Evolve to Learn

The evolution of organisms, that is, their descent with modification from a common origin, is at the core of biology. Though evolution is universally accepted by biologists, its mechanisms are still actively investigated and debated by scientists.

Darwin proposed natural selection to account for the adaptive organization of living creatures and their apparent purpose or design. Missing in Darwin’s work was a theory of inheritance that would account for the preservation of variations on which selection could act.

Mendelian genetics eventually provided the “missing link”. Most biologists now accept Neo-Darwinism as the methodological basis of their understanding of biological evolution.

From an early age, many of us have been taught that evolution is outright evil because it contradicts Catholicism. In the book Arctic Dreams, Barry Lopez marvels at the natural world, admonishing us to approach every situation and person with an open mind; this is how we learn. I believe that a God who can create a universe that can make itself by way of natural processes is much more impressive than one who is always tinkering with the world or keeping it tied to divine puppet strings.

One of the cornerstones of biology is that the biological world is the result of natural processes governed by natural laws. Without mutation, evolution could not happen. Without natural selection, mutations would bring disorganization and extinction. Through the work of Darwin, we can view the process of evolution as creative though not conscious.

Natural selection is not creative in the Christian sense of creatio ex nihilo. Instead, it is a non-random process that promotes adaptation. God is seen as operating through intermediate, natural causes, including those involved in evolution. The “sadism” in parasites that live by devouring their hosts or the mating habits of midges makes sense evolutionarily.

Nature is poorly designed—with oddities such as blind spots built into the human eye and an excess of teeth jammed into our jaws. Parasites are sadists. Predators are cruel. Natural selection can explain the ruthlessness of nature. Darwin offers an explanation for the existence of evil in the world—a defense of God’s goodness and omnipotence.

Neither the existence nor non existence of God is susceptible to scientific proof and equating science with the abandonment of religion “fits the prejudices” of advocates of intelligent design and other creationist ideas.

Darwin’s theory of evolution and his explanation of design are no more “anti-Christian” than are Newton’s laws of motion or modern quantum physics.

Contrary to Richard Dawkins, the randomness of variations, the impersonality of natural selection, and the waste and suffering of evolution can be understood through the concept of a vulnerable God who renounces tyrannical force, who grounds evolution in divine love, and who participates in evolution to redeem nature.

In the encyclical Humani Generis (1950), Pope Pius XII affirmed that there is no conflict between evolution and the doctrine of the faith regarding man and his vocation, provided that we do not lose sight of certain fixed points.

In 1996, Pope John Paul II stated that the conclusions reached by scientific disciplines cannot be in contradiction with divine Revelation, then proceeded to accept the scientific conclusion that evolution is a well-established theory.

According to John Haught, union with God actually differentiates the world from Him rather than dissolving it into God. If God’s incarnate love is expressed in persuasive and relational power, a world rendered complete and perfect in every detail by God’s direct act would be metaphysically and theologically impossible.

Such a world would not be truly distinct from God. It would be neither a truly graced universe, as is ours, nor meaningfully open to God’s self-communication.

Science is not the only way of knowing; we also have the arts, common sense, religion, and so on, all of which far predate science. Science is universal in scope but hopelessly incomplete. Much of what is left out, such as meaning and value, may be considered more important than what science includes.

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