Why Catholics Can Believe in Evolution:
Part I: God’s Gift of the Periodic Table

periodic table

“A common sense interpretation of the facts suggests that a super-intellect has monkeyed with physics, as well as with chemistry and biology, and that there are no blind forces worth speaking about in nature. The numbers one calculates from the facts seem to me so overwhelming as to put this conclusion almost beyond question.”  
–Fred Hoyle (who predicted the triple-alpha process), The Universe: Past and Present Reflections. Annual Review of Astronomy and Astrophysics: 20:16

“Through his Word and wisdom he created the universe, for by his Word the heavens were established, and by his Spirit all their array. His wisdom is supreme. God by wisdom founded the earth, by understanding he arranged the heavens, by his knowledge the depths broke forth and the clouds poured out the dew.”
–St. Theophilus of Antioch, Letter to Autoylcus

Evolution:   “The process by which different kinds of living organism are believed to have developed from earlier forms during the history of the earth.” –Oxford English Dictionary (OED)

Evolution: “The gradual development of something.”–OED


Rather than a rebuttal to Maurice Williams’ article, “A Christian Rebuttal to Darwinian Evolution,”  I offer an apologia for faithful Catholics who may be troubled by a possible conflict between what science tells them about Creation and the story in Genesis.  My goal: to show that science does not conflict with Catholic teaching.  There will be two parts, the first, here, about the science of evolution; the second about the theology of evolution.

Accordingly, I hope these articles will be a resource for those with an open mind.  In order to show that evolution, cosmological and biological, gives evidence for a directing intelligence I will give a very brief summary of what we know about the growth of the universe and of living things.  In Part II, I will cite  arguments  from saints and Popes that souls are the essential, defining ingredient of humans.  Thus, making new physical bodies does not define the creation of the first pair of humans, Adam and Eve, and so Catholic dogma about monogenesis and Original Sin is not contradicted by evolution.

Before proceeding further, let me emphasize that I don’t believe science explains everything there is worth knowing. (See here, here, and here.)  I am a physicist who believes in miracles, that God can work His will in ways that may seem to contradict what we know about the laws of science.  Nevertheless such miracles don’t negate science, which indeed has a limited domain.  Rather, miracles are akin to changes of harmony in a musical work, that work being God’s Creation.   So we’ll look first at the science of Creation and why we can think of it as a work of a Great Intelligence, not just a random happening.   After that we’ll see what saints and popes have had to say.

And here’s one more important point.  If we are to credit the book of Genesis as being a literal description of Creation, then to be consistent we should take all of Genesis as being literally true.  That means that not only is biological evolution to be discredited but also cosmology.  Moreover, if we examine what is said in the  original version of Genesis, the Hebrew, we will find a major discrepancy with Catholic dogma, as I’ll point out in the second article.   Keeping that in mind, let’s see what  science (cosmology) tells us about how the universe began and grew.

The Evolution of the Universe (from NASA via Wikimedia Commons)

In trying to reconstruct how the universe has evolved (pardon that word!), we have to keep in mind that before a time of about 380,000 years after the Big Bang (the presumed origin of the universe from a singularity, i.e. “Ex Nihilo”), the history has to be reconstructed (speculatively) from what we know about the physics of elementary particles—the so-called “Standard Model” (see God, Symmetry and Beauty I and Philosophic Issues in Cosmology 1).

The reason we have to infer what happened before this 380,000 year benchmark is the opacity of the early Universe to radiation–it consisted of a high energy plasma of quarks, gluons, photons and, in the later stages, elementary particles such as protons, electrons, neutrons.  (See Luke Mastin’s Timeline of the Big Bang for a complete, if perhaps somewhat speculative account  of the early stages of this evolution.)

For purposes of this discussion, I’ll accept (as do most physicists) that “In the Beginning” there was a super-hot tiny ball of energy, “one thing”, that changed to quarks, anti-quarks, gluons and then yielded elementary particles–protons, neutrons, electrons.   Subsequently gravitation induced star formation with protons and alpha particles (helium-4 nuclei) present in early stars.   There would have been a serious obstacle to further formation of the elements because a three-body collision of three alpha particles would be required for the formation of carbon-12 (the next step in formation of the elements) and as those of you who have shot pool know, the probability of a triple collision from random motion of particles is small.

Fred Hoyle (who had derisively labelled creation from a singularity as “The Big Bang”—the name stuck) saw a problem in the abundance of carbon-12 and other elements in the universe and the lack of a mechanism for their creation.  He predicted an excited, higher energy state of carbon-12 nuclei that would enhance the formation of carbon-12 by the so-called “triple alpha process” (see the diagram below).  His prediction was verified experimentally.

triple alpha process converts three Helium-4 nuclei to  a Carbon-12 nucleus
from Wikimedia Commons

In this process, two alpha particles (helium-4 nuclei) collide to form a beryllium-8 nucleus, which is unstable.   However, the likelihood of forming carbon-12 from a collision with an alpha particle is enhanced by a “resonance effect”.  This effect comes about because an excited, high energy level of the carbon-12 nucleus has almost the same value as the nuclear energy levels of beryllium-8 and helium-4. That this very unlikely coincidence of energies exists is remarkable, indicative of a great Intelligence designing the laws of physics.

Here’s the scenario: carbon-12 formation is the bottleneck;  carbon-12 has to be formed to yield oxygen, nitrogen, and the heavier elements.   The nuclear formation reactions take place at a very high temperature in the interior of giant stars.    When these stars implode, go nova (as with the Crab nebula picture for the featured image above), the heavy elements formed in the interior are scattered through the universe for the formation of planets and living organisms.

The important point is this: it is fundamental physics that enables the formation of the elements, the evolution of the Periodic Table, if you will.   It is NOT a simultaneous creation of each element.   It is a much more wonderful thing to have this occur as a consequence of “natural law”, rather than an ad individuum, separate and simultaneous creation of each element.   It is evolution, not creation all at once.  And it is God who created the rules of physics that enables this evolution.

Let’s turn now to biological evolution (and that does NOT mean the neo-Darwinian theory for how evolution occurs).

We believe that evolution of biological organisms occurs, gradual changes in species and groups,  based on two types of evidence:  fossil evidence of transitions between different types of organisms (see here)  and similarities in DNA and protein composition.   Perhaps the most illustrative of the transitional record is that of dinosaurs to birds.

Nevertheless, there are large gaps between groups in the fossil record, such that the paleontologists Stephen Jay Gould and Niles Eldridge proposed a modification of the Neo-Darwinian theory, Punctuated Equilibrium.   Their theory posited large, discontinuous changes in species, rather than the gradual changes given by Darwinism.

Here’s a question for those who propose an instantaneous creation of all species: why does the fossil record of more than a billion years ago contain indicators of only microbial species, and why do the fossil records of different geologic eras contains a progression of types, with no recent phyla (e.g. mammalia) in older records?

The table below gives example of changes in the composition of DNA coding for proteins and random DNA for different species.
Fruit Fly
About 0
Round Worm
About 0
From Francis Collins, “The Language of God”, pp.127,128.
Note the similarities between mammalian species, and the differences between different groups (e.g. round worm vs chicken).  Also note that the differences are much greater for “random (non-functional?) DNA” since mutations here won’t affect survivability as much.

I want to emphasize again: evolution is the change of species one into another, along with the supposition of common descent from some single celled organism in the distant past.   Many people—including some scientists—confuse evolution with the neo-Darwinian proposed mechanism for evolution, mutation leading to small changes that enhance survivability and thus gradually yield different species.   Many scientists and philosophers do not think the neo-Darwinian model is sufficient to explain evolution.  Some of these critics are atheists or agnostics, so it isn’t a question of neo-Darwinism violating their religious beliefs.

One philosopher who does not credit the neo-Darwinian model for evolution is Thomas Nagel (Mind and Cosmos).  He believes that science should add another principle, teleology (purpose), to its armory.  To an extent I agree with Nagel, but worry about this problem:  how do you verify such a principle?  And when I say verify, I mean do experiments to falsify the hypothesis.  If there are not such, teleology is a metaphysical proposition, not a scientific hypothesis.

Note that as with the triple alpha process in cosmology, there are wonderful chemical processes in molecular biology that enable life.  Many of these processes are  derived from that remarkable and unusual phenomenon, hydrogen bonding. (See “God’s Gift to Molecular Biology: The Hydrogen Bond.”)  These processes, like the triple alpha one, testify to a creating Intelligence.


How about the issue of one pair of original humans, the dogma of monogenesis?  There is evidence from analyses of mitochondrial DNA that humanity indeed did originate from a very limited gene pool, possibly just a pair (Adam and Eve).   I’ve discussed these findings at greater length here.  In any case, these results neither support nor negate the dogma of monogenesis, if we keep in  mind that the implantation of a soul into a physical body is the essential act in the formation of a human.  I’ll discuss this issue in Part II, to follow.


In Part II, I’ll examine the position of the Church on evolution and the literal interpretation of Genesis.  I’ll follow the direction of saints and Popes (Augustine, Pius XII, Benedict XVI, and St. John Paul II) to argue that: 1) the Book of Genesis is not a science text; 2) the implantation of souls, rather than fashioning a physical body, was the critical event when God created Adam and Eve.


*There are several flaws in Mr. Williams presentation that I will not address directly in this article.  After more than a decade of writing about science and the Church, I have found that it is futile to debate those who adhere to a literal interpretation of Genesis, geocentrists and Young Earth enthusiasts.  They don’t understand or believe what I have to say and I certainly don’t share their ability to believe in contradictions.  Let me add that I will not respond to comments other than to clarify points of science.   Comments that I consider offensive will be deleted.  Be nice!






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