A Philosophical Critique of Darwin’s The Origin of Species

Lack of experience diminishes our power of taking a comprehensive view of the admitted facts. Hence, those who dwell in intimate association with nature and its phenomena grow more and more able to formulate, as the foundations of their theories, principles such as to admit of a wide and coherent development: while those whom devotion to abstract discussions has rendered unobservant of the facts are too ready to dogmatize on the basis of a few observations. (Thomas Aquinas, Commentary on De gen. et corrupt. I, 2, n. 25)

A Philosophical Critique of Darwin’s The Origin of Species

Any investigation of Charles Darwin’s The Origin of Species must acknowledge the fateful fact that it ranks as the most influential treatise of the nineteenth century, The Communist Manifesto being its only real competitor for this dubious honor. Both books ignited destructive fires which consumed the faith of untold millions, and which have yet to burn themselves out. And both books contributed to this holocaust by inspiring their readers to sacrifice themselves and others to Progress, the insatiable god of the nineteenth century.

There can be no doubt that belief in progress was already a well-established pseudo-religious dogma long before Darwin published The Origin of Species. Indeed, Darwin’s theory of evolution would never have been so readily and rapidly received had it been otherwise, which illustrates just how pernicious blind faith in progress really is, because it makes possible the acceptance of almost any error, no matter how absurd, so long as it seems to confirm the progressive world view.

Modern man will balk, of course, at the suggestion that Darwin’s theory of evolution is really a pseudo-religious dogma, because modern man is convinced that evolution is the pre-eminent scientific teaching of modern times. Modern man does not know that even his understanding of what science is reveals a mindless acceptance equivalent to what he himself has been taught to dismiss as “blind faith.” But if, for one moment, modern man were to direct his skepticism towards his own unexamined belief in modern science, he would see that he has no real scientific knowledge of evolution, but merely a thoughtless allegiance to what is best termed “scientism.” Indeed, modern man looks to the contemporary scientist as the high priest whose authority to speak infallibly cannot be questioned. And if anyone dares to do so, his objections are met either with scorn and silence, or with hopeful expressions of pseudo-faith such as, “Look how much man has accomplished in the last century!” So powerfully does the modern god of Progress tyrannize over men’s souls, that no evidence to the contrary, of which our daily news provides an abundance, will shake his devotion to the belief that man has progressed throughout the ages and will inevitably continue to progress in the future. Born of pride and complacency, the progressive world view is nothing other than the terrestrialization of the Catholic world view. Having captured the untutored spiritual longings of modern men, the cult of progress has perversely imposed upon the natural world a notion of progress proper to the supernatural world alone. Indeed, the spiritual progress or ascent of the Christian soul, so beautifully portrayed in Dante’s Divine Comedy, finds its satanic parody in the world view of the progressivists.

But let us leave this more general consideration of the progressive world view, and consider Darwin’s theory of evolution in its particulars. Since no appeal to the Catholic Faith will carry weight with modern scientists, to say nothing of Catholics themselves, it is important to meet Darwin on the ground which he claims for himself, namely, that of science. But how can we, who lack the specialized knowledge of modern scientists, even hope to understand this theory, let alone demonstrate its deficiencies?

The problem of confronting a writer like Darwin, who is considered an intellectual giant of the nineteenth century, is not so difficult a task as may be supposed if we recall Aristotle’s understanding of a liberally educated man as distinguished from the specialist. Every science, Aristotle explains, admits of two different kinds of proficiency: the first is properly called scientific knowledge of the subject; the second is a certain educational acquaintance with it. According to Aristotle, a man who has this latter kind of acquaintance should be able to form a fair “off-hand” judgment concerning the method used by a professed expert in the field.

But how is it possible for a mere amateur in a given science to make a critical judgment of the alleged expert? A man who has received a liberal education, Aristotle argues, will be able to judge the arguments of a specialist in any given field, because the liberally educated man will know the first principles of the various sciences. Thus, even without specialized knowledge, the liberally educated man can determine whether the arguments of the specialist are consistent with and follow from that which the liberally educated man knows to be true. Moreover, even apart from knowing the first principles of any particular science, the liberally educated man will know the first principles that are the foundation of all the sciences.

But what do we mean by “first principles”? A principle is a beginning, a starting point from which we reason. As such, the first principles of a given science are not arrived at by proof, but are themselves the starting points of all proof. For example, one of the first principles of the science of geometry is that “the whole is greater than its part.” This first principle is not something the geometrician proves; rather, it is that from which he begins and proves other things. Using this, and other principles of this science, the geometrician is eventually able to prove, among other things, the Pythagorean Theorem. The first principles themselves, however, are not known to us through proof.

Indeed, we grasp these principles immediately – by which we mean without a middle term – for they are grasped through the intuitive power of the soul, not through discursive reasoning. We cannot prove that the whole is greater than its part; it is not a conclusion that emerges from reasoning from one thing to another. Rather, this principle is simply something that we grasp once we know what is meant by “whole” and “part.” This is not to say that we may not need examples and explanation in order to see the truth of this principle. Examples and explanation of terms simply bring the principle to the attention of our intellect, but they do not prove it. And once we grasp this principle, our certainty concerning it no longer depends upon the examples and explanation that led us to it. Proven or deduced knowledge, on the other hand, can never be grasped apart from the steps which brought us to it.

It should be clear, then, that first principles must be self-evident, for our knowledge of them does not depend upon some prior knowledge. Indeed, first principles are better known to us than that which we come to know from these principles. Were this not the case, then there could be no knowledge of anything, because we must know something first before we can arrive at the knowledge of something which we previously did not know. If there were no self-evident first principles, no sure starting points of our knowledge, then there could be no scientific knowledge at all. If someone, for example, demanded a proof for the principle that “the whole is greater than its part,” then whatever was used to prove that principle would itself require a proof. But this, of course, would lead to an infinite regression. We conclude, then, that all scientific knowledge – that is, all proven knowledge – depends upon pre-scientific knowledge, namely, self-evident first principles which are themselves not subject to proof.

We should note here that there are not only first principles with respect to each of the particular sciences, but also first principles in the unqualified sense. That is to say, there are first principles which are first simply insofar as they pertain to scientific knowledge in general. The very first principle of the speculative intellect is the law of non-contradiction, namely, that a thing cannot both be and not be at the same time and in the same respect. The law of non-contradiction is first not with respect to any particular science, but it is first in an unqualified way, for it is that which must be grasped before we can know anything else. Even the first principle “the whole is greater than its part,” is subsequent to the law of non-contradiction, the first of all first principles. This order, even among first principles themselves, is immediately evident when we recognize that we cannot grasp the principle that “the whole is greater than its part” unless we first grasp the law of non-contradiction; for if a whole could also be a part at the same time and in the same respect, that is, if a piece of pie could also be the whole pie, then we surely could never know that the whole is greater than its part, nor could we say anything else about anything and make any sense. Because being cannot be other than what it is, and because the first and most certain thing we grasp about being is this very fact, it is impossible to deny the law of non-contradiction without rendering the denial itself unintelligible. That is to say, implicit in any denial of the law of non-contradiction is the assumed truth of the very law which is being denied. For example, if someone were to say that an elephant can both be an elephant and not be an elephant at the same time and in the same respect, he would have to assume – if he intends to say something intelligible – that we have already grasped what an elephant is, and that an elephant is in fact an elephant and not some other being. And yet this simple fact – that an elephant is an elephant – is what is being denied when the law of non-contradiction is denied, even while the very truth of the fact is implicitly assumed in the denial. To state this more generally, if being were such that things could both be and not be at the same time and in the same respect, then strictly speaking nothing could be known because things would have no fixed natures, no way of being that makes them one thing rather than another. Indeed, to form the proposition “This is an elephant,” would itself be impossible, for the referent for the word “this” would be a referent without a fixed being, and therefore no referent at all. Even the word “is” itself would be nonsensical. In such a universe, all would be chaos, and yet even this could not be known – let alone enunciated – as such.

But how does this understanding of first principles, and especially the law of non-contradiction, help us to evaluate Darwin’s theory of evolution? Consider what Aristotle had to say about the importance of first principles: Even a small mistake at the beginning of our reasoning about things, that is, a mistake with respect to first principles, will have dire consequences for the conclusions we draw from these mistaken principles, no matter how well we reason from them. Like a builder who makes a small mistake in the foundation, which mistake is then amplified as he builds ever upward, so in reasoning a mistake in first principles leads to false and even absurd conclusions, which later reveal themselves as false problems, and which in turn invite still greater errors in an effort to correct these problems. Certainly much of the history of philosophy involves the construction of seemingly magnificent castles, the foundations of which are more often than not in sand, such that when they begin to sink, other philosophers come along and build upon the prior castle, supposing that the problem can be addressed without returning to the faulty foundations. The history of philosophy in the nineteenth century exhibits this kind of perverse ingenuity perhaps better than any other century, with the likes of Hegel, Mill, Marx, and Nietzsche attempting to build upon the philosophic architecture bequeathed to them by Descartes, Hobbes, Locke, Hume, Rousseau, and Kant.

If we are to consider Darwin’s theory, then, with an eye to uncovering and evaluating his first principles, we must first be clear as to what the proper first principles of natural science really are. Here the ancients and medievals are of great help to us because they observed the natural order without the mindset of modern man who is, for the most part, in the grips of the theory of evolution. What the ancients and medievals saw, of course, is exactly what we can still see today, if only we would remove our Darwinian spectacles and actually look at the natural world: birds collect sticks to build nests; elephants use their trunks to gather food; beavers use their teeth to cut down trees; and spiders build webs to catch their prey. Moreover, sparrows produce more sparrows, dogs produce more dogs, and potatoes – thank goodness – always produce more potatoes. Now, whatever happens always or for the most part cannot happen by chance, and this self-evident first principle, which we grasp simply by virtue of observing the world as it is, is the necessary starting point for all our scientific knowledge of the natural order. Note that our use of the word “order” here is not only intentional, but also cannot be otherwise, for it is evident that order is necessarily prior to disorder. Indeed, the concept of disorder has no meaning unless we have first grasped what order is. Likewise, chance is nonsensical unless we have a prior grasp of what is not by chance, but rather by intention or design. More broadly, we see that truth and reality are necessarily prior to falsehood and illusion, for truth and reality can be understood without reference to falsehood and illusion, but we would have no understanding of falsehood and illusion if we had no prior experience of truth and reality.

It should be evident, then, why the ancients and medievals held that nature must be understood teleologically, that is, nature must be understood in terms of an end or purpose, telos being the Greek word for “end.” To be a teleologist is simply to recognize that animals and plants have purposes, that they come to be and continue to act for the sake of something. The teleological view is best summarized by the traditional formula that “nature acts for an end.” Now, we know that nature acts for an end because whatever happens always or for the most part happens not by chance, but by design. It is the nature of an acorn, for example, to become an oak. An acorn, as well as all other living things, has a regularized pattern of growth such that it will reach its proper end always or for the most part, provided it has both the proper material conditions, i.e., soil, water, and sunlight, and no material defects of its own.

Thus, while certain material conditions are necessary for it to achieve its end, the acorn is not what it is because of these material conditions; rather, the acorn utilizes these raw materials in such a way as to bring itself to its perfection as an oak. The acorn does not become an oak simply because of external causes which act upon the acorn; rather, the growth of the acorn is governed by an innate principle of motion which directs the acorn to its proper end. Thus, an oak tree is not what it is simply by virtue of the “stuff” of which it is composed. Although we do call the matter from which the oak grows its “nature” in one sense, nevertheless we call the completed form of the oak its “nature” in a superior sense, because the form is the end to which the oak grows. As Aristotle says in the Physics, “The form indeed is ‘nature’ rather than the matter; for a thing is more properly said to be what it is when it has attained to fulfillment than when it exists potentially.”

Let us pause here to consider more closely Aristotle’s famous hylomorphic theory, his explanation of natural bodies in terms of the principles of form and matter. It should be emphasized that we must distinguish Aristotle’s theory from the novel theories of modern scientists which are intended as hypothetical and heuristic models of the physical structure of matter. Certainly Aristotle did not claim to have invented form and matter, for this fundamental distinction arises from our immediate experience of things. In its simplest terms, form is the essence of a thing, its “whatness.” When we look at a cat, for example, we see “catness,” that which allows us to recognize it as a cat, regardless of those particular features which distinguish it from other cats, for examples, its color, size, breed, etc. Form, then, signifies a thing’s intelligible reality. One must therefore not confuse form in this sense with “form” in the everyday sense of something spatially or otherwise limited. As for matter, it is the plastic material substratum or “stuff” which receives form and gives it finite existence. The matter, then, is the cause of the differences we see between this large, fuzzy, black cat and that small, short-haired, yellow one, whereas the form is the cause of their sameness, that which allows us to identify them as belonging to the same species. Hence, the form of a thing is its nature in a truer sense because the form determines and shapes the matter so that it becomes the kind of thing it is intended to be. The form is the perfection of a thing. Thus all growth, even at the earliest stages, aims at this perfection or final end; and it is the character of that end which organizes the matter from the beginning and throughout its growth in order that the final end may be reached.

The principles of form and matter in nature are more easily understood by analogy to art. Consider an artist who imparts a certain form, preconceived in his intellect, to a material such as clay, in order to make a bowl. The matter of the bowl is that out of which the bowl comes to be and that which persists once the bowl has been made, namely, the clay. We therefore call the clay the material cause of the bowl. The form, however, is the qualitative seal imprinted on the clay by the efficient workmanship of the artist. The artist imparts a certain shape – a form – to the clay so that the clay shows itself to be a bowl, and not any other artifact that the clay may have become. And this formal cause constitutes the essence – the “what is it” – of the thing. In the wonderfully illuminating words of Boethius, a thing is known by its form, which is “like a light by which we know what a thing is.” Matter, on the other hand, is precisely that which is not yet formed and which by that very fact escapes all distinctive knowing. Matter is the plastic substance that receives the seal of form while conferring on it a concrete and limited existence.

Through our analogy to art, we can see that there are two other causes that bring a thing into existence: the agent or efficient cause, and the final cause. The efficient cause is simply the primary source of the change, which in our example would be the artist and the tools he employs to shape the clay into a bowl. And finally, but most important of all, the final cause is “that for the sake of which” a thing is made, that is, its purpose, which, in the example of the bowl, would be to hold food or drink. Note, then, that it is the final cause which determines the other three causes, for the final cause looks to what is best and is the completion of all that leads up to it. We call this cause “final” because it is the last to come into existence upon completion of the bowl; and yet, this cause must be in the mind of the artist prior to his actually beginning his work. Indeed, the artist must choose his material, his tools, and the shape of the bowl, all with a view to the finished product and its ultimate purpose. The clay, or material cause, on the other hand, is not the pre-eminent cause because the bowl would still be a bowl even if it had been formed out of bronze, tin, or gold, or any other substance which is receptive to formation, and yet rigid once formed. Indeed, matter – in this case, the clay, bronze, gold or tin – is not determined to any one artifact, but is capable of being shaped for any number of purposes which the artist has in mind. The matter, then, does not determine the form, but it is the form which determines the matter and its development or growth.

Now, the analogy to art is helpful because clearly the things we make ourselves are better known to us than that which is produced by nature, for we endow our artifacts with purposes which are fully known to us. It is upon these grounds, of course, that modern science has accused traditional science of being anthropomorphic, of imposing the human mode of production upon the natural order. But the charge of anthropomorphism is more aptly directed at modern science itself, because modern science consistently reduces qualitative distinctions to quantitative ones, which it then counts and measures, as if the fullness of nature could be exhausted by a purely mathematical account of things. What modern science fails to recognize is that the traditional analogy between art and nature is valid insofar as all art is an imitation of nature. We can therefore understand nature’s productions by analogy to our own, because it is actually nature’s handiwork which establishes the original standards by which human art is made and understood.

Setting aside for the moment the analogy to art, we recognize immediately that our own nature acts for an end, even apart from our conscious endeavors. To take an extreme example, if a man were to try to end his life by cutting himself on the wrist, the blood would still attempt to clot to thwart the man’s perverse intention. Likewise, my eyes blink when objects approach them, I cough when something is stuck in my throat, and I sweat under certain conditions whether I consciously will it or not. Even if these mechanisms might be cause for embarrassment under certain circumstances, I recognize that they are good for me because they protect me and keep me alive.

We see this same principle operating in the larger natural order of which we are a part. The purpose for which birds build their nests is immediately known to us. In fact, everything we know about the birds and the bees testifies to the teleological nature we see in all organisms. The parents produce a specific seed which, although relatively undifferentiated at the beginning, develops and unfolds from within in an orderly fashion until, having passed through successive stages, it reaches its completed form. And all this growth, which leads to this perfected end, is determined by the end toward which the organism is ordered. Moreover, the undifferentiated seed is progressively differentiated at each stage in its growth such that the differentiated parts are ordered not only to each other, but also to the organism as a whole.

As for the final form of the organism which comes to be, it is an organic whole, which means that it has organs or tools which function for specific ends, all of which serve the good of the whole. Birds have wings to fly, beaks with which to break seeds, claws with which to grab, and eyes to see. Each part of a bird, both external and internal, contributes to the maintenance and functioning of the other parts, as well as of the whole. The whole itself is an essential unity, not an accidental heap of parts, and this whole is known to us through its outward form, which immediately reveals what kind of thing the individual bird is. Indeed, our word “species” comes from the Latin equivalent for the Greek word eidos, which means “form.” The Latin verb, specio, means to look at or behold, and the Greek word eidos shares this same root meaning. Our word “species,” then, refers directly to the “looks” of an organism, which brings us back to the relation made famous by Plato between the outward appearance or form of a thing and its transcendental archetype, its Form in the Platonic sense, which exists outside of the natural realm of coming to be and passing away. We will return to the significance of this relationship when we consider Darwin’s use of the word “species.”

The essential unity of an organism is revealed to us not only by its looks, but also by its characteristic activities, and by its tendency to maintain or to restore its wholeness. Not only do organisms organize themselves, maintain themselves, produce themselves, and preserve themselves, they also heal themselves. And in all these things they exhibit an innate striving toward an end. Young birds, at the slightest movement above or around their nests, open wide their mouths so that their parents can feed them. And once they leave the nest, these same birds will work to coordinate wing and tail movements until they are capable of flight. Even plants exhibit this same striving for an end when their sprouts grow upward, twisting and turning when necessary in order to reach the sun, while their roots simultaneously plunge downward in an effort to find water and minerals.

It would be a mistake, of course, to argue that such strivings in nature demonstrate a conscious effort on the part of every organism to achieve a certain end. Even in man – the only natural being who can consciously direct himself towards an end – there is action for an end whether he wills it or not. The very fact that natural bodies act for an end without deliberation is used by St. Thomas Aquinas to prove that there exists an intelligent Supreme Being, who exists outside of and above the natural order, and who has implanted purpose in things. St. Thomas’ fifth proof of the existence of God reads as follows:

The fifth way is taken from the governance of things. We see that things which lack knowledge, such as natural bodies, act for an end, and this is evident from their acting always, or nearly always, in the same way, so as to obtain the best result. Hence it is plain that they achieve their end not by chance, but by design. Now whatever lacks knowledge cannot move towards an end, unless it be directed by some being endowed with knowledge and intelligence, as the arrow is directed by the archer. Therefore some intelligent being exists by whom all natural things are ordered to their end; and this being we call God.

Note that St. Thomas’ proof summarizes beautifully everything we have argued up to this point. Starting from the first principle, that whatever happens always or for the most part cannot happen by chance, St. Thomas notes that nature acts for an end in order to obtain the best result. In fact, the end, which is the completed or perfected whole, is identical with the good for each thing. And yet the thing itself, except in the case of man, lacks the capacity to know the good to which it is directed. Certainly it can be shown that organisms operate in an intelligent manner in order to achieve their proper ends, and yet those same organisms can also be shown to be completely ignorant of those ends.

Fabre, the famous French entomologist, whom Darwin himself called the “incomparable observer,” has demonstrated this more vividly than anyone else. At the conclusion of this paper, we will consider one of Fabre’s most famous observations, but for now it is sufficient to note that Fabre, along with St. Thomas and Aristotle, recognized that the study of natural science culminates in the proof of the existence of God, for there is no other way to account for the intelligence exhibited by organisms which themselves are utterly lacking in any intelligence. St. Paul, in his Letter to the Romans, makes the same claim in explaining why man has no excuse, even apart from divine revelation, not to have acknowledged God’s existence:

For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. Ever since the creation of the world His invisible nature, namely, his eternal power and deity, has been clearly perceived in the things that have been made (1:18-20).

We should note here, before turning to Darwin’s rejection of teleology, that the ancient and medieval teaching on final causality explains not only the ways in which individual organisms act for an end, but also the coordination among the activities of individuals within a social species, as well as the marvelous interdependence of different species, to say nothing of the complex relationship between the organic and the inorganic world. While we cannot pause here to pursue any particular examples, we can see that it is meaningful to speak of wholeness as it pertains to three distinct levels: first, the organization within individual organisms; second, the unified order of a given species; and third, the entire natural order itself. The unity which is exhibited on each level – individual, species, and nature as a whole – reflects the unity of unities, God himself, whose uniqueness is manifested in each of the many distinct beings which play a part in an ordered whole. As St. Thomas explains in the Summa Theologica, the distinction and multitude of things comes from God, the first agent and final cause of the natural order. Matter alone is insufficient for this purpose not only because matter itself was created by God, but also because, as we have already seen, the distinction of things comes from their proper forms. According to St. Thomas, the plurality of these forms corresponds in the divine mind to the plurality of things. And the divine purpose behind this plurality of things is explained by St. Thomas as follows:

For He brought things into being in order that His goodness might be communicated to creatures, and be represented by them; and because His goodness could not be adequately represented by one creature alone, He produced many and diverse creatures, that what was wanting to one in the representation of the divine goodness might be supplied by another. For goodness, which in God is simple and uniform, in creatures is manifold and divided; and hence the whole universe together participates in the divine goodness more perfectly, and represents it better than any single creature whatever (Part 1, 1a, Q. 47).

Having reviewed the traditional teaching concerning natural science, let us consider now the reasons Darwin and his predecessors rejected that tradition. Beginning with Bacon, Descartes, Galileo, and Hobbes, modern science rejected final causality. In doing so, they returned to the non-teleological position of the pre-Socratics, such as Empedocles, Democritus, and Heraclitus. In Plato’s Phaedo, Socrates explains the pre-Socratic view while he sits upon a table in his prison cell. In response to the question – “Why is Socrates sitting?” – the pre-Socratics would have answered by referring to the muscles, tendons, and ligaments in Socrates’ leg, as if the mechanisms there were sufficient to explain why Socrates is sitting in jail. While this materialistic explanation may well have been correct insofar as it explained the way in which the material components operate when a leg bends at the knee, this explanation fails to reveal the final and truest cause of why Socrates is sitting, namely, that he has refused to give up philosophizing, and therefore he must wait in jail until the day of his execution.

The pre-Socratics, however, thought that the nature of a thing was to be found in its matter, not its form. For the pre-Socratics, “form” was merely an accidental outcome of the way in which the matter happened to fall together, such that what appears to us as an essential unity is really just a heap or bundle of “stuff,” like a pile of books arbitrarily stacked upon one another. Rather than the matter being determined by the form, the pre-Socratics held that the form is determined by the properties of the matter, as if a house, for example, could come to be from a pile of the materials that compose it without those materials being arranged according to a predetermined plan. Aristotle thus criticizes Empedocles as follows:

Empedocles, then, was in error when he said that many of the characters presented by animals were merely the results of incidental occurrences during their development; for instance, that the backbone was divided as it is into vertebrae, because it happened to be broken owing to the contorted position of the fetus in the womb. In so saying he overlooked the fact that propagation implies a creative seed endowed with certain formative properties. Secondly, he neglected another fact, namely, that the parent animal pre-exists, not only in idea, but actually in time. For man is generated from man; and thus it is the possession of certain characters by the parent that determines the development of like characters in the child (On the Parts of Animals 640a20-25).

Empedocles and the other pre-Socratics made this mistake because they concerned themselves with the material cause alone. Aristotle summarizes the pre-Socratic error as follows:

But if men and animals and their several parts are natural phenomena, then the natural philosopher must take into consideration not merely the ultimate substances of which they are made, but also flesh, bone, blood, and all the other homogeneous parts; not only these, but also the heterogeneous parts, such as face, hand, foot; and must examine how each of these comes to be what it is, and in virtue of what force. For to say what are the ultimate substances out of which an animal is formed, to state, for instance, that it is made of fire or earth, is no more sufficient than would be a similar account in the case of a couch or the like. For we should not be content with saying that the couch was made of bronze or wood or whatever it might be, but should try to describe its design or mode of composition in preference to the material; or, if we did deal with the material, it would at any rate be with the concretion of material and form. For a couch is such and such a form embodied in this or that matter, or such and such a matter with this or that form; so that its shape and structure must be included in our description. For the formal nature is of greater importance than the material nature (On the Parts of Animals 641b15-29).

When the pre-Socratic view reasserted itself in the sixteenth century, formal and final causality were explicitly rejected in favor of purely materialistic and mechanistic explanations. The novelty of Darwin, then, was not his rejection of formal and final cause, but rather the popularization of this rejection through his theory of evolution, which seemingly explained the appearance of order in nature without reference to any immaterial reality.

It is important to understand that Darwin’s rejection of formal and final causality, his denial that nature acts for an end, was not the result of his denying that it appears as if nature acts for an end. Indeed, in the introduction to The Origin of Species, Darwin emphasizes that he wishes to show how the species have been modified so as to “acquire that perfection of structure and co-adaptation which most justly excites our admiration.” Thus, Darwin takes for granted the appearance of a purposive nature, but he wishes to demonstrate that this is not the result of design, but rather of accident.

There are two major parts to Darwin’s theory as presented in The Origin of Species: the first is chance variation; and the second is natural selection. By upholding chance variation – what today is generally called “mutation” – Darwin argues that the species are neither eternal, as Aristotle argues, nor are they separately created, as the Biblical account would seem to suggest. Instead, Darwin holds that the innumerable species have come to be through the modification of pre-existing species. The second part of his theory, natural selection, is Darwin’s explanation of the means by which that modification takes place.

If we reflect upon the first part of Darwin’s theory, namely, chance variation, we can see that for Darwin chance is more fundamental than order. According to Darwin, although offspring resemble their parents for the most part, there are slight variations in offspring which are the result of nature’s random motions. Indeed, nature tosses out these haphazard variations such that they may occur in any part of the offspring. Now these variations, Darwin insists, can be “beneficial” or “injurious” depending upon the environment in which the organism happens to find itself. Darwin calls the variation “beneficial” if it increases the organism’s chances of survival, whereas he calls it “injurious” if it results in the contrary. Here is where natural selection, the second part of Darwin’s theory, comes into play. Having accepted the theory made famous by Thomas Malthus in his Essay on Population, that population will always outrun the food supply, Darwin posits the necessary death of a large number of each species. Therefore, in the intense struggle for existence that inevitably follows, those organisms which have accidentally received a “beneficial” variation will more likely survive, whereas those which have accidentally received an “injurious” variation will not. Moreover, the survivors, by virtue of having survived, will pass on their “beneficial” variations to their own offspring, because the offspring, as Darwin acknowledged from the beginning, generally resemble their parents. Thus, according to Darwin, organisms gradually evolve from one kind of thing into another, as determined by accidental variations which make the organisms progressively more fit to survive.

It should be clear, then, that chance variation, not natural selection, is the key to Darwin’s theory, for as Darwin himself admits in The Origin of Species, “Unless profitable variations do occur, natural selection can do nothing.” Indeed, whatever laws govern the process of natural selection, these “laws” are obviously secondary to the whimsical actions of nature which make adaptation possible in the first place. Ironically, Darwin’s account of the teleological appearance of things is grounded on a blind, purposeless, and non-teleological nature. For Darwin, order – at least the appearance of order – follows from chance. The apparent unity of organisms is, according to Darwin, a mere accidental unity, not an essential one. Living things, then, despite their appearance, are really just heaps of matter which are arranged into temporary, accidental, and ever-changing “bundles.”

It is worth noting that Darwin’s theory was fully anticipated in Aristotle’s Physics. Having argued that nature acts for an end, Aristotle then raises this very difficulty for his own position:

Why should not nature work, not for the sake of something, nor because it is better so, but just as the sky rains, not in order to make the corn grow, but of necessity? What is drawn up must cool, and what has been cooled must become water and descend, the result of this being that the corn grows. Similarly if a man’s crop is spoiled on the threshing-floor, the rain did not fall for the sake of this – in order that the crop must be spoiled – but that result just followed. Why then should it not be the same with the parts in nature, e.g., that our teeth should come up of necessity – the front teeth sharp, fitted for tearing, the molars broad and useful for grinding down the food – since they did not arise for this end, but it was merely a coincident result; and so with all other parts in which we suppose that there is purpose? Whatever then all the parts came about just what they would have been if they had come to be for an end, such things survived, being organized spontaneously in a fitting way; whereas those which grew otherwise perished and continue to perish (198b18-31).

In answer to this difficulty, which anticipates the fundamental argument of Darwin’s theory of evolution, Aristotle states that it is impossible that this view should be true:

“For teeth and all other natural things either invariably or normally come about in a given way; but of not one of the results of chance or spontaneity is this true” (198b35).

Note that Aristotle, in order to refute this position, returns to the first principle of natural science, namely, that whatever happens always or for the most part cannot happen by chance. Clearly Darwin’s theory of evolution is grounded upon the denial of this self-evident first principle. We can reasonably conclude, then, that Darwin’s first principle is absurd. When Darwin states that chance is the cause of the regular order of the teeth, Darwin makes the words “chance” and “order” meaningless, because chance, by definition, is the absence of intention, and intention alone can result in an invariable or normal order. By claiming that there is no intention whatsoever in nature, Darwin’s argument self-destructs because it undermines its own claim to know (as does any argument which contradicts a self-evident first principle). For if the ordered nature which we see is merely accidental and not essential, then nature cannot be a real object of our knowledge since it lacks a necessary nature, so to speak, and there can be no scientific knowledge of that which is in a constant state of flux. As Aristotle writes, “the person who asserts this entirely does away with ‘nature’ and what exists ‘by nature’” (Physics 199b14-15). In sum, when Darwin claims there is no intention in nature, he is implicitly arguing that there is no such thing as nature. In other words, were Darwin correctly concluding from his study of nature, he would have had literally no nature – as such – to study. That Darwin has studied nature is possible only because his theory of nature is false.

Aristotle’s anticipation and rejection of the Darwinian position is all the more striking given that Darwin himself quotes this passage from Aristotle’s Physics on the very first page of The Origin of the Species. Darwin places this all-important quotation in a footnote to a sentence where he indicates that he intends to pass over the allusions to the origin of species in the classical writers. Then, after quoting Aristotle’s pre-Darwinian explanation of how the orderly pattern of the teeth may have arisen accidentally, Darwin writes: “We here see the principle of natural selection shadowed forth, but how little Aristotle fully comprehended the principle, is shown by his remarks on the formation of the teeth.” Despite Darwin’s niggardly recognition of Aristotle, it is evident that Aristotle grasped the essentials of Darwin’s position over two thousand years before Darwin made it his own. Ironically, Aristotle demonstrates a better understanding of Darwin than Darwin does of Aristotle, even though Darwin, having written long after Aristotle, had the obvious advantage of the benefits of further natural selection.

Darwin’s treatment of Aristotle here is paradigmatic of the progressive world view of the moderns, which fails to take seriously the arguments of the ancients and medievals. Although one often finds in the ancient and medieval writings a more powerful presentation of the modern view than that found in the moderns themselves, nevertheless it is extremely rare to find a modern writer demonstrating a thoughtful grasp of any ancient or medieval doctrine. This testifies not only to the extraordinary devotion to reason found in the ancient and medieval philosophers, but also to the largely rhetorical dismissal of the ancient and medieval teachings by the moderns. Indeed, had the moderns truly given themselves to the ancient and medieval arguments, many pernicious modern doctrines would undoubtedly not be with us today, for they lack any foundation in reason. Note, for example, that Darwin quotes only that part of Aristotle which “foreshadows” his own position, but Darwin makes no attempt to engage Aristotle’s reasons for rejecting this foreshadowed position. Implicit in the progressive world view in the unexamined assumption that one who lives in a later age need not demonstrate mastery of those who have come before; ridicule and facile footnotes are sufficient refutations. It is patently foolish, however, to suppose that our ancestors were morally, intellectually, and spiritually inferior to us. Moreover, the self-destructive nature of the progressive world view is evident from the fact that it renders every doctrine obsolete as soon as it has been expressed. After all, there will always be another doctrine to replace the latest and greatest teaching, which suggests that even the progressive world view itself must give way in time. Modern science, like the modern machines which it has spawned, is equally subject to planned – or rather, unplanned – obsolescence.

Let us return to Aristotle’s claim that a person who accepts chance as a first principle of natural science “entirely does away with ‘nature’ and what exists ‘by nature’.” Here is where the amateur, who knows first principles, can evaluate the specialist and find the theories of the specialist wanting, if the specialist contradicts what is self-evidently true. Aristotle explains as follows:

That nature exists, it would be absurd to try to prove; for it is obvious that there are many things of this kind, and to prove what is obvious by what is not is the mark of a man who is unable to distinguish what is self-evident from what is not (Physics 193a1-5).

When Aristotle says “there are many things of this kind,” he is not speaking of anything esoteric, but simply of things like plants and animals which exist by nature. Darwin’s account, however, which reduces all of nature to material reality alone, destroys the intelligibility of nature since matter without form cannot in principle be known. Form, we should recall, is precisely that which gives matter its qualitative seal such that a thing is known as this kind of thing rather than that. As Boethius says, form is the light by which a thing is known. But if the outward forms which are apparent to us are nothing but temporary collections or accidental heaps of matter, then there is no essential being in the natures of things, but rather, only becoming.

Here we have reached the heart of Darwin’s theory of evolution: the reduction of being to becoming. And here lies its evident absurdity. If all is flux, if, as Heraclitus said, “All things flow,” then this universal claim must also include the creature who can make such a statement. But since that creature and his mental operations are also subject to this flux, then on what ground does this statement stand such that it can claim for itself a permanence which everything is said to lack? If everything flows like a river, this very fact about the nature of things could not be known unless there were a bank to that river upon which the observer could stand to observe the flow. But if such a fixed place exists, then the claim that “all things flow” cannot be universally true. Indeed, the very concept of “becoming” is unintelligible unless we have already grasped what “being” is, for “becoming” means “to come to be.” The contradiction at the heart of Darwin’s theory can therefore be succinctly expressed as follows: Darwin posits for his new-found laws themselves a permanence and necessity which these very laws deny.

Now, Darwin must say that man’s intellect either is capable of grasping things as they are, or it is not. If he claims that man’s intellect – being itself subject to evolution – cannot know things as they are, then we need pay no further attention to Darwin since his own theory must fall under its own denial of objectivity. But if Darwin insists that we can know things as they are (which his conviction concerning his own theory of evolution would seem to suggest), then there must be an affinity between the mind of the knower and the object known. But if things have no permanent essences, no forms, but are just accidental unities which are always changing from one bundle of stuff into another bundle of stuff, then how can Darwin account for our recognition of these bundles as belonging to a species in the first place? Indeed, the problem which Darwin purports to have solved, namely, the origin of species, would be unintelligible to us even as a problem if the species were not immutably such that we could understand what Darwin means by “species” in the first place. Reading Darwin’s account is like listening to a man argue that everything is an illusion, as if we could possibly grasp what is meant by “illusion” without already grasping reality, the very thing we were told does not exist in the first place.

We have already seen the same problem with Darwin’s use of the words “nature,” “order,” and “chance.” Darwin uses these words – as indeed he must – as if they have the self-evident meanings that men have always understood. Likewise, on almost every page of The Origin of Species, Darwin uses teleological language to describe living things even while attempting to undermine teleology itself. For example, Darwin uses the words “profitable,” “useful,” “fit,” “good,” “perfection,” “injurious,” “beneficial,” “advantageous,” “welfare,” “low” and “high.” At one point Darwin even uses the phrase “the good of each being.” In each case, Darwin uses these teleological expressions as if their meanings were self-evident – as indeed their meanings are – conveniently forgetting that his own thesis undermines the self-evident purposiveness of nature. Apparently there is no way to speak about nature without using teleological terms, for there is no other way to make intelligible what one wishes to say about nature unless one recognizes that which makes nature what it is. Thus, Darwin proceeds like a man who would use reason to argue that reason is meaningless.

We are compelled to conclude that Darwin’s theory of evolution is not science at all, but rather scientism, because Darwin is not able to account for his own ability to know what he claims to know, nor does he apparently care. Darwin presents himself as an objective witness of nature and its becoming, while implicitly claiming that even the human intellect is nothing but a product of that becoming. But how can an effect in this sense judge concerning its own cause? Such a judgment could only be possible if there were something necessary and unchanging in both the cause and the effect. (Pausing to speak theologically for a moment, the effect would have to be made in the “image and likeness” of the cause. And since this observation brings us to the truths which are known to us not only by reason, but also by the Catholic Faith, we should note that, if man in fact is not a timeless mirror of reality, if man has yet to evolve into a more perfect accident of becoming, then it would make no sense to say that God became man, a doctrine that would be utterly absurd unless man already possessed that god-like form which most perfectly reflects God Himself. Clearly it would render Christ’s humanity contemptible if human nature is not a nature at all, but merely a passing fancy.)

But let us return to the shortcomings of Darwin which are known to us by reason alone. Given the absurdity of the starting points of Darwin’s theory, we should not be surprised to find that there is no valid empirical evidence for the theory of evolution. Starting from sheer conjecture rather than observed fact, Darwin consistently interprets his observations such that they conform to his predetermined theory, and he is equally consistent in directing his vision away from any facts which might tell against it. Indeed, Darwin begins by rejecting what is most evident of all, namely, the immutability of the species. Darwin claims that all species have evolved through variation and natural selection in such a way that they are eventually transformed into some other kind of thing which is infertile with its original stock. And yet, there has never been a single example of one species evolving into another species. Despite endless attempts to speed up the evolutionary process in the laboratory with pumice flies (which produce twenty-five generations in a year), scientists have never been able to transmute one species into some different kind of thing which cannot breed with the parent stock. By subjecting pumice flies to X-rays in order to increase the rate of mutations, scientists have produced hundreds of varieties of the pumice fly, but all of them breed freely with the original stock, if they are capable of breeding at all. As for the sterile hybrids, they cannot reproduce their own kind, much as a mule cannot be produced by breeding two mules, but only by crossing a horse and a donkey. Concerning the mule, it is as if Nature has cried out: “Thou shalt be sterile and, to those who must work with thee, a curse!”

It is evident, then, that the central thesis of Darwin’s theory of evolution is not based upon observation. Moreover, one hundred and forty years of scientific observations, which have been expressly undertaken to confirm Darwin’s theory, have not produced the desired result. While all sorts of individual variations within a species can be observed, there is not a shred of evidence demonstrating that “beneficial” variations have led through natural selection to intermediate species, which then produce new species infertile with the original species. In fact, there is no evidence whatsoever that these intermediate species have ever existed, and the fossil record which was supposed to establish their existence has been singularly uncooperative. Nonetheless, because the existence of these so-called “missing links” is necessitated by Darwin’s original hypothesis, their existence has been posited as scientific fact, and thus false assumption has been laid upon false assumption.

While we cannot stop to consider in any detail the alleged restorations of prehistoric man, all the evidence suggests that such restorations are works of the imagination rather than of science. Moreover, the numerous outrageous examples of supposed transformation, which no amount of time could effect without miraculous intervention, further demonstrate the unscientific basis of the theory itself and its subsequent promotion by the progressivists.

Consistent with his position, Darwin argues in the conclusion of The Origin of Species that there is no essential difference between species and varieties, because species are continually being transformed into new forms, and varieties are nothing but incipient new species. Darwin then concludes with a truly incredible statement. He writes: “We shall at least be freed from the vain search for the undiscovered and undiscoverable essence of the term species.” Given the title of his book, it would seem that the irony of this statement was not apparent to Darwin. After all, if the term “species” has no real meaning because species do not really exist, then what can Darwin possibly mean when he claims that one species can evolve into another? Moreover, if there are no true species, but only individuals, then the differences between these individuals certainly cannot prove the mutability of species (which, we should recall, is the thesis of Darwin’s book).

Even if the content of Darwin’s book did not render meaningless its own title, the ancients and medievals would have been puzzled by the title alone. As we noted earlier in our discussion of form and matter, the name “species” or “forms” refers to the “looks” of things, which reflect the immutable essences which stand behind their outward appearances, namely, what Plato called the Forms. Since these immutable essences are eternal, it would not be proper to speak of them as having an origin in the strict sense, though one could speak about the origin of those creatures into which the transcendental Forms are, so to speak, incarnated. It is important to realize, however, that these creatures can come to be and pass away without ever compromising the eternity of the species. For even if one destroyed every elephant in the world, one could not destroy the archetype of an elephant, that is, what an elephant is. Moreover, because each individual in any given species bears the trace of an immutable essence or archetype, there is no possiblity of one species evolving into another, though there can be, of course, variation within a species. In sum, the entire theory of evolution rests upon a confusion between species and simple variation, a confusion made inevitable by Darwin’s rejection of formal and final causality. Even more fundamentally, Darwin is confused about the metaphysical order of things when he argues that more being can evolve from less, that an effect can be superior to its own cause, and that the parts are greater than the whole.

Darwin’s theory of evolution, like the modern scientific outlook which gave birth to it, begins with the rejection of everything but empirical evidence, but ends by ignoring empirical evidence altogether. Modern science fails to see that its own arbitrary first principle – that empirical evidence alone is valid – cannot itself be established empirically. Because form cannot be weighed or measured, modern science rejects it out of hand. But the final result of this hubristic rejection is that modern science is reduced to speaking nonsensically, since it will not accept that which every child grasps immediately and surely: that dogs are dogs, and not cats.

We are reminded of the mysterious conclusion to the parable of the talents: “For to every one who has will more be given, and he will have abundance; but from him who has not, even what he seems to have will be taken away” (Matthew 25:29). So, too, the modern scientists who, having no knowledge of the immaterial world, have even had their understanding of the material world taken away from them. Indeed, by denying the existence of an intuitive faculty of the soul which can grasp self-evident first principles, modern scientists have necessarily lost their ability to reason, to imagine, and even to sense. Theirs is the outer darkness, where there is much weeping and gnashing of teeth.

This need not be the case for natural science as such, of course, as Fabre, Darwin’s contemporary, makes wonderfully clear. Consider Fabre’s magnificent description of the transfiguration of the grey cricket, which I will quote here at some length. Consider, as you listen to this passage, how naturally the language of form and matter emerge from Fabre’s observations, as well as the doctrine of archetypes and the recognition of a Divine Architect:

It is perfectly evident, when we have the preparatory as well as the final condition of the wing before our eyes, that the wing-sheath of the larva is not a simple mould which elaborates the tissue enclosed in its own image and fashions the wing after the complexities of its own cavity.

The future wing is not contained in the sheath as a bundle, which will astonish us, when expanded, by the extent and extreme complication of its surface. Or, to speak more exactly, it is there, but in a potential state. Before becoming an actual thing it is a virtual thing which is not yet, but is capable of becoming. It is there as the oak is inside the acorn.

A fine transparent cushion limits the free edge of the embryo wing and the embryo wing-case. Under a powerful microscope we can perceive therein a few doubtful lineaments of the future lace-work. This might well be the factory in which life will shortly set its materials in movement. Nothing more is visible; nothing that will make us foresee the prodigious network in which each mesh must have its form and place predetermined with geometrical exactitude.

In order that the organisable material can shape itself as a sheet of gauze and describe the inextricable labyrinth of the nervuration, there must be something better and more wonderful than a mould. There is a prototypical plan, an ideal pattern, which imposes a precise position upon each atom of the tissue. Before the material commences to circulate the configuration is already virtually traced, the courses of the plastic currents are already mapped out. The stones of our building co-ordinate according to the considered plan of the architect; they form an ideal assemblage before they exist as a concrete assemblage.

Similarly, the wing of a cricket, that wonderful piece of lace-work emerging from a tiny sheath, speaks to us of another Architect, the author of the plans according to which life labours.

The genesis of living creatures offers to our contemplation an infinity of wonders far greater than this matter of a cricket’s wing; but in general they pass unperceived, obscured as they are by the veil of time.

Time, in the deliberation of mysteries, deprives us of the most astonishing of spectacles except our spirits be endowed with a tenacious patience. Here by exception the fact is accomplished with a swiftness that forces the attention.
Whosoever would gain, without wearisome delays, a glimpse of the inconceivable dexterity with which the forces of life can labour, has only to consider the great cricket of the vineyard. The insect will show him that which is hidden from our curiosity by extreme deliberation in the germinating seed, the opening leaf, and the budding flower. We cannot see the grass grow; but we can watch the growth of the cricket’s wings.

Amazement seizes upon us before this sublime phantasmagoria of the grain of hemp which in a few hours has been transmuted into the finest cloth. What a mighty artist is Life, shooting her shuttle to weave the wings of the cricket . . . “What power, what wisdom, what inconceivable perfection in this least of secrets that the vineyard cricket has shown us!”

I have heard that a learned inquirer, for whom life is only a conflict of physical and chemical forces, does not despair one day obtaining artificially organisable matter – protoplasm, as the official jargon has it. If it were in my power I should hasten to satisfy this ambitious gentleman.

But so be it: you have really prepared protoplasm. By force of meditation, profound study, minute care, impregnable patience, your desire is realized: you have extracted from your apparatus an albuminous slime, easily corruptible and stinking like the devil at the end of a few days: in short, a nastiness. What are you going to do with it? Organize something? Will you give it the structure of a living edifice? Will you inject it with a hypodermic syringe between two impalpable plates to obtain were it only the wing of a fly?

That is very much what the cricket does. It injects its protoplasm between the two surfaces of an embryo organ, and the material forms a wing-cover, because it finds as guide the ideal archetype of which I spoke but now. It is controlled in the labyrinth of its course by a device anterior to the injection: anterior to the material itself.

This archetype, the co-ordinator of forms; this primordial regulator; have you got it on the end of your syringe? No! Then throw away your product. Life will never spring from that chemical filth.

It would seem very likely that Darwin himself was the “ambitious gentleman” to whom Fabre addressed his admonition. Certainly the difference between Fabre and Darwin could not be drawn in a more striking fashion, and there is perhaps no more fitting condemnation of Darwin’s “survival of the fittest” than the fact that everyone in these progressive times knows who the inferior Darwin is, whereas almost no one knows the superior Fabre.

Unlike Darwin, Fabre, the true scientist, begins not with a theory, but with observable facts. And the facts, as we have seen, lead us to God. The protoplasm may indeed be made of the same stuff as the cricket, yet the cricket is more than the protoplasm because of the divine imprint or form which bespeaks a wisdom which transcends the natural order, but which is nevertheless manifested through it.

Dr. Jeffrey Bond