Thursday, February 12, 2009

Perniciously misleading spin

"Vatican Accepts Darwin's Theory Of Evolution Compatible With Christianity" (AHN, February 12, 2009).

This may not be inaccurate reporting, if indeed it is true, as the article states, that "Archbishop Gianfranco Ravasi, head of the Pontifical Council for Culture, said Darwin's theory which the Church was against in the past, is compatible with Christianity." Nevertheless, it remains egregiously confusing and misleading publicity. "Darwin's theory" is far from being a tidy, uncomplicated package of ideas. There are inconsistencies within it, and there is much that is rejected by Darwin's own contemporary stepchildren and proponents; and there are elements in it that are clearly inimical to the Catholic Faith. "Sound bites," of course, are not the stuff of subtle analysis; but misleading statements can be highly problematic and fatally confusing the the faithful. It is broadly supposed now that the Vatican dropped the ball in the publicity department in the instance of the Holocaust-denying bishop. Yet the Vatican's publicity on the question of the theory of Evolution has been consistently confused and confusing ever since Pope John Paul II's 1996 "Message to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences: On Evolution," which was widely interpreted by both elated liberals and alarmed reactionaries, in the absence of forthcoming caveats and clarification, as an unqualified pontifical embrace of Evolution as a "fact," simpliciter.

It would have been helpful if the Vatican publicity personnel could have acknowledged at least the complexity of the issue. Notre Dame University's Reformed philosopher, Alvin Plantinga, at least had the presence of mind in addressing the issue some years ago to ferret out no less than five distinct claims resident within the "Grand Evolutionary Story":
The first thing to see is that a number of different large-scale claims fall under this general rubric of evolution. First, there is the claim that the earth is very old, perhaps some 4.5 billion years old: The Ancient Earth Thesis, as we may call it. Second, there is the claim that life has progressed from relatively simple to relatively complex forms of life. In the beginning there was relatively simple unicellular life, perhaps of the sort represented by bacteria and blue green algae, or perhaps still simpler unknown forms of life. (Although bacteria are simple compared to some other living beings, they are in fact enormously complex creatures.) Then more complex unicellular life, then relatively simple multicellular life such as seagoing worms, coral, and jelly fish, then fish, then amphibia, then reptiles, birds, mammals, and finally, as the culmination of the whole process, human beings: the Progress Thesis, as we humans may like to call it (jelly fish might have a different view as to where to whole process culminates). Third, there is the Common Ancestry Thesis: that life originated at only one place on earth, all subsequent life being related by descent to those original living creatures-the claim that, as Stephen Could puts it, there is a "tree of evolutionary descent linking all organisms by ties of genealogy."12 According to the Common Ancestry Thesis, we are literally cousins of all living things-horses, oak trees and even poison ivy-distant cousins, no doubt, but still cousins. (This is much easier to imagine for some of us than for others.) Fourth, there is the claim that there is a (naturalistic) explanation of this development of fife from simple to complex forms; call this thesis Darwinism, because according to the most popular and well-known suggestions, the evolutionary mechanism would be natural selection operating on random genetic mutation (due to copy error or ultra violet radiation or other causes); and this is similar to Darwin's proposals. Finally, there is the claim that life itself developed from non-living matter without any special creative activity of God but just by virtue of the ordinary laws of physics and chemistry: call this the Naturalistic Origins Thesis. These five theses are of course importantly different from each other. They are also logically independent in pairs, except for the third and fourth theses: the fourth entails the third, in that you can't sensibly propose a mechanism or an explanation for evolution without agreeing that evolution has indeed occurred. The combination of all five of these theses is what I have been calling 'The Grand Evolutionary Story'; the Common Ancestry Thesis together with Darwinism (remember, Darwinism isn't the view that the mechanism driving evolution is just what Darwin says it is) is what one most naturally thinks of as the Theory of Evolution.
This would be a start, at least; and the kind of care in presuppositional analysis that Plantinga's little piece goes on to display is a welcome antidote to the flat-footed statements emanating from the Vatican.

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