Order out of chaosKeith Ward
- 21 April 2007
Press reports have suggested that Pope Benedict puts his faith in the book of Genesis rather than Darwin, following publication of a new book on Creation and evolution. But the Pope's belief rationality does not mean that he has ruled out evolutionary theory
Journalists have been waiting to pounce on Pope Benedict XVI ever since it became known that he had an informal but academic meeting in Rome on the subject of evolution. Now they have their chance, with the publication of a book arising from the discussion, Schöpfung und Evolution ("Creation and Evolution", currently only available in German). But so far they have (with the exception, of course, of a report in this journal on 14 April 2007, page 29) managed to reproduce one or two confusions that are regrettably commonplace.
The present Pope does not disagree with the last Pope about the importance of science and about the general fact of evolution - that life has evolved by genetic mutations for millions of years. What he is uneasy about, and what large numbers of evolutionary biologists are uneasy about, is the interpretation of the mechanics of evolution generally known as neo-Darwinism.
Neo-Darwinism holds that there are two main driving mechanisms of evolution: random genetic mutation and natural selection. Exponents of this view, such as Richard Dawkins, vehemently insist that mutations are purely a matter of chance or accident, and that the selection of some mutations over others is purely by blind and unintended environmental factors. Chance and lack of any conscious purpose characterise evolution, and, they say, to introduce factors like "design" or "purpose" into the process is anti-scientific.
It should be obvious to anyone with a cursory acquaintance with philosophical thought that this is not a scientific statement at all. Evolutionary biology does not deal with the question of whether there is a direction and purpose in evolution, because it is concerned only with physical and law-like factors. This is different from claiming that there cannot be any purpose in, or intelligent creation of, the process. Anyone who believes in a Creator who intends finite intelligent conscious agents to exist is bound to believe that there is both intelligent creation and purpose in evolution. This obviously conflicts with a belief that there cannot be intelligent creation (a dogma of ideological atheism), but it does not conflict with any facts of science.
When a biologist says that mutations are random, what is meant is that they occur in many ways, most of which fail to produce organisms well adapted to the environment. Some mutations, perhaps very few, are adaptive, but the best scientific way to explain mutations is to look at their chemical or physical causes, not their outcomes. Nevertheless, mutations do throw up adaptations that are progressive, in forming more complex integrated organisms that are better able to recognise and respond to their environments. Moreover, the physical environment is such that some biologists hold that we can even predict the sorts of organisms that will be adaptive, so that the existence of intelligent life is almost inevitable, given the facts of mutation and the physical constraints of the environment.
Evolution is a process that, on the one hand, throws up a wide variety of organic changes, few of them beneficial. But, on the other hand, it produces intelligent life with quite a high degree of probability. Those are the facts. Whether the process is "blind" or intelligently created is not a scientific question that could be experimentally answered. The "blind physical forces" view is as non-scientific as the "intelligent creation" view. Perhaps both should be banned from biology classes, and discussed in philosophy classes.
Pope Benedict quite rightly says that if the cosmos is created, it is "an intelligent project, with direction and order". Belief in Creation is belief that all that exists depends upon the intentional act of a being of supreme value and intelligence (this is only a minimal definition). So the cosmos must be intelligently created to realise values.
This belief is totally distinct from "creationism", which is belief that the Genesis stories of Creation (both of them) are literally true. In the "Young Earth" version, the Earth is therefore less than 10,000 years old, and in "Old Earth" versions, the Earth might have existed longer, and the days of Creation might be longer, but Adam and Eve were still created as it says in the Bible. I do not know any Catholic theologians, among whom Benedict is an outstanding example, who are creationists, in either sense.
Unfortunately, however, most journalists confuse "intelligent design" with "creationism", and then they confuse "intelligent design" with "intelligent creation". One reason for this is that the judge in the Dover School Board case, in the United States, opined that "intelligent design" was being used as a cover for teaching creationism in schools. Even if that is true, intelligent design is absolutely not a creationist view. It accepts evolution as a fact, but holds that some identifiable processes cannot be explained on neo-Darwinian principles, and require reference to some intelligent designer. This does seem to be a scientific claim, at least in providing counter-examples to neo-Darwinian explanation. It has not been well-received by biologists in general, and so one would not be well advised to accept it too readily. But it is not absurd.
Most biologists who accept intelligent creation do not accept this precise intelligent design argument. They hold that the whole process is intelligently created, but deny that you can identify specific cases where God's specific design can be shown to be scientifically necessary. This seems to be where Pope Benedict stands. It cannot be scientifically shown that evolution is due only to chance and necessity, and is unplanned. Nor can it be scientifically shown that biology has to appeal to God to explain particular facts of evolution.
The scientific facts are neutral. It is when you look at those facts philosophically, and ask whether they suggest purpose or rationality, that the question of Creation arises. "The process as a whole has rationality," Benedict says. In support of this, physicists point out that what seems random at a biological level is in fact constrained by physical factors that are not random at all, but show a deeply rational and mathematically beautiful structure. This is not "bringing in a God of the gaps", but it is pointing out that what seems random is not so at a deeper level, and that it is not absurd to see rationality and beauty in the basic structures of nature.
The working out of these rational principles leads to a process of genetic copying that produces a wide, but limited, variety of organic variations. From these the physical environment, which of course God has also created, selects successful adaptations that cumulatively and inevitably lead to the formation of nervous systems, intelligence and moral freedom.
Christians cannot accept that this is an accidental process, unforeseen by God. If you ask why God might have chosen to create humans in this way, one answer is that God wants humans to be integral parts of one holistic, open and emergent cosmos, in which the physical gradually becomes a conscious expression of the spiritual. If humans are to be free and orientated to God, the natural order must contain the apparently random elements that make human freedom possible. It must also contain the sort of openness that makes creativity possible, if humans are meant to play a crucial role in the cosmic transfiguration of the physical into the spiritual that the resurrection of Jesus prefigures in human history.
Thus evolution is at root a spiritual and purposive process, the emergence of finite spirit from the realm of the physical, and the transfiguration of the cosmos into the life of God. Believing this, Christians will think that a neo-Darwinian account of evolution is incomplete, since it misses out the vital thing - God's plan and sustaining presence.
Whether God, a purely spiritual reality, can be detected by scientific methods is another question. Many biologists suspect that there are other causal factors at work, in addition to the neo-Darwinian mechanisms of random mutation and natural selection. But that is a matter for biologists to resolve. As far as Christian faith is concerned, we need clearly to distinguish creationism from intelligent creation, and the "intelligent design" hypothesis from both. We need to know when biologists go beyond the scientific evidence to make comments about chance or purpose that are philosophical, not scientific, judgements. And we need to see how chance and randomness can be parts of an intelligent and purposive plan for generating free, creative and responsible agents in an emergent physical cosmos. Benedict's book can help us to do these things. But what some journalists have not realised is that they would have to read the book before commenting on it.