ACROSS THE GLOBE this year, people are commemorating
the 200th anniversary of the
birth of Charles Darwin and the 150th
anniversary of the publication of his revolutionary
book, On the Origin of Species By
Means of Natural Selection. "Darwin Day"
was celebrated on or near February 12
(Darwin's birthday) with at least 757
events in 45 countries. Last March, the Vatican Pontifical
Academy of Sciences and Notre Dame University sponsored
a conference entitled "Biological Evolution: Facts and Theories."
All of this interests me greatly since I taught college-level
biology for 20 years.
The importance of Darwin's ideas is highlighted in Darwin's Vision and Christian Perspectives, edited by Walter Ong,
S.J. He writes: "There can be no doubt that the discovery of
the process of evolution, cosmic and organic, has been one
of the greatest achievements of the human mind. In a sense,
this is the central discovery in the Western world since
Renaissance times, and in a still further sense it is the central
corporate discovery of all mankind."
Then why has this relatively simple scientific theory met
with such resistance, not only when it appeared in 1859 but
also still today? I offer two major reasons for this: 1) the mistaken
idea that Darwin's theory of evolution excludes supernatural
involvement in the development of the natural
world, and 2) the general public's limited understanding of
the scientific evidence that has made this theory universally
accepted in the scientific community.
A recent Gallup Poll revealed that only 39 percent of the
people questioned believe in the theory, 25 percent do not
and 36 percent have no opinion. Belief in evolution ranges
from only 24 percent of those who attend church weekly to
55 percent of those who seldom or never attend, while 41
percent of the former and 11 percent of the latter do not
believe in this theory.
Regarding all the questions asked, about a third of respondents
indicated no opinion, suggesting lack of knowledge
Even in Darwin's time, the idea that the great diversity of
living creatures had developed over long stretches of time
had been around for many decades. Darwin's ideas were well-developed
when he wrote Origin in 1838. He delayed publication
because he knew how religious people might react
to the revolutionary notion that nature's huge variety of living
beings came about by natural processes over millions of
years—rather than through direct creation by God in six days,
or 6,000 years. Although when Darwin published Origin he
was probably agnostic, he wrote, "By 'nature,' I mean the laws
ordained by God to govern the Universe."
Evolution Need Not Threaten Faith
How do we today understand the term "laws of nature"? How
many persons see the constant miracles in the natural world
as awesome signs of divine activity? How many Catholics
realize that Pope Pius XII's 1950 encyclical Humani Generis indicates that "biological evolution is compatible with
Christian faith" (#36)—as long as God's intervention is recognized as necessary for creating the
Pope John Paul II stated in 1996:
"[N]ew scientific knowledge has led us
to realize that the theory of evolution
is no longer a mere hypothesis. It is
indeed remarkable that this theory has
been progressively accepted by researchers,
following a series of discoveries
in various fields of knowledge.
The convergence, neither sought nor
fabricated, of the results of work that
was conducted independently is in
itself a significant argument in favor of
this theory" (Message to the Pontifical
Academy of Sciences on Evolution, October
Can we not then accept the idea
that the Eternal Creator chose an evolutionary
way of creating the natural
world—and that creation is still occurring?
In his recent book, Darwin's Gift to
Science and Religion, Francisco Ayala,
one of the leading evolutionary biologists
of our time, who has a strong
background in Catholic theology,
explains, "If properly understood, science
and religious beliefs need not be
in contradiction because science and
religion concern different matters."
They are two of the many ways of
human knowing—art, music, philosophy,
history and common sense, to
name a few others. I believe it is not
coincidental that the order of appearance
of the sun, water and living beings
on Earth is almost identical in the scientific
story and in Genesis.
Unfortunately in our culture today,
many people do not understand how
scientific investigation works and what
science tells us about our world.
Modern science began in the 16th
century, observing the processes that
occur in the natural world. The scientific
method involves developing
hypotheses and then testing them to
see if what is actually observed supports
a hypothesis. Religion concerns
meaning and purpose in the world and
the relations of persons to each other
and to God. So religion and science
have different goals and methods.
Using the scientific approach,
Darwin's painstaking observations in
various populations of plants and animals
over many years qualified him to
offer a revolutionary theory of natural
selection. Its major points include: 1)
Populations of plants and animals grow
and face limited resources; 2) In the
resulting struggle for existence, individuals
with traits that help them overcome
adverse environmental factors
are more likely to survive and reproduce;
3) Their offspring tend to inherit
the characteristics of the parents; 4)
Individuals with non-advantageous
traits eventually disappear from the
population; and 5) Over the course of many generations, this process of natural
selection gradually transforms the
Points one through four above seem
fairly obvious to any observer. The last
point actually describes "descent with
modification from a common ancestor,"
as Darwin described the process
and the resulting variety of species.
Darwin did not use the term "evolution
Darwin's curious nature and tireless
observation supported his conclusions.
After two years as a medical student,
Darwin left the University of Edinburgh
for Cambridge to prepare to become
an Anglican cleric. Because many of
the naturalists then were country pastors,
his physician-father approved—even though he preferred that Charles
become a doctor.
Even as a boy, Darwin was deeply interested
in natural history, and shortly
after his graduation from Cambridge he
embarked on a five-year trip as the naturalist
on the H.M.S. Beagle. His father
agreed reluctantly, afraid that Charles
would never amount to much.
Many of his most important observations
were made during extended trips
ashore where he collected countless
specimens. The discovery of fossil bones
of large extinct mammals in Argentina
and observations about the distribution
of animals on the Galapagos
Islands (about 600 miles off the coast of
Ecuador) greatly stimulated his interest
in how species originate.
The giant tortoises—galapago is Spanish
for part of a saddle, which the tortoise
shell resembles—differ from island
to island, and all of them are different
from those found anywhere else. These
large populations could not have
existed had there been predators, but
here there weren't any.
How many different fields can provide
evidence for evolution? In Darwin's
time the major ones were the
fossil record, comparative anatomy,
comparative embryology and biogeography.
Each of these contributed
enormous amounts of information to
support the idea that living organisms
have varied greatly both in time and in
Nearly everyone realizes that dinosaurs
once dominated the planet, starting
about 230 million years ago.
Scientists think that dinosaurs became
extinct about 65 million years ago
when a large asteroid collided with
Earth near the Yucatan peninsula.
Though this event was catastrophic for
dinosaurs, their disappearance may, in
fact, have been the only way that mammals
could have started flourishing.
Strong evidence of similarity emerges
from studying the skeletons of vertebrate
animals. For example, the forelimbs
of the whale, bird, dog and
human—though used for different
functions—contain one large bone
above and two paired bones below the
In comparative embryology, even
some experts may find it nearly impossible
to distinguish among very early
embryos of fish, salamander, tortoise,
chicken, pig, cow, rabbit and human.
Evolution helps explain why some
animals and plants are found only in
certain parts of the world. For example,
North America and Europe, on both
sides of the North Atlantic, have many
similar animals; geologists have found
that at one time a wide land bridge
connected these two continents. Yet
there is little similarity of animals in
Africa and South America, which are
widely separated by the South Atlantic.
Hawaii has more than 1,000 unique
species of snails, thanks to the extreme
isolation of these islands.
For these and other reasons, the theory
of evolution is more than a theory.
We now have much more evidence
than Darwin did. In the mid-19th century,
the mechanism of heredity—how
the changes that he was observing came
about—had not been discovered.
In 1865 in Brunn, Austria, a paper by
Gregor Mendel, an Augustinian monk
in the Austro-Hungarian Empire, was
presented, describing how genes operate.
His work did not become known
until it was rediscovered by three scientists
Had Darwin known of Mendel's work
on genetics, the scientific community's
reluctance to accept Darwin's theory
of natural selection might have been
much less because the mechanism of
heredity clearly shows how the changes
he described were passed from generation
to generation. DNA has become a
household term after the discovery of
this amazing molecule's structure,
which carries the unique genetic coding
for each organism.
The fact that all living cells—whether
in single-celled organisms like bacteria
and fungi or large, multicellular
organisms—are very similar both in
chemical composition and in function
reveals the genetic continuity and common
ancestry of all living organisms.
Today's ongoing studies in molecular
biology provide the strongest evidence
for evolution by showing how all
living beings could have evolved from
simple, single-cell organisms. We can
show in a lab what Darwin meant when
he affirmed, "All the organic beings
which have ever lived on this earth
descended from some primordial form
into which life was first breathed."
Appreciating this evolutionary mode
of creating the awesome diversity of
the world's living beings can give us
a new image of our Eternal Creator—one which we can find very exciting!
Meister Eckhart, one of Christianity's
leading mystics, was way ahead of his
time when he stated some time before
1327, "Every single creature is full of
God and is a book about God."
Perhaps the area which has caused the
most controversy is the idea that the
human species, homo sapiens, is the
most recent addition to the evolutionary
tree of life. Evidence for the descent
of humans from the primate line, however,
The most recent evolutionary branching
has resulted in the chimpanzee and
hominid lines; homo sapiens has developed
from the latter. Although no fossils
of the common ancestor have yet
been discovered, molecular biology
shows that human macromolecules
closely resemble those of chimpanzees.
For example, many enzymes and other
proteins, such as hemoglobin, are virtually
According to Francis Collins, head of
the Human Genome Project that has
mapped all the genes on human and
chimpanzee chromosomes, "Humans
and chimps are 96-percent identical at
the DNA level."
This eminent scientist and physician
has gone from agnosticism to belief.
After interacting with patients and
working as a geneticist, he eventually
became a devout Christian. The quotation
cited occurs in his book, The Language
of God, where he also writes: "It
is time to call a truce in the escalating
war between science and spirit....Science
is not threatened by God; it is
enhanced. God is certainly not threatened
by science; He made it all possible."
Many scientists since Darwin's time
have realized that scientific searching
can result in the awesome realization
that creation is an ongoing process, set
in motion by an Eternal Creator.
In 1881, only 10 years after Darwin
published The Descent of Man, Pierre
Teilhard de Chardin was born in France.
After extensive study of hominid fossils
and early human societies, this Jesuit
paleontologist in 1938 completed his
most important work, The Phenomenon
of Man. His religious superiors found his
thinking unorthodox and forbade him
After Teilhard's death in 1955, many
of his works began to be translated and
published. He originated the concept
that humans are a phenomenon of
Earth's evolutionary adventure, which
is moving toward the Omega Point,
the Cosmic Christ. The influence of
Teilhard's ideas has been far-reaching
because very early he integrated broad
scientific knowledge with a deep sensitivity
to religious values.
At vespers on July 24, 2009, Pope
Benedict XVI preached about God's
power and goodness. He said: "The role
of the priesthood is to consecrate the
world so that it may become a living
host, a liturgy: so that the liturgy may
not be something alongside the reality
of the world, but that the world itself
shall become a living host, a liturgy.
This is also the great vision of Teilhard
de Chardin: In the end we shall achieve
a true cosmic liturgy, where the cosmos
becomes a living host."
Influenced by Teilhard's work, the
late Thomas Berry, a Passionist priest
who called himself a geologian, recently
has provided our 21st-century world
with timely wisdom. His agreement
with Teilhard's idea that "we must consciously
will the further stages of the
evolutionary process" is clear in Berry's
major book, The Great Work: Our Way
Into the Future.
As a cultural historian, he was eminently
qualified to state: "Natural selection
can no longer function as it has in
the past. Cultural selection is now a
decisive force in determining the future
of the biosystems of the Earth."
To a large extent, the further development
of the human family in what
Berry described as the "sacred Earth
community"—the entire created universe—is in our hands.
Our times require that all of us appreciate
our part in this great work of cocreation.
As Father Berry explained in
1999, "The Great Work now, as we
move into a new millennium, is to
carry out the transition from a period
of human devastation to a period when
humans would be present to the planet
in a mutually beneficent manner. We
cannot doubt that we too have been
given the intellectual vision, the spiritual
insight and even the physical
resources we need for carrying out this
The evolutionary adventure continues!
Genesis on Creation
ONE THING that we almost immediately note as we read the Book
of Genesis is the often imaginative and exaggerated character of
its language. Surely here we are reading something other than simple
history or natural science. But if we say that it is not history
or actual fact, we do not mean that it is not true. There are many
ways of expressing truth. Poetry is one way; myth is another.
A myth is not a lie, nor is it make-believe. In literature, it is a
story about a profound truth that can only be adequately described
in a figurative way.
—Sister Dianne Bergant, C.S.A., "You'll Never Believe What Happened in
the Garden: A Look at Genesis 2," Scripture From Scratch, October 1997