Thursday, July 07, 2005

Humble Pie, Baked Not Evolved

On the subject of evolution, we Catholics tend to look down our noses at our Evangelical brethren, whom we tend to see as needlessly exercised about secular boogie-men like Darwin. We tell ourselves that they're so untutored in Christian history as to reject use of our God-given faculty of reason, so their excitement about Darwin must come from a similarly unfounded suspicion of science. And the neo-Darwinians have been all too eager to flatter our vanity.

Today we receive the prelude to a correction from Holy Mother Church, transmitted through (of all places) today's New York Times. The Cardinal Archbishop of Vienna, Christoph Schönborn, writes an op-ed on "Finding Design in Nature." An eminent Thomistic philosopher and member of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Schönborn is best known as editor of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, the first universal catechism since that of Trent. In the Times, he writes

Evolution in the sense of common ancestry might be true, but evolution in the neo-Darwinian sense - an unguided, unplanned process of random variation and natural selection - is not. Any system of thought that denies or seeks to explain away the overwhelming evidence for design in biology is ideology, not science.

The truth is that Darwinism is an abdication of reason. To propose chance as a cause of anything (including genetic information) is to abandon the bedrock of science, the principle of causality: "Everything has a cause either in itself or in another." Darwinism boils down to a fundamentalist-style belief. (See also this post on Carl Sagan's brand of ol'-time religion, and very good comments to this one.)

Darwinism is likewise an abdication of moral responsibility. Chance and determinism rule the universe1, so man is only a "trousered ape," in C.S. Lewis's words. Charles Darwin himself sees the moral implication of his theory is the removal of all limits to human behavior and he even describes genocide as the inevitable outcome of his system. (And I haven't mentioned Darwin's desciples, like Francis Galton, the "father" of modern eugenics.)

Most importantly, Darwinism adnegates hope in Divine Providence. On this point, Pope Benedict's proclaimation at his installation (from which Schönborn quotes) is most significant:

We are not some casual and meaningless product of evolution. Each of us is the result of a thought of God. Each of us is willed, each of us is loved, each of us is necessary.2


1. Cue "Fortuna Imperatrix Mundi" from Carl Orff's Carmina Burana. [1-min WAV sample][MIDI]

2. "Necessary" meaning 'part of God's eternal plan,' not 'being one's own cause of existence.'

Christoph Schönborn, "Finding Design in Nature," New York Times (July 7, 2005). [Online edition sponsored ironically by "Kinsey: Now on DVD"—Kinsey the trousered-ape impersonator.]

Pope Benedict XVI, Homily, Mass, Imposition of the Pallium and Conferral of the Fisherman's Ring for the Beginning of the Petrine Ministry of the Bishop of Rome (April 24, 2005).


Craig K. said...

In mild defense of Darwin, I would comment that Darwin is only saying that from the viewpoint of the objective observer, evolution appears to be random and chaotic. There may well be an underlying structure that becomes apparent over a (sometimes very lengthy) period of time, but from the disinterested rationalist perspective, it would be unseemly to say that there is an overweening purpose immediately apparent.

The more radical neos- like Gould et al put their atheist spin on Darwin by saying that evolution HAS to be random (mainly because according to their worldview there is no God), and now the ID folks are trying to spin the core of Darwin's argument to the deist side by saying that evolution HAS to have a purpose.

I actually find the entire thing rather smilar to the arguments that Catholics have over "economic justice". All agree that the poor should be helped (or at least regarded) as that is a core element of Church teaching and Christ's preaching. However, the conservatives think the poor can be helped through encouraging independence (often by cutting funding) and through shifting charity to the private sector, while the liberals feel that the poor are best helped by direct subsidies generated through taxation and public sector efforts.

IMO, the actual solution is not clear cut in either of these related debates. It is easy to find arguments and experts aplenty to support all sides, ID vs randomists, subsidence advocates versus welfare state enthusiasts. At the core though (to me at least) is the truth: evolution is the best explanation we have of many phenomena, and we are called on to help the poor. We must separate core principle from the "spin" attached to it by later interpreters in both cases, or we risk throwing out the baby with the bathwater. In other words, if we get annoyed at the random emphasis of the neo-Darwinists and "throw out" evolution, I fear we will be rejecting useful knowledge because of an unnecessarily broad kneejerk reaction.

Lawrence Gage said...


Thanks for your compliments. You make some good points, but I'm not sure you've considered all the data.

Consider Darwin's eugenic statements as, for example, in this post: Who's the Monkey? (June 16)

Morally reprehensible statements of this are not isolated, but are of one piece with
The Darwinian Creed (March 31). Here you'll also discover whose reaction is knee-jerk (see also "Whose Covert Religion?", linked below).

If you can excuse some friendly ribbing, I think your conclusion is ironic, as I describe in my April-24 post on American political parties: Social Darwinists All?.


P.S. Here are some other posts on Darwinism and related topics:

Feb 23: "Super-Natural Selection"
April 26: The Real Thomas Malthus
June 2: Thank God for the Darwinian Inquisition!
June 4: Whose Covert Religion?
June 6: Sagan Sez
June 10: The Democrats' Darwin Award
June 14: Darwinian Jihad
June 16: Unintelligent Design
June 24: The Lighter Side of the Darwinian Struggle
June 30: Worthwhile [external] Evolution Posts

This series critically examines universal Intelligent Design arguments:

June 24: Review of The Privileged Planet
June 27: Habitability and "Measurability"
June 29: Can You Bind the Chains of the Pleiades?
July 1: Nothing Comes from Nothing

P.P.S. After reviewing my previous posts, I see I need to add some of these links to the body of the present post. MJ

David M. Smith said...

Hi MJ,

I attended a Catholic grade school back in the 1960’s. I remember evolution being taught in every science class. I even remember an over-emphasis on evolution. Maybe it’s just a bad memory. It makes me laugh because Catholics are always considered to be behind the times, but we were way ahead of the times back in the 60’s. I wonder if Catholic schools are teaching ID now. Anyone know?

Lawrence Gage said...

Was evolution ahead of the times in the 1960's? I thought the theory had been around for quite a while, and been taught in schools since the 1950's, at latest.

The 1960's was a decade in which Catholics were trying to assimilate by proving that they were good secular Americans, just like everyone else (witness JFK's foreswearing Roman influence). So it makes sense that they would teach evolution with a covert's zeal, so to speak. (Desire to assimilate was also one major reason behind the collapse of Church discipline in the wake of the Council.)

I recall hearing recently that Catholic schools are still far behind the times and (sadly) teaching evolution. Still trying to make that square peg fit in the round hole....


David M. Smith said...

Hi MJ,

Think Bible Belt 1965; evolution may have been passé in the Northeast, but it was fairly radical in Arkansas.

Lawrence Gage said...

Ah, I understand: a "geographic time-warp" factor. :)

Geography doesn't apply to the Catholic Church as it does to other Churches. The Catholic Church transcends geography, hence the name "catholic" (i.e., universal). That means there is more unity of belief and teaching (perfect unity when discipline is good) than for other, locally based denominations.

Hope that makes some sociological sense of your experience.


P.S. I've been admiring your posts of late on Africa. Keep up the good work! MJ

David M. Smith said...

Thanks MJ,

To me, the facts and history speak for themselves, but in my circles, I am still swimming upstream because so many of my friends are thinking with their heart and not their head when it comes to aiding Africa.

Hans Georg Lundahl said...

Schönborn is pretty much too Darwinist, if not in moral, at least in historical sense.

What if the "evidence" for diverse ages having succeeded each other (geostratichronology or geochronology) is at least as good evidence of diverse biotope types during a flood 2957 BC (or ok, evangelicals place it closer to us, as they do with creation, since using Ussher over St Jerome), while the radiometric timescale between Cro-Magnon and us can be radically telescoped without absurdity?