It is a commonplace now to pit evolution against creation in a sort of proxy war between secularism and religion, but it is worth dissecting how this got to be the case. First, it’s worth getting precise on just what notion the Darwinian principle of the origin of species by means of natural selection is alternative to, which is, trivially enough, the origin of species by special creation: that is, the notion that God made each species more or less as it is, separately, and all in one go. That is, strictly speaking, all that’s on the line: if you believe in special creation and the immutability of species, you can’t believe in the synthesis of Darwin and Weismann that constitutes the basis of modern biology.
The next thing that is worth getting clear about, because apparently everybody gets this wrong, is that as a matter of fact it is in no wise an essential part of the Abrahamic religious tradition to believe these things, and in fact the belief in special creation is a datable and localized historical phenomenon which is nonexistant prior to the 16th century, and arises due to distinguistable shifts in the intellectual landscape of the modern period. I restrict myself only to the Christian tradition in the Anglosphere, with which I’m adequately familiar, leaving parallel arguments to experts in Judaism or Islam.
To begin with, the actual wording of Genesis is ambiguous enough that it can’t be clearly said to take a stand on this issue: it is all stated in terms of ‘and God said let there be X’, and makes no commitments about the means chosen by God to achieve His ends. So we have to repair to the interpretative and theological tradition for further illumination. Turning to the early Church Fathers, we find in Augustine’s definitive commentary on Genesis (De Genesi ad litteram, Bk. V) rather an explicit rejection of interpreting phrases like ‘after his kind’ as implying instantaneous and complete creation of each creature, in favor of something that rather resembles a primitive natural history — many germs developing according to their own laws. And if this is insufficient, we can move right along to Thomas Aquinas’ gloss in Summa Theologica (First Part, Question 73):
‘As to the production of plants, Augustine holds a different view. For some expositors say that on this third day plants were actually produced each in his kind — a view which is favored by a superficial reading of the letter of Scripture. But Augustine says that the earth is then said to have brought forth grass and trees causaliter — i. e., it then received the power to produce them. This view he confirms by the authority of Scripture, which says, “These are the generations of the heaven and of the earth, when they were created, in the day that the Lord God made the earth and the heavens, and every plant of the field before it was in the earth, and every herb of the field before it grew.” (Genesis, ii, 4.) Before then they came into being on the earth, they were made causally in the earth. And this is confirmed by reason. For in those first days God made creatures primarily or causaliter, and then rested from his work, and yet after that, by his superintendence of things created, he works even to this day in the work of propagation. For the production of plants from the earth belongs to the work of propagation.’
The scholastic term ‘causaliter’ here designates, as he says, ‘a power to produce’ — so that even before mules existed, they are capable of being brought forth causaliter by the breeding of horse and donkey. By means of this concept of unfolding what’s already implicit, there is no hard limit to how far back the principle can be pushed: again, God said ’let there be …’, and in principle there is no reason why this couldn’t be accomplished by evolutionary means. There was the primary act of creation, which is a proper religious mystery, followed by ‘superintendence’ and ‘propagation’ proceeding causaliter.
It is worth digressing here on precisely what the term ‘creation’ means to a Christian: it is quite precisely the conjunction of two things, that 1) nothing exists without God’s immanent activity, and 2) God is distinct from nature. Put these two together and you get orthodox creationism; cancel the first but keep the second, and you get mechanistic deism; cancel the second and keep the first, and you get monistic panthesim; cancel both and you’re an atheist. Anything but the first option is, from a strictly orthodox Christian point of view, heretical. Theologically, that’s all there is to the story, and various over-interpretations of what creation means lack basis in scriptural or doctrinal authorities. Creationism in the strict sense makes no commitment to special creation and immutability as a theory of species, and it had better not since not only is this contrary to the basic observations of breeding, but because the relevant sense of the term ‘species’ as a term in scientific taxonomy didn’t exist prior to the Enlightenment.
Which brings us to the next point, which is that if you start sniffing around at the earliest naturalistic writings of proto-Enlightenment scientists like Francis Bacon, you again see no hint of the notion of special creation or the immutability of species — in fact, in the Historia Naturalis, we find an entire section on ‘experiments in consort touching the degenerating of plants, and of the transmutation of them one into another’, where after summing up a bunch of putative examples of ‘transmutation of species’, Bacon pronounces in favor of the idea as against ‘the vulgar philosophy’ in which this is ‘pronounced impossible’. In this respect he’s at one with the medieval housewife as against a nascent philosophical movement, transmutation being a commonplace of medieval folklore.
And then, something happens. That something has a name: Ramism. It is a term whose full sense is difficult to summarize, but whose thrust can be indicated by calling it the first coherent rejection of scholasticism; and insofar as scholasticism meant Aristotle and Catholicism, Ramism in England meant Plato and Puritanism. Francis Bacon and William Shakespeare can be considered the last major exemplars of the Thomist or scholastic form of education; for comparison, John Ray and John Milton could be considered the first major exemplars of the Ramist or methodic form of education. And it’s precisely from these latter that the modern notion of special creation arises: Ray’s taxonomy is the principle source of the modern concept of species, and it would be hard to overstate the impact of Milton’s representation of the creation story in Paradise Lost in planting the image of special creation in the minds of the learned; the combined aesthetic and scientific impact of the ‘new learning’ emanating from Cambridge interacted with the flowering post-Reformation religious chaos in England to subtly re-write the picture of creation in Christian minds. And it’s from the combination of Ray and Milton that we get William Paley, directly.
It’s important to understand that special creation and immutability of species only had undisputed sway during the 18th century, and only in Protestant countries: before and after, and in Catholic nations, they can be found as entirely undecided matters of debate.
– production of the varieties of life potentialiter atque causaliter –
– William Ames, Ramist and Puritan — The Marrow of Sacred Divinity shows theology written from a Ramist POV. Educated at Cambridge. — Another example: John Yates, A Modell of Divinitie — Ramus himself had little to say about Plato, and only comments on the Timaeus, which is the work most likely to leave you with an inflated sense of the immutability of genus and species. — Milton’s book on Ramus’ logic — Suarez is the Catholic source for the hypothesis of special creation — right before Milton brought it to Protestantism. It’s actually a break with Augustine and Aquinas, ‘six literal days’. His reason for this is interesting: he was doing battle against the Avicennians, and ‘secondary causation’ was the main battleground. Aquinas had no problem with it.
Aubrey Moore, ‘Darwinism and the Christian Faith’
W.J. Ong, Ramus, Method, and the Decay of Dialogue
W.S. Howell, Logic and Rhetoric in England, 1500-1700
C.E. Raven, John Ray
J.D. Roberts, From Puritanism to Platonism in Seventeenth-Century England
A.O. Lovejoy, The Great Chain of Being
H.F. Osborne, From the Greeks to Darwin (esp. Ch. III)