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Pope on evolution: more of the same teleological thinking

Recently, the Pope did what religious leaders appear increasingly inclined to do on Easter: bash science:

Benedict emphasised the Biblical account of creation in his Easter Vigil homily, saying it was wrong to think at some point “in some tiny corner of the cosmos there evolved randomly some species of living being capable of reasoning”.

He said: “If man were merely a random product of evolution in some place on the margins of the universe, then his life would make no sense or might even be a chance of nature.

“But no, reason is there at the beginning: creative, divine reason.”

Church teaching holds that Catholicism and evolutionary theory are not necessarily at odds. A Christian can accept the theory of evolution to help explain developments, but is taught to believe that God, not random chance, is the origin of the world. The Vatican, however, warns against creationism, or the overly literal interpretation of the Biblical account of creation.

The full transcript is available here [hat tip to Burkhard Schaeffer]. The point being made is not that species, including human beings, do not evolve, but that :

… the [Easter] journey along the paths of sacred Scripture begins with the account of creation. This is the liturgy’s way of telling us that the creation story is itself a prophecy. It is not information about the external processes by which the cosmos and man himself came into being. The Fathers of the Church were well aware of this. They did not interpret the story as an account of the process of the origins of things, but rather as a pointer towards the essential, towards the true beginning and end of our being.

In other words, he decries literalism and any idea that the Bible undercuts or constrains science, which is nice. But, and this merely reiterates what John Paul II said, this evolution is not enough to explain why humans exist, and here is the long-standing problem of the Catholic church with Darwinian evolution. It is not “random”. John Paul had said that evolution cannot account for the soul. Benedict is saying that the entire process cannot be “random”.

It is a myth that evolution by natural selection is “random”. As Dawkins once wrote in Climbing Mount Improbable:

It is grindingly, creakingly, obvious that, if Darwinism were really a theory of chance, it couldn’t work. [p 67]

Darwinism is widely misunderstood as a theory of pure chance. Mustn’t it have done something to provoke this canard? Well, yes, there is something behind the misunderstood rumour, a feeble basis to the distortion. one stage in the Darwinian process is indeed a chance process — mutation. Mutation is the process by which fresh genetic variation is offered up for selection and it is usually described as random. But Darwinians make the fuss they do about the ‘randomness’ of mutation only in order to contrast it to the non-randomness of selection. It is not necessary that mutation should be random for natural selection to work. Selection can still do its work whether mutation is directed or not. Emphasizing that mutation can be random is our way of calling attention to the crucial fact that, by contrast, selection is sublimely and quintessentially non-random. It is ironic that this emphasis on the contrast between mutation and the non-randomness of selection has led people to think that the whole theory is a theory of chance.

Even mutations are, as a matter of fact, non-random in various senses, although these senses aren’t relevant to our discussion because they don’t contribute constructively to the improbable perfection of organisms. For example, mutations have well-understood physical causes, and to this extent they are non-random. … the great majority of mutations, however caused, are random with respect to quality, and that means they are usually bad because there are more ways of getting worse than of getting better. [pp70-71]

The randomness that Dawkins discusses here is a lack of correlation between process and outcome, as if God rolled dice and got humans. Since he thinks that evolution is predominantly driven by selection, and selection is a biassing against what would otherwise be the preservation of every or any old mutation, he rightly thinks that sort of evolution is not random. But in another sense, he and a great many evolutionary biologists do think evolution is random: it is a lack of foresight and correlation between mutations and fitness. This is a different kind of randomness, and it is the kind that Catholic thinkers have objected to since the Origin. Mivart wrote in the Genesis of Species:

By accidental variations Mr. Darwin does not, of course, mean to imply variations really due to “chance,” but to utterly indeterminate antecedents. [p71]

but what he objected to was the loss of final causes, which is to say, of God’s plan:

Those three conceptions of the organic world which may be spoken of as the teleological, the typical, and the transmutationist, have often been regarded as mutually antagonistic and conflicting.

The genesis of species as here conceived, however, accepts, distributes, and harmonizes all the three.

Teleology concerns the ends for which organisms were designed. The recognition, therefore, that their formation took place by an evolution not fortuitous, in no way invalidates the acknowledgment of their final causes if on other grounds there are reasons for believing that such final causes exist.

Conformity to type, or the creation of species according to certain ” divine ideas,” is in no way interfered with by such a process of evolution as is here advocated. Such “divine ideas” must be accepted or declined upon quite other grounds than the mode of their realization, and of their manifestation in the world of sensible phenomena, Transmutationism (an old name for the evolutionary hypothesis), which was considered at one time to be the
very antithesis of the two preceding conceptions, harmonizes well with them if the evolution be understood to be orderly and designed. It will in the next chapter be shown to be completely in harmony with conceptions, upon the acceptance of which “final causes” and “divine ideal archetypes” alike depend. [p277]

Mivart was not alone in this, although it is an irony of history that he was later excommunicated by the very Catholic Church he was trying to protect from Darwinian epicureanism. A good many philosophically inclined theologians and theologically inclined philosophers objected to the loss of final causes in Darwin’s theory of natural selection. In fact, that was almost all that they objected to. Transmutation, common descent, and dispersal were all accepted by every educated person, including the Duke of Argyll and Paul Janet, to mention two critics. But design versus chance? That was unacceptable. Of course, even this was not new. It goes back to the Greeks, of course:

Here we suddenly encounter a remarkable theory, reputed by many to be the cleverest of all theories: that all things, at every time, come into existence either by nature, or by design, or by chance. [Plato, Laws, bk X]

Plato, the student of the author of the theory of intelligent design in the cosmos (Socrates), of course dismisses this as a mistake. Likewise all Christian, and especially Catholic, theologians who replied to Darwin did so on the assumption that he had either failed to account for purpose (e.g., Janet) or that properly interpreted, he had (Asa Gray).

What is happening here is the working out of a long feud between religious thought and what could be called the preconditions for scientific thinking. Under the rubric of “Epicureanism”, “atomism” and “materialism”, terms of abuse by theists, rational thought had attempted to explain things in terms of their inherent natures. This removed the need for a superagent, and so in every case it was resisted. Until the movement called “natural theology” took hold in the 17th century, the argument from design applied to the entire universe: order in the world proves God’s existence (see, for example, Aquinas). Hume attacked this in the Dialogues at the end of the 18th century. But the Natural Theologians initially used the existence of God to explain design. Only later did design in living things, a much more restricted domain than the order of the universe, come to be argued as the basis for belief in God’s existence, and that explains why Darwin was so problematic. If Darwin can explain biological purposiveness, then God becomes redundant only for those theists who think He is needed to explain living things.

Traditional theists, of course, did not need God to explain any secondary cause in the physical world, and neo-Thomists like Eric Mascall argued this forcefully. Creation is a primary cause, not a secondary series of them. So why is the Pope attacking Darwinian evolution?

There are two reasons. One is that if secondary causes explain the entire physical world, God must have a role within the world for religion to retain its relevance. Each religion does this in its own manner, but Catholic doctrine has to argue that God created our souls according to a plan He had before the world was created. Without a soul to save, the Church has no role.

The other is that the Pope is simply confused. He thinks that a physical process must have a direct (that is, a primary) rather than an indirect (secondary) cause. He has swallowed the mid-19th century doctrine of design, and failed to realise that it has been supplanted by both science and more sophisticated theology since Darwin. Darwin does not rely on chance in the sense he thinks it does. Things do not just happen. They happen because there are rules. A theist should be able to point to the rules as Aquinas did and say that is the work of God [Atheists and agnostics, of course, will just point to the rules and say “Ooh, shiny!”].

A religion that sets itself against science is on a losing streak, rationally speaking, although sociological and political processes may mean the religion has a historical victory by force majeure. But if the Pope wants to be seen as a rational person, this is not the way to do it. If God has a plan, then he has it as much in the lawful behaviour of the universe as in direct intervention, or the whole doctrine of creation is incoherent. I know which way I want to bet, but for those who want to believe in God’s plan, that ain’t the way.


  1. Hi John,

    I don’t try to follow the approach of the Pope, but if I may, let me list some related ideas by you to see if you suppose that these ideas are inherently anti-science:

    1. Assuming materialism, the evolutionary origin of human-like consciousness capable of developing scientific theories and enjoying religious experiences was extraordinarily unlikely given a rewind of history since the first millionth of a second of the universe.

    2. Humans have a hyper-dimensional component of consciousness that survives physical death.

    3. Biological evolution didn’t generate the hyper-dimensional component of human consciousness.

    I’m of course not asking if you agree with these ideas, but I ask if you think that they’re inherently oppositional to scientific discoveries, in the same vein that you say that the Pope bashed science with the speech that you quoted.

    • 1. On this planet? Sure. On any planet? Given the size and duration of the universe, and the knowledge that a physically embodied consciousness is possible, I would say the certainty that a consciousness would evolve somewhere approaches unity. Of course, this, like your assertion in 1, is a philosophical rather than scientific claim.

      2. I cannot parse this. What is the substrate? How do you know it exists? What are the dimensions? This claim is not antiscientific, but it is, as stated, unscientific, and if you use it to deny actual science, then it becomes antiscientific.

      3. Since I can’t parse 2, I can’t evaluate 3.

      Note that the Pope’s position does not become antiscience until he rejects a claim of science on that basis. Until then, it is merely a philosophical or theological position.

  2. Thanks, John. You answered my question about what is anti-science.

    Anyway, for point two, I’m unsure of the substrate and dimensions while the case of gravity gives a good evidence for at least one inscrutable hyper-dimension. I know that the hyper-dimensional component exists from philosophical conjecture of my own experiences and that of many others, which if I correctly understand you is unscientific but not anti-science.

    • I suspect you thought I might be pushing a positivistic line like the Gnus do, that if it ain’t science it ain’t acceptable?

      • I never suspected that you were pushing positivism, but these replies helped me to review the sometimes fine line between unscientific philosophy and antiscientific philosophy. 🙂

  3. Great post, John. While reading about the Pope’s statement I tried to breath my tea and ended up sputtering it all over my keyboard. I think it is just a random coincidence but I imagine that a religious person would not be satisfied with that explanation.

  4. Isn’t it redundant to say the pope’s thinking is teleological?

    • That would imply he had a purpose in using it…

  5. MKR MKR

    Your title led me to expect an entry about Alexander Pope.

    But errs not Nature from this gracious end,
    From burning suns when livid deaths descend,
    When earthquakes swallow, or when tempests sweep
    Towns to one grave, whole nations to the deep?
    “No, (’tis replied) the first Almighty Cause
    Acts not by partial, but by general laws; . . .”

    Essay on Man, I.v, 141–6

    • Pope (that Pope, anyway) knew his traditional theology quite well.

  6. The other is that the Pope is simply confused.

    Actually it is darwinists who are confused. Juggling with words “chance” and “necessity” as in mediaval circus they emulate, as it were, scholastics but without their deep insight regarding the meaning of the words they are juggling with. See the quotation of Dawkins and then this one John Wilkins wrote on talkorigin in 1997:

    Gould has written that if we could rewind the “tape” of evolution and replay it, the result would not be the same (Gould 1989). Among other things, humans are almost certain not to re-evolve. This is because the number of contingent causes (asteroids hitting the earth, continental drift, cosmic radiation, the likelihood of significant individuals mating and producing progeny, etc) are so high that it is unlikely they would occur again in the same sequence, or even occur at all. If an asteroid hadn’t hit the Yucátan Peninsula 65 million years ago, for example, mammals probably would never have diversified, as they didn’t in the 100 million years before that.

    So humans are not to re-evolve, but it is pope who is confused?

    Even Marxists neglected the speculation that “humans are not to re-evolve”, as you can see in my blog entry “Marxistic critique of Darwinism”.

    • John Harshman John Harshman

      I may not be a scholastic, but I do know the difference between chance and contingency.

  7. @VMartin: Granting Gould’s idea as related in the paragraph you quoted, what does that have to do with anything? Yes, humans evolved once. No, they wouldn’t evolve again. Yes, evolution is a process that involves both chance and non-random processes. No, I am not a theologian. How does this make the pope less confused?

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