Academic journal article Theological Studies

Evolution, Randomness, and Divine Purpose: A Reply to Cardinal Schonborn

Academic journal article Theological Studies

Evolution, Randomness, and Divine Purpose: A Reply to Cardinal Schonborn

Article excerpt

CARDINAL CHRISTOPH SCHONBORN OF VIENNA recently published an op-ed article in the New York Times entitled "Finding Design in Nature" (July 7, 2005). In that article he called into question the compatibility of neo-Darwinian theory of evolution with the Catholic teaching that the created order is endowed with purpose by God its creator. There have been a great many responses to this article. (1) For the most part these responses defended the compatibility of evolution and Catholic faith. In addition, these responses challenged the cardinal's characterization of an endorsement of evolution by Pope John Paul II as "vague and unimportant." (2) While I fundamentally agree with most of these responses, I do not think that they have gone to the heart of the theological problem raised by the cardinal, namely, reconciling the randomness of evolutionary processes with the affirmation of divine design.

Central to Schonborn's argument is his construal of the relationship between two concepts: design and randomness. To quote from the cardinal's article: "Evolution in the sense of common ancestry might be true, but evolution in the neo-Darwinian sense--an unguided, unplanned process of random variation and natural selection--is not. Any system of thought that denies or seeks to explain away the overwhelming evidence for design in biology is ideology, not science." Schonborn also states that the Catholic Church "proclaims that by the light of reason the human intellect can readily and clearly discern purpose and design in the natural world, including the world of living things." Taken together these two quotations clearly imply that "evolution in the neo-Darwinian sense" is incompatible with Catholic faith.

Schonborn is raising a very important theological issue. Numerous writers and speakers have indeed exploited the successes of neo-Darwinian explanations as a basis for denying that the natural world has divinely authored value and purpose, a tenet so central to the truth of Catholic faith. (3) Quite rightly Schonborn was concerned to redress those excesses. Still, his criticism was leveled not merely at those excesses as such, but at the whole of neo-Darwinism without distinctions. This was too sweeping and undifferentiated a critique, since numerous scientists and nonscientists affirm both the legitimacy of neo-Darwinian methods of scientific explanation as well as transcendent divine purpose in creation. These conflicting claims call for clarification and qualification. To do so, it is necessary to look more closely at these two ideas: design and randomness.

CLARIFICATION OF THE MEANING OF "DESIGN"

Given the brevity of Cardinal Schoinborn's article, it is difficult to know what precisely he has in mind when he speaks of "design in biology" and "design in the natural world" (emphasis added). If he means no more than an intelligible pattern discovered and verified in empirical data, then such a meaning of design would be quite compatible with the common practice of scientific methods. Arguably, forming and empirically testing hypotheses about intelligible patterns in nature is what scientists do all the time. Galileo took pride in demonstrating that a projectile's motion is parabolic in form. Kepler showed that ellipses best fit the data on planetary orbits (although later Newton, Laplace, and others modified his result). Hans Krebs showed that the chemical processes that provide living organisms with energy form a complex cycle. Contemporary biologists analyze the complex patterns of exchange and interdependence within and among cells in organisms. Ecologists have discovered numerous intelligible patterns in the relationships of mutual dependency among organisms and their environments. If this were all that is meant by "design in the natural world," then certainly scientists in general, including most neo-Darwinian scientists, would agree that nature abounds with these sorts of intelligible patterns. …

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