Evolution and the Christian, Part 1

One of our projects here at Catholic X-ray has been to encourage a little scientific literacy among our brethren, and as part of this project in this post I would like to touch on a topic I find rather dull, but that is so mishandled among Christians that it demands some band width discussing. That topic of course is evolution. 

Now, first let’s issue a disclaimer.  I think I am reasonably well trained in the biosciences, but I must say I have little expertise in the details of evolutionary theory.  This should not be a surprise as the details of evolution are sort of peripheral to the main concerns of the biosciences.  It is not a fundamental theory of biology, since it does not “fundamentally” explain anything. It does not attempt to explain biological phenomena at its deepest level. Molecular biology and biochemistry really are “fundamental” in the sense that these are sciences which attempt to explain biological phenomena at the most basic level in terms of the interactions of the biological chemicals that actually make up cells, which are the basic units of living things. Evolution concerns itself with how the species we see today arose from simpler life forms. Evolution itself then needs to be explained at a more basic level, and of course there are scientists who go about trying to do just this.  For some basic background on evolution take a look at the site here .

Now anyone who really does science knows that it is complex and arduous, and all of us end up knowing only a small part of the whole.  Most of the public is familiar with this in terms of dealing with physician medical specialists. So the orthopedic surgeon knows a great deal about how to repair injuries to the bones but relatively little about heart disease, and if one of their patients should have a heart attack after surgery they would seek the consultation of the appropriate medical specialist, such as a cardiologist.  That’s not to say the orthopedic surgeon knows nothing about heart disease, by virtue of being a physician he has learned some fundamental things, but would not know the latest and best approaches to the management of what can be a complex problem.  Similarly scientists may have expertise in one area but not another.  A biological scientist with expertise in the molecular biology of cancer cells might know all kinds of things about “oncogenes” , the genes that are associated with cancer, and next to nothing about the evolutionary evidence that links birds and dinosaurs, although perhaps would know some elementary things about this by virtue of studying biology in general. 

At this point I would also note that scientists engaged in wholly different pursuits like physicists and mathematicians would know even less about evolutionary biology, and evolutionary biologists know perhaps little about solving differential equations or the latest info about quantum gravity. It should be obvious that none of these people have any expertise in social sciences like economics. In general I would be skeptical of a physicist lecturing me about evolution or a biologist writing about mathematical group theory. I would not look to any of them for a discussion of the pros and cons of Keynesian economic theory. It takes a long time to master any professional or academic discipline.

All of this seems pretty obvious, but I make these points only to lay the ground work for my central points about evolution.

First:  Christians should stop trying to debate the theories validity. For the most part unless the Christan happens to be a biologist with expertise in paleontology and comparative anatomy they “hath not the competence” to debate the theory. Unless you are an expert it is analogous to  the orthopedic surgeon arguing with the cardiologist about the treatment of heart failure. You never see this. Real experts know when they lack the background to have strong opinions. Among biologists with expertise in the relevant disciplines evolution has broad acceptance, and frankly these are among the very few people who care one way or another about the details of the theory itself. There are two exceptions however. There is the debate between some scientifically illiterate Christians on one hand and their philosophically illiterate opponents on the other about the truth of evolution. The real debate however is not about the details of how we got from earlier species to the ones we observe now, which is a rather narrow question of most interests to specialists, but pointless debate about what the implications of evolutionary biology are for more interesting and much broader philosophical and theological issues, like say whether or not the God of the Bible is real. The thing about this sort of debate that makes it pointless is that the issues have literally nothing to do with one another!  A specific refutation is almost pointless. It would be rather like trying to prove that the quality of the Boston Red Sox pitching staff has nothing to do with the correction of the national debt. I suppose one could formally show the two things are totally unrelated but its more of a challenge even to try and understand what the touch point of the issues might be, as they have little to do with each other.

In terms of the broad religious and existential questions that presumably are really at stake the relevant disciplines that shed light on such issues are philosophy and theology. The answers do not depend in any way on what biological or physical processes gave rise to life on the earth as it is currently observed, any more than the national debt depends on what kind of year Koji Uehara has as the Red Sox closer this year ( a good one we hope by the way).   For the most part the average Christian should be on much firmer ground, discussing basic questions such as the existence of God, or the reasons why the Church is credible, but unfortunately however, our knowledge of philosophy has been forgotten and is often found wanting. Still the average secularist science popularizer and their even less literate disciples are nearly totally unarmed and even more clueless. In stead of arguing about this, many Christians seem to have conceded the idea that if evolution is true, Christianity is false!. A Catholic with even a rudimentary knowledge of the true faith knows that this premise is an obvious non sequitur. In fact evolution is not really even all that interesting from a scientific point of view as it appears to tell us very little of practical consequence in general.  Now there are exceptions, it is true that some of the basic ideas it developed help explain some biologic phenomena of general import.  One example that springs to mind is the fact that natural selection is a mechanism by which bacteria resistant to a particular antibiotic may become wide spread. In comparison the much more fundamental, if nonetheless equally esoteric theory of quantum mechanics has enormous practical applications and without an understanding of it, we would not have cell phones, flat screen TVs or surgical lasers. Evolution has relatively few practical applications and most the details it is interested in, are rather dry questions, and are illustrated by the following journal article seen here . I mean this is fine if it’s your cup of tea, although it’s not mine.  By saying that we should not argue the details of this theory, I mean no disparagement of those biologist who have a deep interest it this sort of thing, and for those who are experts have no objections to attempts at putting forth modifications of the current theory or even some alternative theory. Scientists do this  all the time and all kinds of well accepted scientific world views have been superseded in some fashion or other. In fact if it became clear that evolution has no practical consequence towards issues relevant to religion I suspect more scientists would be free to critique details of the theory, fear of being labeled religious zealots being removed. Still that is the work and concern for specialists, it takes the work of a lifetime to master the detailed science regarding evolution and most lay Christians who try to take it on succeed only in making themselves look ill prepared at best and stupid at worst.  

Again, as stated above evolution is irrelevant to the truth or falsity of Christianity properly understood.  Unfortunately This point however, has been almost catastrophically muddled by Protestant theology, and in particular the concept of “sola scriptura”. What evolution is in complete in conflict with, is a literal interpretation of Genesis and a conception of the creative activity of God that is overly simplistic. In the United States a particularly important religious force is evangelical Christianity and in fact the dominance of this force deeply affects the style with which Catholics approach theology. That topic probably deserves a post all by itself, but I mention in passing all kinds of things within the Church demonstrate this influence , including pious language such as being “spirit filled”, the Charismatic movement, the hip folk guitar masses, the emphasis on the Eucharist as a community meal as opposed to a sacrifice, the focus on subjective interpretations of scripture and morality and the complete lack of knowledge of the intellectual edifice that is the Thomist tradition in philosophy, all contribute to this “Protestantization” of the Catholic Church. Trouble is that Protestants historically held to “sola scriptura” and if Genesis is not literally true, there is a great problem for Protestantism as such.  Since there is no central authority to say what God might be trying to say to us in Genesis, we are left with two approaches. “Main line” Protestantism accepts the teachings of science, but then proceeds to question the entire validity of the Bible itself given the manifest conflicts between what the Bible superficially says and what science shows, but Protestantism has nothing other than the Bible with which to base belief and thus soon you are left with widespread apostasy. The desiccated state of Main Line Protestantism is evidence for this. The alternative is to bang ones head against the wall disputing evolution in order to cling to a near literal belief in Genesis and we are left with the pathetic phenomena of scientifically illiterate Christians becoming target practice for the quasi literate pseudo scientists like Richard Dawkins or worse the kind of fool who reads the latest issue of “Discover” magazine and thinks they are scientifically literate.  Catholics of course need not be troubled by this since we do not take Genesis literally, we have the authority of Tradition that helps us discern the meaning of Scripture, and in fact as far back as St Augustine it was obvious to the Church that the Bible need not be a literal explanation of scientific phenomena. Confusion about this point abounds.  

Evolution is completely compatible with everything we believe and indeed in some cases may even be helpful to some important points we would like to make. More on this later.  Now to be fair, it is not uncommon for atheistic popularizers and the usual lefty culprits to use evolution as evidence for the non existence of God and so forth. They can only do this because some Christians lend credence to them by behaving as if evolution had something to do with the existence of God. Christians should simply stop aiding and abetting this intellectual malpractice. Beyond this the fact that Dawkins and his fellow travelers try to connect the facts of evolution to broad metaphysical philosophical issues only proves that they know nothing about philosophy or theology, or care little about them and are merely interested in beating up on Evangelical Christians and straw men.

I do concede that there is a generalized “sense” among among some members of the public that acceptance of  evolution  “helps” the secularists, but it depends on extremely wide spread ignorance. It relies on a thought process that sounds something like this… “Duh.. scientists show that like ah… evolution is true and ah… like there was no Adam and Eve … and like so… there couldn’t been a God… and ah.. something like a good God wouldn’t make animals eat each other, or spiders cannibalize other spiders… or something like that… now let me get back to playing HALO on my X-box in the basement then I am gonna post on some you tube sites where I can make fun of them stupid @!#$  Christians ok….” . Now when I hear such drivel I can hardly resist making the point that I really could not care less about bugs devouring other bugs or even beasts mauling other beasts, having no particular sympathy for such creatures. In fact I have been known to enjoy a nice juicy steak, courtesy of the farmer, the slaughterhouse and the butcher, so I can hardly get worked up about God’s plan for animals. Indeed I rather approve if it! They have no immortal souls and have a purely temporal end and as such can be used by man and even consumed as food. By the way the steak goes particularly well with a pint of Guinness… but I digress.  A reasonably literate Catholic should be able to clearly state that the existence of God or lack of same is a metaphysical question.  It is not dependent on any finding of the physical sciences beyond the fact that things exist. Something which I don’t think most scientists question. It is a separate fact from the specific doctrines of Christianity. God could exist and we can know some things about him regardless of whether or not the Christian faith is true. This was obvious for many of the nations founders like say Jefferson.   The specific doctrines of the Church dependent on Faith also do not depend on any scientific theory as they in principle cannot be known through reason, they must be in principle revealed and therefore can’t be disproved by science either. Perhaps a very literal interpretation of Genesis is ruled out but the Church has never held to a literal interpretation of Genesis with literal snakes and apples in play anyway, beyond in children’s stories.  We should recall that faith means something taken on the word of another so the specific doctrines of faith are beyond reason per se.  This is not to say the motivations of Faith or the credibility of the entity in which faith is placed are beyond reason. We use reason and evidence to define when something or someone is a suitable to put our faith in. So just as a jury will use evidence presented at trial to decide if a witness is credible, and then once reason establishes credibility the juror takes the testimony of the witness on “faith”. We decide, using reason and evidence if the Church, Jesus etc. are credible and then accept or reject their testimony. If we accept the testimony we have “Faith”, but the specific items of faith, such as the transubstantiation of the Eucharist for example, are not subject to evaluation by science. It is true reason can ponder and understand the implications of a doctrine, but this is a different issue. All this is also worth a long post by itself, although we did discuss it a bit earlier, and you can take a look here .  All that said then we would be better off explaining in some detail why evolution has little to do with Christianity rather than getting engaged in the fool’s errand of trying to show evolution is “false”. If explaining this to a Christian be gentle, but if explaining this fact to your average secular atheist I recommend just a little bit of condescension suggesting to the poor fool who thinks that he has just refuted Christianity just how stupid you think they really are… good to induce some much needed humility.  (That’s a joke ok…) In any case As Pope John Paul II said evolution is clearly “more than a theory “and having garnered widespread fundamental acceptance it is likely largely accurate. Of course it may have elements of error and while no scientific explanation is ever completely irrefutable, usually theories that are this well accepted are never shown to be wholly false, rather their details etc may be modified. More importantly in the case of evolution we have a Thomist’s best friend in the culture wars and we should stop beating our friend up. In fact we should root for the theory!  I promise more on this later.

That is it for an intro to this topic. I invite those who read this and think they see a conflict between what a Catholic believes and evolution to post a response. I GUARANTEE there is no real conflict.  Coming up why evolution should be our buddy.


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