Room for Discussing Design in Evolution?

@Randy @anon46279830 Randy and Mark: This is a huge sticking point for me and one of the reasons why I’m enjoying the experience here so far. I would ask a question like this, to myself, for instance, and try to envision what would be an appropriate sort of answer to this question (for instance) from folks in different camps. My immediate impression would be that, from the perspective of an evolutionary biologist, for instance, or someone from the evolutionary creationist camp, the response might only be limited to this:

The significance is that this shape was selected over time due to it being advantageous or beneficial.

I’m probably not using correct terminology, so please forgive me and hopefully see through to the question.

Someone who might be from the ID or OEC camp may, for instance, say this:

It could have been a beneficial design modification, or something similar, that allowed for (as Randy says) malleability or neural advantages.

The question I’m asking is this: In the context of evolutionary biology (or EC for that matter) is there room to discuss “significance” in terms of its obvious design benefits? In this case, I am referring to “design” as the shape that ended up to accommodate the more modern brain and potentially make birth less dangerous to the person being born? Not “design” as a trick wherein I’m going to say, "Ah Ha! You said “design” so there must be a Designer…

Obviously I would love to hear opinions from folks in other camps too.

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God is our designer… and he used Evolution to execute the design…


Absolutely. Yes there is. There is a scientific account. In that scientific account, our discourse is limited. Outside science, however, as whole people we can see a bigger picture. We affirm that God created everything. He designed us all. Evolution cannot account for everything. Even if it is true, it remains throughly surprising that the world turned out the way it did.

Design is not an illusion. Science is blind to it, but we know that God created us. This is, at least for me, how I understand it.


Thank you @gbrooks9 and @swamidass very much. I would like to flesh this out a bit more so that I can better understand how these two domains fit together and how professionals like you navigate them.

I would be interested to know how @Patrick would respond, from a perspective of one who does not see there being a God outside of science (or within for that matter, obviously.)

But, back to my original question, when you see evidence of design (significant purpose that has arisen over time and has manifest as functional benefit) and you are having a purely scientific conversation, how does that take place? Using @Randy 's example of the globular brain shape, if you are considering its significance, in the scientific realm (when seeking the cause of this adaptation) are you left to say that it must be attributed to mutation and selection (for instance) because the more one gets into evaluating “purpose”, the more likely it is to begin to see it as a “design?”

As Joshua says:

If, as I understand it, evolution is a narrative, and not a force, it seems that the scientific discussion would have to ascribe the purpose seen in what has evolved (malleability or neural advantage in Randy’s example), to a function that arose via mutations that were selected due to advantage or benefit alone. Such that, after the fact, the benefits described above were only coincidentally realized after the fact (because they could not have been designed for that purpose.)

Whereas, when we have the same discussion “outside of science,” we would (despite our philosophy or theology) tend to describe the globular brain shape, for instance, as a design that was implemented for a certain purpose (to achieve the benefits described.) This would occur naturally in conversation (as it does) because this is how we, as intelligent beings think.

Are there conversations, such as this one, that take place in silos where one must “switch hats”? Or am I somehow missing some major aspect that allows you who operate regularly in this space to view features that operate significantly within these two magisteria simultaneously?

There is the rub, isn’t it? There appears to be design, but where and how does one quantify it? Many would argue there is none, but if one goes back even to the laws of physics that make everything come together apparently on its own (if it does form complexity on its own), one can think that God did all that. Denis Lamoureux, an evolutionary creationist, says it’s sort of like God being an expert billiard player and predicting where each ball would go with just one shot–and placing all the balls in all the pockets in one shot. It’s certainly cause for humility as one learns more!

I suspect that @anon46279830’s example of a more globular brain shape does indeed correspond to improved neuronal connections, because the fissures and increasingly complex cortex you see in humans improves connections and higher thought–so I think he is right there. Does that mean God intervened; and if so, did He do it then or at the very beginning, by planning it all out? I can’t really prove anything. @jongarvey has put in some good discussions about the meaning of the word “create,” and so does @swamidass. @Guy_Coe, I believe, comes at it from a more interventionalist perspective. I am not a scientist, so I’ll leave it up to them more at this point.

I doubt that @swamidass minds talking about both topics at once–though he may put up a new thread (or the moderators may).

Neuroscience is really neat stuff.

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That is the rub. I agree that everything looks designed because it is “designed” (whatever that means). Evolution might still be true. These are separable concerns. Life might be designed, but there is no way to state that coherently in scientific discourse in the language of science. I observe that science is limited, and that is perhaps the best way to give account of its silence on design.

Of note, “design” to me is a theological statement, that God created with intention and purpose. It is not a coherent scientific concept, in that I have not seen it brought forward in a scientifically coherent way.

Well, not quite. Evolution is not a narrative or a force. At an essential level, evolution is the best understanding from science for a large range of different patterns we see in nature. It is such a powerful explanation that it sometimes becomes a narrative in science, and more problematically a narrative outside of science. There is nothing essential that requires this. Often science adopts language of “purpose” without meaning purpose too. Science speaks in its own language, and we should dispense with the naive belief that it is easily translatable to other discourse.

That is not what we think in modern evolutionary science. Moreover, science does not make claims about God’s design. It is silent on God.

Yes. That is true. That is legitimate as long as we carefully bound those statements as beyond the limits of science.

Yes and yes.

My scientific work is siloed off, and would not use much of the language here. That is appropriate. Scientific discourse is designed to enable theologically neutral progress to be made in understanding the world with an agreed upon set of rules. That is why, for example, both @Patrick and I both mean the same thing when we describe “science”. We are accepting it as it is, as a place of common ground, common rules, and common discovery.

The way I am able to operate and be public in the theology-science conversation is that I am really clear about what is my scientific claims, and what is my theological claims. I can say just about anything in theology. I have to play by the rules of science when I make scientific claims.

I accept those rules. I enforce those rules. I teach those rules. I defend those rules. The Rules of the Game

Those rules, in fact, are why and how I can operate in this space without calling down the wrath of other scientists. One of my goals here is to help other Christians understand this too, so they can find a confident voice alongside me.


Well put.

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I also see design in nature everywhere I look. But I see the designer as nothing more than the purposeless and mindless walk of natural selection. I can’t think of a more ruthless, unjust and cruel way of designing than natural selection. Mutations occur, most are deadly, some just debilitating, and just a few might give a slightly better survival record that others. The others are left to die. Cold, pitiless indifference.

However, this unintelligent designer did manage to design organisms with cognitive brains. And after hundreds of thousands of years, we can now use science and reason to live better, more purposeful lives. Now it is up to us not the screw that up.

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Except that science has left natural selection behind as a panacea to explain design… there is no evidence of the vast majority of “evolution” being selected for (i.e natural selection has very little to do with it).
The current understanding is more like change through cooperation (for example symbiosis, niche creation etc)and what looks like accidents of Providence.
However you have highlighted a good reason why many people think Evolution cannot be a tool used by God. Perhaps @swamidass to comment on this.

Thanks so much @Randy, @gbrooks9, @Patrick and @swamidass for your responses. You’ve really helped to explain a lot, but I still have some more confusion (maybe cognitive dissonance) lingering. I think that some of it has to do with my word selection. I previously stated that it was my understanding that evolution was not a “force” but rather a “narrative.” Joshua replied:

This is very important to my understanding, and, I believe, to the general public as well. So I’d like to give this another stab. If the options that I’m providing are not suitably dichotomous, or are in some way too limiting or too specific, please correct me or suggest replacement terms.

What I was intending to ask was this: Isn’t evolution a “description” of what occurred (I chose to say “a narrative”) rather than something that, in itself, is causal? Is it not the overall description of how mutation, genetic drift, random selection and other actual causes acted, over time, on one species such that it resulted in change?

Joshua described evolution as “the best understanding” from “a large range of … patterns” and an “explanation that … sometimes becomes a narrative in(side)… and outside of science.” To me, this very limited description seems to lend itself to a “description” (narrative) rather than a “function” (force.)

In really elementary terms, for my sake, not yours, “velocity” would be the speed at which a driver was traveling. So it would be a description of how fast she was going. It would not have been the car, or the internal combustion engine, or the fuel… only some description around how those items had potentially worked together or been manipulated in order to result in a certain speed. One may know the velocity and may or may not be able to infer how it was achieved. It depends upon the circumstances and evidence. This is my simple analogy of the relationship between evolution and the entirety of life over time.

Is this correct? If not, would anyone be comfortable in explaining how or why?

@swamidass I think that I was unclear here. I was trying to be very careful to understand how the situation (in this thread) would be understood by evolutionists alone. I was not in any way intending to bring any deity into the conversation. Rather, I was suggesting that if “design” was suspected, it would actually be a manifestation of accumulated benefit that was merely coincidentally realized, because “design” in the traditional sense suggests intent, and evolution could not express intent. (I would design something and then I would make it. In this case, what is made evolved, there was no plan or intent, but we can study what we see and hopefully determine how the evolution occurred.) That said, how does this differ from what you think in modern evolutionary science?

This is the part that makes my brain hurt. @Patrick says:

The word design in this comment must mean “results in”… because, as Patrick says, the “designer” is unintelligent. So there can be no intent, only “cold, pitiless indifference” (which in itself must be a personification, because an “unintelligence” cannot express either indifference or favor.) Is there some other way that this can be understood or interpreted?

As I have said before, I don’t intend to be rude or disruptive, I really want to understand how to navigate these issues on the science side of the discussion. Any assistance in understanding these things from a purely scientific perspective would be appreciated.

Again, thank you, for your generosity in responding/explaining.

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Actually, I get criticized for being one of the LEAST “interventionalist.” Just ask George.
Disputed the “special creation of Adam” as usually conceived. Promoted Walton’s “deep sleep” explanation as a revelatory vision, rather than as any kind of “surgery” that produced Eve.
Proffered a scenario by which eating the “fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil” resulted in neurological change --as adding a necessary physical component in the story --that God didn’t want Adam to take! His unique role in humanity was supposed to proceed along a different path.
Advocated for a seqential reading, and against a “two creations” view, or any need to even go looking for a bottleneck.
Does that help set the record straight?

@Guy_Coe’s post is interesting; I wonder who he is responding to?..

@Ashwin_s, (@swamidass)

Wow… that sentence has troubles from the get go!

You are asserting that because Evolution (in the view of science) is random… that God can’t use it to do what he wants in his cosmic design!


do you ever feel like your words betray you? Evolution as envisioned by insightful Christians is very simple:

A. Mutations conceived of and executed by God;

B. Natural Selection … which involves competition and environmental factors…conceived and executed by God…

C. Producing the shifts and turns in population genetics… as conceived by God.

At the same time, God can miraculously create de-novo Adam/Eve… as part of the moral testing of human awareness.

We don’t know ANYTHING about what God does when he uses Special Creation. But nobody writes that because miracles are completely INEXPLICABLE… God can’t use miracles to accomplish his goals!

But, armed with divine intention, God can do most anything he desires… using Natural and MIRACULOUS methods of Creation together!

Read Patrick’s comment George…
He referred to evolution as a cruel indifferent way to “create” organisms. And hence the indication that a God who uses such a tool would also be cruel or indifferent.
This is a theological objection to Darwinian modes of evolution. Hence I pointed out to him that that this I an outdated view of how evolution happens.

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Gosh… quibble much?!

There is virtually NOTHING an atheist can say which would legitimize your sentence, @Ashwin_s.

There is nothing about any purportedly Godless thing that God cannot use as he wishes… and to successful fruition.

You wrote:

“However you have highlighted a good reason why many people think Evolution cannot be a tool used by God.”

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Yes it’s a reason why people reject certain versions of evolution as not a true reflection of God’s nature.

It’s not about what God can do… it’s a matter of what kind of God would do such a thing… ever heard of Theodicy?

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Yes I have. But as soon as you arrive at Monotheism, theodicy arises in high gear.

So… with or without evolution… there is more than enough Theodicy issues to go around.

Let’s try this one:

B) what, you believe Exodus is true?
G) Sure.
B) So Pharaoh rejected the request from Moses.
G) Yes.
B) But then he changed his mind, right?
G) Yes he was about to, but then God hardened his heart.
B) SO…he HAD to reject Moses one last time.
G) Yes… his heart was hardened by God.
B) Which gave God an excuse to kill all the first born humans and animals of Egypt… just like Moloch does in the Levant (kill the first born).
G) Ummmm… yes… I guess… hey I’m late to theology class … See ya!

Try this conversation with a proper theologian…
Besides I gave a reason why some people reject Darwinism.


You are asserting yourself as a theologian.

You can’t use Theodicy to reject evolution… and then refuse to discuss theodicy.

Hi @gbrooks9 : In your exchange with @Ashwin_s you take him to task when he says this to Patrick:

And then you reply this:

He said the words above in response to @Patrick who spoke of the nature of evolution this way:

Ashwin merely pointed out to Patrick that the callous nature of evolution is one good reason why many people do not see evolution as a tool of God. He’s absolutely correct in saying that. Many people do view the random, indifferent nature of evolution and cannot reconcile it with what they know of God’s nature.

This is the general consensus on evolution and so, it seems, Ashwin’s response was spot on. You have a much different view of evolution, and it varies greatly from the majority description expressed here.

God can obviously use any godless thing he chooses, in any way he wishes. The Bible has many examples of this. I would not agree, though, that the “evolution” you describe here is evolution at all. It seems more like creationism, with God controlling everything from design through execution through modification.