“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:
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):
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.
St. Abba Dorotheus, Edifying Teachings (Genesis, 251-252)
Gaza, 6th century
Byzantine 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.
St. Maximus the Confessor (Genesis, 699-700)
Constantinople, 7th century
More 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:
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.”
Fr. Seraphim’s conclusion (Genesis, 252)
Christ 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?
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.
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:
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:
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.”
“I 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.
Theodosius 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., Diogenes, American 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:
(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 convincing — it 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:
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:
(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.
“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:
quote from Teilhard de Chardin (Genesis, 590)
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:
Teilhard de Chardin (Genesis, 587)
On the other hand, the specific organizational structure that he proposes for building our great future is rather unexpected:
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:
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…
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.”
(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.”
“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?
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.)