Is “Evolutionist” An Appropriate Term?

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There have been a few objections concerning my previous use of the term “evolutionist.”

One objector argued that there is no reason to call someone an evolutionist in the same way that one wouldn’t call someone who believes in gravity a “gravitationist.” But I think this view is quite confused. I want to briefly respond.

Note that I look into this question as a theistic evolutionist myself, someone who does not see evolution and theism (belief in God) as being in conflict. Theistic evolutionists are generally open and accepting of discoveries and areas of research within the field of evolutionary biology. The leading theistic/Christian think tank advocating this view would likely be Biologos. Biologos, through the efforts of numerous practicing scientists and Christian theists, have provided some excellent resources on the subject for those willing to explore a little further.

However, in returning to our term “evolutionist,” it is true that for the practicing scientist involved in research relating to evolutionary biology, molecular genetics, and computer science, that to be referred to as an evolutionist would be odd. After all, he is an evolutionary biologist, and conducting his or her work as one. Perhaps then it would benefit us to define what one means by “evolutionist.” The dictionary refers to it as being anyone “who believes in the theories of evolution and natural selection.” That is a good start, though I feel an incomplete definition. To be an evolutionist in the first place one has to no doubt believe in evolution, namely the belief that the theory gives a more or less true account of biological development from simpler life forms.

But I’d go further and say that the term evolutionist is usually applied to someone who makes philosophical and theological statements that form a set of beliefs, and that go beyond evolution itself as a scientific theory. For example, on this view, an evolutionist is Francis Collins, the prolific founder of the successful Human Genome Project. Collins is a professional scientist and Christian who, through his ministry Biologos, examines the relationship between evolution and theology. For example, how does theology and evolutionary theory sit together? What does evolutionary theory say about God? Our place in the universe? Meaning in life? Morality? Human value? And so on. Collins’ ministry is a dedicated hub looking into these questions, and he thus hosts a much needed dialogue that seeks to forge a positive relationship between Christian theology and evolutionary biology.

The same can be said of other who have been involved in the disucssion. The atheist and scientist Richard Dawkins is also an evolutionist except differs to Collins in his philosophical and theological conclusions. Dawkins is known for arguing against God and theism given that evolution, specifically Darwinian evolution, on Dawkins’s view, makes God obsolete, and can adequately explain why we even believe in God in the first place. Evolutionary theory is then just another clue undergirding the philosophical belief that human life is ultimately insignificant in the universe and no more special than other animals in a way that atheism would predict.

Thus, an evolutionist is anyone who makes philosophical and theological claims about evolutionary theory that extends beyond the science itself. On this view then, it is quite possible, if not unavoidable, to be both an evolutionary biologist and an evolutionist. The former prominent Ukrainian-American geneticist and evolutionary biologist, Theodosius Dobzhansky, remarked, “I am a creationist and an evolutionist. Evolution is God’s, or Nature’s method of creation. Creation is not an event that happened in 4004 BC; it is a process that began some 10 billion years ago and is still under way.”

As a scientific theory, evolution cannot draw any conclusions concerning philosophical and theological questions. As soon as one engages those sorts of questions, he or she is engaging in philosophy. Therefore, for one to say that the term evolutionist is analogous to the term gravitationist is naive. Why? Because one seldom, if ever, sees someone grounding an entire, or majority of their, philosophical and theological system of beliefs on the theory of gravity. Gravity is nice, it keeps our feet on the ground and the planets, galaxies, and stars together. But that’s about where it stops. However, modern day atheism-naturalism considered, we obviously can’t say the same for evolution.

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