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What Does It Mean to Be Human? A Response to Bruce Little, Part 1

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July 19, 2012 Tags: Science & Worldviews
What Does It Mean to Be Human? A Response to Bruce Little, Part 1

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

Note: Today we continue the fifth installment in our ongoing Southern Baptist Voices series–a collection of seven essays from Southern Baptist scholars with BioLogos responses to their concerns and arguments. You can read more about the series here.

In his paper, Essentialism and Evolution, Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary philosopher Bruce A. Little introduced the concept of essentialism, suggesting that it is most consistent with the biblical idea of the fixity of species and constitutes a challenge to evolutionary origins of life on earth. Dr. Little also made the case that modern science has unjustifiably marginalized essentialism because it does not fit within a purely physical understanding of reality.

Today, Wheaton philosopher Robert A. Bishop offers Part 1 of the BioLogos response, pointing out that metaphysical naturalism is not necessary nor inextricably tied to the practice of science, and that essentialism is only one of the historically Christian ways to think about being human.

The Roots of Essentialism

According to Philosophy Basics, Essentialism began with Plato and “is the view that things have essences—the attributes, or set of attributes, that make an object or substance what it fundamentally is. Thus, for any specific kind of entity, there is a set of characteristics (or properties or traits), all of which any entity of that kind must have.” The question is, to what extent is thinking about human identity in terms of unchanging essences illuminating or necessary for Christians?

Conceiving of the nature of human being as “essential” along the lines of Platonic or Aristotelian philosophical analysis, as Dr. Bruce Little does, certainly can be consistent with the Bible. After all, many (but not all) of the Patristic Fathers and several Church councils made use of such Greek philosophical ideas in their analyses of the nature of reality in general, and of human nature in particular. Greek philosophical thought forms were the intellectual inheritance of the first centuries of Christianity, and many early Christians worked with these thought forms in their analyses of biblical truth. Indeed, Christians have always used the cultural and philosophical tools of their day to help them understand and interpret Scripture, but doing so has always also required caution, lest those tools inappropriately reshape the biblical text. As a case in point, other early Church Fathers challenged those very same Greek thought forms on the basis of biblical revelation, specifically looking to the Trinity as a model for human being as centrally relational, rather than essential.1

Evolutionary theorist Ernst Mayr did argue that essentialism has historically been an obstacle to acceptance of evolutionary theories.2 From the time of Plato forward, the Western tradition took it for granted that species are fixed, unchangeable things, though more often than not, this immutability was rooted in the unchangeable nature of Platonic or Aristotelian forms rather than essences defined by fixed characteristics.3

This point will be addressed here on the Forum in the coming days.

This conviction led many commentators on Scripture to use fixity of species as the rubric through which they interpret min (the Hebrew word translated ‘kind’ in Genesis 1), though that meaning is foreign to the ancient Hebrew understandings of min. Indeed, Little himself identifies min with the ‘natural kinds’ of the Aristotelian framework, though the word did not have this meaning in its original ancient Hebrew context.


So essentialist analysis can be made consistent with the Bible in some cases, and has been used to understand the Bible in many others. However, this does not imply that essentialism gets at the truth of the nature of reality, nor at what truly makes a human being. Indeed, contrary to Dr. Little’s reading, essentialist analyses of reality lost ground even in the 17th century under pressure from corpuscular and mechanical analyses of matter and objects. These more materially-focused analyses were offered by theists, and found to be superior as explanatory frameworks for nature based on theological as well as philosophical and empirical reasons.4

The Decline of Essentialism

Though Little speculates that essentialism fell out of favor due to the advent of metaphysical naturalism, that account leaves out important intellectual developments within theism that led to essentialism’s replacement. Pierre Gassendi, Robert Boyle, Isaac Newton and most of the natural philosophers of the 17th century thought that there was little or no evidence for essential natures, with the occasional exception being human nature. For example, Gassendi, Daniel Sennert and Boyle argued that the “essential nature” of elements such as silver and gold was actually determined by specific arrangements and motions of the underlying corpuscles (presaging the later discovery of atoms). In this manner the chemists’ mechanical manipulations and transformations of elements could easily explain the changes in the natures involved, whereas the Aristotelian framework foundered on such cases. John Locke gave philosophical expression to this new corpuscular account as a replacement for Aristotelian categories of substance and essential natures in An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, bk ii, 23 and bk iii, 3-4. Furthermore, it also appears that essentialism did not (and still does not) take full advantage of the resources of revelation for understanding what a human person is—a point I take up in more detail in Part 2.

In other words, there is no evidence to finger metaphysical naturalism as the main factor in essentialism’s demise. It was critically compared with a new framework for understanding nature and found wanting for both evidence and explanatory power. Moreover, far from removing God from creation, the new explanatory framework was viewed as elucidating how God was at work in creation. For instance, despite Little’s claim to the contrary, Newton clearly thought that Jesus was intimately involved in the making of creation as well as in directing the forces causing the motion of material bodies, while God the Father worked through gravity as an expression of His omnipresence. Newton did see God as the ultimate cause of gravity; he ultimately refused to pronounce on whether the Father was the immediate cause of gravity, but also on whether gravity was a material force.5

Nevertheless, with essentialism already well into its decline, Darwin’s work called into question the fixity of species as a matter of biology, not metaphysics. As 17th-century chemists moved away from the idea that the elements were defined by ideal essences and towards a view that they were defined by the characteristics and interactions of smaller corpuscles, so 19th and 20th-century biologists came to see “species” as a way of describing the aggregate qualities of individuals in a group of similar animals (including Chihuahuas, Great Danes, Terriers and Spaniels, for instance), rather than as an expression of an idealized type: the dog. In both cases, the non-essentialist view came to the fore because it offered a more helpful framework for understanding what was being studied, not because of the metaphysical commitments of the scientists.

Evolution did provide yet one more challenge to essentialism as a whole; and with Darwin’s suggestion that humans shared common descent with all other organisms, any vestiges of essentialism pertaining to human beings seemed to all but disappear. Whether the evolutionary framework is ultimately consistent with any forms of essentialism is too large a question to pursue here. Suffice it to say, though, that of the wide variety of definitions/conceptions of species in the biology and philosophy of biology literatures, those that are essentialist are not without their problems.6

In general, then, Little’s discussion appears to identify the very practices of science with metaphysical naturalism (“The claim that science provides the best framework for understanding creation begins with the commitment that all there is to reality is material” and “It is as if understanding of reality is shut up to the scientific method.”). But metaphysical naturalism is a late 19th-century add-on to science, and an ill-conceived add-on at that. There is nothing about scientific practices suggesting that reality has to be treated as if there is nothing more than material reality or what our senses can detect.7 And more pertinent to our discussion of essentialism, it is certainly not the case that if one rejects essentialism, one therefore must necessarily reject all claims of non-material existence or meaning. In Part 2, tomorrow, I’ll look at two alternatives to essentialism that have equally-deep roots in the history of Christian life and thought.


1. For detailed examples, see Colin C. Gunton, The one, the three and the many: God, creation and the culture of modernity. The 1992 Bampton lectures. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press (1993); Gunton, The Triune Creation: A Historical and Systematic Study, Eerdmans (1998).
2. Mayr has suggested a distinction between the traditional and Greek-based "typological essentialism" that presumes unchanging forms or types as the basis of a species, and what he calls 'population thinking,' in which it is the group, or an aggregate of individuals, that defines species—even though individuals within it show a wide distribution of characteristics. Mayr, Toward a New Philosophy of Biology: Observations of an Evolutionist, Belknap Press/Harvard University Press (1988).
3. Mayr tended to over-generalize from some cases in which defining characteristics were used to identify species (diagnostic essentialism) and map those activities onto an essentialist philosophical framework. See John Wilkins, Species: A History of the Idea, University of California Press (2009).
4. See Robert C. Bishop, “Psychology and Revelation,” Research in the Social Scientific Study of Religion, vol. 23 (2012): 239-267; and Bishop, “God and Methodological Naturalism in the Scientific Revolution and Beyond,” Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith, Vol. 65, no. 1, March 2013, pp. 10-23
5. See Newton, Keynes MS 3, fol. 12, King's College, Cambridge (accessed 11 February 2012); Newton, Yahuda MS 15, fols. 47v, 96v, Jewish National and University Library, Jerusalem (accessed 11 February 2012); and J. T. Dobbs, “Newton's Alchemy and His Theory of Matter,” Isis 73 (1982):511-528.
6. See, Marc Ereshefsky, “Species,” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (accessed on 7 July 2012).
7. Bishop, “Revelation and Psychology” and “God and Methodological Naturalism.”

Robert C. Bishop is the John and Madeline McIntyre Endowed Professor of Philosophy and History of Science and an associate professor of physics and philosophy at Wheaton College in Illinois. He received his master’s degree in physics and doctorate in philosophy from the University of Texas at Austin. Bishop's research involves history and philosophy of science, philosophy of physics, philosophy of mind, and metaphysics. Bishop is the author of The Philosophy of the Social Science and co-editor of Between Chance and Choice: Interdisciplinary Perspectives on Determinism.

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hathach3 - #71225

July 20th 2012

If possible, would you expand on note 7? Where (if anywhere) are those papers published? Are they available?


George Bernard Murphy - #71235

July 20th 2012

Robert Bishop said;

“(“The claim that science provides the best framework for understanding creation begins with the commitment that all there is to reality is material” and “It is as if understanding of reality is shut up to the scientific method.”).



Here is a cartoon version of the dual slit experiment and the unexplained effect of a human observor.


wesseldawn - #71248

July 21st 2012

“Indeed, Christians have always used the cultural and philosophical tools of their day to help them understand and interpret Scripture, but doing so has always also required caution, lest those tools inappropriately reshape the biblical text.”

This is my problem! God never changes (fixed), He doesn’t need to because He’s perfect and so whatever He wrote must be unchanging and perfect also!

Knowing full well that left to our own devices we were sure to confuse things, God would have made a way so that the scritpures could be universally interpreted:

Now I beseech you, brethren, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you all speak the same thing, and that there be no divisions among you; but that you be perfectly joined together in the same mind and in the same judgment. (1 Cor. 1:10)

The only way to be ‘joined together in the same mind and judgement’ is to believe exactly the same things. It’s the lack of a universal interpreting method that’s creating the divisions among those that are reading the same material.

wesseldawn - #71249

July 21st 2012

(“The claim that science provides the best framework for understanding creation begins with the commitment that all there is to reality is material” and “It is as if understanding of reality is shut up to the scientific method.”).

Science merely studies the world and cosmos, which are most definitely material (see and feel) and tries to duplicate or manipulate it.

I believe that the Bible is divinely inspired but I also greatly appreciate science because I recognise that the two are somewhat mutually exclusive. We are mortal (material) creatures in a world where everything decays, whereas, God and His world is metaphysical/eternal.

When people attempt to put physical properties to metaphysical realities (or the reverse) of course there are going to be inconsistencies!

We need to separate the two so as not to confuse them.

George Bernard Murphy - #71255

July 21st 2012

But in the dual slit experiment SCIENCE DISCOVERS SOMETHING SPIRITUAL.


 [This is Man-bites dog science.]

wesseldawn - #71262

July 21st 2012

Yes I agree, George, there’s something else, a sort of cross-over where material meets immaterial…I am convinced that we are in essence more immaterial than material and this reality is not what it appears.

wesseldawn - #71312

July 23rd 2012

What I meant George by the need to ‘separate the two’ is to ‘not confuse the two’ so that both are understood correctly (by the properties that define them, mortal and immortal).

Bruce Little - #71271

July 22nd 2012

I think we are moving closer to the real issue which is ontology—what is the proper understanding of the nature of reality. I think science tells us much about the function and make-up of created reality and can inform understanding of the Bible at points. One the other hand the Bible deals with the nature of reality both created and non-created which can inform science which has no instrument for measuring the non-created reality. These two aspects of reality must not be split apart.

wesseldawn - #71282

July 22nd 2012

Yes Bruce, I think this is more like it as George said.

Science usually stays within the boundaries of the material world and because of that they have made giant leaps.

The Bible of course deals with the material and immaterial as you said, but I’m convinced it’s more immaterial in nature.  Religion on the otherhand made a strange mix of the material and immaterial and confusion resulted.

What I wonder most about is that when Satan became the ‘god of this world’ - what kind of reality did he create? Satan is a master deceiver so I wonder if this whole thing isn’t a lie as he is called ‘the father of lies’!

The Book of Wisdom (Chapter One) says:

13 For God made not death: neither hath he pleasure in the destruction of the living.

14 For he created all things, that they might have their being: and the generations of the world were healthful; and there is no poison of destruction in them, nor the kingdom of death upon the earth:

15 (For righteousness is immortal)

16 But ungodly men with their works and words called it to them: for when they thought to have it their friend, they consumed to nought, and made a covenant with it, because they are worthy to take part with it.

24 Nevertheless through envy of the devil came death into the world: and they that do hold of his side do find it.

Bruce Little - #71300

July 23rd 2012

I agree with the fact that Satan is now the age of this age, however, technically I would not say he ‘created a reality’. It seems more that the entrance of sin into the world and Satan becoming the god of this age has corrupted this reality in some real way as well as corrupting how we view/understand this reality. that is why the Bible is so important in this matter of ontology—it helps us to see what is from a priviledged position.

wesseldawn - #71311

July 23rd 2012


You’re right of course; create is the wrong word and I immediately regretted the use of it! It would be rather a deception as Satan is a liar!

I wouldn’t say priviledged position as most people are unaware of the deception, a good portion of those being people that claim to know the Bible!!


Roger A. Sawtelle - #71359

July 25th 2012

Dr. Little,

I think that it is a mistake to agree with wesseldawn and say that Satan is the god of this age.  There is only one God and any implied comparisons of Satan to God are false and seriously misleading.

Satan did not cause the problems of this world, sin did.  When the original couple decided to trust their own instinct and distrust God, they experienced sin and became aleinated from each other, from God, and from nature.  This was also the punishment they received from God because they refused to take responsibility for their turning against God.

The Devil does not have any power over this world, only the ability to encourage humans to think that God doesn’t care about them.  

It seems that essentialism leads to Western dualism, which is no longer sustainable in today’s world.  That is why Christianity is on the defenseive.  IMHO relational philosophy and theology provide Christians with the intellectual foundation necessary to explain our faith and respond to the false claims of unbelievers. 

Roger A. Sawtelle - #71333

July 24th 2012


The “Book of Wisdom” is not in my Bible.  You may by referring to the “Wisdom of ben Sirach,” which is in the Roman Catholic OT.  Luther and others determined that it was not in the main stream of authoritative Jewish writing because it demonstrated the strong influence of Greek philosophical dualistic speculation, a precursor of Gnosticism.

The Greeks originated philosophy (Greek for “love of wisdom”.)  The Jews originated theology (Greek for the study of God.)  Both have their place but when we confuse them, we have serious problems.  Of course the Greeks looked down of the Jews and the Jews returned the favor. 

It took Jesus Christ to build a bridge between these two cultures.  However the Judaizers tried to make Christianity Jewish, while the the Gnostics tried to make it Greek.  Both are wrong and so is the Wisdom of ben Sirach.        

wesseldawn - #71339

July 24th 2012

ben Sirach didn’t write the Bible!

I have only quoted the Bible and it speaks volumes about the need for wisdom.

Case in point the 5 wise in Math. 25 - they were wise because they had gained wisdom. The 5 foolish however, despised wisdom and so were not ready when the bridegroom returned.

Roger A. Sawtelle - #71357

July 25th 2012


A. Who wrote the book that you quoted that is not in the Protestant Bible?

B.  Please respond concerning content.  I know that wisdom is considered a good thing, but as Paul said, “Only faith, hope, and love abide (last) and the greatest of these is love.”  Where does this leave wisdom?    

hathach3 - #71353

July 25th 2012

Let’s try again.


If possible, would you expand on note 7? Where (if anywhere) are those papers published? Are they available?


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