Pope Benedict on Evolution

With everything else that has been going on lately, I never got around to discussing Pope Benedict's latest statements on evolution.

Here's what Reuters had to say on the subject:

Pope Benedict, elaborating his views on evolution for the first time as Pontiff, says science has narrowed the way life's origins are understood and Christians should take a broader approach to the question.

The Pope also says the Darwinist theory of evolution is not completely provable because mutations over hundreds of thousands of years cannot be reproduced in a laboratory.

But Benedict, whose remarks were published on Wednesday in Germany in the book “Schoepfung und Evolution” (Creation and Evolution), praised scientific progress and did not endorse creationist or “intelligent design” views about life's origins.

A bit later we get some actual quotes:

“Science has opened up large dimensions of reason ... and thus brought us new insights,” Benedict, a former theology professor, said at the closed-door seminar with his former doctoral students last September that the book documents.

“But in the joy at the extent of its discoveries, it tends to take away from us dimensions of reason that we still need. Its results lead to questions that go beyond its methodical canon and cannot be answered within it,” he said.

“The issue is reclaiming a dimension of reason we have lost,” he said, adding that the evolution debate was actually about “the great fundamental questions of philosophy - where man and the world came from and where they are going.”

The article goes on to assert that Pope Benedict defends theistic evolution, and offers quotes like this:

Benedict argued that evolution had a rationality that the theory of purely random selection could not explain.

“The process itself is rational despite the mistakes and confusion as it goes through a narrow corridor choosing a few positive mutations and using low probability,” he said.

“This ... inevitably leads to a question that goes beyond science ... where did this rationality come from?” he asked. Answering his own question, he said it came from the “creative reason” of God.

So what are we to make of this? The first thing to note is that by all accounts Pope Benedict has not enorsed any version of creationism or ID. That, sadly, is where the good news ends. It sure looks to me that while the Pope hasn't actually endorsed creationism, he certainly has retreated from the position of his predecssor. Pope John Paul II said the following:

In his encyclical Humani Generis (1950), my predecessor Pius XII has already affirmed that there is no conflict between evolution and the doctrine of the faith regarding man and his vocation, provided that we do not lose sight of certain fixed points....Today, more than a half-century after the appearance of that encyclical, some new findings lead us toward the recognition of evolution as more than an hypothesis. In fact it is remarkable that this theory has had progressively greater influence on the spirit of researchers, following a series of discoveries in different scholarly disciplines. The convergence in the results of these independent studies -- which was neither planned nor sought -- constitutes in itself a significant argument in favor of the theory.

That is not quite the ringing endorsement that many people try to portray when defending the “science and religion coexistence” meme. Nonetheless, it's always impressive when a religious leader takes note of evidence in favor of a scientific theory.

It is also considerably more enthusiastic than Benedict's statement. Rather than talk of the impressive evidence in evolution's favor, Benedict prefers instead to talk of how “the Darwinist theory of evolution” can be neither proven nor disproven.

Reading between the lines of this and other recent encounters between the Catholic Church and evolution, the conclusion seems to be this: Pope Benedict does not like evolution. But he also does not want the Church to look foolish once again by placing itself on the wrong side of a scientific question. So he walks right up to the line of accepting creationsim or ID, but does not actually cross it.

So, officially, the Church is on the right side, but one suspects they don't have their heart in it. What is aggravating, however, is that when the Pope wades into a scientific matter he is taken seriously and treated respectfully. No one lectures him that since his training is in theology, it is perhaps improer for him to lay down the law regarding the proper interpretation of scientific theories. In this he is treated differently from Richard Dawkins, who is told to stick to his area of scientific expertise and not wade into theology, wheere he alledgedly does not know what he is talking about.

In reality, however, Dawkins speaks far more intelligently about theology than the Pope does about science. In a better world no one would care what a religious leader with no scientific training has to say about evolution. Sadly, that world is not this one.

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It could get worse. Benny Hex has been around the Vatican long enough to appreciate the dangers of getting too far out there (even if he can't resist dancing right up to the line, as you noted), but there are younger cardinals just waiting their turn to be pope, and some of them have none of this Rome-bred restraint. Cardinal Pell in Australia preaches foolishly on global warming and Cardinal Schönborn of Austria can't stop talking about evolution; he's quite popular with the Discovery Institute claque. The Austrian guy has his own fan club and is considered a potential contender in the next papal election. I think the appropriate expression is "Lord save us!" As if that did any good.

why is the pope talking about this? shouldn't he be talking about shoes? and dresses? and fancy hats?

isn't that what he know's most about?

At the end of the day the pope remains a creationist. And he actually has to, if he doesn't want to question the catholic faith system. Lucky him, this system equates faith and reason. By shifting creation to a level that is inaccessible to science he can accept the inevitable but still claim an influence of some supernatural activity.

My impression is that not only is the Pope ignorant of Evolution, but he is also ignorant of the basics of Philosophy of Science (on such issues as provability and the natural limitations of Historic Sciences), to an extent that goes well beyond a mere lack of expertise to an apparent disinterest in actually coming to terms with the subject at all.

It is less like Dawkins on Theology and more like Leonardo di Vinci on Quantum Mechanics.

It is pretty hard to judge what is going on here, because (in spite of the news reports claiming that the book appeared a while ago) the book has only just been published in the last few days, and it's in German. So we just have a few quotes pulled out of context by news reporters. I'd like to read more of what the Pope said, taken in context, but it would take a while to get the book from Germany, and besides, it's real work for me to read German. But based on what Benedict said about this before he was Pope in various publications, I'd judge that his position is not so far away from JPII's.

Note that the book itself is the record of the Pope's meeting with some former students last October. The Pope appears to speak only during a discussion -- there is no paper by him in the book. I am going by the table of contents which can be downloaded at http://www.sankt-ulrich-verlag.de/index.php/shop/buecher/titel_von_a_bi…

The book includes papers by two scientists (no, not members of the Discovery Institute) who were invited to address the group. One of these, Peter Schuster, is quite distinguished and not a religious believer. At the time of the meeting last fall of the Pope's former students, he reported that he was quite impressed by the Pope's attention to and understanding of his presentation.

By Michael Kremer (not verified) on 22 Apr 2007 #permalink

The only rational position (rational for the sake of maintaining the position of the Catholic Church, that is) is for the Pope to take such a vague line. Enough Catholics know that the Adam and Eve, 6000 year creation story CANNOT be true, due to the evidence of the age of the earth, cosmology and evolution so that taking a biblically literal approach would lead to wide scale rejection. On the other hand, the Kenneth Miller approach, complete acceptance of evolutionary theory is also fraught with spiritual danger - at what point in human evolution did God suddenly appear and 'inject' souls into Homo sapiens ? How do religious miracles work in a world of uniformitarianism ?
Its a compromise that the Pope needed to take, there really should be no surprise in it for us.

My thoughts on this discussion are the same as I posted this morning on a previous blog page. It was quite lengthy. Since I am a very recent arrival to the computer world and type with one finger,I must direct anyone interested in my remarks back to the blog of April 12th posted by John S. Wilkins: Is the Pope a Catholic.

By Bob Evans (not verified) on 22 Apr 2007 #permalink

Shitting in the woods, kevin, I'm told he knows a lot about shitting the woods.

Agree in principle with most of what you say. It does appear that JPII's ringing endorsements are not going to be repeated, but neither is a retreat to a blatant anti-science position likely. Subtle anti-science, and appeals to a more 'sophisticated' view are the order of the day here.

And I don't want to defend the guy too much, but there are likely journalistic translation issues here as well. B16 has scientific advisers who are genuinely qualified, and I would expect far more care to be taken to avoid bloopers like 'random selection'.

On the other hand, let's look at how the laity sees this: check out www.newoxfordreview.org and look at their 'Science' pages. It's canonical ID material, repeating all the rubbish that's been parroted over the last few years. Pure comedy, except for the fact that people actually swallow this stuff...

The Catholic church has the same problem in explaining miracles and sainthood, while still supporting science. They generally respect the fact that 2+2=4, but 2+2=5 when they need it to. If you find that troubling, then don't worry about it. Have faith that the Vatican is on top of it, and go back to sleep.

What is Benedict to make of the fact that 2,000 years of church history cannot be reproduced in the laboratory? That there can be no proof of papal succession?

The 'laboratory irreproducibility of evolution' is a wholly bogus argument. He should be slapped silly.

The magazine Spiegel can be expected to be fairly well informed.
"Tatsächlich dürfte das Buch die Hoffnungen von US-Kreationisten, die katholische Kirche könnte sich ihrem Konzept des "Intelligent Design" annähern, endgültig enttäuschen - trotz Benedikts rhetorischen Remplers gegen die Evolutionstheorie. Schwerer wiegt für Naturwissenschaftler das Signal, dass der Papst die Deutungshoheit des Spirituellen retten will.

If I understand this right, creationists and ID don't get support; but the pope wants to save the superiority of explanations at the spiritual level. The pope going to run against all science if he thinks that; however, there is no indication that any grasp of science is necessary to be pope.

So what are we to make of this? The first thing to note is that by all accounts Pope Benedict has not enorsed any version of creationism or ID.

He hasn't openly endorsed Creationism, but he has embraced certain Creationist arguments. It's as though he's saying, "I'm not a Creationist, but..."

By Mustafa Mond, FCD (not verified) on 23 Apr 2007 #permalink

Does the pope know how a light switch work? We must admit our ignorances before we learn anything. When people attempt to discredit science in an attempt to justify religious dogma, i find it easiest to discredit them by asking them very simple questions that most of us don't know the answer to. How does your light switch work? How does the engine in your vehicle work. I'd like the pope to answer these questions before he tackles evolution.

I'm just a little curious as to what the Pope means by "reason". Here is a guy who (props to Sam Harris) believes he can turn a cracker into the physical creator of the Universe if he wears a dress and talks to it in Latin. Call me a little dubious, but such an irrational and fundamentally absurd belief basically impeaches Pope as a expert on the nature of reason.

By attotheobscure (not verified) on 23 Apr 2007 #permalink

He hasn't openly endorsed Creationism, but he has embraced certain Creationist arguments. It's as though he's saying, "I'm not a Creationist, but..."

It seems really strange that the Pope believes that his god created heaven and hell and the angels and whatever, but he doesn't believe his god created the rest of the universe. I'm not saying he's wrong, I'm just saying it seems kind of weird, that's all.

Here is a guy who (props to Sam Harris) believes he can turn a cracker into the physical creator of the Universe...

No, sorry, but the Pope is not a creationist. You must be mistaken about that or something. Sorry.

So according to Dawkins' Detractors Ratzinger should be 'aggressive' (no doubt) and 'rude' (no, but disrespectful, as he should be). Nothing new there, but thanks for the catch.

The first thing to note is that by all accounts Pope Benedict has not enorsed any version of creationism

I would make that Creationism, since theism is creationism by default.

As a commenter noted, giving Ratzinger the benefit of the doubt, he may not be arguing for "purely random selection", but it is also unclear if he admits speciation. In any case his theistic evolution "narrow corridor" is both teleology and creation of humans.

I'm just a little curious as to what the Pope means by "reason".

Not that Wikipedia is the best source, but the given link (real and implied) to Hitler Jugend seems to have several problems.

Membership of Hitler Jugend was required by law at the time Ratzinger became a member. He (probably; reportedly refused meetings) and probably his family (father) was against Nazism, a cousin was killed by Nazi eugenics, he deserted when his unit was dissolved, and he paid his 'due' as POW. ( http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pope_Benedict_XVI#Early_life_.281927.E2.80… ; but only the first claim has direct reference.)

If Ratzinger had any warm feelings towards Nazism, I would be surprised. Is there evidence for this?

By Torbjörn Larsson (not verified) on 23 Apr 2007 #permalink

since theism is creationism by default.

Make that "theism as practiced by the church", lest the theologians and philosophers come storming out of the woods.

By Torbjörn Larsson (not verified) on 23 Apr 2007 #permalink

I agree with MartinC. Will you guys lay off the poor old man? If he had walked up to the podium and said, "Guess what? There's no God. Have a nice day," he could have done irreparable damage to the Catholic community. I admit, that whole duplicating evolution in the lab statement was sketchy, but besides that, he really said as much as he could supporting evolution without abandoning his duties as Pope. He's a religious leader, not a biology professor.

He's a religious leader, not a biology professor.

That is the point. And either they don't mention secular activities at all, or they stay with the facts.

The earlier leader made a better swing at it, not detailing the theory, but acknowledging its status (almost), and explaining its support.

But ET and TE isn't equal, in spite of their (attempts of) confusion. They could present TE as the unsupported belief of his church, and note the similarities and differences to science if necessary. That is what faith is, isn't it, unsupported belief? No lies or muddying of waters is required.

It could even be as simple as that current evolution theory doesn't predict that humans or equivalents would necessarily evolve, but theistic evolution believes it is necessary. I don't know who would have a problem with that formulation, at least on the secular side.

By Torbjörn Larsson (not verified) on 23 Apr 2007 #permalink

The Pope's membership in the Hitler Youth is real, no need to imply it. Saying that he was forced in, is a rather sorry excuse. You could put a gun to my head and try and force me to join the Hitler Youth and I'll take the bullet instead, .... I a Jew and would rather die than join. I have values I'm willing to die for, and not being a Hitler Youth is easily one of them. Anyway, the choice wasn't that stark. Not joining was neither a prison or death sentence as some would try and make it out to be in order to justify his membership. Many other Germans had such a spine and never joined.

By attotheobscure (not verified) on 23 Apr 2007 #permalink

You could put a gun to my head and try and force me to join the Hitler Youth and I'll take the bullet instead, ....

That is your choice. Others choose differently. I don't think you can make moral conclusions from death threats, either way. That would be, uh, immoral.

Not joining was neither a prison or death sentence as some would try and make it out to be in order to justify his membership.

I'm not sure I believe that without references. Why make such a specific law if not making it stick? And being a paramilitary organization in war time I don't think they needed to have kid's gloves on. I'm not a historian, but didn't they send these kids into war? Desertion is certainly serious in war time.

"By 1940, it had eight million members. Later war figures are difficult to calculate, since massive conscription efforts and a general call-up of boys as young as ten years old meant that virtually every young male in Germany was, in some way, connected to the HJ." ( http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hitler_Jugend )

In any case, the question was if you can make his membership out as not using "reason" here. In fact, joining was probably very reasonable considered the alternative. And indeed most german boys of that age joined about that time, and you can't say that they were all bad on "reason".

(And frankly, I don't see what the jew distinction is about here. I don't think Ratzinger were ever a jew, his father was allegedly catholic and so is he now. If you want to make such a distinction you should in that case compare his choices with others of the same ethnicity, since it was important here. And perhaps also having family members killed by the nazis, if that is true.)

If you can't support that he was endorsing the nazi manifests wholeheartedly, I don't see where you were trying to go by providing that image link above while discussing "reason".

By Torbjörn Larsson (not verified) on 23 Apr 2007 #permalink

1. I think that Dr. Ratzingers' position on the theory of evolution can be summed up as follows. This theory is supported by the scientific evidence but that doesn't mean I have to like it.

2. To the best of my knowledge, there is no evidence of pro-Nazi sentiments either by Dr. Ratzinger or members his family. I don't think it is entirely fair to hold the fact that he joined the Hitler Jugend against him now because virtually every teenager in Germany joined, as was required by law.

[Dawkins speaks far more intelligently about theology than the Pope does about science.]

Sorry to disagree, but I heard Dawkins speak at Harvard a few years back, and at least in that lecture, his knowledge of theology seemed roughly equivalent to that of a 3rd-grader. I couldn't help thinking that if a Creationist (which I assure you I am not) were to come forward with arguments as scientifically uninformed as his were theologically uninformed, that person would have been laughed out of the auditorium. The pope is at least as conversant in science as a typical adult; the problem is that the typical adult doesn't really understand the scientific method or the fact that science, by its own design and definition, can only talk about the empirical world. The minute someone like Dawkins says something about God or religion, he is no longer doing science, and therefore his scientific credentials no longer support his authority. He's then on the same level playing ground as the rest of us schmucks.

By Alan Yost (not verified) on 02 Oct 2008 #permalink

The court of inquisition will simply call this statement as pure heretics!

Human beings did not come or evolve from Apes!! Darwin's theory of evolution is simply ridiculous. God said, "Let us make man in our image, after our likeness". Is it difficult to understand this fact? The birds, fish, animals (including monkeys) were created after their own kind or likeness too. Simple! I am not a scientist but can anyone tell me if there's a similarity of DNA structure of man and monkeys?

You are no different from scribes and Pharisees! Hypocrites! Jesus said to them: "This people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far from me; in vain do they worship me, teaching as doctrines the precepts of men." Mark 7:6-7 RSV

Beware of the anti-Christ!!!