Thursday, February 12, 2009

Darwin Day and Man as Special

It's Darwin Day, and this gives me a chance to sound-off about some of the silly reasoning associated with Darwinism. One common claim, repeated to the point that it is nearly a cliche, is that Darwin supposedly de-throned man, and showed that he is "not special."

Sorry, but the fact that man is special has nothing to do with religion, or even whether or not Darwinism is true. That man is special is an obvious fact of nature. Man is the only creature on Earth who can destroy any other creature if he so chooses, or even the Earth itself if he so chooses. He is the only creature who pursues knowledge for its own sake, love for its own sake, art for its own sake, and develops theories of origins like Darwinism over which he argues. Man is the only creature who self-consciously transcends his environment, not only physically in his trips to the Moon, but intellectually as well. Alone among creatures, he wonders about his place in nature. The argument between Darwinists and creationists is not how peculiar man is, but how this peculiar creature called man came about.

One of the reasons put forward for the fact that man is "not special" is that Darwin showed that species are not discrete, but blend into each other over time. I say: So what? The chain of being remains nonetheless. We may discover that the chain holding the bell in a tower is actually a rope, and so is continuous rather than discrete. But the rope still has a top and a bottom, a beginning and an end. We can still distinguish two feet from the top of the rope from two feet from the bottom of the rope, just as we could various places on the chain. Really, the difference between the Darwinists and the traditional view is that the Darwinists claim the chain has many more links, to the point that it becomes continuous (as in calculus), and that the higher links arose from the lower. All that is besides the point regarding the nature of the chain, or rope if you like, as we immediately encounter it. Saying that Darwinian gradualism proves that we cannot draw a metaphysical distinction between man and lower animals, is like saying that we can't draw a metaphysical distinction between noon and midnight because of analog clocks.

I will be scolded by the more metaphysically hardcore Darwinists for using terms like "higher" and "lower." Darwin, you see, showed that life is just a blind, materialist game of survival, and man is not "better" or "worse", "higher" or "lower", or "more important" than any other creature. But Darwinism does give a scale of values; its whole point is that life is a game of survival, as in "survival of the fittest." Games by their nature have winners and losers, unless they are held in post-modern elementary schools, and I am confident the Darwinists will approve of my saying that Darwinism is anything but post-modern. And there is no doubt that man has won this game, to the point every other creature only survives at his whim. The lack of a sense of irony in Darwinists is demonstrated by enviro-Darwinists, who say we shouldn't wipe out other species because Darwin showed we are just another animal, no better or worse than others. The very fact that we can decide whether or not to wipe out other species proves that we are not just another animal. It's the king who decides whether or not someone will be executed.

The more Darwinists insist that the distinction between men and animals is trivial, the more trivial they make Darwinism. The genius of Darwin was supposed to be that he explained how the glorious diversity of life on Earth, with its intricate designs, strange symbiotic relationships, and astounding range of beings, from the simple amoeba to the staggeringly complex and scientific man, the species that includes geniuses like Darwin himself, all resulted from the simple combination of chance and natural selection. My point here is not to argue with that conclusion; it is to point out that, the more we denigrate the powers of man compared to the lower organisms, the less impressive becomes Darwinism. If conducting science is but a trivial improvement on apes probing anthills with sticks, then the process that changed the ant-hunting ape into the Darwinist scientist is of trivial significance.

And the real target of the man-isn't-special Darwinists isn't the ancient conception of man, but the early modern conception of man, despite what Darwinists think. The ancient conception of organic life was based on the three-way division of the soul into vegetative, locomotive and intellectual aspects. All living things had a soul, plants relatively poverty-stricken with only a vegetative soul, animals a little richer with a locomotive as well as a vegetative soul, and man fully loaded with a vegetative, locomotive and intellectual soul. Our soul is the same soul as plants and animals but with an intellectual aspect as well. The difference, then, between Darwinists and Thomas Aquinas is that St. Thomas thinks the soul of man recapitulates the hierarchy of organic life in its being, whereas the Darwinist thinks the soul of man recapitulates the hierarchy of organic life in time (as the current temporal culmination of an historical process.) So both St. Thomas and Darwinists see a continuity between man and the rest of organic life, although they differ profoundly (of course) concerning the nature of that continuity.

The early moderns, mesmerized by the new advances in science (especially physics), leapt to the conclusion that animals are really organic machines, most famously stated in the philosophy of Descartes. But a machine doesn't know anything, a fact that the early moderns didn't forget even if many philosophers forget it today, so Descartes supposed a radical division in the nature of man between the material, mechanical body and an immaterial knowing substance - the soul. The Cartesian soul is essentially the ancient soul stripped of its vegetative and locomotive natures, a pure knowing substance absurdly attached to a body, marking a radical break in being between man and the rest of nature, and turning man into a monster wandering in an alien world of natural creatures. Of course man so conceived is "special" only in the unfortunate sense that Frankenstein's monster was special, and the Darwinists are to be applauded for finally chasing this conception of man into a windmill and burning him alive.

But the Thomistic soul did not perish in the windmill, because it was never a monster that drew the ire of a mob of pitchfork wielding villagers. Thomistic man is special for the same reason Darwinian man is - he is the culmination of nature.


EdT said...


Good article on a Thomistic view of Intelligent Design at Catholic Answers/This Rock at:
- Ed

David T. said...

thanks I'll check it out...

Kev T said...

I'm re-reading Fulton Sheen's Peace of Soul, and he makes a good comment regarding science and philosophy: "Every mind has two sides, a speculative side, which studies theory, and a practical side, which directs and guides human affairs. A sinful life does not destroy the first; that is why an evil man can be as good a mathematician as can a saint. But an evil life ruins the practical intellect; hence, a learned mathematician who turns to writing on morals and religion is often a bundle of confusion". Kev

David T. said...


Nice quote... thanks.