Tuesday, March 27, 2007

A Short Post on Evolution

Where to begin? Frankly, I find the "religious-secular" wars surrounding evolution to be tedious, misleading, and slightly annoying. Here is a basic principle that should underpin our analysis in this area: let is keep separate "physics" and "metaphysics" and let not the experts in one domain claim knowledge over the other. Evolution is a basic scientific hypothesis that commands practically universal assent. As believers in a reasonable God, Catholics are quite at home accepting scientific findings. There is no conflict. Therefore, religious believers should stay out of the scientific debate. But, as I mentioned, this needs to work both ways. Irresponsible neo-Darwinists should also refrain from making bold and bogus claims against religious belief, such that evolution precludes the belief in a creator God. This is nonsense.

It is precisely the tendency of both sides to step on each others turf that causes so much trouble. Let's start with the basics. Catholics believe in creation, not creationism. We believe that God created everything that exists out of nothing. By no means should we interpret the creation account in Genesis literally. How God creates is beyond our comprehension. Of course, loosely speaking, there is an "intelligence" that "designs" the universe. When some in the Church, such as Cardinal Schonborn, make this point, it is to refute the neo-Darwinists who claim that natural selection rules out a greater intelligence. As Schonborn noted succinctly: "I see no difficulty in joining belief in the Creator with the theory of evolution, but under the prerequisite that the borders of scientific theory are maintained." Exactly!

The "intelligent design" movement's key error is in stepping beyond the mere recognition of the role of a Creator, and into scientific debate itself. A few years back, Jerry Coyne, exposed the movement in a long article in the New Republic. Basically, it joins its brother movement, fundamentalist creationism, in trying to debunk the scientific evidence for evolution. For a key premise is that organisms appeared simultaneously, and have existed that way ever since. Its supporters accept the idea of "microevolution" (within species) but cast doubts on "macroevolution" ("large scale changes, leading to new levels of complexity".) In other words, they are not merely pleading for an acknowledgment of the Creator, but attacking the fabric of scientific research itself.

The fact that this is an almost uniquely American issue, driven by evangelical fundamentalists, should set off alarm bells. After all, the latest trend among the American right is to embrace their its form of postmodernism, creating a parallel universe more in accord with their own ideology than reality. Thus tax cuts boost revenue. Wars end terrorism. There is no such thing as man-made global warming. And evolution is a hoax. The utter disdain for science reflects a dangerous voluntarist strain in American protestantism. But for Catholics, God is eminently reasonable. Even though the mind of God is vastly beyond our comprehension, the way we think is close enough to the way that God thinks to allow us to claim that God is an infinite and eternal intellect. That should provide the basis for a healthy respect for science, even while always remaining aware that science can never challenge the essence of faith. In short, the "evolution war" is a phony war.


Antonio Manetti said...

The following piece by the late Stephen J. Gould speaks to this issue:


m.z. forrest said...

I am not anti-evolution per se. I am open to the evidence. Given skeptical if not downright cynical nature, I just don't buy the causation claims. Intraspecies evolution strikes me as glorified animal husbandry and doesn't cause me to accept the analagous theory of interspecies evolution. I don't so much believe that evolution can't be proven, in the scientific sense, as much as believe that it hasn't been proven. Sure, continue to teach it. As an explanation of origins, confine it to the university level, because it is purely speculative and not necessary to conduct work in genetics and other fields. I have met a few obnoxious types that posit one can't believe in genetics and not maintain evolution as an explanation of the origin of species. The whole debate is marked with a certain arrogance, as you noted.

The empirical nature of science has been lost for awhile now, and I think the world and science has suffered for it.

Antonio Manetti said...

You say:

"loosely speaking...there is an "intelligence" that "designs" the universe. When some in the Church, such as Cardinal Schonborn, make this point, it is to refute the neo-Darwinists who claim that natural selection rules out a greater intelligence."

Unfortunately, as the following quote illustrates, Schonbrun's claim was a broad-brush condemnation of all neo-darwinists.

"...faced with scientific claims like neo-Darwinism and the multiverse hypothesis in cosmology invented to avoid the overwhelming evidence for purpose and design found in modern science, the Catholic Church will again defend human reason by proclaiming that the immanent design evident in nature is real. Scientific theories that try to explain away the appearance of design as the result of "chance and necessity" are not scientific at all..."

This is nothing more than am endorsement of the exercise in wishful thinking called Intelligent Design and a good example of why "religious believers should stay out of the scientific debate".

Anonymous said...

Well said! and thanks for clarifying Cardinals S's misrepresented comments.

I have wondered how the most technologically advanced society on earth could have such a high proportion of scientific ignoramuses re evolution & climate change.

St Augustine and other Church Fathers had no difficulty seeing Genesis 1 as primarily conveying what we would now call spiritual rather than scientific truths.

Some evolution skeptics claim evolution is 'only a theory' I reply that 'gravity is only a theory'. For an irreverent parody see "Evangelical Scientists Refute Gravity With New 'Intelligent Falling' Theory". http://www.theonion.com/content/node/39512

Morning's Minion said...

Thanks for all the good references and comments.