Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Tuesday, February 06, 2007

Coulter, Evolution and Catholicism

Reader Literacy-Chic linked in the comments to an article over on Roman Catholic Blog regarding Ann Coulter's discussion (perhaps a mild word when it comes to anything originating with Coulter) of Darwinism and atheism/immorality in her recent book, Godless.

Thomistic, the author at RCB, rightly notes that there is certainly no inherent conflict between Catholic doctrine and either an old Earth or the gradual development of species. However, he does seems concerned by some of the points that Coulter brings up, as do some of his commenters.

The anti-evolution arguments that I'd like to cover based on the post are:

1) Evolution is the intellectual justification for genocide and totalitarianism by 20th century figures such at Hitler and Stalin.

2) Evolution is problematic for Catholic doctrine because the doctrine of Original Sin requires that there be a single historical Adam and Eve, and evolution makes this problematic.

3) The evidence doesn't even support evolution, since no one has ever found a fossil of an animal halfway in between species.

-- 1. Evolution as Justification for Evil --

Thomistic quotes an article about Coulter's book which summarizes this line of argument as follows:
As Coulter puts it, "From Marx to Hitler, the men responsible for the greatest mass murders of the twentieth century were avid Darwinists." As evidence of this, one can cite Richard Weikart's book From Darwin to Hitler, wherein the author traces the evidence that eugenics organizations in Germany at the dawn of the 20th Century touted "scientific" theories of the laws of evolution.
To start with, Coulter is indulging in some sadly characteristic sloppiness when she labels Marx as an avid Darwinist. Marx and Engels published the Communist Manifesto in 1848, eleven years before Darwin published the Origin of Species in 1859. What Ms. Coulter (and perhaps Mr. Weikart, if his guilt may be determined by association) seems to have missed in her cultural analysis is Marx and Darwin were drinking from the same pool of cultural fascinations rather more than directly influencing one another. The mid to late nineteenth century was teaming with notions of golden ages, progress, regress and rebirth. In many ways, the notion of progress of some grand, world-transforming sort was taking the place which salvation had once filled, for what was already a secularizing Europe. Indeed, one of the ideas that it took nearly a hundred years to purge out of evolutionary thought was the idea that evolutionary change was necessarily directional: "upward" from simpler, baser creatures to more complex, "better" ones.

As science replaced religion as the key to deep knowledge (there is, I think, a certain gnosticism about the popular attitude towards science from the mid nineteenth century through the Great War), scientifically framed ideas of progress came into vogue. And from them (with a generous splash of poorly absorbed evolutionary theory) came the fantasies of eugenics or breeding a "super race" which fascinated the likes of Hitler (and Margaret Sanger and Oliver Wendel Holmes and many others).

The theory of evolution provided a certain fodder to the evils of the 20th century, but I don't think one is any more reasonable to dismiss the theory qua theory because of it than one would be to reject Newton's physics because they helped create the cultural climate of the Enlightenment, and thus fed the blood-fest of the French Revolution.

-- 2. Adam, Eve, Evolution and Original Sin --

From a doctrinal point of view, the most commonly cited objection to evolution based on Catholic doctrine is the question of original sin and whether all of humanity is indeed descended from a single set of parents who fell from grace and caused the original rupture in the relationship between God and humanity.

In the encyclical Humani Generis, Pope Pius XII wrote: "[T]he faithful cannot embrace that opinion which maintains either that after Adam there existed on this earth true men who did not take their origin through natural generation from him as from the first parents of all, or that Adam represents a certain number of first parents. ... [I]t is in no way apparent how such an opinion can be reconciled... with regard to original sin which proceeds from a sin actually committed by an individual Adam in which through generation is passed onto all and is in everyone as his own."

I think in regards to this kind of thing it's important to keep clear in one's mind what elements of the Adam and Eve story are essential de fide and which are not. I think that the essential elements are clearly that:
  • God created two first humans, who are the parents of the whole current human race.
  • These first parents sinned directly against God, despite their originally having a more direct relationship with him than we do.
  • We all bear the mark of original sin: both a tendency to do wrong and a gulf that separates us (as a tribe) from God.
As Pius XII observes elsewhere in Humani Generis, it is certainly not impossible that God created our first human parents by infusing souls into already existing, man-like creatures, the product of a long natural process. Nor, from a scientific point of view, is it by any means impossible to believe that all modern humans are descended from a common ancestor. Indeed, there are at least two points at which all living humans can be traced to a single biological ancestor: Mitochondrial Eve (about 150,000 years ago) and Y-chromosomal Adam (60,000-90,000 years ago).

The idea of there being other human-ish creatures wandering the Earth at the same time as Adam and Eve doesn't fit well with the standard Sunday school version of the story, but the Bible itself is slightly odder than the children's version. Recall that at several point in the early chapters of Genesis people are mentioned as going off and interbreeding with other creatures (giants, 'the sons of heaven', etc.) Indeed, after the initial description of the time in the garden itself, one doesn't necessarily get the impression that Adam and Eve are alone in the world. (Why, for instance, does Cain fear that when he is banished people will kill him? He's just killed one of the four named people in the world up to that point, and the other two are his parents.) Rather, Adam and Eve seem to be described tribally: as the tribe of true humans, but not necessarily the only creatures on Earth. Now, the idea of early (ensouled) humans interbreeding with (soul-less) human-ish creatures is unappealing. But then, the idea of Adam and Eve's children having no options other than incest isn't exactly appealing either.

I think it's important to remember that (without denying the truth of the stories of the creation and fall) the early parts of Genesis were never meant to be anything like a historical or scientific test. The stories about Adam and Eve and their children convey a number of important truths, but in other senses the narrative is sketchy and disjointed. I don't think it's meant to answer questions like: Who did Adam and Eve's children marry?

From a Catholic point of view, we have the doctrine of Original Sin, and that that sin is the result of a transgression committed by our first parents. Beyond that, I don't think that part of the Bible is meant to satisfy the historical and scientific areas of our curiosity.

-- 3. There are no fossils of transitional forms --

This isn't really a question with any specifically Catholic relevance, but one of the commentors over on RCB brought it up, and it's a favorite of anti-evolution writing. Coulter, characteristically, deploys a particularly loud and uninformed example of this set of claims in Godless.

I won't spend a ton of time on this here, since the post is already so long, and I've already covered the issue of speciation a bit here. However, let me just take the time to point out that the most basic flaw in this line of reasoning is that it fails to take into account how paleontologists do their work. When a paleontologist finds fossils from a given individual, one of the things he seeks to do is classify it as belonging to a species. If it seems very late or very early (in relation to the time period during which the species is generally found) or if its characteristics seem on the edge of what would be considered normal for that species, he may consider classifying it as belonging to a different but similar species. Or he may classify it as belonging to a known species, but as an outlier within the set of characteristics generally found in that species.

What he won't do is say: "Well gosh. This critter doesn't seem to be in a species. What we have here is a transitional form. I better not put this one in a species." Everything is assigned to a species, because it is by classifying it as belonging to a particular species that the paleontologist can convey how he believes that individual is related to other populations of creatures.

Thus, the argument that evolution is disproved because scientists have only found fossils of creatures that belong to species, not transitions creatures, isn't a "gotcha", it's display of basic ignorance.


Literacy-chic said...

Now, the idea of early (ensouled) humans interbreeding with (soul-less) human-ish creatures is unappealing. But then, the idea of Adam and Eve's children having no options other than incest isn't exactly appealing either.

Sounds like a plot from Star Trek or Heinlein.

Thank you fro your discussion of #2! I was a little fuzzy on whether the doctrine of Original Sin relied on a more-literal-than-not interpretation of Genesis. Nice job working in the textual variations, unanswered questions and oddities of Genesis, too!

#1 and #3 didn't bother me as much, but your answers are still interesting. Great post!

Jay Anderson said...

What part of 6 days don't you understand? EVERYONE knows the earth is only 6000 years old! There's a Creation Museum near Cincinnati that proves it. You can visit it when you come to Ohio in May. Then, once you're convinced by diaramas of children playing with dinosaurs, you can change the name of this blog to "Adam Catholic", and can post as Mr. Adam and Mrs. Eve.

Anonymous said...

Your expanation for #3 was completely unconvincing. Scientists have been looking for "Missing links" for nearly 150 years, and yet, somehow, paleantologists haven't gotten the memo yet? They absurdly continue to classify everything they find according to the strict guidelines of their trade...please. This is an extremely weak cover-up. It is worth pointing out that the fossil record argument was posed to Darwin himself, and he had no answer for it (see Volume 2 of Janet Brown's fascinating biography), and that, contrary to this blog, missing links are somewhat routinely discovered, before they turn out to be hoaxes. Back issues of National Geographic are instructive in this.

John Farrell said...

Why is that the most scientifically illiterate posters are anonymous?

CMinor said...

This may get me skewered by Anon. up there, but...

I think your points on literal treatment of the Genesis story are apt.
I don't know if you saw it (I think I saw your name go by in the combox)but Jimmy Akin had a post on monogenism a couple of months ago. The discussion turned so nasty that I ended up staying away from that blog for a month. I know we Catholics are famous hair-splitters, but this sort of thing goes beyond the pale as far as I'm concerned.

My own idle thoughts on the subject are that while I don't find incest appealing either, recall that Abram and Sarai were half-siblings via their father. At some times and places in human history, it hasn't mattered. I'd guess the taboo kicked in right about the time folks started figuring out that when you married your sister, your likelihood of producing healthy offspring dropped. It sure did for Abram and Sarai.

Likewise I can see why we might find the thought of souled humans interbreeding with unsouled humans unsettling from our position in time, but I'm not sure it's a rational concern. As souls are not externally discernible, there's no reason to assume that souled and unsouled humans would be any different in any other respects, to include intelligence and behavior. The sole (no pun intended--really) difference could be that souled humans had a point of contact with God not available to unsouled humans. I'm not convinced that's analagous to bestiality although I suppose some will see it that way.

Recently there's been some mention in the news of evidence of interbreeding between Neandertals and Modern humans. If this were the case, it could represent either hybridization between sibling species or between two physically dissimilar morphs of a single species. Might the "Nephilim" of Genesis point to such events?

On the matter of how souls and original sin might have percolated through the souled and unsouled population until they were present in all of humanity, call me incurious--but I'm inclined to let God be God.

I've enjoyed this post--it made me think and dovetails interestingly with some things that have been on my mind. I may pick it up on my blog and see where it leads!

Darwin said...


It's not a matter of 'not getting the memo' nor of 'cover up'. Scientists (the ones who study fossils are, by the way, paleontologists -- so the scientists looking for "missing links" _are_ paleontologists) do indeed look for "missing links" in the sense of filling in the gaps between widely different types of creatures. And they're pretty successful in doing so. (If you care to follow the link in the post, I discuss the evolution of horses, which is one of those very sequences that has been fleshed out a very great deal since Darwin's time.)

Check your back issues of National Geographic to see if there are any articles that say "Scientists are considering not placing this new find in a species, since it is clearly a 'missing link' individual that stands between species." You won't. Indeed, if you think about what a species is (that population of creatures that share a common set of characteristics and constitute a breeding population) you wouldn't find a creature that is not a member of a species. It would always (at a theoretical minimum) be in the same species as its parents, siblings, mate and offspring.

Foxfier, formerly Sailorette said...

On horse evolution-- Have you read Icons of Evolution? Can you coment on their problems with horse evolution? (I'd try to restate it, but it's been a while since I read the book and I'd say something bass ackwards.)

Literacy-chic said...

Wow! I've just got to point out another science-fiction-y moment here, sorry. If anyone has ever read Arthur C. Clark's "The Star," this might explain the fate of the planet:

Likewise I can see why we might find the thought of souled humans interbreeding with unsouled humans unsettling from our position in time, but I'm not sure it's a rational concern. As souls are not externally discernible, there's no reason to assume that souled and unsouled humans would be any different in any other respects, to include intelligence and behavior. The sole (no pun intended--really) difference could be that souled humans had a point of contact with God not available to unsouled humans.

After all, what would induce a good and merciful God to create creatures like us in most ways, but to make them soulless? Is this theologically tenable? I agree that we must let God be God, as CMinor said, but what a suggestion! Don't mistake my tone--I find it fascinating, actually.

And before anyone mentions it, I do know something about Clark's take on religion (Christianity in particular), but the possibility of a theological solution to that story has always fascinated me...

Darwin said...


No, I haven't read Icons of Evolution. A little Googling reveals this response to it from Talk Origins (which is often a good source of evolutionary information, but a very bad source for theology or philosophy -- everyone has their own strengths and weaknesses):

Quite frankly, I'm not clear from the response what the statement is, so we may both be in the dark at this point.

But in case Anon is reading and worrying over it all: It is not the case that horse evolution is so seamless as to have no "missing link" point. However, it is certainly the case that in the case of horses we find a sequence of species of gradually changing characteristics which seems in many way to cry out to the rational mind that the species in some sense form a developmental sequence.

Kiwi Nomad 2006 said...

Quite some thinking in that response Darwin.
I think your point about evolutionary change not necessarily being for the 'better' is an important one. Evolution is not oriented to the future: it happens as a response to conditions just experienced. Evolution in one generation may lead to individuals that are well adapted for present conditions, but that lack variability for when conditions change.
I don't know much about biblical scholarship. But one idea that attracted me while I was at school. was that the Bible is made of so many different types of writing. I found it quite a shock to realise in recent years that not everyone has this understanding, and that some indeed think the Bible is intended literally.

What I think many do not understand about the fossil record, is that in fact conditions are not often favourable for the formation of fossils. What we see is merely a fraction of what once lived.

My eldest niece has just finished a biology degree and has been doing a summer research project, using molecular techniques to examine differences in populations of a beetle on an offshore island. One sample has some marked differences and it is possible she has stumbled on a "new species". An exciting find for her.

Aumgn said...

Just a comment:

I'm amused that a Professor of History's rather careful work on the links between Darwinian 'thinking' and Nazism is tarred by 'association' with Coulter. Coulter gets Weikert wrong (if she's ever read him) as socialism is tangential in 'From Darwin to Hitler'. The intent of the book is overturn Gasman's thesis of the influence of Haeckel on Hitler and to reinsert Hitler's evolutionary ethic (and Haeckel's also, come to think of it) in the general current of Evolutionary thought running back to the original reception of Darwin's work in Germany (as early as 1861 I believe).

That Darwinism was inadequate as the basis for any sort of ethic (let alone any viable, continuing research project) until it's grounding in Genetics (which only happened explicity in 1930) is rather plain. That scientists thought that evidence could be found for evolution in the continuing existence of lower races and the disabled (the latter being thought to be evolutionary throwbacks) is not in doubt.

However, to try to tar modern Evolutionary thinking - largely based in quantative analysis and mathematical modelling - in the manner of Coulter only shows she's only ever read ID apologists or Dawkins - both of whom have a rather surreal notion of what modern Evolutionary thinking actually does and can do as a discipline.

Do read the Weikert book ... it's especially brilliant on the links between the rhetoric of early Abortion supporters and what passed for evolutionary 'science' at the time.

CMinor said...

Didn't mean to cause alarm, Literacy; actually I'd been thinking of another
(far less civil) combox discussion I'd read recently and some of that spilled over into my remarks. Believe it or not, this is a hot-button issue for some.

I'll let God be God because I am operating on the assumption that God is good and merciful and desires a special relationship with us. Thus, I'm not overly concerned about how literally to read the Genesis creation story and I'm not about to get tied up in knots over whether all humanity had two parents or a few dozen. As Sister used to say, "It's a mystery, and we'll know the answer in Heaven."

On the other hand, there are some folks for whom the whole doctrine of ensoulment and original sin depends upon humanity's genetic descent from the Adam and Eve of Genesis. Thus, no literal Eve=no original sin=no Mary as the second
Eve=no Christ as the new Adam=no redemption--the mind reels. Never mind that it's patently obvious that, however we got that way, we all bear the stain of sin.

So, for those whose reading of Genesis necessitates the presumption of either incest or a rather sexy version of Night of the Zombies, I thought I'd toss out a thought or two to chew on. I'll stick with the allegorical reading of Genesis, while assuming that a loving God provided us all with souls, and that all of us by virtue of our humanity bear original sin.

Kiwi Nomad 2006 said...

Darwin, I refer to this: "Indeed, there are at least two points at which all living humans can be traced to a single biological ancestor: Mitochondrial Eve (about 150,000 years ago) and Y-chromosomal Adam (60,000-90,000 years ago)."

I went to a lecture by Bryan Sykes, author of "The Seven Daughters of Eve" and "Adam's Curse". several years ago. He has been very much involved in the research that has led to ideas of "Mitochondrial Eve". He talked about how one misunderstanding of this reasearch is the thinking that there was only one "Eve" at the time. "Eve" is the one who has had an unbroken line of female descendants. There would have been other women living at the same time, but they have had male descendants in their lines.

Darwin said...


Thanks for the background on Weikert's book. I'd only heard of it in stuff coming out of the Discovery Institute, so I'd assumed it was very much coming from that background.

Nathaniel Jay said...


Coulter and her outrageous, obnoxious, and extrememly marketable persona aside, I think there are some questions worth pondering:

1)Why is it that, from Social Darwinism to Racial Theory to Eugenics, etc etc etc, the practical influences of Darwinism upon human ethics have been universally negative? We on the outside of this debate are constantly listening to voices such as yours insist that these don't represent "real" darwinism, yet as the atrocities pile up over time, your voices become decidely fainter. Also, your notion that scientific gnosticism, as a public perception, ended with WWI is optimistic indeed! I know some students you might like to talk to! Its alive and well today...

Your Newton argument is, to me, a red herring. Newtons science did not so directly effect moral theory as Darwin--the roots of the French Revolution are to be found more in the history of Enlightenment philosophers from Descartes, Voltaire, Roussea, etc. And historians DO in fact place a good chunk of the blame on these philosophers for the reign of terror. So why shouldn't Darwinism have to deal with it's share?

2) Experiments in Darwinian theology such as those by Theihard de Chardin, once considered so revolutionary and groundbreaking, now seem like quaint time-pieces--the theological equivilant of the oldies station. They have convinced almost no one beyond their original generation. The likelihood that Darwinism will yet yield a fruitful marriage with theology seems less and less likely.

3) There are all sorts of niggling problems with the history of Darwin's thought. First is that what later was popularized as "Social Darwinism" actually existed before Darwin's biological theories--in Thomas Malthus's "Essay on the Principle of population", a text which directly inspired Darwin to pursue a similar tack in biology.

Second, as CS Lewis points out, the mytho-poetic literature of the post-revolutionary period had an evolutionary ring to it: in other words, the myth existed before the science. All of this could lead one to believe that Darwin was not such a remarkable scientist as he was an imaginative product of a particular British intellectual zeitgeist. As Huxley and others rabidly proved, had he not existed, he would have had to have been invented.

4) The argument of the theological compatibility of Darwinism and Catholicism is undecided, at best. Darwin himself cared not one bit as to whether his theories could be reconciled. He was anti-religious and anti-clerical, and rather narrowmindedly so. His only use of a "compatibility" argument was for purposes of propaganda: he was quite happy to distribute Asa Gray's pamphlet on the matter, despite the fact that he tacitly disagreed with it! (And we might well wonder whether Gray's lengths to promote Darwin wasn't guided a bit by professional jealousy of his own, against Agassiz...)

So the ultimate question remains:

As a practicing Catholic, and looking at what seems to me an irrelevant theory which has not contributed to the enobling of humanity, but has been used at almost every turn as an excuse to denigrate and destroy; which was constructed well within the zeitgeist of Victorian England by a theologically myopic and anti-religious man....why on earth should I care about this theory?

Nathaniel Jay

Darwin said...


This is certainly an area of concern that I have heard expressed from time to time in regards to evolution. In a sense, I'm not exactly sure how to answer it, as it strikes me as something of a non-sequitor.

Let us grant, for the sake of argument, both that Darwin drew much of his inspiration from ideas about 'progress' both cultural and biological that were already circulating at the time. And let us grant also that he was perhaps a very unlikeable person and had no respect for religion. (I'll confess to not having knowledge or even opinions either way on Darwin's personality.) Finally, let us grant that as people have attempted to grapple with the implications of evolutionary theory, they have come up with many erronius theological opinions and hateful moral conclusions.

The thing is, none of these really touch on whether or not modern evolutionary theory is indeed the most useful (in regards to explanatory power) way or understanding the development of biological forms on earth. I'm open to arguments that evolutionary theory has been a harmful cultural influence on many people. However, I don't see that that makes it any less full of proof, and thus any more worthy of rejection.

If there's strong evidence that evolutionary theory is wholly mistaken in its account of Earth history and the mechanisms of biological change, that's one thing. But if the objection is that society does not seem to have been "ready" to deal with the idea, and thus has done many wrong things on the basis of the influence of evolution-inspired ideas, I don't see that that necessarily represents a reason to reject the theory.

Which I guess is why I find myself defending the compatibility of Catholicism and evolution repeatedly: I feel that as a Catholic I have a strong duty to the truth, and so I end up spending a lot of time rebutting what I see as people claiming that the religious truth of Catholicism and the scientific truth of evolution are incompatible.

nathaniel jay said...


I appreciate this response, though I think you should be even more concerned than you are. If all truth is one (as both Plato and the Church agree) then we must look for compatibility. It is not enough to say that Darwinism is true in the physical sphere, especially if it can be proven to be horrific in the ethical sphere: there is something going uninvestigated here. Thought, theory, science, theology, culture: these do not exist in the neat little packages we assign them, but spill over into one another. As JPII put it on this very issue (which he left open ended), truth cannot contradict truth.

Now I'm not saying that I'm decided one way or the other on this issue: I'm really not (though I was raised to be a Darwinian, and the older I get the less convincing I find it). I get the feeling that Darwinian apologists like yourself are too in love with the elegance of the theory.

Having said this, I think you should definitely check out some of the cultural history surrounding him--look into the time and place of Darwin--see how the Darwinian boom was accomplished, media-wise (it was brilliantly executed). Look at what Huxley, Hooker, Lyell, and others hoped to accomplish by pushing his theory into the upper eschalons of thought. If you haven't looked into this, you might be shocked: the clear, angry, anti-religious message was a common element in most of his supporters' messages. Huxley in particular used very violent and spiteful imagery in his zealous crusade on Darwin's behalf, and Darwin considered it a great benefit to have such a friend (Huxley was known as "Darwin's Bulldog" and one can legitimately wonder whether the "Origin" would have attained its canonical status without his tireless devotion to frankly bullying every intellectual who dared object to it).

I think it's also appropriate to look at Darwin himself--his own quiet, even stifled and tragic cynicism, his resigned melancholy--his anger at God for the death of his daughter, and how he 'dealt' with that by devising a cruel vision of nature, rather than the Christian paradigm.

Facts can be easily manipulated by various intellectual models. Have we tapped biological history for all of its secrets yet? No. But before we go off defending the 'truth' of Darwinism, it's important to know if it is compatible with the theological truth we already possess--and I'm not talking about six literal days or any of that, but deeper theological issues. If THAT can be proven to me, then I'll gladly support Darwinism. But it seems to me that you are doing things in a backward fashion.

And although I am admittedly not a scientist, one last comment, that my PhD scientist friends tell me is true: Darwinism is a nice theory and all, but is hasn't produced the practical applications that Einstein or Newton's theories did: it's not that kind of theory. All it is is supposedly explanatory. And so far, it's practical application has been confined to its moral implications, and all of these have been used to justify atrocities against other human beings. I think this should concern you more than it seems.

I've very much enjoyed kicking around this blog today--I'm recovering from strep throat and needed to stay away from work. You're a really bright guy and I wish you well. But if your object was to convince brother Catholics like me (also an intellectual who publishes), sorry--I'm definitely not convinced. Peace and God Bless, though,


Foxfier, formerly Sailorette said...

They seem to be replying to something else entirely; the point of Icons of Evolution as I took it was that while yes, horse fossils do have various changes, they don't steadily develop into mondern horse as shown in the textbook examples. (actually, that's the point of the whole book in a nutshell)

The classic text-book example shows the bones all nicely set up so that there's a simple, easy to see pattern of progression, but that progression jumps all over the historical map.

I really wish I could copy the relivant stuff, but my copy is in Japan right now.

Darwin said...


I certainly agree with you that truth is not a compartementalized thing, and that "truth cannot contradict truth", but I would tend to dispute whether a scientific theory (even the theory of evolution) _has_ moral or theological implications as such. Those impications are rather read into a theory (whether consciously or not) by making certain philosophical or moral assumptions.

Evolution as a biological theory doesn't (and can't) label certain species (or individuals within a species) as "higher" or "lower". Nor can it state that "killing the unfit is good" or conversely "killing the unfit is bad" any more than the theory of gravity states that "up is good" or "down is bad" or "pushing someone off a bridge is okay".

I think one of our great problems in society is that people imagine all sorts of things can be determined "scientifically" which simply can't. Science is quite strictly a matter of saying, "Based on what we've seen happen before, this is what we think would happen in this situation" in regards to physical processes.

This is why it strikes me that attempts like Chardin's to develop an "evolutionary theology" are deeply misguided. I see no reason why we should not continue to speak in Thomistic terms of a person or creature's nature and purpose, even in light of a more recent scientific understanding of how biological populations change over time.

In regards to Darwin's life and supporters, I had pretty much heard most of what you relate (both from those who looked on him more favorably and those who looked on him less so.) Again, though, I don't necessarily see that it's worth dwelling on a huge amount. Modern evolutionary theory derives historically from Darwin's work, but it's not as if Darwin and his opinions are in some sense canonical to it (except in the minds of certain overly enthusiastic adherants.) There's a great deal of what currently constitutes evolutionary theory which Darwin never dreamed of, and there's much of what Darwin and his early supporters thought that's terribly dated at this point.

I'm glad you've enjoyed the give and take here. Hope you're feeling better soon.

John Farrell said...

Well said. This would be like deciding to reject relativity theory (which many have) because Einstein was a self-descrived socialist. As if that has anything to do with the science.

Nathaniel said...


Bah--this is too stimulating, so I have to repond one more time at least!

Your explanation is too facile for my tastes--that there are no moral or ethical implications in scientific theory, etc. Taken to its logical extreme, your theory would suggest that science has absolutely no need of theological framework.

You wrote:

'Science is quite strictly a matter of saying, "Based on what we've seen happen before, this is what we think would happen in this situation" in regards to physical processes.'

I don't think you are correct. This is a PART of scientific thought, as it has developed in the *Western Judeo-Christian Tradition*: but without the foundation of theology as to the Nature of the Created Universe, scientific method, as we know it, cannot progress--there need to be certain assumptions, such as the rationality of the Universe (that it was created orderly, that it can be studied, that it has meaning, even that it was created good). If these aren't the foundation for scientific thought, science is stillborn or never matures (see the Chinese empire of antiquity and the Islamic empire, both of which had remrkable thinkers and breakthoroughs, but lacked the theological framework to free them intellectually--locked in either endless cycles or an arbitrary master, they had no template for true and dynamic rationality).

In the physics situations you mentioned, you lack one important detail: Newton, though a deist, didn't seek to exclude God as the basis for his theories: in fact it was quite the opposite. Darwin, by contrast, deliberately sought to exclude God from the backdrop or underpinnings of his theory--he wanted to create a science which was exactly your definition above (the measure of his success is perhaps your quoting it).

You say there is nothing inherently moral about observation of the physical universe, but I say that such a position is nonsense--the product of a reductive secular fantasy--indeed a secularist would WISH the physical laws of the universe were entirely without moral implication. But God said it was good....not adequate, or acceptable...but good! There is a moral element, therefore, ineherent in the very fabric of the universe--what it is and how it operates. The universe we inhabit is filled with deliberate symbolism: who can doubt that God knew what he was doing in the creating the symbols of a lamb, water, vines...night, day, motion, time. Even 'up' and 'down' which you say have no moralvalue at all, surely do in a symbolic sense! And who is to say that this symbolic sense is not somehow integral in our experience of the physical universe, and therefore inseperable, ultimately, from our proper analysis of it?

To approach the situation another way: your argument is the same as advocating a purely non-moral analysis of human sexuality, but no such study could reach even proper data about sexuality without including the moral dimension! We end up with Kinsy--proving that in this area science may be either moral or immoral, but not neutral--neutrality being an impossibility, an illusion, a fantasy of 19th century thought! The closer we get to biology, the more obvious the necessary link between science and morality. Denial of this plays right into the hands of secularists, who every day are churning out new studies, using precisely your thesis of science having no moral or ethical dimension, to deconstruct even the notion of morality.

And Darwin is the perfect touchstone for so much of this. No, the more I read your rationals, the more I think this problem must be understood at the root of Darwin's biography and motives, his time and place--to dismiss them in such an offhand manner as you do is to me to skate on the surface of what may or may not be an illusion.

Wow...who thought I'd spend so much time here today. I hope I don't addicted to this site (I'm sure you probably hope so too). I don't have the time!

Keep up the good conversation.


Nathaniel said...

john farrell--

actually this is nothing like the Einstein situation you mention above. Darwin started from the perspective of wanting to exclude God from his theory--not so with Einstein. Nor was the goal of E's physical theories related to socialism. In this way you can see a sharp contrast: Darwinism was, from the moment of conception, an ideology cast in scientific terms. Not so with Einstein's physics. This clutters the Darwin debate, definitely, but I don't think it can be dismissed quite so easily as you guys might think...


Literacy-chic said...


So far from finding your post really alarming, it sparked some ideas that I posted on my blog. (Though some might find my post alarmist or alarming!)

Literacy-chic said...

P.S. - Lest anyone get too excited, my ideas are mostly literary!

Darwin said...


Guess I better get you now before you return to work tomorrow...

Actually, I would completely agree with you that science is of limited to no value without the knowledge/assumptions that we come to know from Catholicism, and the Judeo/Christian tradition in general. However we do seem to go about it a little differently.

I'm ready to grant that modern science it what even its most materialistic advocates say it is. However, I maintain that is a poor, blind, bloodless creature if one does not grant that order and stability of the universe, either out of a blind and irrational leap of faith in a materialistic yet ordered universe, or as the result of its creation by a rational God.

Science, outside of a belief in a rational universe, can say: "It seems probably that, if dropped, a weight will fall towards the earth." But it cannot say that it _will_, since in a non-rational world it might simply be that up until the point that has been the case, but tomorrow at 3pm objects will start to repel rather than attract one another, light will move at variable speed, and the weak nuclear force will cease to be. We cannot have knowledge outside of a philosophy built upon a rational universe -- without it we can have only probability.

Science without that belief in a rational, created world behind it is like an eye without a mind behind it -- something that looks without seeing.

I would agree with you that, as physical beings in a created world, many things (including night and day, up and down, birth and death) contain additional symbolic meanings which are far more important to us as humans (in that aspect in which we are human, rather than just $40 worth of assorted chemicals and liberal amounts of water) than their physical realities. It's just that I'd say that you can still study only the physical side on its own, so long as you recognize the severe explanatory limits that science has.

As for studying sexuality outside of morality, I'd say that one of the great problems with society's attitude towards sex is that it _fails_ to take into account the physical side of what sex demonstrably is from a biological point of view. The great fallacy from the Romantics on is that sex is whatever you want it to be. Whereas in fact, sex has a purpose for which it exists -- while some things that people want to call "loving sexual relationships" in fact have no relation at all to that purpose. Science may only be able to go so far as to recognize correctly the function of sex in the perpetuation of the species. But keeping that purpose in mind, the theological mind can expand upon it into the profundity of John Paul II's Theology of the Body.

Don't be too afraid of coming back. Things are seldom nearly this hopping around here. (If they were, I'd be out of a job...)

CMinor said...

it's especially brilliant on the links between the rhetoric of early Abortion supporters and what passed for evolutionary 'science' at the time.

I'm guessing that what Aumgn is referring to is "biogenetic theory"--"ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny," i. e. in our fetal development we start out single-celled organisms, progress to fish,(well, we have gill clefts, don't we?) then to reptiles before becoming human when it's no longer okay to kill us.
The sad thing is, this notion did actually carry some weight with quite a few folks who were educated during the first half of the 20thC, although it was discredited (pretty quickly, if I remember) and probably wouldn't have fooled a serious student of embryology (personal ethics are another matter.) I recall seeing this argument asserted (but not by scientists) as recently as about 20 years ago.

BTW, might we be thrashing Darwin (Charles, not Catholic) a bit much? He also came from a family of strong abolitionists; whatever some of his groupies may have been saying, I wasn't under the impression that he endorsed racism or eugenics himself.

CMinor said...

Experiments in Darwinian theology such as those by Theihard de Chardin, once considered so revolutionary and groundbreaking, now seem like quaint time-pieces--the theological equivilant of the oldies station. They have convinced almost no one beyond their original generation.

Having made a valiant attempt to read some Teilhard recently, I can see why. The guy's writing is convoluted and repetitious and reads like something you'd expect from a New Age guru, not a geologist. He may have been a fine person, a fine priest, and a fine geologist but if his writing only made sense while one was stoned it's small wonder his star ebbed after the sixties. I suspect a tendency among some of his fans to read more into his pronouncements than might have been there (i. e. "predicting" the internet) and to attribute insights to him about man's relationship to the natural world that were already part of the canon of Catholic thought long before he expressed them.

I read Francis Collins' The Language of God not too long ago and thought it seemed pretty nuts-and-bolts. Any opinions?

Kiwi Nomad 2006 said...

I did a paper in evolutionary biology in 2005. The professor gave us an introductory lecture on the history of the scientific ideas that were current in the years before Darwin formulated his theories. He made a very strong point that we should be careful how we thought about some of these ideas that we might now find 'quaint'. He pointed out that in 100 years, only a very small portion of the ideas we currently think are important will still be thought important. As he said, from here, we have no idea what those important ideas will be, and what ideas will have been consigned to the byways of history.

The Opinionated Homeschooler said...


A couple of thoughts on #2.

First, I think it would have to be incorrect to speak of "soulless" humans; my understanding of standard theology is that all living things have souls, down to carrots and their vegetable souls. It would be more accurate to speak of hominids without human souls, though that starts to get close to question-begging. Still, I find myself thinking of the Stanford scientist (forget his name) who posits an abrupt appearance of human art (and thus the ability to manipulate symbols); it intrigues me enough to wonder if "Adam & Eve" were the first hominids to have language.

More seriously, I had hoped #2 was going to address what seems the more theologically troubling aspect of evolutionary theory. My understanding is that it's de fide that there was a definite point in time of a Fall of Man, at which time death and suffering came into the world. But it's obvious that death (and presumably suffering, unless one wants to make an argument against animal suffering) was in the world before hominids of any sort, human or not. Any thoughts on this?

The Opinionated Homeschooler said...

Well, consulting Ludwig Ott and his Bible for the doctrinally pedantic, Fundamentals of Catholic Dogma, it looks as if only suffering and death for *humans* as a result of the Fall is de fide. Which I guess shoves the issue back into the theodicy folder.

Roland said...

You quote Pius XII: ". . . original sin which proceeds from a sin actually committed by an individual Adam in which through generation is passed onto all and is in everyone as his own."

This Augustinian conception of original sin is a major difference (some would say the major difference) of Catholicism from Eastern Orthodoxy. In the Orthodox understanding, original sin is not passed on from parent to child "through generation." Rather, through human sin all of creation becomes fallen, and future generations of human beings are born into this fallen world. Every creature on earth suffers the effects of the fall, not just the descendants of Adam and Eve.

Therefore, Orthodox theology can entirely sidestep Coulter's second argument.