Evolution in Rome

For four and a half days during the first week of March, several hundred people packed the great lecture hall of the Gregorian University in Rome to hear thirty-five lectures by prominent scientists, philosophers, theologians, and historians of science, all on one or another aspect of evolution. Sparked partly by the one hundred and fiftieth anniversary of the publication of Darwin's world-shaking book The Origin of Species, and by the growing polarization between religious "creationist" fundamentalism on the one hand, and aggressive atheism claiming a scientific foundation on the other, the conference was designed to bring experts together in fruitful dialogue to attempt to find some common ground and mutual understanding.

        To a large extent I think the conference succeeded in its goal. Not that there were no difficulties. In fact, there was a bit of fireworks the first day when the representative of a Muslim anti-evolutionist movement from Turkey loudly challenged several scientists who had just finished summing up all the latest fossil and biological evidence for evolution to come up with even one good example (in fact they had just spoken about quite a number of them) of evidence of a transitional form or "missing link."  Likewise, complaints have since come to light that proponents of Creation Science and so-called Intelligent Design theory were deliberately excluded from the list of specially picked speakers scheduled for the conference. Other than that — or even perhaps because of the absence of these dissenting voices — the discussion proceeded rather smoothly.  Not that there were no disagreements over some more technical points, for example, the long-standing debate as to whether or not evolution proceeds by slow and gradual development, or instead, at least occasionally, by relatively sudden changes.

        To my mind, however, the most serious area of disagreement that surfaced still revolves around the concept of "teleology" — that is, the issue as to whether or not evolution can be said to have a goal or overall purpose. Discomfort was expressed by one speaker — and apparently shared by a few others judging from the applause — with the special attention and praise given by three other speakers to the Jesuit paleontologist Pierre Teilhard de Chardin (1881-1955). There can be little doubt that it was Teilhard’s view of evolution as an inevitable process leading toward greater complexity and consciousness, and eventually culminating in the rise of the spirit, that explains at least some of the reluctance on the part of many scientists to see any final goal or purpose in evolution.

        Nevertheless, it seems to me that it is on this same point that Church continues to undercut its own position — which might be generally characterized as "theistic evolution" — when it still holds to the doctrine, as reiterated by a priest-professor from the University of Bologna, of the special creation, in the case of each and every individual human being, of his or her immortal soul. One can understand, given all the assaults on the sacredness of human life, the motivation behind clinging to this ancient idea, largely borrowed from Platonic philosophy. But one cannot but wonder — as did one young German priest-biologist during a question and discussion period — why it would not be enough to see evolution itself as having given humans this thirst or openness to the transcendent.   

        Otherwise the appearance is given that the official Church teaching, through this rather abrupt disjunction between our biological origins and our spiritual potential to share God’s own life, continues to place a barrier between itself and contemporary science. But not just that; it also puts it at odds with the current thinking of its own philosophers and theologians who are trying to convince us that the creative power of God is present in and continues to work through the whole evolutionary process from the very beginning to its final end or fulfillment. I hope that the follow-up conferences, one to be held at Notre Dame University this coming November and still another in Rome, will give more attention to this crucial issue.

                                R W Kropf 3/14/09                          EvolRome.doc  09-03-14.html