The False Contraposition Between Darwinism and the Church
Colloquium with the Vice-Director of the Pontifical Gregorian University's conference on biological evolution
A century and a half after the publication of The Origin of Species by Charles Darwin, considered a milestone in the history of evolutionary biology, and following recent important scientific discoveries, the theme of evolution calls for serious reconsideration, both from a scientific point of view and from a philosophical and theological perspective. Principally in order to overcome the ideological positions and polemics that now, two centuries after Darwin's birth, more than ever fuel the debate. We see confusion between theology and science that is instrumental in provoking on one hand an anti-religious metaphysical evolutionism, and on the other a fundamentalist extremism that leads to a misunderstood creationism, or to "Intelligent Design".
For these reasons, the Pontifical Gregorian University, in collaboration with the University of Notre Dame (Indiana, USA), under the high patronage of the Pontifical Council for Culture, and in the context of the STOQ Project (Science, Theology and the Ontological Quest) organized at its seat in Rome an international conference on the theme "Biological Evolution: Facts and Theories", which was held from 3-7 March . The principal aim of the initiative was to consider the question of evolution in a wider perspective than that of traditional post-Darwinism, in the light of recent research discoveries.
What scientific value has the theory of evolution today, 150 years after its birth, and is it still possible to speak of a single theory? We asked Gennaro Auletta, lecturer in the Philosophy of Science at the Pontifical Gregorian University, scientific director of the STOQ Project and Vice-Director of the conference.
"I hold that there is no scientific theory that does not evolve over the course of time. The best guarantee of the scientific quality of Darwinism and of the theory of evolution is in its capacity to evolve, which we have seen in the last 50 years", explained the expert. "Today I would say that it is not a monolithic theory, but to speak of various evolutionary theories would seem excessive in my opinion. I believe we should speak of a single theory, with a plurality of approaches and with notable amendments, particularly from two points of view. On the one hand, we no longer consider genes today as a linear sequence which codifies information, but above all as a network: every gene, including those that codify, is considered to be a unit that can activate a different series of genes with a regulatory function, and which contribute to form the organism as a whole.
"This allows us to consider mutations not as isolated phenomena. If we modify one of the genes of this network, we obtain as a consequence another series of mutations in a "cascade effect". This explains how a whole series of mutations could have been channelled in the course of evolution. So, even if these mutations might have occurred by chance initially, their effect is not casual. The other new approach that characterizes Darwin's theory is the realisation that the evolution of the organism is the result of a co-evolution, of a co-adaptation.
"The organism and the environment, so to speak, constitute a bipolarity in constant interaction. From this point of view it is important to emphasise the capacity that all organisms share, even the most simple ones, to construct environmental niches for themselves. Thus the relationship with the environment is no longer just a matter of the environment acting on the organism, as was thought 100 or even 30 years ago, but also of the organism influencing the environment. By constructing an environmental niche, the organism is capable of modifying the effects of natural selection upon itself, and therefore of influencing, even indirectly, its own evolution. No organism can control its own evolution directly, but in constructing its environmental niche, it contributes in time to determining those conditions that have a feedback effect on its own evolutionary process".
What has been, and what is today, the position of the Church with regard to Darwinism?
I should say quite simply that it has never been one of condemnation. And this is one of the reasons that make any effort at the salvaging or rehabilitation of Darwin superfluous, in my opinion, because neither the Catholic Church, nor any of its notable exponents, has ever condemned either Darwinism or the theory of evolution. On the contrary, it has always shown great interest in the theory. We should remember that Cardinal John Henry Newman, in England, was a clear supporter of Darwinism from its very beginnings. Indeed, I should say that after the famous stance taken by John Paul II in 1996, we passed into a phase in which the theory has been recognized.
It is the task of philosophical consideration, also in regard to Darwinism, to distinguish the scientific from the theological, two perspectives that often seem today to be confused.
It is a sign of the times. For better or for worse, today there is a greater sensibility towards metaphysical, religious, and spiritual questions. This is a sign of a very important change, but we must tread carefully, having been dominated for 350 years by the mechanistic paradigm. In mechanical science there are no mistakes. Science always begins by studying the simplest systems, and in nature these are precisely those of a mechanical nature, so perhaps it was necessary that science should start from there. But from this starting point someone drew a mechanistic paradigm, a kind of anti-metaphysical metaphysics. And this paradigm has dominated for three and a half centuries, making it very difficult for philosophers and theologians to discuss certain matters with their scientific counterparts. Today the situation has changed, and it is the duty of philosophy to make it clear that the theory of evolution not only has in itself, no anti-religious implications, but nor is it a theory that can, from an epistemological viewpoint, "prove that God does not exist", as was sustained, with a line of reasoning which I can only describe as illogical, by some luminaries a few years ago in "Le Nouvel Observateur".
I am also convinced, though, that it is in no one's interest to promote an exaggerated concordism. I do not think that the results of science and those of philosophy and religion can or should always be in agreement. I hold that, on the contrary, sometimes a sharp confrontation is healthy, because in that way we go forward. At the same time, when certain distinctions have been made clear, I think it is useful to see whether there are significant convergences or significant lessons that science can teach to theology or philosophy.
Does the idea of a providential design of God in Creation, of a "material structured in an intelligent way by the Spirit", which the Pope recently recalled, represent a "scientific theory" that may be in contrast with others?
I am very alive to this definition. In 2004, in fact, I invited Cardinal Georges Marie Martin Cottier to the Gregorian to discuss a very interesting aspect. As a scholar of quantum mechanics, I have always held that quantum systems are to be considered in the last analysis as "information". I am not saying that the most advanced cognitive processes can be reduced to mere information. But, already at a purely physical level, there exist phenomena such as the exchange of information and the acquisition of information, which suggest that in our universe matter is not simply a casual agglomeration of elements, but a structure that we could define, if not "intelligent", at least as "intelligible". The aim of the discussion with the theologian Cottier was to demonstrate how quantum mechanics suggests an objective intelligibility of the cosmos and of matter, which was exactly what was sustained by the Scholastics of Saint Thomas. Note well that this is not a scientific theory. I limit myself to affirming that there exist scientific theories, such as quantum mechanics, but also the theory of evolution, which suggest points of view that are very interesting if developed along philosophical and theological lines. Another point which I must underline, however, is that when we speak of a providential design in Creation, we must be very careful to avoid the question of Intelligent Design, which is not a scientific theory, even if it is presented as such. This thesis, furthermore, has the serious defect of considering the theory of evolution as it was 30 or 40 years ago. But if we wanted to consider that there is a finalism, not of a theological/religious nature, but a finalism within evolution itself that could be proved empirically, we would run the risk of considering as prime matter, to use a scholastic term, what is in fact secondary matter, and to transform biological species and genera into ontological subjects of the type of the individual organism, because in order to talk of the end of something, I must first have the something. I am not saying, however, that evolution proceeds blindly. Even if it has no intrinsic finalism, evolution moves, in time, towards a greater exercise of control on the part of the organism over the environmental information. If we observe the passage of bacteria to the human being, through its various phases, we see a significant increase of the channels and the forms with which these organisms access environmental information, through sensory channels, conceptual and cognitive modalities that become more and more sophisticated, exercising in this way an ever greater control over the environment. And this is a key point, because it means that intelligence is something that is promoted by evolution, being an adaptive phenomenon. Therefore, if it is true that the human being is also a contingent product of biological evolution, if we consider a sufficiently long evolutionary period, it is reasonable to expect that an intelligent being will emerge, since intelligence is something that goes in the direction of evolution.
As a result of mechanisms intrinsic to evolution itself; a phenomenon that promotes greater information control is produced. In this way intelligence is promoted, even though evolution itself, as far as we know on a scientific level, is not aimed at a determined end.
This is clearly not a directly theological discourse, but only a scientific/philosophical one. But that shows that it would be unfair to carry over a strong finalism from theological discourse to providential design. On the other hand, a philosophical/theological discourse of this kind is by no means in discordance with an indirect guiding of Creation, recalling another medieval tenet, that is, the distinction between First Cause (God) and second cause (the created beings): God, in his modalities of action, does not suppress the second causes.
What are your expectations for the conference at the Gregorian?
In my opinion the task of the philosopher, and that of the scientist, more than providing answers, is to clarify what exactly are the problems. Therefore, since the theory of evolution is, on the scientific level, a vital theory, I hope that this conference will identify which of its aspects are still problematic. But also that it will make clear what problems there are, if any, between this theory and theological and philosophical thought. And perhaps what will happen, and it would be very interesting if it did, is that we shall discover that the problems are very different from what we have supposed until now. There is much talk of the incompatibility between Catholicism and evolution theory, of the risk of reducing the human being to a mere aggregation of cells, or to a purely animal dimension, but perhaps these are only myths to be discredited, and the problems lie elsewhere. I should like the next conference at the Gregorian — besides being a clear testimony to the fact that the ecclesiastical institutions and Universities and the STOQ Project take the theory of evolution very seriously — to serve to identify the open questions.
Weekly Edition in English
18 March 2009, page 12
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