by Francisco J. Ayala

The following quote from Francisco J. Ayala shows people of faith in the 19th century were right to be concerned about the discovery of evolution and parents are right today to be concerned about what their children are being taught in biology classes:
Two major puzzles of human evolution remain. One puzzle is the genetic basis of the ape-to-human transformation.…The other puzzle is the brain-to-mind transformation. We know that the 30 billion neurons in our brains communicate between themselves and with other nerve cells by chemical and electrical signals. How do these signals become transformed into perceptions, feelings, ideas, critical arguments, aesthetic emotions, and ethical and religious values? And how, out of this diversity of experiences, does a unitary reality emerge, the mind or self? The soul created by God, you might say, accounts for both transformations: ape to human and brain to mind. This religious answer may be satisfactory for believers, but it is not scientifically satisfactory. I still want to know how the anatomical and behavioral traits that differentiate us from apes emerge out of our genetic differences; I also want to know the biological correlates that account for mental experiences. (p. 10)

What Professor Ayala, a chief witness in the trial in Arkansas against creationism in 1981, calls the “brain-to-mind transformation” is usually described as the mind-body dichotomy or problem. The problem gives rise to a personal question touching on our experience of guilt and blame: What is the relationship between ourselves and our bodies? This question arises because we have the ability to transcend ourselves and become the subject of own knowledge. It also give us an experience of God as the infinite abyss surrounding ourselves when we contemplate our own existence. That we have free will and conscious knowledge is an existential truth, not a scientific truth, coming from this transcendence.

Two other ways to express this transcendental knowledge is to say that we are rational animals and that we have souls. These statements are true because human beings are indefinabilties that become conscious of their own existence. A statement with more content is that human beings are embodied spirits. Anyone denying our immateriality can be confronted with the unanswerable existential questions: What is free will? What is conscious knowledge? What are ideas and other mental constructs?

Ayala mentions the mysteries existentialism invites us to inquire about, but he does not choose to ask existential questions. He asks only scientific questions: How do signals from nerve cells transform into ideas, the mind, and the self? He rejects existentialism and a transcendental level of knowledge, perhaps, because of a fear of mystery and a fear of the infinite. Or, he might derive satisfaction from the simplification that the scientific method can render the universe intelligible. In any case, his scientism is nothing but a superstition that places a barrier between himself and the incomprehensible and infinite One.

The “religious answer” to the question of whether human beings evolved from apes can be found in Humani generis by Pope Pius XII. This 1950 encyclical says that the evolution of human beings refers only to our bodies and that our souls are created by God. The pope also said that regardless of what evolutionary theories there are about polygenism, the Roman Catholic Church knows from the Bible that all human beings descended from Adam. That the whole man—body and soul—did not evolve from apes was considered by the Holy Father to be a scientific and existential truth knowable by reason alone.

Luckily for the Roman Catholic Church, recent research indicates Homo sapiens entered history in Africa, which means monogenism and the doctrine of original sin are safe. The pope’s idea that evolution only applies to the bodies of human beings is supported by any textbook about evolution. Biology textbooks are concerned with science, not existentialism. Biology textbooks don’t say, as does Ayala, that the existence of the human soul is a matter of religious belief.

The next quote shows that Ayala does not understand Christian existentialism and fundamental dogmas of the Christian faith:

Similarly, at the personal level of the individual, I can believe that I am God’s creature without denying that I developed from a single cell in my mother’s womb by natural processes. (p. 175)

The Christian faith rejects any kind of dualism between the soul and body of human beings. The Christian doctrine of the Trinity (three persons and one nature) and the Incarnation (one person and two natures) assumes the history of the universe is the same as the history of human beings. According to the doctrine of original sin, human beings inherit the guilt of Adam’s and Eve’s sin through sexual generation. The idea that when a human being is conceived a miracle is performed is not based on Christian beliefs. The birth and death of a human being are natural processes. In fundamental theology, unnatural processes are called miracles and miracles are historical signs that a prophet has been sent by God. The salvation of human beings and faith in revelation, being gifts from God, can be considered supernatural processes.

What this means is that Ayala should not be teaching children biology. He misrepresents what evolution says to deceive others or to deceive himself. If apes are spiritual beings it may be true that they have the potential to become human beings. However, the concept of potential is an existential concept, not a scientific concept. Lest there be any doubt from the title of the book that Ayala is a materialist and an atheist:

Pope Pius XII… acknowledged that biological evolution was compatible with the Christian faith, although he argued that God’s intervention was necessary for the creation of the human soul. (p. 164, emphasis added)
I do not believe that the mysteries of the mind are unfathomable; rather, they are puzzles that humans can solve with the methods of science and illuminate with philosophical analysis and reflection. (p. 115)

The reason God’s “intervention” is necessary for the creation of human beings is that human beings are finite and finite beings need a cause. The spirituality of human beings means that human beings are unified with respect to themselves and are finite beings in the court of conscience and reason. Ayala thinks science can explicate the existential unity of human beings in terms of the electrical, chemical, and biological signals between neurons and thereby reveal that our transcendental existence is an illusion. If God exists, according to Ayala, all He did was create electrical, chemical, and biological signals.

As can be expected, Ayala argues that the theory of intelligent design (ID) is not a scientific alternative to Darwinian evolution. The latest explanation of ID is by Michael J. Behe (The Edge of Evolution: The Search for the Limits of Darwinism. Free Press: New York, 2007). Behe renders moot Ayala’s point that ID is not science by not spending much time on the theory and presenting it in a humble and tentative way.

He is not tentative about Darwinian evolution, saying it can destroy biological machinery, but can’t build it up. Behe argues that the recently discovered mechanism for transporting cellular material in the tail of a single-celled organism (click here for a film of this) is irreducibly complex and can’t be explained by Darwinian evolution. To illustrate Darwinian destructiveness he cites sickle cell hemoglobin, an adaptation that protects against malaria. Behe likened the acceptance of Darwinian evolution by biologists with the belief of 19th century physicists that light travels, not in a vacuum, but in an invisible substance, highly rigid but having a low density, that permeates all of space.

Joke: Professor Behe, Professor Ayala, and Jean-Paul Sartre (atheisitic existentialist) were stranded on an island and were discussing the Big Bang. Behe said the Big Bang was created ex nihilo by an angel. Ayala said the Big Bang was a vacuum fluctuation. Sartre said there was no angel and no vacuum.

As to the reason why Darwinian evolution is a gift to religion, Ayala says:

Indeed, a major burden was removed from the shoulders of believers when convincing evidence was advanced that the design of organisms need not be attributed to the immediate agency of the Creator, but rather is an outcome of natural processes. (p. 159)

Believers are sure that the eternal rewards of the next world will more than compensate for the suffering and injustices of this world. Nor is there any burden on those trying to decide whether or not the Creator has communicated himself to mankind through the Bible, the Koran, or the scriptures of the Eastern religions. Indeed, someone making what is the most important decision in every person’s life will be led to make a positive decision for God by the possibility that God makes us suffer in order to help us develop character, just like good parents are not overprotective of their children.

David Hume, who Ayala quoted in full, said a good and omnipotent God would not let human beings suffer. Since people suffer, the reasoning goes, God is not omnipotent and good.

As to God’s goodness, this reasoning is fallacious because we should let our fellow man suffer, even if we have the power to prevent it, if a higher good is thereby achieved. Physicians, for example, will not prescribe morphine in many cases because of the higher good of preventing addiction to the drug. It is true that we don’t know what higher good is served by God giving us our freedom in this evolutionary world. However, we cannot conclude from our lack of knowledge that there is no higher good and that God is not good.

As to God’s omnipotence, this reasoning is fallacious because God is not a finite being. If God was a finite being, it would be some kind of spirit without a body and its existence would not make our own finite existence intelligible.

I am licensed by the State of New York to teach biology to children and would tell them evolution applies only to the bodies of Homo sapiens. Either I am a liar or Ayala is.