Did Darwin Prove Genesis a Fairy Tale?

Copyright © 2007/Dennis Bonnette. This article first appeared in the Social Justice Review (September-October, 2007), 98:7-8.

Darwinian naturalism drives a two-pronged stake into the heart of Christianity: First, it insists that Adam and Eve’s story is but a fairy tale, and second, it denies God any role in the emergence and development of living forms. Without Adam and Eve, there can be no Original Sin, no Fall, no need or promise of a Redeemer, no Christ. The entire theological order is destroyed. And, if God plays no role in life’s creation, need He exist at all? It is small wonder that many Christians reject evolution theory as unscriptural and even unscientific. Still, most of the scientific world embraces Darwinian evolution as the only rational way to understand the evident fossil pattern of descent with modification.

My philosophical book Origin of the Human Species (Sapientia Press, 2003), while also treating of many other topics concerning evolution, shows in significant detail how the current theory of human evolution might be entirely compatible with sound science and legitimate Scriptural interpretation. I maintain that belief in Adam and Eve is both scientifically and philosophically credible – even if one does not subscribe to “young-Earth” creationism, which asserts that the world and man were created by God within the last ten thousand years or so.

Most conventional scientists embrace a worldview in which the universe is 10 to 15 billion years old, life on Earth dates back some 3.8 billion years, and man is the end product of a gradual evolutionary process taking place over millions of years. Still, many Christians today wonder whether these conventional scientific claims are rationally compatible with legitimate Scriptural interpretation and sound theology. Darwinian naturalism, as found in Richard Dawkins’s book The Blind Watchmaker (W.W. Norton & Company, 1996), insists that materialistic mechanisms alone are responsible for origin and development of life.

Darwinian naturalism is not based solely on scientific data, but also on gratuitous atheistic assumptions, which preclude God’s creation of the world or any possible subsequent divine intervention in its unfolding processes. The book Darwin on Trial, by Phillip E. Johnson (Regnery Gateway, 1991), eloquently exposes this philosophical fallacy inherent in naturalism. Christian thinkers, such as Johnson, maintain that God does exist, and that His continued creative act sustains the natural operations of all finite things, including the biochemistry that is central to any evolutionary process. Naturalism arbitrarily excludes this crucial claim.

The Catholic intellectual’s decisive edge in discussing evolution rests upon the rational certitude that God exists, whether evolution be true or false. Today, even many Catholics appear unaware that the First Vatican Council’s solemn definition that God’s existence can “be known with certainty in the light of human reason by those things which have been made.” St. Thomas Aquinas’s Five Ways retain their validity, when they are understood in context and with the necessary metaphysical preparation. Philosopher and theologian Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange, in his book God: His Existence and His Nature (B. Herder Book Co., 1934) wrote what remains the classical exposition and defense of the Quinque Viae. Garrigou-Lagrange occupies nearly two-thirds of Volume One in refuting the epistemological and metaphysical errors of David Hume, Immanuel Kant, various process philosophers and their like – thereby establishing a proper intellectual foundation for the arguments. My book, Aquinas’ Proofs for God’s Existence (Martinus-Nijhoff, 1972), provides perhaps the most thorough defense of the impossibility of infinite causal regress, a key premise of the Five Ways. While space prevents more elaborate development here, the fact that Catholic philosophers already know that God exists before addressing the problem of evolution offers an enormous advantage, denied to those who struggle against evolution theory as if their entire faith depended on proving conventional science wrong.

Darwinists today claim that life arose spontaneously from non-life and that descent with modification gives rise to new species through random mutations and survival of the fittest. Speaking through the mouths of leading evolutionists themselves, the philosopher Larry Azar, in his book Evolution and Other Fairy Tales (AuthorHouse, 2005), exposes the massive confusion and contradiction existing among those evolutionists. While the very title of Darwin’s famed Origin of Species appears to affirm the existence of “species,” it turns out that Darwin himself believed only in accidental variations between organisms, and that the term “species” is really only an artificial term, made for convenience.

Darwin’s disciples do no better. Some insist that species have real existence in nature, while others deny to species any extra-mental reality, and insist that only individual organisms exist in nature. Contemporary biologists, such as Ernst Mayr, reject the traditional “biological species concept” based on evident morphology, and replace this with notions based on a population system that can inter-breed and have “reproductive isolation” against others. In Darwinian logic, it appears that there really is no extra-mental basis for species. “Species” become mere terms of convenience describing mid-ranges of ever-blending series of unique individuals.

Mayr conceded the need to move past empirical terms, like “phenotypic, morphological, genetic, phylogenetic, or biological” in order to get to the “underlying philosophical concepts,” if we are to have a proper understanding of the “species problem.” (Mayr, The Species Problem [American Association for the Advancement of Science, 1957], p. 17) The “philosophical natural species concept” is directed to those properties of organisms which are not accidental, but essential. Traditional philosophy holds that things are diversified essentially by the presence or absence of certain powers and their activities. Thus, vegetative life is essentially superior to non-living things because plants possess the powers of nutrition, growth, and reproduction. Animals are superior to plants because they possess various sense powers, whereas plants do not. And man is superior to animals because he possesses intellective powers absent in brute animals. The biological species concept addresses accidental differences, whereas the philosophical species concept deals with essence itself. Unless evolution, transcending natural philosophical species, can be demonstrated, all examples of evolution may serve merely to document intra-specific evolution. True evolution would have to show that a plant became an animal or that an animal became a man.

Traditional philosophy holds that man possesses intellective powers that make him essentially superior to lower primates. On the other hand, most evolutionists maintain that man is merely a highly-developed animal, differing in complexity from lower animals, but not in kind. Naturalistic animal psychologists expect subhuman primates to approach human beings’ mental powers — witness the recent interest in ape-language research, with its claims that gorillas, orangutans, chimpanzees, and other subhuman primates can be taught various forms of sign language. These animals are claimed to understand the meanings of hundreds of words, to form sentences, and to communicate with humans and among themselves. Many people infer from these claims that man himself is no longer preeminent in the animal kingdom, that mankind is just another animal species, and that the belief that God made man in His own image and gave him dominion over lower creatures is merely an archaic religious fairy tale.

But still, philosophical analysis reveals (1) that genuine language requires intellective knowledge, and (2) that subhuman primates will never have true linguistic ability. The crucial distinction between sense and intellect eludes materialists who try to explain animal and human behavior. While man has both sense and intellective knowledge, animals possess only sensation. Intellective knowledge is specific to the human spiritual soul. Man employs his intellect to (1) form abstract concepts, (2) make judgments, and (3) reason in logical fashion from premises to conclusions. Lower animals’ sense powers, including imagination and sense memory, permit them to (1) manipulate sense data, and (2) instinctively exercise innate natural signs in order to communicate. These sense powers even enable animals to learn from man the use of arbitrary signs invented by man. And yet, brute animals do not understand the meanings of the signs that they use. Nor do they form judgments. Nor do they engage in reasoning. All ape behavior, including the trained use of signs, is focused on immediate sensible rewards, such as sex, toys, food, or contact with other animals. Abstract purposes, such as studying philosophy or earning a pay increase or dedicating one’s life to God, are meaningless to apes and elicit no signing activity.

Even some natural scientists who are evolutionists and experts on ape-language research have concluded that apes do not possess true language. They argue that such behavior can be explained by non-linguistic mechanisms, such as (1) simple imitation, (2) the “Clever Hans effect” (unintentional cuing), (3) the anthropomorphic fallacy (the error of attributing human qualities to animals based on the impulse to put ourselves in the brute’s place), and (4) rapid non-syntactical signing that seeks immediate sensible rewards. Two important claims – (1) that apes combine signs into new, creative sequences, and (2) that apes know syntactic structure – have been found to be based upon anecdotal data and not upon acceptable scientific methodology. Computers, moreover, which actually understand nothing and are not even alive, can imitate human linguistic behavior simply by manipulating data. Apes, with threir relatively large brains and elaborate sense faculties, can also accomplish such impressive feats, but this does not mean that they possess true linguistic comprehension any more than computers possess it.

Because the refutation of anecdotal claims of animal “intelligence” would be an endless task, what is needed here is affirmative demonstration that apes lack true intellect. The Australian philosopher and theologian Austin M. Woodbury provided such a positive demonstration, basing it on nature’s need to manifest necessary formal effects, as when sodium necessarily reveals its nature in tending to combine with chlorine. So too, true intellect manifests its nature in four formal effects which are always evident if true intellect is present: (1) genuine speech, (2) true progress, (3) knowledge of relations, and (4) knowledge of immaterial objects. (Natural Philosophy, Treatise Three, Psychology, Bk. 3, Ch. 40, Art. 7 [unpublished manuscript, 1951] pp. 432-65.)

In the wild state, animals (including apes) manifest none of these four formal effects. First, they fail to develop true language on their own. When apes are taught to manipulate signs, they become, as animal psychologist Heini Hediger has pointed out, virtual “artifacts” — through the language and tasks that we humans impose on them. If brute animals had intellect, they would long ago have invented signs and composed complex linguistic syntax. Since they have not done so, they lack true intellect. Second, apes in the wild make no genuine progress. It is true that they learn through experience, imitation, and training. Rarely, as in the case of the “termite fishing” chimps reported by Jane Goodall, they even appear to be “programmed” by their environment to form and use tools. Still, because they lack intellectual self-reflection, they fail to correct themselves, an ability needed for true progress. One looks in vain for progress in works, sciences, art, and virtue among our subhuman animal associates. Third, brute animals do not understand real relationships, such as cause and effect. They merely learn to associate images. Fourth and most decisively, apes show no sign whatever of grasping immaterial objects, such as the sciences and religious beliefs typical of human abstract understanding. Subhuman primates and other animals fail all four tests of true intellective activity. In the animal kingdom, man alone possesses true intellect.

While anyone can form an image of a man or a triangle, no one can form an actual image of humanity or triangularity. The latter terms refer not to images but to universal concepts in which we understand the nature of things. No beast, only man, possesses this intellectual property. Images are always concrete, singular, particular, sensible, and imaginable. In contrast, the universal concept (1) has no sensible qualities whatever, and (2) is entirely unimaginable. Words do not express “pictures in our heads.” For most words, which express concepts or meanings, there simply are no “proper” images. Aside from the arbitrary physical sound or spelling peculiar to a given language, what image corresponds to words, such as “injustice,” “capriciousness,” or even “word” itself? Man’s innate ability to form universal concepts is the basis for his possession of genuine language, and for the ability to translate from one language into another the same meanings that constitute our understanding of the nature of things. Man alone understands the nature of the world in which he lives.

The essential superiority of man’s intellective knowledge also reveals his spiritual nature. Image and concept manifest the radical distinction between the material and spiritual orders. Images never escape the individuating, quantifying conditions of matter, which is why they are always of this particular thing with these sensible qualities. Concepts manifest their spiritual nature because, although they express the essence of every man or triangle, they have the particular sensible qualities of none – thereby entirely escaping the conditions of matter. Origin of the Human Species, chapter six,presents a more detailed demonstration of this crucial metaphysical truth than space here permits.

Since every effect requires a proportional cause, the ability to produce spiritual universal concepts [effect] reveals that the intellect [cause] which produces them must also be spiritual in nature. So, too, the substantial form [soul] which animates the human organism must be spiritual, in order to sustain the human intellective powers that produce these spiritual concepts. Being spiritual means (1) that the human soul is immaterial, that is, not itself extended in space, and (2) that it is subsistent, that is, that it exists as a substance in its own right and is not in any way dependent on matter for its existence. Clearly, the purely material evolutionary process of Darwinism cannot account for the appearance of a spiritual soul in each and every human being. Although his reasoning is not essential to the present enquiry, St. Thomas Aquinas argues that the human soul must be directly created by God. (Summa theologiae, 1, q. 90, aa. 2-3.)

Any attempt to reconcile the current theory of human evolution with Sacred Scripture faces the objection that the patriarchal genealogies in Genesis indicate Adam lived only about 6,000 years ago (one simply adds the years between the “begots” in the “continuous” chronology), whereas evolution implies far greater antiquity. But biblical genealogies are often neither continuous nor complete. The most striking example is found in Matthew 1: 1, which reads: “Jesus Christ, the son of David, the son of Abraham.” Most scholars today agree that Scripture gives us no data for chronological computations prior to Abraham’s time.

While paleoanthropologists do not fully agree on the details of human emergence, a typical composite scenario of the current human evolutionary theory runs something like this: over millions of years, modern human beings emerged from early hominid forebears, such as the Australopithecines which first appeared some four million years ago (using conventional dating). These primates, which themselves descended from prior arboreal stock, bore designations, such as afarensis, africanus, robustus, and boisei, andwere extant until about two million years ago. Then followed the more recent genus Homo, which included specific representatives, such as habilis, erectus, sapiens (archaic), sapiens (Neanderthal), sapiens (Cro-Magnon), and sapiens (modern). Evolutionists tend to presume a gradual emergence of intelligence, consciousness, and self-reflection, so that no first truly human individual may be said to have appeared suddenly. All this appears to make problematic the account of Adam and Eve in Genesis.

But still, a gradual emergence of intellect is absurd. Either an intellective soul is present, or it is not. If present (even with diminished activity for some reason), true man is definitively there. The first fossil evidence of genuine intellective activity bespeaks the presence of what might be the first human beings. Early hominid fossil skeletal remains tell us nothing about whether intellect was present. Signs of intellective activity are preserved only in artifacts, and in evidence of the controlled use of fire. Anthropologists tell us that prior to 150,000 years ago, the evidence from fire use remains controversial. Since intellectively-produced artifacts date to well before that time, use of fire does not enable us to determine the first presence of mankind.

The production of stone tools that undoubtedly manifest deliberate intellective activity is the primary fossil evidence of true human presence. Such evidence is found in the appearance of congruent, three-dimensionally symmetrical later Acheulean stone tools (hand axes). These appear for the first time, according to current human evolutionary theory, associated with the population of Homo erectus, during the Middle Pleistocene period, about 500,000 years ago. Earlier Acheulean hand axes, showing some symmetry, date back to 1.4 million years ago. But apes in general have the shape recognition capabilities sufficient to make such tools. The later Acheulean hand axes are unique in their artistic design elements. Their makers perfected their shape on all sides, manifesting a universal understanding of a geometric ideal to be concretely realized. Such tools reveal true intellective activity, and their makers had to be true men. True men might have existed prior to this period, but if so, they failed to leave clear evidence of intellective activity. And so, assuming that the first clear evidence of such activity is shown in these later Acheulean hand axes, reason suggests that the Middle Pleistocene Homo erectus population is a good candidate for the first true man, Adam.

In1909, the Pontifical Biblical Commission offered a conservative standard against which to measure whether or not evolutionary claims can match the foundational requirements of Scripture. The Commission affirms certain facts–the initial state of grace of our first parents, their disobedience, and the promise of a Redeemer–which cannot and need not be tested against science and the fossil record. Rather, the decrees which are more problematic for evolutionary theory are (1) the unity of the human race, (2) the special creation of man, and (3) the formation of the first woman from the first man.

The “unity of the human race” raises the issue of polygenism vs. monogenism, that is, do all of mankind descend from multiple sets of first true humans, or from but a single set–Adam and Eve? The unity of the human race appears to require a monogenetic origin, such as Pius XII teaches in Humani Generis. Most evolutionists would view a population passing through a “bottleneck” of a single pair of mating humans as unlikely, but possible. Since we know God exists, overcoming such adverse odds through special circumstances could be within His providence.

God might have caused the “special creation of man” in the most literal Genesis formulation, directly from the “slime of the earth.” Or, as suggested by Cyril Vollert, He might have infused a spiritual soul directly into an adult organism, instantly transforming that primate into a true human being by altering the body’s material organization for perfect actuation by the human soul. (Cyril Vollert, Symposium on Evolution, 1959) Another possibility that Vollert suggests is that God effected the change at the point of embryonic formation. This hypothesis appears possible, since highly evolved non-human primates might nurture and protect such human children as their own. Special divine ordinance or a natural repugnance for sexual congress with non-human primates might allow such humans to begin a life separate from them.

More vexing is the need to affirm “the formation of the first woman from the first man.” Vollert points out that (1) the biblical text is open to broad interpretation, and (2) the Pontifical Biblical Commission does not force a literal reading. He describes several attempts at symbolic interpretation. Other writers, such as the theologian Peter Damian Fehlner, insist that Eve was formed from the physical body of Adam. Nothing forbids the possibility that, hidden deep in the recesses of fossil history, God may have miraculously formed Eve’s body from Adam’s rib (or “side,” as the Hebrew word sela can mean). Still, a physical scenario more closely tied to the theory of evolution might be attempted.

Vollert’s hypothesis of embryonic transformation may prove useful here. Suppose that at the precise moment of conception, the intellective soul was infused into the prepared matter, transforming it into the first human being, Adam. Although monozygotic twinning almost always results in siblings of the same sex, divine providence might then have guided an extremely rare natural process that results in boy/girl twins. This can occur when an “XXY” zygote undergoes twinning and one twin drops the extra “X” chromosome, while the other drops the extra “Y” chromosome. While this speculation is hypothetical, it defends Eve’s origin from Adam’s body, and does it in a manner materially connected to evolutionary theory. Granted, this possible scenario appears far removed from a literalist reading of Genesis. Still, it offers a reasonable way to reconcile the factual scientific evidence proposed by evolutionary theory with a legitimate reading of Scripture.

Origin of the Human Species presents the central theme outlined above in far greater detail, offering possible solutions to many difficulties not raised in this short space. In examining this and many other evolution-related topics, it confirms repeatedly the observation of G.K. Chesterton that Christianity is a myth that is true.