Future Priests of the Third Millennium

A little insight into the life of seminarians from various dioceses preparing for ministry as Roman Catholic priests, including daily activities, personal interests, special events, the spiritual life, news from the seminary, and almost whatever comes to our minds!



Monday, April 07, 2008

Darwinism


We have been discussing some of the ramifications of evolution in one of my classes.

Few things have the capacity to inspire heated emotional debate between believers and non-believers as do Darwinism and the related topic of Intelligent Design. Those who do not believe in a God tend to think that a rejection of certain aspects of Darwinism and the theory of evolution necessitates an unthinking, uncritical, unscientific (and thereby unreasonable) assent to a predetermined set of beliefs for which there is no evidence. This position is clearly false. Those who reject evolution as a whole insist that the theory demands a rejection of Divine Revelation and God's intervention in the world. This position is also false.

Catholics tend to try to walk a mediating position between the two aforementioned extremes. We do not want to wholly reject the notion of evolution. There is ample evidence to demonstrate that evolution occurs. Similarly, we also do not want to promote a wholesale acceptance of evolution that discounts God as Creator. Thus, we are left to conclude that in some manner or another, God has used evolution as an instrument of his will for his creation. In saying this, though, we must also account for several things. First, free will must remain in tact. Providence is such that it allows for man to exercise his will. Any theology we develop around evolution may not limit free will too much. Further, considering the fact that evolution entails a great degree of suffering, we must somehow account for evil. Why does it exist?

Science likewise has questions to answer. How can evolution account for intelligence? What survival trait led to the development of minds capable of self-reflection? More over, how can random mutation account for the fact that the human genome contains a quantity of information equivalent to printed documents stacked in a pile taller than the Washington Monument? Why do humans perceive beauty? How do we produce prodigies, and why are they not more likely to reproduce?

I proffer no answer to these questions tonight. I just offer them for your consideration. How are we to appropriate the determinations of evolutionary science while still considering seriously the data provided by Revelation?

7 comments:

Alli said...

Maybe the answer is to believe that guided evolution had its turn in shaping the world around us, animals and all... and then God shaped man. That's what I'd like to believe happened, because then we are not just a happy accident.

-reader for a few months, first time commenter (hello!)

J. Thorp said...

Nice post, Tyler. I hope you'll explore further going forward.

I had a discussion with you a long time ago that resurfaced with another friend more recently. The idea that hominids of another species that predates Homo sapiens might be self-aware, sympathetic, empathetic, etc., enough to mourn and bury their dead with flowers, etc., seemed to be problematic in some way.

I don't recall the details of why this was troubling -- but in the more recent conversation, I thought that perhaps the problem is less with theology and more with our own self-centered definitions of species and humans ... i.e., if it's not like us, it isn't human.

We recognize the limits of this thinking already with regard to race, culture, disease and disability, and the humanity of human embryos. Perhaps what we designate as "pre-human" is represents more of a continuum ...

There. Let's discuss *that* sometime ...

Jinglebob said...

Mysteries. We are not supposed to understand it all. That is why the tree in Eden that Eve took the fruit from was called the tree of knowledge. IMO.

Paul H. said...

Clarity is important in a discussion about Evolution. It is important to specify which variety of evolution we are referring to:

1. Micro-Evolution, popularly called "Natural Selection," is the well-documented theory that change occurs within a species.

2. Macro-evolution is the theory that one species can become another species--i.e. that one kind of life becomes another. An example would be that a fish becomes a frog over millions of years, due to random mutations. Then, much later, a frog becomes a bird.

Some people believe in a form of Macro-evolution according to which it was God, not random chance, that caused species to turn into other species. This idea is compatible with Christian theology. But still, there is no convincing evidence that one species became another. Just because two species look similar does not mean that they both came from a common ancestor.
Just because I look like Harrison Ford doesn't mean that he and I have the same parents!

I am not saying that Macro-evolution, guided by God's hand, didn't occur. I am only saying that there is no convincing evidence that it did happen that way.

Always ask which kind of evolution a person is talking about, when they use that word. Defining our terms is very important on these hot-button issues.

J. Thorp said...

I would argue that there is ample evidence that macro-evolution happened. Are there other possibilities? Certainly ... but don't discount macro-evolution, especially since many people don't clearly understand what *it* means, either.

Macroevolution isn't about a fish becoming a frog becoming a bird. It's more accurately described (and even this is an over-simplification) as a school of fish caught in a drying up pond. The pond turn into a muddy, deoxygenated mess, and only a few survive -- but man, those are some tough fish! Survival of the fittest, right?

So those tough fish reproduce, passing on their tough fish genes. The next drought is even worse -- but fish know instinctively to seek cool, clear water. When the pond dries up this time, a few of the fish manage to flop and paddle their way to a deeper pond. Gutsy! They reproduce, and we've got even tougher fish, better adapted to surviving for short times out of the water. What's more: they are now isolated (by death and distance) from their earlier pond mates, so as they "micro-evolve" they become less and less genetically compatible with the old school.

At some point the new pond becomes over-populated -- not enough food, and fish start to die off. Some find they can get along just fine scuttling from pond to pond -- living like and evolving toward lungfish. Others find that they can actually survive pretty well in a moist, but non-aquatic environment -- and there's *no* competition there! Sweet deal!

Two points:

1) It's not a continuum culminating in humans. No chimp ever became a human -- the argument is more about whether God or "nature" might have shaped *both chimps and humans* from some earlier chimp-ish thing ...

2) If you believe microevolution happens, and you believe in geologic time (as opposed to a by-the-Book biblical time-scale), than macroevolution makes very good sense. Even within our human genetics, you can only mess around so much before you get something very different -- some of the results aren't viable, some are disabled, some cannot reproduce, (and some, perhaps, are prodigies). We're unique in the extent of our ability to compensate for our biological limits through techonology and culture -- so we appear to have reached some sort of biological pinnacle ...

Evidence that one species becomes another? If you were to create a whale or a bat from scratch, why give them fingers? Fish have no fingers. Birds appear to have only the vestiges of fingers. But whales and bats have finger bones in their fins a wings. In fact, their musculature, ennervation, and skeleton are remarkably like each others and ours -- strange, given vast differences in size and lifestyle, but it makes sense if we evolved separately over geologic time from some common mammalian prototype ...

Macro-evolution would indeed be miraculous means to a miraculous end! My thinking is that we are becoming more (or less?) "human" since our ancestors stood upright and became self-conscious ...

Hadn't intended to spout off so long, Tyler -- hope that's alright.

Tyler said...

Thanks for the summary of Macro-evolution. You raise two sticky theological questions in your description.

The first is this. If humans are still evolving, how are we to make sense of their salvation? If we reach a point where we are a different species that was Jesus in his humanity, are we saved by his death and resurrection?

The second demands that we somehow explain the existence of a distinctly human soul. In some sense, this is related to the question of intelligence. How does evolution account for the massive amount of intelligence that is possessed in a single chromosome? Randomness can account for order relatively easily, but how dos it account for information? It is not unreasonable to believe that chance could arrive at abcdabcdabcd. It is much harder for chance to arrive at abcdefghijklmnop etc . . . And, somehow related to this is the human soul. How did we get it? When?

Like I said, sticky questions . . .

J. Thorp said...

Two quick reactions -- seriously, i just had these thoughts, so they aren't even half-baked:

1) "If humans are still evolving, how are we to make sense of their salvation?"

As I said, we are unique in the extent of our ability to compensate for our biology with technology and culture -- so in effect, biological evolution no longer applies to us. Survival of the fittest is no longer a biological issue, but cultural, technological, economic. I like Jinglebob's comment about the Tree of Knowledge ... we short-circuited the "creative process" that got us here when we became creators ourselves.

2) "The second demands that we somehow explain the existence of a distinctly human soul ..."

Right -- that's where our earlier conversation got sticky, because we see evidence that human-like (and even clearly non-human) critters have done extremely creative and intelligent things that blur some of the traditional lines ...

But just say it was an australopithecine, little more than an upright chimp with crude tools *to our eyes*, who had the first soul. Why is it problematic that he or she didn't look like us? Because scientists call her a different species? Species is a human construct, no? Useful for categorizing critters, but so what? Race was once regarded as useful in that way. And the exact meaning of "species" is hotly debated in scientific circles ...

A prof of mine once wrote about the oft cited notion that we are something 98% genetically identical to the pygmy chimp, and *doesn't that make it clear that we're basically animals.* Then he argued, through simple math and what we understand about genetics, that we are also something like 30% genetically similar to a banana. The important thing is not how much we know about genetics and evolution, but how much we don't know. In what other ways are we 30% similar to a banana? Which is more important: the 98% that is chimp-like, or the 2% that is different?

So -- if we are, in fact, 98% chimp (and that's debated, too) we should be somewhat more similar to the australopithecine that is believed to be on our direct line of descent. What, 99% australopithecine? 99.5% Homo erectus? If these "species" are in fact on our direct line of descent, I'm not sure the biological distinctions *we make* matter in terms of the origin of the soul in geologic time.

And to be honest, the fossil and archaeological record has relatively little to say on the subject of souls. :)

Seems like the limits are all on our end, to me -- our definitions, our understanding. Maybe God grants you a soul directly -- breathes it into you, as it were. Or maybe it's explainable through some branch of neuroscience or genetics we don't yet grasp. Or maybe these two possibilities are exactly the same thing ...

I guess what I'm saying is that, to me, the question is sticky and interesting, but not at all troubling. But then, I'm not quite as steeped in theology just now ...

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