Evolution & Equivocation

Man is always something worse or something better than an animal; and a mere argument from animal perfection never touches him at all. Thus, in sex no animal is either chivalrous or obscene. And thus no animal invented anything so bad as drunkeness - or so good as drink. (G.K. Chesterton)

This week I watched the opening segment of Evolution: Darwin’s Dangerous Idea. The PBS documentary/drama had some good points. For example it featured a Catholic scientist, Kenneth Miller, explaining how he sees no contradiction between evolution and his Catholic faith. He was shown at Mass praying the Our Father and receiving Communion. That was encouraging, but I was hoping to also hear from proponents of Intelligent Design such as Michael Behe, author of Darwin’s Black Box, and Phillip Johnson who has written a series of books critiquing Darwinism. The program had people who spoke about “Nature” having a “design” and “directing” a process, but they did not explain what they meant by those crucial words.

The program emphasized the conflict between science and religion, but in a way that was off target. For example, it showed a debate between Bishop Samuel Wilberforce, a critic of The Origin of Species by Natural Selection, and pro-Darwinist T.H. Huxley. The bishop supposedly asked Huxley if it was his grandmother or grandfather who descended from a monkey. Huxley responded that, as an ancestor, he would prefer a monkey to certain human beings he knows. That humorous exchange, though probably apocryphal, does illustrate some common misunderstandings. I’d like to point out three:

1) Sometimes people will assert that Darwin discovered man is an animal. On the contrary, the ancient Greeks defined man as a rational animal. Christian philosophers in the Patristic period and Middle Ages generally accepted that definition. Although some questioned how rational we are, no one denied our animal nature.

2) The Christian doctrine is not that humans are better than other animals. In reality, our behavior often shows us to be worse than them. No other animal has been guilty of war, rape, terrorism, prostitution, etc.* While such miserable behavior does not give us anything to be proud of, it does illustrate the huge gap between other animals and us. This tendency to evil acts does not come from our animal nature, which in itself is good. So far no one has offered a better explanation for our twisted tendencies than the Christian doctrine of Original Sin (Genesis, Chapter 3, illustrates the primeval Fall. Cf. Romans 5:12ff.).

3) The gap between humans and other animals can be seen in terms of accountability. Although an ape will grab things from others and may even kill a fellow ape, no one charges him with robbery or murder. Yet even the most primitive human societies have judicial systems which investigate, judge and punish such acts. The reason for this difference is because we are rightly convinced human beings are responsible for our behavior in a way other animals are not.

I mention these things not because I have any ax to grind about evolution as such. A few years back Pope John Paul II gave an address to the Pontifical Academy of Scientists, acknowledging that the basic premises of evolution are well proven: living organisms experience genetic changes and those with random mutations favorable to survival tend to have more offspring. Or to be more precise, natural selection means that the organisms with traits more favorable to reproduction will have more offspring.** However, as the pope also pointed out, there is not one theory of evolution but various theories. Some of them are incompatible with Christianity, for example a materialistic theory which claims everything, including us, can be explained as an interaction of tiny particles. (I think that is what Carl Sagan meant by his poetic phrase, “we are made of star stuff.”) The materialist theory is sometimes called reductionism because it maintains man is merely a more complex animal and animals are merely complex chemical reactions. The problem is in the word merely.

In light of the dramatic events of this month, it is important we understand what is at stake in this debate. A materialist or reductionistic view of man means that we humans are as pre-determined as an amoeba. Accordingly, good and evil are only points of view. If evolutionary determinism is true, there is no moral difference between Mother Teresa cradling a dying man and a hijacker driving a plane into a building filled with people.

A Darwinist will usually not state his position so directly, but you often hear it asserted that morality is merely one more accretion of the evolutionary process – like penguins or curly hair. Once again the problem lies in the word merely. When you hear scientists use words like merely, only, just, nothing more than, you know they have moved out of the realm of science and are presenting a philosophy.

I have tried to point out some concerns regarding a materialistic theory of evolution. There are also scientific objections. In response to the PBS series Seattle’s Discovery Institute published a list of 100 scientists who signed the following statement:

“I am skeptical of claims for the ability of random mutation and natural selection to account for the complexity of life. Careful examination of the evidence for Darwinian theory should be encouraged” (For more information, see: A Critique of PBS' Evolution)


*An over-statement. Stuart Mason offers a helpful correction. Notwithstanding the tone, Stuart brings up examples which need to be taken into account when comparing animal and human behavior.

**Is Darwin's theory ultimately a tautology, that is, the needless repitition of an idea with different words? (e.g., "necessary essentials" or "Militarily stronger nations always win their wars.") The famous British scientist, C. H. Waddington, stated:

`Natural selection, which was at first considered as though it were a hypothesis that was in need of experimental or observational confirmation, turns out on closer inspection to be a tautology, a statement of an inevitable but previously unrecognized relation. It states that the fittest individuals in a population (defined as those which leave most offspring) will leave most offspring.' (Waddington C.H., in Tax S., ed., "Evolution After Darwin", Vol. 1, 1960, p.385).

"The general principle of natural selection, in fact, merely amounts to the statement that the individuals which leave the most offspring are those which leave the most offspring. It is a tautology." C.H. Waddington in The Strategy of the Genes From Quotable Quotes

Richard Milton put it this way:

An even more damaging blow to the theory was the discovery that the very centrepiece of neo-Darwinism, Darwin's original conception of natural selection, or the survival of the fittest, is fatally flawed. The problem is: how can biologists (or anyone else) tell what characteristics constitute the animal or plant's 'fitness' to survive? How can you tell which are the fit animals and plants? The answer is that the only way to define the fit is by means of a post-hoc rationalisation -- the fit must be "those who survived". While the only way to characterise uniquely those who survive is as "the fit". The central proposition of the Darwinian argument turns out to be an empty tautology.


Over 40 years ago, C.S. Lewis noted the tendency of scientists to rally around naturalism, not because of the evidence, but because they fear the alternative:

"The Bergsonian critique of orthodox Darwinism is not easy
to answer. More disquieting still is D.M.S. Watson's
defense. "Evolution itself," he wrote, "is accepted by
zoologists not because it has been observed to occur or...
can be proved by logically coherent evidence to be true,
but because the only alternative, special creation, is
clearly incredible." Has it come to that? Does the whole
cast structure of modern naturalism depend not on positive
evidence but simply on an a priori metaphysical
prejudice? Was it devised not to get in facts but keep out God?

                             --C.S. Lewis, The Weight of Glory

Beyond the Secular Paradigm

Accident or Design (Correspondence with NYU student Alex Olivier)

The Story of Philosophy by Will Durant (A Review)

What the pope said about evolution

Homily on the Moral Law

Hawking, Galileo and the Pope

Stem Cell Research: Teaching of Bible & Catholic Church



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