Evolution and teleology

I was struck by St. Thomas’s account of the ultimate interior end of the universe:

Now, in the order spoken of before, in which the rational Plan of divine providence is observed, we have said that the first is the divine goodness as the ultimate end… second is the numerical plurality (numerositas) of things, for the constitution of which there must be different degrees in forms and matters…

And so immediately under the order to God as an extrinsic principle, the ultimate good is the numerousness of things, a numerousness that is most of all verified in the division of one species from another by form. Note that, in this context, the numerousness of species abstracts from time – extinct species would thus be a contribution to diversity in the sense St. Thomas is speaking of here. Again, when we speak of a species here we abstract from the division of species and subspecies, and other such precisions.

Processes like selection and drift are unintelligible and superfluous except in relation to this sort of diversity, and so must be understood in relation to the chief interior end of the universe. Notice that this is a far more intimate and profound union between creatures and the creator than is usually posited by theistic evolution. Theistic evolution might posit intentional action in the making of the first species, or in occasional actions correcting or directing the process; but when we consider evolution as teleological according to the good St. Thomas suggests, it is not merely connected with an end so far as the need for the first living thing to arise (in which case evolution would only be teleological in the principle it arises from) nor is it only connected to intentional action at the occasional moments where God might step in and direct it; rather, it is teleological so long as there is any diversity in species at all, that is, always and in its own intelligible structure. Moreover, this end is not simply any old end – but the ultimate intrinsic end of the universe itself. Does theistic evolution ever connect evolution to a good of the universe, still less the greatest intrinsic good of the universe as such?

All this is perfectly consistent with any particular instance of selection and drift being utterly unpredictable as to its particular result. The goal that the process is working towards is not this or that particular species, and everything that atheist philosophers say about the utter-chanciness, unpredictability and absence of particular design in the process is true. It’s just that the goal is far more general, obvious, and separated from any particular instance of selection – which considered in themselves are each completely random.


  1. Brandon said,

    January 22, 2011 at 4:29 pm

    I think this is quite the right approach; and it has the advantage of showing that when people talk about evolution being teleological they often are taking a too narrow idea of what’s involved in something being teleological — i.e., usually people identify the claim, “Evolutionary processes have a natural end,” with “God has rigged evolutionary processes so that they would only go in one direction.” But, of course, a natural end can also have the result of making something go in many directions (and, of course, it can be consistent with such an end that it does so according to chance).

  2. PatrickH said,

    January 23, 2011 at 2:34 am

    Are you saying that on the view of St Thomas, the intrinsic good of the universe is to maximize the number of species over the lifespan of the universe? Maximize the number as such? No ultimate goals (intrinsic to the universe), no direction (intrinsic to the universe), no “progress” or “devolution” at all? Just maximized numerical diversity of species?

    • Brandon said,

      January 23, 2011 at 4:27 am

      It wouldn’t necessarily be maximization (there’s no maximum number, because there always could be more), and it wouldn’t be maximizing number as such, but it is St. Thomas’s view that the end of the cosmos is to participate in the likeness of God — and what God can have simply and as one, created things can have only by diversity and multiplicity. And from this it follows that it is a subordinate end of the universe to be as diverse and various as is consistent with its imitating the excellences of God.

    • January 23, 2011 at 5:57 am


      Yes, but by “number” he doesn’t mean primaily the homogeneous multiplication of the individuals of a species (which, admittedly, is the first sense of number)but the heterogeneous multiplication of species themselves. This is a very different sort of multiplication, since it is formal and therefore essentially related to degrees of perfection. We can abstract from these perfections and see the species in the mode of simple numbers (as though plant, animal, man were just 1. 2. 3.), but in fact formal distinction is always a part of an ordered totality in a hierarchy. So St. Thomas saw the sort of numerousness (itself a good) as the sort of heterogeneity that is essentially ordered.

  3. January 23, 2011 at 6:06 am

    A follow up to Brandon’s point: as I see this, the universe, so far as it is synonymous with “creation” is an effect and therefore essentially relates to its cause. But God is an equivocal cause of the universe, and not a univocal cause. The universe thus relates to God not as an equal, homogeneous group, but essentially as a heterogeneous and diverse whole of things diverse in species.

  4. Gagdad Bob said,

    January 23, 2011 at 7:04 am

    Note also that the multiplicity in the cosmos is exponentially heightened in man, because each person, although a member of the species, is unique — unlike other animals, who are more or less purely typal. In a way, each man is his own species, which I suppose mirrors the absolute uniqueness of the Creator. So, be ye fruitful and multiply. More to the point, be multiple and bear good fruit.

    • Brandon said,

      January 23, 2011 at 8:13 am

      It’s interesting you should bring this up, because I was thinking just this morning of another way in which the multiplicity is exponentially heightened by the existence of man, namely, the fact that we are in some sense a microcosm, and like the macrocosm part of our good is diversification, which human reason, composing and dividing in light of the natural light of the intellect, can do on a truly massive scale. It’s not our ultimate end; but it’s a genuine end subordinate to it, to be, in a sense, a rich world of thought and understanding, for through such a diversity we come closer to expressing the goodness of God.

  5. Gagdad Bob said,

    January 23, 2011 at 8:41 am

    Yes. It’s a matter of true vs. false unity — or perhaps interior vs. exterior unity. Both a rock and an organism are “one,” but the latter is an infinitely more diverse unity. The most diverse unity in creation is the human being, in that the simple experience of a unitary “I” subsumes an inconceivable amount of diversity. Think, for example, of the billions of synaptic connections in the brain, and yet, all resolved in the “I” of that neural storm. Not for nothing is God “I AM.” AM without I is like an outside without an inside.

  6. skholiast said,

    January 27, 2011 at 1:03 pm

    It strikes me that this analysis of St Thomas’ can also be used to describe the hypothetical multiverse w/ which the latest crop of cosmo-Darwinists have conjured away the fine-tuning of the universe a la the (so called) anthropic principle.

    • January 27, 2011 at 7:29 pm

      I don’t see any way around Haldane’s objection that either these other universes are observable or not: if so, they are not other universes; if not then they are not objects of science. Presumably, another universe would have to be causally closed off from ours, but to get any information about it would require some sort of interation with it.

      So I’m not convinced that “universe” is the sort of thing that admits of multiplicity.

  7. Mike said,

    February 6, 2011 at 6:12 pm

    IOW, the telos of evolution is “the origin of species”?

    BTW, where does the T-man make this observation? Contra gentiles? I found it once, but have lost it.

    I might also suggest that on the particular scale of the individual species, there is also a goal of fitness-to-the-niche, which accords well with a thing’s nature actualizing in its intended environment.

    And on the finest scale, there is telos in the actions of individuals who seek to go on living, and thus probe different environments in which they might exploit some new trait. So pandas whose wrist bones have protruded into a false thumb begin to strip bamboo with it.

  8. February 6, 2011 at 6:35 pm

    To the first question – yes, but species as a multitude, not a quantitative multitude (which is homogeneous) but the actual multiplicity of species.

    That multitude – even multitude arising from the chance that results from an aspect of matter – is intended by God is argued pretty well here

    Adaptability, if it were a process with principles and terms, could be a real end – but adaptability does not seem to be a process in this way. There is some way that a pebble is adapted to the sieve because it doesn’t fall through (and some sense in which the sieve selects it too), but in natural selection it seems that the size of the sieve hole is always changing more or less at random. There are real laws here that can give us multiplicity, but adaptibility is harder for me to see. But I’ll think it over.

  9. Joe Fischer said,

    February 22, 2011 at 10:09 pm

    Wasn’t St Thomas a creationist?

    • Mike said,

      February 23, 2011 at 6:28 am

      Depends on how equivocal you want to be. Modern terms and categories sometimes fit ill on 13th century thought. The problem is that the modern term comes with all sorts of socio-political baggage: it is a pose more so than a description. The only time I can think of when Thomas mentioned the origin of species was when he wrote:
      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. ST I, Q73, Art.1, resp. 3
      The thing to note is that he does not suggest that God operates as a secondary cause, “poofing” new species into existence. Rather, new species arise because of powers granted by God to the inherent natures of things; that is, because of natural powers.

      Hope this helps.

  10. February 23, 2011 at 8:58 am

    Mr. Fisher,

    Mike is right that our terms don’t map very well on 13th century thought- and, at any rate, one can hold a.) creationism is unreasonable and b.) St. Thomas was reasonable to be a creationist, since statement a.) presupposes some information and evidence that STA did not have access to.

    Let’s make the question concrete: did St. Thomas believe that the earth was made in six twenty-four hour periods? The answer is “probably not, though he didn’t rule it out, since he had no evidence to rule it out”. St. Thomas takes up the question of how one is to understand “day” in several places – some of the best places to start reading are here and here Notice that Augustine – the guiding star of Scholastics – is firm that “day” does not indicate an order in time, and so that one does not have six 24 hour periods but six causal levels or orders of dignity in the universe. St. Thomas is also open to the idea that the “light” created on the first day is to be taken in a spiritual sense.

    The upshot is that the most reasonable way to read STA is that he advocated the simplest (frequently called the most literal) reading of Scripture unless one had good evidence that this simplest reading is false (ashe explicitly says in the first link), and any interpretation of his creationism has to be read under this criterion.

    • February 23, 2011 at 9:11 am

      The basic axiom that governs this whole discussion is this one, and any Thomist who deals with faith and science issues ought to memorize St. Thomas’s own argument in what follows down to the last word:

      In discussing questions of this kind two rules are to observed, as Augustine teaches (Gen. ad lit. i, 18). The first is, to hold the truth of Scripture without wavering. The second is that since Holy Scripture can be explained in a multiplicity of senses, one should adhere to a particular explanation, only in such measure as to be ready to abandon it, if it be proved with certainty to be false; lest Holy Scripture be exposed to the ridicule of unbelievers, and obstacles be placed to their believing.

      Summa theologiae I q. 68 a. 1 co.

      The “questions of this kind” are questions like “was the earth created in six 24 hour periods” or even any question of Scriptural interpretation and natural evidence. The criterion seems obvious to me, and it’s hard to see it as the kind of axiom that would be held by someone who today calls himself a creationist.

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