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Wednesday, July 27, 2005

Darwinists vs. the Catholic Church: Stuff to know before climbing into the ring

Here is nineteenth-century British historian Thomas Babington Macaulay’s assessment of the oldest major institution on Earth:

There is not, and there never was on this earth, a work of human policy* so well deserving of examination as the Roman Catholic Church. The history of that Church joins together the two great ages of human civilisation. No other institution is left standing which carries the mind back to the times when the smoke of sacrifice rose from the Pantheon, and when camelopards and tigers bounded in the Flavian amphitheatre. The proudest royal houses are but of yesterday, when compared with the line of the Supreme Pontiffs. That line we trace back in an unbroken series, from the Pope who crowned Napoleon in the nineteenth century to the Pope who crowned Pepin in the eighth; and far beyond the time of Pepin the august dynasty extends, till it is lost in the twilight of fable. The republic of Venice came next in antiquity. But the republic of Venice was modern when compared to the Papacy; and the republic of Venice is gone, and the Papacy remains. The Papacy remains, not in decay, not a mere antique, but full of life and youthful vigour. The Catholic Church is still sending forth to the farthest ends of the world missionaries as zealous as those who landed in Kent with Augustin, and still confronting hostile kings with the same spirit with which she confronted Attila. The number of her children is greater than in any former age. Her acquisitions in the New World have more than compensated for what she has lost in the Old. Her spiritual ascendency extends over the vast countries which lie between the plains of the Missouri and Cape Horn, countries which, a century hence, may not improbably contain a population as large as that which now inhabits Europe. The members of her communion are certainly not fewer than a hundred and fifty millions; and it will be difficult to show that all other Christian sects united amount to a hundred and twenty millions. Nor do we see any sign which indicates that the term of her long dominion is approaching. She saw the commencement of all the governments and of all the ecclesiastical establishments that now exist in the world; and we feel no assurance that she is not destined to see the end of them all. She was great and respected before the Saxon had set foot on Britain, before the Frank had passed the Rhine, when Grecian eloquence still flourished in Antioch, when idols were still worshipped in the temple of Mecca. And she may still exist in undiminished vigour when some traveller from New Zealand shall, in the midst of a vast solitude, take his stand on a broken arch of London Bridge to sketch the ruins of St. Paul's. ( - On Ranke's History of the Popes. 1840)

So, getting the Catholic Church to accept any clearly naturalistic, modernist view of life (like Darwinism) is not on the same order of difficulty as getting the local school board or the Supreme Court to accept it. The school board and the Supreme Court accept it already; they may not know that they do until someone points it out to them. That is, most of them have never considered the possibility that naturalism, Darwinism and related philosophies might literally not be true.

But the Catholic Church has never thought that these ideas were true, ever. And naturalism (of which Darwinism is the creation story) is not even a new idea. For practical purposes, Epicurus beat the Darwinists to it by nearly 2500 years. So the Church has had plenty of time to develop an opinion.

(Note: The Catholic Church would not agree with Macaulay that it is "a work of human policy.": It believes that it is the true heir of Jesus’s promise to Peter, who is regarded as the first Pope, "And I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it." (Matthew 16:18))

The looming conflict will certainly be lively.

Incidentally, some people wonder why we can't just decide that Darwinism is only a scientific theory and not a philosophical one. I doubt that that will really work for any length of time. I will have more to say on that subject later, but this for now: The major Darwinists have never intended Darwinism to be any less than a way of looking at all of life. It is only fair to evaluate the theory as they do. Also, stripped of its philosophical claims, Darwinism becomes only an assertion about how species change over time - an assertion for which there is actually very little good evidence. Please note, I am not saying that Darwinism, seen in this limited way, is not a correct explanation. I honestly don't think there is enough evidence to tell whether it is a correct explanation or not. The reason Darwinist explanations for all kinds of things are so widely accepted is simply that the theory is assumed to be true on a philosophical basis.

Here is the problem in a nutshell (and I did not invent it):

A peculiarity of Darwinism, both in biology and in other fields, is that it explains too much. It is very hard to imagine a condition of things which could not be explained in terms of natural selection. If the state of various elements at a given moment is such and such then these elements have displayed their survival value under the existing circumstances, and that is that. Natural selection explains why things are as they are: It does not enable us, in general, to say how they will change and vary. It is in a sense rather a historical than a predictive principle and, as is well known, it is rather a necessary than a sufficient principle for modern biology. In consequence its results when applied to social affairs were often rather odd. (MacRae, Donald G. [Reader in Sociology, University of London], "Darwinism and the Social Sciences," in Barnett S.A., ed., "A Century of Darwin," [1958], Mercury Books: London, 1962, p.304).


Darwinism is "necessary" if you want to get rid of the idea of design or purpose in biology. But that is a philosophical project. And if, increasingly, Darwinism is not "sufficient", well, ... maybe that's because you can't get rid of design or purpose in biology.

(Note: If this is not the story you were looking for, see the Blog service note below or the stories listed in the sidebar.)
If you like this blog, check out my book on the intelligent design controversy, By Design or by Chance?. You can read excerpts as well.

Blog service note: Did you come here looking for any of the following stories?

- The op-ed by Catholic Cardinal Schonborn in the New York Times? Note also the Times's story on the subject, some interesting quotes from major Darwinists to compare with the Catholic Church's view, as expressed by the Cardinal, and an example of the kind of problem with Darwinian philosophy that the Cardinal is talking about.

- the Privileged Planet film shown at the Smithsonian, go here for an extended review. Please do not raise cain about an "anti-evolution" film without seeing it. If your doctor forbids you to see the film, in case you get too excited, at least read my detailed log of the actual subjects of the film. If you were one of the people who raised cain, ask yourself why you should continue to believe the people who so misled you about the film's actual content ...

- the showing of Privileged Planet at the Smithsonian, go here and here to start, and then this one and this one will bring you up to date.
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