A Funny Thing About the Trinity: Skunks and Evolution

Fr. Edlefsen's Sunday Column

"Until the 1960s, all of the spotted skunks found across the United States were considered to be the same species.  Then Rodney Mead, a graduate student at the University of Montana, began looking at their reproductive biology and discovered something startling. Populations living in the western United States exhibited delayed implantation, breeding in late September and delaying their pregnancies so they could give birth in May.  Yet spotted skunks found in states east of the Continental Divide bred in March, exhibited no delay, and gave birth in June.  Thus, the eastern and western populations were reproductively isolated. With this information, Mead classified two species: ‘Spilogale gracilis’ in the west and ‘S. putorius’ in the east.” (Montana Outdoors, March-April 2016, p. 24)

There’s nothing like a claim to fame for a  new discovery.  Exploring a new insight, proposing a new idea, finding a new species, pushing back the frontiers of ignorance.  What aspiring graduate student would not want to make his or her mark on history?  The discovery that there are two species of skunks, not just one, makes me wonder about the personal sacrifices made by the researcher.  How did this affect his social life?  His love life?  After all, one false move in the lab could ruin his plans for a Friday evening.  Did he keep jugs of tomato juice in the fridge?  Did he have cologne stronger than skunk spray?  Perhaps he was already married.  Did his wife have a say in his choice of research? Did she understand “for better or for worse?”  Did they have trouble getting babysitters?  Perhaps he, like me, took a vow of celibacy to serve a higher cause. Whatever the case may be, Mead’s research has made another advance in our knowledge about the intricate wonders of Natural Selection.  Which brings me to my next point.

I’ve never had a hang-up over Natural Selection.  Natural Selection is “the process whereby organisms better adapted to their environment tend to survive and produce more offspring,” which is now believed to be the main process that brings about Evolution.  I find the idea more convincing than Creationism (which I find unconvincing), that is, the idea that the world was literally made in “six days.”  This is not to say that I think Natural Selection can explain everything.  But it’s a good paradigm for explaining and discovering many wonderful things about the biological world, like why there are two kinds of skunks in North America.  While always a believing Christian, I never had much of a taste for biblical fundamentalism.  Catholicism made more sense to me because it was open to sensible ideas like Natural Selection.  But that’s not the only reason.  Insights into Evolution touch on something even more amazing: the creative dynamics of the Trinity.

I think it plausible that a God who is three “Persons” in “One Substance” – or, “consubstantial” as we say in the Creed – would not be in a hurry to make, re-make or morph anything.  Nor would a Trinity be a micromanager.  A triune God would seem to be more creative and process oriented – cooperative, you might say – leaving lots of wiggle room for something like Natural Selection, as opposed to a monolithic God issuing abrupt edicts from an otherworldly throne, like a czar.  The very fact that God takes his time, and that there is time to take, could only come from a communitarian God.  A One-Person God would be too impatient.  On the other hand, a Trinity would want Man and Nature to not only take their time, but to work out a few things on their own.  After all, Earth was made for Man – especially for people like Rodney Mead – who was created to delight in, contemplate and name the wonderful and odiferous creatures that evolve on this strange planet.

“Now the Lord God had formed out of the ground all the wild animals and all the birds in the sky.  He brought them to the man to see what he would name them; and whatever the man called each living creature, that was its name. So the man gave names to all the livestock, the birds in the sky and all the wild animals and skunks, such as ‘Spilogale gracilis’ in the west and ‘S. putorius’ in the east.” (Genesis 2:19-20, with a gloss)

It seems to me that the other Creation story – the one about the world being made in a “six day” process – contains a pre-scientific intuition about evolution.  Moreover, to say “God rested on the seventh day” implies that we too, like the Trinity, should enjoy the enchanting dynamism of this Paradise.  The evolutionary processes of nature are the ways of Love, which give life and growth to everything, slowly and organically.  Even in human experience, love is rarely about sudden moves, save for special occasions.  Love is a delightfully slow yet powerful and life-giving force, like a sunrise, a budding flower, a second glance in a romantic moment.  We humans were meant to grow gently and harmoniously, in tune with Nature and Grace.  We are usually disturbed, scarred or stunted by untimely or abrupt changes or shakeups.  Nature and Grace take their time in making us healthy and holy.  Gradual growth, naturally and spiritually, is the rule. Miracles, like surprise gifts, are the exception.  Even then, miracles are aesthetically appealing because they do what Nature is meant to do anyway: changing water into wine, giving sight to eyes, sound to ears, voice to mouths, movement to legs and, above all, life. Real miracles are not weird but pleasing.  They appeal to something that man’s organic and evolutionary nature was seeking before the miracles took place: life, health and joy.  In the case of healings, Christ’s miracles helped evolution when it faltered, like helping someone up after a fall.  Christ’s miracles were not weird or preternatural, like flying across a room or snapping one’s fingers and – poof! – a glass of beer suddenly appears.  Miracles are not manipulative like voodoo, or like Elizabeth Montgomery casting spells in “Bewitched” (a boring 1960s sit-com).  No, organic evolution is the standard for all physical activity, even miracles.  The “Beginning” may well have been abrupt, as in a “Big Bang.”  But most things thereafter seem to have unfolded in an evolutionary way.  These are the ways of a Trinitarian God, who is a “consubstantial” Community of Love and Life.

While Natural Selection may help explain many things, it cannot explain everything.  For example, it cannot explain Rodney Mead.  Here is a guy who freely chose to go against all of the presuppositions of Natural Selection by doing skunk research.  He went against Natural Selection in order to discover something new about Natural Selection. Moreover, there is no principle in the theory of Natural Selection that suggests the formation of a creature who would ponder Natural Selection; nor is there is a principle that suggests the formation of a creature who would willfully go against the principle of Natural Selection.  There must be another explanation for a man, like Rodney Mead, who clearly loves his subject matter, has the intelligence to study it and possesses the freedom to pursue it, despite social risks and excessive purchases of tomato juice.  Perhaps he racked up on Green Stamps (it was the ’60s).

The Trinity has imprinted its image on the Human Mind.  The Trinity is a creative and dynamic trio of Eternal Persons, “consubstantial” in One Nature of Love, Intelligence and Freedom.  Man is the only physical creature in the universe, as far as we know, that has these powers etched into its nature in a mysterious spirit that we call the “soul.”  Hence, we are said to be in the “image and likeness” of God (Genesis 1:27).  We, men and women – little gods that we are – can ponder not only what God has made, but what He is still making.  Our minds can grasp not only things, but the dynamism of things.  We never stop making because the Trinity never stops making.  We make “what is” into “something else” because the Trinity does the same.  Evolution is about variations on God’s theme.  O Triune God!  What else shall we discover in your creative Action?