Catholicism and evolution

I often hear people trumpeting that the Catholic Church supports science because it supports evolution. The usual rebuttal is a terrible one that points to the Church historically denying science, as if that bears any relevance whatsoever to whether or not it supports it now. Let’s stop with that line of bad argument and instead focus on what the Church currently believes – it turns out it, in fact, does not support evolution.

Evolution has no goal. It isn’t conscious. It operates on a combination of natural selection and random mutation (amongst a few other factors). This is necessarily focused on the level of the individual – or gene, if you want to go down that path, but we needn’t – and generation. An organism replicates or reproduces, passing its genes on to the next generation without regard to how well its great-great-great-great-great offspring will fare. Indeed, it isn’t even passing on its genes with regard to how will its own offspring will fare. It, of course, often does make an investment there, but its concern is in and of itself in the passing of its genes. Fundamentally, that is what matters in evolution. The genes that pass through the sieve of natural selection have done so for the sake of continuing to exist. We would be correct to think of the game as resetting in every generation.

What this means is that there is no long term goal within evolution. Genes have unconsciously seen to it that they will get themselves copied for as long as they can. If that ends with a quickly replicating bacterium or something toothy or something small and quick or something intelligent or something simply huge, then so be it. The only way in which it can be said that evolution has any sort of goal is to say that it has generational goals. These are not conscious and they do not come about with any sort of phenotypic effects in mind. That is, the goal is for genes to continue to exist; there is no goal for genes to produce any particular characteristic or trait. Evolution is truly incidental.

This matters in terms of the Catholic Church’s alleged acceptance of evolution because the Church, like most religions, believes that human are special and/or inevitable. We aren’t. As Stephen Jay Gould famously noted, if we re-ran the tape of life, we would get different results every time. The fact that we exist is incidental in the history of life. Change a few factors here or there and humans don’t exist. The same goes for every species. For instance, if an asteroid didn’t hit Earth 65 million years ago, dinosaurs would quite likely still roam the planet. The rise of the mammals probably wouldn’t have happened since we would have remained as small burrowing creatures that kept out of the way of all the big, toothy animals out there.

Human inevitability is necessary for virtually all religions, including Catholicism. If humans are only incidental, then we lose any sort of special status. That’s exactly what reality is, though. We know this for a fact. The only way to reconcile Catholicism and evolution is to say that God guided evolution towards humanity in a way which appears consistent with a natural process. For my money, that’s an unsatisfying God-of-the-Gaps explanation; in this argument, God is indistinguishable from nature.