Saturday, June 13, 2009

Specious origins

Apes “R” Not Us: Catholics & the Debate Over Evolution
By George Sim Johnston
From 1997 Envoy Magazine

Catholics should not hesitate to get involved in the debate over Darwin’s theory, especially since they occupy a reasonable middle ground between scientific and biblical fundamentalists.

"A few years ago, a Catholic friend of mine visited a dying relative in the hospital. The old woman had led a good life, but could not see her way to a belief in God. She was not a militant atheist, simply an agnostic, like so many modern people. God, in her view, had not given enough "proof" that He exists. My friend gently tried to argue the point, but to no avail. Finally, she produced the trump card which so often ends these discussions: "But, Jim, evolution has been proved by science. So the Bible can't be true!"
Few issues are more difficult for Christian apologetics than evolution. Even highly educated Catholics can be at a loss to explain how the creation account in Genesis squares with what modern science tells us about the origins of man and the animal kingdom.

In the autumn of 1996, Pope John Paul II complicated the picture by making some remarks about evolution in a message to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences. Or rather, the media complicated the picture by inaccurately reporting what he said. The Holy Father did not, for example, throw in the towel and "admit the truth" of Darwin's theory (as so many secular and religious news reports erroneously purported). Darwin's name appeared nowhere in the document, and much of what the pope said was by implication critical of modern evolutionary theory.

On the other hand, the pope did say that evolution per se is not incompatible with Catholic doctrine. But his discussion of the issue was nuanced. In other words, it could not be easily packaged in CNN sound bytes.

What the pope wanted to make clear is that evolution is not a simple subject. It involves more than just fossils and DNA. So if we want to understand the Church's position on evolution, we have to do some homework. We have to dig into science and philosophy. And we have to pay attention to what the Magisterium says about how to read and understand the Bible.

Pope John Paul II, to begin with, is not afraid of science, and this ought to be the attitude of every Catholic. The legitimate findings of science can never contradict Revelation. In fact, no one is more aware than the Holy Father that modern science, in the words of G. K. Chesterton, is racing toward the mysteries of the Faith with the speed of an express train. Discoveries in the areas of physics and quantum mechanics have banished forever the notion of the universe as a closed, mechanical system with nothing for a Creator to do. Theologians are quite comfortable in the finite, highly intricate, roughly 12-billion-year-old universe described by modern science.

We are nonetheless bombarded with pseudo-scientific ideas in the guise of "proven facts" which seem to contradict Christian belief. As the pope mentions in his letter, these "facts" often have more to do with the philosophies which inspire them than with anything observed in nature. And no "fact" has been more mischievous than Darwin's idea that man and other species are the result of a blind "hit or miss" process which did not have them in mind.

A Dicey Theory

What are Catholics to make of Darwin? And where exactly does his theory of evolution stand among scientists today? These are questions of vital importance, because if it is true that man is a "frozen accident," a fortuitous twig on the tree of life, then the famous words of the Second Vatican Council are false: "Man is the only creature on earth that God willed for itself."

Man either came about by blind chance or he did not. Darwin's theory of natural selection is the only one available which purports to explain how man and other life forms are the result of a random throw of nature's dice. This is why the debate over Darwin's theory, and not evolution itself, is so important. The fact that most writing on the subject makes no distinction between "evolution" and Darwinism only muddles the issue.

Charles Darwin, in fact, did not discover evolution. The idea that life forms have changed over long periods of time has been around since the ancient Greeks. St. Augustine was a kind of evolutionist, although hardly a Darwinist. In his second commentary on Genesis, written around the year 410, he speculated that God had planted "rational seeds" in nature which eventually fructified into plants and animals. This would be evolution in the strict meaning of the word, an unfolding of what is already there, like an acorn turning into an oak. Being directed and purposeful, however, St. Augustine's version of evolution is utterly non-Darwinian: it is, rather, creation on the installment plan.

A century before Darwin published his Origin of Species (1859) the French zoologist Buffon proposed evolution as a serious scientific theory. Then a number of thinkers in France and England, including Darwin's paternal grandfather, Erasmus, began to champion the idea. Indeed, by the time Darwin wrote his book, the notion that man was descended from some early fish-like creature was the talk of London dinner tables. It was hardly Darwin's "discovery."

What put Darwin on the map was his explanation of how evolution had occurred. This was his theory of natural selection. It was so simple that the great Victorian biologist Thomas Huxley exclaimed, "How stupid [I was] not to have thought of that!"

The usual PBS documentary has the lightbulb going off over Darwin's head while observing the animals on the Galapagos Islands in 1835 during the voyage of the Beagle. But in reality the idea of natural selection came later, in his London study, when he read Malthus's famous (and discredited) essay On Population. Malthus proposed the theory that population tends to multiply faster than food supply and so there will be a "struggle for existence" which only the fittest survive. Darwin took this theory of "struggle" among humans and applied it to plants and animals.

Darwin's idea was that species tend to have offspring which vary slightly from their parents and that natural selection will favor the survival of those creatures whose peculiarities (sharper teeth, faster limbs) render them best fit in the "struggle for survival." Darwinian evolution, then, is a two-step process: random mutation as to raw material, natural selection as the guiding force.

Once he struck on the idea of natural selection, Darwin spent endless hours observing animal breeders at work in and around London. He noticed that through selective breeding pigeons could be made to develop certain desirable characteristics: wider wingspan, longer beak, and so forth. Darwin extrapolated from these observations the idea that over huge stretches of time such "micro" changes could add up to "macro" changes (ie. brand new species), the only difference being that natural selection, and not man, would be the breeder.

Darwin could in no single instance prove that one species had changed into another. His case was entirely theoretical; it rested on a train of thought rather than empirical observation. He staked everything on the idea that species were not hard-edged, that they had a virtually unlimited potential to change into something new. But here he ran into problems, as do his disciples today.

The question is: Was Darwin's extrapolation of "macro" evolution from these "micro" changes warranted? An increasing number of scientists have concluded that it wasn't. And if that's true, then we have to close Darwin's book and look elsewhere for a scientific explanation for the origin of species.

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