Robert C. Bishop
Bruce A. Little
 on July 12, 2012

Southern Baptist Voices: Essentialism and Evolution

Bruce A. Little agues that essentialism should guide our understanding of human identity. In response, Robert Bishop shares the benefits of a trinitarian and Imago dei approach to human identity.


Bruce A. Little agues that essentialism should guide our understanding of human identity. In response, Robert Bishop shares the benefits of a trinitarian and Imago dei approach to human identity.


The Southern Baptist Voices series is a collection of seven essays from Southern Baptist scholars with BioLogos responses. The series came out of conversations between Dr. Darrel Falk and Dr. Kenneth Keathley, Senior Vice President for Academic Administration of Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, as a way to address concerns and arguments about BioLogos’ theology. In this article, Dr. Bruce A. Little of Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary 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. Dr. Little also makes the case that modern science has unjustifiably marginalized essentialism because it does not fit within a purely physical understanding of reality.

Following Dr. Little’s section, Wheaton philosopher Robert Bishop responds on behalf of BioLogos.

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.

Dr. Bruce Little

Dr. Bruce Little

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.

Essentialism and Naturalism

Whereas essentialism enjoyed major position status well into the 15th century, a question that begs an answer is why essentialism has fallen upon hard times? A strong argument can be made that essentialism did not fade because it lacked evidential support, but rather with the ascendancy of naturalism in the western world, metaphysical naturalism simply could no longer tolerate the implications of essentialism. Metaphysical naturalism thins out reality, divesting it of any vertical dimension. It is rather easy to see how metaphysical naturalism, once accepted, disallows anything beyond the physical as part of any explanation of reality. In this view of reality, there is nothing that transcends experience and reality is only explained in terms of the particulars and function. The argument here is not that science does not know the physical world well (it does and all of us are beneficiaries of the knowledge), but that there is more to reality than can be measured by the instruments of science. Science is good at understanding functional matters within creation, but impotent to give answers of meaning. The claim that science provides the best framework for understanding creation begins with the commitment that all there is to reality is material. That, however, is a philosophical commitment, not something that can be demonstrated by science.

It appears that scientists in some cases, at least, have not denied the metaphysical in a Christian sense—they affirm the reality of God. Rather, it seems they have drawn a very thick line between the physical and the metaphysical, keeping reality compartmentalized. By this, they can affirm a transcendent reality but with only tangential implications for explaining the true nature of reality. Under these conditions, it is rather easy for assumptions of metaphysical naturalism to exert a subtle influence on the thinking of Christians doing science. This compartmentalizing of reality effectively translates into the idea that science is the primary agent for interpreting the truth of creation even though the transcendent is affirmed. Practically speaking, this disallows for any serious connection between that which transcends experience and how one should understand the true nature of reality—not just how it functions in our experience. This does not mean that the Bible is left out of any explanation, but only as an addendum made to fit what the tools of science have found. It is as if understanding of reality is shut up to the scientific method.

Certainly the scientific method has, as Francis Bacon promised, demonstrated amazing power to explain and understand how creation works even within metaphysical naturalism. However, it must be recognized that metaphysical naturalism comes with philosophical commitments/assumptions that themselves have not been obtained by the scientific method. For example, the assumption that all there is to reality is the material. The naturalistic assumption denies that the transcendent participates in the particular by way of essentialism. In this case, all there is, is the material where DNA and associated biological/chemical elements say everything there is to say about the nature of reality of this creation. Such commitments then limit what can and cannot be said about the nature of reality.

One’s methodical commitments often limit what one can and cannot say about reality. A case in point is Isaac Newton’s methodology. It restricted him from saying God was the cause of gravity as he said he could not form that as an hypothesis that he could later test. Of course Newton was clearly a theist, but he could not speak as a theist at this point because his scientific method would not allow it. In this way, we see how even a theist could allow his scientific methodology to exert unwarranted epistemological pressure on the work of interpreting the facts. It is precisely these commitments that can also subtly influence those doing science who on the one hand hold to theism, but on the other hand when it comes to understanding the totality of reality fail to take into account the idea of universals when interpreting the facts.

Facts are not self-interpreting. One’s interpretative processes and inferences drawn from the facts are limited to the range of possibilities his worldview sanctions. Therefore, the Christian should see how a view that God created should shape the interpretation of the facts discovered by observation. In addition, he must remember that the nature of an object determines not only what can be known about the object, but also how it can be known. One’s interpretative method must not draw a circle too tightly around creation that would, a priori, squeeze out some aspect of reality in favor of another. Whether scientist or theologian, all must think seriously about the logical extensions of beliefs as well as the influence of a priori epistemological and ontological assumptions in the interpretative process in the search for truth. It must be remembered that epistemology and ontology cannot be divided. All epistemological claims are about some piece of reality. Furthermore there is no way for science to out-of-hand reject essentialism simply because scientific tools cannot measure the claims of essentialism. To do so would entail a circular argument—all that exists is the material, science measures the material, science does not see essences, therefore all there is to reality is material.

The suggestion put forward here, however, is that essentialism is part of the explanation of why a being is what it is. That is, a being is not defined merely in biological or chemical terms. This being the case, it is necessary to discuss how or if evolution might work within a creation view of reality where essentialism is part of that view. In addition, in order to have a robust theology of Genesis 1- 3, one must realize that it was spoken into existence. This means that what came into being begins with an idea in the mind of God, an idea that determines the shape of what is. As such it has enormous ontological implications for how one understands the nature and sustainability of creation. Furthermore, whereas facts are not self-interpreting (the reality of being is more than developmental), one needs an ontological framework to guide in the interpretation of this wonderful creation as observed by humans.

This raises certain questions. As Christians, is our worldview shaped by our methodology, or does our worldview shape our methodology? If essences do not exist, then what implications would that have for the incarnation of the Word of God? Historically the church has held that Jesus had the essence of man and the essence of God. If he did not have the essence of God and the essence of human what does that mean for the Christological claims in the Bible? Furthermore, in Jesus we have two essences that remained distinct and did not emerge into a third kind giving the impression that essences do not produce new essences. Another question is whether or not Dawkins is right in his suspicion about essences and evolution? If he is wrong, we still must demonstrate why he is wrong. It seems to me that these are questions that must be answered before dismissing the claims of essentialism or the relationship between essentialism and evolution. If in the end essentialism prevails, it seems to have serious implications for evolution as Dawkins suggests. Still, we must be brave enough to follow the evidence where it leads. But it is not just the evidence that counts as so often revealed in the TV series CSI, it is the proper interpretation of the evidence. So the argument is not fundamentally over the evidence, it is over on what grounds are we justified in using certain evidence to support a particular claim. There is the work for all of us.

Below, Wheaton philosopher Robert Bishop offers a BioLogos response to Dr. Little, 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. He also looks at two alternatives to essentialism that have equally-deep roots in the history of Christian life and thought.

The Roots of Essentialism

According to Philosophy BasicsEssentialism 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?

Robert Bishop

Robert Bishop

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.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 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 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.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.

Other Ways of Being Human

Earlier I pointed 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. As a case in point, we can identify the Patristic Fathers and Medieval Christian thinkers who discussed a relational alternative for understanding the nature or being of persons.8 Roughly, the idea is that the three persons of the Trinity are what they are and who they are in virtue of their relationship with each other, not based on some intrinsic properties that ground their uniqueness as persons in the Godhead. That is to say that Father, Son and Spirit co-constitute each other, or are bound up together with enabling each other to be distinctly the persons that they are. Far from a static form of being and relationship, there is a dynamic interrelatedness in the Trinity. Father, Son and Spirit mutually constitute each other while enabling each other to be particularly who they are and engage creation and salvation in particular ways suited to who they are as persons. Father, Son and Spirit are being in community.

By analogy of relationship, humans are what we distinctly are in our being and personality in virtue of our relationship to God, creation and each other. Our involvements with others necessarily shape who we are as particular persons. The personal realm, then, is characterized by a dynamic relationality, as persons have ongoing mutually constituting influence on each other. This is part of the “dynamic order” of creation “that is summoned into being and directed towards its perfection by the free creativity of Father, Son and Holy Spirit. That orientation of being is, of course, distorted and delayed by sin and evil, and returns to its directedness only through the incarnation and the redeeming agency of the Spirit. But evil distorts the dynamic of being, does not take it away.”9 Like the relationality of the persons of the Trinity, we are being in community.

We can also pursue the doctrine of creation as an alternative to essentialism, to see if it sheds any light on possibilities for what it means to be human in a non-reductionist sense.10 As other writers have been exploring in the Forum over the past few weeks, the biblical claim that humans are created in the image of God is important to the Christian of view of humankind. This may sound like jumping out of the frying pan into the fire, for there are both Christians and non-Christians who claim that if humans arose through evolutionary processes, then we cannot be made in God’s image. Nevertheless, it is worth exploring as a way of showing that there are strong alternatives to a strictly essentialist understanding of being human.

The Image of God

Over the centuries, the dominant view of humans as the imago Dei has been grounded in the idea that there is something distinctive about the creation of humans that both sets us apart from the rest of the animals and that marks us as unique kinds of creatures. Though we are clearly both distinctive and unique, does affirming the imago Dei require this kind of essentialism? On the one hand, Genesis 1:27 has often been interpreted as grounding humanity’s being in the divine image of God on Earth. On the other hand, recent discussions in human evolution have focused on several independent lines of evidence supporting the hypothesis of common ancestry among primates and humans: fossil evidence over the last 6 million years; homologies or anatomical similarities between humans and the primates; biogeographical distribution of supposed human ancestors; similarities in developmental biology between humans and primates; and several lines of genetic evidence favoring common ancestry. In addition, our current best understanding of the genetic diversity of humans is inconsistent with models that assume all humans descended from a single original pair of individuals. Instead, the current best data and models indicate the human ancestral population was never smaller than several thousand individuals.11

On the surface, then, what contemporary evolutionary science currently says on human origins appears to challenge cherished beliefs and understandings of many Christians. However, to understand what implications, if any, an evolutionary development of humans might have on the image of God, we first need to get clear on what it means to be the imago Dei, and that has to be settled theologically, not scientifically.

Historically, some of the most popular proposals for the imago Dei were rooted in human rationality, human freedom or human creativity because it was thought that humans alone among the animals possessed one or more of these qualities. There are two problems with this traditional line of thought. First, investigations since the early 18th century have progressively led to the conclusion that such qualities of humans mark a difference in degree rather than a difference in kind (e.g., brains of mammals and humans are anatomically homologous, dolphins, primates, and some species of birds exhibit degrees of rationality and creativity). The degree of difference may be significant, but a difference in kind is necessary for the traditional line of essentialist thought.

Second, if we look to the Incarnation for clues to the imago Dei we find that Jesus’s humanity is never depicted as exercising extraordinary powers of rationality, freedom, creativity, and so forth. Primarily, Jesus lived as an embodied person in relationship with the Father, other humans and creation as enabled by the work of the Holy Spirit. In other words, Jesus’ human life in Scripture indicates that the divine image is a special relationship, or form of relationality: to be in relationship with the Father as a created, embodied person; to be sustained or upheld in this relationship with the Father through the perfecting Spirit; and to be in relationship with other persons and all of creation.12 Moreover, this special relationship is also a vocation to mirror or reflect the glory, life and worship of God.13

If to be the image of God is to be sustained in a special relationship with the Father, each other and creation through the Spirit, then the imago Dei is not grounded in intrinsic qualities that particularly mark humans as distinct from the rest of the animals, as essentialism would have it. Christians can understand Genesis 1: 24-31 and 2: 4-5, as many of the Patristic Fathers did, as an account of our unity and connection with the rest of creation as well as of our special relationship with God and role in God’s kingdom. So if Father, Son and Spirit created human beings through evolutionary processes, we would have continuity and connection with all of creation while still being the imago Dei. Evolution does not threaten human specialness before God unless it is viewed as a replacement for divine creative activity (which, of course, is what Richard Dawkins, Jerry Coyne and Answers in Genesis all do repeatedly).

If evolution is broadly right as an account of the creation of all living things (an empirical matter), and if some form of essentialism is found to be consistent with such an account (a philosophical and biological matter), Christians would then have two options for how to understand what it means to be human. We can look for some stable, unique intrinsic features in virtue of which we are human; or we can look to the special Spirit-sustained relationship we have with God, creation and each other. Both are biblically consistent, though I judge understanding the imago Dei as special relationship to make better sense of the whole of the Bible, as well as our experience in the world.

About the authors

Robert C. Bishop

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 Sciences (Continuum International Publishing Group, 2007), co-editor of Between Chance and Choice: Interdisciplinary Perspectives on Determinism (Imprint Academic, 2007), and co-author of Understanding Scientific Theories of Origins: Cosmology, Geology, and Biology in Christian Perspective (IVP Academic, 2018).

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