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Life: Puppetry or Pageantry?

A response to Cardinal Schönborn's attack on science

Alec MacAndrew


Christoph Schönborn, Cardinal of the Catholic Church, and Archbishop of Vienna, has been generating controversy amongst the faithful and non-Catholics alike since his article supporting the Intelligent Design movement and attacking the biological Theory of Evolution was published in the New York Times on 7th July 2005. Many anti-evolutionists unfortunately and erroneously interpreted this as an attempt to set out an official Church teaching on the subject. He has now published an article, ‘The Designs of Science’, in the January 2006 edition of First Things, an inter-religious journal dedicated to "advancing a religiously informed public philosophy for the ordering of society", in which he seeks to clarify and expand the New York Times piece.

Schönborn’s paper in First Things is cast primarily as a reply to Catholic physicist Stephen Barr’s First Things critique of the original Schönborn NYT article. The NYT article caused consternation and discomfort amongst Catholic scientists like Barr and George Coyne SJ, who also wrote a critique of Schönborn's position, and the reaction appears to have surprised Schönborn. Much of this is, according to him, based on a misunderstanding of his views and so he wrote ‘The Designs of Science’ to clarify his position


Neo-Darwinism is The Theory

Schönborn expends a lot of effort in analysing the meaning of the term ‘neo-Darwinism’, since its precise meaning is a critical consideration in the development of his argument. His issue he insists, is not with ‘evolution but with neo-Darwinism’.  He is perfectly happy to accept evolution, the idea, as he sees it, that species living today are the descendants of extinct species.  However, biologists in referring to the Theory of Evolution, mean not the concept of common descent but the mechanism by which evolution takes place. Schönborn takes issue with what he refers to as neo-Darwinism, a theory that is also known as the Modern Synthesis (of Natural Selection and genetics).  Neo-Darwinism or the Modern Synthesis is the proposition that, to summarise it in a phrase, the principle mechanism of evolution is the action of Natural Selection on phenotypes that result from genetic variation, and is, with considerable elaboration and additional features such as neutral drift and the uneven rate of phenotypic change over time, the guiding principle of modern biology, The synthesis was developed in the 1930s and 1940s by a glittering array of biologists that included Ernst Mayr, Theodosius Dobzhansky, Ronald Fisher, JBS Haldane, Gaylord Simpson and Sewall Wright.  Not only is it the foundational theory of modern biology, it is also the consensus of Catholic, Protestant, Muslim, Buddhist, agnostic and atheist biologists;  biologists of all religions and no religion accept the basic propositions of neo-Darwinism.

So, let us be absolutely clear – when Schönborn refers to ‘neo-Darwinism’, we should take him to mean not some atheistic ideology, but the very foundation of modern biology. Almost every finding in biology gets structure and meaning from the contextual framework of evolution without which it would be reduced to a poor catalogue of apparently unrelated facts .

In his First Things piece, Schönborn refers repeatedly and censoriously to the science of biology unqualified by the ‘neo-Darwinian’ term. He and I can agree at least on the point that neo-Darwinism is the scientific foundation of modern biology. Thus, it is abundantly clear that his issue is not primarily with the philosophical, theological, or even social accretions on the science, but with what the science itself claims


Science or Philosophy?

Schönborn complains that readers have misunderstood the mode of his discourse.  He claims that he was analysing neo-Darwinism not from a scientific, theological or even ‘Intelligent Design’ perspective, but from a “careful examination of everyday experience, in other words on philosophy”. He would like us to think that his arguments and conclusions are based on “the natural ability of the human intellect to grasp the intelligible realities that populate the natural world, including most clearly and evidently the world of living substances…”. In other words, a careful consideration of the natural world from a philosophical perspective leads, Schönborn would argue, to the unavoidable conclusion that the universe is ordered by an intellect with the precise objective of bringing forth human beings.

Well, of course there’s nothing wrong with that as a theological stance and one expects nothing else from a Catholic theologian.  Although not everyone acknowledges the robustness of the Teleological Argument, which is the argument from order in the natural world to the existence of a creator, if Schönborn had restricted himself to elaborating it, there would be no need for this reply.  But he goes much further than that.  He claims that neo-Darwinism is, at heart, an ideological movement in opposition to the values and beliefs of the Church.  He bases this on the allegation that neo-Darwinists frequently violate the proper boundaries of science to make philosophical or theological claims about the existence or non-existence of God. 

He goes on to proffer his conception of randomness, one of the key scientific ideas of neo-Darwinism, as evidence that neo-Darwinism is opposed to the theistic principles of the Faith at its very core. His understanding of randomness in evolutionary theory is horribly muddled as we shall see. In putting forward this argument about random elements, an argument that is plainly about the scientific rather than the philosophical merits of neo-Darwinism, Schönborn does just what he berates biologists for: he fails to keep his argument strictly within the boundary he himself has set


Will you know them by their quotes?

Let us look first at Schönborn’s claim that neo-Darwinism is not science but an atheistic ideology.  To demonstrate this, Schönborn quotes Will Provine: “Modern science directly implies that the world is organized in accordance with deterministic principle or chances.  There are no purposive principles whatsoever in nature. There are no gods and no designing forces rationally detectable” He also quoted Julian Huxley and Peter Atkins in his first Catechetical Lecture in St Stephen’s Cathedral, Vienna to make the same point.  He says three things about these quotations: that they violate the scientific method, that they are “bold and completely unqualified”, and that they show that neo-Darwinism is, at heart, an ideology antithetical to the teachings of the Church.

(As an aside, we should note that Provine is using not neo-Darwinian ideas as the grist for his mill, but the findings of science in general).

Schönborn is anxious to undermine the scientific credentials of neo-Darwinism, since this clears the way for criticising it as an atheistic and positivist movement without bringing the Church and 'true' science into direct conflict. His tactic here is to assert that, since statements about the (non)existence of God by biologists are unscientific, then the theory itself is not science but ideology. He recognises, I think, that statements by a scientist in the context of a scientific paper form part of the body of science, while popular books and newspaper articles do not, and so he adds: “Many of these assertions are in textbooks and scientific journals, not just in popular writings.  I will leave it to others to compile a complete list of such quotations”. None of Schönborn’s three quotations come from scientific papers or textbooks, so his admonition is reminiscent of a professor of physics saying: “I leave it to the student to derive a reconciliation of quantum theory and general relativity”.  The peer-reviewed literature is as free as it can be from the baggage of theology, and so are, as far as I can tell, textbooks. For example, there is simply no reference whatsoever to theological matters in either of the two major undergraduate texts on evolutionary biology by Ridley and Futuyama that I have to hand. So just where are these theological assertions in the formal science? Where is the anti-theistic conspiracy? I would argue that the science is exactly as it should be, free of theological assertions and based on methodological materialism, the result of a rich collaboration of biologists of all faiths and no faith – at least that is the conclusion that a genuine acquaintance with the literature would suggest.

Does this mean that scientists always keep within the scientific boundaries in everything they say, privately and publicly? Of course not; nor should they. Why should they not express their philosophical or theological ideas when they are not actually formally reporting scientific work? Let us reflect on Schönborn’s indignant objection to neo-Darwinists who draw theological conclusions from their understanding of the natural world.  Almost in the same breath that Schönborn promotes “the natural ability of the human intellect to grasp the intelligible realities that populate the natural world”, he rebukes neo-Darwinists for making theological assertions in “bold and completely unqualified” ways.  So, if it is not the natural ability of the human intellect that qualifies people to reach philosophical conclusions, then what is it?  Biologists and scientists in general have at least as much understanding of the natural world as Schönborn does, and, I would venture, more. They also have at least as much natural ability to grasp the intelligible realities.

Now I can see how it must be galling for someone who believes in the power of the Argument from Design to find that some of those who devote their lives to studying the natural world doubt its merits. When scientists are doing science, they rightly restrict themselves to proposing only natural causes for the phenomena that they observe, an approach known as methodological materialism. But that should not violate the right of scientists to take their experience of the world as a basis for a worldview that they express publicly.  Nor does it inherently invalidate their philosophical conclusions – scientists’ philosophical worldview has, prima facie, the same validity as anyone else's.  It seems to me that Schönborn wants to employ the theological equivalent of Maxwell’s demon – according to him, it’s fine to use our natural ability to observe the world and reason our way to a worldview, provided we reach the same conclusion that he does.  If however, by looking at the natural world and exercising their intellect, some scientists reach a different conclusion, they are “bold and completely unqualified”.

The focus of Schönborn’s assault by quotation on biologists is unfair. It suits his purpose to imply that biologists are especially prone to make what, to him, are culpable claims, as this augments his contention that neo-Darwinism is peculiarly antithetical to Catholic belief.  But scientists expert in other branches of science reach the same sharply agnostic or atheistic conclusions, as do Provine, Huxley and Atkins:

Stephen Hawking: “But if the universe is really completely self-contained, having no boundary or edge, it would have neither beginning nor end: it would simply be. What place then for a creator?”

Richard Feynman: "It doesn't seem to me that this fantastically marvelous universe, this tremendous range of time and space and different kinds of animals, and all the different planets, and all these atoms with all their motions, and so on, all this complicated thing can merely be a stage so that God can watch human beings struggle for good and evil - which is the view that religion has. The stage is too big for the drama."

Feynman again: "I don't have to know an answer. I don't feel frightened by not knowing things, by being lost in a mysterious universe without any purpose, which is the way it really is as far as I can tell. It doesn't frighten me."

Steven Weinberg: “It's a consequence of the experience of science. As you learn more and more about the universe, you find you can understand more and more without any reference to supernatural intervention, so you lose interest in that possibility. Most scientists I know don't care enough about religion even to call themselves atheists. And that, I think, is one of the great things about science -- that it has made it possible for people not to be religious.”

Physicists, like neo-Darwinists, have worldviews that range all the way from devout belief (Coyne and Barr, John Polkinghorne and Abdus Salam) to proselytising anti-religious atheism like Weinberg and Vic Stenger (one of that rare breed, a professional physicist and a professional philosopher). In the same way that an atheistic worldview doesn't invalidate the physics, it doesn't invalidate the biology. So we can see that there is nothing peculiar about biology amongst the natural sciences in this regard. There is, therefore, good reason for rejecting Schönborn’s proposition that since some neo-Darwinists express worldviews that conflict with theism, then neo-Darwinism is inherently an anti-religious ideology rather than science.


 Dice at the Royal Court

Let us now turn to Schönborn’s analysis of neo-Darwinism itself and specifically to his discussion of the inference we should draw from the biological conclusion that there are random elements in the Theory of Evolution. He latches onto the idea of randomness in evolutionary biology as evidence for his proposition that the Theory of Evolution is inherently anti-theistic.  He says that mutations are random (we'll see in a moment what biologists actually mean by this statement), and that natural selection and the environment that acts on phenotypes are random too.  He would have us understand the foundation of modern biology thus: from an “unconstrained, unintelligible mess emerges, deus ex machina, the precisely ordered and extraordinarily intelligible world of living organisms”.  He doesn't say in what sense the world of living organisms is ‘extraordinarily intelligible’; he doesn't explain why he thinks it is more intelligible than, say, the geological world, or chemistry, or classical or quantum mechanics, or optics. So I feel justified in interpreting this statement as a rhetorical device for contrasting what he portrays as the exquisite organisation of life with what he claims is a disordered unsystematic messy process – surely, he implies, no one in their right senses can suggest that one proceeds from the other?

In order to support this argument, Schönborn needs neo-Darwinian processes to be more disorganised and shambolic than other natural processes, so he proposes that randomness in biology is fundamentally different from the randomness of classical thermodynamics or quantum theory. The randomness in those sciences, he claims, is “embedded in and constrained by a deeply mathematical and precise conceptual structure of the whole that makes the overall behaviour of the system orderly and intelligible”, whereas the randomness in Darwinian biology is, well, "simply random”.

What might be meant by randomness in science? Schönborn gives no definition of what he means (nor does it seem that he has one clearly in mind). Actually, defining randomness is quite a hard problem in both philosophy and science. He talks about randomness as a process that is ‘uncorrelated’ but makes not the slightest nod to the different possible meanings of the term – for example, we can interpret random events as being unpredictable, non-deterministic, undirected in terms of a particular outcome, or uncorrelated to other events. Within the natural sciences the term ‘randomness’ can have all these different meanings in different contexts, although two of them ('unpredictable’ and ‘undirected’) are more observations about how we perceive the behaviour of natural systems than categories relating to their actual underlying behaviour. 

Both deterministic and non-deterministic systems can be unpredictable.  Deterministic systems such as geological faults or weather patterns are unpredictable at a macroscopic scale, because we are unable fully to determine all of the variables that determine their behaviour and/or because their behaviour is chaotic (ie their evolution is exquisitely sensitive to initial conditions). For example, earthquakes arising from shifting tectonic plates at the San Andreas fault are entirely deterministic and geologists can predict the typical pattern and total energy release from the fault over long periods; they can also predict the probability of an event of a given magnitude occurring within a given time period; they cannot, however, predict the precise timing or magnitude of the next event , something that the inhabitants of California have to live with. The unpredictability of systems like this seems to be based on our inability to know absolutely accurately all the variables that contribute to their behaviour.  The specific direction of evolution can be said to be random in this sense, since the mechanisms operating across entire populations of organisms and the interaction of these with the environment is immensely complex. Nevertheless we can develop rules and models about these mechanisms and quantify their effects statistically in much the same way that we quantify and model geological phenomena.

On the other hand, individual quantum mechanical events are understood by most physicists to be fundamentally non-deterministic. ‘Non-deterministic’ in this context is an inherent property of the system, and quantum events are unpredictable on an individual basis, even if we know everything there is to know about every variable of the microstate.  Nevertheless, the behaviour of ensembles of such events on a statistical basis can be well understood and predictable. Quantum events, such as radioactive decay, give rise to radiation that directly causes mutations, and so the reservoir of genotypes in a population is directly affected by events that are inherently random.

Given these considerations and Schönborn's failure to define what he means by randomness, it’s not at all clear what he is saying when he states,  “The randomness of neo-Darwinian biology is…simply random. The variation through genetic mutation is random. And natural selection is also random: the properties of the ever-changing environment that drive evolution through natural selection are also not correlated to anything, according to the Darwinists”.  If he is suggesting, as he seems to be, that the mechanism of evolution represented by neo-Darwinism describes a system that behaves entirely unpredictably, that obeys no rules, and in which things occur according to caprice, then he is wrong. In claiming that neo-Darwinism results in a system with behaviour that has no discernible pattern or mathematical predictability he seems to be unaware of the entire field of Population and Quantitative Genetics, which provides an excellent theoretical framework for predicting the effects of evolution at a molecular level. It is mistaken to say, as Schönborn does, that Natural Selection is a random process. Natural Selection is a statistically predictable filter that changes the probability of allele inheritance on the basis of the interaction between the environment and the phenotype resulting from the allele.

When Schönborn talks about the environment not being correlated to anything, he is again mistaken in his interpretation of the science. Of course the environment, the climate, the atmosphere, the local conditions are random in the sense of not being precisely predictable. While the exact timing of a large meteorite strike on the earth is not correlated to anything at all to do with life on earth and is unpredictable, evolutionary theory does not claim a random response to the resulting transformed environment – the uncorrelated event of a bolide strike does not cause a random evolutionary response.  Many species, whole orders, are known to go extinct as a result of such a catastrophe.  Evolutionary theory predicts that the species which survive are those that are adapted or most able to adapt rapidly to the new environment; that surviving species will evolve to be better fitted to the new environment; and that the surviving species will rapidly (in evolutionary terms) diversify to fill old ecological niches left empty by extinction and  new niches created in the new environment.

Of course there are random elements in neo-Darwinism.  Biologists say that mutations are random. They do not mean, when they say this, that mutations are uncaused, or that they occur with equal probability in all genes, or that all mutations at a given locus are equally probable. What they mean is that mutations are not biased to improve the fitness of the individual. In all the work that has been done on identifying mutational rates in a wide range of organisms, no one has found a case where beneficial mutations (ie mutations more likely to be inherited) occur preferentially (Barry Hall’s work on hypermutation in bacteria comes closest but more recent studies support the general conventional view). While there are many possible things that can lead to mutations, none of them have any 'knowledge' of the consequences for the organism of the changes they make.  For example, the DNA polymerase that makes a copy of DNA each time a cell divides makes occasional mistakes, making approximately three errors every time it makes a copy of human DNA.  Whilst scientists can determine the probability of any given mutation at a specific place during a specific molecular process, the precise location and type of mutation that occurs in each individual case is random and unpredictable. That appears to be a simple physical fact and no quantity of philosophical agonising can change that.

Other random phenomena occur in evolution – for example, the random assortment of paternally and maternally acquired genetic material during the recombination and disjunction phases of sperm and egg production, which provides entirely novel and randomly selected combinations of genetic material from one generation to the next. The cellular processes that achieve this are entirely naturalistic, depending on spindles and other cellular mechanisms, and yet the gene pool of each population is contingent on these random processes. Another example of randomness occurs in sperm selection – the fittest sperm are the ones most likely to fertilise an egg, but there is no correlation between the genetic cargo of the sperm and its fitness (except in that small number of genes that directly regulate sperm production and sperm motility).

In fact randomness in both gamete production and sperm competition is not a condition just of evolutionary biology, but also of reproduction. Random processes are fundamental in the determination of the genotype and the phenotype of individual human beings. It is essential to understand that whatever definition of ‘randomness’ one chooses to describe cell-line mutations, random sorting in meiosis and sperm selection, then that definition applies equally to the mechanism of evolution and to the creation of individual human beings. These random processes neither mandate nor eliminate God from the creation of a human being.  I wonder if Schönborn resists the idea that random elements exist in human procreation, or whether he reconciles these elements by accepting that the randomness is part of divine providence and by the belief that each individual is willed by God. There is, in fact, no difference in kind between the randomness that determines the genetic makeup and hence fundamental physical and mental properties of an individual human being, and the randomness that is the foundation for evolution.  If Schönborn can reconcile one with divine providence, there is no reason why he should not reconcile the other.

Cardinal Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict XVI, recognised this when he wrote in the July 2004 Vatican Statement on Creation and Evolution: "But it is important to note that, according to the Catholic understanding of divine causality, true contingency in the created order is not incompatible with a purposeful divine providence. Divine causality and created causality radically differ in kind and not only in degree. Thus, even the outcome of a truly contingent natural process can nonetheless fall within God’s providential plan for creation.” In this statement, Ratzinger seems to get successfully and smoothly to the very nub of the issue that Schönborn struggles with.

To summarise, Schönborn thinks that all processes in the neo-Darwinian mechanism are “simply random” and he ignores or denies the non-random systematic basis of the science. For example, evolutionary theory predicts the probability of inheritance of a particular allele in a population based on a measure of the concomitant fitness it produces in the organism.  These predictions are testable and have been extensively tested. His conceptions of randomness in science and of the processes of neo-Darwinism as an unintelligible mess are flawed. The theory has been elaborated in thousands of papers in dozens of scientific journals over decades by some of the best minds alive. It is sophisticated, self-consistent, empirically supported and systematic.

We can definitively answer Schönborn’s challenge: “how successful is modern biology…at excluding the rational consideration of final cause?” The answer is very successful, for no consideration of final cause enters the science and the conclusion of randomness is a purely natural one, based on observation and experiment, no different in kind from the conclusion that random elements exist in reproductive processes, thermodynamics, quantum physics, geology, meteorology, and other natural sciences.  There is no inappropriate ‘theology’ thinking to be found in observing that randomness is part of the evolutionary process.


Puppets and pageants

Schönborn thinks that anyone who looks at the history of life on earth must conclude that the entire and exact extant biosphere is the deterministic product of design and intention, that the variation that occurred was “exactly the variation needed to give rise to an upward sweep of evolution resulting in human beings”.  Well, if we insist on a deterministic and directed evolution, we would have to conclude, with JBS Haldane, that the Almighty has “an inordinate fondness for beetles”.

In developing his theme, he expresses a number of questionable ideas:

While the Catholic Church teaches that God maintains the universe from moment to moment, many Catholics believe that God does so according the natural laws that we are able to discern and that therefore science is a detailed description of how God runs the world. They believe that a belief in divine providence does not need Him to violate the natural laws, even where these laws contain random elements. (I should point out, however, that a universe unfolding atheistically according to a set of natural laws and one in which God directs the universe strictly according to the natural laws that He set are indistinguishable by science). Schönborn resists the idea that contingency and randomness can be part of the way God sustains the world. According to him, unless we believe that God actively directs and leads the universe deterministically from state to state, we give up philosophy’s high ground and allow that the human natural intelligence is, after all, incapable of reliably detecting design in nature.  Furthermore, we fall, he says, into Deism. This is not so, as we have seen, since a belief in theistic evolution as we have defined it successfully reconciles randomness, contingency and divine providence. In adopting his stance, he undercuts the position of many reasoning Catholics who are trying thoughtfully and with considerable success to reconcile good science with their faith.

In short, if we follow Schönborn, we must reject the biological Theory of Evolution as an explanation for the current diversity of species and replace it with – well, with what?  Special creation of each species? A world in which the scientifically discernible natural laws are constantly violated by God’s intervention to procure the ‘right’ mutation here and a happy recombination event there? Schönborn, of course, offers no hypothesis for an alternative to neo-Darwinism.

Why does he limit his attention to biological evolution? Why not claim special divine intervention to pull matter together to create the Milky Way, the Sun and the earth? Why not oppose, on a philosophical basis, the concordance model of cosmology, since it holds that the current distribution of matter is determined by random quantum fluctuations in the inflationary field of the early universe, a process that is more radically random than any biological process? Why not give up the idea altogether that the natural world operates according to a set of discernible laws and return to a primitive belief that natural phenomena are caused by the direct, routine, unsystematic and capricious intervention of supernatural agents? 

He demands that some scientific conclusions, specifically random elements in evolutionary biology, are forbidden, a priori, on philosophical grounds, much as the scholastic heirs of Aristotelian cosmology insisted on the perfection of the cosmos, a way of thinking that has since been forced to yield to observation. History tells us that it is a risky business to insist on the way that things go in the universe on purely philosophical grounds. It is not Darwinian biology that leads us into a mess, but Schönborn’s natural theology.



The Cardinal’s thesis is based on a mistaken understanding of the methods and content of biological and other sciences.  He goes beyond a theologian’s reminder to scientists not to bring theological considerations into their science and, in effect, he argues that some findings of science should be rejected a priori on religio-philosophical grounds. He would replace the elegant concept that order and complexity arise from simple laws, the grand pageant of life's diversity, with a puppet show. Surely, Catholics have nothing to fear from the idea of randomness and contingency in nature. For many, the idea that God's providence acts with and through random elements embedded in the discernible laws enhances the grandeur and wonder of the development of the world. At any rate, I prefer such a complex world to one that dances on the strings of a meddlesome puppet master, and am grateful that it is so.

There is a real need for Catholics, whose tradition embraces science and reason, to reconcile the truths that science reveals with the doctrines of their faith.  Schönborn offers no such hope – on the contrary, he frequently relies on ‘scientific’ statements (ie statements about the natural world that can be tested for validity) that are at best naïve and, in some cases, simply wrong, in order to trumpet the long discredited idea of the primacy of philosophy over science in determining how nature goes.  Catholics deserve better.

I am indebted to Jason Meyers, Phil Porvaznik and John King without whose help this article would have been even poorer than it is. I am solely responsible for all opinions, errors, omissions and non-sequiturs

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Last edited 28th Jan 2006

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