National Catholic Register


Evolution as Evidence for the Argument from Design

BY Mark Shea

| Posted 11/17/13 at 11:01 PM


As we noted last time, both St. Thomas and the sciences insist that we live in a lawful universe.  It is because of this conviction that God has invested nature with a certain inherent lawfulness enabling it to organize and elaborate itself that the Catholic tradition in general and St. Thomas in particular have no big issue with what will eventually become known as “evolutionary theory”.  St. Augustine, a thousand years before Thomas, will take it for granted that God has invested in nature properties that unroll over time (the Latin for “unroll” is “evolvere”).

It is therefore, causally that Scripture has said that earth brought forth the crops and trees, in the sense that it received the power of bringing them forth. In the earth from the beginning, in what I might call the roots of time, God created what was to be in times to come.

And so St. Thomas will likewise take it for granted, not that God keeps tinkering with the universe to miraculously design a new species of cow or platypus now and then by direct divine intervention, but that the universe has invested in it by God the power to organize itself and bring forth new forms and properties over time:

Nature is nothing but the plan of some art, namely a divine one, put into things themselves, by which those things move towards a concrete end: as if the man who builds up a ship could give to the pieces of wood that they could move by themselves to produce the form of the ship.

Of course, St. Thomas isn’t privy to a lot of the knowledge we have accumulated since his day, but what’s striking is that he gets the main thing: that God has invested in creation right from the start the power to unroll itself.  So he writes:

Nothing entirely new was afterwards made by God, but all things subsequently made had in a sense been made before in the work of the six days. .... Species, also, that are new, if any such appear, existed beforehand in various active powers; so that animals, and perhaps even new species of animals, are produced by putrefaction by the power which the stars and elements received at the beginning.

Forget the wrong science about “putrefaction”. The “consensus science” of Thomas’ day was that insects were created by rotting meat and he simply took the word of the scientists for granted to illustrate his point as an ordinary person today might take the word of “consensus science” for granted about climate change, plate tectonics, or relativity without knowing much about those disciplines beyond something he saw on the Discovery Channel. The main point is this: Thomas believes, just like a modern evolutionist does, that new species (should any turn up) would be brought forth by purely natural powers. In his day the best guess of science was that stars and the elements causing putrefaction were the natural agents of change.  These days it’s cosmic rays or “environmental agents” causing a mutation in a genome. But the point is: he grasped that new species arose from natural causes, not because of a violation or suspension of natural law.

In short, the classic Argument from Design is not that God hits the first cueball and then goes off to nap for a few billion years until he needs to step in, tweak the machine, and make DNA, or tyrannosaurs, or a new species of whale appear via a miraculous zap.  It’s that God has invested all of creation with the power to unroll the potential hidden in it from the Beginning and that he is present and sustaining creation in every atom and at every nanosecond as it does so.  It is indeed his design, and it is a design far more elegant than that of a garage tinkerer perpetually having to fix nature with endless miraculous inventions to create new species of beetles.

So when we look at the sheer scope, scale, terror and wonder of the universe in which we find ourselves, we conclude that whatever else may be true about the Power behind such a universe, it is not only infinitely powerful but infinitely ingenious. In short, we recognize a Designer--and an immensely creative and varied Designer is more like a person such as an Artist or an Engineer than like anything else in our experience.  So the evidence points toward a God who is not merely an abstract Thing like the Force, but something more like a Mind than anything else in our experience.

Now our experience of Mind points us to something behind the universe vastly more interesting that the Force.  For it turns out that human beings contemplate magnets and electric sparks far more often than they contemplate us. And for this reason we can say there exists something in this world that is more than the physical world though it is most certainly a creature as well. It is the first and only creature in the history of the universe to notice, comment on, and try to imitate the beauty of the natural world: the extraordinary animal known as homo sapiens sapiens.

Of which more next time.