|FAITH Magazine May-June 2008|
A special feature keeping us up to date with issues of science and religion
EVIDENCE FOR EVOLUTION: CONVINCING AND THEISTIC
In a series of articles in his Credo column of The Catholic Times between 30th December 2007 and 3rd February 2008, the insightful Fr Francis Marsden tackled the big questions of science and faith. In the earlier of those pieces he well brought to the attention of his readers the unavoidable inference that the law and order in the universe itself manifests the rational Mind of its Maker. He illustrated his words with the great examples from Catholic history of priest-scientists whose work was revolutionary in terms of a scientific understanding of the world, such as the 16th-century Pole, Copernicus, whose astronomical observations demonstrated that the earth orbited the sun, and the 20th-century Belgian, Georges Lemaître, who was the first to propose a ‘Big Bang’ startto the universe. In the later pieces Marsden proceeded to deal with the rise of life on earth, an outcome seemingly against all the odds. He reminds us that science is still ignorant of the chemical pathways that wonderfully allowed the inert chemicals of the earth’s early history to form the more complex chemicals needed by even the simplest living organisms.
In the last two articles of his series, however, he makes three arguments which each seem to fall into the “God-of-the-gaps” trap. This type of theism grows out of the sensible idea that where we rationally need causal explanation, but it cannot be given materially, we need to look for a non-material cause. But it confuses ‘cannot’ with ‘has not yet been grasped in the current state of our knowledge’, often through an unwitting empathy with atheistic, reductionist philosophy of modern science.
We agree that evolutionary theory is not ‘totally sewn up’ – and Fr Marsden is right to point that out – but it is also to be expected that at some future date the gaps in our knowledge of evolutionary processes may shrink. This is, not least, because we should expect all the works of God to be intelligibly and harmoniously inter-related, across time (which is at the heart of the insight concerning evolution) as well as across space (which is hardly doubted today).
1. Fr Marsden sees mileage in the ‘Intelligent Design’ idea that some biological organs or bio-molecular structures are ‘irreducibly complex’, such that they ‘could not possibly have evolved.’ As we have argued before in this magazine, metaphysically speaking, contrary to fashionable reductionism, all thingsare irreducibly (and wonderful) complex, or ‘holistic’, and that certainly does not stop them being causally related across time with other things (e.g. by evolution). Apparent difficulty in capturing the laws which historically relate chemicals to the eye does not mean that this relationship is qualitatively different or more wonderful than that between an apple and the ground towards which it falls.
2. Marsden also emphasises the lack of a fossil record for all the intervening species in evolutionary history. One significant and scholarly response is referred to below.
3. He places “unguided random processes”, “the mindless material processes of Darwinistic evolution” in a category beyond those processes which can be understood as being immediately ‘God-guided’. As we argued in our November 2005 editorial we need not and should not accept the description
of low-level physics as ‘intrinsically random’. A better interpretation is that of the pioneering physicist De Broglie that low-level physical interactions have an intrinsic lack of unitary intelligibility. Every single particle in the universe – and hence every cosmic ray which may initiate a genetic mutation in an organism’s DNA – falls under God's control and direction: every mutation, that is, will follow the laws of science and therefore at the very same time fulfil the sustaining intention of the Creator. They are not ‘mindless’ because they are following the plan of the Mind of which natural laws are a partial description.
Furthermore Fr Marsden, usually so adroit, did not take proper account of the massive evidence for evolution from genetics. As the Science and Religion debate grows in importance for diagnosing our society’s increasing ills, it continues, we think, to remain a strangely tricky minefield.
Donald Prothero, a professor of geology at Occidental College in Los Angeles, and a lecturer in geo-biology at the California Institute of Technology at Pasadena, has recently had a book published by Columbia University Press, Evolution: What the Fossils Say and Why it Matters. It is his contribution to countering the creationist argument that the fossil record is too patchy to support the theory of evolution. In a very clear article in the 1st March issue of the New Scientist journal, he details ten important examples of ‘transitional’ species – from the fossil record and from surviving species – to dispel the myth that intermediate organisms are missing in palaeontological studies. To give one classic example, which in fact answers Fr Marsden precisely (see his article in theJanuary 27th Catholic Times in which he said, “There should exist thousands of blind alleys and dead ends in the fossil record. Think of the neck of the giraffe”). Prothero writes: “Until recently, there was no fossil evidence linking the long-necked giraffes to their short-necked relatives. But as my book went to press, news emerged that Nikos Solounias of the New York Institute of Technology had described a fossil giraffe from the late Miocene and early Pliocene. Its neck is a perfect intermediate between the short-neck ancestors and their long-neck descendants.” (p. 40).
In mid-March it was announced that this year’s winner of the Templeton Prize – an extremely valuable prize awarded annually in recognition of, and promotion of, work for “research or discoveries about spiritual realities” – is Fr Michael Heller, a 72-yr-old Polish priest and physics professor. His statement on receiving the award can be read at www.templetonprize.org and we will probably devote the next Cutting Edgearticle to his work and thought.