You are here

Evolution flap

I don’t really understand the to-do between Cardinal Schönborn and his critics over evolution. [If you look lower down on the linked page you’ll find his original NYT op-ed piece, together with the paper’s commentary.]

As I understand the Cardinal’s and Church’s point (I think His Eminence presented it in an overly partisan and combative way) he’s denying that random variation and natural selection fully explain why we have just these species with just these characteristics rather than other species with other characteristics. The considerations that lead him to believe God exists and does particular things also lead him to believe that among the things God has done through particular action is to bring about human life with its special qualities (e.g., the capacity for theoretical knowledge and for moral thought and action). Accordingly, the most reasonable total explanation for life in the form it has specifically taken, he believes, would include the proposition that God brought it about and it didn’t happen just by chance. If part of that explanation does not constitute a scientific theory, then that just shows that modern natural science is not the total explanation for everything. But what’s so shocking about that?

If I’m right about Cardinal Schönborn’s point, I don’t see why a biologist would object to it. None of it interferes even slightly with his work or ability to propose and test theories in accordance with his own standards. At this stage evolutionary biology apparently involves formulating various hypotheses and seeing how much of the data they can explain and how well they guide further investigations. Random variation and natural selection is a hypothesis that apparently explains a great deal and so has become very useful throughout biology as an organizing principle and guide to further research. People say that to all appearances it’s a permanent and fundamental part of biological science.

So far as I can tell, none of that creates any problems for either the Cardinal or the Church. What would create problems would be a biologist who claims that such a theory constitutes a comprehensive explanation of life in all its details, that since randomness and mechanism explain a great deal they must be taken to explain all the specifics of why man is as he is. But so far as I know biologists don’t claim to have an explanation why a particular species has to exist or once it exists why it has to be exactly as it is. Evolutionary biology is not a science that makes specific predictions. Its practitioners speak about randomness and contingency, which to all appearances are residual categories that might conceal all sorts of things biologists don’t have a handle on and most likely will never have a handle on because biology is not a universal system of knowledge about everything. If His Eminence says he thinks he has a pretty good idea what one of those other things is, what’s the complaint?

In short, I don’t see why biologists have to claim to be able to explain everything about the things they study any more than linguists do. Mechanistic and statistical explanations are great in biology as far as they go, just as they are in linguistics (examples would include explanations involving physiology, phonemics, Grimm’s Law, grammar, dialectical variations, statistical distributions of sounds, words and forms, and conventional responses to particular situations). The latter do in fact explain a very large proportion of linguistic behavior, and I hope linguists continue to develop them and succeed in explaining as much as possible.

The point in both cases, though, is that in order to explain at least some concrete specifics you have to go beyond the borders of mechanism and randomness, and very likely beyond the borders of biology and linguistics, to consider other issues like meaning and purpose. Sometimes people say things not just because of phonemics, grammar and linguistic habit, but because there’s something they want to say. Mathematicians and physicists might possibly object if biologists claimed that since speech and writing are biological behaviors, and since physical and mathematical theories are instances of speech and writing, then the biological scientists’ theory of random variation and natural selection completely explains physical and mathematical theory. Why can’t Cardinal Schönborn make a similar complaint about other specifics involving man and the world?