Evolved from a Can of Worms: Evolution and the Culture of Death

It was Veterans’ Day in Washington, D.C., and evolution was the farthest thing from my mind. I had accompanied my friend, Fr. Jack Murphy, an Army veteran, to provide prayer support for him and for other veterans who were standing up for life at a D.C. abortion mill. A large group of pro-abortion hecklers had turned out to harass us, and the police cordoned off the parking lot and forced us all into one small area. A young man in his twenties held up a poster of a preborn child with the caption “Does this look like a blob of tissue?” Two young women who looked like college students mocked him. “Didn’t these people take high school biology?” one of them asked the other. “If they knew anything about evolution, they would know that the fetus isn’t human until the third trimester.” The other said something about the baby in the poster going through “the fish stage.” Another woman added that the souls of the “fetuses” were better off being aborted, since they would be reincarnated in better circumstances.

A Radical Rejection of God’s Revelation

It took many years for me to realize how many of the lies I heard that day derived whatever credibility they had from evolutionary theory. The denigration of the unborn child as pre-human, embryonic recapitulation, and the rationalization of reincarnation – not one of them could endure the light of the Gospel of Jesus Christ as it had been proclaimed by the Fathers of the Church. Yet such falsehoods thrive in the miasma created by the unsubstantiated claims of evolutionary theory.

All forms of evolutionary theory require a radical rejection of God’s revelation about the creation of Adam and Eve. Genesis speaks of God forming Adam’s body from the slime of the earth and breathing into it the breath of life. Moses also speaks of God forming Eve’s body from Adam’s side and presenting her to him as his help-mate. The fathers and doctors of the Church held that God created the body of Adam together with his soul, not the body before the soul or the soul before the body. Summarizing the patristic doctrine, St. John of Damascus wrote:

From the earth He formed his body and by His own inbreathing gave him a rational and understanding soul, which last we say is the divine image[.] … The body and the soul were formed at the same time – not one before and the other afterwards as the ravings of Origen would have it. [1]

The Fathers rejected not only the idea of the pre-existence of souls, but also the notion that Adam’s body was formed before his soul, or that a human body could pre-exist a human soul. According to St. Gregory of Nyssa:

[A]s man is one, the being consisting of soul and body, we are to suppose that the beginning of his existence is one, common to both parts, so that he should not be found to be antecedent and posterior to himself, if the bodily element were first in point of time, and the other were a later addition[.] … For as our nature is conceived as two-fold, according to the apostolic teaching, made up of the visible man and the hidden man, if the one came first and the other supervened, the power of Him that made us will be shown to be in some way imperfect, as not being sufficient for the whole task at once, but dividing the work, and busying itself with each of the halves in turn. [2]

Sacred Scripture teaches that Jesus was a man like us in all things but sin and that He was already fully human in the womb of the Blessed Virgin a few days after the Incarnation, when His Mother visited her cousin St. Elisabeth. The Sacred Liturgy affirms the full Humanity of Jesus from the moment of the Incarnation on March 25, just as it affirms the sinless humanity of the Blessed Virgin from the moment of her Immaculate Conception. Thus, the Church’s teaching concerning the first Adam and the first Eve perfectly complements her teaching concerning the New Adam and the Second Eve. In both cases, a human body and soul were created together, not the soul before the body or the body before the soul.

This teaching on the creation of Adam and Eve has been the common teaching of all of the fathers, doctors, popes and councils since the time of the Apostles. However, recent popes, while not abrogating that teaching – which would be impossible – have held back from affirming it unequivocally for one simple reason. Since Darwin, they have been afraid to rule out the possibility that natural science might discover irrefutable evidence for human evolution.

In one sense, their hesitancy is understandable. It appears to follow from the Augustinian principle (affirmed by Leo XIII in his encyclical Providentissimus Deus) not to deviate from the plain and obvious sense of Scripture, except when reason dictates or necessity requires. In Humani generis, Pope Pius XII asked Catholic scholars to weigh the evidence for and against the hypothesis of human evolution, while defending many elements of the traditional interpretation of Genesis. To this day, the holy father’s request has not been heeded by the community of Catholic scholars, although there are three reasons why this request should long since have led to a definitive rejection of the human evolution hypothesis. The first reason has to do with the limitations of natural science, the second with the actual state of the scientific evidence, and the third with the obvious harm that this hypothesis has done and is doing to souls.

Three Reasons to Reject Human Evolution

Nowadays, it seems unfashionable in many circles to suggest that natural science has limitations. But the Catholic doctors who laid the foundation for the positive development of the natural sciences during the past 800 years recognized and articulated these limitations. The spirit of the great medieval doctors is well expressed by the twelfth-century French scholastic philosopher William of Conches, who wrote:

I take nothing away from God. He is the author of all things, evil excepted. But the nature with which He endowed His creatures accomplishes a whole scheme of operations, and these too turn to His glory since it is He who created this very nature. [3]

Implicit in this enthusiastic attitude toward the scientific investigation of nature was the understanding that the origin of the order of nature and of the natures of living things could not be explained by natural processes, or, to use the words of St. Thomas Aquinas, “[i]n the works of nature, creation does not enter, but is presupposed to the work of nature” [4]. Thus, St. Thomas and William of Conches knew for certain that the origin of human nature – the creation of Adam and Eve – lay beyond the sphere of natural science. While natural scientists could learn many things about the structure and functioning of the human body, it was obvious to the medieval doctors that scientific research could no more shed light on how God formed the body of Adam from the dust of the earth than it could shed light on how Jesus changed water into wine at the wedding of Cana. The great doctors distinguished between the order of creation, when God created the different kinds of creatures by His Word, and the order of providence, which began only after the creation of Adam and Eve.

Modern natural science has almost completely abandoned this distinction between the order of creation and the natural order, or the order of providence. Ironically, however, 21st-century natural science has amply confirmed the reasonableness of this distinction. For example, in the field of genetics, natural scientists have learned a great deal about the transmission and variation of genetic information, but no scientist has observed the spontaneous appearance of a new genetic program, such as would be needed to produce a new organ, like an eye or an ear, in an organism that lacked such an organ. Instead, 21st-century genetics has revealed that, far from evolving or increasing in functionality, genetic information degrades and devolves over time, at a rate that, in the words of one geneticist, places “a limit on the length of vertebrate lineages” – a limit much lower than the ages assigned to them by evolutionary theory [5]. Indeed, the discoveries of 21st-century genetics have been fatal to all current hypotheses of human evolution, as they demonstrate that it would be impossible for a common ancestor of chimpanzees and men to acquire the necessary “beneficial mutations” without acquiring a greater number of deleterious mutations – a number that would lead to extinction long before human evolution was achieved!

In short, not only does the hypothesis of human evolution collide with the unanimous teaching of the fathers of the Church and with nineteen hundred years of authoritative magisterial teaching, but it has also come into fatal conflict with the findings of natural science. Indeed, there is no doubt that if the balanced examination of the evidence called for in Humani generis were undertaken today, the hypothesis of human evolution would be rejected.

Embryonic Recapitulation: Devaluing the Human Embryo

Tragically, most Catholic intellectuals have not had the opportunity to study the evidence against evolutionary theory and continue to embrace the theory in spite of the harm that it has done – especially to respect for the pre-born child. Faith in the truth of the evolutionary hypothesis has repeatedly led scientists and medical researchers to believe that organs of the human body that have no apparent function are “vestigial” and expendable. The full extent of the danger inherent in this unsubstantiated assumption emerged soon after the publication of Origin of Species with the popularization of the concept of embryonic recapitulation by Darwin’s disciple, the German medical doctor and professor of anatomy Ernst Haeckel (1834-1919).

Darwin had argued that similarities in structure among diverse life forms indicate that they all evolved from a common ancestor. According to Haeckel, the existence of similarities in embryos of various kinds of organisms proves that the higher life forms “recapitulate” their evolutionary history before birth and that they had descend from a common ancestor. To make this “proof” more compelling for his contemporaries, Haeckel doctored drawings of the embryos of fish, salamanders, chickens, turtles, rabbits, pigs, and human beings to exaggerate their similarities and minimize their differences [6]. Although Haeckel’s fraud was discovered and exposed during his lifetime, the evolutionary hypothesis demanded common descent, and the concept of embryonic recapitulation continued to exert a profound influence on the study of embryology for many decades.

According to Jane Oppenheimer in her work Essays in the History of Embryology and Biology, Haeckel’s influence on embryology was considerable, “act[ing] as a delaying rather than an activating force[,] and … was stifling to immediate progress” [7]. One of the leading lights in the study of embryology in the twentieth century, Gavin R. de Beer, wrote that “Haeckel’s theory of recapitulation … thwarted and delayed the introduction of causal analytic methods into embryology,” since “if phylogeny was the mechanical cause of ontogeny as Haeckel proclaimed, there was little inducement to search for other causes” [8]. De Beer’s observation implies that Haeckel’s influence had come to an end by the 1950s – but this was far from the case. To this day, biology textbooks all over the world argue that similarities among embryos of fish, amphibians, reptiles, humans, and lower mammals constitute evidence for the evolutionary hypothesis. Typical of examples too many to cite is the caption that accompanies drawings of embryos of various life forms from a widely used American biology textbook published in 2002. Entitled “Embryonic development of vertebrates,” it states:

Notice that the early embryonic stages of these vertebrates bear a striking resemblance to each other, even though the individuals are from different classes (fish, amphibians, reptiles, birds, and mammals). All vertebrates start out with an enlarged head region, gill slits, and a tail regardless of whether these characteristics are retained in the adult. [9]

Although Haeckel’s distorted drawings do not accompany this caption, the statement gives the impression that human embryos – as members of the vertebrate phylum – possess gill slits. But this is patently false. The pharyngeal arches in human embryos have no connection with gill slits whatsoever; rather, they develop into the outer and middle ear, and into the neck bones, muscles, nerves, and glands.

Moreover, after the discovery of DNA, confidence in the truth of the evolutionary hypothesis led many evolutionary biologists to predict that similar body parts in diverse organisms would be controlled by the same genes. This, however, proved to be false, as embryologists have discovered that the realization of the same body plan – such as five-digit extremities – in diverse organisms (such as whales and humans) is controlled by different genes and is achieved through totally different embryonic pathways [10].

Indeed, not only did the idea of embryonic recapitulation lead embryonic researchers down the wrong pathways – it has also led to a denigration of the unborn child. All over the world, abortion advocates have used the alleged similarity between human and lower animal embryos to trivialize abortion in the early stages of pregnancy. For example in Germany, pro-abortion activists (emphasis added):

… skillfully exploited the disunity of the German Catholic intellectuals to bring their demands for the legalization of abortion to the legislature. … Karl Rahner … wrote in Naturwissenschaft und Theologie (brochure 11, page 86, 1970): “I think that there are biological developments which are pre-human, but these developments are still aimed in the direction of man. Why cannot these developments be transferred from phylogeny to ontogeny?” [11]

With these words, the most influential theologian in the German-speaking world formulated a Haeckelian evolutionary rationale for abortifacient contraception and abortion long after Gavin de Beer had claimed that Haeckel’s influence had disappeared. In reality, in the “year of Darwin,” the implicit message of most high school biology textbooks is still clear: human embryos pass through a “gill slit” stage. These are “developments in the direction of man,” to use Fr. Rahner’s phrase. Therefore, to accord the human embryo the dignity of a human being from conception is biological nonsense.

In reality, of course, the development of the human embryo is quite distinct from that of the other vertebrates in Haeckel’s drawings, and there is no empirical evidence to support the claim that he passes through any stage that is not fully human, in the biological sense of the word. However, Fr. Rahner’s misguided faith in evolution continues to erode the faith of Catholics in the humanity of the unborn child.

An Abortionist Meets St. Thomas Aquinas

Ours is not the only period in Church history when the conventional wisdom of Catholic scholars has been influenced by a false hypothesis in natural science. Soon, the Catholic Church will celebrate the feast of St. Thomas Aquinas. Anyone the least bit familiar with the writings of St. Thomas knows how deeply he revered the Word of God. However, with regard to the time of human ensoulment, St. Thomas allowed Aristotelian natural science to overshadow the plain sense of the Word of God. Under Aristotle’s influence, St. Thomas wrote that human life begins forty days after fertilization. In contrast, the Eastern fathers of the Church, who spoke the language of Aristotle, were much less likely than St. Thomas to let “the Philosopher” determine their interpretation of God’s Word. St. Maximus the Confessor exemplified the attitude of many Eastern fathers when he held (in II Ambigua 42) that Jesus was a man like us in all things but sin and that therefore His assumption of our humanity from the moment of the Annunciation signified that we, too, become fully human from the moment of our conception.

The international pro-life community rightly rejoiced over the recent conversion of Serbian abortionist Stojan Adasevic through an apparition of St. Thomas, but scant attention has been paid to Adasevic’s interpretation of St. Thomas’s heavenly visitation. Educated in communist schools, Adasevic had been thoroughly indoctrinated in evolutionism and had regarded the unborn child in the womb as nothing more than a blob of tissue. Before his conversion, Adasevic performed 48,000 abortions, as many as 35 per day. Then St. Thomas Aquinas came to him in a dream and showed him the souls of the unborn babies he had aborted. Although he resisted at first, Adasevic finally renounced abortion and embraced Christianity. He became Eastern Orthodox, but he also studied the writings of St. Thomas Aquinas and was struck by the Angelic Doctor’s mistaken views on ensoulment. The former abortionist then concluded that the saint might have visited him “to make amends for his error” [12].

Nowadays one often hears that such and such a holy priest or bishop or even pope believed in evolution, so how could it be a dangerous doctrine? But Adasevic’s visitation suggests that if even a saint and doctor of the Church could be wrong about a hypothesis in natural science – with deadly results – how much more could modern Church leaders be deceived by a more far-reaching theory, with far deadlier consequences?

 The High-Stakes Debate on Origins

There is a lot at stake for the pro-life movement in the origins debate.

If God created the first man and woman body and soul from the first moment of their existence – and the “new Adam” and the “new Eve” body and soul from the first moment of their conception – then we can confidently hold that:

– Human life is sacred from the beginning.

– Abortion at any stage is murder.

– The human soul is the form of a particular human body.

But what if a subhuman primate could “evolve” to the point where it could “receive” a human soul?

This would mean that the same body that housed a human soul was the body of a modified brute whose animal soul was replaced by a rational human soul. This would seem to give plausibility to reincarnation – the transmigration of souls – and to the equally pernicious idea that ensoulment takes place at some point after conception.

What if the “parents” of the body that became the “fine tuned” body of Adam were themselves “brutes”?

This would mean that the bodies of brute animals would be deserving of honor as the ancestors, in a real sense, of all mankind and would give credibility to Peter Singer’s proposal to give chimpanzees the same legal rights as human beings.

What if the body of the first human being was the fruit of the sexual union of two brute animals?

This would mean that human sexuality comes up from the lower, irrational animals, rather than down from above, as a finite reflection of the love of the Most Holy Trinity.

What if the animal ancestors of Adam and Eve (and of us all) practiced promiscuity, polygamy, polyandry, or adultery?

This would mean that such behavior is “natural” and certainly not to be condemned as a crime “against nature.”

On the other hand: What if the common message of all of the Church fathers, doctors, popes, and council fathers in their authoritative teaching on the creation of Adam and Eve were boldly proclaimed from every pulpit in Christendom?

Then the faith of all Catholics in the dignity of the human person from the first moment of life would be strengthened, and it would no longer be possible for Catholics to use evolution to trivialize abortion and sexual perversion as some do now.

Therefore, the time has come for the pro-life community to recognize the strong link between evolution and the culture of death and to work and pray for a restoration of the traditional Catholic doctrine of creation.


[1] ST. JOHN OF DAMASCUS, On the Orthodox Faith 2:12.

[2] ST. GREGORY OF NYSSA, On the Making of Man 28-29.

[3] Quoted in THOMAS WOODS, How the Catholic Church Built Western Civilization (Washington, D.C.: Regnery, 2005), p. 87.

[4] ST. THOMAS AQUINAS, S.Th. I. q. 45, a. 8.

[5] ALEXEY KONDRASHOV, Journal of Theoretical Biology, 1995, 175:583.

[6] Cf. MICHAEL K. RICHARDSON ET AL Anatomy and Embryology, “There is no highly conserved stage in the vertebrates; implications for current theories of evolution and development,” Vol. 196, No. 2, Springer Verlag, Heidelberg, Germany, 1997, pp. 91-106.

[7] JANE OPPENHEIMER, Essays in the History of Embryology and Biology, MIT Press, 1967, p. 154.

[8] GAVIN DE BEER, Embryos and Ancestors, Third Edition, Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1958, p. 172.

[9] PETER H. RAVEN and GEORGE B. JOHNSON, Biology, 6th ed,, McGraw Hill, 2002, p. 1229.

[10] GAVIN DE BEER, quoted in “Homology: A Theory in Crisis” JONATHAN WELLS and PAUL NELSON http://www.arn.org/docs/odesign/od182/hobi182.htm (accessed 3-08-09).

[11] ALFRED HAUSSLER, The Betrayal of the Theologians, Human Life International, 1982, p. 2.

[12] In fairness to the Angelic Doctor, if St. Thomas were living on Earth today, he would be the first to reject the Aristotelian view of ensoulment in light of the scientific evidence – just as he would be the first to reject theistic evolution, on theological and scientific grounds.

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