’s other stuff I have read.

Emerging principles of regulatory evolution http://www.pnas.org/content/104/suppl.1/8605.full

“A long-standing question in evolutionary biology has been whether the genetic and molecular mechanisms underlying morphological changes within populations (so-called “microevolution”) are sufficient to account for the differences in body patterns between species and at higher taxonomic levels (so-called “macroevolution”) (51–54). We submit that an expanding body of evidence, including the examples described in the previous sections, is affirming that macroevolution is a matter of the very same genetic and molecular changes ongoing in populations, compounded over longer periods of time and large numbers of cladogenetic events.” (from the body of the review)

The reason that the earlier theorists hadn’t emphasized evolution of development wasn’t that they were making a choice about what to emphasize - they just didn’t have the technical means to get at it until cloning and sequencing and related techniques were developed in the ‘70s (when I was in grad school.) Britten and Davidson were already speculating about it just based on the known fact that there was a lot of repetitive DNA in animal genomes. This was known from studies of DNA hybridization kinetics even before sequencing was possible. (I remember someone presenting their stuff in a seminar - I thought it was going to be a lot more interesting if they could put some specific sequence meat on the bones.) When cloning and sequencing came along, within a few years it was known that developmental regulatory genes were more conserved in their sequence and presence in widely divergent animals than anyone had expected, so differences were mostly to be sought in the control regions of these genes rather than presence/absence of genes or differences in coding regions. That was the big surprise, not that population genetics isn’t important, which it is.

All this being said, I agree that it’s a good thing that Biologos is presenting this - given Dennis’s area of research I’m sure he has a lot of examples to draw on to illustrate the huge advances in evo-devo in the last few decades.

Eddie - #81154

June 17th 2013

Hi, PNG.  I won’t disagree with your account, but it seems to me that in practical terms, whether the older neo-Darwinism was willfully one-sided in its explanation of evolution, or whether it was dimly aware that some day the question of novel biological form would have to be more rigorously tackled, but didn’t have the equipment to do it, it offered an inadequate account of how evolution works.  I see the evo-devo people as trying to offer a much fuller account.  But they aren’t the only ones who are doing this:  the self-organization people (Newman, etc.) the self-engineering people (Shapiro), and others, are offering different accounts of how evolution works.  It would be nice if BioLogos could do a series on all these different accounts of evolution, just as it has done a series on different accounts of origins TE, ID, OEC, YEC, etc.

Maybe I’m just speaking out of my personal perspective, but I find these endless columns proving common descent, whether from fossils or genomes, rather repetitive and tedious.  It’s as if I’m being forced to read the popular science books I read from about age 7 through about age 20 over and over again, or being forced to sit through classes on times tables or English grammar again.  Fossil comparisons and genomic comparisons are strongly suggestive of common descent.  I get it.  I don’t need to be beaten over the head with it for 6 years.  The interesting scientific question to me is how and why equally competent evolutionary biologists differ over the means of evolution.  And further, it seems to me that the theological questions that arise out of evolution are different, in at least some cases, depending on the mechanism.  So it’s the latter types of question I’d like to see BioLogos pursue.  

In any case, we agree that it is good to hear from Carroll.

PNG - #81174

June 18th 2013

“but I find these endless columns proving common descent, whether from fossils or genomes, rather repetitive and tedious.”

But you’re an exception in having accepted common descent. It’s still something that most evangelicals who have thought about it aren’t willing to even really consider as possible, because it brings up Biblical problems they don’t want to deal with. (And of course, many haven’t even really thought about it at all.)

To amuse myself, I just did a google search on “theistic evolution.” There are of course a few sites in favor, but mostly you get page after page of what I think of as pygmy inquisitors declaring theistic evolution to be a great and abominable heresy. The fundagelical world is a long way from common descent being an acceptable idea.

Even ID types, who presumably have read on the subject, mostly reject common descent, or at least that is my impression. You, Behe and Mike Gene seem to be the exceptions. Dembski, Meyer, Rana, Bohlin, leaders of the movement or of specific ministries, all stonewall common descent. I wonder to what extent that is why ID is regarded by most of the scientific opposition as warmed-over creationism.

In any case, I think Biologos sees its mission as convincing evangelicals to take modern biology seriously, especially the genomic evidence that has emerged in the last 15 years or so. To concentrate on the bleeding edge of evolutionary theory would be get ahead of themselves when their targeted audience is so skeptical of the most basic point.

Do you have any insight as to why the ID people reject common descent almost uniformly? They will all tell you that ID is compatible with common descent, but nonetheless they reject it themselves. Do you think that in reality Biblical considerations are just as strong for most as the questions about mechanism and design?

Eddie - #81175

June 18th 2013


Thanks for your gracious and moderate comments.

I would say that you have distinguish between the ID leaders and the rank and file ID people.  If you go to the lower levels, you find lots of support for common descent, with the proviso that the evolutionary process is somehow guided, steered, planned, preprogrammed, or the like.

If you hang around websites such as Uncommon Descent or Telic Thoughts, you will find lots of people who seem to endorse some combination of design and evolution.  It seems to me, based on an informal survey, that on UD, for example, Denyse O’Leary, Vincent Torley, StephenB, and a whole bunch of others have endorsed common descent (and of course Behe’s archive of responses to his critics is stored at UD as well), while they have been very critical of neo-Darwinism and similar accounts of how evolution works.  And you will see that on UD the public has been introduced to alternate versions of evolutionary theory held by qualified modern biologists—those of Shapiro and the Altenberg people, none of whom support ID— which indicates that UD cannot be anti-evolution per se (or it would never give publicity to evolution-accepting scientists).  Further, you will find all kinds of comments on UD such as “I don’t accept macroevolution myself, but I agree that it need not be incompatible with Christian theology, if formulated carefully.”  

Even at the Discovery Institute, aside from Behe, I expect that you would find many of the Fellows (especially the Catholic ones, of whom there are several) either accept common descent of find it no threat (in itself) to Christian faith.  I would be surprised if Richards or West, for example, dogmatically deny that macroevolution has occurred, or find it threatening to Christian faith if it has.

Sternberg appears to accept macroevolution, and to challenge only the Darwinian interpretation of it.  And Denton, who is certainly someone who accepts a macroevolutionary process, sees design as woven into that process, not as opposed to it.

In short, I think the fraction of ID supporters who accept or are open to macroevolution is much larger than you are suggesting.

That said, I agree with you that most ID people are highly skeptical of evolution or reject it.  I think that where they fiercely reject it, they are often governed by a certain reading of the Bible.  (Which is not my own.)  

My protest above was based on the fact that BioLogos has now been publishing material for about 5 or 6 years.  It has published hundreds of articles on genomics, fossils, etc.  I think that all the fundamentalists who are going to be converted to evolution by such arguments have already been converted by now.  I don’t think repeating the arguments in new columns that make essentially the same arguments in new words is going to do any good.  

On the other hand, the most interesting discussions here on BioLogos have usually been those trying to relate an evolutionary model to the divine act of creation.  It is here that the discussion needs great nuance—more precision about different models of evolution, and more precision about theology.  But I have found the BioLogos tends to stick with a “generic” evolution that is mainly neo-Darwinian, and a “generic” Protestant theology that vaguely affirms God’s action and providence, but never achieves more clarity than that.  I don’t think the BioLogos management realizes that what the “neutrals” are waiting for from BioLogos is not more arguments about Tiktaalik or chromosome fusions, but convincing evidence that the *way* that BioLogos joins Christian doctrine with evolutionary theory is compatible with orthodox, traditional, Christian theology.  And that can’t be done without being much more specific about the model of evolution being proposed (Gould, Dawkins, Shapiro, Denton, Behe, Coyne, Carroll, Conway Morris etc. all differ significantly from each other) and without being much more specific about the understanding of providence, omnipotence, foreknowledge, etc. being proposed.

In short, until cautious evangelicals who are unsure about evolution know where BioLogos stands on the theological question of what God actually does in evolution, they simply will not trust BioLogos, no matter how many articles on genomics and fossils it publishes, and therefore they will not jump on the evolutionary bandwagon.  Thus, I recommend a shift in the type of articles published here.

hanan-d - #81224

June 20th 2013

>In any case, I think Biologos sees its mission as convincing evangelicals to take modern biology seriously, especially the genomic evidence that has emerged in the last 15 years or so. 


But then what? So they are trying to convince them of Biology, but what happens when they have questions of where does God fit in? How does BioLogos attempt to help them there?

Roger A. Sawtelle - #81173

June 18th 2013

The problem as I said in pt. 2 is that it ignores any discusion of how natural selection works.

Roger A. Sawtelle - #81181

June 19th 2013

Eddie and PNG,

I think you bring up a good point.  Why do we keep going over the same material with little to show for it?

Let me give you some reasons. 

  1. Creationism is not based on bad science, but on bad theology.  We need good theology to replace it, but BioLogos is reluctant to criticize bad evangelical theology.   
  2. Darwinism is not really based on good science, therefore evangelicals have some reason to reject it, although they do it for the wrong reason.
  3. Creationists claim that 1 + 2 = 2.  Darwinians claim that 1 + 2 = 4.  Both are abetted by a dualistic philosophical worldview that says that 1 + 2 must equal either 2 or 4.   
  4. Everyone is locked into their positions so they cannot see the weaknesses of their own position and the strengths of others.
  5. BioLogos needs to take on Monod’s Chance and Necessity as the basis of the current philosophy of science if it wants to make an impact on this debate, instead of giving Scientism a free pass in this important area. 
  6. Creationism is not the only problem we face and a strong stance against Scientism might bring some evangelical support.
Chip - #81192

June 19th 2013

I generally agree with most of the comments thus far.  With a very few exceptions (most notable of which are Ted Davis’ columns—thanks Ted), what we consistently get from BL is decidedly not “Science and Faith in Dialogue,” but rather something like, “Reconciling Faith with a Defacto Naturalism,” or maybe, “Science and Deism in Dialogue.” 

I myself have no problem whatsoever accepting evolution per se; the issue comes down to what evolution’s  mechanisms are and, as Eddie has put it, “the theological question of what God actually does in evolution.”

Indeed, what does He do?  But when push comes to shove, the view consistently expressed by those behind the BL pulpit is that God does little more than wind up natural selection and turn it loose to select (or not…) the random mutations that drop into its lap—if he does even that. The alternative would be “tinkering,” or “micromanaging”—neither of which is allowed by the modern synthesis, and so is off the table.

I’m sympathetic to the fact that the question is not an easy one; and yet this is precicely why elephants are able to settle down and get comfortable in the rooms that they occupy. Maybe someday, someone at BL will address this one.  But I’m not holding my breath…

beaglelady - #81194

June 19th 2013

Dinosaur sex might be a good candidate for a situation where  God had to step in.  From what I’ve been reading, nobody so far has been able to figure it out.  Consider the Jurassic stegosaur kentrosaurus.  How did the male ever survive his wedding night?

Jon Garvey - #81212

June 20th 2013


One has to resist the temptation to answer your question, “With a central sore ass.” Dang it, failed… quick, hit the abuse button!

Jon Garvey - #81213

June 20th 2013


Your points are interesting and fully match my own experience.

  • Happy to accept evolution, like Asa Gray? Check.
  • Believe that God works his wise creation sovereignly and providentially through it, like Charles Kingsley? Check.
  • Got some issues to work through with traditionally accepted mechanisms, like B B Warfield? Check.
  • Then BioLogos is the place to be, right? Nope - you feel marginalised here as “(ID-)creationist”, “anti-science”, “fundagelical”, “literalist”, “Calvinist”.


hanan-d - #81225

June 20th 2013

>Indeed, what does He do? 


Indeed. In fact, this page has yet to be updated.




Also, I am quite confused. Isn’t Sean Carrol an atheist? How exactly is he helping the greater concern of understanding evolution, but that there is still room to believe in God?

Ted Davis - #82280

August 1st 2013


You’re right—that BioLogos page isn’t very helpful. However, I suggest that you try this one instead: http://biologos.org/blog/series/the-god-who-acts-robert-russell-on-divine-intervention-and-divine-action

IMO, no one has devoted more intellectual energy to the question of divine action than Robert Russell. This is one of the main reasons why I recommended that BL publish some of his ideas. Russell isn’t the only person who’s written about that topic for BL (some of the others are seen at http://biologos.org/resources/find/Blog/sort-by-Newest/any/Divine+Action+&+Purpose), but IMO he has the most to say about it. If you get a chance, please read his series.

Chip - #81221

June 20th 2013

a situation where God had to step in…

At the risk of learning more about the mating habits of obscure dinosaurs than I ever wanted to know, the theology expressed here is both representative of TE generally, and probably worth dragging out into the light.  The implication seems to be that it’s better somehow if God doesn’t step in, or that the need to do so represents some kind of  failure on his part:  “Damn!  How did I miss that?  I never considered how kentrosaurus was going to survive his wedding night.  I guess I’ll have to get up off the couch and actually engage with the created order.  Ugh, how I hate having to do that…”

More broadly, “having to step in” in any process is necessary only if a goal exists in the first place, which is being thwarted somehow.  And while God’s explicit goals may not have included the conjugal habits of poor kentrosaurus (and on this score, I’m compelled to recommend that the commenter and the authors she’s reading really need to get out more), these goals certainly did include the creation of people:  “Let us create man in our own image” seems reasonably straightforward in this regard, in spite of BioLogos’ repeated effort to creatively reinterpret Genesis. 

So what do we have?  A God who clearly intends particular outcomes, but who has selected an implementation mechanism that doesn’t allow particular outcomes.  Consider this very orthodox statement of the theory: 

it’s more accurate to think of natural selection as a process rather than as a guiding hand. Natural selection is the simple result of variation, differential reproduction, and heredity — it is mindless and mechanistic. It has no goals… (my emphasis) (http://evolution.berkeley.edu/evolibrary/article/evo_32)

Seems pretty contradictory to me, but maybe if I read up on kentrosaurus a little more…

hanan-d - #81227

June 20th 2013


Thank you for that quote. 

It is something that I always wonder how someone like beagleladay or anyone else deals with. They believe in evolution. Fine. They believe in the empirical evidence. Fine. They believe in all of its mechanism. Fine. The see all the data and agree with its conclusions. 

But then, there seems to be some cognative dissonance. Let’s us appreciate that quote in its totality. 


Let’s try to breath that in a bit and think about it. How do you reconscile a THEISTIC God that has goals and intentions with that quote? Does God KNOW the mechanism He created is mindless with no goals? 

So Beaglelady can mock our confusion in all of this by bringing up dinosaur sex (you know, sort of like a master throwing its dog a bone by saying “ahahaha, ok, ok, you wanted God to personally intervene, well here you go), but I believe it is quite an issue that needs to be discussed. 


Roger A. Sawtelle - #81235

June 20th 2013


A machine is certainly mechanistic.  A machine cannot think, because it has no mind.  One might say that a machine has no goals, but on the other hand, since machines by definition do something, they do have a purpose.  It is not a self-defined purpose, but the purpose given to it by its maker. 

Therefore even though Natural Selection maybe mindless and mechanistic, that is no reason to think it has no goalsand indeed that might be reason to suppose it has a purpose or goal.  Natural Selection determines which alleles survives and which do not.  That seems to be a purpose. 

Natural Selection has built up a fantastic variety of life forms in an otherwise barren universe. Natural Selection has brought into fruition the command of God to be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth.  That is its goal and purpose.     

Still this definition is not a process that can be scientifically tested nor has it been, so I am still waiting.     

Jon Garvey - #81238

June 21st 2013

That seems to be a purpose.

Indeed Roger - in old fashioned Aristotelian/Thomist thinking, there can be no such process without a final (teleological) cause giving it direction. That can be intrinsic teleology - as in some of the up and coming evolutionary mechanisms proposed by your Nobles and Shapiros (or at a philosophical level by Thomas Nagel - this must be the only evolution site not to have reviewed his book - Ed Feser’s even reviewed the reviews!).

But Thomas Aquinas, or any of the classical scholars with their theological hats on, would say that the existence of demonstrable teleology points to, even if not proving, God as the initiator of that teleology - as you put it, the purpose given to it by its maker.

Three point I’d want to draw from that:

(a) To be blind to teleology within the processes we see in themselves is metaphysically blinkered: and those blinkers are shared today by materialists, and, it seems, too many Christians.

(b) To be blind to God’s providential purpose working through those processes (with the intention of producing kentrosauri, married or otherwise etc) is theologically blinkered and certainly at odds with Scriptural and historical theological teaching on Providence.

(c) Means have to be suitable to ends. Your machine analogy is certainly limited - as I’ve no doubt you know - but if evolution is seen as a created process intended to fulfil God’s governing purpose, and in that sense a machine, then its ability to deliver is a reflection on the wisdom of its creator.

In the UK in recent years government departments have been condemned as “not fit for purpose”. They produce outcomes indeed, but not the outcomes intended by Her Majesty’s Government. Machines that produce unforeseen or approximate outcomes are not considered well-designed.

In Darwin’s day, evolution by natural selection was seen as a precision tool, ceaselessly honing life to ever more perfect adaptation. Now we know natural selection is easily swamped - which is how the neutral theory and “junk DNA” came to be proposed. Adaptationism became a controversy - with the balance apparently tipping in favour of most change being non-adaptive, and the picture of evolution as “patchwork”, “jerry building” “cobbled together” etc taking the place of Darwin’s all-seeing God-substitute.

In Warfield’s time, he would have said, “Since God is the wise creator, we clearly have some critical work to do before we fully understand the natural processes behind this “very good” creation.

Nowadays, the preference seems to have been to accept the current state of science as, essentially, the final word, and invert ones theology to say, in effect, “Hey, God likes cobbled together!”

Usually that takes the form of God being the supreme democrat who, having set up Guantanamo Bay, wouldn’t dream of “coercing” any changes there, and that would seem to be the explanation of why it’s seen as good Christian apologetics to show how many errors, inefficiencies and contingencies there are in the evolutionary process. “See what a great God we have! He doesn’t make stuff happen but gives it liberty!”

Some things don’t benefit from liberty, though.

hanan-d - #81247

June 21st 2013

>They produce outcomes indeed, but not the outcomes intended by Her Majesty’s Government. Machines that produce unforeseen or approximate outcomes are not considered well-designed.


How is this helping the cause of a God though? Were the dinosaurs (or evolutionary dead ends) unforeseen outcomes? Was there a purpose to them? 

Jon Garvey - #81266

June 22nd 2013


I still don’t understand what an evolutionary dead-end is. According to Wikipedia, our test-case Kentrosaurus lived for about 5 million years, which is longer than genus Homo has, so its marital problems can’t have been as bad as beaglelady fears, and no doubt it enjoyed munching the herbiage and picking bits of impaled carnivore off its spines.

Either some of its descendants were non-Kentrosauri, in which case their mothers were happily putting their pictures on on the wall and they were not a dead end.

Or the genus died out having served whatever ecological purposes the Lord had in mind for them - as St Augustine wrote:

For these creatures received, at their Creator’s will, an existence fitting them, by passing along and giving place to others, to secure that lowest form of beauty, the breauty of seasons, which in its own place is a requisite part of the world.

He was actually writing about predated animals, but it’s as true of evolutionary transitions: all creatures die in the nature of things, so unless you regard death itself as an evil dead end, extinction is as much a part of the process of life as planned cell-death.

Even from the human point of view, the world would be a poorer place for kids (and grown-up kids like me and the palaeontologists) has dinosaurs not existed. I give thanks to God for them for their extraordinary characteristics - is that not too part of their purpose?

Roger A. Sawtelle - #81241

June 21st 2013


Thank you very much for your comments.

I think that we agree that our way of looking at the world is based on our way of understanding God.  That is why I appreciate the Trinity so much, because it allows for a Complex/One God and a complex/one world.

God is One in that God created all that is and set up the ground rules so to speak for how we exist.  Then God is Many in that God made it possible for God’s People to have freedom within carefully prescribed boundaries.  God acts a referee ands guide as humanity acts out its history within these limits.  Then God through Jesus is the End of History,  We do not know if the End will occur peacefully or not, but we know that there will be an End, when all will be resolved. 

Even though we can say that the biological world has some freedom, it is really the case that it is the human world that has freedom, especially God’s People who have real freedom with Jesus Christ, the Logos, and with freedom comes responsibility to act cooperatively.

God does not coerce, but God sets limits and gives humans the choice as to accept these limits or not with the associated consequences. 

This is the Telos based on the Logos.     

Jon Garvey - #81243

June 21st 2013


Do let’s try and keep distinct things distinct. The subject is evolution, and theistic evolution at that.

Human freedom is the will, which is a specific component of our nature as rational beings (made in God’s image, as Chip reminds us).

Freedom in nature is ... well, I’m still trying to find out after two years, but it’s nothing to do with rational will. Or perhaps it is - BioLogos people never ever say what it is, but just conflate it with human free will willy nilly.

It’s just as invalid as conflating natural selection with the doctrine of election.

Chip - #81242

June 21st 2013

For the sake of argument, even if we accept Roger’s assumptions about the purpose of natural selection (namely, to “build up a fantastic variety of life forms”)  that doesn’t answer the objection—not even close. 

God’s goal was not merely to roll the dice and enjoy the spectacle of what happened to arbitrarily emerge:  Hey look!  Kentrasaurus.  I never expected that!  But—ugggghh—Kentrasaura.  Didn’t expect that either, but beauty is in the eye of the beholder.  Oh well, even if he doesn’t survive his wedding night, there are worse ways to go.  Back to my game of Cosmic Golf…

A non-theist can take the position that natural selection’s “goal” is simply to cobble together a bunch of interesting living stuff (and kill off the ones that aren’t viable).  A theist, on the other hand, has to make a coherent argument that gets you from “a variety of life forms” to “Man in the Image of God”—and there’s an immense gap between the two.  While I freely grant that RM+NS (or any other fully natural, god-doesn’t-get-his-hands-dirty sort of process you might care to name) can generate lots of interesting variation, it cannot (at least according to the standard definitions, an example of which is referenced earlier) generate any particular outcome.  Not that it doesn’t  “build up variety”—of course it does.  But that it cannot hit any distinct target, or get us to any specific end.  And it’s that particular outcome that is non-optional to any Christian account of origins. Simply repeating the standard mantras of common descent, an old earth or “Let’s try reading Genesis this way…” is woefully inadequate. 

hanan-d - #81248

June 21st 2013

>A theist, on the other hand, has to make a coherent argument that gets you from “a variety of life forms” to “Man in the Image of God”—and there’s an immense gap between the two.


Exactly. It goes back to the same question over and over and over and over and over and over again. If natural selection is…...natural could it have been “octupus in the image of God?”

Roger A. Sawtelle - #81246

June 21st 2013

Jon and Chip,

You have been on this website long enough to know that I am not trying to speak for BioLogos or even for Theistic Evolution.  What I am trying to find is an answer for this difficult question.  That requires looking at the problem from different angles, instead of trying to square the circle.

In Gen 1 God told the birds of the sir and the fish of the sea to be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth.  The God made the creatures of the earth, but did not tell them to be fruitful and multiply.  Then God created human beings and told them to be fruitful, multiply, fill the earth, and subdue it. 

Now if God commanded the birds and the creatures of the sea to be fruitful and multiply, then they must have the ability and freedom to do so.  It could be that you think that God created every individual specially, but the evidence seems to indicate that God used evolution to create different kinds of creatures and species, including humans. 

The point is that evolution does have a purpose, regardless what Darwin said, Dawkins thinks, and Monod wrote.  I think that should make you happy. 

Now for how we get from a variety of creatures to humans, of course humans are one of those creatures.  I could be flip and say that God kept trying until God get it right, like the multiverse theory.  It seems to me that God looks at life holistically or ecologically.  God could have created humans and then designed a world around us, but instead God designed a world and placed us at its center. 

God could have placed us a barren world and fed us by manna and quail, But God did not.  God could have made us vegetarians, but God did not.  God could have made us independent of food, or water or even oxygen, but God in the divine wisdom did not and who are we to question this. 

God gives us all that we have.  God made us all that we are.  What God does not do is take over responsibilities that are rightfully ours, not because God can’t, but because God does not need to.  God is still in charge.  Humans are not.          

Jon Garvey - #81257

June 22nd 2013


“Be fruitful and multiply.”

As it happens I’ve written recently on Aquinas’s distinction between “creation” (which he always sees as ex nihilo, and “generation”, which is a useful distinction for this discussion. So given his pre-Darwinian assumption of a more-or-less literal Genesis (though he actually considers other philosophical models like an eternal Universe before turning theological), he sees the creation of the creatures as the making ex nihilo of the types we see, together with their inbuilt capacities to reproduce after their kind. The generations after that may be said to be generated by animal/vegetable nature, and are only improperly said to be created - though as exemplars of “dog” or “fish” nature they are still God’s creations, not their own. “Self-creation” Aquinas dismisses as an irrational concept, and I agree.

His idea is clearly no more than what is intended in Genesis: that God gives organisms a nature which is capable of reproducing abundantly to fill the earth. I suggest that to call that “freedom” is misleading terminology: it is the endowment of true secondary causes, circumscribed by created natures, and (in both Aquinas’s view and the Bible’s) subject to God’s ongoing special providence. If you write a document and set your printer to make a thousand copies, you wouldn’t say it is “free” in any real sense, but it does have an inbuilt capacity to reproduce the pattern you “created” under its own steam.

Now, let us update that and suppose that God created organisms with natures capable not only of reproduction, but of evolutionary change. Genesis was not written with that in view (unless one takes a fundamentalist view of the Bible as inspired modern science). Nevertheless, such evolutionary capacity is quite compatible, as you rightly say, with the Genesis creation account, and with God’s command to be fruitful.

But it no more represents “freedom” than does Aquinas’s non-evolutionary description: it represents the natures God has created, capable this time of “generation plus evolutionary change”, and yet constrained by whatever “Laws” God has built into those natures - and also no less subject to God’s providential care than Job 39-41, Psalm 104 or Mt 10.29 assert.

Apart from any other objection, what exactly is it that is supposed to be “free”? Not the dog or bird, which according to NDT exercise no choice whatsoever in the direction of their evolution, that being caused by random mutation and natural selection, which are external to the nature of the creature, and actually coerce change upon it on pain of death. If anything has this “freedom” it is some vague entity called “Nature”, in which case the command of Genesis 1 ought to read “Nature, make the creatures fruitful and multiply them according to their kinds.”

Exorcise that weasel-word “freedom”, which appears to have entered the discussion under completely false pretences, and the question of evolution’s “precision” is as open as it was before: did God (a) create the systems of nature and (b) manage them providentially, so that specific species, including H. sapiens, would result?

Traditional NDT appears to offer teleology at only the vaguest level: even increasing complexity is not ensured, let alone intelligence (until you add some other speculative principle like Conway Morris’s convergence). None of the creatures in the Job passage would be cause for Yahweh’s “boasting” if NDT is true and complete, for all their features would be contingent. God didn’t endow the ostrich with sense because he didn’t endow it with anything specific. Job was being misled by a set of empty boasts.

Other newly emerging mechanisms of evolution suggest a far more potent teleological capability, a much more sophisticated “evolutionary system”. And that reflects a wiser and more forward-looking, purpose-orientated Creation closer to what is implied in Genesis (where Hebrew “bara” has everything to do with God’s ordering and organising of the world for mankind, not just the making of stuff, still less stuff with “freedom” to become other stuff).

So I return to my core claim that “freedom of nature” theology derives from swallowing too readily a view of evolution based on materialism’s “undirected” trope, theologically tweaked to make it more attractively “self-directed” through a specious and incoherent  concept of liberty. But it has little to do with the Biblical account of nature as “God-directed” from top to bottom, despite the real operation of secondary efficient causes that makes the scientific project possible.

Roger A. Sawtelle - #81262

June 22nd 2013


We have two models of change.  One is determinate and the other is indeterminate.  The determinate model is usually applied to non-human systems, while the non-determinate to human systems.

My observation is that human systems are have both determinate and non-determinate elements, and so do non-human systems.  God created both so neither is a problem for God. 

When we adopt a dualistic view of the world which says that a system must be either determinate or nondeterminate, we distort our understanding of the world as God made it.  God is not a dualist as the world clearly demonstrates. 

Therefore if we are going to understand the world as God made it, as it really is, humans, both believers and non-believers, must develop a worldview which is neither dualistic nor monistic. 

I have made my proposal which I feel is consistent with both the Biblical understanding and the world as we know it scientifically.  No one has to think like me, but we do need to change and this could be a starting point.    

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