Defining Our Terms

I said in my 8/20 post that I’d come back to my discussion of Christians and the way they deal with the subject of evolution. My point here is in one sense, very simple – whenever we debate with anyone, a crucial step in the process is always to define your terms. As Mark Twain said, the difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and a lightning bug. Using words and terms carelessly in debates, not only make us look ignorant on that particular topic, but it can damage our credibility in other things as well.

Here’s the kind of thing I hear Christians say, a lot, about evolution. “Evolution is a lie. There’s no evidence for it.” (I could give more examples, but let’s keep it simple.)

Well, I’ve laid my cards (or in this case, card) on the table, that terms need defining, and since the only term that seems at all like it might be challenging to define here is ‘evolution,’ you’ve rightly guessed that this is where we’re headed. What’s tricky here, is the ambiguity of the word ‘evolution,” even if you didn’t think it was ambiguous.

Evolution gets thrown around in both informal and formal debate in at least three different ways. On the one hand, the term evolution is often used to describe the process we might more precisely call ‘microevolution,’ the notion that a species can adapt in small ways to its environment, so that a new species or subspecies or whichever word you prefer, is the end result. When we talk about microevolution, we’re talking about Darwin’s famous finch beaks.

In short, microevolution is illustrated by the idea that a finch’s beak could adapt to the lack of rain in its environment by getting bigger or stronger or harder or whatever – within limits – and that over time a new kind of finch might emerge with a different kind of beak.

Evolution is also used, secondly, to describe what we might more precisely call macroevolution, which suggests that given sufficient smaller changes over a long enough period of time, like that described above, the finch might do more than merely adapt to environmental changes, it might transform into a different kind of animal altogether.

Finally, many use the word evolution, not to describe either of these processes, but as a synonym for the philosophy of naturalism, which argues that nature is all there is, that God does not exist, and that the world as we know it is the product of chance & natural processes + time.

So here’s my point. When Christians say, “Evolution is a lie, There’s no evidence for it,” I would say that depends on what you mean by “evolution.” After all, I believe there is evidence for microevolution, that animals can adapt in small ways to changes in their environment, and frankly, I have no wish to deny it. I think Christians look ignorant when they do, and I can see no gain for my faith in trying to hold that line.

On the other hand, the philosophy of naturalism is one I plainly disagree with, and I would assert that naturalism is a faith position, every bit as much as Christianity is. If by evolution someone is referring to this philosophical concept, then they need to make it clear that it isn’t really the theory itself but the philosophy that informs many of the theory’s adherents that they’re talking about.

As for macroevolution, well, that gets a little trickier. There are believers out there who do think that macroevlution is possible, but I will admit that I’m not one of them. Nancy Pearcey, in her book, Total Truth, does a good job summarizing some arguments against macroevolution, but to keep this short, I’ll just take one of her lines. Microevolution seems to explain the adaptations animals make to survive and remain what they already are – ie, the changes in a finch’s beak when the rains go away seem to happen in order that the finch might be able to survive and remain a finch. It doesn’t appear to be part of a master plan to become some new kind of creature entirely.

Whether or not you agree with that, isn’t really the point here. The point is that I want to be clear what it is that I’m actually saying when I say it. I would encourage you when you weigh in on debates like this, to do the same. Of course, there’s more that could be said here – like the fact that to do this we need to know a bit about what we’re talking about, and that the manner in which we speak is also important, not just what we’re saying – but for now, hopefully this is enough to chew on.

4 thoughts on “Defining Our Terms

  • Ah, yes, the vital difference between micro- and macro-evolution; around my house referred to as “little ‘e’ evolution” and “big ‘E’ evolution”.

    And you are absolutely right about defining terms, as any former debate student will tell you, the first thing we do is define the terms.


  • While I believe things can adapt I also believe that the world is much younger than evolutionist. If the world is only a few thousand years old rather than millions or billions of years old then perhaps all species of birds or any other creature has been the way they are since they where created.

    We also must remember that its called the “Theory of Evolution” to this day. If it was fact and could be proved 100 percent it would be stated as fact. Still to this day all missing links have been disproved or hoaxes.

    But as a Christian and believing the world is much younger than evolutionist is one of the bigger deciding factors for me. Like I said. I don’t see animals having to adapt over millions of years. I think it also helps explain why we see some species of animals go extinct rather than evolve.

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