George V. Coyne, former Vatican astronomer and defender of evolution, dies at 87

The astronomer and priest George V. Coyne, S.J., died on February 11, 2020, at the age of 87, according to The New York Times (February 14, 2020), which said that he "defended Galileo and Darwin against doctrinaire Roman Catholics and challenged atheists, too, by insisting that science and religion could coexist." Kenneth R. Miller, Professor of Biology at Brown University and the president of NCSE's board of directors, described Coyne on Twitter (February 12, 2020) as a "strong voice for the compatibility of science & faith ... [and] a great ally against so-called scientific creationism."

Coyne's most conspicuous discussion of evolution and creationism occurred in a 2006 address entitled "Science Does Not Need God. Or Does It? A Catholic Scientist Looks at Evolution," in which he argued that "the Intelligent Design (ID) movement, while evoking a God of power and might, a designer God, actually belittles God." In the same talk, Coyne criticized Cardinal Christoph Schoenborn's 2005 essay "Finding Design in Nature," which was widely hailed by the "intelligent design" movement. "To my estimation," Coyne wrote:

the cardinal is in error on at least five fundamental issues, among others: (1) the scientific theory of evolution, as all scientific theories, is completely neutral with respect to religious thinking; (2) the message of John Paul II, which I have just referred to and which is dismissed by the cardinal as "rather vague and unimportant," is a fundamental church teaching which significantly advances the evolution debate; (3) neo-Darwinian evolution is not in the words of the cardinal: "an unguided, unplanned process of random variation and natural selection"; (4) the apparent directionality seen by science in the evolutionary process does not require a designer; (5) Intelligent Design is not science despite the cardinal’s statement that "neo-Darwinism and the multiverse hypothesis in cosmology [were] invented to avoid the overwhelming evidence for purpose and design found in modern science."

Approvingly quoting John Henry Newman's comment that "[T]he theory of Darwin, true or not, is not necessarily atheistic; on the contrary, it may simply be suggesting a larger idea of divine providence and skill," he added, "One gets the impression from certain religious believers that they fondly hope for the durability of certain gaps in our scientific knowledge of evolution, so that they can fill them with God. This is the exact opposite of what human intelligence is all about."

Coyne was born in Baltimore, Maryland, on January 19, 1933. He joined the Society of Jesus at the age of 18, then attended Fordham University, where he received a bachelor's degree in mathematics in 1958, and Georgetown University, where he received his Ph.D. in astronomy in 1968. During his career, he was associated with both the University of Arizona's Lunar and Planetary Laboratory and the Vatican Observatory, of which he was the director from 1978 to 2006. His honors included a honorary doctorate from Le Moyne College in 2009 and the George Van Biesbroeck Prize from the American Astronomical Society in 2010.

Glenn Branch
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Glenn Branch is Deputy Director of NCSE.