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University of Iowa News Release


March 27, 2009

Depew presents at Catholic creation-evolution conference in Rome

The Catholic Church convened a conference this month to explore common ground between evolution and creation, and the University of Iowa's David Depew was among an elite group of international experts invited to present to an audience that included high officials of the church.

Depew, interim director of the Project on Rhetoric of Inquiry (POROI) and professor of communication studies in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, has researched philosophical aspects of Darwinism from an historical viewpoint for more than three decades.

"Biological Evolution, Facts and Theories," convened at the Pontifical Gregorian University, a Jesuit university in Rome. In a press conference, Monsignor Gianfranco Ravasi said evolution and creation do not stand in opposition, but are two different angles from which to consider the same reality. He said the aim of the conference was to "re-establish a dialog within differences."

Depew presented on natural selection as explaining why organisms have traits that give them a higher chance of reproductive success. Favorable heritable traits spread through a population over time. He argued that people have exaggerated the role of accident in Charles Darwin's theories.

"Many people have overstated the role of chance in natural selection in order to make Darwinism seem implausible. I defended the proposition that adaptations are there because they perform a function -- not by accident," Depew said. "Natural selection produces beautiful adaptations, like opposable thumbs and lactose tolerance in human populations that co-evolved with herding animals. The traits have added up over time and are embedded in our developmental program for a reason."

Depew said the church has long stated that it wishes to take the hypothesis of evolution seriously. Pope John Paul II strengthened that sentiment, saying the church's current view is that evolution is more than a hypothesis.

The impetus for this conference, Depew said, was in part a cardinal archbishop who proposed intelligent design. "Clearly some folks in the church weren't happy with that. Their concern is that this theory, as normally understood, turns to God as a creator only when things can't otherwise be explained. This has historically been called the 'God-of-the-gaps theory,'" Depew said. "The church is exploring two remaining options: that evolution and religion have nothing to do with each other, or -- their preference -- that evolution is God's way of creating. The conveners were explicit in affirming compatibilism of some sort and no speakers threw cold water on that idea."

The conference, which took place March 3-7, included 45 presentations, starting with the basics of evolutionary science and progressing to philosophy and theology. Experts from across the United States and Europe included geneticists, paleontologists, developmental biologists, anthropologists, ecologists, philosophers and theologians, most with prior knowledge of and sensitivity to the relation between religion and science.

Depew attended Catholic schools through college. Colleagues at Notre Dame recommended him as a speaker, knowing his background and area of research. He said participating in the conference was a great honor, and his paper was well received. He was impressed by the respectful nature of the discussions.

But whether the conference will influence the church's views remains to be seen.

"It might. It's just too early to tell," Depew said. "I would be pleased if Catholic intellectuals came out in favor of the compatibility of theology and evolution, and in support of some types of Darwinism. It was encouraging to see the church searching for a way of thinking that respects scientific progress."

STORY SOURCE: University of Iowa News Services, 300 Plaza Centre One, Suite 371, Iowa City, Iowa 52242-2500

MEDIA CONTACT: Nicole Riehl, University News Services, 319-384-0070,