Friday, September 02, 2005

Theistic Evolution

The denizens of Panda's Thumb like to point out that one can be a Christian and believe in evolution.

There is, in my opinion, truth to this: I think one can be a Christian and believe in theistic evolution (more about that, anon.)

They often parade Brown Professor Ken Miller as an example of how one can be a Christian (in this case a Catholic) and affirm evolution. Their strategy is transparent: educated, enlightened Christians affirm evolution; muddle-headed bumpkin fundies with multiple rows of buck teeth do not.

While there is truth to their premise (that a Christian can believe evolution), there is also distortion by omission. They do not tell the whole story.

Since Miller is their willing poster boy, I will write based on what I know of the Roman Catholic stand on evolution. Given that I am not a Catholic, it goes without saying that I welcome all corrections should I distort Rome's position.

I hope to make the following two points.
  1. The flavor of evolution that the Catholic Church permits among her flock is theistic evolution. This is quite different from naturalistic evolution as championed on places like Panda's Thumb. If Ken Miller supports purely naturalistic evolution, then he is not doing so with the approval of his Church.

  2. Theistic evolution is a form of Intelligent Design (ID).

Let's start with some working definitions:

Deism: The belief that god created the universe, but did not and does not intervene post-creation. (A long-dead god is compatible with deism.)

Nauturalistic Evolution: The theory that the diversity of life is due to genetic variations arising from natural mechanisms: mutations and parenting. In this view, all species are derived from one (or a few) initial, primitive types of organisms whose origin is considered interesting but not relevant. Here the view of man is: he is nothing special, he shares common descent with other primates, and as a species he was not inevitable.

Theistic Evolution: A spectrum of views that affirm genetic adaptation and common descent, but invoke, at a minimum, two supernatural interventions: the initiation of life and the "creation" of man. The quotes are around creation because the theistic evolutionist (here we limit ourselves to the Judeo-Christian theistic evolutionists) agrees that man evolved, but he must also agree, at a minimum, that the evolution of man was, at least in part, directed. All other species can be at the mercy of impersonal naturalistic forces, but man, at some level, had help. This is rather obvious because:
  • To be theistic is to believe in God.

  • To be theistic, but not deistic, implies belief in a sovereign and intervening God.

  • To be theistic and Judeo-Christian implies a belief that God had a sovereign plan for man.

  • God, having a plan for mankind, decreed (by means unspecified) that mankind should exist.

  • God intervened, therefore, at some point, to ensure man evolved.

At a minimum, God intervened to imbue man with a soul. However, it is fair to say that if one wants to remain within the most generous pale of Judeo-Christian orthodoxy one also affirms that God did not simply decide one day that a certain primate species had, fortuitously, evolved to a state of readiness, but rather he had in mind, from the beginning, man as he is today (in His image).

Note that the physical and the spiritual cannot be completely separated. One cannot, as a Christian, say that religion and biology are completely orthogonal. To be a Christian, in even the broadest, most liberal sense, is to affirm that God had something to do with creating man. He may have used evolution as his means, but he had our species in mind from the beginning.

So in a nutshell:
  • To be a theistic evolutionist one must believe that man is special and was inevitable.

  • To merely believe in a god, but not to acknowledge that man is in anyway special is to be a deist, not a theistic evolutionist.

  • You can believe in naturalist evolution in it its fullest expression and believe in god, but you cannot be a theistic evolutionist. For naturalistic evolution can never acknowledge that man is special or inevitable. The most religious you can be and still believe in naturalistic evolution is to be a deist.

So what about the Roman Catholic Church? The previous pope, John Paul II pronounced:
[T]he 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. (Emphasis added)
We see here a clear indication that it is theistic evolution that the Catholic Church approves (but doesn't demand.) The Catholic Church does not permit a view of evolution in which God played no role, or one that asserts man is neither special nor inevitable. JP II added, in the same letter:
The world created by God is constantly maintained in existence by the Creator.
That is not a statement that is compatible with naturaistic evolution. Go try it out in a Panda's Thumb comment. Yet it is this letter from JP II that is often cited as evidence that Rome approves of evolution.

Theistic Evolution is Intelligent Design

From what I have read of Ken Miller, his view is that of the escapist: he protests that the religious conflate philosophy and biology. This sounds clever but it is actually a copout. For reasons that I've described, you cannot be a theistic evolutionist and deny that supernatural intervention was utilized in the creation of the human genome. In what I have read of Ken Miller, he cannot be distinguished from a deist. In his coauthored open letter to Benedict XVI we read:
The Pope (John Paul II) accepted that biological Evolution had progressed beyond the hypothetical stage as a guiding principle behind the understanding of the evolution of diverse life forms on Earth, including humans. At the same time, he rightly recognized that the spiritual significance that one draws from the scientific observations and theory lie outside of the scientific theories themselves.

Miller joins in the quote-mining of JP II. In the same letter Miller quotes, JP II added:
Consequently, theories of evolution which, in accordance with the philosophies inspiring them, consider the mind as emerging from the forces of living matter, or as a mere epiphenomenon of this matter, are incompatible with the truth about man.
All that Miller, Panda's Thumb, and the misnamed NCSE want you to hear is this: The pope said evolution is just fine for Catholics. But John Paul II never stopped there; he added conditions that would get him unmercifully skewered on Panda's Thumb: supernatural intervention, and the acknowledgement that man, in a spiritual and physical sense, cannot be the result of purely natural forces.

For a timely reminder of the naturalistic evolutionist view of man, take a look at this post from a Panda's Thumb overlord (and read the comments, too.) The author of the post is also the author of this fine piece of scientific thought. Do we suspect Roman Catholic approval of this view of humankind?

Of course, that said, the theistic-evolutionist does biology using the same tools as his purely naturalistic colleagues. In the same manner, I can do physics just like anyone else. (The difference is that my fellow physicists, even the most atheistic, do not implode if someone mentions God, even in a physics classroom.)

So we are left with this: To be a theistic evolutionist is to acknowledge common descent, to acknowledge what is commonly called macroevolution, and to proclaim that the tools of the trade are those of science.

It is also to acknowledge that God has intervened, as a genetic engineer and not merely a spiritual advisor, to ensure the arrival and sanctity of at least one species: man.

We have a name for that viewpoint. It's called Intelligent Design. If Miller is a theistic evolutionist, then he is also an IDer. If he is but a deist, then he is out of touch with the Catholic Church and should, by reasons of common courtesy, refrain from sending advice to Rome.

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