Monday, October 26, 2009

Pre-Darwinian Evolution

Humphrey has a great post up on creationism and evolution. One of his points is something that I've mentioned on this blog before: the doctrine of rationes seminales. This was a position that apparently originated with the ancient Stoics and was picked up by many Christian writers. The idea, at least as the Christians understood it, is that God created the world in seed-form, or with certain potentialities, which then developed or unfolded accordingly. Obviously this is very similar to evolution. Rationes seminales was accepted by such ancient and medieval Christian writers as Athenagoras, Tertullian, Gregory of Nyssa, Augustine, Bonaventure, Albertus Magnus, and Roger Bacon. Since such Christian luminaries accepted that the world and its elements developed over time, it becomes obvious that evolution is not at all incompatible with Christianity.

Another point I've made before is something C. S. Lewis brings up in his book The Discarded Image and some essays like "The Funeral of a Great Myth." Lewis argues that, prior to Darwin, there was widespread belief in a sort of developmentalism, according to which the universe and life in particular were progressively becoming "better." Wagner's Ring Cycle is an example of this. This view permeated 18th and 19th century culture, so that when the theory of evolution came along, it was perceived by many as proof of it (although, obviously, this view -- as well as that of rationes seminales -- is teleological whereas Darwinian evolution is not). This developmentalism didn't have a specifically Christian connotation to it, as it tended to disparage the ancients and medievals as intellectually inferior. Lewis's point is that evolution wasn't accepted in Western society purely because of the scientific evidence for it, but because it accorded with the already accepted view of progress or improvement. He doesn't intend this to challenge the validity of evolution, but simply to point out that there was more in play than scientific evidence.


IlĂ­on said...

Darwin avoided using the term 'evolution' (using instead the clunky phrase "descent with modification") precisely because of the "ordered developmentalism" linked to the coinage and prior use of the term 'evolution.'

Anonymous said...

Hi, you might want to read this online book about Augustine and Evolution by Henry Woods, S. J. (1924)

He disputes your assertion

Jim S. said...

Thanks for the link! That book looks fascinating.