Does Evolution Hinge on Statements about God?

@pnelson raised an interesting question. Does evidence for evolution “hinge upon claims about God”?

@pnelson cited the following article by Stephen Dilley and has kindly made his email available if others want access to the full article:

Here is a link to Dobzhansky’s original 1973 paper:

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If, as @pnelson seems to be implying, the answer is yes, then most or all of the articles returned in a pubmed search (such as for “macroevolution AND review”) would be littered with claims about God. Readers are invited to sort through the results of such a search and tally these claims.


It might be helpful to start with Dobzhansky and Dilley papers for now. From there we can branch out and see if the critiques and assessments apply more widely.

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@pnelson’s original statement was:

The problem of God-talk in academic biology is far more pervasive than I have time to elaborate here.

Dilley’s review (as it were) of Dobzhansky’s article doesn’t actually support @pnelson’s assertion (although DIlley seems to argue both sides of the debate at times). More importantly, it is essential to consider the context of Dobzhansky’s article. As Dilley himself states:

A critic might claim that Dobzhansky draws on theology only because he attacks a view already rife with divinity (creationism). Indeed, Dobzhansky’s article originally appeared in The American Biology Teacher, a journal for science educators, opposite an article by creationist Duane Gish (1973).

I have a hard time accepting that anyone could consider anything in Dobzhansky’s article as serious theology (although Dilley, and seemingly @pnelson do). To leap from Dobzhansky’s informal quips about creationism (of the Gish-ian sort) to some sort of detailed and scholarly depiction of theology is to, frankly, go off the deep end.

So, I repeat - as it relates to evolution (heck, to biology in general), show us the God-talk in the research literature. Let’s see just how pervasive this really is.


To give people a feel for the Dilley paper, here is a section that sums up the main argument:

I would argue that 1. is all you need. The theory of evolution predicts a specific observation, and that observation is made. That’s evidence for evolution. Period.

As discussed by George Romanes clear back in 1883, science uses the law of parsimony: We don’t assume the actions of higher causes when the actions of lower causes is capable of producing what we observe. It is possible to dream up any number of scenarios where an intelligent designer could produce any possible observation that we could make, so it is meaningless to say that an intelligent designer could have done X. For example, when testing Newton’s Laws of Gravitation or Einstein’s equations of Relativity against the orbits of planets we don’t have to consider the possibility that invisible pink gravity fairies would guide planets about our Sun in a way that exactly mimics the predictions made by those laws and equations.


The answer, as Roy said, is No.

If we take “evolution” at its most general simply to mean “the transformation of objects of type A, over time, into objects of type B, by some natural process” then Hertzsprung-Russell diagrams depicting the stellar Main Sequence (for instance) require no theology. The hypothesized transformation of a lineage of single-celled eukaryotes into colonial and then true multicellular organisms should also require no God-talk.

Nonetheless, it is a historical fact about evolutionary theory (biological) on Earth that it emerged from a theological cradle in the 19th century and still carries its cradle garments with it, when the theory is being expounded to students and the public at large. Here’s a thought experiment to make the point plain.

Imagine organizing a intra-galactic science conference with friendly alien scientists from Proxima Centauri. The schedule calls for their scientists, and ours, to compare knowledge bases, starting with physics, then proceeding to chemistry, biochemistry, cell and organismal biology, and so on. During the first few days, as physics and chemistry are compared, we and the aliens are fully on the same page (periodic table the same, for instance).

But when organismal biology arrives, Richard Dawkins stands up and proclaims that we on Earth know that vertebrates evolved because no designer worth his salt would have constructed the backwards-oriented photoreceptors of vertebrates. Jerry Coyne adds the recurrent laryngeal nerve to the mix, with John Avise spending all his time on the illogic (poor design) of genome organization.

The aliens listen politely for a while, then raise their dozens of hands.

“Why all this talk about what God would have done?” they ask. “That is NOT how we understand biology AT ALL.”

The God-talk is there, obviously, because evolution’s main competitor in 1859, when the modern theory was born, was some form of creationism. Thus what Darwin called his “one long argument” in the Origin was an argument against special creation. And those cradle garments, as I’m calling them, still cling to the theory.

So, why, in 2021, is the theology (or its adjuncts, such as “perfection” and “imperfection,” conditioned on the assumed actions of an optimizing designer) still there? See, for instance, this paper:

This talk by Greg Radick (U of Leeds) is also of interest:

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We also have a modern religious and political movement that criticizes science for not considering their religious beliefs with respect to cosmology, geology, and biology. So what happens when science does consider those religious beliefs? Apparently, they get criticized for it. Damned if you do, damned if you don’t.

The aliens could assess all of the evidence on their own and come to the same conclusion that the consensus of Earth scientists have, that life evolved through specific natural mechanisms.

The situation you are describing applies to your DI fellows. They would stand up and complain that their religious beliefs in a creator deity aren’t being considered.


Remarkable convergence. That’s exactly the title of Dilley’s survey of biology textbooks, which I just linked.

Dilley surveyed biology textbooks, and the God-talk was pervasive:'t_The_Problem_of_God-talk_in_Biology_Textbooks


Is it your opinion that science should not consider theological claims at all?

No. Just be honest about it. If one is venturing into theology, recognize that one’s opponent is also free to go there. “Thus much concerning God, to discourse of whom from the appearance of things, does certainly belong to Natural Philosophy” (Newton, Principia).

Don’t use theology, and then shackle your opponent around his ankles with methodological naturalism.

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Because you and your ilk are still pushing the same creationist arguments that were being used in 1859.

Backwards photoreceptors and recurrent nerves are counterexamples to the creationist claims that biological organisms are designed. They would not be needed as evidence of vertebrate evolution for your imagined intragalactic conference - the palaeontological and genetic evidence would suffice. You are erecting a phantasm to tilt at.


I would note that this article appears to set a very low threshold for detection of Theology/“God-talk”. It would appear that any mention of creationism or “design” triggers it. This would appear problematical for any attempt to provide contextual information on the history of evolutionary thought, or attempts to explain the limitations of evolution (that it is path-dependent, rather than giving a ‘greenfield’ optimal solution).


I think Dilley makes claims in that survey that are not entirely accurate. and draws conclusions that are not warranted.


Why should science venture into theology?

What if people demand that science address theology?

If someone claims they are doing science then why shouldn’t we expect them to follow the rules of MN?


For example, Dilley’s first example of what he calls “Presumptive Theology”:

Several textbooks draw on presumptive theology as part of their positive case for common ancestry. For example, one textbook states:

“An engineer would never use the same underlying structure to design a grasping tool, a digging implement, a walking device, a propeller, and a wing. Instead, the structural homology exists because mammals evolved from the lungfish-like ancestor that had the same general arrangement of bones in its fins.39”

From this, he leaps to:

As such, the argument contains a theology-laden assumption:

If God designed different species with biological structures analogous to a grasping tool, a digging implement, a walking device, a propeller, and a wing, respectively, then he would never use the same underlying structure, modifying it specially for the particular needs (and limbs) of each new species.

A final observation, already implied, is that the passage makes a comparative argument. The data of “structural homology” are said to favor common ancestry over the divine engineer hypothesis. Stated a bit more precisely, the argument appears to be:

  1. If evolutionary theory is true, then we would very much expect to find some mammals with the “same general arrangement of bones” in their appendages (due to their descent from a “lungfish-like ancestor”).

  2. If God engineered different species with biological structures analogous to a grasping tool, a digging implement, a walking device, a propeller, and a wing, respectively, then he “would never use the same underlying structure,” modifying it specially for the particular needs (and limbs) of each new species.

The excerpt above (“An engineer would never use the same underlying …”) is lifted from a subsection entitled “Evidence for Descent From a Common Ancestor” in a textbook by Freeman et al. There is absolutely no mention of God, or creationism, or any theological idea anywhere in this section, and it is quite clear that the authors are using everyday experience (NOT God-talk) to help students understand the example. Here is the complete section the quote is lifted from:

Structural homology is a similarity in adult morphology, or form. A classic example is the common structural plan observed in the limbs of vertebrates. In Darwin’s own words, “What could be more curious than that the hand of a man, formed for grasping, that of a mole for digging, the leg of the horse, the paddle of the porpoise, and the wing of the bat, should all be constructed on the same pattern, and should include the same bones, in the same relative positions?” An engineer would never use the same underlying structure to design a grasping tool, a digging implement, a walking device, a propeller, and a wing. Instead, the structural homology exists because mammals evolved from a lungfish-like ancestor that had the same general arrangement of bones in its fins.

The three levels of homology interact. Genetic homologies cause the developmental homologies observed in embryos, which then lead to the structural homologies recognized in adults.

In some cases, hypotheses about homology can be tested experimentally. For example, researchers (1) isolated a mouse gene that was thought to be homologous to the fruit fly eyeless gene, (2) inserted the mouse gene into fruit fly embryos, (3) stimulated expression of the foreign gene in locations that normally give rise to appendages, and (4) observed formation of eyes on legs and antennae (Figure 22.7). The function of the inserted gene was identical to that of eyeless. This result was strong evidence that the fruit fly and mouse genes are homologous, as predicted from their sequence similarity.

Homology is a key concept in contemporary biology:…

The leap from this to “If God designed different species with biological structures analogous to a grasping tool …” defies comprehension. Frankly, this seems to me to be a bit like Photoshopping in bands on gels or blots to arrive at the conclusion one wants. Dilley wants, ne needs, there to be questionable “God talk” in the numerous textbooks he is reviewing, and is willing to insert such talk where it actually does not exist.

Dilley does this several times in his paper. This is why I say “Dilley makes claims in that survey that are not entirely accurate. and draws conclusions that are not warranted.”


No theology here, folks.

Except that when a student asks, “What engineer?” the only sensible answer would be “the kind of engineer who makes animal limbs.” In other words, when a student pursues Darwin’s own words back to their source in the Origin, he will find that Darwin is contrasting the theoretical expectations of a theory of divine design with what should be expected of a natural process.

Humans have no “everyday experience” of designing and building animals. The agent in question, from which observational expectations are being inferred, looks very much like a deity.

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Thank you for reinforcing my point. The content of evolutionary theory, circa 2021, rests on an ongoing polemic against creationism (see Dan Graur’s 2013 SMBE lecture slides, for instance). Its textbook and public presentation, and quite frequently, even its primary publications, are conditioned on theology. Why does the recurrent laryngeal nerve (Dawkins made an entire video about the giraffe RLN) support undirected evolution? Because a wise designer putatively wouldn’t have done it that way. Whether any creationists are in the room should be neither here nor there, but evolutionary biologists can’t break their theology habit. It’s easy and effective rhetoric.

Imagine opening a 2021 chemistry textbook, and finding diatribes against phlogiston in every other chapter, or an infectious disease textbook which inveighed repeatedly against noxious vapors.

I asked Stephen Jay Gould about this, on a visit to his Museum of Comparative Zoology office in March 1990. He said his 1980 panda’s thumb essay, which argues that the supposedly kludgy design of the pseudo thumb is “proof” of evolution, was meant merely to illuminate Darwin’s use of the natural theological concepts he found ready-to-hand during his education at Cambridge. Had Darwin grown up on the Continent, Gould said, he would have used different intellectual tools to build his case for common descent via natural processes.

I replied to Gould that he (Gould) intended the panda’s thumb argument to be sound and true in 1980, not 1859; that Gould, an agnostic or atheist, didn’t have to read Paley to receive a Cambridge degree, but grew up in Brooklyn in a Marxist family, was educated in neo-Darwinian theory – in short, Gould’s own cultural & social circumstances couldn’t have been more different from Darwin’s.

Yet Gould wrote:

“Odd arrangements and funny solutions are the proof of evolution; paths that a sensible God would never tread but that a natural process, constrained by history, follows perforce.”

If you find this a sound argument, you are borrowing from theology. That’s not my problem to sort out. The “sensible God,” logically necessary to reach the conclusion, is your construct.

It is nice to see an ID proponent agree with my assessment that ID is inescapably religious.

Scientists do. Humans have been genetically modifying animals and other types of organisms for decades now.