I'm a Monkey and a Flower

That's a line from a Talking Heads song, for those of you who may be worried that I'm pondering a new career as a mime. But it occurred to me when I saw a piece in the New York Times about Cardinal Shoenborn's latest statements about evolutionary theory. It reminded me of all the muddled thinking I've seen on evolutionary theory in the course of teaching the philosophy of science to students who know little about either philosophy or science. There's muddled thinking everywhere these days, of course, but it's striking how much of it comes from otherwise sensible folk. And I don't just mean from those who don't know much about biology, to paraphrase another pop song; there's muddled thinking from scientists as well.

My favorite muddle-headed scientists are those who think that evolutionary theory as been "proved" in the sense that we can know that it is "true" to the exclusion of all other hypotheses about the origins of life. Only a moron would think that science is capable of establishing one theory as true to the exclusion of all others, but you'd be surprised how many famous scientists are also morons in this sense. Richard Dawkins comes to mind, but he's only the most egregiously moronic, seeing as how he seems to think it's worth trumpeting his myopia to the world in the form of books and lectures.

But equally muddled is the view, apparently held by Cardinal Shoenborn, that evolutionary theory has not really been "proved" in any sense. This view is often expressed in the form of the proposition "Evolution is just a theory."

Well, universal gravitation is also "just a theory", but I don't see anybody insisting that we find alternative theories (say, Aristotle's) about attraction among bodies and teach them in the schools alongside Newton's quaint little fantasy. The fact is, evolutionary theory is among the best confirmed and most robustly tested scientific theories in history. That does not make it "true to the exclusion of all other possible hypotheses", but it does make it true in the same sense that Newton's theory of gravitation is "true". It's the best explanation we have, at present, of the observable phenomena.

Part of the problem, I think, lies with the press, because the New York Times does not help matters any with headlines like "Leading Cardinal Redefines Church's View on Evolution". As important as he is to the Magisterium, a single Cardinal writing an OpEd piece in the New York Times is not someone who is "Redefining the Church's View" on anything. Pope Benedict XVI is not the first Pope to have declared that there are no contradictions between evolutionary theory and Church teaching on the origins of life, and it will take more than a stinging letter to the Times to change that. Based on what he wrote to the Times it seems fair to say that Cardinal Shoenborn, whether or not he is a great theologian or philosopher, is not much of a scientist, and at the very least it would seem that a necessary condition on pronouncing authoritatively on a subject such as this would be something like "knowing what you're talking about".

What is particularly worrisome about all of this, at least to me, is that the kind of bone-headed fundamentalist literalism that would prompt someone to think that evolutionary theory is not compatible with Church teaching is totally inimical to the Church's long and illustrious history of taking an active and salutary interest in the growth of all areas of human knowledge, including scientific knowledge. Just as the Dawkinses of the world want to shut the door on all discussion of rival theories to evolution (to say that is not to concede that Intelligent Design counts as a "rival theory" to evolutionary theory), so too the Fundies of the world want to close the door on all discussion of rival theories to the idea that Genesis must be interpreted literally. Both sides are acting contrary to the Church's tradition of Christian humanism.

Having said all that, I must also admit that I am sympathetic to those who are made uncomfortable by the triumphalism of some scientists. Science is, by its very nature, a materialist and empiricist enterprise, and an orthodox Christian can be neither. So we must be anti-realist about science, and somewhat less positivistic about it as well. But we must take an active interest in the kind of knowledge that it fosters, because the Church has found that to do so is part of what makes us human.

Comments

Kathy Hutchins said…
Now you know how it feels to be a professional economist and hear some of the blather that comes out of the USCCB on economic policy. The last thing you want to do is sound like some member of the cranky dissentariat, but man can the bishops sound like dim-witted freshman when they start in on the minimum wage or 'fair trade.'
Scott Carson said…
Right you are, Kathy! I think things began to go south for the bishops back in the 80s, with their economic pastoral. The real worry about something like that, it seems to me, is that it damages, at least in the public mind, their capacity to speak authoritatively and persuasively about areas in which they're right (abortion, contraception, etc).

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