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Genesis and Biological Evolution

Updated: Oct 5, 2023

Edit: Since I wrote this article I've changed my mind on the relationship between "time" and "matter." Which means I will eventually have to write a sequel with this change in mind.

When abording the question of science’s relationship to the Catholic faith, the historian finds himself in a position which is unique in contrast to both the professional scientist and the average Catholic in the pew. This position is one of perspective, a perspective which only history can provide, and one which both the scientific specialist and the daily believer cannot usually occupy themselves with. Thomas Khun’s work The Structure of Scientific Revolutions has opened up a conversation concerning the historical contingency of scientific paradigms. It does so by asking questions concerning the dependence of these paradigms on various assumptions and on various historical hermeneutics. Of course, the historical hermeneutics of science is a subject which scientists themselves would disavow as belonging to their field.

“Science” as a contemporary category has its own history; a history which stems from ancient Greek philosophy and Medieval theology. Various historical changes such as—through Islamic sources—the introduction of Aristotle in Medieval Europe, and—through the Protestant reformation—the gradual introduction of secularism, led to “science” becoming an independent field of study apart from Medieval philosophy. This resulted in a series of successive scientific revolutions, the structure and logic of which are the subjects of Kuhn’s book. [As an aside, it should be pointed out that the use of Kuhn’s book by some anti-evolutionists—not all—sometimes takes on the form of a hermeneutics of radical relativism].

This article, however, is not directly concerned with Kuhn’s work. I believe that what the reader will encounter is applicable to science’s relationship with the Catholic faith regardless of the possibility of another scientific revolution. Kuhn is mentioned in order to reassure the reader, from whichever corner of this conversation he is coming, that I am aware of the concept of paradigm shifts in scientific theory. Nevertheless, I assume throughout this article that biological evolution is not a mere scientific speculation, but a scientific theory in the same sense in which gravity is a scientific theory. In other words, although I am open to whatever possible paradigm shift that might veer its head in the future of humanity’s intellectual development, I believe that the genetic evidence, alongside other converging fields of evidence, does in fact reveal to us that our biological species has evolved from a lower form of animal life. It would take another article to show how this is actually not new or unique to Darwin. Nevertheless, if the reader pays close attention, he will come to see that, even if evolution were not true, there are largely unsolved questions in contemporary protological theology which demand answers.

It is my contention that the “traditional” teaching of the special creation of each species is not traditional at all, but rather the result of a modern meaning being wrongfully attributed to the language of the Tradition. In fact, it is a meaning that is ruled out by Catholic Tradition itself. To flesh out this point, it seems that, in creation, matter complexifies as it progresses because it has an inbuilt cosmic telos which is Christological. This is undeniably present throughout Sacred Scripture and the Tradition of the Church. Now, it seems to me that matter changes under the influence of a reason principle and of a relational principle: namely, logos and pneuma. The logos of creation is the intelligibility found in created realities, while the pneuma of creation is the relationality which binds created realities together, the relationality required for creation to be a uni-verse (giving oneness to multiplicity). Josef Pieper explains that “Spirit does not exist in ‘a’ world, nor in ‘its’ world, but in ‘the’ world, ‘the’ world in the sense of visibilia omnia et invisibilia.”[1] In other words, we are speaking of changes in creation that are part and parcel of the very structure of the universe and of its integrity. The number one problem with special creation is precisely that we would have to posit external interventions for the creation of natural species. To me this is irreconcilable with the metaphysics of the fathers and of the scholastics: Creation is a single act that undergirds everything and that does not intervene as if it were a cause among other created causes. Now of course this observation refers to creation, i.e., to nature and not to redemption or miracles or a person’s soul (which is arguably naturally supernatural). And so, “how it works” might very well be subject to revision (even radical revision), but that God must intervene does not strike me as traditional. Nature must be that which accounts for the multiplicity of species (in terms of causality), even if it is not by evolution. Seeds of the Word are contained in creation, and they unfold. They come from the Word since Christ is the origin of all things, and the Spirit overshadows (or hovers over) this origin in all of its intrinsic potency (hopefully the language of Genesis is in the back of the reader’s mind here). And yet, it needs to be emphasized that the natural and the supernatural are distinct here. As we will see, Christ recapitulates both nature and grace, creation and redemption, in his person.

Returning to the topic at hand, so much of this question on the relationship of science and Catholic protology is directly concerned with the nature of history and its relationship to our experience of the material universe. In collecting insights from (1) Saint Paul’s epistle to the Romans, (2) Saint Maximus’s Christology, and (3) Saint John Paul II’s theology of the body, a picture should emerge which sheds light on otherwise seemingly unanswerable questions concerning the nature of creation, original innocence, sin, and history.

What prompted these reflections was my deep dissatisfaction with theological attempts at reconciling certain chronologies with the science of evolutionary biology. Numerous ad hoc attempts have been made to make things fit (on the creationist side, ad hoc philosophical and scientific attempts are also made to circumvent evolutionary biology). From a denial of the current scientific theories (usually in the name of Kuhn’s book) to a bending of theological principles, invariably accompanied by gaping holes, the solutions on the market leave the consumer wanting. At least when it comes to the aforementioned chronologies, these attempts simply do not fit. One of the few insights, in these above-mentioned attempts, which did in fact partly satisfy me, and which provided an important piece of the theological puzzle, was Kenneth Kemp’s[2] distinction between biological man and philosophical man. Kemp explains that biological man is a being which must have his origin in a vast gene pool. Such a gene pool can only be understood in a polygenetic way: biological man must come from an original population and not from an original couple. But Kemp turns to Aristotle’s point of the “specific difference” which constitutes the unique nature of the human being: his reason. Particularly, argues Kemp, man’s ability for language. However, this valuable insight (which will be taken up shortly) still leaves us with a premise that is not completely satisfactory: “language,” simply posited, is still not enough to account for Kemp’s monogenism. There is, of course, prima facie, no question of rejecting the monogenism of Pius XII’s Humanae Generis (although the ITC’s document Communion and Stewardship seems to say that this is not off the table either), but Kemp’s paper seems to begin with the conclusion of the encyclical, to which he somewhat bends his premises in order to meet the already determined conclusion.

Nevertheless, Kemp’s point about language, if furthered in light of particular considerations, can lead to a monogenism which I believe to be less ad hoc. “The man who speaks,” as a species, must have a single starting point which involves two persons. In other words, there had to have been an aboriginal conversation between two interlocutors. Here, I am drawing from Robert Sokolowski in his book The phenomenology of the Human Person, where Sokolowski demonstrates that language is essentially dialogical in nature. What emerges is that language is impossible for a single individual: interlocution is an indispensable and essential feature of the very nature of language. But this alone does not resolve our question.

Scientists Robert C. Berwick and Noam Chomsky, in their investigation on the evolution of language, speak of a genetic mutation which is related to a capacity for what they call “Merge.” Chomsky explains that the possibility for this mutation seems to be limited to a single person, and that it would have been passed on genetically.[3] For Berwick and Chomsky, “Merge” is what is needed to take the leap from linear speech to hierarchical speech—syntax. This would come about through a genetic mutation whereby the brain can move from A (object of desire) and B (desire) to C (the relationship between both). In other words, from “hungry” and “food” to “hungry for food.” The word for is key here because it shows the relationship between both.[4] That is all well and good, but what in nature would account for such a leap? This syntactical observation seems to gesture, rather, to the effects which interpersonal language might have had on the genetic structure of a person’s brain. The concept of “person,” understood as an interpersonal relationality of thought and freedom, has transcendent qualities which are irreducible to the merely biological, but which are nonetheless expressed in the biological (the causal relationship between the “personal” and the “biological” here should not be construed in terms of chronological causality but ontological causality). Nevertheless, related to these studies on the genetics of language, it is interesting to note that the paleontological evidence points to what scientists call “the great leap forward,” which refers to the almost sudden appearance of technology and art in the homo sapiens population of a particular location in Africa 60,000 years ago.

But these are merely preliminary thoughts and not the more central questions concerning protology. These questions have to do with the nature of time, the nature of sin, the nature of original innocence, and Christ’s role as “the beginning.” These points will now be fleshed out in a more or less structured manner which will hopefully shed light on the larger picture; a picture which will emerge from this constellation of theological axioms.

The heart of the argument has to do with Aristotle’s definition of time: namely, that time is “the measure of change.” Now, change implies potency and, therefore, the material universe—potency being an intrinsic metaphysical principle of material creation in its current state of entropy. Materiality, as we experience it here and now, is a materiality which decays; it breaks down, it breaks a-part. In other words, material creation in its current state is made up of a differentiatedness of parts which is in entropic tension with the universal communion that spirit tends toward. We have here the whole edifice of Neoplatonism, which posits that, as we go down from God, we encounter more multiplicity: the world of the Many. But as we go up from creation, we encounter more unity: the One. This is the exitus reditus schema of Neoplatonism.

And so, the age-old structure of the One and the Many (the Many participating in the One) stands before us. What this means is that there is something about material creation as we experience it that is permeated by decomposition, decay, or what scientists call the second law of thermodynamics. Now, Paul, in a very clear way, associates this with sin (sinful flesh). And so, death, decomposition, and decay are postlapsarian categories. This is surprisingly clear in the epistle to the Romans, and, I would go so far as to say, indisputable. This suddenly sheds new light on John Paul II’s language in his theology of the body audiences: “Thus, historical man is rooted, so to speak, in his revealed theological prehistory.”[5] In other words, John Paul II speaks of postlapsarian man as historical man. In a conversation I had with Dr. Daniel Jordan Wood,[6] a scholar on Saint Maximus, Dr. Wood explained to me that Maximus strongly implies that Adam fell in the very moment of his coming into being. Now, clearly Saint Maximus is aware of the concept of original innocence; and so, the question is: how in the world do we make sense of what Saint Maximus is teaching in this instance? I believe it has everything to do with his Christology.

If history is time and if time is the measure of change, which implies a kind of relationship of parts to each other that involves decay and death, then original innocence cannot be something that we look for in the past, as if it were at a certain point in our history. It does not follow, however, that it is in the future, or that it didn’t happen, or that it is completely ahistorical. Rather, we are dealing with a different kind of history. John Paul II calls it “prehistory.” Now, it should be indisputable that in original innocence, matter and spirit relate(d) differently than how they relate after the fall. After the fall, matter and spirit relate (or misrelate) in a way which allows for death. Spirit is what overcomes death precisely because it is a kind of relationality which transcends the decomposition of the flesh. And so, by the very definitions that the Tradition gives us, it seems to me inevitable that “time” is not the same “prior” to the fall. Which means that looking for Eden and the original innocence of Adam and Eve in the past, at some particular point in history, is to miss the point of what the Tradition is truly and very clearly, I would once again add, telling us. But again, this does not mean that original innocence, or Eden, does not exist or did not happen. And so, the inevitable question which follows is: “where/when do we find the sinless creation in which Adam and Eve had their innocence and were endowed with a royal priesthood?” The answer is simple, really. We find it in Christ and Mary. But this needs to be fleshed out. [As an aside: the words "when" and "where" imply space and time. The "person," on the other hand, transcends both, while being in both. This is why the "prehistory" in question could be categorized as "personal history," or, as Ratzinger calls it, "the time of the heart"].

The beginning of all things, when it comes to creation, is the incarnation. It is abundantly clear in Sacred Scripture, and I do not know how anyone can deny this, that the beginning of creation is in Christ, in fact, it is Christ. In John 1:1 we read: “in the beginning was the word.” Now, clearly, there is the sense in which “in the beginning” can mean “from the eternity of God,” i.e., the internal procession of the Son in the trinity. However, John 1 is explicitly drawing from Genesis 1 to make a theological point: “in the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.” In other words, Christ, in a very real sense, is the beginning of space and time in his incarnation. But because it is a beginning which, as hypostatic, weds eternity and time together in his person, then the notion of “person” becomes the notion which synthesizes time and eternity (not to mention other aporiae such as nature and grace, humanity and divinity, and God and world). And thus, the person of Christ stands at the beginning, the center, and the end, precisely because he is the "beginning of beginnings," the "firstborn among many brethren," the "firstborn of all creation." This inevitably leads us to take a closer look at the meaning of “beginning.” When looking at the language in John (En arche en ho logos) and in Genesis (Bereshit Bara Elohim), the word used for “beginning” refers to primogeniture, to firstborn sonship, to the priestly and royal status of Christ (which, notably, permeates the entirety of Genesis 1).

When Christ is cornered by the Pharisees with the question on divorce, he begins by speaking of the “hardness of heart” which the pedagogy of the law had to condescendingly accommodate. This hardness is equivalent to Paul’s category of sinful flesh (the fleshly man), and it is remedied by the circumcision of the heart (the spiritual man). Now, we know from Paul, and from the internal structure of the Pentateuch, that this understanding of the law is tied to the analogy of maturation and gradualness. In other words to historical man’s situation. But then, Jesus tells the Pharisees: “from the beginning it was not so” (Matt 19:8, NRSV). John Paul II speaks of these two categories of “hardness of heart” and “the beginning” as two situations separated by a boundary: “Christ not only links the ‘beginning’ with the mystery of creation, but also leads us to the boundary, so to speak, between man’s primeval innocence and original sin.”[7] Thus, the typos of marriage, and the typos of man and woman, for John Paul II, is “in the beginning.” Now, the central anthropological claim of Scripture is that man is created “in the image of God.” Here, theologians speak at length of how the first Adam is created in the image of the last Adam. This deepens the anthropological meaning of “image of God” since Christ is this very image. Man is created in Christ. Man is created in the beginning. This is the deeper meaning of John Paul II’s words: namely, that theological anthropology “is constituted on the foundation of the word of God who reveals himself.”[8] To rephrase this slightly: “the creation of the human (אָדָם, adam) is constituted on the foundation of “the beginning” (בְּרֵאשִׁית, of the firstborn) who is the revelation of the Father.” The meaning of Gaudium et Spes §22 suddenly takes on a deeper dimension in light of what we have considered: “Christ, the final Adam, by the revelation of the mystery of the Father and His love, fully reveals man to man himself.”[9] Thus, the beginning is Christ, and, if the original innocence of man is not historical in the sense that we experience history—if we remain faithful to the categories tradition has given us—then this means that Adam and Eve, in the beginning, are created and fashioned in Christ, and in Eden, which is Mary. [there is not enough space in this article to delve further into the connections between Eden and Mary].

What has proved frustrating for me, and I am willing to be corrected of course, is when readers explain away the very difficult passage in Genesis about the tree of knowledge of good and evil. The passage is interpreted away as meaning that Adam and Eve decided to determine good and evil for themselves. Sure, this can be part of the spiritual meaning of the text, but if one reads it plainly, it is clearly not what is written (and I'm the one accused of not taking Genesis literally!). What the text is saying is that there is a sense in which Adam and Eve discover shame in the very moment they discover morality; and this is because they realize that they fall short of “the beginning.” Returning to the two situations on each side of the boundary John Paul II speaks of, he explains that “the first situation is that of original innocence in which man (male and female) finds himself, as it were, outside of the knowledge of good and evil, until the moment in which he transgresses the creator’s prohibition and eats the fruit of the tree of knowledge.”[10] Of the second situation, John Paul II explains that it “is that in which man, after having transgressed the creator’s command at the suggestion of the evil spirit symbolized by the serpent, finds himself in some way within the knowledge of good and evil. This second situation determines the state of human sinfulness, contrasting with the state of primeval innocence.”[11] And so there is a real sense in which consciousness (and therefore language), in the Genesis creation account, is associated with the discovery of right and wrong and how we fall short of right and wrong. Guilt and shame make us aware (self-conscious) of our bodies, unlike other animals. Thus, original innocence, because it is prehistorical, is, in a sense, always present as a real norm, a norm which grounds our historicity and the moral awareness which currently accompanies us in this historicity. But not only does original innocence currently ground our moral awareness in this history, history, also, mediates the norm of original innocence in our particular hic et nunc.

Finally, this fact that the original innocence of Adam and Eve is contained in Christ and Mary sheds further light on the immaculate conception and the virgin birth of Christ from Mary’s flesh. We can say that Mary’s status is protological in the order of salvation, and eschatological in the order of consummation because she shares in “the beginning.” Yet, “the human” (Adam) and "the living one” (Eve), historically, are the original two persons who engaged in the original conversation. "The living one" truly is the one that is able to return to "the human" his knowledge and love of her, and vice versa. The last Eve, Mary, embodies the definitive creation in its dialogical reciprocity to God (to borrow a phrase from Ratzinger). She does so perfectly because she is "in the beginning." As for us, we are saved by being preserved from death through our incorporation within the spiritual womb of Mary who then gives birth to the whole body of Christ, just as Christ gives birth to the Church from his side, constituting us, from the cross, as man and woman “in the beginning.”

__________________________________________________________________________________ [1] Josef Pieper, Leisure: The Basis of Culture, including The Philosophical Act (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2009), 99. [2] [3] Noam Chomsky, The science of language: interviews with James McGilvray, (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2012), 14. [4] Why Only US, Language and Evolution, 70. [5] Pope John Paul II, General Audience (26 September 1979), in Man and Woman He Created Them: A Theology of the Body, trans. Michael Waldstein (Boston: Pauline Books & Media, 2006), 4:2, p. 143. [6] [7] Pope John Paul II, General Audience (19 September 1979), in Man and Woman He Created Them: A Theology of the Body, trans. Michael Waldstein (Boston: Pauline Books & Media, 2006), 3:2, p. 140. [8] Pope John Paul II, General Audience (19 September 1979), in Man and Woman He Created Them: A Theology of the Body, trans. Michael Waldstein (Boston: Pauline Books & Media, 2006), 3:4, p. 142. [9] Second Vatican Council, Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World Gaudium et Spes (7 December 1965), §24. [10] Pope John Paul II, General Audience (19 September 1979), in Man and Woman He Created Them: A Theology of the Body, trans. Michael Waldstein (Boston: Pauline Books & Media, 2006), 3:3, p. 140. [11] Pope John Paul II, General Audience (19 September 1979), in Man and Woman He Created Them: A Theology of the Body, trans. Michael Waldstein (Boston: Pauline Books & Media, 2006), 3:3, p. 140.

Dom Dalmasso is a 2023 graduate from Holy Apostles College and Seminary with a Bachelor of Arts in Theology and philosophy. He was a Benedictine monk from early 2011 to late 2012 at Our Lady of Clear Creek Abbey in Oklahoma and was an active-duty United States Marine from August 2014 to August 2018. He runs the YouTube Show / Podcast The Logos Project, and is the editor-in-chief of The Ecclesia Blog. He is currently pursuing a Master of Arts in Dogmatic Theology at Holy Apostles.

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