Catholics should not be intimidated by the 'science has shown' claims of neo-Darwinists, says John Haldane It is interesting how in an age of apparent unbelief secular newspapers and magazines continue to devote so much attention to religion. Spiritual reflections are now few, yet the press continues to report debates within the Christian churches and to discuss pronouncements by their leaders.
Journalists know that, notwithstanding decline in church attendance and in general knowledge of religious ideas and teachings, we remain interested in the nature of the cosmos, in the origin of human beings, and in the meaning of life. These three are all the business of religion.
Last week the quality press printed many articles on Pope Benedict XVI's observation that evolutionary theory has not been confirmed.
Some editors judged that there was a story to be got from an apparent disagreement between his remarks and the words of Pope John Paul II in 1996, when he said that evolution is "more than a hypothesis".
Pope Benedict referred to this, writing: "My predecessor had his reasons for saying this, but it is also true that the theory of evolution is not a complete, scientifically proven theory." He added that it is "not finally provable [because] we cannot haul 10,000 generations into the laboratory."
Clearly these are important matters concerning the truth about our origins and our fundamental nature.
Christian belief holds that we are part of a created order which expresses the supreme intelligence and providential care of God, spiritual beings created for a supernatural destiny.
Let me quote further from John Paul's 1996 remarks and from the observations of Pope Benedict in a newly published book, Creation and Evolution, a summary of his discussions last September in a private seminar at his summer residence, Castel Gandolfo.
First, John Paul: "There is no conflict between evolution and the doctrine of the faith. In order to mark out the limits of their own proper fields theologians and those working on the exegesis of the Scripture need to be well-informed regarding the results of the latest scientific research."
Next, Benedict: "The question is not to either make a decision for a creationism that excludes science, or for an evolutionary theory that covers its own gaps and does not want to see the questions that reach beyond the methodological possibilities of natural science. The theory of evolution implies that questions must be assigned to philosophy and which themselves lead beyond the realms of science."
Apparently, then, we find John Paul saying there is no conflict between evolutionary theory and Christian doctrine, even accepting the former as now established, while his successor maintains that the theory remains unproven and is in any case an inadequate explanation of human origins.
Disagreement at such a level in the Church on such a fundamental issue would indeed be striking and troubling for Catholics. In fact, however, there is no significant opposition and the two sets of comments are compatible, though there is a difference in emphasis and purpose.
To see how this is so and to address the broader issues of evolution and creation it is necessary to distinguish between "evolution" and "evolutionism". The first is an empirical theory of the development and differentiation of animal species, while the second is a comprehensive and partly metaphysical theory of the origins and nature of all terrestrial life, including the emergence and character of homo sapiens.
Evolution holds that the range of species is the result of variation in reproduction and of natural selection on the basis of organisms' suitability to their environments.
Variety in the characteristics of "offspring" means that some are better adapted to the world than others. The better fitted are more likely to live long enough to reproduce, and so their kind survives. Over generations, however. new characteristics emerge and so the process of diversification and consolidation continues, resulting in the rich variety of species alive today, including humankind.
Evolution so described is a theory that can be used to explain the existence of life forms and their relationship to fossil records.
Like any theory it is open to challenges and since most species are irrecoverably lost in the past, it is not directly possible to claim that they developed from one another. As Benedict XVI says: "We can't haul 10,000 generations into the laboratory."
This said, there can be no serious doubting that the history of life on earth is very ancient and there has been species development with later forms emerging out of earlier ones. The lineage of human beings connects them with other parts of the family of terrestrial life.
Evolutionism goes further, however, insisting that life and consciousness emerged from inanimate matter and the appearance of thinking. deliberating beings is the produce of a purely physical process of chance variations.
This is the credo of neo-Darwinism. It not only goes beyond empirical evidence but includes claims that cannot be empirically proven since they are really philosophical theses presented under the guise of scientific ones.
Catholics should not be intimidated by the claim that "science has shown" we are products of blind chance, but they should challenge the theory and expose its difficulties.
One problem with evolutionist doctrine is its inability to explain consciousness, thought or morally deliberate action as anything other than the result of material processes.
Furthermore, neo-Darwinists struggle to account for the natural causal regularities that govern the general operations of matter itself.
Perhaps because he was worried that biblical fundamentalism was giving religion a bad name, and also with a genuine regard for the achievements of science, Pope John Paul II was pleased to acknowledge that evolution had established itself as more than a mere hypothesis.
That, however, does nothing to prove evolutionism and given the increasing drift to the latter. perhaps Pope Benedict XVI has judged that it is time to take up the challenge of refuting it, not with "creation science" but with philosophical argument.
Now we need to prove what we believe: that the natural world is the product not of chance physical processes but of Logos purposeful reason.
John Haldane is Professor of Philosophy at the University of St Andrews