This story is ten years old, and the current pope has said similar things; but the text is relevant for an ongoing debate at the school where I teach. From the Ancient Hebrew Poetry blog:

I notice that in Germany, but also in the United States, a pretty hot debate is going on which pits so-called creationism against evolutionism. Creation and evolution are presented as if they were alternatives which logically exclude one another. The one who believes in the Creator is not supposed to be able to think in evolutionary terms, and the one who affirms evolution is supposed to be a non-believer in God by definition. This contraposition is an absurdity, because, on the one hand, there are many lines of scientific evidence in favor of evolution, which appears to be a reality we cannot help but see and which enriches our understanding of life and being as such.

On the other hand, the theory of evolution does not respond to all questions. In particular, it does not respond to the great philosophical question: what is the origin of all things? And how does the whole take a direction whose point of arrival is humanity? It’s very important, I think, and I was trying to say this at Regensburg in my lecture, that reason needs to open itself up more, so that, yes, it sees the physical and biological data, but also that these data are not sufficient to explain all of reality.

As part of an ongoing series of lectures at my church here in Cleveland, I was asked to give a talk this past Sunday; I chose to do so on the topic of Creation and Evolution. Aside from certain initial problems connecting my laptop computer to the projector, the presentation went fairly well. I used the following outline as a basis for the talk, although it should be said that, because of time constraints, not everything in the outline was actually touched upon during the lecture.

Creation and Evolution: Some thoughts on Earth history and its significance for Orthodox Christianity (16 December 2012)

  1. Introduction
    1. Who am I, and why am I talking about evolution?
      1. Peter Gilbert. I teach these days at a private Catholic school in South Euclid; I also taught for seven years at St. John’s College in Santa Fe, NM, and, for three and a half years, I taught at the Orthodox seminary in Durrës, Albania.
      2. I am not a biologist. In matters of biology, I am what might be called an educated layman. My doctorate is in church history, from the Catholic University of America. However, last year at the Lyceum School I was asked to teach a biology class, amongst a number of other subjects.… I also taught biology from time to time at a college in New Mexico, St. John’s College (although the approach to the subject there differed from what you would find at most colleges; it does not presuppose biological expertise on the part of the instructor).
      3. Another personal note. Some twenty years ago, I taught in Albania at the Orthodox Seminary of the Resurrection in Durrës. Albania had recently emerged from forty years of Communism, of the most virulent kind; the persecution of religion in Albania was about as bad as it gets. And one result of the communist indoctrination that my students had been through is that almost all of them took it for granted that, if one accepts evolution as a fact, then one is an atheist; if one is a believer, then one rejects evolution. Because Fr. Luke Veronis knew that that was not my view, he asked me, at one point, to speak about this subject at a student forum at the University of Tirana. I did so. It wasn’t a very good lecture; it showed me, in fact, how little I really knew about this subject. But it did increase my interest in the question. The present forum is, in a way, an opportunity for me to revise the thoughts that I first tried to formulate then.
      4. One other thing. When I was four years old, I visited the 1964-65 World’s Fair in Queens, NY. It helped to produce an interest in dinosaurs that was probably my first scientific interest. That interest never entirely disappeared, although it was eclipsed by other things over time, and I did not, in the end, become a paleontologist.
    2. The importance of the question.
      1. Evolution is not merely a scientific issue, but is also a political one, particularly in the United States. It has been debated in American courts since the Scopes’ trial in the 1920s.
  2. The Earth History time chart

    1. A good synoptic presentation of the current scientific consensus view of geological chronology. Has the advantage that, unlike most such charts, it is to scale. It takes the form of a clock; thus, one can get a better sense of how short a time humanity has been upon the earth.
    2. Radiometric dating, based on a knowledge of the “half lives” of unstable elements, is one source of this chart. But, in fact, it brings together findings from numerous sources.
  3. The Tree of Life (include a slide of this as part of your presentation).
    1. Note that, when you were young, living things were divided into “Plants” and “Animals.” The biological consensus nowadays is that things are much more complicated than this. You might have to explain what the words “Prokaryote” and “Eukaryote” mean. (κάρυον = “nut”)

  4. Two meanings of the word “evolution”
    1. The two meanings are often confused, and this is one reason why much of the debate over whether evolution is or is not a “theory” is so pointless.
    2. On the one hand, the word refers to the claim that species have come into being and gone out of existence over the earth’s long history, and that new species in some way derive from earlier ones. This claim deserves to be called, not a theory, but a fact, testified to by all the evidence of geology and paleontology.
    3. On the other hand, a theory meant to account for the factual evidence. Usually refers to what Charles Darwin called “natural selection,” or, Descent with Modification. A theory first presented in 1859, jointly by Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace.
      1. This view claims that new species appear because certain individuals are better fitted to their environment, more able to survive, than others are and, thus, are better able to pass on their peculiar characteristics to their offspring. The claim is made that, over a series of generations, such peculiarities in the offspring can accumulate to the point where one must speak, not merely of a variant breed within the species, but of a different species.
      2. This is a theory, but it is a theory accepted by the vast majority of biologists as being consistent with observable facts: e.g., with the fossil record, with mutations seen in rapidly multiplying populations (like microorganisms), and with the evidence of genetics. It is a theory much in the same way that, say, quantum theory is a “theory”: there are still questions surrounding it, but virtually every working scientist accepts this hypothesis as basically correct and as accounting for the evidence. (People who say “only a theory” when talking about evolution do not know what science is.)
      3. There have been other theories of evolution besides the darwinian one. Notably, the view of Jean-Baptiste Lamarck (1744-1829) was that characteristics acquired during a creature’s lifetime were passed down to its offspring. Others in the eighteenth century (Lord Monboddo; Erasmus Darwin) also held various evolutionary views.
    4. Darwin’s theory of natural selection received substantial support in the mid-20th century with the growth of the study of genetics, in particular with the deciphering of the molecular structure of DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid) by Watson and Crick in the 1950’s. The union of darwinian theory with genetics constitutes what is usually called the modern evolutionary synthesis.
  5. Four theological attitudes towards evolution:
    1. Rejection (1): Young Earth Creationism
      1. Takes the biblical chronology literally (Archbp. James Ussher).
      2. Sees the earth to have been created in 4004 B.C.; takes the six days of Genesis ch. 1 as 24-hour days.
      3. Worth noting that some of the fathers of the Church, e.g., St. Augustine, already rejected this position, without the benefit of Geology.
    2. Rejection (2): “Intelligent Design”
      1. Might be called “Old Earth Creationism”: at least, most of those who hold this position are willing to concede the geological evidence that the earth is very old.
      2. Holds that natural causes cannot fully account for the complexity observed in life forms, and that an Intelligent Designer has to be posited, even on scientific grounds. (I.e., it posits the inadequacy of natural science, and naturalistic explanation, in the presence of the facts of biology.)
      3. Its favorite expression is “irreducible complexity.” One favorite example of this, an argument advanced by Michael Behe: the flagellum of a particular species of bacteria is described as a kind of perfect molecular machine, any of whose parts would be useless except as working in concert with the whole.
        1. I have read a response to this position by a biologist who is also a practicing Catholic, who points out that some of the parts of this machine have been observed in other organisms, serving entirely different functions, which undercuts the whole intelligent design argument. (Rather like the way the carpal bones, which in primates serve as fingers, function in bats as a support for wings.)
      4. Much of the activity of the advocates of Intelligent Design is meant (designed) to affect the science curriculum at public schools in the United States. Such attempts at influencing school curricula have generally been rejected in the courts, e.g. in the case Kitzmiller et al. vs. Dover (December 20, 2005), which ruled that the school board’s biology curriculum, which included Intelligent Design as an alternative to the darwinian account, “violates the Establishment Clause” of the Constitution.
    3. Acceptance (1): Theistic Evolution
      1. Sees evolution as compatible with Christian belief (or Jewish or Muslim). Evolution, on this view, is God’s way of creating new species, just as natural geological processes may be held responsible for the present physical shape of the earth.
        1. For this reason, this view is sometimes called “evolutionary creationism.”
      2. Implies that certain passages of scripture must be read allegorically, a position which, it may be said, is nothing new; Origen, in the third century, said the same thing.
      3. The current pope and his immediate predecessor both expressed support for theistic evolution. So did Cardinal Newman in the 19th century; he thought Darwin’s theory could be accommodated within the doctrine of divine providence.
    4. Acceptance (2): Atheistic Evolution
      1. Sometimes called “radical Darwinism” or “Neo-Darwinism.”
      2. Examples: Richard Dawkins; Stephen Jay Gould
      3. Take the view that evolution is necessarily atheistic, that it rules out any divine action in the origination of species. Evolution, these authors stress, is a mechanical process, and depends on certain changes happening randomly and automatically, without design. Such authors love to point to apparently improvidential features in natural history, as a way of arguing that divinity had no hand in bringing about the forms of life we see.
        1. My own view is that, when biologists start making theological claims about what God can or cannot do, they usually show their theological incompetence. They make God out to be one observable cause among many. The presumption is that God can only act miraculously, outside of the normal order of things, and cannot act through this order, cannot, in fact, have set it up.
  6. Attitudes towards evolution taken by Orthodox theologians
    1. Against
      1. Fr. Seraphim Rose (wrote Genesis, Creation, and Early Man)
      2. One of the founders of the Discovery Institute (an Intelligent Design think tank) is an Orthodox Christian. (See if you can find out his name before the lecture.) [William Dembski]
      3. The late Patriarch of Moscow, Alexei II.
      4. Under Protestant influence, a creationist institute was established in Russia not long ago. Titled “Shestodnev” (Creatio), it was blessed in May 2000 by Patriarch Alexei II. It “conducts conferences, arranges disputes, publishes books, and is actively involved in Internet projects. It places itself as an orthodox society for the defense, study, and revealing the essence of [the] Holy Fathers’ doctrine about the Creation of the World.” As in the United States, attempts have been made in Russia in recent years to include “creation science” as part of the science curriculum in the public schools; one famous case involved a Maria Schreiber, who “refused to study biology in school, saying her world outlook is in contradiction to the one Darwin’s theory of evolution is based on.” The case was brought to court; on February 21, 2007, the Russian court rejected the girl’s case; it has been labeled the “Russian monkey trial.”
    2. For
      1. Metropolitan Kallistos Ware. Metropolitan John Zizioulas. Most likely, the present Patriarch of Constantinople (the “Green” Patriarch).
        1. Metropolitan Kallistos:
        3. “Religion and science are working on different levels and are following different methods, and using different kinds of evidence. And, indeed, what each is saying is relevant for the other, but we mustn’t confuse these two levels of discourse. The scientist is working from the evidence of our senses, the theologian, the religious thinker, is using the data of revelation, scripture. So here are two different forms of evidence, and two different ways of arguing. As I see it, there need not be any conflict between religion and science, if each is properly understood, because they are answering different kinds of question. The scientist is telling us what there is in the universe, and he is also saying, as far as we can discover, how the universe came to exist in the form which it now has, by what stages it developed. In the religious sphere, we are asking why was the world created, and what is the purpose of our life on earth. Now, in my view, those are not strictly scientific questions, and the scientist does not claim to answer them, though what he tells us about how the world is and how it came to be the way it is may help us to answer these religious questions. Some scientists would say that the question Why is there a universe, where did it come from, what existed before the Big Bang, some scientists would say that these are simply non-questions, which shouldn’t be asked. But in fact these are questions which as human beings we want to ask and need to ask. But I don’t think the scientist, simply on the basis of his scientific discipline, can answer them.


        1. What about the theory of evolution? Very many Orthodox reject this; some of them uphold a form of intelligent design; I don’t care very much for the theory of intelligent design, because I believe it is mixing the levels of science and religion in an unhelpful way. For myself as an Orthodox, I have no difficulty in accepting the evolutionary picture of the universe that is presented by modern science. And I think we shouldn’t say that evolution is merely a theory or speculation; the evidence is very powerful. I don’t find a problem here for my faith as an Orthodox Christian. It is possible for God to work through evolution. He did not have to create everything as it is now in the beginning; he could work through the evolutionary process. But of course, in saying that, we’re moving outside the realm of science, which is not going to make statements of that kind. Again, from the religious point of view, we wish to affirm that human beings have a unique status in the universe, because they are made in the image and likeness of God. The human being is not merely a superior ape. But again, using a phrase like ‘the image and likeness of God’ we are saying something about human beings that science can neither confirm nor deny. We are moving outside the scientific area. So, I believe that a correct understanding of science and the way it works can indeed help our task as religious thinkers, but we need to keep a proper distinction; and if the distinction is kept, I do not think we need see science as a threat. Thank you.”
      1. the late Theodosius Dobzhansky, geneticist and Russian Orthodox Christian (“nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution”)
      2. Dr. George Theokritoff, geologist (a friend of mine who lives in New Jersey)
      3. Alexander Kalomiros.
      4. Fr. George Nicozisin.
      5. “The Eastern Fathers, generally speaking, did not take a fundamentalist viewpoint of creation. For example, Vladimir Lossky, a great Orthodox theologian of the past century, says in his famous book, The Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church, ‘The Church always freely makes use of philosophy and the sciences for apologetic (explanatory) purposes, but she never has any cause to defend these relative and changing truths as she defends the unchangeable truth of her doctrines.’”
      6. Sees the only possible conflict between the scientific account and Christian doctrine in connection with the understanding of Adam.
      7. Yours truly
    1. Some describe this difference as that between “dualism” and “compatibilism” — on the one hand, the view that view that science and faith are philosophically incompatible, that science rests upon a philosophical naturalism that denies faith necessarily; and, on the other hand, the view that both scripture and the physical world are divine revelation, and testify to the same God.
      1. The compatibilist position might be summed up by a statement of the late Pope John Paul II, who said (in connection with the question of evolution) that “truth cannot contradict truth.”
    2. My guess is that, at most Orthodox seminaries (certainly in America), the prevalent view accepts evolution as a scientific fact.
  1. Theological problems that evolution raises for Christian belief
    1. How to interpret the Genesis account(s) of creation. In particular:
      1. What is meant by the “days of creation”? (As mentioned, that already received an allegorizing response from the fathers of the church in the fourth and fifth centuries.)
      2. If human beings are descended from earlier forms of life, and if man is genetically related to all other known life forms, then how are we to understand the fundamental scriptural claim, that man is created “in the image and likeness of God”?
        1. Genetic inheritance does not preclude essential difference.
    2. Who was Adam?
    3. How to understand the doctrine of the fall of man.
      1. If the whole story of evolution presupposes death, how is one to understand the claim, that the sin of Adam and Eve brought death into the world?
    4. The official doctrine of the Roman Catholic Church is that, while one may accept evolution as an explanation for Adam’s body, one must hold that Adam’s soul was independently created, by a special act of God, and is not merely the result of natural evolution. Some Orthodox priests I have spoken to hold essentially the same position. Pope Pius XII also declared that one must hold Adam to have been a real individual person.
      1. This does raise the question, though, of the status of earlier hominids. For example, it is now known that Neanderthal DNA is present in both European and Asian human beings, constituting about 2% of their genome. Similarly, Australian aborigines have been found to possess DNA deriving from Denisovan man. Is one to include the Neanderthals and Denisovan man amongst the children of Adam?
      2. Some years ago, on the basis of a comparative study of mitochondrial DNA, it was announced that all current human beings could be traced back to a single mother.
  2. Final reflections.
    1. Why this question is important.
      1. At once a religious, a scientific, and a political question.
      2. If, like the present Patriarch of Constantinople, one is an environmentalist, one cannot ignore evolution. To understand how the world is in the present, one has to understand how it has been in the past.
      3. One’s attitude towards this question has a number of practical consequences. If one thinks that the earth is 6,000 years old, one will not be terribly concerned about, say, the inherent limitations in the earth’s supply of fossil fuels. If one is a new earth creationist, everything in the past is, in some sense, miraculous; the apparent necessity for hundreds of millions of years of geological processes for petroleum to be naturally produced is, on this reading, merely an illusion. Nor will one take much thought about global warming, or the idea that there have been, in the earth’s history, major extinction events, most of them having to do with changes in the earth’s climate.
    2. The debate concerns fundamental matters of faith, how one understands the world and God’s activity as “Creator of heaven and earth, and of all things, visible and invisible.” The issue is not going to go away.