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Aquinas and Evolution

fortunesfool's picture

In America today, the tension between science and religion seems only to be growing. The country is rapidly becoming more religiously conservative than it has been for the last several decades, sparked in part by the conflict with Islamic extremists in the Middle East. Between the push and pull of evolutionism and creationism, though, is the Intelligent Design camp, or ID for short, which is gradually gaining much steam and becoming a way for people to reconcile perceived conflicts between Christian religious beliefs and scientific evidence, which seems to support the evolutionary theory.

Intelligent design is regarded, at least in the popular media, as a relatively new idea, a sort of merging of Christian creationism with biological evolutionary theory. The idea is, however, essentially an old one. On the contrary, it dates back many centuries, seen in St. Augustine's religious philosophy, which proposed the existence of “primal seeds” or “ rationes seminales” from which organisms were later formed, and most clearly in the writings of St. Thomas Aquinas (Medieval and Renaissance Concepts). What's more, Thomas Aquinas does it better. His view of creation is more sophisticated, and reconciles science and religion while not depriving one or the other, rather than attempting to compromise between the two, and thus undermining their individual validities.

The harsh struggle between science and religion is, of course, not at all a new phenomenon. It has been a more or less constant debate for millennia. Thomas Aquinas' Summa contra gentiles was written at a time in which the relationship between religion and science was under fierce debate. The 13th century, in which Thomas Aquinas wrote, was actually remarkably like our own in several key ways. The period was still being effected by the 12th century Renaissance, during which period universities were formed, and ancient Greek texts were translated into Latin (Tkacz). Thus, a culture of scientific experimentation and naturalistic thinking in accordance with Greek philosophy began to emerge, in contrast to the more mystical Christianity that preceded the period. Additionally, Islamic philosophy was steadily influencing intellectual European circles after the Crusades and the transmission of so many Islamic documents into Latin (O'Leary). It was a climate much like our own, in which scientific discovery seems perpetual and momentous, and religious anxiety grows with conflicts in the Middle East.

Thomas Aquinas, however, managed to articulate a meeting of science and religion that refused to compromise the truth of either discipline. Aquinas asserted in his Summa Theologica and Summa Contra Gentiles, that “the Christian conception of God as the author of all truth and the notion that the aim of scientific research is the truth indicates that there can be no fundamental incompatibility between the two” (Tkacz). He did not elevate religious fundamentalism above science, advocating scientific research to prove scriptural infallibility, as many creationists are wont to do. Rather, he advocated non-literal interpretation of the Bible, but the maintenance of a strong faith in God.

Aquinas, interestingly enough, also proposed what was essentially an early form of the evolutionary theory, and which now resembles the modern Intelligent Design theory to a certain extent. On Creation, Aquinas acknowledges the role of accident, a particularly contentious point in the modern evolution vs. creationism debate, saying, “that divine providence does not exclude fortunes and it would be contrary to the meaning of providence, and to the perfection of things, if there were no chance events” (Augustine, qtd. in O'Leary). Even more notably, he suggests what is essentially microevolution:

“Nothing is said to be complete to which many things are added, unless they are merely superfluous, for a thing is called perfect to which nothing is wanting that it ought to possess. But many things were made after the seventh day, and the production of many individual beings, and even of certain new species that are frequently appearing, especially in the case of animals generated from putrefaction...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.” (Augustine, Q. 73)

In this passage, Augustine quite literally suggests that creatures have evolved independent of any divine interference, out of initial creation.

And yet, only at this point is something like Aquinas' idea gaining widespread accord, although it is not his intact idea. 700 years later, a new generation is once again attempting to reconcile religion and science. What made this idea essentially die out? Its not that the writings fell into any kind of obscurity; Thomas Aquinas is regarded as one of the greatest thinker of Western philosophy. It seems as though his idea is not favored almost because it is too reasonable. It is not pro-science, anti-religion, or anti-religion, pro-science, and sometimes it is easier to identify with an extreme rather than to essentially agree in both the total validity of religion and the total validity of science.

It makes one wonder what the evolutionary tree of this idea would look like, were it an organism that could be mapped out by fossil record rather than words. The concept is one that faded nearly into obscurity, only now to be revived with slight mutation. What I personally gather from this is that survival of ideas depends less on the actual quality of the idea, but rather the climate into which it is introduced. Quite literally, survival of the fittest, but not necessarily the best.

Works cited

Aquinas, Thomas. The Summa Theologica of Thomas Aquinas: Part I (QQ L-LXXIV). Trans. Fathers

Of The English Dominican Province. London: Burns Oates and Washbourne, 1922. 257-259.

"Medieval and Renaissance Concepts of Evolution and Paleontology." University of California

Museum of Paleontology. University of California - Berkeley. 15 Mar. 2007


O'Leary, Dennis. "A Biblical Critique of Creationism." Journal of Geoscience Education 51 (2003):

309-312. 15 Mar. 2007.

Tkacz, Michael W. "Thomas Aquinas Vs. the Intelligent Designers: What is God's Finger Doing in My

Pre-Biotic Soup?" 9 Sept. 2005. Department of Philosophy, Gonzaga University. 15 Mar. 2007


NOTE: This is a re-post, as something appears to have gone wrong. I apologize if it shows up a second time!


Father Clifford Stevens's picture

St. Thomas Aquinas and Evolution

St. Thomas Aquinas would have no problem with Darwin's "Origin of Species" but he would not accept Darwin's "The Descent of Man" and human evolution. See my article "St. Thomas Aquinas and Evolution" in Angelicum Vol. 89, 2012, pp. 433-451 and Summa Theologica, Part I, Questions 75-91.

Father Clifford Stevens
Boys Town, Nebraska stormy ernspae

Anne Dalke's picture



What a delight! I’ve been wanting, all semester, to hear more of a medievalist’s perspective on the contemporary material we’ve been working our way through, and you’ve provided it here in spades. I’m not very familiar w/ Aquinas’s words/work, so was particularly grateful for the striking quotations, esp. his definition of perfection as a thing “to which nothing is wanting that it ought to possess.” Self-sufficiency. Touche—and another interesting and very helpful perspective, for me, on why those of us who believe in a perfect God might well resist the concept of an always-imperfect, always-“wrong” process of historical evolution.

Towards the end of your paper, you draw near, in many ways, to the place where I ended your last one: with questions about why so many people “still” don’t believe in evolution. This time ‘round you offer an answer: that we don’t favor “reasonable” ideas, but find it easier to identify with an extreme. But why is that? What do we go to extremes so often, when alternatives like Aquinas’s are available, have been available to us for 700 years?

The other spot where I would enjoy more discussion would be in your final paragraph, where you imagine “the evolutionary tree of this idea.” Your last claim is that the survival of ideas seemst o depend less on their actual quality (or “usefulness”?) than on the climate they’ve been introduced to: “Quite literally: survival of the fittest, but not necessarily the best.” Quite catchy, that—but I’m not really sure what you mean: what is fit, if not the best? What is the best, if not fit?

(Another Anne)