How strange to call this planet 'Earth' when quite clearly it is ocean. Arthur C. Clarke

Saturday, January 25, 2014

A Catholic Evolutionary Ecologist

Before I begin, a few basics:
1. I am a practicing Catholic
2. I am studying for a PhD in Ecology and Evolution
3. This post reflects only my own personal opinions and ideas

Due to these two facts, I have been confronted at least once (and this one time I am thinking of was a very serious and prolonged encounter) about how I can reconcile being Catholic, i.e. believing in intelligent design, and believing in evolution. When this encounter happened, I didn't know how to respond because it never occurred to me that these ideas must conflict and that this should elicit a prolonged discussion.

There are innumerable ideas regarding the relationship between intelligent design and the origin of life on Earth. I would like to write a detailed report on this topic, but I don't have time for that. Instead, I would like to report my opinion.

My Feelings on the Interaction between the Ideas of Intelligent Design and Evolution
The popularized idea of intelligent design is that one day there were no biological organisms, and then the next day* God created them all. The popularized idea of evolution is that one day* there was no Earth and the next day BANG!, there it was, and billions of years later, atoms eventually arranged themselves in multicellular organisms.

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The problem with these popular ideas is that they appear to be mutually exclusive. This is a similar problem to one in the medieval times when astronomy was being well-studied in Catholic institutions in order to learn more about God and Heaven. People were seeking theological knowledge through science to support their belief that Earth was the center of the universe. However, in this process they found evidence that Earth revolved around the Sun. Since this was contrary to the theology at the time, and the idea was largely rejected.

Hundreds of years later, this fact is common knowledge and not a single well-respected theologian contests it. Somehow, despite biblical verses that suggest otherwise, Christians accepted an alternate explanation of the universe. In fact, Pope John Paul II apologized for the lifetime house arrest imposed on Galileo in 1655 for disseminating his at the time outrageous astronomical research.

Is it because the astronomical facts were logical and clear, and simply couldn't be denied? Is it because this fact did not fundamentally challenge Christian beliefs, but more of a traditional way of thinking?

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This story parallels that of the origin of evolutionary biology. Charles Darwin, an aspiring pastor, was interested in God's creation and set off on a boat to study it scientifically. This pursuit led him to observe changes in the beaks of birds over time, which led to his theory of natural selection. (Lucky for Darwin, he wasn't condemned to house arrest as a result of his research.) I don't believe he went so far as to suggest that all life on Earth began this way from a single cell, and as my Evolutionary Ecology professor put it in class today, his work On the Origin of Species perhaps would have better been named On the Origin of Local Adaptation because local adaptation is what Darwin was witnessing, not complete speciation. However, as more ecologists and geneticists studied how organisms change, such a theory of the origin of life became inevitable.

Currently, at least in the United States, this theory is contested by those that believe literally in the Biblical creation story. Does resistance to this evolutionary idea reflect a challenge to a fundamental Christian truth or a traditional way of thinking? If this resistance prevents further understanding about God's creation, is it worth it?

Just as modern astronomy can coexist with the Christian belief system, so can modern ecology and evolution. Christianity can continue to be a wonderful and enriching way of living even if humans evolved from primates. (For the record, modern Catholicism, which is quite liberal if you ask me, does not deny that humans evolved from primates.) I think both the popularized ideas of intelligent design and modern ecology can be taken too literally. Intelligent design doesn't have to exclude the process of evolution, and evolution doesn't have to be so random; I would argue that intelligent design has to include evolution, and evolution can't be totally random.

Perhaps in a hundred years or so, no well-respected theologian will deny the evolution of life from a single cell. Or perhaps scientists will find evidence for another theory of the origin of life. Either way, there is no reason why our observations about the world should contradict religious beliefs or vice versa.

If you ask me, the apparent conflict between Christianity and Evolution is a an excellent way to miss a lot of really important things in life.

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*The word "day" is not used to imply a 24-hour period, since before Earth and the Sun were created there were no 24-hour days as we now know them. It is used as an nondescript measure of time.

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