Darwin, Thomists, and Secondary Causality

By Maurer, Armand | The Review of Metaphysics, March 2004 | Go to article overview

Darwin, Thomists, and Secondary Causality


Maurer, Armand, The Review of Metaphysics


AT FIRST SIGHT IT WOULD SEEM INCONGRUOUS, even an oxymoron, to juxtapose the names of Charles Darwin and Thomas Aquinas. Darwin was a biologist of the nineteenth century whose theory of evolution demanded the mutability of natural species. Thomas Aquinas, the father of Thomism, was a theologian and philosopher of the thirteenth century who held that forms in themselves and the species they constitute are immutable. (1) Six centuries separated Darwin and Aquinas, centuries that witnessed the decline of Thomism and scholasticism in general, with Descartes's rejection of substantial forms (except in humans) and the advent of English empiricism and the positivism of Auguste Comte. Living in an antischolastic environment and convinced of the mutability of species, it would seem unlikely that Darwin would have any connection with Aquinas.

This paper aims to show that there is a connection, though indirect, between Darwin and Thomists through Darwin's use of the notion of secondary causes in his early essays and The Origin of Species. The notion of secondary causes has a long history in medieval philosophy, and it plays an important role in Thomistic philosophy, in particular appealing to the notion of secondary causality and to the principle that it is better for God the creator to do by means of secondary causes what he can do by himself. Darwin himself accepts this principle when he contends that it is better that the creator produce species by secondary causes rather than by special creation. This essay examines Darwin's and the Thomists' understandings of the notion of secondary causes and their use of the principle, and it suggests that it was mainly through the Spanish Thomist Francisco Suarez that the notion of secondary causes and the allied principle were brought to the attention of Darwin and his circle of naturalists. At the same time the paper reveals an important side of Darwinism that is often neglected in popular accounts. The essay points out Darwin's interest in philosophy, even in metaphysics, and their influence on his scientific methodology and the theory of evolution.

I

Darwin. Throughout The Origin of Species Charles Darwin marshals evidence from biology, geology, and other sciences in support of his theory of evolution as "descent with modification," according to the law of natural selection. (2) In concluding his book, he acknowledges that some of the most eminent authors disagree with him on the origin of species and are "fully satisfied with the view that each species has been independently created." (3) No doubt Darwin had in mind contemporary naturalists like Richard Owen, Adam Sedgwick, William Whewell, Sir Charles Lyell, and Sir John Herschel. (4) Since these Christians and others at the time were not convinced by his scientific evidence and regarded evolution as incompatible with their religious beliefs, Darwin tried to persuade them to accept the evolution of species rather than their independent creation by appealing to the belief in a creator and the production of things by means of secondary causes:

   To my mind it accords better with what we know of the laws impressed
   on matter by the Creator, that the production and extinction of the
   past and present inhabitants of the world should have been due to
   secondary causes, like those determining the birth and death of the
   individual. When I view all beings not as special creations, but as
   the lineal descendants of some few beings which lived long before
   the first bed of the Cambrian system was deposited, they seem to me
   to become ennobled. (5)

Darwin here contends that no special intervention of the creator is necessary to explain an individual's birth and death; these are accounted for by secondary causes according to the laws of nature. So too, in accordance with these laws (which include the laws of the struggle for life and natural selection), (6) the production and extinction of all individuals, past and present, can be more adequately explained by secondary causes than by special creation. …

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