Text of talk by Vatican Observatory director on ‘Science Does Not Need God. Or Does It? A Catholic Scientist Looks at Evolution’
The following is the text of the talk to be delivered by Vatican Observatory Director Jesuit Father George V. Coyne, “Science Does Not Need God, or Does It? A Catholic Scientist Looks at Evolution,” at Palm Beach Atlantic University in West Palm Beach, Fla., Jan. 31:
I would essentially like to share with you two convictions in this presentation: (1) that the Intelligent Design (ID) movement, while evoking a God of power and might, a designer God, actually belittles God, makes her/him too small and paltry; (2) that our scientific understanding of the universe, untainted by religious considerations, provides for those who believe in God a marvelous opportunity to reflect upon their beliefs. Please note carefully that I distinguish, and will continue to do so in this presentation, that science and religion are totally separate human pursuits. Science is completely neutral with respect to theistic or atheistic implications which may be drawn from scientific results.
A Bit of History
The current situation in the evolution debate is better understood if we review a few significant episodes in the history of the debate. In 1669, Niels Stensen, a Danish scientist and Catholic priest, discovered in the mountains of Tuscany, Italy the fossil of a whale’s tooth almost identical to that of a whale caught off of the coast of Leghorn, Italy. He intuited that Tuscany must have been inundated in geological times by an ocean. He published a fundamental work on such themes and is credited thereby for having founded three branches of geological sciences: paleontology, crystallography and historical geology. He identified three different geological strata and for the first time proposed a temporal sequence for the formation of the earth’s crust. For the first time also the biblical flood was considered as the source of the inundations. From then on the mistaken attempt to employ the Bible as a source of scientific knowledge will unduly complicate the debate over evolution.
Despite what is commonly thought, it was not Charles Darwin who caused problems for the theologians with the implications that might be drawn from the theory of evolution. About one hundred years before Darwin the College de Sorbonne in Paris (a kind of French Holy Office or Inquisition) condemned the great French naturalist, Georges Buffon, for having proposed, from both the cooling rate and the sequence of geological strata, that it took billion of years to form the crust of the earth. Darwin’s great contribution to the growing scientific evidence for evolution was not so much evolution as such but rather the adaptation of living organisms to the environment, only one of the two great pillars of evolutionary theory: internal mutations in an organism and natural selection.
The great British intellectual and Roman Catholic Cardinal, John Henry Newman, stated in 1868: “The theory of Darwin, true or not, is not necessarily atheistic; on the contrary, it may simply be suggesting a larger idea of divine providence and skill.” What a marvelous intuition and one which we shall see fits very well the implications to be drawn from our scientific knowledge of an evolutionary universe.
Recent Catholic Positions
This brief survey of some historical incidents shows the ups and downs of the view of the churches, and especially of the Catholic Church, with respect to Darwinian evolution. However, one half century after Darwin research on evolution by Catholic scholars was a veritable mine field. Many saw coming another “Galileo Affair.” Nonetheless, in 1996 in a message to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences Pope John Paul II declared that: “New scientific knowledge has led us to the conclusion that the theory of evolution is no longer a mere hypothesis.” The new scientific knowledge has also led to what is now called neo-Darwinian evolution, for the most part in continuity with Darwin but obviously progressing beyond his science.
The most recent episode in the relationship of the Catholic Church to science, a tragic one as I see it, is the affirmation by Cardinal Christoph Schönborn in his article in the New York Times, 7 July 2005, that neo-Darwinian evolution is not compatible with Catholic doctrine and he opts for Intelligent Design. To my estimation, the cardinal is in error on at least five fundamental issues, among others: (1) the scientific theory of evolution, as all scientific theories, is completely neutral with respect to religious thinking; (2) the message of John Paul II, which I have just referred to and which is dismissed by the cardinal as “rather vague and unimportant,” is a fundamental church teaching which significantly advances the evolution debate; (3) neo-Darwinian evolution is not in the words of the cardinal: “an unguided, unplanned process of random variation and natural selection;” (4) the apparent directionality seen by science in the evolutionary process does not require a designer; (5) Intelligent Design is not science despite the cardinal’s statement that “neo-Darwinism and the multi-verse hypothesis in cosmology [were] invented to avoid the overwhelming evidence for purpose and design ...
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