The Pope and the Apes

In October, Pope John Paul II delivered a message to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences regarding the theory of evolution. The document touched on a number of important issues—scriptural, epistemological, and scientific— which are of supreme importance to Catholics. Inevitably, it was the least newsworthy item in the pope’s message—that the Church has no problem with evolution so long as divine causality is not excluded—that produced screaming headlines around the world. “Pope Vindicates Darwin!”

The pope, in fact, did no such thing. The New York Times and other conduits of misinformation about the Church made the usual mistake of equating “evolution” with Darwin’s explanation of evolution. Darwin did not discover evolution; he simply proposed a mechanism—gradual change via natural selection—that made materialistic evolution seem plausible. The mechanism was, and is, highly problematic. Many paleontologists and biologists, while calling themselves evolutionists, assert that Darwinian selection cannot explain the big, complicated jumps between life forms, starting with the Cambrian explosion 550 million years ago. A recent example is Reinventing Darwin (read: Retiring Darwin) by Niles Eldredge, chief paleontologist at the American Museum of Natural History.

The pope is aware of this controversy among evolutionists, writing that “rather than speaking about the theory of evolution, it is more accurate to speak of the theories of evolution. The use of the plural is required here … because of the diversity of explanations regarding the mechanism of evolution.” And he goes on to reject the essence of Darwinism: “[T]heories of evolution which, because of the philosophies which inspire them, regard the spirit either as emerging from the forces of living matter, or as a simple epiphenomenon of that matter, are incompatible with the truth about man.”

So the pope objects to philosophical materialism masquerading as science, which is what we find in hooks by Darwinists. Pop scientists like Richard Dawkins and Carl Sagan start with a philosophical premise: There is no God. This allows them to embrace a teleological taboo that makes Darwin a winner by default. But their explanation of how the bacteria that appeared billions of years ago produced the incredible diversity of life we see today relies more on hidden postulates than empirical evidence. Darwinism in their hands really amounts to a countermetaphysics planted like a foreign body in the heart of biology.

The pope would have clarified matters greatly if he had repeated the observation of Catholic thinkers like Etienne Gilson that the real debate is not over evolution per se, but teleology. Either life forms came about by blind chance or they did not. Darwin’s theory is the only one available that purports to explain how Homo sapiens and other species are the result exclusively of natural forces. There are no other theories available that do not smack of vitalism, than which there is no dirtier word in the lexicon of Darwinists.

Evolution actually has an ancient Catholic pedigree. St. Augustine was an evolutionist, although hardly a Darwinist. In his second commentary on Genesis, he surmised that God had planted “rational seeds” in nature that had fructified in due course. This is evolution in the strict etymological sense of the word, an unfolding of what is already there, like an acorn turning into an oak. At the time of the Scopes trial, Chesterton remarked that Catholics were not at all involved in a battle that set biblical and scientific fundamentalists against one another. As usual, there was a reasonable Catholic center that allowed both science and theology their due competence.

It makes no difference whether man is descended biologically from some ape-like creature, so long as we understand that there had to be what the pope calls an “ontological leap” to the first human person. This would have involved the direct action of God, who creates each rational soul out of nothing. Even the scanty paleontological evidence supports the scenario of man’s sudden emergence. Homo sapiens, fully equipped with art, language, and toolmaking capabilities, appears with dramatic rapidity in the fossil record. There is no evidence of an ape trying to draw reindeer in the caves of south France or fashion a flute in the manner of the Neanderthals, who certainly were part of the human family.

The confusion over evolution among Christians boils down to the question of how to read the creation account in Genesis. Here the pope simply reiterates what the Magisterium has argued tirelessly since Leo XIII’s Providentissimus Deus. Scripture does not teach science, period. Genesis tells us what happened in the archaic, prescientific idiom of the ancient Hebrews. It does not tell us how it happened. We can learn what we can of that “how” from science, always keeping in mind that there can be no real conflict between two very different orders of knowledge: science and theology.


  • George Sim Johnston

    George Sim Johnston is the author of "Did Darwin Get It Right? Catholics and the Theory of Evolution" (Our Sunday Visitor).

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