Recent scientific developments and philosophical interpretations of these developments can lead to a greater unity among Catholics debating evolution.
I recently listened intently to Crisis Magazine’s podcast debate titled “Theistic Evolution vs. Creationism: A Catholic Debate,” between molecular biologist Douglas Darnowski, who defended “evolution,” and dentist Kevin Mark (who represents the Kolbe Center for the Study of Creation), defending Young Earth Creationism, to determine which position aligns better with Catholic teaching. I’ll make some brief remarks about the debate, and then I’ll proceed to discuss an argument that would unify both debaters, in spite of their differences.
First, one of the things that was curious about the debate was that the term “evolution” was never properly defined from the onset, even though some different understandings came up throughout the debate. This is a serious problem in an evolution debate because it creates unnecessary confusion and makes it easy to use “bait and switch” tactics.
Some examples of the different meanings of evolution include: change over time; changes in the frequencies of alleles in the gene pool of a population; limited common descent (micro-evolution); the mechanisms involved in evolution; universal common descent—the idea that all organisms have descended from a single common ancestor (often referred to as the “fact of evolution” and “macro-evolution”); and, finally, the “blind watchmaker” thesis—namely, the conjunction of universal common descent with an unguided, unintelligent, purposeless material process, including processes such as natural selection acting on random variations or mutations and other naturalistic mechanisms (which are sometimes considered to be part of the extended synthesis of evolution). It’s worth pointing out that the latter, in my view, is not a necessary interpretation of evolutionary theory but that it is a philosophical or a-theological issue in this case, rather than a scientific one.
Second, I disagreed with both debaters on philosophical, theological, and scientific grounds. Recent scientific developments and philosophical interpretations of these developments align better with a model of evolution that is teleological than the materialistic Neo-Darwinian model.
The Young-Earth Creationist model, although internally consistent if we grant certain presuppositions, does not adequately explain the data we see in biology, geology, physics, and cosmology. It is worth mentioning that even though the Covid fiasco, trademarked and corrupted science and made a mockery of medicine (as I clearly explain in my book COVID-19: A Dystopian Delusion), other aspects of science are alive and well and part of rigorous and trustworthy research, and the errors, whether intentional or not, are self-correcting in the long run.
Lastly, as Augustine pointed out in Book V of his work De Genesi ad litteram, God could have created the universe and organisms with certain potencies to allow for evolutionary change. This shows that the creation stories in Genesis can be interpreted in different ways, so people can have different ideas about how God brought the world into being and how it has changed over time. Notice that Augustine made this interpretation over 1,400 years before Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution, so it is silly to think that Catholicism is retreating from such a position. If anyone is interested, I devoted a chapter to the creation-evolution debate in my book On the Origin of Consciousness, where you can find a wealth of resources to help explore these issues further.
The beauty of this debate is that it clearly demonstrates that a Catholic can hold to a variety of positions, whether Young Earth Creationism, theistic Darwinism, or various others in between. As Alvin Plantinga, the esteemed philosopher of religion, although not a Catholic, pointed out, for the atheist, there is only one game in town: naturalistic evolution.
Kevin Mark rightly pointed out that evolution, without using the same term, as understood by the blind-watchmaker thesis, is the only option for atheists. On the other hand, he wrongly suggested that evolution beyond micro-evolution is incompatible with Catholicism. Nevertheless, unlike for Catholics, you have to feel sorry for the atheist since the options are so very limited.
This inevitably leads us to some more common ground between the two debaters. Both debaters recognize that God is the creator of all reality and that God is the ground of all being. He creates the universe ex nihilo and sustains it. Catholics also believe that the world was created by an omnibenevolent, omniscient, and omnipotent God. Rather than deceive us, God created the world in a rational and comprehensible way so that humans could pursue the endeavors of science, theology, and philosophy.
Thus, intelligibility is a fundamental aspect of reality; without it, we wouldn’t be able to reason about anything or argue about how to interpret nature and the Sacred Scriptures. As St. Paul clearly states in Romans 1:20, “Ever since the creation of the world his eternal power and divine nature, invisible though they are, have been understood and seen through the things He has made. So they are without excuse.”
The assumptions regarding the intelligibility and rationality of reality shaped much of the empiricism in science, as did the use of mathematics to describe the processes found in nature. Indeed, modern science was deeply inspired by theological insights and understanding. This is especially true of great scientific minds such as Isaac Newton, Johannes Kepler, René Descartes, Galileo Galilei, and Nicolaus Copernicus, who posited that the structure of physical reality was knowable. These explicitly theological ideas—according to which there is intelligibility and comprehensibility in reality because of God’s role as Creator—inspired scientists to adopt a type of reverse engineering mode of thinking (where humans could possibly even modify and perfect creation) in order to understand how things were created (this was precisely the mode of thinking practiced by Isaac Newton).
It should come as no surprise that humans have mimicked a dragonfly’s ability to fly in any direction (up, down, forward, backward), or even just hover, in the design of helicopters and their directional abilities. In a similar way, although we didn’t know it at the time, DNA has information-carrying properties that are like computers. We needed powerful tools like electron microscopes to be able to see these things in microorganisms and realize that they live in a world with much more advanced technology than our own. This, in turn, has helped us further develop our understanding and development of computer systems.
From the beginning of the modern era until the beginning of the twentieth century, theological concepts helped scientists figure out how nature functioned. The conclusion here is that modern science was born out of a Christian worldview; these theological notions set a framework for scientific research and discovery. Throughout history, theological thought and science have gone hand in hand more often than not. This view has had a resurgence in recent years as well; the profound intelligence and intelligibility found in nature are even inescapable to the secular scientist.
In his book Insight: A Study of Human Understanding, philosopher and theologian Bernard Lonergan developed an argument for God’s existence based on intelligibility. It demonstrated that Christian thought was a vital component for the emergence of modern scientific thought (as was argued above). Lonergan’s argument from intelligibility is stated in the following way:
If the real is completely intelligible, then complete intelligibility exists. If complete intelligibility exists, the idea of being exists. If the idea of being exists, then God exists. Therefore, the real is completely intelligible, God exists.
It is worth pointing out that finite intelligibility is grounded in complete intelligibility. The fact that we are able to formulate general laws of science, use mathematics and logic, possess the ability to communicate, and discern truth in its various manifestations is a reflection of an unbounded intelligibility—the sort of thing we should expect if there is any correspondence between reality and our minds.
In their book The Privileged Planet, astrophysicist Guillermo Gonzalez and philosopher Jay Richards lay out a scientific argument with deep metaphysical implications. They provide a host of different lines of evidence to suggest that the Earth occupies a special place in the cosmos. Their argument goes against the popular notion held by many scientists and that was popularized by Carl Sagan—namely, that the Earth does not have a special or unique place in the universe. Instead, Sagan said that it was just a “pale blue dot,” or a small accident in the universe. His book and the saying were inspired by a famous photograph taken of Earth on February 14, 1990, by the Voyager 1 space probe, which depicts Earth as an insignificant point in the vastness of the universe.
This is strongly connected to the misnamed Copernican Principle, which Gonzalez and Richards refute. Gonzalez and Richards argue that there is a deep correlation between habitability and scientific observability. In other words, the fact that we exist on a particularly special type of planet (i.e., Earth) is also related to the fact that we are in such a place with a purpose to observe the universe and discover, measure, and understand much of the cosmos. They provide examples of the correlation between habitability and measurability. Richards and Gonzalez illustrate, in a scientific manner, the very intelligibility that Lonergan describes as being intrinsic to a reality grounded upon the ultimate source of all intelligibility.
Thus, Catholics who are either creationists or evolutionists would agree that the world is intelligible, or at least they should if they think they possess accurate knowledge of reality. What is argued by Lonergan is presupposed in all modes of thought, including scientific thought. Similarly, both Catholic creationists and evolutionists can agree that prior to the ability for organisms to exist and evolve, they must be able to withstand the environment. And for that to be possible, the Earth must have precise requirements for habitability, as argued in The Privileged Planet. The faithful should take comfort in the fact that there are not only philosophical arguments but also scientific arguments that transcend the emotionally driven subject of biological evolution.