Can Organismic Biology Ease a Seeming Tension between Natural Law Theory and Evolutionary Biology?

Mikael Leidenhag
Tuesday 20 April 2021
  1. Introduction and Hypothesis
  2. Fields of Study
  3. Discussion
  4. Conclusion

1. Introduction and Hypothesis

The Natural Law Tradition (NLT) paints a distinctively teleological picture of human nature. Those who support a natural law approach to ethics suggest that ethics “must be grounded in being and the moral life based on what is good for human beings” (Pope 2007, 148-149). Typically, the natural law proponent seeks to articulate an account of moral theory whereby the appropriateness of an action is judged in relation to what it means to be a human being: what is morally good is, then, based on what is good for human beings, and many natural law proponents seek to connect moral goodness with that which can maximize flourishing for the human person. Indeed, “human happiness must be recognizable as a kind of flourishing appropriate to a creature that exists and lives and enjoys a distinctively animal life” (Porter 2005, 82). One should, broadly speaking, act according to one’s nature. Moreover, it is the telos of each being, or end, that reveals its true nature. Indeed, human nature is “oriented to lower goods (of the body), to relatively higher goods (of the soul), and to an ultimate good (God)” (Pope 2007, 152). On this theory, “human persons naturally and spontaneously desire certain goods which are connatural to the human being in some way” (Porter 2005, 80). Moreover, the scholastics do not hesitate to place such natural inclinations in broader metaphysical, ethical, and theological frameworks. It is uncontroversial to say that the scholastic natural law theory “presupposes a teleological conception of human nature” (Porter 2005, 82). Stephen Pope emphasises the relevance of teleology for natural law theory in very strong words, saying that this ethical theory and conception of human personhood “evaporates if nature is purposeless” (Pope 2007, 159). It is clear from these observations that the NLT needs to further defend the legitimacy of teleological analysis and feasibility of attributing the language of purpose to natural organisms. Yet, some have argued that modern science is on the whole hostile to teleological categories. For example, the atheist philosopher of biology Alex Rosenberg exclaims with certainty that the message of science is “absolutely clear: no teleology, no purposes, goals, or ends” (Rosenberg 2011, 43).

It is frequently claimed that biology poses the greatest challenge to teleology. Thomas Huxley famously concluded that Charles Darwin’s theory of natural selection delivered the deathblow to teleology and the wider notion that nature is purposeful (Huxley 1870, 301). Darwin provided a new framework for explaining natural developments, without reference to teleology, intentionality, or divine design. Before the arrival of Darwin’s theory we needed the categories of purpose to explain the mechanisms of nature, but now those mechanisms are employed to explain the appearance of purpose. Indeed, the success of Darwin was that he provided an efficient cause for evolutionary change and development, namely natural selection. Given the banishment of purpose from the modern conception of nature, it has frequently been stated that Darwin made “it possible to be an intellectually fulfilled atheist” (Dawkins 1986, 6). Hence, “if natural selection is responsible for what happens in the natural world, then evidently there is no God who oversees and controls everything” (van den Brink 2020, 209). On this non-teleological picture, there is no purpose to nature in general, nor to humanity in particular. As the palaeontologist George Gaylord Simpson said regarding the meaning of evolution, “Man is the result of a purposeless and natural process that did not have him in mind” (Gaylord Simpson 1967, 345). According to such a view, taking Darwin seriously means acknowledging the fact that evolutionary categories have made teleological notions redundant and scientifically obsolete.

If this picture of biology is correct, then this is bad news for the NLT adherents. However, this view of biology as intrinsically hostile to teleology has been challenged, and it has been suggested that it is impossible to describe biological systems without using teleological reasoning. Indeed, “teleology has seemed to many theorists to be indispensable to biology” (Allen, Bekoff, and Lauder 1998, 1). There seems to be no easy way of translating for-the-sake-of-language to purely physical language – for example, the language of chemistry and physics. Some have, instead of pursuing a mechanistic reduction of purposiveness, argued that it is possible to locate teleological categories in biological organisms. For example, several biologists and philosophers of biology have argued that biological organisation is intrinsically teleological in the way that it is orientated toward an end. Many thinkers have singled out the nature and function of organismic systems as the greatest challenge to the reductionist dismissal of teleology. This puzzle will pursue the hypothesis that recent research into organismic biology can ease a seeming tension between natural law theory and contemporary evolutionary biology.

2. Fields of Study

2.1 Theological Anthropology and Natural Law Theory

Christian theology affirms that humanity has a special place in creation; a belief which is taken as a guiding point in debates regarding theological anthropology. Many contemporary theological anthropologists reject substantive conceptions of human nature, arguing that it is theologically, philosophically, and scientifically problematic to associate the uniqueness of human creatures with a capacity or set of capacities, such as rationality. This can be understood as an anti-essentialist response to the issue of human nature, which rejects the claim that humanity can be characterised in terms of essential properties. This is not to say that human beings are not unique. Rather, their uniqueness needs to be framed through other categories, such as relationality or functions. That is, human beings are unique in virtue of standing in a relation to God (Grenz 2007). Since non-human creatures lack the capacity for entering into a relationship with God, relational theologians argue that it can be considered something unique to human beings. Others opt for a functionalist approach by claiming that the uniqueness of human beings is to be understood in light of the role that God has given human creatures: for example, by acting as stewards for the created order. Exegetically, this view draws heavily from Genesis, and Gen 1:26 in particular.

The Scholastic Natural Law Tradition occupies a special place in theological anthropology and is significantly closer to an essentialist conception of human nature, in the way that it privileges human inclinations and desires. The scholastic approach highlights basic human inclinations and asserts that human beings possess an essence which determines how they should act. On Aquinas’s view, “nature is understood primarily in terms of the natures of specific kinds of creatures, regarded as the intelligible principles of their existence and their causal powers” (Porter 2005, 69). This scholastic approach “presupposes the real existence of natures – presupposes, that is to say, that our concepts of universals or natural kinds correspond, at least roughly and in part, with the actual character of the world” (Porter 2005, 88). The scholastics envision, then, a “teleology grounded in norms of flourishing proper to kinds of creatures…” (Porter 2005, 89). As I have highlighted above, it is the teleological structure of an organism that reveals its essence, and a creature flourishes “when it is in accordance with the intrinsic principles of its existence” (Porter 2005, 88).

In a broad sense, natural law approaches to theological ethics seek to base moral law within the natural order and in continuation with human nature. Nature is morally prior to both positive law and social convention (Pope 2007, 150). First, Scholastic thought presupposes that there is such a thing as human nature and, second, that this nature is “accessible and intelligible” and “worth preserving and expressing” (Porter 2013, 167). It should be noted that the term “nature” usually has nothing to do with nature as we usually understand it. Rather, “natural law is said to be natural in the sense of being pre-conventional, and law in the sense that it is comprised of intrinsic, normative principles by which action should be regulated” (Porter 1999, 51). Natural law is, therefore, how human beings come to manifest the divine image.

As both Stephen Pope and Jean Porter explain, this natural law conception of human nature is unashamedly teleological. Again, for Pope, “Natural law ethics evaporates if nature is purposeless” (Pope 2007, 159). In fact, Pope contends that the “continued development of natural law ethics depends on re-establishing a sense of the purposefulness of the natural world in general and of human nature in particular” (Pope 2007, 160). The plausibility of natural law theory thus hinges on the possibility of maintaining a teleological view of the world. Can new developments in organismic biology provide a suitable pathway for a sustainable teleological picture of this world?

2.2 Organismic Biology

It is widely held in the biological community that Darwin offered a sufficient and thoroughgoingly mechanical account of organisms. Hence, in contemporary biology, “the category of the organism plays virtually no explanatory role” (Walsh 2006, 771). However, a growing number of biologists and philosophers of biology are arguing that organisms, and hence the teleological categories associated with organismic activity, are indispensable for explaining evolutionary development. As Peter A. Corning argues, organisms “are active participants in the evolutionary process (cybernetic systems) and have played a major causal role in determining its direction” (Corning 2014, 242). Although Corning does not endorse a fully Lamarckian conception of evolution, he deserves credit for acknowledging the significance of the organism “as a distinct causal agency in evolutionary change” (Corning 2014, 243). It was particularly due to the emergence of modern genetics that the Lamarckian notion of organic selection was pushed to the periphery. Evolution, today, is often framed in a gene-centred manner. At the same time, a growing number of publications are in different ways highlighting the agential capacities of organisms. Since the 1960’s “research literature on learning and innovation in living organisms (from ‘smart bacteria’ to human-tutored apes and playful dolphins) has grown to cataract proportions” (Corning 2014, 245). Numerous studies are demonstrating the cognitive abilities of various animals; that animals on a continuous basis must make decisions about food, habitats, mates, and travel routes.

Despite the growth in genetic knowledge, it seems as if the notion of organismic agency and purposiveness is not going away. In fact, as Denis Walsh remarks, due to the recent resurgence in interest in organismal development, organicism is once again getting a hearing in the biological community. According to an organism-centred biology, it is the irreducible structure of the organism as wholes that explains developmental processes, as well as adaptive evolution. Walsh argues that organisms are explanatorily relevant in virtue of, in particular, their plasticity; that is, their capacity to respond to different environmental conditions and produce adequate phenotypic outcomes. As Walsh further argues, such plasticity “consists in the adaptive capacity of organisms to regulate their developmental sub-systems in order to build and maintain a stable, working organism” (Walsh 2006, 778). This sort of phenotypic plasticity contributes positively to adaptive evolution and the production of biological novelties. As Walsh concludes, “Evolution is adaptive, because organisms are adaptive, goal-directed systems” (Walsh 2015, 203).

Another way of putting this conclusion is to say that an organism seeks to maintain its own existence. An organism is characterised by autonomy, in the sense of maintaining its own identity by virtue of self-constructing processes and through interaction with its environment (Bechtel 2011). Living systems are “active systems regularly performing those operations that are needed to maintain themselves” (Bechtel 2011, 541). Matteo Mossio and Leonardo Bich have argued that biological organisation is intrinsically teleological in the way that it is orientated towards an end (Mossio and Bich 2017). In a Kantian manner, they seek to bring out the teleological character of organisation through the concept of self-determination, whereby B “determines itself in the sense that its activity contribute to establish and maintain its own conditions of existence: in slogan form, biological systems are what they do” (Mossio and Bich 2017, 1090). That is, B produces effects which maintain the organisation of B. This form of teleology is real and intrinsic. It seems impossible to describe organisms without employing various teleological notions. Biological systems, according to Georg Toepfer, “cannot be specified without teleological reasoning” (Toepfer 2012, 113). An organism is defined as “a causal system of interdependent parts” able of performing a set of complex activities, such as growth, locomotion, and reproduction (Toepfer 2012, 114). Teleology plays a significant methodological role in the study of organisms, aiding our understanding of the presence or occurrence of different parts in a system, and for successfully conceptualising the functionality of various components. Indeed, we need to understand the effects or outcomes in order to fully analyse the roles of the parts of any given system. The reality of organisms shows that “nothing in biology makes sense, except in the light of teleology” (Toepfer 2012, 113).

3. Discussion

Let us return to Stephen Pope’s statement: “Natural law ethics evaporates if nature is purposeless” (Pope 2007, 159). A gene-centred, reductionist account of human nature renders the natural law strategy of grounding morality and normativity in human nature impossible. On NLT, human creatures participate in a divinely gifted order. There is telos and intelligibility to this order, which suggests that evolutionary development is neither purposeless nor reducible to chance and randomness. On the scholastic approach, nature is seen as the expression of the rationality of God, which further suggests that all of nature acts according to rational principles. Just as “the visible, natural world is an expression of God’s wisdom and goodness for them, so human morality, considered as a part of the natural world, is also an expression of divine wisdom and goodness” (Porter 1998, 100). Natural law is, therefore, an expression of divine providence, and by acting in accordance with natural law we are participating in God’s eternal law.

The recent resurgence in teleological thinking, most clearly manifested in the reappreciation of the active role of organismic systems in evolutionary development, can combat those views which take natural law theory to be incompatible with the major presuppositions and theories of modern science. Of course, if we seek to extend these new directions in biology into the realm of theology, we need to address several issues and questions. First, whose teleology? On the perspective of scholastic natural law theory, organisms are, in a clear Aristotelian sense, intrinsically teleological. A “thing or process has intrinsic teleological features when those features follow from its very nature or essence” (Feser 2019, 416). At the same time, Scholastic realism holds that such teleology is ultimately grounded in the divine plan for creation. God is the author of the sort of intrinsic teleology that we encounter in the world, and the cause for efficacious teleological behaviour in natural objects and processes. In this sense, teleology is extrinsically grounded. While new discoveries in organismic biology can shed light on the ontological claims regarding human nature from the perspective of natural law theory, these updated accounts of teleology do not necessarily provide us with a way to balance the two forms of intrinsic and extrinsic teleology. Or, to put it this way, such new scientific accounts might play a limited role in fleshing out conceptually how natural law participates in eternal law (see Leidenhag 2021 for a fuller discussion about this).

Second, while this engagement with organismic biology aids in fleshing out a non-reductionist picture of nature and the human person, it does not by itself explicate God’s mode of creating and upholding the rational order. The scholastic approach maintains that God is the sole, uncaused cause of everything. Everything is either directly or indirectly caused by God. The current investigation does not, it should be stated, imply any particular account of God’s action in nature. At the same time, one could argue that a retrieved sense of teleology makes it in general easier to talk about God’s active providence in the physical, as these new directions in organismic biology render appeals to intentionality and purpose more acceptable.

To conclude, this puzzle affirms the positive hypothesis that recent research into organismic biology can ease a seeming tension between natural law theory and contemporary evolutionary biology. However, one needs to simultaneously acknowledge the limitations of bringing such scientific data into dialogue with a scholastic conception of natural law theory.

4. Conclusion

This puzzle evaluated to what extent recent research into organismic biology can provide ways of reconciling a natural law conception of human creatures as intrinsically teleological with evolutionary biology. Many thinkers suggest that a Darwinian conception of evolution renders teleological categories obsolete and even scientifically suspicious, thus making it incompatible with a broadly natural law conception of human creatures. In contrast to this view that contemporary evolutionary biology is hostile to teleology, some have argued that organisms play an important causal role in evolutionary development. Indeed, this causal role, according to many biologists and philosophers of biology, can only be understood teleologically. The self-maintaining activities of organisms are intrinsically teleological. A wider conclusion of this puzzle is that the conceptual return to organisms puts biology beyond a purely mechanistic notion of biological processes. What this further shows is that there is no apparent inconsistency in holding together an evolutionary view of the world with a scholastic understanding of human nature.

Although this discussion carries potential benefits for our understanding of the relationship between evolutionary biology and natural law theory, it is also important to stress the limitations of this puzzle. For example, this puzzle does not provide an answer to the overarching metaphysical issue regarding the relationship between natural law and eternal law. Nor does this puzzle address how God created or sustains the rational order. In the end, multiple accounts of divine action are compatible with the core discussion of this puzzle.


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Cite this article

Leidenhag, Mikael. 2021. “Can Organismic Biology Ease a Seeming Tension between Natural Law Theory and Evolutionary Biology?” Theological Puzzles (Issue 3). 

Contact the author

Mikael Leidenhag
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