July 09, 2005

Finding Design in Nature

An Austrian Cardinal (the Catholic person kind, not the bird kind) has written an essay, published in the New York Times a couple days ago:

The Catholic Church, while leaving to science many details about the history of life on earth, proclaims that by the light of reason the human intellect can readily and clearly discern purpose and design in the natural world, including the world of living things.

Evolution in the sense of common ancestry might be true, but evolution in the neo-Darwinian sense - an unguided, unplanned process of random variation and natural selection - is not. Any system of thought that denies or seeks to explain away the overwhelming evidence for design in biology is ideology, not science.

'Neo-Darwinism' is an old boogeyman of religious opponents of evolution, though that name is not entirely accurate. What the opponents of evolutionary theory are afraid of is what Nietzsche called the death of God: the nearly nihilistic point of view (not even really a coherent, unified philosophical movement) that existence is utterly without purpose or plan. This point of view is utterly antithetical to all but the most deistic forms of religion, which is why Nietzsche gave it this name, and also why it is so vigorously opposed by the religious.

It is, incidentally, a point of view I am rather drawn towards.

The problem is, in the context of discussions of biology, this point of view becomes a straw man: it is a metaphysical idea, strictly beyond the scope of science. 'Neo-Darwinism', or the post-Watson and Crick 'new dogma' (yes, it is actually known in this way) properly speaking, is a theory of DNA and survival pressures: DNA provides the blueprint for all the various traits and structures of an organism; variations in DNA occur with some regularity, as cells of the organism split for growth and reproduction (this is the Neo- part, what was added to Darwin's basic theory of variation and selection after the discovery of DNA); these variations carry over into slight variations in traits and structures among populations of organisms, and the DNA coding for those variants (genes) which are better able to reproduce will gradually become more widespread throughout the population; finally, over sufficiently long time scales, these small, subtle changes build up into large, dramatic ones. Nowhere does Neo-Darwinism forbid divine guidance, especially with regards to the particular genetic variations that occur.

But, similarly, nowhere does Neo-Darwinism require any kind of divine intervention. This is the threat the religious seem to see here: that their fragile faith will be shattered if God is not intellectually necessary. It's sad that they lack the robust faith of their sisters and brothers who ground their faith not in a requirement of rock-solid intellectual necessity, but out of loving hope in spiritual possibility, what Christians have often called grace.

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