Benedict and Darwin in 2009


It is an important year for Benedict to come out with a new social encyclical. Not only to look back at Populorum Progressio, but also to consider many of the effects of Darwin’s theory 200 years after his birth and 150 years after his publication of On the Origin of the Species. We can make this connection because of Benedict’s concern, as he says, to promote an “integral humanism.” A brief survey of the Introduction to Caritas in Veritate makes clear note of this. For example, some of the main themes found in the Introduction:

Love is God’s greatest gift to humanity, it is his promise and our hope.

Charity goes beyond justice, because to love is to give, to offer what is “mine” to the other; but it never lacks justice.

The earthly city is promoted not merely by relationships of rights and duties, but to an even greater and more fundamental extent by relationships of gratuitousness, mercy and communion.

Every Christian is called to practise this charity, in a manner corresponding to his vocation and according to the degree of influence he wields in the pólis.

In an increasingly globalized society, the common good and the effort to obtain it cannot fail to assume the dimensions of the whole human family, that is to say, the community of peoples and nations.

Life in Christ is the first and principal factor of development.

The risk for our time is that the de facto interdependence of people and nations is not matched by ethical interaction of consciences and minds that would give rise to truly human development.

Particularly the last two raise interesting questions in relation to Darwin. It would be easier — as many theologians have done over the century — to turn to Lamarck rather than to Darwin as a refuge for theological deism wedded with evolutionary theory. Lamarck claimed that evolution worked like an escalator, moving ever higher and higher in its progress and advancement of the species. Darwin, on the other hand, argued that evolution did not necessarily favor progress and advancement. Often simpler organisms adapted better to their environment than did more complex ones. However, many of his advocates quickly embraced his theory as a form of Lamarckianism rather than accepting his own claim. The rapid spread of his theory into various versions of social Darwinism found their economic enthusiasts in the Rockefellers and Carnegies. Philosophies of individualism appeared to be sanctioned by Darwinism rather than more communal understandings of civil life. As William Graham Sumner, a noted American capitalist and exponent of social Darwinism claimed:

If we do not like the survival of the fittest, we have only one possible alternative, and that is the survival of the unfittest. The former is the law of civilization; the latter is the law of uncivilization.

And the law of charity. Of course, Darwin’s understanding of the development of morality understood the golden rule to be a high point of evolutionary instinctual development. It was the natural outcome of social instincts. Others did not see it this way, especially in America, and theories of individualism became closely linked, not only with social Darwinism, but also with a form of Larmarckianism.

However, excising the Larmarckian tendencies, at least from the economic ramifications that social Darwinism has had on American society, could do some good. It is not progress for its own sake at any costs that we seek. It is not hard to see the current economic crisis as a reflection on Lamarckian views. If the escalator goes up, I might as well get a head start. Darwin’s own views, rather, leave out the progressive aspect more simply in favor of requisite change for survival.

Benedict takes this direction, recognizing both the need for development for the sake of human society, but also the importance for this development to be a communal enterprise, built upon solidarity and love. As he says at the beginning of chapter 1: “integral human development is primarily a vocation.” This means that there is a goal, but not a single-faceted one. What happened in the American economic and philosophical scene was that early on, the great entrepreneurs picked out one single capitalistic variation — making money — as the only sign of progress. The havoc this vision has wrought is visible to all. Integral development implies vocation, and vocation is a wholistic term. Nor can this human vocation be known without the “unfittest.” They are precisely the key to noticing what is most “advantageous” in the human person. They are the linchpin who often most clearly see the “trait” that best advances human society: charity. Benedict acts as a scientist of the human heart in selecting out this most important feature of human development.

Nathan O’Halloran, SJ

2 Responses to Benedict and Darwin in 2009

  1. Thomas Shawn says:

    Who is Benedict? Some buddy of yours or are you writing of the Pope?

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