What should Catholics think of evolution?

by Michael Healy

Last year, the editor suggested that we discuss the theory of evolution in these pages. I think this is a good idea. In my view, Catholics have a particular duty to examine all sides of the theory of evolution, as well as the views of creation scientists. Why?

1. Unlike Biblical fundamentalists, we are not bound to accept the first few chapters of the book of Genesis as literally true, with each word in it carrying the same sense everywhere. Thus we are free to interpret “day” in Genesis 1 and 2 loosely as “a block of time.”

2. Unlike atheists, we are not compelled to unequivocally reject the possibility of special creation.

3. We can nevertheless accept a literal interpretation of Genesis if we want to.

This means that Catholics are in a unique position for testing every imaginable view on the origins of mankind with the utmost rigor—which is the only way that any of those theories could be scientifically proven, right? In the best interests of science, then, let us get involved in the Evolution debate.

But let us be clear about what it is that is being debated. First, I use the word “Evolution” to refer to what others would call “Macroevolution” or “Transformism.” What is often termed “Microevolution” I refer to as “Variation.” Microevolution or Variation, whatever you may call it, is the idea that species can be divided into many sub-species through minute changes. This phenomenon has been observed and established as fact.   It is macroevolution, transformism, evolution proper—the idea that one species, genus, etc. on up to kingdom, can be transformed into another by the accumulation of many minute changes—that is under discussion.

We must also avoid the perilous trap of assuming that there are only two views in this discussion. There are at least four possible views on the origin of life and the age of the earth, each with many subdivisions. The main categories are as follows.

1. Atheistic Evolutionism: the idea that purely naturalistic processes account for everything from the origin of life to the coming into existence of the human race.

2. Theistic Evolutionism: the idea that macroevolution occurs, and accounts for almost everything, but that God does a few key things, like infuse human beings with souls.

3. “Old Earth” Creationism: the idea that macroevolution does not occur, but at the same time the earth really is 4.5 billion years old.

4. “Young Earth” Creationism: the idea that macroevolution does not occur and that the earth is actually only 6,000-10,000 years old.

It is important to note that belief in the Great Flood could conceivably be combined with any of these views, except for Atheistic Evolution.

I know that evolutionists often argue that creationism is unscientific since it invokes supernatural causes while science seeks naturalistic causes. But is this true? Science is the study of the natural world. Naturally, it must ask whether something could have been naturally caused or not. However, if it can be conclusively proven that a particular thing could not conceivably have any natural cause whatsoever, would it not be ridiculous to insist that scientists should hold, on faith, that there must be some natural cause for it? Would this not be strange? Yet supporters of the theory of evolution sometimes seem to argue along these dubious lines.

I know someone will object, “We cannot conclusively prove that there is no natural explanation for something like the origin of life.” But could something like life come into existence purely naturally in any way other than by chance? I don’t see how. And if something could only begin purely naturally by chance, why could a scientist not prove that it could not possibly have come into existence by chance? And if it could be proven that life could not possibly have come into existence by chance, would that not constitute evidence that life could not possibly have purely natural origins? And if it could be proven that life could not possibly have purely natural origins, why would it be “unscientific” to suggest that science has no explanation for the origin of life? And if science had no natural explanation for the origin of life, would it not be putting a straight jacket on itself if it stubbornly insisted that it could not even consider any non-natural origin for it?

I am also aware of some other ways in which evolutionist criticism of creationism can be phrased. I would like to take special note of one. A pamphlet published by the National Academy of Sciences in 1984 entitled “Science and Creationism” includes the following statement:

“Creationism reverses the scientific process. It accepts as authoritative a conclusion seen as unalterable and then seeks to support that conclusion by whatever means possible.”

This may be true of some creationists; atheistic evolutionists have often fallen into that same trap. They start with the assumption that God does not exist, or at least does not “interfere” with the world, and work to amass evidence to support this conclusion. In fact, the history of paleontology, for one, provides numerous examples of times when evolution’s supporters have committed just the errors that they here accuse their opponents of.

When the first Neanderthal skeleton was found in 1856, evolutionists, in their excitement at having found a potential “missing link” underestimated the cranial capacity of the skull and overemphasized the supposedly apelike characteristics. Everyone on both sides of the evolution debate now realizes that “Neanderthal Man” was a race of Homo sapiens.

Dr. Dubois, who found the first Homo erectus fossil in Java admitted thirty years later that he had concealed the fact that he had found Homo sapiens fossils at about the same strata as his “Java Man” so that it would be accepted as a hominid predecessor of man instead of just a giant gibbon, which was what he thought it actually was.

Everyone now knows “Piltdown Man” was a blatant forgery, but it was advertised as a hominid ancestor of man for forty years. Evidence to prove it fraudulent was ignored until it became so watertight and overwhelming that it could no longer be dismissed.

In 1922, a fossilized tooth found in Nebraska was declared to be from the mouth of a hominid ancestor of man but was later found to be the tooth of an extinct breed of pig.

Descriptions of the batch of Homo erectus fossils known as “Peking Man” written by the supervisors of the dig significantly conflict with one another and with those of other scientists who examined those fossils. Furthermore, the fossils mysteriously disappeared after World War II, and all we now have are what are said to be plaster casts of the originals, which supposedly were stolen by the Japanese.

Anyone on campus could verify these statements by reading Science of Today and the Problems of Genesis by Fr. Patrick O’Connell, which is in our library and (I think) our bookstore. Fr. O’Connell spends much time on “Peking Man” and frequently quotes letters and articles by its discoverers.

And let us not fall for the assumption that the theory of Evolution has been conclusively proven. Variation has been, but not Evolution/Transformism. On this point, the following quotations, all taken from the fourth chapter of Cosmos and Transcendence by Wolfgang Smith, (which can be found in the JPII Library in the Mulloy collection) are of interest:

In the heart of this fourth chapter, Smith quotes W.C. Dampier, who accepts Evolution, on the initial acceptance of Evolution: “Haekel and other materialists. . . joined to create that Darwinismus which made many of his followers more Darwinian than Darwin himself. . . . Darwinism ceased to be a tentative scientific theory and became a philosophy, almost a religion.”

Right after it he quotes Jean Rostand, who also accepts Evolution: “I firmly believe—because I see no means of doing otherwise—that mammals come from lizards, and lizards from fish; but when I declare and when I think such a thing, I try not to avoid seeing its indigestible enormity and I prefer to leave vague the origin of these scandalous metamorphoses rather than add to their improbability that of a ludicrous interpretation.”

In the sixty-seventh footnote of the above mentioned book Smith quotes the historian of science Hossein Nasr on dissenters to the theory of evolution: “Only too often the works of such authors have been deliberately neglected or suppressed. A case in point is the book by D. Dewar called The Transformist Illusion, Murfreesboro, 1957, which has assembled a vast amount of paleontological and biological evidence against evolution. The author, who was an evolutionist in his youth, wrote many monographs which exist in the libraries of comparative biology everywhere. But his last book had to be published in Murfreesboro, Tennessee (!) and is not easy to find even in libraries that have all the earlier works. There is hardly any other field of science where such obscurantist practices are prevalent.”

At the end of the chapter he quotes Carl Jung saying of the theory: “From the standpoint of epistemology it is just as admissible to derive animals from the human species, as man from animal species. But we know how ill Professor Dacque fared in his academic career because of his sin against the spirit of the age, which will not let itself be trifled with. It is a religion, or—even more—a creed which has absolutely no connection with reason, but whose significance lies in the unpleasant fact that it is taken as the absolute measure of all truth and is supposed always to have common sense upon its side.”

Wolfgang Smith concludes this chapter thus: “In short, there are ‘means of doing otherwise’; but they have been ruled out of court. Moreover, there is a traditional Christian doctrine concerning the origin of living forms which accords both with reason and with the facts; the hitch is that it accords not with the modern bent of mind, ‘the spirit of the age which will not let itself be trifled with.’ ” In other words, Smith maintains that Evolution appears to scientists to be the only scientifically valid explanation for the origin of life because all non-naturalistic explanations have been arbitrarily assumed to be impossible simply because they do not fit “the spirit of the age.” Would it be right to leave such a charge against the scientific community unexamined? Should we not determine if there is substance to the charge and, if there is, work to correct the problem?

And lastly, let us remain humble. None of us is omniscient. We can make mistakes. We can misinterpret data. All too often, those involved in the evolution debate seem to forget this. They would do well to ponder the words Sherlock Holmes gives Dr. Watson in the episode of The Boscombe Valley Mystery:

” ‘I could hardly imagine a more damning case,’ [Watson] remarked.

” ‘Circumstantial evidence is a very tricky thing,’ answered Holmes thoughtfully. ‘It may seem to point very straight to one thing, but if you shift your own point of view a little, you may find it pointing in an equally uncompromising manner to something entirely different.’”

Michael Healy is a senior, majoring in philosophy.