Evolution on form

I was reminded to return to the subject of “universals” by a comment on an old post by a new subscriber, Mark Chenoweth. It seems worth raising again, given the new degree of rapprochement between some TEs, IDists and OECs, characterised by the forthcoming Dabar Conference in Illinois. And also by the fact that I recently cut my hand by falling out of our field into the lane whilst chasing a squirrel… don’t ask.

I want here to consider formal causation (and hence the universals of “forms”) in relation to the processes of evolution, by quoting a much-discussed piece on BioLogos by the Thomist Francis Beckwith from 2010. This was mainly written to discredit Intelligent Design, and so we may suppose that BioLogos intended it as support for Evolutionary Creation in its own mould. Here and elsewhere Beckwith has been criticised for implying that Aquinas teaches that God does not, or even cannot, intervene in nature, when Aquinas clearly implies that he can. But I’m after a different aspect here. Beckwith writes:

Consider now an organ system of a living organism, a human being’s lungs. The organic material of which that system consists is its material cause. Its efficient cause is the biological parents of the human being in which the lungs reside. Its formal cause is the nature of the being in which the lungs function, for they are fully integrated parts that work in concert with the body’s other parts to help sustain the whole being for its own flourishing (which depends on a “pattern,” the sort of being it is). And the lungs’ final cause is respiration. Their end is to exchange oxygen for the sake of the person who owns them.

For St. Thomas (again, following Aristotle), the formal and final causes of artifacts, like desks, computers, and iPods are imposed from outside the collection of parts by an intelligent agent. On the other hand, the formal and final causes of natural objects are intrinsic to those objects.

This, of course, is about the basic four Aristotelian causes, which we’ve often discussed. Beckwith’s use of this thought is to assert that by treating living things as artifacts, whose parts are adjusted from outside by God, IDists are in bed with the atheist materialists, who also treat living things as mere machines.

Now I won’t comment on whether the critique of ID is fair, but instead will focus on that fundamental Aristotelian-Thomist idea of the substantial form of living things, that they are “a whole being” functioning “for its own flourishing,” whose “pattern” is this intrinsic form. With that in mind, let me return to my stupidly injured hand as a small, but perfectly formed, example.

As I fell from a height, down a steep bank and on to my outstretched hand, a piece of Cretaceous Devon chert fulfilled its age-long destiny by ripping my palm; not a big wound, but a ragged one. When I removed the plaster a day or two later, I noticed the slight mismatch in my palm print where the skin edges were opposed slightly wrongly. And yet, a couple of weeks on, I note that my body was so committed to maintaining its form, and not just repairing the tear, that the palm-print is now perfectly aligned again. No doubt there’s a physiological mechanism to explain it, but the issue is that in such an insignificant detail, my body knows itself as it ought to be: it knows “the sort of being it is.”

There are limits to the capabilities of repair, of course, just as there are more fundamental examples of formal causation, such as homeostasis, embryological development and the very existence of discrete species, genera and other natural taxa. Goethe developed a whole biological approach based on close holistic study of an organism’s form, to discern in a gestalt way “the sort of being it is.” Indeed, the very word “organism” has its roots in the concept of life-forms (!) as holistic organizations; as forms rather than artifacts.

One reason that St Thomas believed in the special creation of man, apart from man’s “hybrid” physico-spiritual soul, was that the form of a creature defines its whole potentia: it can be an egg, a tadpole or a frog (say), but not a lizard. The process of generation cannot change the formal cause of a holistic “substantial form”, and so the original forms (said Aquinas) must have been an act of divine creation.

Now, the reality of forms seems to grow the more we know of organisms, not only in the examples I’ve already given, but in the increasing realisation that everything that happens in organisms depends on everything else. Nothing is “imposed from outside” (at least from within nature), but all function is intrinsic, integrated and interdependent. DNA control networks are a nightmarishly complex case in point.

The issue is not, as is sometimes assumed, that living things are just incredibly complicated interactions of machine parts, but that the machine analogy is (as Aristotle, Aquinas and Beckwith writing for Biologos realised) simply inappropriate above the level of the trivial. Yes, legs can be modelled as levers and even replaced with prostheses, but a real leg is an integral part of a whole creature. Such a viewpoint seems eminently true, even in our daily experience as substantial beings – I know how to fetch a cup of coffee, but may not even be aware I have a soleus muscle, let alone how to contract it to contribute to the task.

But what Beckwith, and BioLogos, fail to mention in embracing Aquinas and formal causation, is that our current mainstream theories of evolution are entirely blind to formal causation, and indeed are assumed to operate piecemeal on tiny parts of the machine, down to molecular level, so that the change into a new form is merely – and that “merely” seems not to admit of any qualification – the sum of the adaptive or neutral changes that have been made.

We see this classically in the comparison of the human and chimp genomes, acting as proxies for the human and chimp “beings.” A piecemeal and perhaps arbitrary chromosome fusion is shared and demonstrates common ancestry. A mutated gene is found that might begin to explain why we have a bigger brain. The genetics of lactose tolerance is a clue to “how many changes” are necessary to turn an ape into a man.

But all this is nothing but machine-talk. You have a Ford Chimpanzee, and by the vagaries of random mutations, or the external pressures of natural selection, whether or not God’s providence is behind them, it emerges from a few million years in the garage as a souped up Human Hotrod, chrome exhausts gleaming and upgraded brain swelling out of the hood. Formal causation forms no part of the science, and is not even considered to exist.

Nothing in that scenario gives any insight into the idea of intrinsic form – even if God devised the laws of nature, or tweaked the odd mutation, it does not alter the fact that evolution along standard lines is an external alteration of parts, and not an intrinsic alteration of “the sort of being it is.” Beckwith’s accusation against ID, then, is even more an accusation against most understandings of Evolutionary Creation accepting “standard science.”

It seems to me that there are very limited alternatives in this situation, for ECs.

The easiest is to dismiss formal causation as Aristotelian bunk, join the reductionists in seeing beings as mere machines – but afterwards to be careful to stop criticizing IDists for doing the same, if in fact they do. One would have to abandon Aristotelian final causation too, in that case – making the “Evolutionary Creation” label more or less devoid of both purpose and substance.

The second alternative is to view evolution, like a few of the anti-Darwinians in Third Way and so on (including Sy Garte’s idea of intrinsic intelligent design), as primarily an outworking of formal potentialities within organisms. This would have the radical effect of making the external accidents of natural selection, mutation and so on mere occasions for change from within (or just accidents after the event), the core theory therefore being Lamarckian. I’m not sure how population genetics would interact with a Lamarckian system – I suspect the first would become largely irrelevant above the level of microevolution. Chasing squirrels might lead to minor changes in my anatomy, but intrinsic factors still govern my palm-prints. This alternative, however, within the framework of universal common descent, grants an almost limitless potentiality of form to organisms. It would probably warrant the name “universal life-force,” given its relentless drive from LUCA, through every species that has ever existed towards what is seen today.

The third alternative is some kind of progressive creation: that, in agreement with Aquinas but not, apparently, with his modern disciple Beckwith, true change of form can only come by the direct creative act of God. This would not, like natural evolution, be an externally-imposed change, because creation initiates “becoming” rather than “changes.” It is only what is new, and not what is tinkered with, that makes a new kind of being “from within.”


Now here’s a very current application of this, arising from a conversation I had on BioLogos after drafting this piece only yesterday. A moderator there challenged me on the necessity for the Genealogical Adam hypothesis on the grounds that it implies a genetic origin for human sin, suggesting salvation by gene therapy, etc. This, of course, is an entire misunderstanding of the GA hypothesis (which is a shame when it was first proposed at BioLogos and has been carefully explained by Josh Swamidass there). But after my reply, he went on to suggest that genealogy is really of little significance to anything important, let alone original sin:

“Well, my point was try to nail down really what it is about genealogy that is significant (as [I] do not think it is significant in and of itself, but the term is meaningful as describing the common human condition, not any metaphysical connection to Adam.”

Another moderator took on the challenge (partly with me, and later with GD), in effect consigning the importance of genealogy in Scripture and doctrine to the same category as geocentrism – as accommodations to primitive thought no longer relevant, because We Have Science (and ANE studies). Consider how much genealogy forms the core of the Biblical narrative, from Adam’s genealogy in Genesis to Christ “the root and offspring of David” in Rev 22, and how much is lost if it is ignored.

That view is a general assumption now: genealogy is about nothing real, but just accidents of birth.  And yet genealogy was never considered anything but self-evidently crucial by the Bible writers and by two millennia of earlier theologians. Why do we see things so differently, even when we put the irrelevance of genetics to Adam to one side?

Consider this possibility, though: Aristotelian forms (as I have argued above) are actually a true part of reality, and in fact the central fact of what makes me, me, you, you, and us, us. And yet we have excluded formal causation not only from our science, but from our whole modern way of thinking.

If forms do exist, then they govern what we are far more than any combination of genes. Josh Swamidass speculated on his blog recently whether early Homo sapiens would be able to interbreed with us, because virtually all our genes will have mutated over 150,000 years. Entirely different genes, yet the same species – how can that possibly work? Form, my dear boy, form.

And if, in some way, what differentiates fallen Adam from anyone who may have existed before were some new substantial form, or nature, conferred in the garden (and we are so ignorant of what form is that it’s hard to make sense even of that under current patterns of thought); and if original sin were, as the ancients taught, a fundamental corruption of that form; then the way in which that form is transmitted to the human race will be by natural generation, and by nothing else. Like royalty or family estates, form is entirely heritable, but non-genetic.

All this would seem to follow from differentiating organisms from mere machines, as (Beckwith tells us) Evolutionary Creation is only too eager to do, so as not to be tarred by the Intelligent Design brush. But I have my doubts, if only from recent exchanges at BioLogos, that many of its adherents will, in practice, want to go there. Maybe that’s bad form.

Jon Garvey

About Jon Garvey

Training in medicine (which was my career), social psychology and theology. Interests in most things, but especially the science-faith interface. The rest of my time, though, is spent writing, playing and recording music.
This entry was posted in Creation, Genealogical Adam, Philosophy, Science, Theology. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Evolution on form

  1. Henry Tudor says:

    On the other Blog of our good friend, Bert Ehrman of the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill is Bart Ehrman. I have taken some of his Religion classes via The Great Course, and I have spoken to him personally. It is truly a pity that he has turned from Jesus. I pray he will come back before he leaves this world.

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