EVOLUTION: A CATHOLIC PERSPECTIVE
by James B. Stenson
Since 1859, when Charles Darwin first published his *Origin of Species*,
the scientific question of evolution has aroused intense and often bitter
controversy. Time and again over the years, a supposed conflict between
"science" and "religion" has raged in the public forums--in courtrooms,
classrooms, and the press. This past decade has witnessed a new and even
more heated debate concerning textbooks and school curricula.
Television has not ignored the dramatic possibilities of these
confrontations. On newscasts and talk shows, partisans from both sides
have had their say on camera. On the one hand, fundamentalist Protestants
have insisted on an absolutely literal interpretation of Genesis: a
"special creation" of each separate species in only seven days, beginning a
few thousand years ago. Opposing them, some scientists-turned-celebrities
have proclaimed with equal fervor the supreme triumph of chance: matter
blindly developing from molecules to man, with no intervention by a Deity,
and no need for One to explain anything. Thus the controversy has been
reduced, in public perception, to a disquieting choice--"superstition" vs.
What is a Catholic to make of this? To anyone who knows even a little
theology and science, the choice presented here is clearly false. In this,
as in so many other heated controversies, the first casualty is truth. The
Catholic faith is dedicated to truth, indeed to Truth Himself. And
science, open-mindedly and fairly exercised, is committed to the pursuit
of truthful knowledge. A Catholic should suspect, therefore, even before
studying the question closely, that faith and scientific knowledge must
complement, not contradict, each other.
This suspicion is confirmed by fact. The more one studies what the
Catholic Church teaches and what science knows for certain, the more
clearly he sees that Catholic faith and scientific knowledge are wholly
compatible. The conflicts being aired today are really a pseudo-
controversy. Dogmatic fundamentalists do not reflect Catholic tradition,
and dogmatic evolutionists do not fairly represent science.
In the following pages, we want to examine briefly what the Church has
clearly taught and what science has clearly learned about evolution,
especially in recent years. By an honest pursuit of the truth, we can
avoid entanglement in pointless disputes, like the Sadducees whom Our Lord
upbraided so long ago--those who "knew neither the scriptures nor the power
of God" (Mt. 22,29).
What does "evolution" mean?
Any intelligent understanding of a complex problem requires, at the outset,
a definition of terms. In fact, much of the present confusion stems from
a vague association of several meanings with the term "evolution." Properly
speaking, the word should embrace a biological concept founded on careful
scientific study from several interrelated disciplines. But by extension
the term has also been used in other senses--historical, sociological, and
philosophical. We will concern ourselves here with the two principal
definitions that impinge upon religious faith: the biological and
For a properly scientific definition of the term, we may cite a formula
established by fifty internationally known scientists at the Darwin
Centennial Celebration, held in 1959: "*Evolution* is definable in general
terms as a one-way irreversible process in time, which in its course
generates novelty, diversity, and higher levels of organization."
In the field of biology (where evolutionary studies have been most
extensive and productive), the term more specifically means: "a process
whereby organisms change with the passage of time so that descendants
differ from their ancestors."
Note that these definitions deal with a *process*, a succession of
observable events measured over time. Science deals essentially and
necessarily with material phenomena, those which can be measured. It tries
to deduce reasonable explanations for the cause-and-effect relationships
between events. Because it limits itself to material facts, its
generalizations are necessarily mechanical. A biologist concerns himself
with *how* events occur. For him, the question *why* lies outside the
proper limits of his discipline. ("Why" is a philosophical question.)
This is important because, in the properly scientific sense, "evolution" as
a *how* question poses no problem for Catholic belief. For decades now,
scientists have established a chronology of how life forms succeeded one
another over eons of time. It is beyond reasonable doubt that some sort of
process has taken place. (As we shall see later, the mechanics of this
succession have yet to be fully understood.) Whatever science determines
on this *how* level is compatible with a Catholic principle: that God
ordinarily carries out His creative acts in natural ways.
Problems with Christian belief generally arise when "evolution" is
loosely used in a broad philosophical sense. This meaning is substantially
different from the scientific one above. It may be defined as follows: "an
ideological frame of mind which sees the entire universe in terms of
matter-in-development and which consciously denies the existence of
spiritual or supernatural reality; all phenomena--scientific, historical,
economic, and social--are explainable in exclusively material terms."
This understanding of "evolution" is not scientific, though it derives much
prestige from association with the sciences. It is not founded on
experimental knowledge or rational deduction. It is rather a preconceived
set of attitudes and values, a prejudice that is not merely unscientific,
but irrational. For it is altogether credulous to hold that complex organs
like the eye are not indicative of an ordering intelligence, but are
instead the result of blind chance which of course cannot know or plan the
end (seeing) to which the eye's single parts combine and evolve. In fact,
it is a latter-day form of philosophical materialism which has been with us
since the time of the Greeks.
Inasmuch as it is really an outlook on life, it is a kind of religion.
Properly speaking, therefore, this set of beliefs should not be called
"evolution" but rather "evolutionism". To subscribe to creation (which is
*not* the same as "creationism"), that is, the contingent world's ultimate
dependence on a necessary, creative being, is not, on the contrary, an act
of religion at all. It is a matter of philosophy, of drawing sure
conclusions from incontrovertible premises.
Like the other religion-substitute "isms" of our time, evolutionism has
adherents from all walks of life. Some physicists, astronomers, and
geneticists believe in it. But so do many journalists, economists,
teachers, and historians--and cab-drivers and businessmen and poets. The
atheism of a biochemist is really no more significant than that of a file
clerk, but it can have more sway on public opinion.
A Catholic can, as we shall see, give qualified assent to evolution in the
scientific sense but not to evolutionism. The fact is that many
scientists engaged in evolutionary studies are themselves devout Catholics.
These people see no contradiction between what the Church teaches and what
science, as science, has learned. Let us examine why this is so.*
It comes as a surprise to many Catholics to learn how little the church
teaches in this area--how few tenets are established as true beyond doubt,
and therefore how much latitude is left to Catholics for their personal
judgment. The Church has not been concerned with evolutionary questions
as such, but rather with their possible implications for Catholic belief.
The Church has maintained that the first three chapters of Genesis contain
historical truth. Their inspired author used a popular literary form of
his day to explain certain historical facts of Creation. These were named
specifically by the Pontifical Biblical Commission, with the approval of
Pope Pius X in 1909. The official document states that the literal
historical meaning of the first three chapters of Genesis could not be
doubted in regard to:
"the creation of all things by God at the beginning of time; the
special creation of man; the formation of the first woman from the
first man; the unity of the human race; the original happiness of our
first parents in the state of justice, integrity, and immortality; the
command given by God to man to test his obedience; the transgression of
the divine command at the instigation of the devil under the form of a
serpent; the degradation of our first parents from that primeval state
of innocence; and the promise of a future redeemer."
Note that the Church says nothing definite about how, in specific detail,
God created the world and its various forms of life, or how long any of
this took. The only "special creation" mentioned is that of man, who is
unique in having a spiritual immortal soul. In the Church's eyes, Genesis
deals with historical fact, not scientific process--with the *what* of
creation, not the *how*.
In 1950, Pope Pius XII addressed the question of man's origins more
specifically in his encyclical *Humani Generis*. With a few terse
paragraphs, he set forth the Church's position, which we may summarize as
1. The question of the origin of man's *body* from pre-existing and living
matter is a legitimate matter of inquiry for natural science. Catholics are
free to form their own opinions, but they should do so cautiously; they
should not confuse fact with conjecture, and they should respect the
Church's right to define matters touching on Revelation.
2. Catholics must believe, however, that the human *soul* was
created immediately by God. Since the soul is a spiritual substance
it is not brought into being through transformation of matter, but
directly by God, whence the special uniqueness of each person.
3. All men have descended from an individual, Adam, who has
transmitted original sin to all mankind. Catholics may not, therefore,
believe in "polygenism," the scientific hypothesis that mankind
descended from a group of original humans.
So, from the Catholic point of view, the scientific questions of evolution
are largely left open to debate. Evolutionary hypotheses which attempt to
explain the development of living things may be accepted except where they
conflict with these few explicit truths.
This position clearly contrasts with that of many fundamentalist Protestant
sects. Lacking belief in the Church's teaching authority, fundamentalists
have usually insisted on treating Genesis as a scientifically accurate, as
well as historically true, account. Unfortunately, this stance has often
appeared in the media as definitive Christian doctrine. Its details have
contrasted so sharply with established scientific knowledge that "Christian
belief" has been held in ridicule.
To give one example: In the 17th century, an Anglican clergyman, Bishop
James Ussher, calculated from Biblical genealogies that God created the
world on an October morning in 4004 B.C. Many fundamentalists today would
hold this as an article of faith. For virtually all scientists, the figure
is absurd. From the Catholic point of view, the Protestant Bishop Ussher
spoke as an individual, his feat was one of arithmetic, not theology.
Of course, Catholics *may* share many of these fundamentalist beliefs as
their personal opinions. The point is they are not *required* to. With
the exception of the few matters mentioned above, Catholics may hold
whatever scientific positions seem reasonable and intellectually
This leads to the next consideration. Just how much does science know with
certainty? What are the strengths and limitations of science in helping us
find the truth?*
Popular accounts of science--in textbooks, magazines, and television
features--are often misleading about the certitude of scientific knowledge.
Writers who explain science to the general public must simplify a host of
complex matters to make them understandable and interesting. But this task
frequently leads to oversimplification. Non-scientists are led to believe
that science is essentially a stable body of factual knowledge. In
reality, however, it is a dynamic process, constantly engaged in self-
correction and even radical revision. Interpretation, guesswork, and
imagination play a larger role in scientific study than most people are
Consequently, knowledge derived from this inquiry has several distinct but
overlapping levels of certitude. Some scientific matters are known to be
factually true; that is, they are beyond doubt. Others are reasonable
conjectures, generally accepted as true by specialists in the field. Still
others are untested hypotheses awaiting verification through further work.
Let us take one case in point: *Australopithecus* was an ape-like creature
who lived more than a million years ago in Africa. It is fact that his
brain size averaged about 500 cc. and that his leg-bone had some humanlike
features. It is, however, a conjecture that he walked upright much of the
time; this is a reasonable guess but not so certain as the aforementioned
facts. But it is only an hypothesis that his body gave rise to that of
man. These distinct degrees of probable certitude are often blurred in
many popular science articles.
The evolutionary sciences are especially susceptible to difficulty in
establishing certitude. Unlike physics or chemistry, which are verifiable
through controlled laboratory experimentation, the evolutionary disciplines
are essentially historical. All the forms of paleontology (including
paleoanthropology, the study of ancient man) seek to determine what
happened to living things over the course of time. When researchers
advance hypotheses to explain fossil phenomena, they are giving *reasonable
interpretations* which are verifiable only through subsequent research.
Later findings may confirm these explanations, or perhaps render them less
plausible, or even prove them *wrong*--that is, very highly unlikely. Thus
what is generally accepted by specialists today may be outmoded only a few
years from now. The field is highly dynamic.
Evolutionary research over the past century, and especially in recent
years, has taken many such twists and turns, often leading in unexpected
directions. This unsettled condition stands to reason. The relative
scarcity of fossil evidence, the high reliance on imaginative
interpretation, the inherent problem of verification--all combine to make
this "detective" work subject to ongoing uncertainty. Unfortunately,
textbooks seldom convey the cautious and provisional nature of evolutionary
thinking at any given time. Science knows less for certain about
evolutionary phenomena than is generally supposed.
The history of science offers many examples of this self-corrective
process. It is worth our while to examine a few of these, even briefly, to
see the dynamic at work. (And, parenthetically, it is interesting to see
how many outmoded scientific beliefs still survive in popular thinking.)*
The cave-man myth*: Fossil evidence does not speak for itself; it must be
interpreted, and this task requires imagination. Scientists at the turn of
the century took greater liberties in describing ancient man than their
counterparts today would. Their image of paleolithic man has entered
popular imagination: a hairy, hunched-over, stupid, and ferocious creature,
speaking in grunts and living by violence. Countless illustrations have
shown him this way, and still do today in some popular media.
Today's specialists would disavow this image because it does not fit the
facts. From fossil evidence alone, one cannot say anything about ancient
man's hairiness or intelligence or speech or facial expression or supposed
ill-manners. These details were supplied through imagination. The
"survival of the fittest" motif called for ape-like characteristics in
early man, and these were dutifully provided. The bones themselves said
One set of bones was significant, however. In 1911, the famous French
anatomist, Marcellin Boule, carefully studied a recently discovered
Neanderthal skeleton. This specimen was important for it was the first
nearly complete skeleton of an ancient man. Using it, science could
understand the details of a typical Neanderthal's body structure.
Boule's reconstruction of Neanderthal showed a hunched-over, misshapen
creature with bent legs and face thrust forward, not unlike the stance of
a gorilla. This depiction was highly influential for decades thereafter;
it was reproduced in textbooks, drawings, and museum displays around the
world. But later discoveries of Neanderthal finds cast doubt on Boule's
work. Then in 1957, a team of anatomists re-examined Boule's original
skeleton and found a serious source of error: the Neanderthal man had
suffered from a case of severe arthritis. His stance was indeed hunched-
over, but it was not genetic in origin and was not typical. Today, we
believe that ancient people walked and stood erect almost exactly as we do.
The image of ferocity was also without factual support. Over the years, in
fact, many archaeological sites have shown evidence of cooperation and even
compassion among primitive people. Numerous fossils came from carefully
prepared graves, some as old as 100,000 years. In several instances, the
deceased had been old and crippled (like Boule's specimen) and had received
care for years before being laid to rest. In one grave, a youth had been
buried carefully on his side, with one arm tucked under his head, as if he
were sleeping; in one hand, he held a beautifully carved quartz knife. In
another grave, archaeologists found the body of an elderly Neanderthal who
had had his forearm amputated years before in his youth. (Surgery 60,000
years ago!) He had been cared for all his life. And in yet another
Neanderthal site, researchers found evidence that the deceased had been
buried with flowers.
Care for cripples and burial with flowers give a dimension of humanness to
ancient man that earlier scientists would have found astonishing.
Species classification*: Several decades ago, scientists habitually
classified almost every new hominid (man-like) find into a separate
species. These fossil creatures were thus named "Peking ape-man", "Java
ape-man", "Neanderthal man," and so forth. Drawings of the day used to
show an upward development: some primitive ape leading to the ape-man, who
in turn led to Neanderthal, who then led to Cro-Magnon (identical to
"modern" man in nearly every respect).
Within the last 25 years, these have all been reclassified. All the "ape-
man" types (from 100,000 to 500,000 years ago and more) now belong to one
species, *Homo erectus*, the "upright man." Neanderthal, we now believe,
was a racial type of modern man, *Homo sapiens*. But this distinction
needs some clarification. In what sense were these two forms of man
different? Were they really separate and distinct species?
The true test for species difference is genetic isolability--that is,
whether mating of two individuals will produce sterile offspring or not.
But obviously we have no way to determine this among creatures long dead.
It is important to realize that, when scientists classify ancient fossils
into distinct species, they do so exclusively on the basis of anatomical
structure. If a given specimen has bone configurations within the known
range of a given species, then it is called by that species' name. If,
however, some significant features lie outside that range, then it probably
belongs to a different species and is thus classified differently. *Homo
erectus* had several anatomical features which differ from those of modern
man. He had, for example, a prominent brow ridge over his eyes, a smaller
stature, and a smaller average brain size.
The key point here is that both were forms of man, the genus *Homo*, with
all that this implies. The anatomical variation was possibly, even
probably, the only significant difference. We know that *erectus*, even
from remotest antiquity, made several types of tools and used fire. Both
of these activities show intelligent manipulation of nature. In other
words, he, like the *sapiens* form, could think.
Brain size*: At one time, scientists believed that relative brain size
correlated closely with intelligence. The viewpoint has been modified
considerably because of subsequent research data.
Modern man's brain averages 1250 cc., but with wide variation. It
typically falls between the extremes of 1000 cc. and 2000 cc. *Homo
erectus*, being small in stature, varied between 775 cc. and 1200 cc. All
of these figures are much larger than those for apes and ape-like
creatures: 450 cc. on the average.
But the wide variation in modern man seems unrelated to thinking powers. In
at least one instance, a man with 900 cc. brain size exhibited normal
intelligence. Consequently, we cannot with certainty predicate a lower
level of intelligence to early man merely on the basis of his brain size.
Tool-making*: as far back as man's fossil record indicates (currently about
two million years), we find evidence of tool-making. Several decades ago,
scientists correlated tool-making skill with native intelligence. A
primitive tool indicated a primitive mind; a more complex form, showed a
relatively stronger intelligence. This value judgment no longer holds sway
Today it is generally held that mastery of technique is distinct from
native intelligence. Tool-fashioning is a skill acquired through learning
and practice. Moreover, today's anthropologists have a much higher regard
for the considerable skill which ancient man wielded in fashioning his
One remarkable detail is the great variety of these ancient tools. For
scores of thousands of years, paleolithic man fashioned dozens of different
tools--axes, scrapers, awls, burins, saws, knives, and many other types of
implement. These were formed with extraordinary consistency, and even
artistry, through hundreds of generations. Many were expertly fashioned in
quartz and semi-precious stone.
Such variety in this paleolithic tool-chest implies that early man used
tools extensively on other materials (wood, leather, bone) which have, of
course, perished without a trace. Tools imply intelligence, not only
because they are deliberately fashioned (an intelligent act itself), but
because they are intended for some purpose further in the future. Such
purposeful planning is a clear sign of rationality. So scientists believe
How much could early man have accomplished with these primitive stone
tools? To find out, a team of anthropologists recently hired an expert
Scandinavian woodsman and supplied him with a set of genuine paleolithic
tools. The craftsman hafted stone axe-heads onto wooden shafts and
experimented with various cutting techniques. Shortly afterward, he
succeeded in felling large trees, splitting logs and making them into
planks. Within three months, the expert constructed a complete one-story
Clearly, skill lies in the minds and hands. Little can be predicted from
crudity of the tools.
Current theoretical developments*: Over the past ten years, several major
developments in research have left the theoretical picture highly
unsettled. These are too complex to explain in detail here, but they are
worth noting in brief.
From the mid-1920's until the early 1970's, scientists generally believed
that man evolved gradually from a small ape-like creature called
*Australopithecus*. As we mentioned earlier, this animal lived more than a
million years ago and its fossils showed some human-like characteristics.
It may have walked upright, at least some of the time, and its teeth
approximated those of man. Moreover, researchers often found stone tools
scattered among its fossils.
The theory during these decades held that some form of *Australopithecus*,
enjoying relatively free use of its hands, developed tool-making, and this
skill gave rise to an ever-larger brain through the forces of natural
selection. Countless drawings in magazines and textbooks showed the furry
*Australopithecus* standing next to *Homo erectus*, his distant
But in the early 1970's researchers were astonished to discover forms of
*Homo erectus* from almost two million years ago, complete with tools. In
other words, man had lived alongside and even before some forms of
*Australopithecus*. Most likely, it was he who had fashioned the tools
found among the ape-man fossils. This discovery threw into question, to
say the least, the evolutionary relation between the two forms of life.
As of this writing, the problem is still being debated.
Around this time, several prominent paleontologists went on record to
question the prevailing theory of gradualism, the well-known Darwinian
position of evolution through natural selection. (High school and college
textbooks taught this as virtual dogma up until recently.) These
researchers claimed that, contrary to Darwin's predictions, the fossil
record does not show gradual transitions between species. On the
contrary, they maintained, the evidence shows extreme stability of form.
Species seem to appear suddenly on earth, remain virtually unchanged for
millions of years, and then disappear just as abruptly.
What could account for this phenomenon? Current theory holds, among other
positions, that major genetic alterations resulted in relatively sudden
appearances of new species. This genetic leap is called "macroevolution."
Meanwhile, within species at any given time, the forces of natural
selection were at work effecting minor alterations of structure --like
reshaping of finches' beaks, noted by Darwin. This process is called
"micro-evolution." How genetic and environmental forces have interacted
to produce new species is, at this point, an open question.
Our purpose here has been to demonstrate the dynamic nature of scientific
inquiry. Even these few brief sketches show how evolutionary thinking has
undergone an evolution of its own and still does. Science has many
uncertainties and very few dogmas. This uncertain quality accounts, in
large measure, for the fascination scientists find in their work.
Catholics have nothing to fear from science's honest inquiries, honestly
explained. On the contrary, every new discovery is a source of wonder and
a reason for giving praise to God. Of the Creator, we can say with St.
Paul, " ... from the foundations of the world, men have caught sight of His
invisible nature, His eternal power and His divinity, as they are known
through His creatures" (Rom 1,20).
[James B. Stenson, Headmaster of Northridge Preparatory School in Des
Plaines, Illinois, is a specialist in the history of evolution science.]
Catholic Position Papers
Series A -- Number 116
March, 1984 -- Japan Edition
Seido Foundation for the Advancement of Education
12-6 Funado-Cho, Ashiya-Shi Japan
Original articles published in these Papers may be reprinted without
prior permission, if credited to CPP. Copies of all reprints would be