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Apes R Not Us: Catholics & the Debate Over Evolution


Catholics should not hesitate to get involved in the debate over Darwins theory, especially since they occupy a reasonable middle ground between scientific and biblical fundamentalists.

evolution44"A few years ago, a Catholic friend of mine visited a dying relative in the hospital. The old woman had led a good life, but could not see her way to a belief in God. She was not a militant atheist, simply an agnostic, like so many modern people. God, in her view, had not given enough "proof" that He exists. My friend gently tried to argue the point, but to no avail. Finally, she produced the trump card which so often ends these discussions: "But, Jim, evolution has been proved by science. So the Bible can't be true!"

Few issues are more difficult for Christian apologetics than evolution. Even highly educated Catholics can be at a loss to explain how the creation account in Genesis squares with what modern science tells us about the origins of man and the animal kingdom.

In the autumn of 1996, Pope John Paul II complicated the picture by making some remarks about evolution in a message to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences. Or rather, the media complicated the picture by inaccurately reporting what he said. The Holy Father did not, for example, throw in the towel and "admit the truth" of Darwin's theory (as so many secular and religious news reports erroneously purported). Darwin's name appeared nowhere in the document, and much of what the pope said was by implication critical of modern evolutionary theory.

On the other hand, the pope did say that evolution per se is not incompatible with Catholic doctrine. But his discussion of the issue was nuanced. In other words, it could not be easily packaged in CNN sound bytes.

What the pope wanted to make clear is that evolution is not a simple subject. It involves more than just fossils and DNA. So if we want to understand the Church's position on evolution, we have to do some homework. We have to dig into science and philosophy. And we have to pay attention to what the Magisterium says about how to read and understand the Bible.

Pope John Paul II, to begin with, is not afraid of science, and this ought to be the attitude of every Catholic. The legitimate findings of science can never contradict Revelation. In fact, no one is more aware than the Holy Father that modern science, in the words of G. K. Chesterton, is racing toward the mysteries of the Faith with the speed of an express train. Discoveries in the areas of physics and quantum mechanics have banished forever the notion of the universe as a closed, mechanical system with nothing for a Creator to do. Theologians are quite comfortable in the finite, highly intricate, roughly 12-billion-year-old universe described by modern science.

We are nonetheless bombarded with pseudo-scientific ideas in the guise of "proven facts" which seem to contradict Christian belief. As the pope mentions in his letter, these "facts" often have more to do with the philosophies which inspire them than with anything observed in nature. And no "fact" has been more mischievous than Darwin's idea that man and other species are the result of a blind "hit or miss" process which did not have them in mind.

A Dicey Theory

What are Catholics to make of Darwin? And where exactly does his theory of evolution stand among scientists today? These are questions of vital importance, because if it is true that man is a "frozen accident," a fortuitous twig on the tree of life, then the famous words of the Second Vatican Council are false: "Man is the only creature on earth that God willed for itself."

Man either came about by blind chance or he did not. Darwin's theory of natural selection is the only one available which purports to explain how man and other life forms are the result of a random throw of nature's dice. This is why the debate over Darwin's theory, and not evolution itself, is so important. The fact that most writing on the subject makes no distinction between "evolution" and Darwinism only muddles the issue.

Charles Darwin, in fact, did not discover evolution. The idea that life forms have changed over long periods of time has been around since the ancient Greeks. St. Augustine was a kind of evolutionist, although hardly a Darwinist. In his second commentary on Genesis, written around the year 410, he speculated that God had planted "rational seeds" in nature which eventually fructified into plants and animals. This would be evolution in the strict meaning of the word, an unfolding of what is already there, like an acorn turning into an oak. Being directed and purposeful, however, St. Augustine's version of evolution is utterly non-Darwinian: it is, rather, creation on the installment plan.

A century before Darwin published his Origin of Species (1859) the French zoologist Buffon proposed evolution as a serious scientific theory. Then a number of thinkers in France and England, including Darwin's paternal grandfather, Erasmus, began to champion the idea. Indeed, by the time Darwin wrote his book, the notion that man was descended from some early fish-like creature was the talk of London dinner tables. It was hardly Darwin's "discovery."

What put Darwin on the map was his explanation of how evolution had occurred. This was his theory of natural selection. It was so simple that the great Victorian biologist Thomas Huxley exclaimed, "How stupid [I was] not to have thought of that!"

The usual PBS documentary has the lightbulb going off over Darwin's head while observing the animals on the Galapagos Islands in 1835 during the voyage of the Beagle. But in reality the idea of natural selection came later, in his London study, when he read Malthus's famous (and discredited) essay On Population. Malthus proposed the theory that population tends to multiply faster than food supply and so there will be a "struggle for existence" which only the fittest survive. Darwin took this theory of "struggle" among humans and applied it to plants and animals.

Darwin's idea was that species tend to have offspring which vary slightly from their parents and that natural selection will favor the survival of those creatures whose peculiarities (sharper teeth, faster limbs) render them best fit in the "struggle for survival." Darwinian evolution, then, is a two-step process: random mutation as to raw material, natural selection as the guiding force.

Once he struck on the idea of natural selection, Darwin spent endless hours observing animal breeders at work in and around London. He noticed that through selective breeding pigeons could be made to develop certain desirable characteristics: wider wingspan, longer beak, and so forth. Darwin extrapolated from these observations the idea that over huge stretches of time such "micro" changes could add up to "macro" changes (ie. brand new species), the only difference being that natural selection, and not man, would be the breeder.

Darwin could in no single instance prove that one species had changed into another. His case was entirely theoretical; it rested on a train of thought rather than empirical observation. He staked everything on the idea that species were not hard-edged, that they had a virtually unlimited potential to change into something new. But here he ran into problems, as do his disciples today.

The question is: Was Darwin's extrapolation of "macro" evolution from these "micro" changes warranted? An increasing number of scientists have concluded that it wasn't. And if that's true, then we have to close Darwin's book and look elsewhere for a scientific explanation for the origin of species.

Falling Into the Gap

First, there is the fossil evidence. If Darwin's theory is correct, then the fossil record should show innumerable transitional forms linking past and present species. Darwin was aware the fossils of his day showed nothing of the sort. In fact, there were no transitional forms. He accordingly entitled his chapter on the subject, "On the Imperfection of the Fossil Record," and voiced the conviction that future digging would fill the gaps and show the gradual evolution of species.

Darwin's book sent armies of paleontologists into the earth's folds to dig up the missing links which Darwin said had to be there. And what did this army find? The answer appears to be nothing. The rocks show exactly what they showed in Darwin's day: that species appear abruptly in a fully developed state and change little or not at all before disappearing (99 out of every 100 species are extinct). The fossil record does not even remotely confirm gradual evolution, as Darwin and his disciples claim. Harvard biologist Stephen Jay Gould calls this the great "trade secret" of modern paleontology. Bacteria appeared on this planet 3.5 billion years ago, followed by blue-green algae and a few other oddities. Then, 550 million years ago, came biology's Big Bang: the Cambrian explosion. There was a sudden profusion of complex life-forms jelly fish, trilobites, mollusks for which there are no discernible ancestors in the earlier rocks. Richard Dawkins, a staunch Darwinist, has no explanation for this sudden riot of new life forms: "It is as though they were just planted there, without any evolutionary history." The same is true of flowering plants, which appeared suddenly 120 million years ago, puzzling Darwin, as it does botanists today.

What does the fossil evidence subsequent to the Cambrian explosion show? That species are replaced by other species rather than evolve into them. Steven Stanley, a paleontologist who teaches at Johns Hopkins, writes in The New Evolutionary Time Table that "the fossil record does not convincingly document a single transition from one species to another."

And the higher we look in the taxonomic order, the bigger the gaps in the record. All 32 orders of animals, for example, appear literally out of nowhere. Scientists like Stanley no longer attribute these systematic gaps to an "imperfect" record. The gaps are real and they tell us something important about the history of life on this planet: gradual Darwinian evolution never happened.

What about those pictures in museums and textbooks, those charts showing how large horses gradually evolved from smaller ones, and so forth? These are artistic conjectures which are constantly being falsified as new bones are dug up. In effect, paleontologists find a fossil of an extinct species and make up a scenario connecting it with a later or earlier animal. But they never find the series of transitional forms which Darwin's theory demands.

"A Festering Mass of Unsupported Assertions."

The famous series of pictures from the American Natural History Museum showing the "evolution" of horses, the diminutive Eohippus slowly changing into modern Equus, is now something of an embarrassment even to Darwinists. In 1905, an exhibit was set up in the museum which showed the available horse fossils arranged according to size. These fossils were taken from different times and places and put together simply to demonstrate what evolution might have looked like. But the chart is misleading. Eohippus remained Eohippus; it was followed by numerous species of horses, some larger, some smaller. Simpson of Harvard scoffs at the most famous of horse trend theories, the gradual reduction and eventual dissapearance of the side toes, as "flatly fictitious. There was no such trend . . ." The horse chart is nonetheless widely reprinted and passed off as fact. Amazingly, this bogus depiction of equine development remains the standard iconography of Darwinian evolution.

John Bonner, a biologist at Princeton, writes that traditional textbook discussions of ancestral descent are "a festering mass of unsupported assertions." In recent years, paleontologists have retreated from simple connect-the-dot scenarios linking earlier and later species. Instead of ladders, they now talk of bushes. What we see in the fossils, according to this view, are only the twigs, the final end-products of evolution, while the key transitional forms which would give a clue about the origin of major animal groups remain completely hidden.

The blank spots on evolutionary "tree" charts occur at just the points where, according to Darwin's theory, the crucial changes had to take place. The direct ancestors of all the major orders: primates, carnivores, and so forth are completely missing. There is no fossil evidence for a "grandparent" of the monkey, for example. "Modern gorillas, orangutans, and chimpanzees spring out of nowhere," writes paleontologist Donald Johansen. "They are here today; they have no yesterday." The same is true of giraffes, elephants, wolves, and all species; they all simply burst upon the scene de novo, as it were.

Once a species appears, moreover, it stubbornly remains what it is. Bacteria have been around for billions of years. They can replicate every twenty minutes; and yet, with a billion years worth of chances to evolve, bacteria are still bacteria. Like every other species, they remain essentially the same while showing an ability to make small ecological adjustments. Bees preserved in amber from forty million years ago are almost identical with living bees. Horse-shoe crabs, sharks, and lungfish have similarly stayed the same over millions of years despite significant shifts in their environments. Their refusal to change flatly contradicts Darwin's assertion that natural selection is constantly fine-tuning and adjusting species.

Homo sapien himself appears quite suddenly on the scene, fully equipped with attributes no ape even begins to possess. You have a free will and a conscience. You have language and art-making abilities. Apes do not. You could spend years trying to explain to the "smartest" chimpanzee what the Super bowl is, or the difference between Democrats and Republicans, and the chimp would reward you with a blank gaze. He would not get it because he is not capable of understanding concepts.

If we are descended from the ape family, our ancestor was not like any ape living today. Indeed, it's unlikely that our biological "family tree" will ever be known with certainty. The two most famous figures in hominid paleontology, Richard Leakey and Donald Johansen (discoverer of "Lucy") are in complete disagreement over man's ancestry. Richard Lewontin, professor of zoology at Harvard, said in an interview: "We don't know anything about the ancestors of the human species . . . . Despite the excited and optimistic claims that have been made by some paleontologists, no fossil hominid species can be established as our direct ancestor."

Since the fossil evidence gives no proof of the gradual transformation of species which Darwin's theory demands, the only other place to look is breeding experiments. But here the evidence also goes against Darwin. All breeders have the same experience: If they try to go too far in one direction, the animal or plant in question either becomes sterile or reverts back to type.

The late Richard Goldschmidt, a leading geneticist who taught at Berkeley, spent years observing the mutations of fruitflies and concluded that biologists had to give up Darwin's idea that an accumulation of "micro" changes creates new species. If you have a "thousand-point" mutation in a fruitfly, a statistical impossibility, it is still a fruitfly. Goldschmidt was the target of a savage campaign of vilification for pointing this out, but Stephen Jay Gould now claims that he was on the right track after all in asserting that scientists were getting nowhere with the notion that micro changes add up to major evolutionary jumps.

Goldschmidt pointed out another problem which Darwin's theory has never satisfactorily explained. This is accounting for the intermediate stages of evolving organs, each of which, according to Darwin, must be useful to the organism. As Gould puts it, "What good is half a jaw or two percent of a wing?" The advent of molecular biology only deepened the problem. Molecular biologists have discovered a microscopic world where nothing could have evolved gradually by natural selection.

Biochemist Michael Behe writes in Darwin's Black Box that phenomena like blood-clotting are "irreducibly complex." Remove a single link from the intricate cascade of chemicals which makes blood congeal in the right way and the whole process breaks down. In other words, whatever chemical arrangement may have preceded this mechanism would have been useless and therefore unavailable for natural selection. So, according to Behe, Darwin's theory flunks at life's most basic level.

No Darwinist has ever given a plausible explanation of how DNA assembled itself in the first place. A strand of DNA contains more organized information than the Encyclopedia Britannica. It is stretching probability to assert that the first DNA simply pulled itself together by accident. Also, you need proteins to make DNA, but you need DNA to make protein. Which came first? It is the classic chicken and egg problem.

Public Acceptance, Scientific Rejection

Darwin himself was increasingly plagued by doubts after the first edition of the Origin. In subsequent editions, he kept backing off from natural selection as the explanation for all natural phenomena. Loren Eiseley writes in Darwin's Century that a "close examination of the last edition of the Origin reveals that in attempting on scattered pages to meet the objections being launched against his theory, the much-labored-upon volume had become contradictory . . . . The last repairs to the Origin reveal . . . . how very shaky Darwin's theoretical structure had become." Darwin's unproved theory nonetheless became dogma in the public mind.

Yet, there has always been scientific opposition to Darwin. In fact, by the 50th anniversary of the Origin in 1909, the theory was in deep trouble. Swedish biologist Soren Lovtrup writes that "during the first third of our century, biologists did not believe in Darwin." Hans Driesch in Germany, Lucien Cuenot in France, and the American T. H. Morgan (winner of a Nobel in genetics) were among the many biologists with international reputations who rejected Darwin during this period.

Thomas Dwight, Parkman Professor of Anatomy at Harvard, summed up the situation at the time: "We have now the remarkable spectacle that just when many scientific men are all agreed . . . that on the whole [Darwin's theory] is not only unproved, but impossible, the ignorant, half-educated masses have acquired the idea that it is to be accepted as fundamental fact."

The famous Scopes trial over the teaching of evolution in Dayton, TN in 1925 took place against this background of general dissent. The scientific issues were never properly discussed at the trial; a fossil tooth was proffered as the remains of something called "Nebraska Man," but it later turned out to belong to a pig; and William Jennings Bryan made the mistake of allowing his Fundamentalist beliefs to be ridiculed on the witness stand by Clarence Darrow, who was a kind of Village Atheist raised to the national level. The trial proved nothing about the scientific validity of Darwin's theory, but it did establish in the American mind the mistaken notion that in the debate over evolution, the only choice available is between Bible-thumping fundamentalism and Darwin.

Because of the obvious flaws in early Darwinism, the so-called "synthetic theory" (sometimes called "neo-Darwinism") emerged around 1930. This incorporated genetics and mathematical models. But it remained completely Darwinian in its identification of random variations preserved by natural selection as the driving force of evolution. Julian Huxley, the chief spokesman for the synthetic theory, boasted that Darwinism had "risen Phoenix-like from the ashes." But the synthetic theory had as many holes in it as classical Darwinism, and over the next forty years its supports fell away one by one. In 1980 Stephen Jay Gould echoed the sentiments of many scientists when he declared, "The synthetic theory . . . is effectively dead, despite its persistence as textbook orthodoxy."

Evolution by Jerks

Since the synthetic theory originally arose in response to the collapse of classical Darwinism, where does that leave us today? "Punctuated equilibrium," would be the reply of the average biology teacher or science columnist. This is the famous hypothesis which Gould and Niles Eldredge came up with in the early 70s, when they and other paleontologists began to insist that the gaps in the fossil record be taken seriously. According to this theory, small groups of animals break off from the herd, go off to peripheral locations "at the edge of ecological tolerance," and mutate rapidly into "hopeful monsters" who then replace the old herd. Because the changes occur so quickly, there is no fossil evidence. We were once told that evolution is so slow we can't see it; now we're told that it's too fast to see. Gould and Eldredge admit that there is no direct evidence that evolution occurred in this way. And plenty of scientists don't buy "evolution by jerks," pointing out, among other problems, that it lacks a mechanism. How, for example, did the bat suddenly find itself with a workable sonar? True or not, punctuated equilibrium is really a refutation of Darwin, who said that his theory would break down completely "if it could be demonstrated that any complex organ existed, which could not possibly have been formed by numerous, successive, slight variations."

Besides the "punk eek" crowd, there are two other evolutionary camps today. There is the mainstream, which clings to old-fashioned Darwinism because there is no better explanation for the origin of species. For these scientists the engine of species creation is small DNA copying errors, which presumably add up over millions of years to "evolution." These retro-Darwinists explain away the gaps in the fossils and do not seriously address the question of how smooth intermediates between land mammals and whales, or reptiles and birds, could ever have existed.

Then there are scientists who reject Darwin. In fact, opposition to Darwin's theory is more widespread than is generally supposed. It is rejected by most French biologists, for example, including the late Dr. Pierre P. Grasse, president of the French Academy of Sciences, who called Darwinism "a pseudo-science" that is "either in conflict with reality or cannot solve the basic problems." A group of prominent anti-Darwinists produced a technical volume called Beyond Neo-Darwinism in 1984, in which two American biologists, Gareth Nelson and Ron Platnick, wrote, "We believe that Darwinism . . . is, in short, a theory that has been put to the test and found false." Molecular biologist Michael Denton weighed in with Evolution: A Theory in Crisis in 1986, in which he showed that recent developments in molecular biology are at complete variance with Darwinism. And this past year, Behe's Darwin's Black Box has caused a stir by pointing out that Darwinian evolution is biochemically impossible.

Scientists and philosophers who disagree with Darwin who deny that small mutations guided by natural selection can add up to "macro" changes still call themselves "evolutionists" since they recognize that all life forms share basic genetic material and so may be descended from a single ancestor; but they are frank about not being able to explain how this happened. Some speculate that species undergo a "genetic snap" which produces new ones. This would mean that evolution was somehow "pre-programmed" in the DNA. This scenario sounds a lot like St. Augustine's and is, of course, anathema to Darwinists because it points to a Programmer God.

Why, in the face of so much negative evidence, does Darwin's theory maintain its hold over scientists and educators? Mainly because it is an effective club with which to beat religion. Richard Dawkins, Darwin's modern attack dog, is typical when he calls religion a "virus" that "infects people's minds, replicates and spreads." He criticizes scientists who profess a belief in God and points out that the great merit of Darwinism is that it allows one to be "an intellectually fulfilled atheist." Behe nicely dissects Dawkins's "proofs" of Darwin's theory, showing how he makes use of hidden postulates and unwarranted assumptions.

Ideology Masquerading as Science

Pope John Paul II is aware that Darwinism in the hands of people like Dawkins is really an ideology masquerading as science. In his letter to the Pontifical Academy he condemns "theories of evolution" which, "in accordance with the philosophies inspiring them" shrink man to matter, treating him as an accidental whirl of atoms. Such theories, the pope writes, "are incompatible with the truth about man. Nor or they able to ground the dignity of the person."

The blood-drenched history of our century bears the pope out. If scientists and philosophers are going to treat man as no more than biological material, then biological material he will be. It is a short step from Darwin to the gas ovens and abortion mills. Nazism and Marxism were, in the minds of their founders, simply Darwin applied to politics.

The pope is also well aware of the sharp scientific debate over evolution. He writes, "[R]ather than speak of the theory of evolution, we should speak of several theories of evolution" and points out correctly that scientists themselves disagree over the mechanism of evolution.

But it is the mechanism that is key. In fact, it is pointless to speak about "evolution" unless you know how it occurred. And at the present moment, we don't. The word "evolution" ought to be used much more carefully, since it implies that science knows more about the origin of species than it really does.

The Catholic Church has no problem with "evolution" ie. the idea of continuity between past and present species because it does not insist on a literal reading of the creation account in Genesis. Catholics who want to read Genesis as a textbook in geology or astrophysics are free to do so, but the Church does not encourage this sort of literalism.

In his catechesis on creation in 1986, John Paul II stated about the first book of Genesis that, "This text has above all a religious and theological importance. There are not to be sought in it significant elements from the point of view of natural science . . . Indeed, the theory of natural evolution, understood in a sense that does not exclude divine causality, is not in principle opposed to the truth about the creation of the visible world, as presented in the Book of Genesis . . . The doctrine of faith, however, invariably affirms that man's spiritual soul is created directly by God . . . it is possible that the human body, following the order impressed by the Creator on the energies of life, could have been gradually prepared in the forms of antecedent living beings."

In other words, no matter what his biological antecedents, man is a being profoundly different from the rest of the animal kingdom. Man is a person made in the image of God. Dogs and chimps are not. And God intended from all eternity that man exist in his present form. These truths are taught in Genesis. But the pope is warning us that the sacred author did not in addition mean to give scientific information about how God's creation of man unfolded in the natural order, whether it was done in a flash or over many eons.

Unfortunately, there are still biblical fundamentalists, Catholic and Protestant, who do not understand this simple point: The Bible does not teach science. When Christ said that the mustard seed was the smallest of seeds (and it is about the size of a speck of dust) he was not laying down a principle of botany. In fact, botanists tell us there are smaller seeds. Our Lord was simply talking to the men of his time in their own language, and with reference to their own experience. Hence the warning of Pius XII in Divino Afflante Spiritu (1943) that the true sense of a biblical passage is not always obvious, as the sacred writers made full use of the idioms of their time and place.

Genesis was written in the archaic, prescientific idiom of the ancient Palestinians. Its author could not have told us that the universe is 12 billion years old because the Hebrews did not have a word for one billion and the information is not necessary for our salvation. The Hebrew word for day "yom" can mean a 24-hour day, or a longer period. If the universe were roughly 6,000 years old, as a literal reading of Genesis would suggest, then we would not be able to see the Milky Way. The light would not have reached the earth yet.

The early chapters of Genesis are history, but not as it would be written by a modern historian. (It is not as though there was a camcorder in the Garden of Eden.) You might say they are history written in mythic language a poetic compression of the truth, as it were. We are obliged to believe these important truths expressed by the Sacred Author for example, that our first parents, tempted by the devil, committed the original sin, a primal act of disobedience whose effects we still suffer. This belief is entirely outside the realm of science. But it's worth keeping in mind Newman's remark that the more he contemplated humanity, the clearer it became to him that the human race was "implicated in some terrible aboriginal calamity."

With the collapse of the ideologies of Marx and Freud, Darwin is the last standing pillar of 19th century "scientific" atheism, which has done so much damage to religious faith. Catholics should not hesitate to get involved in the debate over his theory, especially since they occupy a reasonable middle ground between scientific and biblical fundamentalists. Nor should we leave popular science writing to people like Carl Sagan, Stephen Jay Gould, or Richard Dawkins, whose charming expositions mask a fierce hostility to religion. These writers are masters of what Darwin called the "slow and silent side attacks" against Christianity. But they are fighting a losing battle. Because the more we learn about the universe and the complexity of living things, the closer we come to the mysteries of our Faith.



johnston George Sim Johnston "Apes "R" Not Us: Catholics & the Debate Over Evolution." Envoy (March/April, 1997)

This article is reprinted with permission from Envoy Magazine. All rights reserved.

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The Author

johnstonGeorge Sim Johnston is a writer living in New York City. He graduated from Harvard with a B. A. in English literature and was an investment banker with Salomon Brothers in the seventies and early eighties. Since then he has been a free-lance writer, publishing with The Wall Street Journal, Harper's, Commentary, Harvard Business Review, National Catholic Register, World Catholic Report, and other publications. He is a three-time winner of the Journalism Award from the Catholic Press Association. He teaches marriage preparation and CCD for the Archdiocese of New York and is the author of Did Darwin Get it Right?: Catholics and the Theory of Evolution.

Copyright © 1997 Envoy
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