Darwin in Chicago

You may have noticed that Charles Darwin’s two hundredth birthday just came and went without too much trouble. On the whole, A Good Thing, in my view. No Christian can accept materialism, of course. Much neo-Darwinism and its militant atheist spawn (Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, et al) claim materialism as the sole truth. But Darwin himself and his modern followers like the late Stephen Jay Gould of Harvard believed that evolution, as they understood it, simply could not speak to the existence or non-existence of God. All of modern science was initially defined as a value-free study of the physical world. The moral judgments that all people still make (including neo-Darwinists) and their speculations about what may or may not transcend the physical universe cannot be handled by that mode of thinking. It’s like asking a nuclear physicist to decipher a Valentine’s Day card.

Of course, there are equally bad attitudes on the religious side. Some of our fundamentalist friends back themselves into corners from which they have to posit a 6000-year-old planet, dinosaurs and humans existing simultaneously (they didn’t), or a God implanting fossils to deceive the impious. In the modern technological world, every religious person needs to be vigilant about the subtle ways in which materialism is peddled under the guise of science (again, they are two different things). But a Christian who believes that both faith and reason are essentials of sound religious belief – Catholics have a long and honorable tradition here – needs to let the scientists do what they do so that we can know the world God actually created, not the one some people wish or imagine He created.

I was thinking about such things in Chicago last week, which, contrary to all appearances, is not merely a monument to the principle of survival of the fittest. Not everything revolves around the shenanigans of former Governor Rod Blagojevich or the continuing saga of his would-be fundraiser, and for-the-moment senator, Roland Burris. Some phones in the city, I’m told, are not even tapped.

The occasion was a seminar on the question “Is There a Human Nature?,” sponsored by the Lumen Christi Institute, an independent Catholic organization at the University of Chicago. Lumen Christi is doing some of the best work in the world in bringing the Catholic intellectual tradition into dialogue with the very highest secular scholarship. Francis Cardinal George, the brainy Chicago archbishop, is a strong supporter and participant in this work. Jean-Luc Marion, a French Catholic philosopher who recently became one of the “immortals” of the Academie Française spends one semester a year in Chicago and lectures for the institute. During any given academic year, figures like Alasdair MacIntyre, Charles Taylor, Jean Bethke Elshtain, and Leon Kass, along with equally eminent thinkers from Germany, Britain, or Poland, turn up on programs. Lumen Christi pursues both faith and reason as vigorously as any institution, Catholic or not, in the world.

Last week’s discussion on human nature was something to witness. It not only addressed complex scientific matters, while remaining faithful to classical Christian teaching. If it were better known, it would help get us past the simple-minded polemics that continue to poison the relationship between religion and science. For instance, John O’Callahan, the gifted young director of the Jacques Maritain Center at Notre Dame (successor to The Catholic Thing’s Ralph McInerny) laid out an interesting philosophical understanding of Creation. God creates ex nihilo (from nothing), which means He does not act on pre-existing matter or even inject matter into a void. Creation, for us, unfolds in time, but God is outside of time and His creative act is continuous and enables secondary causes at every moment, including human free will. From that standpoint, it’s easier to see how the human soul might be directly created by God at the moment each of us is conceived. God did not let evolution go on and then “miraculously” intervene. His creative act started (in our perspective) some 15 billion years ago, but is actual at every moment and active in a particular way in the creation of each soul in its unity with a body, the traditional definition of human nature.

Brendan Purcell, an Irish priest and professor recently retired from University College Dublin, looked at some of the evidence from archaeology and anthropology about when we can see identifiable humans. The evidence converges at one point: when symbolic signs and objects are included in burials – something to accompany the deceased beyond this world into another. There lies a scientifically verifiable and clear dividing line between the merely animal and the rational animal we call human beings. The capacity for symbolic representation makes understanding possible and introduces for the first time in the history of the universe, as far as we know, something that transcends the interchanges of matter and energy studied by the sciences. Why else do we believe, say, that human freedom and conscience are to be respected as nothing else?

These are just brief summaries of very rich arguments that warrant much greater dissemination in our culture. Many people today feel that reason only operates in science and faith is merely a kind of poetry. There’s plenty that’s brewing in the Catholic tradition beyond that, however, and it’s the kind of thing that could drastically reduce antagonism between scientists and believers, and recast both as common seekers after the fullness of truth again.

Robert Royal is editor-in-chief of The Catholic Thing, and president of the Faith & Reason Institute in Washington, D.C. His latest book is The God That Did Not Fail: How Religion Built and Sustains the West.

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The Catholic Thing is a forum for intelligent Catholic commentary. Opinions expressed by writers are solely their own.

  • William Dennis

    Life Without Poetry
    Apropos to this discussion enters the concept that a genetic blueprint is responsable for human violence, drug addiction and criminal behavior. Thereby eliminating culpability because truth is not absolute in human evolution. There is your truth and my truth. There is no evidence for faith or virtue being a part on human nature. If our civilization continues to suscribe to this pure rationalistic thinking of Dawson and his ilk, we are destined for nilhism and choas instead of hope and civility.

  • debby

    PLEASE answer- are we considering there was NO one Man-Adam, one Woman-Eve? If so, how is Jesus THE NEW ADAM, Mary the NEW EVE? I have kids-I want to teach them the truth. All JP2 Theology of the Body begins IN THE BEGINNING. Are we saying Genesis is a story? If so, when does story-time end & Word of God begin? Real questions-looking for real CATHOLIC answers.
    Creation, Adam & Eve, show us our Father’s heart & Jesus quotes Genesis.
    Any books that are not double talk you can recommend? Thanks.

  • Robert Royal

    Pope, theologians, and philosophers don’t see any threat in evolution, properly understood. Evolution of bodies says nothing about an original human pair.Genesis is not a mere story, but neither is it a science text. It gives us human history from a moral/spiritual point of view. The Fall and its historical consequences are so clearly everywhere around as to be undeniable. That’s precisely why we needed the new Eve and new Adam.

  • Paul Hanrahan

    Robert seems to merrily assume all is well with evolution as though it were already proved. Tell me one thing you know that proves evolution! Stephen Jay Gould is quoted as saying that “we don’t know how it happened, we just know it did.” That’s called faith not science! Tell me how under the laws of metaphysics that evolution could have happened. You can’t give what you don’t have. More and more scientists as they examine the claims of evolution find it so devoid of proof they give it away.

  • Paul Hanrahan

    Church’s teaching
    Through the centuries the Catholic Church has condemned the idea of evolution. Most notably Pope Leo XIII in his encyclical on Christian marriage Arcanum, taught Eve was created miraculously from Adam’s side “gave him a companion, whom He miraculously took from the side of Adam.” Fr Brian Harrison argued very convincingly that this teaching is to be held infallibly. Where does that leave evolution? Many have strayed from the faith thanks to this atheistic ideology which should be condemned.

  • Robert Royal

    I assume nothing except that scientists should do science, and that theologians and philosophers have their own areas of comeptence. I am aware of no de fide pronouncement by popes on scientific matters, which would be very inadvisable, as they know. If evolution is still a credible theory 100 years from now, it will look quite a bit different, and will pose new questions to scholars and the magisterium, which the tradition is quite capable of handling without ignoring or denying real science.

  • WJ

    Some commentators here seem misguided as to the proper relation between scientific inquiry and philosophical or theological interpretation of that inquiry. On evolution, Cardinal Newman wrote: “the theory of Darwin, true or not, is not necessarily atheistic; on the contrary, it may simply be suggesting a larger idea of divine providence and skill.” And JPII: “New scientific knowledge has led us to the conclusion that the theory of evolution is no longer a mere hypothesis.”

  • Paul Hanrahan

    Begging the question
    Both Robert Royal and WJ seem to want to avoid the point! No science supports the “theory” of evolution. Pseudo science and ideology are what drives it, and Popes of recent years receive their advice and information on evolution from the Pontifical Academy of Science whose members are all evolutionists and some of whom are atheists. The tendency with evolution is towards atheism no matter what John Henry Newman said. We have had over 100 years since his time to see its effect.

  • James the Least

    Robert Royal writes: “Pope, theologians, and philosophers don’t see any threat in evolution, properly understood.”

    No, MODERNIST popes, theologians, and philosophers don’t see any threat from it. But the fact is, evolution, sans a Deus-ex-machina-like divine intervention at key points in the process, necessarily involves a denial of the existence of distinct, separate species. This is fatal not only to the Faith, but to the science of logic and to common sense.

  • Nick

    Theological Problem
    If we accept Darwinism as true we then have to admit that death did not enter the world as a result of Adam and Eve’s sin. On the contrary, death was already in the world as the essential mechanism God used to create us. For me, this is an untenable position fraught with all kinds of nasty implications. This is really just a philosophical debate. The scientific evidence fits a creationist theory at least as well as Darwin’s theory if one keeps an open mind.

  • Mason

    Let’s be careful here. No Adam, no Eve, no Fall, no Cross, no Savior, no Redemption (nor need). The Genesis account is more than a metaphor. It’s hard to understand how, yet, it is true. We do well however not to give too much ground to the materialists by agreeing with most of their premises and then mounting a defense that relies upon poetry. Remember Flannery O’Connor’s oddly stated defense of the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist, “If it’s only a symbol, I say to hell with it”.

  • Jonathan CHM

    Genesis 1:27, “So God made man in his own image”.
    Genesis 2:7, “And the Lord God formed man of the dust of the ground.”
    Genesis 2:21-22, “And the Lord God caused a deep sleep to fall upon Adam, …the Lord had taken from man, made he a woman, & brought her unto the man”.
    From the above verses, it is obvious that God formed man/woman from dust instead of transforming apes to human beings.