On the Importance of Terminology: Evolution
Words. When it comes to communication, everything, literally everything, comes down to words. A vast system of sentences, propositions, grammatical structure, arguments, and syllogisms are all constructed with words. Behind every word is a set of meanings. In this sense, words are merely a placeholder, a token, through which everyone receives the meaning intended by the speaker or author.
What happens when words lose their meaning? What happens to communication? That region of communication dependent on those ambiguous words begins to fall apart. This post is a reminder of a particular example that has no small import for Christian apologetics, evolution.
The word evolution can be used in a variety of contexts. Consider the following from Webster’s New World College Dictionary:
an unfolding, opening out, or working out; process of development, as from a simple to a complex form, or of gradual, progressive change, as in a social and economic structure
Defined in this manner the term can be used to refer to almost anything. This very post went through a process of evolution from its inspiration through the process of writing, editing and posting.
Yet such examples are not where the problem lies. Stephen Meyer and Michael Keas have identified six different meanings for the word “evolution” just within the context of Biology. This state of affairs is frequently lost on those engaged in debates about human origins or how to integrate science and the Bible. The definitions cited by Meyer and Keas range from the benign and undisputed, “change over time” to what they refer to as the “blind watchmaker thesis” where natural, unguided processes are responsible for the origin and development of all life. This diverse range of meaning results in many examples of the fallacy of equivocation or ambiguity. Materialists will introduce the “change over time” version then soon argue that “blind watchmaker thesis” must also be accepted as true. Young earth creationists will sometimes argue that accepting an ancient universe is equivalent to accepting the entire “blind watchmaker” package.
Once one ventures outside of the academic and popular science circles, the scope of definitions that are poured into that word are as varied as the people you may encounter. In short, in order to have an intelligible discussion, it is impossible to use the word evolution without determining what is meant by its use.
I would suggest even admonish any thoughtful person, whether agnostic or Christian, skeptic or apologist, do not fall prey to people who use the word evolution in a sloppy or cavalier manner. Whenever you encounter it in any context remotely related to biology, do yourself and other a favor, press for the specific meaning intended. If an answer is not offered or available, less communication will occur, but there will also be less confusion.
 Stephen C. Meyer and Michael Newton Keas, “The Meanings of Evolution,” in Darwinism, Design and Public Education (East Lansing, Michigan: Michigan State University Press, 2003), 135–156.