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No. 122 Roman Theological Forum | Article Index | Study Program March 2006


by John F. McCarthy

1. No Intelligent Design in Physical Nature? In July 2005 Christoph Cardinal Schönborn published a short article in The New York Times in which he affirmed the existence of the design that is evident in the universe and in the biological world, as opposed to an alleged emergence of everything in the world from a random process propelled by an upward evolutionary force. Father George Coyne, priest-astronomer, who is well-known as the director of the Vatican Observatory, publicly opposed this assertion of Cardinal Schönborn and soon publicly confirmed his position by an article in the London Tablet dated December 10, 2005. Based on the conclusion that the universe is now about 13.7 billion years old, he avers that "the human person has come to be through the process of physical, chemical, and biological evolution." To Father Coyne "it would be scientifically absurd to deny that the human brain is a result of a process of chemical complexification in an evolving universe" in which "those chemicals got together in successive steps to make ever more complex molecules," and finally, "in some extraordinary chemical process the human brain came to be the most complicated machine that we know." He holds that, since the universe, "as seen by science," has resulted from a combination of chance, necessity, and the fertility of the universe, evolution, as many hold, "is not simply a random blind process," but rather "has a direction and an intrinsic destiny." He hastens to point out, however, that by "intrinsic" he means "that science need not, and in fact cannot methodologically, invoke a designer as those arguing for intelligent design attempt to do." Well then, "Do we need God to explain this" (the emergence of man and the universe)? Father Coyne continues to point out: "Very succinctly, my answer is no. In fact, to need God would be a very denial of God. God is not the response to a need. [ . . . ] We should not need God; we should accept him when he comes to us." And that is why it seems to him that "the Intelligent Design Movement, a largely American phenomenon, diminishes God, makes him a designer rather than a lover."

2. The Need to Recognize Formal and Final Causes. Cardinal Schönborn, in a reply to Stephen Barr, who had also criticized his New York Times article in the October 2005 issue of First Things, gave also an indirect reply to the thesis of Father Coyne in the January 2006 issue of First Things as he pointed out that most contemporary biologists have a "reductionist conception of nature," according to which the formal and final causes of things are deliberately excluded from the purview of science and only the efficient and material causes of things are considered to exist. This is the mechanistic approach to modern science. Thus, the formal and final aspects of things are regarded as unreal and only what is observed in the material and efficient aspects of things is classified as certified and scientific. As a result the material explanation of a thing is taken to be a complete explanation. The Cardinal notes that, in the neo-Darwinian approach that is followed today by most biologists, genetic variations are assumed to occur randomly, and natural selection is also believed to take place at random, and yet, "out of all that unconstrained, unintelligible mess emerges, deus ex machina, the precisely ordered and extraordinarily intelligible world of living organisms." If neo-Darwinian biologists could only step back and look at the sweep of life before them, they would see "an obvious, indeed an overwhelming pattern." In fact, he says, "Any system of thought that denies or seeks to explain away the overwhelming evidence for design in biology is ideology, not science." Schönborn contends that not all certified knowledge is limited to the material and mechanistic level of knowledge, that there is a science of common experience, that "its role in these crucial matters is indispensable," and that his argument is based upon truths that are even more certain and enduring than are the results of purely mechanistic observation. Schönborn quotes Pope John Paul II to the effect that the evolution of living beings "presents an internal finality which arouses admiration" and which "obliges one to suppose a Mind which is its inventor, its creator." And he cites the same pope again as saying "To speak of chance for a universe which presents such a complex organization in its elements and such marvelous finality in its life would be equivalent to giving up the search for an explanation of the world as it appears to us." Schönborn avers that he is basing his argument, not upon theology, but upon true philosophy. Catholics favorable to neo-Darwinian evolutionary theory, he says, will readily discuss its compatibility with the general truths of faith, "but seldom bother to discuss whether and how it is compatible with the truths of reason."

3. Two Hypothetical Examples. By way of explanation of what Cardinal Schönborn is saying in these two articles about the intelligent design of the universe, we could take two hypothetical and extreme examples of a mechanistic approach to science-education. In the first example, we suppose that the science teacher explains how the hammer made a box and how the chain-saw pruned a tree. When the students ask who was wielding the hammer or who was holding the chain-saw, the teacher is required to reply: "no one." In the second example we suppose that a scientific study of the front wall of the Sistine Chapel had been made in which the researchers have examined microscopically from very close up every crack and fissure, every variation of chemicals in the paint and plaster on that wall, and organized their findings into an impressive statistical report. And let us suppose that, in teaching about this report, it was forbidden to the teachers ever to tell the students in science class or in any other class that, if they would just stand back, they could see painted on the wall the magnificent picture of the Last Judgment by Michelangelo.

4. Another Voice Claiming to Speak for Science. Another voice was added to the discussion when Fiorenzo Facchini, professor of evolutionary biology at the University of Bologna, came out in the January 17, 2006, edition of L’Osservatore Romano with the claim that intelligent design is not science and that teaching it alongside evolutionary theory in school classrooms would cause confusion. He went on to say that in the scientific world biological evolution "is the key to the interpretation of the history of life on Earth, the cultural framework of modern biology," and he added that, the (unwarranted) assertions of certain American "creationists" have provoked over-reactions in scientific circles "that are inspired by a certain dogmatism in defense of neo-Darwinism and have brought back scientific positions typical of 19th century culture."1

5. Not a New Discussion. This is an old discussion, as can be seen from the contrasting teachings of Titus Lucretius Carus and Marcus Tullius Cicero in the first century B.C. Lucretius, an atomist philosopher and poet (died about 55 B.C.). had this opinion: "For surely the atoms did not hold council, assigning order to each, flexing their keen minds with questions of place and motion and who goes where. But shuffled and jumbled in many ways, in the course of endless times they are buffeted, driven along chancing upon all motions, combinations. At last they fall into such an arrangement as would create this universe."2 And further on he says: "But if I knew nothing of atoms, of what they were, still from the very ways of the heavens, from many other things I could name, I’d dare to assert and prove that not for us and not by the gods was the world made. There’s too much wrong with it!"3

6. From Another Pagan Philosopher. Cicero, a Stoic philosopher, orator, and believer in the pagan gods of Rome (died in 43 B.C.) gave this response to Lucretius and other atomists: "Who would not vow that he was less than human who could gaze upon the systematic movements of the firmament, the measured pathways of the stars, and the exact and constant relationships of all the heavenly bodies, and then deny that reason dwells in them – aye, and assert that these wonders which are directed by a wisdom so great that our feeble minds strive in vain to comprehend it are actually to be attributed to blind chance? When we seedevices which are moved by machinery, such as a planetarium, a clock, and many other similar contrivances, we admit without hesitation that reason guides their operation. When, therefore, we consider the incredible rapidity with which the heavens move and revolve, bringing about every year with unerring regularity the changes of the seasons, the while keeping and preserving in perfect safety all created things, how can we doubt that such miracles are accomplished not only by reason, but by a reason which is supreme and divine? For we may here lay aside the subtleties of disputation and with our own mortal eyes, as it were, contemplate the beauty of those things which, we affirm, were created by divine providence."4 And again: "Is it possible, now, for any man in possession of his senses to believe that this magnificent sidereal panorama, this stupendous display of beauty in the heavens, could have been produced by atoms scuttling hither and thither at the whim of chance and accident? or that some other senseless and reasonless being could have devised and fashioned them? Not only is their existence proof positive of pre-existing creative wisdom, but their own attributes cannot be apprehended except by the exercise of the highest degree of intelligence."5

7. The Voice of a Competent Scientist. Now, when he looked up by night at the splendid display in the heavens, even under the best viewing conditions, Cicero would not have been able to distinguish more than four thousand stars and star-like objects, and neither he nor Lucretius could have imagined the sextillion and more stars that Father Coyne, as a modern astronomer, knows are there. And yet modern empirical science does know that there is order and design in the universe. To verify this I should like to introduce a highly technical work published in 1998 by well-known microbiologist Michael Denton of New Zealand under the title of Nature's Destiny (hereinafter ND)6, in which he undertakes, first, to set forth the strictly scientific evidence for the belief that "the cosmos is uniquely fit for life as it exists on earth and for organisms of design and biology very similar to our own species, Homo sapiens," and second, "to argue that this ‘unique fitness’ of the laws of nature for life is entirely consistent with the older teleological religious concept of the cosmos as a specially designed whole, with life and mankind as its primary goal and purpose (ND, xi)." Denton believes that "the evidence strongly suggests that the cosmos is uniquely fit for only one type of biology – that which exists on earth – and that the phenomenon of life cannot be instantiated in any other exotic chemistry or class of material forms" (ND, xiii). He claims that, as a result of recent discoveries, "there is now a teleological intellectual current within modern physics, cosmology, and astronomy which is remarkably concordant with the older anthropocentric view and strikingly out of keeping with the antiteological tendencies that have come to be universally associated with advances in scientific knowledge for most of the recent past" (ND, 16). In this new intellectual stream he mentions such other widely-known physicists and astronomers as Brandon Carter, Freeman Dyson, John Wheeler, Frank Tipler, and Sir Fred Hoyle. Denton approaches his study from a strictly naturalist rather than a religious point of view to the extent that he rejects both the special creationist and the Darwinian theories in the following words: "the argument presented here is entirely consistent with the basic naturalistic assumption of modern science that the cosmos is a seamless unity which can be comprehended ultimately in its entirety by human reason and in which all phenomena, including life and evolution and the origin of man, are ultimately explicable in terms of natural processes. [ . . . ] Clearly, if life’s design is indeed embedded in the laws of nature and the major paths of evolution are largely determined from the beginning, then neither creationism nor Darwinism can possibly be valid models of nature" (ND xviii).

Click here to buy Nature's Destiny from Amazon Books 8. An Evolutionist Scientist Who Recognizes the Design of the Cosmos. Nature's Destiny is divided into two parts, regarding which Denton acknowledges that his evidence for the evolution of species in the second part is weaker than his arguments for the design of the universe in the first part. Denton is a naturalist, a mechanist, and an evolutionist. As a naturalist, he does not admit any divine interventions in the history of the universe; as a mechanist he does not admit the existence of souls as the basis of life in living organisms; and, as an evolutionist, he holds that the whole universe and all of its inhabitants have evolved from a primordial soup of primitive matter.7 His recognition of design in the arrangement of matter in the universe and on Earth presupposes the existence of a Mind and of a first instant of creation (ND 284), but further consideration of this fact does not come within the purview of his naturalistic analysis. His arguments are constructed, not against the assumed evolution of the world, but against the Darwinian notion that the world and biological species evolved at random, that is, by chance and not by purpose and design. In an earlier work, Denton presented a detailed study of the laws of chance, and he showed that, even considering the size and estimated age of the universe, "the complexity of the simplest known type of cell is so great that it is impossible to accept that such an object could have been thrown together suddenly by some kind of freakish, vastly improbable, event." And he continues: "Such an occurrence would be indistinguishable from a miracle."8 Of the many protein molecules contained in any living cell, most are made up of thousands of atoms "folded into different immensely complex spatial arrangements according to the different functions that they perform," and "some DNA molecules may consist of several million subunits and when fully extended stretch for several centimetres."9

9. Evolution Not a Scientific Theory. In this article, as I present some of Denton’s strong evidence for design in the universe and in biological organisms, I am prescinding from the ultimate question of whether or not biological evolution ever took place. Denton incisively notes that evolution is an historical theory, not a scientific one, where he says that, if dynamically stable patterns of electrons, protons, and neutrons could be worked out in relation to biological life, "this would transform biology from a purely historical science to one with a logical, dynamic foundation" (ND 284). The theory of evolution is, therefore, wrongly called a "scientific theory," in the sense of a theory based upon statistical laws. There are no such laws supporting the theory. Attempts by evolutionists to demonstrate a law of natural selection as the basis of evolution have failed, mainly because selection cannot produce a species, it can only operate on species already in existence. And no other statistical law has ever been found to underpin the notion of evolution as a scientific theory.

10. Evidence for Design in the Universe. Regarding "the harmony of the spheres," Denton notes and then treats in detail certain factors upon which the fitness of the universe for life depends, such as: "the relative strength of the four fundamental forces (gravity, electromagnetism, and the strong and weak nuclear forces), the speed of expansion of the universe, the spacing and frequency of supernovae, the nuclear energy levels of certain atoms," and he adds that "if these were not precisely what they are, then carbon-based life would certainly not exist." For instance, the fact that the gravitational force "is fantastically weaker than the strong nuclear force by an unimaginable thirty-eight orders of magnitude is critical to the whole cosmic scheme and particularly to the existence of stable stars and planetary systems" (ND 12). Again, the numerical values of the fundamental constants, such as the charge on the electron, the mass of the proton, and the Newtonian gravitational constant "are crucially relevant to the structure of the universe that we perceive" (ND 13). Denton sees that all nature, the whole universe, "is bound together into one mutual self-referential biocentric whole" and that this is verified physically "from the inertial resistance we encounter when we move our hand, determined by the mass of the most distant stars, to the radioactive heat in the earth’s interior which drives the great tectonic system, thus ensuring a continual replenishing of the vital elements of life" (ND 382). All of these cohering realities could not have happened by chance, as Darwinian biologists believe. "Where physics led in the seventeenth century, biology eventually followed, and it is doubtful whether modern biology can for long resist the new teleological current now flowing within cosmology and the physical sciences" (ND, 17).

11. Evidence for Design in the Elements. And he goes on to say that "all the elements necessary for life – Carbon (C), nitrogen (N), oxygen (O) and iron (Fe), etc. – are manufactured in the nuclear furnaces in the interiors of the stars," and that over the past three decades (prior to 1998) facts such as these discovered in the area of astrophysics and cosmology "have led many physicists to argue that the cosmos appears to be fine tuned for life (ND 10)."10 The picture that has emerged from the results of modern physics and astronomy, Denton observes, "suggests that the formation of the chemical elements for life, and planetary systems capable of sustaining life and evolution over millions of years, are only possible if the overall structure of the universe and all the laws of nature are almost precisely as they are" (ND 12). All of these cohering realities and others such as the following could not have happened by chance, as Darwinian biologists believe. Water. If the properties of water were not almost exactly what they are, "carbon-based life would in all probability be impossible." These properties of water are: its thermal properties, its surface tension, its capacity to dissolve a vast number of different substances, and its low viscosity, which allows small molecules to enter and leave cells by diffusion and which also makes possible a circulatory system" (ND 19). Light. "The atmospheric gases, including water vapor and liquid water, absorb virtually all the harmful radiation outside the visual range and transmit only this tiny band of biologically useful radiation." And it is from within this narrow band that the energy comes "to synthesize the fuels of life, the sugars and fats, which power the activities of virtually all complex forms of life on earth" (ND 50). Carbon. The chemical properties of the carbon atom seem to be "uniquely fit" to form the complex molecules required for living organisms, and the fitness for life of the carbon compounds "is maximal in the same temperature range that water is a fluid" (ND 101). Oxygen can be utilized by biochemical systems because of a number of its suitable features, such as: the attenuation of its reactivity below about 50°C; its low solubility; the fact that the transitional atoms such as iron and copper have just the right chemical characteristics to manipulate the oxygen atom; that the end product of the oxidation of carbon is carbon dioxide, an innocuous gas. Moreover, the reaction of carbon dioxide with water provides living things with a buffer – the bicarbonate buffer which has just the right characteristics to buffer organisms, especially air-breathing organisms, against increases in acidity. [ . . . ] Another fascinating coincidence is that only atmospheres with between 10 and 20 percent oxygen can support oxidative metabolism in a higher organism, and it is only within this range that fire – and hence metallurgy and technology – is possible" (ND 117). Metals. There could be no biosphere without metals. "Living things utilize the properties of metals from each of the main subgroups of the periodic table, and even particular metals, such as iron, calcium, copper, molybdenum, and magnesium, appear to be adapted for specific biological processes of a critical significance without which no worldly life remotely as rich as ours would be possible. Iron and copper are essential for the manipulation of oxygen, molybdenum for nitrogen fixation, etc." (ND 195). Seemingly Trivial Aspects of Chemistry and Physics. Denton gives many examples of apparently trivial conditions including "the decrease in the viscosity of the blood when the blood pressure rises, which increases the blood flow to the metabolically active muscles of higher organisms; the anomalous thermal properties of water, which buffers both the planet and organisms against massive swings in temperature; the curious but critical fact that the hydration of carbon dioxide is quite slow, which prevents a fatal acidosis in the body of higher organisms in anaerobic exercise; the curious fact that it is base sequences in the major groove of the DNA which provide the electrostatic variability that can be recognized by an α helix.” And Denton reminds us that these and the other mutual adaptations that take place in living organisms “are in the essential nature of things and are not the product of natural selection" (ND 382).

12. Evidence for Design in Biological Functions. Proteins. Some ways in which DNA seems to be uniquely fit for its biological role are the following: it is chemically stable in an aqueous medium, its structure allows for highly accurate and rapid duplication, it possesses a conformational plasticity which enhances its informational capacity and facilitates DNA-protein interactions, and it has an enormous capacity for compaction because of its supercoiling ability" (ND 141).Again, "because of their ability to adopt alternative shapes, the biological activities of proteins can be finely regulated" (ND 169). The Living Cell. "Cells are capable of carrying out any instruction, adopting any shape, creating the vast diversity of multicellular organisms, . . . ." The cell membrane is uniquely fit for its role. The average size of cells is just right as is the viscosity of cytoplasm, and there are a variety of other "coincidences" which enable cells to adhere and move about selectively" (ND 209). Man. Among the unique bodily characteristics of man are included the design and dimensions of the human hand, which is fit for the handling of fire, the high acuity of his vision, the strength of his muscles, as fitted to the size of the Earth (ND 235).

13. Evidence Against Evolution by Random Mutations. Denton points out that any mutation beyond a trivial degree requires "intelligently directed compensatory changes in many of the interacting subsystems" of the organism, and that living organisms "are immensely complex in terms of the sheer number of unique components they contain." In fact, in the instance of higher organisms "the number of unique genetic readouts used throughout the life of the organism may approach several billion""(ND 321). Any number of examples of massive and intelligently directed compensatory changes could be given, but Denton lays out five in particular which he treats at length: the eye of the lobster, the eye of the scallop, the marsupial frog, the lung of a bird, and the human brain (ND 351-363).

14. The Cosmos Is an Intelligently Designed Whole. In Nature's Destiny, Michael Denton does not just name these impressive "coincidences" in the structure of life and of the universe, he treats them in technical detail. At the end of his study he notes that the strength of the argument for intelligent design and purpose throughout the universe and the biosphere "lies in the summation of all the evidence, in the whole long chain of coincidences which leads so convincingly toward the unique end of life, in the fact that all the independent lines of evidence fit together into a beautiful self-consistent teleological whole." A hundred years ago, when the last vestiges of design and purpose were being excluded from mainstream biology, "advances in physiological and organic chemistry had revealed an additional and highly significant series of mutual adaptations in life’s constituents which provided for the first time a significant body of evidence consistent with the view that our own carbon-based life is unique and that the laws of nature are specifically tailored to that end." And then, during the last half of the twentieth century advances in molecular biology have revealed "yet another set of unique mutual adaptations at the heart of life in key constituents such as DNA and protein," while during the same period "advances in cosmology and astrophysics have indicated that the overall structure of the universe and the constants of physics seem also to be fine tuned for our existence." Denton’s conclusion to design of the universe, he says, is not based merely on evidence that the laws of nature are to some degree adapted for biological life, but rather on the "far stronger claim that the cosmos is optimally adapted for life so that every constituent of the cell and every law of nature is uniquely and ideally fashioned to that end" (ND 384-385). Denton’s final conclusion, strictly as a world-class microbiologist and without any religious presuppositions, is this: "All the evidence available in the biological sciences supports the core proposition of traditional natural theology – that the cosmos is a specially designed whole with life and mankind as its fundamental goal and purpose, a whole in which all facets of reality, from the size of galaxies to the thermal capacity of water, have their meaning and explanation in this central fact. Four centuries after the scientific revolution apparently destroyed irretrievably man’s special place in the universe, banished Aristotle, and rendered teleological speculation obsolete, the relentless stream of discovery has turned dramatically in favor of teleology and design, and the doctrine of the microcosm is reborn. As I hope the evidence presented in this book has shown, science, which has been for centuries the great ally of atheism and skepticism, has become at last, in these final days of the second millennium [1998], what Newton and many of its early advocates had so fervently wished, - the ‘defender of the anthropocentric faith’" (ND, 389).


1. F. Facchini, "An Examination of Evolution and Creation," in L’Osservatore Romano, English ed., Jan. 25, 2006, p. 10.

2. T. Lucretius, On the Nature of Things (De rerum natura), edited and translated by Anthony M. Esolen (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1995), Book One, lines 1018-1025).

3. Lucretius, op. cit., Book Five, lines 195-199.

4. M.T. Cicero, On the Nature of the Gods (De natura deorum), in (Cicero), Brutus, On the Nature of the Gods, On Divination, On Duties, translated by Hubert M. Poteat (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1950), no. 38, p. 264.

5. Cicero, ibid., no. 44, p. 270.

6. M.J. Denton, Nature's Destiny (New York: The Free Press: a division of Simon and Schuster, Inc., 1998).

7. For a review of Nature's Destiny containing also a critical analysis of Denton’s naturalistic world-view, see Living Tradition 117 (May 2005).

8. M. Denton, Evolution: A Theory in Crisis (Bethesda, Maryland: Adler and Adler, 3rd ed., 1986), p. 264. For a review of this important work, see Living Tradition 26 (November 1989).

9. Denton, Evolution: A Theory in Crisis, pp. 238 and 248.

10. Cf. J.D. Barrow and F.J. Tipler, (1986) The Anthropic Cosmological Principle (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1986).

Michael J. Denton, Nature's Destiny: How the Laws of Biology Reveal Purpose in the Universe
(New York: The Free Press – a division of Simon and Schuster, Inc., 1998)

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