Essentialism vs Evolution 


This is the 5th post in this series which began with: Essentialism or Evolution: Do Both or Either Have a Place in an Orthodox Understanding of What It Is To Be Human?  The previous post is The Changing Nature of Creation.  Our knowledge of the created cosmos has changed immensely in the past 200 years.  We only need to think about how many technological changes we have experienced within the confines of our lifetimes, let alone 100 years ago.   Science has changed our understanding of the world and of ourselves as creatures.


For example, German evolutionary biologist Ernst Mayr (“From the Growth of Biological Thought”, in THE OXFORD BOOK OF MODERN SCIENCE WRITING, pp 259-262) says the guiding philosophical idea about humans in particular but about biology in general into the 19th Century was Plato’s essentialism.  Plato believed there existed ideal forms of everything, including a human.  Variation is attributed to the imperfections manifested in individuals (defects of the underlying perfect essence/form).  [This is not unlike building a huge Lego set – the instructions are the perfect form/essence and you are to follow the directions and you build it perfectly if you exactly follow the directions.  You simply make a clone of the perfect form/essence.  In essentialism each ‘perfect’ individual is really just a clone of the perfect form.]  Plato’s essentialism worked well in physics and chemistry, and it helped scientists discover some of the mathematical formulas (the perfect forms) that underlie all that is.  So there was good reason for biology, trying to be a hard science, to embrace essentialism as well.   To make biology a real science meant trying to conform biology to mathematical equations and ideas of the perfect and the normative, which the other physical sciences could do.


Darwin however saw the biological world not from an essentialist viewpoint but from that of the individual.  For though we associate Darwin with the idea of species, his true insight was about the individual.  As evolutionary biologist Robert Trivers writes: “Darwin was very clear on the idea that natural selection favors traits that benefit individuals possessing them but are not necessarily beneficial for larger groups, such as the species” (in THE OXFORD BOOK OF MODERN SCIENCE WRITING, p 124).  Evolution and genetics are ever producing the genetically unique individual.  Mayr says all the major opposition or objections to Darwin’s ideas come from those holding to Plato’s essentialist philosophy.  As Mayr points out: “Genuine change, according to essentialism, is possible only through the saltational origin of new essences.  Because evolution as explained by Darwin, is by necessity gradual, it is quite incompatible with essentialism” (TOBOMSW, p 260).  Essentialism requires abrupt and large scale mutation to occur for change to happen.  Evolution allows for change to be gradual and occur over long periods of time, so the changes would not be perceptible from one individual or generation to the next.   “… he who does not understand the uniqueness of individuals is unable to understand the working of natural selection” (Mayr, TOBOMSW, p 262).


What happens with Darwin is that he begins to consider the individual of any species and recognizes that each “person” (manifestation of a given species) is in fact different from all other “persons” of the same species. His insight was later supported by the discovery of genes and DNA.   No matter how small the differences (one gene!), no two individuals are perfectly identical – this is true because every individual is a unique combination of their parent’s genes – there is no norm/form/essence which all humans share (at least not biologically, genetically, evolutionarily speaking.  However, Orthodoxy would still think there is a human nature we all share – this nature is a spiritual dimension of creation).  Each human from conception is genetically different from his or her parent (receiving half their genes from each).  Each human represents a combination of genes that never existed before.  Thus, genetically speaking, there is no ‘perfect’ human form with which all humans are identical.  Each generation of humans is slightly different than the generation before it – genetically speaking.  This difference, however unnoticeable,  is expressed in each human individual.  Differences are not imperfections or defects.  Mutation, variation or change is built into the reproductive process by God who is responsible for the genetics of all living things.  Genetics are not somehow outside of God’s providence.  Genetics tells us that God is still at work in all life forms.  We can see what God is doing by studying genetics!  And indeed, some would say DNA is a form of ‘scripture’ which records exactly what God has been doing in living creatures through the long history of the cosmos.


Humans are always combining genes in new ways through reproduction – this is God’s own mechanism for the continuation of the human race.  It is only we humans who impose on our fellow humans ideas of normal or better or superior or inferior – these turn out to be social constructs.   Mayr argues this is because Plato’s essentialism taught us there was a perfect form that we measure everyone against that imagined perfect human form.   It is totally social concepts which decide that some humans are ‘perfectly normal’ or aren’t ‘normal’ – dwarfs, people with autism or Down’s syndrome, or any of the many syndromes and variations we find in the human race, including homosexuality. The scientific or biological reality is that all these variations are normal within the human population – no matter what physical or mental ‘defects’ or differences a person is born with, he or she is still fully human. All have human genetics, and all differences are within the norm for what is possible for humans to be.  Variation occurs genetically because this is the method God built into created beings.  No matter how rare a condition or how different the individual, they are still human and so belong to the least of Christ’s brothers and sisters.  They each are among those for whom Christ died on the cross, are among those whom Christ is bringing to salvation.  This is what we believe in the sanctity of human life and a reason why we oppose abortion for we believe each conception to be fully human.


Next: To be continued on Monday: Church Fathers and Essentialism

4 thoughts on “Essentialism vs Evolution 

  1. Pingback: The Changing Nature of Creation – Fraternized

  2. Norman Hugh Redington

    In my opinion, Mayr is setting up philosophical and historical straw men here. Historical: As I mentioned in an earlier comment, it was largely evolutionists who used science to justify various forms of sexism and racism in the late Nineteenth Century over the opposition (scientifically weaker but ethically stronger) of various Platonist and/or Evangelical thinkers. Philosophical: Although dealing with variety poses some problems for essentialists, few essentialists would argue that every deviation from the prototype is a defect or creates a new essence. Very few Platonists, for example, would say that men and women are not both in essence human, despite obvious differences. In Christian terminology, no one doubts that the Theotokos was fully human, and no Orthodox Christian doubts the full humanity of her Son, even though only one of them had a beard.
    Incidentally, Mayr was writing from before the rise of punctuated equilibrium theory and other neo-catastrophist/saltationist trends in mainstream evolutionary biology.

    1. Fr. Ted

      I think Mayr acknowledges it was evolutionists who were using science to justify sexism and racism which he seems to blame on their essentialist thinking. He acknowledges that biologists were eager to make the biological sciences more mathematically based by being more like physics and chemistry. This led them to come to some false conclusions based in their own racists prejudices. He seemed to then oppose this thinking to the thinking that has emerged from evolution and supported by genetics which focuses on the individual. What I found interesting is that some physicists find biological sciences to be puzzling exactly because they can’t be as mathematically exact as physics and the physicists can be as troubled by the uncertainties/randomness of biological sciences as are theists. Some seem to think that the biological sciences will always be the outlier when it comes to forming a theory (or formula) of everything.

  3. Pingback: Church Fathers and Essentialism – Fraternized

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