Men and Their Cousins, the Chimpanzees

Interview With Father Marc Leclerc

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By Carmen Elena Villa

ROME, FEB. 17, 2009 ( Darwin intended to create a scientific theory, not an ideology of life in order to interpret reality, says a philosophy professor marking the anniversary of the scientist's birth.

Last Thursday was the 200th anniversary of Charles Darwin's birth, the English scientist and observer, author of the work "The Origin of Species" and of the second theory of evolution.

ZENIT talked with Jesuit Father Marc Leclerc, professor of philosophy of nature at the Pontifical Gregorian University and organizer of a congress on "Biological Evolution: Facts and Theories," which will be held March 2-7 in Rome.
Q: Let's talk first about Darwin's life. Did his formation as a theologian in the Anglican Church influence his evolutionary theories?
Father Leclerc: Darwin was essentially a great biologist.

He was neither a philosopher nor a theologian. It is true that initially he had a more theological formation in the Anglican Church, but he distanced himself from the church for personal reasons, primarily the death of his daughter, which seemed to him a great injustice, contributing to his estrangement from the faith.

However, it can be said that he was always respectful; moreover, his wife was very much a believer.

He underwent an evolution. In the end he established himself, as he himself said, in an attitude of open agnosticism, which has nothing to do with the position of an atheist who uses this against the faith. Unfortunately, some of his followers did so, but he did not directly.

He didn't include anything of faith in his theory and did not intervene in one sense or the other. His is a scientific theory as such; it has nothing to do with the existence or nonexistence of God, because [in this] we are on a totally different plane.
Q: What danger is there that Darwin's theory of evolution will become an ideology?
Father Leclerc: This has happened, as I said, because many of his followers have not had his prudence and at times have confused the two levels -- scientific and theological.

In particular, they have converted two elements into an ideology: the aleatory character of variation, which later was called mutation, and the mechanism of natural selection, which are two elements of a scientific theory.

One cannot make the latter into the key to the interpretation of reality. This is to pass, perhaps, to an ideological level without even taking the scientific level into account.

Thus science falls into a false philosophy, or a false theology, which is directly against the explanation of reality. This is a serious abuse of science, at times committed by scientists, who go completely beyond the scientific realm.

The enemies of Darwinism should not fall into the same trap; the scientific theory merits all our respect, but must be discussed only at the scientific level.
Q: How can one have a correct view of evolution and creation?
Father Leclerc: I am convinced that here the mediation of philosophy is indispensable to avoid confusion between the different levels: a radical separation or a confused mixture, where nothing is understood.

It is necessary to rationally articulate levels that are different, hence the need for philosophical mediation.
Q: Is it right from a Christian point of view to say that man is the result of the monkey's evolution? If so, at what moment was the human soul created?
Father Leclerc: We are different from chimpanzees.

They are our cousins, not our forefathers. The point is that biologically we have common forefathers, that is why they are cousins on the biological plane. However, they have had a different history to ours.

Some might say that the birth of the soul began with Homo Sapiens, others that it began much earlier, with Homo Erectus, still others that it began with Homo Habilis. We have several vestiges, but no formal proof.

The vestiges we might have correspond to the symbolic character of thought, to the articulated and symbolic language universally open to the possibility to relate to another freely and to God, in elements such as the advent of art and the religious element.

I cannot say when the human soul appeared; what we know is that humanity is today a unique species of modern man [Homo] Sapiens Sapiens. In it, each one of us has a soul created by God, each one has a singular soul.

When did it begin? We have one important fact among others: It seems that biological evolution really culminated with Homo Sapiens. However, the cultural revolution, proper to man, began already before the appearance of Homo Sapiens.
Q: Should Genesis be regarded as a theory of the creation of the world or as a theological theory to explain the creation of man and his freedom?
Father Leclerc: I recall what Galileo said: "The Bible doesn't teach us how heaven functions but how to get to heaven."

Genesis tells us how man has been created in God's thought, how he can go to God and how he has been estranged from God. It does not tell us scientifically why.

From this conception it tells us what plan God has for man and how man must adapt himself to this plan.
Q: Is man lord of creation or a more evolved animal species?
Father Leclerc: At the simply phenomenological level man is the only one who can interact with his environment, changing the environment according to his wishes, and is not obliged to adapt himself to the external changes of the environment.

An example: Man produced the book on the origin of species 150 years ago. No animal has ever been seen to reflect on the origin of living beings.