Seeing Catholic: Design, Adaptation & Teleology

If I understand my Catholic friends and scholars correctly, God created the cosmos, earth, and life. This God sparked the original organism and designed an evolutionary process that has resulted in endless forms most beautiful and wonderful. But of all these forms, one stands out and one was the goal from the beginning: humans. When this God created the Ur-organism “he” envisioned the evolution of humanity billions of years later, the inexorable result of endless adaptation. This God also envisioned the evolution of religion in general and Catholic Christianity in particular.

This is Evolutionary Theism. Evolutionary Theists bring several assumptions to their scholarly work and interpret data through the following lens: (1) evolution is not random but is designed, (2) because it is designed, evolution is progressive, (3) evolutionary progress occurs through adaptive change, and (4) this adaptive change is directed toward the evolution of humans. With the evolution of humans, we finally have creatures capable of perceiving and worshiping the God who made it all happen.

As this story goes God designed things so that early humans would apprehend the supernatural and their supernatural beliefs would make them cooperative, moral, and fertile. This God knew that humans would wander in the supernatural wilderness for many tens of thousands of years before they arrived at the (Christian) Truth. The Truth, as imagined by Evolutionary Theists, is that God is author of all.

This is not simple or crude Creationism, whether of the young or old earth variety. Nor is it Intelligent Design, which posits an interventionist entity whose many finely-tuned creations give the false impression there has been evolution. Evolutionary Theism accepts deep time, cosmic change, earth history, and evolutionary processes. But it does so with the understanding that none of this is random: it was designed to unfold in a particular way with a particular goal. Everything has been foreseen and foreordained.

None of this presents a problem so long as it is acknowledged. The problem arises when scholars of this persuasion present their work as if disinterested contemplation of data has led to their conclusions.

While it is not possible to approach data with nothing at all in mind, it is possible to approach data without any a priori commitments to the existence or non-existence of an entity or force called God. Scholars who have such commitments are bound to interpret their data in a particular way. For Evolutionary Theists this interpretation nearly always entails a designed and directed evolutionary progression, with one adaptation after another leading ineluctably to humans who can contemplate the majesty of God.

In paleontology, Simon Conway Morris does this. In evolutionary biology, Michael Blume does it. In evolutionary psychology, Matt Rossano does it. In archaeology, Klaus Schmidt seems to be doing it.

While working on the five-part Göbekli Tepe series for this blog, I came across several articles which noted that the excavator Schmidt is Catholic. There is of course nothing wrong with this but it may explain Schmidt’s premature and probably erroneous interpretation of Göbekli Tepe as the place where shamanistic hunter-gatherers saw the light, sensed the presence of gods (or God), built monuments for worship, and discovered how to domesticate plants-animals. As this story goes, a new “religion” magically or supernaturally appeared and paved the way for subsequent civilization.

If one is an Evolutionary Theist, this extraordinary and otherwise inexplicable progression makes complete sense: history is teleological and the ground was being prepared not only for plants but also for Christianity. If one is not an Evolutionary Theist, the alleged progression is questionable and inexplicable.

It is disingenuous for scientists and scholars who are Evolutionary Theists to present their work as if it were disinterested or compelled by facts and data. At a minimum, they should fully disclose their a priori commitments so we can evaluate their work accordingly.

It is one thing for a theologian such as John Haught to read his faith into evolutionary science and present it as such. It is quite a different thing for scientists and other scholars to read their faith into their science-scholarship without fully disclosing that they have pre-judged the primary issues and their findings flow from this prejudgment.

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11 thoughts on “Seeing Catholic: Design, Adaptation & Teleology

  1. J. A. Le Fevre

    One point of Evolutionary Theism is to expose the purpose (as recognized by the theist) behind the process. Darwin exposed the process, the theist is left to develop a purpose. The simple fact of our existence is enough to warrant a purpose, so it comes down to how well you tell the story. As many a good patriot has discovered, you get more bystanders to salute your flag if you carry it proudly and march with vigor. The same holds true for theories, scientific or otherwise.

    Another apt corollary (this is really where I see Dr. Blume – expand later) is: you get more flies with honey (than vinegar). We have a long tradition of hanging with religion and 150 years of increasing exposure to evolution. Evolutionary Theism is one approach to bring them together with honey.

  2. Cris Post author

    Great. Evolutionary Theists have an a priori commitment to Truth with a capital T and this commitment forces their data into a particular kind of framework, whether it fits or not, and whether it is the truth with a small t.

    We can (and should) approach all these issues with no prior commitments other than to small-t truth, an approach which enables us to evaluate data in light of whichever framework best handles the data, thus allowing the chips to fall where they may. This is an honest approach that comports with intellectual integrity.

    If Evolutionary Theists begin their work already knowing the irrefutable Truth and understanding Purpose, they have already decided the main issues and all corollary issues or their “science” simply fall into their proper place without difficulty. This is dishonest.

    Why is the “simple fact of our existence enough to warrant a purpose”? I don’t see how the premise of existence demands the conclusion of purpose, either as a matter of logic and certainly not as a simple matter of fact.

    If Evolutionary Theists have the goal of, as you put it, telling a good “story” and adorn the story with “honey” so as to attract “flies” or followers, it sounds more like theology and proselytizing than it does honest intellectual inquiry.

  3. J. A. Le Fevre

    A rather biased interpretation, Cris, how quickly we forget. Just one thread ago you stretched to embrace that irony of conflict between truth perceived and truth uncovered

    In anticipation of this response, my first post was formed to be the answer, but it appears to have been too cryptic and you have deleted it. If I might repost with an explanation:

    ‘We are. Therefore we were meant to be.’ referred to our desire to believe there is purpose, in this life, this universe (independent of evidence, we seem to wish to believe that). To recognize this is just to know a bit about ourselves, to take advantage of this phenomenon is at worst cleaver. To promote falsehood by this or any means is deceit, to promote truth is education.

    ‘It comes down to knowing where to look and what to see.’ refers to our tendency to rationalize our desires.

    ‘Homunculus’ was thrown in as reference to our instincts (in general and in specific for this situation) and the irony of evolved wisdom’s conflict with the knowledge of evolution (Instinct vs. science).

    This is simply about understanding ourselves and how to work with people. If you possess the greatest of knowledge, the greatest of wisdom, but lack the ability to share it, what you know will die with you.

  4. Cris Post author

    You assert that I have a “biased interpretation.” What have I interpreted or what constitutes my interpretation? If I know what I supposedly am interpreting, then I can respond to your allegation of bias.

    Our desire to believe there is purpose says nothing about whether there is or isn’t purpose. We can have all kinds of desires but this doesn’t make them true, right, or correct. I can recognize that we have desires, some good and some bad, but this “knowledge of ourselves” doesn’t bring us any closer to truth. It is just a fact.

    Who is taking advantage of this fact, or being clever about this fact, or “promoting falsehood” about this fact? Are you insinuating that acknowledging we have desires, which may or may not be true, promotes falsehood?

    I don’t see what the previous thread has to do with this thread; they address separate issues and are only tangentially related (at best). My use of the homunculus was a literary device or metaphor and nothing more than that.

    Do you care to address any of the very specific statements I have made in this post? Are my claims mistaken or wrong? If so, how?

  5. J. A. Le Fevre

    Jumping back to the beginning, the original post is about a very particular bias which represents itself as theistic evolution. I was attempting to point out that their presentation is a development from teaching (and preaching) techniques honed over thousands of years working with a full range of moods and personalities that cannot just be sent home as the university would do with any having a bad day. Their audience has likewise learned to expect a typical style. When the content switches to evolution, there is much in their practiced style that stays the same. It is not that they Know or are presenting themselves as knowing The Truth (I suspect this particular detail could vary between lecturers, but would be more common in the ID camp – you never suggested they were claiming Truth, I never suggested that either), but that they are working within a familiar style. I never suggested that the premise of existence demands the conclusion of purpose, but can be seen to suggest it and the data allows it. You admitted yourself that the data is ambiguous and your bias is to choose the parsimonious conclusion of no purpose. Again, allowed but not demanded by the evidence. If the evolutionary theists stay within the reasonable bounds of the evidence, they are as true to science as any, and their biases are not egregiously misleading their audiences – but it is all science that must be wary of this, bias is specific to no one.

  6. Cris Post author

    My post indeed points out that Theistic Evolutionists have a bias which affects their assessment of evolutionary processes. Contrary to your assertion, they do indeed “present themselves as knowing the Truth” and part of this Truth, which they present as science, is that evolution must be designed, progressive, adaptive, and teleological.

    While I understand that this is their “style” and a “technique” that they know (and with which they are and their listeners are comfortable), it does violence to small-t truth and the search for those truths.

    I don’t have a bias or a conclusion; I have not asserted there is no “purpose.” I have simply stated that whether there is purpose should be a hypothesis rather than an a priori commitment or judgment. While we are investigating this issue, we should use parsimony.

    So I don’t agree that what they are doing is “as true to science as any” or that this is a valid method for truth seeking; they have already decided the Truth and are seeking confirmation. I think these biases are more misleading than you allow.

  7. mtarnowski

    “… I never suggested that the premise of existence demands the conclusion of purpose, but can be seen to suggest it and the data allows it … . ”

    The data to date suggests that a complex organism’s purpose is to select a mate and reproduce; the data to date suggests that a simple organism’s purpose is to reproduce. I’m unclear what data allows beyond that. (My perplexity is likely rooted in a bias to ignore supernatural explanations of “purpose.” And, at this reading, my bias is further engaged by the post’s conclusion in which the adverbial phrase “not egregiously” is attached to “misleading.” )

  8. J. A. Le Fevre

    My larger point was meant to be that eliminating bias is not possible, that’s just challenging windmills. There is no real alternative to vigilance. “not egregiously” was to suggest a threshold for complaint – when do you look away from a bias and when should it be challenged. My bias is to cut the theists some slack, but not to the point Truth is allowed to masquerade as science. I’ll draw a line at keeping those in different venues. Of the four cited, only Morris, from what I’ve read, might be pushing that line.

    The other three do not appear to me guilty of more than a very normal ‘eureka’ bias, where your own ideas look somewhat more significant to you than to anyone else.

    I’ve not come up with a non-supernatural explanation for ‘purpose’, so I don’t think you can have it without stepping outside science, but let them collect what evidence they can.

  9. Cris Post author

    I disagree. Eliminating bias is possible. Pursuit of truth (as opposed to Truth) simply requires that the issue under consideration be bracketed with question marks or considered as a hypothesis. You then gather facts, data, evidence, and information in pursuit of the truth, constantly revising as you go.

    I also disagree on your assessment of which theists’ work is infected with a priori Truth. Matt Rossano is a prime offender and his reading of the anthropological record is a travesty. While I think Blume’s work is relevant to the modern socioeconomic history of religions, I don’t think it says a thing about human evolution. And Schmidt’s wild interpretation of Gobekli is untenable; I don’t think any archaeologists take it seriously. We agree on Simon Conway Morris; convergence is not the product of divine intervention in evolution.

  10. zuma

    Did Pope Pius XII support evolutionary theory?

    The following is the extract from Catholic Church and evolution, Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia:

    “In the 1950 encyclical humani generis, Pope Pius XII confirmed that there is no intrinsic conflict between Christianity and the theory of evolution, provided that Christians believe that the individual soul is a direct creation by God and not the product of purely material forces.”

    Let’s analyze the above paragraph as below:

    The phrase, Christians believe that the individual soul is a direct creation by God, as mentioned above gives us the truth of God’s direct involvement in creation of individual soul. As the phrase, there is no intrinsic conflict between Christianity and the theory of evolution, is mentioned before the phrase, PROVIDED that Christians believe that the individual soul is a direct creation of God, it gives us the conclusion that Paul Pius XII only supported evolutionary theory provided that it supports individual soul was a direct creation of God. However, evolutionary theory does not support individual soul was the direct creation of God. Instead, it supports that God only assisted in the evolution instead of He created individual soul by Himself directly. Indeed, evolution assumes material force, i.e. natural selection, that causes one animal to be transformed into another.

    As the phrase, provided that, has been stressed before the phrase, Christians believe that the individual soul is a direct creation by God and not the product of purely material forces (natural selection), it gives us a conclusion that Paul only encourages Christians to believe in evolution on the condition if it supports that God was a direct creator of individual soul, and that each of the creation was not the result of the product or the end-result of purely material force, such as, natural selection that drove the animals to be transformed.

    As evolutionary theory does not support a direct creation from God and that it supports that it was the end-result of purely material force, such as, natural selection that drove animals to transform, Paul Pius XII did not call Christians to support evolutionary theory.

    Paul Pius XII only called Christians to support evolutionary theory only if the teaching supports that it was God that created individual soul. Besides, they have to support that the existence of individual soul was not the product of material force but God’s direct creation.

    Nevertheless, Paul Pius XII did not support evolutionary theory since this teaching does not support God’s direct creation. Besides, this teaching supports the end-result of evolution was the product of material force, such as, natural selection, that drove animals to transform.

  11. Cris Post author

    I suppose this might be interesting to Catholics and theologians, but it has limited (or no) interest for those of us who don’t care what popes have to say about evolution. I just deleted a much longer post of yours which may be appropriate for a Catholic message board but not this blog.

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