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Evolution and creationism

Paper presented by Professor Neil Ormerod, Australian Catholic University
Darwin symposium, National Museum of Australia, 26 February 2009

Dr BERNADETTE HINCE: We will move straight on to Professor Neil Ormerod, who is a mathematician, a theologian and a professor of theology at one of the campuses of the Australian Catholic University.

Prof. NEIL ORMEROD: I think I am here as the religious fall guy. There may be a general impression that Darwin’s theory of evolution was met with implacable opposition from Christian religious groups from its inception. Perhaps no religious organisation had a poorer reputation for resisting science than the Catholic Church. ‘Remember Galileo’ is the cry of many an anti-religious thinker. Yet when it came to Darwin and the theory of evolution, we should note the following. The Catholic Encyclopaedia, published in the first decade of the twentieth century just 50 years after Darwin’s Origin of Species, could find no objection to the theory of evolution on the basis of faith:

It is in perfect agreement with the Christian conception of the universe; for Scripture does not tell us in what form the present species of plants and of animals were originally created by God.

In doing so it was appealing to a tradition going back at least as far as Augustine in the fifth century that the scriptures were not a source of scientific knowledge. Best leave science to the scientists - a lesson the Catholic Church has needed reminding of at various times.

What fierce resistance did arise came from an emerging, self-identified fundamentalist movement, which insisted on a literal reading of the first chapters of Genesis. This movement espoused certain fundamentals of faith, including the inerrancy of the Bible, as their norm, and thus found themselves in fierce conflict with Darwin’s theory. In a sense, both fundamentalists and those who used evolution to reject religious claims held similar basic assumptions. Both adopted a positivist account of truth, that something could only be true if it was scientifically true. Biblical truth claims must therefore be scientific truth claims. For the fundamentalist, the truth claim of the Bible implied creationism; for their opponents, the truth of science disproved religious truth claims. Echoes of this conflict can still be heard in the writings of Richard Dawkins.

Proponent of creationism appealed to apparent scientific evidence to bolster their claims. In 1923 George McCready Price, a Seventh Day Adventist, published geological evidence in support of an early earth position that the earth was only 6000 years old. This trend developed into a full-blown creation science which attempted a whole series of ad hoc scientific assumptions to argue that the entire universe is of recent origin. For example, that radioactive decay rates varied with time; that the speed of light varied with time; that the fossil evidence was the result of the flood; and that human beings were made directly by God. While prominent in the 1960s and 1970s, it’s now been supplanted by the latest attempt to arbitrate between scientific and religious claims, that of intelligent design.

To my mind, the issues raised by intelligent design and the opponents it seeks to overcome are more profound than the fairly simplistic issues of the earlier debate. The positivist assumptions of the early debates do not stand scrutiny. Now with intelligent design, the basic question is how God relates to creation. The basic assumption on the side of people such as Dawkins is as follows: arguments for the existence of God depend on God being some sort of designer; evolution depends on chance; chance is incompatible with divine design; therefore God is not involved in evolution or in creation as a whole; and, in conclusion, God is a redundant hypothesis.

The proponents of intelligent design accept the basic premise that chance is incompatible with divine design. Their argument is as follows: chance is not enough to explain the process of evolution, for which they provide apparent evidence; the only way to fix the gaps in the evolutionary process is to posit an intelligent designer who manipulates the system; and the conclusion is God is back in the game.

Thus Dawkins seeks to eliminate God by an appeal to chance, while intelligent design proponents argue that chance is insufficient to explain design and so seek to restore the place of God in evolution. In both positions the assumption is that chance rules out divine design, that chance and intelligent design or purpose are incompatible. This supposed opposition between God’s purpose in creation and chance emerged most strongly in the marriage of religious belief and Newtonian scientific determinism which gave birth to deism. The linkage goes thus: what God wills, necessarily happens; and this necessity is conveyed through the scientific determinism of Newtonian mechanics. There is no chance because God operates through necessary scientific laws. Again, many modern debates reflect this basic assumption. The notion that God is the designer is thus linked to the necessity of scientific laws where chance is excluded. If chance is acknowledged, then design is excluded.

However, are chance and design truly incompatible? Can we not use statistical means to attain well thought-out goals? Indeed, we do so regularly. Consider the link between smoking and lung cancer. It is well established that smoking causes lung cancer with a certain statistical frequency. We know that if we reduce the rate of smoking in the general public, we will reduce the incidence of lung cancer. Suppose we introduce a public health advertising campaign to reduce the incidence of smoking. Some people will see the ad, others will not. Some people will be moved by the ad to quit smoking, and others will not. Some will succeed in quitting smoking, and others will not. At each step along the way there will be an instance of chance variation around a statistical norm. In the end, if the campaign is successful we will see a decrease in the number of deaths by lung cancer. We will have achieved our goal intelligently using a method full of chance processes. Perhaps the dichotomy between chance and purposefulness is somewhat overstated.

A recognition of the force of the tension between divine design and contingency of outcome was not invented by deism, though deism did give the argument a certain scientific respectability. In the Summa contra Gentiles, medieval theologian in the twelfth century Thomas Aquinas deals with questions concerning divine providence and its relationship to chance and necessity. The objections raised by our modern debates are already evident:

If all things that are done here below, even chance events, are subject to divine providence [for which we might read divine design], then, seemingly, either providence cannot be certain [in which case there is no real design], or else all things happen by necessity [and there is no real chance].

This is the issue underlying the debate between Dawkins and intelligent design. However, Aquinas does not accept either conclusion. Among his long and detailed response we find the following illuminating comment:

If God foresees that this event will be, it will happen, just as the second argument suggested. But it will occur in the way that God foresaw that it would be. Now, He foresaw that it would occur by chance. So, it follows that, without fail, it will occur by chance and not necessity.

Aquinas can come to this conclusion because he can draw a distinction between the proper object of scientific explanation and the proper object of divine causation. He would have spoken of primary and secondary causes; whereas science deals with the secondary causes, God is the primary cause of being itself. This distinction is ably captured by Martin Rees, Royal British Astronomer and atheist, when he noted:

Theorists may, some day, be able to write down fundamental equations governing physical reality. But physics can never explain what ‘breathes fire’ into the equations and actualises them in a real cosmos.

For Aquinas, God actualises the cosmos and breathes fire into the equations. God causes things to be, to be actualised.

This position of Aquinas is so traditional and in a sense so authoritative that it was most disappointing when Cardinal Schönborn entered into the evolution-intelligent design debate to side with intelligent design. One hundred years after the Catholic Encyclopaedia could state there was no contradiction between evolution and faith, Cardinal Schönborn has argued that:

Evolution in the sense of common ancestry might be true, but evolution in the neo-Darwinian sense - an unguided, unplanned process of random variation and natural selection - is not.

What is disappointing here is the juxtaposition of the notions of ‘unguided, unplanned’ with the notion of ‘random’. This dichotomy is exactly what Aquinas rejected above. Aquinas is arguing that God can act purposefully and intelligently through chance events to achieve determinate outcomes. Schönborn is attempting to preserve divine design in creation, but his efforts are ill-advised and in the end not helpful.

More helpful here is the document Communion and Stewardship published in 2004 by the International Theological Commission, a body established to advise the Catholic Church on theological debates. Its comments on the present debate over intelligent design and evolution are instructive:

But it is important to note that, according to the Catholic understanding of divine causality, true contingency [that is chance] in the created order is not incompatible with a purposeful divine providence. Divine causality and created causality radically differ in kind and not only in degree [so that is the notion of primary and secondary cause]. Thus, even the outcome of a truly contingent natural process can nonetheless fall within God’s providential plan for creation ... Divine causality can be active in a process that is both contingent and guided. Any evolutionary mechanism that is contingent can only be contingent because God made it so.

If this position is adopted, then both the triumphant rejection of God the designer by Dawkins and the anxious attempts to preserve a divine role through intelligent design are misplaced.

It should also be noted that this conclusion can be drawn from very traditional theological arguments, without recourse to modern arguments which speak of God as in process. One of the more common theological responses to evolutionary theory is to evoke the philosophical approach of Alfred North Whitehead. Whitehead rejected traditional theism and developed a notion of God as subject to change. At the basis of Whitehead’s rejection of traditional theism is what he saw as the contradiction between the contingency of the cosmos and the necessity of God - how can a necessary being create a world with real chance in it? Whitehead’s solution is to inject chance or contingency into the divine, to make God subject to change and hence to time. Unfortunately, what Whitehead rejected was not traditional theism, but the more recent offspring of theism and scientific determinism; that is, deism.

In 1996, Pope John Paul II spoke to the Pontifical Academy of the Sciences. He stated:

New knowledge has led to the recognition of the theory of evolution as more than a hypothesis. It is indeed remarkable that this theory has been progressively accepted by researchers, following a series of discoveries in various fields of knowledge. The convergence, neither sought nor fabricated, of the results of work that was conducted independently is in itself a significant argument in favour of this theory.

While this remark generated some surprise and even controversy at the time, we are really in direct continuity with the previously noted conclusion of the Catholic Encyclopaedia over 100 years ago. This position is underpinned by two basic convictions: firstly, that science and religion cannot contradict one another, and in light of the experience of the church with Galileo it is best to leave science to the scientists; second, that God’s activity can be found even in the chance variations of the random mutations that drive evolution.

But what religion has the right to resist is those occasions when scientists move beyond the realm of their expertise, and beyond scientific evidence, to draw metaphysical and ethical conclusions, giving those conclusions the stamp of their scientific authority when they are little more than matters of personal preference and at times prejudice and ignorance. Believers who reject evolution because of their faith commitments should have no more credibility than scientists who reject God because of their non-scientific metaphysical commitments. Both are missing the mark and in a perverse way both feed off one another. But we need not join this dance of mutual recrimination. Rather let’s join a different dance, the dance of faith and reason together, a dance which despite various tensions and road bumps has been part of the Christian tradition from its inception.

Date published: 30 April 2009