Books

The problems with evolution – A Catholic overview
Catholicism and Evolution: A History from Darwin to Pope Francis by Michael Chaberek OP (Angelico Press, £14.00pb)

Donal Anthony Foley

Catholicism and Evolution: A History from Darwin to Pope Francis looks at the creation-evolution debate in the Church since the mid-19th Century, as well as topics such as magisterial statements, Pontifical Biblical Commission decrees and the attitude of recent Popes towards evolution.

The work of a Polish Dominican who has given many years of study to the issues involved, it has already been translated from the Polish into several European languages.

Repercussions

The book begins with the publication of Charles Darwin’s Origin of the Species, the literary bombshell which exploded in 1859, and whose repercussions are still being strongly felt today. Darwin’s work came at the end of a long period during which the Biblical account of creation had been increasingly questioned by writers such as Charles Lyell, with his idea of “uniformitarianism”, and Thomas Malthus, with his ideas on excessive population. 

Darwin posited a constant struggle in nature, the “survival of the fittest”, and a process of “natural selection” so that over a huge number of generations one species could be transformed into another, even though these ideas were strongly criticised at the time.

As Fr Chaberek, a Polish Dominican, following astronomer Prof. Fred Hoyle, points out, the Darwinian reliance on chance leads to rather absurd positions being adopted, given that, for example, the odds of the enzymes in the simplest cell originating by chance alone are approximately equal to someone winning the Polish National Lottery 6,000 times in a row. In other words, in the real world, the idea that such enzymes could have been produced by chance is effectively zero.

Fr Chaberek discusses Biblical Creationism, or ‘young earth creationism’ and Intelligent Design, and in particular, the work of Michael Behe, and his idea of “irreducible complexity”, as developed in his book, Darwin’s Black Box. 

Behe focused on blood clotting, and how this requires a cascade of chemicals to interact in a very precise way if it is to be successful; this is not something which can come about via a Darwinian type of ‘trial and error’ over many generations – it has to work first time or the animal will bleed to death even after a minor injury.

Fr Chaberek is critical of theistic evolution, the belief that God is directing the process of evolution, but this is the approach that has now “gradually pervaded and dominated mainstream Catholic theology”, in contrast to nearly 2,000 years of Church teaching in favour of the traditional approach and the views of the majority of the Church Fathers, who took a literal approach to Genesis and the six days of Creation.

The author argues that the publication of Pope Pius XII’s Humani Generis (1950) opened the door to the question of human origins possibly being determined in a scientific way, rather than in an essentially theological way, as had previously been the case.

As regards the idea of human evolution itself, as Fr Chaberek points out, if this is true then there ought to be a huge number of transitional forms present among the various fossil remains – but in fact, all that we do have are “a few remnants that are difficult to classify unequivocally”.

The final chapters deal with how the modern Popes have considered evolution; it could be said that they have been largely content to leave the question of evolution on the ‘back burner’.

This is a detailed book running to 354 pages, and does demand close attention if the reader is to grasp the details of the historical debate the author is explaining. But for those prepared to make this effort it will be an illuminating read.