A Catholic Defense of Evolutionary Science

God usually works slowly and predictably within the laws He Himself made. When we study the details that we know about the living world, we see that they are truly astounding and enthralling.

Recently, here at Crisis Magazine, Kennedy Hall penned an article, “Confessions of a Creationist,” in which he defended a more literal, “Young Earth” creation story against modern evolutionary science. In the spirit of charitable debate, I’d like to respond with another Catholic viewpoint.

One of the most important things to remember when we consider evolution is that God is omnipotent, omniscient, and has all of the other perfections we read about in the Baltimore Catechism. He loves us and wants us to understand the natural world that He gave us to steward. He doesn’t try to fool us. No loving parent does that.

God also possesses patience that astounds us. Look at how long He waits for sinners to return to Him and how He loves variety and leisure! Yes, He sometimes goes outside the laws He created for nature and does things quickly to make a significant point. The miracle at Fatima was outside the normal laws, and it was a great grace.

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However, God usually works slowly and predictably within the laws He Himself made. Sounds like evolution. When we study the details that we know about the living world, we see that they are truly astounding and enthralling. God’s patience exemplified in evolutionary history was an important theme for Fr. Stanley Jaki, a renowned theologian and physicist, a polymath and real genius in multiple academic fields.

In contrast to God, the devil loves speed and efficiency. We see it in the very telling lines given to the devil in the movie Time Bandits

God isn’t interested in technology. He cares nothing for the microchip or the silicon revolution. Look how he spends his time, forty-three species of parrots. Nipples for men…Slugs. He created slugs. They can’t hear. They can’t speak. They can’t operate machinery. Are we not in the hands of a lunatic?

Mr. Hall seems to suggest that God might present things in a way that fools us when he says:

In addition, have we considered just how difficult it would be to discern the age of a created world?…Thus, if Adam was put under a proverbial microscope, it would be decided that he was not 10 minutes old but 30 years old.

That reminds me of the Protestant thinking in the Bob Jones University textbooks I had to use in grade school. Bob Jones, founder of a university with a publishing house, was one of the oddest of the popular U.S. evangelical ministers 40 years ago. The books we were made to use in school suggested that fossils might have been God making things look old to test our faith, or God allowing the devil to do the same. A loving God doesn’t do that to His people.

Further, Adam would actually have been easy to pick out as not 30 years old. If you checked before the Fall, you would not see all kinds of things that came with the effects of Original Sin, since he wouldn’t have been subject to its effects.  

If you checked just after the Fall, which would mean within about 24 hours of Adam’s creation, based on the Church Fathers, you could also have told the difference from someone who had lived 30 years under the effects of Original Sin.

Just for starters, a molecular test would have shown long telomeres, much longer than a 30-year-old would normally have. These telomeres are the ends of the chromosomes, which shorten with every cell division. I invite anyone who wants to know more to take some of the courses I have coming up for our Sts. Therese and Isidore Farm College. A course on “Catholics and Evolution” should be up in the next few weeks, and the General Biology course takes about 14 hours total and is a real hoot from what my students have told me.

As an aside, one imagines that the shortening of telomeres must have accelerated after the Flood, given the ages of the first generations descended from Adam, people such as Enoch and Noah, compared to our much shorter longevity today and the fact that telomere length is a major limiting factor on our longevity. 

Further, maybe Adam and Eve were the singular examples of instantaneous special creation—it is difficult to reconcile Church teaching with humans evolving from other primates. Perhaps God set up the whole world via an evolutionary process and then created us so that we fit into the natural order, so we would love it and more readily care for it. 

In that case, that uniqueness about the creation of humans would probably have been easier for us to observe before the Fall. When God let us choose to fall, I imagine that He let us look even more like other parts of creation since that is what our first parents chose in their pride. “OK, have it your way…” as one priest says in some of his homilies online.

Evolution happened, based on what God has put in the details of the natural world. Two of the most compelling examples showing that evolution is the mechanism God used to get the living world to where it is today are 1) Wallace’s line and 2) the endosymbiotic origins of mitochondria and chloroplasts. Let me explain them and show how fascinating and clear they are.

Wallace’s Line is a compelling example of evolution. Alfred Russell Wallace is now credited, along with Darwin, for originating modern ideas about evolution driven by natural selection and adaptation. He discovered Wallace’s Line, a geographic divide which can be drawn between the Indonesian islands of Bali and Lombok. To the west were only found placental mammals—think things that retain their babies for a long time in the womb, things like deer and monkeys. 

To the east were found marsupials, more primitive, pouched mammals, except for a few small placental mammals, such as mice, which could float across the Line on debris. Also, there were the dingoes, which travelled to Australia with the ancestors of today’s aboriginal people, and bats, which could fly across the water.

The Line was a deep, wide marine channel, even during Ice Ages, preventing non-swimming, non-flying placental mammals from crossing eastward without human help.

The most sensible answer to how this came to be is that the marsupials evolved to one side of the line, the deep marine channel keeping them in place. Geological and other lines of evidence back this up. Why would God, who loves us and wants us to understand Him and how He acts, set this up if it’s not a product of evolutionary history? If it’s not so, it seems like we are being fooled—again, a Protestant way of seeing it. God doesn’t give us examples that fool us—no loving parent does.

For a second example, take endosymbiosis and mitochondria and chloroplasts. Endosymbiosis involves one organism living inside another, which can be horrifying if you think of things like tapeworms. However, it also is the fascinating explanation for how our cells can turn food into energy and how plants can do photosynthesis. In the endosymbiotic origin of key parts of living cells, simple prokaryotes (no nuclei; think bacteria) were taken up by larger cells and, over a long time, turned into specialized parts of those larger cells.

Mitochondria, including the ones in your own cells and those of plants and fungi and pond scum, seem to have arisen in this way. Mitochondria perform the most important part of extracting energy from food—without them, you could never use your muscles, for example. 

They have their own chromosomes, circular like those of bacteria and not like the rest of your human cells, as well as bacterial-sized ribosomes, tiny machines that build the proteins which make living cells work, not human-sized ribosomes. These and other pieces of evidence say that mitochondria, the ones in your cells as you read this, started out as free-living proteobacteria and ended up as part of you.

That’s an evolutionary process.

God is omnipotent and omniscient, and He could have made a different way for every living thing to extract energy from food. But He didn’t. He made mitochondria shared by plants and fungi and us, and He left evidence that they have a common evolutionary origin, which extends well beyond the two facts I cited above.

The same basic evidence shows that the chloroplasts in plants originated as cyanobacteria, blue-green algae. In the case of chloroplasts, we even have missing links. Various mollusks, both giant clams and some sea slugs, take up algae every generation and benefit from photosynthesis the same way that plant cells do.

There is even a single-celled organism of the genus Paramecium that has cyanobacteria living in its cells, helping it by doing photosynthesis, just like chloroplasts. However, these cyanobacteria are not chloroplasts yet—they can still live independently outside Paramecium’s cells when removed, unlike true chloroplasts. That is an even clearer example of an evolutionary missing link than in the case of the giant clams. I’ve seen these Paramecium cells with my own eyes.

Most astonishingly clear, the simplest algae, in the group called the Glycophytes, even have remnants of the bacterial cell-wall material called peptidoglycan, clinging to the outside of their chloroplasts. These were, very far in the past, cyanobacterial cells.

If God, who loves us more than we can understand, shows us such examples, He is telling us something, not testing our faith or letting the devil trick us. He is showing us the mechanism He used. It is then something for us to ponder and pray about: What should we understand from this?

One final note about Mr. Hall’s article. Yes, there have been frauds presented in the history of evolutionary biology, but frauds and bizarre oddities pepper the history of all of science and religion.

Phlogiston, a non-existent invisible fluid, served as a popular explanation for how heat works for over a hundred years. Sir Isaac Newton discovered the laws of mechanics and of optics, yet he also dabbled in the bizarre, occult “science” of alchemy. We don’t toss out our furnaces or our fireplaces, our cars or our eyeglasses because of phlogiston or Newton’s odd hobby. Similarly, we shouldn’t apostatize because Judas was an apostle or St. Peter denied Christ three times on his first full day as pope.

We need to recognize the truth and beauty God put in the world, including its evolutionary history.

  • Dr. Douglas Darnowski

    Dr. Douglas Darnowski lives in Southern Indiana with his wife and 15 children. He left his increasingly woke university in July 2022 to found Sts Therese and Isidore Farm College after over two decades as a professor, teaching and doing research on molecular developmental biology, agriculture, and other topics, and writing ancillary materials for dozens of textbooks, including over 20 in nursing and in emergency medicine.

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