Reports of the National Center for Science Education

Evolution in Mexico

I am frequently asked by American colleagues if I have faced problems due to my work on the origin and early evolution of life or when I lecture on these subjects in a Catholic country such as Mexico. In fact, in more than 25 years of doing so, only twice I have encountered opposition from individuals and groups that objected to an evolutionary description of the appearance of life in favor of the Genesis account. In both cases, they were led by American preachers visiting Mexico! Readers may wonder why this is the case, and I suspect that the answer lies in the history of the doctrinal divisions within Christianity that may have their own origins in the Protestant Reformation early in the 16th century.

Thomas H Huxley wrote in 1843 in the preface of his book Science and Hebrew Tradition,
For more than a thousand years the great majority of the most highly civilized and instructed nations in the world have confidently believed and passionately maintained that certain writings, which they entitle sacred, occupy a unique position in literature, in that they possess an authority, different in kind, and immeasurably superior in weight, to that of all other books. Age after age, they have held it to be an indisputable truth that, whoever may be the ostensible writers of the Jewish, Christian, and Mahometan scriptures, God Himself is their real author; and, since in their conception of the attributes of the Deity excludes the possibility of error and — at least in relation to this particular matter — of deception, they have drawn the logical conclusion that the denier of the accuracy of any statement, the questioner of the binding force of any command, to be found in these documents is not merely a fool, but a blasphemer. From the point of view of mere reason he grossly blunders; from that of religion he grievously sins.
What Huxley wrote in the 19th century still holds true: literalism is found in every contemporary society. In no place, however, is this more evident than in the United States, though such attitudes are also found in Australia, England, and in the Islamic world (Numbers 1998). Among Roman Catholic churchgoers, the more conservative may oppose scientific models of the emergence and evolution of life in favor of beliefs derived from the first two chapters of Genesis. Of course, the idea of a supernatural origin of life is shared by many believers who would subscribe to a literal reading of Genesis, but it is also true that in many Spanish-speaking countries most Roman Catholics follow a tradition that goes back to Augustine of Hippo which views the Bible not as a literal record but as an allegorical depiction of the ways in which divine creation took place.

It is true that the arrival of Darwinism was an unsettling event for many Latin American Catholics (Glick 1972). However, no major controversies developed within Roman Catholicism after the publication of the Origin of Species, since Rome, which did not follow the doctrinal imperative of literal reading of biblical texts promoted by many Evangelical Protestant denominations, had much less of a quarrel with Darwin's ideas. With time, the original clash faded into a more-or-less peaceful coexistence between the theories and discoveries of evolutionary biology and the teachings of the Church, consistent with an age-old tradition of the compatibility between science and Roman Catholics that frequently goes unnoticed (Ruse 1997).

Not surprisingly, major attempts by Roman Catholic thinkers to criticize the philosophical tenets of Oparin's hypothesis of an heterotrophic origin of life have been undertaken (Wetter 1958; Schmitt 1968), but even these tend to accept the results of experimental research and the general evolutionary framework, while maintaining a spiritualist stand (see, for instance, Russell and others 1998; Colombo and others 1999). This attitude — which has been prevalent among Vatican theologians, especially since the times of Pius XII — became rather explicit in the famous address to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences in which John Paul II accepted that the theory of evolution is not "a mere hypothesis", but insisted on the supernatural origin of the human soul (Wojtyla 1997). Yet Roman Catholics do not view the premises and developments of evolutionary theory as a potential battleground or as major theological risk. In contrast, the most important source of conflict between the Catholic hierarchy and contemporary biology lies in the recent developments in genetic manipulation, work on embryos, birth control, and fertility research.

The most aggressive version of contemporary fundamentalist creationism in Latin America is an American phenomenon, where it has been growing in fertile soil. In Mexico, as in much of Latin America, the opposition to evolution does not come from any official position, doctrine, or tenet of faith of Roman Catholicism. Rather, the rise of anti-evolutionism in Mexico and throughout Latin America reflects the success of the missionary efforts of conservative and evangelic Christian groups for whom a literal interpretation of Genesis is necessary because of their prior doctrinal commitment to the sort of literalist interpretation of the Scripture that Huxley described a century and a half ago.

By Antonio LazcanoUniversidad Nacional Autonoma de Mexico
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