Religion & Science
May 13, 1997
[Editor's note: The following is the transcript of Professor H. James Birx's presentation on May 1 at The Harbinger symposium, "RELIGION & SCIENCE: The Best of Enemies - The Worst of Friends."]
by H. James Birx
In the middle of the last century, Charles Robert Darwin (1809-1882) presented a scientific theory of organic evolution. His view of life challenged traditional biology and represented a conceptual revolution that has altered forever how we interpret the universe, life on this planet, and the human being within nature. However, Darwin himself was disturbed by the philosophical implications and theological consequences of his discovery that species are, in fact, mutable.
Taking Darwin seriously, the entrenched static view of life forms is replaced by a dynamic conception of the living world throughout earth history. Furthermore, this naturalistic interpretation of reality holds far-reaching ramifications for the beliefs that humankind is both separated from but occupies a special place in nature. Darwinian evolution has replaced the anthropocentric and theocentric cosmology with a universe that is utterly indifferent to the evolution of life in general, and the emergence of our own species in particular.
Among the ancient Greek philosophers, Aristotle argued that appearance is reality. He taught that nature is a ladder of forms or a great chain of being from minerals, through plants and animals, to the human being. Grounded in teleology and essentialism, his biology maintained the eternal fixity of all species. In fact, the Aristotelian worldview claimed that nature had no beginning and will have no end. It ignored fossils, denied extinctions, and consequently rejected the idea of evolution. Clearly, Aristotelian philosophy and Darwinian evolution are mutually exclusive interpretations of life on earth.
Among the Romans, the philosopher Lucretius presented a materialistic view of this universe in his poetic work On the Nature of Things. He held that the earth itself had given birth to plants and animals (including the human being). Because they contradicted the prevailing Greek worldview, Lucretius' ideas were unacceptable to the Aristotelians.
During the Italian Renaissance, Giordano Bruno argued that this universe is eternal in time, infinite in space and endlessly changing. Furthermore, advocating pantheism, he maintained that God and nature are one and the same thing. In doing so, his bold cosmic perspective challenged both the Thomists and Aristotelians. The traditional theistic interpretation of this universe and the new Brunian cosmology were mutually exclusive views of the world. As a result, Bruno was condemned as a heretic. In 1600, he was burned alive at the stake in Rome. In astronomy, however, the subsequent discoveries by Kepler and Galileo (among others) helped to demolish the ancient and medieval conceptions of this universe. Nevertheless, it still remained for a naturalist to replace a static view of life forms with an evolutionary interpretation of all species.
Before the Darwin-Wallace independent discovery of organic evolution, Lamarck had published The Philosophy of Zoology (1809) in the year of Darwin's birth; it was the first serious treatment of the mutability of species. Having studied rocks and fossils, Lamarck came to the inescapable conclusion that life forms had evolved throughout geological time. Lacking both a necessary explanatory mechanism within the framework of science and sufficient empirical evidence, he was unable to convince other naturalists of the truth of biological evolution.
Later, Robert Chambers wrote Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation (1844). However, neither Lamarck nor Chambers was able to explain organic evolution in terms of science and reason, i.e., neither naturalist was able to give a scientific mechanism to account for the mutability of species. Although the idea of evolution had been "in the air" for many decades, it still remained for a rigorous naturalist to bring empirical evidence and logical argumentation together in a convincing and intelligible way in order to persuade other naturalists that life forms do, in fact, change throughout geological time because of natural causes.
Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace (1823-1913) represent an exemplary case study of conflicting interpretations of the human being as well as the failure of nerve. In 1858, after working twenty years on his "descent with modification" theory, Darwin received a letter and manuscript from Wallace. No doubt with disbelief, Darwin read the enclosed essay which outlined a scientific explanation for the evolution of species remarkably similar to his own interpretation of the mutability of plant and animal forms on the earth. Although Darwin had been working for two decades on his proposed multi-volume work on the evolution of life, he had continuously postponed the publication of such a book because of the inevitable controversy that would surround his theory of descent. Now, independently, Wallace had also discovered the scientific theory of organic evolution by means of natural selection or the survival of the fittest (as Herbert Spencer referred to it). This parallel discovery of scientific evolution by Darwin and Wallace was the result of many similar events during the early years of these two naturalists.
Darwin had been born into a wealthy family; both his father Robert Waring Darwin and paternal grandfather Erasmus Darwin had been successful medical doctors. Since childhood, Darwin was a naturalist at heart, being interested in geology and especially entomology. He particularly enjoyed collecting and classifying beetles. During his formative years, he held to the then-taught idea of the eternal fixity of species and was a religious believer (although he never took the study of traditional theology seriously). He preferred collecting insects, studying rocks and fossils, , and taking nature walks with other naturalists. Despite studying first medicine and then theology, Darwin was always more dedicated to natural history. This led to an interest in the writings of Alexander von Humboldt, the father of scientific exploration, and William Paley, especially his book Natural Theology (1802).
Paley argued that the assumed order in nature reflected an intelligent design that proved the existence of a divine Creator as the author of this world. In the last century, this was a powerful naturalistic explanation for God's influence in nature. At first, Darwin himself was attracted to this argument to design. But as the years passed, he rejected this argument in favor of organic evolution by natural selection without metaphysical speculations and/or theological beliefs. In fact, Darwin even avoided using the word 'evolution' in his writings because to him it suggested ongoing process as overall progress and he clearly wanted to stay away from any hint of teleology in organic evolution. For the rigorous evolutionist, evolving nature is an inefficient process of pervasive random variation and necessary natural selection throughout biological history that does not reflect a pre-ordained design or pre-established order. However, Darwin did waiver between accepting an aspect of progress in evolution and rejecting progress altogether. Clearly, he never claimed that the evolution of life in general, or our own species in particular, reflected any necessary direction or final purpose throughout organic history.
On the other hand, Wallace was born into a poor family and therefore had to work hard in order to support himself. As such, he never had the economic or educational advantages offered to Darwin, who always benefited from his birth into the British middle class with all of the opportunities that resulted from this fortunate circumstance. To support his interests in nature, Wallace spent time teaching and collecting zoological specimens (especially butterflies) for museums in England. Despite their social differences, however, Darwin and Wallace were both avid naturalists who, through critical reflection on their perceptive observations of organic nature, developed a theory of evolution.
The major influences on these two insightful naturalists had been the same, resulting in their both first doubting the eternal fixity of species and then later accepting the fact of organic evolution; a process which they held was the result of the explanatory mechanism of natural selection or the survival of the fittest. To begin with, both were British naturalists dedicated to field research in entomology; Darwin was particularly interested in beetles while Wallace especially devoted his time and effort to collecting butterflies. Each had read Alexander von Humboldt's major work, Personal Narrative (1805-1834). With a concern for the scientific and philosophical unity of nature, Humboldt had traveled to the Western hemisphere as a naturalist interested in understanding and appreciating plants and animals within a planetary perspective. His writings inspired both Darwin and Wallace, and they in turn had a deep desire to travel around the world as naturalists committed to the pursuit of scientific knowledge. Consequently, it is not surprising that both naturalists traveled to South America, where Darwin experienced the diversity of life (particularly among insects) in the tropical rain-forests of Brazil and unearthed the fossil remains of giant mammals in Argentina; Wallace devoted his time to collecting butterflies and pondering the geographical distribution of plant and animal species in South America and later in Malaysia.
During the voyage of HMS Beagle (1831-1836), the young Darwin began to doubt the eternal fixity of species. The geological column with its fossil record and the biogeographical distribution of life forms throughout oceanic archipelagos, as well as the similarities between oceanic plants and animals and their counterparts on the mainland of South America, strongly suggested to him that the sudden divine creation of all species on the earth only several thousand years ago was not supported by the growing empirical evidence from geology, paleontology, and comparative studies in biology. Doubts about the biblical story of creation increased throughout the global trip but it was finally rejected when Darwin had time to rigorously reflect upon the scientific implications and inevitable consequences of the mounting evidence for the mutability of species. Darwin's intense involvement with natural science pushed natural theology, with its argument to design, further and further into the background of his thoughts. And like Darwin, Wallace referred to neither God nor invisible influences when he independently discovered the theory of evolution many years after Darwin had reached the same conclusion about the history of life on earth.
In particular, it was the time that Darwin and Wallace spent on oceanic archipelagos that contributed to their doubting the eternal fixity of species and more and more taking seriously the heretical idea that plant and animal forms are, in fact, mutable. In retrospect, Darwin's visit to the Galapagos Islands would provide him with empirical evidence to help support his theory of "descent with modification" since it seemed unlikely to him that various species of the same genus would have been created by God for the same archipelago. Both across space and through time, as Darwin put it, one could envision the evolving web or branching tree of life on earth; thus organic evolution accounts for those similarities among species that make up the different groups of plants and animals on this planet.
For Wallace, it was his long stay in Malaysia that offered him the opportunity to study the incredible diversity of plants and animals in that part of the world. His keen observations of the biogeographical distribution of life forms resulted in his establishing the 'Wallace line' to designate a natural gap separating the plants and animals of Australia from those found in Malaysia. As with Darwin, Wallace began to doubt the eternal fixity of all life forms on earth. Instead, he began to take seriously the idea that species do change through time as a result of natural causes.
During these years of scientific exploration, young naturalists Darwin and Wallace read with enormous benefit Charles Lyell's major work, Principles of Geology (1830-1833). Clearly, Lyell's sweeping geological perspective of vast periods of time and pervasive global changes due to natural forces greatly influenced the conceptual framework of both Darwin and Wallace. Changing environments over millions and millions of years implied that plant and animal forms would also have to change if they are to adapt to new habitats, surviving long enough to reproduce. In short, historical geology and global biogeography clearly suggested that plants and animals are mutable.
As a result of these remarkable similarities in the early years of Darwin and Wallace, perhaps it is not so surprising that they both developed the same scientific theory of organic evolution by means of natural selection. To do so, however, they had to overcome the entrenched Aristotelian framework which argued for the eternal fixity of species within a great chain of being. The Greek natural philosopher Aristotle maintained that there had been no creation, that no new species appear and no species become extinct in nature, and he ignored the fossil record. Aristotle's teleology and essentialism argued for the immutability of species and a purposive interpretation of growth and development (especially in terms of mental activity). Consequently, despite an appeal to spontaneous generation to account for the origin of only some low forms of life, the father of biology was not an evolutionist. In fact, the unchallenged Aristotelian worldview dominated European intellectual thought for over seven hundred years. Furthermore, since the Church incorporated Aristotelian philosophy within its religious orientation (especially in the writings of Thomas Aquinas), to challenge the Peripatetic worldview was also to challenge Thomistic theology. Indeed, it would not be easy to remove the idea of the eternal fixity of plant and animal forms as well as the assumed uniqueness of our own species from the entrenched conceptual framework of Western thought.
In 1837, Darwin began keeping his notebooks on his "descent with modification" theory to account for the evolution of species throughout geological time. However, Darwin still needed an explanatory mechanism to account for the mutability of species. In the following year, by chance, Darwin read Malthus' second edition of An Essay on the Principle of Population (1802). Years later, Wallace would also read Malthus' monograph, which argued for the geometrical progression of animals but only the arithmetic growth of plants; this assumed discrepancy resulted in a struggle for existence in the animal world for the limited availability of foodstuffs in the biosphere. Consequently, it was the Malthusian theory of population growth that gave to both Darwin and Wallace their major explanatory mechanism of natural selection.
In 1842, Darwin wrote an essay on evolution which he further developed into an 1844 manuscript; unfortunately, neither the essay nor the manuscript were published. One may safely assume that Darwin was disturbed by the far-reaching ramifications of his own theory of organic evolution, particularly in terms of its challenge to Aristotelian philosophy and Thomistic theology. Avoiding an inevitable controversy, he prolonged the publication of his proposed major work entitled Natural Selection until receiving the letter and manuscript from Wallace, who was still living on the other side of the world.
No doubt, a disciplined imagination allowed Darwin and Wallace to envision the evolution of life over vast periods of time. Overcoming dogmatic theology and blind faith, both naturalists were free to acknowledge the incontrovertible fact that life has been continuously changing on the surface of this planet. It is to their credit that they took seriously the inescapable implications of the growing evidence from geology, paleontology, biogeography and comparative studies in biology (especially research in taxonomy, embryology and morphology). To an open and curious mind, there was no ignoring the fact that organic evolution had occurred throughout earth history.
In 1858, both Darwin and Wallace explained organic evolution in terms of the pervasive principle of natural selection. As such, they gave a scientific explanation for the history of life forms on earth without any appeal to metaphysical principles or theological beliefs. If fact, it may be argued that both were rigorous naturalists at that time, at least in terms of explaining organic evolution only within the purview of science and reason.
Of course, Darwin was now faced with a dilemma regarding his priority as to fathering the evolution theory in terms of natural selection. Although he had developed his explanation for the "descent with modification" many years before Wallace had written his manuscript, Darwin still had not published any book or article on the subject. Fortunately, on September 5, 1857, he had sent a brief abstract to the Harvard botanist Asa Gray, in which he outlined his theory of evolution. Nevertheless, to overcome this awkward situation concerning precedence, Lyell and Hooker urged Darwin to prepare a presentation for the upcoming Linnean Society meeting on July 1, 1858. At that meeting, manuscripts prepared by Darwin and Wallace were read by others to the membership. As a result, Darwin rightly received priority for discovering the scientific theory of organic evolution by means of natural selection. (It helps to have friends in high places.) It must be pointed out that Darwin did deserve priority, although unfortunately Wallace is sometimes not associated with the discovery of evolution. Furthermore, Wallace never seems to have resented the priority having been given to Darwin. In fact, Wallace himself wrote many essays supporting Darwinism in the middle of the last century.
Needless to say, Darwin got right to work and published his major book, On the Origin of Species (1859), in order to justify his priority. At that time, both Darwin and Wallace were strictly naturalistic in their interpretation of organic evolution. The Darwinian theory was defended by Thomas Huxley in England, Ernst Haeckel in Germany and Asa Gray in the United States: Huxley contributed to Darwinism through his work in paleontology and comparative studies in primate morphology while Haeckel added to the growing evidence for evolution through his comparative research work in vertebrate embryology, and Gray focused on the evidence in botany. But the remarkable similarities between Darwin and Wallace were not to last. Their interpretations of evolution would diverge further and further apart until they became diametrically opposed viewpoints.
In The Descent of Man (1871), Darwin finally joined Huxley and Haeckel in his maintaining that the human animal differs merely in degree rather than in kind from the great apes. Darwin argued that, to some degree, feelings and emotions, as well as reason and even protomorality in terms of instincts, all manifest themselves in the chimpanzee and gorilla of Africa and the orangutan of Asia. Indeed, modern physical anthropology teaches us that our own species is closer to the three pongids than Huxley or Haeckel or Darwin himself could have imagined in the middle of the last century.
Over the years, Darwin remained a steadfast mechanistic materialist. In sharp contrast, Wallace became more and more involved with occultism and eventually gave a spiritualistic interpretation of human evolution that focused on the alleged uniqueness of our own species that separates it from all other forms of life (including the apes). Why did this glaring disparity between Darwin's materialism and Wallace's spiritualism emerge? Interestingly enough, to a significant degree, their growing differences may be grounded in how each of them reacted to the death of a beloved one in the family.
On 23 April 1851, Darwin's beloved young daughter Annie Elizabeth died of a fever; she was only ten years old. This personal tragedy was an intellectual catalyst. After Annie's death, Darwin totally rejected outright his faith in the teachings of Christianity as a divine revelation and, instead, favored a metaphysical stance grounded in science and reason. No longer did he speculate on the need for a God to account for the evolution of life on earth. In fact, Darwin became an admitted agnostic if not a silent atheist, i.e., he was at least a negative atheist (organic evolution without God) if not a positive atheist (organic evolution is a fact but there is no God). Granted, Darwin did not concern himself with the origin of this universe and the first appearance of life on earth nor did he speculate on the future evolution of our species or the end of this world. Instead, he focused on and was content to demonstrate the truth of organic evolution. He did not restrict himself to natural selection, but also considered the influences of artificial selection (human intervention), sexual selection, acquired characteristics as a result of his erroneous pangenesis hypothesis to account for inheritance, and even thought that perhaps the environment itself caused needed variations to occur in organisms in order to insure their adapting to and surviving in a changing environment long enough to reproduce their kind. In this regard, Darwin's mind was open and flexible enough to take seriously other mechanisms besides natural selection in order to account for the evolution of life forms on earth. Nevertheless, he never wavered from his mechanistic and materialistic stance, although one would dearly love to know his final thoughts on religion and theology as well as organic evolution and human existence; subjects which, no doubt, he reflected upon as an old man while strolling down the private Sandwalk behind Down House during the last years of his life.
Wallace had been shaken by the death of his brother Herbert, who died while they were both in South America. Wallace's lasting reaction to this personal tragedy was an emotional one, in sharp contrast to the rational evaluation taken by Darwin as a result of his daughter's death. One may argue that Wallace's inability to come to grips with the materialistic consequences of organic evolution concerning the personal immortality of the human soul drove him to an obsession with occultism and his later clinging to spiritualism as a final interpretation of human evolution.
Unlike Darwin, Wallace steadfastly maintained that the explanatory mechanism of natural selection is both necessary and sufficient to account for organic evolution but only up to the emergence of our own species. That is, natural selection alone was responsible for the evolution of all life forms on earth before the emergence of the human animal. For Darwin, of course, our species is the product of and totally within organic evolution; the human animal is a member of the primate order. As such, Darwin never maintained that the human being is a unique creature separated from the living world. For Wallace, however, both the origin of life and the appearance of our species require an explanation beyond naturalism, i.e., an interpretation of evolution beyond Darwinian mechanistic materialism in order to explain both the beginning and the end of organic evolution as Wallace saw it.
In fact, according to Wallace, our own species is a unique animal separated from the biological world. He claimed that human evolution has always represented a single continuity and essential unity. Actually, the growing fossil hominid record clearly shows that our remote ancestors were, in fact, a very diversified group of species (with many hominid lines of evolution becoming extinct). For Wallace, our species has physical traits and mental capabilities that isolate it from the rest of the animal world. He argued that the emergence of these special characteristics cannot be explained merely as the result of natural selection operating throughout the gradual evolution of hominids from apelike forms to our present species.
Wallace firmly maintained that man's mental abilities are superior to his needs for mere survival, and therefore a spiritualistic explanation is necessary to account for this discrepancy. Elaborating on his argument, Wallace further claimed that man's artistic, musical, mathematical, and metaphysical faculties could not have progressively developed in continuity by degree from animals as a result of natural selection or the ability of the fittest to adapt, survive and reproduce. In particular (for Wallace), human wit, speech, humor, morality, naked and sensitive skin, and specialized and perfected brain, hands, and feet could not be the product of natural selection alone. Obviously, Darwin did not agree.
It is irrational to assume that, unlike the countless millions of other species that have ever inhabited this planet, the human animal is separated from all other forms of life, i.e., that our species' physical traits and mental capabilities cannot be accounted for in terms of a strictly naturalistic stance.
Wallace claimed that our species' exceptional mental abilities demonstrated the existence of a Supreme Mind or higher intelligences guiding human evolution to its assumed spiritual end (as he saw it). Going even further, he believed in the personal immortality of the human soul. For Wallace, this alleged uniqueness of the human being required a major change in his explanation for our evolution. To account for the assumed special place our species occupies within nature, Wallace had moved from naturalism to spiritualism. Thus, both the tragic death of his brother and the alleged unique place of humankind within nature converged in Wallace's growing fascination for occultism and later commitment to spiritualism.
Not surprisingly, Darwin was very disappointed with Wallace's turn to spiritualism. With bitter irony, it was Wallace's rigid commitment to natural selection that contributed to his maintaining that Mind and Purpose manifest themselves in human evolution. Unlike Darwin, Wallace embraced teleology; he saw meaning in and a direction to the further evolution of our species in terms of spirit. Whereas Darwin emphasized chance in evolution, seeing no overall purpose or ultimate end-goal to human existence, Wallace focused on mental and sociocultural selection rather than natural selection. Consequently, Wallace placed emphasis on the assumed intelligence throughout organic nature. Actually, his final view is self-contradictory in terms of accounting for the uniqueness of the human animal if all of living nature manifests purposive intelligence.
It is ludicrous to learn that the great naturalist Wallace actually attended seances (once with Huxley, although Darwin would not go). Wallace believed that the ghosts of deceased persons could materialize through a medium at such contrived meetings. No doubt for emotional reasons, he clung to his will to believe in the ongoing spiritual progress of our species. Darwin, of course, never took such seances seriously and was understandably both perplexed and disillusioned with Wallace's willingness to be taken in by such obvious trickery. Naturalists and humanists may rightly respect and admire Darwin's steadfast materialism and commitment to evolution during the Victorian Age. To his lasting credit, Darwin gave priority to science and reason. On the other hand, Wallace's occultism and spiritualism represent not only his gullibility concerning the paranormal but also his inability to come to grips with the materialistic consequences of organic evolution.
In fact, to save a special place for our own species, Wallace even rejected the possibility that life forms and intelligent beings may exist elsewhere in this cosmos. In Man's Place in the Universe (1903), as a spiritualist, he dogmatically claimed that the unique human animal, as an intelligent being on earth, must be absolutely alone in the great diversity of this cosmos. He defended Darwinism but maintained that it is not sufficient to interpret organic evolution. (At least once, while in a Brazilian rain-forest, Darwin himself speculated about the possibility of life on other worlds.)
In The World of Life (1910), Wallace clearly replaced his earlier naturalism with vitalism, teleology, and spiritualism. For him, beyond all the phenomena and causes and laws of nature, there is Mind and Purpose: the ultimate aim of human evolution being, for him, the further development of our species for an enduring spiritual existence in the future. This universe is the best of all possible worlds (so he thought in paralleling Leibniz's optimism) and it exists to bring about a predestined end-goal for humankind in terms of spirit. Subsequently, Wallace believed that an infinite Deity had designed the whole cosmos and is the acting power within all life. As such, the evolving world of matter is, for him, altogether subordinate to an unseen universe of Spirit.
Wallace's interpretation of evolution is both earth-bound and human-centered in terms of life and intelligence, respectively. Of course, neither Darwin nor Wallace anticipated the awesome possibilities of both space exploration and genetic engineering. Nevertheless it was Darwin, not Wallace, who paved the way for the success of neo-Darwinism in this century. In sharp contrast, the always unlucky Wallace is almost a forgotten naturalist and evolutionist. For all freethinkers, especially secular humanists, the fact of evolution is quintessential for any sound understanding of and proper appreciation for the evolution of life (including our own species). In the final analysis, the Darwin-Wallace schism was due to diametrically opposed interpretations of evolution: Darwin gave priority to reason and remained a materialist, while Wallace gave in to his emotions and became a spiritualist. Today, this conflict between reason and emotions continues in the ongoing and widening schism between scientific evolutionists on the one hand and biblical creationists on the other.
In the last century, scientific evolution challenged the scriptural account of Creation, including the biblical timeline and the assumed special place of humankind within nature. Darwin was the major catalyst for and exemplary of the crisis of faith. He himself moved from insouciant theism through public agnosticism to silent atheism. In sharp contrast, Wallace allowed himself to be subsumed by simplistic spiritualism. Even today, the majority of people has yet to come to grips with the naturalistic ramifications of human evolution. Nevertheless, one hopes that the explanatory power of science will eventually supplant the empty comfort of natural theology in favor of the enlightening success of reason itself.
During this century, paleontology and biology have contributed enormously to a comprehensive and intelligible view of earth history in terms of organic evolution. For the physical anthropologist, fossil hominid discoveries empirically substantiate the fact that the human being has evolved from an apelike form that existed about 5 million years ago, while pongid genetics and behavior studies clearly show that our species is remarkably close to the three great apes (especially the pygmy chimpanzee). In fact, the human animal has been referred to as the bipedal ape or third chimpanzee.
In the future, cloning and genetic engineering will offer the human being the scientific power to actually control evolution (including the further development of our own species). And there is the likelihood that the human being will become the cosmic ape as it adapts to and survives in deep space.
A rigorous evolutionist sees no need to introduce God or spiritualism into any interpretation of evolution (however, theistic interpretations of evolution still appear in the literature). At least Wallace committed himself to the fact of evolution, whereas biblical creationists reject the evolutionary framework outright in spite of the overwhelming empirical evidence to support it. In light of the widening schism between creationists and evolutionists, there is a growing need for critically evaluating those blind faiths and dogmatic beliefs that challenge the use of the scientific method and logical argumentation. Clearly, Darwin's use of science and reason is superior to Wallace's occultism and spiritualism. Likewise, outmoded biblical creationism is outmatched by the triumph of scientific evolutionism as a research framework. If freethought prevails, then our species will embrace the truth and accept its humble place within a cosmic perspective and the evolutionary framework.
Darwin and Wallace had grappled with the fact of evolution, but their views diverged to the point of being irreconcilable; Darwin's materialism and Wallace's spiritualism represented two opposing viewpoints. Surely, naturalistic interpretations of the human being must change in light of empirical evidence. For the enlightened thinker, there is no substitute for science and reason.
1. Teleology is the study of the aims or ends or goals of things with metaphysical consequences for science, philosophy and theology. It involves a consideration of purpose, direction, order and design in the world grounded in an argument by analogy. The mechanistic/materialistic theory of organic evolution, by means of genetic variation and natural selection in dynamic populations, has undermined a teleological interpretation of the alleged perfect structures, functions and adaptations of life forms to a changing environment in terms of final causes or intelligent agents or divine intentions. There is a crucial difference between temporary adaptations in the living world and assumed preestablished adaptations throughout organic evolution.
2. Essentialism is a metaphysical position which assumes that an object as primary substance or final form has a fixed, eternal and necessary property or essence that determines what it is to be (in contrast to accidental properties). Unchanging essences may be external/transcendent (Plato) or internal/immanent (Aristotle). For the rigorous evolutionist, there are no fundamental or perfect essences manifested in the material world.
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H. James Birx is Professor of Anthropology at Canisius College, Buffalo, New York; Contributing Editor of Free Inquiry; and an invited Visiting Scholar at Harvard University for 1997.
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