Darwin and Evolution:
From a Catholic Perspective

Joseph Bolin

Are evolution and faith really incompatible? What exactly does the Catholic Church teach regarding creation - and can science really answer humanity's greatest question: why am I here? Answers to these questions will be found in this new booklet which examines the subject in detail.

Darwin and Evolution: From a Catholic Perspective is published by Catholic Truth Society, England, and may be ordered from there, or from St. Paul's Online Store.

Selected texts from the book

Certain sections of this booklet are presented here for previewing. Footnote numbering does not correspond exactly to the printed edition. Please ask for permission before reposting substantial portions of the text.

Table of Contents



Four Understandings of Creation

Six-day Creationism (Literal and Simplistic Interpretation)

Progressive Creationism

Deistic Creationism

Intelligent Design Creationism

Intelligent Design and Common Descent

Intelligent Design and Philosophy

Limitation of These Understandings of Creation

Catholic Understanding of Creation

Fathers of the Church

Thomas Aquinas

Magisterium on Creation

Concluding summary

Darwinian Evolution

Science and reality: the limitations of the scientific method

Materialistic interpretation of science

Evolution and Philosophy

Creation and Evolution

Magisterium on evolution

Compatibility of evolution and creation

Complementarity of creation and evolution

Evolution presupposes regular natural laws

Evolution presupposes natures

Evolution complements the doctrine of creation




Where do I come from? Where am I going? Was I chosen, brought into existence by a loving creator, or am I merely the product of blind chance, of uncaring fate? Few questions are more urgent than these. Men have traditionally sought, and frequently found, answers to these questions in religion. The Judaeo-Christian tradition, indeed, gives a clear answer: God, the benevolent Creator of heaven and earth, brought me into existence by his loving plan. Certain scientists and philosophers have vehemently attacked this answer, loudly proclaiming that human life is a mere happenstance, the product of blind necessity and chance. The militant atheist Richard Dawkins, author of The Blind Watchmaker and The God Delusion, is among the most well-known figures in this campaign. A prominent battleground in the struggle between “science” and “religion” has been the public schools, with many Christians in favor of teaching “intelligent design” as an alternative to Darwinian evolution, and many scientists strongly opposed to this “unscientific” theory. It has come to the point that we may feel obliged, in spite of ourselves, to take sides and jump into battle: to argue for evolution instead of creation, or creation instead of evolution.


Intelligent Design Creationism

Intelligent design creationism is the view that God created the world by “designing” certain structures within it, either at the beginning, or at multiple points in its development. Properly speaking, the theory of intelligent design is not a theory of creation, and does not presuppose a divine creator. It is rather a scientific, or pseudo-scientific, theory that the structure of the world or of living beings shows the working of an intelligent designer. Yet while this designer could theoretically be some finite intelligent agent, such as intelligent extraterrestrials, most adherents of the theory of intelligent design understand God to be the designer. Consequently, intelligent design theory is often associated with creationism.

The popular origins of the term “intelligent design” also demonstrate a link with creationism. The biology textbook Of Pandas and People has been said to be the first to use the phrase “intelligent design” in its present sense,1 and was certainly the first to use the phrase extensively. Early drafts of this book spoke frequently of creation, defining it as meaning that “the various forms of life began abruptly through the agency of an intelligent creator with their distinctive features already intact. Fish with fins and scales, birds with feathers, beaks, and wings, etc.” It followed what we have called progressive creationism, though allowing for the possibility of a more rapid creation, such as creation in six days. After the USA Supreme Court in Edwards v. Aguillard ruled it unconstitutional to teach creation science in public schools, the book’s authors systematically replaced terms such as “creator” with “intelligent designer.” The previous definition of “creation” was preserved, but was now used as a definition of “intelligent design”!2

Two principal arguments are made for intelligent design: one based on complexity, the other based on information. These arguments for intelligent design may be seen in the work of two key proponents of the theory, Michael Behe and William Dembski. Behe, a practicing Catholic and microbiologist, was for a long time a Darwinist who saw no theological or scientific problems with the theory of the common descent of living beings by a process of random change and natural selection. That changed abruptly when he read the geneticist Michael Denton’s Evolution: A Theory in Crisis. He describes the experience as world-changing: “When I laid the book down, I lived in a different world.”3 He began reading with a skeptical eye the claims for evolution in the scientific literature, and volunteered to lead a seminar titled “Popular Arguments on Evolution,” in which he and his students read and discussed pro- and anti-evolution books and articles, particularly Denton’s Evolution: A Theory in Crisis and Richard Dawkin’s The Blind Watchmaker. The next stage in his engagement with the theory of evolution came when he read the lawyer Phillip Johnson’s book Darwin on Trial, which argued that if one did not assume materialism was true, then the evidence for random mutation and natural selection as the explanation of life on earth is very small indeed.4 In the following months Behe became involved in debates on evolution with Phillip Johnson, and worked out the arguments that later became the basis for his own book Darwin’s Black Box,5 arguments that he believed made a unique contribution from the perspective of biochemistry.

The key concept in Behe’s argument is irreducible complexity. The argument begins with two premises: (1) certain parts of organisms, such as the mechanism for blood clotting, or the bacterial flagellum, are complex, that is, they are composed of many different parts; (2) all of these parts are necessary in order to achieve the function; in other words, the mechanism is irreducibly complex; the structure cannot be simpler and have the same function. The second step of the argument is that such an irreducibly complex mechanism cannot be built up gradually, by a process of natural selection. If the mechanism producing the function is irreducibly complex, then intermediate structures would have no function, and thus no value for the organism; they would not contribute to its living or reproducing, and so would not be promoted by natural selection.

The concept of irreducible complexity as an objection to evolution by natural selection is not really new. Darwin himself recognized it: “If it could be demonstrated that any complex organ existed which could not possibly have been formed by numerous, successive, slight modifications, my theory would absolutely break down.”6 Behe’s contribution was the application of this idea at the molecular level rather than at the level of large organs such as the eye. Complex bio-chemical processes are supposed to exemplify exactly such a complexity as Darwin spoke of. Behe proclaimed that design is clearly evident at the cellular level, and that this discovery “must be ranked as one of the greatest achievements in the history of science,” rivaling those of Newton, Einstein, Lavoisier, Schrödinger, Pasteur, and Darwin.7

While the general principle is sound, its application is weak. A “molecular machine” that requires each of its parts in order to perform its function could have been built up from parts with different functions. Indeed, this is just what the theory of evolution would predict! As the ancestors of horses were not simply “imperfect horses,” but were something other than horses, so one could expect the precursor of many biological systems to be not merely imperfect systems of the same type, but systems functioning somewhat differently.

More generally, the argument that some biological system could not have been formed gradually is an argument based on ignorance: we don’t know how, or at least don’t know exactly how such-and-such a function evolved; therefore, it couldn’t have evolved gradually. This argument is weak, unless we suppose that we know biochemistry so well that if there were a gradual way for the function to evolve, we would know it. Since our knowledge of biochemistry remains quite imperfect regarding many detailed points, the fact that we do not know in detail how gradual evolution of various functional systems could have happened is a weak argument that it is impossible. But in fact, possible paths of evolution have been sketched out for the very things, such as blood clotting, that Behe claims are irreducibly complex!8

William Dembski, a mathematician and philosopher, attempted to give a rigorous, quasi-mathematical foundation for the theory of intelligent design. In his technical book The Design Inference, revised from his Ph.D. dissertation in philosophy and published by Cambridge University Press in a series on probability theory, he proposes the three categories of law, chance, or design. If an event is regular and necessary (or highly probable), then it is the result of law. If an event has an intermediate probability, or if it has a very low probability but is not a particularly special event, then it is the result of chance. If an event has a very low probability, and matches an independently given specification, then it is the result of design. To describe low probability together with an independent specification, Dembski uses the term specified complexity, or complex specified information. Dembski was by no means the first to use the notion of specified complexity. Richard Dawkins himself, explaining why animals seem designed, employed the same concept: “complicated things have some quality, specifiable in advance, that is highly unlikely to have been acquired by random chance alone.”9 Dembski’s innovation is his attempt to use this notion of complexity to exclude origination through law and chance. In this original work, The Design Inference, Dembski did not apply the principle to natural organisms and events, but in later writings he sought to apply the design inference to nature.

There are several weaknesses in Dembski’s argument. Simply showing that a large quantity of information or complexity is present is insufficient, since complexity can be produced by chance. (An attempt to memorize random series of numbers quickly shows that randomness and complexity go together.) Even showing that the complexity somehow fits an independent pattern is insufficient, since chance together with law can do this. A computer can take random input, and transform it by a regular method, or law, so that the result is unique, or highly complex, on account of the randomness involved, and also highly specified, on account of the regularity involved. Examples of this are solutions to problems that are found by the use of computer genetic algorithms, or unique music that is written by computers. In some cases, computers have even found better solutions to problems than humans did. Dr. Adrian Thompson, for example, by means of a genetic algorithm evolved a device that could distinguish between the words “go” and “stop,” using only 37 logic gates—far fewer than a human engineer would need to solve the problem.10 And while computer-generated music may not yet be great music, it is certainly not mere noise. According to any purely mathematical definition of information, such programs can produce information.11

In order for Dembski to apply the design inference to nature, he needs to exclude such a combination of chance and law, to exclude the possibility of information in the sense of new possibilities being introduced by chance, and becoming specified information by the regular process of natural selection (organisms are matched to their environment by the greater reproduction of those which match it). The only way he can do this is to fall back on Behe’s notion of irreducible complexity.12 That is, he has to posit, implicitly or explicitly, that the specified information must be introduced in one fell swoop; thus it cannot be attributed to chance, since the probabilities are far too small, nor can it be attributed to law, since there is no set law to produce it. Dembski begins his argument with a different concept than Behe does, namely that of “information,” but when it comes to applying the argument to real biological systems, Dembski’s argument more or less coincides with Behe’s.

(Intelligent Design and Common Descent has been omitted from this preview...)

Intelligent Design and Philosophy

Cardinal Schönborn, often thought to be on the side of the intelligent design school of thought, sees a fundamental failure in its quasi-scientific attempt to see complexity in nature as proof of a designer, because design or purpose “cannot be found on the level of causality with which the scientific method is concerned.” The limitations of the scientific method do not allow it either to prove or to disprove an intelligent origin and purpose of the world.13

Indeed, while the theory of intelligent design is sometimes seen as the best alternative to radical neo-Darwinism, the two theories actually share deep roots in common. Both theories arose in the milieu born of nominalism and scientism, and try to answer the questions about the origin of life without substantial reference to philosophy. They abstract from the notions of nature, substantial form, and intrinsic purpose, and share a mechanistic view of living beings: while the theory of intelligent design claims that a complicated mechanism must be formed by a designer, Darwinism claims that a mechanism, consisting essentially of various parts and based on various genes, can arise gradually. Both theories suppose a false opposition between law and design, in contrast to classical philosophy, which sees design (i.e., the work of intelligence) in every natural law. Though the scientific claim of intelligent design—that known natural causes could not produce the life we see—must finally be judged on its scientific merit, on how well it corresponds to the evidence, the philosophical mindset underlying this understanding of intelligent design is highly questionable.

A positive fruit of intelligent design creationism is that it has raised public debate about the legitimate claims of science, and the relation of philosophy and science. On the other hand, due to the scientifically dubious arguments made by proponents of intelligent design, it has also led to suspicions that support of intelligent design comes merely from Christian bias, and that faith and science really are opposed, despite the claims of the Catholic Church to the contrary.


Thomas Aquinas

St. Thomas Aquinas gives precise formulation to the scriptural and patristic teaching: to call God the Creator means that all “being” comes from him,14 that is, the existence of anything whatsoever comes from God, and depends essentially upon him. “Being” here includes being active, and so the activity and power of everything derives from God’s creative action.

St. Thomas sees the power of God’s creative action not only in making things exist, but above all in making them be causes of other things. The production of one creature by another does not compete with God’s causality, as though a creature had to be either from God or from another creature. Rather, whatever is produced by a creature comes from God as the first and ultimate cause of it, and from the creature as a secondary cause. (We are speaking, of course, about real beings that are produced; sin, as a moral defect and privation, is not from God.) Since God is the cause of all other causes, his causality includes even chance events, which occur by the coincidence of two causes.15

St. Thomas sees the ability of one natural being to be generated by another natural being as rooted in “first matter,” the radical possibility of a material being to become one thing or another. When a natural agent forms a structure suited for the living activities of growth, etc., the result is not merely a complex structure, like a machine, but really becomes a living being. Yet while matter is necessary for this change, the change itself cannot be attributed only to the matter, which is merely the inner root of the possibility of being a living being; the change must ultimately be attributed to the cause of matter, which is God. This is true not only of the human soul, which in a certain manner transcends material reality, but of every nature, which is something more than the stuff in which it is found. The existence of a natural being cannot be attributed only to that which materially formed it, but must also be attributed to the author of nature.

Since created things receive from God not only existence, but also the power to be causes of other things, Thomas’s view of creation leaves room for a natural sequence such as evolution in the created world, whereby one type of living being comes from another. We cannot determine a priori the extent to which this can or does happen concretely. We cannot say a priori, for example, that a living being can only produce something essentially like itself, but can only make a judgment about this on the basis of experience. St. Thomas, in fact, following Aristotle and the common scientific opinion, held that simpler living beings are generated by the powers of the heavens (we might say, by “natural forces”) acting upon inanimate substances, while more complex living beings are generated by other living beings like them in kind. He believed this not for purely theoretical reasons, but because he saw it as the best account given the data available. This particular account of abiogenesis (“spontaneous generation”) has been falsified, at least as regards the living beings we see commonly around us. But the general possibility of life being generated through natural forces remains open, as does the possibility of one kind of organism generating another kind. It is the task of empirical science to determine whether, when, and how this actually happens.

Compatibility of evolution and creation

In 2002 the International Theological Commission, with the approval of Cardinal Ratzinger, published the document Communion and Stewardship, which addressed the question of evolution. While this document is not strictly magisterial, it reflects the increasing openness of the Church to the overwhelming scientific evidence for evolution, regarding it as “virtually certain” that all living organisms have descended from some first organism.16

The document goes on to explain the compatibility of creation and evolution. God not only makes things in the world be, but makes them be causes. According to Catholic tradition, God, as a universal cause, “is the cause not only of existence but also the cause of causes.” In creating and conserving the universe, God wills to activate the secondary causes that contribute to the natural order he intends. Through these secondary, natural causes, “God causes to arise those conditions required for the emergence and support of living organisms, and, furthermore, for their reproduction and differentiation.”17

God is not just an extra-powerful cause, but is a transcendent cause. God’s ability to use secondary causes to achieve the ends he intends does not do away with the proper nature and contingency of those secondary causes. “Divine causality and created causality radically differ in kind and not only in degree. Thus, even the outcome of a truly contingent natural process can nonetheless fall within God’s providential plan for creation.” Because the scientist’s field of inquiry is limited to secondary, created causes, he may conclude quite correctly that a particular event or process resulted from chance or coincidence. Yet to conclude, further, that the process is absolutely unguided, is to make a philosophical assertion unjustified by science. “In the Catholic perspective, neo-Darwinians who adduce random genetic variation and natural selection as evidence that the process of evolution is absolutely unguided are straying beyond what can be demonstrated by science.” The very contingency and randomness observed in an evolutionary process derives from God’s creative action. “Any evolutionary mechanism that is contingent can only be contingent because God made it so.” Hence, no evolutionary process can fall outside the bounds of divine providence.18

1John C. Avise, Adaption and Complex Design (Washington, DC: National Academies Press, 2007), 298, citing Buell’s preface to the third edition of Of Pandas and People.

2Ibid., 299–300.

3Michael J. Behe, “From Muttering to Mayhem: How Phillip Johnson Got Me Moving” in Darwin’s Nemesis, ed. William A. Dembski, 42.

4Ibid., 44.

5Behe, Darwin’s Black Box: The Biochemical Challenge to Evolution (New York: The Free Press, 1996).

6Charles Darwin, On the Origin of Species, ch. 6.

7Darwin’s Black Box, 232–233.

8See, for example, Kenneth Miller, Finding Darwin’s God: A Scientist's Search for Common Ground Between God and Evolution (New York: Harper Perennial, 2000), 134–158.

9Dawkins, The Blind Watchmaker (New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 1986), 9.

10Clive Davidson, “Creatures from primordial silicon,” New Scientist 156, no. 2108 (November 15, 1997):30–35.

11Dembski addresses a genetic algorithm that learned to play checkers at the expert level, arguing that the information was inserted from the beginning, that the programs were “guided,” because the programmers “kept the criterion of winning constant” (No Free Lunch, 2nd edition [Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2007], 223). But while keeping “the criterion of winning constant” may be part of the regularity such an algorithm presupposes, there is nothing more natural than that the “criterion of winning” in checkers should remain constant, and does not indicate any design of the solution to the problem by the programmers.

12See, for example, Dembski, Intelligent Design: The Bridge Between Science & Theology (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2002), 177, and No Free Lunch, 287 ff. Though Dembski relies on the argument from irreducible complexity, it is not clear whether he perceived its strict necessity for the validity of his argument.

13Cardinal Schönborn, lecture at the Austrian Academy of Sciences on March 4, 2009, Katholische Nachrichten, https://www.kath.net/detail.php?id=22299. Accessed June 9, 2009.

14Summa Theologiae I, q. 45, a. 1.

15Summa Theologiae I, q. 22, a. 2 ad 1.

16International Theological Commission, Communion and Stewardship, n. 63.



See also these posts, which compose a series commenting on and critiquing Hugh Owen's article The Difference it Makes: The Importance of the Traditional Doctrine of Creation.

Evolution and Creation - Definitions
Evolution and Creation I - Scripture and Tradition
Evolution and Creation II - Church and Family
Evolution and Creation III - Sexuality
Evolution and Creation IV - Man and Nature
Evolution and Creation V - Hope or Despair
Evolution and Creation VI - Sabbath Rest
Evolution and Creation VII - Spiritual Forces of Evil
Evolution and Creation VIII - Relationship to God