What to to Teach: Evolution or Creationism? by MacBeth Derham
This article was written in response to the question: Why do we carry books which include evolution?
I want to preface my very long remarks with a motto of mine: “We (humans) don’t know everything.”
When I was a young impressionable scholar at a very nice northeast liberal arts college, I was walking into the Christian-run Coffee House on campus for a brownie, and continuing a conversation with two debate-team members, who, like most of our debate-team, were not pre-law, but science majors (it is a very strange little college). The conversation went something like this:
Debater #1: “...then he put forth the argument that creationism should not be taught as science.”
Debater #2: “Did he think it should be taught at all?”
Debater #1: “He thought it should be left in religion classes.’
Debater #3 (who bears a striking resemblance to MacB.): “But no one believes in creationism anymore.”
Voice: (Christian from the back of the Coffee House): “I do!”
Debater #3: “Really?????”
It has been nearly 17 years since that conversation, and I am still debating the whole matter in my mind, reading everything I can on the subject. It turns out that early in my reading, I began to feel the anxiety of a jury-member in a trial. Oh, the argument for the prosecution sounds great! But wait, the defense is brilliant! And then come the rebuttals, along with more wavering, more confusion, and many more questions.
And that’s how it went. When I read my first treatise on creationism, I wondered, “why no one had ever mentioned ‘this’ or ‘that’ before?” So I read more. The fossil record is incomplete—why? Evolutionary biologist Niles Eldrige (an atheist who has moved away from his original theories because they point too neatly to God) explains it away with his theory of punctuated equilibrium (long periods of stability followed by rapid change) [Time Frames, Simon and Schuster, 1985]. Great! But the creationists remind us that we have, in our lifetime, seen no evolution from one species to another. Shouldn’t it still be happening? There has not been a single new phylum that has come into existence since the Cambrian radiation of 500 million years ago (old earth time). This is shocking to evolutionists, BTW, and they have been frantically looking for new phyla that are not found in the fossil record ever since. They have found one (on the mouth of a lobster), but if they are honest scientists, they will look for it in earnest in the fossil record. There are so many unanswered questions.
The age of the earth was calculated using biblical references; in 1658, (Anglican) Bishop Ussher of Ireland had the whole thing figured out—the first day of creation was Sunday, October 23, 4004 B. C. Noah’s ark rested on Ararat on a Wednesday. This was considered by many to be an absolute truth, despite the good work of Catholics like Nicolai Steno (high school students may wish to read The Seashell on the Mountain Top for a look at Steno's life--not a Catholic perspective, it contains errors on the Galileo matter and other church events of the time, but is nonetheless worth reading. For a quick perspective of Steno's work, go to http://www.uh.edu/engines/epi469.htm --audio is available for this brief article.), until a bit after 1815, when William Smith published a geological map of England, the so-called Map that Changed the World (author of the book by that name, Simon Winchester, comes off as a smug atheist in the book, but it is a good read if you can get past that). And Darwin really muddled things when he published the Origin of Species. What was a Christian to think? If the empty Anglican churches in Britain are any indication, their countrymen embraced humanistic Darwinism with little reluctance. The people were unable to reconcile their faith with their new-found science.
Yet, creationism has persisted, especially in the U.S. Many fearfully perceive that “old earth” beliefs preclude the existence of God. Moreover, many (but assuredly, not all) who tout “old earth” beliefs are atheists, or agnostics at best. There is no doubt that Smith and Darwin changed the thinking of much of the Western world from theistic to humanistic, and that fact alone should be a source of grave concern for any Catholic. But does this mean we have to jump on the fundamentalist-young-earth chariot? Not at all.
An interesting study recently (and I wish I could document it, but the source has fled my brain) polled scientists in many fields and discovered that those most likely to be atheists were geologists. Biologists came next, then chemists, with the humble physicist being the most likely (overwhelmingly) to believe in God. This is a curious statistic. Why are physicists more likely to believe in God? To find out, we must look, as the physicists do, to the beginnings of the universe.
Until the early part of this century, most physicists believed in “steady state” cosmology. That means (and forgive me if you know this already) that the universe had no beginning and no end. A Catholic priest named Father George LeMaitre, using Einstein’s work on Relativity, formulated a theory later called the "Big Bang". Yes, a Catholic priest was the first person to see a scientific beginning to the universe. Creationist who pooh-pooh the Big Bang (see http://www.icr.org/pubs/imp/imp-216.htm ) would do well to look upon the implications—according to the BB theory, the universe has a beginning. Why, Genesis also says the universe had a beginning! While they argue against it using some well-regarded scientific data, the data they use points only to the need for more research, not a complete trashing of the Big Bang theory (both the media hype—the headlines in quotes on the website--and the literal adherence to scripture, add rhetorical fuel, not scientific substance, to this argument). But the truly troublesome thing to them is that a cosmological Big Bang does not fit into their timeline, neatly. I suspect that if we could show that the Big Bang occurred 6-10 thousand years ago, young earth enthusiasts would gladly adopt the theory as their own, despite the minor issues being raised by cosmologists.
I’m going to come back to my jury analogy for a second, because evidence can be a tricky thing in science as in law. Consider a trial: Joe is on trial for murder. Joe has a gun; a gun was used in the crime. Joe hated Jack, the victim. Jack was at Joe’s house when he was killed. It looks like Joe did it! One piece of evidence will exonerate Joe, and sure enough, witnesses come along and say that Bill killed Jack. The prosecution’s theory (case) is disproved. But in some cases, the evidence may simply change the prosecution’s theory slightly: The defense shows that Joe’s gun was never fired. That does not mean that Joe didn’t kill Jack; he could have used another gun. Without further evidence in his defense, Joe may still be convicted. In cosmology, new evidence may show that things happened a bit differently, but until some real startling information on the beginning of the universe is revealed, the theory will only be modified. (I beg forgiveness of all legal experts reading this!)
From a scientific point of view, here’s where any science breaks down: Theorists have a theory (e. g.: the earth is only a few thousand years old; higher animals evolved from lower animals). They look for evidence to support the theory. True science should always be skeptical, and look for evidence to disprove a theory, as well as support it. Both sides are guilty of failure to look for evidence against a theory, from time to time. But there is a critical difference between creationism and science: For creationists, looking to disprove creationism is heresy...this is why creationism by itself cannot be true science. The Catholic effort, in all of this, must be toward finding the truth.
But so far, “We don’t know everything.” When Catholics don’t know something, we look to the church. Here’s what the church has to say on these matters:
First, on humans and scientific research:
From Fides et Ratio http://www.vatican.va/holy_father/john_paul_ii/encyclicals/documents/hf_jp-ii_enc_15101998_fides-et-ratio_en.html
Part III “Intellego Ut Credam”
#28—“One may define the human being, therefore, as the one who seeks the truth.”
#29—“When scientists, following their intuition, set out in search of the logical and verifiable explanation of a phenomenon, they are confident from the first that they will find an answer, and they do not give up in the face of setbacks. They do not judge their original intuition useless simply because they have not reached their goal; rightly enough they will say that they have not yet found a satisfactory answer.”
How I agree with this! And on the age of the earth:
The Catholic Encyclopedia (copyright 1908, at http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/15704b.htm ) has an excellent section on the age of the earth from a scientific point of view. It is very long, and I don’t have the room to quote all I would need, but it is well worth reading, despite the early date of the copyright. The Church, in her wisdom, does not take a definite stand on any of these theories, but outlines the beliefs required of faithful Catholics. We don’t have to believe that the earth is 6000 years old, but we do have to believe in a Creator, a Fall, an Incarnation, etc. See Pope John Paul II’s Message to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences: http://www.cin.org/jp2evolu.html .
I know, I know! I hear you screaming, “Get to the point, MacBeth!”
So, in the end, your question was (paraphrased)<G>, “Why are Catholics not concerned more with these topics?” We are, but I hope we are coming at the questions from both an objective scientific and Catholic point of view. Why are books that promote an “old earth” view suggested on the web-site? Because this is fine from the Catholic point of view, and commonly accepted from the scientific point of view (and therefore likely to be on standardized tests!!). That is not to say that there is no value in questioning “old earth”, “evolution” or any other scientifically derived theories. There is value in questioning everything scientific. Indeed, we must question. It is our very nature to seek truth.
On the website we include books that examine these theories critically. Catholic biochemist Michael Behe, in Darwin’s Black Box, puts forth some great scientific arguments for a Creator. This book is available on my high school science page (url below), and highly recommended. With books or magazines that present theories like “old earth” or “evolution” as fact, I usually add “maybe” to the date as I discuss theories with my kids. I make sure my kids know that these are theories, and that they are not out of line with the Catholic view, but that we have the right as humans to seek the truth.
Mary Daly’s wonderful Creator and Creation is also a must-read for those interested in the subject. http://hedgeschool.homestead.com/creation.html
See more books on the subject at my High School Science page.
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