Sunday, December 8, 2013

Natural Law, Natural Goodness, and Evolution

A fun fact(?) that some people like to point out is that that Thomas Aquinas envisioned the concept of "evolution" long ago. From the Summa Theologica:
Objection 3: Further, nothing is said to be complete to which many things are added, unless they are merely superfluous, for a thing is called perfect to which nothing is wanting that it ought to possess. But many things were made after the seventh day, as the production of many individual beings, and even of certain new species that are frequently appearing, especially in the case of animals generated from putrefaction. Also, God creates daily new souls. Again, the work of the Incarnation was a new work, of which it is said (Jer. 31:22): "The Lord hath created a new thing upon the earth." Miracles also are new works, of which it is said (Eccles. 36:6): "Renew thy signs, and work new miracles." Moreover, all things will be made new when the Saints are glorified, according to Apoc. 21:5: "And He that sat on the throne said: Behold I make all things new." Therefore the completion of the Divine works ought not to be attributed to the seventh day.
Reply to Objection 3: Nothing entirely new was afterwards made by God, but all things subsequently made had in a sense been made before in the work of the six days. Some things, indeed, had a previous experience materially, as the rib from the side of Adam out of which God formed Eve; whilst others existed not only in matter but also in their causes, as those individual creatures that are now generated existed in the first of their kind. 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. 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. Some also existed beforehand by way of similitude, as the souls now created. And the work of the Incarnation itself was thus foreshadowed, for as we read (Phil. 2:7), The Son of God "was made in the likeness of men." And again, the glory that is spiritual was anticipated in the angels by way of similitude; and that of the body in the heaven, especially the empyrean. Hence it is written (Eccles. 1:10), "Nothing under the sun is new, for it hath already gone before, in the ages that were before us." (Emphasis mine).
Now, this post isn't really about what Thomas meant here (maybe it wasn't as broad as what modern evolutionary theory claims), and there are a lot of other people way more qualified to write on such topics, but I point this out for one pretty important reason: Thomas, and the Church following him, still maintained their position on natural law even though Thomas imagined such things as new species arising out of old. (I'd also like to add that evolution may have been less controversial had scientists used such poetic language as " the power which the stars and elements received at the beginning." Then again, probably not.) Some might say, "yeah, so what if they maintained their position on natural law?" And I think they might say so either out of wisdom or ignorance. For I think to a layman, the broad claims of evolutionary theory do have significant implications for the concept of natural law. At least if one is not strict in his thinking about the issue. As, if natural law bases its entire moral theory on natures, and evolution shows that natures are simply accidents, or, moreover, that natures don't exist at all, isn't natural law done for?

I think that evolution is controversial because of the philosophical assumptions going into the whole debate. Namely, I think that in a world where final cause is all but eliminated, evolution, as efficient cause, more fully destroys meaning in life. That is, if a thing is only how it came to be, then if things did not come from or were not designed by God, then they are meaningless. Like pointless billiard balls bouncing around, as meaningful as mixing up salt and water. This, I think, is why religious people, especially Protestants, so strongly battle against it. (Of course, there's the issue of the divine authority of the Bible as the literal word of God stuff, but in a certain way I think that often comes after the fear.) This has the unfortunate effect, as any incorrect philosophy does, of turning normal people who would genuinely be open to the notion of God to even worse falsehoods like reductionism and atheism.

But if, when looking at a thing, especially a living thing, you recognize its final causes, you can more fully see what it is, more clearly see its nature, see what it's really for. This is why, I would guess, Thomas didn't get so worked up at the idea of evolution or new species arising out of old. Because "species" had a meaning outside of efficient cause. Of course the issue is more complex than this. Did man evolve? How much did he evolve? From what? Was he created at all? All those things. I'm not interested in those for the sake of this post, though, because the concept of natural law and the consequences of natural law don't rely on answers to those questions.

So to that. In doing some research for this post, I came across this (seemingly) young fellow, Micah Lott, a professor at Boston College. He did his dissertation, of which I am about halfway through (yes, I have a social life, thank you very much), on neo-Aristotelianism. In it, he defends against various modern criticisms of Aristotelianism, virtue ethics and, by implication, natural law. He also addresses some criticisms I had only roughly formulated in my own head or have never even come across, but which are worth addressing. Anyway, I mention this because I want to cite him early in case it looks like I am coming up with all of this on my own. And also, I wanted to just to point him out to interested readers. I do not know if he would subscribe to the conclusions I draw here, that homosexual activity is immoral as a consequence of human nature, and I don't want to put those words in his mouth. I just wanted to note him as I go forward.

Anyway, it is common when having arguments about natural law for the other person to say that natural law conclusions are based on outdated concepts, that evolution has proven them wrong. When you argue that an eye is aimed at seeing, or that it is for seeing, you're accused of basically injecting religion into the debate. If a thing just accidentally came to be because of random mutations, how could it be for anything? As "for," so it goes, brings in some sort of notion of intention beyond the object in question. Further, one is often accused of acting contrary to evolution. Since evolution is about change, to say that a penis is "for" a vagina is to limit, somehow, what penises might become. Since they might be used for anything one day down the evolutionary path, they really can't be for anything in any real sense of the word. (Incidentally, I find this stuff pretty annoying. Any time a scientist or a biologist talks, he talks about why a particular species might have some trait. And he rarely says, to the question, "why do cows have eyes on the side of their heads?" just that they evolved that way. This wouldn't be a full answer to the question. They say, without any hesitation, that eyes on the sides of their heads "help them to see predators." But I'll take their arguments at face value despite this obvious inconsistency.)

Philippa Foot (to which Lott dedicates his dissertation, something that made me smile) argues in her work that to understand morality, one must understand "natural goodness." That is, the goodness that exists in the thing based on what it is. This is incredibly similar, if not identical, to natural law arguments. Like Thomas, though, she has no problem reaching these conclusions despite being well aware of the concept of evolution. She was not ancient (she just died in 2010), she's heard the evolution debate, she wasn't some old fuddy duddy who hadn't been enlightened by science yet. So how does she get around this supposed problem? She says, and I think quite rightly, that she and scientists are making two different evaluations about two entirely different things. She argues that when considering what is good for something, one must first understand what it is as a living thing, not how it came to be. She argues that one must establish "Aristotelian categoricals" in determining what the living thing in question actually is. Aristotelian categoricals are statements that describe traits in a particular life form. So, one could be "dogs have four legs to run" or "elephants have tusks to defend." From these categoricals, we can derive norms. And from these norms, we can evaluate goodness and badness.

What she argues, effectively, is that a "species" is merely a description of how a particular life-form lives. How a living thing survives and reproduces, what a particular trait it has has to do with surviving and reproduction, defines what it is. (I make a similar claim here.) How it came to be is irrelevant to the analysis, as how it got there doesn't show us how it survives or lives. Instead, what is important is what a species is at "a given historical time," what role a feature plays in the life cycle of a particular living thing. As Foot notes, quoting Michael Thompson, "Natural-teleological judgments...articulate the relations of dependence among the various elements and aspects and phases of a given kind of life."  As she very simply goes on, "What is crucial to all teleological propositions is an expectation of an answer to the question 'What part does it play in the life cycle of things of the Species S?' In other words, 'What is its function?' or 'What good does it do?

How it came to be, its efficient cause, what evolution shows us, may shine some light on what it is in some ways, but only insofar as it helps us to discover its various final causes. Whether God or evolution caused lions to have hearts that pump blood does not matter in determining that its pumping blood is how it survives as a living thing. And when we say things like, "this is a lion's heart" as compared to "this is a raccoon's heart," we are recognizing this reality. We see that the way in which a lion's heart is is aimed at the lion's survival or flourishing as a living thing, and we can properly identify defects from that recognition. Quoting Thompson again, "And so...even if the Divine mind were to bring a certain life-form into being 'with a view to' securing an abundance of pink fur along the shores of the Monongahela, this would have no effect on the natural-teleological description of that form of life." Similarly, if an animal randomly evolved to have a pink spot on the bottom of its tongue that served no function in how it lived, such a spot would mean nothing in terms of its natural goodness.

Put simply, evolutionary biology is analyzing a completely different thing. A "function" of a heart with respect to the lion in question is completely different than the "function" of a heart with respect to how lions-and-everything-they-might-evolve-into. The heart in a particular lion has the function of helping it to survive, while it may or may not (as is as often the case) have a function of helping its great, great, great, great great, great, great grandchildren evolve into Slions. Lions may still very well die out, even if lions are not commonly defective. As Foot argues, "It is imperative that the word 'function' as used here is not confused with its use in evolutionary biology, where, as Simon Blackburn has put it in the Oxford Dictionary of Philosophy, 'the function of a feature of an organism is frequently defined as that role it plays which has been responsible for its genetic success and evolution.' Features that are functional in this sense are what Dawkins, for instance, calls 'adaptations,' when he defines an adaptation both historically and as 'approximately an attribute of an organism that is "good for something." In such contexts it is supposed to make sense to speak of the good of a species, as if a species were itself a gradually developing, one-off organism, whose life might stretch for millions of years. Perhaps the extinction of a species is imagined as a kind of death, and therefore as if it were an evil, which that what makes for its continuance thought of as 'for its good!' It is easy to confuse these technical uses of words such as 'function' and 'good' with their everyday uses, but the meanings are distinct. To say that some thing is an adaptation is to place it in the history of the species. To say that it it has a function is to say that it has a certain place in the life of the individuals that belong to that species at a certain time."

As such, it further makes no difference if there is a better way to succeed at surviving or reproducing. That is, maybe peacocks would still reproduce just fine without their long, beautiful tails that would get in the way of their ability to flee. All that's at issue is what part a particular trait plays in the life of a living thing, and a peacock's tail certainly plays a role in a peacock's life as a peacock. A peacock who had a dull tail (or no tail at all) would be defective, even if it helped him to survive better. Further, a peacock is not "defective" because it can't survive as well as a roach. It may be losing the evolution race to the roach, but it is absolutely winning the peacock race, and the roach winning its own roach race. Honestly, to even describe evolution as some sort of "race" or as its own force is to inaccurately portray it. Evolution is merely a description of how a particular species found its way into existence. One species cannot do it better or worse than any other species. 

An interesting problem with hardcore evolutionists (at least those who are reductionists) is that they can't really use the term "species" in the way in which it's used in evolution arguments, as "species" implies some sort of essentialism. That is, a species is something that exhibits or has some sort of traits that define what it is. If the evolutionist were really being honest, he would say that there are no such things as species, but that there are merely different cells bouncing around. A "horse" may be something we call this pattern of, but one "horse" isn't any more "horse" than anything else. I mention this because the claim that a new "species" arising is really an essentialist claim, which is no doubt why someone like Thomas would make it. It's a claim that a new form exists, a new thing which has some sort of characteristics that defines what it is.

This is an important topic, I think, and surely a lot more can be said about it. But at the same time, it sort of isn't important. That is, the underlying philosophical principles of causality are really are what at the source of conflict here. With such an obsession with efficient cause, it's impossible to have discussions like this. "It doesn't matter how it came to be, it matters what it is" is modern heresy. Regardless, I don't think arguments about evolution make any difference to the determination that human beings' sexual organs are "for" reproduction, and that to use them accordingly would be a "good" use of them, a use aligned with their nature.


  1. Thanks for the post Joe. I’ve had trouble articulating essentialism in relation to evolution in arguments in the past so this helps.

  2. Good post, Joe. I'd also recommend Real Essentialism by David Oderberg, for anyone wanting to read more about how forms and evolution interact.

  3. Hey Joe, I was thinking of making a blog to make a post on gay marriage/abortion and other topics. I wanted to ask you some questions through email. I'm not really sure how to contact you.

    If you're interested send me an email to joseph.augustinew at gmail dot com. I know you're really busy. Hope you're doing well.