Charles Darwin. Wikimedia Commons

The year of Darwin - What If We Were to Evolve from scientism?

150 years after the publication of The Origin of Species, and 200 years after the birth of its author, a convention has been organized by the Pontifical Gregorian University to assess one of history’s most significant scientific discoveries.
Mario Gargantini

We are now well into the Year of Darwin, and the media can’t decide whether to give more importance to the bicentenary of his birth, like London’s Natural History Museum, which has opened a new website, or to the 150th anniversary of his The Origin of Species, as some publishers did, with a new edition of the celebrated text, or to both, as the University of Cambridge will do with their Darwin Festival at the beginning of June. In any case, what can be seen in action in these first months of celebrations is a ritual that for over 150 years has been repeated over and over again–the categorical defense of Darwinism, seen as an untouchable bulwark of science and assumed to be synonymous with “scientific,” with the risk that any hint of criticism of the English biologist will be seen as an attack on science and a threat to its development.

We should note that in recent pronouncements about science and its value, Benedict XVI has outmaneuvered much of the “neo-scientistic” intelligentsia that has always tried to label the Church as the incurable enemy of progress. To this can be added the International Conference entitled, “Biological Evolution: Facts and Theories,” organized by the Pontifical Gregorian University within the ambit of project STOQ (Science, Theology and the Ontological Quest) and under the patronage of the Pontifical Council for Culture, which, at the beginning of March, will call scientists from all over the world for an open scientific debate.

We put these questions to Rafael Martinez, lecturer in Philosophy of Science at the Pontifical University of the Holy Cross, one of the speakers at the conference.

Why does the theme of evolution continue to be the object of such bitter argument? Why is it so easy to descend into a logic of ideological contrast instead of maintaining a critical and rational debate?
We have first of all to clarify the terms. If by Darwinism we mean the understanding of evolution based particularly on the concept of natural selection proposed by Darwin 150 years ago, then the reaction against some attempts to question Darwinism can be justified. Today, biology cannot do without evolution and Darwin’s theory, though this has already been improved by many other contributions. Natural selection itself has never been the only factor, even for Darwin himself, though for him it was the most important element. The critical dimension, it is true, is essential for science, but it must always be a criticism “from within,” that is, criticism that follows the methods proper to the various scientific fields; so I understand that much criticism can be seen as anti-scientific. Your question, however, refers rather to certain materialistic positions, which are suggested by many oversimplified presentations of evolution. In these cases, it should be sufficient to note that we are dealing with ideological interpretations, and more often prejudices, with little truly rational about them. A well-known example is that of Richard Dawkins, who abandoned biological research many years ago so as to promote blatant campaigns for atheism founded on evolution. To criticize these positions is not to criticize science, but to criticize a distorted and unjustified use of science.

A fundamental node in the debate is the idea of total casuality that seems to be the presupposition (or the consequence) of Darwinism. Perhaps we should see this concept in a less simplistic way.
It seems to me that evolutionary biology by no means denies finality, but rather certain rigid conceptions of finality. Famous evolutionists like Ernst Mayr have noted how biology is essentially finalistic, but it is an “intrinsic” finality, not induced by an external agent. Now, in trying to understand the mechanisms with which this finality is built up in the history of living beings, science has revealed that an important role is played by aleatory, casual phenomena. I think it is a mistake to interpret this role of chance as though it were a motor that moves the biological system towards its end from the outside (the blind watchmaker, Dawkins calls it). The role of chance is rather to be seen as a space for possibility, as that which makes possible the whole evolutionary dynamism, the development of the wealth and variety of living organisms. To accept this is not to deny the presence of causes, but to acknowledge that casuality does not coincide with determinism; it is to leave behind the mechanistic vision of the 18th-19th centuries, which saw natural reality as totally determined by its initial conditions.

If we look carefully, this rediscovery of the aleatory nature of biology is a return to the category of contingency spoken of by the classical metaphysical philosophers: the acknowledgment of the fundamental role of the unforeseen in the cosmos.

God as Architect. Wikimedia Commons

Another delicate point regards the presumed contrast between evolution and creation: can the two concepts go together or even reinforce each other?
To see a contrast between creation and evolution reveals a mistaken idea of creation and of the Creator. This goes both for those who deny creation, and for those who do not acknowledge the fact of biological evolution. It is wrong to imagine the Creator as one who acts in a physical way, like an architect putting together the pieces of the world. The Hebrew-Christian notion of creation concerns not only the temporal origin of the world or of species; the action of the Creator refers rather to the radical dependence of all beings on the Creator. It is the very fact of existing, whatever be the evolutionary history of a being, that requires a foundation in the Creator God. In this sense, there is no difference between the first instant of the universe or the beginning of the human species; I am “created” by God in this instant. This idea of the Creator is much richer and more interesting. It is also clear that the understanding of the temporal beginning of the species through the natural mechanisms of evolution takes nothing away from that need for the radical dependence of being.

There are those who invoke the repeated and necessary direct intervention of God to explain the most complex natural phenomena. What is the limitation of this position?
I don’t believe I really understand this attitude, typical of so-called Intelligent Design. To require repeated interventions of God means to affirm that He gave reality imperfect laws that do not allow it to reach its end, and that from time to time need correction. It seems a contradiction and from the theological point of view it has no justification. A hundred years ago, the Pontifical Biblical Commission declared that no special intervention by God is required for the creation of living beings, apart from the case of the direct creation of the human soul.

So “Intelligent Design” is a vision in contrast with the Christian conception of the world as created by the rational divine Logos, whose rational nature it reflects: a Logos perfectly capable of bringing the cosmos to its fulfillment.

In 1996, John Paul II spoke of the evolution of living beings as “more than a mere hypothesis” and of a plurality of “evolutionary theories.” How should we interpret these affirmations?
The interpretation of the first affirmation found broad agreement. Referring to the encyclical Humani Generis of Pius XII who had accepted the origin of the human body by evolution as a hypothesis, John Paul II considered evolution not as a possible proposal among many others, but as an authentic scientific theory; that is, as one of the tools with which we understand the world (even though, like any theory, it is never definitive, nor absolute).

As for the plurality of theories, that which today we call “evolution” should be classified, from an epistemological point of view, as an overall picture of a theory, a great theoretical scheme containing various factors referring to different aspects of biological evolution, and in which there is still much room for discussion and research for an explanation of the evolutionary mechanisms.

What is new in the teaching of John Paul II and of Benedict XVI compared with the way the Church considered evolutionary theories in the past?
Towards the end of the 19th century, there were many difficulties. Many theologians did not understand evolution, even though the Magisterium has never acted or made any decision of a doctrinal kind in this regard. From the beginning of the last century, objections of theoretical, cultural, philosophical and theological natures gradually disappeared, leading up to the explicit pronouncement of Pius XII.

John Paul II insisted on the fact that evolution must be seen as an important part of science. Benedict XVI, already as Cardinal Ratzinger, had spoken positively of evolution, trying also to value it, so as to understand better some aspects of the theology of creation. In more recent interventions, we note his concern that evolution not be seen as a justification for supporting a materialistic and reductive view of the world and of man. Certainly, the phenomenon of man is not only evolution, because we are not reducible to the merely biological component; this is proven by the very fact that we pose questions about our specific nature as men.

What would you suggest to a teacher who has to tackle these themes with young people?
It is important to do away with every prejudice, with every concern that evolution presents doctrinal problems, because it does not. Then you have to show, even by means of the understanding of the evolutionary process, the wonders of divine creation, the symphony of forms of life which–following the laws that God Himself gave to nature–evolve in a grandiose way to form the world which amazes us continually.