Charles Darwin vs. Thomas Aquinas: What Follows from Our Nature?

At his blog recently, Thomist philosopher Edward Feser wrote the following: “For Aquinas, what is good for us is necessarily good for us because it follows from our nature. As such, even God couldn’t change it, any more than he could make two and two equal to five.”

Yet what is “our nature,” and what is “good for us”? Here’s what Aquinas never knew: evolution.

But Walt Whitman knew it, and here’s what he wrote: “As the greatest lessons of Nature through the universe are perhaps the lessons of variety and freedom, the same present the greatest lessons also in New World politics and progress.” That’s the first sentence of Whitman’s “Democratic Vistas” (1867), written eight years after Charles Darwin wrote The Origin of Species (1859).

In other words, before there are Thomistic essences to be taken account of (“penises are for vaginas”; “women’s bodies are for reproduction”; “breasts are for infant feeding”), evolution tells us that, for the human animal, there is hijacking of purposes; cleverness; a variety of gambits; vistas reached where humans can see beyond Nature’s courses and inertias, and bypass them. Whitman’s “variety and freedom” translates in contemporary culture to things such as contraception, gender equality, and gay marriage.

Aquinas couldn’t have reasoned in a contemporary manner about these things because he didn’t know Darwin. That means Aquinas didn’t know what sort of animal he was even writing about. He knew none of our evolutionary history. He could no more talk sensibly about gender or homosexuality than he could about the nature of the stars. He was that far in the dark.

Something Aquinas didn’t know (for example) is that the large and modular human brain is often in conflict with itself; it doesn’t hold together in a single vision, or to one purpose. The reason for this is that different parts of the brain evolved in different contexts for different purposes. The brain has been generated by contingent history. If God exists, then God, through evolution, didn’t make the components of the human brain for pulling all in the same direction. There is competition within. So God made us impulse players; imaginative exploiters of the contingent moment; gamblers into the future, not just respecters of the past. We are nomads as well as settlers. We are evolution accelerators. If we have a central nature, that’s it. The hawk’s superpower is its eye; the human’s superpower is her clever hijacking of essences in the service of a larger vision; a grander evolutionary survival strategy. We see moves along the competitive chessboard of life that no other animal can even imagine, and we can choose.

So for Edward Feser to reason about human nature without taking full account of what we’ve learned about the brain after Darwin is problematic. To speak of essences in medieval terms, prior to submitting to the full deliverances of evolution and science as to what we are (and it’s a complicated picture) is folly. At one point in Edward Feser’s blog post, for instance, he speaks of the popes, scripture, and tradition as reasons for not budging on key issues surrounding sex and gender. But arguments from authority should not be the starting places for intellectual reasoning. In the 21st century, evolution should be that starting point. Evolution is, as the philosopher Daniel Dennett so aptly puts it, “a universal acid.” The Thomistic tradition Edward Feser appeals to, therefore, came into existence long before Darwin, and for it to retain any serious attention from the educated, it ought to be re-imagined in the light of Darwin. Real essences should be sought, not fake or outdated essences, and our real essence is the power to hijack other essences–other “givens” in Nature–to fresh purposes.

In final pushback to the Thomistic notion of what human nature is (the animal that rationally submits its will to God and the prior essences that God has established), I’d like to point to Sartre’s famous counter-slogan to the classical ontological-theological tradition: “existence precedes essence.” I’d also like to point to a quote from Matthew Arnold (1822-1888). Arnold’s quote comes from his “The Study of Poetry” (1888): “Our religion has materialized itself in the fact, and now the fact is failing it. But for poetry the idea is everything; the rest is a world of illusion, or divine illusion. Poetry attaches its emotion to the idea; the idea is the fact. The strongest part of our religion today is its unconscious poetry.”

Arnold’s quote most obviously suggests that religion needs to attend to the deliverances of science, and not be so literalist in its reading of ancient texts. It’s okay for Adam and Eve and Jesus, for instance, not to have existed. As with the story of the Buddha,  the biblical stories are powerful spurs to thought whether they really happened or not.

But Arnold’s quote is also rich with a larger implication: There is an alternative to obeying the Book and discovering what religious tradition takes to be Nature’s “essences.” Once we’ve unshackled our minds from authority, we can re-conceptualize ourselves as the poetic animal. Our imaginations and ideas can be less illusory than the rest of the world. Here’s Arnold again: “[F]or poetry the idea is everything; the rest is a world of illusion, or divine illusion.” In other words, we can hijack the world to our purposes. We can be less concerned with the classical reality vs. appearance distinction, and focus more on playing with appearances; on fashioning imaginative tools for working with appearances. We can make reality into a hippie happening, for our evolutionary superpower is to transform what is into things interesting, strange, novel, surprising, different.

If that’s a nervy prospect, one can always tip-toe back into the shadows where religion and superstition pitch their tents in essentialist terms, providing ready-made answers for frightened and sleepy travellers. But I prefer Darwin, Whitman, and Man Ray to Aquinas, fundamentalism, and Feser.

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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