Georgetown University’s Newspaper of Record since 1920

The Hoya

Georgetown University’s Newspaper of Record since 1920

The Hoya

Georgetown University’s Newspaper of Record since 1920

The Hoya

Finding Room for Evolution in Religion

“How can you be a Jesuit and teach evolutionary biology?” That is the single most common question about my life that I have received since arriving at Georgetown two years ago. And for the past two years I have answered, “The Catholic Church accepts evolution. The story of creation in the Bible is not taken literally.”

That usually satisfied everyone pretty quickly. But is it still accurate? I had my doubts this summer when Catholic Cardinal Schönborn of Vienna, Austria, criticized a school of evolutionary biology called neo-Darwinism. I had just taught a whole course about neo-Darwinism, and that is the basis of my research.

Fortunately, I chatted with Prof. John F. Haught of the Department of Theology. His specialty is a (Catholic) “theology of evolution.” He devised a theological understanding of creation in which neo-Darwinism is acceptable. While the Cardinal was concerned that an evolutionary theory using chance might exclude God, Prof. Haught sees chance as a part of God’s creative action. I was relieved to be reassured that Catholic theology and neo-Darwinism can coexist.

But that is not all that happened this summer. The theory of Intelligent Design was in the news nearly every day. Many people are initially attracted to ID’s critique of natural selection. How can random mutation and selection lead to enormously complex features such as the cell or a sophisticated biochemical pathway? If a complex feature is to function, it must have all parts present and working. So where did the complex feature come from? Not a more primitive ancestral feature with some parts missing – that would not function, and thus not be adaptive and not evolve further, according to the ID argument.

I think natural selection can, in fact, explain even the evolution of very complex features. Although a cell or biochemical pathway may today require all of its parts working together, some parts may have evolved initially as optional enhancements. Only later, in the stage we now see, did these parts become required, and other parts disappeared. Such gradual change and interchange of parts is not apparent from a superficial examination of a complex feature. Recently, Dr. Allen Orr from the University of Rochester reviewed the optional enhancement argument and other arguments against ID in his influential article in The New Yorker magazine.

I detect a common theme in the talk about Cardinal Schönborn and ID namely, the need for proper distinction between science and theology. The Cardinal was worried about some scientists who erroneously thought that science could disprove the existence of God, and his concern led him to use theology erroneously to denounce a scientific school of thought (neo-Darwinism). Similarly, proponents of ID want it taught in science classrooms as an alternative theory with equal standing with evolution.

But ID is not really a science. Science could never prove or disprove the existence of an intelligent designer. I might concede the point that ID is a scientific critique of natural selection if it were more productive in making predictions and proposing experiments.

What about us here at Georgetown? As a university community where students take science and theology courses side-by-side, we have a great opportunity to converse about the distinctions and interplay between science and theology.

For example, Fr. Thomas King, S.J., brought his theology course and I brought my evolution course together for a symposium at the end of the semester last year. Fr. King’s class was “Teilhard and Evolution.” Pierre Teilhard de Chardin is the Jesuit paleontologist who is often credited with bringing evolution into Christianity. Indeed, anyone taking the class “Problem of God” is sure to ask whether natural evolution of the material world and God’s divine action in creation contradict one another. That’s a cool paper topic – send me a copy when you write it.

John M. Braverman, S.J., is a visiting assistant professor of biology.

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