Monkey business

Lightmatter_guenon.jpg There's some really interesting conversation going on in Italy and Great Britain on the topic of God, evolution, and the late Charles Darwin.

In March, the Vatican is going to take a serious look at evolution in a conference backed by the Pope. That's pretty big news.

Over in England, a group of scientists and religious leaders, including a Nobel Prize winner, have called for a truce in the war between militant atheists and creationists.

But you wouldn't necessarily know that a substantive conversation was taking place from reading the British press, who continue to monkey around with the topic.

The lede of the Times Online story sets the tone of oh-so-genteel "gotcha" journalism the British seem to love:

The Vatican has admitted that Charles Darwin was on the right track when he claimed that Man descended from apes.

A leading official declared yesterday that Darwin's theory of evolution was compatible with Christian faith, and could even be traced to St Augustine and St Thomas Aquinas. "In fact, what we mean by evolution is the world as created by God," said Archbishop Gianfranco Ravasi, head of the Pontifical Council for Culture. The Vatican also dealt the final blow to speculation that Pope Benedict XVI might be prepared to endorse the theory of Intelligent Design, whose advocates credit a "higher power" for the complexities of life.

There's a distinctly judicial tone to the word "admitted"--as though the Pope and his cardinals were on trial.

And if the Vatican had "admitted" that Man (just men?) were descended from apes, it is far from clear that Darwin ever said anything of the sort. In fact, that is a nineteenth-century cliche.

I hadn't heard that Pope Benedict was prepared to endorse Intelligent Design--perhaps that was a well-kept secret known mostly to English journalists.

Another article, this one in the online version of The Telegraph is titled "The Vatican claims (italics mine) Darwin's theory of Evolution is compatible with Christianity."

How dare they.

This article does have a delicious tidbit from a priestly professor at a seminary in Rome:

Father Giuseppe Tanzella-Nitti, Professor of Theology at the Pontifical Santa Croce University in Rome, added that 4th century theologian St Augustine had "never heard the term evolution, but knew that big fish eat smaller fish" and forms of life had been transformed "slowly over time". Aquinas made similar observations in the Middle Ages.

From big fish who eat smaller ones to evolution seems like a bit of a stretch to me, but it does show that Catholics are pulling out some of the heavy hitters from their theological home team in considering whether evolution is compatible with tradition.

In a related story in this year of the 150th anniversary of Darwin's On the Origin of Species the online version of The Telegraph's religion correspondent wrote a delightfully serious story about a group of scientists and religious leaders who banded together to ask that atheists and creationists call a truce in the battle over Darwin's theory.

The statement made the the signers makes up roughly half of the article, but it's fascinating stuff. Here's the tail end (sorry).

In this year of all years, we should be celebrating Darwin's great biological achievements and not fighting over his legacy as some kind of anti-theologian."

Charles Darwin was a complex figure, cartooned and caricatured almost as much in our time as he was in his own. I hope that the next few months will see both him, and experts who debate his work in Rome this March, get serious consideration from the press. After 150 years, he deserves it.

Picture of the lightmatter geunon is from Wikimedia Commons

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