Andrew Szebenyi

It is amazing how many people are trying to find problems where there aren’t any. The culprits are prejudice and ignorance. Of course, nobody likes to be called prejudiced or ignorant, especially if it may be true. The creation- versus-evolution controversy is loaded with confusion caused by these two offenders. Here is a sampling of such confusions. Some are confused about the meaning of the word theory and say that the idea of evolution is “only a theory” or “just one of many theories” about the origin of life. This is what Samuel Wilberforce thought at the Oxford Meeting in 1860 about Charles Darwin’s findings. He called them “casual theories,” by which he meant unfounded speculations. According to present-day dictionaries, the meaning of the word theory ranges from a “well-established scientific principle,” as in the case of the theory of gravitation, to a “mere conjecture or guess about something.” In 1838 Darwin wrote in his diary about the evolution of species by means of natural selection: “Here at last I had a theory by which to work.” By theory he meant, in today’s language, a working hypothesis. Since then all factors of this process have been studied, measured and evaluated, and the obtained evidence is clear: the taxonomic rank “species” is not a static but a dynamic process term. This may promote a conflict between two worldviews or cosmologies—the classical static, and the evolutionary dynamic—but not between faith and science.

 

Some may think that scientists are working in a milieu of atheism, and may even go so far as to say that science is an instrument of atheism. This idea is, of course, false. The nature of scientific investigation is determined by the method used to obtain knowledge. The scientific method implies observation and the description of observation. As our curiosity is aroused, we ask relevant questions and attempt to answer them tentatively by formulating a working hypothesis, an educated guess. But we must test this hypothesis by properly designed experiments that are able to give us a clear and precise answer.

Because of the method we use, scientific knowledge is about the sensory, material world. After all, whatever we observe comes through our senses. Consequently, scientific knowledge is both objective and subjective. To say that science is totally objective and everything else is subjective is, of course, nonsense. The questions we ask and the hypotheses we propose are conditioned by the expertise of the inquirer and the characteristics of a given time and culture. Furthermore, scientific knowledge is quantitative, because the way we evaluate the results of experiments is primarily quantitative. Some scientists, who have no faith, may attempt to reduce reality exclusively to the sensory, material world. In that case, there is no room for God. Other scientists do have faith, and for them each scientific discovery is a testimony to a God who is the source of everything they discover.

Faith does not come from science, but from another source of experience. This, of course, does not mean that science and faith are enemies. In the light of faith, science becomes deeply meaningful. The last sentence of the Origin of Species reads as a statement of belief in God the creator. Darwin wrote: “There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed by the Creator into a few forms or into one....”

Some people assume that literal interpretation of the Scriptures renders the statements of faith inseparable from the cultural trimmings of a past era. They fuse the theological meaning and the cultural characteristics of an ancient text. This is very dangerous, because the cultural elements change, while the statements of faith remain constant. As time goes on, not only the meaning of certain words but also our understanding of the world around us will change. If our literal interpretation implies a denial of these changes as we force upon ourselves a static cosmology, we not only become dysfunctional in our own time, but will also diminish the credibility of the theological content of the ancient text.

Such is the plight of some Christian fundamentalists adhering to the literal interpretation of the Scriptures in a presumed static world. In proper scholarship, literal interpretation of the Scriptures means the effort to go back in time to understand the history and the culture of that time. Then we can better comprehend the theological meaning of the text. The next step is to translate this theological content using the words and concepts of our own time and culture. How else could we render meaningful today Abraham’s attempted sacrifice of Isaac, or the story of Job, or the plight of Jephthah in the Book of Judges, or the geocentric and static world of Ecclesiastes? How else could we understand a creation narrative that in the original text is so heavily laced with the anthropomorphic biases of its time?

Some assume that intelligent design proves God to be the creator, while chance events would disprove it. Of course, the implication is that the evolutionary process has been understood by Darwin and by many scientists today as the product of chance. This is the conclusion reached by the French geneticist Jacques Monod. The last sentence of his book Chance and Necessity declares: “The ancient covenant is in pieces. Man knows at last that he is alone in the universe’s unfeeling immensity, out of which he emerged only by chance.” For someone who assumes that there is nothing else but science, this statement may seem to be inevitable, but it will not survive scrutiny. Human experience is far more diverse than what we encounter through the scientific method alone. But even within the context of the scientific method, we could not legitimately conclude that chance is the main or only factor that results in evolutionary change. Chance does play a part in the evolutionary process by presenting the raw materials of choices from what is already given. From the biological point of view, it is natural selection that provides the adaptive direction and meaning. Chance does play a part in all this, but direction is certainly a more pervasive factor for everything that is alive and successful. Putting this into a metaphor, chance may provide the choice from an already given pallette of colors for a painting, but it is the artist who paints the work of art.

Is evolution a good example of intelligent design? Certainly. Does this observation prove the existence of God? Not by itself. When we look at the natural world, including ourselves, it is quite clear that we did not create it. Who did, then? For someone who has no faith, the honest answer is not that chance did it, but “I don’t know.” For someone who has faith the answer is that God did all this.

How do I reconcile our present-day knowledge of evolution with the accounts of creation in the Book of Genesis? By finding no need for reconciliation, because there is no disagreement between them. Take the creation narrative from the second chapter of Genesis, which says God formed man of dust from the earth. This process of forming the human species from what is already given is the object of study in the science of human evolution. There is no war between theology and biology here. The contrary is true. One deeply enriches the other.

Some may be offended by these statements and say to me: “Who do you think you are?” I am nobody really. Just a guy who does not like to find problems where there are none.

Andrew Szebenyi, S.J., is professor of biology at Le Moyne College, Syracuse, N.Y.

Comments

Dori LeBlanc | 1/16/2006 - 4:08pm
I enjoyed the article "Biologist and the Believer". I grew up in a mainstream Protestant church. In fifth grade my Sunday School teacher told us that with regards to the beginnings of the earth, science answers the questions "What?" and "How?" and religion answers the questions "Who?" and "Why?". It made a lot of sense to me then and still does now. When the topic of creation is approached in this manner, there is no disagreement between science and religion.

Dori LeBlanc | 1/16/2006 - 4:08pm
I enjoyed the article "Biologist and the Believer". I grew up in a mainstream Protestant church. In fifth grade my Sunday School teacher told us that with regards to the beginnings of the earth, science answers the questions "What?" and "How?" and religion answers the questions "Who?" and "Why?". It made a lot of sense to me then and still does now. When the topic of creation is approached in this manner, there is no disagreement between science and religion.