Kenneth R. Miller: The cardinal's big mistake: Darwin didn't contradict God

01:00 AM EDT on Wednesday, August 10, 2005

IT'S NEVER BEEN EASY being Charles Darwin. Rodney Dangerfield talked about getting "no respect," but the brickbats thrown Darwin's way are putting poor Rodney to shame. Alabama pastes warning stickers in any textbook that mentions evolution; a member of the Kansas Board of Education pronounces evolution "biologically, genetically, mathematically, chemically and metaphysically impossible." And now even a cardinal of the Catholic Church has taken a potshot at poor old Charles.

Austrian Cardinal Christoph Schonborn, editor of the Church's Catechism, recently wrote that any notion that neo-Darwinian theory is "somehow compatible with Christian faith" is simply "not true."

The cardinal asserted that evolution is an "unguided, unplanned process of random variation and natural selection." Evolution, in his view, isn't science so much as a "materialistic philosophy" that denies the existence of a creator's plan. It's anti-Christian, and it's bad science to boot.

The cardinal may think that evolution deserves the Dangerfield treatment, but in his understandable eagerness to stand up for God, he's made three glaring mistakes: The most obvious is scientific. The second is political. And the third, dare I say as a Catholic lay person, is theological.

Knowing how the cardinal's words will be misused by the enemies of science, I think it's important to set the record straight.

Let's start with what Schonborn got right. The Catholic Church has always opposed any view of life that would exclude the notion of divine purpose. As the Catechism says, scientific studies of "the age and development of the cosmos, the development of life-forms and the appearance of man . . . invite us to even greater admiration for the greatness of the Creator." Indeed they do.

But Schonborn's assertion that the theory of evolution is inherently anti-God is simply wrong. Consider these words from George Gaylord Simpson, widely recognized as one of the principal architects of the neo-Darwinian synthesis:

"The process [of evolution] is wholly natural in its operation. This natural process achieves the aspect of purpose without the intervention of a purposer; and it has produced a vast plan without the concurrent action of a planner. It may be that the initiation of the process and the physical laws under which it functions had a purpose and that this mechanistic way of achieving a plan is the instrument of a Planner -- of this still deeper problem the scientist, as scientist, cannot speak."

Exactly. Science is, just as Pope John Paul II said, silent on the issue of ultimate purpose. This means that biological evolution, correctly understood, does not address what Simpson called the "deeper problem," leaving that issue, quite properly, to faith.

The cardinal's second error was to enter American politics by supporting the "intelligent-design" movement. This movement seeks to short-circuit science by applying political pressure at state and local levels, and the cardinal's misrepresentation of evolution will only further a growing entanglement between church and state. He seems not to understand that the neo-creationists of "intelligent design," unlike Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI, argue against evolution on every level, asserting that a "designer" has repeatedly intervened to subvert the laws of nature. This view stands in sharp contradiction to a 2004 International Theological Commission document approved by Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict.

This document carries a ringing endorsement of the "widely accepted scientific account" of life's emergence and evolution; describes the descent of all forms of life from a common ancestor as "virtually certain"; and echoes John Paul's observation of the "mounting support" for evolution from many fields of study.

More important, the document makes a critical statement on how to interpret scientific studies of the complexity of life: "[W]hether the available data support inferences of design or chancecannot be settled by theology. But it is important to note that, according to the Catholic understanding of divine causality, true contingency" -- that is, dependence upon chance -- "in the created order is not incompatible with a purposeful divine providence."

Right there, in plain view, is the essence of compatibility between evolution and Catholic theology. "Contingency in the created order," the very heart of evolution, is not at all incompatible with the will of God. The church document re-emphasizes this point by stating that "even the outcome of a truly contingent natural process can nonetheless fall within God's providential plan for creation." And evolution, as scientist Stephen Jay Gould emphasized, is truly a contingent natural process.

The concerns of Pope Benedict, as expressed in his earlier writings, are not with evolution per se, but with how evolution is to be understood in our modern world. Biological evolution fits neatly into a traditional Catholic understanding of how contingent natural processes can be seen as part of God's plan, while "evolutionist" philosophies that deny the divine do not. Three popes, beginning with Pius XII, have now made this clear.

John Paul's 1996 letter to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences bore the magnificent title "Truth Cannot Contradict Truth." Writing in the tradition of Augustine and Aquinas, the late pope affirmed the church's twin commitments to scientific rationality and to an overarching spiritual view of the ultimate meaning and purpose of life.

Like many other scientists who hold the Catholic faith, I see the Creator's plan and purpose fulfilled in our universe. I see a planet bursting with evolutionary possibilities -- a continuing creation, in which the divine providence is manifest in every living thing. I see a science that tells us there is indeed a design to life. And the name of that design is evolution.

Kenneth R. Miller is a Brown University professor of biology and the author of Finding Darwin's God: A Scientist's Search for Common Ground Between God and Evolution.

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