The Pope on evolution

So, according to news reports, the Pope has a new book out that states that evolution is only a theory that can’t really be proven, and that while science can ask provocative questions, their answers are beyond science’s scope.  Thus, although he hasn’t explicitly endorsed “intelligent design”, his arguments are in line with its tenets.

Of course, no scientific theory can ever be absolutely proven.   While every experiment since Galileo’s time has shown gravity’s acceleration to be independent of an object’s weight (within reason, and excluding friction), a scientist can’t say with absolute certainty that tomorrow’s experiment will show the same.

Within those limits, however, evolution is very much a proven theory.  While we can’t go back to prehistoric times to do experiments, we can do experiments and make observations in the present day, and those experiments and observations offer overwhelming support for evolution.  Further, the modelling that has been done by population geneticists is every bit as supportive of evolution as that of climatologists is supportive of global warming. 

That’s not to say that we know everything there is to know about how evolution works.  There are still unsolved questions, like why evolution sometimes goes fast and sometimes goes slow.  But for a scientist, an unsolved question is a challenge, not a calamity.

The Pope, like many conservative religious leaders, would like science to go away and leave them alone.  Science has a nasty habit of poking holes in religious dogma and calling into question the validity of “sacred cows”.  Of course, from the other side, scientists have chafed for centuries at religion’s insistence that certain topics were “off limits”.  In Galileo’s time it was cosmology; today it’s stem cell research.  That’s not to say that science can afford to ignore ethics and pursue a totally amoral course.  I think most scientists would agree that, for example, experimenting on uninformed and unsuspecting human subjects (as was done by the U.S. military in the 1940s and 1950s), is highly improper.  The difference is between restricting what science studies and how it studies it.

Most scientists will acknowledge that science will simply never be able to prove or disprove the existence of God.  The most science can do is identify natural phenomena that don’t require God’s existence to explain them.  Is this bad??  Do we really still want to believe that thunder is the sound of Thor’s hammer, that a rainbow is a reminder of God’s promise to Noah, or that disease epidemics are demonstrations of the wrath of God at sinners?  (Yes, some of these ideas can be wonderfully poetic, but they won’t help you cope with rainstorms or smallpox.)

Religion still has some awfully big problems to grapple with — like the existence of evil, genocide, and all manner of human suffering.  These are places where science could certainly use some help from religion.  In other words, I think the Pope could find far more useful ways to spend his time than taking potshots at evolution.

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