The Metaphysical Implications of Darwinian Theory

Darwin was always unsettled by the implications of his theory, and his growing agnosticism, along with his eventual belief that there was no soul, no eternity, just blind matter and its inexorable laws, troubled his pious, Unitarian wife, Emma, who wanted to be with him in heaven. Unsettled Darwin should have been; for all the claims of “settled science,” there is still much that is controversial in evolution, which contains truth, but also much that is misleading, or, perhaps missing.

Published in 1859, Darwin’s Origin of Species put forward a rather simple hypothesis: That creatures adapt to their environment, which seems a truism; and that those who are best adapted, based on random variation in their traits (we would now say “genes”) will survive to have the most offspring, which is also a truism. Hence, “favorable” genes will predominate, but we must be careful not to make value judgments, for “favorable” here simply means “best adapted to a specific environment,” and by “best adapted,” we mean most able to survive, to obtain food and find a mate with whom to bear offspring.

It has a distinct flavor of circularity and tautology, but with some value in analyzing and predicting behavior, which is some part of what science is about.

So far, so good, but there are any number of questions left unanswered, and to list but a few: Where did the original “cell” or organism come from? Did this original living thing come from inanimate and inert matter? Is this even possible, and how so? What prompts things to evolve? Where does the incredible specificity of living organisms, far more complex, one might posit infinitely so, than even the most advanced computer, derive? Whence also the “life force,” that whole motivation to “compete,” which we do not find in inanimate things? Does evolution always lead to greater “perfection,” or can it go backwards, so to speak? (But watch those value judgments!) Are some beings “more” evolved than others, and what makes them so? Is intelligence a good thing, and why? What of devolution? Is it possible to revert back to the original amoeba, or even go back to a world populated only by inanimate things, rocks, minerals and such? And on it goes…

There are proposed and tentative, even sometimes bizarre, answers to some of these queries. One of the discoverers of DNA (the complex molecule undergirding and directing protein synthesis in all living organisms), Francis Crick, struggling with the unlikely premise that this highly specific molecule evolved by “chance,” posited at one point the theory of “panspermia,” that DNA might have been sent here by highly evolved aliens to “seed” the Earth. Hmm.


There is much that could, and has, been said, but in this brief essay, we will focus briefly on two aspects left open by Darwin’s theory:

First, presuming species can change, how far does this change go, and is there any limit to their mutability?

Second, how does evolution apply to Man, a question that Darwin himself raised in his subsequent book, the Descent of Man, which he waited until 1871 to publish, due in part to its controversial nature. In a now famous (or infamous) debate in 1860 London, the anti-evolutionist Bishop Samuel Wilberforce asked the pro-evolutionist Thomas Huxley (called “Darwin’s bulldog”), whether it was through his grandmother or his grandfather that Huxley considered himself descended from a monkey.

Huxley’s reply (preceded by what may have been an apocryphally muttered “he’s played right into my hands”) that he was not ashamed to have a monkey for his ancestor, but he would be ashamed to be connected with a man who used great gifts to obscure the truth has gone down in history as the clincher that won the day.

Yet how true is Darwinism? The primary problem with the theory is not so much the scientific difficulties of its more extreme varieties, of which there are any number (both difficulties and varieties), but the metascientific or, more properly, the metaphysical ones.


The Church’s Magisterium, in her response to evolutionary theory, focuses more on this metaphysical dimension, fittingly in line with her primary duty as the guardian of those truths of faith and reason that are “necessary for salvation.” The clearest and most succinct such response may be found in Pius XII’s 1950 encyclical Humani Generis.

Pius was not all that concerned about the evolution of planets, plants and non-human animals (that said, he was fascinated by the Big Bang theory, and penned an address on that). The pope does allude briefly to evolution in a broad sense in condemning any sort of “monism” (cf., #6), or that there is only one kind of substance, which differs only accidentally, and hence no essential or formal distinction between creatures, with everything in “continual evolution.” Darwin’s theory implies as much, that only perpetually evolving matter exists, from atoms, boulders, and asteroids to eagles, dolphins, and humans.

On the contrary, Scripture and the Church’s Tradition imply that the myriad of different entities in the cosmos are willed by God, differing not just materially, but formally, and that these underlying metaphysical “forms” are what shape and specify their “matter.”

It is form that gives species their limits in evolving, as they adapt under pressure from the environment. Rocks cannot become a living thing, and each living thing has a limit to how much it can change: Even under extreme human intervention, there is only so big and small a dog can get, and within this range, they will always look like dogs.

Saint Thomas teaches that these forms are differentiated based on how they are more or less like God, from the lowest (atoms, minerals, plants and animals), to the highest (the myriad of angels), with Man in the middle, whose form is halfway between the earthly and heavenly forms (cf., Summa Theologica, I, q. 47, aa. 2-3).

The species that we classify in biology are approximations of these forms (even the Latin term “species” literally means “appearance”). We don’t know essentially how animals differ (for we cannot see nor measure form), but we can make an educated guess, and differentiate sparrows from eagles, and their various sub-species, all with their own distinct form.

The only creature of whose form we are definitively certain is Man, whose “form,” which we call a spiritual soul, is in the very image of God, making all men fully human and equal in dignity.

Just as there are no immutable forms for animals in Darwin’s theory, so too there is no human form, no human nature, and, as Darwin himself admitted, we are all still in a continual state of evolution, at different “levels” to be sure, from the “savage” to the “civilized,” leading, of course, to racism of the most rank variety. Here is the gentle scientist in his own words:

At some future period, not very distant as measured by centuries the civilized races of man will almost certainly exterminate and replace throughout the world the savage races. At the same time the anthropomorphous apes (that is, the ones which look most like the savages in structure) … will no doubt be exterminated. The break will then be rendered wider, for it will intervene between man in a more civilized state, as we may hope … the Caucasian, and some ape as low as a baboon, instead of as at present between the negro or Australian and the gorilla.

Darwin claimed that we should not make more of this “truth” than our own “civilized” souls should. He emphasized compassion for the weak and less “advanced,” and hesitated to draw the full conclusions of his materalistic and atheistic premises; but others after him would not be so squeamish, as the rise of “social Darwinism,” eugenics and Nazism will attest, with a whole host of ancillary evils, from abortion to euthanasia. Peruse, if you will, the morality of Joseph Fletcher, former Anglican priest turned atheist-bioethicist, drawing out the grim conclusions of his macabre principles. Here is but a sample:

There is no such thing as a right to bring crippled children into the world. If we choose family size, we should also choose family health…. If the State is morally justified in repelling an unwelcome invader … why shouldn’t the family be protected from an idiot or terribly diseased sibling?

Even if most don’t say these things quite so explicitly, at least not yet, the principles are all there, in the background.


The Church, which is to say Christ, will have none of this, and is one of the few voices left raising the alarm on the loss of a Catholic metaphysics on creation, and on Man in particular. Pius XII in the aforementioned Humani Generis allows for the evolution of the human body from “pre-existent and living matter,” but outlines three principles that must guide what we believe about this.

The first is monogenesis, that we are all descended from one particular and individual man and woman, named in Scripture as “Adam” and “Eve”:

When, however, there is question of another conjectural opinion, namely polygenism, the children of the Church by no means enjoy such liberty. For the faithful cannot embrace that opinion which maintains either that after Adam there existed on this earth true men who did not take their origin through natural generation from him as from the first parent of all or that Adam represents a certain number of first parents. (#37)

The second is the doctrine of original sin, that this same Adam and Eve committed an act of rebellion against God that broke the covenant between God and Man, altering human nature in the process. This original sin … proceeds from a sin actually committed by an individual Adam and which through generation is passed on to all and is in everyone as his own (ibid.).

We now inherit a nature that is deprived of the original “gifts,” particularly that of justice and harmony. Hence, although still created good, we now inherit what Saint Thomas describes as a “complex disposition” of our nature, inclining us to sin, a tendency that must be resisted by a life of virtue, grace, and sacramental participation.

Finally, the human soul, that form or “life principle” which gives us the capacity to think and reason and ponder universal truth, is not something that can “evolve” from matter like the body, and, as Pius puts it clearly, the Catholic faith obliges us to hold that souls are immediately created by God (#36).

There is an unbridgeable chasm between the highest of the animals and Man. Pope John Paul II gave an address to the Pontifical Academy for Science on this theme in 1996, in which he clarified the doctrine outlined by his predecessor:

With man, we find ourselves facing a different ontological order—an ontological leap, we could say.

The “soul,” the “form” of the body, makes our body (itself formed from the dust of the earth and which we share with animals) a specifically human body. As the Holy Father goes on:

As a result, the theories of evolution which, because of the philosophies which inspire them, regard the spirit either as emerging from the forces of living matter, or as a simple epiphenomenon of that matter, are incompatible with the truth about man. They are therefore unable to serve as the basis for the dignity of the human person.


Clearly, this all has significant ramifications on how we think about the evolution of human beings. We are permitted to hold as a hypothesis that we evolved from non-rational and non-human animals, but this theory has enough problems to make it untenable, at least so argues, in a very convincing and comprehensive manner, Father Dominic Chabarek in his 2015 Catholicism and Evolution: A History from Darwin to Pope Francis (an invaluable resource).

Here are some thoughts on what we must conclude if Adam were evolved from “non-human living matter,” as Pius puts it.

If the being that would become “Adam” were at one point in his life a “beast,” that is, a non-rational animal, it could only be his body, his “matter” that evolved, and not his soul, his “form,” which is immediately created by God. God would therefore have had to infuse a human soul into his non-human body at some point in his life-span, which would effectively negate Adam’s previous life. What memories could Adam possibly have of his prior non-human existence? What would this imply for the continuity of his being, his moral life, his salvation? Souls are not like computer modules that can just be upgraded; they are wholes unto themselves, all-or-none.

Further, matter follows form, and the two complement each other. A human soul (or form) can only be infused into a body (matter) that has the right potency to receive such a form (that is, a certain degree of complexity in its physiology, and its brain in particular).

One could not have a “human” body without a human soul, as would have to be case in a non-rational (and, hence, non-human) Adam prior to his “humanization.” There is no such thing as a non-rational human, for rationality is the very essence of what it means to be human.

Thus, the fictional accounts of non-rational “humans” in stories such as Gulliver’s Travels and Planet of the Apes are just that: fiction. A non-rational human is not human.

We might also hypothesize that Adam was conceived as a human zygote in the womb of a non-human hominid, but that raises its own set of questions: How did such a mother (and father) provide the fitting body (that is, the matter, and the DNA) for a human being, with their own more limited genetic material? Effect follows cause, and an effect cannot be greater than its cause, without some sort of divine and supernatural intervention.


God could have worked in these ways, one may suppose, but each of these scenarios would be more or less equivalent to the “special creation” implied in the Biblical account, that God formed Adam’s body quite literally “from the dust of the earth,” whether that “dust” was inanimate physical elements, or a metaphorical allusion to a living non-human body. Either way, the Almighty formed the first Man’s body to be the fitting matter for the dignity and excellence of the human soul, infused immediately by him, making the human person a body-soul composite.

Ponder the implications of the materialist Darwinian system. If there is no form, no soul, no fixed and eternal essence, then Man is nothing more than the sum of his biological parts, an animal whose only difference is to have developed a more complex brain and behavior than the rest of the kingdom.

James Watson, the other discoverer of the structure of DNA, along with the aforementioned Crick, commenting in 1994 on the Human Genome Project, which he helped start, declared that arguments for the right to life of all humans “present no validity to those of us who see no evidence for the sanctity (holiness) of life, believing instead that human as well as all other forms of life are the products not of God’s hand but of an evolutionary process operating under the Darwinian principles of natural selection.

If the whole animal and plant kingdoms are nothing more than matter in different forms of complexity, then there is also no real essential difference (besides material complexity) between a horse and a human, or even amongst a horse, a human, and a lump of carbon. In true Heraclitan fashion, everything is in flux, nothing knowable, true science impossible, everything more or less random chaos, and what really is the point of it all?

None, according to the most popular current spokesman for this view, Richard Dawkins:

In a universe of electrons and selfish genes, blind physical forces and genetic replication, some people are going to get hurt, other people are going to get lucky, and you won’t find any rhyme or reason in it, nor any justice. The universe that we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil, no good, nothing but pitiless indifference.”

To return to our starting point, Dawkins here is making not a scientific and physical claim, but a metaphysical one, and a rather depressing one at that, I might add, which seems blind to the profound order and harmony found in the cosmos, which even a child could see.

Rather, whatever the theory of evolution implies about the production of animal and even human bodies, we should hold on to the deeper spiritual truth of what being “created” really means, as propounded by Pope Emeritus Benedict:

We are not some casual and meaningless product of evolution. Each of us is the result of a thought of God. Each of us is willed, each of us is loved, each of us is necessary.

Each of us is also called to join Christ in heaven, and at the end of the day, or more properly the end of own lives, where we are going is far more important than whence we came.

John Paul Meenan


John Paul Meenan is an Assistant Professor of Theology and Natural Science at Our Lady Seat of Wisdom in Barry's Bay, Ontario, Canada. He edits and writes at Catholic Insight.