Monday, October 25, 2010

Would Thomas Aquinas Have Been an Evolutionary Psychologist?

The question asked in the title was raised by a post by Jay W. Richards on the Evolution News & Views website.  His post was in response to Huffington Post article by Matt J. Rossano (head of the Psychology Department at Southeastern Louisiana University), who noted that many of Thomas' arguments anticipated "Darwinist" explanations for human behavior (e.g. the need among most humans for two parents to care for a child as a basis for marriage -- and even the analogy between the behavior of humans and birds in this matter).  The article also drew responses from one "vjtorley" and Joe Carter, the web editor for First Things.  You will perhaps not be astonished to learn that none of the above respondents found it likely that Aquinas would have endorsed evolutionary psychology, although Joe Carter grudgingly allows that Aquinas might have accepted common descent itself.

Now, the more I think about questions of this kind, the harder it is to figure out what the question actually means. If we ask, e.g. what Martin Luther King would have thought of the Tea Party movement if he were alive today, it's easy enough to imagine him still around at 81 years old and still holding much the views he held right before his death.  If we want to ask, though, what Martin Luther (the German religious reformer) would have thought about, say, gay rights (and the question has been asked, trust me), a problem arises.  Are we talking about Martin Luther somehow surviving and being a lucid and outspoken (and probably very fixed in his ways) 526-year-old?  Are we considering using a time machine to pluck him out of the sixteenth century, giving him a few months to acclimatize to the twenty-first, and then asking him (once he calmed down from the shock)?  Or are we asking what someone identical in traits and temperament to Martin Luther, but born, say, in 1960 in some heavily Roman Catholic region (i.e. not his native Eisleben, these days) of Germany?  I think those would be three very different questions and might have rather different answers.

By the same token, if we ask what a modern version of Thomas Aquinas would have thought, we need to ask "would he even be a theologian, or even a Christian, today?"  P.Z. Myers briefly argued this point in a post yesterday: in thirteenth century Italy, the brightest, most inquisitive people went into the church because it was pretty much the only intellectual game in town.  A Thomas of Aquino born seven centuries later might very well have become a scientist rather than a priest and monk, and might have been as casual about his theology as a lot of Italians are today.  Even had he gone into the church, his theology might well have been closer to Theodosius Dobzhansky's than, say, Christoph Shoenborn's.

If we're asking, rather, what would the original Thomas have thought about evolution, and evolutionary psychology, if he'd somehow been able to learn about them, that's hard to say.

It's easy for vjtorley to say, of course: as he sees it, four elements of Aquinas' theology militate against evolutionary psychology if not against common descent with modification altogether:

  1. Thomas was an essentialist (Darwinism is radically anti-essentialist)
  2. Thomas thought that God had made everything perfectly (no kludges or jerry-rigs).
  3. Thomas thought that God had personally made nothing useless or redundant (no vestiges).
  4. Thomas thought that God had made everything personally (no unguided causes).
In other words, if Thomas Aquinas had not changed any of his other views, he would not have abandoned creationism (given the number of assumptions about the nature, motives, and methods of the Designer in that list, though, could he have been an ID proponent?).   

Vjtorley goes on to argue that even a modern Thomist who accepted common ancestry could not reconcile that theological system with "Darwinism," though I'm not convinced by his arguments: the idea that, e.g. the world contains exactly the right amount of evil (necessitated by free will) would not depend on whether mindless evolutionary processes themselves could decide such things, but whether God in His wisdom could have decided that a "Darwinian" world would allow the optimal balance of freedom and necessity for all creation, including the non-human parts (as modern theologians such as John F. Haught have argued).

Thomas Aquinas also thought the sun orbited the Earth.  The question is, how many of these beliefs would  he have found reason to alter, as he learned of the advances of science over the succeeding seven centuries?   The "anti-essentialism" of evolutionary theory, after all, is not some random philosophical point; it is based on the actual observation of ubiquitous variation of living species in the field, on the observed mutability of domestic species, on the difficulty in many cases of deciding whether different populations (living or fossil) ought to be considered the same species or not.  Likewise, the idea that vestiges and kludges exist is based on comparative anatomy, not on a sense of what unguided natural evolution "ought" to do.  To argue that Thomas would not have abandoned it is to argue that Thomas would base his views on obstinacy rather than evidence and logic.  And as for the purely theological elements of his  thought, the very fact that the leading Catholic theologian dates from the 13th rather than, say, the 2nd, century, argues that theology can change and develop over time; its assumptions are themselves more mutable than the laws of the Medes and Persians were said to be.

It would be difficult to cast off the mental habits of his 13th century upbringing (not to mention abandoning positions he'd already staked out), but Rossano has a point: Thomas went somewhat beyond that upbringing already by incorporating so much of Aristotelian philosophy into his theology; it is reasonable to suppose that he would try to do likewise with later philosophy and science.  Evolution, and evolutionary psychology, would have been harder to accommodate than, say, heliocentrism or atomic physics, but not necessarily impossible.

Although vjtorley would, I think, want to think of it otherwise, he's basically arguing that Thomas Aquinas, even given access to modern scientific data and arguments, would reject evolutionary theory in favor of religious dogma as vjtorley has done.  Perhaps he would have (which does more to undercut the value of Thomas' opinions than it does to undercut evolutionary theory); this question, as I imply above, is interesting in part because there's no discernible way to definitively answer it.

Carter argues specifically against Thomas' ability to accept something as "dumb" as evolutionary psychology.  Now, here it's important to note that there is a difference between accepting that our minds have been shaped by evolution and accepting the views specifically labelled "evolutionary psychology," including: 
  1. All our mental traits are adaptions (there are no mental "spandrels")
  2. The mind comprises multiple specialized modules (no general intelligence).
  3. Human mental evolution stopped on the African savanna 100,000 years ago.
And even accepting evolutionary psychology would not mean accepting every "just-so" story about various human behaviors.  One might well suppose that the Angelic Doctor would not subscribe to vulgarized and dogmatic forms of evo-psych (those which Carter regards as the entire field) and still suspect that he'd find much of interest and even value in it.  But then, perhaps a modern-day (or modernly-educated) Thomas Aquinas would be among the harshest and most trenchant critics of evolutionary psychology.  The point remains: what Thomas thought would not settle the question of whether evolutionary theory, or particular applications of it to human psychology, were true.  I'm not sure that it would even settle the question of whether it was compatible with some form of Christian theology (which has, after all, evolved in its own way quite a bit over nineteen centuries).

In the end, the argument has been interesting, but isn't really to the point -- at least not if Intelligent Design is really about the science and not about religious dogma.

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