Cutting Edge
Cutting Edge

Cutting Edge

FAITH Magazine January – February 2011

Avoiding The Key Question: "Am I a Monkey"?

The Californian Professor Francisco Ayala, the Spanish winner of this year's Templeton Prize, has now published a short work entitled Am I a Monkey? It is a deliberately concise volume, just 83 pages long, examining six short questions on the acceptability of evolutionary theory, in accessible language. The six questions he tackles are: (i) Am I a Monkey? (ii) Why is Evolution a Theory? (iii) What is DNA? (iv) Do all Scientists accept Evolution? (v) How did Life Begin? (vi) Can one Believe in Evolution and God? Written by an eminent Catholic scientist who was involved heavily in the March 2009 conference in Rome's Gregorian University on the legacy of Darwin, this little book in many ways provides an ideal startingpoint for a Christian eager to understand the evidence for the theory of evolution.

Ayala is at pains to show that the evidence for evolutionary theory is overwhelming, and that it provides a sensible framework in which to do biology, explaining many of the characteristics of livings organisms and their interrelation. The idea of a common ancestor to all living creatures is supported by the fossil record, by anatomical similarities, and ultimately by molecular biology, the remarkable mapping of evolution possible by comparison of creatures' DNA profiles. All of these are explained simply by Ayala in the course of his six answers.

However, the very question which he does not fully answer is the one of the title: Am I a Monkey? As we highlighted in the July/August 2010 version of this column, Ayala does not affirm that man's nature is dual, spiritual as well as material, which would explain exactly how man is fundamentally different to all other created beings on earth. He merely repeats his quotation of AH. Strong from 1885 "that the brutish ancestry of human beings is not incompatible with their exalted status in the image of God" (p. 75) which is true, but falls far short of an explanation.

Strangely for someone feted for his harmonising of science and religion, he embraces (p. 73) the profoundly unhelpful, culturally speaking, cop-out of their "non-overlapping magisteria". This influential post-modern idea of Stephen J. Gould affirms that science and religion are two different windows from which to view the world, and there should be no cross-over. This attitude pre-empts serious consideration of the higher question of a synthesis of faith and science which is the real need.

It is interesting to note that Gould was inspired to consider non-overlapping magisteria after reading Pius Xll's 1950 encyclical Human! Generis, which famously allows for the hypothesis of evolution of the human body in as much as this does not contradict the divine infusion of the soul. If we use Gould to interpret Catholic teaching we are bound to be dualistic not just about science and religion but also about body and spirit, as if God somewhat arbitrarily glues a spiritual soul onto the physical human body. As we briefly discussed in our last editorial such thinking is behind the extremely widespread academic ignorance of the idea of the spiritual soul. Yet this idea is basic to Catholic tradition and coherent anthropology.

Newman on Lawful Matter and Originating Mind

In his first meditation to the Pope and the Roman Curia for Advent, Fr Raniero Cantalamessa OFMCap, Preacher to the Pontifical Household, delivered a wide-ranging and fascinating analysis of 'scientism' as part of a series on obstacles in the mind of modern society to a new evangelisation. The other meditations treated 'secularism' and 'rationalism'. In his second section, entitled 'No to scientism, yes to science,' he offered a fascinating quotation from our new English beatus, Cardinal John Henry Newman. Here's how Fr Cantalamessa introduces a passage written by Newman in 1868, just a few years after the publication of Darwin's On the Origin of Species:

"The new Blessed John Henry Newman has given us a luminous example of an open and constructive attitude to science. Nine years after the publication of Darwin's work on the evolution of species, when not a few spirits around him were disturbed and perplexed, he reassured them, expressing a judgment that anticipated the Church's present one on the compatibility of such a theory with biblical faith. It is worthwhile to listen again to key passages of his letter to Canon J. Walker, which still retain much of their validity: 'I do not fear the theory [of Darwin] ... It does not seem to me to follow that creation is denied because the Creator, millions of years ago, gave laws to matter. He first created matter and then he created laws for it - laws which should construct it into its presentwonderful beauty, and accurate adjustment and harmony of parts gradually. We do not deny or circumscribe the Creator, because we hold he has created the self-acting originating human mind, which has almost a creative gift; much less then do we deny or circumscribe His power, if we hold that He gave matter such laws as by their blind instrumentality moulded and constructed through innumerable ages the world as we see it... Mr Darwin's theory need not then be atheistical, be it true or not; it may simply be suggesting a larger idea of Divine Prescience and Skill ... At first sight I do not see that "the accidental evolution or organic beings" is inconsistent with divine design - It is accidental to us, not to God." (Letters & Diaries, vol. XXIV).


Faith Magazine

January - February 2011