China Bridge (神州橋樑)_2009/May

Vocations and Darwinian evolution

Charles Darwin (1809-1882) published The Origin of Species in 1859. A century and a half later, atheists sometimes ask in frustration, “How long will it take for the humans to evolve beyond religion?” Darwin never asked such a question. Although he had grave doubts during the second half of his life, he was never hostile to religion. Everything he wrote regarding change stressed long periods of time and gradual transitions, not overnight revolution.

High infant mortality

Everywhere in the world, human life was a struggle 2,000 years ago – even 200 years ago. Babies often died and the time from the first to the fifth birthday was also risky. Almost every family lost at least one child. Almost every village had a story of a family who buried three or four small coffins.

The National Palace Museum in Taipei (台北) has a famous scroll, A City of Cathay (清明上河圖), which stretches 11 metres from right to left. The viewer begins in the countryside and moves into a huge city. First there are travellers on foot, a farmer with a water buffalo, a boy flying a kite and a small mound of dirt. The husband stands with a shovel while the wife is on her knees crying. This is one small detail in a panorama, just another part of everyday life.

In Catholic Europe, paintings of heaven show saints surrounded by angels. The smaller angels have the body proportions of chubby babies. No visitor needed to be told, “They were only on earth a short time, but now they are enjoying eternal rest.” Everyone understood at a glance.

Needed: early and universal marriage

With neither a provident fund nor social welfare, couples had to raise children for support in old age (生孩養老). Bringing two children into the world was not enough. Families with five, six or more children were common and commonly seen as blessed by heaven.

To maintain high fertility, people tended to marry while still teenagers. Chinese has different words for the marriage of a man or a woman. “A grown man should marry; a grown woman should move into her husband’s house” (男大當婚,女大當嫁). Long before census taking and statistical analysis, common sense said that a couple marrying at the ages of 18 and 16 would have more children than the pair who waited until aged 28 and 26.

Because of famines, epidemics and warfare, human numbers fluctuated up and down; there was no population explosion. The worst ancient epidemic was the Black Death, which started in central Asia around 1330 AD. Even without jet planes, bubonic plague still moved along the Silk Road and then across Asia, Europe and North Africa. Today we would call it a Phase 6 pandemic. There were fewer people in the whole world in 1430 than in 1330.

At the dawn of history, everyone who was halfway physically or mentally fit got married. It was part of the culture, something that everyone had to do. When Buddhist monks and sisters arrived in China and began recruiting for a celibate life, the new religion was condemned as foreign and unfilial. When Christian monks and sisters attracted novices toward the end of the Roman Empire, the dwindling pagan minority denounced them for reducing the supply of labourers and soldiers.

The choice of vocation in life

In Old China, parents sometimes vowed that a child with a deadly illness would later become a monk or a sister if the sickness went away.

St. Paul was not married. In 1 Corinthians 7 he discussed the pros and cons of getting married or remaining single in the service of the Lord. He saw advantages to remaining single, if possible, but “it is better to marry than to burn” (v. 9). When all is said and done, he left it as a free choice of the individuals concerned (v. 38). Managing family property or producing an heir and making people grandparents did not enter into that discussion.

St. Benedict (480-543), the founder of European monasticism, wrote in his Rule, “A man becomes a monk either by parental consecration or by personal profession.” Among wealthy families in the Middle Ages, the first-born son inherited the land, while later-born sons were sent to the military or to the clergy. Young nobles often had no business entering the seminary and no desire to live according to religious vows. Arranged marriages could lead to similar problems with commitment and fidelity.

China’s Marriage Law of May 1950 prohibited arranged or underage marriages. While there is no law saying people have to get married, even today parents try to find a match for their grown children. Children of the One Child generation feel extra pressure to find a spouse and produce at least one grandchild. (Two only children are allowed to have two children of their own.)

In November 1563, the Council of Trent demanded the presence of a priest and two witnesses to hear the bride and groom exchange their vows. This was aimed at stopping secret marriages and elopements which, however, only gradually died out. The couple had to consent to the marriage; their parents could not speak for them. The current (1983) Code of Canon Law will invalidate a marriage if one person lacks the use of reason (Can. 1095), deceives the other about a serious matter (Can. 1098), or if either one of them says “I do” because of coercion or grave fear (Can. 1103).

There has been a gradual trend, over the centuries, away from third parties deciding one’s state in life and more in the direction of individual freedom, thank God.

The consolation of religion

How do parents cope with the death of a child, or two or even three children? Relatives and friends used to say, “It is fate,” (命) or “This is God’s holy will.” Today, such words of “comfort” sound brutal, cold and liable to compound the trauma. However, people were tough in the old days. The survivors had to toughen themselves to keep going. Atheists consider belief in an afterlife to be an illusion, but admit that religion “used to play” a beneficial role in keeping a tribe or a society united and in giving individuals strength to continue the struggle for existence.

From an evolutionary perspective, does celibacy make any sense? One of the characters in Contact, a science-fiction novel, applauds celibacy; celibacy is good because it helps to eliminate religious fanaticism from the gene pool. However, the book’s author, Carl Sagan (1934-1996), overlooked the fact that evolution includes not only individual selection, but also group selection.

Just once every three years, if a priest, brother or sister is able to convince someone not to have an abortion, or not to pay for an abortion, but to have the baby instead, then that Church worker ends up adding a dozen or more people to the world. Most of those babies will be raised Catholic and one or two of them might hear the story and later decide, under difficult circumstances, to pass on the gift of life.

While religious celibates are not multiplying like rabbits, reports of their impending extinction have been exaggerated. A good number of people are entering convents and seminaries in many poor countries. From a Christian viewpoint, the simplest explanation is that the gospel is “glad tidings to the poor.” (Luke 4:18)

The Salve Regina, a Marian hymn from the 11th century, refers to people “mourning and weeping in this valley of tears.” Even in the 21st century, it is not hard to find people weeping, mourning and in need of consolation.

Do believers have an advantage in life?

Atheists have researched possible biological causes of religious belief, but they never speculate about the genetic basis of atheism. Reducing all the questions of life to only genes is an oversimplification, whichever way that two-edged sword is swung.

What is easy to document is a decline in the birthrate with rising average income. Although there are obvious cultural differences between Canada, Germany, Italy, Hong Kong, Korea and Japan, fertility in these and in many other prosperous societies is now well below replacement level. Consumerism exalts choice above everything else and having children is simply one lifestyle option among many. Neither Adam Smith nor Karl Marx predicted small families, let alone childlessness by choice on a large scale.

The United States of America (US) is an exception to the rule. A far higher percentage of US citizens are religiously observant. It is easy to survey people age 45 to 50, asking, “How many children do you have?” and “How often do you attend religious services?”

A quick web search for both “income fertility” and “religion fertility” yields literally millions of results for each topic. Atheists and nominal believers are less fertile than those who take religion seriously. However, it is politically incorrect to ask in public “Which religious or ethnic group in our country is multiplying faster than the rest?”

One cartoon shows a young couple saying, “Natural selection drives evolution.” The other young couple in the frame replies, “There is no evolution.” In the second frame, 20 years later, the first couple and their one child repeat, “Natural selection drives evolution.” The second couple and their seven children reply, “There is no evolution.” If the cartoonist had sketched a third picture for the third generation, the atheists would be lost amid a sea of believers. Since parents are unable to pass on their faith to all of their children, the process will take longer than three or four generations.

Truly Christian and authentically scientific

There is no contradiction between being a biologist and a Catholic Christian. To reverse the question at the start of this column, we can ask, “How long will it take for humans to evolve beyond atheism?” Probably several thousand more years. No problem! In the meantime, both biologists and Catholics can peacefully coexist, and work together to relieve human suffering. Happy 200th birthday, Charles Darwin!