Augustine, Leibowitz, and evolution

The following paragraph is from the science fiction novel A Canticle for Leibowitz:

A fourth century bishop and philosopher. He [Saint Augustine] suggested that in the beginning God created all things in their germinal causes, including the physiology of man, and that the germinal causes inseminate, as it were, the the formless matter — which then gradually evolved into the more complex shapes, and eventually Man. Has this hypothesis been considered?

A Canticle for Leibowitz is set centuries after a nuclear holocaust. The war was immediately followed by the “Simplification.” Survivors rejected all advanced technology and hunted down everyone who was even literate. At this point in the book, a sort of Renaissance is taking place. The question above is addressed to a scientist who is explaining some of the (re)discoveries taking place. The scientist’s response was

“I’m afraid it has not, but I shall look it up,” he said, in a tone that indicated he would not.

Was the reference to Augustine simply made up for the novel, or is there something in Augustine’s writings that the author is alluding to? If so, does anyone know what in particular he may be referring to? Is such a proto-Darwinian reading of Augustine fair?

15 thoughts on “Augustine, Leibowitz, and evolution

  1. It may be a reference to the concept of “free will”, which St Augustin introduced in order to make God irresponsible of the existence of Evil, it would be Mankind’s fault.See “De libero arbitrio”.

  2. I don’t have your citation, but I have a reference to someplace that you might have a citation. 🙂

    But to quote Darwin, a Life in Science on evolution,

    Saint Augustine (353-430) painted an even clearer picture. He taught that the original germs of living things came in two forms, one placed by the Creator in animals and plants, and a second variety scattered throughout the environment, destined to become active only under the right conditions. He said that the Biblical account of the Creation should not be read as literally occupying six days, but six units of time, while the passage `In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth’ should be interpreted:

    As if this were the seed of the heaven and the earth, although as yet all the matter of heaven and of earth was in confusion; but because it was certain that from this the heaven and the earth would be, therefore the material itself is called by that name.

    Augustine likens the Creation to the growth of a tree from its seed, which has the potential to become a tree, but does so only through a long, slow process, in accordance with the environment in which it finds itself. God created the potential for the heavens and earth, and for life, but the details worked themselves out in accordance with the laws laid down by God, on this picture. It wasn’t necessary for God to create each individual species (let alone each individual living thing) in the process called Special Creation. Instead, the Creator provided the seeds of the Universe and of life, and let them develop in their own time.

    In all but name, except for introducing the hand of God to start off the Universe, Augustine’s theory was a theory of evolution, and one which stands up well alongside modern theories of the evolution of the Universe and the evolution of life on Earth.’ His views were influential throughout the Middle Ages, and followed by such important thinkers as William of Occam (in the fourteenth century) and, most importantly, by Saint Thomas Aquinas in the thirteenth century. Aquinas simply quoted Augustine’s teaching on the subject of the Creation and the interpretation of Genesis; but as he was one of the highest authorities in the Christian Church at the time, and has been one of the most influential since, this amounted to an official seal of approval for the idea that God had set the Universe in motion and then rested.

  3. Matthew J. Sullivan

    It looks like in the 1920’s a Jesuit in California wrote a paper on this topic.

    His conclusion,

    [St. Augustine’s doctrine of seminal reason’s] end is not to give a theory of specific origins, but to explain as far as human mind can penetrate it, the revealed truth of God’s word, the origin of all things by creation according as the Sacred text narrates it, and God’s continual operation in creatures, as the necessary, sufficient and sole reason of their existence and operation and propagation. In general, then, and so far as the order of administration is concerned, the seminal reasons may be considered as the term of the Creator’s act, as such, constituting every being a creature in the strictest sense. They may be considered in the creature, where they are the immediate effect in material second causes of the unceasing operation of the First Cause moving all, giving all their formal efficiency. They may be considered in themselves. Then they are seen in every created being as in their subject. This subject, inasmuch as it exists and acts, may in its actual operation be called by a synecdoche, a seminal reason. But there is no identity. The seminal reason is the link binding the finite to the Infinite, the universe to God, so that He is ever the Creator, it, in its minutest element, its most insignificant phase always the creature. To make it a mere natural force or generating agent would lead to Pantheism rather than favor Evolution.

  4. It is not the readers of just any blog that are equally comfortable with the finer points of linear algebra and Saint Augustine’s views on creation. +1.

  5. The reference is to Augustine’s On the Literal Meaning of Genesis [De Genesi ad Litteram]. This is pretty hard to find in English, but there is a reference to it in Copleston’s History of Philosophy, Vol. 2 p .76. Copleston was a standard textbook for a long time, I wouldn’t be surprised if Miller had read it.

    There is another reference in Copleston to On the Trinity, Book 3, Chapter 8, Line 13. You can see that at New Advent. Here is a suggestive quote:

    For, consider, the very least shoot is a seed; for, if fitly consigned to the earth, it produces a tree. But of this shoot there is a yet more subtle seed in some grain of the same species, and this is visible even to us. But of this grain also there is further still a seed, which, although we are unable to see it with our eyes, yet we can conjecture its existence from our reason; because, except there were some such power in those elements, there would not so frequently be produced from the earth things which had not been sown there;

    A proto-Darwinian reading is fair, if we keep in mind hindsight. Augustine meant something very different than we would by these kind of statements, but you can see a relationship.

  6. Stephen: I’m impressed by how many people quickly responded with erudite answers. I thought someone would respond, but I didn’t this expect many responses or any responses so quickly.

  7. I think Ben nailed it – it is fair from a certain perspective. At the same time that isn’t exactly the Darwinian perspective either (perhaps why John added the “proto-“).

  8. EastwoodDC: I use “proto” in the sense of foreshadowing. I’m not saying that Augustine influenced Darwin — he may or may not have; I have no idea — but in hindsight one can interpret Augustine as expressing a view that might be called “Darwinian” even though this would be an anachronism without the “proto” prefix.

    Along these lines, someone might call Plato a proto-Marxist because of the authoritarian ideas Plato lays out in his Republic, even though Plato died over two millennia before Marx was born. (I think it’s a little silly to call Plato a proto-Marxist, but I can’t think of a good proto- example on the spot. Maybe someone could think of a good proto-Freudian or proto-Keynesian, etc.)

  9. I found amusing that you seem to relate Marx with authoritarian ideas. Notwithstanding Stalinism and alikes, Marx was from the begenning a democrat and only later on an adept of violence (revolution) as a mean to achive socialism. Even though, is far from simple to characterize Marx views as authoritarian. If any, is fairer to put Marx on the side of democracy and most thinkers of the time (including many liberals) as anti-democratic.

  10. John: I understand your intent – and agree. I just meant there is a risk of “interpretive overfitting” when making such comparisons.

  11. Overfitting?! Sounds like the kind of party-pooping comment a statistician would make. 🙂

  12. Fr. John Rickert


    Salutem magnam in Domino —

    I need to look into this more “when I have time,” but there are two aspects which should be overlooked, and I think they might be quite key to the whole issue: 1. St. Augustine was very Platonic and Neo-Platonic in his philosophy. The Platonists tend to see pure forms as being reality and concretizations of them in the material world as imperfect instantiations of the pure form. I think that St. Augustine may have been of the opinion that God initially created all the -forms- in one swoop but then brought about their material embodiments over the series of days. 2. The “ratio seminalis” is the Latin way of rendering “logos spermatikos” of Greek. I would see it as imprescindible to know what the latter term means, and again, I think it is primarily associated with the Platonic / Neo-Platonic schools. Because forms are timeless, pure, and almost eternal except for the fact of being created in a general Platonic view, I do not see any possibility in believing that St. Augustine would accept transformism.

    God bless —
    Fr. Rickert

  13. To Manoel Galdino:

    Perhaps Marx was in his conscious views anti-authoritarian by comparison with many of his contemporaries. However, Marxism necessarily takes a turn for the authoritarian when it runs up against the realities of human nature (at least as I take those realities to be). It will either fail, or it will make the Party to be the Vanguard of the People, at which point the anti-authoritarian game is lost. Marxism founders because of its defective view of human nature and false consciousness.

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