Tracking the Course of Evolution


by Bruce H. Tiffney

SEVERAL HAVE asked for further insight into the relation of the Catholic Church to science, and also brought up the standard claim that "science" is something we derived from the Greeks, Mesopotamia, etc. It is clear there is room for a written discourse here, as no one reference I can cite focuses directly on this contention. Perhaps I need to get busy. In the meantime, let me address this question in a rather spotty and brief manner.

The Greeks and Science

The "Greeks and Science" has been a long accepted term in history (see Greek science: Its Meaning to Us, B. Farrington). Indeed, the Greeks et alia did indeed create approaches, methods and observations that we would in retrospect call scientific. Some of their insights come forward to us relatively unaltered. But did they create a scientific culture that used science in a consistent manner? I suggest not. Rather what they did was simply to introduce what we in western culture retrospectively admire as a "logical approach" to observation.
I suspect we focus upon the Greeks not because they were unusual, so much as they were the first to leave a coherent body of written works that have come down to us in a language directly related to our own. We see them as "western" and put them, not some other culture, at the base of "western" civilization. If we had better and more familiar records of Sumerian or Babylonian scholarship, we might point instead to them as scientific progenitors, and Greek just as modifiers. If we looked to the Chinese as our intellectual progenitors, I think we would have found that they too had certain traditions of logic in their systems that we could adduce as "scientific." The Chinese, in fact, had a more developed technical "science" than the Greeks ever did, but also never invented science "as a way of knowing." Why? It was not important to "understand" in an abstract sense, only in a very applied sense (I think Joseph Needham's work on Chinese technology covers this, but I have only read excerpts)
This is not to denigrate Greek contributions — only to argue that they were "contributions towards science", not the real thing.* And as one person once pointed out to me, perhaps left in peace for another 300 years, the Greeks might have invented science as we know it today. But they never really got to creating a standardized protocol of experimentation that assumed an orderly world. In part this was because they also had a really strong belief in the irrational and the caprice of the fates (check out their pantheon of Gods, who were simply humans possessing God-like powers, but with all the faults of humans and just as unpredictable).

*(Footnote: Historians of science in the last 20 years have increasingly realized that previous accounts of the growth of ideas have unfairly projected from what we know now back onto the past. As a result, many historical figures have been ascribed far more comprehensive and "modern" views than they really possessed. It would be wonderful to think of Cuvier, Lyell, Linnaeus, or others as "men ahead of their time" with modern insight. But in most cases this is erroneous — they were men OF their time, and while they saw the world in new eyes, they often placed their new understanding in the context of the time in which they lived — they did not see their discovery as we now interpret it in the fullness of history. We must be alert to "revisionist history," to seeing things as we would like to imagine that they should have been, rather than as they were.)

The Catholic Church and Science

The core role of the Catholic Church in the origin of science lies in certain "God-granted" assumptions in Christianity:

1) It posited a linear history with distinct, non-repeatable events.
2) It posited a rational God . . .
3) . . . who created an Earth that was orderly and assembled by rational means.

The third posit automatically elevated the study of nature to an extension of the study of God. It made natural history a religious undertaking (thus the old term "Natural Philosophy"). This is unique in major world cultures.
The second posit was also unique in major religions, and meant that a rational human had a real likelihood of understanding the world. This posit *promised* that the world was orderly and would obey "laws." All you had to do was find them. This is a major point — confusion in comprehending the natural world was not then a discouragement, but simply proof that you had to try harder to obtain the correct insight — it was proof that man was imperfect and needed to strive to greater heights.
Together, the second and third posits explain much of early Science that we now laugh at (and should not). Thus the Reverend Thomas Burnett's Dirty Little Planet, which passed through a series of stages of decreasing, then increasing, perfection, is a theological hypothesis to explain geological observations based upon a perfect and logical God (See Gould's' Time's Arrow, Time's Cycle, Harvard U Press — this is one of his best books for my money, illustrating how many of the past giants were creatures of their time).
Similarly, another fallout of these principles is sea monsters. From the second and third posits came the "Principle of Plenitude" — the hypothesis that, in Her perfection, God created everything at once, and that nothing changes or goes extinct. Dinosaur bones were known from Europe, and recognized as being the bones of once-living organisms. They no longer lived in Europe, but the Principle of Plenitude says that they existed. This explains the very real sea monsters that ringed Renaissance maps — they were a direct and logical extension of a logical God, they were not there out of fancy or imagination. (Note: many look rather lizard or dragon-like . . . or dinosaur like! Those old artists actually did pretty well to reconstruct such organisms the way that they did!)
The first posit meant that you could pursue the whole study in a "cause and effect" linear manner. Perhaps this is not so important for the growth of science as a whole as it was for evolution and Earth history in particular. From this assumption we KNEW the Earth had evolved — the problem was only to find the data. Thus, early "scientists" were again guaranteed that they were going to be successful because they were convinced that God had pre-ordained evolution. The only problem came to be when the Biblical stratigraphy failed to match the received data. The study of life was similarly eased by the knowledge that everything was "related" (though not in a genetic sense) by the act of creation.
It was this sense of religious certainty — and indeed, the NEED of Christian religion to study the Natural world for God's sake, that distinguished Christian efforts at "science" from other rational attempts to study nature. Christianity gave a meaning to organized inquiry into nature (= science) that did not exist in other cultures — a meaning that drove science from often being an extension of technology (particularly true in China) to something that had its own higher goal — to "Understand."
Further, it was the Christian certainty of God's rationality, and of man being created in the image of God, that led man to increasingly trust her/his eyes. Thus, as contradictions were uncovered between received scripture and actual observation, observation had an argument in its favor — that God had created us in Her image, we had the power to be rational. Our observations therefore have some substance and weight.
Of course in time, the biblical support for our rationality waned in importance as the power of the "scientific method" grew, quietly obscuring the Christian roots of science. This was aided (I believe) by another factor — the secularization of the university. Early universities were centers for the study of God's creation; a collection of scholars gathered to understand God's Universe. They were theological seminaries wherein natural history was taught as part of theological training — to study the universal, to study creation in all its forms. This was perhaps most clear at the "state theological seminaries" of England: Oxford and Cambridge. These were the training grounds for the minor aristocracy and country gentlemen, deeply wedded to the status quo and the political apparatus of the kingdom. Check out Darwin's course load. He was training to become an English country vicar. He took courses in Botany and Zoology precisely because these were ostensibly theological subjects.
However, the university underwent a transition in the middle 19th century from its theological origins to a more secular institution, increasingly populated by faculty and students from the middle and even lower class. While theology remained central, universities increasingly had to answer the need for trained citizenry. At Oxford and Cambridge within the sciences, this rapidly developed a schism between the theological underpinnings of natural history (still strong in the 1820s and 30s) to a complete separation of science and religion by the latter half of the century. Perhaps like a lover's quarrel, the split between science and religion is as vicious as it sometimes is, precisely because the two had such intertwined beginnings.


Nobody REALLY says this all in one place, but it is inherent in a bunch of writings.

Martin Rudwick's The Meaning Of Fossils (likely now out of print, but if available, from U Chicago Press)

The Death of Adam (John C. Greene) is a classic pointing in this direction (also likely out of print — my copy says U Iowa Press).

You can sort of see it in Peter Bowler's Evolution: History of an Idea (UC Press).

David Lindberg and Ronald Numbers edited a volume, God & Nature (UC Press), that has some essays pointing in this direction.

Science Deified & Science Defied by Richard Olson (I forget who . . .) has comments on the origin of the university (a lovely topic that I am not aware has been explored in any depth).

There is a new biography of Isaac Newton (saw it in Moe's Books on Telegraph Ave., Berkeley) that yet again underscores that Newton was worshiping God with his math and physics — we remember him for Newtonian physics and calculus, but we ignore much of his other, very theologically-driven, ideas.

All this is just the tip of the Iceberg, and I am responding from just what is in front of me to stimulate the neurons. I may add others as I think of them (ah, the moving web page!).

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