Uncommon Descent Serving The Intelligent Design Community

On not using the wrong metaphor: Catholic author Mark Shea attempts to channel Pope Francis


Catholic author Mark Shea has recently written two blog articles (see here and here) in which he attempts to clarify what Pope Francis really meant when he addressed the Pontifical Academy of Sciences on creation and evolution, on October 27. Shea claims that the Catholic Church has been evolution-friendly in its thinking since the time of St. Augustine, who “sees creation happening, not by God perpetually applying little fixes and magicking a tyrannosaurus out of thin air, but by Nature unrolling (Latin: evolvere) the potentialities that God placed in it from the start,” while St. Thomas Aquinas sounds “pretty darned evolutionary” to the good Mr. Shea. What the Pope is saying, according to Shea, is that “God is not a sprite, elf, leprechaun or fairy who is perpetually having to ‘fix’ his creation with patch jobs, magic dust, and tinkering – thereby constantly magicking new species into existence.” Although Intelligent Design theorists say nothing about the Designer’s modus operandi, Shea’s none-too-subtle dig at Intelligent Design is unmistakable: “tinkering” is how ID’s critics uniformly characterize what the Designer does. Citing the work of Catholic statistician and author Mike Flynn, Shea likens the four-billion-year evolution of the Earth’s species to different phases in the growth of an individual human being. However, Flynn’s metaphor is a fatally flawed one, for reasons which I’ll explain below.

Before I go on, I should point out for Mr. Shea’s benefit that several years ago, Intelligent Design proponent Professor Michael Behe, in his book, The Edge of Evolution (The Free Press, 2007), carefully described how Intelligent Design can produce specified results, without any intervention or “tinkering” on the Designer’s part. All it requires is a Designer who not only creates the laws of Nature but also sets up the initial conditions of the cosmos very carefully, so that life will unfold:

…[T]the now–active universe is fine–tuned to the very great degree of detail required, yet it is activated in a “single creative act… After the first decisive moment the carefully chosen universe undergoes “natural development by laws implanted in it.” In that universe, life evolves by common descent and a long series of mutations, but many aren’t random. There are myriad Powerball–winning events, but they aren’t due to chance. They were foreseen, and chosen from all the possible universes.

…[A] being who can fine–tune the laws and constants of nature is immensely powerful. If the universe is purposely set up to produce intelligent life, I see no principled distinction between fine–tuning only its physics or, if necessary, fine–tuning whatever else is required. In either case the designer took all necessary steps to ensure life.

Those who worry about ‘interference’ should relax. The purposeful design of life to any degree is easily compatible with the idea that, after its initiation, the universe unfolded exclusively by the intended playing out of the natural laws. (2007, pp. 229-230, 231-232, emphases mine – VJT)

Behe also explains why it is not enough for the Designer to merely fine-tune the laws of physics; the initial conditions of the cosmos also need to be specified:

Finally, a particular, complex outcome cannot be ensured without a high degree of specification. At the risk of overusing the analogy, one can’t ensure that all the pool balls will end up in the side pocket just by specifying simple laws of physics, or even simple laws plus, say, the size of the pool table. Using the same simple laws, almost all arrangements of balls and almost all cue shots would not lead to the intended result. Much more has to be set. And to ensure a livable planet that actually harbors life, much more has to be specified than just the bare laws of physics. (2007, pp. 229-230, emphases mine – VJT)

I might add that I would not regard the creation (over the course of time) of new proteins that can perform various tasks required by complex organisms, or the construction of new cell types, or hierarchically organized control systems within the cell, as “tinkering” or a “patch job,” as Mr. Shea apparently does. I would call it “intelligent engineering.”

And now to the Pope’s speech. For those readers who are interested, the best English-language report of Pope’s speech to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences can be found in the National Catholic Register, while the Italian version of the Pope’s speech can be found here and here.

The Catholic Church is commonly perceived by outsiders as a monolithic entity, but the reality is very different: it tolerates a wide latitude of opinion within its ranks on most issues. On the subject of origins, the Church has been content to “let a hundred flowers bloom and a hundred schools of thought contend,” insisting only that Catholics accept the creation of the world ex nihilo at the beginning of time by God, the creation of the human soul and the Fall of our first parents, Adam and Eve. Within the Catholic Church, there is a gamut of views, ranging from the six-day creationism of priest-physicist Victor Warkulwiz to the Intelligent Design advocated by Lehigh University biochemist professor Michael Behe (who also accepts common descent) to the thoroughgoing Darwinism taught by Brown University biology professor Kenneth Miller. And that is as it should be.

The implausibility of Mr. Shea’s construal of Pope Francis’ remarks is readily apparent if we consider one simple fact: according to a 2009 Pew survey, no less than 27 per cent of American Catholics endorse special creationism (defined in the survey as the view that “species have existed in their present form since the beginning of time”). In many Catholic countries in the Third World, the percentage of special creationists is likely to be even higher. These Catholics, like the vast majority of Christians during the first 1,900 years of Christianity, really do believe in a God Who miraculously brought new species into existence at the dawn of history – which sounds pretty magical to me. Is it likely that the Pope, in his address, would presume to tell these pious Catholics, “You’re wrong”? I think not.

“God is not a magician” – what did the Pope mean?

What, then, did the Pope mean when he declared that God is not a magician? Dr. Ann Gauger addresses this question in her excellent analysis of the Pope’s speech over at Evolution News and Views, which is titled, On Evolution, Pope Francis Speaks and the Media Get it Wrong. The point that Pope Francis was making, writes Dr. Gauger, was simply that God, unlike a magician, can create things out of nothing: “He truly creates, not as a demiurge [a super-intelligent craftsman or architect – VJT] or magician that manipulates existing matter, but rather as the Author and Creator of all things, including the very matter of the universe. In other words, the Pope believes that God is not less magical but more magical than any magician.

Want proof? Happy to oblige. I am pretty sure that Pope Francis, who is a very intelligent man, has read and taken to heart the metaphysical insights of Catholic apologist G. K. Chesterton. In Chapter 4of his classic work, Orthodoxy, Chesterton described the everyday magic of the laws of Nature (emphases mine – VJT):

When we are asked why eggs turn to birds or fruits fall in autumn, we must answer exactly as the fairy godmother would answer if Cinderella asked her why mice turned to horses or her clothes fell from her at twelve o’clock. We must answer that it is MAGIC. It is not a “law,” for we do not understand its general formula. It is not a necessity, for though we can count on it happening practically, we have no right to say that it must always happen. It is no argument for unalterable law (as Huxley fancied) that we count on the ordinary course of things. We do not count on it; we bet on it. We risk the remote possibility of a miracle as we do that of a poisoned pancake or a world-destroying comet. We leave it out of account, not because it is a miracle, and therefore an impossibility, but because it is a miracle, and therefore an exception. All the terms used in the science books, “law,” “necessity,” “order,” “tendency,” and so on, are really unintellectual, because they assume an inner synthesis, which we do not possess. The only words that ever satisfied me as describing Nature are the terms used in the fairy books, “charm,” “spell,” “enchantment.” They express the arbitrariness of the fact and its mystery. A tree grows fruit because it is a MAGIC tree. Water runs downhill because it is bewitched. The sun shines because it is bewitched.

… I felt in my bones; first, that world does not explain itself. It may be miracle with a supernatural explanation; it may be a conjuring trick, with a natural explanation. But the explanation of the conjuring trick, if it is to satisfy me, will have to be better than the natural explanations I have heard. The thing is magic, true or false.

The “seed” metaphor for the origin of species – and what’s wrong with it

In his articles (see here and here), Shea quotes a passage from St. Augustine of Hippo (354-430 A.D.), in an attempt to support his claim that the Catholic Church has been evolution-friendly from the get-go:

It is therefore, causally that Scripture has said that earth brought forth the crops and trees, in the sense that it received the power of bringing them forth. In the earth from the beginning, in what I might call the roots of time, God created what was to be in times to come. [Emphasis added by Shea]
On the literal meanings of Genesis, Book V Ch. 4:11

In his work, De Genesi Ad Litteram, St. Augustine proposed that God created all living things in the form of “germinal seeds,” (rationes seminales in Latin), at the dawn of time. I’ll say more about this theory below; for now, I’d just like to point out that the theory is not in any sense an evolutionary one, as it presupposes that the “germinal seeds” of all species were already present when life on Earth began.

Shea attempts to bolster his case by citing two passages from the writings of St. Thomas Aquinas that sound “pretty darned evolutionary” to his ears:

“Species, also, that are new, if any such appear, existed beforehand in various active powers; so that animals, and perhaps even new species of animals, are produced by putrefaction by the power which the stars and elements received at the beginning.” — Summa Theologica, Part I, Q. 73 art. 1, reply 3.

“Nature is nothing but the plan of some art, namely a divine one, put into things themselves, by which those things move towards a concrete end: as if the man who builds up a ship could give to the pieces of wood that they could move by themselves to produce the form of the ship.”
– Thomas Aquinas, Commentary on Physics II.8, lecture 14, no. 268

Summing up his case, Shea quotes Catholic author Michael Flynn’s pithy summary of the thinking of St. Thomas and Pope Francis:

IOW, species are four-dimensional and their evolutions over time are simply a part of the same creation, just as a fetus, an infant, an adolescent, and an adult are simply temporal parts of the same four-dimensional being.

Mike Flynn helpfully adds: “IOW new species would appear by means of the powers already invested in nature by God.”

The fatal flaw in Shea’s and Flynn’s argument is that it rests on a faulty metaphor: it likens the origin of new species over geological time to different phases in the development of a plant, from a seed to a full-blown flower – or, if you prefer, successive stages in the development of an individual human being, from a fertilized ovum to a mature adult. The metaphor is faulty on three counts.

First, all of the information which regulates the development of an individual plant or human being is present in that individual from day one. A one-cell embryo has the genetic program that governs its development, from the very moment of conception, when the sperm penetrates the oocyte. By contrast, the first living cell (which appeared some four billion years ago) was a simple organism, which possessed only a tiny fraction of the genetic (and non-genetic) information that we find in the cells of living creatures today. To view this Ur-cell as a seed which was already invested with powers to evolve into creatures as diverse as horses, hydrangeas and halophiles, is a complete travesty of the modern-day theory of evolution. The biology underlying Shea’s and Flynn’s proposal is as out-dated as sixteenth-century theories of homunculi. What the modern theory of evolution claims is that living things may acquire more information over the course of time, through processes such as sexual recombination, mutation, gene duplication and horizontal gene-swapping. (Of course, lineages of living organisms may also lose information, and contemporary biologists utterly reject the view that evolution is an inherently progressive process.)

The second flaw with the “seed” metaphor is that it fails to distinguish between active and passive powers. Indeed, it remains a matter of dispute among scholars as to whether St. Augustine viewed the “germinal seeds” (or seminales rationes) which he believed God had created at the beginning of time as having merely a passive capacity to be transformed into fully-grown organisms of various kinds, or an active power to transform themselves. (Our own Dr. Jonathan Wells has written an excellent overview of the dispute here.) The latter view we now know to be scientifically untenable, for reasons discussed above. The first cell possessed only a tiny fraction of the active powers which characterize its modern descendants. And as we have seen, on the modern view of evolution, it is the environment which imparts active powers to lineages of organisms, because that’s where the information of life is supposed to come from: random environmental changes, in which populations are culled by the non-random power of natural selection. But if all that St. Augustine was saying is that these “germinal seeds” had a passive potentiality to be transformed into various kinds of living things, then his “seed” metaphor breaks down. For what distinguishes the seed – and for that matter, the one-cell human embryo – is that it possesses the active power to control its own development into a mature organism. Indeed, it is for precisely that reason that we regard embryos as being just as important and valuable in their own right as rational human adults.

The third and final flaw with the “seed” metaphor for the evolution of new species is that it fails to account for two pervasive features of living things: codes and programs. There is no known natural process which is capable of creating a code, or writing a program. The laws of nature won’t do the trick, because laws are mathematical equations, and equations don’t generate codes or programs. To imagine that they could would be to make a category mistake, like asking how many wheels a joke has. Could there be some other hidden power in Nature, then, which is capable of creating codes and programs? No. As I’ll show below, we can legitimately speak of the cell as having a language (or rather, languages) of its own – albeit an artificial one. Anything capable of creating a language would have to be intelligent in its own right, and Nature is not intelligent.

Codes and programs in the cell: not just a figure of speech

Some readers may object that talk of “codes” and “programs” in living things is merely a figure of speech. That’s nonsense. The following quotes, which are taken from impeccable scientific sources, establish the scientific legitimacy of using terms like “instructions,” “code,” “information” and “developmental program” when speaking of an organism’s development (emphases are mine):

“We know that the instructions for how the egg develops into an adult are written in the linear sequence of bases along the DNA of the germ cells.” James Watson et al., Molecular Biology of the Gene (4th Edition, 1987), p. 747.

And from a more recent source:

“The body plan of an animal, and hence its exact mode of development, is a property of its species and is thus encoded in the genome. Embryonic development is an enormous informational transaction, in which DNA sequence data generate and guide the system-wide spatial deployment of specific cellular functions.” (Emerging properties of animal gene regulatory networks by Eric H. Davidson. Nature 468, issue 7326 [16 December 2010]: 911-920. doi:10.1038/nature09645. Davidson is a Professor of Cell Biology at the California Institute of Technology.)

Here’s another recent quote, from an article by Schnorrer et al., on the development of muscle function in the fruit-fly Drosophila:

“It is fascinating how the genetic programme of an organism is able to produce such different cell types out of identical precursor cells.” (Schnorrer F., C. Schonbauer, C. Langer, G. Dietzl, M. Novatchkova, K. Schernhuber, M. Fellner, A. Azaryan, M. Radolf, A. Stark, K. Keleman, & B. Dickson, Systematic Genetic Analysis of Muscle Morphogenesis and Function in Drosophila. Nature, 464, 287-291 (11 March 2010). doi:10.1038/nature08799.)

One scientist who has worked hard to build a link between the biological sciences and information technology is Dr. Don Johnson, author of Programming of Life and Probability’s Nature and Nature’s Probability: A Call to Scientific Integrity. Dr. Johnson has both a Ph.D. in chemistry and a Ph.D. in computer and information sciences. He has spent 20 years teaching in universities in Wisconsin, Minnesota, California, and Europe. On April 8, 2010, Dr. Johnson gave a presentation entitled Bioinformatics: The Information in Life for the University of North Carolina Wilmington chapter of the Association for Computer Machinery. Dr. Johnson’s presentation is available on-line here. Both the talk and accompanying handout notes can be accessed from Dr. Johnson’s Web page. Here’s an excerpt from his presentation blurb:

Each cell of an organism has millions of interacting computers reading and processing digital information using algorithmic digital programs and digital codes to communicate and translate information.

On a slide entitled “Information Systems In Life,” Dr. Johnson points out that:

  • the genetic system is a pre-existing operating system;
  • the specific genetic program (genome) is an application;
  • the native language has a codon-based encryption system;
  • the codes are read by enzyme computers with their own operating system;
  • each enzyme’s output is to another operating system in a ribosome;
  • codes are decrypted and output to tRNA computers;
  • each codon-specified amino acid is transported to a protein construction site; and
  • in each cell, there are multiple operating systems, multiple programming languages, encoding/decoding hardware and software, specialized communications systems, error detection/correction systems, specialized input/output for organelle control and feedback, and a variety of specialized “devices” to accomplish the tasks of life.

And finally, here’s what Professor Gregory Chaitin, a world-famous mathematician and computer scientist, had to say about DNA in a talk given on May 2, 2011, entitled Life as Evolving Software. The talk was given at PPGC UFRGS (Portal do Programa de Pos-Graduacao em Computacao da Universidade Federal do Rio Grande do Sul Mestrado), in Brazil. Professor Chaitin is an avowed Darwinist who is currently endeavoring to create a new mathematical version of Darwin’s theory which rigorously proves that evolution can really work. Professor Chaitin is also the author of a book titled, Proving Darwin: Making Biology Mathematical (Pantheon, 2012, ISBN: 978-0-375-42314-7). Here are some short excerpts from what Professor Chaitin said about the software of life in his talk:

[P]eople often talk about DNA as a kind of programming language, and they mean it sort of loosely, as some kind of metaphor, and we all know about that metaphor. It’s especially used a lot, I think, in evo-devo. But it’s a very natural metaphor, because there are lots of analogies. For example, people talk about computer viruses. And another analogy is: there is this sort of principle in biology as well as in the software world that you don’t start over. If you have a very large software project, and it’s years old, then the software tends to get complicated. You start having the whole history of the software project in the software, because you can’t start over… You … can try adding new stuff on top…

So the point is that now there is a well-known analogy between the software in the natural world and the software that we create in technology. But what I’m saying is, it’s not just an analogy. You can actually take advantage of that, to develop a mathematical theory of biology, at some fundamental level…

Here’s basically the idea. We all know about computer programming languages, and they’re relatively recent, right? Fifty or sixty years, maybe, I don’t know. So … this is artificial digital software – artificial because it’s man-made: we came up with it. Now there is natural digital software, meanwhile, … by which I mean DNA, and this is much, much older – three or four billion years. And the interesting thing about this software is that it’s been there all along, in every cell, in every living being on this planet, except that we didn’t realize that … there was software there until we invented software on our own, and after that, we could see that we were surrounded by software…

So this is the main idea, I think: I’m sort of postulating that DNA is a universal programming language. I see no reason to suppose that it’s less powerful than that. So it’s sort of a shocking thing that we have this very very old software around…

So here’s the way I’m looking at biology now, in this viewpoint. Life is evolving software. Bodies are unimportant, right? The hardware is unimportant. The software is important…

I hope Mr. Shea can understand why I simply cannot believe his and Mike Flynn’s claim that new species appear by means of the powers already invested in nature by God. I find it unintelligible. And I’m not the only one. Professor James M. Tour, who is one of the ten most cited chemists in the world, has candidly declared that there’s no scientist alive today who understands macroevolution (evolution at the species level). He should know: he has repeatedly asked scientists to explain it to him, but to no avail.

I’d now like to return to the writings of St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas, whose views Messrs. Shea and Flynn badly misconstrue.

Was St. Augustine a proto-evolutionist?

In his work, De Genesi Ad Litteram, St. Augustine theorized that at the beginning of time, God created all living things in the form of germinal seeds, or rationes seminales (also known as “seminal reasons”). To modern ears, this may sound like a proto-evolutionary theory. Was it? Since St. Augustine’s theory of rationes seminales sounds rather bizarre from a modern perspective, I shall cite an explanation from an unimpeachable source _ namely, that given by Fr. Frederick Copleston S.J. in his monumental work, A History of Philosophy. Volume 2: Augustine to Scotus (Burns and Oates, Tunbridge Wells, 1950; paperback edition 1999, pp. 76-77, emphases mine – VJT):

The rationes seminales are germs of things or invisible powers or potentialities, created by God in the beginning in the humid element and developing into the objects of various species by their temporal unfolding….. Indeed, St. Augustine never supposed that they were an object of experience, that they could be seen or touched, having inchoate form or potentiality to the development of form according to the divine plan…

Why did not St. Augustine content himself with ‘seeds’ in the ordinary sense, the visible seeds of plants, the grain and so on? Because in the book of Genesis it is implied that the earth brought forth the green herb before its seed, and the same thing is implied with regard to other living things which reproduce their kind. He found himself compelled, therefore, to have recourse to a different kind of seed… Each species then, with all its future developments and particular members, was created at the beginning in the appropriate seminal reason…

From what has been said it should be clear that the Saint was not considering primarily a scientific problem but rather an exegetic problem, so it is really beside the point to adduce him as either a protagonist or an opponent of evolution in the Lamarckian or Darwinian sense.

Since St. Augustine believed that each species of plant and animal was created separately by God with its own ratio seminalis, it should be quite clear that his theory was not an evolutionary one, whatever else it may have been. The only “development” Augustine envisaged was that of individuals (not species) from invisible germ seeds. The idea that species may have arisen in a step-wise, evolutionary fashion was utterly contrary to what he wrote on the subject of origins.

St. Augustine’s Biblical literalism

St. Augustine also maintained that the world was 6,000 years old (City of God, Book XII, chapter 12) and that creatures of all kinds were created instantly at the beginning of time. He expressly taught that living creatures were created separately according to their kinds (De Genesi ad Litteram 3.12.18-20, 5.4.11, 5.6.19, 5.23.46); that Adam and Eve were historical persons; that Paradise was a literal place (City of God, Book XIII, chapter 21); that the patriarch Methusaleh actually lived to the age of 969 (City of God, Book XV, chapter 11); that there was a literal ark, which accommodated male and female land animals of every kind (City of God, Book XV, chapter 27); and that the Flood covered the whole earth (City of God, Book XV, chapter 27).

What’s more, St. Augustine vigorously defended these doctrines against philosophical opponents, who maintained that the human race was very old; that Paradise was a purely spiritual state and not a place; that none of the Biblical patriarchs lived past the age of 100; that the Ark wouldn’t have been big enough to accommodate all of the animals; and that no flood could ever have covered the whole earth. These intellectual adversaries of Augustine’s included pagans who were skeptical of the Genesis account as well as unnamed Christians who sought to downplay the literal meaning of Genesis in favor of a purely allegorical interpretation. Although St. Augustine had a great fondness for allegorical interpretations of Scripture, he also felt that he was bound to remain faithful to the literal sense of Scripture.

In his De Genesi ad Litteram, St. Augustine also scoffed at unnamed Christians (presumably, disciples of the allegorist Origen) who were perfectly willing to accept the doctrine of the virginal conception of Jesus Christ, but who balked at the Genesis account of the creation of Eve from Adam’s rib, preferring to adopt an allegorical interpretation of this passage:

But for all that, we have not the slightest doubt that the only creator both of human beings and of trees is God, and we faithfully believe that the woman was made from the man independently of any sexual intercourse, even if the man’s rib may have been served up from the creator’s work by angels: in the same way we faithfully believe that a man was made from a woman independently of any sexual intercourse, when the seed of Abraham was disposed by angels in the hand of the mediator (Gal. 3:19). Both things are incredible to unbelievers; but why should believers find what happened in the case of Christ quite credible when taken in the literal, historical sense, and what is written about Eve only acceptable in its figurative signification?

(On Genesis: The Works of Saint Augustine (#13). Edited by John E. Rotelle. Translated by Edmund Hill. New City Press, New York. 2003. Book IX, 16.30, pp. 393-394.)

What about St. Thomas Aquinas?

Not content with trying to turn St. Augustine into an evolutionist, Mr. Shea attempts to do the same with St. Thomas Aquinas. He relies chiefly on the work of Catholic statistician and author Mike Flynn, who in turn cites an article by Intelligent Design critic Professor Michael Tkacz, Associate Professor of Philosophy at Gonzaga University. A few years ago, Professor Tkacz gave a talk to the Gonzaga Socratic Club, titled, Thomas Aquinas vs. The Intelligent Designers: What is God’s Finger Doing in My Pre-Biotic Soup?, to which I have published a five-part response (see here). Messrs. Shea and Flynn might want to read my response before citing Michael Tkacz in future. I think it is fair to say that I’ve annihilated every single one of Professor Tkacz’s arguments.

Without further ado, let’s have a look at Mr. Shea’s first quote from Aquinas:

“Species, also, that are new, if any such appear, existed beforehand in various active powers; so that animals, and perhaps even new species of animals, are produced by putrefaction by the power which the stars and elements received at the beginning.” — Summa Theologica, Part I, Q. 73 art. 1, reply 3.

What is Aquinas saying here? First of all, the new species of animals envisaged by Aquinas were exceptions to the rule: they were not mutants, but hybrids between existing species. In Aquinas’ own words: “Again, animals of new kinds arise occasionally from the connection of individuals belonging to different species, as the mule is the offspring of an ass and a mare; but even these existed previously in their causes, in the works of the six days.” In the case of hybridization, it is readily apparent why Aquinas would view these animals as pre-existing in their causes (i.e. the two parent species from which they arose).

What about Aquinas’ reference to living things being produced by the power of putrefaction? Living in the 13th century, Aquinas fully accepted the reality of spontaneous generation – a theory which we now know to be false. Nevertheless, Aquinas expressly taught that the “perfect animals,” by which he meant animals that are naturally “generated only from seed,” could not be formed in this way. In his Summa Theologica I, q. 71 art. 1, Reply to Objection 1 (The work of the fifth day) and Summa Contra Gentiles Book II, chapter 43, paragraph 6 (That the distinction of things is not caused by some secondary agent introducing forms into matter), Aquinas maintained that these animals could only be generated by two parents of the same kind breeding true to type, and that if these kinds of animals had a beginning at some point in time, then there was no natural way to generate the first animals belonging to these kinds, as they obviously wouldn’t have had any parents. In other words, Aquinas rejected the view that new types could arise via mutations, since he viewed species as having a fixed disposition to breed true to type. Aquinas concludes that these kinds of animals must have been originally produced through the immediate action of God alone: “at the first beginning of the world the active principle was the Word of God, which produced animals from material elements.”

In another passage, Aquinas explains why the actions of the elements (in particular, the heavenly bodies, which were commonly believed to regulate natural events on Earth) could not explain the origin of “perfect animals,” as the conditions required to bring these creatures into existence were far too complex for Nature to accomplish this feat:

Reply to Objection 2. Perfect animals, produced from seed, cannot be made by the sole power of a heavenly body, as Avicenna imagined… But the power of heavenly bodies suffices for the production of some imperfect animals from properly disposed matter: for it is clear that more conditions are required to produce a perfect than an imperfect thing.

Summa Theologica I, q. 91 art. 2, Reply to Objection 2 (Whether the human body was immediately produced by God).

Aquinas explained the need for the right kind of “seed” when generating perfect animals, in his Summa Contra Gentiles Book III, chapter 102, paragraph 5 (That God Alone Can Work Miracles):

… [P]erfect animals are not generated by celestial power alone, but require a definite kind of semen; however, for the generation of certain imperfect animals, celestial power by itself is enough, without semen.

Additionally, in his Summa Theologica I, q. 72 a. 1, reply to obj. 3, Aquinas explicitly asserted that perfect animals were generated by a parent of the same kind:

Reply to Objection 3. In other animals, and in plants, mention is made of genus and species, to denote the generation of like from like.

We can see now why St. Thomas would not have countenanced the idea of mutation giving rise to new species over the course of time. It would have contradicted his belief in essentialism: the notion that living things belong to fixed types and breed “true to type.” To say that an organism might evolve into another kind of organism over the course of time would be tantamount to saying that it had a natural disposition to change its nature. For an essentialist like Aquinas, this would have made no sense.

Thus given St. Thomas Aquinas’ understanding of biology in his day, if it could be shown that “perfect animals” had not always existed on Earth, it would follow that only God could have generated these animals in the beginning. They could not, in St. Thomas’ view, have arisen from other animals.

Aquinas clearly articulates this conclusion in his Summa Contra Gentiles Book II chapter 43, paragraph 6 (That The Distinction of Things Is Not Caused By Some Secondary Agent Introducing Diverse Forms Into Matter), where he argues that the action of the heavenly bodies – which were believed to cause changes occurring on Earth – would not have been sufficient to produce the forms of the first animals that are naturally “generated only from seed” (emphasis mine):

[6] … There are, however, many sensible forms which cannot be produced by the motion of the heaven except through the intermediate agency of certain determinate principles pre-supposed to their production; certain animals, for example, are generated only from seed. Therefore, the primary establishment of these forms, for producing which the motion of the heaven does not suffice without their pre-existence in the species, must of necessity proceed from the Creator alone.

I should add that Aquinas also taught that God alone could have produced the human body, and that no natural agent – not even an angel – could have done the job:

I answer that, The first formation of the human body could not be by the instrumentality of any created power, but was immediately from God.
(Summa Theologica, I, q. 91, art. 2

Aquinas also wrote about the production of Eve: “It was right for the woman to be made from a rib of man,” and he added: “God alone could produce either a man from the slime of the earth, or a woman from the rib of man.”

That sure doesn’t sound “pretty darned evolutionary” to me, Mr. Shea!

Finally, what about the following passage adduced by Mark Shea, in which Aquinas appears to endorse the idea of living things making themselves, perhaps via an evolutionary process?

“Nature is nothing but the plan of some art, namely a divine one, put into things themselves, by which those things move towards a concrete end: as if the man who builds up a ship could give to the pieces of wood that they could move by themselves to produce the form of the ship.”

– Thomas Aquinas, Commentary on Physics II.8, lecture 14, no. 268

The statement has nothing to do with living things “making themselves” – an idea which makes no sense, as bringing oneself into existence is an absurd notion – but rather, with the built-in tendency of all things to attain their own ends. For living organisms, those ends include goals such as nutrition, growth and reproduction, which living things are designed by God to be able to do without requiring any special assistance. These ends are natural to living things, whereas evolution involves a lineage of living organisms changing its nature over the course of time – for instance, some fish evolved into amphibians, some of whom evolved into amniotes (reptiles, in common parlance), from whom mammals are descended. Precisely because these are not natural changes, they cannot be programmed into the nature of things. Shea is misreading Aquinas.

As we saw above, Aquinas expressly taught that there were certain kinds of living things (“perfect animals”) which couldn’t have arisen as a result of natural processes. Moreover, Aquinas believed that it was perfectly proper for God to pull strings, in a way which Mr. Shea would doubtless deride as “magical.” On this point, one need look no further than his Quaestiones Disputatae de Potentia Dei (Disputed Questions on the Power of God) Q. VI article I where Aquinas asks: can God do anything in creatures that is beyond Nature, against Nature, or contrary to the course of Nature? What follows is a very brief excerpt:

I answer that, without any doubt God can work in creatures independently of created causes … and by working independently of created causes he can produce the same effects and in the same order as he produces them by their means: or even other effects and in a different order: so that he is able to do something contrary to the common and customary course of nature.

And in his Summa Contra Gentiles Book III, chapter 100, paragraphs 6 and 7, Aquinas argues that nothing God does to Nature can be contrary to Nature, simply because He is Nature’s Creator:

[6] Furthermore, all creatures are related to God as art products are to an artist, as is clear from the foregoing. Consequently, the whole of nature is like an artifact of the divine artistic mind. But it is not contrary to the essential character of an artist if he should work in a different way on his product, even after he has given it its first form. Neither, then, is it against nature if God does something to natural things in a different way from that to which the course of nature is accustomed.

[7] Hence, Augustine says: “God, the creator and founder of all natures, does nothing contrary to nature; for what the source of all measure, number and order in nature does, is natural to each thing“ [Contra Faustum, XXVI, 3].

God as Great Architect – an idea that dates back to Aquinas and beyond

In his speech, the Pope declared that “God is not a demiurge.” Some readers may be wondering, “What’s a demiurge?” As the Catholic Encyclopedia helpfully explains, the Greek word “demiurge” originally meant “craftsman,” but was later used by the philosopher Plato to denote the Architect of the Universe. However, the Demiurge was a craftsman, not a creator: he always worked with pre-existing raw materials, and then shaped them into various forms. The idea of creation ex nihilo was utterly foreign to the ancient Greeks. Thus what the Pope was saying was simply that God required no raw material in order to create the cosmos. In a similar vein, Pope Benedict XVI pointed out:

“Creation should be thought of, not according to the model of the craftsman who makes all sorts of objects, but rather in the manner that thought is creative. And at the same time it becomes evident that being-in-movement as a whole (and not just the beginning) is creation…”

That does not mean, however, that we should jettison the notion of God as the “Great Architect” of the cosmos. As I have pointed out (see here and here), Christians have referred to God as the Great Architect in the past, and St. Thomas Aquinas himself likened God to a craftsman, when he wrote:

For when we call the builder the principle of the house, in the idea of such a principle is included that of his art; and it would be included in the idea of the first principle were the builder the first principle of the house. God, Who is the first principle of all things, may be compared to things created as the architect is to things designed.
Summa Theologica, Vol. I, q. 27, article 1, reply to objection 3.

God as Architect/Builder/Geometer/Craftsman. Image from the Frontispiece of Bible Moralisee (Codex Vindobonensis 2554), mid-13th century, France. Now kept in the Osterreichische Nationalbibliothek. Science, and particularly geometry and astronomy/astrology, was linked directly to the divine for most medieval scholars. The compass in this 13th century manuscript is a symbol of God’s act of Creation.

The picture above, which is taken from a French medieval Bible, circa 1250 A.D., shows that God was even depicted as using compasses in the Creation of the world, in the thirteenth century. In medieval thought, geometry was linked directly to the divine. The actual term “Great Architect” goes back at least to John Calvin, who in his Institutes of the Christian Religion (1536), repeatedly calls the Christian God “the Architect of the Universe”, also referring to his works as “Architecture of the Universe”, and in his commentary on Psalm 19 referring to the Christian God as the “Great Architect” or “Architect of the Universe”. I should also add that St. Augustine, St. Thomas Aquinas and many other Christian writers were fond of quoting Wisdom 11:21, which declares that God has “ordered all things in measure, and number, and weight.”

At the same time, it needs to be acknowledged that all metaphors have their limitations; and the “architect” metaphor for God is no exception. The metaphor of creation of God’s thought rather than His handiwork is much more apt, because an architect requires raw materials, whereas a thinker requires none.

The Pope’s remarks on the autonomy of nature and on things developing according to their own internal laws

In the course of his speech, the Pope made reference to the autonomy given by God to the beings in Nature:

“He created beings and allowed them to develop according to the internal laws that he gave to each one, so that they were able to develop and to arrive and their fullness of being. He gave autonomy to the beings of the universe at the same time at which he assured them of his continuous presence, giving being to every reality…

“The Big Bang, which nowadays is posited as the origin of the world, does not contradict the divine act of creating, but rather requires it. The evolution of nature does not contrast with the notion of creation, as evolution presupposes the creation of beings that evolve.”

“With regard to man, however, there is a change and something new.

“When, on the sixth day of the account in Genesis, man is created, God gives human beings a different sort of autonomy from that of nature, which is freedom… No matter how limited, man’s activity partakes of the power of God and is able to build a world fit for his dual life of body and spirit, to build a humane world for all human beings.”

What did the Pope mean by the word “autonomy”, and what did he mean by “internal laws”? Dr. Ann Gauger’s comments in her recent article on the Pope’s speech are very insightful:

Notice, Pope Francis never states that all changes are the result of evolution. He simply says that God created life in such a way that it can evolve, or change over time to reach its full potential. What its full potential means is not clear, and could cover quite a few different interpretations, everything from guided evolution that produces all the panoply of present life, to special creation of each species, genus, or family that then develops to its full potential, within the bounds of its type…

What can we take from this? Evolution occurs, but the Pope doesn’t specify its extent or mechanism. He does place clear limits on the idea that evolution accounts for everything we see. He says firmly that God is the Creator of all things, including the universe at the time of the Big Bang, and all life as we know it. He truly creates, not as a demiurge or magician that manipulates existing matter, but rather as the Author and Creator of all things, including the very matter of the universe. This is nothing new, and is not a change in direction from previous popes, who have allowed discussion of evolution, with the clear understanding that our creation is from God, we are all descended from two first parents, and that we each receive our souls from God (Humani Generis, 1950, Pope Pius XII).

Words of wisdom from Dr. Gauger

Summing up the controversy over the Pope’s remarks on evolution, Dr. Gauger recalled a similar pronouncement by Pope John Paul II back in 1996, which received much attention in the media:

As I recall there was the same flurry of excitement from the press surrounding Pope St. John Paul II’s statement to the same Pontifical Academy, where he spoke of the theory of evolution as more than a hypothesis, but one that still required further careful study. As we all should know, a theory is not proven fact, and it is not a law either. It is a working model for how things happen, but it is always open to further evidence that might disprove or modify it. In particular, he urged that scientists and theologians work together to arrive at the truth, in light of both divine revelation and human reason. So far it really hasn’t happened, but we can hope.

Wise words indeed. And on that fitting note, I will close. What do readers think?

The point that Pope Francis was making, writes Dr. Gauger, was simply that God, unlike a magician, can create things out of nothing: “He truly creates, not as a demiurge [a super-intelligent craftsman or architect - VJT] or magician that manipulates existing matter, but rather as the Author and Creator of all things, including the very matter of the universe. In other words, the Pope believes that God is not less magical but more magical than any magician.
This is where I think the classical theists get it wrong. I think there is a demiurge, and I think the person of Jesus Christ is that demiurge. I think Philo of Alexandria had the best take of the subject (even though he was pre-Christian, his ideas are certainly evident in the Christian writers.) All very interesting stuff. But what do know. I don't want to fight about it. Vishnu
Yet another superb article, VJT. I was impressed with Anne Gauger's insights. Also, it's interesting how people ignore Augustine's views on creation and the flood in favor of Darwin. Silver Asiatic
What do readers think?
I think you should spread posts like this out over several shorter postings, each making as best it can a single point. Perhaps begin with an Abstract, laying out the point of the series of articles you will post and the argument(s) you intend to make. Then make them in individual shorter posts. Then perhaps follow up with a Summary and Conclusions post. For example the entire discussion of the seed metaphor. Four to five posts just for that one alone. Each flaw in the argument should have it's own OP. That's what I think. Mung
"And at the same time it becomes evident that being-in-movement as a whole (and not just the beginning) is creation…” - Pope Emeritus Benedict. And Pope Benedict made a crucial point which I don't believe I've ever seen anyone touch upon, other than under the simple rubric of 'life'. I mean by that, what I interpret Benedict to mean by 'being-in-movement', namely, existence within the fourth dimension of time - necessary, of course, for any development/change/(in the event, limited) evolution. The act of creation merely of what already exists at a point in time must be endlessly, creatively sustained over time. If God stopped thinking about the world, it would simultaneously cease to exist. Axel
Thank you, VJT, for laying it out so exhaustively for the scientists and philosophers, and providing summaries for laymen such as me. 'Catholics accept the creation of the world ex nihilo at the beginning of time by God,...' In other words..... 'magicking' its creation from nothing (with apologies to Richard Dawkins and his foaming nothing). That ambiguity about the term, 'magic' absolutely needed to be clarified; effectively quashed. Seldom will prelates express themselves so loosely as to risk causing confusion, whether to the scholars or the flock at large. It's plum wrong for the Church to keep apologising for being supernatural and so-oriented, accordingly, in its world-view. I thought that had died the death in more recent times, but seemingly not. A significant majority of the public are not scandalisd by the supernatural; only liberal, scholarly religious and atheists - who are out of touch with modern science anyway. Courting their approval is a lost cause. If they come to their senses, it won't be by 'sweet-talking' them, for sure. But, I think as Denyse intimated yesterday, they're still terrified of the Church again suffering the kind of defamation it did over the Galileo brouhaha. Axel

Leave a Reply