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  • “He Fathers-Forth Whose Beauty Is Past Change,” but “Who Knows How?”:Evolution and Divine Exemplarity
  • Andrew Davison

Writing rapidly in pencil in 1842, Charles Darwin produced a sketch of ideas that would grow to become his The Origin of Species.1 Much that would revolutionize our understanding of biology was already present, not least his conclusion that “specific forms are not immutable.”2 In this article, I consider how that mutability bears upon the theological conviction that every creature is related to God as a likeness to its exemplar, drawing particularly on the work of Thomas Aquinas. It is clear from a letter dated January 11 of 1844 that Darwin saw his insight as a disruptive one, writing to his friend Joseph Dalton Hooker that “I am almost convinced (quite contrary to opinion I started with) that species are not (it is like confessing a murder) immutable.”3

Theologians before Darwin had little reason to doubt that species, or kinds, were fixed and stable, created by God alongside one another at the beginning. Aquinas expresses such assumptions, writing that, in nature, “like is produced from like,” proceeding right back to “the first production of corporeal creatures,” when “the corporeal forms [End Page 1067] that bodies had … came immediately from God.”4 In the same section of the Summa theologiae, however, we find the suggestion of a dynamism in relation to specific kinds that we should also consider.5

At the very least, Aquinas was willing to entertain that the earth was only gradually populated with living things, with God having first created the fixed forms of organisms as “seeds” that were later realized, not all at once.6 In his discussion of the work of the third day, Aquinas notes two contrasting Patristic perspectives without choosing one over the other. One looks more like what we might imagine as the classic pre-Darwinian view: “The first constitution of species belongs to the work of the six days, but the reproduction among them of like from like, [belongs] to the [subsequent] government of the universe.” The alternative perspective is of creatures having been produced only latently to start with, in their underlying causes: “The earth is said to have then produced plants and trees in their causes, that is, it received then the power to produce them…. They were not produced in act on the third day, but in their causes only.”7

Even according to that second perspective God ceased from making new sorts of things after the six days of creation,8 although even that rule admits partial exceptions, such as putrefaction and [End Page 1068] hybridization, of which Aquinas writes about “species, also, that are new, if any such appear.” He goes on to provide examples: “Animals, and perhaps even new species of animals, are produced by putrefaction,” and “animals of new kinds arise occasionally from the connection of individuals belonging to different species, as the mule is the offspring of an ass and a mare.”9 Here, effects (such as the mule) are manifested that nonetheless “existed previously” in causes produced “in the works of the six days.” Overall, then, we encounter a balance between some admission of novelty in later history and the sense of an unfolding of what was conferred “causally” beforehand.

Both novelty and unfolding are found in a discussion in De potentia: “The universe in its beginning was perfect as regards the species of things, but not as regards all individuals: or [it was perfect] as regards nature’s causes from which afterwards other things could be propagated, but not as regards all their effects.”10 Approached in terms of species and individuals, the emphasis is on a fixed number of unchanging species, but analysis in terms of causes that unfold in their effects is considerably more open to an evolutionary interpretation and to developing species.

In summary, the least evolutionary perspective in Aquinas aligns with his statement that “the first members of the species were immediately created by God, such as the first man, the first lion, and so forth.”11 Divine exemplarity would then come through the initial creation of the first examples: “[At] the first production of corporeal...