Eppur Si Muove

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At age twelve, I was blessed with a wonderful biology teacher. Let us call him Mr. Henry, for that was his surname. (There were no first names in Bangkok Patana School.) He was a middle-aged, middle-western American, in a rather British school, aloof from his environment.

There were about fifteen in the class, but only four of us seriously interested, so he entirely ignored the others, even when they made rude sounds. He spoke, himself, only in a whisper. Mostly he would draw, the most elaborate and beautiful images and diagrams on the chalkboard, then pass out similar, mimeographed pages. (How I wish that I still had them!)

Mr. Henry also took us on field trips. The first was to the “klong,” or canal, that passed nearly under our building; the most memorable, to a pond within a tiny tropical-urban woodlot. There, equipped with microscope and slides, he came fully into his own. For there was not only the revelation of looking through the lens, but his enthralling descriptions, training our eyes to detail.

To this strange and very gentle man, all of nature was miraculous, and all of it bound together, in a dramatic narrative that he could supply. To him, even the tiniest microscopic creatures were endowed with personality.

From Mr. Henry I acquired the habit of empathetic reasoning. If you want to understand something, inhabit it with your mind. Feed into your imagination every objective fact that can be acquired about it. Remember, always, that the creature is alive. Or if it is inanimate, still feel your way into the structure of the thing, and into the elemental physical forces that are operating upon it. (Later, I learned from a very accomplished architect, Ron Thom, that this is just what he did when contemplating a building.)

Mr. Henry’s knowledge was dazzling, not only of biological fact, but of the history of biological reasoning. And he delighted in stupid questions, constantly reminding that, “The most useful questions are usually stupid ones.” (Conversely, clever questions are often just for display.)

I believe he was fired at the end of the year, for incompetence. He’d flunked most of the class.

In the meantime, he had communicated reverence, for nature. From what I’ve since learned of the practice of biology, I can easily understand why he did not get ahead.

While I have never had the least trouble in accepting the evolutionary “paradigm” – the descent of species by one course or another – I have never been a Darwinist, or neo-Darwinist. No, not even in the days of my youth, when I was a proselytizing atheist, but also proselytized against Darwinism, which I held to be simply wrong and impossible. The explanation of natural selection from random mutation (and all attempts to truncate the randomness) made no sense to me.

Perhaps I should blame Mr. Henry for this, for he stressed the complexity not only of every creature, but every part of every creature; and held that, “the fossil record is not a smudge.” Everywhere we look, we find sharp particularity, and if you will, “design.”

Nor am I a water-carrier for the “theory of intelligent design.” At least, it does not strike me as anything like a theory. It is instead a statement of the blindingly obvious. Wherever we look in nature, we find design, and the closer we look, the more intelligent it appears; until looking into the very chromosomes we pass beyond our powers of intellection. “As the radius of knowledge extends, the circumference of ignorance increases,” the Japanese say.

Western science, as educated people should be aware, is founded upon, and sustained by, a profound theological insight. This is the belief that God is reasonable, that He does not contradict himself, that His creation must make sense. The edifice of modern science was built with the assurance that we will find reason in nature herself – not just sometimes, but invariably.

In the discoveries of the Encode consortium, published last week, we saw a classic exposition of Western science, based on sound theology. Overnight, the proportion of human DNA known to have some biochemical function, went from around 2 percent to around 80 percent. To be sure, many of these functions are modest – for mere replication may count as a function.

But the whole notion of “junk DNA” has been overthrown. And note, it was at the front line of the war between the atheist materialists and the proponents of intelligent design. Richard Dawkins and many others had used “junk DNA” to ridicule the “IDers” – who in turn persisted in predicting that we would find a world of purpose encoded in it.

I am appalled by the malice with which the IDers continue to be attacked. It is asserted that those who “posit” God – whether Biblical literalists or credentialed biologists – are thereby disqualified from practicing science. This is a standard that would eliminate most of the greatest empirical scientists throughout history.

Ad hominem attacks are commonplace, compounded by vicious sarcasm and smears. Those with any “ID” affiliation are blackballed from publicly funded science (and projects like Encode require huge public funding) – then mocked for not having participated.

I think of what they would have done to Mr. Henry, had his head ever showed above the trenches.

“And yet,” as Galileo said, “it moves.” And yet we are looking into a genomic structure of truly incredible complexity, with every prospect of discovering more and more intricate, interdependent purpose. And where we have found a single function, we may return to find more – for we are looking into a “machine” that dimensionally exceeds our own most sophisticated mechanical contrivances, and then is capable of adaptation.

Which is what we expected, working from our old theological insight. Which is what those who claim to have moved beyond it, did not expect.


David Warren is a former editor of the Idler magazine and columnist in Canadian newspapers. He has extensive experience in the Near and Far East. His blog, Essays in Idleness, is now to be found at: davidwarrenonline.com.