Monday, July 11, 2005

A Definitive Definition

Thus spake Apollo:

Andrew Sullivan yesterday provided a link to an article in the New York Times showing Pope Benedict XVI’s “rush back to the Middle Ages” on the issue of evolution. This was more than the “reactionary radicalism” he expected from Benedict, it was “stupidity.” The move against evolution, Sullivan speculates, might be political, because Benedict wants to ally himself with the “Protestant right” “in order to pursue his war against freedom for gays, or reproductive freedom.” Intrigued, I clicked.

There seems to have been a complete disconnect from reality between what the essay says and how the Times and Sullivan reported on it.
The essay has little to say about evolution per se, but instead addresses a particular sort of evolutionary theory which Schonborn calls “neo-Darwinism” and defines as the belief in “an unguided, unplanned process of random variation and natural selection.” Schonborn is arguing that statements by Pope John Paul II that give credence to evolution shouldn’t be taken as supporting just any theory of evolution. Schonborn quotes the late Pontiff: “"It is clear that the truth of faith about creation is radically opposed to the theories of materialistic philosophy. These view the cosmos as the result of an evolution of matter reducible to pure chance and necessity." So evidently JPII did not support notions of evolution being simply “unguided, unplanned processes of random variation and natural selection.” He uses some other quotes, and presuming they are accurate, Schonborn proves his point, namely that Catholic dogma doesn’t support “neo-Darwinism.”

In a thought-provoking conclusion, Schonborn says that materialistic philosophies such as neo-Darwinism are “an abdication of human intelligence.” This is true, insofar as the purpose of human intelligence is to answer the question of self-awareness, namely “Why are we here?” Neo-Darwinism’s answer is a shrug, but a strangely definitive shrug: “We don’t know, dammit!” Humanity is not even the Ecclesiastical dust in the wind—helpless over our fate, but being carried along by something unseen. Instead, we are Darwinian farts in the wind—the results of some unplanned and unguided biological processes, cast out rather carelessly.

I agree. The problem here—besides Andrew’s penchants for hyperbole and occasional panic—is the inability to differentiate Darwin’s Theory of Evolution through Natural Selection and Darwinism.

Darwin’s scientific theory basically runs as follows: a) all organisms share a common descent; b) that while each generation inherits most of its parents’ traits, it also varies slightly from its parents, i.e. it mutates; c) those offspring whose mutations make them more fit for survival will be more reproductively successful than their lesser-fit siblings; and d) over time, this leads to speciation.

Darwinism, however, states that these variations are random, i.e. they have “no specific pattern, purpose, or objective.” According to Darwinists such as Stephen Jay Gould—who was quite emphatic on the point—life isn’t, and has never been, progressing in any particular direction; interesting and wonderful as human beings may be, Darwinism argues that we can’t be the purpose of evolution because evolution has no purpose. We’re here, it’s queer, get used to it.

This, Apollo and the Cardinal rightfully argue, is not compatible with Christianity; God cannot not care. What the Cardinal was getting at, and what Sullivan so severely missed, was that it is possible to a) believe that Darwin was right in his science but slightly off in his philosophy and b) reconcile Theism and Evolution without having to resort to the dubiousness of Intelligent Design1. with a call for Heraclean attention to slight changes in wording, I propose replacing the pesky adjective random to describe mutations with the broader and more universally palatable unpredictable. It strikes me a small loss for purists—indeed, something that is unpredictable may well be random—while allowing just enough wiggle-room belief that, while it may not be possible to justify it rationally or empirically, we might be here for a reason after all.

1. By staking so much on looking for God’s signature in Creation—specifically by arguing that some systems are so “irreducibly complex” that they must have been the product of a Creator—Intelligent Designers seem to laying the foundation for a strong rhetorical case against the existence of God if, indeed, it turns out that such systems can be explained by non-supernatural phenomena.