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The Crux Project Archives: Science

SCIENCE AND THE CHURCH

What it means to question Darwinism

by Herbert London

Christoph Cardinal Schonborn, the Catholic archbishop of Vienna, recently caused a firestorm in intellectual circles when he made the rather obvious argument that Darwinism has many unexplained characteristics. The New York Times responded reflexively by suggesting that the Church was turning away from “modern science.”

This is a discussion surrounded by a conundrum: much of the science of Darwinism is surmise. Even something as seemingly simple as what people mean when we use the word evolution is fraught with controversy. 

Cardinal Schonborn brought this out when he wrote, “Evolution in the sense of common ancestry might be true, but evolution in the neo-Darwinism sense—an unguided, unplanned process of random variation and natural selection—is not. Any system of thought that denies or seeks to explain away the overwhelming evidence for design in biology is ideology, not science.”

In today’s discussions, words such as “evolution,” “random,” and “design” are fraught with contested meaning. What the cardinal appears to have been trying to say is that various forms of natural phenomena suggest, even if they do not offer proof in themselves, that intelligent design or providential will, cannot be dismissed out of hand on an a priori basis.

The Cardinal’s view is compatible with the possibility that God set a process of natural selection in motion or introduced the condition of human design without the benefit of a random evolutionary process. One may, of course, reject this position as hoary religionist theory, but one cannot reject it out of hand on the basis of sheer scientific analysis. Undaunted by this reality, Tufts University philosophy professor Daniel Dennett attempted to do so in his August 28 NY Times article entitled “Show Me the Science.”

For the Times to contend that the Church opposes modern science by opposing Darwinian theory is to attribute a truth to a theory and then anathematize those who do not embrace all aspects of the theory. That a Catholic Cardinal will not exile God to the fringe of this debate should hardly be surprising; unless, of course, you write for the New York Times.

Certainly there are questions raised by natural phenomena that do not fit comfortably in the Darwinian model.

For as long as birds have been on the planet, they have built nests to hatch their eggs and tend to the very young. In order to build those nests, a series of complicated maneuvers are necessary, including the selection of the “right” twig size, avoidance of predators, and twisting the nest into the appropriate shape and depth. The notion that such complex behavior has been built into the genetic code of birds is not subject to testing; it is a matter that Darwinians take on faith.

As the film March of the Penguins shows, penguins walk 70 miles into the thick ice of Antarctica to mate. Afterward, the females march back to the sea in order to provide food, while the males use a flap of skin to protect the fertilized egg from the freezing cold conditions. Darwinians ask us to believe that countless numbers of birds died before natural mutations led to a single bird of this type that would have all the necessary characteristics for survival and successfully pass them on to its children. Simple fairness would say that a far less fanciful explanation, design, should at the very least merit consideration as a plausible alternative theory.

Cardinal Schonborn, despite his ambiguous language, seems to think so. His position is not a rejection of Darwinism; it is a perfectly sensible questioning of assumptions that underlie a popular scientific theory. For those who contend that to question Darwinism is to repudiate modern science, I would say that their criticism is neither modern nor scientific. •

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