Did Darwin Get It Right?
Catholics and the Theory of Evolution

George Sim Johnston, Our Sunday Visitor, 1998

A review by Gerry Keane, the author of Creation Rediscovered,
March, 2001

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An appropriate title for a review of this book is Did Johnston Get It Right?

Johnston makes some excellent points about the impact of naturalistic zealots who push materialistic scientism in their quest to stifle those who believe in the transcendent Creator God. He points out that it was discovered in France by worker-priests that the perceived conflict between science and the six-day creation account promoted atheism among the poor far more effectively than any social injustice.

This aspect of the book rightly deserves praise, but his general treatment of creation/evolution is most unsatisfactory. He audaciously entitles a sub-chapter (p.45) as "Darwinian Double-Speak", yet no attempt is made to rebut various crucial arguments against his own views. Instead, various strawman arguments are presented and this only misleads those readers who are not familiar with the Origins debate.

Worse still, poorly-informed Catholic readers of this book are more or less encouraged to shun (without sufficient information on exactly what they are shunning) those Catholics who reject evolution as mistaken science and who challenge the idea that the Universe is billions of years old.

This book may be welcomed by some proponents of Intelligent Design, but it does nothing to overturn the present confusion within Catholicism concerning Origins and instead plays into the hands of revisionist dissenters. It only further delays the time when genuine Creation theology will again prevail within the true Church founded by the Creator Himself.

The following comments are not a complete study of problems in Johnston's book - an entire book could be written in refutation - but they should provide enough analysis to show that his approach is highly flawed.

Darwinism Versus Evolution?

Johnston presents Darwinism as the real problem to overcome; evolution otherwise is an acceptable belief: "The controversy .. is not over evolution per se but over the means by which it happened" (p.16). But Darwinism is only one variant of evolution theory; it also comes in various alternative theories.

As Walter ReMine has shown succinctly in The Biotic Message: Evolution Versus Message Theory, the concept of evolution is elastic and able to be stretched by proponents to accommodate evidence or lack of evidence. The portrayal of Darwinism versus evolution is false argumentation and very misleading.

Why the selective focus on Darwinism as the major problem? At best, it's much too simplistic as an approach to Origins. At worst, it smacks of convenient semantics at work. The portrayal of Stephen Jay Gould as a Darwinist (pp.15,78), intent on preserving Darwinian materialism while finding a replacement for Darwinian selection, may not be met with approval by the famous evolutionist himself.

Given Gould's candid admission that the fossil record is devoid of intermediate stages, and his well-known preference for "punctuated equilibria", how can he truly be regarded as a Darwinist rather than as a forthright evolutionist who is trying to comprehend the mechanism of evolution?

What Is 'Evolution'?

There is no adequate definition of the term 'evolution' in Johnston's book. On p.16 he writes that, "Evolution is the idea that all life-forms share common ancestors, and maybe even a single ancestor. This is a reasonable, if unproven, hypothesis ... there are nested hierarchies of structure within the major animal groups." In stating this, Johnston misleads the reader. Evolution is not unproven; not only is there no field evidence in favour of it - it did not occur because it cannot occur!

His reference to the supposed idea of 'nested hierarchies' is reminiscent of how naturalistic evolutionists purport to prove evolution by misleadingly referring to all-embracing categories as though they constitute proof of evolution, when in fact the same evolutionists avoid giving a detailed, compelling, explanation of how each species came into being.

As ReMine also points out, the illusion of proof for evolution is achieved by concealing life's diversity within the compact names of supra specific groups (e.g., birds, mammals, and reptiles are higher taxa and not specific species). Terms such as 'nested hierarchies' are vague and prove nothing but they are likely to impress those unfamiliar with the many conceptual problems which plague evolution theory. Resort to generalisations is a 'safe' strategy and avoids the hard work involved in providing specific, detailed arguments.

Does Johnston disagree with ReMine's self-evident argument that life-forms have been created by the great Unseen Designer to look unlike evolution? [The platypus is an apt example of a creature which has many traits found in a range of other creatures. It is it's own special self, designed to look unlike evolution and thus a nightmare for evolutionary classification.] He mentions ReMine's book in suggested reading but the reader is cautioned against ReMine for "employing some dubious metaphysical arguments" (p.157).

Johnston effectively rejects the naïve idea of acquired characteristics (i.e., the neck of the giraffe (p.47) supposedly grew longer as it stretched ever-higher into trees) but he portrays this as a problem only for Darwinian evolution, not for his own version of evolution.

Nowhere in his book does Johnston define 'evolution' as the natural gaining of 'higher' genetic information not possessed by one's ancestors, which really does accurately describe what naturalistic evolutionists are driven to believe. Instead he writes (p.24) that,

"St Augustine proposed a kind of evolution ... he speculated that in the beginning God had planted 'rational seeds' (rationes seminales) in nature that eventually fructified into plants and animals. This would be 'evolution' in the strict sense of the word, an unfolding of what is already there, like an acorn turning into an oak. Being directed and purposeful, however, St Augustine's version of evolution is utterly non-Darwinian; it is, rather, creation on the installment plan".

Let us be clear about what we are discussing. The concept of Special Creation ex nihilo holds that there were originally created kinds who were brought into being in fairly quick succession (as needed for interdependence) by divine fiat less than 10,000 years ago. From each kind the present species have descended and changed only within the boundary of each kind and all have lost genetic information via natural selection down the years since creation. The more specialised is the species, the more restricted is the surviving genetic information. Evolution requires quite the opposite; somehow new, 'higher', genetic information has to be gained in 'upwards' progression.

Thus, an oak tree will always remains an oak tree; it cannot, and few would seriously believe that it will, change into a plum tree or a lemon tree. In the public understanding of 'evolution', the commonly held perception is not simply about vague 'change over time', or change within kind such as evident in Great Dane and Pekinese dogs, or in tabby cats and black cats - it's primarily all about the supposed big changes beyond kind (such as reptiles evolving into birds, which Michael Denton has incisively shown in Evolution: A Theory In Crisis to be impossible). That is what most individuals intuitively comprehend about the idea of evolution, even though they may not think in terms such as macroevolution, micro-evolution or genetic variation.

How many serious evolutionists would tolerate Johnston's defining of evolution as the normal growth to maturity combined with pre-programming by God in matter within life-forms? His definition would no doubt be hotly contested by them, and one can just imagine the satire which well-known evolutionary zealots would make of it. His concept doesn't satisfy evolutionists and it doesn't satisfy opponents of evolution.

Johnston is really asking us to believe, against overwhelming modern scientific findings by many competent specialists, that matter somehow possesses intrinsic properties which allow it continually to change into life forms with increased 'higher' genetic information. The reader is left with the impression (p.17) that these so-called properties within matter are in fact God's use of secondary causes.

A theological opinion can of course be put forth for consideration by the Magisterium but on what basis can Johnston claim verification for his theory? His theory is indeed falsifiable and has already been shown to be false. The rigorous modern findings of specialists such as geneticists and molecular biologists are relevant; their findings do not support Johnston's contention; field evidence and laboratory evidence show only change within kind, never beyond kind.

If his belief were true, we should by now be hard-pressed to recognize separate species, as all life forms would be one big melting pot. Clearly, matter does not contain the intrinsic properties attributed by Johnston, nor does matter change within life-forms as he imagines that it can.

If life forms had indeed 'evolved' in the manner claimed by Johnston over eons of time, then there must also have been innumerable numbers of intermediate stages (also known as 'transitional links') along the way. Where are they? They are in fact completely missing from the fossil record. Ironically, this very argument is given by Johnston himself (p.30) as a huge problem facing Darwinists.

Darwin blamed their absence on the imperfection of the fossil record but it's not imperfect; they definitely do not exist. Of course, if macroevolution never occurred, then the missing links are not really missing - they were never there to find. The crucial point is this: it's not only Darwinist evolution which requires multitudes of inter-mediate stages - so also does Johnston's evolution-as-creation concept! Thus, empirical science has shown Johnston's view to be false.

How ironic that his own warning against "putting God in the gaps unexplained by science" (p.17) applies especially to his own implausible concept of evolution which 'explains' the gaps in the fossil record by introducing God to carry out intermittent "creation-on-the-installment plan".

Curiously, almost nothing is cited by Johnston from the vast amount of creationist literature penned mostly by non-Catholic Christian scientists. Why? Are they not adequately qualified in their respective scientific disciplines? Marvin Lubenow's compelling book Bones Of Contention is listed as suggested reading but its compelling arguments against hominoids etc and against the billions of years age of the Universe are ignored by Johnston.

The Cambrian Explosion

The so-called Cambrian 'explosion' is hailed (p.30) as biology's Big Bang; an evolutionary 'rapid' explosion into existence of highly organized life-forms - mollusks, jellyfish etc - with no antecedents in the fossil record and without the innumerable transitional forms. Johnston further notes about this enormous amount of fossils that, "they are in fact an evolutionary blank" and this supposed five million years era is much too short a time for natural selection to bring forth a range of types seen today. Incredibly, however, this is a huge problem for Darwinist evolution but apparently it's not a problem for Johnston's concept of evolution!

In reality, there was no so-called Cambrian evolutionary explosion of new life-forms but quite the opposite; it was more like an explosion of death. These fossils were brought about by the global Flood of Noah. The fossil record constitutes a vast museum of violent, rapid death, as evident in many vast death-pits within the sedimentary (i.e., water-borne) strata. Entombed examples such as fossilized fish-swallowing-fish and other fishes fossilized while giving birth confirm that it was a global event of violent death, and not the evolutionary unfolding of new types!

Catholic Tradition

Johnston asserts aggressively that the Catholic Church has no problem with evolution (pp.72,110,119) and refers to Pope John Paul II's private addresses on creation/evolution (which have to be seen in light of weightier declarations in Tradition), but he is silent about Pope Leo XIII's 1880 definitive encyclical in which the Pope declared that Adam and Eve were created directly by God, and that her body was directly created from a portion of Adam's body. There is no room whatsoever for Catholics to believe in the evolution of Eve's body, and we know this with certainty from Leo XIII's magisterial teaching.

This pulls the rug out from under the theistic evolutionist position, which after all originally was trying to accommodate evolution theory with the existence of human beings. How can there be evolution of the male but not the female? So what's the point in striving for synthesis of supposed evolution and Catholic doctrine when a Pope has already effectively declared that it cannot be possible?

Johnston notes that Pius XII declared against polygenism (because it endangers the doctrine of Original Sin) but yet he is silent about the profound range of arguments contained in Catholic doctrine against theistic evolution, as if they don't exist, and fails to mentions the 1994 Catechism's rejection of polygenism.

Also, evolution per se requires death among Adam's many evolving 'ancestors' but Romans 5:12 declares that death only entered into the world after the disobedience of Adam, and this was also reaffirmed in the 1994 CCC. Where does Johnston place the Flood in giving rise to the vast museum of death upon Earth, before or after Adam?

Another problem: truth known from Catholic Tradition is really opposed to the ex nihilo Creation events being revised in meaning to become process over time, even though Johnston is happy to employ this term (p.110).

In writing about the boundary between science and theology (p.66), Johnston overlooks the fact that these respective disciplines can overlap on important issues (eg abortion, IVF, the Flood of Noah). Nor does he seem fully aware of the very concept of theological reality; science per se can only go so far in shedding light on truth whereas theology can enable us to grasp truth at a much deeper level. Contrary to Johnston's claim, Catholic Tradition and the official teachings of the Catholic Church do have a problem with evolution!

24 Hours Days Of Creation

Johnston makes no mention of the significance of Leo XIII's benchmark teaching in Providentissimus Deus (1893), in which he insisted that the literal, obvious sense holds pride of place until shown to be disproven. Following the Pontifical Biblical Commission findings of 1909, it is indeed permissible for Catholics to believe that the creation days were natural 24 hours days and it seems impossible that this permission can ever be overturned. How could the Catholic Church, founded by the trustworthy eyewitness Creator/Redeemer who was there at the Creation, officially deny the possibility that yom was really intended to be understood by the reader as 24 hours natural days? After all, Jesus Christ referred to Genesis and Moses as though convinced of the reality of the Flood and that Adam and Eve were created (Mark 10:6) at the beginning of Creation!

Johnston fails to grasp that, following the teaching laid down by Leo XIII, the onus of responsibility lies entirely with those who advocate an age of eons of years. The problems facing them from science and from theological reality are indeed formidable, and it's not enough for Johnston simply to assert that the Universe is billions of years old. He has to offer proof beyond doubt from science for his contention and proof beyond doubt that revision of Genesis is compatible with Catholic Tradition.

How Old Is The Universe?

Johnston writes that, "bacteria have been around for billions of years" (p.35). He obviously accepts as a given that the Universe is billions of years old, and Earth is roughly 4.5 billion years old (p.30). No attempt is made to prove these claims. After fleeting reference to problems in dating methods he simply asserts (p.90) that, "there are good reasons to accept the Earth's age of 4.5 billion years and the dating of geological markers such as the Cambrian and the Cretaceous." What exactly are these 'good reasons'? If only he would give details!

On the contrary, there is now an array of arguments from within science which contradict the idea of the Universe being billions of years old and even some non-creationist, evolutionary physicists acknowledge that they have serious reservations about the Red Shift/Doppler effect and about the so-called Big Bang (e.g., Harold Arp). The sheer 'lumpiness' in outer space remains a major problem for Big Bang theory.

Is Johnston unaware of the recent research supervised by Guy Berthault on the rapid formation of sediments? This research, submitted to scientific peer review in France, has effectively overturned the simplistic idea of 'superposition' (the assumed idea that each level of strata was deposited one above the other over eons of time). Johnston's claim about the strata age is thus also refuted in modern science.


Creationist opponents of evolution are dismissed with strawman reasoning, that they regard Genesis as tantamount to being a science textbook (e.g., p.72). They don't! The revelation about Creation must accord with truth known via empirical science - how could it be otherwise - but that does not mean that the partial account given in Genesis is held by Special Creation proponents to be a scientific textbook. They hold instead that Genesis is revealed history, revealed by the totally trustworthy divine author of Scripture and Creator of laws of nature who was there at Creation!

Johnston even recognizes this (p.122) in his comments on how to read the Book of Genesis, but then launches into a warning about gullible Catholics being attracted to the literalist position.

"Protestant evangelicals ... took refuge in a semantic literalism that sheltered the Bible from the invasive procedures of agnostic scholarship. The intellectual simplicity and doctrinal clarity of this position make it attractive to some Catholics today. ... The temptation to biblical literalism should be resisted, however. The Bible was never meant to be read apart from the teaching authority of the Church established by Christ."

Exactly! But Johnston's own position does not truly conform to this criterion.

Pope Leo XIII declared in Providentissimus Deus (1893) that various senses are used in Scripture. Understood properly, every passage in the Bible truly has a literal sense. But Johnston does not even mention that the proper meaning of the word 'literal' is the meaning intended to be conveyed by the Sacred Writer; it should not be confused with the literal, obvious sense.

Catholics who oppose the myth of evolution and are convinced that the Universe cannot be millions of years old are not by definition slavish biblical literalists; their position does truly accord with the true Church founded by Jesus Christ because the existence of various senses at work in the Bible is recognised by them. They postulate that while Genesis seems overwhelmingly given in the literal, obvious sense, the figurative sense may be applicable in some passages (e.g., the idea of God 'walking' in the Garden of Eden, and the 'rib' creation account of Eve's body) and respectfully await further clarification by the Magisterium concerning the truth of Origins.

Impact On Spreading Of Truth

A major problem with Johnston's effort to 'save' evolution with a shaky definition already falsified in science, and tied to an age of billions of years, is that it confuses Catholics who are poorly informed about the truth of Origins.

Not only does it play into the hands of revisionists (whether liberal/modernist or conservative), but also it hinders the truth of Origins from shining through layers of confusion within the Church, and it prolongs the time when a revitalized Creation message will be proclaimed in all vigor to a troubled world and the idea of God the Creator returned to center stage within Catholicism.

Johnston's book helps keep the conservative opponents of Modernism paralysed from understanding the truth of Creation and this distracts them from seizing the initiative and making use of crucial Origins arguments which could fruitfully be used in restoration of Catholicism.

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