Fr. Seraphim (Rose), “Genesis, Creation, and Early Man” (2000)

genesis“Nevertheless man being in honour abideth not: he is like the beasts that perish.”

(Continued from part 6.)

Fr. Seraphim’s last major polemical work deals with the theory of evolution. If you have been with us this long, surely you can guess what his stance was on this issue; if not, this should clear up any doubt: “Evolution would never have been thought of by men who believe in the God Whom Orthodox Christians worship.” (Genesis, 485) You are free to walk away, if you wish.

Genesis, Creation, and Early Man could have been Fr. Seraphim’s most controversial, even best-selling book, but he never truly finished it. It was published posthumously. His text is pieced together from tape recordings, outlines, letters, and notes written at different times. Although the total length is rather imposing — over 1000 pages — about half of that consists of commentary and additional arguments by Fr. Damascene, and the remainder tends to repeat the same points, since originally they were made at different times to different people.

Maybe a part of me wishes that Fr. Seraphim had never gone down this path; but then, from his point of view, my saying that only demonstrates my lack of faith. In my defense, I can only offer this excerpt from the “Basis of the Social Concept” of the Russian Orthodox Church, which was adopted by the Council of Bishops in 2000:

“In order to secure normal human life, it is necessary now as never before to restore the lost link between scientific knowledge and religious spiritual and moral values.
The need for this link also follows from the fact that a considerable number of people still believes in the omnipotence of scientific knowledge. It is partly due to this belief that some atheistically-inclined thinkers of the 18th century placed science in stark opposition to religion. At the same time, it is widely known that, in all times, including the present, many of the most outstanding scientists were and are religious people. This would not be possible if there were any fundamental contradictions between religion and science. Scientific and religious knowledge are completely different. They have different points of departure and different goals, tasks and methods. These spheres can come in contact and overlap, but they cannot oppose each other. On one hand, the theories of natural science are not ‘atheistic’ or ‘religious’, but only more or less verifiable. On the other hand, religion does not deal with matter.

M.V. Lomonosov rightly wrote that science and religion ‘cannot come into conflict…unless someone incites strife between them out of conceit or to demonstrate his learning.’ St. Philaret of Moscow expressed a similar idea: ‘Faith in Christ is not in conflict with true knowledge, because it is not in union with ignorance.’ It is improper to place religion in opposition to the so-called scientific worldview.”

Then again, technically Fr. Seraphim could have agreed with this wording — he writes, “As God is the author of both revelation and nature, there can be no conflict whatever between theology and science, as long as each is true and remains in the sphere which belongs to it by nature.” (Genesis, 502) The question, as always, is where one sees the boundaries of these spheres.

Well, let’s not mince words, let’s get to the main theses of Genesis. In brief, Fr. Seraphim accepts the validity of what is called “microevolution,” which he instead calls “variation.” However, he completely rejects “macroevolution,” or the development of large taxonomic groups from common ancestors. As you might imagine, his main argument is Scriptural, but he also tries to engage with the scientific aspect of the question (and actively encourages other Christians to do so), drawing on various books by a colorful array of evolution sceptics and creationists. As we saw before, Fr. Seraphim’s definition of “reputable scientist” is quite broad, but some of the sources quoted in Genesis are able to at least discuss the subject professionally, in particular the physicist Lee Spetner (former researcher at Johns Hopkins University), the biochemist Michael Behe (Professor, Lehigh University), and the plant geneticist John Sanford (retired Associate Professor, Cornell University). Of course, even these names still occupy a completely marginal position in the scientific community; for example, Behe has tenure and thus cannot be fired, but his department posted a public statement essentially disowning him.

I will not try to examine their scientific claims in depth; I am not an evolutionary biologist and cannot contribute to this discussion. I can note, however, that the common thread connecting these scientists (I am referring to the legitimate ones on the list) is that each of them discovered some striking local phenomenon in his own field, one for which Darwinism, in its function as a standard model that is supposed to explain everything, did not provide a wholly convincing explanation. Their religious views, or perhaps their iconoclastic personality quirks, may have led them to embrace creationism, but nonetheless the first cause (if I may use that term) of this philosophical choice was not religion, but rather some unusual scientific observation. For Sanford, for example, this was his observation that the vast majority of naturally arising mutations observed in plants result in genetic deterioration, thus making it difficult to believe that chance mutation could produce a net increase in genomic complexity.

Of course, “difficult” does not mean “impossible,” and this “proves” nothing — one can always come back and say that anything can happen if you take a sufficiently long time scale. However, first of all, at some point such a rejoinder will also begin to sound a bit faith-based, because such a time scale is inherently not observable and so the model becomes unfalsifiable, and also because this answer has an obvious arbitrary quality, it “explains” each individual fact in isolation but does not offer any precise rules for generalizing these facts or making predictions. (Why does evolution take millions of years in one case, and billions in another? Clearly, because God made it that way.) Second of all, these various objections to Darwinism do not require one to believe in creationism — that has more to do with these particular scientists’ personal religious beliefs, and should be separated from their scientific arguments (such as they are). Instead, one might conclude simply that the Darwinist model is flawed in some way, and that perhaps there is some other, as yet undiscovered, natural mechanism that accounts for these phenomena; it is not clear why Darwinism really needs to be a theory of everything.

Fr. Seraphim has an analogy that he uses multiple times over the course of Genesis (probably with intentional irony, considering the historical opposition of the Roman Catholic Church to the heliocentric model):

“[T]here was the Ptolemaic interpretation of the movement of the heavenly bodies, that the sun, planets and stars all go around the earth. The question arose: why don’t the planets correspond to the stars? Some of the ancients said it is because they are on different spheres. That is, the stars are further away and the planets are closer; therefore, the planets appear to go faster. But then why do the planets sometimes go forward, and sometimes backwards? In order to explain how they moved, the Ptolemaic astronomers had to say that they go around each other somehow in a very complex movement of cycles and epicycles as they swing around the earth. Some are going backwards, others are performing figure eights. It became so complex to follow the movements of these planets according to this Ptolemaic model that Copernicus got the idea that maybe they were all wrong — maybe the earth and the planets were going around the sun. He began making calculations on the basis of this idea, and his theory was much simpler. Finally we came to accept that theory as the true one.
Like the Ptolemaic astronomers, evolutionists who study strata containing fossils often find that they are upside down, in the wrong order, or too close together according to evolutionary ideas. They call these ‘disconformities,’ ‘paraconformities’ or ‘pseudoconformities.’ They have to make allowances for the fact that everything is in the wrong order. If you ask them how they know what is the right order, they will admit that the only reason they know the right order is that they know evolution is true.”

(Genesis, 371)

Rejecting the geocentric model does not require one to embrace creationism; there may simply be a better model. Likewise, Fr. Seraphim’s catalogue of empirically observed “exceptions” to the standard Darwinist explanation in no way supports his theology (nor does he claim that it does), but it does suggest that there is a certain amount of arbitrary overcomplication that goes on in order to make the standard model fit every observed fact. On one occasion, inconsistencies in the geological record may be explained with evidence from radiometric dating; on another, inconsistencies in radiometric dating may be explained using the geological record. The mutual dependence of these various methods, each of which is subject to inaccuracies and “exceptions,” has a circular nature.

To be sure, the scientific community has gathered much more data and proposed many new answers in the past 40 years, and some of the specific objections cited by Fr. Seraphim may no longer be relevant. Still, a simple Internet search will show that many of these same problems are still points of active discussion in the scientific literature. Thus, one of Fr. Damascene’s dissident PhDs writes, “after 150 years of sifting through soil and cataloguing millions of fossil organisms, several persistent and striking properties of the paleontological record have emerged. One is the simultaneous appearance of nearly all known phyla…known as the Cambrian Explosion, which Darwinists estimate took place 540 million years ago… Essentially no new phyla have appeared in the purported half-billion years after the Cambrian Explosion,” (832) and in fact papers are still being written about this: a recent one, appearing in Nature in 2012, was titled “Formation of the ‘Great Unconformity’ as a trigger for the Cambrian explosion,” thus illustrating an observation made in Genesis that one convenient way to remove objections to evolution is to hypothesize that they are actually proofs of it. Undoubtedly the authors of this paper, one of whom is a geologist from Fr. Seraphim’s alma mater, are much more qualified to speak on this issue than Fr. Damascene’s comrades-in-arms. However, if Nature is still publishing papers on this topic, this already means that there is still no consensus on it; furthermore, this technical paper still relies on speculative language to express its findings, like (emphasis added) “the formation of the Great Unconformity may have been an environmental trigger for the evolution of…the ‘Cambrian explosion’” and “Our results therefore offer a new hypothesis for the timing and origin of…the Cambrian explosion…” In other words, there is a speculative element to evolutionary science, i.e., “When it comes to ideas about the ultimate origins of living things on the planet, one can call them hypothetical, theoretical, probable, possible, or anything else, but that does not change the fact that they can be neither observed nor replicated.” (Genesis, 856)

Of course, whether Darwinism explains all of this or not, one certainly cannot “scientifically” go from here to creationism. That can only be done through theology, and, indeed, most of Fr. Seraphim’s writing in Genesis focuses on presenting the Biblical creation narrative together with commentary from the Holy Fathers. This material generally does not even mention evolution, and is self-contained relative to the rest of the book; one could potentially read only Part I and walk away with the impression that Genesis is an informative encyclopedic resource on Orthodox theology. In fact, as Fr. Damascene explains, this was also how Fr. Seraphim eventually saw this work — having started it with the intention to criticize Darwinism, he came to feel that the most valuable part of it was the one that did not talk about Darwinism at all. At the same time, Fr. Seraphim’s theological studies are important to the understanding of why he ever felt the need to write about evolution in the first place, why he did not simply choose to give an “allegorical” interpretation of the Bible and stay out of the scientific debate, where he surely knew that he would be in an unfavorable position.

“For God created man according to His own image, that is, immortal, master of himself, and adorned with every virtue. But when he transgressed the commandment, eating the fruit of the tree of which God had commanded him not to taste, then he was banished from Paradise, fell away from the natural condition, and fell into a condition against nature, and then he remained in sin, in love of glory, in love of the enjoyments of the age, and other passions, and he was mastered by them, for he became himself their slave through the transgression.”

St. Abba Dorotheus, Edifying Teachings (Genesis, 251-252)
Gaza, 6th century

palatinechapelByzantine mosaic showing the creation of Eve.
Palatine Chapel, Palermo, Italy.

(Southern Italy was largely populated by Greeks since at least 300 BC, and intermittently belonged to the Byzantine Empire until the 12th century. The true homeland of southern Italians is Greece and their true heritage is Orthodoxy.)

Central to the Orthodox teaching on creation is the idea that the world that came into being at the end of the Six Days was ontologically different from the world as we know it now. St. Symeon, the New Theologian, writes: “God did not, as some people think, just give Paradise to our ancestors from the beginning, nor did He make only Paradise incorruptible… Neither Eve nor Paradise were yet created, but the whole world had been brought into being by God as one thing, as a kind of paradise, at once incorruptible yet material and perceptible.” (Genesis, 703) Fr. Damascene further explains, “From St. Theophilus of Antioch we learn that animals were not venomous before the fall. Both he and other Holy Fathers taught that beasts did not evoke fear in man in the prelapsarian world, but rather submitted to him,” (705) and also, “The Fathers do not speak of any kind of carnivory existing before the fall. In the writings of St. Basil the Great, on the other hand, we find an explicit teaching that animals did not eat each other, and furthermore that they neither died nor decayed in the first-created world.” (707) In other words, death did not exist in God’s creation, and the nature of physical existence itself was fundamentally different; although man was made from “the dust of the ground,” i.e., had a material body, this matter was unlike what we know as “matter” from the world around us.

For indeed man was not deprived of the immortality that is by grace, and did not have the corruption that now whips him with its goads, but another constitution of the body manifestly befit him, a constitution held together by qualities that are simple and without strife. By reason of this constitution was the first man naked…as one not having the constitution which makes the flesh denser, mortal, and unyielding. …[T]he first man…was without need of protective covering…and not subject to either cold or heat — for which reasons especially the means of protective covering, both shelter and clothing, have been contrived for humans…

St. Maximus the Confessor (Genesis, 699-700)
Constantinople, 7th century

Expulsion from ParadiseMore Byzantine art in Italy: Cathedral of Monreale, Palermo.

The material world as we know it came into being as a result of the fall of man; in other words, the spiritual condition of man affected the physical condition of the universe. Fr. Damascene explains, “When man fell, the rest of the visible creation fell into corruption along with him: death and decay were introduced into the cosmos. Thus, not only did man fail to fulfill his original designation of raising the creation to God, but he lowered the creation from incorruption to a state of corruption.” (727) Death is literally not natural, it is an intruder in God’s creation that was not originally present in it, and does not reflect His wishes for the universe. Death does not come from God; there are various explanations for why He nonetheless allowed it to enter His creation, but more important is the fact that He also intervened, in the Person of Christ, to abolish it: “it is by means of death — Christ’s death — that the power of death is destroyed.” (748)

This is how Orthodoxy makes the connection between the creation account in the Old Testament and the redemption of humanity in the New. The world that we see is broken and corrupt, and reflects God’s design only indirectly, to a small extent. The presence of death in the world is a kind of cosmic blasphemy, an unspeakable perversion of God’s creation. Although man “created” death in a certain sense, he was unable to overcome it, succumbing to its violence and despair. As man was not strong enough to repair creation, God made the choice to do so by being born into the corrupt material world, undergoing death together with all of its suffering creatures, and through His resurrection restoring man’s original immortality in a spiritual sense. The Last Judgment will then restore it in the literal physical sense:

The resurrection promises us nothing else than the restoration of the fallen to their ancient state; for the grace we look for is a certain return to the first life, bringing back again to Paradise him who was cast out from it. If then, the life of those restored is closely related to that of the angels, it is clear that the life before the transgression was a kind of angelic life, and hence also our return to the ancient condition of life is compared to the angels.

St. Gregory of Nyssa (Genesis, 251)
Cappadocia, late 4th century

The general resurrection will restore the entire universe to its original, incorrupt state. All of creation recognizes that its current condition is unnatural and cries out to God to intervene; St. Paul writes, “For I reckon that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory which shall be revealed in us. For the earnest expectation of the creature waiteth for the manifestation of the sons of God. For the creature was made subject to vanity [Fr. Damascene argues that “vanity” is used here in the sense of “futility.” -FL], not willingly, but by reason of Him who hath subjected the same in hope, because the creature itself also shall be delivered from the bondage of corruption into the glorious liberty of the children of God. For we know that the whole creation groaneth and travaileth in pain together until now. And not only they, but ourselves also, which have the firstfruits of the Spirit, even we ourselves groan within ourselves, waiting for the adoption, to wit, the redemption of our body.

The awareness that Adam’s state in Paradise was the natural human condition, and the one to which we may hope to return by God’s grace, is one of the greatest spurs to ascetic struggle.

Fr. Seraphim’s conclusion (Genesis, 252)

torcellocathedralChrist shatters the gates of hell after His death on the cross.
Byzantine mosaic in the Church of Santa Maria Assunta, Venice, Italy.

So then, why was there any need to talk about evolution at all? One can appreciate this teaching, and read and write entire books on it, without ever feeling compelled to insert it into a discussion of modern science. In fact, at one point, Fr. Seraphim says as much, in a letter to an Orthodox proponent of evolution: “I should tell you that I do not regard this question as being of particular importance in itself… If it were really a scientific fact that one kind of creature can be transformed into another kind, I would have no difficulty believing it, snce God can do anything, and the transformations and developments we can see now in nature (an embryo becoming a man, an acorn becoming an oak tree, a caterpillar becoming a butterfly) are so astonishing that one could easily believe that one species could ‘evolve’ into another.” (427) Sure, the Bible says that the world was created in six days, but one can always come up with some “allegorical” reading of the word “day” — is this issue really so important?

If you interpret all these events in the early history of mankind as simply an allegory, a pretty story which says something else entirely, you will be deprived of a true understanding of Paradise. For example, many Roman Catholic theologians say that the idea of Paradise does not fit in with the findings of modern anthropology; therefore, we have to reinterpret everything from the conclusion that man evolved from the lower animals.
…It is very important for us to see that these are two very different conceptions. The first view is that man was created directly by God with a superhuman intelligence, with that original nature from which we fell away and to which we are called back. The other view is that man comes up from lower creatures. This second view, of course, leads to a philosophy of moral relativism, because if we were once something else, some kind of ape-like creature, then we are going to be something else — we are heading for Superman.

(Genesis, 281-282)

In other words, the real contradiction between evolutionism and Orthodox Christianity is that the two creation narratives organically lead to two completely different (and, yes, diametrically opposed) anthropologies. The Orthodox view is that the current condition of the universe — for all that some aspects of it may still hint at the beauty of God’s original design — is an ugly and unnatural aberration, into which man willfully fell away from his original higher state. Man is unable to restore creation without God’s act of sacrifice; the corruption of the universe through the fall of man thus motivates the need for Christ’s death on the cross.

On the other hand, evolutionary anthropology not only views death as something entirely normal and natural, but in fact interprets it as a constructive force; as Fr. Damascene points out, “not only is death a normal condition, but it is even responsible for the origin of all living things, including man.” (779) It is not possible for any living organism to “evolve” during its lifetime; evolution is supposed to occur through mutations that arise when new generations are formed from old ones, and so their eventual death is necessary for increasing the adaptability and complexity of species. Or, as Carl Sagan put it, “The secrets of evolution are death and time… Only through an immense number of deaths of slightly maladapted organisms are you and I — brains and all — here today.” (780) Evolutionists believe that the universe continuously perfects itself in a natural, impersonal process; Orthodoxy completely denies that the universe is perfectible at all, except by a miracle of God that, by definition, exists outside nature.

“In Orthodox Christianity, a Savior is needed to intervene in history in order to reverse the fall into death and corruption. In evolutionism, by contrast, since death and corruption were part of the original, ‘normal’ condition of the world — having been present for millions of years before human sin and having comprised one of the key mechanisms that brought man into existence — there is no place for a sin-induced ‘fall’ into death and corruption that would need reversing. Thus it is that evolutionism, which was first devised as a way to explain the origin of living things without recourse to a Divine agency, is seen to deny not only the need for a Creator, but also the need for a Savior.”

Fr. Damascene’s summary (Genesis, 783-784)

By far the most ineffectual approach to this problem is to try to put Biblical terminology on top of evolution (so-called “theistic” or “Christian evolution”). As Fr. Seraphim says, “there is no particular help to be derived from adding God to the idea of evolution.” (549) Inserting God into the evolutionary process certainly does not solve any scientific problem, and it does not “fix” the philosophical conception of man’s past and future that follows, since there is still no room in it for a fall from grace or for an original state of perfection (or for a Savior to come and restore that state). A “religious” narrative in which God is present to initiate the universe’s continuous path to endless progress would amount to just another heresy. In fact, “Christian evolution” fits fairly well into the long procession of medieval heresies; according to Fr. Seraphim, it “comes closest of all to being the opposite of the ancient heresy of the preexistence of souls. The ‘preexistence of souls’ idea is that there is one kind of soul nature which runs throughout creation, while evolution is the idea [that] there is one kind of material being which runs throughout creation.” (556)

Obviously, one is free to disagree or to reject the Orthodox philosophy altogether, but in this presentation it is a self-contained, internally consistent and philosophically rigorous system, whose objections to evolution are based on much more than the insistence that the Bible should be taken “literally.” But, unfortunately, the scientific dimension of this question does not leave much room for choice on philosophical grounds — scientific facts are there and cannot be ignored regardless of which worldview you think is better. So where does that leave Fr. Seraphim’s readers? For the Christians among them, do they have no choice but to embrace “creation science,” and all of its representatives, the legitimate scientists as well as the cranky fundamentalists? For the non-Christians or the religiously indifferent, do they have no choice but to turn their backs on all of Christianity, to the delight of atheist philosophers?

Perhaps this thought by Fr. Seraphim may be useful:

“I began to see that very often what calls itself ‘science’ is not fact at all, but philosophy, and I began very carefully to distinguish between scientific facts and scientific philosophy. After many years I came to the following [conclusion]…Evolution is not ‘scientific fact’ at all, but philosophy.”

(Genesis, 421)

This is a deep statement. I strongly believe that you should make an effort to understand it even if ultimately you decide not to wade through the vast length and eccentric composition of Genesis. On the surface, it has a similarity to the tired phrase, “evolution is just a theory,” which is often parroted by creationists, and which expresses an anti-intellectual willful ignorance of how science works; creationists who say this are essentially accepting the notion that science unequivocally supports evolution, they just write it off as unimportant because, presumably, their own down-home common sense is superior to anything that a bunch of poindexters could have come up with. Unlike this phrase, however, the statement that “evolution is philosophy” — especially when made, lest we forget, by a professionally trained philosopher — ascribes great significance and meaning to the concept of evolution.

In the preface, Fr. Damascene describes the so-called “Darwin Centennial,” an event commemorating the hundred-year anniversary of Darwin’s The Origin of Species that was held in 1959 at the University of Chicago. The convocation address was delivered by Julian Huxley, an evolutionary biologist and, concurrently, grandson of Thomas Henry Huxley, who was one of Darwin’s closest associates and supporters in the 19th century. (This by itself is already quite strange — evidently, there is a hereditary aristocracy of evolutionism. Must be natural selection at work.) The quotes from Huxley cited by Fr. Damascene are copied over from a creationist polemic, but it is easy to find the official conference proceedings (Evolution After Darwin: The University of Chicago Centennial, vol. III: Issues in Evolution, Sol Tax and Charles Callender, eds.) and verify that Huxley did, indeed, say the following:

“This is one of the first public occasions on which it has been frankly faced that all aspects of reality are subject to evolution, from atoms and stars to fish and flowers, from fish and flowers to human societies and values — indeed, that all reality is a single process of evolution. In 1859, Darwin opened the passage leading to a new psychosocial level, with a new pattern of ideological organization — an evolution-centered organization of thought and belief… Finally, the evolutionary vision is enabling us to discern, however incompletely, the lineaments of the new religion that we can be sure will arise to serve the needs of the coming era. [Emphasis added. -FL]”

(Genesis, 23)

And here I had worked out a whole roundabout way of going about it. I was planning to write a lengthy reflection leading up to an indirect suggestion that, perhaps, some evolutionist thinkers might have seen a certain not-entirely-rational meaning in Darwinism. Having made this radical, provocative insinuation, I was then going to backpedal away from it to some extent, leaving only a hint of unsatisfied ambiguity in the reader’s mind. But Julian Huxley made it easy for me, he just laid it all out in plain English: evolution has ideological and religious meaning. Moreover, from his point of view, this meaning is in fact the highest purpose of the theory of evolution — the only role of science is to give rise to “a new pattern of ideological organization.” By the way, Julian Huxley invented the term “transhumanism.”

julianhuxleyI decide who is human around here!”

Hopefully scientists will agree that there is nothing scientific about the statement that “all reality is a single process of evolution” — what does that even mean? What is “all reality,” and why couldn’t things existing in reality evolve independently, through countless decentralized “processes,” instead? Clearly, Huxley is not giving this speech in the capacity of scientist (whatever his formal credentials may have been), and these remarks have no bearing on the scientific validity of evolution. But that makes his address even stranger — it appears that he is here as an overseer, a kind of functionary appointed to convey a certain plan to the scientific community and make sure that everyone understands what they are expected to do.

But then, maybe this is just a marginal oddity, and Huxley just got overexcited about having been asked to speak at an event commemorating the anniversary of a great undertaking in which his grandfather had been personally involved. In any case, one might argue that he was not such a great research authority after all, since, for example, his academic career was rather short and he held mostly administrative and government positions.

dobzhanskyTheodosius Dobzhansky, 1900-1975.

Theodosius Dobzhansky, on the other hand, was indisputably a real scientist, a full professor at both Caltech and Columbia, as well as a fellow of the Rockefeller Institute. He wrote hundreds of papers, many of them about fruit flies, whose short lifespans (less than a month) make it possible to observe mutations — or to induce them artificially, through radiation — over the course of a few years or decades. The central idea of Dobzhansky’s research was to establish genetics as the main explanatory mechanism of evolution. The layman’s idea of evolution as “passing on good genes” was shaped in large part by Dobzhansky, who proposed precise models of how natural selection can occur by outcrossing genetically distinct populations, and how new species can be created through geographical separation from ancestor species. Dobzhansky’s experiments showed how “reproductive isolation,” or one group of fruit flies becoming unable to mate with another after sufficiently many generations, could at least “partially” (according to the title of one of his papers) be achieved in the laboratory. The inability to interbreed is seen as a key indicator of evolutionary divergence, also in large part due to Dobzhansky’s efforts; as early as 1935, he wrote, “species may be separated from each other on the basis of the presence or absence of physiological hindrances to interbreeding.

Dobzhansky did not shut himself up in his lab. He was also very active as a philosophical writer, authoring papers not only in Nature, Science, and other prestigious scientific journals like Genetics, but also in, e.g., DiogenesAmerican Anthropologist, Social Education, Science Teacher, and even the Protestant magazine Christian Century; that 1935 quote on the separation of species comes from a paper in the journal Philosophy of Science. He coedited and contributed to a volume called Studies in the Philosophy of Biology, in which one of the chapters was written by Karl Popper. Dobzhansky’s philosophical papers have titles like, “Chance and creativity in evolution,” “Evolution and man’s conception of himself,” “The unexpected universe,” “On genetics and politics,” “Evolution: implications for religion,” and so on. In 1973, he published an article in The American Biology Teacher called “Nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution,” which can be viewed as a succinct ideological manifesto, and which indeed was viewed in exactly that way, becoming his second most highly-cited work (after his seminal textbook on genetics).

This article is quite remarkable, because it represents a conscious decision by a renowned scientist to step outside the scientific community, in which he is so well-established, and to use the languages of philosophy and even theology, rather than the language of scientific research, to make his argument. Dobzhansky should not be caricatured as some kind of militant atheist — he writes, “It is wrong to hold creation and evolution as mutually exclusive alternatives. I am a creationist and an evolutionist. Evolution is God’s, or Nature’s, method of Creation.” This spiritual outlook is accompanied by numerous scientific references, the overall approach going something like this:

“The foot-and-mouth disease virus is a sphere 8-12 [micrometers] in diameter. The blue whale reaches 30 [meters] in length and 135 [tons] in weight… Perhaps the narrowest ecological niche of all is that of a species in the fungus family Laboulbeniaceae, which grows exclusively on the rear portion of the elytra of the beetle Aphenops cronei, which is found only in some limestone caves in the south of France. Larvae of the fly Psilopa petrolei develop in seepages of crude oil in California oilfields; as far as is known they occur nowhere else… Larvae of the fly Drosophila carcinophila develop only in the nephric grooves beneath the flaps of the third maxilliped of the land crab Geocarcinus ruricola, which is restricted to certain islands in the Caribbean.
Is there an explanation, to make intelligible to reason this colossal diversity of living beings? …The only explanation that makes sense is that the organic diversity has evolved in response to the diversity of environment on the planet earth… The evolutionary process tends to fill up the available ecological niches. It does not do so consciously or deliberately; the relations between evolution and the environment are more subtle and more interesting than that. The environment does not impose evolutionary changes on its inhabitants…the environment presents challenges to living species, to which the latter may respond by adaptive genetic changes.
…The evidence of fossils shows clearly that the eventual end of most evolutionary lines is extinction. Organisms now living are successful descendants of only a minority of the species that lived in the past… All this is understandable in the light of evolution theory; but what a senseless operation it would have been, on God’s part, to fabricate a multitude of species ex nihilo and then let most of them die out!

(from “Nothing in biology”)

The first impression made by this text is one of immense erudition, demonstrated with the kind of gently condescending irony that can only be born of wisdom. However, upon repeated reading, it begins to reveal a surprisingly haphazard quality. First, Dobzhansky’s catalogue of scientific names in the beginning actually has no relevance to what follows. It illustrates the diversity of life on earth, but it does not, in and of itself, prove the subsequent conclusions; it does not even prove the completely uncontroversial statement that, “The environment does not impose the evolutionary changes on its inhabitants.” In fact this is a good illustration of Fr. Seraphim’s statement that, “If you believe that God created all the creatures, these diagrams convince you that, yes, God created them according to a plan. If you believe that one creature evolved into the other, you look at the same diagrams and say, yes, one evolved into the other… In actual fact, people accept evolution on some other basis and then look at such diagrams, and the diagrams convince them even more.” (Genesis, 520)

The “other basis” presented by Dobzhansky in this essay consists of two elements. The first is aesthetic taste, evidenced in the belief that a “conscious or deliberate” evolutionary process would not be “subtle” or “interesting,” as if these two qualities were measures of scientific validity. The second is theological in nature — he asks, “what is the sense of having as many as 2 or 3 million species living on earth?” and answers, “The organic diversity becomes, however, reasonable and understandable if the Creator has created the living world not by caprice but by evolution propelled by natural selection.” Note here that it is Dobzhansky himself who has decided to bring “the Creator” into the conversation. It is not that I am trying to question his scientific proof for evolution; it is rather that Dobzhansky has not even tried to build his argument around such proof. He had every opportunity to say, “Evolution is a fact because I, Theodosius G. Dobzhansky, have personally watched new species evolve in my lab, and so there is no need for any further discussion.” He could have said this, but he did not, because he also found it more convincingit was more important to him — to defend evolution in philosophical and theological terms.

In 1942, Dobzhansky wrote a critical review of a book about Darwin written by a French cultural historian. This review contained the line, “It is to be regretted that Professor Barzun did not confine himself solely to historical criticism and could not resist the temptation to judge biological theories on their scientific merits.” And yet, in “Nothing in biology,” written 30 years later, rather than take his own advice and “confine himself” to biology, here he is searching for philosophical arguments to support “biological theories.” These arguments turn out to be amazingly self-defeating. Let’s be rationalists for a minute, and let’s agree that it would have been a “senseless operation” for God to “fabricate a multitude of species ex nihilo and then let most of them die out.” But why would it then make sense for God to create an immensely complex and “subtle” evolutionary mechanism and then likewise let most species die out? What would be the sense in that? If God truly exists, then why is “evolution propelled by natural selection” in any way less of a “caprice” than any possible alternative? Dobzhansky writes, “species are produced not because they are needed for some purpose but simply because there is an environmental opportunity and genetic wherewithal to make them possible.” Very well, but what was the purpose of God creating a universe in which this process arises? Why choose to do it in this particular way? One could easily repeat Dobzhansky’s ironic question: “Was the Creator in a jocular mood?”

Again, nobody said that there needs to be a purpose. In fact, a true scientific atheist would have instantly objected to all of this and sternly reminded his wayward colleague that there is no scientific evidence that “the Creator” ever existed. It is specifically Dobzhansky who seems to require a purpose, despite his denials. His main point is not only that evolution is true, but that it “makes sense” not only as a way of explaining nature, but also on some higher metaphysical level — otherwise there would have been no need to bring “the Creator” into it. And yet, strangely, he is completely unable to articulate what this philosophical meaning is.

There is, however, one point that he does articulate very clearly:

“‘Is evolution a theory, a system, or a hypothesis? It is much more — it is a general postulate to which all theories, all hypotheses, all systems must henceforward bow and which they must satisfy in order to be thinkable and true. Evolution is a light which illuminates all facts, a trajectory which all lines of thought must follow — this is what evolution is.'”

final paragraph of “Nothing in biology”

I should say that Dobzhansky is quoting this statement, he is not the author of it (we will come back to that soon). However, he cites it approvingly, so it can be taken to reflect his own views to some extent. Anyway, in this quote, evolution is openly positioned as a totalitarian ideology — I don’t think that is an exaggeration at all, the author is deliberately using the language of submission and domination, and he has also explicitly clarified that “evolution” must permeate “all lines of thought” (all heretical systems are not only not “true,” they are not “thinkable“), not only the ones related to natural science. This, by itself, suggests that the theory of evolution is in some important way distinct from all other scientific theories, because, for example, mathematicians and particle physicists generally do not use this kind of language to describe their fields, even though they arguably deal with objective truth just as much, if not more than, evolutionary biology. It also makes it even stranger that, even after saying this, Dobzhansky was still not able to tell us what the philosophical meaning of evolution was.

By the way, maybe Dobzhansky’s science in this essay is not unimpeachable either. He writes:

“Embryos of apparently quite diverse animals often exhibit striking similarities. A century ago these similarities led some biologists (notably the German zoologist Ernst Haeckel) to be carried by their enthusiasm so far as to interpret the embryonic similarities as meaning that the embryo repeats in its development the evolutionary history of its species: it was said to pass through stages in which it resembles its remote ancestors. In other words, early-day biologists supposed that by studying embryonic development, one can, as it were, read off the stages through which the evolutionary development had passed. This so-called biogenetic law is no longer credited in its original form. And yet embryonic similarities are undeniably impressive and significant.
…The presence of gill slits in human embryos and in embryos of other terrestrial vertebrates is another famous example. Of course, at no stage of its development is a human embryo a fish, nor does it ever have functioning gills. But why should it have unmistakable gill slits unless its remote ancestors did respire with the aid of gills? Is the Creator again playing practical jokes?

(from “Nothing in biology”)

Here we can observe some truly dazzling rhetorical sleight of hand. Dobzhansky describes an old theory and mentions in passing at the end of the paragraph that the theory has been discredited; yet, by the very next sentence, the very failure of this theory has somehow become a supporting argument for its conclusion. Dobzhansky’s innocuous description of “early-day biologists” who were frolicking in the fields, “carried by their enthusiasm,” is also quite troubling, as there is reason to believe that Haeckel’s theory involved deliberate fraud. Genesis mentions this several times with supporting quotes from avowed evolutionists — none other than Stephen Jay Gould says that “Haeckel had exaggerated the similarities…by idealizations and omissions. He also, in some cases — in a procedure that can only be called fraudulent — simply copied the same figure over and over again.” (521)

The next paragraph is not much better. We learn that a human embryo does not “ever have functioning gills,” and to that one might also add that the “gill slits” in question have no respiratory function, are located in a different part of the body than gills would be, and are actually called “pharyngeal pouches” and “pharyngeal clefts” by embryologists. (In fact, the term “gill slits” will only yield evolution-related search results, many of them polemical rather than scientific — but embryological resources use a completely different vocabulary, in which there is no mention of “gills” or “slits” or anything related, to describe the same phenomenon.) Anyway, our philosopher has just openly said that there is no direct, observable scientific evidence that “gill slits” are related to gills, and in the very next sentence has called them “unmistakable” without ever explaining why.

After all this, Fr. Seraphim’s characterization of evolution as philosophy starts to feel rather different. Evidently there is some sort of philosophy related to evolution, but Dobzhansky’s manifesto does not reveal too much about it. For that, we have to go to the source of his “all systems must henceforward bow” quote: Pierre Teilhard de Chardin.

teilharddechardin“Who are you then?”
“I am part of that power which eternally wills evil and eternally works good.”

One day, when we become able to look at the 19th century more objectively, we will see in its intellectual culture an explosion of terrifying, irrational lunacy that was vastly more imaginative (and, unfortunately, destructive) than anything that our anemic postmodernists can squeeze out of themselves. Teilhard de Chardin (1881-1955) was one of the many wild shamans at the tail end of this era. It is practically impossible to describe what he was about, so let’s let him speak for himself:

“The great affair for modern mankind is to break its way out by forcing some threshold of greater consciousness… The great event which we are awaiting [is] the discovery of a synthetic act of adoration in which are allied and mutually exalted the passionate desire to conquer the World, and the passionate desire to unite ourselves with God; the vital act, specifically new, corresponding to a new age of Earth.”

quote from Teilhard de Chardin (Genesis, 590)

“The only true natural and real human Unity is the Spirit of the Earth… A conquering passion begins to show itself, which will sweep away or transform what has hitherto been the immaturity of the Earth… The call towards the great Union [i.e., the universal unity of mankind] whose realization is the only business now afoot in Nature… — On this hypothesis, under which (in conformity with the findings of psychoanalysis) Love is the primitive and universal psychic energy, does not everything around us become clear?… The Sense of Earth is the irresistible pressure which will come at the right moment to unite them [all humanity] in a common passion…”

of course psychoanalysis had to be there too (Genesis, 592)

All of this is completely empty of content; essentially it is a sequence of shamanistic howls strung together. Actually, a lot of what he says will seem vaguely familiar to the contemporary reader; strictly speaking, you may not have heard the word “noosphere,” but when Fr. Seraphim explains, “Teilhard also speaks of ‘spheres’: the ‘biosphere,’ the sphere of life; and the ‘noosphere,’ the sphere of thought. He says the whole of the globe now is being penetrated by a web of thought which he calls the ‘noosphere,'” (581) it sounds entirely recognizable as something that some counterculture guru or other (maybe Alan Watts) probably said at some point. Teilhard also says things like, “Having reached a higher degree of self-mastery, the Spirit of Earth will experience an increasing need to adore,” (592) which might be good copy for the magazine rack at your local organic foods store, if they haven’t run it already.

Catch up on the latest spiritual fashions with our columnist, Teilhard de Chardin!
(Good news, ladies: he’s single!)

Despite the obvious comedy of this, and in sharp contrast with the emptiness of his mystical pronouncements, Teilhard actually has a very precise political program for fixing everything that is wrong with the world. Our longtime readers can surely guess what it is:

“A general convergence of religions upon a universal Christ which fundamentally satisfies them all: this seems to me the only possible conversion of the world, and the only form in which a religion of the future can be conceived.

Teilhard de Chardin (Genesis, 587)

On the other hand, the specific organizational structure that he proposes for building our great future is rather unexpected:

“Like recent popes, Teilhard does not wish to ‘convert’ the world, but only to offer the papacy as a kind of mystical center of man’s religious quest, a super-denominational Delphic Oracle. As one of his admirers summarizes his view: ‘If Christianity…is indeed to be the religion of tomorrow, there is only one way in which it can hope to come up to the measure of today’s great humanitarian trends and assimilate them; and that is through the axis, living and organic, of its Catholicism centered on Rome.’
…Teilhard himself wrote, ‘Everything goes to show that if Christianity is in truth destined to be, as it professes and as it is conscious of being, the religion of tomorrow, it is only through the living, organic axis of its Roman Catholicism that it can hope to measure up to the great modern humanist currents and become one with them.'”

(Genesis, 587-588)

This is one very bizarre aspect of Teilhard de Chardin that distinguishes him from Alan Watts and countless other gurus and cult leaders. You see, Teilhard was not only a formal member of the Roman Catholic Church, he was a Jesuit priest and remained one until the end of his life. His ideas were controversial at the time, and many Roman Catholic hierarchs openly disagreed with and disapproved of him. However, in later years, the official Roman Catholic position softened, until even Pope Benedict XVI (who, if memory serves, was supposed to be the “reactionary” one) wrote in 2000, “Teilhard de Chardin depicted the cosmos as a process of ascent, a series of unions…leading to the ‘Noosphere’ in which spirit and its understanding embrace the whole and are blended into a kind of living organism. …Teilhard looks on Christ as the energy that strives toward the Noosphere and finally incorporates everything in its ‘fullness.’ From here Teilhard went on to give a new meaning to Christian worship: the transubstantiated Host is the anticipation of the transformation and divinization of matter in the christological ‘fullness.’

When seen only as woo-woo, Teilhard’s philosophy is laughable. When seen as Roman Catholic theology, however, it is frightening. His ideas of the “noosphere,” the “Spirit of the Earth” et cetera are derived, not from scholastic analysis and comparative study of previous Roman Catholic teachings, but, of course, from personal experience, which, ever in love with the sound of his own voice, he lengthily described as follows:

“Evidently dramatizing a ‘mystical’ experience through which he had recently passed, Teilhard writes of a man ‘walking in the desert, followed by his companion, when the Thing swooped down on him… The man fell prostrate to the ground; and hiding his face in his hands he waited… Then, suddenly, a breath of scorching air passed across his forehead, broke through the barrier of his closed eyelids, and penetrated his soul. The man felt he was ceasing to be merely himself; an irresistible rapture took possession of him… And at the same time the anguish of some superhuman peril oppressed him, a confused feeling that the force which had swept down upon him was equivocal, turbid, the combined essence of all evil and all goodness.’ The Thing spoke to him: ‘You called me, here I am… You had need of me in order to grow; and I was waiting for you in order to be made holy. Always you have, without knowing it, desired me; and always I have been drawing you to me. You can never go back, never return to commonplace gratification or untroubled worship. He who has once seen me can never forget me: he must either damn himself with me or save me with himself. Are you coming?’ The man then asked the Thing, ‘O you who are divine and mighty, what is your name?’ The Thing replied, ‘I am the fire that consumes and the water that overthrows…power, experiment, progress — matter: all this am I.’ Teilhard ends this account with the man falling to his knees and raising up a ‘Hymn to Matter,’ in which he proclaims, ‘Blessed be you, mighty matter, irresistible march of evolution, reality ever new-born; you who, by constantly shattering our mental categories, force us to go ever further and further in our pursuit of the truth.’

(Genesis, 579)

Dear Roman Catholic readers, if there are any here! Granted, I am not one of you, and I am certainly not up to date on your theology. But tell me, does this occult vision — full of “anguish,” “evil,” “force,” and ending in worship of nameless “power” and “evolution” — sound Christian to you? Is this really what you first came to church for, is this really what it means to you? Surely one does not have to be an Orthodox monk to see Teilhard’s purported experience as obviously satanic, an encounter with a domineering entity that glories in its own power, and demands submission, but refuses to even state its name. So when you go to Mass (that is what you do, right?), do you do so intending to pray to “mighty matter,” or still to God? And do you believe that your faith has an obligation to “hope to measure up to the great modern humanist currents“? Your centuries of elaborate rituals and scholarly history — were they all for that?

Well, surely not — and, to be fair, Theodosius Dobzhansky considered himself to be Orthodox to some extent, and even received an honorary degree from St. Vladimir’s Orthodox Theological Seminary (OCA) in 1972…

“We know the Jesuits, people speak ill of them, but surely they are not what you describe? …They are simply Rome’s army for the future unified earthly kingdom, with an Emperor — the Pontiff of Rome in the lead, but without any mystery or lofty sadness… The simplest lust for power, for filthy earthly desires, for slavery…a kind of future feudalism, except with themselves as masters…that’s all there is to them. They don’t even believe in God, perhaps.”

Alyosha Karamazov

But we seem to have been distracted; we were talking about evolution. Well, as you may have gathered, Teilhard de Chardin penned those lines about bowing down to evolution. He also wrote, “The modern world is a world in evolution; hence, the static concepts of the spiritual life must be rethought and the classical teachings of Christ must be reinterpreted,” (Genesis, 584) as well as “Man discovers that he is nothing else than evolution become conscious of itself” (593) and countless other reiterations of this idea. But then, you may say that this is all so outlandish as to be irrelevant to the discussion of evolutionary science. So Dobzhansky, in his sixties, became enamored of this strange individual, even writing papers for a journal literally titled The Teilhard Review — but so what? That says nothing about his other scientific papers, and in general most members of the scientific community have never heard of Teilhard de Chardin, have never read his books, and would probably not be able to finish them if they tried (who can blame them?).

But there is one more fascinating thing to learn about Teilhard de Chardin. You see, not only was this brilliant, multi-faceted man a philosopher and theologian, he was also…a scientist. An accomplished paleontologist, in fact, who was present during many of the most important evolution-related scientific discoveries of his time — so many that he wrote, with his typical modesty, “I had the good fortune, unusual in a scientific career, of happening to be on the spot when…cardinal finds in the history of fossil men had come to light!” (Genesis, 578) Yes, most “unusual.”

piltdown

(Multiple times in Genesis, Fr. Seraphim makes the observation that evolutionary evidence is often accompanied by purely imaginative constructs. Even if the skull were genuine, the sculpture would still have been a product of fantasy — a good artist could make it look more or less “human” as desired.)

This story is simple — as described in a 2016 article in Science, “The big-brained, ape-jawed Piltdown Man was hailed as a major missing link in human evolution when he was discovered in a gravel pit outside a small U.K. village in 1912. The find set the pace for evolutionary research for decades… The only problem? Piltdown Man turned out to be one of the most famous frauds in scientific history — a human cranium paired with an orangutan’s jaw and teeth.” Or, as Fr. Seraphim put it, “When I studied zoology in college in the 1950s, one of the proofs of the evolution of man was the ‘Piltdown Man.’ From the 1890s onwards there had been a concerted search to find the missing link, which was expected to be half ape and half man. So in 1911 a very clever man named Charles Dawson took a human skull, combined it with the jawbone of an ape, and filed down the ape teeth. A year later Teilhard de Chardin discovered the missing canine tooth,” to which Fr. Damascene adds wrily, “More than five hundred doctoral dissertations were written on Piltdown Man.” (Genesis, 384) Of course, the fact of a hoax more than 100 years ago does nothing to diminish the scientific validity of evolutionary biology, but it is quite peculiar that our Jesuit mystic just happened to be in the neighborhood. The Science article names Dawson as the sole perpetrator of the hoax, but Stephen Jay Gould actually went much further and wrote an investigative report (“The Piltdown Conspiracy”) with extensive factual argumentation that, in his wording, “seems hard to reconcile with [Teilhard’s] innocence.”

alaspooryorick“Alas, poor Yorick! I knew him, Horatio,
a fellow of infinite jest, of most excellent fancy.”

You will laugh, but Teilhard de Chardin was also present in 1929 at the discovery of “Peking Man” in China. Someone even wrote an entire book about this (The Jesuit and the Skull, 2007), a shameless panegyric to its hero — for example, “Teilhard had become a true rebel,” or “Teilhard…believed that knowledge and science belonged to humanity and were to be shared by all,” or “Teilhard had an unusually kind nature” and on and on it goes — that describes how he was one of the first people to examine the find. Of course, it should be clearly understood that the authenticity of “Peking Man,” unlike “Piltdown Man,” has never been questioned…but, it so happens that the “Peking Man” fossils disappeared in 1941. The author of The Jesuit and the Skull cites one account from someone who “was supposed to return to the United States on a ship…when his friend and neighbor Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, afraid of the advance of Japanese troops, asked him to shelter in his house the cases containing the famous fossils,” but who claimed to have been unable to carry out this request. The author concludes, “To date, nothing substantial has surfaced.”

I ask you: at what point is believability allowed to come into the picture? Most famous scientists make their reputation on a single major result, which is then supported by a lifetime of high-quality but relatively routine work. Even a real, professional paleontologist would be unlikely to make two revolutionary discoveries, in two completely different parts of the world, both in pristine condition (Teilhard described “Peking Man” as being “as typical a link between man and the apes as one could wish for“), in a field where fully intact evidence is extremely rare. But if the paleontologist in question was also a mystical “visionary” who conversed with supernatural beings and rewrote all of Roman Catholicism in his spare time, and then if one of his discoveries turned out to be a spectacular fraud and the other disappeared — at what point can we stop and get off this train of madness?

“This longing is very deep in modern man — this is what he wants. All modern philosophical…systems have as their end the idea that God is thrown out, Christianity is thrown out, and the world is Divine. The world is somehow the body of God, and man wants to be a god. Now man has lost God; God is dead; the Superman wants to be born. Teilhard expresses modern man’s desire… He tries to unite the spiritual side with a scientific side, and with a New Order which will be political. He is a prophet of antichrist.”

Fr. Seraphim’s conclusion (Genesis, 594-595)

The strange case of Teilhard de Chardin does not invalidate all of evolutionary biology. But it does reveal that, somewhere at the very origins of this field, there was a grotesque, irrational element. This element predates the scientific side, from the beginning had a formative influence on it, and took a leading, active role in promoting and disseminating it. With time, as the field developed, this link gradually faded from public view and gave up much of its prominent position, and yet it still surfaces in the most unlikely places; one of the leading geneticists of the 20th century was so attracted by it as to put it at the center of his philosophical credo.

I can now state my conclusion: there are two “evolutions” and they mean completely different things. One of them pertains to the natural sciences; whether it is a “fact,” or a convenient model to explain various facts, is a matter of scientific discussion and largely beyond the competence of the general public. This “evolution” may have strengths and weaknesses, and may be supported or challenged by certain empirical observations, which may or may not ultimately lead to changes or improvements in the model. It will likewise continue to challenge theologians for the reasons that Fr. Seraphim explained, but at the same time it is also unlikely to have much practical effect on the individual religious experience of a Christian churchgoer, precisely because of its detached, rational character.

The other “evolution” is a religion. It is an ecstatic but dark religion, full of wildly irrational fantasies, that deliberately obscures its aim — Teilhard writes, “We cannot yet understand exactly where [evolution] will lead us, but it would be absurd for us to doubt that it will lead us towards some end of supreme value” (Genesis, 593) — and that sees itself as a universal ideology demanding obedience from “all lines of thought.”

The question now becomes: when you hear someone talk about “evolution,” which of these are they really talking about? Everyone (who is not a rogue Jesuit mystic) says, and believes, that they think of “evolution” in the first, scientific sense — but, in the way that they understand this science and explain it to themselves, especially if they are not biologists, is there not also something of the second meaning? And could it be that our elites actually view evolution in the second sense — that Teilhard’s job was only to articulate the consensus that they had already reached, and now, even when they talk about “science,” they only see the latter as a vessel that will help bring about their hoped-for new religion?

(Continuation: part 8.)

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