Did Darwin Get it Right?

Catholics and the Theory of Evolution by George Sim Johnston (Our Sunday Visitor, 1998, 175 pages, $14.95)

It is a delight to find a readable and entertaining book on this controversial topic that gives a valid, well-researched and comprehensive history and explanation of Darwin's theory of evolution and the bonus of a valuable list of suggested readings for each chapter.

In the introduction, author George Sim Johnston puts his cards on the table: “Common sense, Chesterton observed, has become an extinct branch of most scientific disciplines. A modest aim of this book is to suggest its reintroduction in the area of evolutionary biology.”

Most Catholics are familiar with the Galileo episode, which, Sim Johnston tells us, “helped to precipitate the tragic split between faith and science in the seventeenth century, from which Western culture has not recovered.” Pope John Paul II has had it at heart throughout his papacy to encourage dialogue that will bridge the gap and heal the rift. One of his first acts as Pope was to appoint a commission of scholars to study the Galileo affair.

In the course of the investigation some interesting facts surfaced: Luther “had the privilege of being the first to call Copernicus ‘a fool,’” while Galileo argued that Scripture often uses figurative language, but that its purpose is to teach us “how to go to heaven, not how the heavens go.” Ironically, the same point was made in two outstanding papal encyclicals — Leo XIII's Providentissimus Deus in 1893 and Pius XII's Divino Afflante Spiritu 50 years later. All of which points us to the fact that “the real issue in the Galileo affair was the literal interpretation of Scripture.”

In the case of Darwin's hypotheses, we again run into the issue of science and Scripture. Pope John Paul II has this to say: “The theory of natural evolution, understood in a sense that does not exclude divine causality, is not in principle opposed to the truth about the creation of the visible world, as presented in the Book of Genesis” (General Audience, Jan. 24, 1986). Sim Johnston outlines the Church's position on evolution clearly and unequivocally:

“It makes no difference whether man is descended from some apelike creature, so long as we understand that there had to be what John Paul II calls an ‘ontological leap’ between that creature and the first human person. This would have involved the direct action of God, who creates each rational soul out of nothing. As a result, man is a being profoundly different from the rest of the animal kingdom, no matter what his biological antecedents. Man is a person made in the image of God. Dogs and chimps are not. Genesis teaches this truth. But the Church is warning us that the Sacred Author does not, in addition, mean to give scientific information about how God's creation of man unfolded in the natural order, whether it was done in a flash or over many eons.”

Far from beginning with Darwin, the theory of evolution was already around in St. Augustine's day. In his commentary On the Literal Meaning of Genesis the bishop of Hippo proposed a theory of evolution in the strict sense of the word, that is, the gradual development or unfolding of what was already there, as acorn becomes oak, which Sim Johnston describes as a theory of “creation on the installment plan.”

“There are, in fact,” Sim Johnston explains, “two inseparable arguments in [Darwin's] Origin: First, that evolution has occurred; and second, that natural selection is its prime agent. But the main issue was natural selection. This is an important point, because many of Darwin's early scientific critics, who were ready to accept the historical reality of evolution, balked at the idea that natural selection could be its primary cause.”

While evolution is highly probable within any given species, and indeed observable, the theory of natural selection, used by Darwin to posit essential links between species, fell flat in the absence of any observable “links.” It was pure theory, with species originating as the result of blind, mechanical (and purely theoretic) laws rather than from the creative will of God. The theory would thus dispense with a Creator altogether, a tendency that can be seen at work in many areas of contemporary culture.

So we had, with Darwin, a twofold process of evolution and natural selection, or survival of the fittest. Hilaire Belloc was quick to see the circular argument slumbering within this last, and remarked that “science did not need Darwin to tell it that if there is a flood the cows will drown and the fish survive.” Again, the author cites C.H. Waddington, one of the great biologists of our century, who dismissed natural selection as “vacuous,” saying that “it merely amounts to the statement that the individuals which leave the most offspring are those which leave the most offspring.” And Arnold Lunn argued that “to call natural selection creative, as many evolutionists do, is a bit like saying that the Nazi air strikes against London during World War II were creative because they left Westminster Abbey standing.”

Sim Johnston traces the debate during Darwin's lifetime and thereafter up to the present, with verve and impressive scholarship. He collects witnesses from the most unlikely backgrounds, strange bedfel-lows in anyone's book, “some of the sharper minds of the nineteenth century … a bipartisan panel of intellectuals if there ever was one,” including John Stuart Mill, John Henry Newman, Nietzsche, Charles Sanders Peirce and William James. These men gave the Origin of Species less than a passing grade. Newman commented on the “logical insufficiencies” of Darwin's theory, while Nietzsche denied the existence of transitional forms between types of life: “Every type has limits,” he said. “Beyond these, there is no evolution. … That the higher organizations should have evolved out of the lower has not been demonstrated in a single case.”

As we pursue the history of Darwin's hypothesis through Sim Johnston's brilliant chapter after chapter, there is indeed little of it left standing, and the missing link remains among the missing. But the aim of the book runs deeper. Beneath the amusing aspect of this rather wicked demolition of a theory, lies the proven fact that the authentic findings of science and the Catholic belief about creation are not only compatible but are also complementary parts of a truth that is one. “Catholics can anticipate with serenity,” Sim Johnston suggests, “modern scientific discoveries that, more often than not, raise fundamental questions science itself cannot answer.” It is a given, and a gift, to know that faith and science, like faith and reason, will always converge in the end.

Dominican Sister Mary Thomas Noble writes from Buffalo, New York