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?

14 thoughts on “Evolution flap”

  1. Many biologists are closed-minded anti-religion bigots
    “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.” (—from the log entry)

    They know they can’t explain everything but many of them are too bigoted and, sorry to be so blunt, but too dull-witted to realize that explanations that come out of religious philosophy of what is at present unexplained are legitimate, so shouldn’t be ridiculed (and also shouldn’t be espoused in non-sectarian classrooms, since the typical non-sectarian high-school or college biology teacher is supposed to be religiously neutral and properly so). Self-consciousness—people’s thoughts, in other words—is completely unexplained, for example: science has no idea what thoughts are, not the slightest inklings of even a barest beginning of an idea what they are, what they’re made of, how they arise, and so on. Science also, of course, has no idea what the soul is. Things like thoughts and the soul are going to turn out to be unexplainable without recourse to an acknowledgement of the supernatural—of the divine. Biology isn’t the only science where issues are unexplained: in physics and cosmology also, of course, are not only issues that are totally unexplained, but the number of such issues increases with the passage of time instead of decreasing.

    I think it was Werner Heisenberg who said science would not ultimately be able to uncover the explanations of things (it was either he or Schrödinger).

    My own sympathies lie with those scientists—a couple of them were mentioned in the linked article, one a professor at Brown; I forget his name as I type this—who see no problem with Darwinian evolution itself and also see no necessary contradiction between it and Christianity. I think the Cardinal may have hinted potentially at agreement, on his part, with this view, where he said he didn’t see a problem with Darwinism in so far as it spoke of “common ancestors.”

    There are people who see in science more than it claims. Newton, for example, not only didn’t postulate an absolute spatial frame of reference but said explicitly he didn’t. Yet there are philosophers of science who claim one of the things relativity disproved was Newtonian claims of an absolute spatial frame of reference. There are weird claims made, in turn, about relativity and quantum mechanics by philosphers of science. The same goes for Darwin, Archimedes, Aristotle, and others—their scientific claims get misinterpreted by people who don’t understand exactly what they were and weren’t claiming.

    Long live Flanders!

    • What is “neo-Darwinianism” anyway?
      On the relation between neo-Darwinian theory and Catholicism: Cdl. Schonborn’s objection is to “evolution in the neo-Darwinian sense—an unguided, unplanned process of random variation and natural selection.” I think what he means is not that there is no such process, or that it shouldn’t be investigated, but that such a process is not going to be the complete explanation of why all life forms, including man, exist just as they are.

      My impression is that people who present themselves as public spokesmen for the neo-Darwinian view most often do mean the view as a complete account of origins. “Random variation” isn’t intended to mean “variation that occurs for reasons current biological science does not deal with.” It has a positive content, so as to exclude things like divine design that most people (other than Intelligent Design types) believe biology as currently constituted has nothing much to say about.

      I don’t think that kind of all-embracing view is necessary for the work of biologists, although naturally the work will be more fun if they can think of it as the construction of a complete account of things. Emerson says somewhere that to do anything at all, especially in intellectual fields, we have to persuade ourselves that what we’re doing is much more important than it actually is.

      Rem tene, verba sequentur.

  2. Evolution
    As an undergraduate biologist, I agree some biologists are clueless as to the origin of species. It might be helpful to know some professors attempt to decipher an inscrutable idea, the law of natural selection. Geologic time is incomprehensible.

  3. Steve Sailer links to a piece of his on Darwinsim in France
    Steve Sailer links today to a 2001 piece of his on the status of Darwinism in France. (What prompted him to link to it was a comment he’d received from a French correspondent which dealt with French philosopher Michel Foucault, touching on Darwin only fleetingly and indirectly, which can be found by going to Steve’s site and scrolling down to the sub-heading, “Why Foucault shouldn’t be lumped with Derrida”—there isn’t a permalink posted for it yet—or it may be here. It was a long, rambling comment by this Frenchman, which I for one couldn’t comprehend on first reading but will need another two or three before I’ll be able to make heads or tails of it.)

    In his 2001 piece Steve says,

    “In France, [Darwin]’s perspective on mankind is about as fashionable as English cuisine. […] America’s two main anti-evolution forces—Protestant creationism and academic feminism—are unimportant in France. [Prof. Bernard] Thierry[, primatologist,] observed that, unlike in America, ‘There is no creationism in France. In the schools, you are taught about evolution.’ And the kind of ideological feminism that in the U.S. routinely objects to Darwinism’s interest in the biological basis of differences between the sexes is much weaker in France, where old jokes about the French enthusiastically cheering ‘vive la différence’ are still true. Thierry argued that one explanation is that the French have long been relatively indifferent to nature. In France, evolution is assumed only relevant to animals. And the natural world is assumed to offer few lessons for civilized man. […Professors] Gouillou and Frost offered other reasons. The leftism of French intellectuals has kept Darwinism on the back burner. Gouillou said, ‘Leftism has been associated very deeply with intellectualism. Still, even now, many refuse to accept that an intellectual can be rightist.’ […A]ccording to Frost, ‘Lamarckianism was also encouraged by the French Communist party, which was highly Stalinist in its orientation and which strongly marked French intellectual life throughout the postwar era.’ The Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin banished most of the Soviet Union’s Darwinian geneticists to the gulag camps in order to promote the crackpot ideas of a Lamarckian agronomist named Trofim Lysenko. […] Today, according to Thierry, no one in France subscribes to Lamarck’s theory. Still, the damage lingers. […]”

    Long live Flanders!

  4. “If part of that
    “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?”

    Philip Johnson has written books on this point. According to Johnson, Darwinists aren’t defending a scientific theory, they are defending an all-embracing philosophy that Johnson calls “naturalism.” “Naturalism” is apparently an unholy alliance of materialism and determinism, and constitutes an exclusive ontological system. A poor man’s exposition of Naturalism might be: “everything has a cause, and all causes are material.”

    Alvin Plantinga, the Notre Dame philosopher, has also written extensively on this philosophical commitment of biologists. I recommend his writings, many of which are posted on his website. Here’s a sampler on what Plantinga calls “methodological naturalism:”

    “According to an idea widely popular ever since the Enlightenment, however, science (at least when properly pursued) is a cool, reasoned, wholly dispassionate[2] attempt to figure out the truth about ourselves and our world, entirely independent of ideology, or moral convictions, or religious or theological commitments. Of course this picture has lately developed some cracks. It is very much worth noting, however, that 16 centuries ago Augustine provided the materials for seeing that this common conception can’t really be correct. It would be excessively naive to think that contemporary science is religiously and theologically neutral, standing serenely above that Augustinian struggle and wholly irrelevant to it. Perhaps parts of science are like that: the size and shape of the earth and its distance from the sun, the periodic table of elements, the proof of the Pythagorean Theorem—these are all in a sensible sense religiously neutral. But many other areas of science are very different; they are obviously and deeply involved in this clash between opposed world views. There is no neat recipe for telling which parts of science are neutral with respect to this contest and which not, and of course what we have here is a continuum rather than a simple distinction. But here is a rough rule of thumb: the relevance of a bit of science to this contest depends upon how closely that bit is involved in the attempt to come to understand ourselves as human beings. Perhaps there is also another variable: how ”theoretical’ the bit in question is, in the sense of being directed at understanding as opposed to control.”

    • “Methodological naturalism”
      I have no objection to naturalism as a method of inquiry. I don’t see why the Church or any reasonable man would. Modern natural science, like other things, becomes fruitful and reliable through limitation. It seems though that such limitations limit the scope of the truths that can be discovered. So it seems that it would be appropriate to alert students at the start of a beginning course on biology that what will be presented will not be the comprehensive truth of things but rather the results of a limited though powerful method of inquiry that would be incapable of revealing certain important truths that may exist and be knowable in other ways.

      Rem tene, verba sequentur.

      • Usefulness of Alerts
        At the start of beginning physics courses (which are purely “Newtonian”) pupils are alerted to the fact that much of what they are about to learn is only provisional and may have to be unlearned at higher levels of physics (which most of them never reach).

        As far as one can tell, this warning does nothing to alter the fact that they come away from such courses with their faith in 19th-century mechanist-materialism (which remains the backdrop to the vulgar “scientistic” world-view of the mass-media and the modern world in general) greatly strengthened.

        The importance of such warnings in relation to the “suggestive” weight of the course as a whole is necessarily minimal.

        • Better to light one candle, etc.
          You have to start somewhere, and formal recognition of a principle is actually a rather good start.

          Rem tene, verba sequentur.

        • Alerts
          Interesting that physicists have no problem with issuing such alerts, and in fact take pride in the fact that everything they know and/or assume may be swept away in a flash of insight. They seem to relish the indeterminacy of it all.

          Biologists are just the opposite. They are doctrinaire, dogmatic, and frightened. And, they are getting nowhere.

      • But, the whole point of
        But, the whole point of methodological naturalism (at least to its practitioners) is that it is both exhaustive and exclusive. There are no other important truths that either exist or are revealed in other ways. No competitors need apply.

        • Methodological vs. metaphysical naturalism
          Really? But if methodological naturalism views itself as exhaustive and exclusive it seems hard to distinguish from metaphysical naturalism. My point, of course, is that there’s nothing wrong if inquirers restrict themselves to naturalism as a method as long as they don’t become angry when the rest of us don’t accept their method as exhaustive and exclusive. Which I think is Schonborn’s objection against neo-Darwinian theory.

          Rem tene, verba sequentur.

          • Schonborn’s objection is
            Schonborn’s objection is the same as Johnson’s and Plantinga’s, that a methodology has been elevated to a metaphysical principle, to the exclusion of all others.

            Darwinists don’t like this. They view any exception to or limitation on naturalism as an attack on the theory itself, which has a central totemic function for them. Their reactions are usually visceral. Very unreasonable people.

      • Dear Mr. Kalb,You hit the
        Dear Mr. Kalb,

        You hit the nail on the head, again:

        “So it seems that it would be appropriate to alert students at the start of a beginning course on biology that what will be presented will not be the comprehensive truth of things but rather the results of a limited though powerful method of inquiry that would be incapable of revealing certain important truths that may exist and be knowable in other ways.”

        I was never alerted about this but learned it through reading and, in part, through my more advanced study of Biology. Mr. Kalb’s key word is “may.”

        All the Best,


        • From the standpoint of
          From the standpoint of biology, “may” is right. From a general human standpoint, which would include the other ways we know things, I don’t think it would be right.

          Rem tene, verba sequentur.


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