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Theological Notebook: John Allen Interview with Peter Schuster, Austrian Academy of Sciences

John Allen's interview for the National Catholic Reporter with Peter Schuster, the molecular biologist who is the current President of the Austrian Academy of Sciences and who is meeting with Benedict XVI and his Schülerkreis – his former graduate students – to have an informal symposium on the much-misunderstood topic of "Creation and Evolution." (See my August 14 entry.)

Interview with Peter Schuster

Conducted August 11, 2006


Are you a Catholic?
I was a Catholic, but I no longer consider myself one. I suppose I am agnostic. Let’s put it his way -- I have difficulties with the idea of a personal God. I don’t have trouble with God as creator of the world as a whole.

How did you end up invited to Castelgandolfo?
There’s a history to this meeting, which started even before Cardinal Christoph Schönborn published his article in the New York Times last summer. A half-year before, I had met him and he was interested in talking about evolution. He invited me to breakfast, and we had a very relaxed and interesting discussion on chance and evolution, what shapes the evolutionary process, and so on.

When he published his New York Times piece, there was a partly angry excitement among scientists, though there was also some agreement with the cardinal in the broader society. Discussions followed in Austria with Schönborn, and I was invited by a group of physicists to give a talk on the subject in Traunkirchen. I presented a one-hour talk, then Schönborn spoke, followed by discussion. [Note: A Power Point version of Schuster’s talk is available here:]

Generally speaking, we came to the conclusion that there was much less disagreement than we originally thought. Schönborn stayed away from his statement that biologists are promoting an ideology, and I’m glad, because in essence it’s not true. Every biologist has the obligation to change his ideas when experiments contradict what he thought. Schönborn also agreed that “neo-Darwinism” [which he criticized in the New York Times piece] is a view from the 1950s, and that biology has developed much further, with new problems, since that time.

The only area of disagreement concerns whether there are conclusive points in nature which require the hypothesis of an intelligent designer. As molecular biologists, we do not need the intervention of an intelligent designer as the cause of evolution to explain what we see. The evidence certainly does not contradict the existence of a designer of nature, which is ultimately not a subject of science. We cannot draw conclusions that go beyond the observations that we have. The cardinal, on the other hand, argued that chance and randomness is not what we see when we look at nature. It was, I repeat, a very friendly discussion.

Is the cardinal concerned about evolution as a “random” process?
I think there’s a misunderstanding of the role of chance and randomness in evolution. The fact that mutations and uncorrelated with selection does not manifest itself in the product. In other words, it’s not an intellectual problem to have a random step in the process, because we don’t have randomness in the product. Selection is an evaluation which is deterministic. Mutation is not throwing dice, but it is simply uncorrelated with the selection process. This is one part where we still disagree.

It’s hard for a biologist to accept that mutation is directed by design, because we simply don’t see evidence for that view.

Is there a need to distinguish between scientific and philosophical questions?

Let’s put it this way: One could have the intervention at every moment of a designer, but as such that it does not interfere with the mechanisms of evolutions. It would give exactly the same result. As scientists, we have to apply the law of Ockham’s Razor -- in choosing among differing explanations for the same phenomena, we have to opt for the simplest one.

In his New York Times piece, do you think Schönborn was making a philosophical or a scientific argument?
I think he actually meant the second. He seemed to suggest that it’s stupidity not to recognize the action of an intelligent designer. This is a scientific statement, though it’s something to which I do not subscribe. I believe that 95 percent of biologists would say the same thing, that there’s no evidence for the intervention of an intelligent designer during the course of evolution.

That doesn’t mean such a designer doesn’t exist?
Certainly not. There may well be an intelligent designer who created the world and the laws of matter, with all its dynamical processes. Biology by no means disproves the idea of a Creator. But the point is that we don’t need a Creator to explain what we see. One hundred years ago, it was the common belief of Christians that God directly created every new species that exists. Darwin showed how natural development can lead to new species. Today we understand this much better, and there’s no evidence that can’t be explained within this general framework.

Let’s go back to how you got on the guest list for Castelgandolfo.
Six months ago, Cardinal Schönborn called to ask me if I would give more or less the same talk I gave at Traunkirchen to the pope and his doctoral students. We had lunch together, and I asked the cardinal, ‘Why me?’ Certainly there are evolutionary biologists who are closer to the church. Schönborn said he had a discussion with the pope, and that the pope wants a scientist who in no way can be suspected of being a creationist.

Does evolution “disprove” religious belief?
Not at all. Evolution and Christian theology can be perfectly consistent. Perhaps a strictly literal interpretation of the Bible is inconsistent with science, but otherwise one can get agreement. There is no general contradiction.

How do you feel about philosophers and theologians writing on scientific subjects?
I have a problem when people who are not scientists interfere with scientific questions, but don’t have the full information. There are many ways to look at the world, and I have no problem with divergent philosophical or theological statements. I won’t interfere with that discussion. I was trained as a scientist, not a philosopher.

Would you say the same thing about scientists who draw philosophical conclusions?
When scientists are not trained in these other disciplines, yes, I object. Sometimes when the disciplines are closer to one another, scientists can make a valid contribution. For example, there can be physicists who do interesting work in science who also know the language of economics and can express themselves in it. But in general, we should respect our areas of competence.

So when scientists such as Stephen Jay Gould make sweeping philosophical statements, it troubles you?
Sure, because he was exceeding his competence. I don’t see how he could reach these conclusions. It’s a matter for philosophy, not science.

There are good reasons to be careful about the uncritical use of scientific concepts in other areas, such as “Social Darwinism.” One can’t transfer evolutionary concepts uncritically into study of human societies. It gives biology a bad name. A really good biologist would never do this.

What do you think will be the result of the Schülerkreis meeting?
I think they want to have some kind of formal statement on Darwinian theory, close to that made by the previous pope in 1996. [Note: John Paul II defined evolution in that message to the Pontifical Academy of Science as “more than a hypothesis.”] I was present at that meeting, and it was a very good session.

... I’m looking forward to a friendly discussion that hopefully can clarify many points about the additional evidence we have concerning evolutionary processes nowadays, which did not exist in the time of “neo-Darwinism.”

What are your impressions of the thinking of Benedict XVI on evolution?
I think he’s very close to John Paul. That’s what I expect. One thing I will stress is that referring to “neo-Darwinism” is not appropriate in our time. We have different knowledge, and we know many more details. For one thing, we can now do evolutionary experiments in the lab. We can empirically show how the mechanisms of evolution work, optimizing molecules by mutation and selection. We can design molecules by evolutionary techniques using the same process we see in nature. I believe the pope is interested in this.

Do you believe Benedict will take a somewhat different position than Schönborn?
I think so, but one never knows. We’ll see at the end.

What do you hope for at Castelgandolfo?
I’m looking forward to an interesting discussion. I’ve done this sort of thing before, and I always return having learned something I didn’t know before. I like to understand what their problems are and how they approach them.

What’s your impression of broader Catholic opinion on evolution?
It depends on who you talk to. For the most part, the people I talk to are scientists -- biologists, chemists, physicists, and so on. They’re certainly not against evolution. These Catholics see the problem from a scientific point of view as I do, although they have a different interpretation on the philosophical level.

Within the general Catholic public, however, I think there’s a big difference. Many were favorable to Schönborn’s statement on the basis of a general hostility toward scientists. Some think these scientists do terrible things -- they pollute the world, they created the atomic bomb, and now they’re destroying the dignity of human beings. These people wrote letters in favor of Schönborn’s position, though I have the impression he was not pleased with these letters. I think he may be a little reluctant to enjoy their support. ... There was an anti-intellectual element to these letters.

National Catholic Reporter, Posted August 17, 2006

Tags: cultural, evolution, philosophical, scientific, secularism/modernity, theological notebook

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