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October 2, 2006

This week's edition of Time magazine hits newsstands today and dons pictures of two halves of two chubby faces, one belonging to a chimpanzee and the other to a human baby. Despite its provocative title, “How we became human,” the article starts off well, objectively, and reports new and valuable data. Then, it bursts into a ball of ideological flames.

Using good science, the authors remind us that when it comes to DNA, a human is closer to a chimpanzee than a mouse is to a rat. Those advances, in the mapping of primate genomes, are teaching us just how minute the biological distinctions between the species truly are.

But, by using bad philosophy — and never saying it is philosophy — Michael Lemonick and Andrea Dorfman finally reveal their true intentions (or bad logic) by making a wild, pseudo-scientific (and very common) conclusion about the nature of evolution and of man.

They start by suggesting an ambiguous premise about the reaches of science:

“Laid side by side, these three sets of genetic blueprints (chimp, Neanderthal, and human) — plus the genomes of gorillas and other primates, which are already well on the way to being completely sequences — will not only begin to explain precisely what makes us human, but could lead to a better understanding of human diseases and how to treat them.”

With the authors, I believe there is great hope that such advances in anthropological and biological sciences will lead us to a better “understanding of human diseases and how to treat them.” But to purport, in the same sentence that these same advances will “begin to explain precisely what makes us human” induces the reader to assume we are equal to the sum of our biological parts.

If the article had been shorter, we could have given the authors the benefit of the doubt. Perhaps, they were speaking not about “human persons,” but just about “humans” — the biological species — and thus escaping, somehow, the thorny issue of what makes us who we are. But that would be boring, and the authors knew it.

“…but somewhere in the nuclei of our cells are handfuls of amino acids, arranged in a specific order that endow us with the brainpower to outthink and outdo our closest relatives on the tree of life. They give us the ability to speak and write and read, to compose symphonies, paint masterpieces, and delve into the molecular biology that makes us what we are”

What we are? Or who we are? Both are valid questions, but to write an article that intends to explain “how we became human” without ever breaching the topic of our rational and spiritual nature — the ultimate distinction between humans and all other animals — is to suggest that the first question invalidates the second and that “who” we are as persons actually contradicts new scientific findings.

The assumptions these authors make are common. They showcase the materialistic, post-modern ideology (not scientific theory) that reigns in the classrooms and in the textbooks of scientific America and Europe. According to this worldview, the idea of a personal God, a creator, or even a clockwork intelligent designer is all together passé and unacceptable. According to them, the problem is not that this is not a scientific question, but that it doesn't fit with their "scientific" theory.

This is the ideological instinct of more than one generation of scientists. When they see the ever-increasing evidence of intra-species evolution and learn more about animals' ability to improve in order to survive, they fall back on the great neo-Darwinian principle that this adaptation, and its amazing results, is, at its very origin, necessarily random and irrational.

It is no wonder that the article in question spirals downward and ends with this astonishing philosophical conclusion:

“As scientists keep reminding us, evolution is a random process in which haphazard genetic changes interact with random environmental conditions to produce an organism somehow fitter than its fellows. After 3.5 billion years of randomness, a creature emerged that could ponder its own origins — and revel in a Mozart adagio. Within a few short years, we may finally understand precisely when and how that happened.?”

Strangely, the authors ended their article with a question mark, immediately following a period. Even they seem to know their conclusion is far-fetched, and way beyond the purview of science.

What they don't seem to know, or want to tell, is that we will never understand what makes people different from chimpanzees if we are determined to find it in the 1 percent of gray area between our genes and theirs. And isn't that what matters?

In our fight against radical fundamentalists, we are beginning to see the real clash is not of competing civilizations, but of the irrational with the rational, of those who claim the right to act against the dictates of reason with those who try in vain, through reason, to dissuade them.

It is easy to see a similar fundamentalist trend in science and philosophy, especially in the important study of evolutionary processes. Too often the debate is defined by those who, on the one hand, rule out a priori, any possibility of intelligent design, and call everything absolutely random just because they say so, and on the other hand, those who rule out any possibility that the designer is intelligent enough to make use of evolution to create just because they say so.

My opinion? I think the human intellect, through the light of reason, can easily and clearly find a program or a design in the physical world. And some evolutionary theories — free of neo-Darwinian atheistic principles — help us to do just that.

God bless, Father Jonathan

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