t f p g+ YouTube icon

What Do You Mean When You Say “Evolution”?

Bookmark and Share

January 20, 2010 Tags: Design

Today's video features Ard Louis. Please note the views expressed here are those of the author, not necessarily of BioLogos. You can read more about what we believe here.

In this video clip, Oxford University biophysicist, Ard Louis posits that one of the reasons Christians are hostile to evolution is that they latch onto a particular definition, which puts it in conflict with their theological convictions.

Louis begins by explaining the three primary ways in which evolution is generally defined:

First, evolution may be defined as a process that takes things from a level of simplicity to a level of complexity—e.g. from a basic cell level to the level of complexity apparent in the human existence. It is a process that we could simply define as “natural history” (0:27).

Second, Louis notes that evolution can also be described as a mechanism within the evolutionary process, there are mutations and selections that together generate complexity (0:41).

Finally, he points to evolution as a worldview (0:41) perhaps best epitomized by paleontologist George Gaylord Simpson’s suggestion that “Man is the result of a purposeless and natural process that did not have him in mind.”

Louis goes on to say that for many Christians, the nuanced definition of evolution becomes subsumed under the “evolution as worldview” ideology, which is nothing more than a set of theological statements put on top of evolution (that Christians are right to reject).

He continues with a critique of the Intelligent Design (ID) movement, which appears to be attacking the second definition of evolution—i.e. “evolution as a mechanism”. Louis describes ID as a movement without apologetic traction as it lacks a valid scientific counterargument (1:37) and as something that pulls us away from the Bible as it lacks a scriptural basis (1:44).

Commentary written by the BioLogos editorial team.

Ard Louis is a Professor of Theoretical Physics at the University of Oxford, where he leads a interdisciplinary research group studying problems on the border between chemistry, physics and biology, and is also director of graduate studies in theoretical physics. From 2002 to 2010 he was a Royal Society University Research Fellow at the University of Cambridge and the University of Oxford. He is also an associate of the Faraday Institute for Science and Religion. He has written for the BioLogos Foundation, where as of November 2011, he sat on the Board of Directors. He engages in molecular gastronomy. Prior to his post at Oxford he taught Theoretical Chemistry at Cambridge University where he was also director of studies in Natural Sciences at Hughes Hall. He was born in the Netherlands, was raised in Gabon and received his first degree from the University of Utrecht and his Ph.D. in theoretical physics from Cornell University.

Learn More

View the archived discussion of this post

This article is now closed for new comments. The archived comments are shown below.

Page 2 of 2   « 1 2
Glen Davidson - #3195

January 22nd 2010

From the DI:

Technological Evolution (TRIZ). The only well-documented example we have of the evolution of complex multipart integrated functional systems (as we see in biology) is the technological evolution of human inventions. In the second half of the twentieth century, Russian scientists and engineers studied hundreds of thousands of patents to determine how technologies evolve. They codified their findings in a theory to which they gave the acronym TRIZ, which in English translates to Theory of Inventive Problem Solving (see Semyon 3 Savransky, Engineering of Creativity: Introduction to TRIZ Methodology of Inventive Problem Solving, CRC Publishers, 2000). The picture of technological evolution that emerges out of TRIZ parallels remarkably the history of life as we see it in the fossil record and includes the following: (1) New technologies (cf. major groups like phyla and classes) emerge suddenly as solutions to inventive problems. Such solutions require major conceptual leaps (i.e., design). As soon as a useful new technology is developed, it is applied immediately and as widely as possible (cf. convergent evolution).

Glen Davidson

Glen Davidson - #3196

January 22nd 2010

Continuing the DI quote:

(2) Existing technologies (cf. species and genera) can, by contrast, be modified by trial-anderror tinkering (cf. Darwinian evolution), which amounts to solving routine problems rather than inventive problems. (The distinction between routine and inventive problems is central to TRIZ. In biology, irreducible complexity suggests one way of making the analytic cut between these types of problems. Are there other ways?) (3) Technologies approach ideality (cf. local optimization by means of natural selection) and thereafter tend not change (cf. stasis). (4) New technologies, by supplanting old technologies, can upset the ideality and stasis of the old technologies, thus forcing them to evolve in new directions (requiring the solution of new inventive problems, as in an arms race) or by driving them to extinction. Mapping TRIZ onto biological evolution provides a especially promising avenue of designtheoretic research.


Glen Davidson

Glen Davidson - #3197

January 22nd 2010

It’s always interesting to see how a theological stance like ID differs radically in its arguments across factions and individuals.  There’s neither much learning nor much empirical data that would hold ID to any one stance. 

So Arago flatly contradicts how the word “evolution” is used, clearly based on his essentialist view of language.  Meanwhile, the DI—also given to essentialist viewpoints—tries to spin technological evolution as if it is easily analogous with biological evolution.  Clearly it is not, since no life appears “suddenly” at any time (or at least our resolving capabilities cannot demonstrate any such thing), nor does life incorporate what Behe calls “conceptual precursors,” but in every case we have seen it has “physical precursors” in the form of genes (laterally transferred in some cases).

Indeed, I have no idea why Behe brought up that distinction in DBB, since that creates an easily falsifiable—and falsified—prediction from design.

Glen Davidson

Knockgoats - #3198

January 22nd 2010

Gregory Arago,

Who operates the search and who does the programming? You surely admit that the computers on which the programmers are working didn’t ‘naturally evolve’ into existence!

So what? I have clearly refuted your claim that technology never evolves. You are now reduced to saying that processes which at some stage involve some element of design are different from biological evolution. I agree completely. So far as we can tell, biological evolution was not planned, even the conditions to allow it to proceed were not designed, no agency was involved. Congratulations, Gregory - you’re an atheist!

Gregory Arago - #3199

January 22nd 2010

Yes, Glen, I agree with you that it is more than a bit strange that people in the DI accept ‘technological evolution,’ while challenging aspects of biological evolution.

There was even a contest a few years back on Dembski’s blog where he awarded someone a cash prize for the best example of ‘technological evolution.’ The winning entry was about a stagecoach. You can find it still on-line.

I’m glad that you don’t think technological change is analogous to biological evolution. Same here.

What’s with the charge of being an ‘essentialist’ wrt language? I just said that computers don’t ‘naturally evolve.’ This is one way to ‘limit evolution’. You agree with this, don’t you Glen?

Still curious for someone to comment if I heard Dr. Louis correctly on the video.

Knockgoats - #3234

January 23rd 2010

Glen said that technological evolution is not easily analogous with biological evolution, with which I would agree. Nonetheless, the analogies are there, the differences being as enlightening as the similarities. For anyone interested in the issue (you’ve already declared that you prefer to stick your fingers in your ears and say “La, la, la, can’t hear you!”), I recommend Technological Innovation as an Evolutionary Process”, edited by John Ziman.

Gregory Arago - #3236

January 23rd 2010

Knockgoats, Don’t be such an arrogant stick in the mud! I’m well aware of the many ways people speak of ‘technological evolution.’ I’ve written and published articles, presented at conferences on TRIZ. La, la, la is a strange way of arguing that shows your arsenal has run out!

I wrote simply and clearly that “human-made things do not evolve.” That is, one cannot account for novelty or creativity within an evolutionary paradigm.

In #3166, you wrote: “Yes, I know.”

Even Darwin distinguished ‘natural selection’ from ‘artificial selection.’

Knockgoats wants to have everything fit together under his narrow, naturalistic worldview, a worldview which contradicts a vast majority of human beings who believe in the spiritual realm. Knockgoats is unwilling to speak about ‘things that don’t evolve.’

What is his answer to this? All he can do is spit out denials: no, it isn’t, or no, it doesn’t. This is not a serious position. And I don’t see why I should waste any more of my time dialoguing in good faith with someone who simply doesn’t want to listen or make a positive contribution to science and religion dialogue.

Knockgoats - #3241

January 23rd 2010

Gregory Arago,

My “La, la, la” comment was in response to your earlier dismissal of my suggestion that you read D.T. Campbell, on the grounds that you would find it “dispiriting”.

That is, one cannot account for novelty or creativity within an evolutionary paradigm.

With regard to novelty, that is quite obviously false, as is shown not only by the entire history of life on Earth, but by genetic algorithms and genetic programming.

Knockgoats wants to have everything fit together under his narrow, naturalistic worldview, a worldview which contradicts a vast majority of human beings who believe in the spiritual realm.
I have in the past given numerous examples of findings that would lead me to abandon naturalism, directly in response to you IIRC. I have also pointed out that Argumentum ad populum is a recognised logical fallacy. At the same time I asked you for actual evidence or argument indicating that there is a “spiritual realm”, which you failed to supply.

Knockgoats - #3242

January 23rd 2010


Knockgoats is unwilling to speak about ‘things that don’t evolve.’
That’s simply false. Protons do not evolve. Stars do not evolve (in anything like the same sense as life does). The Earth’s geology does not evolve. As I said explicitly recently in response to you, evolution is not the only natural process.

What is his answer to this? All he can do is spit out denials: no, it isn’t, or no, it doesn’t.
I do that when, and only when, confronted with an assertion made without supporting reasons for making it - something you are particularly fond of.

And I don’t see why I should waste any more of my time dialoguing in good faith with someone who simply doesn’t want to listen or make a positive contribution to science and religion dialogue.
Your real problem with me is that I repeatedly show how absurd your views and “arguments” are. I shall continue to do so, whether you respond or not. I don’t believe a dialogue between science and religion is any more useful than one between science and astrology.

Gregory Arago - #3258

January 23rd 2010

Yes, I did and have read D.T. Campbell. Yet another dispiriting, naturalistic voice.

How can anyone think that ‘nature is all there is’?!

Genetic algorithms & programming both have human actors involved. Once you have choice, agency, purpose & goals involved, this is *not* evolution, at least not in the neo-Darwinian sense. Computers & radios don’t ‘evolve’ into existence by RM & NS!

It would be ridiculous to argue with this, but yet some people do try.

I don’t recall reading anything that would lead Knockgoats to abandon ‘naturalism’ or even to honestly consider the ‘real’ existence of a non-natural, cultural or spiritual realm. One cannot prove the existence of something ‘non-natural’ with a natural scientific method. One needs to invite other realms of knowledge. Since he dismisses those realms out of hand, there is nothing left to do but laugh, sigh or grieve.

Gregory Arago - #3259

January 23rd 2010

“Protons do not evolve. Stars do not evolve” ... “The Earth’s geology does not evolve.” - Knockgoats (#3242)

You don’t accept chemical, geological or cosmological evolution?!

Are you serious? Why not?

Two among many examples:

This sounds like anti-evolution in the natural-physical sciences!

That is something that I don’t advocate, even as someone who challenges evolutionism in human-social sciences.

Gregory Arago - #3260

January 23rd 2010

Would Dr. Ard Louis be available to speak about these things and to identify some of the borders and boundaries outside of which he considers ‘evolution’ to be ‘unscientific’?

Natural history, mechanism and worldview are fine general definitions. But in the details are all sorts of challenging issues. Of course, one can’t expect too much in 3 1/4 minutes of dialogue!

As a theoretical physicist, would Dr. Louis say that “all natural things evolve”?

Rev. John Polkinghorne is another interesting figure to consider here.

Polkinghorne was absolutely clear to distinguish the limits of natural-physical sciences. Within the sovereign realms of religion and theology, much thinking is done and knowledge is produced that those who dare not step outside of ‘science of nature’ in their lives never are able to experience.

Knockgoats - #3262

January 23rd 2010


I’m actually coming to the conclusion that you have some strange cognitive disability that prevents you understanding what others mean, or keeping your own ideas consistent. The most specific meaning of “evolution” refers to populations: collections of entities that reproduce, and show inheritance of specific traits between generations: populations of organisms are the prototypical case. Protons, stars and geological formations do not do this. It is true astronomers talk of the “evolution” of stars, meaning how they change over long periods of time - that is why I added the qualification in parentheses. To the contrary, there are many aspects of human culture that do show something analogous, because people imitate each other, and copy what others have made. Processes of imitation resemble those of biological evolution much more closely than either resembles the changes that occur in stars or planets.

Gregory Arago - #3314

January 25th 2010

We might be on the same page for the first time, after all, Knockgoats.

First, you did speak of stars and protons in plural, so one could speak of populations of stars & protons.  But you seem to mean that ‘popuations’ are things that ‘reproduce.’ Is this correct?

In this sense, only ‘organic’ things can be said to ‘evolve’ in the archetypical sense.

Cosmological evolution and geological evolution are misnomers because entities in these realms ‘change’ in a different way than ‘organic change.’

Again, for me, ‘change’ is the master category. ‘Evolution’ is a particular type of change; change is not a type of evolution. Do you agree with me here?

Wrt human culture, I think you are simply using obsolete thought. Yes, people imitate and copy others. But this isn’t ‘evolution,’ because people have goals in mind when they do so. Human cultural change is fundamentally a teleological phenomenon.

True, there are many people who don’t accept or believe this. But then, there are many people who don’t accept or believe BioLogos either!

Gregory Arago - #3337

January 25th 2010

To repeat the point, what is said in the second sentence here is just plain gibberish:

“laptop computers have evolved in the last decade” - BioLogos

This is simply imprecise. Did ‘nature’ use a ‘selection’ process on computers? No. Did computers ‘mutate’? Not in the way that biological entities mutate.

Did human beings build, construct, design, experiment on, program, engineer, make computers? Yes. Was there randomness involved? If any, very little. Purpose and planning were involved.

Computers are thus an example of ‘human-made’ things that simply do not ‘evolve.’

But let’s not reduce the meaning of how computers ‘emerged’ in human societies by saying that they were *only* designed! We must go beyond that…

Page 2 of 2   « 1 2