Where Both Sides Go Wrong in the Great Evolution Debate by Ron Frost, PhD

The great evolution debate is commonly depicted as a conflict between the enlightened world of science and the benighted world of religion. Carrying the mantle of religion are the creationists (both young earth creationists and intelligent design creationists), who dismiss the robust array of facts supporting evolution because the concept of evolution doesn’t agree with their view that a divine creator produced the earth and all life on it. In contrast, the scientific view of evolution is often thought of as a highly rational theory that obviates the need for any supernatural explanation to life. In reality the debate turns out to be far more complex than this.

One problem when discussing evolution is that both sides confuse the facts of evolution with the interpretation of those facts. The facts of evolution are incontrovertible and more than just biological. They are also supported by a robust series of observations in astronomy, physics, chemistry, and geology.

Among the foremost are (1) the universe is 13.7 billion years old, (2) the earth and solar system are 4.56 billion years old, (3) all life on earth has evolved from a common ancestor, (4) life exploded in complexity and variety 450 millions years ago at the beginning of the Cambrian, (5) dinosaurs became extinct 65 million years ago, perhaps as the result of a meteorite impact, and (6) humans evolved in Africa and expanded around the world during the last 150 thousand years.

The big problem in the evolution debate is in how one interprets these observations. Creationists simply ignore them, even though they are backed by nearly 150 years of scientific research. Instead, they treat evolution as unsubstantiated theory into which they can substitute their own chosen facts. In contrast, many scientists adhere to a view of evolution similar to that put forth by evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins in his 1975 book The Selfish Gene: namely, that we are bags of chemicals impelled to transfer our genes to the next generation for the simple purpose of survival. Theologian John Haught calls this view, which is inherent in most versions of evolution theory taught today, evolutionary materialism and rightly points out that it leaves no room for spiritual development.

This puts those of us who consider science a valid way of studying the phenomenal world but also believe in a spiritual dimension into a quandary. We can either accept the creationists’ anti-intellectual view that the scientific facts supporting evolution are wrong or accept the traditional explanation for evolution despite its obvious atheistic overtones. A third view of evolution is seldom mentioned in the great debate.

The Vision of Teilhard de Chardin

In the 1930s, Jesuit priest and paleontologist Pierre Teilhard de Chardin formulated a theory that accepted the fact that evolution has occurred by natural selection, as suggested by Darwin, but that also saw evolution taking place within a spiritual dimension. He theorized that evolution involves three stages. The first is physical evolution, which we now recognize leads to the formation of elements heavier than helium and, ultimately, the earth and its atmosphere. The second stage is biological evolution, which became important once life appeared on the earth.

Over the last three billion years, biological life forms have slowly become more neurologically complex and conscious. Once humans appeared, the third stage of evolution took over, which proceeded within human culture and thought in what Chardin called the noosphere – a kind of collective consciousness, a meeting of all minds. He postulated that in the future, the noosphere along with all life would merge into pure thought, which he called the Omega Point and which he equated with Christ.

The Catholic hierarchy looked askance at this theory and particularly at the many essays Chardin wrote about the impact his theory brought to Catholic theology. For example, if the Omega Point were Christ, the Church noted, then Christ is not within us but located someplace in the future. Chardin’s writings also did not leave any room for the concept of original sin or accommodate a place for Satan or evil.

More importantly, by combining religion with evolution, Chardin was in great danger of reducing religion to humanism and naturalism. As a result, Chardin was not allowed by the Church to publish his theory during his life. He died in 1955, and the book detailing his theory, The Phenomenon of Man, appeared in English in 1959.

Chardin’s book made an immediate impact both in the theological and scientific communities. Although the scientific impact has long since faded, the theological effect is still evident. If you check the web today, you will find many Catholic websites warning readers against accepting Chardin’s theological view, which many writers call Teilhardism, and you will also find those who feel he was well ahead of his time.

Because Chardin was the first to present a theory combining evolution with religion, both for the purposes of this essay and because the theological and biological aspects so closely align, I also call his view of evolution Teilhardism.

Teilhardism and Evolutionary Materialism

Although evolutionary materialism and Teilhardism are based upon the same scientific facts, they carry distinctly different implications for the meaning of evolution. Evolutionary materialism is constructed upon the following two premises: (1) there is no spiritual dimension to the world, and (2) evolution proceeds by natural selection. Based upon these premises, evolutionary materialism reaches the following conclusions:

1. The most important feature about living creatures is the information that is tied up in their genes.

2. Evolution is not progressive. There has been an obvious increase in the complexity of beings over time but this does not involve any progress. The word “progress” implies an increase in value over time, and since it doesn’t matter to genes whether they populate an amoeba or a human, evolution has not produced an increase in value. Hence, evolution is not progressive.

3. Consciousness is an emergent property. This view contends that a creature’s brain must contain a certain density of neurons before consciousness can arise. Once the human brain reached this threshold, consciousness appeared. In this view, consciousness is a feature that is present only in humans, though perhaps to some extent in the higher mammals. It is an epiphenomenon produced by electrical and chemical activity in the brain and has no spiritual significance.

4. Evolution is a random mechanistic process. Evolution involves a random change in the genetic makeup of beings. Because it is a random process, evolution is meaningless. As a result, human life is also meaningless.

5. Humans arose by chance. Because evolution progresses through chance mutations, the appearance of humans on this planet is simply a stroke of luck. Rewind the tape, play it back, and humans might not appear again.

In contrast to evolutionary materialism, Teilhardism starts out with a different set of premises: (1) we are enveloped in a spiritual world that is reflected in our consciousness, and (2) evolution proceeds by natural selection. Note that the second premise is the same as the second premise in evolutionary materialism, but because of the first premise, Teilhardism reaches entirely different conclusions about the significance of evolution:

1. The most important feature in living creatures is their consciousness. Genes may play an important role in controlling our body structure and our health, but it is consciousness that gives each of us a personality.

2. Evolution is progressive. The increase in the complexity of beings over time, especially the increase in neurological complexity, reflects an increase in consciousness and hence an increase in value. Therefore, evolution manifests progress; it represents the opening of life to the spiritual dimension.

3. Consciousness has transcendent properties. There is an aspect of consciousness that ties us directly to the spiritual realm. Although our brain clearly produces certain features of our consciousness, other aspects such as inspiration, intuition, and creativity arise from outside our body. Consciousness is thus a phenomenon that may extend to some extent to all beings.

4. Human life has great meaning. Because evolution involves the opening of life to the spiritual dimension, the goal of each human should be to manifest that spiritual dimension.

5. Humans did not arise by chance
. Self-consciousness is an important niche in nature. Life was certain to exploit this niche, as it also exploited all the other niches available. Just as the ability to fly evolved at least four times (as in insects, pterosaurs, birds, and bats), it is certain that evolution would have found a way to occupy the niche of self-consciousness.

Which Theory Is Correct?

It is impossible to determine objectively which theory, evolutionary materialism or Teilhardism, is correct, because strictly speaking, neither theory is truly scientific. To be scientific, a theory or a hypothesis must be testable – one must be able to put forth an experiment that could disprove or prove it. Since there is no way one can develop an experiment that can determine whether or not there is a spiritual dimension to evolution, these two theories are not scientific. Instead, they are metaphysical paradigms.

As such, the theory that you find most appealing depends on your spiritual insights. Atheists will find too many unnecessary assumptions in Teilhardism and will prefer evolutionary materialism. But those who have had spiritual experiences will prefer Teilhardism to the cold and mechanistic view of life that evolutionary materialism proposes.

Although there is no way to produce scientific experiments to determine whether Teilhardism is the most valid evolutionary theory, the fact that Teilhardism is consistent with all the scientific facts of evolution has a huge effect on the great evolution debate. No longer are spiritually oriented people presented with an either-or situation that provides two equally unpalatable options. They don’t have to decide between the scientific view of evolution, with its materialistic underpinnings, and the creationist view, with its anti-intellectual premises.

Teilhardism accommodates both the scientific evidence for evolution and the recognition that humans have a profound spiritual dimension. In this way, Teilhardism builds an important bridge between the apparently irreconcilable domains of science and religion.

Ron Frost, PhD

Frost is a professor of geology at the University of Wyoming and a practicing Buddhist. He is the author of the book Religion versus Science: Where Both Sides Go Wrong in the Great Evolution Debate (O Books, 2011). You can read more about his book at http://www.ronfrost.com.

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