About Rationally Speaking

Rationally Speaking is a blog maintained by Prof. Massimo Pigliucci, a philosopher at the City University of New York. The blog reflects the Enlightenment figure Marquis de Condorcet's idea of what a public intellectual (yes, we know, that's such a bad word) ought to be: someone who devotes himself to "the tracking down of prejudices in the hiding places where priests, the schools, the government, and all long-established institutions had gathered and protected them." You're welcome. Please notice that the contents of this blog can be reprinted under the standard Creative Commons license.

Sunday, November 30, 2008

The Vatican and evolution: the usual crap

The news coming out of the recent, and much trumpeted, Vatican-sponsored conference on evolution isn’t that good, according to a brief article that appeared in Science magazine on November 14. Molecular biologist John Abelson commented on the most controversial figure at the conference, Austrian Cardinal Christoph Schönborn: “He believes there are gaps in evolution and [that] God acts in those gaps.” Oh boy, not the “gap theory” again?

Schönborn is infamous for an op-ed piece he published in the New York Times, “Finding design in nature,” in which he referred to neo-Darwinism as a “dogma,” a word that really should never be uttered with contempt by any member of the Catholic Church, ever. Despite Pope John Paul II’s conciliatory statements toward science in general (he pardoned Galileo) and evolution in particular, Schönborn dug himself deeper and deeper in the editorial: “Any system of thought that denies or seeks to explain away the overwhelming evidence for design in biology is ideology, not science.” Ah yes, as opposed to those most empirically based of all doctrines, the teachings of the Catholic Church!

Apparently, good ol’ Christoph gave an acceptable talk at the Vatican conference, making the distinction between “evolution” (ok) and “evolutionism” (bad). The problems started during the following Q&A session, when the Cardinal apparently felt more free to speak his mind, so much so that even Francis Collins complained! Collins, you might remember, is the former director of the human genome project, who recently flirted with intelligent design in his book, “The Language of God,” nonsensically subtitled “A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief.” Even so, Collins wasn’t too happy about Schönborn’s reservations concerning evolution’s ability to explain “all aspects of biology.”

The above mentioned Abelson, on his part, didn’t mince words: “It was preposterous … a step backwards.” For Gereon Wolters, a philosopher at the University of Konstanz in Germany, Schönborn “is just repeating this creationist gibberish” so popular in the USA. Just about the least damaging statement that the Science reporter could find for Schönborn was from director of the Missouri Botanical Garden’s Peter Raven, who commented that the Cardinal’s lecture was “confused.”

Why, why, why, one would want to ask. Why is Schönborn insisting in picking a fight with science, knowing full well the past history of such conflicts, where the Catholic Church has invariably come out looking foolish? On the part of the scientists, why did eminent cosmologist Stephen Hawking agree to lend credence to the conference, and even to be touched on the head by the Pope? (What for, a benediction of the man who famously said that his theories allow him to look into God’s mind?)

The answer to the question of why scientists are so complacent with the Church is that it is hard to refuse a free trip to Rome and the occasion to schmooze with the Pope. Heck, even I would have accepted the invite, though I might have tried to steer clear of any head touching by Ratzinger and his associates. The answer to the question of why people like Schönborn keep spouting patent nonsense is more complex, but it must have a lot to do with the realization that if the Church were to fully embrace the Darwinian view of the world it would be really hard to hang on to silly notions like the trinity, original sin and my favorite, transubstantiation. The God-of-the-gaps retreat is a desperate position, but it does allow Schönborn to keep both face and a steady income. Which is why scientists should not attend religious conferences: let the religionists deal with “the problem” as best as they can, but do not lend them a crutch on which to fool the world into thinking that what they are saying makes any rational sense at all.


  1. Massimo, any online links to the Q&A session? I would love to know how he responded when somebody asked him specifically WHAT gaps he has in mind.

    Where does John Abelson work out of? I'd love to contact him for more on this. As you say, the Cardinal just digs himself deeper and deeper into the hole.

  2. I wonder if the Pope would ever have the stones to make an ex cathedra statement on this subject?

  3. What I've never understood, and perhaps someone can explain it to me, is how the Vatican can ever change its opinion on an issue and maintain legitimacy. Isn't the pope supposed to be, like, the direct word of god on earth, or something? Shouldn't the Vatican's stance on issues be forever unchanging? If the current Vatican council changes the Church's stance on evolution as they have done, doesn't that remove legitimacy from the whole process?

    As much as I hate those who steadfastly maintain their religious beliefs in face of the evidence and refuse to change with the times, at least you have to give them some credit for standing by their principles. How do you see the church changing their stance on something which is supposed to be bedrock word-of-god stuff and still believe it to be legitimate?

  4. John,

    Abelson is at UC-Davis. I don't have a link to the q&a transcripts, if they exist.

  5. Saying that scientists should not attend religious conferences goes a bit far. You shouldn't knock back a genuine invitation for dialog. Dialog, by definition, should be open, and can include voicing exactly what you think of transubstantiation. No need for excessive restraint in the name of politeness, but you do need to listen carefully to what the other side is saying.

  6. Joanna,

    but why? Religion represents the exact antithesis of science, as Richard Feynman pointed out. One prizes faith in spite of evidence, the other open inquiry based on evidence.

    What could a dialogue possibly achieve, given these radically different values? And how am I supposed to remain polite and "open" when someone tells me that he believes that eating a wafer and drinking wine literally *is* eating and drinking the flesh and blood of a god??

  7. Massmimo,

    Michael Shermer argued in his book "Why Darwin Matters" that intellectuals like yourself should bother debating creationists, etc, because there are so many people in the "middle" -- that is, undecided, or at least swayable -- that know the religion on the matter, but don't know the science. Debating religionists, he wrote, creates an avenue to get this group the information science has on the matter as compared to the one-sided affair they often hear.

    Or something like that. Follow me?


  8. Another reason is that not all religious people adhere to the literal truth of phenomena as ridiculous as transubstantiation, and dialog with these reasonable people may actually lead somewhere.

    The Mind and Life conferences are a good example of an honest attempt at dialog. After the Dalai Lama clearly said that if science disproved any central tenets of Buddhism, then Buddhism would need to change, then you know you have an open dialog partner. And the Buddhists have some very interesting insights to contribute regarding consciousness, a topic that science has got almost nowhere on.

  9. Michael, Joanna,

    I'm all in favor of engaging religionists to further skepticism, but that isn't the goal of conferences such as the Vatican's, which are actually meant to entrench the religious position under the cloak of reasonability.

    As for the Lama, I'm sure he means it, but since buddhist doctrines cannot be falsified on the basis of empirical evidence, I doubt we will ever see the day when he will shed all that nonsense about reincarnation and blissful nirvana...

  10. Massimo, you are assuming that the only people to get something out of honest dialog are religious people, who will increase both their scientific knowledge and their skepticism. They may well do so, but real dialog goes both ways. With the right dialog partner, the scientist can also learn something, hence my eg on the question of consciousness. What is learned won't be exactly science, but may still be relevant to it.

  11. Oh boy, not the “gap theory” again?

    Yeah, and me here thinking those Cardinal types were at least smart and educated guys. I guess I was wrong again...

    Shouldn't the Vatican's stance on issues be forever unchanging?

    Well, you are assuming that gods never change their minds. :-)
    Just look at the history of the Mor(m)ons: all of a sudden (when Utah was joining the Union), their god told them that polygamy was wrong; later (Civil Rights era), their god conveniently told them that now Blacks were allowed in their church... Quite a bunch of flexible, open-minded gods out there, isn't it? :-)

  12. Joanna,

    this is obviously my own limitation, but I cannot imagine what on earth science can learn from religion...

  13. It can learn what religious people think, for a start, which helps a lot if you want to communicate with another person.

  14. Nacho,

    I beg to differ. It's hard to imagine any one who *doesn't* know how religious people think. Most of us grew up religious, and the culture is steeped in the darn thing.

    As for communicating with people, I assure you that I do quite well without having to learn from the preacher's book...

  15. I have only a layperson's understanding of the theory of evolution and it does make sense to me, but I have questions about the "randomness" and the "pure chance" and the "luck" that I hear people attribute to evolution. Below is an excerpt from my writings:

    The word evolution etymologically means “an unrolling”. It has been defined as “change” or “adaptation”. Is this “unrolling” a fixed reality, like a woven rug spreading out in space over time? Are the evolutionary changes fixed, a product of cause and effect, therefore knowable and predictable or are they somehow magical, mysterious, whimsical and unknowable? In short is ours a universe of fate?


    Whatever will be, will be. It appears that this universe is a system of causes and effects and that a goal of science is to understand all these relationships. The study of evolution is an attempt to explain how and why those changes take place. Once those rules of change are understood, then using those rules we can predict certain changes in the future. If one thinks of the universal big-bang as the initial break on a pool table, we humans are on one of the balls, trying to figure out all the dynamics of the shot. But like the rug, the results of the break shot are fixed. All the balls are reacting to rules of cause and effect, everything is happening not “for” a reason but “due” to a reason. (If something or someone did take the break shot, then it would be happening “for” a reason or purpose but that will lead us to God and that topic is reserved for later.) It seems that the universe is a big machine or a big computer (the clockwork universe), or a big pool table running on a program of cause and effect. Everything that happens, must happen, and cannot happen in any other way. If the mechanics of the break-shot (velocity, mass, trajectories, etc.) can be duplicated then the result would always be the same. This is easier to envision if you think of someone trying to make a basketball shot from a fixed point or a golfer trying to make a difficult putt, if that person can duplicate the physics of a successful shot then they will always make a successful shot. To sink the number 5 ball in a certain pocket on the break shot is a very complicated shot to perform, but there is a mechanical equation that will sink it every time. The mechanics is 100% fixed and completely predictable, the probability lies in the person’s ability to put the mechanics in motion. This idea is present in many types of gambling, the outcome of dice thrown or bingo, lottery and roulette balls falling where they must is 100% fixed, but the human mind at present cannot analyze and process this system of cause and effect. The “chance” or “luck” is not in the physics of the toss or roll but in the person’s ability to read the physics. When we don’t have the ability to read the physics we call it chance, just like when humanity considered eclipses “chance” events. When we are taking a multiple choice test in algebra for which we are not prepared we can only guess at the right answer. Everyone is doing exactly that same thing at the craps table. What appears to be chaotic, like the break on a pool table is simply order that we don’t understand. In a mechanistic universe there can be no chaos, only order we don’t understand. The more we understand the rules of cause and effect the more we can explain what happened and predict what will happen. We’ve done it already with sunrise and sunset times, eclipses, tides. The more we understand the rules the more predictable the future becomes. When our predictions don’t turn out to be true it is not that there is an exception to the rule, it’s just that we don’t know the complete rule.

    I have heard about some uncertainty principle (Heisenberg?)but in layman's terms does that mean we cannot be certain about the outcome or that the outcome is not fixed? Does the outcome occur due to certain causes or is it "willy nilly"? Either way what would it's effect be upon a universe of cause and effect?

  16. Massimo, maybe I wasn't clear: I meant that it's useful to kno how people think to communicate with them. In the case of religious people, it's useful to know how their ideas work too. I didn't mean religion could teach us about communication, as maybe it was understood.

    Anyway: I too was raised religious (and am far from being religious at all now), but it is still sometimes very interesting to talk to religious people, and to listen to what they think. If we limit our work to preaching rational thought without listening to the ones that don't want to embrace it fully, I think we won't have a lot of success. You see where I'm coming from?

    Oh, and aren't there branches of sociology and psychology that study religion, as a collective and individual phenomena? That is also, in some way, science learning from religion (as biology learns from plants by observing them), and it is what -much less profesionally or rigorously- we somestimes should do when hearing religious thought.

  17. The Vatican's new shift towards the Christian Right, and their doctrines, is a simple matter of marketing and product placement. In short, this is about money.

    Having failed to gain adherents by moving towards a more secular, scientific approach, the Catholic Church has realized that the kind of person who is most likely to stick with the church matches the profile of those who join evangelical churches. Rome doesn't care what we think, because we'll never join and put money in the plate. The Catholic Church is an empire with very expensive tastes and lifestyles. To sustain this, they deal with mafia affiliated bankers, have created the cultish Opus Dei (which targets high income potential young professionals, and cordons them off from the rest of society to act as cash cows). Mother Theresa was also a great earner--50 million in the bank, supposedly for care of the sick, but which will probably never be used for that purpose. And now they have done their market research and realized that magic and dogma are not an impediment to sales, but their main product.

    In order to compete in the religious marketplace, they must emulate the fastest growing brands: Protestant Evangelism and extreme Islam. These offer strict orthodoxy, quick and certain answers, mystery, magic (and hence, a rejection of materialism of any kind, including science). The distinguishing feature of the Catholic brand is showy ritual and baroque art and music--and lots of it! So this feature is also being emphasized; after all, if you're selling magic, dress up like medieval wizards and have lots of pyrotechnics.

    It is their hope that this will put bums in pews and cash in the baskets. Those clerical robes, golden chalices, and limousines don't come cheap.


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