Philosophy of Evolution: Abiogenesis

The Scholastic Solutions


The Neo-Scholastics may well hold abiogenesis as probable, but equivocal.

Klubertanz argues in favor of evolution in general. He uses the concepts of equivocal causality, chance, and Providence, to explain the possible origin of living things.36 Klubertanz notes, "The same explanation can perhaps be used for the origin of life itself. It is again possible that the right chance occurrence of a whole group of particular lines of causality, unified in the Divine plan, should result in the formation of a single living cell.37

Could abiogenesis be verified scientifically? The effort of scientists to produce a living cell in the laboratory would work along the same lines of equivocal causality, chance, and Providence. For these scientists use the natural, necessary, predetermined activities of various natural compounds, and, acting as intelligently unifying sources, try to find the right combination of interfering causalities which would produce the material dispositions for life.38

At least one philosophical theory of how abiogenesis is possible in operation should be examined in depth. Klubertanz appears to give the most extensive presentation, and does explain in considerable philosophical depth. When Klubertanz is examined here, reference will be made to the parallel presentation in St. Thomas. Klubertanz does not cite St. Thomas often. It is not the intention here to show that Klubertanz is a Thomist, but to show the continued influence of the philosophy of St. Thomas. There is a strict correlation between the presentation of the philosophy of St. Thomas and the major parts of the presentation of Klubertanz.

Klubertanz’s essential argument is that accidents of the agent (form) and patient (matter) are instruments of substance, so a new substance can be made by them.39 This is the philosophical basis of abiogenesis.40 Further, this is very close to St. Thomas saying, "The emanation of proper accidents from the subject is not by way of transmutation, but by a certain natural result" (Aquinas Summa Theologiae 1. 77. 6 ad 3).

Klubertanz inquires, "Does substantial change exist, and how does it take place?"41 Substantial change caused by created agents always takes place through accidental change, through material dispositions. Proof of this is that creation is power over being itself, which indicates a sufficient reason for the own being of the creator (confer: Aquinas Summa Contra Gentiles 2. 16). But power over being itself is not found in creatures, so creatures need pre-existing matter to act. God acts through secondary causes (Aquinas Summa Theologiae 1. 105. 5).42 St. Thomas also holds secondary agents of substantial change (Aquinas De Principiis Naturae 6) and a certain unity of substance and accident (Aquinas Summa Theologiae 1. 11. 1 corpus). Examples of this substantial change are assimilation of food, production of synthetic rubber, heat making molecules move faster (physics), or instability of living molecules under high heat (chemistry). Klubertanz adds that the accidental change involve material dispositions. Squeezing a metal ring turns a circle into an ellipse, and the cause is the person (efficient cause) and the matter. Water temperature rising from 30E to 80E in the test tube is caused by the scientist (efficient cause) and the proximate dispositions of the matter.43 The material plays a part in the change by placing limits on the efficient cause, because you cannot get a hammer out of beeswax, nor water from chlorine and oxygen. These views are similar to St. Thomas (Aquinas Summa Theologiae 3. 76. 6 ad 1). Klubertanz notes that synthesis of compounds takes place in successive stages, not leaps, in the laboratory. Scientists have found by experience that synthesis and destruction of very complex compounds does not take place in a single leap, but in successive stages. This is noted by St. Thomas that God in the beginning creates all species together not in actual form but "in power and almost as in a seed" ("in virtute et quasi in semine," Aquinas Summa Theologiae 1. 66. 4).

Klubertanz continues to elaborate his theory of evolution not just with regard to tranformation, but with the possible application to abiogenesis.44 Due to finality in creation, Klubertanz holds essential evolution from non living things to living things up to and including the human body (the whole man with his spiritual soul excluded).45 His treatment of finality involves the added concepts of equivocal causality, chance, and God’s Providence as the possible explanation of living things. Klubertanz endorses essential Evolutionism as a possible explanation of the origin of living things.

Klubertanz asks how chance enters into abiogenesis. Klubertanz still can suppose the interference of various causes at the origin of life, and this interference is a chance occurrence with each and every proximate cause, but Klubertanz does not neglect Divine Providence and the direct action of God on creatures. So the supposition that Klubertanz is dealing with is the origin of life by equivocal generation and the direct intervention of God. "This explanation differs from the so-called ‘origin of life by direct creation,’ because direct creation supposes a miraculous intervention of God (that is, an immediate production without regard to the pre-existing dispositions of matter), while the present hypothesis (of Klubertanz) supposes an intervention of God according to the ordinary laws of generation from previously disposed matter... In such an intervention, the secondary causes would be instruments of God, " says Klubertanz.46

Dezza, professor at the Gregorian University in Rome, teaches that abiogenesis is not impossible due to immanent virtuality.47 Dezza first notes that he believes it impossible to obtain life with only physico-chemical forces. However, he next raises the philosophical question of whether it is philosophically impossible that physico-chemical material give origin to something living, not by virtue of their proper essence, which being of a lower order is not able to be the principle cause of life, but by an immanent virtuality placed by the Creator in its very nature, explaining how in determinate circumstances it would vivify either spontaneously in nature or artificially in the laboratory.

Dezza’s theory of "immanent virtuality" leads him to believe that the hypothesis of abiogenesis is not philosophically impossible.48 The reason is that the physico-chemical agents would be only the instrumental cause of the living thing, and there is no difficulty that an instrument of lower perfection produces an effect of higher perfection, not by its own proper force (virtj) but by force of the principle cause. The principle cause of the new living being would be God, also if it would happen in a laboratory, where the scientist could only make what external conditions that would be needed for the production of a living thing.

Adler notes that spontaneous generation remains a possibility. In fact, Adler seems to indicate that this abiogenesis could have happened more than once, since he writes: "A new species of organism might come into existence without being generated by other living organisms."49 Adler notes that such a form of life seems to lie outside the operation of natural caused and seems to imply the intervention of supernatural power.

Benignus invokes the principle of finality and the principle of sufficient reason.50 Inorganic substances and forces are directed to the production and maintenance of life on earth. Therefore, "mechanical forces that in fact led to the emergence of life on earth are made intelligible only if we consider them as intended for that very end." The use of the words "in fact led ... to life" and "intended" are not fully explained, but since the book is called Nature, Knowledge and God, it can reasonably be expected that Benignus views God as "intending" that very end, which is life. Benignus adds what seems to be a negative comment, namely, that "The probability of accidental birth of life is infinitesimally small." This of course, given the complexity of life, would be expected. His comment is softened with another appeal to the principle of finality, "Even with imperfect and deficient forms, nature is directed toward life."

De Finance, professor at the Gregorian University, endorses the "appetite of matter." He says the matter has desire for form, by noting that matter, under privation, desires the form, "as a female desires a male, or the ugly the beautiful."51 Thus matter is not metaphysically inert.

Mondin endorses "programmed evolution."52 He maintains that evolution takes place according to a pre-established program from God, and God has established that from the forces which He initially gave to material the development of life at a certain time. This answer to the question of abiogenesis is philosophically correct, according to Mondin, because every effect has a proportionate cause. God is the proportionate cause of life whether the action is mediate or immediate. As further confirmation of this position, Mondin quotes Jacques Maritain’s commentary on the text of St. Thomas about lower nature in service of the higher (Aquinas Summa Contra Gentiles 3. 22).53

Palmes endorses "divine intervention," but notes that "this is not creation properly speaking."54 The production of the first living organism must be attributed to divine intervention, but it is sufficient that God will produce the first living thing by eduction from the passive potency of the material the vital principle of the first living organism. Thus Palmes is not a Creationist with regard to the origin of life, but argues from the principle of sufficient reason, that God and nature are involved together.

Palmes explores the complex question of abiogenesis relative to the generation of viruses.55 Viruses are scarcely different in structure from non-living material, but viruses reproduce other viruses similar to themselves by generation. Therefore, viruses seem to be alive. However, microbiology has two opinions about the reproduction of viruses. First, if reproduction is simply chemical (non-living), then abiogenesis does not occur (non-living to non-living). Second, if reproduction of viruses is an living activity, the abiogenesis may occur (non-living to living). But even in this second case, there are varied opinions about the origin of the purely chemical nature of the virus, for some scientists say the virus might be the product of reverse evolution, like parasites.

Nogar endorses "biopoesis," which is the natural chemical evolution of life out of the inorganic world; what Nogar calls biopoesis is called abiogenesis in this dissertation. Nogar concludes that, even though there is no experimental demonstration of life arising from non-life at this time, "the hypothesis of biopoesis enjoys the respect of all because it is reasonable and a fruitful guide to research."56 Nogar rules out the spontaneous generation of bacteria and flies, experimentally ruled out by Francesco Redi (1626-1698) and by Lousi Pasteur (1822-1895); and he rules out the Cosmozoic Theory of life from other planets as improbable;57 and he rules out the Virus Theory, that all life comes from viruses, saying that this theory does not push the problem back far enough.

Finally, the concept of evolution applied to abiogenesis is equivocal. Equivocal indicates predication where the verbal term is identical, but the concepts have no connection in the mind.58 Nogar says, "These papers (at the Darwin Centennial Celebration at the University of Chicago in 1959 composed of fifty international experts on evolution reporting) on cultural anthropology, archaeology, psychology and language... show this radical change in the concept of evolution... "59 Darwin does not impose evolution on a grand scheme of biological, or cosmic, history but the origin of the species.60 The general meaning of the term "evolution" is tied to biological transformation of species by mutation and natural selection. Philosophical Evolutionism may attempt of extend that meaning.61 Herbert Spencer and some others wish to extend the term "evolution" to the level of a universal law that pertains to all transformation in the universe. Those followers of Darwin, notably Huxley and Spencer in England and Hackel in Germany, made unwarranted extensions of the theory into fields of philosophy and ethics. The extension of "evolution" is not univocal, as explained by Norgar.62 The extension of "evolution" is not analogous, as explained by Renard.63 The extension of "evolution" is equivocal, as explained by Nogar.64

Author:  John Edward Mulfihill, S.T.D., D.Min., Ph.D.
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