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By Jerry A. Coyne
A famous anecdote from 19th century New England involves Margaret Fuller, an early feminist and ardent exponent of the spiritual movement of transcendentalism. Besotted by her emotions, she once blurted out, “I accept the universe!” When he heard of this, the Scottish philosopher Thomas Carlyle remarked dryly, “Gad—she’d better.”
While the story may be apocryphal, if you replace Fuller with Pope Francis and “the universe” with “evolution,” then Carlyle’s feelings are identical to mine. For, according to many media outlets (for example, here, here, and here), Pope Francis has just declared that he accepts the fact of evolution.
Gad, he’d better. Evolution has been an accepted scientific fact since about 1870, roughly a decade after the theory was proposed by Darwin in 1859. And there are mountains of evidence supporting it, as documented in my book Why Evolution is True, and no evidence for the religious alternative of divine creation. As Pope Francis tries to nudge his Church into modernity, it wouldn’t look good if he espoused creationism.
But if you parse Francis’s words yesterday, spoken as he unveiled a bust of his predecessor Benedict XVI, you’ll find that tinges of creationism remain. In fact, the Vatican’s official stance on evolution is explicitly unscientific: a combination of modern evolutionary theory and Biblical special creationism. The Church hasn’t yet entered the world of modern science.
The recent history of Catholicism and evolution is spotty. Pope Pius XII claimed that evolution might indeed be true, but insisted that humans were a special exception since they had been bestowed by God with souls, a feature present in no other species. There was further human exceptionalism: Adam and Eve were seen as the historical and literal ancestors of all humanity.
Both of these features fly in the face of science. We have no evidence for souls, as biologists see our species as simply the product of naturalistic evolution from earlier species. (And when, by the way, are souls supposed to have entered our lineage? Did Homo erectus have them?) Further, evolutionary genetics has conclusively demonstrated that we never had only two ancestors: if you back-calculate from the amount of genetic variation present in our species today, the minimum population size of humans within the last million years is about twelve thousand. The notion of Adam and Eve as the sole and historical ancestors of modern humans is simply a fiction—one that the Church still maintains, but that other Christians are busy, as is their wont, trying to convert into a metaphor.
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