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The Evolutionary Mindset

If life evolved from chemicals and man evolved from animals, is there any need for a Creator?

While browsing my Encyclopedia Britannica, I recently encountered the following introductory statements on evolution: “The evolutionary origin of organisms is today a scientific conclusion established with the kind of certainty attributable to such scientific concepts as the roundness of the earth.” And, “The evolutionary origin of organisms is accepted by virtually every biologist.” These statements, of course, are not true. It is not possible for anyone to know what virtually every biologist accepts, and in fact there are some very prominent biologists who view evolutionary theories as inadequate for explaining the origins and diversity of life. The roundness of the earth is a fact open to verification at any time by any scientist who cares to apply the simplest of scientific methods. Evolutionary theories, because they describe unrepeatable past events, must remain speculative. There is no method or measure that can verify their validity with the same certainty as the roundness of the earth. Yet, it is characteristic of the evolutionary mind set to demand that we accept theories as irrefutable facts before we even hear arguments.

I remember evolution presented this way in high school. Science books depicted the environment millions of years ago with more confidence than one found in history books depicting Colonial America. Though religion was not mentioned, many students, myself included, assumed that the supposed facts of evolution refuted the claims of Christianity. If life evolved from chemicals and man evolved from animals, then there is no need for a Creator. For me, this was not a spiritual revolution.

My formation in Catholicism had been cut short when my parents divorced a few years earlier. Upon encountering evolution, I simply shook off my residual Catholic beliefs and did not think deeply about the refutation of religion by science again until I found myself at the University of California at Berkeley in a class taught by the philosopher of science Paul K. Feyerabend. He was a skeptic, not a Christian, a modern day Socrates who enjoyed exposing the loose thinking that underlies most scientific claims to absolute truth. We learned quickly not to make grandiose statements about scientific theories before we knew the opinions both for and against the theories and the misgivings of the scientists who proposed them. Feyerabend introduced us to a science full of doubts and contradictions penned by scientists in journals and letters, but never placed in textbooks. The science of our high school years seemed like the Wizard of Oz, full of thunder and authority. Feyerabend, with his elfish grin, pulled back the curtain on the Wizard and pointed to the fat, balding man at the controls. He was not saying there is no such thing as science, only that science, like most human endeavors, proceeds as much from prejudice and hope as from detached rationality. When it tells us to bend the knee, it is time to pull the curtain back. Sometimes what we find is that prejudice has overwhelmed hope and rationality, and science has surrendered to ideology. This, I think, is the case with evolution.

As an ideology—that is, as pure theorizing—evolution was popular with the so-called nineteenth century freethinkers long before Darwin stepped onto the stage. Both amateurs and professionals wrote about it. Darwin’s grandfather had written verse about it. No one, though, had a plausible explanation of how it might proceed. What Darwin came up with was not a proof of evolution, but a suggestion for how it might work if it were true. His concept of “natural selection,” was based on an idea borrowed from Thomas Malthus. Malthus theorized (incorrectly it turns out) that populations increase geometrically, while food supplies increase arithmetically. Darwin, using Malthus’s theory, envisioned a world where animals struggled continuously for survival in the face of insufficient food supplies. In such circumstances, animals that pass on advantageous traits—a sharper claw, a more powerful wing—will have more offspring survive. People already knew that animals could be selected and bred for advantage—horses for speed, for example, or dogs for hunting instinct. Darwin suggested that nature also selected for advantage by letting only the fittest survive.

The evidence for this was that simple animals appeared in the fossil record before more diverse and complex life and that species varied from region to region. This alone is not the stuff of social revolutions. It was commonly believed that species were fixed and could not change into other species. Still, the idea that large-hoofed horses alive today evolved directly from smaller extinct toed horses (a theory now abandoned), or that finches might evolve into distinct species when isolated in different regions, would not have unsettled the entire social structure. But Darwin did not stop here.

New geological theories were dating the age of the earth in hundreds of millions of years. Darwin suggested that with such lengths of time evolution could account for all the attributes of life, including man and his intellectual powers. This touched on the nature of the human soul and, therefore, did call for social revolution. The freethinkers rejoiced. They hoped Darwin’s idea would free man from superstition and religion, the supposed sources of bigotry and narrow-mindedness, by eliminating man’s ancient tendency to see the material universe as mystical. There would be no longer any need to hypothesize a divine Creator. Simple animals emerged from the chemicals of prehistoric seas. Natural selection then produced ever more sophisticated animals until man, the fittest of the fit, showed up. It was an idea, like Marxism of the same century, that held certain people spellbound, as if they had found a simple key to answer all questions.

The eminent biologist T. H. Huxley, upon hearing of natural selection, remarked in a fit of envy, “How extremely stupid not to have thought of that!” From then on Huxley promoted evolution as fact and told theologians that it was immoral for them to refuse “to sit down like a little child before the fact.” Darwin, though, admitted the theory had grave defects. The fossil record did not contain the transitional creatures that millions of years of evolution should have produced. He also said, “There is another and allied difficulty, which is much more serious. I allude to the manner in which species belonging to several of the main divisions of the animal kingdom suddenly appear in the lowest known rocks.” For Darwin’s theory to be sustainable, things would have to happen gradually but continuously. Darwin thought improved geological research eventually would resolve these difficulties. It never happened. Further study of the fossil record has been disastrous for his concept of slow and continuous evolution.

Some geologists, Stephen Jay Gould at Harvard for example, have abandoned the Darwinian model for something called “punctuated equilibrium.” Gould says the fossil record fails to produce transitional creatures because species are stable over long periods of time with little, if any, morphological change. Then, for some inexplicable reason, there is a burst of new life in what he calls “speciation events.” These events last a few million years instead of hundreds of millions of years; from the Darwinian perspective, this is an unaccountable burst of activity.

The most significant evidence of such events are the fossils, discovered in the Burgess Shale in British Columbia, known as the “Cambrian Explosion.” It is Darwin’s worst nightmare come true. Gould says it proves that small “multicellular animals make their first uncontested appearance in the fossil record . . . with a bang, not a protracted crescendo.” There are fossils of all the major groups with a diversity much greater than is found in later ages. Nature, he says, starts with a burst of life followed by massive extinction, leaving only a few surviving lines to evolve. This turns Darwin’s model on its head. Gould attacks other Darwinian dogmas, such as the belief that human intelligence appeared globally as the expected result of evolution’s tendency to produce more sophisticated animals. He contends that human life is a singular and exceedingly improbable event. Unlike bats, for example, for which there are nine hundred distinct species, for humans there is only one species.

If the tape of evolutionary history were wound back and allowed to run again, “the chance becomes vanishingly small that anything like human intelligence would grace the replay.” He says other so-called human-like creatures, Neanderthals in Europe and Homo Erectus in Asia, were not really human. Though these others used tools and left behind artifacts, “only Homo Sapiens show direct evidence for the kind of abstract reasoning . . . we identify as distinctly human.” The Darwinists are far from conceding the argument and claim that Gould too readily interprets the fossil record to suit his own theory. They say the punctuated appearance of life can be explained by the fact that the requisites for fossil preservation were not uniformly present under all past conditions. Which theory eventually prevails will depend more on the rhetorical skills of its adherents than on science since the events they are debating were unobserved and cannot be duplicated through experiment.

One thing remains constant, though, among the contenders—the unshakable belief that life, punctuated or not, originated from an electrochemical reaction (usually depicted as lighting striking the sea) and that its current complexity derives entirely from material causes, signifying nothing. Gould remains firmly anti-theological, saying that if punctuated equilibrium is true it simply shows human life is more meaningless than even the Darwinists suspected. It is more meaningless because even the most minor change in evolutionary history would have broken the thread that produced human life, causing man to disappear from the universe like an inconsequential flea, never to return. It is a colossal, unnecessary accident that man showed up at all. Herein lies the essence of the evolutionary mind-set. The singularity and “awesome improbability” of human intelligence in Gould’s own evolution model does not shake his confidence that there is nothing but chemistry and matter at work in the universe. Like his nineteenth-century predecessors, Gould is trapped because he desires not so much to understand the universe as to demystify it. In doing so, he is able to retain the supposed intellectual high ground of bravely acknowledging that we live a in purposeless universe, unlike weaker people who have to conjure up some mystical, superior spirit to give their life meaning. Still, Gould’s theory has created a controversy that is unsettling for some science teachers. They find themselves in the position of the lawyer who has told the jury that his case is based on universally accepted scientific principles, only to turn around and find the scientists arguing. Some teachers want to keep the argument out of the classroom, claiming it would confuse the students. This is a problem only if, like lawyers, they are trying make a case rather than teach science. Science can evaluate competing theories out in the open, but a defense attorney better have his theory selected and memorized before he opens his mouth. What worries the teachers most, perhaps, is that the latest theory is not ironclad like the Darwinism they are use to handing on. Punctuated equilibrium, regardless of what Gould says, implies there is something quirky about creation. Man’s appearance seems miraculous rather than just improbable, and “speciation events” are, if anything, rather mysterious. Such ideas may distract the more thoughtful students from the simply-packaged materialistic worldview they are handed. The problem underlying all of this is that an area open to scientific inquiry is dominated by people more committed to eliminating a theological view than doing science in an unbiased way. These same people accuse the Church of refusing to accept the fact of evolution. They claim that the Church is closed-minded, but even here they have their facts wrong. Many centuries before Darwin, both Gregory of Nyssa and Augustine discussed creation in evolutionary terms, suggesting that God created things not as they exist but with potentials that would develop into what we see now. Man was created in a special and singular event, but the idea that small, simple animals might have evolved into larger animals would not have plunged these saints into the depths of atheism. Pope Pius XII, in Humani Generis, did not forbid the analysis of evolutionary theories regarding living matter so long as hypotheses are not stated as facts and theories both “favorable and those unfavorable to evolution be weighed and judged with the necessary seriousness, moderation, and measure.” Scientists like Rupert Sheldrake, former director of biochemistry at Cambridge, and the Nobel Prize-winning neurobiologist Sir John Eccles contend that a totally materialistic view is inadequate to explain the phenomenon of life. The Church would say such opinions should not be suppressed.

What Catholics must acknowledge in the light of any evolutionary theory is that there was only one first man, Adam, who was the father of us all, that he could not have been the offspring of animals, that God took a special interest in making his body and created his soul immediately, and that Eve’s body in some manner originated from Adam’s. They must also admit that the human intellect cannot fully comprehend the universe. This is good theology because it acknowledges that it is the nature of the universe to be partially revealed and partly hidden from man. Not surprisingly, one can recognize good science on exactly the same terms. Albert Einstein possessed one of the most original and powerful scientific minds in history, but he retained a religious instinct, not in spite of science, but because he was such a good scientist. Regarding the wonderment of the universe and man’s comprehension, he had this to say: “The most beautiful and most profound emotion we can experience is the sensation of the mystical. It is the sower of all true science. He to whom this emotion is a stranger, who can no longer wonder and stand rapt in awe, is as good as dead.” Einstein went on to say, “My religion consists of a humble admiration of the illimitable superior spirit who reveals himself in the slight details we are able to perceive with our frail and feeble minds.”

When such humility shows up among evolutionists, it may signal the start of a truly scientific approach to the subject. When ideology is set aside, we may learn something about the interconnectedness of the physical universe and the awesome improbability of human life. Until then, I would not put much stock in what evolutionists say they can or cannot prove. For my part, finding out that most evolutionists are not really scientific in their attitudes did not return me immediately to my lost Catholic faith. It did place my feet on a more solid path that eventually led back to the Catholic Church, where men are less likely to be ideologues, and God in his wisdom gave us priests on the other side of the confessional grill to absolve and guide us instead of geologists who try to tell us our lives are meaningless. I am forever thankful to Paul Feyerabend for showing me how to pull back the curtain on such nonsense. Feyerabend, who died of a brain tumor a few years back, was raised Catholic but became an atheist. Still, he defended the legitimacy of the religious perspective against the tyranny of a science that claims to have all the answers. Near the end of his life, an interviewer asked him if he was religious. He replied that his philosophy had changed. “I don’t know,” he said. “It can’t just be that the universe-boom-you know, and it develops. It just doesn’t make any sense.” There is a mystery to the universe, as Feyerabend knew. Perhaps, starting out as a Catholic, being taught the mystery of mysteries, he ended up back where he started. Nobody knows what goes on in the mind of a man as he lies dying. Whatever the case, I pray for him as a benefactor.

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