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Christian Kummer SJ

Darwin's Theory - not only for Atheists

Remarks on the Inevitable Creativity in Evolution

 

From: Stimmen der Zeit, 3/2009, P. 162-172
webmaster's own, not authorized translation

 

    200 years ago Charles Darwin was born. CHRISTIAN KUMMER, professor of natural philosophy at the Munich School of Philosophy, proposes an understanding of evolution in which God as Creator is the enabling cause of the evolutionary unification movement of his creatures.

 

200 years ago, on 12 February 1809, Charles Darwin was born. His theory was an answer to the question being in the air at his time, the question of constancy or variability of the species. It didn't need to include theology. The living beings could equally well be created by God as mutable or immutable beings - or they are simply not created by him. It has to do with our amazement at the diversity and complexity of the organisms that from the beginning the issue was theologically highly risky. In view of a snowy mountain summit in the morning I as believer can look up to God, because I'm overwhelmed by a feeling of grandeur. The knowledge of the geological processes leading to the emerging of the Alpine chain does no harm to it and is also no substitute for it.

This differs from our attitude towards living beings. Here the question of the genesis, i.e. the improbability and usefulness of their formation, involuntarily enters into our astonishment, because we are connected with living beings in a too immediate way to be able to regard them like a mountain as mere symbols. In one of his best books on Darwin's theory {1} Richard Dawkins took up this comparison in order to repudiate the religious reverence for the diversity of life: Only the pious regarded life as Mount Improbable. But Darwin's theory was a way to reach this summit: Climbing Mount Improbable! The route was admittedly long but easy, because it does not want to conquer the precipitous front, but round the back, from the backside it shows the mountain to be a climbable green mountain ridge. The message of the picture is clear: Emancipated from God, as a mechanistic theory, the riddle of life is solvable. With Darwin atheism was thus laid into the cradle of modern biology.

 

Degraded Universal Science

Since then much has been reasoned about the legitimacy of such a methodological atheism or, better, naturalism. Its legitimacy as a scientific approach is nowadays beyond question. Natural science takes by definition no account of the essential question without therefore declaring it to be wrong or unnecessary, it says.

 


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Here the theologian sees his chance and makes the most of the opportunity to occupy a terrain especially reserved for him. He hastens therefore to speak also of different approaches to reality which were all justified: apart from the scientific, the artistic, musical, poetic, philosophical, etc. - and also the theological. But this offer for a peaceful coexistence has the smell of self-deception and is eyewash. No poet or painter claims to explain by his art the whole world. Such approaches are a priori subjective and particulate. Not so the scientific world view, and certainly not theology. Its claim is total. There is no field between heaven and earth that was excluded by it. In the classical division philosophy and theology were "Scientiae universales" - universal sciences which asked about the whole of being and which as such stood out against the "individual sciences" with their limited methodology.

Not much is left of this self-confident division. More and more shares of the explanation of reality have fallen to the natural sciences; the methodological restriction to giving reasons without asking the essential question turned out to be very useful. In philosophy too hardly any modern representative wants to surround himself with the claim to explain reality in a comprehensive way. It were, as the Munich philosopher of science Carlos U. Moulins says, "genitivist cultural studies": philosophy "of" mathematics, biology, art, sociology, etc.; it was a reflection on the various fields of human cultural achievements, and in this respect it was meta-theoretically applicable to everything, but thematically it was particulate and not aiming at reality as a whole {2}. Theology, removed from power, now tries it by self-restraint and chooses an alternative approach to the world. The rejection is thus pre-programmed. Scientists usually regard this alternative as arbitrary or superfluous. It's like with music: Those who like it may practise it, if they want, but those who do not like it will miss nothing without it.

Ulrich Kutschera, the Kassel evolutionary biologist says that the natural sciences, which have thus grown stronger, have become "Realwissenschaften", and he compares them to the humanities which are degraded to mere "Verbalwissenschaften", the choir of which also philosophy and theology are to join. One can protest against that, as Remigius Bunia, the Friedrichshafen cultural theorist did in a reply to Kutschera {3}. He could well accept it to be called "Verbalwissenschaftler"; he only objected that the attribute "real" was exclusively used for the other side, as if the natural sciences had got a monopoly on the whole reality, and this even without regard to the communicating function of language. - If the one side of the sciences allows to be called 'verbal sciences', one could sum up this dispute,

 


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then it would well befit the other side with the same modesty to call itself "lab science". Both of them have to do with reality, either as language or as nature.

 

How Real are Evolutionary Explanations?

If you, against this background, now examine how "real" the statements of the theory of evolution are, it becomes distressingly soon clear to you how much linguistic formulation, not to say narrative art is used in order theoretically to back the existing facts. Especially physicists are time and again surprised when they, while reading Darwin's works, discover how unsoundly based, compared with their standards, the fundamental theory of biology is. In order not to be misunderstood: I do not doubt the correctness of Darwin's theory, and I also share its intuition that the diversity of life can best be explained evolutionarily, but at the same time I have to admit that the critics are right: the majority of evolutionary biology's reconstructions is empirically little resistant. If biologists fly into a rage about it, this usually only shows how little they have actually read of Darwin's "Origin of Species". All skill in wording of later interpreters of the theory of evolution, beginning with Ernst Haeckel (1834-1919) up to Richard Dawkins, scarcely contributes to improve this situation.

To confirm this you need only take a glance at one of the last books of the doyen of the synthetic theory of evolution, at Ernst Mayr's "What Evolution Is" published in 2003 in German translation {4}. Of course, the importance of "natural selection" is rightly worked out in great detail. It is Darwin's lasting achievement that he made understandable the change of the species in nature in analogy to our breeding conditions. But since this selection theory is generally applicable to everything that is in numerical competition with any resources, its validity is evident, not to say trivial. (It does no harm to this statement that up to Darwin's time the biologists did not succeed in formulating this insight.)

But the big problem, on what kind of changes the natural selection has an effect, is solved also with Mayr still on a merely micro-evolutionary way. Despite all the efforts of population genetics, here until now no paradigmatic shift took place compared to Darwin's thinking. To him, as is well known, the Galápagos-finches were, at least in retrospect, a wonderful example of how the natural variation of the beak shape leads, through the effects of selection, in stages from thin beaks to the thickest {5}. In a gradual process over hundreds of thousands of years the individual species of finches, which were specialized in looking for different food, are supposed to originate from a common ancestor {6}.

 


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Today it is known primarily through the decades of field research of the married couple Grant that the modification of the beak form is a pretty abrupt matter; it can take place within a few years {7}. A single gene, the activity rate of which regulates the production of beak proteins, is "responsible" for it. It affects the beak size in direct correlation to changes in food supply from one generation to the other. In periods of drought the number of thick beaks is therefore rapidly increasing, because they are able to crack also seeds with hardest shells. But on the other hand also the opposite strategy, the forming of thinner beaks, has a chance, because with them a new way of looking for food is successful: the poking for insects. Only the broad moderate majority the beaks of which are neither particularly thin nor thick falls quickly victim to the selection. - It should therefore be gone fairly quickly until the 13 finch species developed which in different combinations inhabit today the individual islands of the archipelago Galápagos. One can as well doubt whether the speed of a process needing two to three million years (the estimated age of the islands), in order even to produce only changes in the beak size, is really sufficient to produce in the time available (approximately 500 times as much) the whole organic diversity.

One might argue that the chosen example was too close-meshed in its meaningfulness and that the "adaptive radiation", the unfolding to different habitats by adaptation, for which the example stands, is not the only way of evolutionary explanation. But it seems to me that the empirical evidence of the theory on selection is all in all of more or less the same type and can by no means secure the far-reaching conclusions drawn on its basis. What makes natural selection immediately understandable is that "every creature is striving for a growing improvement in relation to its living conditions", as Darwin writes in the fourth chapter of his "Origin of Species" {8}. But that, as he continues in the same place, from it "inevitable" comes the "gradual perfection of the organization with the majority of the living beings spread over the entire earth's surface", is a bold extrapolation that is up to now not yet empirically substantiated. Certainly, there is evidence that the intuition of a gradual improvement need not be wrong. The forming of the eye types with the molluscs from a simple eye spot up to the compound lens eye is probably the best example for it {9}. But such examples are rather the exception than the rule, and even they are, as typologically drawn up stages, far enough away from the clarity of a mechanistic explanation of the beak radiation of Darwin's finches. I think this admission is no serious objection to the theory of evolution, because how else should one interpret the eye series mentioned but "in the light of evolution" {10}? But one should be aware of the basis on which this interpretation happens.

 


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It is rather the - perfectly plausible - conviction of a general transformability of living beings on which such statements are based than an exact knowledge of the individual steps required by the theory. (If one would always and everywhere insist on their elucidation, biology would undoubtedly be a very boring affair.)

What applies to the gradual perfection of organs is certainly to be admitted for the phylogenetic derivation of large structures. Our ignorance of it is usually also recognized by deep-rooted evolutionary biologists. And yet the majority of them will maintain that the origin of a new structure can in the same way be proved to be a consequence of micro-evolutionary changes, like the change in the beak shape of the Galápagos-finches. The origin of mental qualities was in exactly the same way explainable as "emergence effect" of increasingly complex nervous systems, and the division of reality into matter and spirit was incompatible with the theory of evolution. After all, since human beings are the product of evolution also all the cultural achievements of mankind had, according to the view of evolutionary biology, to be seen as advantages of adaptation: socio-biology as the "new synthesis" not only of all biological disciplines {11} but of all fields of knowledge. At the end of the 20th century biology was thus promoted to the new universal science {12}. In his reply to Bunia's criticism mentioned above Kutschera too argues quite on that line:

"Thinking, however, is a biological process and the understanding of its products is therefore the business of biology. Due to the complexity of the brain, this can of course be analyzed only since a short time and only to some extent. Biology has thus given a real basis to the problem of freedom of will. Only biology will be able to tell what 'intelligence' is and how it was to be measured. It is therefore certain that mental productions can be meaningfully ascertained and understood only in the light of biology." {13}

 

Metaphysical Background Assumptions

As we can see, evolutionary biology's claim to explain reality has gone miles away from its roots backed by a theory that is just good at making understandable the shapes of finch beaks. It remains to be seen how much of this gradual expansion of the explanation is still "real". But even if Kutschera is not too serious about this statement (which is to be hoped), he should admit that it is language that builds here an edifice of ideas and not the data which inevitably force to draw such conclusions. "Naturalism" is the name of this building, and this name stands for a program,

 


"Naturalismus" heißt dieses Gebäude, und dieser Name steht für ein Programm, nämlich die Überzeugung, daß alle Wirklichkeit mit natürlichen, und das heißt letztlich naturwissenschaftlichen Mitteln erklärbar ist.

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namely the conviction that all reality can be explained with the help of natural means, and that means ultimately by means of the natural sciences. The point is no longer the methodical restriction described above to those fields of reality which are explainable by natural sciences but its reversal: Only the things that are scientifically explainable are from now regarded as reality.

At this point of assessing the scope of naturalism the physicists (who are more aware of methodology) usually differ from the (evolutionary) biologists, because this reversal of a methodological into an ontological naturalism is no "critical realism" (as Kutschera thinks) but metaphysics. It is amazing how many additional metaphysical assumptions are needed in order to justify resp. to substantiate the aforementioned series of evolutionary biologists' claims to explaining reality. Theologians may be itching to fill creation-theological explanations into these irreconcilable leaps, but they should be patient.

Naturalists à la Kutschera will probably protest against the statement that their system of thought was interspersed with metaphysics. They simply differentiate their naturalism from a supranaturalism which calls in some supernatural beings, like gods, ghosts and demons, angels or demiurges in order to explain those areas of reality which are not yet understood. But such a caricature has, at least since Aristotle, nothing to do with real metaphysics. What matters to it is the question about the ultimate reasons of "being", i.e. the question what principles (not mythical creatures) I am to assume in order to explain reality in an as little as possible restricted sense. Connected with it is necessarily also the information on the unsolved resp. not explainable conditions that one has to make with such a comprehensive attempt to identify reality.

For example, if a naturalist states that in the scientific research a final cause was not yet found, one can only counter: How should it be found? It is no entity that I could discover like a new planet, but a principle, a prerequisite for a certain way of thinking and describing reality. If I a priori restrict it to the Hempel-Oppenheim scheme (i.e. stating a general law with the help of which a phenomenon logically results from certain conditions or "antecedens conditions"), I will always only "find" causes [Wirkursachen] in reality and never final causes. But if I attribute a certain function to an organ like the eye or even only a selection advantage, that means a value for its owner: It is valuable and good for him to have an eye, because the eye fulfils a certain purpose for his existence. With it the final cause is not found, but it is introduces as a principle or condition of a (hopefully) appropriate description of living beings. This is the metaphysics about which it is here and not a rude supranaturalism, and such metaphysical background assumptions are inevitable.

 


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Naturalists have it in exactly the same way ("only the Hempel-Oppenheim scheme should count!") like anti-(not supra-) naturalists ("living beings are purposes in themselves"). Only those who think they had to play "real sciences" off against "verbal sciences" can be blind to the principles which determine the context of their description.

Metaphysical pre-conditions exist here as well as there. Why should we then not take the bull by the horns and identify the metaphysical implications which allow a comprehensive concept of evolution instead of consistently suppressing their inevitability? Such a positively realized and not only unacknowledged metaphysical extension could be the dualistic conception of the concept of matter. Matter would then have apart from an "outside", which alone is accessible to the scientifical observation, always already an "inside" that corresponds to it but is not reducible to it. As strangely as such a position may impress hardcore scientists, it is seriously discussed within the "philosophy of mind", because one can thus more easily cope with the problem of the origin of mental qualities: The phenomenon of the mind loses much of its mysterious character, if it has in a "pre-mental" [protopsychisch] way always already been present in material constellations and empirically appears in it from a certain degree of complexity reached in the course of evolution. This occurrence would then be only a "weak" emergence which can be derived from specific system conditions and which needed not to be contradictory to the laws of nature. The unity of the evolutionary context would thus be maintained phenomenologically - but at the cost of a matter that is on principle dualistically conceived. That does not necessarily imply a strict substance dualism (of which also many theologians today have a panic fear) but could be understood, in analogy to the "wave-particle duality" of physics, as a complementarity which is conditional on how we describe reality.

 

A Dualistic Model of Evolution

Long before in philosophy pre-mental [protopsychistisch] approaches enjoyed a renaissance Pierre Teilhard de Chardin SJ (1881-1955) advocated such a dualistic concept of matter and allowed the explanation of evolution to benefit from the two terms "radial-tangential energy". According to my opinion this concept is still suitable to set out the creativity in evolution, the emergence of really new beings, instead of underrating or ignoring it, as it happens in naturalistic approaches out of lack of explanations. Two preliminary remarks are however necessary. For Teilhard experts it may at first seem surprising that I characterize his approach as dualistic, since he himself never tired of emphasizing the phenomenal unity of the "world substance" ["Weltstoff"]

 


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and to see in matter and spirit only the two directions of the "where from" and "where to" of the one evolutionary movement. But I do not know whether by a shift of dualism to the level of mere explanation principles the claim to a monistic view of reality can be saved, nor whether something is really won by such a saving. This shift would mean that we cannot but dualistically express the explanation of the whole reality, without thus portraying the "true" or "actual" structure of reality. This would then be a mere methodological dualism - compared to a truly ontological. But what is intended with this distinction regarding metaphysical explanations, which are just based on the - unprovable - axiom that there is an analogy between the structure of our language and thinking and the reality expressed by it? One does not need to be of the same opinion and accept this condition; one is then just outside of such a "metaphysical realism". But if one accepts it [methodological dualism] - and who would deny that this is the case in Teilhard's system - then I do not see how it could be exonerated from a dualistic connotation. This admission does, as I said, not immediately mean a substance dualism and is therefore no rejection of the evolutionary context.

The second preliminary remark concerns Teilhard's use of the word "energy". It has nothing to do with the physical meaning of this term but rather corresponds to the Aristotelian energeia: the "reality" of the natural beings which is characterized by the dynamics of active change, by becoming something. Such "natural beings" are for us in the first place the living creatures, and their "energy" is the ability to develop, and not merely a physical quantity. This is of course (if one still has specially to emphasize it) also needed for development, as for any other life process too, but only in the sense of a general thermodynamic condition and not as the specific quality which matters to Aristotle. So much about the differentiation of Teilhard's concept of energy from that of physics - not to lecture the reader but to protect her/him from robbing her/himself, by the prejudice that Teilhard's view was supposedly outdated in terms of physics, of the value that his "energy model" can have for the understanding of the increase in evolutionary complexity.

Having said that I turn now to the explanation of this energy model. "Explanation", because it is not simply about an account of what Teilhard describes, in a not quite consistent terminology, in his major work "The Phenomenon of Man" under the heading "Qualitative laws of Growth" {14} but about a model schematization taken from it. First about the "tangential energy". It characterizes a natural object as what it is according to its "outside", which is accessible to scientific description: a physical entity of a certain complexity and changeability.

 


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There is nothing that distinguishes such a natural thing (with his preference for extending and reinterpreting physical terms Teilhard would say "corpuscle") from a naturalistic definition of material things: What is subject to change is material {15}.

The difference becomes at once clearly visible, if we consider the "inside" of such an arrangement of matter. Here the "radial energy" is the measure of the complexity of this arrangement. What does this mean? Complexity is determined not only by the number of the elements involved in building a material constellation but by their inner connections with each other. Following Mario Bunge and Martin Mahner, one could also say that complexity is defined by the ratio of binding to non-binding relations in a system (16). Complexity is therefore established by the systemic unity of the elements of a physical arrangement. With the help of the concept 'radial energy' Teilhard wants, to be precise for two reasons, to describe just this aspect of unity as a state of being united and as the ability to unite the elements of the system.

As the tangential energy was the reason for the variability of a physical arrangement, so the radial energy is expression of its unity, to be precise in two respects: a change of the systemic unity always starts on the tangential outside of the elements. These come into contact with each other and interact. This may be temporary or permanent. With respect to evolution temporary changes are just as uninteresting as real reductions of unity and are here no longer be considered. Lasting change can lead to a qualitative or quantitative increase in systemic unity. In the first case only new elements are incorporated into an existing system, as a result of which its binding ratios are changed regarding their number but not according to their share in the system. The degree of complexity of the system is not affected by this.

In the second case of a qualitative change in the systemic unity also the radial energy increased by the tangential contact. How are we to imagine that? By means of a picture: If we imagine a Teilhardian corpuscle, i.e. a material arrangement with a certain complexity as a ball with a certain size then its surface symbolizes the tangential energy and the scale of its complexity. The level of complexity is the radius of the ball - hence (probably) the term "radial" energy. If now a number of those balls come so tightly together that their surfaces touch, also their radial energies can interact with each other. If they do not fit together, the emerging new system falls apart and nothing else remains of it but a temporary irritation of the initial states of the elements involved. But if the radial energies are suited to each other, the interaction becomes an integration in such a way that the individual ball radii extend to a new joint centre. A corpuscle of higher complexity and greater systemic unity has emerged.

 


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Evolution's Creativity

Teilhard calls this action "super-centration". It corresponds with what system theorists call "emergence of structures" and what evolutionary biologists, with their conviction of the general transformability of living beings, expect from Darwin's theory. And this model also shows in which the actual creativity consists in this process of development: it is the extension of the radial energy arrows beyond the existing boundaries to a new joint centre. Creation theologically always means creation out of nothing. This increase in the radial energy contributions, which cannot be derived from the performance of the corpuscles, is exactly the creativity in this process, and it requires a cause of its own. But not in the sense that God adds ["dranstückeln"] to the radial ability what the creature, i.e. the corpuscle is unable to do spontaneously, but God makes this performance possible for the creature.

Radial energy means to be united and to be able to become united. This applies not only inwardly, related to the corpuscle's centre of unity (by means of a picture: the centre of the ball), but also outwardly: beyond the boundaries of the existing unity. Since the corpuscles have got unification dynamics aiming at a centre beyond all boundaries, they are, under certain external circumstances, able to transcend their own potential of unification. God as Creator is the enabling cause of the evolutionary unification movement of his creatures, because he as the last aim keeps this unification dynamics going beyond all temporary boundaries. But the creatures are also the cause of their unification ability transcending their own boundaries, because it is really their dynamics which achieves this. Self-transcendence, development, structural emergence - whatever you want to call this phenomenon: It comes entirely from God and entirely from the creature. That is it what Teilhard wants to say with his famous formula: "God makes that the things make themselves" (Dieu faisant se faire les choses) {17}.

Evolution is certainly not something for atheists alone. It allows us a conception of Creation that is cleared of any anthropocentric ideas about God as manufacturer. And this conception allows for its part to speak also there of evolution where the naturalistic explanation reaches impasses. The metaphysical prerequisite of a dualist concept of matter which is necessary for it may be a too high purchase price for naturalists. But the investment pays off if you consider that the paradigm of an evolutionary reality opens a range of application beyond the scope of living beings - from the beginnings of the cosmos to the "emergence" of the mind, resp. the mental reality. Teilhard de Chardin has thus drawn up a system of evolution that is capable of achieving what Darwin's theory according to its claim includes. This is admittedly only a system of thought and as such no replacement for the underlying causal mechanisms. However, it is an invitation not prematurely to call off the search for them.

 


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NOTES

A detailed description of the considerations presented here can be found in: Ch Kummer, Der Fall Darwin. Evolutionstheorie contra Schöpfungsglaube (München 2009).

{1} R. Dawkins, Gipfel des Unwahrscheinlichen (Reinbek 1999).

{2} C. U. Moulines, Ist Philosophie eine Wissenschaft?: lecture in the Katholischen Akademie in Bayern (München 25.10.2008) unpublished manuscript.

{3} R. Bunia, Schlagabtausch: "verbal" gegen "real", in: Laborjournal online, 21.8.2008: www.laborjournal.de/editorials/320.html

{4} E. Mayr, Das ist Evolution (München 2003).

{5} See J. Voss, Darwins Bilder (Frankfurt 2007).

{6} G. L. Sebbins, Evolutionsprozesse (Stuttgart 1980) 180.

{7} Die Darwinfinken - Evolution im Zeitraffer, in: NZZ, 12.7.2006, vgl. www.nzz.ch/2006/07/12/ft/articleEAKM5.html; A. Herrel and others, Bite performance and morphology in a population of Darwin's finches: implications for the evolution of beak shape, in: Functional Ecology 19 (2005) 43-48.

{8} Quoted from the German translation of V. Carus, 81899, 143.

{9} See Mayr (note 4) 252.

{10} T. Dobzhansky, Nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution, in: American Biology Teacher 35 (1973) 125-129.

{11} E. 0. Wilson, Sociobiology - the new Synthesis (Cambridge 1975).

{12} The same, Consilience: the unity of knowledge (New York 1998).

{13} Laborjournal (note 3) 4.

{14} P. Teilhard de Chardin, Der Mensch im Kosmos (München 1959) 47-56.

{15} M. Bunge and M. Mahner, Über die Natur der Dinge (Leipzig 2004) 20.

{16} In the same place 74.

{17} P. Teilhard de Chardin, Que faut-il penser du transformisme?, in: the same, (Euvres, volume 3 (Paris 1957) 217.

 

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