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From Issue Eleven, June 2011 « Previous Article Next Article »

Where Both Sides Go Wrong in the Great Evolution Debate

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The great evolution debate is commonly depicted as a conflict between the enlightened world of science and the benighted world of religion. Carrying the mantle of religion are the creationists (both young earth creationists and intelligent design creationists), who dismiss the robust array of facts supporting evolution because the concept of evolution doesn’t agree with their view that a divine creator produced the earth and all life on it. In contrast, the scientific view of evolution is often thought of as a highly rational theory that obviates the need for any supernatural explanation to life. In reality the debate turns out to be far more complex than this.

One problem when discussing evolution is that both sides confuse the facts of evolution with the interpretation of those facts. The facts of evolution are incontrovertible and more than just biological. They are also supported by a robust series of observations in astronomy, physics, chemistry, and geology. Among the foremost are (1) the universe is 13.7 billion years old, (2) the earth and solar system are 4.56 billion years old, (3) all life on earth has evolved from a common ancestor, (4) life exploded in complexity and variety 450 millions years ago at the beginning of the Cambrian, (5) dinosaurs became extinct 65 million years ago, perhaps as the result of a meteorite impact, and (6) humans evolved in Africa and expanded around the world during the last 150 thousand years.

The big problem in the evolution debate is in how one interprets these observations. Creationists simply ignore them, even though they are backed by nearly 150 years of scientific research. Instead, they treat evolution as unsubstantiated theory into which they can substitute their own chosen facts. In contrast, many scientists adhere to a view of evolution similar to that put forth by evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins in his 1975 book The Selfish Gene: namely, that we are bags of chemicals impelled to transfer our genes to the next generation for the simple purpose of survival. Theologian John Haught calls this view, which is inherent in most versions of evolution theory taught today, evolutionary materialism and rightly points out that it leaves no room for spiritual development.

This puts those of us who consider science a valid way of studying the phenomenal world but also believe in a spiritual dimension into a quandary. We can either accept the creationists’ anti-intellectual view that the scientific facts supporting evolution are wrong or accept the traditional explanation for evolution despite its obvious atheistic overtones. A third view of evolution is seldom mentioned in the great debate.

The Vision of Teilhard de Chardin

In the 1930s, Jesuit priest and paleontologist Pierre Teilhard de Chardin formulated a theory that accepted the fact that evolution has occurred by natural selection, as suggested by Darwin, but that also saw evolution taking place within a spiritual dimension. He theorized that evolution involves three stages. The first is physical evolution, which we now recognize leads to the formation of elements heavier than helium and, ultimately, the earth and its atmosphere. The second stage is biological evolution, which became important once life appeared on the earth. Over the last three billion years, biological life forms have slowly become more neurologically complex and conscious. Once humans appeared, the third stage of evolution took over, which proceeded within human culture and thought in what Chardin called the noosphere – a kind of collective consciousness, a meeting of all minds. He postulated that in the future, the noosphere along with all life would merge into pure thought, which he called the Omega Point and which he equated with Christ.

The Catholic hierarchy looked askance at this theory and particularly at the many essays Chardin wrote about the impact his theory brought to Catholic theology. For example, if the Omega Point were Christ, the Church noted, then Christ is not within us but located someplace in the future. Chardin’s writings also did not leave any room for the concept of original sin or accommodate a place for Satan or evil. More importantly, by combining religion with evolution, Chardin was in great danger of reducing religion to humanism and naturalism. As a result, Chardin was not allowed by the Church to publish his theory during his life. He died in 1955, and the book detailing his theory, The Phenomenon of Man, appeared in English in 1959.

Chardin’s book made an immediate impact both in the theological and scientific communities. Although the scientific impact has long since faded, the theological effect is still evident. If you check the web today, you will find many Catholic websites warning readers against accepting Chardin’s theological view, which many writers call Teilhardism, and you will also find those who feel he was well ahead of his time.

Because Chardin was the first to present a theory combining evolution with religion, both for the purposes of this essay and because the theological and biological aspects so closely align, I also call his view of evolution Teilhardism.

Teilhardism and Evolutionary Materialism

Although evolutionary materialism and Teilhardism are based upon the same scientific facts, they carry distinctly different implications for the meaning of evolution. Evolutionary materialism is constructed upon the following two premises: (1) there is no spiritual dimension to the world, and (2) evolution proceeds by natural selection. Based upon these premises, evolutionary materialism reaches the following conclusions:

1. The most important feature about living creatures is the information that is tied up in their genes.

2. Evolution is not progressive. There has been an obvious increase in the complexity of beings over time but this does not involve any progress. The word “progress” implies an increase in value over time, and since it doesn’t matter to genes whether they populate an amoeba or a human, evolution has not produced an increase in value. Hence, evolution is not progressive.

3. Consciousness is an emergent property. This view contends that a creature’s brain must contain a certain density of neurons before consciousness can arise. Once the human brain reached this threshold, consciousness appeared. In this view, consciousness is a feature that is present only in humans, though perhaps to some extent in the higher mammals. It is an epiphenomenon produced by electrical and chemical activity in the brain and has no spiritual significance.

4. Evolution is a random mechanistic process. Evolution involves a random change in the genetic makeup of beings. Because it is a random process, evolution is meaningless. As a result, human life is also meaningless.

5. Humans arose by chance. Because evolution progresses through chance mutations, the appearance of humans on this planet is simply a stroke of luck. Rewind the tape, play it back, and humans might not appear again.

In contrast to evolutionary materialism, Teilhardism starts out with a different set of premises: (1) we are enveloped in a spiritual world that is reflected in our consciousness, and (2) evolution proceeds by natural selection. Note that the second premise is the same as the second premise in evolutionary materialism, but because of the first premise, Teilhardism reaches entirely different conclusions about the significance of evolution:

1. The most important feature in living creatures is their consciousness. Genes may play an important role in controlling our body structure and our health, but it is consciousness that gives each of us a personality.

2. Evolution is progressive. The increase in the complexity of beings over time, especially the increase in neurological complexity, reflects an increase in consciousness and hence an increase in value. Therefore, evolution manifests progress; it represents the opening of life to the spiritual dimension.

3. Consciousness has transcendent properties. There is an aspect of consciousness that ties us directly to the spiritual realm. Although our brain clearly produces certain features of our consciousness, other aspects such as inspiration, intuition, and creativity arise from outside our body. Consciousness is thus a phenomenon that may extend to some extent to all beings.

4. Human life has great meaning. Because evolution involves the opening of life to the spiritual dimension, the goal of each human should be to manifest that spiritual dimension.

5. Humans did not arise by chance. Self-consciousness is an important niche in nature. Life was certain to exploit this niche, as it also exploited all the other niches available. Just as the ability to fly evolved at least four times (as in insects, pterosaurs, birds, and bats), it is certain that evolution would have found a way to occupy the niche of self-consciousness.

Which Theory Is Correct?

It is impossible to determine objectively which theory, evolutionary materialism or Teilhardism, is correct, because strictly speaking, neither theory is truly scientific. To be scientific, a theory or a hypothesis must be testable – one must be able to put forth an experiment that could disprove or prove it. Since there is no way one can develop an experiment that can determine whether or not there is a spiritual dimension to evolution, these two theories are not scientific. Instead, they are metaphysical paradigms. As such, the theory that you find most appealing depends on your spiritual insights. Atheists will find too many unnecessary assumptions in Teilhardism and will prefer evolutionary materialism. But those who have had spiritual experiences will prefer Teilhardism to the cold and mechanistic view of life that evolutionary materialism proposes.

Although there is no way to produce scientific experiments to determine whether Teilhardism is the most valid evolutionary theory, the fact that Teilhardism is consistent with all the scientific facts of evolution has a huge effect on the great evolution debate. No longer are spiritually oriented people presented with an either-or situation that provides two equally unpalatable options. They don’t have to decide between the scientific view of evolution, with its materialistic underpinnings, and the creationist view, with its anti-intellectual premises. Teilhardism accommodates both the scientific evidence for evolution and the recognition that humans have a profound spiritual dimension. In this way, Teilhardism builds an important bridge between the apparently irreconcilable domains of science and religion.

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    peewee Jun 09, 2011

    I am entranced by the Teilhardism concept and the stretch it presents. It strikes me as useful to my thinking but couldn't there be any number of evolutionary theory concepts.? I like the idea of exploring this theory but staying open to where my own spirit/thinking might further explore. There are some interesting concepts brought by a number of people who have had transcendent near death experience and what they received in understanding, by the way. Thanks for your article. I'm passing it on to scientist son and grandson. Jan

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    free2flutter2 Jun 09, 2011

    Thank you for this insightful article! I also appreciate the stretch in presents. I also appreciate that you comment on the fact that no theory is provable, thus we know nothing for certain, however Teilhardism is certainly a bridge between the gaping debate between Creationists and Evolutionists that could open new doors of exploration into the metaphysical aspect of life and its evolution. I personally have come to accept that consciousness has a powerful influence however consciousness came to be and cannot be denied to exist.

    It is my humble perspective that science is the study of an ever-evolving creation. Science is discovering that evolution is creation in progress. Science cannot explain the origins of life nor the destiny of life; it can only observe it and make guesses. I believe we are all watching creation unfold and now our consciousness is part of the creation process. This is how we are one with God, however anyone perceives God, the great intelligent designer.

    We are participating in creation now that we have consciousness. It is theorized that our thought as a pattern of energy bring about manifestations, so it cannot be denied that our thoughts or our consciousness is not affecting evolution; our consciousness is evolving, too. There is a clear connection between what think, what we do and what happens, and human consciousness and awareness are progressing also, so to say that our consciousness is not involved in creation/evolution is denying a clear reality of the metaphysical influence on the evolution of life. We are experiencing/observing/participating in creation in our consciousness as we evolve and it is all inter-related, inter-connected to whatever force of life started it in the first place. It is my perspective that the Universe itself is God's "becoming" and we are in the midst of becoming aware of our Creator...as we evolve. Science is just observing creation in progress and call it evolution.

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    CFagan11 Jun 09, 2011

    In the process of evolving, or more correctly said: in the process of awakening, humans have in the process developed an intellect which deals with the physical universe only. The intellect became operative some thousands of years ago. I do not give the number of years because to do so would invite an argument. Now in the past lesser number of years a spiritual intellect also emerged which gave to man certitude without having to arrive at this certitude through logical or reasoning exercises. One just KNOWS (gnostic) This happened to me some 40 years ago in the flash of an eye in a deep depression.This goes beyond science which is an intellectual endeavor. However, I would like to refer the reader of this input to the Santiago Theory.,Check this out in Google. Thank you very much for the honor of participation in your Web Site, Charlie Fagan

  • Firehart Jun 09, 2011

    The phrase “Where both sides go wrong” hints at a trap that inhibits our yet-to-evolve thinking. We’ll become extinct like dinosaurs if we fail to notice this tar pit and rise beyond it. This phrase assumes the validity of dualism and its associated habits of judging ideas as “right” or “wrong” and competing to prove one “best” by some nonsharable criterion. As one who experienced the beyond-body realm of oneness with the Totally Sharable Best, I see life differently upon my non-return from that realm.

    Mine is an experiential view not readily investigated by science because it cannot be detected by existing technologies, reduced to existing categories or described with existing vocabularies. Until we listen to all dimensions of input into this multifaceted multilogue (not “win-loss” debate or two-sided dialogue) about the human race, we will continue to stymie ourselves. Progress in rising out of our temporary dilemma of tar pit occupancy will come when we cease to see only each dilemma’s two horns and, beyond the horns, face the bull that wields the horns.

    Ego is the bull that continuously slings dualistic options in hopes that we’ll not notice the bull. So long as we dance the bull’s dualistic dance, we’ll be mired in bull-byproducts. Collaborative thinkers can go beyond ego to find solutions Einstein predicted would be available to collaborators at higher levels of consciousness to which we can ascend collectively. The collective mind is available for us to access together through the purposeful use of our imaginations.

    As we move forward in the direction in which Chardin’s ideas point, we’ll ceaselessly discover the multifaceted perspective we’re looking for. My investigation suggests that teleology – the study of purpose – is helpful to understanding the evolution of the human race in the context of all life. What is the purpose of life at every level of life? If human life is a higher platform of life, what is its purpose beyond the purposes of “lower” yet inextricably integrated platforms of life? Is there an integrating purpose revealed in humanity’s quest for excellence, beauty, justice, integrity, authenticity, compassion, love or other highest qualities of life? Are humans a type of continuously upgrading software that continuously upgrades its own hardware?

    When we make it our purpose to make progress in expressing divine qualities through human lives, do we evolve intentionally beyond the apparent chaos of unintentionality? Is it as important to study our volitional capacity (will) and its purposeful use as it is to study our mental capacity (mind)? Might we need to develop more precise measures of human volition (free will) and vocabulary/symbols by which to describe its nature and any progress achieved in its development?

    Might the horns of the dilemma that entrap us in the bullpen be the ego’s pitch that we can hit out of the stallpark if we all team up at home and run the basics together?

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    Imre Jun 12, 2011

    The senseless dispute is between two belief-systems: that of religion and that of science. Immediate creation of being out of non-being and qualitative psychical and physical improvement through an extrinsic effector; as against physiological change through irregular chance-mutation plus "natural selection" with advantageous adaptive effects. The first is founded on the agency of an extrinsic Being – the Biblical God –; the second, ignoring that "selection" is a process and not a subject, an originating or acting agent, conjures up an extrinsic Grand Selector (short: "Selection") – the Deus ex Machina of their credo – in order to make their dogmas acceptable to their followers without thinking. The reconciliation of two irrealistic credos, two wrong concepts, could never arrive to a third rational and realistic one, to any new, right concept.

    I happen to be an "Intelligent Designer", being an architect and a civil engineer. Using this knowledge, as also the purpose and requirements of the complex I am supposed to design, as the input of "fixed rules", and out of my ability, enthusiasm, love, creativity, intelligence and willpower arising "flexible strategies", do I create and evolve my buildings, structures, hydro-electric schemes. The final thoughts, which are recorded on drawings – "genetic blueprints" – containing the summa information of the structure-to-be, are underlying the complex to be materialized through the same qualities of all the specialized contributors on the various hierarchical levels. What emerges is the effect of our "creativity" and "intelligent design". None of us "plays dice" in doing his work, each functions pointedly and intelligently at his level of competence towards the fulfilment of the purpose and requirements of the complex, representing thus the underlying principle, creative thought and sustaining force of it. The existence of that ordered and functioning complex represents the existence of hierarchically ordered subjective intelligences as its designers and executors. Is our system of evolving and materializing a purposeful, rational and functioning object superior to that of the Universal system?

    Regarding the neo-Darwinian credo and The Selfish Genes of Richard Dawkins, see, if you care: http://www.angelfire.com/home/sesquiq/replicators.pdf

    What about building all thinking processes on the foundation that Life IS; that Mind, through all its differentiated fractions is the underlying principle of all abstract and concrete manifestations and that Consciousness is a sine qua non quality of the Mind? It should be quite obvious that even the most elementary life-form must have been conscious of having to feed itself and to escape from its predators and then act on it consciously, otherwise it would have perished without a trace.

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    stepnnson Jun 12, 2011

    Well, by golly. I would like to thank all of you for putting into words what is becoming obvious to me. The narrow minded, ego dominated, knee-jerk reactive, literally translated, our way or no way, my side is the right side, linear thinking paradigms are archaic. And by God, through the power of conscious evolution
    our puny little minds will either learn to adapt to the ever-changing accumulation of an geometric increase in the ability to interact with diverse complexity--or we will be randomly selected by pure cosmic co-incidence for extermination. Of course, that just my theoretical supposition based on my theo-illogical experiences.

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    Chuckzzz Jun 14, 2011

    This article and these comments remind me of a poem I wrote some years ago...(read up to down)
    If man were meant to be... If man were meant to be... If man were meant to be
    then how can he be... then how can he be... then how can He be...
    If he not be together? If he cannot see...Thee? If He not be You, Me and Thee?

    If man were meant to be... If man were meant to be...
    then how can he be... then how can he be...
    If he cannot...See? If he cannot see...Thee is He?

  • Chandra Padhi Jun 27, 2011

    The article is very nice and is compliant with my belief. I believe that science is immature to explain a lot of events which happen around us and we name it as a law. To add to concept of Darwinism, just as we move in the evolutionary time line, from protozoa (single celled organisms) to coelenterate and ultimately mammals we see that the complexity of the system increases but at the same time we also see that the system becomes more organized like cells to tissues then tissues to organs and organs to organ systems. With increasing complexity the concept of division of labor and specification of cells for a specified function comes into picture.

    Having established this fact, i would like to bring up the concept of Entropy which is widely used in Physics and can be simply called as the randomness of system. The randomness of a system is always increasing. More is the randomness of the system, more is the stability of the system. So organisms should be more stable when they are single celled and dispersed, rather than multi-cellular and arranged.

    But as we move in the Evolutionary time-line we find that the laws pertaining to evolution clearly defies the laws of nature or physics. This proves that there is some external force which is guiding the whole evolutionary process.

    This is my perspective of the existence of God.

    Thanks.

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