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Thomas Aquinas: Saint of Evolutionary Psychologists?

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July 18, 2011 Tags: Brain, Mind & Soul
Thomas Aquinas: Saint of Evolutionary Psychologists?

Today's entry was written by Matt J. Rossano. Please note the views expressed here are those of the author, not necessarily of BioLogos. You can read more about what we believe here.

This post first appeared on The Huffington Post.

In 1975, Harvard biologist E. O. Wilson created a firestorm when, in his book Sociobiology: The New Synthesis, he argued that human nature might be explainable in evolutionary terms. Centuries earlier, however, a leading Christian scholar was already applying many key evolutionary principles to the understanding of man.

Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274) was the foremost Christian scholar of the High Middle Ages and is today regarded as a "doctor" of the Catholic Church. Working six centuries before Darwin, he obviously was not an evolutionist. His major project was the Christianizing of Aristotelian philosophy. As an ardent Aristotelian (enough so that some of his teachings were condemned by the Bishop of Paris in 1277), Aquinas assumed that species were fixed and unchangeable, an idea incompatible with evolution. But Aquinas was the star student of Albert the Great, an enthusiastic Medieval naturalist. Albert assiduously observed the Dominican Order's policy of walking, not riding, when traveling. Ostensibly this was to emphasize the Order's commitment to poverty, but for Albert it was an opportunity to more closely observe nature's minutiae. Under Albert and Aristotle's mentorship, Aquinas acquired a deep appreciation for nature's continuity, which he understood as reflecting purposeful design rather than common descent.

Aquinas had no doubt that humans were specially created by God. However, he was also convinced that they were created out of the same basic materials used for all creatures and were therefore connected to all of nature. In his Summa Theologica he writes:

"But it was fitting that the human body should be made of the four elements, that man might have something in common with the inferior bodies, as being something between spiritual and corporeal substances." (ST P1 Q91 A1)

Aquinas had no qualms about calling humans animals:

"Socrates and Plato ... have the same human species; others differ specifically but are generically the same, as man and ass have the same genus animal." (De Principiis Naturae 45)

Following Aristotle, Aquinas rejected the strict dualism of the Augustinian/neo-Platonic philosophy dominant at the time. No, Aquinas was not a materialist neuroscientist, but he understood the intimate interdependence of mind and body. For Aquinas, different bodies meant different levels of intelligence: "...because some men have bodies of better disposition, their souls have greater power of understanding." (ST P1 Q85 A7)

Aquinas is most famous for his Summa Theologica, much of which is considered authoritative in Catholic theology. Less known is another great summa, Summa Contra Gentiles, where he sought to persuade non-believers using purely rational arguments for Christian doctrine. It is here that we find a naturalistic discussion of marriage.

"We observe that in those animals, dogs for instance, in which the female by herself suffices for the rearing of the offspring, the male and female stay no time together after the performance of the sexual act. But in all animals in which the female by herself does not suffice for the rearing of the offspring, male and female dwell together after the sexual act so long as is necessary for the rearing and training of the offspring. This appears in birds, whose young are incapable of finding their own food immediately after they are hatched. ... Hence, whereas it is necessary in all animals for the male to stand by the female for such a time as the father's concurrence is requisite for bringing up the progeny, it is natural for man to be tied to the society of one fixed woman for a long period, not a short one." (SCG B3 Q122)

The ideas expressed above are familiar to evolutionists as part of parental investment theory -- male/female pair-bonding is more likely to emerge where offspring are highly dependent.

Aquinas also anticipated another core evolutionary concept: paternity certainty. Males find an evolutionary advantage in long-term pair bonding because it helps to insure that offspring possess their genes. Without this assurance, males are unlikely to provision or protect the offspring. Thus, monogamy serves the genetic interests of both males and females. Females and their offspring receive resources and protection from the male (paternal investment), while males gain assurance of a genetic legacy (paternity certainty).

"...every animal desires free enjoyment of pleasure of sexual union as of eating: which freedom is impeded by there being either several males to one female, or the other way about ... But in men there is a special reason, inasmuch as man naturally desires to be sure of his own offspring ... The reason why a wife is not allowed more than one husband at a time is because otherwise paternity would be uncertain." (SCG B3 Q124)

Note how Aquinas' discussion also alludes to another important evolutionary precept: male mate competition. Aquinas goes on to describe how monogamy benefits women by reducing the female competition inherent in polygynous households, thereby insuring the concentration of emotional and material resources on a single female mate.

"For among men that keep many wives the wives are counted as menial. For one man having several wives there arises discord at the domestic hearth..." (SCG B3 Q124)

Along with anticipating many key concepts in evolutionary psychology, Aquinas also understood that humans possessed a natural moral sense. Some believers today foolishly try to argue that without religion there is no morality. Aquinas would have scoffed at such simple-mindedness. Synderesis, as Aquinas called it, was the natural human inclination toward right behavior.

"Wherefore the first practical principles, bestowed on us by nature, do not belong to special power, but to a special natural habit which we call synderesis. Whence 'synderesis' is said to incite the good, and to murmur at evil, inasmuch as through first principles we proceed to discover, and judge of what we have discovered. It is therefore clear that 'synderesis' is not a power, but a natural habit." (ST P1 Q79 A12)

In contrast to Augustine, Aquinas did not see human nature as inherently depraved. Instead, his view was generally more positive. We are, as Aristotle had argued, naturally social animals who seek to get along in society. Divine grace did not radically alter human nature, it perfected it.

If he were alive today would Aquinas be an evolutionist? His writings suggest a mind already resonating with many evolutionary concepts. My sense is that Aquinas, like Aristotle and Albert before him, was just too curious and too smart not be at the intellectual vanguard wrestling with exciting new knowledge.

Matt J. Rossano is Professor of Psychology at Southeastern Louisiana University and author of Supernatural Selection: How Religion Evolved.

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Paul DeBaufer - #63410

July 18th 2011

Interesting, very interesting. Think I will have to read some more Aquinas, it has been awhile since I read anything by him.

I like this statement, “In contrast to Augustine, Aquinas did not see human nature as inherently depraved” I find this intriguing.

Pedro M. Rosario Barbosa - #63411

July 18th 2011

HALLELUJAH!!!!   For a very ... VERY ... long time I have been advocating a new look at St. Thomas Aquinas’ philosophy regarding his metaphysics, and most especially his psychology, for this very reason.  For the first time, I feel relieved that someone else is thinking the same way too.  I loved this article.

Random Arrow - #63415

July 18th 2011

“What Thomas Aquinas, Saint of Evolutionary Psychologists, Did Not Know – The Biblical Proof For Darwinian Evolution ...”




Cal - #63418

July 18th 2011

Aquinas is more Aristotelean than he is biblical. I always wondered what he saw that made him jump up out of his bed in his last days and shout, “All that I have written is straw to me!”.

God can not be contained to a system of logic or a philosophical discipline or argument.

Roger A. Sawtelle - #63420

July 18th 2011

Concerning Thomas Aquinas I do not consider myself a fan of his, nor an expert on his thought, however from what I do understand of his thinking there are two points which I can agree with and seem to be counter to evolutionary thinking as I understand it.

First is teleology.  It has become axiomatic in modern science that the universe does not have a purpose.  Of course it is also quite false and a serious bone of contention between science and theology.  I also understand that this negative view developed as a reaction to Aristotle and Aquinas. 

Things do have a purpose, but that should not be a reason for not pursuing scientific exploration into how these purposes are worked out.  In fact when evolutionary psychologists are look for the causes of the evolution of the human psyche they are using teleology, although I doubt if they will admit it.   So teleology lives despite Monod.

Second is an organic view of the universe.  Modern science has adopted a mechanistic view of the universe as against the Biblical and Aristotelian organic view.  This makes sense in the inorganic physical sciences, but no sense when looking at the organic biological and human sciences.  Life and evolution is organic, not mechanistic, so again Aquinas is right and modern science is wrong.

Modern science has many achievements, but it is not perfect.  Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up.  Arrogance is not acceptance for anyone.

Random Arrow - #63422

July 18th 2011

A snippted summary from my blog post—

Rossano has the biological theory right. Sorta. He just fails to discount for such small things – like serial promiscuity. Domestic abuse. And sub-optimal (if not abusive) family realities in the equations for reciprocal altruism. His warm and glowing special Thomas-pleas for monogamous marriage preclude Rossano and Thomas – from telling me more about father Abraham of un-monogamous un-faith. Tell me the old, old story of Abraham – father of un-faith and father un-monogamy – the old, old, story of Abraham selling his own wife (Gen 20:1ff).

Show me the biometrics. For these practices. Please.

Tell me more how – father Abraham of un-monogamous un-faith – fits more broadly into the realities of assortative mating, that is, specifically how Abraham of un-monogamous un-faith fits into Trivers’s observations about the ubiquity self-deception. The ubiquity of lying – to ourselves. Our mates. And others. A little evolutionary psychology about this history of hard-wired lying. Including lying about our sexual abuses – abusing and then lying about abusing - inside the ecclesia.

Before we go a-getting too contra – those uncut – unclean (see Beck’s book) – and unholy Gentiles who need to listen to our – rationalized infant – arguments for our biased Christian memes.




Robert Byers - #63426

July 18th 2011

Yes we are created out of the equations of nature.

We are not different from other biology.
This makes a YEC point.
It could only be that since all biology is so alike then either we must be like it or totally separate and so not of nature.
Yet we are the greatest thing in nature as the bible says.
This also explains why we have like bodies with other creatures and especially like apes.
It could only be that we have the best body, yet within the confines of nature, for a being created in Gods image.
Its not to be a hunch that looking like a ape means a biological relationship.
This hunch is greatly important today with evolution thumpers.
In reality it could only be we get the best body for the best life within the confines of nature.
Prester Nick Blaha - #63456

July 21st 2011

I would suggest that all parties interested in this line of thought take a look at the writings of Charles De Koninck:

He was a philosopher at Laval in Quebec in the early 20th century who brought the principles of Thomistic thinking into conversation with the findings of such scientific luminaries as Edwin Hubble and Arthur Eddington. An unfinished (and only recently published) work of his entitled Cosmos is a scientifice, philosophical, and theological consideration of cosmic order and a startlingly convincing attempt to incorporate the massive advances in scientific discovery into the perennial teaching of the Angelic Doctor.

A great introduction to his thought can be found at the following link, the text of a recent lecture delivered by David Quackenbush at Thomas Aquinas College:

beaglelady - #63463

July 22nd 2011

span style=“border-bottom: 2px dotted rgb(54, 99, 136); cursor: pointer; background: none repeat scroll 0% 0% transparent;” class=“yshortcuts” id=“lw_1311337378_9”> Want to learn more about Aquinas this fall?  Professor Jeremy Waldron of NYU’s Law School and Oxford University will be teaching a series of classes—“Aquinas on Law”—  at St. Thomas Church 5th Avenue in NYC.
The classes, which are free, will be held on span style=“border-bottom: 2px dotted rgb(54, 99, 136); cursor: pointer; background: none repeat scroll 0% 0% transparent;” class=“yshortcuts” id=“lw_1311337378_9”>Wednesdays, October 5-26 2011,
span style=“border-bottom: 2px dotted rgb(54, 99, 136); cursor: pointer; background: none repeat scroll 0% 0% transparent;” class=“yshortcuts” id=“lw_1311337378_11”>6:30 to 7:30 p.m.  Professor Waldron is a fellow parishioner at St. Thomas Church, and his classes are excellent. 

beaglelady - #63464

July 22nd 2011

Let’s try that again:

Want to learn more about Aquinas this fall?  Professor Jeremy Waldron of NYU’s Law School and Oxford University will be teaching a series of classes - “Aquinas on Law” - at St. Thomas Church 5th Avenue in NYC.
The classes, which are free, will be held on Wednesdays, October 5-26 2011,

Professor Waldron is a fellow parishioner at St. Thomas Church, and his classes are excellent. 

beaglelady - #63465

July 22nd 2011

And the time of the aforementioned classes is 6:30 - 7:30 pm.

There! I’m done.

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