New Book on Aquinas and Evolution

So much the worse for Thomistic thought, then. What does “directly creating”, etc. actually mean? What does “making use of earlier genetic and somatic material” actually mean?

Most importantly, why should we care what Thomas Aquinas thought about evolution? Should it have any influence on our understanding of evolution? Thomism seems like a personality cult.


I already implicitly answered that question, above. You don’t need to care at all. But Feser, Beckwith, Austriaco, Chaberek etc. must care because of their prior commitment to the truth of Thomism (certainly on all major points, and for some of them, seemingly on everything).

For Feser, Beckwith, Austriaco, etc., since Thomas can’t be wrong, then, if macroevolution really did occur, then there must exist some interpretation of Thomas’s words which can be squared with it. And they all seem to accept that macroevolution is established, so out comes the apologetic exegesis of Aquinas.

Chaberek reasons in the other direction: since Thomas can’t be wrong, and since Thomistic principles forbid accepting macroevolution, then macroevolution must be false; the scientists who claim it is established beyond doubt must have made some error, which will emerge upon a closer and more critical look at the evidence for macroevolution. [Note: he also has scientific reservations about macroevolution, but they aren’t the primary topic of his book.]

Then there is Vincent Torley, also a Roman Catholic. I’m not sure what his view of Aquinas is. He respects Aquinas and is, I believe, in some respects a follower of Aquinas, but I don’t know if he is one of the “Aquinas can do no wrong” people, or if he allows that Aquinas could be just dead wrong on some things. In any case, a few years back, he argued very ably (and apparently without any help from Chaberek) that close reading of Aquinas’s text shows that Aquinas is not compatible with an uncompromising, full-fledged Darwinian evolutionary scheme. Now Chaberek has come to the same conclusion. Chaberek goes from there to “macroevolution (Darwinian or other) is false”. I’m not sure what Vincent’s current view on the reality/unreality of macroevolution is. I think he posts here now and then; maybe he can bring us up to date on his view and how it resembles or differs from Chaberek’s. It would not surprise me if he has conversed with Chaberek and compared notes.

Anyhow, the book by Chaberek is very interesting for those who have even a general interest in Thomistic/Aristotelian ideas of nature and their application to evolution, but will probably be much less interesting for those who aren’t enthusiastic about Aristotle/Aquinas.

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17 posts were split to a new topic: Aquinas and Apologetics

@vjtorley may respond for himself in more detail, but he definitely thinks Aquinas got it wrong on a number of issues.

Thanks for this information. I look forward to hearing further clarification from Vincent Torley, if he reads this exchange.


True. Aquinas is much more than a pivotal figure in Catholic tradition, or more broadly Christian thought. It is fine to disagree with him or even to be unaware of his name, but for the record he is an acknowledged contributor to western intellectual history. No one is going to say that of Ken Ham.


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2 posts were split to a new topic: The Contributions of John Philoponus

To get back on the original topic: @Eddie, in this new edition, does Chaberek have a new response to Austriaco’s main Thomistic explanation that in evolution, new forms are produced by God’s special action (similar to the creation of the soul in human reproduction)? The original objection from Chaberek was how less perfect things could evolve to become more perfect (i.e. well-adapted to their environment), given the principle of proportionate causality. I think Austriaco’s position essentially amounts to a form of progressive creationism, though at the metaphysical instead of scientific level.

Related: I think Feser does a good job in his newest book Aristotle’s Revenge of giving a general overview of the different ways Aristotelians can think about evolution. Austriaco and co. have also recently published a new book about Thomism and evolution, which includes chapters on Adam and Eve as well. Some of the information was published previously on their website, Thomistic Evolution.


I haven’t read the new book by Austriaco; I’m familiar only with an article or two of his reprinted on BioLogos. Chaberek comments on the Austriaco book (which is an anthology) in about half a dozen places in his own work, indicating in footnotes where he disagrees with certain points, but the main text of his book focuses primarily on the exposition of Aquinas and avoids detailed wrangling with other scholars.

If Austriaco etc. believe that new forms are produced by God’s special action, then to that extent they don’t disagree with Chaberek. But how that cashes out in detail, I can’t say without reading the book.

I think Feser is a good scholar of Aristotle and Aquinas, and I enjoy his critique of modernity from a pre-modern point of view. When he explains and teaches, as opposed to writing superciliously about philosophical and theological opponents and ID proponents, he is very good. I like the look of Aristotle’s Revenge and may get hold of a copy. I can’t comment on it, however, until I’ve read it.

My general impression of Feser is that he is very good on the “Greek” side of Christian thought, but does not do full justice to the “Hebraic” side – which is not uncommon among modern Thomists, and more generally among people who come into theological study from the philosophical rather than the Biblical side of things. His idea of “classical theism” is much more about the philosopher’s God than the Biblical God, as far as I can see. Everything he says about classical theism is fine as far as it goes, but every now and then, I find myself saying (uncharacteristically for me, since I am usually combating the opposite tendency, the anti-philosophical Biblicism of the fundamentalists), “Where is the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob in all this?” But you remind me to read more of Feser, so I thank you.


I agree that he does focus more on the Greek, perennial aspect of classical theism. Personally, I found Eleanor Stump’s lecture God of the Bible and God of the Philosophers to be helpful to reconcile these two ideas. In addition, one should remember that Aquinas thought of his main work as biblical commentary. This aspect of Thomas hasn’t been widely discussed as much as his philosophy.


Eddie -

I appreciate your bringing to our attention this interesting new work by Chaberek.

Since I don’t have time to read the book anytime in the near future, would you mind answering a question about it for me?

My reaction to the Thomistic view of evolution as described in this thread is that it is based on a medieval understanding of science that has leaked into the definition of a “form.” In other words, his understanding about what makes one biological form different from another would have been based on a certain medieval common sense. But we know today that much of that medieval sensibility about biology which undergirded his classification of forms has not survived the test of time.

There’s a very good case to be made for understanding all of biological life as an expression of a single form. I.e.,

Biology = Single Thomistic Form

Consider that every organism shares these characteristics:

  • Blueprints encoded in DNA
  • Common repertoire of amino acids
  • Common mechanisms for manufacturing proteins
  • Common mechanisms for regulating genetic expression
  • Blueprints copied to descendant organisms by replication
  • Changes introduced at a certain frequency through mutations
  • Life in populations having genetic alleles that provide adaptation capability
  • Respiration

This list could be magnitudes longer.

Dear St. Thomas could not possibly have imagined the double-slit experiment or Michelson-Morley. Would Thomas have regarded quantum entangled particles as a different form than beta decay? Such a question is a preposterous anachronism! We have a fundamentally different understanding of physics than Thom. We should not ask him to adjudicate our physics theories.

Likewise, we should not ask dear St. Thom to adjudicate our biology theories. He could not possibly have imagined that scientists would eventually discover the biochemical and genetic similarities across the entire domain of biology that we know about today.

Thom has a lot of important things to say about how we relate to one another, and how we relate to God. We do not listen to him enough about these subjects. Thom even has some important things to say about how the life of a scientist relates to a life of faith. I do think it inappropriate to ask him to adjudicate modern scientific findings, however.

So that’s my initial reaction. I would imagine that Chaberek and Feser have given some thought to what I just stated. I am curious about how they would respond, if indeed they have.




Excellent example, Rich! Thomas’ medieval understandings (or perhaps we should say misunderstandings) of astrophysics led to fundamental errors in classifying forms–in this case, what is eternal and without variation vs. what is temporal and variable.

I would add this: we should expect Aquinas to be approximately as relevant to modern biology as he is to modern astrophysics.



Hello, Chris.

There are two distinct questions that need to be treated separately:

  1. What did Aquinas teach?

  2. Is Aquinas’s teaching (regarding physics, metaphysics, whatever) defensible today, in light of modern knowledge?

The dispute between the one group of Thomists and the other group is first and foremost over what Aquinas taught, though the other question sometimes get tangled up in the debate, because the Thomists are usually just as interested in showing that Aquinas was right as in determining what he taught.

If we focus on the question of what Aquinas taught, forcing ourselves to refrain from judgment regarding its correctness, the question is whether Aquinas’s understanding of creation, nature, matter, form, etc. is compatible with:

(a) the specifically Darwinian understanding of evolution;
(b) any form of evolution.

Chaberek, against many current Thomist philosophers, argued that Aquinas’s understanding of creation and of nature is such that it is incompatible not only with the Darwinian understanding of evolution, but with any understanding of evolution in which purely natural causes bring about changes in the substantial nature of a being. In other words, for Chaberek, you can have Aquinas, or you can have evolution, but you can’t have both.

So the question become an exegetical one: who interprets Aquinas better, Chaberek and Torley, on one hand, or Feser, Beckwith, Austriaco, etc. on the other?

If one decides that Chaberek is correct, then one has to say either that evolution is a major error or that Aquinas’s understanding of creation, nature, form, etc. contains major errors. If one decides that Austriaco is correct, then one can have both evolution and Aquinas.

If your theological orientation is such that Aquinas doesn’t automatically have to be right about anything, then the debate will be of less importance to you. But it’s a bone of sharp contention among those for whom Aquinas is believed to be incapable of serious error. If evolution is really incompatible with the thought of Aquinas, then the Thomist must dump one or the other, and the price for either choice is higher than most Thomists today are willing to pay (either being laughed at by the world of secular science and scholarship for rejecting evolution, or being shunned by their Thomist colleagues for admitting that Aquinas was wrong on some very central matters regarding creation and nature). So it is not surprising that many Thomists bend over backwards to try to harmonize the very different world views of Darwin and Aquinas. But Chaberek doesn’t care much about what the world of secular scholarship thinks of him, or what the majority of Thomist scholars thinks of him. He believes that the teaching of Aquinas logically excludes evolution, and he says so without mincing words.

Whether the fact that Chaberek is from Poland, and most of the vigorous defenders of a Thomistic evolutionism work in the Anglo-American orbit, has anything to do with his willingness to defy scholarly opinion, is perhaps impossible to determine.

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8 posts were split to a new topic: Mercer and Eddie debate “Darwinian” evolution

I think in assessing Aristotle and Thomas we have to distinguish between their science and their metaphysics. Even if the scientific data and conclusions were wrong and now outdated, does that invalidate their metaphysics? Modern Thomistic philosophers such as Feser (e.g. in book such as Scholastic Metaphysics, Aristotle’s Revenge) make a strong argument that the philosophical significance of modern scientific findings can be reinterpreted in a Thomistic metaphysical framework without violating any empirical conclusions about the data. Note that Feser doesn’t think there’s a conflict between evolution and Thomism for this reason, and neither do the majority of Catholics.

In this case, the Thomistic concept that things consist of form and matter (or hylemorphism) is a basic philosophical concept deduced from common everyday experience. It’s in contrast to the atomistic viewpoint assumed frequently today. One of the most common applications is with regards to the human body. Atomism says that my body is only an arrangement of atoms that happen to move together in a coordinated way due to their low-level interactions. If I have a soul, then this is soul is completely immaterial, a sort of “ghost in the machine”. In contrast, hylemorphism teaches that there is a certain overarching principle of unity that governs the behavior of the cells and atoms in the body, making it into a single thing. So instead of bottom-up causation, you have top-down causation or holism. In hylemorphism, my soul is not a ghost in the machine, but the principle that gives this unity itself. Thus, the soul is not completely immaterial, but very closely wedded to the physical matter that makes the body.

Now, this doesn’t mean that Thomism is against the findings of modern atomic physics in any case. It just means that in a Thomistic framework, modern atomic physics is interpreted within a different philosophical framework, that of holism instead of reductionism. While reductionism is simply assumed by many popular science writers and scientists, among philosophers of chemistry and science (and not just Thomistic ones) this is far from being uniformly the case. There are plenty of respectable arguments in the literature to defend holism.

Again, Thomists are not trying to argue for the truth of the pre-modern scientific understanding of physics. Rather, they are arguing for the truth of certain metaphysical principles that Aristotle and Thomas used. In fact, in this particular case some have felt that these principles fit better in light of quantum mechanics, as Heisenberg himself commented in Physics and Philosophy (and @jongarvey and @Eddie like to say). Neo-Aristotelianism is an active movement within professional philosophy of science, not just as an apologetic wing of the Catholic Church.

I certainly agree with you that in light of modern science, we have to be careful and critical in how we are to understand Thomism. This is exactly what pro-evolution Thomists such as Austriaco are doing. But for me, it’s unsatisfying to completely restrict Aquinas’ conclusions to theology alone. The problem is that how Aquinas discusses and understands God is deeply integrated with his metaphysics - for example his idea of God as Pure Actuality. Aquinas’ influence on subsequent theologians - not just Catholic ones but most of the Reformers as well - is immense. If one is a Christian who wants to be aware of and guided (though not ruled) by tradition instead of completely reinventing the theological wheel, there are serious questions about how Aquinas’ doctrine of God (which is basically the orthodox doctrine of God, at least in the West) fits with his understanding of everything else.



Would Aquinas accept the idea that all changes, small or large, are all under the same guidance by God?

Hi Daniel,

I would heartily concur with the notion that Aquinas has important things to say about the relationship of faith and science, and the related relationship of the material and immaterial.

At the same time, you don’t have to be an advocate of strict NOMA (non-overlapping magisteria) to recognize that much of his classification of forms was driven by medieval understanding of science. It’s not a knock on Aquinas to point out that he was limited by the framework of his time. Future generations will say the same of us. :slight_smile:



Eddie -

Thanks for the informative and irenic post. Two thumbs up.


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He would say that God is the ultimate cause of all that happens in nature, whether mediately or immediately. God can produce effects using a chain of natural causes, or working outside of natural causes, as it pleases him. I don’t know that he used the term “guiding” regarding changes. But if he could have been brought to accept evolutionary change, I think he would have said that God guided the evolutionary process to produce its results, as opposed to leaving those results to chance.