Appeared in Winter 1999-2000, Vol. XXIV-XXV Download PDF here


Charles Darwin


DARWINIAN EVALUTION HAS BECOME ONE OF THE PIVOTAL INTELLECTIAL Issues of our time because it influences so many of the ways in which we organize our experience and ground our beliefs. In the sciences, it affects biology because it is one of the keys to our understanding of the relationships among organisms; but it also now draws upon and to some extent influences chemistry, geology, and even physics, all of which are used to explicate aspects of evolutionary history. More importantly, however, it affects the way we view ourselves in the universe, in our relationship to God, and in our relationship with the rest of creation. The impact of evolution on religion is, of course, naturally great, as most religions claim to tell us about these subjects as well. The potential for conflict among the various camps and disciplines is very real. Indeed, as usually posed, the question is one of evolution versus religion, with Biblical fundamentalists arrayed on one side, and scientific fundamentalists on the other as if tertiuni non datur. Hence the widespread interest in evolution and the heated controversies surrounding it.

Evolution can be viewed as a scientific, philosophical, or theological problem. Science seeks to answer the questions: From where do organisms come? How have they achieved the diversity we see around us? Why do they share many common characteristics? How has the organization and functionality of living things grown over time? Why have some organisms, such as the dinosaurs, died out? Philosophy is concerned with questions such as how (or whether) the greater can come from the lesser, what type of causality evolution represents, and whether evolution precludes or eliminates the need for God. Theology looks at how God works in the world, how evolution reflects on creation, and how it squares with the Bible and tradition. Unfortunately, in today’s highly charged atmosphere, questions from all three disciplines are often addressed but generally not distinguished. As a result, arguments from one discipline are freely used to criticize or support conclusions in another, even when this is inappropriate or nonsensical. Worse yet, invalid, incoherent, incorrect, irrelevant or misleading arguments seem to be the order of the day, with shrillness replacing soundness as the criterion of truth. Naturally, there have been widespread accusations of “hidden agenda” on all sides.

Biblical Fundamentalists, who currently make up the largest contingent of those commonly but inappropriately referred to as “creationists,” feel that it has become necessary to draw the line, since science-or what they regard as bogus science-now claims as true positions and facts which they believe to be at variance with the revealed truths of the Bible. They have accordingly gone on the offensive, both in lectures and publications, claiming that the theory of evolution is not good science and is not supported by the facts. This has provoked a somewhat belated response from the biological community and from other interested parties who were at first content to laugh off the challenge. The principal arguments of the creationists against evolution are:

  • The theory of evolution is not scientific.1
  • Evolution would violate established scientific laws, particularly the second law of thermodynamics.2
  • Natural selection cannot account for the emergence of new species (i.e., evolution couldn’t happen).3
  • The dating techniques used by geologists and evolutionary biologists are faulty.
  • The fossil record does not support evolution4

Typically, creationists argue for a “young earth” (6,000-10,000 years), and postulate a “flood geology” to account for observed fossil deposits.5 It is important to note that in order for the creationists to maintain a literal interpretation of the Bible
and “interpretation” is indeed the operative word
here a denial or disproof
of the principle of natural
selection will not suffice;they must discredit the entire chronology worked out
more or less independentlyover the past 200 years by
evolutionary biologists, geologists, astrophysicists, and
researchers in other fields.

There are those with
extreme views on the opposite side as well. Though less publicized, some scientists and their fellow travelers in the media, to whom we may collectively refer as “scientific fundamentalists,” follow Laplace’s dictum – je n’ai pas besoin de cette hypothèse – with respect to God. They employ long-range extrapolation represented as established fact, claim (or assume) omnicompetence for science, and argue that any notion of Divine “creation” is unscientific and absurd, and so, therefore, is religion in general and creationism in particular. A typical comment is, “if the world and its creatures developed purely by material, physical forces, it could not have been designed and has no purpose or goal.”6 Though this argument is very confused and its conclusion a non-sequitur, it is representative of the attitude, if not the intellectual disposition, of this camp.

Many other scientists, however, including many Christians, reject the foregoing extreme position and acknowledge that there are problems with the “orthodox” version of evolution,’ but dispute creationist notions which aver that carefully researched scientific conclusions and theories must be wrong regardless of evidence. They argue that:

  • Creationism is not science by any acceptable definition of science.
  • Creationist arguments against evolution are fallacious
  • Granting “equal time” to creationism in schools and textbooks would be a serious blow to science and science teaching.
  • Evolution is supported by an overwhelming body of scientificknowledge

To complicate matters, philosophers weigh in with reasoning based upon causality and order, claiming jurisdiction based on metaphysical principles regarding the emergence of order from disorder. Such principles could be interpreted to mean that evolution is impossible, since it represents a case of something higher or more perfect emerging from something lower or less perfect.

Confronting such a contentious, even chaotic situation, intelligent men have the duty to step back and review matters, to sort out the questions carefully, and to determine objectively what is at stake and what evidence or argument can be brought to bear on each position. It is important to assume at the outset that all parties to the dispute are men of good will, and to extract the positive contributions each position can make to a resolution of the overall question. There is a fairly continuous spectrum of belief in both evolution as a process, and in divine creation. This implies that the tertium non datur exclusivity of the extreme positions is by no means the only choice available, and that there are approaches to the problem which avoid those extremes yet maintain the integrity of all three relevant disciplines: science, philosophy, and theology.

Especially important, therefore, is the Church’s official teaching and how it relates to the spectrum of possible beliefs. This official teaching was first enunciated in Pope Pius XII’s encyclical Humani Generis (1950), which affirms that Catholics need not embrace creationism, and can believe in evolution under certain conditions:

The Teaching Authority of the Church does not forbid that, in conformity with the present state of human sciences and sacred theology, research and discussions, on the part of men experienced in both fields, take place with regard to the doctrine of evolution, in as far as it inquiries into the origin of the human body as coming from pre-existent and living matter for the Catholic faith obliges us to hold that souls are immediately created by God. However, this must be done in such a way that the reasons for both opinions, that is, those favorable and unfavorable to evolution, be weighed and judged with the necessary seriousness, moderation and measure, and provided that all are prepared to submit to the judgment of the Church.8

Some conservative Catholics, however, have openly adopted or are sympathetic to creationist arguments, despite the fact that creationism springs from deep Protestant traditions regarding the Bible, its interpretation, and its place in the total context of faith. Their position was dealt a blow on October 22, 1996, when Pope John Paul, addressing an international group of scientists, stated that “[t]oday … new knowledge leads to the recognition that the theory of evolution is more than a hypothesis.” In a June, 1996 address to a session of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, he told the members:

More than “the theory of evolution,” it is appropriate to speak of “the theories” of evolution. This plurality accounts, on the one hand, for the diversity of explanations that have been proposed as the mechanism of evolution and, on the other hand, for diverse philosophies. We have thus materialistic and reductionist readings, and spiritual readings.9

The Pope’s remarks clearly imply that Catholic thinkers should busy themselves with the theological and philosophical problems posed by evolution, and with the apologetic problems and opportunities associated with it. The key phrase, perhaps, is “spiritual readings”: properly understood, evolution may be able to teach us something about God’s providence and creative action with respect to the world, and thus deepen our understanding as well as make the faith more attractive to the modern world.

But of course not just any approach to evolution is satisfactory, for Pope Pius resolutely condemns the position of the scientific fundamentalists:

Some imprudently and indiscreetly hold that evolution, which has not been fully proved even in the domain of natural sciences, explains the origin of all things, and audaciously support the monistic and pantheistic opinion that the world is in continual evolution…. Some, however, rashly transgress [the] liberty of discussion, when they act as if the origin of the human body from pre-existing and living matter were already completely certain and proved by the facts which have been discovered up to now and by reasoning on those facts, and as if there were nothing in the sources of divine revelation which demands the greatest moderation and caution in this question.10

The remarks of the Popes, then, pose a challenge and also outline the “boundary conditions”11 of the evolution/creation problem. Accordingly, we will first review the critical points of the evolution debate, explaining the range of possibilities available, and then sketch a new theoretical framework for evolution which, if confirmed, should satisfy most (if not all) of the interests of the creationists and other believers, without doing violence to science and ultimately provoking another Galileo-like confrontation.


The Biblical Fundamentalists’ Quandary: Creation Science vs. Empirical Science

As a strongly held position of certain religious believers, creationism is worthy of examination in order to sharpen the focus of the evolution problem. What, ultimately, are the reasons creationists give for rejecting evolution and evolutionary explanations? There appear to be three:

  • The chronology established by geology and evolutionary biology contradicts the Bible, which (in their view) affirms instantaneous creation.
  • If evolution is accepted, chance (as manifested in natural selection) replaces God’s direct creative action in the emergence of all living things.
  • In an evolutionary framework, man ceases to be inevitable and to be the purpose of creation, and instead is relegated to being the accidental result of random processes.12

To be sure, these are all legitimate concerns. The creationists do not believe that it is possible to construct a theory of evolution which can address these three points in a satisfactory way. W. Hoesch, of the Institute for Creation Research, responding to Pope John Paul’s remarks, asserted that evolution is, by definition, an undirected, random process, one without a purpose. “That’s the heart and soul of what the scientific community believes. So, how can evolution be both a directed and an undirected process?”13 This is a fair question, but not one that can be answered within the conceptual framework of the creationists. It can be answered, however, and will be answered below, utilizing the concept of secondary causality.

Hoesch’s remarks penetrate to the heart of the matter, namely that creationist arguments against the geologic time scale and the progressive appearance of new life forms are intended to discredit the theory of evolution in its entirety primarily because of reasons (2) and (3). The chronology issue, by itself, is of very little importance for two reasons: (a) the theology of salvation does not depend upon any particular time interval for the creation of man, since it is concerned with what happened after he was created; and (b) the time units in Genesis can be read to mean eons as well as days, since “day” had no meaning at all as a unit of time until after the earth and sun were created (day 4). Recall the words of the Psalmist (90:4-6):

For a thousand years in thy sight [are but] as yesterday when it is past, and [as] a watch in the night.

Thou carriest them away as with a flood; they are [as] a sleep: in the morning [they are] like grass [which] groweth up.

In the morning it flourisheth, and groweth up; in the evening it is cut down, and withereth.

As Plus XII pointed out in Humani Generis:

The first eleven chapters of Genesis, although properly speaking not conforming to the historical method used by the best Greek and Latin writers or by competent authors of our time, do nevertheless pertain to history in a true sense, which however must be further studied and determined by exegetes; the same chapters … in simple and metaphorical language adapted to the mentality of a people but little cultured, both state the principal truths which are fundamental forour salvation, and also give a popular description of the origin of the human race and the chosen people (emphasis added).14

Indeed, if evolution theory still required God for certain creative acts, it is unlikely that many creationists despite their insistence on literalism would deem the chronology issue to be of any importance beyond that of a minor problem of exegesis (What does “day” mean?). Therefore it is reasons (2) and (3) which must be the focus of any effort to resolve the problems posed by evolution. In fact, they must be resolved for virtually any religious belief, not just that of the creationists. In a sense, of course, every theory of Divine creation makes God the author of all material things, including flora and fauna. But the creationists’ concern is presumably with the idea that chance and random processes (via natural selection) are responsible for the order apparent in the natural world, and for the emergence of man. In brief, they reject the idea that such natural processes can play a role in the Creator’s action. In their view, such a notion inevitably leads to marginalization or rejection of God as superfluous:

There is no such thing that could be legitimately called theistic evolution. By definition, evolution is a strictly mechanistic, naturalistic, and therefore atheistic process (emphasis added).15

This view, I would argue, is a red herring, not because chance and random processes are not real, but because they do not have the metaphysical meaning implicit in this criticism. That meaning is that chance somehow reflects badly on God, who as superphysicist in Heaven figures out what each particle in the universe is supposed to do and so maps out the course of events as would a human scientist, with complete certainty and determinism as if God were like Zeus on Mt. Olympus, wondering what was going to happen next in the world He created. This is, needless to say, a very anthropomorphic notion of God, hopelessly inadequate to His transcendence and power. Indeed, as Zubiri has pointed out,16 the entire explanatory paradigm implied in the creationist view is radically wrong: nature has a purely human meaning, and chance is merely an index of the limitations of human intellect when it tries to understand the world, not a reflection on the Divine mind. God sees the world in a creative vision; He does not perceive it in time, as we do. This is a typical instance where gratuitous (and erroneous) assumptions, seemingly innocent, lead directly to conflict between faith and science. In the theory proposed below, random phenomena actually play an essential part in the unfolding of creation.

To be sure, creationism in
the fundamentalists’ sense is a logical possibility: in seven 24-hour
days, God could have created the
universe and our world, complete
with fossil record, functional and
structural relationships (homologies) among flora and fauna, DNA
98% identical between men and
chimpanzees, and radioisotopes in
proportions which suggest great age. Most evolutionary biologists will concede this point in one fashion or another.17 But as Russian Orthodox Christian and evolutionary biologist Theodosius Dobzhansky has argued, it leads to a series of very difficult-in his view blasphemous theological conclusions, since it implies that God “rigged” an incredible collection of facts pertaining to many different, independent lines of evidence, in some perverse way so as to mislead fair-minded and honest students of His works.18

Since the primary purpose of this article is not to refute creationism, no further analysis of creationist theories will be given. Excellent books on the subject are available, including that by Kitcher,19 and the author has published a paper in this journal dealing with one aspect of it.20 Rather, the purpose is to show that there exist solutions to the apparent dilemma posed by evolution which can accomplish the legitimate religious and spiritual goals of the creationists and all men of faith.


Scientific fundamentalists would seem to have an easier task than creationists; debunking religion in the age of computers and space travel is surely less taxing than a frontal assault on the bastion of modern science. But when one gets down to the details, things are not so clear. By a supreme irony, theories of evolution often seem to act as a surrogate religion, and the scientific fundamentalists find themselves compelled to assume a role akin to that of its high priests, converting the masses and extirpating the heretics. This rather somber aspect of scientific fundamentalism is clearly spelled out in quasi-religious terms by Nobel laureate Steven Weinberg:

The more the universe seems comprehensible, the more it also seems pointless. … But if there is no solace in the fruits of our research, there is at least some consolation in the research itself. … The effort to understand the universe is one of the very few things that lifts human life a little above the level of farce, and gives it some of the grace of tragedy.21

Readers may also recall the late Carl Sagan’s PBS programs on astronomy, where he sits in a building reminiscent of a cathedral, with organ music in the background, pontificating on the history and future of the universe. Sociobiologist and Harvard University luminary Edward Wilson is quite forthright about the essentially religious nature of scientific materialism:22

The true Promethean spirit of science means to liberate man by giving him knowledge and some measure of dominion over the physical environment. But at another level, and in a new age, it also constructs the mythology of scientific materialism, guided by the corrective devices of the scientific method, addressed with precise and deliberately affective appeal to the deepest needs of human nature, and kept strong by the blind hopes that the journey on which we are now embarked will be farther and better than the one just completed.23

At least Wilson is candid about the fact that scientific materialism is a mythology, and that his hopes are blind! J. Huxley also argued that science was the new religion:

I submit that the discoveries of physiology, general biology and psychology not only make possible, but necessitate a naturalistic hypothesis [for religion], in which there is no room for the supernatural, and the spiritual forces at work in the cosmos are seen as a part of nature just as much as the material forces.24

One has to wonder, if there is no supernatural, just what the “spiritual forces at work” might be. Still another evolutionist seems so zealous to attack his adversaries that the adjective “hidden” in “hidden agenda” can be dropped:

The attack on evolution is only one item in fundamentalism’s program of battle against all social and intellectual change…. The reaction against women’s rights, gay rights, abortion, welfare, and pacifism that developed in the late 1970’s and 1980’s has been associated with an increase in the strength and stridency of the fundamentalist religious right.25

While there may be some truth in this as an historical statement, one cannot help but get the impression that it is intended as an imperative, with women’s rights and the rest somehow on the same level as evolution, all equally deserving of acceptance. This aspect of evolution has been extensively studied by British philosopher Mary Midgley. She points out how various extra-scientific extensions have been tacked onto the theory of evolution and explores the ways in which religious ideas have been displaced from the religious sphere to that of science; this is especially true of evolution:

Evolution is the creation myth of our age. By telling us our origins, it shapes our views of what we are. It influences not just our thought, but our feelings and actions too, in a way which goes far beyond its official function as a biological theory…. [A] surprising number of the elements which used to belong to traditional religion have regrouped themselves under the heading of science, mainly around the concept of evolution.26

In particular, she notes, there is an “escalatortype” mentality which believes that man is infinitely perfectible in his physical, mental, and moral abilities, including, of course, all types of “omega points,” Teilhardian or otherwise. She has no difficulty debunking this notion, but its appearance in otherwise sober scientific writing is striking. As a typical member of this camp, Edward Wilson states straightforwardly that-in his view at least the game is over:

The time has come to ask: Does a way exist to divert the power of religion into the service of the great new enterprise that lays bare the sources of that power? Make no mistake about the power of scientific materialism. It presents the human mind with an alternative mythology that until now has always, point for point in zones of conflict, defeated traditional religion. Its narrative form is the epic, the evolution of the universe from the big bang.27

Commenting on Wilson’s views, Midgley remarks:

Wilson never doubts either that there is direct competition [between religion and science] or that it has been won, since science (in the form of sociobiology) has `explained’ religion, while religion cannot explain science. This is an amazingly confused position. Causal explanation (which is the only kind offered) is not relevant to the value of the thing explained, as can be seen by thinking about the parallel case of a possible causal explanation of mathematics or of science itself. … Wilson does not actually provide such an explanation, only loosely sketches it as a project. It consists of some familiar shaky speculations about the way in which various religions might help the survival of tribes professing them, plus the a priori ruling that not only religion in general, but also a preference for a particular kind of religion, is genetically determined.28

Despite these obvious shortcomings, one might still ask whether scientific fundamentalism can make any contribution to the discussion of faith and science. The answer is yes, insofar as it compels us to focus on the nature of scientific explanation vis-a-vis human knowledge as a whole, and to question commonly held assumptions about science and the facts that it explains. Such questions might take the following form:

  • If strictly natural processes fail to explain any aspect of nature, what form would such a failure take?
  • What limits are there to science as an explanatory paradigm for phenomena?
  • Is scientific explanation univocal? That is, can there be such a thing as secondary causality?

Limitations of space preclude a complete discussion of these three important issues; indeed, they are not yet fully resolved. Let us note, however, with respect to (1) that at least one way explanatory failure would be manifest is in the probabilistic fog surrounding events at the quantum level, and its manifestations at higher levels. That is, the very issue that the creationists (and others) believe to be so destructive of belief is actually an indication that science cannot explain everything.29

Question (2) addresses the explanatory problem from a broader perspective, with more emphasis on practical matters such as time, space, energy, and other limitations. It also involves the issue of what constitutes verification for a scientific theory, and how much we can rely upon such theories as bearers of truth. Clearly in the area of evolutionary biology, there are significant practical limitations, both because the data we have from extinct flora and fauna is fragmentary, and because we cannot perform experiments on either the time or space scales of evolutionary history. Our knowledge is perforce indirect.

But it is question (3) that most directly impinges on the problem of evolution and faith. Secondary causality implies that a single set of events or phenomena can have a perfectly valid scientific (or other) explanation, yet at the same time be the working out of a plan at a higher level. Examples may readily be drawn from science, politics, and history. How secondary causality may apply to evolution is discussed below.


As the first step toward our goal, let us review the problem of evolution and faith to ascertain precisely what is at stake in the battles. It is important that we not be distracted over issues which easily can be finessed. The crux of the problem for religious believers of all faiths centers around two issues:

Critical Issue 1: The Biblical Account of Creation as Narrated in Genesis I-V. Understood literally, the text appears to suggest a very short period for creation and the emergence of man perhaps a few thousand years and thus appears to be at variance with both geological history and evolutionary development as understood by science. If a literal interpretation is rejected, but still granting that God did create something or some things ex nihilo, what are they? Over what time period? By what mechanisms?

Critical Issue 2: The Nature of Man. As possessed of an immortal soul, man must be something more than just another animal which evolved from lower forms in the same way as other animals. If man is different, and could not and did not evolve from lower animals strictly by natural processes, how does this difference manifest itself? Is there some contradiction with natural laws? Do these laws have fundamental limitations in their explanatory power? Is this a case of order arising spontaneously from disorder, the greater coming from the lesser?

Critical Issue 1: Levels of Belief in Creation and Evolution

In order to address these critical issues, it is necessary to examine just what Divine “creation” is, and how we should expect it to be manifested. In particular, does God need to:

  • Create all species, and the entire universe, in a seven day period, with “day” understood as one of our 24-hour days?
  • Create each species individually over some long time span?
  • Create each man individually?
  • Create each man’s soul individually, as it is incapable of arising through natural processes?
  • Create man alone as a species, who would not have evolved by natural processes?
  • Merely set things in motion in Deist fashion, thereby effectively creating everything which develops over time, with no further intervention?


Each of these questions corresponds to a type of creation, and so anyone who believes in any of them is, technically, a “creationist.” Biblical fundamentalists subscribe to the first, which completely rules out evolution. But the others assume that natural processes are involved in bringing forth new life forms, just as they are involved in the nurturing of existing life. This point is important, because Genesis repeatedly states that God saw that His work of creation was good. No one of faith disputes that we, as persons, live in accordance with the physical laws of nature, and that nature, as created by God, is good. If evolution is a natural consequence of these laws, then it is just as much a part of nature, and just as good, as the rotation of the earth around the sun, the changing of the seasons, and all other phenomena we experience and accept as part of our daily lives. If God created nature and its laws, then He created everything in nature, whether it came into existence immediately or only over a long time period. So these other notions of creation are not incompatible with evolution at some level, especially if one understands the nature of secondary causality. This point has been eloquently affirmed by Roux, Plateaux, and Montenat:

The Creator is not only the one who acts at the first point in time, but the Being whose creative will gives existence to all being at every moment. He is the Being who guides the history of the universe and human history, not necessarily by specific and repeated interventions, but … by the existence that he gives and sustains in his creative will, in accordance with the modes of being which he determines. These modes are not subject to the caprices of the Creator, since he remains faithful to the final goal for which he has ordained his creation; so it is that he presents us with an intelligible world as a first step towards knowing him.30

Particularly useful, therefore, would be a mechanism that suggests how evolution might be the working out of a plan. Such a mechanism is explained in section IV, under the rubric of “virtual creation,” which harnesses the very forces that creationists believe so destructive of the idea of Divine creation, and showing that the phenomena of the world as we experience it flow naturally into evolution.

In a similar fashion, it is necessary to examine the possible levels of belief in evolution. To some, even this language, involving as it does the word “belief,” may appear to be suspect. But the problem is that even if one regards evolution as a “fact,” there are still alternatives with respect to its explanatory scope and power. In an earlier paper on this subject,31 the author distinguished three levels of belief in evolution, for which the quantity of empirical evidence differs:

  1. Historical evolution: belief that the chronology worked out by geologists is correct, and that organisms appeared at the times usually assigned to them, some living on and others such as the dinosaurs dying out. No implication is made that one species gave rise to any other. There is a considerable body of independent evidence from different disciplines which supports the notion of historical evolution.
  2. Weak Darwinian evolution: Historical evolution, coupled with the belief that shared characteristics indicate common descent, without commitment to this being a complete explanation of the fossil record, that is, of the phylogenetic history of life. The evidence for this level of belief is only marginally less than that for historical evolution.
  3. Strong Darwinian evolution: Weak Darwinian evolution, plus the belief that natural forces alone are responsible for the emergence of all organisms. It is the last clause which makes strong Darwinian evolution especially controversial, both because it is essentially unverifiable on human time scales and must therefore rest on circumstantial evidence coupled with rather long-range extrapolation, and because it appears to rule out God as creator of living things.

To these can be added a fourth, the diametrical opposite of creationism:

  1. Scientific fundamentalism: Strong Darwinian evolution, together with the belief that science is the only reliable source of knowledge and is capable of explaining all natural phenomena, including those associated with man.


Naturally, intermediate levels of belief are possible; the foregoing simply mark off discrete positions in the continuum. For example, a position intermediate between weak and strong Darwinian evolution may be defined, which will allow special exceptions to the strong theory.

Using these levels of belief in evolution, and the levels of belief in creation, it is possible to construct Table 1, which reveals where incompatibilities lie. The Church’s position lies at about the midpoint of both axes of the table, in the belief that each man’s soul alone must be individually created by God; the rest is a natural process. In the words of Montenat and his colleagues, “The believer perceives the greatness of the creative genius of God better through a creation which bears within itself, from its beginnings, all the riches of the future. In this view the purpose of the universe appears inscribed on all creation, intimately oriented on the emergence of humanity and our encounter with God.”32 As the table reveals, there is a more or less continuous spectrum of belief about evolution and faith possible.


Critical Issue 2: Evolution and Man

In order to address Critical Issue 2, it is necessary to take a rather hard look at the nature of science as an enterprise, and examine the question of what scientific explanation is, and how it relates to experience. Then questions of jurisdiction, constraint, and contradiction can be answered in a meaningful way. If one is a scientific fundamentalist who accepts on faith the notion that science can explain all phenomena, then there can be no exceptions to the laws of nature and man must be a purely natural creature. But there are many other views of science which are compatible with limitations to its explanatory power.

As noted above, the Church’s position is that each man’s soul must be created individually by God, which is therefore something which cannot be explained by strictly natural processes; but up to the point of creation and past it, natural forces are at work. The Church also rejects the theory of polygenism-that man arose more than once because it contradicts the doctrine of original sin through Adam and Eve. These two doctrines form the boundary conditions for any effort to explain the evolution and generation of man, though what they mean or entail in a scientific context is not entirely clear. The question is further complicated by advances in science such as cloning, artificial insemination, and birth control technology.

Nonetheless, following some ideas of Zubiri, it may be possible to combine the two apparently separate creative acts. Zubiri distinguishes man’s intellective aspects, or psyche, and his body, or somatic structures. This points to the need for the creative act in each man. He notes that as evolution progressed, higher forms of life emerged, with greater awareness of their environment:

Each stage is morphologically and psychically richer. However, even though full of promise, each stage taken by itself is a closed and stable sy tem…. This is why its psychic constitution is only the mere transformation of the sentient psychic constitution of the previous stage. It does not d mand an intellective psyche. Only on reaching the stage of the hominid does it reach a point at which its further transformation no longer constitutes a stable system…. A species having the transformed somatic structures that the hominized hominid has, and not possessing an intellective psyche, could not have subsisted biologically (emphasis added).33

The italicized words are the key to the problem: a living being with man’s somatic structures but without his psyche would not be stable, that is, it could not survive and prosper. Creation of the psyche, in turn, is beyond strictly natural processes:

The human psyche is determined by the transformation (by the germinal [genetic] changes) of the mere hominid into man but is not brought about by the transformation. Because of this it can only be an effect of the first cause, just as at its time the appearance of matter was: it is the effect of a creation ex nihilo.34

This, of course, is God’s act of breathing life into man. Is the creation of the soul a completely separate act of creation for each man who is conceived, or an extension of the first creation of the human psyche ex nihilo? In today’s world of artificial insemination, birth control technology, and neurophysiological research, this question is not so easy to answer as perhaps it once seemed. To be sure, as Zubiri has observed, “The human individual is already integrally constituted in the germinal cell [zygote]. All that is going to be his individual human substantivity is already in his germinal cell: the somatic germinal structures and his intellective psyche.”35 In light of this, two basic approaches may be explained in a little more detail: first, one can assume that there must be some distinct, direct creative action ex nihilo by God each time a human zygote is formed by union of a sperm and an egg, and that this action always takes place so that it appears to be a natural process. This borders on metaphysical occasionalism; but if man’s somatic structures are in fact intrinsically unstable without the intellective psyche, or soul, then we may take the need for direct creative action as a revealed truth. To the scientist, it would appear that sometimes when a sperm fertilizes an egg, a viable zygote is formed, and other times it is not, with the answer in any given case obscured by the complex web of factors involved, and perhaps by quantum uncertainties at the lowest levels. Second, one can assume that the creative action is intrinsic to the matter in its state as human zygote, and in this sense, the psyche (or soul) “springs forth from the heart of life itself.” Basic is the idea that God’s direct intervention was present at the time of the creation of the first man in our sense (Adam), who would not have evolved without this intervention; and that the intervention is prolonged through time somewhat analogous to the fashion in which Christ’s sacrifice is prolonged through time in the Eucharist. By virtue of its propagation from father to son through the natural order, the psyche (soul) is effectively created by God in each man.

The question of order arising from disorder must be left for another occasion. Suffice it to say that with evolution, there is a definite sense in which order does arise from disorder, and the greater from the lesser, at least with respect to nature considered by itself. This can be readily observed in the laboratory in strictly physical (non-biological) phenomena such as the Belousov-Zhabotinskii reaction,36 an example of what is known in physical chemistry as a “self-organizing system.”37 on a broader scale, the emergence of order is also apparent in the formation of stars and galaxies. Therefore the supposed impossibility of order from disorder (in whatever form) cannot be used as an argument against the possibility of evolution without begging the question. The principle may be true at some level, but not at the strictly natural level at which it has been traditionally thought to be applicable, and at which it is needed to make the argument against evolution. Some important work remains, however. In order to show that the Church’s position squares with science but does no violence to essential theological concepts, it is necessary to create a theoretical framework for evolution which is in accordance with the legitimate goals of science yet does not hinge on scientific fundamentalism. Ideally, this framework should advance evolution as an explanatory paradigm. Such an approach is outlined in the next section.


Over the past 140 years, there have been repeated challenges to the theory of evolution based on mathematical and physical calculations designed to show that necessary events are so improbable as to be essentially impossible on the time scales envisioned.38 time after time, such challenges have fallen to the progress of science. One of the earliest was Lord kelvin’s calculation of the age of the sun (and hence of the earth) as 100,000 years or less based on gravity and energy considerations-a time far too short for evolution. kelvin’s error (he did not know about nuclear energy) was pointed out by Rutherford.39 Arguments based on thermodynamics were credible until the development of non-equilibrium thermodynamics and the discovery of dissipative structures.40 Other lines of argument have concentrated on the simultaneous changes required for macroevolution to occur, and the infinitesimally small probability of obtaining them, as in the case of the eye.41 While such discussions are quite useful and must be taken seriously insofar as they demonstrate that certain transitions cannot take place and/or that the proposed change mechanisms are inadequate, they generally miss the mark because evolutionary biology always seems to be able to work out feasible transition scenarios.42

These challenges look for violations of some scientific principle or law, usually in the form of a specific set of occurrences. It is unlikely that any such violations exist; but they need not exist in order to achieve the fundamental goal of showing that there is more to the problem than meets the scientist’s eye. Rather than violations of laws or boundary conditions, it is the boundary conditions themselves (in the form of constraints) that become the focus. Accordingly, the purpose of the theory sketched here is to show that the entire issue of evolution needs to be viewed both more abstractly and at two different levels simultaneously. Greater abstraction and more insight into the boundary
condition issue comes when stability theory is applied; the two different levels in question are the phenomenological (what the scientist
sees and measures) and what may
be termed the interpretative (what
the implications of the scientific
results are). Evidence is beginning
to point to the conclusion that the
boundary conditions of a problem
indicate design in a more subtle
way than previously assumed (and
far more subtly than envisioned
by the creationists). This evidence
leads to the concept of “virtual creation,” explained in greater detail
in the following paragraphs. This
explication of “virtual creation” is
intended to be consistent with the
“spiritual reading” of evolution
sought by Pope John Paul.


The idea behind virtual creation and its relationship to boundary conditions may be gleaned from Figure 1. The shape of the surface is the boundary condition. Consider the left half of the figure, which reflects the way in which evolutionists and creationists tend to argue. The evolutionist takes the boundary condition (the shape of the surface) for granted, as does the creationist, and they proceed to lock horns over why the balls are where they are.

But what if the boundary condition is as shown in the right half of the figure? Then the outcome is indeed determined by scientific laws, but was determined when the surface was formed.

Virtual creation should not be confused with an argument for design; there is simply not enough evidence to make a credible design argument using evolutionary data. Moreover, arguments for design tend to be convincing only to people who are already believers in the existence of God; others can dismiss them as coincidence, however improbable. And in the end, perhaps that is really the key: to show that data which supports evolution can be evidence which points towards divine creation with high probability, rather than away from it. Then the onus is on scientific fundamentalists to explain away evolution.


Such a new outlook on the problem of evolution and faith emerges if we base our consideration of organisms on facts which are not disputed by any of the parties in the evolution debate. This new outlook will be accomplished through an examination of the constraints on evolutionary development and their effects. Raff43 has identified three major constraints, and the limitations imposed by each:

  • Laws of physics
    • Direction limitations imposed by these laws, such as physical movement and energy conversion
    • Limitations imposed by the characteristics of physical materials
    • Structuralism, which refers to the ability to generate desired structures by feasible processes (e.g., Can you get there from here?)
  • Organization of the genome
    • Limitations imposed by its size and need to be copied and utilized
    • Ability to generate needed genes
    • Distribution of information on chromosomes
    • Frequency and position of regulatory genes
  • Difficulty of modifying existing organizations (or in other words, resistance of existing integrated organizations to changes)
    • Difficulty in generating required variants
    • Complex interactions among genes
    • Artifacts of organization constraining natural selection


There is in fact a fourth constraint, and perhaps the most important for the present purpose. That is stability, which refers to the global behavior of a physical system: will it work for the necessary time, collapse, blow up, or otherwise fail? These four are largely but not completely independent, and there is considerable evidence that collectively they impose significant constraints on biological organisms. That it is quite possible to satisfy all four, however, is proven by the immense variety of living species around us.

The net effect of these constraints, especially stability, is to reduce drastically the number of viable systems (species). To understand the basic idea, consider first a non-biological example, the automobile, with two of its design parameters: engine size and suspension capacity. Naturally, a larger, more powerful engine means that the car will go faster; but it also means more weight. If the engine is too large and heavy, the suspension either will not hold the car’s total weight and collapse, or the car’s handling will be so poor that an accident is likely to result. If the engine is too small, it will not be able to propel the car, or will do so in such an inadequate manner that an accident is also likely to result. Thus, only certain combinations of engine size and suspension capacity are stable, that is, are useable or “viable”; and so design of an optimal car involves much more than attaching the largest possible engine to its frame.

In similar fashion, we may regard an organism as a collection of interacting subsystems. In the case of man, these include nervous, digestive, muscular, skeletal, circulatory, and immune systems. Each has an internal dynamic which governs its behavior as a subsystem, and an external dynamic, which governs its interactions with other subsystems. Any dynamic system, to be useful, must be stable and also properly carry out some desired function. All such systems are able to meet these requirements for only a limited range of parameters. For example, the skeletal system will function to bear weight only if the bones are formed properly, are not too hard or too soft, have some flexibility but not too much, and so forth. Similarly, the circulatory system will function properly only if the heart can pump with the correct amount of pressure (not too little, not too much), if the arteries and veins are so constructed as to permit blood to flow without rupturing, and without excessive distension, so that blood pressure and hence blood flow can be maintained. The 100,000 or so genes making up the human genome are responsible for creating all of these subsystems and their appropriate parameters.


Genetic variability is well-known and not in dispute in evolution battles. Genetic variability translates to phenotype variability, and this in turn to subsystem variability and overall organism variability. Some characteristics are emergent in the sense that they arise from the interactions of subsystems; one such characteristic would be physical stamina, which is a function of cardiovascular, muscular, and even nervous system interaction. Other characteristics are directly coded for, such as height. As is commonly known, individuals also have different characteristics such as bone strength, flexibility, and resistance to breakage. They have different blood types and blood pressure. The important observation is that these characteristics are not independent with respect to viability. Clearly, skeletal size must be related to muscle mass and overall body weight, or the individual will not be viable: alarge person with thin bones would find them constantly breaking; similarly, a small person with large bones would find it difficult or impossible to move his limbs. What this implies is that there are combinations of subsystem parameters or characteristics which are stable that is, which make the individual viable and others which are not. Moreover, some combinations perform better in particular external circumstances than others; for example, some individuals may be well-adapted to very cold environments, and able to function better there than most other individuals, but less able to function well in normal environments. In our modern society, this would be a disadvantage; in other circumstances, for example, an ice age 10,000 years ago, it would have been a decided advantage. The “value” of a specific set of characteristics, its performance and viability, is a function of the environment in which the organism finds itself.

This implies that a species may be defined as a set of ranges of characteristics which are stable; specifically, it may be defined as a contiguous region in a high-dimensional phenotypic space. A two-dimensional simplified case is shown in Figure 2. The axes represent physiological characteristics which are related, say beak length and neck size in a bird. The inner region R, represents those combinations of the two parameters which are stable given the current environment, for example, available food for the birds. Birds with any combination of the parameters falling within R, are viable; one example is shown, with characteristics (a, b). The outer region Rz represents the combinations of characteristics that could be stable under other environmental conditions, for instance, different foods. Birds with combinations of characteristics falling anywhere within Rz would be viable under some set of environmental conditions; an example is shown, with characteristics (c, d). The perimeter of R, is the absolute stability boundary: a bird could never be viable if its combination of characteristics fell outside of this range. For example, if its beak is too long, it will break off and be useless, regardless of available food type.