The Pope Meets Darwin

The Pope Meets Darwin

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

In October of 1996, Pope John Paul II issued a statement on Darwinian evolution. It received front-page newspaper coverage around the world. But much of the reporting was based on only a superficial reading of the statement. Since then, the full statement has been reprinted. Most recently, it was reprinted in THE QUARTERLY REVIEW OF BIOLOGY (December 1997), which manifests a remarkable acknowledgement by biologists that they must take seriously the meeting between science and religion on the issues of biological evolution.

From my reading of the Pope’s message, I would draw three conclusions. First, the Pope defends an evolutionary creationism as a middle ground between evolutionary materialism, on the one hand, and anti-evolutionary creationism, on the other hand. The Pope’s evolutionary creationism also rejects the separatism of people like Stephen Jay Gould, who argue that science and religion belong to completely separate domains.

My second conclusion is that the Pope has adopted virtually the same position taken by St. Geoge Jackson Mivart in his 1871 review of Darwin’s DESCENT OF MAN. Although he generally accepted Darwin’s theory, Mivart argued that while the human body and all other forms of life might be products of Darwinian mechanisms, the human soul must have been created directly by a miraculous intervention of God into nature.

My final conclusion is that both Mivart and the Pope fail to take seriously the idea of emergent evolution as explaining the evolution of the human soul in a way that would be compatible with both biological science and creationist theology.

While Pope Pius XII in 1950 considered evolution “a serious hypothesis, worthy of investigation,” John Paul II concludes that new knowledge makes evolution “more than a hypothesis.” It is a theory that can be confirmed by empirical observation. And yet John Paul indicates that there are “several theories of evolution” insofar as there are different explanations for the mechanisms of evolution. He also claims that there are differences in the “philosophies” on which evolution is based. Evolution can be interpreted as supporting materialism, reductionism, or spiritualism.

In any case, the Biblical believer must take seriously the implications of evolutionary theory for understanding “the nature and origins of man,” which is an important concern of Biblical revelation. By contrast to the Pope’s insistence that “truth cannot contradict truth,” and that evolution and the Bible must be reconciled, Gould has argued that there is no common ground between evolution and the Bible. Evolutionary science, Gould claims, is concerned with facts, while religion is concerned with values. The Pope implicitly denies this fact-value dichotomy by arguing that the values of human dignity must be compatible with the facts of evolutionary science.

Revelation teaches that man was created in the image of God, so that man is a “person” with special dignity because of his intellect and will. This dignity of personhood depends on the soul rather than the body. “If the human body takes its origin from pre-existent living matter,” the Pope explains, “the spiritual soul is immediately created by God.” This is the position first argued by Mivart, a prominent Catholic biologist in England who was a student of Thomas Huxley. As the Pope states it, the uniqueness of the human soul shows “an ontological leap.” This “ontological discontinuity” seems to contradict the “physical continuity” assumed in the natural sciences. But the Pope believes there is no necessary contradiction here. The “sciences of observation” can study the multiple manifestations of life and discover experimentally the “signs” of human uniqueness. And yet “the moment of transition to the spiritual cannot be the object of this kind of observation.”

According to the Pope, those philosophic interpretations of evolution that see the mind “as emerging from the forces of living matter, or as a mere epiphenomenon of this matter” are false, and they cannot ground the dignity of the human person. Here, however, I would disagree. Beginning in the late 19th century, some biologists have spoken of “emergent” phenomena as a way of explaining how differences in kind can arise in evolutionary development without contradicting the continuity of nature required for scientific naturalism.

C. Lloyd Morgan’s EMERGENT EVOLUTION (1923) is a good statement of this position. In a classic example of emergence, hydrogen and oxygen combine to form water, and water has novel properties that could not be predicted as a consequence of the mere combination of properties of hydrogen and oxygen. Similarly, in living phenomena generally, properties or capacities appear at higher levels of organization that could not have been predicted from observation at lower levels.

Differences in degree become differences in kind after passing over a critical threshold or turning point. So, we might say that the uniquely human capacities for symbolic language, conceptual thought, and moral reasoning depend upon the human neocortex. We might then explain this as a product of the evolutionary development of the primate brain, so that at a critical threshold in the size and complexity of the brain, uniquely human capacities emerge in the human species that cannot be found in nonhuman species. Indeed, although Darwin argued that the differences between human beings and other animals were only differences in degree not in kind, he also indicated that human beings were unique in their capacities for language, thought, and morality. Darwin was reluctant to recognize differences in kind because he thought this would require some radical break in the continuity of nature that would violate the assumptions of scientific naturalism. But one might speak of emergent differences in kind as fully natural consequences of evolutionary processes without invoking any radical dualism that would contradict natural science. Of course, the religious believer might want to say that emergent differences are ultimately caused by God’s creative plan. But even the nonreligious scientist can acknowledge emergent differences as purely natural phenomena.

The most interesting area of research into the emergent differences that distinguish human beings is neuroscience. What are the neural preconditions for the emergence of the human mind? Except for the radical dualists, religious believers should be willing to recognize that the human soul depends upon the human brain, and the brain is a natural organ subject to study by natural science. This is an area of lively controversy–as illustrated by the recent debates over the neurology of consciousness–that should be of great interest to all religious believers who want to explore the wonder of the human soul as a manifestation of “Nature and Nature’s God.”