Popular Science Monthly/Volume 52/April 1898/Evolution and Teleology

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By the Rev. Dr. J. A. ZAHM, C. S. C.


IN the present paper it is not my purpose to discuss the evidence in favor of evolution or the arguments which may be urged against it. This has been done quite thoroughly in our previous meetings at Paris and Brussels. I shall assume evolution as proved, or rather, that it is the only working theory which is competent to meet the demands of modern science. As against the alternative theory of creationism the evidence, I think, all must admit, is overwhelmingly in favor of evolution. I am quite willing to agree with our retiring president, M. le Marquis de Nadaillac, that as yet the theory is not proved by any demonstrative evidence, for the simple reason that, in the very nature of the case, anything approaching an absolute demonstration, at least in our present state of knowledge, is impossible. But, notwithstanding this, even the most skeptical must concede that evolution is a probable theory, and this is all that need here be claimed.

I freely grant that, a priori, creationism is quite possible, but is it probable? Science answers "No." As to affording any positive evidence in behalf of the special creation of species, it is absolutely mute, and the negative evidence is of such a character that there are few, if any, serious men of science who are willing to consider it as having any weight whatever. A priori, creationism is possible; a posteriori, it is so highly improbable as to be practically ruled out of court. Indeed, those who still cling to the theory rely either on negative evidence, which in such questions is never conclusive or satisfactory, or appeal for support of their view to the account of creation given in the book of Genesis. They assume that the Genesiac narrative is to be interpreted literally, whereas all contemporary biblical scholars of note declare that it is to be understood not literally but allegorically. Nor is there anything new in thus envisaging the scriptural record, for it was, as is well known, the view accepted by some of the most illustrious of the Greek and Latin Fathers. The Alexandrine school was almost a unit in favor of allegorism as against literalism.[2] All are familiar with the contention of the late Bishop Clifford, who regarded the first thirty-four verses of Genesis as a ritual hymn, and as nothing more than a prelude to what follows. Even some of the most conservative of our modern commentators of Scripture freely admit that the history of creation, as unfolded in Genesis, may be understood in an allegorical as well as in a literal sense. From this is manifest how weak is the argument in favor of creationism which is based solely on the Genesiac narrative.

The argument founded on the doctrine of the fathers is of no more weight than that based on Scripture, while that which may be adduced from the teachings of modern biblical research is practically nil. Creationism, then, I repeat, is possible, but there is nothing in a reasonable interpretation of Genesis which makes it at all probable, while all the conclusions of contemporary science render it not only in the highest degree improbable, but also exhibit it as completely discredited and as unworthy of the slightest consideration as a working hypothesis to guide the investigator in the study of Nature and Nature's laws.

But this en passant. My theme is not evolution, but rather the bearing of evolution on teleology, or the doctrine of the final causes of things. Paley, Chalmers, and the authors of the Bridgewater Treatises laid special stress on the argument from design, and, indeed, the chief object they had in view in writing their books, which were classics in their day, was to exhibit the purposiveness of Nature, to prove that from the evidence of design, which is everywhere manifest in the visible universe, we must necessarily infer the existence of a designer. And so conclusive was the argument, as then framed, that even the most skeptical and those most opposed to revealed truth were forced to admit that the facts of Nature bear witness to the existence and controlling influence of mind in the universe. Voltaire declared, "Rien n'ébranle en moi cet axiome, tout ouvrage dé montre un ouvrier"; and Hume, in words no less positive, affirmed that "the whole frame of Nature bespeaks an intelligent maker."

With the appearance, however, of Charles Darwin's epoch-making Origin of Species it was at once recognized on all hands that the design argument had to be materially modified if it were any longer to have the slightest validity. As for the exponents of the mechanical school of philosophy, especially those who rejoice in the newfangled name of Monists, they loudly and triumphantly proclaimed that it was all over with teleology, and that it could, without further ado, be relegated to the limbo of exploded theory and fanciful hypothesis. Büchner asserted that "modern investigation and natural philosophy have shaken themselves tolerably free from these empty and superficial conceptions of design, and leave such childish views to those who are incapable of liberating themselves from such anthropomorphic ideas, which, unfortunately, still obtain in school and Church to the detriment of truth and science."[3] And Haeckel, with his usual dogmatism, writes, I maintain with regard to the much-talked-of purpose in Nature, that it really has no existence except for those persons who observe phenomena in plants and animals in the most superficial manner."[4]

"The more profound and philosophic men of science did not, however, share the notions of Haeckel and Büchner. They admitted, it is true, that the teleology of Paley and of the authors of the Bridgewater Treatises was no longer tenable, but they did not, therefore, conclude that teleology was completely annihilated. Far from it. Teleology, they said, must be modified so as to meet the demands of modern science and research, and, as so modified, it is stronger, nobler, and more comprehensive than ever before. So thought among others Huxley and Gray, and so think also Wallace, Mivart, and the Duke of Argyll.

The most remarkable service to the philosophy of biology rendered by Mr. Darwin," writes Huxley in his Darwiniana, "is the reconciliation of teleology and morphology, and the explanation of the facts of both which his views offer. . . . It is necessary to remember that there is a wider teleology which is not touched by the doctrine of evolution, but is actually based upon the fundamental principle of evolution."[5]

America's great naturalist, Prof. Asa Gray, is no less explicit. "Let us," he says, "recognize Darwin's great service to natural science in bringing back to it teleology, so that, instead of morphology versus teleology, we have morphology wedded to teleology."[6]

"The idea of development in all its logical forms," declares the Duke of Argyll, in his late admirable work, The Philosophy of Belief, "is not antagonistic to, but in perfect harmony with, the idea of purpose. Design, from first to last, from its first conception to the attainment of its farthest aims, is, and so far as we know, must be a process of development. That development may be slow, or it may be quick and sudden in its steps. It may be effected in ways widely various, as by outward building or inward growth, but its one essential character remains unchanged. It is a peculiar relation of cause and effect operating in time and exhibiting the one essential characteristic of having been directed in the past, and of being continually directed in the present, to some end which is future, the direction being of that nature which we instinctively and accurately call an aim."[7]

In a recent article on Darwinism and Design, in the Contemporary Review,[8] Prof. F. C. S. Schiller concludes his interesting contribution as follows:

"We have discussed so far only mechanical theories of evolution. But in itself evolution is not necessarily bound to be mechanical; it is perfectly possible to regard it as the gradual working of a divine purpose. And once we adopt the evolutionist standpoint, it is clear that the argument from design is materially and perceptibly strengthened: (1) Positively, because evolutionism lets us, as it were, behind the scenes and shows us how means are adapted to ends in the gradual process of evolution. This renders easier and more comprehensive the belief underlying all teleology in a power that intelligently adapts means to ends. (2) Negatively, evolutionism greatly weakens the objection to the teleological argument based on the imperfection of existing adaptations. We are no longer compelled to proclaim everything perfect; it suffices that we can find nourishment for the faith that everything is being made perfect.

"If, then, evolutionism strengthens the argument from design, the latter indirectly owes a debt of gratitude to the theories which have led to the general adoption of the evolutionist standpoint. And among these Darwinism stands pre-eminent. Evolutionism was as old as one of the earliest Greek philosophies; but it was not until Darwinism made it a household word that it could force its way into the consciousness of men at large. And as a philosopher who regards evolutionism in some form as affording the most hopeful method of approaching the mystery of existence, I am inclined to hold that when historical perfection has cleared away the mole-hills we have made into mountains, it will be here that will be found Darwin's most momentous and enduring service to knowledge and to mankind."

From the foregoing it would seem that all unbiased minds should be forced to acknowledge that teleology, far from being weakened or completely eliminated from the circle of the sciences, is, on the contrary, demonstrably in a far more impregnable position than ever before. We have, however, to deal with a certain class of agnostics who insist on reducing everything in creation to force and matter, and all the phenomena which can come under our observation to the action of force on matter, or to the fortuitous clash of atoms and molecules. They wish to eliminate from their discussions all reference to a creative, directive and intelligent Mind, for, as they contend, such a mind is not only unnecessary but is something which is absolutely unknowable and unthinkable. Eliminating mind from the universe means eliminating purposiveness from Nature, and carries with it, of course, the destruction of all forms of teleology.

Herbert Spencer's works, for instance, are remarkable for their undisguised attempt entirely to eliminate all teleological language and eschew all teleological implications. But, strive as he may, the great corypheus of agnosticism is utterly unable, even in the simplest definitions, to find language that does not, directly or indirectly, imply aim and purpose, and, consequently, an intelligent designer. Thus, in his Principles of Biology, he says that "physiology, in its concrete interpretations, recognizes special functions as the ends of special organs; regards the teeth as having the office of mastication; the heart as an apparatus to propel blood; this gland as fitted to produce one requisite secretion, and that to produce another; each muscle as the agent of a particular motion; each nerve as the vehicle of a special sensation or a special motor impulse."[9]

All this, however, is teleological language of the most pronounced character. It is seen in the word "function," which implies adaptation and, consequently, preparation and purpose; it is seen in the word "end," which here signifies "aim"; it is seen in the word "apparatus"—ad-aparatus—which means a mechanism contrived for a specific purpose or operation—a means devised for obtaining some special end, for accomplishing something which has been foreseen and intended. Similarly the words "office," "agent," "fitted to," "recognizes," are all teleological, and replete with the idea of mental purpose. In spite, then, of all agnostic philosophy, in spite of all abstractions which would distort the original signification of words, we have in this simple definition of Spencer's words which are positively surcharged with teleology. But they do no more than express what the observer actually sees and what actually takes place in the economy of Nature. In spite, therefore, of all his attempts to avoid teleological terms, Spencer, like others of his school, is forced, by the very nature and structure of language, to employ them and to make use of expressions which indicate aim, preparation, purposiveness; which imply intelligence, foresight, design, a designer. One of the reasons, no doubt, why certain modern philosophers and men of science have made such onslaughts on teleology is to be found in the too common attribution to teleologists of a crude anthropomorphic conception of the Deity. "The idea of a superintending and designing Mind" conveys, it is asserted, "an unworthy idea of a Supreme Being. It lowers the Creator to the level of an artificer."

"But, whether the idea be unworthy or not, it is fair to remember," as a writer in a recent number of the London Quarterly Review pertinently remarks, "that, if Supreme Mind works in Nature, it can only be through such mental characteristics as are recognizable by men that such a mind could disclose itself. The objection demands a loftiness of method which would serve to conceal its intelligence from the intelligent creatures of its hand. But, further, the divine working is not wholly like the human; it is loftier; it is not the process of a mere artificer. Man produces manufactures; the Divine Mind produces growth and development. It thus works in a fashion more majestic than man's. This conception of the difference between divine and human working does not dissipate the impression that mind works in Nature. There is a distinction in man's workmanship between the mental conception and mechanical execution. This is a real and constant distinction. In Nature this distinction disappears, but the important question here is, Is the conceiving mind lost in the mechanical artificer? This is precisely what does not happen. In the slow, orderly, and well-directed processes of Nature it is the lower—the artificer—action which vanishes; the evidence of the ruling mind remains unimpaired. The objection, therefore, rests on an incomplete analysis. It confounds the high functions of a conceiving mind with the far lower functions of a mere executive mechanic."[10]

Another reason for the prevalent confusion of thought regarding the relation of teleology to evolution arises from erroneous notions entertained by so many respecting the true signification of creation and evolution. They fail to distinguish between absolute creation ex nihilo and derivative creation. Absolute creation embraces only spiritual intelligences and the material elements of which the universe is composed. Derivative creation, on the contrary, means only the formation of something from pre-existing material, and includes all organic and inorganic compounds, all forms of vegetable and animal life, for all these have been produced from those elementary bodies which constitute alike the earth and all the orbs of the firmament. Only absolute creation, therefore, is creation properly so called. Derivative creation, however, is nothing more than development under the action of the laws of Mature imposed by God on the elements in the beginning. It is evolution from lower to higher forms under the action of what St. Thomas calls the Divine Administration, and in consequence of the action of what St. Augustine terms seminal reasons—rationes seminales. Absolute creation is direct, immediate, supernatural; derivative creation is indirect, and is effected by the Almighty through the agency of secondary causes. In the beginning God created the elements once for all, but on these simple elements he conferred the power of evolving into all the countless forms of beauty which now characterize the organic and inorganic worlds. What, then, the older theologians called secondary or potential creation or formation—development under the guidance of God's providence—we may now call, and with the utmost precision of language, evolution. For God, as St. Augustine observes, did not create animals and plants directly, but potentially and causally—in fieri, in causa; potentialiter atque causaliter. This, however, is theistic evolution, not agnostic evolution which relegates God to the region of the unknowable; nor atheistic evolution which finds in the chance interaction of eternal force and eternal matter an adequate explanation of all the problems of the existing universe. For, let me insist, evolution does not and can not account for the origin of things. The best it can do is to throw some light on their historical development; and this for the simple reason that it does not and can not deal with the origin of things, but only with the modus creandi, or rather with the modus formandi, employed by Omnipotence, after the universe had been called into existence by divine Fiat. "Evolution, then," as I have elsewhere shown,[11] "postulates creation as an intellectual necessity, for if there had not been a creation there would have been nothing to evolve, and evolution would, therefore, have been an impossibility.

"And, for the same reason, evolution postulates and must postulate a Creator, the sovereign Lord of all things, the Cause of causes, the terminus a quo as well as the terminus ad quern of all that exists or can exist. But evolution postulates still more. In order that evolution might be at all possible, it was necessary that there should have been not only an antecedent creation ex nihilo, but also that there should have been an antecedent involution or creation in potentia. To suppose that simple brute matter could, by its own motion or by any power inherent in matter as such, have been the sole efficient cause of the evolution of organic from inorganic matter, of the higher from the lower forms of life, of the rational from the irrational creature, is to suppose that a thing can give what it does not possess, that the greater is contained in the less, the superior in the inferior, the whole in a part."

Still another difficulty for the opponents of teleology arises from their inability to understand the purpose of many things in Nature. This, however, far from being an objection to the argument from design, should only make one more conscious of his ignorance, and of the limitation of human knowledge. If we can discern manifest evidence of design—and this no reasonable man can deny—in even a few things, and if, of the manifold purposes exhibited in any given object, we can discover but one, we have evidence which is quite sufficient for the validity of the design-argument, and quite sufficient, likewise, to meet all the requirements of the teleologist.

It is, indeed, passing strange that those who are always so prompt to deny the existence of purpose in Nature, when there is question of teleology, or when theological implications are suspected, are the very first to insist on the evidence of mind and purpose when in their own case it is demanded by the exigencies of argument or discovery, and especially when it is demanded by the exigencies of special pleading.

A case in point is the argument for the great antiquity of man based on the existence of arrowheads and flint flakes, found in certain deposits whose age is indisputable. Contrary to the traditional view regarding the recent advent of man on earth, we have anti-teleologists who claim as the date of the appearance of our race one which carries us back tens, yea, hundreds of thousands of years. And on what do they base their argument? On evidences of mind and purpose. The arrowheads and flint flakes, they declare, and rightly, could not have been fashioned by chance; they could not have been formed by even the highest representatives of the brute creation. They indicate intelligence, design. They must, therefore, have been produced by man. Man, therefore, must have existed long prior to the period usually assigned as the date of his apparition on our planet.

Now, while no one can object to the argument, as thus presented, we find it strangely inconsistent that its validity should be questioned where the evidence of mind and purpose is far more striking—to wit, in the multifarious phenomena of the universe, all of which betoken far more than human intelligence and power. I shall here limit myself to only a single but a most telling illustration—the preparation of the world as the dwelling place of man. The storage of coal as fuel, the introduction of certain plants and animals shortly before the advent of our species, and in strict correlation with it—plants which were almost indispensable as articles of food, and the appearance of animals, such as the sheep, cow, and horse, which contribute so materially to our comfort and enjoyment—can never, by any sane man, be regarded as the result of mere fortuity, or of the blind and indeterminate action of force on matter. No, the whole grand march of development from the Archasan to the Quaternary period, from the simplest forms of life to the most complex, from monad to man, all speak in the most eloquent and unequivocal language of mind and providence, of a Being who foresees, designs, directs, governs; who in the language of Holy Writ "reacheth from end to end mightily and ordereth all things sweetly"; "Who hath ordained all things in measure, and number and weight."

But teleologists, while maintaining that design and purpose are everywhere manifest in Nature, and while proclaiming that everything is under the government of law, are not guilty of the error into which materialistic scientists so often lapse—that is, of regarding law as a cause, or a power, or as a kind of demiurge independent of the Deity. Far from it. Law in itself is nothing, does nothing, explains nothing. Law is not a force, is not an agent, is not and can not be the efficient or operative cause of anything whatever. Law is only the method according to which force acts; it is but the expression of the mode of divine action. Science has been able to discover a few of the laws of Nature, as it has been able to disclose evidences of design and purpose in the divers realms of creation. And as from the few known laws of Nature men of science are justified in asserting that the entire universe and all it contains are governed by law, so also is the teleologist, from the knowledge he already possesses, equally warranted in declaring that not only the world as a whole, but also everything in it, attests the presence and action of Mind and exhibits such obvious traces of purposiveness that it may truthfully be affirmed that the doctrine of final causes reposes on as firm a basis as does the teaching, universally accepted, that the whole of Nature, animate and inanimate, is under the control of divinely imposed law.

No, it is not true that teleology has been banished from science and theology by recent research, or by the confirmation which is daily being given to the theory of evolution. Teleology has been modified, not destroyed. It has been expanded and ennobled and rendered more subtle and comprehensive than ever before. We now no longer look upon the Creator as directly producing the myriad species of plants and animals which variegate and beautify this earth of ours, but we regard him as operating through secondary agents—creatures of his hand, ministers of his wisdom and power. He is not the immediate cause of the infinitude of forms which characterize the organic and inorganic worlds, but rather the Causa Causarum. He is not, as St. Athanasius observes, a carpenter, but a creator—κτιστης ού τεχνίτης. In the beginning he created all things and then impressed on them the power of development, of evolving into the innumerable species we now behold. All things existed in idea before they existed in fact, and the design and purpose which are revealed in animate and inanimate Nature are the witnesses of the foresight and providence of creative wisdom. Paley and the older school of teleologists pointed to a watch as a beautiful and convincing evidence of design. To the modern teleologist, studying the universe in the light of evolution, it is not simply a watch that presents itself as a witness of purpose running through all things created, from atom to star, but it is a watch which is competent to produce other and better watches. God makes things, it is true, but he makes them by making them make themselves. Similarly, we read purpose in Nature not only by limiting our view to the present and to simple individuals, but also, and more particularly, by studying the species and the class to which individuals belong, in the light of their past history or in the changes they may undergo in the future by reason of varied conditions or continued development. In the words of Mr. Aubrey L. Moore: "If ontogeny, the history of the individual, gives us no answer, we fall back on phylogeny, the history of the race. Organs, which on the old theory of special creations were useless and meaningless, are now seen to have their explanation in the past or in the future, according as they are rudimentary or nascent. There is nothing useless, nothing meaningless in Nature, nothing due to caprice or chance, nothing irrational or without a cause, nothing outside the reign of law. This belief in the universality of the reign of law is the scientific analogue of the Christian's belief in Providence."[12]

The principal feature in the orography of South America, from Cape Horn northward, says Mr. Otto Nordenskjold, in describing his journey in southwestern Patagonia, is the contrast between a high Pacific mountain chain and a wide Atlantic table-land. This circumstance causes different parts of the country to wear aspects that are very dissimilar, but nowhere does the contrast appear so strongly as in Tierra del Fuego, where the summits of the Cordilleras, covered with perpetual snow, and very often also by clouds, rains, and fog, can all be seen from the dry Atlantic coast. Not quite so rapid, but still very wonderful, is the transition in Patagonia; and the region lying between 50° and 52° south latitude is in addition more interesting than any part of Tierra del Fuego, owing to the peculiar character given to parts of it by the presence of masses of basaltic rocks and lava cones in the east, and of great ice fields in the western valleys.
  1. Read before the International Catholic Scientific Congress, Fribourg, Switzerland, August 20, 1897.
  2. See the writer's work, Bible, Science, and Faith, Part I.
  3. Force and Matter, p. 218.
  4. History of Creation, vol.i, p. 19.
  5. Page 110.
  6. Darwiniana, p. 288.
  7. Pages 145 et seq.
  8. June, 1897, p. 883.
  9. Pages 155 et seq.
  10. July, 1896, p. 218.
  11. Evolution and Dogma, pp. 431-432.
  12. Science and the Faith, p. 197.