Natural Selection in Aristotle and Aquinas

confli3It is hard to find a balance when it comes to our attitude towards the science and academia in the Middle Ages. Opinions vary. We find those who simply regard this period in history as the dark age which only obscured and prevented the development of real science. Others acknowledge the importance of the origin of universities in France, Germany, Italy, and other European countries at that time. And yet, they remain skeptical about the methodology of Aristotelian scholasticism developed in Paris, and Platonic overtones predominant in the medieval science at Oxford. Still others emphasize the importance of the mathematical reasoning of Roger Backon and the origins of new empiricism developed at Paris (Albert the Great, O.P., Peter of Maricourt, and Theodoric of Freiburg, O.P.). They may had been far away from our modern understanding of mathematics and empirical method in science, but we would not be where we are with our scientific development if not their contribution.

aquinas-aristotleWhile pursuing my research on Aquinas’ understanding of causality I came across a passage in his Commentary on Aristotle’s Physics that blew my mind. Speaking of those who reject teleology (the claim that nature acts for an end) Aristotle refers to some thinkers who suggest that everything in nature happens out of necessity. It may look to us – they say – that things come to be for and end, while they are actually organized “spontaneously in a fitting way,” which helps them to survive, unlike those things or organisms that grew otherwise, which “perished and continue to perish.” (Physics II, 8 [198b 29-32])

This passage from Aristotle, which already looks like the first description of natural selection, was commented by Aquinas, whose definition is even closer to the one formulated by Darwin and modern evolutionary theory. Referring to the same group of thinkers who rejected teleology and argued for necessity of natural events Aquinas says that “they say that from the beginning of the formation of the world the four elements [earth, water, air, fire] were joined in the constitution of natural things, and thus the many and varied dispositions of natural things were produced. And in all these things only that which happened to be suitable for some utility, as if it were made for that utility, was preserved. For such things had a disposition which made them suitable for being preserved, not because of some agent intending an end, but because of that which is per se vain, i.e., by chance. On the other hand, whatever did not have such a disposition was destroyed, and is destroyed daily. Thus Empedocles said that in the beginning things which were part ox and part man were generated.” (In phisica II, lect. 8, no. 253)

ewolucjaThis quotation is striking. Naturally, it would be an unjustified simplification to infer from this passage that Aristotle and Aquinas either developed or accepted the theory of evolution. The empirical scientific data both in antiquity and in the Middle Ages would not support such a claim. On the other hand, however, they were both careful observers of changes and processes of nature, and developed metaphysics and theology (in the case of Aquinas) which can be supportive and serve as a background of evolutionism. This topic is the subject of my paper which is at present in the review of Theology and Science. I hope it will be accepted and published later this year.

Coming back to Aristotle’s and Aquinas’ descriptions of natural selection, we should notice that neither one of them says openly whether he finds the very core of the idea plausible. What seems to be clear, however, is the fact that that they both reject it as interpreted in terms of the necessity of chance (this term is defined nowadays as the “blind” or the “absolute” chance). They would rather argue that nature always acts for an end, which is natural and intrinsic to things and organisms. Those who support Aristotle’s philosophy of nature nowadays, emphasize that chance events at the bottom line of evolutionary processes happen in organisms which by definition strive to survive and produce offspring. Therefore, chance events have to be related to regularity and teleology present in nature.

Moreover, some of the leading evolutionary biologists in the 20th century (Dobzhansky and Ayala) say that mutations alone, if uncontrolled, would lead to the breakdown and extinction of life, rather than to adaptive evolution. They have to be “controlled” by natural selection, which, according to Ayala, is not only a purely negative mechanistic end-directed process that promotes the useful and gets rid of harmful mutants, increasing thus reproductive efficiency. It implies creativity and teleology, that is a production and maintenance of end-directed organs and processes. (See Dobzhansky, Genetics of the Evolutionary Process, 65; Ayala, “Teleological Explanations in Evolutionary Biology,” in Nature’s Purposes. Analyses of Function and Design in Biology, 35, 41.)

Levine_DarwinNow, it becomes obvious that this assertion brought by Ayala is a modern expression of the same idea, formulated in ancient philosophy by Aristotle and developed later on by Aquinas. It would be too much to say that the theory of natural selection goes back to Aristotle and Aquinas. But on the other hand, Darwin himself, a few months before his death in 1882, received from William Ogle a copy of his new translation of Aristotle’s Parts of Animals. In his response to Ogle, Darwin says: “You must let me thank you for the pleasure which the Introduction to the Aristotle book has given me. I have rarely read anything which has interested me more; though I have not read as yet more than a quarter of the book proper. From quotations which I had seen I had a high notion of Aristotle’s merits, but I had not the most remote notion what a wonderful man he was. Linnaeus and Cuvier have been my two gods, though in very different ways, but they were mere school-boys to old Aristotle.”

Darwin died soon after sending his letter to Ogle, and we don’t know if he read more of Aristotle. I’m pretty sure that if he had continued his research, he might have been surprised finding Aristotle’s reflection on natural selection. I think that it proves again that the old folks like Aristotle and Aquinas are not outdated and should not be ignored. My friend from Poland who is a biochemist sent me an information found on Wikipedia which says that: “In recent years, the cognitive neuroscientist Walter Freeman proposes that Thomism is the philosophical system explaining cognition that is most compatible with neurodynamics, [which he explains] in a 2008 article in the journal Mind and Matter entitled “Nonlinear Brain Dynamics and Intention According to Aquinas.””

Therefore, it is not an anachronism to claim that Aristotle’s philosophy and Thomism are relevant in the context of contemporary scientific, philosophical, and theological debates. Viva Aristotle! Viva Aquinas! 🙂


Hegel and Whitehead – part 1: Panentheism

I have just posted a new sub-page on my blog, which will contain abstracts and links to my official publications. I will try to explain the content of each one of them in several steps.

rtas20.v011.i04.coverMy first article in English was published in May 2013 in Theology and Science, a journal edited by the Center for Theology and the Natural Sciences in Berkeley. It’s title is quite sophisticated: Hegel and Whitehead: In Search for Sources of Contemporary Versions of Panentheism in the Science–Theology Dialogue. You can read an abstract here.

First of all, what is panentheism about? It all goes back to one of the main concerns of our reflection about God, which has been the source of struggle for theologians  over the centuries. On the one hand we acknowledge that God is totally different and unlike anything that we know by our sensual experience and intellectual reflection. God is totally and absolutely transcendent. He is omniscient (knows everything), omnipotent (can do everything), eternal, and above all – unchangeable. Therefore – according to St. Thomas Aquinas – while our relation to God is real and changes us, this same relation on the side of God is only a relation of thought (reason), because it cannot change God nor add anything to His essence which is pure act, without any hint of potentiality.

On the other hand we have to acknowledge that God is radically immanent, that is He is present in the world and all its aspects. Saint Thomas defines the very act of creation as a total dependence of every creature in its being on God. God is the source of the very existence of everything. Were he not present in contingent beings at every moment of their existence, they would perish at once. They actually exist because they participate in the infinite being of the Creator.

image-question14-largeAnd here comes the question: how does one bring God’s transcendence and immanence together into one model of His divine action? One of the possible answers goes back to Pseudo-Dionysius (5-6th century), and was further developed by St. Thomas Aquinas. It names three ways of our speech about God. The positive way enables us to formulate positive statements about the Creator. We may say for instance that God is good, and His goodness is revealed in creation (God’s immanence). But at the same time we must acknowledge that He is not good in the way that we are good. In other words, God’s goodness is unlike our goodness. This is the way of negation. Following it we realize that it is more appropriate for us to say what God is not, rather than what God is (God’s transcendence). And yet the connection with our human categories is not totally rejected. The third way – the way of eminence – saves it, claiming that God is good, but in an eminent way, which goes beyond any kind of goodness known to us. God is the source of all goodness, as His goodness is identical with His essence. This way of speaking about God is based on the doctrine of analogy, which I hope to explain in a separate entry.

This way of bringing together transcendence and immanence of God saves both of them and supports the classical Thomistic model of God- world relationship which I describe on the left side of the diagram below (click on the image to view it in a higher resolution).

UntitledAquinas’s view of God-world relation remained in a radical opposition to pantheism (the middle model on the diagram), which assumes that the world is God and God’s essence is exhausted in the world taken as a whole (an idea coming back today in the New Age and other “ecological” spiritual movements). However, commonly accepted and supported throughout the centuries, the classical model of Aquinas has been recently accused (beginning from the late 19th century) of overemphasizing God’s transcendence. God who does not have a real relationship towards His creation – says the main charge – is not the God of love. If creation cannot affect God, then He is not concerned with what is happening in the world. He is a God of philosophers, but not of the Bible.

As a remedy to this crisis, some theologians proposed a new model of God-world relationship – panentheism. It suggests that the world is in God (a link to pantheism), and yet God is more than the world (a link to classical theism of Aquinas). See the right-hand model on the diagram above. Proponents of this version of God-world relation suggest that because the world is in God, it has to affect God, therefore He is not unchangeable anymore, and His eternity is affected by time. Moreover, when creating the world God decides to limit his omniscience and omnipotence, in order to make a space for our freedom and contingent events in the world. He is not a detached ruler, but a fellow sufferer who understands. And yet – according to panentheism – God is still transcendent, because He is more than the world.

mothergoddessearthThe panentheistic model has become very popular, and found many applications in contemporary theology, especially in the circles of theology and science debate, where it seems to be suitable in explaining theological implications of contingency and indeterminacy of natural events. However, at the same time, it raises some basic and crucial questions. The first and the most important among them refers to God’s transcendence. If the world is in God and affects God, then it has to share God’s essence (God’s nature or substance), which challenges the truth about God’s transcendence. Moreover, if creation of the world changes God and limits some of the attributes which are substantial for His divinity (e.g. omnipotence, omniscience, eternity), it is hard to agree that He is still the God we believe in. If this is the case, then the claim of panentheism’s proponents, who say that it gives right to both God’s transcendence and immanence, simply does not hold.

Contemporary panentheism has many faces and versions. The truth is that it also has a long historical tradition, especially in the philosophical reflection on God and God-world relationsip. It’s roots go back to ancient Egypt and Greece. In my article I concentrate on two philosophical versions of panentheism: the one which was proposed by Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, and the other developed by Alfred North Whitehead. The former philosopher may be regarded as the father of the modern version of panentheism, while the latter has become very popular in the contemporary science-theology dialogue. I ask the question of the possible relation between their versions of panentheism and the nuances in their understanding of God’s transcendence and immanence.

That’s it for now. It is a prelude to the main body of the article which I hope to summarize in the next episodes under the same title: Hegel  & Whitehead.