Catholic Primate Clings to Evolution

H. James Birx

Surprisingly, on October 24, 1996, Pope John Paul II endorsed evolution as “more than just a theory” and thereby biblical fundamentalism as so-called scientific creationism was dealt yet another blow to its vacuous claims about the origin of this universe and the appearance of life-forms on the Earth. Biblical creationists continue to ignore the overwhelming empirical evidence for both the 4.6 billion-year age of this planet and the mutability of species, including our own, throughout all of organic history on the Earth.

In two major works, On the Origin of Species (1859) and The Descent of Man (1871), Charles Darwin had presented the idea of evolution as his theory of “descent with modification” grounded in the explanatory mechanism of natural selection or the survival of the fittest. Discrediting both Aristotelian philosophy and Thomistic theology, the Darwinian worldview met with severe criticism, particularly from traditional Christian theologians. In this century, the additional mechanisms of genetic (DNA) variation and population dynamics gave rise to neo-Darwinism as a strictly naturalistic interpretation of life throughout geological time.

Attempts to reconcile science and religion range from the fundamentalist and naturalist Philip Gosse (1810-1888), whose preposterous interpretation of rocks and fossils argued that God instantly created this planet about six thousand years ago with a built-in past so that it only appears as if organic evolution had taken place, to the Jesuit priest and geopaleontologist Pierre Teilhard de Chardin (1881-1955), who believed that through a divine influence human evolution will end in the formation of a spiritual Omega Point on the Earth millions of years in the future. Obviously, both Gosse and Teilhard are unacceptable to the rigor-ous evolutionist as pervasive materialist.

Avoiding another Galileo-like incident, the Roman Catholic church has never rejected or ignored the Darwinian theory of organic evolution but, instead, must now try to incorporate it into its own natural theology. In sharp contrast, fundamentalist creationism is both a religious and sociopolitical movement that represents a serious and persistent threat to science education and evolution research.

The far-reaching implications and awesome consequences of evolution still occupy secular humanists at the end of this century. Issues range from the origin of life itself to ongoing brain-mind research. Fossils recently discovered in central East Africa place the dawn of bipedal hominids at over four million years ago! And there is the probability that life-forms have evolved and are evolving elsewhere in this universe. Neither this planet nor our species needs to be unique in cosmic reality.

No doubt, such compelling evidence from biochemistry to paleoanthropology has persuaded the pope that a more positive and open stance should be taken toward evolution if the Roman Catholic church is to remain in step with the advancement of science during the coming centuries.

Surely, in the quest for truth over belief, confusion, and uncertainty, there is no substitute for science, reason, and free inquiry. Supposedly, the biblical Adam and Eve are now relegated to fossil hominid status, at least in terms of their material body. But unlike secular humanists, theists must now grapple with explaining the existence of the assumed God-created immortal (because spiritual) human “soul” within the long, complex, wasteful, pain-ridden, and unpredictable process of organic evolution. Darwin would be amused.

 


Further Readings

Birx, H. James. Interpreting Evolution: Darwin & Teilhard de Chardin. Amherst, N.Y.: Prometheus Books, 1991.

Darwin, Charles. The Autobiography of Charles Darwin 1809-1882. Ed. by Nora Barlow. New York: W. W. Norton 1958; Norton Library, 1969. First written in 1876.

Dawkins, Richard. Climbing Mount Improbable.

New York: W. W. Norton, 1996.

Dennett, Daniel C. Darwin’s Dangerous Idea: Evolution and the Meanings of Life. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1995.

Kurtz, Paul. Eupraxophy: Living Without Religion.

Amherst, N.Y.: Prometheus Books, 1989.

Leakey, Richard. The Origin of Humankind New

York: BasicBooks/HarperCollins, 1994.

Mayr, Ernst. One Long Argument: Charles Darwin and the Genesis of Modern Evolutionary Thought. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1991.

Ridley, Mark. Evolution. 2nd ed. Cambridge, Mass. Belknap Press/Harvard University Press, 1992.

Wilson, Edward O. The Diversity of Life. Cam-bridge, Mass. Belknap Press/Harvard University Press, 1992.

H. James Birx

Dr. H. James Birx is Executive Director for the Alliance of Secular Humanist Societies (ASHS). During 1997, he will be a Visiting Research Scholar at The Center for Inquiry, Amherst, New York.


Surprisingly, on October 24, 1996, Pope John Paul II endorsed evolution as “more than just a theory” and thereby biblical fundamentalism as so-called scientific creationism was dealt yet another blow to its vacuous claims about the origin of this universe and the appearance of life-forms on the Earth. Biblical creationists continue to ignore the overwhelming …

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