Monday, April 25, 2011

The Pope misrepresents evolution

Alas, poor Yorick! I knew him
as an Australopithecine.
Apparently in his Easter address last night, the Pope had some unflattering words for evolution:
Pope Benedict XVI marked the holiest night of the year for Christians by stressing that humanity isn't a random product of evolution.  
Benedict emphasized the Biblical account of creation in his Easter Vigil homily Saturday, saying it was wrong to think at some point "in some tiny corner of the cosmos there evolved randomly some species of living being capable of reasoning and of trying to find rationality within creation, or to bring rationality into it."  
"If man were merely a random product of evolution in some place on the margins of the universe, then his life would make no sense or might even be a chance of nature," he said. "But no, reason is there at the beginning: creative, divine reason."  
Church teaching holds that Roman Catholicism and evolutionary theory are not necessarily at odds: A Christian can, for example, accept the theory of evolution to help explain developments, but is taught to believe that God, not random chance, is the origin of the world. The Vatican, however, warns against creationism, or the overly literal interpretation of the Bibilical account of creation.
...which is kind of like saying that enjoying a thick, juicy steak every now and then doesn't conflict with vegetarianism because hey, steak is the only meat you eat. Just a technicality here, Pope, but I don't think you can really claim to accept evolution if you a) don't understand it, and b) firmly exclude humans from it.  As Jerry Coyne says sardonically on his blog, "Hey, Pope! Haven’t you heard about natural selection? Human evolution isn’t all mutation and genetic drift, you know." I'm guessing that the Pope actually doesn't have the foggiest idea how much randomness has to do with evolution; he's just using it to mean "not guided by God." Because who cares about causality if God isn't the cause?

One of Coyne's readers notes the irony in the fact that (if you ignore the word "randomly") the statement "in some tiny corner of the cosmos there evolved randomly some species of living being capable of reasoning and of trying to find rationality within creation, or to bring rationality into it" is quite beautiful, touching, and humbling. He/she says
I actually think that is a lovely poetic passage. We are bits of the universe that have evolved to bring rationality into the world — what a beautiful sentiment! It sounds rather like Sagan. 
I’m amused that, for me at least, it had precisely the opposite of its intended effect.
That's the thing, isn't it? I'm sure it's possible to understand evolution and still find it depressing and threatening, but it's remarkable how many people who find it depressing and threatening do not understand it.  A hard-liner could quibble about the idea that we evolved "to" do anything at all, but in the context of simple order of events it is quite true that we evolved rationality into the world, in the same way that Daniel Dennett wrote that we evolved free will into the world. At least our version of it, in our world. Richard Dawkins, probably the greatest proponent of evolutionary theory alive today, likes to dwell on the unlikelihood of each of our personal existences, however significant they are to us. In Unweaving the Rainbow he wrote:
We are going to die, and that makes us the lucky ones. Most people are never going to die because they are never going to be born. The potential people who could have been here in my place but who will in fact never see the light of day outnumber the sand grains of Arabia. Certainly those unborn ghosts include greater poets than Keats, scientists greater than Newton. We know this because the set of possible people allowed by our DNA so massively exceeds the set of actual people. In the teeth of these stupefying odds it is you and I, in our ordinariness, that are here.
The reaction I have to such thoughts is awe and wonder. The reaction that people like the Pope have is apparently revulsion and fear-- we, you and I, could not have come into this world without an act of special creation. Life has no meaning otherwise.  Yet here all of us evolution-believers are, comfortably denying ourselves to be the product of a design independent of the process of natural selection, and yet somehow managing to not commit mass suicide in a fit of despair. Some of us believe that there is a god behind the whole process and others don't, but the simple idea of being evolved individuals doesn't shake any existential pillars and cause our sense of teleology to come crashing down. How is that?

I know, by the way, that the Pope wasn't announcing anything new-- that the Church's doctrine has long been that evolution can be accepted but that the human soul was a special creation. But Benedict chose this Easter to reiterate that doctrine in a way that betrays a clear willingness to see understanding (much less accepting) evolution as optional, whereas drawing inferences about its existential significance is not. In that sense he was pretty much promoting willful ignorance as ordained by God. And that I find depressing.

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