LESSON 21: February 2007


By Msgr. John F. McCarthy

142. What is the neo-Darwinian theory of evolution? What is commonly called today the Darwinian theory of evolution is the theory proposed in 1859 by Charles Darwin according to which all living biological forms have arisen by a succession of transformations of lower species into higher and more complex species by a process of random change and natural selection together with the passing on of certain acquired characteristics. The Darwinian theory became the neo-Darwinian theory of evolution when the idea of the passing on of acquired characteristics was dropped universally by evolutionary biologists and the process was limited to random change and natural selection. The New Webster’s Dictionary of the English Language, College Edition (1975) gives only the following definition of the word "random": "a lack of direction, rule, or method; done without aim or purpose; left to chance; fortuitous." This certainly suggests that the word random in neo-Darwinian theory means an unguided, unplanned process leaving no room for the role of divine providence in the emergence of living organisms.

143. Unacceptable theories of theistic evolution. At the end of the previous lesson it was noted that many Christians, including many Catholics, believe that the complex biological species living today on the face of the Earth have evolved from lower species. It was noted also that Catholics are permitted to hold evolution as a theory as long as they maintain at the same time an awareness of the problems which have kept it from being accepted as a proven fact (number 139 above). To rule out any divine intervention in the appearance of living species on Earth, including the appearance of man, would be contrary to divine revelation and, therefore, contrary to Catholic faith. Hence, Catholic evolutionists are obliged to be in some sense at least theistic evolutionists, that is, persons recognizing the role of God in the history of the world and of life in the world, as is the clear teaching of Holy Scripture. Some say that God created the original matter of the universe and then left it to develop on its own by a process of random change and natural selection. This view, since it is a form of Deism and leaves no role for divine planning and intelligent design, does not seem to be sufficient for Catholic faith. Others say that the development of the universe and of biological life was also guided by physical and chemical laws instituted by God at the beginning of time so as to produce the results that He had planned, but without any further interventions on his part. This view does not take into consideration much of what has been told to us by divine revelation regarding the interventions of God in the history of salvation. We note in particular the teaching of Popes Pius XII and John Paul II that the spiritual soul of man could not have evolved from matter without divine creative intervention (number 137 above).

144. A somewhat more acceptable theory of theistic evolution. In our day believing Christian evolutionists have been advancing theories of theistic evolution that are somewhat more acceptable to Catholic faith. For instance, in 2006, Francis S. Collins, a prominent non-Catholic physicist and biochemist, published a book, The Language of God, in which he holds to the neo-Darwinian theory of evolution by random change and natural selection, but he posits also the creative intervention of God, for the creation, not only of the primal matter, but also of the laws of physics and chemistry, the first forms of biological life, and the human spiritual soul. But this theory doesn’t leave much room for the many acts of God narrated in the Bible; it rather seems to push many of the objects of Christian faith back into merely subjective experience.

145. Another step toward acceptability. Even more recently, in January 2007, Ronald C. Dressman, a Catholic expert in physics and biology, has published a book, Not by Chance, in which he also maintains that present living biological species, including the human body, have indeed evolved from lower species, but he rejects the theory that they evolved by way of random mutation and natural selection. While Dressman projects the need to recognize intelligent design and purpose in the universe, and he acknowledges the function of the spiritual soul of man, he does not take into account the operative presence of animal or vegetative souls in living organisms below man. He does effectively refute the idea that incomplete bodies of evolving species ever appeared on the face of the Earth, as neo-Darwinian theory assumes, but he takes too easily for granted that the evolution of species ever took place at all. The discussion of this question is now focused on the area of genetics and molecular biology, and at this level Dressman has strong arguments against the neo-Darwinian theory of chance mutations and natural selection. Thus, he brings common biological theory closer to the traditional Catholic position, but he doesn’t seem to go far enough in this direction.

146. Two traditional Catholic theories of origins. St. Augustine speculated that the six days of creation were not chronological days but rather stages of the knowledge of creation in the minds of the blessed angels. He conjectured that the potentiality for the development of the universe was packaged in the primal matter to come out gradually according to the plan of God. He suggested that things just popped into being at their scheduled times. This was the theory of spontaneous generation. St. Thomas Aquinas favored this theory, but he offered also the more common interpretation that the creation of the world took place over a period of six 24-hour days. In 1909 the Pontifical Biblical Commission declared that the days of creation could be understood either as periods of 24 hours or as indefinite periods of time. Most empirical scientists calculate immense periods of time for the development of the universe, up to approximately 14½ billion years.

146. The origin of man. Sacred Scripture tells us in Genesis, chapters one to three, that God created Adam from the slime of the earth, and Eve from the side of Adam. Every theory of evolution has denied that this biblical description is an historical fact. Historical critics, who are deeply, but often uncritically, influenced by the opinions of empirical scientists, are rather prone to forfeit the special creation of the bodies of Adam and Eve and to propose merely symbolic interpretations for this inspired report. Neo-Darwinians today figure that the emergence of man from a lower species took at least a million years, while the evolution of the human body took at least 100,000 years. Non-neo-Darwinian evolutionist Ronald Dressman projects a one-generation final emergence of man from sub-human genitors, with the infusion of the human rational soul by God, but he allows, nevertheless, for a gradual succession of sub-human forms over a longer span of time, leading up to the appearance of man. Dressman thinks that the several races of men living today evolved from several pairs of different parent forms. This position induces him to consider the story of Adam and Eve as representing symbolically all of the various races of men that have emerged and not one pair of first parents, which appears to be contrary to the teaching of Sacred Scripture, because it does not allow for a good explanation of the universality of Original Sin or even of the brotherhood of all men. Dressman himself seems to be rather uncritical of the so-called "hominid" fossils, such as Piltdown man, Java man, Peking man, Nebraska man, Neanderthal man, Heidelberg man, and Cro-Magnon man. In the course of time, Piltdown man proved to be a hoax perpetrated by scientists, Java man turned out to be a fraud, as also, probably was Peking man, Nebraska man was created in the imagination of anthropologists from the discovery of a single unusual tooth, which turned out to be the tooth of an extinct pig, and Neanderthal man, Heidelberg man, and Cro-Magnon man were probably completely human. Christian believers need to keep in mind that some scientists can be very bright and much respected, while at the same time being dishonest enough to fabricate facts in order to bolster their theories. There have been many instances of this in the promotion of the theory of evolution.

147. The philosophy of form. Modern empirical scientists tend to be materialists in their approach, to the extent that they study only the material and efficient causes of things and deny, or at least ignore, the formal and final causes. Cardinal Christoph Schönborn of Vienna has recently brought this defect to the attention of the academic world. With regard to the question of evolution, most empirical scientists are mechanists, that is, they do not recognize the existence of living souls in living organisms. Those others who do recognize that life is more than the sum total of material elements in a living organism seek to account for the principle, or origin, of its life, that is, they seek to explain where its living soul came from. Every living species is a masterpiece of artistry and engineering. Philosophically, one may ask whether life could have been so packaged by God in the potentiality of matter that it would have sprung spontaneously at a given time from a given "soup" of matter without any need of a further creative divine intervention. Again, granting that spontaneous generation of this kind may have been possible, could the plan of each living species have arisen spontaneously from matter, if the design of each species had not been created by God and instilled in matter as a window into existence for each living species? Neo-Darwinian evolutionists today are reacting strongly against the theory of intelligent design in living species, because, they say, it implies the existence of God. And so it does. The obviously intelligent design of the universe and of living things is one of the proofs from reason for the existence of God. That is why those evolutionists who are atheists energetically deny the intelligent design of the biological world, and why they try to convince others that, by denying intelligent design, they are being scientific. Fortunately, many scientists are now beginning to react against this self-deception and trickery. As of February 2007, over 700 scientists had signed a statement prepared by the Discovery Institute’s Center for Science and Culture which declares that the neo-Darwinian approach to the question of evolution is actually unscientific (see www.dissentfromdarwin.org).


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