Fifteen Eighty Four

Academic perspectives from Cambridge University Press


Can the Aristotelian-Thomistic School of Thought Embrace the Evolutionary View of Reality?

Mariusz Tabaczek

The question of whether the classical Aristotelian-Thomistic school of thought may correspond with the evolutionary worldview continues to inspire research and (sometimes heated) debates. A number of legitimate concerns is usually brought up by those who think that the classical framework of philosophy and theology is at odds with the more recent developments in natural science.

Is Aristotelian metaphysics dynamic enough as to capture and ground a species transition? More fundamentally, isn’t the classical essentialist definition of species altogether dismissed by the contemporary processual approach to classes of organisms, where the boundaries between these classes and between them and their environment are perceived as blurry, if not entirely arbitrary? What about the principles of chance and natural selection that are said to be “running the processes of evolution”? Don’t they flat contradict the classical notion of goal-directedness (teleology) of living things and all processes taking place in nature? Moreover, evolutionary transitions seem to violate the classical principle of proportionate causation, which assumes that the effect cannot be more perfect than its cause.

These philosophical queries open the way to equally challenging theological questions. Doesn’t evolution contradict the biblical account of creation? Do evolutionary transitions require a direct (special or miraculous) divine intervention? Is it proper to claim that God continuously creates in and through the processes of evolution? And what about biological and theological anthropogenesis? Is it possible to reconcile the biblical view of the human origins with the scientific view, including the vexing question concerning the number of the first representatives of our species?

Building upon the legacy of the River Forest school of Thomism and in an active exchange with the contemporary experts in the field, in reference to the most recent version of the extended evolutionary synthesis, I develop in my book a consistent and constructive model of the contemporary Thomistic version of theistic evolution. Departing from the questions listed above, I address and respond to all major philosophical presuppositions and both philosophical and theological repercussions of the theory of biological evolution.

On the philosophy side of the conversation, I offer a constructive proposal of an Aristotelian-Thomistic model of metaphysics of evolutionary transitions, grounded in the categories of hylomorphism, virtual presence, disposition of matter, and accidental and substantial changes.

I support these developments with a set of strategies dealing with the alleged violation of the principle of proportionate causation in evolutionary transitions and an elaborate argument in defense of the dynamism of the classical essentialist definition of species – tested against the two major arguments denying its compatibility with evolutionary biology.

This speculative analysis opens up to the question about teleology. From Aristotle and Aquinas, through Darwin and the twentieth-century evolutionary synthesis, to the most current philosophy of evolutionary biology, I trace the fate of the notion of goal-directedness and defend it as indispensable and intrinsically related to chance in processes that affect the fittingness of organisms, which is tested by natural selection.

Moving to the theological part of my project, I begin with a careful analysis of Aquinas’s definition of creation and his use of the Augustine’s notion of rationes seminales – i.e., “seminal notions” or “seeds of potentiality,” which are hidden in the primordial matter and develop (actualize) on the course of the history of the universe. A critical analysis of early evolutionary interpretations of these ideas is followed by my own constructive proposal of the contemporary Thomistic version of theistic evolutionism.

One of the original aspects of my book is the argument against the popular image, commonly accepted within the circles of contemporary advocates of theistic evolutionism, of God creating within and through evolutionary processes, thus sharing his creative power with his creatures. My criticism of this idea is followed by a constructive argument that we should classify evolutionary changes and newly emerged species as an integral aspect of divine governance rather than divine creation, which for Aquinas means but one thing or action – i.e., bringing things into existence ex nihilo, and not through transformation of already existing matter.

Once we agree that evolution falls within the workings of God’s providence, we face the difficulty of the theological interpretation of evolutionary biology in delineating a precise account of the concurrence of divine and contingent causes engaged in speciation. Invoking Aquinas’s famous distinction between God’s primary and principal causation and the secondary and instrumental causation of creatures, I offer a constructive model of the concurrence of divine and natural causes in evolutionary transformations.

Finally, I turn to the encounter between biological and theological anthropogenesis, which have inspired the most emotional reactions to evolutionary theory among Christian leaders and posed a considerable challenge to several fundamental presuppositions of systematic and philosophical theology. In response to these developments, I develop and defend a contemporary Thomistic approach to the question of the origin of our species. The reflection I offer is followed by an account of the complexity of the theological debate concerning the mono- versus polygenetic character of human speciation, which I believe leaves the question about the number of our earliest ancestors open.

I believe that my book shows that, despite a certain dose of skepticism toward classical philosophy and theology, the longstanding legacy of the Aristotelian–Thomistic tradition remains vigorous and ready to enter a vivid and fruitful conversation with contemporary philosophy and science. Both Aristotle and Thomas present systems of thought that are not only coherent and consistent but also flexible and open to the new data and current ways of understanding the universe, its structures, and processes.

About The Author

Mariusz Tabaczek

Mariusz Tabaczek, O.P., is a friar preacher, professor of theology, and member of the Thomistic Institute at the Pontifical University of Saint Thomas Aquinas in Rome. He is the au...

View profile >

Latest Comments

Have your say!