A world made for evolution

By Brandon A. Evans

Second in a series

Understanding that the Book of Genesis does not teach science is only the first hurdle in reconciling the concept of evolution with Catholic theology.

One of the greatest difficulties is that though the theory of evolution is firmly established and is given accolades by even the pope, no one is quite sure how it actually works.

The answer that Charles Darwin found, and that many scientists subscribe to, is called natural selection.

Richard Miller, a professor of biology at Butler University in Indianapolis, explained the idea by means of three key facts.

“All species exhibit variation,” he said.

Miller means that within a certain species there are always differences—a litter of puppies will
produce different colors, different sizes. No two animals are ever the same genetically, save examples of twinning.

“There are more individuals born than survive,” he said as his second point. Many species live under the constant threat of predators who will hunt the weakest—in this case, the newly born.

“Every species has the capability of producing an excess number of offspring,” he said. And many species, in particular insects, do have a very large number of young at a time.

When one puts those three statements together, they form the framework for natural selection. The logic seems to flow from it: If an animal parent has many offspring, and some will inevitably die from environment or predators, and the young are all different, then the ones that survive will be the ones that are the strongest—and have the genes to back it up.

The children of those survivors, while exhibiting variations (or mutations) themselves, will still all be mostly like their parents. Essentially, the strongest always survive and they have strong children. Genetic flukes become big time advantages.

This idea was adopted in a philosophical way by the robber barons of the early 20th century to justify their monopolist ways.

They simply appealed to natural selection as the law of nature—proposing that societal success is a matter of survival of the fittest. It is a justification of the “looking out for No. 1” mentality.

This philosophy is described by John Haught, a professor of theology at Georgetown University, as “an attempt to define what is humanly good in terms of some ‘natural’ aspect of the world.”

Philosopher G.E. Moore called it a “naturalistic fallacy.”

Natural selection does make the process of nature seem cruel, but what really muddies the theological waters is that it makes the evolution of God’s creation seem to be completely random.

Miller said that natural selection does not work to find the best overall genetic code, but rather only the best for a certain situation and environment. When those things change, the strong suddenly become weak and their subsequent generations must adapt to survive.

This would mean that in the long haul evolution was not working to bring about any “ideal” species, but rather only the best for the circumstances.

“We happen to be one of tens of millions of species living,” Miller said. “We’re all survivors.”

Other theories of evolution, such as genetic drift theory, also do not give evolved humans any special place in

Besides that, early evolution is built on the idea that the original life forms were brought into being by a stroke of luck—by the right chemicals being in the right place at the right time.

Haught said that perhaps what appears to be chance is really creation glorifying its maker.

“It does not diminish God’s providential role at all if the natural world is so extravagantly gifted that, at relevant moments in its unfolding, random events open the door abruptly to a creativity that gushes forth in astonishingly new and unpredictable ways,” he once wrote.

“Only an independent cosmos could dialogue or be truly intimate with God,” he wrote. “From this point of view, therefore, the epic of evolution is the story of the emerging independence and autonomy of a world awakening in the presence of God’s grace.”

Haught cites in his writing the late Jesuit Father Pierre Teilhard de Chardin for his unique ideas about evolution and natural selection. He considers the priest, who was also a scientist, as someone “who has probably thought more deeply about [evolution] than anyone else.”

Teilhard lived in the first half of the 20th century and tried to bring Catholicism and evolution together.

He believed that evolution has a direction, and that it tends toward more complex organic beings and more complex consciousness. This process is guided to the ultimate end of evolution—what he called the Omega. For Christians, that would mean God. It is by God drawing near to creation that this process occurs.

This idea, embraced by many because it brings together God and evolution, is not without its flaws.

One of those flaws is to assume that evolution, and within it, natural selection, is as solidly and absolutely proven as our articles of faith, which it is not.

The primary difficulty, though, is that Teilhard promotes a world—a people, a Church—that is in constant evolution, and places evolution at the center of the explanation of who man is.

“Some imprudently and indiscreetly hold that evolution, which has not been fully proved even in the domain of natural sciences, explains the origin of all things,” wrote Pope Pius XII in his 1950 encyclical Humani Generis, “and audaciously support the monistic and pantheistic opinion that the world is in continual evolution.”

He warned that these ideas “repudiate all that is absolute, firm and immutable.” In other words, these ideas threaten the objectivity of truth.

“Truth is not truth if it is ever changing,” said the late theologian Dietrich von Hildebrand.

“[Teilhard’s] ideas tend toward an anthropological view of man, which in turn fosters a sociological view of religion,” said Michael D. O’Brien, Catholic artist and the author of the novel Father Elijah. He said that this “fuels the heresy of modernism,” which states that all truths are in a continual movement.

O’Brien affirmed that a contemporary form of this heresy can be seen in some people—such as proponents of female ordination and homosexual “marriage”—who see their dissent from Church teachings as a necessary force to bring truth to its next stage.

In 1962, the Sacred Congregation of the Holy Office—now the Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith—issued a monitum (or “warning”) concerning the works of Teilhard and his followers. The monitum said that though the works in question had been met with great success, that they “abound in ambiguities, and even serious errors, as to offend Catholic doctrine.”

It further advises all bishops and teachers of the faith to protect the minds of the young against his writings—though it is not specific about what parts of his writings are good and what parts are questionable. This warning has not been revoked.

O’Brien said that the influence of Teilhard is far-reaching likely because of his poetic brilliance and sincerity, and also because there is an urgent need to reconcile science and religion.

While many may find Teilhard too extreme, parts of what he said may have validity.

Miller, for example, said that life does tend to become more complex over time. The very first form of life will always be, by necessity, simple. The only way for it to evolve is upwards.

But he did say that that does not necessarily mean that it will continue into the evolution of human life.

“Humans are one of the current products of evolution, but, under other circumstances, we might not be here,” Miller said. “Human are present now as a result of historical processes, in the same way, for example, that we are speaking English [mostly] in Indiana.”

If the asteroid that killed the dinosaurs hadn’t struck when it did, he said, the line of mammals might not have risen up.

“In other words, humans are here for a reason [actually a series of historical reasons], but not for a purpose,” he said.

“Scientific theories never use purpose as an explanation,” he said. “Purpose is not a legitimate explanation in science because one can never test for purpose.

“Of course, a religious answer is that it’s God’s purpose to produce humans,” he said.

This is one way to look at the emergence of human life that lets science explain the details of evolution and theology explain the reasons why it happened.

Perhaps it is the case that natural selection did work to produce humans and that God designed it that way.

Benedictine Father Damien Dietlein, a professor of Old Testament theology at Saint Meinrad School of Theology in southern Indiana, said he thinks that it is more marvelous that creation would have the power to evolve than if, say, people, were just plunked down on Earth from nothing.

Many people, though—some scientists included—believe that natural selection and genetic drift are not satisfactory to explain the complicated and sophisticated mechanisms that exist, say, within normal cells.

“Recently … more than a hundred scientists signed a full-page advertisement, published in the New Republic and elsewhere, declaring that they are ‘skeptical of claims for the ability of random mutation and natural selection to account for the complexity of life,’ ” wrote Father Richard John Neuhaus, editor of First Things magazine, in the March 2002 issue.

Father Neuhaus said that such scientists and Christians who advocate a “Designer” in creation are eager not to associate themselves with creationists.

“The long overdue scientific and philosophical challenge to Darwinism is not in the defense of a literal reading of Genesis; it is in the service of clear thinking,” Father Neuhaus wrote.

How science can deal with these questions may answer how God worked in evolution to produce such intricate creatures, but then again the answer may be more hidden and supernatural than earthly science can explain, especially when it comes to questions of divine design.

Dominican Father Benedict Ashley, a visiting scholar at the Pope John Paul II Cultural Center and adjunct professor at the Center for Health Care Ethics at St. Louis University, offered his own ideas about how God may have guided evolution to the point that humans emerged.

His answer: angels.

“There must be intelligences at work in the world that produce living things,” he said. “Only God can produce the spiritual soul, that’s the teaching of the Church. But intelligence using material forces can produce any kind of material effect we can imagine.”

Angels, he said, can be like chemists in the lab, working with creation to modify it, to bring forth new creatures.

Biblically, angels serve as messengers to humans, but that does not limit them to that task—and they were created before humans existed.

Father Benedict stressed that evolution does not take away from God’s work as Creator, because evolution is not claiming to create, but is rather modifying the creation. God was the first cause, the One that created everything from nothing.

“God set the whole thing in motion,” said Msgr. Joseph F. Schaedel, vicar

Regardless of the way that evolution worked, one thing that is agreed upon is that sooner or later humans as we know them emerged.

But even at that point, there is confusion and wrangling among theologians and Church officials as to what exactly happened when the first human, or humans, were created and how original sin plays into that.

(Next part: The first couple, the Fall of man and the nature of original sin.)


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