Southern Baptist Voices: Essentialism and Evolution, Part 1

| By Bruce A. Little

Today we begin 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, and in Dr. Kenneth Keathley's introductory essay. Other installments have included Dr. William A. Dembski's exchange with Darrel Falk on Darwinism's theological neutrality, Dr. James Dew's conversation with Dr. Ard Louis on Teleology, Theistic Evolution and Intelligent Design, and Dr. John Hammett exploring Evolutionary Creationism and the Imago Dei in conversation with Dr. Tim O'Connor. 

In part 1, Dr. Little introduces the concept of essentialism–which he draws from a long tradition of philosophical thinking going back to Plato and Aristotle–and suggests that it is consistent with the biblical idea of the fixity of species, and therefore a challenge to evolutionary origins of life on earth. We hope and pray that this dialogue will bring greater clarity to the issues at hand, charity towards those with whom we disagree, and glory to our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.

I am grateful for the opportunity to enter this dialogue which in my thinking is fundamentally a discussion on the nature of reality. The following comments come from a philosophical perspective and not that of a scientist; however, the issue of evolution and its compatibility with Christianity surely has philosophical as well as theological dimensions. Richard Dawkins recognizes this and it is a comment he makes that raises what I think is a very salient point. Let me be clear. My reference to Dawkins in no way should be understood to imply that the position of BioLogos has entailments of atheism, nor am I trying to connect BioLogos with Dawkins in any way. Rather my point is that I think Dawkins puts his finger on something that goes to the heart of understanding evolution philosophically as well as theologically as it speaks to the nature of reality.

In his book The Greatest Show on Earth (2009) on the first page of the second chapter, Dawkins raises the interesting question: “Why did it take so long for a Darwin to arrive on the scene?” After suggesting possible answers he approvingly quotes the late Ernest Mayr's suspicion as the most insightful answer to this question. According to Dawkins, Mayr’s suspicion is: “The culprit was the ancient philosophical doctrine of—to give it its modern name—essentialism. The discovery of evolution was held back by the dead hand of Plato [Dawkins' language].” Later in his book, Dawkins states boldly that evolution is anti-essentialist, a point Mayr made in other places. One can find the same argument, if not the same language, in the writings of Edward O. Wilson where the idea of nature trumps any idea of something existing above experience. Clearly, I am not the first one to consider this argument. I think, however, that further discussion regarding the implications of essentialism for evolutionary models remains important especially for theists in particular and humanity in general. At the heart of this discussion is the matter of ontology, the nature of being. While evolution speaks to the development of what is, it necessarily carries with it very strong ontological implications, implications that affect views on the nature of being. If the idea of essence has no currency in the discussion of reality, then the thing itself is all there is and, hence, quickly becomes the object complete in itself.

It seems that essentialism (I use this term with Christian emphasis), if true, would seriously challenge any form of evolution where different species evolve through common descent. The point that Mayr and others have made turns on the idea that essentialism provided the philosophical foundation for the idea of fixity of species from at least the time of Plato. If right, that would make evolution, in the sense of producing new species, suspicious if not impossible. Furthermore, it seems that essentialism cannot be easily dismissed simply because it is associated with Plato. One must consider the philosophical/theological legitimacy of essentialism based on the merits of its own claims within the discussion of the nature of reality. With that said, if Mayr and others are right about essentialism, then the question to be taken up is whether essentialism has any ground upon which to stand, especially within Christian theology.

Generally speaking, essentialism teaches there is more to reality of the thing than what is presented to the senses which, is to say there is more to reality than the biological dimension (we might say DNA). It is the material that provides a means of expression of the essence. A member belonging to a natural kind is so because of its essence and all members belonging to this natural kind must have this essence or it does not belong. In this way, natural kinds are distinct from others by virtue of their essence. While essence determines what natural kind to which a thing belongs, there are also non-essential or accidental properties. These help to distinguish one member from another within a natural kind, but these are not determinative for the natural kind itself as they are subject to change while essential properties are not. That is, what makes a cow a cow is the essence belonging to being a cow. Without that, the cow could not be a cow. In other words the idea of essence is what gives stability to natural kinds. If essentialism is true this would, as Dawkins points out, seriously challenge the idea of common ancestry.

Applied to human beings, the essential attributes of humanness are predicated of beings called human beings which distinguishes them from non-human beings—this is not an arbitrary naming. While human beings (a natural kind) share universally the same essence of humanness, they do differ in non-essential properties (short, tall, thin, fat, and so forth). So while the members differ in many non-essential ways, they belong to the same natural kind by their shared essential attributes of humanness.

If what has been called an essence (Plato referred to these as Forms and Augustine as Ideas in the mind of God or eternal reason) explains natural kinds, it is easy to see how this would logically lead to the idea of fixity of species (which may be very broad allowing for a wide range of adaptations and variations within natural kinds which allows for a very rich biological diversity). The suggestion here is that it is time to rethink the matter of essentialism in this discussion. Of course there must be some reason to think that essentialism has merit on its own terms.

The fact that a being is determined by its essence finds support in understanding who Jesus is. Consider what makes Jesus the God-Man. As argued by the early Church Councils, it was His nature (in Greek, OUISA). He had the nature of both—the essence of God and the essence of man. It was not that He had all the outward appearance and DNA function of a man that made him a man—it was more than that. He was a man, precisely because He possessed the nature (essence of a man) and He was God as He had the nature (essence of God). This at least supports the idea that a being is what it is, not by virtue of developmental issues, but because of its essence.

In thinking about essence, one might consider the matter of transubstantiation. One may discount transubstantiation on theological grounds, but it does say something interesting to the discussion of essentialism. It assumes that the bread is of one essence and the body is of another essence. In order for the wine to become blood (a different essence) it would take a miracle as one essence does not give way to a different essence in the process of nature. The idea of transubstantiation is discussed in Aristotelian categories; in this case substantive cause is what Aristotle meant by the whatness of a thing–that is, what makes it what it is. Additionally, Genesis 1:20 notes that living creatures were created according to their own kind (the whatness of the thing) supporting the idea of natural kinds, which is consistent with the idea of fixity of species.


About the Author

Bruce A. Little

Bruce A. Little, a native of New England, is Senior Professor of Philosophy at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary where he has been on faculty since 2001. He serves as the director of the Francis A. Schaeffer collection, and since 2008 he has been the Director of the L. Russ Bush Center for Faith and Culture at Southeastern. He received his Bachelors degree from Baptist Bible College of PA, a M.A. in Apologetics and a M.R.E. from Liberty University, a D. Min from Columbia Biblical Seminary, and a PhD from Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary. Since 1995 he has maintained an active apologetic ministry in Eastern Europe where he has been invited by various state universities and schools to present lectures on different subjects as understood within a Christian worldview. He has been a plenary speaker at conferences including scientific conferences in Eastern Europe and is regular speaker at the European Leadership Forum as well as the Cambridge Scholars Network. Dr. Little is published in academic journals and his latest book is titled God, Why this Evil? (Hamilton Books, 2010). He is also the author of, A Creation-Order Theodicy: God and Gratuitous Evil (University Press of America 2005), editor of a book with P & R Publishers titled Francis A Schaeffer: A Mind and Heart for God, editor of Defending the Faith and Engaging Culture: Essays in Honor of Dr. L. Russ Bush (Broadman & Holman) as well as contributor of chapters in other books. In addition, he has co-written four books with Russian professors from the Tavrichesky National University in Simferopol, Ukraine. Dr. Little lives in Wake Forest, North Carolina with his wife Nancy. They have one daughter who is married with two children. For more on Dr. Little’s writing and work as an apologist, please click here.