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Alister McGrath on Augustine and Darwinism

Logan Paul Gage

Scientist and theologian Alister McGrath has a new essay over at Christianity Today, “Augustine’s Origin of Species.” Knowing how Augustine has often been co-opted by Darwinians as a proto-Darwinist, I came to this article rather skeptical. But I was delightfully surprised.
McGrath notes that Augustine’s dominant image of the natural world’s relation to God is that of a “dormant seed.” As McGrath explains:

God creates seeds, which will grow and develop at the right time. Using more technical language, Augustine asks his readers to think of the created order as containing divinely embedded causalities that emerge or evolve at a later stage. Yet Augustine has no time for any notion of random or arbitrary changes within creation. The development of God’s creation is always subject to God’s sovereign providence. The God who planted the seeds at the moment of creation also governs and directs the time and place of their growth.

It is worth reflecting upon Augustine’s analogy. Note that an acorn, to use the classic Aristotelian example, cannot grow up to be just anything. Rather, its nature dictates that under the proper conditions it will always reach its proper end in the oak tree. In other words, there is not just generic potential in the seed but particular potential. This is important, for many Christian theists who claim the mantle of Augustine as a proto-Darwinist do not wrestle with this clearly anti-Darwinian philosophy of nature. As University of Chicago biologist Jerry Coyne makes clear,

…any injection of teleology into evolutionary biology violates precisely the great advance of Darwin’s theory: to explain the appearance of design by a purely materialistic process — no deity required. In a letter to his mentor Charles Lyell, Darwin explicitly decried the idea of divine intervention in evolution:

I entirely reject, as in my judgment quite unnecessary, any subsequent addition ‘of new powers and attributes and forces,’ or of any ‘principle of improvement’, except in so far as every character which is naturally selected or preserved is in some way an advantage or improvement, otherwise it would not have been selected. If I were convinced that I required such additions to the theory of natural selection, I would reject it as rubbish. . . I would give absolutely nothing for the theory of Natural Selection, if it requires miraculous additions at any one stage of descent.

While McGrath uses the language of “evolution” in regard to Augustine,

he does clarify nicely at the end. He summarizes:

Augustine would have rejected any idea of the development of the universe as a random or lawless process. For this reason, Augustine would have opposed the Darwinian notion of random variations, insisting that God’s providence is deeply involved throughout. The process may be unpredictable. But it is not random.

And thus I offer three cheers to Alister McGrath for clarifying to his audience that while Augustine would have been fine with guided evolution, Augustine was no Darwinist.
As we like to say, evolution by intelligent design is intelligent design.

Logan Paul Gage

Logan Paul Gage is Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Franciscan University of Steubenville. Dr. Gage received his B.A. in history, philosophy, and American studies from Whitworth College (2004) and his M.A. (2011) and Ph.D. (2014) in philosophy from Baylor University. His dissertation, written under the supervision of Trent Dougherty, was a defense of the phenomenal conception of evidence and conservative principles in epistemology.