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Why Aquinas and Darwin don't mix (Part Two of my reply to Professor Tkacz)


Part One Part Three Part Four Part Five
Part One (longer version)

This post is divided into seven sections:

1. WHY THOMISM AND DARWINISM DON'T MIX

2. A DARWIN-FRIENDLY "MODERN THOMIST" FIGHTS BACK

3. WHY THE DARWIN-FRIENDLY "MODERN THOMIST" IS WRONG ABOUT EVOLUTION AND ABOUT AQUINAS

4. WHY AQUINAS' VIEWS ON NATURAL EVIL ARE TOTALLY INCOMPATIBLE WITH DARWINISM

5. DOES AQUINAS' THEODICY SATISFACTORILY EXPLAIN ANIMAL SUFFERING?

6. WHAT WOULD AQUINAS HAVE THOUGHT OF PROFESSOR WILLIAM DEMBSKI'S THEODICY, AND DOES IT HAVE ANY IMPLICATIONS FOR INTELLIGENT DESIGN?

7. IS THERE A VIA MEDIA BETWEEN AQUINAS' THEODICY AND DEMBSKI'S?

After reading Part One of my reply to Professor Tkacz, most of my readers will be convinced that Aquinas' teachings are fundamentally incompatible with Darwinism. The quotes from Aquinas speak for themselves. However, in this post, I shall attempt to explain precisely why the two philosophies are incompatible.

In Section 1, I shall demonstrate that Thomism and Darwinism are fundamentally opposed on four points.

In Section 2, I anticipate how a Darwin-friendly "modern Thomist" (to borrow a dreadful phrase from Professor Tkacz) might attempt to rebut my claim that Thomism and Darwinism are mutually incompatible. In order to be as fair as possible, I shall play "devil's advocate" here and try to imagine how a "modern Thomist" would try to reconcile Aquinas' philosophy with Darwinism, by reinterpreting some of Aquinas' key philosophical tenets.

In Section 3, I will argue that the modern Thomist's attempt to "marry" Aquinas with Darwin violates the authentic teaching of Aquinas. I shall also maintain that there is no scientific justification for watering down Aquinas' teaching in this way, and that when properly understood, Aquinas' teaching remains scientifically defensible.

In Section 4, I will endeavor to show that Aquinas' contention that there is just the right amount of natural evil in the biological world runs totally counter to the tenets of Darwinism, which predicts a surfeit of gratuitous, senseless evil in Nature. The reason why a Darwinist would expect this is that no natural mechanism could possibly generate all of the different kinds of creatures we see in Nature, and ensure that just the right amount of evil occurs in the cosmos as a whole.

In Section 5, I critically examine Aquinas' theodicy, and discuss whether it provides a satisfactory account of natural evils - especially animal suffering.

In Section 6, I discuss Professor William Dembski's new "retroactive causation" theodicy, which he explains in his new book, The End of Christianity: Finding a Good God in an Evil World (B & H Academic, Nashville, Tennessee, 2009), and I attempt to answer the question of what Aquinas would have thought of Dembski's theodicy. I shall conclude that Dembski's theodicy is separable from his case for Intelligent Design: one can accept the former but reject the latter, or vice versa.

Finally, in Section 7, I shall attempt to outline a via media, or "middle way," between Aquinas' theodicy and Dembski's, which retains the key insights of both philosophers.

1. WHY THOMISM AND DARWINISM DON'T MIX

Section 1 Section 2 Section 3 Section 4 Section 5 Section 6 Section 7

What Professor Tkacz missed

Professor Tkacz contends that an authentic Thomism is perfectly compatible with the scientific principles of neo-Darwinian evolution. For the past few months, I've been immersing myself in Aquinas' writings on creation, and I can categorically state that Professor Tkacz is simply wrong on this point. There are four fundamental principles of Aquinas' philosophy which put him totally at odds with Darwinism.


First, Aquinas was an essentialist. Aquinas believed that living creatures belonged to fixed and unchangeable kinds or species, and that living creatures always reproduce according to their kind. However, it is important to realize that Aquinas' usage of the term "species" was quite different from the modern biological concept of a species. Aquinas' concept of a species was a typological or morphological concept, which held sway right up till the middle of the 19th century. Aristotle expressed this concept succinctly in his History of Animals, Book I, chapter 1: "Animals differ from one another in their modes of subsistence, in their actions, in their habits, and in their parts." The renowned evolutionary thinker Ernst Mayr carefully explains the difference between Aristotle's concept of a species and the modern scientific concept:

5. Typological species versus biological species The biological species concept developed in the second half of the 19th century. Up to that time, from Plato and Aristotle until Linnaeus and early 19th century authors, one simply recognized "species," eide (Plato), or kinds (Mill). The word 'species' conveyed the idea of a class of objects, members of whom shared certain defining properties... Such a class is constant, it does not change in time, all deviations from the definitions of that class are merely "accidents", that is, imperfect manifestations of the essence (eidos). (Mayr, E. 1996. What is a Species and What is Not? Originally published in Philosophy of Science, Vol. 63, (June 1996), pp. 262-277. Italics mine - VJT.)

The modern biological concept of a species is quite different. The term "species" may refer to either a category in the Linnaean hierarchy (kingdom, phylum, class, order, family, genus, species) or to a taxon - "Species are groups of interbreeding natural populations that are reproductively isolated from other such groups" (Mayr, 1996, op. cit., Section 3). Mayr contends that the old typological or morphological concept of a species was deficient: many sibling species are morphologically identical, but genetically quite different from one another; and there are often many different morphological types within a single biological species, either due to individual genetic variation or different life history categories.

While Mayr's arguments demonstrate that species can no longer be regarded as well-defined types, Mayr has failed to show that higher-level taxa, such as families, do not fall into clear-cut categories. I shall argue that in fact, they do. Essentialism is not dead; it's just moved up two taxonomic levels, that's all. And whereas Aristotle, who knew nothing about genes, had to use morphological, behavioral and ecological criteria to identify types, modern Aristotelians should supplement these criteria with genetic criteria - for an organism's genes are certainly relevant to defining its type. Thus I would propose that when Aquinas writes about "kinds" or "species," we should read him as referring to "families." On this revised interpretation, new families (kinds) of creatures, rather than biological species, are God's handiwork.

Aristotle's scientific descriptions of animals in his History of Animals were unparalleled in their detail and clarity, and he is to be commended for recognizing that the different kinds of animals were distinguished by a multitude of different features. However, Aristotle's criteria for identifying and delineating animal species left a lot to be desired, in terms of scientific rigor:

The method then that we must adopt is to attempt to recognize the natural groups, following the indications afforded by the instincts of mankind, which led them for instance to form the class of Birds and the class of Fishes, each of which groups combines a multitude of differentiae, and is not defined by a single one as in dichotomy. (On the Parts of Animals, Book I, Part 3, paragraph 7.)

This, I have to say, is folk taxonomy. Scientists who believe in essentialism - including creationists as well as some Intelligent Design theorists - have now developed much more rigorous criteria for identifying "kinds," which I will outline below. I shall attempt to demonstrate that Aristotle's essentialism remains scientifically respectable, even if his criteria for identifying a "kind" have had to be revised in the light of what scientists now know. Contrary to what some "modern Thomists" (as Professor Tkacz calls them) may believe, Aquinas' objections to evolution on essentialist grounds, discussed in "Smoking Gun" number 8 in PartOne of my reply to Professor Tkacz, have not been scientifically refuted.


Second, Aquinas clearly taught that all of God's works are perfectly made, in relation to their proper ends. For instance, in his Summa Theologica I, question 91, article 1, he wrote: "As God is perfect in His works, He bestowed perfection on all of them according to their capacity: 'God's works are perfect' (Deuteronomy 32:4)." In fact, Aquinas cited the Biblical verse, "God's works are perfect," (Deuteronomy 32:4) no less than fifteen times in the Summa Theologica, in a variety of contexts, and he cited the Biblical verse, "God made man right" (Ecclesiastes 7:30) no less than four times.

For Aquinas, "perfectly made" did not mean "made with the maximum possible number of desirable add-on features," because Aquinas thought you could always add more. Rather, "perfectly made" simply meant: made with unsurpassable wisdom and goodness, for the purpose intended by the maker. For a living creature, the purpose intended was the creature's "proper end" or telos; for a bodily organ, it was the telos of that organ. God cannot make a thing with greater wisdom and goodness than He made it with, because His wisdom and goodness are perfect, infinite, and unsurpassable (Summa Theologica I, q. 25 article 6). Moreover, all of God's works are perfectly made, in relation to their proper ends. Hence, according to Aquinas, there can be no faulty designs in Nature. I raised this point in "Smoking Gun" number 13 of Part One of my reply to Professor Tkacz, and I'll provide some more quotations from Aquinas below.


Third, Aquinas repeatedly affirmed in his writings that everything in Nature has a purpose. For instance, in his Commentary on Aristotle's De Coelo et Mundi, Book I, Lecture 12, paragraph 113, Aquinas wrote that "God and nature do nothing in vain," and he makes similar statements in many other places in his writings, as I showed in "Smoking Gun" number 14 of Part One of my reply to Professor Tkacz.

But what does "in vain" mean? As we saw in "Smoking Gun" number 14, Aquinas uses at least four definitions in his writings. A thing is "in vain" if: (i) it is superfluous, lacking a current purpose; or (ii) it is unable to realize its purpose or natural end; or (iii) it is directed at an unachievable goal; or (iv) nothing tends towards it. For the purposes of this discussion, the first definition is the one that concerns us here. Did God make anything superfluous? Aquinas' answer is clearly: No.

In his Commentary on Aristotle's De Coelo et Mundi, Book I, Lecture 8, paragraph 91, Aquinas explains the rationale for his frequent assertions that "God makes nothing in vain," and that "nature makes nothing in vain":

God makes nothing in vain, because, since He is a being that acts through understanding, He acts for a purpose. Likewise nature makes nothing in vain, because it acts as moved by God as by a first mover, just as an arrow is not moved in vain, inasmuch as it is shot by the bowman at some definite thing.

Not only did St. Thomas Aquinas believe that "God makes nothing in vain" and that God always acts for a purpose, but he also believed that God designed each and every feature of living things (see "Smoking Gun" number 15 of Part One of my reply to Professor Tkacz). Taken together, these beliefs imply that there can be no vestigial organs in living things which are totally redundant. This is at odds with the neo-Darwinian theory of evolution, which asserts that at least some bodily parts found in animals are completely redundant: they serve no purpose whatsoever. Examples include the pelvic bones found in some snakes and whales; the wings of kiwis; and the eyes of blind cave fish.

An even more striking proof that Aquinas would have rejected the idea that some animals possess superfluous body parts which currently serve no useful function comes from Aquinas' Summa Theologica I, q. 67, art. 4, reply to obj. 2, where he discusses what happened to the light made by God on the first day:

In the opinion of some the light here spoken of [i.e. the light made on the first day, in Genesis 1:3 - VJT] was a kind of luminous nebula, and that on the making of the sun this returned to the matter of which it had been formed. But this cannot well be maintained, as in the beginning of Genesis Holy Scripture records the institution of that order of nature which henceforth is to endure. - Others, therefore, held that this luminous nebula continues in existence, but so closely attached to the sun as to be indistinguishable. But this is as much as to say that it is superfluous, whereas none of God's works have been made in vain.

Thus according to Aquinas, even the continuation in existence of something which once had a purpose but now has no purpose, would suffice to make that thing "in vain." It follows that Aquinas would have utterly rejected the idea that some kinds of creatures could possess organs that no longer serve a purpose. For if they truly served no present purpose, then they would be in vain.

For the same reason, Aquinas would have rejected the evolutionist claim that some animals possess structures which are needlessly elaborate - such as the wings of the ostrich. According to Aquinas' criteria, the complex features of these structures would be "in vain," as they would serve no useful purpose.


Fourth, Aquinas clearly stated that God is a micro-manager, exercising immediate providence over each and every thing in the natural world. Moreover, Aquinas expressly taught that for each and every kind of organism in the natural world, each and every one of its characteristic features was personally designed by God. I discussed this in "Smoking Gun" number 15 of Part One of my reply to Professor Tkacz.


Let's recapitulate. According to Aquinas, living things belong to fixed and unchangeable kinds or types. All of these creatures, and their bodily organs, are perfectly made, in relation to their proper ends. God makes nothing in vain; thus there are no redundant organs or body parts in living things. And finally, for each and every kind of organism in the natural world, each and every one of its characteristic features was personally designed by God.

Now, if you believe any of these things, you cannot be a Darwinist. Darwinism insists that there are no fixed essences, at any taxonomic level: we all sprang from a common stock, as a result of natural processes (variation kept in check by natural selection), all of which operate without any foresight of long-term goals. Moreover, imperfections, such as faulty and even maladaptive designs, redundant genes, and vestigial organs (some of which serve no purpose at all), are rife in Nature. The idea that God personally designed all these features would have Darwinists rolling in the aisles.


The four principles listed above are of fundamental importance for Aquinas. The first (essentialism) is a metaphysical principle; while the remaining three are Thomistic theological axioms about the way God works in the world, which St. Thomas cites again and again in his works. Given the importance of these principles in Aquinas' system of philosophy, I do not see how you could discard them and still call yourself a Thomist. The only honest thing to do would be to open your own school of philosophy - which is what Professor Tkacz really should do.

I might add that Professor Tkacz has left unanswered the question of what role the angels occupy in the universe. St. Thomas Aquinas, as we saw in "Smoking Gun" number 4 (in Part One of my reply to Professor Tkacz), thought that all biological processes on Earth would come to a halt, without the angels continually acting on the physical universe. Aquinas taught that just as a craftsman works through his tools, angels use the heavenly bodies as their instruments, in order to regulate the process of generation (and other natural changes) occurring on Earth. Certainly, scientific advances have radically transformed our view of the cosmos during the last 500 years; we now know that the heavenly bodies do not move in the way Aquinas thought they did, and that the Earth is not the center of the universe. That, however, does not mean that we have to jettison Aquinas' philosophical arguments (which many still find persuasive) for the cosmos being regulated by angels. So I would like to ask: what role, if any, do the angels play in Professor Tkacz's cosmos?


2. A DARWIN-FRIENDLY "MODERN THOMIST" FIGHTS BACK

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American Black Vulture, Farallon, Panama, December 2005. Courtesy of Wikipedia and user Mdf.
The Black Vulture, Coragyps atratus, is descended from the Pleistocene Black Vulture, Coragyps occidentalis, which occupied much of the modern species' range, and evolved into the Black Vulture around 9,000 B.C. The two species are therefore chronospecies. A chronospecies is a species which changes physically, morphologically, genetically, and/or behaviorally over time on an evolutionary scale, such that the originating species and the species it evolves into could not be classified as the same species, had they existed at the same point in time. Throughout this change, there is only one species living at any point in time, in the lineage.

It's always a useful mental exercise to put yourself in your opponent's shoes, and imagine how he/she could attack your position. I can imagine that a "modern Thomist" (to borrow a phrase from Professor Tkacz) who is sympathetic to Darwinism might attempt to rebut my arguments in the preceding section, along these lines:

"Facts are facts, and they have to be faced. St. Thomas himself warned believers against tying themselves to a particular interpretation of Scripture which might turn out to be wrong, when he wrote: '[O]ne should adhere to a particular explanation [of Scripture], 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 Theologica I, q. 68, article 1). Let's face it. The old essentialism of "fixed and glassy essences" is empirically false. Living things evolve over time. We all know that now: we've seen new species evolving. And recent research by Dr. Douglas Theobald of Brandeis University has confirmed what Darwinists have believed for 150 years: all living things, from bacteria to animals, are descended from a common ancestor. The various kinds of living things are not fixed over time, even at the highest taxonomic levels, so we'll just have to ditch that kind of essentialism, whether we like it or not. But the good news is that we don't have to ditch essentialism altogether. According to Darwin's theory of evolution, species evolve over time, but they usually do so over millions of years. Thus species exhibit a sufficient degree of constancy for scientists to be able to classify living things into different kinds, at any given point in time. Of course, it gets tricky when we ask how far back in time horses go. Today's horses might be able to interbreed with horses that lived one million years ago and also with horses that will live one million years from now; hence today's horses belongs to the same chronospecies as these past and future horses. Of course, horses from 1,000,000 B.C. might not be able to interbreed with horses from 1,000,000 A.D. But that just means that how you slice and dice the world into species depends on the point in time at which you are standing. In other words, we can still have an essentialism of sorts: we just need to give up fixity, that's all."

Our Darwin-friendly "modern Thomist" might continue: "We can't go on pretending that living things are perfectly designed, either. They aren't. Look at the laryngeal nerve of the giraffe. Look at the vertebrate eye. But the good news is that we don't need to ditch Aquinas' doctrine of the perfection of God's handiwork; we just need to redefine it. Instead of saying that God personally and individually designed all of the bodily organs in each and every kind of creature, we should say that God, when creating the world, set it up so that it would eventually give rise to all of the various kinds of creatures in our world today. In other words, God designed evolution to produce life in all its diversity. Thus the organs of creatures aren't perfectly designed; but the process of Darwinian evolution which generated them is a perfect one, insofar as no other process could have generated such a breath-taking display of biological diversity. Moreover, there is a sense in which we could still call creatures' bodily organs perfect, even if the design of some organs, such as the vertebrate eye, is inelegant from an engineer's perspective. For surely what's remarkable about the eye is that it works at all. Our eyes see, and they enable us to see as well as we need to. The human eye does its job. That's perfect enough."

But our "modern Thomist" hasn't finished yet: "Nor can we credibly maintain that everything in Nature has a purpose. It doesn't. Some structures found in living things serve no function at all. Look at the pseudo-genes inside each living cell. Look at the vestigial wing stumps of kiwis, the functionless remnants of eyes in blind mole rats, and the pelvic bones of whales. The list goes on and on. But it shouldn't worry Thomists. Functionless body parts notwithstanding, it remains true that each functioning bodily organ found in living things accomplishes its purpose or telos, on a regular basis. These organs work, and they continue to work. None of them is in vain. Falcons fly every day, even if kiwis don't - and kiwis don't need to, anyway."


The peregrine falcon (Red-capped Falcon) Falco peregrinus babylonicus. From a painting by John Gould. Peregrine Falcons have been recorded diving at speeds of 200 miles per hour (320 km/h), making them the fastest-moving creatures on Earth.

Finally, our "modern Thomist" might conclude: "The phenomenon of extinction should be enough to refute the claim that God is a micro-manager of the natural world. It would surely be absurd to claim that God planned the asteroid that collided with the Earth 65 million years ago, killing the dinosaurs and numerous other species. Extinction is accidental: God foresees but does not intend it. As for St. Thomas' claim that God personally designed all the features of living things, we can still say that He intended them to come into being, in the same sense that He intended each and every human person to come into being. All of us have ancestors who were conceived as a result of sinful intercourse outside marriage (e.g. rape, adultery or fornication), and yet we are here, and happy that God intended us to be here - for He created each person's immortal soul. Likewise, we should thank God for whatever creatures the process of evolution gave rise to. If God built evolution into the warp-and-woof of the world, then by so doing, He implicitly intended whatever it gave rise to."

That, I imagine, is how a Darwin-friendly "modern Thomist" would respond to my argument that Thomism and Darwinism are fundamentally incompatible. But this response simply won't do. It's wrong on nine counts.


3. WHY THE DARWIN-FRIENDLY "MODERN THOMIST" IS WRONG ABOUT EVOLUTION AND ABOUT AQUINAS

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The first of my nine points that I would like to make in response to the imaginary Darwin-friendly "modern Thomist" whom I described in the previous section is that the mere fact of common descent proves absolutely nothing with respect to essentialism. Common descent, per se, is evidence of material continuity, not formal continuity. Common descent no more explains the origin of new biological forms than the fact that all living things are composed of the same chemical elements does. Of course, Darwinists believe that the defining formal characteristics of organisms have altered incrementally over the course of time, through a process of random variation acted upon by natural selection, but this is not implied by common descent. Nor has this Darwinian postulate been demonstrated, as there is no mechanism which has been shown to be capable of bringing about a step-by-step transformation from the first living cell to a modern mammal (say, a hippopotamus, to use Professor Tkacz's favorite example). In the absence of such a mechanism, it remains an open question as to whether forms grade smoothly and imperceptibly into one another, or whether God continually "manipulates" Nature by producing new biological forms, which natural processes would be incapable of producing in the time available (i.e. the four billion years since life began on Earth). If the former option turns out to be the case, Aristotelian essentialism has to be abandoned; if the latter option proves to be correct, then Aristotle's essentialism remains valid.



Phylogeny of whales (order Cetacea), showing a common ancestry shared with the Artiodactyla (even-toed hoofed animals), and also the hypothesized evolutionary origin of both from older Paleocene-age Condylarthra. The horizontal axis is arbitrary, while the vertical axis represents geological time. The discovery of distinctively artiodactyl-like double-pulley astragalus bones in articulated skeletons of early archaeocetes is the principal evidence linking whales and artiodactyls, as shown here (see Gingerich et al., 2001). The evolutionary origin of both whales and artiodactyls is closely tied to the Paleocene-Eocene boundary, and the transition from archaeocetes to modern whales is related to climatic and ocean circulation changes at the Eocene-Oligocene boundary. Source: University of Michigan Museum of Paleontology. (See http://www-personal.umich.edu/~gingeric/PDGwhales/Whales.htm.) Figure may be reproduced for non-profit educational use.


The diagram above claims that the whale is related to the the hippopotamus. However, even if we could scientifically demonstrate that the whale and the hippopotamus shared a common ancestor, this would not establish that the two lineages diverged as a result of purely natural changes - for a whole suite of anatomical changes must have been required to transform a land animal into a creature so exquisitely adapted to life in the water as the whale, and it is doubtful whether Nature could have accomplished these through a Darwinian process, in which variation is random and there is no foresight of long-term goals. Additionally, the existence of transitional forms between land animals and modern whales (such as Rodhocetus) poses no problem for essentialism. What we need to ascertain is whether these forms can be said to constitute distinct and well-defined "natural kinds," in their own right, or whether one transitional form gradually merges into another. Given that whales (order Cetacea) would certainly possess some unique cell types in their bodies, which no other creatures possess, I for one would put my money on the proposition that the transition from land animal to whale was a jerky, discontinuous one, accomplished by means of a few Divinely guided saltations over some major evolutionary hurdles.

And if somebody were to ask me, "Well, why didn't God perform the transformation from a land animal to a whale instantaneously, instead of taking ten million years?" I would answer that the question contains a number of unwarranted assumptions. It assumes that a modern whale would have been able to out-compete Rodhocetus, if it were alive back then, which is doubtful, as Rodhocetus was amphibious: it lived on the land as well as in the sea. It assumes that there were no environmental conditions 47 million years ago, that would have been unfavorable to modern whales, despite the fact that the diagram above shows a very marked climate change 35 million years ago, from a "greenhouse Earth" to an "icehouse Earth." The question also assumes that there would have been suitable food for modern whales in the oceans, back in those times. Furthermore, it assumes that the sudden appearance of whales 47 million years ago would not have caused any major ecological disruptions - which is quite an assumption to make, when many scientists now believe (rightly or wrongly) that an increase in atmospheric carbon dioxide levels from 0.04% to 0.08% will eventually result in the extinction of a quarter of the world's species. And finally, the question assumes that an ancestral land animal could have given birth to a modern whale produced by Divine genetic engineering, without dying in the process :)


Second, I would like to point out that the Pickwickian essentialism advocated by the Darwin-friendly "modern Thomist" is philosophically problematic. For what it entails is that an essence is defined by a mere cluster of properties, which changes over the course of time. At time T1, the species "horse-1" is defined by properties A, B, C, D, E and F. At a subsequent time T2, the species "horse-2," descended from species "horse-1", no longer has property D but now has a new defining property G: thus it is now defined by properties A, B, C, E, F and G. But what unifies these properties, on a conceptual level? Nothing! There's no reason why a horse-1 should have defining properties A to F, and only these properties. This line of thinking leads us to Humean skepticism about the reality of essences: maybe they are nothing more than associations of constantly conjoined properties. I don't think Aquinas would be too happy with that.


Third, contrary to popular belief, Aristotelian essentialism is not dead; it is alive and well. Fixed types really do exist in Nature. The falsity of Aristotelian essentialism has only been demonstrated at the level of the biological species. However, it remains a viable option at the taxonomic levels of the family (e.g. apes), order (e.g. primates), class (e.g. mammals), phylum (e.g. chordates, which includes vertebrates) and of course, kingdom (e.g. animals). The essentialism espoused by Aristotle has some notable scientific defenders, including biologists such as Dr. Arthur Jones, Dr. Todd Wood and Professor Michael Behe, who contend that natural kinds do exist, and that evolution by natural processes, even over vast eons of time, cannot change one "kind" into another. While one species can evolve into another, there are built-in barriers that constrain how far creatures can evolve by purely natural processes.


The various levels of the scientific classification system, showing the eight major taxonomic ranks. Intermediate minor rankings are not shown.


(a) Phyla

I'll start with phyla. The animal kingdom is divided into 40 or so phyla; while plants are divided into a dozen or so divisions (which are equivalent to phyla). Other kinds of organisms - including bacteria - have also been classified into phyla. Currently, there is a vigorous and ongoing debate in the scientific community as to whether a phylum should be defined morphologically or phylogenetically. However, a definition of phylum based on an organism's body plan has recently been championed by paleontologists Graham Budd and Soren Jensen, who are both thorough-going evolutionists. An essentialist account of phyla has the dual advantage of being intellectually elegant and easy to understand, as Professor Michael Behe, a biochemist and noted Intelligent Design proponent, argues in his book, The Edge of Evolution" (2008, Free Press, paperback edition, p. 197):

Animals are divided into a number of groups according to their general "body plan." For example, one group of animals, chordates (which includes vertebrates like us), have a nerve chord arranged in the back of their bodies, whereas arthropods, the group that includes insects and crustaceans, have a nerve chord in the front. Biologists count dozens of fundamentally different body plans. Types of animals that have the same body plan are generally grouped together in the same phylum, which is the biological classification right under kingdom (kingdom divides organisms into bacteria, plants, animals, and a few other categories).

It is a well-known fact that extinct organisms belonging to a phylum are often difficult to classify, because they may have diverged from a phylum's history before the characters that define the modern phylum were all acquired. However, this fact in no way invalidates Aristotelian essentialism. It simply means that some of the characters that characterize the modern phylum are not truly essential traits, but specializations. And of course, extinct organisms may have specializations of their own. In other words, identifying the truly essential traits which define a phylum may require some detective work on the part of scientists. But this is hardly surprising news.


(b) Classes

The next taxonomic level below the level of phylum is that of the class. For instance, cartilaginous fish, bony fish, amphibians, reptiles, birds and mammals are classes which belong in the phylum of chordates (Chordates). In his book, The Edge of Evolution, Professor Behe points out that these vertebrate classes differ in the number of distinct cell types they have: "Although amphibians have about 150 cell types and birds about 200, mammals have about 250" (2008, Free Press, paperback edition, p. 199). Each cell type is quite distinct from the other types in its group. For instance, the cells of the mammary, lacrimal and ceruminous glands share the property of being specialized for secretion through ducts (exocrine secretion), but the substances they secrete are very different: milk, tears and ear wax respectively. Professor Behe argues that the gene regulatory network that is required to specify each cell type is irreducibly complex. There is an old Chinese proverb that a picture is worth a thousand words, and it's certainly true in this case. Readers who want to see what a gene regulatory network looks like for a tissue type called endomesoderm, in simple sea urchins, can click here. It's well worth having a look at. The resemblance to a logic circuit is striking, and the impression of design overwhelming. Behe estimates that the number of protein factors involved in the gene regulatory network for each cell type is about ten, and argues that it appears to be irreducibly complex. On the basis of scientific observations of a very large number of mutations in Nature (especially in the parasite Plasmodium falciparum, the HIV virus and the bacterium Escherichia coli), Behe calculates that during the history of life on earth, Darwinian evolution would be unable to generate a system with more than three inter-dependent components. He concludes that the cell types that characterize a class of organisms are very likely to be designed (ibid., pp. 198-199). The key point here is that if classes are characterized by their own unique cell types, then classes do have sharply defined boundaries, after all. Aristotle's essentialism is true, at the level of the class.


(c) Orders and families

What about lower levels? Can we say that orders and families of organisms are "fixed types"? Recent research by creationist biologists suggests that for most organisms, the taxonomic level of "family" corresponds to level of a natural "kind" which is fixed over time, as described in Genesis 1.

Dr. Todd Wood is a biochemist, a creationist and a founding member of the Baraminology Study Group, an active society and research group that publishes peer-reviewed journal papers on the topic of natural kinds or "baramins," as creationist Frank Marsh first called them in 1941. The term "holobaramin" is now used to denote the complete set of organisms belonging to a natural kind. (A sub-group of a single natural kind is called a monobaramin, while a set of two or more natural kinds is called an apobaramin.)

In 2006, Dr. Wood wrote an article entitled The Current Status of Baraminology (Creation Research Science Quarterly, Vol. 43 No 3 pp 149-158 December 2006), summarizing the results of his research into "baramins." He examined a set of 66 different taxonomic groups of plants (mostly angiosperms) and animals (mostly vertebrates) that had previously been classified by creationists as either kinds, sub-groups of a single kind, or multiple kinds.

Dr. Wood concluded that a natural kind, or holobaramin, corresponds in most cases to the taxonomic group "family"; in a few cases it corresponds to a super-family or suborder, but never to any taxonomic group lower than "family." The table summarizing Dr. Wood's survey results can be viewed here. (The "basic types" listed in the table are not natural kinds, but sub-groups.) Dr. Wood then listed the results of his own research on 11 groups of animals. He concluded that sharp discontinuities between organisms belonging to one taxon and organisms belonging to other, similar taxa are not found below the rank of family.

In the same article, Dr. Wood describes the statistical techniques that he and other researchers have developed in order to identify "holobaramins" or natural kinds. Two techniques that deserve special mention are analysis of patterns (ANOPA) and multidimensional scaling (MDS).

A 2003 paper by Dr. David Cavanaugh, Dr. Todd Wood and Dr. Kurt Wise, entitled Fossil Equidae: A Monobaraminic, Stratomorphic Series (in: Ivey, R. L. Jr. (editor), Proceedings of the Fifth International Conference on Creationism, Creation Science Fellowship, Pittsburgh, pp.143-153), concludes that both extinct and living horses, from Hyracotherium to Equus, all belong to a single natural kind, and that they also form an ordered stratomorphic series.


Skull of Homo rudolfensis (KNM_ER 1470), aged about 1.9 million years. Museum of Man, San Diego. Homo rudolfensis is one of the oldest human fossils.

Recently, Dr. Wood wrote an article in the Answers Research Journal (vol. 3, 2010: 71-90) entitled, Baraminological Analysis Places Homo habilis, Homo rudolfensis, and Australopithecus sediba in the Human Holobaramin, arguing that gorillas, chimps, bonobos and Australopithecus afarensis belong in a different holobaramin from human beings, while species in the extinct genus Paranthropus belonged to a third holobaramin. The status of Australopithecus africanus remained unresolved. These results, which place humans in a different type from gorillas and chimps, may seem to contradict current classification schemes, which place humans, gorillas and chimps in the same family - especially given Dr. Wood's finding (see above) that holobaramins never fall below the taxonomic rank of family. However, there is a minority of anthropologists who continue to classify humans in a separate family from the great apes, which they classify in the family Pongidae. This classification was common until the 1970s, when growing evidence of strong genetic similarities between humans, chimps and gorillas prompted many scientists to revise the old classification (which was based on morphology) and place all these primates in a single family. However, the anatomical dissimilarities between humans and great apes are profound. It is often claimed that neoteny accounts for many of the anatomical differences between human beings and great apes, and that humans resemble juvenile apes. Readers will be able to see how nonsensical this view is, by examining the following photo of a baby human skeleton and a baby chimpanzee skeleton. Even at a young age, the differences between the two species are marked. Look at the skull, the rib cage, the pelvis, the arm bones and leg bones, and the hands and feet, and judge for yourself.

Recently the biologist Dr. Phil Senter has argued that multidimensional scaling (MDS) undermines the creationist claim that God made creatures according to their distinct kinds, as some kinds merge into one another. I understand that Dr. Todd Wood is preparing a reply to Dr. Senter, at the time of writing. However, I would like to point out in passing that if (as I would argue) natural kinds are defined by the presence of characteristic complex structures (e.g. organs or cell types that are unique to that kind) which are beyond the power of Nature to produce, then the tool known as multidimensional scaling (MDS) may not be an infallible guide to identifying these natural kinds. It may, however, still be a good tool for identifying natural kinds, in the great majority of cases.


The bumblebee cichlid fish, Pseudotropheus Crabro. Dominant male. Photo by Nicolas Couthouis.
The zoological family of cichlid fish constitutes a well-defined type, according to Dr. Arthur Jones, who did his Ph.D. thesis on cichlids.

Lastly, I would like to mention the research conducted by Dr. Arthur Jones, who has a Ph.D. in biology from the University of Birmingham. Here is how he describes his Ph.D. research on cichlid fish, a family of which there are over 1,000 different species:

For all the diversity of species, I found the cichlids to be an unmistakably natural group, a created kind. The more I worked with these fish the clearer my recognition of "cichlidness" became and the more distinct they seemed from all the "similar" fishes I studied. Conversations at conferences and literature searches confirmed that this was the common experience of experts in every area of systematic biology. Distinct kinds really are there and the experts know it to be so. - On a wider canvas, fossils provided no comfort to evolutionists. All fish, living and fossil, belong to distinct kinds; "links" are decidedly missing.

In other words, creatures really are made "according to their kind," as the first chapter of Genesis says. So much for the idea that we need to abandon Aristotle's essentialism.


The fourth point I wish to make is that it is theologically unsatisfactory to assert that the process of evolution is perfect, even if the creatures it produces are not. For processes, such as Darwinian evolution, are not, and cannot be, good in their own right. Nor can genetic programs, for that matter. Only living things can be good in their own right, not processes. Biological processes exist for living things, not vice versa. To glorify the perfection of evolution and make the "perfection" of creatures derivative upon that of evolution is theologically absurd, because it exalts the means over the ends - namely, the different kinds of living creatures produced over the past four billion years. As the Bible puts it: "And God saw all that He had made, and it was very good" (Genesis 1:31).


My fifth point in reply to the "modern Thomist" is that it is absurd to define an organ as "perfect" if it simply works. That's setting the bar too low. Consider the bionic eye, an artificial device designed to mimic the natural functionality of the human eye. At the present time, visual prosthetics do not offer anything like the visual acuity of a normal eye. Any inventor who referred to his/her bionic eye as "perfect" simply because it works, after a fashion, would attract derision - and rightly so. To set the same standard of excellence for God is to insult God, Who is infinitely wiser than any inventor.

So, how perfect does a bodily organ made by God have to be? I explained in "Smoking Gun" number 13 of Part One of my reply to Professor Tkacz, that perfection of an organ is defined relative to the proper ends of the creature possessing it, according to Aquinas (Summa Theologica I, q. 91, art. 3). What about the vertebrate eye, then? Aquinas states: "All natural things were produced by the Divine art, and so may be called God's works of art." Since every artist intends to give his work the best disposition for the proposed end, Aquinas concludes that "God gave to each natural being the best disposition; not absolutely so, but in the view of its proper end." The vertebrate eye is designed for seeing. That is its proper end. I conclude that if it the vertebrate perfectly designed, then at the very least, there should be no biologically feasible design which sees better than the vertebrate eye. Therefore when anti-religious evolutionists like Dr. Richard Dawkins criticize the design of the vertebrate eye, they are at least making a relevant criticism - for if they were right, it would constitute powerful evidence against the belief that Nature was made by a personal God. Aquinas himself says as much: he admits that "an imperfect effect proves imperfection in the agent" (Summa Theologica I, q. 66, art. 1). Although this argument is put forward in an objection ("On the contrary...") which Aquinas subsequently answers, he does not question the principle itself in his response; he simply asserts that imperfections in Nature are permissible only insofar as they are dictated by God's Wisdom and the need to preserve order in the cosmos. But it would be absurd to say that God's Wisdom demanded that the vertebrate eye be poorly designed, or that a poorly designed eye was required to maintain cosmic harmony.)


Some examples of alleged imperfections

(a) The vertebrate eye


Schematic diagram of the vertebrate eye.

Evolutionists have derided the vertebrate retina as one of evolution's "greatest mistakes," as the "inside out" vertebrate retina creates a blind spot. However, a recent study by researchers Amichai Labin and Erez Ribak at the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology in Haifa has found that certain cells in the vertebrate eye, called Muller cells, act as optical fibers, and rather than being just a workaround to make up for the eye's peculiarities, they help filter and focus light, making images clearer and keeping colors sharp. On the other hand, Professor Kenneth Miller, who is the author of several books on evolution, cautions that this doesn't mean that the backwards retina itself helps us to see, and describes the Muller cells as "a retrofit: a successful and highly functional adaptation made necessary by the original architecture of the retina, but a retrofit."

What should a Thomist make of this? Let's dispose of the "blind spot" canard at once. Blind spots are never detected unless one eye is blacked out. Even then, the blind spot is "filled in" by the brain's software. The blind spot is not in the macula (the high visual acuity part of the retina) so when one is actually looking at something, there is no blind spot.

The proper end of the vertebrate eye is vision. Unless evolutionists can demonstrate that what they consider to be "the right way" of designing the vertebrate eye would actually enable it to see better than it does now, their criticism of the inelegance of the eye's design is beside the point, from a Thomistic standpoint.

Some evolutionists - including Dr. Richard Dawkins in The Blind Watchmaker - claim that the cephalopod eye, found in squid and octopuses, is superior, as it has nerves behind the receptor. However, cephalopods don't see as well as humans. They have no color vision, and the octopus eye structure is completely different and much simpler than our own. It has been likened to "a compound eye with a single lens."


(b) The laryngeal nerve of the giraffe


The recurrent laryngeal nerve.

But what about that most comical of anatomical imperfections, the laryngeal nerve of the giraffe, cited by Dr. Richard Dawkins as excellent evidence for Darwinian evolution? Now, if the laryngeal nerve were just involved in controlling the larynx, then Dawkins might have a good point. The laryngeal nerve comes down from the brain and loops around the arteries near the heart and then goes back up to the larynx. In the giraffe, this seems like particularly bad design. However, the laryngeal nerve actually has several branches all along its length that go to the heart, esophagus, trachea, and thyroid gland. Thus it is involved in a whole system of control of various related organs. It would be very unintelligent to have a single nerve, controlling only the larynx. It would be more intelligent to have it control a lot of related systems all along its length (see this article .) Hence the laryngeal nerve, far from being a problem for intelligent design, actually vindicates it.

Creationist Dr. Jonathan Sarfati makes the same point in a recent article entitled, Recurrent Laryngeal Nerve, and adds that its position may have something to do with the development of the animal as an embryo:

Dawkins considers only its main destination, the larynx. In reality, the nerve also has a role in supplying parts of the heart, windpipe muscles and mucous membranes, and the esophagus, which could explain its route.

Even apart from this function, there are features that are the result of embryonic development - not because of evolution, but because the embryo develops from a single cell in a certain order. For example, the embryo needs a functioning simple heart early on; this later descends to its position in the chest, dragging the nerve bundle with it.

This is a fruitful Intelligent Design hypothesis, and a falsifiable one. If it is wrong, we should know soon enough.

Finally, a recent article by Dr. Jerry Bergman, entitled Recurrent Laryngeal Nerve Is Not Evidence of Poor Design, in Acts & Facts 39 (8): 12-14, concludes:

The left recurrent laryngeal nerve is not poorly designed, but rather is clear evidence of intelligent design:

The arguments presented by evolutionists are both incorrect and have discouraged research into the specific reasons for the existing design.

Before I move on to my next point, I shall briefly discuss some other organs which are commonly cited by evolutionists as evidence of imperfect design.


(c) The male prostrate gland

Professor Jerry Coyne argues in his book, "Why Evolution is True" (Oxford University Press, 2009) that the male prostate gland is badly designed because the urethra runs through it, making men liable to enlargement and infection in later life. However, Coyne's argument open to question on empirical grounds. The risk of enlargement appears to be largely diet-related (see The Prostate Gland - is it 'badly designed'? by Jonathan Sarfati. Article at Creation.com, August 1st, 2008.)


(d) The female reproductive tract

Professor Coyne also contends that the female reproductive tract would have been better designed if women gave birth through their abdomens. But this supposition is absurdly counterfactual: if humans did that, they wouldn't be human. They would be some other kind of animal. In any case, Coyne's argument overlooks the fact that for at least some human beings, at least, the size of the birth canal would not have been a problem, as the pelvis was considerably wider (see the BBC article, Human ancestors born big-brained, 14 November 2008).


(e) Defects arising from sexual selection


The peacock's tail: a classic example of sexual selection.

There is, however, a different kind of maladaption that is common in the animal kingdom: that arising from sexual selection. Fortunately, it poses no threat to Aquinas' thesis of perfect design. Here is how Dr. Barry Sinervo describes it:

...Darwin viewed male sexual ornaments as a curious evolutionary puzzle that begged explanation. Natural selection tends to produce individuals that are well adapted to their environment. However, sexual selection does not adapt the individual to the environment but does enhance traits involved in mate acquisition. Moreover, sexual selection can produce individuals with such elaborate ornaments that they must be either energetically costly to develop, costly to maintain, or even lead to a direct survival cost for the individual that bears the ornament. In this sense, sexual selection has the capacity to evolve maladaptive traits. Darwin's theory of sexual gave a plausible explanation for the origin of many splendid if not bizarre ornaments. Darwin's theory was refined most recently by Trivers (1974) who observed that:

1. Females are the limiting sex and invest more in offspring than males and many females are unavailable for fertilization because they are carrying for young or developing young;

2. Because males tend to be in excess, males tend to develop ornaments for attracting females or engaging other males in contests...

Female choice is a striking example of maladaptive evolution. What is meant by maladaptive evolution? In the case of female choice and male ornaments, the average fitness of individuals in the population can decline as the frequency and intensity of the bizarre male ornaments increases in the population.
(Taken from Bio140 Behavioral Ecology Course Notes by Dr. Barry Sinervo, Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, UCSC, 1997-2009. The above quote is from Chapter 3 - Adaptation and Selection.)

However, the maladaptive ornamental traits that have evolved as a result of sexual selection are not found in all members of a family of animals; rather, they are confined to certain species within a family. As the "kinds" designed by God are families rather than species, the presence of maladaptive traits in certain species of animals in no way weakens St. Thomas' contention that each "kind" of animal was originally designed perfectly.

I conclude that the case for alleged "imperfections" in Nature remains unproven, as far as natural kinds are concerned. That leaves us with vestigial organs.


My sixth point in response to the "modern Thomist" is an epistemological one, relating to both the alleged "imperfections" found in living organisms and the "vestigial organs" they are said to possess. In my opinion, theistic evolutionists have been far too uncritical in accepting the "official" pronouncements of biology. In the passage cited above by our "modern Thomist," (Summa Theologica I, q. 68, article 1), St. Thomas writes that believers should be ready to abandon a particular interpretation of Scripture, "if it be proved with certainty to be false." Well, scientists haven't "proved with certainty" that the design of the vertebrate eye is imperfect, or that pseudo-genes are functionless. Religious believers really need to cultivate a healthy dose of skepticism, and a spirit of bold defiance. They shouldn't let scientists tell them what to think, unless they can demonstrate their facts. Religious believers should fight back like this:

"So, clever skeptic, you don't like the way the vertebrate eye is built? You think the inverted eye is a mistake? Very well; go and genetically engineer a better one in a vertebrate embryo, and while you're at it, please demonstrate that vertebrates with your new eye would not only see better, but suffer no harmful side-effects. What's that? You can't? Well then, quit criticizing God's design, if you can't do a better job! You claim that pseudo-genes are useless? All right. Here's a challenge. Let's see you make just one perfectly functioning organism, of any species you like, with all its pseudo-genes removed. What's the matter? You can't? Well then, who are you to say that these genes are useless? And if you're so sure that God would never have designed a whale with pelvic bones if He were starting from scratch, let's see you build a whale without them. Go on, try! What's stopping you? You don't know how to mutate the gene that codes for its pelvic bones, without adversely affecting the whale's embryonic development in other ways? Well then, stop whining about the way God made the whale!"

I could say a lot more about the litany of "imperfect" designs and allegedly "vestigial" organs which Darwinian evolutionists constantly drag up, but the key point I wish to make is an epistemological one: without a complete understanding of how a creature's genes code for its embryonic development and produce its bodily organs, we are in no position to criticize God's designs. In particular, before we can confidently declare a bodily organ in a creature to be "in vain," we first need to identify the gene that codes for it, and ascertain whether it also codes for any other useful organs or vital biological functions. If it does, then we will then have to find a way of mutating that gene to make the "vestigial" organ disappear, while keeping the creature's other organs and biological functions intact. Only then can we truly declare an organ to be "in vain." The "vestigial" eyes of moles, which are hidden under their skin, serve no function; but if the genes that code for them cannot be modified to make the eyes disappear without rendering moles less biologically fit, then we cannot say that the eyes of moles are completely "in vain." (St. Thomas, incidentally, was unfazed by moles' "vestigial" eyes: he was of the opinion that moles have eyes under their skin simply because they are "higher animals," which therefore should have eyes, as befitting their nobler status. See his Commentary on Aristotle's De Anima, Book III, chapter 1, Lectio 1, paragraph 573. )

I'd also like to make a brief comment on the current scientific definition of a vestige, from Part 2 of Dr. Douglas Theobald's 29+ Evidences for Macroevolution: "A vestige is defined, independently of evolutionary theory, as a reduced and rudimentary structure compared to the same complex structure in other organisms." He goes on to point out that many vestigial organs still serve a purpose in creatures possessing them, but that even if they still serve some purpose, there are other purposes that they used to serve in these creatures' ancestors, but which no longer serve now. A few vestigial organs, however, serve no purpose whatsoever - e.g. wing stumps in kiwi birds, or blind eyes in cave fish.

Now, if someone is merely attempting to argue for common descent - which I personally accept - then Dr. Theobald's definition is fine. But if someone wants to use this definition to argue that a "vestigial" organ could not have been designed by God, then the definition is severely flawed, as it focuses exclusively on a single structure, rather than on the genes that code for its development. Since these genes also regulate a host of other structures in the organism, we cannot declare a vestigial organ to be "in vain," even if it appears to serve no purpose whatsoever.

"But if God is omnipotent, couldn't God have somehow produced all of these other structures in the creature, without making the vestigial organ as well?" Wrong question. What we first need to ask is: could God have made a viable creature with the same set of genes, but with some of these mutated, so that all of the other structures would appear, but the vestigial organ would not appear? If the answer is "No," then the second question we need to ask is: how many genes would God need to add, delete or replace, in order to make a creature possessing the same bodily structures, but lacking the vestigial organ? The third question we need to ask is: would this creature be the same kind of creature, or a different one (i.e. a creature belonging to a different family, on the account I am proposing)? If the answer is, "A different one," then the argument that vestigial organs disprove design by God is immediately undercut. For now the skeptic's anti-design argument is reduced to the feeble complaint: "Why did God make a creature of type X, instead of a creature of type Y?" And the only answer that need be given is: "Because He wanted to."


Ostriches flapping their wings.

There are, however, some needlessly ornate vestigial structures that do pose a genuine puzzle for Aquinas' teleological account of Nature. The wings of the ostrich, described in Dr. Douglas Theobald's 29+ Evidences for Macroevolution, are an excellent example:

For example, wings are very complex anatomical structures specifically adapted for powered flight, yet ostriches have flightless wings. The vestigial wings of ostriches may be used for relatively simple functions, such as balance during running and courtship displays - a situation akin to hammering tacks with a computer keyboard. The specific complexity of the ostrich wing indicates a function which it does not perform, and it performs functions incommensurate with its complexity. Ostrich wings are not vestigial because they are useless structures per se, nor are they vestigial simply because they have different functions compared to wings in other birds. Rather, what defines ostrich wings as vestigial is that they are rudimentary wings which are useless as wings. (Emphasis mine - VJT.)

In "Smoking Gun" number 14 in Part One, we saw how Aquinas argued that ostrich wings were not "in vain," because they still possessed a function. Dr. Theobald's remarks show that in the light of what scientists now know, this response will no longer suffice. The charge that ostrich wings are needlessly ornate for the limited purposes they serve needs to be addressed - either by finding more purposes or by showing that anything simpler wouldn't do the job or would disadvantage ostriches in some way.

In recent years, creationists have contested Dr. Theobald's contention that ostrich wings are needlessly elaborate, pointing out that ostriches use their wings for many important functions. A recent article by J. H. John Peet in Origins magazine (vol. 46, pp. 4-5) describes some of these:

Their wings are clearly not designed for flying. The feathers and the wing structure are different from those of flying birds. Rather, they provide insulation against the temperature extremes and have an important role in the courtship ceremony. In addition, these wings are for protection of their chicks. Fascinatingly, they have claws on each wing like the extinct Archaeopteryx and the modern Hoatzin, for example.

Sibbele Hietkamp, an ostrich farmer for over 18 years from South Africa, includes some additional functions of ostrich wings in his list: thermoregulation; providing stability when running and enabling rapid right angle turns; courtship displays and stability while mating; warning signals and other communication; nest building; and providing shade and shelter for young (see New Scientist, letters, 21 Jun 2008, p. 24).

It should be added that ostriches have been around for tens of millions of years. The first ostrich-like bird goes back to the mid-Eocene, and the ostrich itself is known to have existed from the early Miocene, about 23 million years ago. If the elaborate structures in ostriches' wings are needlessly ornate, then why haven't they been lost in all that time? The fact that they have been retained for so long suggests that these structures are not needlessly ornate, and that they do indeed serve some useful biological function.

Another point that needs to be kept in mind is that the presence of a vestigial trait within a population of animals, or even within a biological species, does not imply that all members of that natural kind (i.e. family) possess that vestigial trait. For example, a recent article on the evolution of the blind Mexican cavefish, describes how changes in both behavior and genetics led to the evolution of the Mexican blind cavefish (Astyanax mexicanus) from its sighted, surface-dwelling ancestor, which is still alive today. Interestingly, he ancestor is almost identical to the blind Mexican cavefish, except for the loss of eyes and pigment. The blind cavefish has evolved a trait (vibration attraction behavior) which helps it to locate food in their dark surroundings, but which would be a biological disadvantage if it were living on the surface, as it would expose them to the risk of predation.

The point I wish to make to here is that the loss of function that has occurred in the eyes of the blind cavefish is a loss that has taken place within a "natural kind," or family. As such, it provides no evidence for evolution from one kind to another by natural processes. Nor does it undermine Aquinas' claim that the natural kinds produced by God are free of vestigial organs, since God makes nothing in vain (see "Smoking Gun" number 14 in Part One of my reply to Professor Tkacz).

Another argument from "vestiges" which is frequently hurled at the Intelligent Design camp is taken from genetics: the "junk DNA" argument. It is often alleged that the DNA of living things contains a great deal of useless "junk" which once served a function, but which now serves no function whatsoever. However, this argument has been severely undermined in the last three years. As I am not a biologist, and as I possess no expertise whatsoever in this field, I shall content myself with providing a list of short links (for the benefit of curious readers) to articles that either refute or cast doubt on the "junk DNA" myth, in the box below:

Useful Online Resources Relating to Junk DNA and Pseudo-genes

JunkDNA.com by Dr. Andre Pellionisz.

When Junk DNA Isn't Junk: Farewell to a Darwinist Standard Response by Dr. Richard Sternberg.

Junk DNA: Darwinism's Last Stand? by Dr. Jonathan Wells.

Junk DNA RoundUp (and Rebuttal): How Neo-Darwinism Creates Junk-Hypotheses, Then Resists Their Demise by Casey Luskin.

Encyclopedia of DNA: New Findings Challenge Established Views on Human Genome by Science Daily, 13 June 2007.
Adapted from a news release issued by NIH/National Human Genome Research Institute. New data indicate the human genome contains very little unused sequences and, in fact, is a complex, interwoven network. So much for "junk DNA".

One scientist's junk is a creationist's treasure by Catherine Shaffer, in Wired magazine, 13 June 2007.
Francis Collins, director of the National Human Genome Research Institute and also a Christian, says that he has stopped using the term "junk DNA".

How Scientific Evidence is Changing the Tide of the Evolution vs. Intelligent Design Debate by Wade Schauer.
The author presents persuasive, well-documented, up-to-date evidence in support of the following conclusions:

  • Every type of "Junk DNA" presented by pro-evolution websites has been found to have functional roles in organisms, which severely undermines the "shared errors" argument [the argument that if species A and species B have the same copying errors in their DNA, they must be related];
  • A large percentage of the human genome previously assumed to be non-functional is now believed to be functional (from 2% to 60% or more);
  • Extra DNA that may not provide direct function still likely serves other structural/protective roles (this could explain the C-value enigma: why do some apparently simple organisms have a large number of genes?);
  • Many DNA regions are identical across species (highly conserved), undermining the notion that they evolved slowly over time;
  • Human DNA contains unique regions that are fundamentally different from chimps or any other species, and this correlates with the unique structure of the human brain. This suggests that the DNA code that specifies the human brain was uniquely created, i.e. designed.

The Evolution of Junk DNA from mostly Non-functional to Mostly Functional. An online review of Wade Schaer's paper by Dr. Andre Pellionisz.

The moral of the "Junk DNA" story is a simple one: it is extremely unwise to refer to something as "useless" or "non-functional" until you understand it properly.

Another piece of commonly cited genetic evidence for evolution relates to endogenous retroviruses. From a Thomist perspective, what is objectionable about this argument is not the inference to common ancestry (which I believe to be a perfectly reasonable one), but the implicit claim that these retroviruses serve no useful biological function, and may therefore be used as valid indicators of a shared ancestry between two species of organisms. However, the claim that retroviruses serve no function is highly questionable. I refer the reader to the following two articles:

Endogenous Retroviruses by Dr. Sean Pitman. The author attempts to refute arguments that Endogenous Retroviruses provide evidence for evolution, and in particular human evolution.

Endogenous Retroviruses (ERVs) by Who is Your Creator? Here's an extract from the conclusion:

"The word 'virus' means toxic or poison, and that is how most evolutionists perceive them. However, if 50% of our DNA is made up viral elements, wouldn't that indicate that they may have beneficial functions? Here is the defining question:

Were viruses created as intrinsic essential genetic material and some have mutated into pathogenic elements or ...

Did positive selection permit harmful viruses to perpetuate but most of them have recently evolved into essential elements?"

To reiterate: the fact that we have endogenous retroviruses in our DNA in no way implies that their presence there is random and accidental, let alone that it serves no function. Indeed, the articles cited above strongly suggest otherwise.

In a similar vein, those who like to put forward human chromosome number 2 as proof of our common ancestry with chimpanzees might like to read this article:

Guy Walks Into a Bar and Thinks He's a Chimpanzee: The Unbearable Lightness of Chimp-Human Genome Similarity by Dr. Richard Sternberg.

I am well aware that there is strong prima facie evidence of a shared common ancestry between humans and chimpanzees. Creationist Todd Wood admits as much in a very thoughtful article, entitled The Chimpanzee Genome and the Problem of Biological Similarity (copyright 2006, Baraminology Study Group). Wood acknowledges that not only the degree of similarity but also the pattern of similarity observed between the human and chimpanzee genomes cannot be adequately explained simply by ascribing it to the will of the Creator, unless a theory can be developed to explain why the Creator would will such similarity.

From a Thomist standpoint, it is certainly possible that God may have used the body of an apelike animal to produce the body of the first human being, either by deliberately manipulating its genome, or alternatively, the genome of its progeny (at conception or at some later time, before birth). If God made human beings in this way, then it would still be true that the body of the first human being was produced immediately by God, as Aquinas taught (see "Smoking Gun" number 11 in Part One of my reply to Professor Tkacz). What a loyal Thomist will object to, however, are the claims, frequently made by proponents of evolution, that vestiges of worn telomeres can be seen in our chromosomes. This claim is objectionable, not because it is being used to support common descent as such, but because it is being used to argue that human beings were put together badly - and hence not by God's design. Aquinas would insist, as he often did while he was alive, that "God made man right" (Ecclesiastes 7:30). Whatever lies on chromosome 2 must therefore serve a useful biological function.

I have written quite enough on the subject of vestigial organs, junk DNA and pseudo-genes; so I will now pass on to extinctions.



Marine extinction intensity through time. The blue graph shows the apparent percentage (see vertical axis) of marine animal genera becoming extinct during any given time interval. It does not represent all marine species, just those that are readily fossilized.
Courtesy of Wikipedia. Adapted from File:Extinction Intensity.svg.

My seventh point is that the phenomenon of extinction - even mass extinction - does not create problems for Aquinas' theology; it merely contradicts his science. Aquinas was clearly wrong to believe that the movement of the heavens alone was sufficient to preserve each species in existence, and that each species would last until the end of time, when the movement of the heavens will stop (see his Quaestiones Disputatae De Potentia Dei (Disputed Questions on the Power of God), Question V, article IX). However, I would argue that the occurrence of extinctions is perfectly compatible with his theology - and even with his assertion that creation was complete in all its parts by the seventh day (Summa Theologica I, q. 73, art. 1). Here's why.

St. Thomas taught that each and every creature manifests its perfection in three different ways: first, in its achievement of its own proper end; second, in the assistance which it provides to creatures more perfect than itself; and third, in the way in which it contributes to the perfection of the universe as a whole, which in turn reflects God's glory:

[I]n the parts of the universe also every creature exists for its own proper act and perfection, and the less noble for the nobler, as those creatures that are less noble than man exist for the sake of man, whilst each and every creature exists for the perfection of the entire universe. Furthermore, the entire universe, with all its parts, is ordained towards God as its end, inasmuch as it imitates, as it were, and shows forth the Divine goodness, to the glory of God (Summa Theologica I, question 65, article 2 ).

Aquinas saw no contradiction in saying that creatures have their own proper ends, while also serving the needs of other creatures, and additionally contribution to the perfection of the universe as a whole:

...[A]ll parts of the universe are ordered to the perfection of the whole. For all parts are ordered to the perfection of the whole, inasmuch as one is made to serve another. Thus, in the human body it is apparent that the lungs contribute to the perfection of the body by rendering service to the heart; hence, it is not contradictory for the lungs to be for the sake of the heart, and also for the sake of the whole organism. Likewise, it is not contradictory for some natures to be for the sake of the intellectual ones, and also for the sake of the perfection of the universe (Summa Contra Gentiles Book III, chapter 112, paragraph 8).

Now, every species of creature that has ever lived on the Earth must have attained its biological ends for at least a short period; hence it is perfect in the first sense. As regards the second and third senses, Aquinas could plausibly argue that even if many kinds of creatures created by God have already died out, they must have served a useful ecological role in the environment in which the ancestors of today's animals lived. By doing so, they were at least indirectly useful to the ancestors of modern animals, which survived the extinction event - and hence, useful to contemporary animals, which would not be here today if they had not survived. Hence, even extinct creatures contributed to the perfection of the universe as a whole, indirectly, and to the development of more perfect life forms, such as mammals.


Triceratops, a Late Cretaceous ceratopsian from North America and one of the last of the dinosaurs.

The extinction of the dinosaurs is commonly cited by evolutionists as an "accident," without which human beings wouldn't be here. That doesn't sound like design. But assuming that the extinction of the dinosaurs was caused by an asteroid impact, as most geologists now believe, there is no reason why Providence could not have arranged this - either by determining it in advance, at the Big Bang (as ID proponent Professor Michael Behe might suggest), or (as I'll argue in Part Four of my reply to Professor Tkacz - see "Fatal Flaw number 4") by deliberately altering the movement of a heavenly body, in an open universe which God deliberately designed to be manipulated when necessary.

Someone might still ask why God didn't make the asteroid hit Earth sooner, thereby saving the mammals from languishing for millions of years during the long reign of the dinosaurs. I would answer that mammals weren't just "marking time" during the Mesozoic period: they were actually undergoing significant anatomical changes of their own during this period, and I would further suggest that mammals took over from the dinosaurs at the precise point in geological time when they were biologically ready to do so.

Earlier, we discussed the case of biological imperfections resulting in certain species as a result of sexual selection. As these imperfections accumulate, they may eventually result in the extinction of those species. Someone might object that God must have foreseen that this sort of evolutionary deterioration would occur when He designed these natural kinds. So why didn't He design them so that this kind of deterioration would not occur? The short answer is: for the same reason that God didn't prevent the extinction of many kinds of animals in the past. Animal "kinds" were not made by God to last forever; according to Aquinas, in the world to come there will be no more animals. To be sure, Aquinas believed that each kind of animal would continue as long as the heavenly bodies kept moving; however, I argued above that his theology could easily accommodate the notion that "genetic entropy" is part-and-parcel of being an animal, and that all species are destined for extinction. Sexual selection is just one of the ways in which a population of animals can deteriorate genetically, as time passes.


My eighth point is that the analogy of evolution's mistakes with illegitimate human offspring is fundamentally flawed. Aquinas would point out that illegitimate human offspring result from human sin. It follows that they cannot be part of God's original plan for the cosmos. They can only be part of God's backup plan for the cosmos, in the event of a human agent choosing to commit a sinful sexual act: God does not intend that the agent commit the sinful act, but He nevertheless allows this act to generate a new human life. God loves this new human being unconditionally, even though his or her coming-into-existence was not part of God's original plan. But evolution, according to the Darwin-friendly account of origins favored by Professor Tkacz, was built into the fabric of the cosmos by God Himself, when He timelessly created the world. If that's correct, then anything which results from the evolutionary process must be a part of God's original plan for the cosmos. Thus the vertebrate eye is not one of God's "backup plans"; it's part of His original plan. Ditto for the laryngeal nerve of the giraffe.


My ninth and final point is that it is absurd to construe Aquinas as saying that God only implicitly or indirectly intended the characteristic bodily features of His creatures, such as the vertebrate eye. On the contrary, Aquinas makes it quite clear that God's intention was very direct and explicit. In his Summa Theologica I, q. 103 art. 5, Aquinas addresses the question: Whether all things are subject to the Divine government? First he lists some common objections to the idea that everything is subject to God's government. Then he approvingly cites the words of St. Augustine of Hippo:

On the contrary, Augustine says (De Civ. Dei v, 11): "Not only heaven and earth, not only man and angel, even the bowels of the lowest animal, even the wing of the bird, the flower of the plant, the leaf of the tree, hath God endowed with every fitting detail of their nature." Therefore all things are subject to his government.

To be sure, the existence of creatures with a telos (or built-in end) that necessitates the death or suffering of another creature, poses a profound theological problem: how could God have explicitly intended the death and suffering of innocent creatures? The problem is magnified when we realize that there are parasites dedicated to attacking people: the malaria parasite, for instance. What we continually need to remind ourselves is that we don't know all the facts about the original condition of these seemingly malevolent organisms, as well as their subsequent development. Until we do, we are in no position to sit in judgement on God.

For instance, according to a recent press release by the National Science Foundation, modern malaria parasites began to spread to various mammals, birds and reptiles about 16 million years ago. Malaria parasites may jump to new, unrelated hosts at any time, decoupling their evolution from that of their hosts. The ancestors of humans acquired the parasite 2.5 million years ago - very close to the time when humans first appeared. However, according to Dr. Robert Ricklefs, one of the biologists who conducted the recent research into the origin of the malaria parasite, "Malaria parasites undoubtedly were relatively benign for most of that history, becoming a major disease only after the origins of agriculture and dense human populations."


4. WHY AQUINAS' VIEWS ON NATURAL EVIL ARE TOTALLY INCOMPATIBLE WITH DARWINISM

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"Vesuvius from Portici" by Joseph Wright of Derby. Circa 1774-1776. From the art collection of the Huntington Library in Pasadena, CA.
According to St. Thomas Aquinas, the universe contains just the right amount of natural evil.

Readers may be wondering: how did Aquinas explain natural evils? Very briefly, St. Thomas' rationale for the occurrence of natural evil goes as follows: because a world made by God has to be as well-ordered as it can be, it needs to contain all possible grades of perfection between its highest and lowest beings. In our world, the "Ladder of Life" (scala naturae) leads all the way up to intelligent beings (humans and angels), so it also has to contain all the lower grades, including the various grades of animals, which are inherently prone to death and degeneration. Aquinas also argues that while natural evils are bad for the creatures experiencing them, they nevertheless be good for other creatures, and they also contribute to the perfection of the cosmos as a whole: being killed may be bad for prey but it is good for predators, and it also keeps ecosystems in balance. But Aquinas went further. He taught that the universe contains just the right amount of natural evil. Not only is each kind of creature perfectly designed in relation to its proper ends; but the defects and break-downs that do occur in individual creatures are designed to occur with just the right frequency, for the good of the cosmos as a whole: neither too often nor too rarely. What makes Darwinism incompatible with Aquinas' philosophy is that natural selection cannot serve as a perfection-building mechanism, in the cosmic sense intended by Aquinas.


Why did Aquinas believe that the universe should contain multiple grades of perfection?

As a Christian, Aquinas believed that all creatures reflect God's glory. A universe containing only a single grade of perfection would be a very poor reflection of God's glory, as it would be lacking in many grades of goodness. Hence the universe needs to contain as many grades of perfection as it possibly can (for the kind of universe it is), so as to reflect God's glory as perfectly as possible:

God, the maker of all things, would not make the whole universe the best of its kind, if He made all the parts equal, because many grades of goodness would then be lacking in the universe, and thus it would be imperfect (Summa Contra Gentiles, Book II, chapter 44, paragraph 16).

Aquinas further elaborates his argument that a universe containing as many grades of perfection as possible in his Summa Contra Gentiles, Book II, chapter 45:

God is the most perfect agent. It was His prerogative, therefore, to induce His likeness into created things most perfectly, to a degree consonant with the nature of created being... But created things cannot attain to a perfect likeness to God according to only one species of creature... because no creature can be equal to God. The presence of multiplicity and variety among created things was therefore necessary that a perfect likeness to God be found in them according to their manner of being.

[S]ince the divine intellect knows many things... it represents itself more perfectly if it produces many creatures of all grades than if it had produced only one.

The highest degree of perfection should not be lacking in a work made by the supremely good workman. But the good of order among diverse things is better than any of the members of an order, taken by itself... For each thing in its nature is good, but all things together are very good, by reason of the order of the universe, which is the ultimate and noblest perfection in things.

Additionally, Aquinas contends that a universe with a multiplicity of species is a more complete reflection of God's glory than a universe with only one species, as it is richer in variety:

[T]he good of the species is greater than the good of the individual... Hence, a multiplicity of species adds more to the goodness of the universe than a multiplicity of individuals in one species (Summa Contra Gentiles, Book II, chapter 45).

It is important to realize that Aquinas, unlike Leibniz, does not hold that this is the best of all possible worlds: for any world God makes, God could always make a better one. What Aquinas does maintain, however, is that nothing is lacking in the world God has chosen to make:

Reply to Objection 3. The universe, the present creation being supposed, cannot be better, on account of the most beautiful order given to things by God; in which the good of the universe consists. For if any one thing were bettered, the proportion of order would be destroyed; as if one string were stretched more than it ought to be, the melody of the harp would be destroyed. Yet God could make other things, or add something to the present creation; and then there would be another and a better universe (Summa Theologica I, q. 25, article 6).


Aquinas' rationale for natural evil

According to Aquinas, animals are inherently prone to death, injury and birth defects. Aquinas identifies at three reasons for this in his writings. First, animals naturally generate themselves, and the flip-side of generation is corruption. The only way for God to make a world without death would be to make a world without plants and animals:

Furthermore, that which is necessary is always. Now, no corruptible thing always exists. So, if divine providence required this, that all things be necessary, it would follow that nothing corruptible exists among things, and, consequently, nothing generable. Thus, the whole area of generable and corruptible things would be removed from reality. This detracts from the perfection of the universe (Summa Contra Gentiles, Book III, chapter 72, paragraph 5).

Secondly, the very perfections which characterize animals are produced by causes whose modus operandi is probabilistic and thus inherently prone to failure. This means that the perfections we observe in living creatures are liable to be not realized on some occasions, leading to birth defects in some individuals.

God wills some things to be done necessarily, some contingently, to the right ordering of things, for the building up of the universe. Therefore to some effects He has attached necessary causes, that cannot fail; but to others defectible and contingent causes, from which arise contingent effects. Hence it is not because the proximate causes are contingent that the effects willed by God happen contingently, but because God prepared contingent causes for them, it being His will that they should happen contingently (Summa Theologica I, question 19 article 8).

Aquinas links contingent causes to his theological requirement that the universe should contain as many grades of perfection as possible in his Summa Contra Gentiles, Book I, question 85, paragraphs 1-4:

[1] From what has been said it results that the divine will does not remove contingency from things, nor does it impose absolute necessity on things.

[2] God wills whatever is required for a thing that He wills, as has been said. But it befits certain things, according to the mode of their nature, that they be contingent and not necessary. Therefore, God wills that some things be contingent...

[3] Moreover, God wills the good of the universe of His effects more principally than He does any particular good, according as a fuller likeness of His goodness is found in it. But the completeness of the universe requires that there be some contingent things; otherwise, not all grades of beings would be contained in the universe. Therefore, God wills that there be some contingent things.

Finally, the diversity and complexity of the parts which make up animals' bodies guarantees that sooner or later, they will interfere with each other's operation, leading to bodily degeneration. Hence all animals are doomed to die.

Corporeal creatures according to their nature are good, though this good is not universal, but partial and limited, the consequence of which is a certain opposition of contrary qualities, though each quality is good in itself (Summa Theologica I, question 65, article 1).

Again this is consistent with the matter and form of these things [plants and animals - VJT]: for since they are composed of contrary elements, they contain within themselves an active principle of corruption. Wherefore if they were prevented from corrupting by an external, principle only, this would be in a manner violent and inconsistent with perpetuity, since that which is violent cannot last for ever according to the Philosopher (De Coelo et Mundo, i). Nor have they an internal principle to preserve them from corruption, because their forms are in themselves corruptible through not being self-subsistent but depending on matter for their being. Consequently they cannot remain for ever identically the same; nor specifically the same when generation and corruption cease (Quaestiones Disputatae De Potentia Dei, Question 5, article 9).

From Aquinas' assertion above that a world made by God has to contain all possible grades of perfection between its highest and lowest beings, it follows that any world made by God that contains intelligent beings such as humans, as well as the lowly elements out of which human bodies are composed, would also have to include intermediate beings such as non-rational animals and plants, which in turn implies that such a world would also necessarily include natural evils, such as birth defects, death and degeneration, since plants and animals are inherently prone to these things.

To be sure, God could prevent these natural evils by refusing to allow things to fail or to destroy each other, but Aquinas argues that it would be irrational of God not to let created things act according to the natures that He gave them. For Aquinas, contingency and contrariety are part-and-parcel of being a living organism; if God always intervened to prevent their undesirable consequences, He would be interfering with His own work, like a Cosmic Nanny. Preventing all defects and degeneration in nature would entail not allowing contingent or opposing perfections to exist in Nature, which would in turn diminish the perfection of the universe:

Now, it is a higher grade of goodness for a thing to be good because it cannot fall from goodness; lower than that is the thing which can fall from goodness. So, the perfection of the universe requires both grades of goodness. But it pertains to the providence of the governor to preserve perfection in the things governed, and not to decrease it. Therefore, it does not pertain to divine goodness, entirely to exclude from things the power of falling from the good. But evil is the consequence of this power, because what is able to fall does fall at times. And this defection of the good is evil, as we showed above. Therefore, it does not pertain to divine providence to prohibit evil entirely from things...

[A]s it would be contrary to the rational character of a human regime for men to be prevented by the governor from acting in accord with their own duties - except, perhaps, on occasion, due to the need of the moment - so, too, would it be contrary to the rational character of the divine regime to refuse permission for created things to act according to the mode of their nature. Now, as a result of this fact, that creatures do act in this way, corruption and evil result in things, because, due to the contrariety and incompatibility present in things, one may be a source of corruption for another. Therefore, it does not pertain to divine providence to exclude evil entirely from the things that are governed (Summa Contra Gentiles, Book III, chapter 71, paragraphs 3-4).

Aquinas also argues that while natural evils are bad for the creature suffering them, they may contribute to the perfection of the cosmos as a whole:

Since God, then, provides universally for all being, it belongs to His providence to permit certain defects in particular effects, that the perfect good of the universe may not be hindered, for if all evil were prevented, much good would be absent from the universe. A lion would cease to live, if there were no slaying of animals... (Summa Theologica I, q. 22, art. 2).


Why Aquinas' theodicy is incompatible with Darwinism

Aquinas did not stop here in his theodicy; he went further. Aquinas taught that there was just the right amount of natural evil in the biological world:

Reply to Objection 1. It is part of the best agent to produce an effect which is best in its entirety; but this does not mean that He makes every part of the whole the best absolutely, but in proportion to the whole; in the case of an animal, for instance, its goodness would be taken away if every part of it had the dignity of an eye. Thus, therefore, God also made the universe to be best as a whole... (Summa Theologica I, q. 47, art. 2, reply to objection1.)

As Richard Regan and Brian Davies put it in their introduction to The De Malo of St. Thomas Aquinas:

Critics of belief in God have sometimes argued that there is too much evil suffered in God's world (the implication being that God is either bad or nonexistent). According to Aquinas, however, in the case of evil suffered, there can never be more evil than there need be. He thinks that any evil suffered that is more than there need be would be lacking a natural cause. It would be scientifically inexplicable. He therefore suggests that the evil suffered is neither more nor less than what we can expect in a material world in which scientific explanations can be given for what happens. (2001, Oxford University Press, p. 22.)

This is a very strong conclusion on Aquinas' part, and to my mind it makes Darwinism all the more problematic for "modern Thomists." According to Aquinas, not only is each kind of creature perfectly designed in relation to its proper ends; but the defects and break-downs that do occur in individual creatures are designed to occur with just the right frequency, for the good of the cosmos as a whole: neither too often nor too rarely. It should be clear to everyone that natural selection is not a perfection-building mechanism, in the cosmic sense intended by Aquinas. It should be even clearer to readers that natural selection is not an evil-optimizing mechanism in the cosmic sense, either. For while natural processes can be teleological insofar as they contribute to a creature's intrinsic finality (e.g. my heart pumps in order to circulate blood around my body), they are blind to large-scale, long-term goals such as the perfection of the cosmos as a whole.

Creationists and Intelligent Design proponents, on the other hand, could believe in a cosmos with a perfect balance of natural evil, if they wished to do so. The difference here is that for creationists (and also for some ID proponents), God is a micro-manager: each and every kind of creature was designed by God, in all its parts. As the Author of Nature, God is perfectly capable of designing it so that it contains a perfect balance of natural good and evil, for all of the various kinds of creatures found in the natural world.

Theistic evolutionists may ask: "But why couldn't God accomplish the same result via natural selection?" The difference is that Nature has a lot more work to do on the theistic evolutionary model than on Aquinas' creationist model (which is quite compatible with Intelligent Design). On the latter model, God personally plans each and every kind of creature in the natural world. He even plans their genetic and anatomical features, right down to the last detail. Having produced all these creatures and placed them in the natural world, all that Nature has to do is maintain them in existence. The balance of Nature is not something that Nature has to plan for itself; for it has already been established by God.

On the theistic evolutionary model, however, Nature has to generate a dazzling array of creatures, starting from nothing more than a bunch of organic chemicals. What's more, Nature has to do this through processes that operate without any foresight of God's long-term goals (namely, the creatures that it will eventually produce). On top of that, poor old Nature has to get the ecological balance between all these creatures just right, so that the world contains just the right amount of natural evil.

Now God could certainly achieve these ends, if He were directing Nature. That would be "guided evolution," and it's the kind of evolution that theistic evolutionists used to believe in when I was a boy, and Teilhard de Chardin was in vogue. But that kind of evolution is quite different from the theory of neo-Darwinian evolution, which most biologists now believe in. Neo-Darwinian evolution is inherently blind to long-term goals. The reason, as Dr. Douglas Theobald points out in his 29+ Evidences for Macroevolution, is that it works through Markov processes - these being the only natural processes that could produce a nested hierarchy. However, a distinctive property of Markov processes is that they are memoryless. A stochastic process with the Markov property, or memorylessness, is one which is conditional on the present state of the system, its future and past being independent.

Asking God to accomplish the very large, long-term goal of designing a world with just the right amount of natural evil, using only memoryless processes that are inherently incapable of being directed at long-term goals, is to ask the impossible. It's a contradiction in terms. Not even a Deity could do that.


5. DOES AQUINAS' THEODICY SATISFACTORILY EXPLAIN ANIMAL SUFFERING?

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Male Lion (Panthera leo) and Cub eating a Cape Buffalo in Northern Sabi Sand, South Africa. Photo by Luca Galuzzi.

Aquinas' theodicy thus has a ready explanation for why God, who is omnibenevolent, permits animals to die, and permits some animals to hunt, kill and feed on others. But these questions about natural evil are framed from a third-person perspective. They do not address the experience of suffering. Because St. Thomas considered natural evil in the animal kingdom from a third-person perspective, he is not troubled by the modern question, "How could a just God permit animals to suffer as much as they do? Indeed, why are they allowed to suffer at all?"

The difficulty here which Aquinas does not address is that whereas defects, degeneration and deaths in animals contribute to the proper functioning of ecosystems and thus enhance the perfection of the universe, animal suffering per se does not. Suffering which alerts an animal to the presence a hazard which it subsequently manages to avoid may be beneficial to that animal, but there seems to be no sense in which animal suffering contributes to the good of other creatures, or to the good of the cosmos. Lions, for instance, could not live without killing other animals, but they would be none the worse off if their prey experienced no pain while being devoured; and the universe would (it seems) be a better place as well. In other words, there is no "greater good" that justifies animal suffering, especially when it occurs during the animal's last moments of life.

A skeptic might therefore ask why God did not design animals so that they automatically went into shock when their pain exceeded a certain threshold. As far as I can tell, Aquinas does not have a good answer to this question, but I suspect his response would be that making animals in this way would make God too much of a meddler in His own creation. Just as it would be self-contradictory of God not to allow created things to act according to the contingent and destruction-prone natures that He endowed them with, likewise it would be irrational of God not to allow creatures to suffer according to the pain-prone natures that He endowed them with.

At this point, the skeptic is likely to respond that it would be immoral for God to make creatures that died experiencing terror and/or excruciating agony (as many animals do) in the first place. This kind of argument would not have impressed Aquinas, who would have answered that both life and sentience are gratuitous gifts of God, and that God is entitled to give each animal as much or as little of these gifts as he pleases:

In things which are given gratuitously, a person can give more or less, just as he pleases (provided he deprives nobody of his due), without any infringement of justice (Summa Theologica I, q. 23, art. 5, Reply to obj. 3).



Painting of the Trial of Bill Burns, the first prosecution under the 1822 Martin's Act for cruelty to animals, after he was found beating his donkey. It is the first known prosecution for animal cruelty in the world. The prosecution was brought by Richard Martin, MP for Galway, also known as Humanity Dick, and the case became memorable because he brought the donkey into court. The painting was made at the time of the trial. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

The question of animal suffering, as I see it, boils down to whether the Creator has any duties towards His sentient creatures, simply by virtue of having created them. There seems to be a great divide between the medieval and the modern mind-set on this issue, which is why some modern Christian apologists such as C. S. Lewis have even proposed that animals may be granted some kind of immortality, though not, of course, the Beatific Vision. Aquinas would have dismissed such speculation as nonsense. He argued that although animals can have sensory knowledge particular objects, they are unable to form universal concepts, because they cannot grasp the underlying rule that defines them as belonging to the same natural kind. As a result, abstract thinking is beyond them. Hence they are incapable of enjoying immortality, as they have no natural desire for it. Their desires are limited to the here and now, which is all that their bodily senses enable them to apprehend (Summa Contra Gentiles, Book II, chapter 82, paragraphs 2, 4 and 12).

Aquinas' calm assurance that human beings are the only rational animals is apt to strike moderns as arrogant and dogmatic. However, Aquinas has thought his position through very carefully, and he articulates his grounds for denying rationality to animals with admirable lucidity:

Reason is found fully and perfectly only in man. Only in him, therefore, is free choice in its full sense found.

Brutes have a certain semblance of reason inasmuch as they share in a certain natural prudence, and in this respect a lower nature in some way attains to the property of a higher. This semblance consists in the well-regulated judgment which they have about certain things. But they have this judgment from a natural estimate, not from any deliberation, since they are ignorant of the basis of their judgment. On this account such a judgment does not extend to all things like that of reason, but only to certain determined objects.

In like fashion there is in them a certain semblance of free choice inasmuch as they can, according to their judgment, do or not do one and the same thing. As a result there is in them a sort of conditional freedom. For they can act if they judge that they should, or not act if they do not so judge. But because their judgment is determined to a single course of action, their appetite and activity also are consequently determined to a single course. Hence "they are moved by things seen," as Augustine teaches; and as Damascene says, they are driven by passions, because they naturally judge as they do about a particular thing seen or a particular passion (De Veritate, question 24, article 2).


The New Caledonian Crow (Corvus moneduloides) is a tool-using species of crow, which is known to invent new tools by modifying existing ones, and then pass these innovations on to other individuals in its cultural group.

The crucial point here is that animals are unable to explain the basis of their judgments, as a rational agent should be able to do. The tool-making feats of Betty the crow look impressive, but we cannot ask her: "Why did you make it that way?" as she is incapable of justifying her actions. The same goes for the extremely clever New Caledonian crows who are able to use three tools in succession to get some food (BBC news report, 20 April 2010, by science reporter Rebecca Morelle). Let us imagine an older crow teaching a younger crow how to use a tool. And now try to imagine the following dialogue:

Older crow: Don't bend it that way. Bend it this way.
Younger crow: Why?
Older crow: Because if you bend it this way, it can pick up a piece of meat, but if you bend it that way, it can't.

The dialogue contains only simple little words, but the problem should be immediately apparent. The meaning of words like "if," "why," "but," "can" and "can't," cannot be conveyed to someone who does not understand them, through bodily gestures alone. Until we have grounds for saying that crows possess a language at this level of abstraction, we should react skeptically to claims that they can reason.

Aquinas explains his grounds for denying reason to animals in greater detail in his Commentary on Aristotle's De Anima, Book III, chapter XI, (Lectio 16). According to Aquinas, the real reason why non-human animals are said to be irrational, despite being endowed with imagination and a natural estimative capacity, is that they are incapable of weighing up alternatives in relation to some rule to be followed, as humans do. "And this deliberation requires some sort of rule or end by which to reckon what most needs to be done." Because animals lack the capacity to grasp general prescriptive rules and form universal judgments, they also lack free choice.

Aquinas has constructed an intellectually formidable defense of his assertion that rationality is peculiar to human beings, and that there is indeed an unbridgeable mental gulf between humans and other animals. Aquinas' argument that non-rational animals are naturally incapable of immortality because they have no natural desire for it, is also a very telling one, to which proponents of animal immortality have yet to formulate an adequate reply.

I conclude that much intellectual spade-work remains to be done by those Christians who (like myself) are deeply troubled by the occurrence of animal suffering, and who would also contend that God has certain basic duties towards His sentient creatures. We need to answer Aquinas' defiant question: what would you have God do, in order to either prevent their suffering or undo the terrible effects of it? Some questions that need to be considered carefully include the following:

I am not a theologian, and I do not pretend to have the answers to these questions. I raise them merely in order to generate further discussion by others who are more qualified than myself to address these issues. And of course, on such dogmatic matters, the verdict of the Church, when it is pronounced, is final.


6. WHAT WOULD AQUINAS HAVE THOUGHT OF PROFESSOR WILLIAM DEMBSKI'S THEODICY, AND DOES IT HAVE ANY IMPLICATIONS FOR INTELLIGENT DESIGN?

An Outline of Professor Dembski's Theodicy

Section 1 Section 2 Section 3 Section 4 Section 5 Section 6 Section 7


Two artistic depictions of the Fall of Man.
Left: William Blake, "The Temptation and Fall of Eve." Illustration to Milton's Paradise Lost (1808, pen and watercolor on paper).
Right: Michelangelo Buonarotti. "The Fall of Man and the Expulsion from Paradise." Circa 1511. Fresco from the Sistine Chapel.

The publication of Professor William Dembski's book, The End of Christianity: Finding a Good God in an Evil World (B & H Academic, Nashville, Tennessee, 2009), represented a turning point in the history of human attempts to wrestle with the problem of evil. Professor Dembski's original contribution to the discussion is that he provides a solid philosophical framework for harmonizing the scientific discovery of the Earth's antiquity with the age-old Christian tradition that all the evil we see in the natural world ultimately traces back to the Fall of Adam. Professor Dembski argues that although animal suffering pre-dated the Fall of Adam by many millions of years, it could still have been retroactively caused by the Fall of Adam: God knew that Adam would choose to reject Him, and because He is outside time, He was able to ensure that the full consequences of Adam's sin would be visited upon His creation, both before and after the fall of Adam. Hence the animals who suffered before the Fall of Adam, suffered because of a sin that God knew Adam was going to commit. Dembski himself believes that while the suffering of animals before the Fall was actually inflicted by Satan and his fallen angels, God permitted these malevolent intelligences to wreak havoc on Nature only because He foreknew that Adam (who as the first man was entrusted with the stewardship of God's earthly creation) would reject His offer of eternal life, in favor of the Devil's lies. Satan was not the steward of God's earthly creation; Adam was. Hence Satan and his angels would never have been permitted by God to inflict suffering on creatures in the natural world, if Adam had not fallen. Thus in a very real way, Adam's sin is the (retroactive) cause of all the suffering found in Nature - past, present and future.

From my reading of Aquinas, I believe that he would have rejected Professor Dembski's theodicy, not because of its retroactive causation, but because of a deeply held theological principle of his, that the nature of the animals was not affected by human sin. While Dembski's "retroactive causation scenario" does not require us to posit that anything changed in the animal kingdom after the Fall, nevertheless it does entail that some animals (e.g. predators) are different from what God intended them to be, because of the Fall. When addressing the question of whether man had mastery of the animals in Paradise, Aquinas asserts that "there would have been a natural antipathy between some animals" even if the Fall had not occurred, and rejects the widely held view (espoused by many Christian Fathers) that animals such as the lion and the falcon would not have preyed upon other animals:

Reply to Objection 2. In the opinion of some, those animals which now are fierce and kill others, would, in that state, have been tame, not only in regard to man, but also in regard to other animals. But this is quite unreasonable. For the nature of animals was not changed by man's sin, as if those whose nature now it is to devour the flesh of others, would then have lived on herbs, as the lion and falcon. Nor does Bede's gloss on Genesis 1:30, say that trees and herbs were given as food to all animals and birds, but to some. Thus there would have been a natural antipathy between some animals. They would not, however, on this account have been excepted from the mastership of man: as neither at present are they for that reason excepted from the mastership of God, Whose Providence has ordained all this. Of this Providence man would have been the executor, as appears even now in regard to domestic animals, since fowls are given by men as food to the trained falcon (Summa Theologica I, question 96, article 1, Reply to objection 2).

It could be argued that Aquinas himself claims only that the nature of animals was not changed by man's sin, which is compatible with Dembski's "retroactive causation scenario." However, because Aquinas also makes the counterfactual assertion that "there would have been a natural antipathy between some animals" even if Adam had not sinned, I think it is reasonable to interpret Aquinas as maintaining that the nature of animals was not affected (retroactively or otherwise) by man's sin. In other words, time has nothing to do with it. Aquinas believed that lions and falcons were made by God to hunt and kill. This puts him at odds with Dembski's view.

Aquinas' rejection of the view that predation would not have occurred if Adam had not rejected God may partially stem from his deeply held view (which I discussed above) that the world contains just the right amount of evil. Dembski could respond, however, that the world as we know it does indeed contain just the right amount of evil - after we factor in the gravity of Adam's sin, which (retroactively) wreaked havoc in the natural world. If Adam had not sinned, however, the natural world would be very different, and predation would not occur.

But there is a more fundamental point of difference between Aquinas and Dembski: Aquinas holds that natural evils like predation make sense in the scheme of things, whereas Dembski hold that they do not. Indeed, on page 45 of his book, Dembski likens the world to an insane asylum. This way of thinking stands in stark contrast to Aquinas' sunny optimism about the natural world, in which he believes things nearly always happen for the best.

Before I conclude this section, I would like to suggest one more reason why Aquinas would have been uneasy with the idea that demons may have wrought havoc in the natural world, long before the Fall of Adam. In the thirteenth century, the Catholic Church was battling against a rival religious sect with a radically different view of Nature: Albigensianism. According to this religion, the Creator of the natural world was not the God of love, but the Devil - a view that the medieval Church combated vigorously. Hence to Aquinas, any suggestion that Satan may have been wholly or partly the cause of the suffering we find in the animal kingdom today would have smacked of the very heresy that he and his contemporaries were so vigorously trying to combat. Aquinas' sunny optimism about Nature, which is evident in the following passages, may therefore be a reaction against the dark pessimism of the Albigensians, whom he must have encountered during his preaching.

We see that things which lack intelligence, such as natural bodies, act for an end, and this is evident from their acting always, or nearly always, in the same way, so as to obtain the best result. (Summa Theologica I, q. 2, art. 3 (Whether God exists - taken from Aquinas' fifth way).)

Moreover, that natural bodies are moved and made to operate for an end, even though they do not know their end, was proved by the fact that what happens to them is always, or often, for the best; and, if their workings resulted from art, they would not be done differently. (Summa Contra Gentiles Book III, chapter 64, paragraph 5 (That God governs things by His Providence).)


Do the differences between Aquinas' theodicy and Dembski's have any implications for Intelligent Design?

The reader may be asking: what relevance does all this have for the Intelligent Design controversy? Absolutely none. Professor Dembski makes this abundantly clear in the Introduction to his book, where he writes:

Much of my past work has been on intelligent design and the controversy over evolution. Nothing in his book, however, takes sides in that debate. In arguing that the Fall marks the entry of all evil into the world (both personal and natural evil), I make no assumptions about the age of the Earth, the extent of evolution, or the prevalence of design (Dembski, 2009, pages 9-10).

Thus one can consistently accept Dembski's theodicy while rejecting his views on Intelligent Design - and vice versa. Aquinas would have rejected Dembski's theodicy, but that does not make him an opponent of Intelligent Design.


7. IS THERE A VIA MEDIA BETWEEN AQUINAS' THEODICY AND DEMBSKI'S?

Section 1 Section 2 Section 3 Section 4 Section 5 Section 6 Section 7


A chimpanzee mother and her baby. In recent years, researchers have found that acts of infanticide by female chimpanzees are quite common, in the wild.

In this section, I shall examine six different categories of natural evil, in the animal world:

(i) Death, disease and birth defects

(ii) Pain and suffering

(iii) The capacity to experience excruciating pain

(iv) Predation

(v) The experience of terror

(vi) Aberrant behavior patterns

APPENDIX: How would angelic and demonic agency work, in the natural world?

I would like to put forward a modest compromise proposal of my own, which I believe encapsulates the best theological insights of both Aquinas' and Dembski's theodicies. I certainly do not wish to claim that the via media theodicy I am proposing here is completely correct; indeed, I am quite sure that it is not. Rather, I am putting it forward tentatively, as the best theodicy I can come up with at present. If others feel they can do better, they are welcome to try.

I have retained Aquinas' insight that creatures' fundamental natures have not changed as a result of the Fall, and that they would not have been any different had the Fall not occurred. However, I also hold, with Professor Dembski, that the natural world is not as it should be. It contains much that is rotten and inexplicably evil. For instance, behaviors such as infanticide, cannibalism and killing other animals for sport, which are found in some species of animals living today, cannot possibly belong to the nature of any creature, for no omnibenevolent Being would design sentient animals that behaved like that. I would therefore maintain that malevolent intelligences (Satan and his minions) have tampered with the genes of some organisms over the course of time, causing them to develop additional, non-natural traits which were passed down to future generations but which are completely contrary to the original design of God. I would also agree with Professor Dembski's claim that these demonic intelligences were allowed to wreak havoc on creation in this way, only because God foresaw that the first human beings, Adam and Eve (who were also the custodians of creation) would reject His offer of friendship.

Incidentally, the claim I am making is empirically falsifiable: if demonic genetic tampering has occurred, we should still be able to identify the original genes, showing God's benevolent design for His creatures. How would we do this? Sections of animals' genes which are part of God's original design would exhibit certain advanced coding properties (e.g. hidden coded sequences), which the tampered sections of the code would not, being the product of an inferior intellect (Satan's). Thus the tampered sections would not blend in seamlessly with the surrounding DNA. Rigorous computer testing might be able to identify recurring sequences found in the rest of the genome which are not found in the tampered segments of animals' DNA.

Should someone object that demons are far more intelligent than we are, and are therefore perfectly capable of tampering with God's design in very clever ways that we cannot detect, I would reply that God is the Master mathematician, and that he is likely to have embedded an extremely large number of advanced coding properties into the genome, as part of the "trademark" or "signature" of His design, as DNA information is overlapping, multi-layered and multi-dimensional (Astonishing DNA Complexity demolishes neo-Darwinism by Alex Williams, a biologist, in The Journal of Creation, 21(3), 2007, pp. 111-117). It is highly unlikely that the demons have located all of God's "signature features," assuming that He has placed them in the genomes of living things. If humans, using computer technology, can locate even one of these "signature features" which the demons have overlooked, than that should help us to identify sections of the genome which have been subjected to demonic tampering.

I also take seriously (as Aquinas did) the statement in the Genesis account, which tells us that "God saw all that He had made, and it was very good" (Genesis 1:31). Aquinas would say that this actually happened: creation was perfect when it was made by God. One problem with Professor Dembski's interpretation of Genesis 1 is that on his reading, there never was a time when the natural world was "very good"; if we follow Dembski's definition of natural goodness, then the natural world was always an "insane asylum." Only Paradise (the Garden of Eden, where Adam and Eve were placed) could be said to have been made "very good." To be sure, Dembski could justifiably argue that the natural world originally planned by God was "very good," and that God would have made this world if Adam had not sinned. Perhaps Genesis 1:31 simply describes the world that God originally intended to make, rather than the one He actually made, after factoring in the Fall. However, I have to say that this reading of Genesis 1:31 sounds rather thin, and it is difficult to believe that the author of Genesis 1 intended the passage to be read that way.

On the modest reading of Genesis 1:31 which I am proposing, the Biblical statement that "God saw all that He had made, and it was very good," would mean that each natural kind was free from flaws in its nature when it was originally designed by God. However, these natural kinds may not have remained "very good" for long: they would have been liable to some degree of natural deterioration over the course of time (genetic entropy, leading to the appearance of biologically deleterious traits), and in addition, certain kinds of creatures would have been subjected to Satanic interference shortly after being produced. Since natural kinds have been (timelessly) produced by God at many different times throughout the Earth's long history, and since each natural kind was subject to interference and decay, there never was a single point in time when the whole of creation was "very good." Nevertheless, I would still affirm that all of the creatures that God made were originally very good, as Genesis 1:31 says. They just weren't all good at the same time, that's all.

On my reading of Genesis 1:31, each natural kind (i.e. each family of creatures) was originally produced by God, free from any natural flaws. According to the theodicy being proposed here, death is not a natural flaw but a design feature; animals were not made to live forever on this earth. In the absence of any demonic interference, animals would still have died, but in the normal course of events, their deaths would have been quick and relatively free of pain. Predation would still have occurred, but in most cases, the victims would have rapidly gone into a state of shock upon encountering their predator at close quarters, when there was little or no hope of escape, and would have died without experiencing distress. Additionally, animals would have either been free from natural parasites, or these parasites would have been relatively benign. Animals' bodily self-repair systems would also have worked much more efficiently than they do now, so that slow and painful deaths from cancer would not have normally occurred. This is what the natural world would have been like, had the Fall not occurred.

My theodicy relies heavily on the supposition that malevolent intelligences (demons) are capable of inflicting harm on organisms in the biosphere, which means that these malevolent spirits must be capable of interacting with matter. In the Appendix, I discuss the question of how a spiritual being (such as an angel or demon) could possibly have this capacity, and how it would exercise it.

The question I first need to address in detail below is: what kinds of evils could have been present in creatures when they were originally produced by God, and what kinds of evils could not have been present in these creatures?


(i) Death, disease and birth defects


A house fly (Musca domestica). A pair of breeding flies could theoretically produce up to 191,010,000,000,000,000,000 offspring between April and August. Source: Hussein Sanchez-Arroyo and John L. Capinera, University of Florida. (See the online article: House fly).

In his book, The End of Christianity: Finding a Good God in an Evil World (B & H Academic, Nashville, Tennessee, 2009), Professor Dembski hypothesizes that in the world originally planned by God, animal populations would have initially increased and then stabilized as the Earth became filled with life. Some kind of homeostatic mechanism would then have kicked in, preventing overpopulation. Dembski sees nothing strange in this:

Indeed, that is precisely what does happen even in this fallen world; but the process includes disease, death, and among those organisms capable of it, suffering (2009, p. 172).

Dembski thus believes that animals would never have died or gotten sick, if Adam had not fallen. Aquinas, on the other hand, identified no less than three reasons why animals are inherently prone to death, disease and birth defects, as we saw above: (a) if they are capable of being generated, then they must be capable of undergoing corruption; (b) they are generated by contingent causes, whose modus operandi is inherently probabilistic, rendering them liable to fail; and (c) their bodily parts are liable to interfere with one another over the course of time, rendering them liable to break down.

If we take the laws of Nature as a "given," then it is impossible to fault Aquinas' logic. But should we take them as a "given"? I believe we should. For surely the laws of Nature are God's handiwork, and God's alone. The laws of Nature are the framework of our universe, so to speak; if God did not make these, then what did He make?


(ii) Pain and suffering


A 24-year-old man infected with leprosy. Contrary to folklore, leprosy does not cause body parts to fall off, although they can become numb and/or diseased as a result of the disease.

In a world where injury and death are possible, it would be extremely unwise to wish for an absence of suffering. For instance, pain can alert an animal to the presence of danger or a noxious stimulus. As biologist Marian Stamp Dawkins puts it:

Pain evolved because, by being unpleasant, it keeps us away from the larger evolutionary disaster of death. Pain is part of a mechanism for helping us to avoid immediate sources of injury, and also to refrain from repeating actions that have resulted in damage. (Through Our Eyes Only?: The Search for Animal Consciousness. 1998. Oxford University Press; New Ed paperback edition.)

If (as Thomists contend), injury and death would have occurred in Nature even if the Fall had not happened, then we should expect that pain would also be present in Nature. A world without pain would be a world where organisms experienced an even higher rate of injury and death than they do now.

Since injury and death are greater evils than the pain which helps animals to avoid these evils, it follows that a world in which injury and death were possible but pain was not, would (ceteris paribus) be a more evil world than a world (like ours) in which pain sometimes served a biologically useful purpose in alerting animals to the presence of danger or noxious stimuli, thereby enabling them to escape death and injury.


(iii) The capacity to experience excruciating pain


The death of a fawn in a forest fire is often cited as an example of senseless animal suffering.

One feature of animal suffering that seems to render any theodicy absurd is the extreme pain experienced by some animals in their final moments - e.g. the death of a fawn in a forest fire, to use an oft-cited example. The pain in this instance serves no biological function for the fawn, and it doesn't benefit any other creature either. It would therefore be absurd to suppose that the pain experienced by the fawn serves any "higher purpose," or that it contributes to the "greater good" of the universe.

It is important to remember to remember, however, that in the above example, the fawn's death occurs as the result of a very unfortunate accident: the fawn happens to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. "Accidental death" is just that: accidental, not natural. The accidental death of an animal does not detract from its nature as such.

There are three questions we need to ask here:

(1) Would it be possible for God to design a world with the same laws of physics, chemistry, genetics and cell biology as ours, in which animals never died as a result of unfortunate accidents, such as forest fires?

(2) Would it be possible for God to design a world with the same laws of physics, chemistry, genetics and cell biology as ours, in which animals never suffered extreme pain, whether from natural or accidental causes?

(3) Would it be possible for God to design a world with the same laws of physics, chemistry, genetics and cell biology as ours, in which natural illnesses or deaths suffered by animals either (a) never caused them to suffer extreme pain, or (b) did not normally cause them to suffer extreme pain?

I am sure that Aquinas and Dembski would both agree that the answer to question (1) is: No. Presumably Dembski would hold that had the Fall not occurred, the laws of Nature would have been very different. But in our present world, with the laws we now have, accidents can and do happen.

I am fairly sure that Aquinas and Dembski would also agree that the answer to question (2) is: No. Presumably, anyone wishing to argue otherwise would be committed to the following three suppositions:

(i) the experience of pain does not supervene upon bodily states;

(ii) in addition to biological laws at the level of the cell, there are higher-level biological laws relating to mental states, such as pain; and

(iii) some of these higher-level biological laws relate to mental states only, without reference to underlying physical states, and they are also exceptionless laws. Hence it would be easy for God to design each animal family with its own built-in high-level laws, such that individual animals automatically passed out when their level of pain exceeded a certain threshold, sparing them the experience of extreme pain. Simplistically, one might envisage a law like this: "When the level of pain exceeds 17 units, loss of consciousness results."

Now, the first supposition above is certainly plausible, for anyone with no prior commitment to reductionism. There is no inherent reason why pain should be a "bottom-up" phenomenon, such that two creatures with the same brain state are necessarily in the same pain state.

The second supposition is also a philosophically respectable one: there may well be laws relating mental states to physical states, and they would presumably be both "top-down" and "bottom-up." Here are some fairly non-controversial examples: stepping on a sharp object hurts, and thinking of frightening things can alter your heart rate.

However, the third supposition, that there are exceptionless higher-level biological laws relating to mental states only, without any reference to underlying physical states, is far more problematic. These laws would have to be exceptionless, in order to for them to guarantee on all occasions that no animal would ever suffer extreme pain. They would also have to be purely psychological ("mental-only") laws that excluded reference to underlying physical states - for if they did, then they might not work in all possible physical circumstances. Remember that if the answer to question (2) above is "Yes," then the regulatory system causing animals to lose consciousness when their pain exceeded a certain threshold would have to work on every occasion, in every kind of painful situation, and for each and every animal in distress, throughout the whole of geological history. That's a pretty tall order.

It is highly doubtful, however, that the notion of a purely psychological ("mental-only") law, along the lines of "Lose consciousness when the pain level exceeds 17 units," makes sense, as it is not clear what would make such a law work. This in turn raises the larger philosophical question: can mental states be law-governed, in a deterministic fashion, insofar as they relate purely to one another, and not to any underlying physical states? Isn't "law" the wrong metaphor for the way things work, in the realm of the psychological? It therefore seems doubtful whether the notion of a purely psychological law is even philosophically coherent.

Now suppose instead that we drop the requirement that the pain regulation system be governed by "mental-only" laws, and allow it to be regulated by psycho-physical laws. For instance, let us suppose that the animal's pain regulation system is governed by laws like this: "When (animal's flesh is experiencing second- or third-degree burns) OR (animal's body is being devoured by a predator) OR (animal's body is being struck by lightning) OR (animal's body is falling freely through the air at a speed in excess of 30 meters per second), then: pass out." And now we can see what's wrong with this requirement. There are innumerable situations in everyday life which might cause an animal to suffer excruciating pain, and no finite set of program instructions could hope to cover all these cases. (For instance, what about death by electrocution, death by drowning, or dying of thirst in the desert?) An infallible pain regulation system would only work in a Laplacian, deterministic world, where God controlled all the outcomes. But that's not the world we live in. No agents possessing libertarian freedom could live in a world like that.

I would therefore argue that not even God could design a natural pain regulation system, governed by psycho-physical laws, that worked infallibly in an indefinite variety of situations. Given such a variety of situations, the only way in which God could prevent animals suffering from excruciating pain in all possible circumstances would be to supernaturally intervene in the rare cases not covered by His natural pain regulation program for animals.

Now, Intelligent Design theorists have no problems with God supernaturally adjusting or manipulating things in the natural world. However, ID theorists suppose that God does this, only in order to create new kinds of creatures, which regular natural processes could not possibly create anyway. But the idea (put forward in all seriousness by some atheists) that God, if He existed, would be morally obliged to "step in" every time that an individual animal met with a severely painful situation not covered by the creature's built-in pain-regulation program, is surely a preposterous one, as it turns God into a cosmic Nanny.

This leaves us with the question (3) above: could God design a world with the same laws of physics, chemistry, genetics and cell biology as ours, in which the natural deaths of animals either (a) did not normally cause them to suffer extreme pain, or (b) did not ever cause them to suffer extreme pain?

The requirement stipulated in case (b) is for an exceptionless pain regulation system governing death by natural causes. The foregoing discussion should suffice for us to see that this requirement is setting the bar too high for a natural system of any sort. No natural system is infallible, unless it is inherently very simple. However, pain is an inherently complex biological phenomenon; therefore it cannot be regulated with 100% efficiency by a simple set of natural rules. There will always be exceptions. Case (b) is an unreasonable requirement, because it is tantamount to a demand for a pain regulation system which works with 100% efficiency: "No extreme pain, ever!" The best we can hope for is case (a): a pain regulation system in which the natural deaths of animals did not normally cause them to suffer extreme pain.

Case (a) sounds like a very reasonable requirement, that one would expect of an omnibenevolent God. It is therefore perplexing that some animals die slow and excruciating natural deaths, as the body's self-maintenance systems wear down or are overwhelmed from outside. Deaths from bodily diseases such as bone cancer or from painful parasites are examples that readily come to mind.

According to my reading of Genesis 1:31, each natural kind (i.e. each family of creatures) was originally created by God, free from any built-in natural flaws. If this modest reading of Genesis is correct, then the original or "founding" members of each animal kind produced by God must have been free from natural parasites, and their body's self-maintenance systems must also have worked much more efficiently than they do now, so that painful deaths from cancer would not normally occur. On this supposition, the widespread prevalence of painful natural deaths that we see in the animal kingdom today would then be due to malevolent interference from evil intelligences (demons), who are hell-bent on wreaking havoc in God's world.

Given that humans acquired the malaria parasite around 2.5 million years ago (as we saw above), it would also be reasonable to infer that the first true human beings appeared shortly before that time.


(iv) Predation


Left: According to some paleontologists, the fearsome Tyrannosaurus rex was primarily a scavenger rather than a predator.
Right: Hyena feeding on a zebra carcass in Masai Mara, Kenya. The image is a scan of an old film print, and was photographed by Mila Zinkova.

The phenomenon of predation raises thorny questions relating to God's goodness. How could God make a creature like the hyena, which eats its victims while they are still alive? The spectacle of hyenas eating a buffalo prompted one contributor to Yahoo Answers UK & Ireland to ask: "Does anyone else think that hyenas are the most vulgar creatures ever?" The question elicited a passionate defence of hyenas by a former zookeeper, from which I quote the following excerpt:

Hyenas are often portrayed as cowardly scavengers, but in fact they are skilled pack hunters, capable of bringing down large prey like wildebeest and buffalo by working as a team. Lions scavenge from them as often as they scavenge from lions. As to them eating their prey alive - big cats are pretty much the only large predators that make a clean kill before beginning to feed. Most others don't have the necessary equipment to do this - the only way they have of killing their prey is to tear it to pieces. This is not as horrible as it sounds - adrenaline and endorphins mean that the prey is not in as much pain as you might expect, and being disembowelled may actually lead to a quicker death than the suffocation method employed by big cats.

PLEASE don't hate hyenas. They have a bad enough reputation as it is. They deserve to be respected and admired every bit as much as any other animal. Remember that animals only do what they have to in order to survive, in contrast to humans, who are often extremely cruel for no reason whatsoever. We're the only species that really deserves to be hated - we're capable of acts of brutality seen nowhere else in the animal kingdom.

What the zookeeper's reply tells us is that we should be careful of judging the natural world from appearances, and that our imagination is a poor guide to how painful an experience is likely to be. It can also be urged that death at the hands of a predator would probably be preferable to a slow, lingering death from starvation (in a drought) or disease (e.g. parasitism).

And yet, there is something appalling about the gruesome spectacle of an animal's being eaten alive. The notion that God would have designed a world like that revolts us morally, to the very core. Surely, we feel like responding, He could have made the world differently. It doesn't have to be like that.

When proposing alternative courses of action that God might have taken, it is sensible to minimize the changes that one is proposing, in order to avoid outlandish and unverifiable speculation. For we do not know what's possible and what's not, outside our own universe.

Perhaps the most disturbing aspect of the spectacle of an animal being eaten alive is how the victim must feel. The shock of the experience may certainly reduce the pain felt, yet it would undoubtedly experience a state of sheer terror in its final moments, the very thought of which is utterly appalling. I discuss this question in the next section, where I speculate that God may have originally designed animals so that they automatically went into shock when confronted by their natural predators at close quarters, and therefore suffered little or no emotional pain.

Another possibility is that the various kinds of animals that we now call predators were all originally meat-eating scavengers that fed on carcasses, rather than hunters. If this supposition is correct, then the predatory behavior found in carnivores is not truly natural, but a perversion of their original natures. However, it would be incorrect to say that the nature of these creatures had changed since they were created; rather, the changes undergone would be additional to their natures. Certainly, some species of carnivores (e.g. wolves) would have always been predators; but I have argued above that species are not natural kinds. It may be that the family Canidae (which is a natural kind) is not naturally predatory, and that the very first canids were scavengers, or even insectivores. I have to say, however, that in the light of the available evidence, this appears rather unlikely.

Another problem with the "no original predation" scenario is that of specifying an alternative, more humane kind of death. In the absence of such an alternative, we cannot make a satisfactory case that the existence of predators in Nature is incompatible with their having been produced by an omnibenevolent God.


(v) The experience of terror


According to Charles Darwin, horses utter loud and peculiar screams of distress when surrounded by wolves.

Various kinds of behaviors found in the animal kingdom strike us as hideously cruel, and I will describe the most disturbing examples in the section below, on aberrant behavior in animals. However, the flip side of these abhorrent behaviors is the experience of terror they must induce in their sentient victims, and it is this experience which I wish to discuss here.

Consider the following passage from Chapter 4 of Charles Darwin's The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals:

Hares and rabbits for instance, never, I believe, use their vocal organs except in the extremity of suffering; as, when a wounded hare is killed by the sportsman, or when a young rabbit is caught by a stoat. Cattle and horses suffer great pain in silence; but when this is excessive, and especially when associated with terror, they utter fearful sounds. I have often recognized, from a distance on the Pampas, the agonized death-bellow of the cattle, when caught by the lasso and hamstrung. It is said that horses, when attacked by wolves, utter loud and peculiar screams of distress.

A sympathetic reader, contemplating scenes like these, cannot help but think: "What a terrible way to go." When we look at the suffering of mammals in Nature, it is evident that something is definitely rotten in the state of Denmark. (I have confined my remarks to mammals here, because the scientific claim that many, if not most, mammals are sentient, is a reasonably non-controversial one.)

Confronted with the suffering found in the animal kingdom, Darwin himself drew the utterly illogical and unscientific conclusion that Nature was not designed, despite the fact that he had no mechanism for explaining the origin of life and of animal phyla, most of which appear suddenly in the fossil record. The conclusion I draw instead is that Nature was indeed designed, and that if Nature's Designer is omnibenevolent (as I believe God to be), then His original design for Nature must have been a good one. This does not rule out the possibility that some malevolent agent or agents (e.g. Satan and his minions) could have subsequently tampered with God's design for the various kinds of creatures in the biosphere.

For instance, it is plausible to suppose that each kind of creature may have been originally genetically engineered by God to go into a state of shock when it encountered a predator at close quarters, and had little or no hope of escaping that predator. The mere sight of the predator at close range could have triggered a loss of consciousness on the part of its prey. Like everything designed by God for the natural world, this "terror-avoidance system" would not have worked infallibly in all situations, but it could have worked very efficiently in the great majority of cases.

Now let us imagine a perverse and malevolent spiritual agent, millions of years ago, who knew that human beings would one day inhabit the Earth and would be capable of accepting or rejecting God's grace. Such a malevolent being (let's call him Satan) might well wish, out of sheer spite, to make as many human beings fall away from God as possible. That being the case, Satan would want to make the world look as twisted and evil as possible to future human beings, in order to tempt them into thinking that they live in a godless universe. One of the first things Satan would therefore do is disable the "terror-avoidance system" designed by a benevolent God to minimize the suffering of His creatures in their final moments. By disabling this system, Satan subjected millions of future generations of animals to terrifying deaths, and created the appearance of a cold, uncaring and godless universe.

It is important for the reader to realize that no laws of Nature were broken by God in engineering this "terror-avoidance" system for animals; and no laws of Nature were broken by Satan in disabling it. God's benevolent action was not contrary to Nature, but beyond the power of Nature. And while Satan is capable of disrupting animals' genes, he has no power to alter the laws of genetic inheritance, which were established by God.


(vi) Aberrant behavior patterns


The male lion is a magnificent animal, but it practices infanticide: when new males oust the previous males associated with a pride, the conquerors often kill the young cubs. Cats, dogs, elephants, baboons and bears exhibit the same behavior.

Perhaps the most compelling are behaviors which immediate strike us as sick, cruel and perverted - e.g. cannibalism, infanticide, killing for sport, rape, and unnatural sexual practices. To rationalize these behaviors as serving some useful biological purpose is morally obscene; it should be self-evident that an omnibenevolent Being would not design a world like that.

It might be argued that the behaviors in question could be due to some kind of malfunction on the part of the animal's instincts, and that they are therefore isolated behavioral anomalies for which God, as the General Author of Nature, is not responsible. However, it is becoming more and more apparent that the behaviors in question are widespread and commonplace, as this article in "Science Daily" and this recent article in The New York Times both show. They are not rare, and they seem to be instinctive. Here, for instance, is an excerpt from a "Science Daily" report (May 14, 2007) on acts of infanticide committed by female chimpanzees in the wild:

Alerted to the killings by sounds of chimpanzee screams, the researchers directly observed one infanticide, and found strong circumstantial evidence for two others. Evidence suggested that in two of the cases, the killings were perpetrated by groups of resident females against "stranger" females from outside the resident group. Infants were taken from the mothers, who were injured in at least two of the attacks; in at least one case, adult males in the area exhibited displaying behavior, with one old male unsuccessfully attempting to separate the females.

The authors point out that these new observations indicate that such female-led infanticides are neither the result of isolated, pathological behaviors nor the by-product of male aggression, but instead appear to represent part of the female behavior repertoire in chimpanzees.

What drives the behavior is not yet clear, but may stem from demographic shifts that alter sex ratios and put increased pressure on females competing for foraging areas.

I would argue, however, that these behaviors are not natural. They do not belong to the "essence" of the animals in which they are found. They are, I believe, introduced features, caused by Satan and his fallen angels tampering with the genomes of these animals, millions of years ago.

The pain suffered by a fawn in a forest fire is distressing enough, but it is an accidental death. I would argue that the pain a fawn experiences during a forest fire does not detract from the goodness of God in the same way as the emotional suffering resulting from the perverted but apparently "natural" behaviors of animals (e.g. the terror felt by an infant chimpanzee as it is being clobbered to death by an adult member of its troupe, or the terror experienced by a piglet as it is being eaten alive by its mother). For if these behaviors were indeed natural, then their Designer could not possibly be good.

According to the theodicy which I am proposing here, each natural kind was originally free from any tendencies which are incompatible with the character of an omnibenevolent Designer - e.g. behaviors such as cannibalism, infanticide, rape, unnatural sex and killing for sport.

The conclusion I draw is that since God is omnibenevolent, and since He is the Designer of each natural kind, these perverted behaviors were not originally found in the creatures He designed. At a later stage, a malevolent agent or agents (i.e. Satan and his demons) tampered with the genes of these animals, causing them to pass on perverted behavioral traits to their descendants.

Nevertheless, I would maintain that Aquinas has a valid theological point when he asserted that "the nature of animals was not changed by man's sin" (Summa Theologica I, question 96, article 1, Reply to objection 2). Since I identify the natural kinds designed by God with what scientists now refer to as families rather than species, I would therefore hypothesize that the original members of each animal family did not exhibit these aberrant behaviors that we find so appalling.

One way of validating this hypothesis would be to identify the clusters of genes which trigger these aberrant behaviors, analyze their DNA sequences very carefully, and compare it to the sequences of the surrounding genes. If my supposition is correct, it should be possible to locate embedded mathematical patterns, regularities or sequences in the surrounding genes which are not present in the genes coding for aberrant behaviors. The latter genes would lack certain "trademark features" that were originally encoded by God in the genes He designed. With the aid of computers, scientists might be able to identify some of these "trademarks," and thereby establish that the aberrant behaviors we see in the animal kingdom were not part of its original design.


APPENDIX: How would angelic and demonic agency work, in the natural world?


Left: Guido Reni, "The Archangel Michael Defeating Satan," 1636. Santa Maria della Concezione, Rome.
Right: Guillaume Geefs, "Lucifer (Le Genie du Mal)." Marble statue at the cathedral of Saint-Paul de Liege, Belgium. Photo by
Luc Viatour.

The theodicy I have proposed above assumes that malevolent intelligences (Satan and his demons) are capable of wreaking havoc on the biosphere, to at least a limited degree. A question that is seldom asked, however, is how they could possibly do so. How can spirits interact with the material world?

To answer this question, we need to step back and ask ourselves what angels are, and why they exist. After giving a brief summary of Aquinas' thinking on the matter, I shall provide some speculations of my own, and put forward an account of how spiritual beings could have the power to inflict damage on physical entities.

Aquinas argued that the highest perfection of the universe required that it should contain some creatures that act in the same way as God. God acts by intellect and will. Hence the universe should contain creatures that are also capable of intellectual operations and acts of will. Only these creatures are capable of knowing and loving their Creator. Human beings, of course, possess these capacities, but they possess other, lower-order capacities as well (e.g. sensory capacities, and also vegetative capacities such as nutrition, growth and reproduction). The perfection of the universe requires that there should exist some creatures possessing and requiring only the highest capacities, like its Creator - creatures who act only by knowing and willing. Such creatures we call angels.

Aquinas taught that the operations of the intellect and will are purely formal operations. These are not bodily actions, but abstract operations, which are entirely immaterial. Hence angels and demons, having exercising only the operations of their intellect and will, are pure spirits, which do not possess bodies of any sort. An angel has a form, which makes it the kind of being it is (i.e. an angel), but it is a form which does not need to be realized in matter - unlike the human soul, which requires a body, as it is the form of an animal. Moreover, each angel has its own unique form - otherwise there would be nothing to differentiate one angel from another angel possessing the same form. Since a creature's form is that which makes it the kind of being it is, Aquinas deduced that each angel must be "one of a kind," or in a category of its own.

Not containing any matter, angels and demons are therefore impervious to bodily influences. But this raises a question: if bodies had no influence over them, how could they acquire knowledge of events in the outside world, which they would need in order to interact effectively with the world? Aquinas' answer was that the angels, when created, were infused by God with a vast amount of knowledge - not only general knowledge about the types of things existing in the world, but also an explicit knowledge of particular things over their entire time-history, enabling them to keep track of individual entities in real time.

However, this still leaves the problem of how angels and demons could interact with the world. For instance, how do they move things around? The problem is sharpened by Aquinas' insistence that matter obeys the will of God alone, as it is He and He alone Who created the universe and keeps it in being. Hence angels are unable to move things by wishing them to move; only God (upon Whom they depend for their being) can move them simply by willing them to move. Nevertheless, Aquinas held that angels do move bodies. For instance, he maintained that angels move the heavenly bodies in their courses, and that angels and demons are capable of manipulating invisible "germinal seeds" which they knew to be hidden inside objects, and speed up their growth, causing animals (such as frogs) to apparently sprout of thin air.

I have not been able to find in Aquinas' writings a clear explanation of how pure spirits which do not keep material objects in being can be capable of moving them, apart from a few statements in his writings to the effect that angels move bodies by their intellects:

[5] Moreover, if, as the philosophers say, the heavenly bodies are moved by the separate substances, then, since separate substances act and move by their intellect, they must know the movable thing which they move... (Summa Contra Gentiles Book II, chapter 100, paragraph 5 (That Separate Substances Know Singulars).)

[4] ... Now, separate substances act and move by their intellect. Hence, they are actually causing whatever is effected by the movement of the heavenly bodies, even as the craftsman works through his tools. (Summa Contra Gentiles Book II, chapter 99, paragraph 4 (That Separate Substances Know SMaterial Things).)

Elsewhere, however, Aquinas rejects the view, held by some philosophers in his day, that the forms of bodies were produced by the angels, and asserts that "the corporeal forms that bodies had when first produced came immediately form God, whose bidding alone matter obeys, as its own proper cause" (Summa Theologica I, q. 65, art. 4). This invites the question: if matter obeys God's will alone as its proper cause, then how can it be moved by the will of the angels?

To be sure, Aquinas could reply by making a distinction. Angels, he would say, can move matter from one place to another, but lack the power to transform it from one kind of thing into another. Nevertheless, there seems to be an explanatory gap in Aquinas' thinking here - and it is one which needs to be plugged, since if angels are incapable of influencing events in the world, one might ask what purpose they serve in the cosmos, and whether they really exist after all. What follows is a proposal, for which I take sole responsibility, which aims to plug this explanatory gap in Aquinas. Whether he would have endorsed it or not I leave for readers to judge.

The proposal I am putting forward here is that if we take the possibility of angelic (and demonic) agency seriously, we have to suppose that material objects also possess some non-physical properties, in addition to their physical properties. Physical objects must possess some spiritual properties, allowing them to be controlled at will by a spiritual agent of a specific kind. If bodies had properties like these, then an angel of the right sort could move a certain kind of body, or control its physical states, simply by exercising its will. Where do these mysterious properties of bodies come from? God must have made them that way, because He planned the cosmos to be governed by angels. In the hierarchical cosmos envisioned by Aquinas, bodies were in fact governed by spiritual beings.

Now, we might assume that each kind (or species) of angel was assigned responsibility for one specific class of objects at the time of its creation, and that this class of objects was made by God with built-in properties, making it responsive to that angel's will. The angels were in turn made by God in such a way that they would be automatically aware of changes occurring in any member of the class of objects under their care. In other words, physical objects have S-properties (properties which make reference to spiritual beings), while spiritual beings have built-in P-properties (properties which make reference to physical objects).

I would like to stress that although angels may have been made by God with the ability to move objects of a certain kind, they are still bound by the laws of Nature (including Newton's laws of motion, for instance) in the way they move them. What I would deny is that the laws of Nature determine the movements of bodies in our cosmos. We do not live in a clockwork universe. Bodies are subject to certain natural constraints in the way they move, and presumably angels are also subject to these natural constraints in the way they move them. They cannot simply hurl things about willy-nilly, at whim, like the demons in the movie "Poltergeist." Nevertheless, they may still be able to influence the movements of natural bodies in ways that we do not yet fully understand.

For instance, the (natural) class of all hydrogen molecules could have the property that any given hydrogen molecule will move to wherever an angel of type "H" (for hydrogen) wishes it to. The reader will recall that for Aquinas, each species of angel had only one member, so only one angel would govern the class of hydrogen molecules. That angel would also have the built-in property of being automatically aware of any changes befalling hydrogen molecules, anywhere in the universe. Another angel (of type "W") would have the built-in property of being automatically aware of any changes befalling water molecules, anywhere in the universe, and would be able to move water molecules anywhere, by the power of its will.

Alternatively, we might imagine a hierarchy of angelic control: there might be an angel of type "W1" with the power to move only water molecules in Lake Michigan; an angel of type "W2" with the power to move water molecules anywhere in the world; and an angel of type "W3" with the power to move water molecules anywhere in the universe.

Aquinas believed that the number of angels was very large. Some could be in charge of certain groups or organizations. Others could be associated with specific places. And of course, other angels might be in charge of certain natural kinds - including life-forms such as C. elegans or E. coli - although Aquinas himself does not say this.

In the beginning, we may assume that some angels were assigned responsibility for maintaining different kinds of organisms in the Earth's biosphere, but God did not give these angels the ability to alter the natures of these organisms. However - and at this point, my speculation goes beyond what Aquinas himself wrote - God may have also given these angels the ability to cause these organisms to acquire some extra traits, if they so wished. Why would God have done this? God is an Artist, and He would naturally have wished to give His angels an opportunity to exercise their own intelligence and creativity, by painting on the fabric of the cosmos in their own little corner, which was originally assigned to them by God. In that corner, however, they would have had the freedom to paint in whatever way they wished. This means that angels who were assigned responsibility for life-forms on Earth would have been able to cause them to acquire traits which were either beneficial or harmful to those organisms and to other organisms. If these angels turned against God, they would have been able to cause considerable damage to the Earth's biosphere.

There is a long tradition, from Isaiah 14 and Revelation 12, to John Milton, and C. S. Lewis in our own time, linking the Fall of the angels to our planet (Earth) in particular. It is reasonable to suppose that angels who were entrusted with the care of life-forms on Earth were among those who fell. After the Fall of the angels, those who were assigned responsibility for the care of organisms on Earth became automatically capable of harming these organisms, though not of changing their fundamental natures. Even so, they would have been powerless to do anything had Adam and Eve (the custodians of creation) not fallen as well.

Thus the Fall of the angels, coupled with the Fall of Adam and Eve, was what made possible the havoc wrought in the natural world. This is why the world looks like an "insane asylum" at times. Nevertheless, the demons' ability to inflict harm on living creatures is limited. Even in our fallen world, we can still be spell-bound by their complexity and beauty - for the design of God is still clearly apparent. Additionally, angels and demons are unable to interfere with the laws of Nature, so human beings can still recognize their Maker.

Now, I would imagine that skeptics would dismiss the foregoing account as too "magical," and would prefer to rule it out, as a threat to the autonomy of the scientific enterprise. "After all," they might say, "if the universe is regulated by intelligent beings, and some of these are malevolent, how can we rely on our experiments to work?" So I can certainly understand why these skeptics would reject the idea that physical objects may have spiritual properties, allowing them to be manipulated at will by angels.

What I find difficult to understand, however, is why many theistic evolutionists would scoff at the possibility of angelic and/or demonic agency. It may be argued that such agency sounds too "occult." But what could be more "occult" than the action of God, the Creator of the universe, who makes things move according to laws that He selected by an act of will? And if the whole of creation is subject to His will, then surely it is His privilege if He decides to make certain classes of physical objects subject to the will of His angels.

Some believers may still find the notion of angelic agency unappealing. "It's too pixie-ish," they might say. "It doesn't sound rational to have the cosmos governed according to the whim of the angels." My answer is: it's not. There are laws of Nature which the angels cannot tamper with; but a universe whose every minutest change was governed by exceptionless laws would be a gray, soulless, leaden universe indeed. It would not be a universe that free agents, such as ourselves, could live in. And it would not be a universe that free spiritual agents, such as the angels, could exercise their agency in. Those who cannot overcome their visceral dislike of a universe in which angels are free to interact with material objects might want to ask themselves whether they believe in angels, as Aquinas did, and as Scripture tells us we must.

Part One Part Three Part Four Part Five
Part One (longer version)