March 2020: Apologetics
Can Science Confirm Genesis?
In the modern world, it is not unusual to come across the opinion that religious accounts of origins were plausible only in a pre-scientific age. This article explores scientific discoveries and examines the Catholic understanding of origins, with a specific focus on the origin of the universe and the birth of humankind.
Searching for the Beginning
The study of the origin, evolution and fate of the universe is known as cosmology. Some of the best minds in history have tried to understand what the universe is and where it came from. Through the ages, a very broad range of theories have been put forward, including: the Earth Centred Universe of Aristotle; the Abrahamic Universe proposed by medieval Jewish, Christian and Muslim scholars; the Copernican Universe; the infinite Static Universe described by Newton; the Big Bang Model of the Universe attributed to the Catholic priest and physicist Georges Lemaître; the Inflationary Universe put forward by Alan Guth; and various versions of the Multiverse, which propose that our organised universe is just one of many bubbles within a sequence of largely chaotic and disorganised arrangements.
The really interesting conclusion of the modern theories of the universe is that all of them depend on a beginning. For science-minded people open to faith, natural laws and the order that we find in our universe are expressions of God. The Bible emphasises the regular behaviour of natural phenomena and God’s providential sustenance. From early times, the Catholic focus on the providence, order, lawfulness and harmony of the cosmos as a whole pointed to a rational Creator and lawgiver. The reliability of this cosmic design argument is more obvious today than ever before. In many ways, the scientific evidence that supports the cosmic design argument displays a remarkable level of harmony with creation accounts in the Bible.
The Origin of Human Life
The Church has infallibly defined that the universe was specially created out of nothing. However, the Church does not have an official opinion on whether various life forms developed over the course of time through biological evolution, except to teach that the development of life occurred under the impetus and guidance of God. Like his recent predecessors, Pope Francis has informally affirmed the reality of biological evolution and has even included the philosophy of evolutionary biology in his 2015 encyclical, Laudato Si’.
With regard to human evolution, the Church allows for the possibility that man’s body developed from previous biological forms, under God’s guidance, but advocates the special creation of his soul. As stated by Pope Francis: ‘Human beings, even if we postulate a process of evolution, also possess a uniqueness which cannot be fully explained by the evolution of other open systems’ (Laudato Si’, 81).
In many ways, this is an exciting time for the scientific exploration of human origins. Archaeological discoveries, along with the development of innovative DNA research, are contributing to our understanding of our distant past. We now know of more than 20 hominid species that are part of our ancient family tree. Fossil evidence relating to the earliest hominids is scarce, but still provides valuable material for scientific study.
Based on a narrow view of selected scientific evidence, one might conclude that a literal Adam and Eve is scientifically impossible. Some lines of scientific argument suggest that the first couple, as described in Genesis, may be entirely mythological, yet modern scientific advances – particularly in the 21st century – have ignited an increased awareness of the plausibility of Adam and Eve. For instance, initial scientific studies of a genetic Adam and genetic Eve seemed to suggest that a common male ancestor and a common female ancestor did not exist at the same time and could not have become the first human couple. However, further research suggested that these two genetic individuals did not live as far apart in time as initially thought and may indeed have existed at the same time.
A proper understanding of the scientific method and the various methodologies used to generate scientific results shows that it cannot ever prove or logically exclude the existence of two sole founders of humanity. For instance, many genetic results depend upon best estimates regarding a number of factors that are known to vary widely. Our scientific exploration of the distant past requires retrospective calculations that have no directly verifiable data. Furthermore,
specific scientific arguments against the existence of Adam and Eve have repeatedly been shown not to be as reliable as initially suggested.
Discovering God’s Fingerprints Through Science
In many ways, human evolution remains a puzzle containing thousands of fossil pieces and billions of DNA fragments. However, significant harmony exists between the scientific account of human origins and the biblical account of one human family living today, which both relate in their own unique ways the story of human existence, migration, struggle and co-operation.
The scientific evidence is clear that all humans alive today form part of one common human family. It is also clear that modern humans are the only species of human to still exist on our planet. By about 17,000 years ago, modern humans were not only a worldwide species but were the sole surviving human species. Furthermore, the scientific study of human origins has identified several characteristics that make us human, such
as our precision grip that aids tool making, walking upright on two legs, brains that are large relative to body size, an extended childhood, as well as environmental and cultural adaptations. Such scientific discoveries invite us to rediscover the question: ‘what makes us special?’
In the light of compelling scientific evidence regarding our human family, it is completely justifiable to revisit the biblical accounts of human origins with the eyes of faith. Put simply, the truth of Adam and Eve remains rationally plausible and scientifically possible. This should not be surprising, as faith cannot conflict with reason because the things of the world and the things of the faith derive from the same God. The biblical story of the creation and fall of man remains a true one, even if not written in scientific language or using modern literary approaches. The Catechism states: ‘The account of the fall in Genesis 3 uses figurative language, but affirms a primeval event, a deed that took place at the beginning of the history of man. Revelation gives us the certainty of faith that the whole of human history is marked by the original fault freely committed by our first parents’ (CCC 390). For people open to wisdom, the account of Adam and Eve contains significant teachings about what it means to be human.
The Wonder of God’s Creation
Catholics are free to follow the scientific evidence of origins wherever it leads. For me, there is a deep sense of wonder in exploring the harmony of scientific evidence with the Genesis accounts and Church teaching. When we are open to the full range of scientific evidence available, and its spiritual or theological significance, we are also open to God to whom we can echo the words of the Psalm: ‘What is man that you are mindful
of him?’ (Ps 8:4).
Exploring the origins of humankind encourages us to wonder at the mystery of God’s love, expressed through the rich symbolic language of our species. Contemplating the birth of humankind as part of a much larger cosmic evolution, and the very real joys and struggles of the first humans, can lead our thinking to the birth of Jesus Christ. The Son of God, born of the Virgin Mary, is the archetype and authentic image of all human beings. In a remarkable way, both kinds of story – the scientific accounts and the biblical accounts – can together lead us to Jesus Christ along a path that ultimately brings us into the light of truth and the eternal joy of God’s love.
Dr Sean O’Leary has worked extensively in teacher education. In addition to his scholarly writing, his popular writings may be found on his website, www.thesacredcape.com and on www.thehookoffaith.com.