In an article in the New Republic the biologist Jerry Coyne plays the role of the atheistic witchdoctor, attempting to exorcise the demons of theistic evolution. They turn out to be hallucinations, along with a mound of straw.

(Coyne’s article was called “Stop Celebrating the Pope’s Views on Evolution and the Big Bang. They Make no Sense.” It was first posted on his blog WhyEvolutionIsTrue, then on the New Republic and reposted on (lo and behold) The Dawkins Foundation.)

Coyne’s reasoning appears to be somewhat circular. He accuses the Church of being anti-scientific and not embracing evolution. And in the instances where it is clear it does–well, then it doesn’t. According to Coyne that doesn’t qualify either. As he rounds off his thesis in the conclusion: “When it jettisons the idea of the soul, of God’s intervention in the Big Bang and human evolution, and the notion of Adam and Eve as our historical ancestors, then Catholicism will be compatible with evolution. But then it would not be Catholicism.”

The first public declaration about evolution from the Church was in the encyclical Humani Generis, issued pope Pius XII in 1950. It states quite clearly that the theory of evolution does not conflict with Catholic doctrine. John Paul II said evolution was “more than a theory.” Coyne seems subject of the media myth of a pope dragging the Church out of the middle ages: “As Pope Francis tries to nudge his Church into modernity, it wouldn’t look good if he espoused creationism.” Not only has he misunderstood the Catholic views on evolution, he isn’t exactly close to the mark when it comes to pope Francis either.

Coyne’s position is based on two “facts”: that according to the Church only humans are endowed with souls, and that Adam and Eve are literal figures. According to him pope Pius “insisted that humans were a special exception since they had been bestowed by God with souls.”   The first statement betrays Coyne’s colossal ignorance in the matter he happens to be so venomously criticizing and his authority in the field. But then again, as a scientist he has access to the only form of true knowledge. If he had known anything about Catholic theology he might have noticed how untrue this statement is. He might have known that it is the Aristotelian idea of soul the Church uses, in which the soul is the “form” of the body. He might have also known that therefore all animals and living creatures are gifted with souls. A soul is what makes something living. He might have, ultimately, known what is special about human souls is that they are eternal, at least according to Thomas Aquinas and the Second Vatican Council. None of this appears anywhere in the article, all that is presented is a ridiculous and dishonest caricature.

He then boldly asserts: “We have no evidence for souls.” He has found no physical evidence for non-physical souls. Good job on that one.

What seems to be considered a “(And when, by the way, are souls supposed to have entered our lineage? Did Homo erectus have them?)” False problem. Something he would have realized had he done his homework.

The other object the criticism is aimed towards is a more complicated one, namely the problem of monogenism versus polygenism. Monogenism is the view that the human race descended from two ancestors, while polygenism is the view that there were many ancestors. Humani Generis is the source of this dispute. The sentence concerning it reads:

Now it is in no way apparent how such an opinion (polygenism) can be reconciled with that which the sources (…) propose in regard to original sin…”

Pope Pius said that there appeared to be conflict, not that there necessarily was. Most modern theologians do not perceive a conflict.   Lots of theological work has been done on that area and several hypotheses have been developed. Some hold both a biological polygenism and a theological monogenism. Others hold both biological and theological polygenism. C.S. Lewis had a theory regarding original sin. Further extensive ideas were developed by the Jesuit theologians Karl Rahner and Teilhard de Chardin. Even, more recently, Alvin Plantinga (called an “obscurantist” by Coyne) has defended the notion of a Fall in terms of a primordial being. These schools are not acknowledged by Coyne. Is he really a voice to listen to in the matter?

Further into the article Coyne picks out a quote from the pope emeritus on the origins of the Universe.

“The universe is not the result of chance, as some would want to make us believe… Contemplating it, we are invited to read something profound into it: the wisdom of the creator, the inexhaustible creativity of God.”

This Coyne uses as evidence to show Benedict has misunderstood evolution.

   “Did Francis’s words on Monday also signal a change in the Church’s view of evolution? Not a bit… This is simply the view of non-naturalistic, theistic evolution”.

There he’s lost me. And again:

As for evolution “requiring the creation of being that evolve,” note that the word “creation” is still in there.

Coyne seems surprised that the pontiff does endorse an atheistic, materialistic and naturalistic world-view. Must have been a hard blow for him.   As he accuses Francis of using the word evolution fraudulently while meaning “creationism”, further along he states “We know now that the universe could have originated from “nothing” through purely physical processes, if you see “nothing” as the “quantum vacuum” of empty space.” Oh yes, and it is Francis also who is accused of magical thinking.   He then rains upon his readers a shower of his philosophical brilliance with:

“Francis’s claim that the Big Bang required God is simply an unsupported speculation based on outmoded theological arguments that God was the First Cause of Everything.”

However what is not as unsupported speculation is “that there are multiple universes, each with a separate, naturalistic origin.”

Coyne notes that in his speech Francis seems to have said that God is not a “divine being”. Here Coyne is right. The original text reads “Dio non e’ un demiurgo”, which means God is not a demiurge- a divine being in a polytheistic sense.

Coyne is condescending towards the Fracis’ notion of God not being a magician, “But, in truth, the Catholic view of God is indeed one of an ethereal magician”, he writes. Of course the professor of evolution must know more about Catholic doctrine than the pope. Fair enough.

Similarly in another article the author comments on David Bentley Hart’s book “The Experience of God”. God there is described in the traditional way, as transcendent, the Ground of All Being, ineffable, etc. Coyne, of course, is theologically superior to Hart and says this God can in no way be personal, whatever is claimed in the book.

While Coyne holds the Church’s position “is in fact a bastard offspring of Biblical creationism and modern evolutionary theory”, what comes forth from his misguided rant is a full-breed pedigree of presumptuous pseudo-intellectualism. Coyne’s constant battle-cries about basing beliefs on evidence are meant to apply only to other people. He grasps wildly at straws and builds his case on a misinterpreted and uninformed caricature of his opponents. Why do most popular critics of religion get their facts off the back of cereal packets?


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