By: M.M De Robertis and J.G Laframboise
Mainstream Protestantism and Catholicism do not reject, a priori, the hypothesis that we, Homo sapiens, evolved over millions of years from simpler life-forms. This may come as a surprise to many practicing Christians, but this is the clearly articulated position of these two faith communities and has most recently been confirmed in a statement by Pope John Paul II in late October.
This is not to say that Christians must accept any or every brand of evolutionary theory; not all are compatible with Christian teaching. For example, the encyclical letter Humani Generis by Pope Pius XII in 1950 said: “The Magisterium of the church is not opposed to the theory of evolution being the object of investigation and discussion among experts. Here the theory of evolution is understood as an investigation of the origin of the human body from pre-existing living matter for the Catholic faith obliges us to hold firmly that souls are created immediately by God…This position has been called “theistic evolution.” Even allowing for such a possibility, Christians must account for man’s special relationship with God compared with that of other animals, man’s fall from grace, his free will, and God’s participation in our word.
Genesis as allegory
For some time now, a majority of Christians has accepted Genesis as an allegorical rather than a literal or scientific account of the origin of the world and of man. Adding up the numbers as recorded in Genesis for example, gives an age for the Earth of at most several thousand years. A number of independent age-dating techniques, however, show the Universe to be about 15 billion years old, the Earth to be 4.6 billion years old, and that Homo sapiens has occupied the planet for about two hundred thousand years. Man and the Universe are simply much older than any literal interpretation of Genesis permits. The only alternative is that God made the world several thousand years ago, but deliberalty tricked us by placing in it a very elaborate collection of false clues to make it appear much older.
The evidence for evolution is very persuasive: Humans share 98-99 per cent of their DNA with some primates, a strong indication of common ancestry. The fossil record, while somewhat spotty, does show a clear progression from simpler to more complex life-forms. There are species such as the horse, for example, in which one can trace this very pattern over eons. The vast majority of species which have existed at one time or another on the Earth are extinct. Others have survived for millions and even billions of years: blue-green algae, for example, appeared within a few hundred million years of the formation of the Earth. Also, “every individual repeats the history of the race”: as embryos, we pass through stages in which we strongly resemble a succession of progressively more complex life-forms. Together, these constitute a compelling argument for the evolution of life.
An argument against evolution is sometimes made on the basis of the Second Law of Thermodynamics, which states that the total disorder, or entropy, of an isolates system always increases. The Earth’s biosphere, however, is far from an isolated system. Radiation from the sun initiated complex chemical reactions on the young Earth which may have led to self-replicating structures and the first primitive life-forms. Once life is established, solar energy is made available through the food organisms consume. It also permits and increase in the internal order required by all living things with time, always at the expense of radiating excess heat into space. Consider a mundane example: the refrigerator is able to maintain its interior colder than is surrounding by raising the temperature of the house slightly because of the electrical energy being used. Evolution, then, does not violate the Second Law.
No creationist movement
It is noteworthy that where the general level of education is higher and the Christian churches’ positions on evolution are much better known – Europe, for example – the “creationist” movement is almost non-existent.
The theory of evolution is not a theory in the normal sense of having predictive power. Rather, it is more a “theory of history.” And while it presents a scientifically self-consistent account of the details underlying the development of life on our planet, it is by no means complete. The prospect that random mutations alone along with “the survival of the fittest” is entirely responsible for the diversity and complexity we see in the world today is problematic. Perhaps even more serious is our ignorance as to the origin of the first replicating macromolecules from which all life subsequently developed. But this does not mean that life did not evolve more-or-less in a fashion envisioned by evolutionary theory, only that we are currently unaware of some of the scientific details of how God chose to manifest His creation.
From the Christian perspective, while man’s body is almost certainly the product of evolution, his soul or spirit cannot be accounted for in this way. How o when did man become so special that God would willingly send His only Son as one like Him? This is a crucial point on which theologians and scientists can only speculate. Sir John Eccles and Daniel N. Robinson in, The Wonder of Being Human (The Free Press, 1984), have made an interesting observation along these lines; several tens of thousands years ago, there was a distinct change in the behavior of Homo sapiens. Brain capacity reached a maximum, the sick and the infirm began to be cared for, and burial of the dead took on special significance. Might this have been the time when God “chose” man from among the rest of His creation?
At least some of man’s behavioral inclinations can also be attributed to evolution. The study of these is known as sociobiology. This is not to say that man is not subject to God’s moral law as articulated through the Judeo-Christian tradition. This moral law clearly supersedes our “behavioral inclinations.” But it is important to recognize the origin of these inclinations if we wish to understand man more completely.
For example, few people realize that the theory of evolution provides strong support for many aspects of traditional Christian teaching on sexual morality. This includes the insistence that the “unitive” and “procreative” aspects of sex are inextricably linked. Jacob Bronowski, The Ascent of Man (BBC/Caustion and Sons, 1973(, connects the rapid evolution of humanity’s distinctive intellectual capacities. He states that: “we are uncommonly careful in the choice, not of whom we take to bed, but by whom we beget children.” His words imply that the present widespread undermining understanding of its subtleties exposes humanity to perils not widely recognized.
If anyone doubts that human intellectual capacities have a biological component, they should recall how these capacities are affected by a good night’s sleep or by Alzheimer’s disease.
Finally, many creationists blame the ills of society on evolution in particular and on scientists in general. It is true that significant fraction of scientists are either agnostics or atheists, but not an overwhelming majority. It is also true, as pointed out in Human Generis, that while evolution as such might not be objectionable, it has placed into the hands of materialists and atheists who have sought to remove the hand of God from the act of creation. In his recent statement, Pope John Paul II has written that evolution was “gladly made use of by the proponents of Communism to make of themselves defenders and propagandists of dialectical materialism and to take from minds every notion of God.” Nonetheless, it is incorrect to blame the ills of society on a scientific theory which is not incompatible with Christianity in the first place. Moreover, despite biblical literalist protestations, a scientific theory is not a proper vehicle to voice a theological position. The theory of evolution neither accepts nor rejects the existence of God.
Modernism to blame
In seeking the primary reason for modern man’s abandonment of Christian values and the reason being the profound moral decay witnessed in the second half of this century, materialism is a far more likely culprit. God plainly warned us of the consequences of setting our heats on “things.” We would be led to admire and worship our handiwork and lured away from Him. Once estranges from God, man will, as Chesterton cautioned, not believe in nothing, but rather he will believe in anything. With the enormous recent growth of technology and the consequent availability of new “things” from TV to the birth-control pill, we see the truth behind these warnings. Only when each of us learns to put God first will this decay be checked.
(Professors De Robertis and Laframboise are with the Dept. of Physics and Astronomy, York University, Toronto).