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Getting beyond Darwin

Why an essay by noted scientist David Gelernter in the Spring 2019 issue of the Claremont Review of Books is both a fascinating article and a potential tool in the New Evangelization.

Detail from an 1881 portrait of Charles Darwin by John Collier in the National Portrait Gallery, London. [WikiCommons]

Bishop Robert Barron and others working hard to evangelize the “Nones” — young adults without religious conviction — tell us that a major obstacle to a None embracing Christianity is the cultural assumption that Science Explains Everything. And if science explains it all, who needs God, revelation, Christ, or the Church? To be even more specific: if Darwin and the Darwinian theory of evolution explain the origins of us (and everything else), why bother with Genesis 1-3 and Colossians 1:15-20 (much less Augustine’s “Thou hast made us for Thee and our hearts are restless until they rest in Thee”)?

That’s why “Giving Up Darwin,” an essay by David Gelernter in the Spring 2019 issue of the Claremont Review of Books, is both a fascinating article and a potential tool in the New Evangelization.

No one can accuse Dr. Gelernter of being an anti-modern knucklehead. He’s a pioneering computer scientist, a full professor at Yale, and a remarkable human being: a package from the Unabomber blew off his right hand and permanently damaged his right eye but didn’t impede his remarkable intellectual, literary, and artistic productivity.

In his Claremont Review essay, Gelernter gives full credit to what he calls “Darwin’s brilliant and lovely theory” and readily concedes that “there’s no reason to doubt that Darwin successfully explained the small adjustments by which an organism adapts to local circumstances: changes to fur density or wing style or beak shape.” But Darwinian evolution can’t “explain the big picture — [which involves] not the fine-tuning of existing species but the emergence of new ones.” What Darwin cannot explain, in short, is “the origin of species” — the title of the British naturalist’s first, revolutionary book.

The argument is complex, so it’s important to read Gelernter’s entire article carefully, and more than once. But to be desperately brief:

First, Darwinian evolutionary theory can’t explain the so-called “Cambrian explosion,” in which, half a billion years ago, a “striking variety of new organisms — including the first-ever animals — pop up suddenly in the fossil record.” How did this “great outburst” of new life forms happen? The slow-motion processes of Darwinian evolution can’t answer that question. Gelernter concludes that “the ever-expanding fossil record” doesn’t “look good for Darwin, who made clear and concrete predictions that have (so far) been falsified.” (This gaping Cambrian hole in the Darwinian account goes unremarked in the otherwise-magnificent new David H. Koch Hall of Fossils at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History.)

But there is more. For “Darwin’s main problem….is molecular biology:” a scientific field that didn’t exist in his era. Given that he knew nothing about the inner-workings of cells through proteins, Darwin “did brilliantly” in explaining species adaptation. But Darwin and his Neo-Darwinian disciples can’t account for the incredible complexity of the basic building-blocks of life: for as we now know, “genes, in storing blueprints for the proteins that form the basis of cellular life, encode an awe-inspiring amount of information….Where on earth did it all (i.e., all that “profound biochemical knowledge”) come from?” From random mutations? Maybe, but very unlikely, for as Gelernter puts it, “You don’t turn up a useful protein by doodling on the back of an envelope, any more than you write a Mozart aria by assembling three sheets of staff paper and scattering notes around.”

Put the Cambrian fossil record together with the high statistical improbability that the information-dense building-blocks of life happened through random mutations and you’re forced to consider what amounts to cultural heresy: that “the explosion of detailed, precise information that was necessary to build the brand-new Cambrian organisms, and the fact that the information was encoded, represented symbolically, in DNA…” falsify the Darwinian explanation of the big picture.

David Gelernter is intrigued by “intelligent design” approaches to these evolutionary conundra but also suggests that, “as a theory,” intelligent design “would seem to have a long way to go.” But to dismiss intelligent design out of hand — to brand it piety masquerading as science — is, well, unscientific. The fossil record and molecular biology now suggest that Darwinian answers to the Big Questions constitute the real fundamentalism: a materialistic fideism that, however shaky in dealing with the facts, is nonetheless deeply entrenched in 21st-century imaginations. Thus, Gelernter asks whether today’s scientists will display Darwin’s own courage in risking cultural disdain by upsetting intellectual apple carts.

The empirical evidence suggests that the notions of a purposeful Creator and a purposeful creation cannot be dismissed as mere pre-modern mythology. That may help a few Nones out of the materialist bogs in which they’re stuck.

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About George Weigel 429 Articles
George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of Washington's Ethics and Public Policy Center, where he holds the William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies. He is the author of over twenty books, including Witness to Hope: The Biography of Pope John Paul II (1999), The End and the Beginning: Pope John Paul II—The Victory of Freedom, the Last Years, the Legacy (2010), and The Irony of Modern Catholic History: How the Church Rediscovered Itself and Challenged the Modern World to Reform. His most recent books are The Next Pope: The Office of Peter and a Church in Mission (2020), Not Forgotten: Elegies for, and Reminiscences of, a Diverse Cast of Characters, Most of Them Admirable (Ignatius, 2021), and To Sanctify the World: The Vital Legacy of Vatican II (Basic Books, 2022).


  1. God’s name is “Gene.” (and/pr, I suppose, Eugenia) Evolution happens to enable genetic development. Genes develop through life; and the more humans live, the more our genes develop. Yes, evolution happens from generation – to – generation, which means death is necessary. But evolution is genetic development.

    cc.the article, Darwin didn’t know about genetics. Our Holy Catholic Chuirch doesn’t use genetics as reason, directly. But if one inspects this issue / life in generaal / through this prism, it makes a lot more sense.

    Good day.

        • I don’t know about “Scientism.” I went to an all-guys prep-school. (day school) I staeted my Collegiate education at Notre Dame. Didn’t finish there because I survived brain damage after being hit by a car as a pedestrian. (South Bend townie) Developed alternative way to think since my original psychology didn’t (nor doesn’t) work with dead brain cells. This alternative psychology sees stuff differently. And it thinks differently, using newly developed (different) psychology. It is alternative. It is NOT fraudulent.

  2. Excellent article, much along the lines of what career-long Anthony Flew finally arrived at. For example, here is an excerpt from my brochure, “Why Believe?”
    The argument from Design: Anthony Flew, (died April 8, 2010) was an English philosopher in the field of the philosophy of religion.
    A notorious atheist most of his life, he was caught up in the problem of evil beyond that caused by personal sin. In 2004 at age 81, he announced that he was now a believer in deism.
    Mr. Flew gave two science-based reasons for his rejection of atheism.
    1) DNA research “has shown, by the almost unbelievable complexity of the arrangements which are needed to produce life, that intelligence must have been involved.”
    2) Inconsistencies in the Darwinian account of evolution (NY Times, 2010/04/17). That is, a completely materialistic approach to evolution, as contrasted with a theistic guided evolution, is simply inadequate to deal with the real world.

    Free brochure available at

  3. While something more than Darwin’s “higher esthetic tastes” (below) is at risk, it might be that Charles Darwin the man, in his many better moments, would prefer the company of “pioneering computer scientist” David Gelernter and theologian Weigel over that of any fantasyland Darwin-ISTS.

    This, from Charlie:

    “…This curious and lamentable loss of the higher aesthetic tastes is all the odder, as books on history, biographies, and travels (independently of any scientific facts which they may contain), and essays on all sorts of subjects interest me as much as ever they did. My mind seems to have become a kind of MACHINE for grinding general laws out of large collections of facts, but why this should have caused the ATROPHY of that part of the brain alone, on which the higher tastes depend, I cannot conceive.

    “A man with a mind more highly organized or better constituted than mine, would not, I suppose, have thus suffered. . . . The loss of these tastes is a loss of happiness, and may possibly be INJURIOUS TO THE INTELLECT, and more probably to the moral character, by enfeebling the emotional part of our nature. . . . My power to follow a long and purely abstract train of thought is very limited; and therefore, I COULD NEVER HAVE SUCCEEDED WITH METAPHYSICS OR MATHEMATICS” (Charles Darwin, Sir Francis Darwin, ed., Charles Darwin’s Autobiography, New York: Henry Schuman, 1950, caps added).

    Also this:

    “I feel most deeply that this whole question of Creation is too profound for human intellect. A dog might as well speculate on the mind of Newton! Let each man hope and believe what he can” (Cited in Elbert Hubbard’s Scrapbook, 1923).

    On the origin of species, BISHOP SHEEN (!) considers Aquinas, and the “immutability of essences,” but also their possible transformation (theoretically, not how):

    “What if the nature of a being is to become what it is not, to transform nature [as, in his example a cow from a horse; or with Darwin, perhaps: a winged bird from a late dinosaur?], to transcend itself.” Sheen writes “If the nature is completely lost, it ceases to be THAT THING and it becomes THAT OTHER THING, in which case the intellect knows it as such [….] The intellect is measured by things; it draws its knowledge from reality, and thus even with a transformation of species [!] it knows things as THEY ARE. VERITAS EST ADAEQUAT REI ET INTELLECTUS” (God and Intelligence in Modern Philosophy, 1925/Image 1958, pp. 159-60, caps as italics in original).

  4. The problems with how speciation might actually occur is the dirty little secret of Darwinism. Essentially all they’ve got a big black box called time, during which they believe a zillion incremental changes brought about through random mutations, plus a billion years mixed in, can result in you and me. But as Cornell plant geneticist John Sanford has eloquently shown, the great majority of mutations are not advantageous but deleterious, so such a scheme would produce instead the degradation of already existing species, not their improvement.

  5. So Darwin wrote that he had “a limited ability” to follow sustained abstract thought and that he would “never have succeeded with metaphysics”. At last-something to agree with from Darwin!
    He also wrote “my theology is a simple muddle” – for this see Jaki’s “The Road Of Science And the Ways To God” which also gives much more about the muddled thinking of so many scientists on the relation between science and religion throughout history.

  6. Of course Darwin recognized that his theorization was seriously lacking in evidence.

    Subsequent lack of discovery of fossil evidence, despite enormous searching via massively advanced technology, has undermined the now fossilized idea.

    And Darwin disclosuses 2 very interesting thiughts, one as to his motivation, and the other as to his capacity for unscientific conjecture.

    The 1st…is that he was seeking a way to support the views of his father, whom he loved very dearly, apparently because his father was a very fine man and father, and yet Darwin’s father rejected the impoverished literal interpretation of the Bible, which was the main foundation of the Protestant religious culture in which the Darwin family grew out of and rejected.

    The 2nd…is that in his notes, later in life, Darwin disclosed that he believed in spontaneous generation of life from inert matter…thus revealing that he indeed was motivated by an atheistic impulse.

    The idea that something that is A changes into something that is B is a gigantic overreach, showing Darwin’s impulse to make “his speculations” a “matter of faith.”

  7. Bishop Baron and many of the rest of them are why we have “nones”. The fact is with the exception of a remnant of traditional Catholic parishes and apostalates the faith isn’t the “rock” any more, it is a new religion just like all the new forming protestant faiths. That is why there are “nones”, the remnant is denied credibility by the “new” faith and the larger apostized church is now attempting to merge even further with other false religions. So much for the “new” evangelization, one new world religion which denies the teaching of Christ.

  8. Darwin was simply discovering the laws that God set to govern the universe. As science has been doing for millennia – –

    From the beginning, God desired there to be more,
    – for there was nothing,
    – yet it held everything.
    So from the void God created –
    From His Reason He created –
    Laws to govern over his creation.
    – Laws to define motion,
    – Laws to permit and restrain,
    – Laws to explain nature.
    And from these laws came how matter and energy and light were governed.
    In this way God bounded His creation.
    And it was good,
    But not enough.

    God desired there to be more,
    – for there was governance,
    – yet nothing to govern.
    So in accord with the laws God created –
    From His Wisdom He created –
    Two places under His domain.
    – One that He alone would govern,
    – One that He let His laws govern.
    One place came to be perfect in all ways and one was left to find its own way.
    In this way Heaven and the Universe came into being.
    And it was good,
    But not enough.

    God desired there to be more,
    – for there was framework,
    – yet nothing to hold.
    So in what became the Universe God created –
    From His Creativity He created –
    The earth and planets and sun and all other stars and objects.
    And on all these places in the Universe He created wonders of great beauty and awesome power and distance.
    And on earth he created wide oceans, majestic mountains, deep canyons and vast plains and deserts.
    Through His laws he created.
    In this way came a dynamic and beautiful earth.
    And it was good,
    But not enough.

    God desired there to be more,
    – for earth was created to sustain,
    – yet there was nothing to sustain.
    So on earth God created –
    From His Imagination He created –
    Life and all forms of living beings.
    Small and large and active and growing.
    Life that could move and reproduce and change.
    By its nature it could change.
    In this way Life spread throughout the earth and populated the whole earth.
    Although subject to the same laws of matter and energy, Life was diverse and in harmony with God.
    And it was good,
    But not enough.

    The Creator pondered for a moment and thought –
    “I have created from Reason and Wisdom, Creativity and Imagination, but I have not yet created from Love.”

    And God’s desire to love was so great he created mankind in His own image.
    Man and Woman he created –
    One for each,
    And each one for Himself.
    He made them to share in his creation.
    To enjoy his work.
    To worship and adore.
    To be in communion with Him.
    So God made man able to rule over earth, as God ruled over His own.
    And man was subject to the same laws of matter and energy and light.
    But to one law man was not subject.
    God gave man freedom to choose.
    Man could choose the Light, the Truth, the Word.
    For these were with God from the beginning.
    And man, made in God’s image, could choose –
    To follow – or not,
    To believe – or not,
    To seek understanding – or not.
    God knew this might cause pain for to stray from the truth would lead to pain.
    Yet, to be in His image meant man must be free to choose.
    And it was good.
    So God rested.

    Yet, it was not good for long for man chose sin.

    And God, who rested from creating all from nothing, went back to work.

    In each new day, God renews the face of the earth and the souls of those who choose to believe. He continues to bring creation through His Reason, Wisdom, Creativity, Imagination and Love. These, God cannot suppress. He continuously reveals new and wonderous mysteries to discover, beauty in detail and color and motion and sound. His hand guides as His laws govern every action and reaction. He loves, so we may know the truth and be set free. Our God rests no more. Believe what your heart tells you, that His creation is good, is revealed all around and will forever be abundantly given to you.

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