Le Moyne Darwin symposium examines his impact on the humanities
by Luke Eggleston
Sun staff writer
On the surface, a celebration of Charles Darwin might seem contrary to the mission of a Jesuit institution. The work of the 19th century naturalist has, after all, helped fuel the atheist movement perhaps more than any other field of study.
According to Father Don Maldari, SJ, however, far from presenting a challenge to Christianity, Darwin’s theory of evolution and faith are capable not only of co-existing, but of enhancing one another.
Father Maldari joined three other scholars Thursday, Feb. 12, for a symposium reflecting on Darwin’s impact on the humanities. The event, entitled “The Darwin Effect: Perspectives from the Humanities,” was held in Grewen Auditorium on the Le Moyne College Campus. It was intended to introduced a year long celebration in honor of Darwin’s 200th birthday.
Le Moyne associate English professor, Dr. Maura Brady, who offered a biographical perspective on Darwin, organized the event. Along with Brady and Father Maldari, Dr. Michael Davis, an associate English professor, and Dr. Jeremy Bendik-Keymer, representing the department of philosophy, also participated in the symposium.
In addition to the presentations from the professors of the humanities, Dr. Laurence Tanner, a professor of biology, was on hand to help provide a perspective from the sciences.
Brady’s presentation was entitled “The Elusive Mr. Darwin” and it dealt specifically with the problem he presents to biographers. She noted that Darwin’s “life contradicts and confounds writers to this day.”
Brady noted that the phase of Darwin’s life most compelling to biographers is the period following his return from the voyage of the Beagle, during which he began formulating his thoughts on evolution, while establishing himself as an upstanding English citizen.
Davis’ presentation dealt with Darwin’s cultural impact on the generation that followed him: the late Victorians and the modernists. Using both paintings and texts, Davis looked at the revolutionary shift that Darwin’s thought produced.
Davis used the name of the symposium as a starting point for his presentation. When he came on the term “effect,” Davis described the result of Darwinian thought as “an extraordinarily radical shift in the way the human being is perceived.”
Bendik-Kymer’s presentation provided a somewhat less bleak analysis of Darwin’s impact on thought following On the Origin of Species’ publication.
He noted that Darwin’s study of species evolution devalued a fundamentalist reading of the bible.
“Life without purpose frees us up from a literal reading of the bible,” Bendik-Kymer said. “After Darwin, a literal reading of the bible is dead.”
Bendik-Kymer continued that Darwin’s thought paved the way for a more creative reading of the bible.
Father Maldari offered the evening’s final presentation, in which he asked the question, “Is God still the Creator of Heaven and Earth?”
The Jesuit scholar observed that, historically speaking, the Catholic faith has had a complex relationship with science. He cited the imprisonment of Galileo as such an instance.
“The Catholic response to advances in knowledge through the natural sciences have also not been cordial,” Father Maldari said. “There was, for example, the whole unpleasant Galileo affair, with, I cringe, the Jesuit Cardinal Roberto Bellarmino’s 1616 instruction to Galileo not to teach heleocentricism.”
Within the last 60 years, however, Catholicism has come ever closer to resolving its initial conflict with Darwinism. Father Maldari cited Pope Pius XII’s 1950 encyclical, Humani generis, and then noted that the Second Vatican Council further expanded a welcome to scientific inquiry.
“The second Vatican Council in the 1960s not only gave Catholic thinkers permission to find God through scientific inquiry; it downright encouraged it,” Father Maldari said.
In his 1996 Message to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, Pope John Paul II stated, “Today, more than a half-century after the appearance of that encyclical, some new findings lead us toward the recognition of evolution as more than an hypothesis.”
Finally, Pope Benedict XVI said, “There is no opposition between faith’s understanding of creation and the evidence of the empirical sciences.”
Father Maldari noted that science itself is an expression of God.
“I am participating in this colloquium as a Catholic theologian because Catholic theology must learn from and reflect upon the data, insights and theories of all other disciplines, including the natural sciences, for they are among the conduits of God’s self-revelation,” he said.