Newman and Darwin

In an ebook Another Look at John Henry Cardinal Newman, Richard Sartino discusses Newman’s view of Darwin:

Darwin’s theory did not shock Newman; he told a correspondent he was willing “to go the whole hog with Darwin.”

It is important to understand Newman’s frame of mind concerning the false theories of evolution in order to understand his notions of development. Darwin’s book, Origin of Species, appeared in 1859, a time when educated men and society in general scoffed at the idea of human evolution, leaving such notions to the few mad scientific theorists, but Newman’s empirical mind and distrust of rational philosophy disposed him to accept whole-heartedly the notions of evolution. He had been contemplating the evolution, not of man, but of religion, long before the appearance of Darwin’s book; his first sermon on the development of Christianity was preached in 1843 while he was still an Anglican and within two years the Development of Christian Doctrine was published, with Newman entering the Church at the same time.

He goes on to compare Newman’s theory with the theory of evolution:

Newman was a pioneer of this new doctrine which shocked both Anglicans and Catholics alike. Theologians until then had never considered his ideas of development, although many before him justly contemplated the mystical and supernatural increase of the treasures of the Church. The difference between Newman and earlier theologians in this matter is that Newman considered only the material aspect of the Church’s growth, not going beyond the temporal history of Her life on earth. Earlier theologians, on the other hand, had considered the formal aspect of the Church, a viewpoint which is vital to the believer who is obliged to view things with a supernatural eye.

Newman saw the Church in the light of history, whereas Catholics see history in the light of the Church. Immersed in an academia of the staunchest historicists whose scepticism imbued the thinkers of that time, Newman followed their lead and often kept up a correspondence with the worst of them, as Dollinger and Acton. Their position confined the Church to Her history, and Her history to their sceptical and critical minds. For these men the work of the Catholic mind is not to meditate upon and adore Christ in the eternal truths of the Church but to subject these truths to historical analysis. What is important for them is not the Incarnation but the development of the idea of the Incarnation. All this, of course, is nothing but that age-old pride whereby the mind of man becomes the measure of religion.

With this in mind we can understand why Newman accepted so easily the errors of Darwin, for there was nothing incompatible between the evolution of man and the evolution of religion and doctrine. On the contrary, both complement one another to form a harmonious view of the whole of creation. In fact, just as all errors begin in the highest part of the soul before they exercise their universal influence on the subordinate faculties and sciences, thus does the evolution of eternal doctrine precede the less radical errors about the evolution of man and social institutions. It is understandable, and appropriate, therefore that Newman’s novel thesis should have preceded Origin of Species by sixteen years. As long as the mind of man is firmly rooted in the immutable and eternal truths of the Faith the occasion will never arise to fall into any kind of evolutionary errors.

Several authors bear testimony of Newman’s evolutionary ideas. A certain Mark Pattison who knew Newman said he saw the whole development of human reason from Aristotle to Hegel as a closed book, and in Studies in Modernism Alfred Fawkes also believes that the essay on Development “is a striking anticipation of the Evolution philosophy; the application of this to theology marked a turning-point in religious thought.”

And another author, Percy Gardner in Modernism in the English Church, asserts that “it shows the greatness of Newman, that before Darwin had set forth his theory of evolution, a foretaste of it appears in Newman’s Development of Christian Doctrine.” So serious were Newman’s aberrations that one of the greatest living Roman theologians at that time, Fr. Franzelin, S.J., wrote an entire treatise, De Divina Scriptura et Traditione, in order to combat what he considered Newman’s departure from the Faith.

He then discusses Newman’s theory directly:

The full force and implication of Newman’s thinking are found in his doctrine known as Development of Christian Doctrine. Characteristic of his personal qualities and life, this specific teaching of Newman contains his ambiguity and ambivalence, in toto, so much so that it allures the most opposed camps of thinkers. Its appeal is universal; to liberals and orthodox, to Protestants and Catholics, to believers as well as infidels. Men of every persuasion find their opinions voiced in this doctrine, for it is as pliable and flexible as Newman’s supposedly transcendent and personal logic.

The essence of Newman’s position consists in reconciling two contradictory propositions: first, that Christianity is unchanging, and second, that Christianity is changing. Apparent contradictions can always be reconciled by a legitimate rational distinction, but Newman does not attempt to do this. His Doctrine of Development does not assert that Christianity is unchanging in one respect, and changing in another, and then delineate the consequent differences and properties from the various distinctions. On the contrary, Newman’s position admits simultaneously and in the same respect that Christianity is changing and unchanging. To accomplish such a formidable task is not really very difficult, at least for a mind enamoured with concrete living experience.

Of course, Newman says no such thing. Rather, he asserts that there have been various changes in Christianity throughout history and it is a question of explaining them. He says, as we quoted earlier:

Here then I concede to the opponents of historical Christianity, that there are to be found, during the 1800 years through which it has lasted, certain apparent inconsistencies and alterations in its doctrine and its worship, such as irresistibly attract the attention of all who inquire into it. They are not sufficient to interfere with the general character and course of the religion, but they raise the question how they came about, and what they mean, and have in consequence supplied matter for several hypotheses.

Of these one is to the effect that Christianity has ever changed from the first and ever accommodates itself to the circumstances of times and seasons; but it is difficult to understand how such a view is compatible with the special idea of revealed truth, and in fact its advocates more or less abandon, or tend to abandon the supernatural claims of Christianity; so it need not detain us here.

A second and more plausible hypothesis is that of the Anglican divines…

It is worthwhile considering the hypothesis that Newman passes over here, that “Christianity has ever changed from the first and ever accommodates itself to the circumstances of times and seasons.” Why is it difficult to understand how such a view is compatible with the special idea of revealed truth? Basically, the position in question is that everything in Christianity is changeable. Christians currently believe that Christ is God, but a thousand years from now, they may all believe that Christ was a mere man. The difficulty is, of course, that both of these cannot be true, so that if the belief of Christians varies from time to time in this way, then the beliefs of Christians cannot be believed to come from divine revelation.

In fact, this position would not be entirely inconsistent with the idea of a particular revelation, but such a revelation would be more like the kind that the Catholic Church considers to be a private revelation. In other words, one would say that the true beliefs, when they are present, are ones that came from a revelation, but that God does nothing to prevent people from abandoning these beliefs and adopting other ones. In this case, of course, the problem would be that there does not seem to be a good way to distinguish between beliefs that are actually revealed, and others which are not. It would be for this reason that people holding this position would “abandon, or tend to abandon the supernatural claims of Christianity.” Consequently, since Newman is not here attempting to argue for the truth of Christianity, he does not care to give this particular theory any lengthy treatment.

We should notice the order of evidence here: changeableness without any limit would be good evidence for an absence of revelation, and for a similar reason, complete absence of changeableness would be good evidence for the presence of a revelation. Newman acknowledges the presence of some changeableness, and he does this without demonstrating the existence of any limit on this changeableness, but only assuming it.

It seems to me that we can see here the reason for Sartino’s rejection of Newman’s theory. Newman certainly does not hold that Christianity is both changeable and unchangeable in the same respect. He simply admits that it is changeable to some extent, and wishes to explain this. But for Sartino, this is a problem in itself, because it opens the door to the possibility that there is no real divine revelation. If Christianity is changeable to some degree, and we have not yet shown that there is any limit on this, then the first rejected hypothesis might turn out to be true, and Christianity might not be supernatural.

The problem with Sartino’s thinking is the same one I pointed out earlier. If Christianity is changeable in some ways, that may leave the door open to the possibility that Christianity is false, and may make this more likely relative to the situation where Christianity is actually unchangeable in every way. But you cannot change these facts by asserting that Christianity is actually unchangeable, because asserting something does not make it so. Both the evidence and the facts will remain just as they are, regardless of what you say about them. In this way, it makes sense that Sartino rejects both Newman’s theory of development and Darwin’s theory of evolution. He is using the same strategy in each case, one which seems to him to make his religion more certain to be true, but which actually has no effect whatsoever.

In reality, Darwin was not responsible for the theory of evolution. The facts were responsible, and as I noted here, if Darwin had not come up with his theory, others would have. In a similar way, the Catholic Church accepted Newman’s theory of development because it was necessary in order to account for the facts of history, and some such theory would have been developed and accepted even if Newman had never existed. You can ignore history just as you can ignore the rocks, but ignoring things does not change them. Newman noted, in fact, that certain real facts tended to open the door to the possibility that his religion was in error, saying, “Not only has the relative situation of controversies and theologies altered, but infidelity itself is in a different,—I am obliged to say in a more hopeful position,—as regards Christianity.”

Ross Douthat, commenting on the recent controversy over the possibility of communion for the divorced and remarried, says:

When this point is raised, reformers pivot to the idea that, well, maybe the proposed changes really are effectively doctrinal, but not every doctrinal issue is equally important, and anyway Catholic doctrine can develop over time.

But the development of doctrine is supposed to deepen church teaching, not reverse or contradict it. This distinction allows for many gray areas, admittedly. But effacing Jesus’ own words on the not-exactly-minor topics of marriage and sexuality certainly looks more like a major reversal than an organic, doctrinally-deepening shift.

At which point we come to the third argument, which makes an appearance in your letter: You don’t understand, you’re not a theologian. As indeed I am not. But neither is Catholicism supposed to be an esoteric religion, its teachings accessible only to academic adepts. And the impression left by this moving target, I’m afraid, is that some reformers are downplaying their real position in the hopes of bringing conservatives gradually along.

What is that real position? That almost anything Catholic can change when the times require it, and “developing” doctrine just means keeping up with capital-H History, no matter how much of the New Testament is left behind.
As I noted earlier, the columnist’s task is to be provocative. So I must tell you, openly and not subtly, that this view sounds like heresy by any reasonable definition of the term.

Now it may be that today’s heretics are prophets, the church will indeed be revolutionized, and my objections will be ground under with the rest of conservative Catholicism. But if that happens, it will take hard grinding, not just soft words and academic rank-pulling. It will require a bitter civil war.

And so, my dear professors: Welcome to the battlefield.

What Douthat calls the “real position” of the reformers, of course, is exactly the first hypothesis which Newman dismisses. It seems to me that there can be no reasonable doubt that this is in fact the position of many, although they might wish to conceal it, in order to better bring about the ends that they seek. Whether or not they therefore abandon the idea of special revelation is unclear, but it would seem the most reasonable position for someone who believes that there is no limit to the changeableness of the Church.

Neither Newman in the text cited, nor Douthat here, say that they can disprove the first hypothesis, but that they do not accept it, because of the implication that there is no real revelation. But they both recognize that they live in the real world, where there is evidence against what you believe, and where you might actually be wrong. Richard Sartino, on the other hand, seems to live in an imaginary world.

Zimmerman’s Response to the Catechism

As I suggested previously, it is possible that the statement on original immortality in the Catechism was directed against Zimmerman’s opinion. Whether or not the authors of the Catechism intended this explicitly, Zimmerman surely noted the conflict with his own views. Wishing to remain an orthodox Catholic, he substantially toned down his opinion in a subsequent work. He discusses the text of the Catechism in chapter 7 of his book Evolution and the Sin in Eden: A New Christian Synthesis:

Today the Church goes ones step further than Trent by the teaching in CCC 1008 and again in 1018 that physical death was brought about by original sin: “As a consequence of original sin, man must suffer ‘bodily death, from which man would have been immune had he not sinned'” (CCC 1018, cf. GS #18).

The CCC is “a sure norm for teaching the faith and thus a valid and legitimate instrument for ecclesial communion… This catechism is given to (the Church’s pastors and the Christian faithful) that it may be a sure and authentic reference text for teaching doctrine and particularly for preparing local catechisms” (Apostolic Constitution on the publication of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, John Paul II, October 11, 1992).

Despite the refusal of the Council of Trent to define the doctrine that Adam would have been immune from physical death if he had not sinned, the Church today proclaims it as part of its catechesis. Actually, Trent did not oppose the common belief, and only refused to make it binding once and for all.

The CCC’s inclusion of the doctrine is of great teaching value to dramatically emphasize the evil of sin, of disobedience to God. Death follows sin, so beware! Genesis certainly does the same by pairing death with sin. This is an excellent teaching aid, already begun in Genesis, now continued in our Catechism.

There may be theological reasons of great depth in the teaching that bodily death is a consequence of original sin, aspects of a truth which remains to be mined and discovered. Sin is moral corruption of the sinner’s soul, and corruption of the body through death may be mystically associated with sin in the eyes of God as well as of man.

While apparently accepting the teaching of the Catechism here, Zimmerman may be implicitly questioning it in the last paragraph, suggesting, “Perhaps the teaching is there not because it is true, but because of another truth that we haven’t yet made explicit.” In any case, he continues to recognize that there is some evidence against the claim, and consequently remains dissatisfied with the teaching of the Catechism:

Are we puzzled by the fact that our present cosmos is not designed for human life which is immune from physical death? One response to the puzzle can be that God already foresaw that Adam would commit original sin, hence there was no need for God to design the cosmos for a condition which would never become real. I confess that this solution, although proposed by some people, does not please me.

Other considerations remain to be solved. We note that the CCC does not state that Adam was already immune from physical death before he sinned. Nor does it teach that he enjoyed perpetual youth and freedom from various natural hardships during his life before sin. Many things remain unsaid and unresolved, if man’s natural condition of dying a biological death began only after original sin.

A number of reasons converge to indicate that man’s immunity from bodily death, as taught in GS 18 and the CCC, has the fuller meaning of eternal death of body and soul. The context of GS 18 is about man’s yearning for eternal life, not for mere biological continuity on earth. Furthermore, footnotes 14 and 15 of GS 18 refer to biblical texts that pertain to spiritual death invoked by evil deeds; they do not treat about biological death. Finally, the Council of Trent yolked together death from original sin and captivity under the power of the devil. But saints who die a bodily death in holiness are not captives of the devil. GS 18 and CCC 1008 therefore point more plausibly to eternal death than to temporal biological death. If that is correct, then neither Genesis, nor the rest of the Bible, nor Trent, nor Vatican II, nor the Catechism of the Catholic Church indicates with certainty that man was ever immune from natural biological death before original sin. However, I remain open for correction on this point.

Of course, his opinion here is not plausible at all, if he means to suggest that this might have been the actual intention of the authors of the Catechism. That intention was obviously to refer to biological death. However, the opinion is not necessarily completely unreasonable from the point of view of development of doctrine.

In any case, Zimmerman remains dissatisfied with the teaching. The teaching of the Church may prevent him from asserting as a positive opinion that man would have died even without sin; but it cannot prevent him from noticing that there is evidence in favor of this.

Gehringer vs. Zimmerman on Original Immortality

Earlier we looked at a brief passage from a review by Joseph Gehringer of Zimmerman’s book on original sin:

Surprisingly, however, evolution continues to attract sympathetic attention in many orthodox Catholic publications. Even publications which are considered ‘conservative’ have been giving circulation to the erroneous claim that the Catholic Church has “never had a problem with evolution.” A recent editorial suggested that evolution was so probable – for philosophical reasons – that Catholics are almost obliged to accept it. Apparently the constant attacks on creationism in the secular media during the 1980’s have had their effect: Humani Generis has been forgotten and theistic evolution has become part of the new orthodoxy.

One of the clearest signs of this evolutionary trend is the appearance of a new book by Father Anthony Zimmerman, S.V.D., who is well-known for his work in Japan combating the twin evils of contraception and abortion. Fr. Zimmerman’s uncompromising position on these moral issues stands in strange contrast to his treatment of Scripture, Tradition, and dogma on matters related to human origins. On moral questions he relies upon the Magisterium as an infallible guide; on the question of Adam and Eve, he relies upon scientific theories as the most reliable guide.

Gehringer is criticizing Zimmerman’s apparent inconsistency, namely his appearing willing to follow the Magisterium on moral issues while appearing unwilling to follow the Magisterium on “the question of Adam and Eve.” Gehringer does not seem to notice, however, that this suggests that Zimmerman may have especially strong reasons for his opinions regarding the latter question, since he obviously prefers in principle to be faithful to the Magisterium. I would add the personal note that I have met Fr. Zimmerman in real life and I can testify that by any ordinary standard he is a devout, orthodox Catholic.

Gehringer criticizes Zimmerman’s treatment of tradition:

Tradition is divided into two types (page 208). Those teachings which Fr. Zimmerman accepts are called “Magisterial Tradition”; those he rejects are labeled “folklore tradition.”

As for dogma, under “Preternatural Gifts” in the Pocket Catholic Dictionary (by Rev. John Hardon, S.J.) we read: “They include three great privileges to which human beings have no title – infused knowledge, absence of concupiscence, and bodily immortality. Adam and Eve possessed these gifts before the Fall.” Because they do not fit into his scenario of a gradual, natural evolution, Fr. Zimmerman rejects the idea that Adam and Eve possessed these gifts. Although Vatican II refers to “bodily death from which man would have been immune had he not sinned,” Fr. Zimmerman suggests this is a “doctrinal mistake,” adding: “I look forward to the day when the teaching Church will come to grips with tradition about … the supposed lack of physical death in the original Paradise. Is that a folklore tradition?” (page 208). Over and over, both the great theologians and the actual teachings of the Church are challenged and questioned. For example, “The pre-sin Adam of Augustine, then, is not a functional Adam at all” (page 149). And, “The Church has not made its own this belabored reasoning of Thomas” (page 146). On the other hand, Fr. Zimmerman gives us extensive excerpts (“delightful and informative”) from Lucy, the Beginnings of Humankind, by Johanson and Edey (pages 64-65).

Since the gift of bodily immortality to Adam is considered to be a “de fide” teaching of the Church, Fr. Zimmerman employs a variety of devices to try to convince the reader that this ancient dogma is actually a misinterpretation of Genesis. He claims the Church has erred on a related issue; he explains that the statements of the Councils do not mean what they have always been understood to say; he ignores relevant Scriptural and Magisterial statements; and he caricatures traditional interpretations, subjecting some to outright ridicule.

Making a distinction between “folklore tradition” and “Magisterial tradition” is indeed a bit strange. However, despite Gehringer’s implication, the Church has no list of “de fide” teachings. When Gehringer says that Adam’s bodily immortality is considered to be a matter of faith, he refers to the opinion of some theologians. And just as some theologians say that it is a matter of faith, other theologians, like Zimmerman, may say the opposite.

Gehringer goes on to criticize Zimmerman’s discussion of the various magisterial statements regarding the issue:

The Decrees of the Councils fare no better at Fr. Zimmerman’s hands. Canon 1 of the Council of Carthage, approved by Pope St. Zozimus, is quoted on page 188, but it is described as a “sentence” written by 200 bishops. By page 207, Fr. Zimmerman admits it was a Canon, but he argues that it was not “a positive doctrinal assertion,” only an “ad hominem argument about physical death directed against the heretics.” The old Catholic Encyclopedia, in the article on “Pelagius,” tells us that “these clearly worded canons (… death did not come to Adam from a physical necessity, but through sin …) came to be articles of faith binding the universal Church.” Yet Fr. Zimmerman dismisses it as an “ad hominem argument.”

In its Decree on Original Sin, the Council of Trent promulgated five canons. The first canon declares: “If anyone does not profess that Adam, the first man, … drew upon himself … death with which God had threatened him, and together with death captivity in the power of … the devil … anathema sit.” Fr. Zimmerman ignores what the canon clearly states, arguing that “Missing … is the explicit statement that Adam would not have died a physical death had he not sinned, which had been in an earlier version” (page 10).

Note Fr. Zimmerman’s use of the “Heads I win, tails you lose” type of argument. The Council of Carthage adopted a canon which stated explicitly that Adam was immune from physical death before he sinned; Fr. Zimmerman rejects this as an “ad hominem argument.” The Council of Orange adopted a canon which refers specifically to “bodily death which is the punishment of sin”; Fr. Zimmerman does not quote it, but dismisses it as “something commonly accepted.” The Council of Trent reaffirmed these earlier teachings in different words (“Adam … by his sin … drew upon himself the … death with which God had threatened him”); Fr. Zimmerman rejects this as not being an explicit declaration. Clearly, Fr. Zimmerman shows himself unwilling to accept this Catholic dogma, no matter how it is expressed.

Trent’s Canon 2 declares: “If anyone asserts that Adam’s sin … transmitted to all mankind only death and the suffering of the body but not sin as well which is the death of the soul, anathema sit. For he contradicts the words of the Apostle: ‘Sin came into the world through one man, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men as all sinned in him'” (Rom. 5:12 Vulg; see Council of Orange II, Canon 2). Fr. Zimmerman begins by placing quotation marks around the word “death,” even though none appear in his source, Neuner and Dupuis No. 509. Denzinger-Deferrari also has no quotation marks around the word. Next he asserts that Trent explicitly accepted “death of the soul” but did not explicitly accept a lack of physical death, an obvious misinterpretation of the words of the Canon. In an effort to support his misinterpretation, Fr. Zimmerman omits the quotation from Holy Scripture and the reference to the Council of Orange, both of which make it quite apparent that the Council was speaking about physical death.

Father Zimmerman’s disregard for the rulings of the Magisterium is apparent from his handling of other solemn statements as well. On page 207 he quotes from Vatican Council II, “that bodily death, from which man would have been immune had he not sinned.” After first claiming that “this English translation misses precisions of the Latin,” he proposes his interpretation. “The living Adam would go directly from his living body to heaven, and then the body would die…. Adam wouldn’t die, but his body would die. In this way all the bases are covered….” In the Foreword, this book is hailed as a “unique piece of theological exposition.” Unique indeed! Who else would propose as a new Catholic dogma that “Adam wouldn’t die, but his body would die” in order to ‘cover all the bases’?

Gehringer’s discussion here is a bit unfair to Zimmerman, and in reality the interpretation of magisterial statements can be quite complex and not nearly as straightforward as Gehringer supposes. However, at least regarding the last point, it is clear enough that “Adam wouldn’t die, but his body would die” is a contradiction in itself, and that here at least Zimmerman’s position is entirely unreasonable.

I would make a number of points about this disagreement.

First, it is not impossible for someone to hold Zimmerman’s position, even without abandoning or modifying the Church’s teachings on its authority and infallibility. Earlier we noted most of the relevant magisterial statements. The canons of Carthage and Orange are decrees of local councils, and so would not be infallible in themselves. The council of Trent modified an original formulation of its canons that made bodily death as such a result of sin, and given this modification it seems impossible to prove that they intended to define this claim about bodily death absolutely. Gaudium et Spes is not intended to be an infallible document, and the statement about bodily death is made in the context of other statements like, “All the endeavors of technology, though useful in the extreme, cannot calm his anxiety,” where surely no one would complain that the Church was wrong in general, if it turned out that the endeavors of technology calmed someone’s anxiety. And regarding the Catechism, Cardinal Ratzinger stated in Introduction to the Catechism of the Catholic Church:

The individual doctrines which the Catechism presents receive no other weight than that which they already possess. The weight of the Catechism itself lies in the whole. Since it transmits what the Church teaches, whoever rejects it as a whole separates himself beyond question from the faith and teaching of the Church.

This implies that unless the doctrine of original immortality is already understood to be infallible, the Catechism does not try to make it infallible. Of course someone like Gehringer could argue against all of this in many ways, as for example by the common consent of the Church and of theologians throughout history. But that would be an argument, and might or might not be right. Thus it is possible in principle for someone to hold Zimmerman’s position, even without changing any idea regarding the Church’s authority. But such a position would have consequences, and Gehringer has some justification for fearing those consequences. I will say more about this shortly.

Second, Zimmerman says a number of strange things about tradition and about the magisterial statements. Gehringer notes some of these things, such as the concept of “folklore tradition,” and the statement that “Adam wouldn’t die, but his body would die.” I noted above that generally speaking, Zimmerman is an orthodox Catholic. This is the best way to understand the various oddities of Zimmerman’s position. He does not like saying that “the Church was wrong”, and so he says various strange things in order to avoid this. As I said in the first point, in principle someone can hold Zimmerman’s position without rejecting the authority of the Church as such. However, it is not reasonable to hold this position without saying that the Church has proposed a false teaching a number of times, even if non-infallibly. So Zimmerman’s position appears unreasonable because he attempts to hold his position on original immortality while trying to avoid saying that the Church was mistaken, even in cases where in fact it would have been mistaken, under Zimmerman’s hypothesis.

Third, the real basis of the disagreement is the evidence against original immortality, discussed here and here. Zimmerman finds this evidence convincing, and consequently holds that it is necessary to adjust the teaching of the Church to correspond to this evidence. Gehringer instead wishes to say that the theory of evolution is false, and hopes that this will imply that there is no longer any evidence against original immortality.

There are several problems with Gehringer’s manner of response. In the first place, even if the theory of evolution was false, and even if there were no substantial evidence for it, there would still be evidence against original immortality, even if it would be somewhat weaker. Second, evidence is objective and does not change sides. So whether you accept or reject original immortality, or evolution, or anything else, is not the point. The evidence for and against these things will remain just as it is no matter what your position is.

Fourth, however, the consequences of that evidence will vary somewhat depending on how you react to it. There is evidence against original immortality, but there is also evidence (as for example those magisterial statements) in favor of it. Those evidences will remain just as they are no matter what someone’s position is. But there will be different ultimate consequences in terms of how people react. I said above that Gehringer has some justification for fearing the consequences of Zimmerman’s position. One of those consequences is that someone who holds Zimmerman’s position will almost certainly conclude that the authority of the Magisterium is weaker than many Catholics suppose, if he is honest enough to admit that his position implies that each of those magisterial statements was mistaken. Note that there is an objective aspect here as well: even if someone does not conclude that this position is ultimately true, the evidence against original immortality is also evidence that the Church’s authority is weaker in this way. But whether you believe that it is actually weaker in this way or not, may depend on whether you are convinced by the evidence regarding immortality.

But there is yet more for Gehringer to fear. Genesis assigns death as a result of the fall, but also other things, such as a woman’s pain in childbirth. But death seems the most important of these things. If death is not the result of the fall, then it is likely that the pain of childbirth and so on are not results of it. Thus it would be unclear that the fall had any results at all, which would suggest that it did not happen. This seems to suggest that the Bible as a whole would be false, given that considered as a whole it seems to be an account of the origin of death and how it is to be overcome. This, of course, is not a conclusion that Zimmerman draws or wishes to draw. But there is an objective aspect here as well: the evidence against original immortality is indirect evidence that the Bible as a whole is false, whether or not anyone draws that conclusion.

The Fall and the Order of the World

As I have noted before, some people claim a very strong tension between the claim that the earth is ancient and that life has an evolutionary history, and the claim that the doctrines of Christianity are true. This is done both by Christians, to argue against evolution, and by unbelievers, to argue against Christianity.

Thus for example Joseph Gehringer says:

After nearly a decade of making headlines, the creation-evolution controversy in the United States has quietly faded from public view. Having won two major court victories (Arkansas, 1982; U.S. Supreme Court, 1987), evolutionists are now working quietly to consolidate their hold on the educational system (e.g., the California Science Framework; Project 2061 of the American Association for the Advancement of Science). Meanwhile, media interest has shifted to new issues such as AIDS and sexual harassment.

Surprisingly, however, evolution continues to attract sympathetic attention in many orthodox Catholic publications. Even publications which are considered ‘conservative’ have been giving circulation to the erroneous claim that the Catholic Church has “never had a problem with evolution.” A recent editorial suggested that evolution was so probable – for philosophical reasons – that Catholics are almost obliged to accept it. Apparently the constant attacks on creationism in the secular media during the 1980’s have had their effect: Humani Generis has been forgotten and theistic evolution has become part of the new orthodoxy.

One of the clearest signs of this evolutionary trend is the appearance of a new book by Father Anthony Zimmerman, S.V.D., who is well-known for his work in Japan combating the twin evils of contraception and abortion. Fr. Zimmerman’s uncompromising position on these moral issues stands in strange contrast to his treatment of Scripture, Tradition, and dogma on matters related to human origins. On moral questions he relies upon the Magisterium as an infallible guide; on the question of Adam and Eve, he relies upon scientific theories as the most reliable guide.

Father Zimmerman clearly recognizes the problems caused by the widespread acceptance of evolutionary theory. For, if man evolved gradually from an animal species millions of years ago (as he believes), the Genesis story of Adam and Eve becomes a religious myth of little significance in today’s secular culture. As a consequence, the doctrine of original sin and all those doctrines which depend upon it, lose their meaning for a modern Catholic. Father Zimmerman feels that this situation can be remedied if we “locate Adam on our family tree as we look at the fossil record THROUGH THE EYES OF SCIENTISTS” (page 2, emphasis added) and correct the errors of “theologians based on a wrong reading of Genesis” (page 202). In the Foreword, Paul Hallett hails this approach as “groundbreaking.” But I find nothing new in the Modernist error that “Scientific progress demands that the concepts of Christian doctrine … be re-adjusted” (No. 64, Syllabus of Errors).

Basically Gehringer’s objection is that if the theory of evolution is true, then the account of the fall in Genesis is false or at least meaningless.

Jerry Coyne says similar things, arguing for the opposite side, while discussing an essay by Mike Aus (Coyne’s link to the essay is no longer valid):

Here are the points of incompatibility as Aus sees them.

  • Adam and Eve  This is the big one, and all attempts to see it as a metaphor (since we know that the human population never bottlenecked at two individuals) are ludicrous on their face. If Adam and Eve didn’t exist, what sense does Jesus make. I quote from Aus:

“Which core doctrines of Christianity does evolution challenge? Well, basically all of them. The doctrine of original sin is a prime example. If my rudimentary grasp of the science is accurate, then Darwin’s theory tells us that because new species only emerge extremely gradually, there really is no “first” prototype or model of any species at all—no “first” dog or “first” giraffe and certainly no “first”homo sapiens created instantaneously. The transition from predecessor hominid species was almost imperceptible. So, if there was no “first” human, there was clearly no original couple through whom the contagion of “sin” could be transmitted to the entire human race. The history of our species does not contain a “fall” into sin from a mythical, pristine sinless paradise that never existed.”

. . . The role of Christ as the Second Adam who came to save and perfect our fallen species is at the heart of the New Testament’s argument for Christ’s salvific significance. St. Paul wrote, “Therefore, just as one man’s trespass led to the condemnation of all, so one man’s act of righteousness leads to salvation and life for all.” (Romans 5:18) Over the centuries this typology of Christ as the Second Adam has been a central theme of Christian homiletics, hymnody and art. More liberal Christians might counter that, of course there was no Adam or Eve; when Paul described Christ as another Adam he was speaking metaphorically. But metaphorically of what? And Jesus died to become a metaphor? If so, how can a metaphor save humanity?”

I don’t see any way around this. BioLogos has had a gazillion posts trying to make metaphorical sense of Adam and Eve, but responses like the “federal headship model,” in which God simply designated two of the many early humans as “Official Original Sinners”, are simply laughable.  And remember that the Catholic Church’s official policy is one of “monogenism”: all human literally descended from Adam and Eve.  Catholic Answers notes:

In this regard, Pope Pius XII stated: “When, however, there is question of another conjectural opinion, namely polygenism, the children of the Church by no means enjoy such liberty. For the faithful cannot embrace that opinion which maintains either that after Adam there existed on this earth true men who did not take their origin through natural generation from him as from the first parents of all, or that Adam represents a certain number of first parents. Now, it is in no way apparent how such an opinion can be reconciled that which the sources of revealed truth and the documents of the teaching authority of the Church proposed with regard to original sin which proceeds from a sin actually committed by an individual Adam in which through generation is passed onto all and is in everyone as his own” (Humani Generis 37).

I wonder how Catholic scientists like Kenneth Miller reconcile this dogma with their acceptance of human evolution. Do they simply deny the teachings of their church? If so, they are heretics.

The objection is that given the way evolutionary theory works, there could not have been a “first man” in any usual sense. It apparently follows that the account of the fall in Genesis is false, just as Gehringer argues.

I would note two things concerning this objection:

First, Coyne misunderstands the statement by Pius XII. I have noted previously that Pius XII is leaving the question open, in the sense that he is allowing for the possibility of a future reconciliation, while warning that at the moment there appears to be a conflict. And whether there is a conflict or not, it is clear that the Catholic Church no longer objects to someone holding that there was no first man in any ordinary sense. The document of the International Theological Commission, Communion and Stewardship, states:

63. According to the widely accepted scientific account, the universe erupted 15 billion years ago in an explosion called the “Big Bang” and has been expanding and cooling ever since. Later there gradually emerged the conditions necessary for the formation of atoms, still later the condensation of galaxies and stars, and about 10 billion years later the formation of planets. In our own solar system and on earth (formed about 4.5 billion years ago), the conditions have been favorable to the emergence of life. While there is little consensus among scientists about how the origin of this first microscopic life is to be explained, there is general agreement among them that the first organism dwelt on this planet about 3.5-4 billion years ago. Since it has been demonstrated that all living organisms on earth are genetically related, it is virtually certain that all living organisms have descended from this first organism. Converging evidence from many studies in the physical and biological sciences furnishes mounting support for some theory of evolution to account for the development and diversification of life on earth, while controversy continues over the pace and mechanisms of evolution. While the story of human origins is complex and subject to revision, physical anthropology and molecular biology combine to make a convincing case for the origin of the human species in Africa about 150,000 years ago in a humanoid population of common genetic lineage. However it is to be explained, the decisive factor in human origins was a continually increasing brain size, culminating in that of homo sapiens. With the development of the human brain, the nature and rate of evolution were permanently altered: with the introduction of the uniquely human factors of consciousness, intentionality, freedom and creativity, biological evolution was recast as social and cultural evolution.

70. With respect to the immediate creation of the human soul, Catholic theology affirms that particular actions of God bring about effects that transcend the capacity of created causes acting according to their natures. The appeal to divine causality to account for genuinely causal as distinct from merely explanatory gaps does not insert divine agency to fill in the “gaps” in human scientific understanding (thus giving rise to the so-called “God of the gaps”). The structures of the world can be seen as open to non-disruptive divine action in directly causing events in the world. Catholic theology affirms that that the emergence of the first members of the human species (whether as individuals or in populations) represents an event that is not susceptible of a purely natural explanation and which can appropriately be attributed to divine intervention. Acting indirectly through causal chains operating from the beginning of cosmic history, God prepared the way for what Pope John Paul II has called “an ontological leap…the moment of transition to the spiritual.” While science can study these causal chains, it falls to theology to locate this account of the special creation of the human soul within the overarching plan of the triune God to share the communion of trinitarian life with human persons who are created out of nothing in the image and likeness of God, and who, in his name and according to his plan, exercise a creative stewardship and sovereignty over the physical universe.

The clause, “whether as individuals or in populations,” clearly accepts the possibility that there was not one first man from whom all other men descended. The document is not a document of the magisterium but required the approval of Cardinal Ratzinger, the head of the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith, in order to be published. This indicates that Catholics holding such a view are certainly not heretics, contrary to Coyne’s supposition. As for the issue of a gradual process, as the ITC notes here, Catholic doctrine implies a radical distinction between human beings who have immortal souls and other animals which do not. But this does not imply any radical outward rupture, just as there is no such rupture in the behavior of a human being, starting from conception, where there is no rational behavior at all, and throughout the remaining history of the child’s life both before and after birth. This process of change is always gradual, and there is nothing in Catholic doctrine on the soul which would imply that the process of human evolution could not have been gradual in a very similar way.

Second, it should be conceded that the apparent continuity of human evolution, and the evidence against a bottleneck (namely against the idea that the human population once consisted of two individuals), is evidence against the account in Genesis. However, it is fairly weak evidence, because the account in Genesis is not a literal account. What is necessary to that account is an elevation of human nature and a fall from that state, not the particular claim that the human race descended from a couple such as Adam and Eve.

However, it follows from this that both sides, here represented by Gehringer and Jerry Coyne, are right to some extent in claiming that there is some tension between Christianity and the theory of evolution.

In fact, there is a philosophical objection to the account of the fall in the first place, which would be a somewhat reasonable objection even apart from the idea of evolution, and the effect of the theory of evolution is simply to exacerbate the effectiveness of the objection.

Discussing the order of the world, I stated that a successful world is one in which the order of time basically corresponds to an order of goodness, that is, in the sense that the world should be improving over time. I argued in the following posts that the world tends to be successful in this way, that is, that things generally tend to get better rather than tending to get worse.

This is evidence against the account of the fall, in which things appear to get much worse. Naturally, this is not conclusive, since things do in fact sometimes get worse, and even sometimes much worse, even if the general tendency is the opposite of this.

The nature of the order of the world also provides some evidence against the preceding elevation of human nature which seems required for the account of the fall. This is true to the degree that the preceding elevation includes things which in principle could be the result of secondary causes, but which according to the account did not actually come about through such causes. The reason for this is that the world is good not only because there are good things in it, but because one thing is a cause of another. Consequently, the world is better and more ordered if something which can be a result of secondary causes is in fact a result of secondary causes, than if the thing is produced directly by the first cause. This is no argument, of course, against those aspects of the preceding elevation which could not be produced by secondary causes in principle, except by association: namely, if part of the account is not true, that argues against the rest of the account.

The theory of evolution exacerbates this argument by pointing out that before the existence of humanity, the world of animals in some way increased in goodness until it touched upon human nature, and that after the existence of humanity, the human race continued to make various improvements over time. That is, one possible response to this objection is that the human race is a specific exception to a general situation regarding the order of the world. The theory of evolution indicates that it is not an exception. In order to maintain the account of the fall, one must hold that it was the specific events of the elevation and fall that are exceptions.

One final point that strengthens this objection still more, is the fact that it is a very common human error to argue, “Things are really bad right now, this surely means that they must have been much better before and just got worse.” This argues that the account of the fall might simply be a mistake of this kind. C. S. Lewis would no doubt object, and especially without a specific argument indicating that it is in fact an error of this kind, but it remains reasonable to point out such facts.

Origin of Species

As we noted previously, Philip Gosse published his book attempting to reconcile geology and Scripture just a few years before Charles Darwin published his book On the Origin of Species.

In that previous post, I quoted Gosse’s summary of the state of geology. It would be useful to look again at several particular statements taken from that summary:

6. A series of organic beings appears, lives, generates, dies; lives, generates, dies; for thousands and thousands of successive generations. Tiny polypes gradually build up gigantic masses of coral,—mountains and reefs—microscopic foraminifera accumulate strata of calcareous sand; still more minute infusoria—forty millions to the inch—make slates, many yards thick, of their shells alone.

7. The species at length die out—a process which we have no data to measure, though we may reasonably conclude it very long. Sometimes the whole existing fauna seems to have come to a sudden violent end; at others, the species die out one by one. In the former case suddenly, in the latter progressively, new creatures supply the place of the old. Not only do species change; the very genera change, and change again. Forms of beings, strange beings, beings of uncouth shape, of mighty ferocity and power, of gigantic dimensions, come in, run their specific race, propagate their kinds generation after generation,—and at length die out and disappear; to be replaced by other species, each approaching nearer and nearer to familiar forms.

9. Millions of forest-trees sprang up, towered to heaven, and fell, to be crushed into the coal strata which make our winter fires. Hundreds of feet measure the thickness of what were once succulent plants, but pressed together like paper-pulp, and consolidated under a weight absolutely immensurable. Yet there remain the scales of their stems, the elegant reticulated patterns of their bark, the delicate tracery of their leaf-nerves, indelibly depicted by an unpatented process of “nature-printing.” And when we examine the record,—the forms of the leaves, the structure of the tissues, we get the same result as before, that the plants belonged to a flora which had no species in common with that which adorns the modern earth. Very gradually, and only after many successions, not of individual generations, but of the cycles of species, genera, and even families, did the vegetable creation conform itself to ours.

10. At length the species both of plants and animals grew,—not by alteration of their specific characters, but by replacement of species by species—more and more like what we have now on the earth, and finally merged into our present flora and fauna, about the time when we find the first geological traces of man.

Careful analysis of the rocks reveals an order of time, and that order of time reveals a history of life on earth. In that history, life was at first very different from its present form, and approached more and more closely to its present form over time, reaching that present form more or less with the existence of man. When we consider this together with the idea of what happens when imperfect copies are made repeatedly over time, we can see that this is very good evidence for the theory of evolution, considered as a theory of the common descent of living things. Gosse in fact vaguely suggests such a theory himself, when he suggests that the relationship of various species is much like the relationship of one individual to another.

Charles Darwin begins the introduction to his work:

When on board H.M.S. Beagle, as naturalist, I was much struck with certain facts in the distribution of the organic beings inhabiting South America, and in the geological relations of the present to the past inhabitants of that continent. These facts, as will be seen in the latter chapters of this volume, seemed to throw some light on the origin of species–that mystery of mysteries, as it has been called by one of our greatest philosophers. On my return home, it occurred to me, in 1837, that something might perhaps be made out on this question by patiently accumulating and reflecting on all sorts of facts which could possibly have any bearing on it. After five years’ work I allowed myself to speculate on the subject, and drew up some short notes; these I enlarged in 1844 into a sketch of the conclusions, which then seemed to me probable: from that period to the present day I have steadily pursued the same object. I hope that I may be excused for entering on these personal details, as I give them to show that I have not been hasty in coming to a decision. My work is now (1859) nearly finished; but as it will take me many more years to complete it, and as my health is far from strong, I have been urged to publish this abstract. I have more especially been induced to do this, as Mr. Wallace, who is now studying the natural history of the Malay Archipelago, has arrived at almost exactly the same general conclusions that I have on the origin of species. In 1858 he sent me a memoir on this subject, with a request that I would forward it to Sir Charles Lyell, who sent it to the Linnean Society, and it is published in the third volume of the Journal of that Society. Sir C. Lyell and Dr. Hooker, who both knew of my work–the latter having read my sketch of 1844–honoured me by thinking it advisable to publish, with Mr. Wallace’s excellent memoir, some brief extracts from my manuscripts.

As indicated by Gosse’s summary, by this time geology had basically reached the state where the idea of evolution was a very natural understanding of the history of life on earth. Consequently Darwin was not inventing some strange and marvelous idea, but simply drawing out the implications of what was already present in the science of geology. As he indicates here, he was not alone in doing that, and he was not alone in doing it at the time.

Darwin discusses natural selection in chapter four of his book:

How will the struggle for existence, briefly discussed in the last chapter, act in regard to variation? Can the principle of selection, which we have seen is so potent in the hands of man, apply under nature? I think we shall see that it can act most efficiently. Let the endless number of slight variations and individual differences occurring in our domestic productions, and, in a lesser degree, in those under nature, be borne in mind; as well as the strength of the hereditary tendency. Under domestication, it may truly be said that the whole organisation becomes in some degree plastic. But the variability, which we almost universally meet with in our domestic productions is not directly produced, as Hooker and Asa Gray have well remarked, by man; he can neither originate varieties nor prevent their occurrence; he can only preserve and accumulate such as do occur. Unintentionally he exposes organic beings to new and changing conditions of life, and variability ensues; but similar changes of conditions might and do occur under nature. Let it also be borne in mind how infinitely complex and close-fitting are the mutual relations of all organic beings to each other and to their physical conditions of life; and consequently what infinitely varied diversities of structure might be of use to each being under changing conditions of life. Can it then be thought improbable, seeing that variations useful to man have undoubtedly occurred, that other variations useful in some way to each being in the great and complex battle of life, should occur in the course of many successive generations? If such do occur, can we doubt (remembering that many more individuals are born than can possibly survive) that individuals having any advantage, however slight, over others, would have the best chance of surviving and procreating their kind? On the other hand, we may feel sure that any variation in the least degree injurious would be rigidly destroyed. This preservation of favourable individual differences and variations, and the destruction of those which are injurious, I have called Natural Selection, or the Survival of the Fittest. Variations neither useful nor injurious would not be affected by natural selection, and would be left either a fluctuating element, as perhaps we see in certain polymorphic species, or would ultimately become fixed, owing to the nature of the organism and the nature of the conditions.

This is probably the most important aspect of Darwin’s contribution to biology and geology. The fact that one species is descended from another was already becoming clear enough. But Darwin offers an explanation for why certain changes take place rather than others. We pointed out earlier that Empedocles anticipated this idea, but he did not combine it with the idea of common descent. Darwin actually mentions the passage, but mistakes it for Aristotle’s own view.

Darwin also attempts to organize the geological and biological evidence in general, and to answer objections to his theory. I will not do that here, since many others have done it elsewhere, and including a great deal of more recent evidence that could not be included by Darwin, as for example here. However, I will discuss one particular objection to his theory, as well as his solution.

In the final chapter he discusses why we do not find many more intermediate forms than we do, both living and dead:

As according to the theory of natural selection an interminable number of intermediate forms must have existed, linking together all the species in each group by gradations as fine as our existing varieties, it may be asked, Why do we not see these linking forms all around us? Why are not all organic beings blended together in an inextricable chaos? With respect to existing forms, we should remember that we have no right to expect (excepting in rare cases) to discover DIRECTLY connecting links between them, but only between each and some extinct and supplanted form. Even on a wide area, which has during a long period remained continuous, and of which the climatic and other conditions of life change insensibly in proceeding from a district occupied by one species into another district occupied by a closely allied species, we have no just right to expect often to find intermediate varieties in the intermediate zones. For we have reason to believe that only a few species of a genus ever undergo change; the other species becoming utterly extinct and leaving no modified progeny. Of the species which do change, only a few within the same country change at the same time; and all modifications are slowly effected. I have also shown that the intermediate varieties which probably at first existed in the intermediate zones, would be liable to be supplanted by the allied forms on either hand; for the latter, from existing in greater numbers, would generally be modified and improved at a quicker rate than the intermediate varieties, which existed in lesser numbers; so that the intermediate varieties would, in the long run, be supplanted and exterminated.

On this doctrine of the extermination of an infinitude of connecting links, between the living and extinct inhabitants of the world, and at each successive period between the extinct and still older species, why is not every geological formation charged with such links? Why does not every collection of fossil remains afford plain evidence of the gradation and mutation of the forms of life? Although geological research has undoubtedly revealed the former existence of many links, bringing numerous forms of life much closer together, it does not yield the infinitely many fine gradations between past and present species required on the theory, and this is the most obvious of the many objections which may be urged against it. Why, again, do whole groups of allied species appear, though this appearance is often false, to have come in suddenly on the successive geological stages? Although we now know that organic beings appeared on this globe, at a period incalculably remote, long before the lowest bed of the Cambrian system was deposited, why do we not find beneath this system great piles of strata stored with the remains of the progenitors of the Cambrian fossils? For on the theory, such strata must somewhere have been deposited at these ancient and utterly unknown epochs of the world’s history.

I can answer these questions and objections only on the supposition that the geological record is far more imperfect than most geologists believe. The number of specimens in all our museums is absolutely as nothing compared with the countless generations of countless species which have certainly existed. The parent form of any two or more species would not be in all its characters directly intermediate between its modified offspring, any more than the rock-pigeon is directly intermediate in crop and tail between its descendants, the pouter and fantail pigeons. We should not be able to recognise a species as the parent of another and modified species, if we were to examine the two ever so closely, unless we possessed most of the intermediate links; and owing to the imperfection of the geological record, we have no just right to expect to find so many links. If two or three, or even more linking forms were discovered, they would simply be ranked by many naturalists as so many new species, more especially if found in different geological substages, let their differences be ever so slight. Numerous existing doubtful forms could be named which are probably varieties; but who will pretend that in future ages so many fossil links will be discovered, that naturalists will be able to decide whether or not these doubtful forms ought to be called varieties? Only a small portion of the world has been geologically explored. Only organic beings of certain classes can be preserved in a fossil condition, at least in any great number. Many species when once formed never undergo any further change but become extinct without leaving modified descendants; and the periods during which species have undergone modification, though long as measured by years, have probably been short in comparison with the periods during which they retained the same form. It is the dominant and widely ranging species which vary most frequently and vary most, and varieties are often at first local–both causes rendering the discovery of intermediate links in any one formation less likely. Local varieties will not spread into other and distant regions until they are considerably modified and improved; and when they have spread, and are discovered in a geological formation, they appear as if suddenly created there, and will be simply classed as new species.Most formations have been intermittent in their accumulation; and their duration has probably been shorter than the average duration of specific forms. Successive formations are in most cases separated from each other by blank intervals of time of great length, for fossiliferous formations thick enough to resist future degradation can, as a general rule, be accumulated only where much sediment is deposited on the subsiding bed of the sea. During the alternate periods of elevation and of stationary level the record will generally be blank. During these latter periods there will probably be more variability in the forms of life; during periods of subsidence, more extinction.

With respect to the absence of strata rich in fossils beneath the Cambrian formation, I can recur only to the hypothesis given in the tenth chapter; namely, that though our continents and oceans have endured for an enormous period in nearly their present relative positions, we have no reason to assume that this has always been the case; consequently formations much older than any now known may lie buried beneath the great oceans. With respect to the lapse of time not having been sufficient since our planet was consolidated for the assumed amount of organic change, and this objection, as urged by Sir William Thompson, is probably one of the gravest as yet advanced, I can only say, firstly, that we do not know at what rate species change, as measured by years, and secondly, that many philosophers are not as yet willing to admit that we know enough of the constitution of the universe and of the interior of our globe to speculate with safety on its past duration.

That the geological record is imperfect all will admit; but that it is imperfect to the degree required by our theory, few will be inclined to admit. If we look to long enough intervals of time, geology plainly declares that species have all changed; and they have changed in the manner required by the theory, for they have changed slowly and in a graduated manner. We clearly see this in the fossil remains from consecutive formations invariably being much more closely related to each other than are the fossils from widely separated formations.

Darwin makes a number of good points here, as for example that intermediate forms, when they are found, are likely simply to be interpreted as new species. However, it seems likely that his explanation is insufficient. The geological record is surely very imperfect, but it is not clear at all that the record as he presents it match what we would naturally expect from an imperfect record with random sampling.

But let us consider another case, one where it is an undoubted fact that our record was produced by a process of historical descent with modification. There can be no reasonable doubt that the Romance languages have descended from Latin, and by a process of gradual diversification much like the process of evolution. This was surely a nearly continuous process, with children always speaking a language nearly identical to the language of the parent. So there were a nearly indefinite number of forms of languages descended from Latin, with an indefinite number of linking forms. “Why do we not see these linking forms all around us? Why are not all [Latin languages] blended together in an inextricable chaos?”

They are not blended in this way, even if there is a fairly large number of dialects, just as there is a large number of animal species of similar forms.

“On this doctrine of the extermination of an infinitude of connecting links, between the living and extinct [Latin languages] of the world, and at each successive period between the extinct and still older [forms], why is not every [historical period] charged with such links? Why does not every collection of [medieval and ancient writings] afford plain evidence of the gradation and mutation of the forms of [the Latin language]?”

We can find older forms of the Latin languages preserved in writing. But we do not find anything like a continuous series of such forms, despite the fact that it is perfectly clear that such a continuous series must have existed.

The answer is likely the same both in the case of these languages, and in the case of the evolution of living beings, and likely has to do with the mathematics governing these kinds of changes. It is related to the imperfection of the records, but not completely explained by this. If you had perfect records, you would indeed be able to find a continuous series of linguistic forms, and you would indeed be able to find a continuous series of living beings. But basically in both cases you have periods of relative stability followed by periods of relatively rapid change, rather than one extremely long period of slow change, and consequently random sampling discovers relatively few of the total number of forms.

Painful Dilemma

Philip Gosse, speaking of the apparent discrepancy between Scripture and geology, in a text quoted in the previous post, calls this a painful dilemma:

Here is a dilemma. A most painful one to the reverent mind! And many reverent minds have laboured hard and long to escape from it. It is unfair and dishonest to class our men of science with the infidel and atheist. They did not rejoice in the dilemma; they saw it at first dimly, and hoped to avoid it.

Earlier we looked at Darwin Catholic’s response to the position of Fr. Brian Harrison. However, in a part of his post that we did not cite at the time, he makes what he considers to be his most important point, at least in a certain way:

My third point of disagreement with Fr. Harrison is in some ways the most urgent, and the reason that I have written such a long commentary on his piece. In his “moonie” parable, Fr. Harrison suggests that there are two honest approaches to dealing with the discoveries of science in relation to Genesis: either insist that science is a fraud and that it is wrong to assert that the world is ancient or that humanity (in the biological sense) evolved from lower life forms, or reject the bible as false and Christianity as a fraud. The “bombshelter” route that his intellectuals and theologians in the parable dream up (with the “invisible water”) he sees as inherently dishonest and dangerous.

This is all very well for Fr. Harrison, who apparently is satisfied in his own mind that the findings of modern astronomy, geology and paleontology are indeed a fraud. However, he binds up a heavy and dangerous burden for others to carry. Either they must assert that much of modern science is a fraud (Fr. Harrison even holds out hope that the bible is right that the earth is stationary at the center of the universe while the sun and all the stars orbit it once each day, though he does not fully commit himself to that view) or one must abandon Christianity as false.

This is the biggest reason I find myself drawn back into the evolution debate again and again. It’s not so much that I have a fanatical devotion to evolution or to the aspects of modern astronomy and geology that suggest and ancient universe (though I do consider these explanations provided by science to be the best theories to explain the evidence we have at this time) but rather that many who have an antipathy towards these areas of science (as Fr. Harrison clearly does) feel it necessary to build up the threat to Christianity and make the argument: Either evolution is false or Christianity is false. Now you believe that Christianity is true, so surely you must reject evolution, right?

Given that the Church has said repeatedly that there is no inherent contradiction between the findings of modern science and our beliefs, it seems wrong to me (indeed, wicked) to risk destroying the faith of others by insisting that one must reject either evolution or the Church. I do not say that given the choice Fr. Harrison proposes I would reject Christianity — because I do not accept that this is a legitimate set of alternatives to propose. But I do consider the choice set up to be dangerous and unhelpful.

Darwin Catholic speaks of the same dilemma discussed by Philip Gosse. Gosse attempts to resolve it with his distinction between “prochronic” and “diachronic” events, but as we have seen, his attempt fails. Fr. Harrison attempts to resolve it by saying that science is simply wrong, but this is quite unreasonable. Darwin Catholic’s own response is to say that Scripture does not mean what it was thought to mean, and this is a reasonable position, for reasons given when we considered that response.

Gosse, speaking of the interpretation of the text, makes this statement, already quoted in the previous post:

I am not assuming here that the Inspired Word has been rightly read; I merely say that the plain straightforward meaning, the meaning that lies manifestly on the face of the passages in question, is in opposition with the conclusions which geologists have formed, as to the antiquity and the genesis of the globe on which we live.

Perhaps the simple, superficial sense of the Word is not the correct one; but it is at least that which its readers, learned and unlearned, had been generally content with before; and which would, I suppose, scarcely have been questioned, but for what appeared the exigencies of geological facts.

This is also one of Fr. Harrison’s main concerns, and the reason that he says that if Genesis is not given a literal and historical interpretation, we are giving it an “invisible genre.”

It is true that most Christians believed that Genesis was such a literal account. Philip Gosse and Fr. Harrison are right about this. Despite this, however, there was already evidence that Genesis was not such an account, evidence noted in my post on the genre of Genesis 2-3. In a similar way, there was evidence for the theory of evolution long before it was proposed.

People often make mistakes, and people often fail to notice evidence for things which they do not currently believe. There is nothing particularly strange about this. But there is a particular reason why Fr. Harrison is concerned about this, a reason why he is determined to say, “Those Christians were right all along.” The reason is that if your theory predicts something, and the prediction fails to come to pass, this is evidence against your theory. And in precisely this way, Christians “predicted” that the earth would turn out to be young, and their prediction did not come to pass, since the earth turned out to be ancient. This is evidence against Christianity.

Christians surely did make such a prediction, as is evident for example in this text from Lactantius:

Plato and many others of the philosophers, since they were ignorant of the origin of all things, and of that primal period at which the world was made, said that many thousands of ages had passed since this beautiful arrangement of the world was completed; and in this they perhaps followed the Chaldeans, who, as Cicero has related in his first book respecting divination, foolishly say that they possess comprised in their memorials four hundred and seventy thousand years; in which matter, because they thought that they could not be convicted, they believed that they were at liberty to speak falsely. But we, whom the Holy Scriptures instruct to the knowledge of the truth, know the beginning and the end of the world, respecting which we will now speak in the end of our work, since we have explained respecting the beginning in the second book. Therefore let the philosophers, who enumerate thousands of ages from the beginning of the world, know that the six thousandth year is not yet completed, and that when this number is completed the consummation must take place, and the condition of human affairs be remodelled for the better, the proof of which must first be related, that the matter itself may be plain. God completed the world and this admirable work of nature in the space of six days, as is contained in the secrets of Holy Scripture, and consecrated the seventh day, on which He had rested from His works. But this is the Sabbath-day, which in the language of the Hebrews received its name from the number, whence the seventh is the legitimate and complete number. For there are seven days, by the revolutions of which in order the circles of years are made up; and there are seven stars which do not set, and seven luminaries which are called planets, whose differing and unequal movements are believed to cause the varieties of circumstances and times.

Fr. Harrison does not wish to accept the fact that there is evidence against Christianity, and he supposes that he can avoid this consequence by saying that the prediction did come to pass, because the earth is in fact young (according to him). In reality, of course, even if he were right, this would not exclude the existence of evidence against Christianity. The fact that scientists came to the conclusion that the earth was ancient would remain evidence for that, even if ultimately the scientists turned out to be wrong. But Fr. Harrison would feel much better about that situation.

In reality, the earth is ancient, and this is indeed evidence that Christianity is false. But it is also evidence that for the claim that Christianity is true, but Genesis is not a historical account. And the latter claim, namely that Genesis is not a historical account, is also supported by independent evidence, as we have already seen.

Omphalos

In 1857, two years before the publication Darwin’s work On the Origin of Species, Philip Gosse published his book Omphalos: An Attempt to Untie the Geological Knotin which he attempts to reconcile the findings of geology with Scripture. He begins his preface:

“You have not allowed for the wind, Hubert,” said Locksley, in “Ivanhoe;” “or that had been a better shot.”

I remember, when I was in Newfoundland, some five-and-twenty years ago, the disastrous wreck of the brig Elizabeth, which belonged to the firm in which I was a clerk. The master had made a good observation the day before, which had determined his latitude some miles north of Cape St. Francis. A thick fog coming on, he sailed boldly by compass, knowing that, according to his latitude, he could well weather that promontory. But lo! about midnight the ship plunged right against the cliffs of Ferryland, thirty miles to the south, crushing in her bows to the windlass; and presently went down, the crew barely saving their lives. The captain had not allowed for the polar current, which was setting, like a sluice, to the southward, between the Grand Bank and the land.

When it was satisfactorily ascertained that the heavenly body, now known as Uranus, was a planet, its normal path was soon laid down according to the recognised law of gravitation. But it would not take this path. There were deviations and anomalies in its observed course, which could in nowise be referred to the operation of any known principle. Astronomers were sorely puzzled to explain the irregularities, and to reconcile facts with laws. Various hypotheses were proposed: some denied the facts; that is, the observed places of the planet, boldly assuming that the observers had been in error: others suggested that perhaps the physical laws, which had been supposed to govern the whole celestial machinery, did not reach so far as Uranus’s orbit. The secret is now known: they had not allowed for the disturbances produced by Neptune.

In each of these cases the conclusions were legitimately deduced from the recognised premises. Hubert’s skilled eye had calculated the distance; his experience had taught him the requisite angle at which to shoot, the exact amount of force necessary, and every other element proper to insure the desired result, except one. There was an element which he had overlooked; and it spoiled his calculations. He had forgotten the wind.

The master of the ill-fated brig had calculated his latitude correctly; he knew the rate of his vessel’s speed; the compass had showed him the parallel on which to steer. These premises ought to have secured a safe conclusion; and so they would, but for an unrecognised power that vitiated all; he was not aware of the silent and secret current, that was every hour setting him to the south of his supposed latitude.

The path of Uranus had been calculated by the astronomers with scrupulous care, and every known element of disturbance had been considered; not by one, but by many. But for the fact that the planet had been previously seen in positions quite inconsistent with such a path, it would have been set down as beyond controversy correct. Stubborn fact, however, would not give way; and hence the dilemma, till Le Verrier suggested the unseen antagonist.

I venture to suggest in the following pages an element, hitherto overlooked, which disturbs the conclusions of geologists respecting the antiquity of the earth. Their calculations are sound on the recognised premises; but they have not allowed for the Law of Prochronism in Creation.

In the first chapter he explains his purpose:

I am not assuming here that the Inspired Word has been rightly read; I merely say that the plain straightforward meaning, the meaning that lies manifestly on the face of the passages in question, is in opposition with the conclusions which geologists have formed, as to the antiquity and the genesis of the globe on which we live.

Perhaps the simple, superficial sense of the Word is not the correct one; but it is at least that which its readers, learned and unlearned, had been generally content with before; and which would, I suppose, scarcely have been questioned, but for what appeared the exigencies of geological facts.

Now while there are, unhappily, not a few infidels, professed or concealed, who eagerly seize on any apparent discrepancy between the works and the Word of God, in order that they may invalidate the truth of the latter, there are, especially in this country, many names of the highest rank in physical (and, among other branches, in geological) science, to whom the veracity of God is as dear as life. They cannot bear to see it impugned; they know that it cannot be overthrown; they are assured that He who gave the Word, and He who made the worlds, is One Jehovah, who cannot be inconsistent with Himself. But they cannot shut their eyes to the startling fact, that the records which seem legibly written on His created works do flatly contradict the statements which seem to be plainly expressed in His word.

Here is a dilemma. A most painful one to the reverent mind! And many reverent minds have laboured hard and long to escape from it. It is unfair and dishonest to class our men of science with the infidel and atheist. They did not rejoice in the dilemma; they saw it at first dimly, and hoped to avoid it. At first they believed that the mighty processes which are recorded on the “everlasting mountains” might not only be harmonized with, but might afford beautiful and convincing demonstrations of Holy Scripture. They thought that the deluge of Noah would explain the stratification, and the antediluvian era account for the organic fossils.

As geologists came to the conclusion that the earth must have existed for long ages, some people began associating geology with atheism, since these conclusions seemed to contradict Scripture. As Gosse says here, “it is unfair and dishonest” to make this association, since these men came to their conclusions not out of a desire to prove that Scripture was false, but because this was what was indicated by the evidence in the rocks they studied. Far from trying to prove that Scripture is false, as Gosse points out, for a long time they hoped they could reconcile the evidence of the rocks with a literal reading of Scripture. Gosse continues:

As the “stone book” was further read, this mode of explanation appeared to many untenable; and they retracted their adherence to it. To a mind rightly constituted, Truth is above every thing: there is no such thing as a pious fraud; the very idea is an impious lie: God is light, and in Him is no darkness at all; and that religion which can be maintained only by dissembling or denying truth, cannot proceed from “Him that is Holy, Him that is True,” but from him who “is a liar, and the father of it.”

Many upright and ardent cultivators of the young science felt that truth would be compromised by a persistence in those explanations which had hitherto passed current. The discrepancy between the readings in Science and the hitherto unchallenged readings in Scripture, became manifest. Partisans began to array themselves on either side; some, jealous for the honour of God, knew little of science, and rushed into the field ill-prepared for the conflict; some, jealous for science, but little conversant with Scripture, and caring less for it, were willing to throw overboard its authority altogether: others, who knew that the writings were from the same Hand, knew therefore that there must be some way of reconciling them, and set themselves to find it out.

Have they succeeded? If I thought so, I would not publish this book.

He has a long discussion of various ideas which had been proposed in order to reconcile geology and Scripture, after which he concludes the chapter:

I am not blaming, far less despising, the efforts that have been made for harmonizing the teachings of Scripture and science. I heartily sympathise with them. What else could good men do? They could not shut their eyes to the facts which Geology reveals: to have said they were not facts would have been simply absurd. Granting that the whole truth was before them—the whole evidence—they could not arrive at other conclusions than those just recorded; and, therefore, I do not blame their discrepancy inter se. The true key has not as yet been applied to the wards. Until it be, you may force the lock, but you cannot open it. Whether the key offered in the following pages will open the lock, remains to be seen.

The second and third chapters of the book discuss the geological evidence. At the end of the third chapter he presents this summary:

Thus we have brought down the record to an era embraced by human history, and even to individual experience; and we confidently ask, Is it possible, is it imaginable, that the whole of the phenomena which occur below the diluvial deposits can have been produced within six days, or seventeen centuries? Let us recapitulate the principal facts.

1. The crust of the earth is composed of many layers, placed one on another in regular order. All of these are solid, and most are of great density and hardness. Most of them are of vast thickness, the aggregate not being less than from seven to ten miles.

2. The earlier of these were made and consolidated before the newer were formed; for in several cases, it is demonstrable that the latter were made out of the débris of the former. Thus the compact and hard granite was disintegrated grain by grain; the component granules were rolled awhile in the sea till their angles were rubbed down; they were slowly deposited, and then consolidated in layers.

3. A similar process goes on again and again to form other strata, all occupying long time, and all presupposing the earlier ones.

4. After some strata have been formed and solidified, convulsions force them upward, contort them, break them, split them asunder. Melted matter is driven through the outlets, fills the veins, spreads over the surface, settles into the hollows, cools and solidifies.

5. After the outflowing and consolidation of these volcanic streams, the action of running water cuts them down, cleaving beds of immense depth through their substance. Mr. Poulett Scrope, speaking of the solidified streams of basalt, in the volcanic district of Southern France, observes:—

“These ancient currents have since been corroded by rivers, which have worn through a mass of 150 feet in height, and formed a channel even in the granite rocks beneath, since the lava first flowed into the valley. In another spot, a bed of basalt, 160 feet high, has been cut through by a mountain stream. The vast excavations effected by the erosive power of currents along the valleys which feed the Ardèche, since their invasion by lava-currents, prove that even the most recent of these volcanic eruptions belong to an era incalculably remote.”

6. A series of organic beings appears, lives, generates, dies; lives, generates, dies; for thousands and thousands of successive generations. Tiny polypes gradually build up gigantic masses of coral,—mountains and reefs—microscopic foraminifera accumulate strata of calcareous sand; still more minute infusoria—forty millions to the inch—make slates, many yards thick, of their shells alone.

7. The species at length die out—a process which we have no data to measure, though we may reasonably conclude it very long. Sometimes the whole existing fauna seems to have come to a sudden violent end; at others, the species die out one by one. In the former case suddenly, in the latter progressively, new creatures supply the place of the old. Not only do species change; the very genera change, and change again. Forms of beings, strange beings, beings of uncouth shape, of mighty ferocity and power, of gigantic dimensions, come in, run their specific race, propagate their kinds generation after generation,—and at length die out and disappear; to be replaced by other species, each approaching nearer and nearer to familiar forms.

8. Though these early creatures were unparalleled by anything existing now, yet they were animals of like structure and economy essentially. We can determine their analogies and affinities; appoint them their proper places in the orderly plan of nature, and show how beautifully they fill hiatuses therein. They had shells, crusts, plates, bones, horns, teeth, exactly corresponding in structure and function to those of recent animals. In some cases we find the young with its milk-teeth by the side of its dam with well-worn grinders. The fossil excrement is seen not only dropped, but even in the alimentary canal. Bones bear the marks of gnawing teeth that dragged them and cracked them, and fed upon them. The foot-prints of birds and frogs, of crabs and worms, are imprinted in the soil, like the faithful impression of a seal.

9. Millions of forest-trees sprang up, towered to heaven, and fell, to be crushed into the coal strata which make our winter fires. Hundreds of feet measure the thickness of what were once succulent plants, but pressed together like paper-pulp, and consolidated under a weight absolutely immensurable. Yet there remain the scales of their stems, the elegant reticulated patterns of their bark, the delicate tracery of their leaf-nerves, indelibly depicted by an unpatented process of “nature-printing.” And when we examine the record,—the forms of the leaves, the structure of the tissues, we get the same result as before, that the plants belonged to a flora which had no species in common with that which adorns the modern earth. Very gradually, and only after many successions, not of individual generations, but of the cycles of species, genera, and even families, did the vegetable creation conform itself to ours.

10. At length the species both of plants and animals grew,—not by alteration of their specific characters, but by replacement of species by species—more and more like what we have now on the earth, and finally merged into our present flora and fauna, about the time when we find the first geological traces of man.

11. During the course of these successive cycles of organic life, the map of the world has changed many times. Up to a late period the ocean washed over Mont Blanc and Mount Ararat; the continent of Europe was a wide sea; then it was a Polynesia, then an Archipelago of great islands, then a Continent much larger than it is now, with England united to it, and the solid land stretching far away into the Atlantic;—then it sank again, and was again raised, not all at once, but by several stages, each of which has left its coast line, and its shingle beach. All these changes must have been the work of vast periods of time.

“Excepting possibly, but not certainly, the higher parts of some mountains, which at widely different epochs have been upheaved, and made to elevate and pierce the stratified masses which once lay over them, there is scarcely a spot on the earth’s surface which has not been many times in succession the bottom of the sea, and a portion of dry land. In the majority of cases, it is shown, by physical evidences of the most decisive kind, that each of those successive conditions was of extremely long duration; a duration which it would be presumptuous to put into any estimate of years or centuries; for any alteration, of which vestiges occur in the zoological state and the mineral constitution of the earth’s present surface, furnishes no analogy (with regard to the nature and continuance of causes), that approaches in greatness of character to those changes whose evidences are discernible in almost any two continuous strata. It is an inevitable inference, unless we are disposed to abandon the principles of fair reasoning, that each one of such changes in organic life did not take place till after the next preceding condition of the earth had continued through a duration, compared with which six thousand years appear an inconsiderable fraction of time.”

12. The climate of our atmosphere has undergone corresponding mutations. At one time the Palms, the Treeferns, the Cycads of the tropical jungles found their congenial home here: the Elephant, the Rhinoceros, and the Tiger roamed over England; nay, dwelt in countless hosts on the northern shores of Siberia: then the climate gradually cooled to a temperate condition: then it became cold, and glaciers and icebergs were its characteristic features: finally it became temperate again.

13. The icebergs and the glaciers were the ships and railways of past epochs; they were freighted with their heavy but worthless cargoes of rock-boulders and gravel, and set out on their long voyages and travels, over sea and land, sometimes writing their log-books in ineffaceable scratches on the rocky tables over which they passed, and at length discharging their freights in harbours and bays, on inland plains, on mountain sides and summits, where they remain unclaimed, free for any trader in such commodities, without the ceremony of producing the original bill of lading.

Let the remainder be told in the words of one of our most eloquent and able geologists, Professor Sedgwick.

“The fossils demonstrate the time to have been long, though we cannot say how long. Thus we have generation after generation of shell-fish, that have lived and died on the spots where we find them; very often demonstrating the lapse of many years for a few perpendicular inches of deposit. In some beds we have large, cold-blooded reptiles, creatures of long life. In others, we have traces of ancient forests, and enormous fossil trees, with concentric rings of structure, marking the years of growth. Phenomena of this kind are repeated again and again; so that we have three or four distinct systems of deposit, each formed at a distinct period of time, and each, characterised by its peculiar fossils. Coeval with the Tertiary masses, we have enormous lacustrine deposits; sometimes made up of very fine thin laminæ, marking slow tranquil deposits. Among these laminæ, we can find sometimes the leaf-sheddings and the insects of successive seasons. Among them also we find almost mountain-masses of the Indusiœ tubulatœ [the cases of Phryganeœ], and other sheddings of insects, year after year. Again, streams of ancient lava alternate with some of these lacustrine tertiary deposits.

“In central France, a great stream of lava caps the lacustrine limestone. At a subsequent period the waters have excavated deep valleys, cutting down into the lacustrine rock-marble many hundred feet; and, at a newer epoch, anterior to the authentic history of Europe, new craters have opened, and fresh streams of lava have run down the existing valleys. Even in the Tertiary period we have thus a series of demonstrative proofs of a long succession of physical events, each of which required a long lapse of ages for its elaboration.

“Again, as we pass downwards from the bottom Tertiary beds to the Chalk, we instantly find new types of organic life. The old species, which exist in millions of individuals in the upper beds, disappear, and new species are found in the chalk immediately below. This fact indicates a long lapse of time. Had the chalk and upper beds been formed simultaneously at the same period [as the supporters of the diluvial theory represent], their organic remains must have been more or less mixed; but they are not. Again, at the base of the Tertiary deposits resting on the Chalk, we often find great masses of conglomerate or shingle, made up of chalk-flints rolled by water. These separate the Chalk from the overlying beds, and many of the rolled flints contain certain petrified chalk-fossils. Now, every such fossil proves the following points:—

“1. There was a time when the organic body was alive at the bottom of the sea.

“2. It was afterwards imbedded in the cretaceous deposit.

“3. It became petrified; a very slow process.

“4. The Chalk was, by some change of marine currents, washed away, or degraded, [i. e. worn away under the atmosphere by the weather and casualties, a process slow almost beyond description,] and the solid flints and fossils [thus detached from their imbeddings], were rolled into shingles.

“5. Afterwards, these shingles were covered up, and buried under Tertiary deposits.

“In this way of interpretation, a section of a few perpendicular feet indicates a long lapse of time, and the co-ordinate fact of the entire change of organic types, between the beds above and those below, falls in with the preceding inference, and shows the lapse of time to have been very long.”

After some preparation in the following chapters, in chapter 6 Gosse begins to present his new key:

The course of nature is a circle. I do not mean the plan of nature; I am not speaking of a circular arrangement of species, genera, families, and classes, as maintained by MacLeay, Swainson, and others. Their theories may be true, or they may be false; I decide nothing concerning them; I am not alluding to any plan of nature, but to its course, cursus,—the way in which it runs on. This is a circle.

Here is in my garden a scarlet runner. It is a slender twining stem some three feet long, beset with leaves, with a growing bud at one end, and with the other inserted in the earth. What was it a month ago? A tiny shoot protruding from between two thick fleshy leaves scarcely raised above the ground. A month before that? The thick fleshy leaves were two oval cotyledons, closely appressed face to face, with the minute plumule between them, the whole enclosed in an unbroken, tightly-fitting, spotted, leathery coat. It was a bean, a seed.

Was this the commencement of its existence? O no! Six months earlier still it was snugly lying, with several others like itself, in a green fleshy pod, to the interior of which it was organically attached. A month before that, this same pod with its contents was the centre of a scarlet butterfly-like flower, the bottom of its pistil, within which, if you had split it open, you would have discerned the tiny beans, whose history we are tracing backwards, each imbedded in the soft green tissue, but no bigger than the eye of a cambric needle.

But where was this flower? It was one of many that glowed on my garden wall all through last summer; each cluster springing as a bud from a slender twining stem, which was the exact counterpart of that with which we commenced this little life-history.

And this earlier stem,—what of it? It too had been a shoot, a pair of cotyledons with a plumule, a seed, an integral part of a carpel, which was a part of an earlier flower, that expanded from an earlier bud, that grew out of an earlier stem, that had been a still earlier seed, that had been—and backward, ad infinitum, for aught that I can perceive.

The course, then, of a scarlet runner is a circle, without beginning or end:—that is, I mean, without a natural, a normal beginning or end. For at what point of its history can you put your finger, and say, “Here is the commencement of this organism, before which there is a blank; here it began to exist?” There is no such point; no stage which does not look back to a previous stage, on which this stage is inevitably and absolutely dependent.

Although he proceeds to give various other examples, Gosse’s new solution should already be obvious:

Creation, however, solves the dilemma. I have, in my postulates, begged the fact of creation, and I shall not, therefore, attempt to prove it. Creation, the sovereign fiat of Almighty Power, gives us the commencing point, which we in vain seek in nature. But what is creation? It is the sudden bursting into a circle. Since there is no one stage in the course of existence, which, more than any other affords a natural commencing point, whatever stage is selected by the arbitrary will of God, must be an unnatural, or rather a preter-natural, commencing point.

The life-history of every organism commenced at some point or other of its circular course. It was created, called into being, in some definite stage. Possibly, various creatures differed in this respect; perhaps some began existence in one stage of development, some in another; but every separate organism had a distinct point at which it began to live. Before that point there was nothing; this particular organism had till then no existence; its history presents an absolute blank; it was not.

But the whole organisation of the creature thus newly called into existence, looks back to the course of an endless circle in the past. Its whole structure displays a series of developments, which as distinctly witness to former conditions as do those which are presented in the cow, the butterfly, and the fern, of the present day. But what former conditions? The conditions thus witnessed unto, as being necessarily implied in the present organisation, were non-existent; the history was a perfect blank till the moment of creation. The past conditions or stages of existence in question, can indeed be as triumphantly inferred by legitimate deduction from the present, as can those of our cow or butterfly; they rest on the very same evidences; they are identically the same in every respect, except in this one, that they were unreal. They exist only in their results; they are effects which never had causes.

Perhaps it may help to clear my argument if I divide the past developments of organic life, which are necessarily, or at least legitimately, inferrible from present phenomena, into two categories, separated by the violent act of creation. Those unreal developments whose apparent results are seen in the organism at the moment of its creation, I will call prochronic, because time was not an element in them; while those which have subsisted since creation, and which have had actual existence, I will distinguish as diachronic, as occurring during time.

Now, again I repeat, there is no imaginable difference to sense between the prochronic and the diachronic development. Every argument by which the physiologist can prove to demonstration that yonder cow was once a fœtus in the uterus of its dam, will apply with exactly the same power to show that the newly created cow was an embryo, some years before its creation.

His new key, of course, is that the world is created with the appearance, but not the reality, of age. Excited by his idea, Gosse spends many chapters playing with it, illustrating it by example after example. During this process he answers certain potential objections, as in this case in chapter 9:

In both these examples, the polished surfaces of the teeth, worn away by mutual action, afford striking evidence of the lapse of time. Some one may possibly object, however, to this: “What right have you to assume that these teeth were worn away at the moment of its creation, admitting the animal to have been created adult? May they not have been entire?” I reply, Impossible: the Hippopotamus’s teeth would have been perfectly useless to him, except in the ground-down condition: nay, the unworn canines would have effectually prevented his jaws from closing, necessitating the keeping of the mouth wide open until the attrition was performed; long before which, of course, he would have starved. In a natural condition the mutual wearing begins as soon as the surface of the teeth come into contact with each other; that is, as soon as they have acquired a development which constitutes them fit for use. The degree of attrition is merely a question of time. There is no period that can be named, supposing the existence of the perfected teeth at all, in which the evidence of this action would not be visible. How distinct an evidence of past action, and yet, in the case of the created individual, how illusory!

None of this, of course, would be any explanation for the existence of fossils, given that there were never any living things of which they were fossils. In the concluding chapter he suggests his explanation:

In order to perfect the analogy between an organism and the world, so as to show that the law which prevails in the one obtains also in the other, it would be necessary to prove that the development of the physical history of the world is circular, like that already shown to characterise the course of organic nature. And this I cannot prove. But neither, as I think, can the contrary be proved.

The life of the individual consists of a series of processes which are cyclical. In the tree this is shown by the successive growths and deaths of series of leaves: in the animal by the development and exuviation of nails, hair, epidermis, &c.

The life of the species consists of a series of processes which are cyclical. This has been sufficiently illustrated in the preceding pages, in the successive developments and deaths of generations of individuals.

We have reason to believe that species die out, and are replaced by other species, like the individuals which belong to the species, and the organs which belong to the individual. But is the life of the species a circle returning into itself? In other words, if we could take a sufficiently large view of the whole plan of nature, should we discern that the existence of one species necessarily involved the pre-existence of another species, and must inevitably be followed by yet another species? Should we be able to trace the same sort of relation between the tiger of Bengal and the fossil tiger of the Yorkshire caves, between Elephas Indicus and Elephas primigenius, as subsists between the leaves of 1857 and the leaves of 1856; or between the oak now flourishing in Sherwood Forest and that of Robin Hood’s day, from whose acorn it sprang?

I dare not say, we should; though I think it highly probable. But I think you will not dare to say, we should not.

According to this hypothesis, the fossils were created in order to represent a theoretical history of life which in fact did not take place. Gosse responds to the charge of deception on the part of God:

It may be objected, that, to assume the world to have been created with fossil skeletons in its crust,—skeletons of animals that never really existed,—is to charge the Creator with forming objects whose sole purpose was to deceive us. The reply is obvious. Were the concentric timber-rings of a created tree formed merely to deceive? Were the growth lines of a created shell intended to deceive? Was the navel of the created Man intended to deceive him into the persuasion that he had had a parent?

In the end he suggests that his account should be applied to the entire history of the world:

If, then, the existence of retrospective marks, visible and tangible proofs of processes which were prochronic, was so necessary to organic essences, that they could not have been created without them,—is it absurd to suggest the possibility (I do no more) that the world itself was created under the influence of the same law, with visible tangible proofs of developments and processes, which yet were only prochronic?

Admit for a moment, as a hypothesis, that the Creator had before his mind a projection of the whole life-history of the globe, commencing with any point which the geologist may imagine to have been a fit commencing point, and ending with some unimaginable acme in the indefinitely distant future. He determines to call this idea into actual existence, not at the supposed commencing point, but at some stage or other of its course. It is clear, then, that at the selected stage it appears, exactly as it would have appeared at that moment of its history, if all the preceding eras of its history had been real. Just as the new-created Man was, at the first moment of his existence, a man of twenty, or five-and-twenty, or thirty years old; physically, palpably, visibly, so old, though not really, not diachronically. He appeared precisely what he would have appeared had he lived so many years.

Let us suppose that this present year 1857 had been the particular epoch in the projected life-history of the world, which the Creator selected as the era of its actual beginning. At his fiat it appears; but in what condition? Its actual condition at this moment:—whatever is now existent would appear, precisely as it does appear. There would be cities filled with swarms of men; there would be houses half-built; castles fallen into ruins; pictures on artists’ easels just sketched in; wardrobes filled with half-worn garments; ships sailing over the sea; marks of birds’ footsteps on the mud; skeletons whitening the desert sands; human bodies in every stage of decay in the burial-grounds. These and millions of other traces of the past would be found, because they are found in the world now; they belong to the present age of the world; and if it had pleased God to call into existence this globe at this epoch of its life-history, the whole of which lay like a map before his infinite mind, it would certainly have presented all these phenomena; not to puzzle the philosopher, but because they are inseparable from the condition of the world at the selected moment of irruption into its history; because they constitute its condition; they make it what it is.

Gosse’s hypothesis is ingenius, in some ways, and yet when considered with respect to his original intentions, it fails completely.

Let us suppose that the world was created in 1857 (or in 4004 BC, or at any other date), according to this hypothesis, with an apparent age and an apparent history. Are statements about the past, made by people who do not know of this recent creation, true or false? Is it true to say that Columbus discovered America in 1492, or that there was a volcanic eruption in France sometime around 5760 BC? Or is it false, if this date was before the creation of the world?

If these statements remain true, then he has not given us any reason to think that the geologists were wrong about anything in particular. For their statements about the geological history of the world will be just as true as they would be without his hypothesis. And it will no longer even be clear what it means to say that the world was created at a certain time, since things happened, and therefore also existed, before that time in any case. In order for his hypothesis to have any clear meaning, then, it has to be false to make statements about the “prochronic” history of the world, unless those statements are qualified in exactly that way, namely as appearances and not as facts.

Given that he says that statements about times before creation are false, his hypothesis is meaningful, although not especially verifiable. But he has formulated the hypothesis for a particular purpose, namely in order to reconcile Scripture and geology. The problem with this is that Scripture does not assign any particular date to the creation of the world. It surely does not say that the world was created in 4000 BC, or in 10,000 BC, or in 100,000 BC. Rather, the implication that the earth is relatively young is derived from a literal and historical interpretation of the book of Genesis as a whole, as well as the following books of the Bible. Gosse’s hypothesis only makes sense, then, if it is intended to preserve such a historical reading of Genesis.

The problem should be obvious. The apparent conflict between geology and Genesis is not a conflict about dating. The conflict consists in the fact that the particular history laid out by the book of Genesis does not appear to be consistent with the particular history laid out by geology. And Gosse’s hypothesis does not change this fact. Thus, for example, not only are rock strata inconsistent with being caused by a global flood, but the data of geology are inconsistent with a global flood happening at all, at any time during human history. This means that even if Gosse’s hypothesis is true, there was a global flood neither during the prochronic history nor during the diachronic history. And this means that the conflict with the literal reading of Genesis remains unchanged.

Flood Geology

Much as John Woodmorappe interprets the tree ring evidence, young earth creationists attempt to understand geology in a similar way. Thus for example Andrew Snelling discusses the fossil record:

For many people, the fossil record is still believed to be “exhibit A” for evolution. Why? Because most geologists insist the sedimentary rock layers were deposited gradually over vast eons of time during which animals lived, died, and then were occasionally buried and fossilized. So when these fossilized animals (and plants) are found in the earth’s rock sequences in a particular order of first appearance, such as animals without backbones (invertebrates) in lower layers followed progressively upward by fish, then amphibians, reptiles, birds, and finally mammals (e.g., in the Colorado Plateau region of the United States), it is concluded, and thus almost universally taught, that this must have been the order in which these animals evolved during those vast eons of time.

However, in reality, it can only be dogmatically asserted that the fossil record is the record of the order in which animals and plants were buried and fossilized. Furthermore, the vast eons of time are unproven and unproveable, being based on assumptions about how quickly sedimentary rock layers were deposited in the unobserved past. Instead, there is overwhelming evidence that most of the sedimentary rock layers were deposited rapidly. Indeed, the impeccable state of preservation of most fossils requires the animals and plants to have been very rapidly buried, virtually alive, by vast amounts of sediments before decay could destroy delicate details of their appearance and anatomy. Thus, if most sedimentary rock layers were deposited rapidly over a radically short period of time, say in a catastrophic global flood, then the animals and plants buried and fossilized in those rock layers may well have all lived at about the same time and then have been rapidly buried progressively and sequentially.

Insofar as one understands geological strata in the manner of James Hutton, the evidence cited is good evidence for evolution. Snelling, however, says that this is a misinterpretation of geology. According to him, “the vast eons of time are unproven and proveable, being based on assumptions about how quickly sedimentary rock layers were deposited in the unobserved past.” The idea is that since no one can go back and look at the past, it is unobserved and unobservable. Consequently nothing can be proven about it. This is a mistake, for the same reasons that Hume is mistaken in supposing that we cannot have probable knowledge about the future.

In any case, Snelling contradicts himself in the next sentence, saying, “Instead, there is overwhelming evidence that most of the sedimentary rock layers were deposited rapidly.” If claims about the past are unproven and unproveable and must be based on assumptions, this will apply equally to the claim that the sedimentary rock layers were deposited rapidly. If overwhelming evidence for this is possible, then it is also possible to have overwhelming evidence that they were deposited slowly.

Apart from the fact that it is not true that most fossils are in an “impeccable state of preservation,” and not true that they typically preserve “delicate details of their appearance and anatomy,” Snelling’s implication that evidence regarding the rate of deposition is possible after all, is fatal to his account, because the overwhelming evidence is precisely on the opposite side. His account may sound plausible on its face, but this plausibility depends on speaking in generalities and refusing to apply the account to the actual details found in the rocks.

For example, Gregg Davidson, responding to this kind of thinking, says:

There are many places around the earth with layers of salt, some thousands of feet in thickness. Just off the southern coast of the United States in the Gulf of Mexico, thick salt deposits sit beneath thousands of feet of sediment. These deposits lie within the layers that are said to have been deposited by the Flood.

We understand how salt beds form. At locations such as the Bonneville Salt Flats of Utah, or at the Dead Sea at the border of Israel and Jordan, salt is actively forming. Salt beds form when water is evaporated. During evaporation, the concentration of dissolved ions increases until the water cannot hold the salt in solution anymore and mineral salt begins to form. If a presently unknown or poorly understood process could produce salt without evaporation, as argued by young-earth advocates, it would quickly dissolve as soon as it came into contact with flood water, just as the salt from your saltshaker rapidly dissolves when added to water or moist food.

One might argue that the waters from the Flood could have evaporated to leave behind the salt deposits we see today, but there is a serious problem. The thousands of feet of sediment on top of the salt is also said to be from the Flood, meaning the flood waters cannot have evaporated to produce the salt and still be present and violent enough to transport thousands of feet of sediment to the same location. In other words, a single flood cannot be called upon to explain both the salt and the overlying sediment. For those who wish to argue that natural processes could have been vastly different during the Flood, there are at least two replies. First, under such a scenario, there is no point in Flood Geology studies any more than in normal studies, for nothing could be gained by the study of unknowable processes. A more important question, however, would be to ask why God would alter natural processes just to make Flood sediments look like they are not flood sediments. What would the purpose be? (We will revisit this thought later.)

Note that the formation of salt beds requires repeated evaporation, and consequently it will take an extremely long time to form a layer thousands of feet thick.

Davidson goes on to discuss numerous other details that cannot be explained by a process of rapid deposition:

The Grand Canyon is made up of a sequence of layers that defies any reasonable attempt to explain by a single flood. The alternating layers of limestone, sandstone and shale each form in unique environments. If these deposits were formed at different times under various sea-level stages, it is quite simple to explain the different grain sizes and rock types as a function of depth and distance from the shore line. If explained with a single catastrophic flood that abided by God’s natural laws of physics and chemistry, logic must be stretched beyond the breaking point.

As a very simple observation, consider instructions given in virtually every gardening book. A good soil will have a mix of sand, silt and clay. To determine the quality of your soil, you take a handful or two, put it in a clear container, add water and shake it up. When you stop shaking, the coarse grained material will settle out first resulting in a sequence of layers: sand on the bottom, then silt, then clay. You can readily see how much of each you have by the thickness of each layer.

This is informative of what we see in flood deposits. As moving flood waters slow down, finer and finer grained sediment settles out resulting in a “fining upward” sequence. If most of the Grand Canyon layers were laid down by the Flood, then we should see the same thing – a “fining upward” sequence. Instead, we see a series of alternating layers of fine and coarse grained material, with smaller-scale alternating layers within the larger ones. Increasing the violence of a flood does nothing to negate the standard order of deposition. Repeated surging of flood waters across the surface likewise offers little explanatory power; in this case we might expect successive layers, each with their own “fining upward” sequence, but such is not what is observed. Further, the Grand Canyon includes multiple layers of limestone, which are never found in flood deposits of any magnitude. Even in floods as massive as one thought to have catastrophically deluged the once dry Mediterranean Sea basin with thousands of feet of water – limestone beds are conspicuously absent.

I could give examples of responses to these kinds of considerations, but it would be a pointless exercise, essentially a repeating of the previous post. The reason that James Hutton and geologists like him came to the conclusion of “indefinite” time periods was that this is simply what is indicated by the rocks, and the misinterpretations of flood geology and the like are simply postulates made for the sake of a personal decision for personal motives, like that of Kurt Wise, with very little relationship with actual evidence.

Imperfect Copies and Evolution

We tend to think of evidence for evolution in terms of complex facts of geology and biology. But in fact there is pretty good evidence for the theory of evolution which is available to almost everyone, or least everyone who has some familiarity with various kinds of plants and animals, without any complicated study.

What happens when you take a thing, then make a copy, then make copies of the copies, and so on? If your copies are perfect, you will just get a bunch of identical copies of the original. But if your copies are not perfect, something else happens. Suppose you perform this process with photocopies of a sheet of paper with text on it. Over time, various discrepancies will creep in. For example, during one of your copies there may be a hair on the surface of the copy machine, and this hair will show up as an extra line on the copy.

Then, when you make copies of the sheet with the extra line, all the copies you make of it, and all the copies of the copies of that sheet, and so on, will all have an extra line.

At the end you will be able to divide your copies into at least two families: ones with the extra line, and ones without it. In practice you will not get just two families, but families within families within families, and so on.

There are two facts about living things, neither of which is all that hard to notice.

First, living things make copies of themselves. They are not perfect copies but imperfect ones, with differences from the original.

Second, living things are organized in the way discussed above, as families within families. Thus there are various kinds of dog such as the chihuahua and the golden retriever, which are both kinds of dog. And then there are dogs and wolves, which are pretty similar themselves. And wolves have a similar relationship with coyotes and jackals. And all of these canine species have a similar relationship with cat families, and so on.

These two facts are evidence for common descent, that is, evidence that all of these living things are remote descendants of a lengthy process of the imperfect copying of one original ancestor.

Nonetheless, the theory was rarely proposed, if not non-existent, before the eighteenth century. Empedocles anticipated the theory of natural selection, as in this statement by Aristotle:

Wherever then all the parts came about just what they would have been if they had come be for an end, such things survived, being organized spontaneously in a fitting way; whereas those which grew otherwise perished and continue to perish, as Empedocles says his ‘man-faced ox-progeny’ did.

Empedocles, however, implied (for example by speaking of “man-faced ox-progeny”) that things came to be by chance, and does not seem to have suggested common descent in particular.

Given the presence of evidence for common descent, why was the theory not proposed much earlier? I have two guesses regarding the reason for this. First, the existence of an apparently settled account in the book of Genesis. Second, the fact that it is difficult for people to conceive of long periods of time and of their effects. People have a hard time even with much shorter periods of time, let alone the idea of considering the effects of the passage of millions of years.

The 1909 Pontifical Biblical Commission Statement on Genesis

Some days ago I quoted, without discussion, this 1909 statement from the Pontifical Biblical Commission:

Question I: Whether the various exegetical systems which have been proposed to exclude the literal historical sense of the three first chapters of the Book of Genesis, and have been defended by the pretense of science, are sustained by a solid foundation? — Reply: In the negative.

Question II: Whether, when the nature and historical form of the Book of Genesis does not oppose, because of the peculiar connections of the three first chapters with each other and with the following chapters, because of the manifold testimony of the Old and New Testaments; because of the almost unanimous opinion of the Holy Fathers, and because of the traditional sense which, transmitted from the Israelite people, the Church always held, it can be taught that the three aforesaid chapters of Genesis do not contain the stories of events which really happened, that is, which correspond with objective reality and historical truth; but are either accounts celebrated in fable drawn from the mythologies and cosmogonies of ancient peoples and adapted by a holy writer to monotheistic doctrine, after expurgating any error of polytheism; or allegories and symbols, devoid of a basis of objective reality, set forth under the guise of history to inculcate religious and philosophical truths; or, finally, legends, historical in part and fictitious in part, composed freely for the instruction and edification of souls? — Reply: In the negative to both parts.

Question III: Whether in particular the literal and historical sense can be called into question, where it is a matter of facts related in the same chapters, which pertain to the foundation of the Christian religion; for example, among others, the creation of all things wrought by God in the beginning of time; the special creation of man; the formation of the first woman from the first man; the oneness of the human race; the original happiness of our first parents in the state of justice, integrity, and immortality; the command given to man by God to prove his obedience; the transgression of the divine command through the devil’s persuasion under the guise of a serpent; the casting of our first parents out of that first state of innocence; and also the promise of a future restorer? — Reply: In the negative.

This supports a literal historical interpretation of the first chapters of Genesis, and is opposed to the interpretation I supported in that post. I consider the decision to publish this statement to have been a foolish decision on the part of the Pontifical Biblical Commission, even in 1909. However, the Catholic Church has a long history and tends to be fairly careful even in its apparently foolish behavior. We can notice some signs of care in this statement:

The first response says that “the various exegetical systems which have been proposed to exclude the literal historical sense of the three first chapters of the Book of Genesis” are not “sustained by a solid foundation.” Notice that in principle this could be true even if the first chapters of Genesis are not actually intended in a literal historical sense. It could also be true about the systems of the time, even if it is possible to build a solid foundation for an interpretation excluding such a literal historical sense.

The second response denies that the non-historical interpretations “can be taught.” It is strictly speaking a disciplinary decision, and is thus logically consistent with the opinion that such a non-historical interpretation is true, even if the decision only makes sense in view of the Commission’s opinion that such interpretations are reasonably likely to be false.

The third response denies that “the literal and historical sense can be called into question.” It too is a disciplinary decision, and does not exclude the possibility the text is not actually intended in a literal and historical way.

To someone unfamiliar with magisterial statements, these interpretations might seem to be nitpicking, but in fact this is simply the correct and careful way to read these statements. We can see a similar sort of care in the statement of Pope Pius XII on polygenism in Humani Generis:

When, however, there is question of another conjectural opinion, namely polygenism, the children of the Church by no means enjoy such liberty. For the faithful cannot embrace that opinion which maintains that either after Adam there existed on this earth true men who did not take their origin through natural generation from him as from the first parent of all, or that Adam represents a certain number of first parents. Now it is in no way apparent how such an opinion can be reconciled with that which the sources of revealed truth and the documents of the Teaching Authority of the Church propose with regard to original sin, which proceeds from a sin actually committed by an individual Adam and which, through generation, is passed on to all and is in everyone as his own.

Pius XII is careful not to say that polygenism is false. Instead he says that “the faithful cannot embrace that opinion,” and explains that “it is no way apparent how such an opinion can be reconciled” with the teaching of the Church. This deliberately leaves open the possibility that it may become apparent later, and that likewise Catholics may be allowed to accept the opinion. Similarly, he adds “on this earth” to “true men” because if “true man” means a rational animal, then any rational aliens will be true men who are not descended from Adam. Since he does not wish to make any statement about aliens, he adds this qualifier to his statement.

In 1948 the Pontifical Biblical Commission sent a letter containing this paragraph to the Archbishop of Paris:

The question of the literary forms of the eleven first chapters of Genesis is more obscure and more complicated. These literary forms do not correspond exactly with any classical category, and are not to be judged according to Greco-Latin or modern literary forms. Hence the historicity of these chapters can neither be denied nor affirmed simply, without undue application to them of the norms of a literary form under which they cannot be classed. If, then, it is admitted that in these chapters history in the classic and modern sense is not found, it must also be confessed that modern science does not yet offer a positive solution to all the problems of these chapters. . . . If anyone should contend a priori that their narratives contain no history in the modern sense of the word, he would easily insinuate that these are in no sense of the word historical, although in fact they relate in simple and figurative words, which correspond to the capacity of men who are less erudite, fundamental truths with reference to the economy of health [salvation], and also describe in popular manner the origin of humankind and of an elect people.

One might say that the Pontifical Biblical Commission here is asserting that the first chapters of Genesis have an “invisible genre” which does not correspond to any other that is known. Consequently, Fr. Brian Harrison, rejecting this invisible genre, is rejecting this claim of the Pontifical Biblical Commission.

In any case, although they imply that these chapters are in some “sense of the word historical,” this seems only to mean that the text should be taken to assert “fundamental truths with reference to the economy of salvation.” This is actually consistent with the genre I suggested, although I would not personally describe it as a historical genre. A story of this kind is generally intended to say or imply something about the world. In particular, as we saw, Genesis seems to say that the world once existed in some kind of perfect state, and that we fell from that state due to a human fault.

The interpretation of the Catechism of the Catholic Church is consistent with the same reading:

The account of the fall in Genesis 3 uses figurative language, but affirms a primeval event, a deed that took place at the beginning of the history of man. Revelation gives us the certainty of faith that the whole of human history is marked by the original fault freely committed by our first parents.

This assertion is also consistent with a much more historical reading of Genesis 3. However, it is clear enough that such a more historical reading is not what the authors of the Catechism have in mind, as for example from this text:

The question about the origins of the world and of man has been the object of many scientific studies which have splendidly enriched our knowledge of the age and dimensions of the cosmos, the development of life-forms and the appearance of man. These discoveries invite us to even greater admiration for the greatness of the Creator, prompting us to give him thanks for all his works and for the understanding and wisdom he gives to scholars and researchers. With Solomon they can say: “It is he who gave me unerring knowledge of what exists, to know the structure of the world and the activity of the elements. . . for wisdom, the fashioner of all things, taught me.”

This text is not speaking of discoveries made by people from Answers in Genesis. As is evident from “development of life-forms and the appearance of man,” it is speaking of biological evolution, both of animals and of human beings. While this is not a specific statement about the events of Genesis 3, this acceptance of the theory of evolution implies a fairly generic reading of the chapter. This seems to imply a reading of Genesis very close to the one we have suggested.

Note that none of this prevents the 1909 Pontifical Biblical Commission statement from being evidence for a literal historical reading. The evidence does not change sides. But it seems evident overall that it is more reasonable to accept a more generic, “mythical” reading as being the true sense of Genesis 2-3, whether or not you give any weight to the teachings of the Catholic Church. Nor is this deduced by the syllogism discussed by Fr. Brian Harrison. This is the most reasonable reading even if you think that Scripture is false.

Fr. Harrison also adduces the evidence that most Christians throughout history have preferred a literal reading of the text. But this is another story for another time.