- Steve Addazio's inaugural press conference as Boston College head football coach (pg. 9)
- Wake Forest University president Nathan Hatch's keynote address at the Sesquicentennial symposium "Religion and the Liberal Aims of Higher Education" (pg. 34)
- David B. Couturier, OFM Cap., on "New Evangelization for Today's Parish" (pg. 42)
- Guerilla Orchestra: the Callithumpian Consort and student musicians rehearse John Zorn's Cobra (pg. 10)
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In the beginning
A biologist’s peace with faith and evolution
Every spring, i teach general biology in a large hall at Brown University right across the campus green from our chapel. One day a few years ago, I finished up just before noon and walked across the green to attend Ash Wednesday services. As I left with ashes on my forehead, a student pointedly asked what I was doing there. “Same thing you are,” I said. “But you can’t,” she replied. “You’re lecturing about evolution, and evolution denies God.” Later, she gave me a booklet with a drawing depicting evolution as nothing less than the apple in the mouth of the serpent. To any biologist who takes religion seriously, that’s a disturbing image.
If someone says that evolution is shaky science, we biologists can point to the discovery of yet another transitional fossil linking fish and amphibians. We can offer data comparing the human and chimpanzee genomes that gives unmistakable evidence of our common ancestry. We can even point to entirely new enzymes, complex molecular machines, that have evolved in just the last few decades. A striking example of the latter is nylonase, which is found in strains of bacteria and breaks down nylon polymers. Nylon did not exist until 1937, and the speed with which the evolutionary process has exploited it is nothing short of amazing.
But the notion that evolution did not take place is not based on scientific evidence. In fact, it is held in spite of scientific evidence. The dispute over evolution will never be settled, it seems to me, unless we address the central fallacy of the anti-evolution movement—namely, the claim that evolution is inherently antireligious.
Is it really Charles Darwin’s lesson, as his detractors maintain, that human beings are mere prisoners of physics and chemistry, the meaningless result of chance encounters and collisions in a universe without plan or purpose? Certainly, there are many in the academic and scientific communities who accept evolution and seem to think so. William Provine, a philosopher of science at Cornell University, has written, for example, that modern science directly implies that “no inherent moral or ethical laws exist, nor are there absolute guiding principles for human society.” Edward O. Wilson, a biologist at Harvard University, has written that “if religion . . . can be systematically analyzed and explained as a product of the brain’s evolution, its power as an external source of morality will be gone forever.”
In my training as a scientist, I learned that it is inappropriate to use science to draw theological conclusions. For many of my colleagues, however, that rule can be broken so long as the conclusions are antitheological. Along these lines, David Hull wrote in the journal Nature, “The God of the Galápagos is careless, wasteful, indifferent, almost diabolical. He is certainly not the sort of God to whom anyone would be inclined to pray.” And yet, the notion that science alone can lead us to the truth regarding the purpose of our existence (which some would argue is that it does not have one) is philosophical, and not scientific. It is not testable by the methods of science.
Regardless of the side we take, then, the key question is this: Does science carry us as deeply into the mystery of life as we wish to go? For people of faith, the answer is no. This is not a rejection of science, but merely a recognition of its limitations. Accepting the validity of that choice, I would argue, is the first step in making peace between science and religion, a peace that is much to be desired.
Accepting the compatibility of evolutionary theory with religious belief is also part of that peace. Every now and then, when I go on a radio talk show, I print out the first five chapters of Genesis and bring them along with me. I do this because inevitably a caller will tell me that, according to Genesis, God created us out of nothing, instantaneously, in those first days of creation. And my response will be to read aloud from those creative verses: “God said, let the earth bring forth grass. . . . Let the waters bring forth the moving creature that hath life. . . . Let the earth bring forth the living creature.”
To me, the message is clear. The creative verses of Genesis describe a command from the Creator to the materials of the earth to bring forth life. And that, as evolution tells us, is exactly what happened.
“But God wouldn’t work that way,” is often the response. Then it’s time to turn to the Book of Isaiah (55:8–9), where God reminds the prophet that the means by which he works are beyond human understanding: “‘My thoughts are not your thoughts. Neither are your ways mine,’ says the Lord. ‘For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways, and my thoughts higher than yours.’” To me, as a biologist, this says that God’s creation need not match our own humble manufactures, static, inflexible, and unchanging. God would not work by natural means? God, as Aquinas was fond of pointing out, is the author of nature, and natural processes can serve his ends as well as any other.
Opponents of evolution counter that the chance and random nature of the evolutionary mechanism would rule out God, that God couldn’t work by random means—it would leave him with nothing to do. In fact, while evolution is unpredictable, it is not random. Change is constrained by the patterns of developmental biology and especially by natural selection, which is not a random process at all, but is guided by the pressures of survival and the laws of physics and chemistry, as molecular studies of evolution increasingly show.
Chance, however, is a fact of life. It affects each and every one of us. All histories—political, human, natural—are contingent processes, in which tiny changes can act on future events. I give you one example: In 1944, a soldier stationed at Fort Dix, New Jersey, passed up a free ticket to the opening of the Broadway musical Oklahoma, to go to a country club dance and see if he could meet some girls. That’s the reason I’m here today, because he was my dad, and one of the girls he met was my mom. A slight change in history, and you’re not even here.
If we could look at evolution from 500 million years ago and see a predictable path directly to us, it would mean that the future is predetermined. Yet a central point of major Western theologies, Islam, Judaism, and Christianity, is that human beings can affect the future, that we have free will and are capable of moral choice.
A predetermined process wouldn’t allow that. But evolution, which is not predetermined, does. And that’s why evolutionary theory doesn’t rule out a divine plan. Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, now Benedict XVI, issued this statement in 2004, as president of the Church’s International Theological Commission: “Even the outcome of a truly contingent natural process can nonetheless fall within God’s providential plan for creation.” Exactly so.
Finally, it is a point of resistance for some who oppose evolutionary theory that the Darwinian struggle for existence seems, as Nature‘s David Hull implied, a cruel one. Evolution doesn’t fit with the idea of a loving God, they say. And yet Scripture is filled with messages of seeming cruelty, foremost among them that all organisms are born to die: “By the sweat of your brow you will eat your food until you return to the ground, since from it you were taken; for dust you are and to dust you will return” (Genesis 3:19). There is nothing inconsistent with evolution in this message. In the material world in which we live, life comes at the cost of death. Each of us is alive today because thousands of organisms—plant, animal, and microbial—in dying give us life, the food we eat, the houses in which we live, and even the paper upon which you read these words. That’s not an invention of Charles Darwin. As Scripture reminds us, the world in which we live is one of struggle, death, and change. And as science tells us, it is a world of evolution.
Kenneth R. Miller is a professor of biology at Brown University and the author of Finding Darwin’s God: A Scientist’s Search for Common Ground between God and Evolution (1999). His essay is drawn from a talk he gave at BC on May 2.