Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Evolution is like a box of chocolates

Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor is trying to ally faith and science. He applauds Darwin’s theory of evolution, as a credible modern churchman must, saying that we shouldn’t treat Genesis as a scientific textbook to be read literally. Quite.

Then we get some boilerplate about how science won’t help us with questions of meaning and purpose, which is much like a homeopath saying that geology won’t help us with stomach ulcers, so you’d better buy some of my nothing juice. Ask a philosopher (or a gastroenterologist).

Then, after some well-chosen rhetorical questions, Murphy-O’Connor progresses to his rallying cry:

Christianity… knows that all life, but especially human life, is summoned to a perfection that it cannot attain through natural processes or through human agency alone. That future is God's gift and it summons us to a new spiritual and moral maturity. Could it be that this is the next stage in that evolutionary adventure? The discovery that God is the destiny of life; that Christ is not only the Alpha, the one in whose image we are made, but also the Omega, the one in whom we are completed.

Well. An “evolutionary adventure” is something that happens at the species level; entering God’s embrace is, I’m led to understand, an individual matter. The phrase is metaphor at best here, and so this narrative just won’t work as an extension of actual evolution, sitting smoothly alongside science and borrowing its credibility.

Then I see he slips in “the one in whose image we are made”. This won’t do.

Evolution by natural selection certainly rules out young-Earth creationism; Murphy-O’Connor agrees. It doesn’t, strictly speaking, rule out ‘intelligent design’: it’s theoretically possible that most biological developments have been natural but a few have been, somehow, directed from ‘above’ – although we have yet to detect a single such instance. Intelligent design, it seems, is a hypothesis for which we have no need; Murphy-O’Connor wisely rejects it.

Nor does evolution – or any theory about life – rule out that the universe overall might have been, somehow, deliberately created. However, accepting evolution by natural selection (while not inserting episodes of divine design) makes it very hard indeed to justify the belief that humans are an intended result of creation. You can set the universe going, you can even create individual planets with the right kinds of proto-biological goo, but if evolution by natural selection then takes over, the life you get is going to be as unpredictable as Forrest Gump’s box of chocolates.

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