Book Review “Aquinas and Evolution” of Fr. Michael Chaberek

CHABEREK, Michael. Aquinas and Evolution, Why St. Thomas’ Teaching on the Origins is Incompatible with Evolutionary Theory. Chartwell Press, 2017. Soft Cover, $ 16.95

Reviewed by Ed Da Pra, Franciscan University of Steubenville.

Father Michael Chaberek argues in His book “Aquinas and Evolution” that a proper understanding of Thomistic philosophy is incompatible with theistic evolution. Yet the great majority of today’s Thomists believe that the theory of evolution and the philosophical thought of Saint Thomas Aquinas are not only not at odds with each other, but that the evolutionary account is somewhat sustained by Thomistic metaphysical principles, with God simply using secondary causes to guide evolution. This tendency in philosophy is fairly recent, until the beginning of the 20th century almost all Thomists, cardinals, and Catholic philosophers opposed and condemned the evolutionary theory and excluded the possibility of such a thing as “theistic evolution”. What happened? The author holds that there has been a paradigm shift. Thinkers hold that the evolutionary account has been proven by science, and therefore their philosophical thought has to match the alleged incontestable data. Instead of doubting the scientific theory in light of their philosophy, they do the opposite. Scientific theories come and go, new experimental data is found, theories are debunked and new hypotheses are proposed; this doesn’t happen with sound philosophical principles. This shows the detrimental implicit influence that scientism and positivism have on modern philosophy.

Fr. Michael Chaberek does an incredible job in showing clearly how faithful Thomism is opposed at its very core to the evolutionary theory. The book has 6 chapters. The first chapter is an introduction to the topic and a meticulous work of definition of terms. Here he outlines the goal of his work. He wants to answer two questions in his book: “the relation of Thomas Aquinas’s teaching on the origin of species to the concept of theistic evolution” (27), and “the relation of Aquinas’s philosophy/theology to the modern scientific claims of intelligent design” (30). These two questions are addressed respectively in Chapter 2 and Chapter 5, which constitute the backbone of the book. In Chapter 3 the author dives into an analysis of the relation between Aquinas’s thought and the Augustinian interpretation of Genesis, and in Chapter 4 he addresses the issue specifically of the origin of man in light of Aquinas’s thought and how it is intrinsically opposed to the evolutionary account on the origin of man. The last chapter is dedicated to understanding the reasons why modern Thomists are so keen on defending theistic evolution. Chapter 2 and Chapter 5 address the two main questions of the book, and Chapter 4 is of extraordinary importance, so these sections of Fr Chaberek’s work are what the reader should focus the most on.

For Chapter 2 and 5, the author adopts the typical structure of the Summa Theologiae of Aquinas. He first presents all the opposing arguments to what he believes, so he presents arguments and evidence for theistic evolutionism. Then follows the section “I answer that,” where the author actually illustrates the main thesis of the book, and after having made his case, he dedicates the last section of these two chapters to reply each of the objections that he presented at the beginning. The style is captivating and engaging, it makes the reader imagine how St Thomas would actually approach this topic. His writing style is simple, convincing, and linear. I wish the author adopted for some parts of the book a more narrative style and the use of concrete examples to help the non-accustomed reader grasp with ease the metaphysical truths that he is talking about.

Fr. Michael answers the first main question of his book (the relation between what Aquinas holds on the origin of species with theistic evolutionism) in several ways. First, for theistic evolution, “more perfect beings can be produced through natural generation and propagation of less perfect ones” (49), that means that the effect can be greater than the cause, but this violates the Thomistic principle that “no being can convey more act than it possesses” (48). Another reason is that theistic evolutionism lies on the metaphysical principle that “a living being can be changed into a different nature by accidental change” (49); but accidental changes are capable only of bringing about accidental differences, substantial changes are necessary for a change of nature. A further reason is that theistic evolution lies on the assumption that “one nature can be a cause of another nature” (51), but for Aquinas this is not possible, for if a being cannot be the cause of its very own nature, how can it possibly be the cause of another nature. Then Aquinas held that every composite thing had four causes (final, formal, efficient and material), but “theistic evolution lacks both formal and efficient cause” (53). Fr Michael gives many more convincing reasons and dives into each of them answering their objections and defending them in an apologetical way.

The second main question of the book (the relation of Aquinas’s philosophy and theology to the modern scientific claims of intelligent design) is answered by showing effectively that Thomism and Intelligent Design are not only compatible with each other but that they are complementary. As philosophy is a gateway to theology, so science (the realm of ID) is a gateway to philosophy (the realm of Thomism). Intelligent Design concludes that some structures in nature cannot be caused by chance or necessity (physical laws of nature) but are directly a product of intelligence (without defining who or what this intelligence is, that is the realm of philosophy), while the Fifth Way tells us that intelligence (God) is the source of the laws that govern nature that then account for the physical structures we see. The Fifth Way “does not rest upon the distinction between things that come ultimately from intelligence and those that cannot be otherwise explained than by intelligence” (189). “The premise of the Fifth Way virtually includes the premise of the Design Inference” (189).

So, the arguments are well supported and convincing, but I fear that the structure of the Summa is not always the best format to systematically argue apologetically in a modern debate. The book is intriguing, captivating, intellectually provocative, and not simply a vague disquisition of speculative thinking, but a concrete, convincing truth-based and apologetical defense of the truth about creation, philosophy and the actual thought of the Angelic Doctor.

Ed Da Pra

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