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February 12

PBS Evolution Video explores the scientific meaning of the word "theory" 

A Catholic Scientist Looks at Evolution

By Father George V. Coyne, SJ, 2/1/2006, Catholic Online

The following is the text of the talk 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, Florida, Jan. 31, 2006:


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 found in modern science.

I would like now to address some of these issues by demonstrating with a series of slides the best modern scientific view of the universe in evolution: physical, chemical and biological. As a Christian believer I would then like to draw some implications from the science presented. The following text represents the essentials of that presentation.

The Cosmos and Life

How is a star born? It happens by the laws of physics. A cloud of gas and dust, containing about 100 to 1,000 times the mass of our sun, gets shocked by a supernova explosion or something similar and this causes an interplay between the magnetic and gravity fields. The cloud begins to break up and chunks of the cloud begin to collapse. And as any gas collapses, it begins to heat up; as it expands, it cools down. In this case the mass is so great that the internal temperature reaches millions of degrees and thus turns on a thermonuclear furnace. A star is born. Thermonuclear energy is the source whereby a star radiates to the universe. You need a very hot piece of the universe to do this, and so you can only get this thermonuclear furnace by having a cloud collapse and raise the temperature. You can only get it, in other words, in stars, with one exception, namely, in the very hot early universe before galaxies or stars were born.

Stars also die. A star at the end of its life can no longer sustain a thermonuclear furnace and so it can no longer resist against gravity. It collapses for a final time, explodes and expels its outer atmosphere to the universe. This may happen nice and peacefully or it may happen in a violent cataclysmic explosion, called a supernova. The most famous of these is the Crab Nebula which has a pulsar at the middle as its dead star.

So stars are born and stars die. And as they die they spew left over star matter out to the universe. The birth and death of stars is very important. If it were not happening, you and I would not be here, and that is a scientific fact. In order to get the chemical elements to make the human body, we had to have three generations of stars. A succeeding generation of stars is born out of the material that is spewed out by a previous generation. But now notice that the second generation of stars is born out of material that was made in a thermonuclear furnace. The star lived by converting hydrogen to helium, helium to carbon, and if it were massive enough, carbon to oxygen, to nitrogen, all the way up to iron. As a star lives, it converts the lighter elements into the heavier elements. That is the way we get carbon and silicon and the other elements to make human hair and toe nails and all of those things. To get the chemistry to make amoebas we had to have the stars regurgitating material to the universe.

Obviously this story of star birth and death is very important for us. Out of this whole process around one star, which we call the sun, a group of planets came to be, among them the little grain of sand we call the Earth. An amazing thing happened with that little grain of sand when, in the 16th and 17th centuries with the birth of modern science, we developed the capacity to put the universe in our heads. We do that by using mathematics and physics, and to some extent the laws of chemistry and biology. Since we have the capacity to put the universe in our heads, further questions come to us, even some, as we shall see, which go beyond science.

How did we humans come to be in this evolving universe? It is quite clear that we do not know everything about this process. But it would be scientifically absurd to deny that the human brain is a result of a process of chemical complexification in an evolving universe. After the universe became rich in certain basic chemicals, those chemicals got together in successive steps to make ever more complex molecules.

Finally in some extraordinary chemical process the human brain came to be, the most complicated machine that we know. I should make it clear that, when I speak about the human brain as a machine, I am not excluding the spiritual dimension of the human being. I am simply prescinding from it and talking about the human brain as a biological, chemical mechanism, evolving out of the universe.

Chance or Design

Did this happen by chance or by necessity in this evolving universe? Was it destined to happen? The first thing to be said is that the problem is not formulated correctly. It is not just a question of chance or necessity because, first of all, it is both. Furthermore, there is a third element here that is very important. It is what I call “fertility” or “opportunity.” What this means is that the universe is so prolific in offering the opportunity for the success of both chance and necessary processes that such a character of the universe must be included in the discussion. The universe is 13.7 billion years old, it contains about 100 billion galaxies each of which contains 100 billion stars of an immense variety.

For 13.7 billion years the universe has been playing at the lottery. What do I mean by the lottery? When we speak about a small chance we mean that it is very unlikely that a certain event would happen. The “very unlikely” can be calculated in mathematical terms. Such a calculation takes into account how big the universe is, how many stars there are, how many stars would have developed planets, etc. In other words, it is not just guesswork. There is a foundation in fact for making each successive calculation.

A good example of a chance event would be two very simple molecules wandering about in the universe. They happen to meet one another and, when they do, they would love to make a more complex molecule because that is the nature of these molecules. But the temperature and pressure conditions are such that the chemical bonding to make a more complex molecule cannot happen. So they wander off, but they or identical molecules meet billions and billions of times, trillions if you wish, in this universe, and finally they meet and the temperature and pressure conditions are correct. This could happen more easily around certain types of stars than other types of stars, so we can throw in all kinds of other factors.

The point is that from a strictly mathematical analysis of this, called the mathematics of nonlinear dynamics, one can say that as this process goes on and more complex molecules develop, there is more and more direction to this process. As the complexity increases, the future complexity becomes more and more predetermined. In such wise did the human brain come to be and it is still evolving.
Can we call this process “destiny?”

Science for a Believer

How are we to interpret the scientific picture of life’s origins in terms of religious belief. Do we need God to explain this? Very succinctly my answer is no. In fact, to need God would be a very denial of God. God is not the response to a need. One gets the impression from certain religious believers that they fondly hope for the durability of certain gaps in our scientific knowledge of evolution, so that they can fill them with God. This is the exact opposite of what human intelligence is all about. We should be seeking for the fullness of God in creation. We should not need God; we should accept her/him when he comes to us.

But the personal God I have described is also God, creator of the universe. It is unfortunate that, especially here in America, creationism has come to mean some fundamentalistic, literal, scientific interpretation of Genesis. Judaic-Christian faith is radically creationist, but in a totally different sense. It is rooted in a belief that everything depends upon God, or better, all is a gift from God. The universe is not God and it cannot exist independently of God. Neither pantheism nor naturalism is true.

If we take the results of modern science seriously, then what science tells us of God must be very different from God as seen by the medieval philosophers and theologians. For the religious believer modern science reveals a God who made a universe that has within it a certain dynamism and thus participates in the very creativity of God. Such a view of creation can be found in early Christian writings, especially in those of St. Augustine in his comments on Genesis. If they respect the results of modern science, religious believers must move away from the notion of a dictator God, a Newtonian God who made the universe as a watch that ticks along regularly. Perhaps God should be seen more as a parent or as one who speaks encouraging and sustaining words. Scripture is very rich in these thoughts. It presents, indeed anthropomorphically, a God who gets angry, who disciplines, a God who nurtures the universe. God is working with the universe. The universe has a certain vitality of its own like a child does. It has the ability to respond to words of endearment and encouragement. You discipline a child but you try to preserve and enrich the individual character of the child and its own passion for life. A parent must allow the child to grow into adulthood, to come to make its own choices, to go on its own way in life. Words which give life are richer than mere commands or information. In such wise does God deal with the universe. It is for reasons of this description that I claim that Intelligent Design diminishes God, makes her/him an engineer who designs systems rather than a lover.

These are very weak images, but how else do we talk about God. We can only come to know God by analogy. The universe as we know it today through science is one way to derive analogical knowledge of God.  For those who believe modern science does say something to us about God, it provides a challenge, an enriching challenge, to traditional beliefs about God.  God in his infinite freedom continuously creates a world which reflects that freedom at all levels of the evolutionary process to greater and greater complexity. God lets the world be what it will be in its continuous evolution. He does not intervene, but rather allows, participates, loves. Is such thinking adequate to preserve the special character attributed by religious thought to the emergence not only of life but also of spirit, while avoiding a crude creationism? Only a protracted dialogue will tell.


Last Updated: 10/01/2012