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According to Genesis 1, God created things, organisms, wholes. On Day 3, he summons seed-bearing grasses and fruit-bearing trees from the earth, and on Day 4 he makes the sun, moon, and stars and places them in the firmament. On Day 5, he commands the seas to swarm with swimming things and the air to be filled with flying things, and on Day 6 he calls up varieties of land animals—cattle, beasts, and creeping things. Animate creatures are defined by their environments. “Fish” are creatures of the sea, whether they lay eggs or bear live young; “birds” fly across the face of the firmament, whether they’re furry or feathery. This ecological classification is as much ontology as taxonomy: Animals are what they are by virtue of a created harmony with their habitats. The products of God’s creating are mature things, mutually related to other mature things. He creates formed entities rather than chemical components, organisms rather than cells, trees rather than seeds, chickens rather than eggs.

It seems a trivial point, until we compare Genesis with other accounts of origins, ancient and modern. There’s enough overlap between Genesis 1 and Timaeus to lead some church fathers to suspect Plato plagiarized his best bits from Moses. Like Genesis, the Timaeus affirms the goodness of the Creator and describes the demiurge’s formation of entire organisms and objects. Unlike the author of Genesis, Timaeus is interested in the physical, geometric, and metaphysical components of things. The demiurge mixes the same, other, and essence, and then cuts the compound into strips to form the inner and outer spheres of the cosmos. In Plato’s cosmology, the triangle is the most basic shape, and triangles combine to form the three-dimensional particles that make up fire, water, earth, and air.

Much post-Darwinian biology is closer to the Timaeus than to Genesis. As Michael Hanby points out in No God, No Science?, Darwin considers living things to be “an accidental aggregation of traits,” or, in Darwin’s own words, “the summing up of many contrivances.” The aggregated parts even have their history of development. The five-toed foot is granddaddy to its four-toed descendants, never mind that no foot ever existed without being the foot of some multi-pedaled creatures. Darwin compiled mountains of evidence by observing organisms, but he paid comparatively little attention to them as organisms, since his main interest was to discern the operation of natural selection. Richard Dawkins brings this trajectory to a peak, as he reduces the organism to a bearer of selfish genes, bent on their own survival and perpetuation. For Dawkins, the gene (an itty-bitty part) rather than the organism (the whole) is the unit of selection.

What Hanby describes as the disappearance of the organism is rooted in assumptions Darwin and his followers shared with Bacon, Newton, and other modern scientific thinkers. In Aristotle’s cosmos, things have interior connections to other things, but Newton imagined a universe without intrinsic relations among entities. Even the internal parts of a body are external to other internal parts, related only by the force they exert upon one another. Arguably, Darwin’s main contribution was to apply the Newtonian model of the physical universe to living things. Given his mechanistic ambitions, it was inevitable that biology would lose track of the organism.

The loss of natural teleology has a similar result. Newton eliminated purpose from his theory of motion. Things are moved by external forces, rather than by internal Aristotelian impulses toward actualization. Darwinian biology completes the eradication of teleology; it’s the final triumph of mechanistic science over Aristotelian superstition, with its occult forms and ghostly what-nots. Strictly speaking, Darwinian theory prohibits every “for the sake of” relationship from the natural world. Eyes aren’t “for the sake of sight” nor feet “for the sake of walking.” What appear to be teleological relationships are mere appearances. But without “sake of” relationships, Hanby argues, there can be no organisms: “a world of functions only is an utterly accidental world of parts” that are, impossibly, “parts of no real wholes.” Ultimately, neither Darwin nor Darwinism truly escape teleology. Darwin regularly recurs to the personified language of his earliest essays on natural selection, describing natural selection as a power that acts, seizes, works, scrutinizes, improves, modifies, preserves, rejects, masters, and favors. Yet insofar as Darwinism successfully excludes teleology, it loses the biological organisms it set out to study.

Recent developments in biology have brought the organism back into focus. Even Dawkins doesn’t really believe in genetic determinism, and research has made it clear that the operation of genes depends on more than the genes. Systems approaches encourage attention to biological wholes. It’s not clear whether or not these shifts will escape the impasses of Darwinian theory. Yet, with Aristotle making an unexpected comeback, there’s a chance biology will catch up with the ancient wisdom of Genesis: God made things.

Peter J. Leithart is President of Theopolis Institute.

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Image by Wellcome Library, London licensed via Creative Commons. Image cropped. 

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