In the middle of a busy homecoming week, students and faculty gathered in the formal lounge on Sept. 19 to hear Father Nicanor Austriaco, Ph.D. professor of biology and theology at Providence College, energetically discuss the harmonious relationship between theology and biology in Darwinian evolution.
Austriaco is a member of the Thomistic Institute. The Institute’s campus outreach director Rev. Gregory Pine said the Thomistic Institute is based out of Washington D.C. There they have a school, the Pontifical Faculty of the Immaculate Conception. The institute promotes research in the Catholic intellectual tradition and has campus chapters throughout the United States, where they sponsor lectures, conferences, and retreats.
Samuel Roberts, the student liaison for the Thomistic Institute, provided students with a survey last semester to see which topics interested students on campus.
“We sent out a survey, and there was an overwhelming majority who were interested on the talk on creation and evolution of the soul,” Roberts said. “The specific speaker who was on the list for that was Fr. Nicanor Austriaco, who is world-renowned.”
Sophomore Patrick Mitchell said he was impressed by Austriaco’s joy and enthusiasm for theology and biology.
“In such a divisive debate about evolution and Christianity, I loved hearing about why evolution can be considered beautiful,” Mitchell said. “It really made me see the beauty of God through the process of evolution, which I absolutely loved.”
Angelica Pytel, a visiting lecturer of biology, said she appreciated Austriaco’s balanced approach to science and the liberal arts.
“His approach to science was extremely sound, and his integration of his science with his philosophy and theology was perfect for us here at a liberal arts institution,” Pytel said. “It just highlights the necessity of almost all of the liberal arts incorporated together to get a complete, or holistic, view of what is really going on in this world.”
Austriaco said biologists must draw the distinction between Homo sapiens as a biological species from human beings as a natural kind.
“This is a philosophical move,” Austriaco said. “The reason is because biologists have philosophical presuppositions.”
The difference between Homo sapiens as a biological species and human beings as a natural kind is based on the capacity for rationality.
“Hominins evolved into archaic humans about 200,000 or 100,000 years ago in Africa at a single moment in time,” Austriaco said. “Eighty-five thousand years ago, a mutation arises, and this makes this matter apt to receive a rational soul, so God infuses the rational soul in that person and then that person, his descendants would migrate out of Africa to populate the globe.”
According to Austriaco, there was a change in one individual’s brain that allowed them to develop the capacity to abstract language from their thoughts. Austriaco said this combination of abstraction and language is known as merge.
“I’m going to say that you can define Adam after Darwin, and I’m going to say that there is a single, historical, original human being, and this person is the universal ancestor for all of us,” Austriaco said.
Professor of Philosophy James Stephens said he admired Austriaco’s ability to incorporate knowledge from many different disciplines into his reconciliation of evolution with divine action.
“He could take philosophy, Chomsky’s recent linguistics, theology, biblical hermeneutics, Darwinian Evolutionary Theory, population genetics — he could take all those things and bring them together so that they complement one another in pursuit of a single goal,” Stephens said. “That single goal is to understand something about us as human beings. That seems to me to exhibit: that’s what the liberal arts are supposed to do.”
Stephens and Pytel teach Philosophy of Mind together and were able to discuss how Austriaco’s seminar applied to their studies in class the next day.
Assistant Professor of English Benedict Whalen said he appreciated the fact that Austriaco supported a liberal arts education and emphasized the importance of different departments engaging in conversation. Whalen added that he is proud to be a part of the scholarly community at Hillsdale where students and faculty alike can have fruitful conversations.
“I was just really proud of Hillsdale, that in a stuffy, hot room, in the middle of homecoming week, all of these students and faculty turned out,” Whalen said. “It’s a real sign we’re committed to higher learning and to finding the truth of things.”
Pytel also said she was impressed by the student’s reaction to Austriaco’s seminar.
“The students standing up and giving him a standing ovation was to me, maybe my favorite part, honestly,” Pytel said. “It’s one thing for me to be impressed, or to be stimulated intellectually and philosophically by an invited speaker, but for students to be so fired up and enthusiastic about this message and be positive about science having a place within the conversation is very reassuring to me that students really do care, and really want to see how they fit together.”
Roberts said the Catholic Society will be hosting more speakers from the Thomistic Institute throughout the year, and he hopes to continue building a strong partnership between the Catholic Society and Thomistic Institute.