Re: Texas Texts

by Nicholas Frankovich

Kevin is right that high-school textbooks are not the best place for hashing out debates about Darwinism, but students should at least be told that such debates exist. The key words here include “naturalism” and “materialism” and, on the other side, “teleology” and “self-organization.” Maybe add “emergence,” which comports well with the latter camp and seems to provoke less outrage from the former camp than “teleology” does.

Some “reductionists” call those who disagree with them “creationists,” and vice versa. Both terms are now largely pejorative, like “fundamentalist.” In the case of “creationist,” it’s inaccurate when applied to those who, ignoring Scripture and theology, argue simply that explanations of evolution without teleology may look plausible within a relatively small frame of reference but not within larger frames. The occurrence of a mutation that increases the adaptability of an organism may be statistically random when considered in isolation, but the sum of mutations finally resulting in human consciousness, for example, appears directional. How do we account for that appearance? One answer would be that evolution appears directional because it is. Darwinists argue that it isn’t. Whether Darwin himself would disagree is disputed.

Interest in the possibility that evolution is teleological is more common among philosophers of science, and among philosophers generally, than among biologists, although you can find it here and there among the latter. Even among the former it’s probably still considered outré, although it and Aristotle are sometimes said to be enjoying a bit of a comeback lately. Thomas Nagel gave it a boost with his book Mind and Cosmos and predictably got thrashed. A common misunderstanding of teleology is that it’s one step removed from the creation accounts in Genesis. Edward Feser thinks it’s many steps removed, and Nagel thinks that teleology doesn’t imply theism at all; about his own atheism he’s clear, though he doesn’t harp on it.

The Catholic Church accepts evolution, as Kevin notes, but not “as we scientists accept it — as an unguided, materialistic process with no goal or direction.” So says Jerry Coyne, a biologist at the University of Chicago. His clarity doesn’t necessarily imply disrespect. In Humani Generis (1950), Pius XII cautiously allowed inquiry into “the doctrine of evolution” with respect to the human body but maintained that “souls are immediately created by God.” Speaking to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences in 2006, John Paul II remarked that “today, more than a half-century after the appearance of that encyclical, some new findings lead us toward the recognition of more than one hypothesis within the theory of evolution.”