Wednesday, July 27, 2005

Panda's Thumb follows up on Cardinal Schönborn's remarks

Reed Cartwright at the Panda's Thumb follows up on the recent New York Times Op-ed by Austrian Cardinal Schönborn. Schönborn's editorial contained phrases and concepts derived from the American Intelligent Design movement, and was received as an endorsement by the Catholic Church of that interpretation of the existing biological world. (Lots of background at the link.) I have a lot riding on this topic because of my Catholic heritage, and I have to say I read the Schönborn Op-ed with considerable dismay.

In subsequent clarifications, Schönborn seems to say that he wants only to criticize atheistic explanations of life, and he specifically remarks that the teaching of evolution is acceptable to the Church:
In follow-up remarks published July 11 by Kathpress, an Austrian Catholic news agency, Cardinal Schonborn cited Popes Pius XII and John Paul II as saying that the theory of evolution - as long as it remains within the realm of science and is not made into an ideological "dogma" which cannot be questioned - is in conformity with Catholic teaching.

I can live with the block quote. (However, the full text , despite its title, is not exactly what Richard Dawkins would say.) But I think the Cardinal is attacking a straw man. The whole point of working science is its etiological modesty and empiricism-- the exact opposite of normative "dogma" of the sort which the Cardinal dislikes. Specifically, the concept of the origin of species by natural selection as argued in Darwin's The Origin of Species is painstakingly developed, with repeated references to available data and to alternative interpretations. Here's Darwin in his last chapter:
That many and grave objections may be advanced against the theory of descent with modification through natural selection, I do not deny. I have endeavoured to give to them their full force. Nothing at first can appear more difficult to believe than that the more complex organs and instincts should have been perfected not by means superior to, though analogous with, human reason, but by the accumulation of innumerable slight variations, each good for the individual possessor...

Hardly a blowhard! He's trying to explain what he sees. It's very much worth a read even today. And it's important to note that Darwin had responses ready for a strict creationist. It is that person, and not the scientist, who is trying to put ideological constraints on the divine:
Authors of the highest eminence seem to be fully satisfied with the view that each species has been independently created. To my mind it accords better with what we know of the laws impressed on matter by the Creator, that the production and extinction of the past and present inhabitants of the world should have been due to secondary causes, like those determining the birth and death of the individual. When I view all beings not as special creations, but as the lineal descendants of some few beings which lived long before the first bed of the Silurian system was deposited, they seem to me to become ennobled.

So, to reiterate: the teaching of ecolution via descent with mpdification and natural selection does not in itself throw anyone's Uncaused Cause out of the window, and the Cardinal's revised argument does not affect institutional evolutionary science at all. The explicit refusal of science to treat with such matters should not be construed as a denial of anything, although individual scientists will of course have their private cosmologies. It is rather Intelligent Design which presumes to constrain the form of-- and therefore ideologically intrudes upon-- the divine within the biosphere.

I think it's appropriate to close with Darwin's famous "tangled bank" at the end of Origin:
There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.

Limitless complexity arising from elegant simplicity, and an almost Platonic invocation of beauty. These features of science ought to have some appeal to the devout.

UPDATE, August5: Crooked Timber quotes Cosma Shalizi with a a far more elegant way of saying it.

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