A lesson on speaking out in ignorance

April 15, 2006 | By | Reply More

As part of his Easter homily, Pope Benedict XVI invoked evolution in describing Christ’s resurrection: 

If we may borrow the language of the theory of evolution, it is the greatest ‘mutation,’ absolutely the most crucial leap into a totally new dimension that there has ever been in the long history of life and its development: a leap into a completely new order which does concern us, and concerns the whole of history.

Pope Benedict has not always been receptive to evolution, however.  On November 11, 2005, he had stated that the universe was made by an “intelligent project” and criticized those who in the name of science say its creation was without direction or order:

How many of these people are there today? These people, ‘fooled by atheism,’ believe and try to demonstrate that it’s scientific to think that everything is free of direction and order.

Michael Behe and the “intelligent design” brigade immediately whooped it up, claiming that by uttering this nonsense, the Pope had just declared that “neo-Darwinism is wrong and ID is right.”

What’s utterly amazing about the Pope’s pronouncements is his blatant lack of fundamental knowledge regarding evolution.  He has a huge library and lots of people at his beck and call.  Why can’t he take the time to get the scientific basics correct before speaking to the world?

Evolution does not act by sudden “leaps,” except in the context of geological time.  Second, it is quite odd that Benedict would characterize any action of Jesus as a “mutation,” in that mutations are utterly random.  Natural selection, on the other hand, is the opposite of random in that it judges (random) mutations harshly in accordance with a stern criterion.  As Daniel Dennett has written (in Breaking the Spell),

Mother Nature is a philistine accountant who cares only about the immediate payoff in terms of differential replication, cutting no slack for promising candidates who can’t measure up to the contemporary competition.

Because natural selection is such a harsh judge of whether new traits improve an organism’s chances of living long enough to produce offspring, evolution is (contrary to Benedict’s November statement) not free of direction and order.  Populations of organisms continually change in ways that tend to improve their chances for survival. They aren’t always successful, of course.  Competing organisms are also evolving, resulting in ubiquitous evolutionary arms races.  The bottom line, however, is that this tendency of organisms to evolve so as to improve their chances of survival, a central tenet of evolution, is the diametric opposite of Benedict’s claim that the [scientific atheists] think that evolution is free of direction or order. 

Scientists (even atheist scientists) have eyes. They’ve clearly noticed that many of the organisms of the world appear to be exquisitely designed.  No one is denying this. No one is claiming that this incredible biosphere happened in a totally random way.   The issue is how life forms became so well designed, not whether they appear to be designed.   One candidate is natural selection, an elegant concept that has been substantiated through thousands of carefully controlled peer-reviewed experiments. The other candidate (“God did it”) is yet to inspire a single prediction regarding changes in populations of organisms and is yet to suggest any approach for the development of any life-saving drug.

Perhaps the Pope’s Easter homily was his attempt to atone for his earlier ignorance.  If so, he gets a C+ for effort.  He could have made a much more credible showing, however, by first reading a high school book on evolution before opening his mouth to such a large and impressionable audience.

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Category: Evolution, Religion

About the Author ()

Erich Vieth is an attorney focusing on consumer law litigation and appellate practice. He is also a working musician and a writer, having founded Dangerous Intersection in 2006. Erich lives in the Shaw Neighborhood of St. Louis, Missouri, where he lives half-time with his two extraordinary daughters.

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