Darwin's Pope?

Kenneth R. Miller

"Intelligent design," the notion that living things are too complex to have been produced by evolution, has gotten a cold shoulder in the scientific community. Not so in the popular imagination, where its advocates have convinced much of the public and even an Austrian cardinal that it deserves a place alongside Darwin in science classrooms.

The public-relations successes of what's being widely called "ID" reflect the skillful way in which its proponents have framed the debate to place God and Darwin in direct opposition. As Phillip Johnson, the movement's most respected leader, has candidly described it, the principal strategy followed by the "design" movement "is to convince people that Darwinism is inherently atheistic, thus shifting the debate from creationism vs. evolution to the existence of God vs. the non-existence of God." That, the ID folks are convinced, is a winning argument, at least in the United States.

Unfortunately for ID, for years there has been a dramatic, highly visible, well-known contradiction to this claim—the Roman Catholic Church's acceptance of evolution as being entirely consistent with Christian teachings. From Pius XII's first cautious but positive words in 1950, in Humani Generis, to John Paul II's recognition that evolution was now "more than just a hypothesis" and was supported by "discoveries in various fields of knowledge," in a 1996 address, the Church has made it clear that the scientific conclusions of evolution need not contradict the core teachings of the Christian faith. Indeed, reflecting on the broad scientific support for Darwin's theory, John Paul II stated flatly that "truth cannot contradict truth." The "truths" he had in mind were the empirical scientific truth of evolution and the eternal truths of faith. Powerful stuff.

Why, then, did Benedict XVI, on the day of his coronation, preach a homily saying: "We are not some casual and meaningless product of evolution. Each of us is the result of a thought of God. Each of us is willed, each of us is loved, each of us is necessary." And echoing Benedict's words, on July 7, 2005, Christoph Cardinal Schönborn wrote in The New York Times that "neo-Darwinian" theory is not "compatible with Christian faith." Incredibly, his essay bore the provocative headline "Finding Design in Nature."

In the United States, those words caused hearts to leap in the breasts of the anti-evolution movement. To hear the ID folks tell it, it's just a matter of time before the new pope places the influence of the Catholic Church squarely into the fight against godless Darwinism. A few have even suggested that Benedict will invite the champions of ID to the Vatican for a private audience.

While no one should be foolish enough to state categorically what the Holy Father will or will not decide on any issue, I'd urge the ID crowd to wait a while before booking those first-class tickets to Rome.

Although Benedict is widely viewed as a theological conservative, with respect to science, his conservatism fits squarely into the mold of Augustine and Aquinas, and follows the long Catholic tradition of respect for scientific rationalism that shaped John Paul II's 1996 endorsement of evolution.

So, what are we to make of his assertions that we are not the "casual and meaningless products" of evolution? We can start with Benedict's own writings, and in particular, I'd point to his book In the Beginning: A Catholic Understanding of the Story of Creation and the Fall.

After describing the scientific elements of neo-Darwinian theory, then-Cardinal Ratzinger asked: "What response shall we make to this view [evolution]? It is the affair of the natural sciences to explain how the tree of life in particular continues to grow and how new branches shoot out from it. This is not a matter for faith. But we must have the audacity to say that the great projects of the living creation are not the products of chance and error."

Ratzinger, like John Paul II and Puis XII before him, is not at all concerned about the emerging evolutionary account of humankind's material origins. As he makes clear, "this is not a matter for faith." However, he draws the line at any suggestion that we are the mere products of "chance and error," and the reason is the Christian teaching that humanity is not here by accident, but as the intentional result of a Divine plan. As he explains later, the point is: "Human beings are not a mistake, but something willed; they are the fruit of love."

Does this rule out evolution, with its emphasis on chance and necessity, and leave room only for the intentionality of "design"? Cardinal Schönborn certainly seems to think so. But to find the true answer, we need only to look at "Communion and Stewardship," a 2004 Curia document produced under Ratzinger's watch by the International Theological Commission. Paragraph 63 of this document carries a ringing endorsement of the "widely accepted scientific account" of life's emergence and evolution, describes the descent of all forms of life from a common ancestor as "virtually certain," and echoes John Paul II's observation of the "mounting support" for evolution from many fields of study. But just like Ratzinger, it draws the line at any theory of evolution that might "deny to divine providence any truly causal role in the development of life."

I don't doubt for a second that the advocates of ID would be tempted to pencil in their "designer" for the "causal role" that the document reserves for God. But that would be a great mistake, as the document points out a few paragraphs later. Specifically addressing the arguments made to support ID, the commission writes that the argument between ID and evolution concerns "whether the available data support inferences of design or chance, and cannot be settled by theology. But it is important to note that, according to the Catholic understanding of divine causality, true contingency in the created order is not incompatible with a purposeful divine providence. Divine causality and created causality radically differ in kind and not only in degree. Thus, even the outcome of a truly contingent natural process can nonetheless fall within God's providential plan for creation."

As the late Stephen Jay Gould was fond of pointing out, evolution is indeed a truly contingent natural process. To a nonbeliever like Gould, the inherent unpredictability of a contingent process was proof that the result of the process could not be the handiwork of a gracious God. But Gould, like many in science, seriously underestimated the philosophical depth of religious thought. As Aquinas wrote: "The effect of divine providence is not only that things should happen somehow, but that they should happen either by necessity or by contingency. Therefore, whatsoever divine providence ordains to happen infallibly and of necessity happens infallibly and of necessity; and that happens from contingency, which the divine providence conceives to happen from contingency."

The key insight, which sits at the very heart of Benedict's thoughts on the matter, is that "neo-Darwinians who adduce random genetic variation and natural selection as evidence that the process of evolution is absolutely unguided are straying beyond what can be demonstrated by science."

Precisely. The point of the pope's homily was not to take issue with evolution itself, but with the philosophical view that humans are nothing more than the casual and meaningless products of that process. Schönborn's ill-considered op-ed made the same point, but erred in its mistaken assertion that these philosophical views are an inherent part of neo-Darwinian theory. The authentic lesson to be stressed is that "divine causality can be active in a process that is both contingent and guided," a process like evolution.

Pope Benedict may never be seen as "Darwin's Pope," but his writings and homilies place him squarely in the tradition of scientific acceptance established by his predecessors. The Holy Father's concerns are not with evolution per se, but with how evolution is to be understood in our modern world. Biological evolution fits neatly into a traditional Catholic understanding of how contingent natural processes can be seen as part of God's plan, while "evolutionist" philosophies that deny the Divine do not. That was the point of the pope's coronation homily.

Despite claims to the contrary by the ID camp, a careful reading suggests that the new pope will give quarter neither to the enemies of spirituality nor the enemies of evolutionary science. And that's exactly as it should be.


Kenneth R. Miller is Professor of Biology at Brown University, and author of the book Finding Darwin's God: A Scientist's Search for Common Ground Between God and Evolution (Harper).