Printer Friendly

Bringing evolution to Notre Dame: Father John Zahm, C.S.C. and theistic evolutionism.


At both ends of the new Jordan Science Hall on the Notre Dame campus, engraved in large medallions in the floor, is an often repeated statement of geneticist Theodosius Dobzhansky (1900-75), published 2 y before his death: "Nothing makes sense in biology except in the light of evolution" (Dobzhansky 1973). This statement on the floor of a hall with statues of two Holy Cross priests--physicist-philosopher Rev. John Zahm (1851-1921), and fellow priest-scientist, Belgian-born botanist and chemist Fr. Julius Nieuwland (1878-1936)--above its main entrance would certainly have pleased Fr. Zahm, the individual most responsible for the development of the scientific research side of the University of Notre Dame. This would be especially true since this familiar statement from Dobzhansky was the title of an article in which the great geneticist and evolutionist argued for the compatibility of evolution and a sophisticated understanding of "creation" that ended with praise of another priest-scientist and enthusiast for evolution, the French Jesuit Pierre Teilhard de Chardin (1881-1955).

Yet like Teilhard after him, Zahm was to have his share of difficulties with official Church authorities over his strong endorsement of evolutionary theory. This resulted in Zahm's main work on the topic, Evolution and Dogma of 1896, being recommended by the Sacred Congregation of the Index, the Vatican committee responsible for determining objectionable books, to be placed on the Index of Forbidden Books in 1898, a list of works Catholics were bound in conscience to avoid reading. Despite the fact that the official decree of the Sacred Congregation against Zahm's book was never officially published, and, therefore, never became binding, this disapproval nonetheless ended Zahm's string of prolific writings on science and Catholic theology. Only one publication after this date dealt with these issues (Zahm, 1898). The majority of Zahm's later works, including his pathbreaking Women in Science of 1913, appeared under the nora-de-plume of H. J. Mozans, a scrambling of the letters of his name with the addition of an "s" (Crowe 1977), with some smaller articles and reviews published under the names of "A. H. Johns," "Manso," and "A. H. Solis" (Weber, 1961, p. 184).

John Zahm was born on 11 June 1851 in New Lexington, Ohio, into a family of 14 children. At the age of 16 he was admitted to the small College of Notre Dame, only in its 25th year of existence, which at the time had a faculty of 39, and a total student body of 448 (Weber, 1961, p. 4). His intent was to study for the Holy Cross priesthood, into which he was eventually ordained in June 1874. As a student, he showed deep interest in science, encouraged in these interests by Father Joseph Carrier, C.S.C. (1833-1904) who headed the department of science at Notre Dame. When Fr. Carrier departed to take over the leadership of St. Mary's College in Galveston, Texas, in 1875, Zahm, at the age of 23 and without a formal degree in science, succeeded him as Professor of Chemistry and Physics, and served as the co-Director of the Science Department. In the years from 1875 until he finally departed from Notre Dame in 1906, Zahm held the professorship in physics, and also positions as Vice Chancellor, Vice President, Director of Students, Provincial of the Indiana Province of Holy Cross and several other posts (Weber, 1961; Burrell, forthcoming). Although he was not technically a Dante scholar, among his many other legacies at the University of Notre Dame is his splendid collection of works by and about Dante that forms a unit of the Special Collections of the Hesburgh Memorial library. Zahm's exposure to modern science was considerably deepened by his tour of Europe from June to September of 1878 to visit major scientific establishments and museums in England, Germany and Paris to plan for the development of a new science facility at Notre Dame. In spite of the catastrophic fire of April 1879 that destroyed, or damaged, most of Notre Dame's primary buildings, Zahm was able to raise the funds needed to build the first science hall on campus, now the La Fortune Student Center, that opened on 14 December 1884.


In April of 1896 he was assigned to Rome as Procurator-General of the Holy Cross Order in Rome and remained in Europe until 1898 when he returned to Notre Dame as Provincial of the American branch of the Holy Cross Order. Under his leadership Notre Dame carried out an extensive building program. In 1906 in failing health, and with the election of Fr. Andrew Morrissey as the new Provincial, an opponent of many of Zahm's ambitious building and academic projects, Zahm left Notre Dame permanently. After this he took up residence at Holy Cross College in Washington, D.C., which served as his home base, and during the next 13 y, he engaged in essay writing and travel, making a trip to the jungles of South America and the Amazon basin, described in his Up the Orinoco and Down the Magdalena and Along the Andes and Down the Amazon, published in 1911, under the pseudonym of H. J. Mozans. Then in 1913 he made a trip with former United States President Theodore Roosevelt to the Amazon basin that is pictured in a mural in the South Dining Hall on the Notre Dame campus. On a trip to Europe in 1921, he contracted pneumonia and died in Munich on 10 November 1921. He is buried in the special cemetery for Holy Cross priests and brothers on the Notre Dame Campus.



Zahm's interests in science, natural history and theology drew him to evolutionary theory as one major area where his training as a priest and his interests in science inevitably intersected. As he put this in one of his earliest publications on the relations of the Church to science, "everybody talks about evolution, and often too without knowing any more about the matter than the fact some one who is an evolutionist says that man descended from a monkey" (Zahm, 1886, p. 17). The need to address this issue more intelligently was a goal of his earliest lectures on science and theology. Zahm's contributions to the evolution debates over the next decade can be situated within the context of a more general conflict within evolutionary biology itself at the end of the 19th Century. In this period, characterized by some recent historians as the period of the "eclipse" of Darwinism (Bowler, 1992), a wide variety of evolutionary theories were formulated in British, German and American biology, in which endorsement was given to some of the main features of Darwin's conception of descent from common ancestors, but in which Darwin's principle of natural selection as the cause of species transformism was considered inadequate. It is in the context of these alternative theories that conceptual space was created for a novel form of theistic evolutionism developed originally by St. George Jackson Mivart (1827-1900) in England, and then expanded by Zahm in the United States.


Mivart was one of the leading naturalists of late Victorian British natural history, with important publications on comparative anatomy and with some later philosophical works that ranged widely (Mivart, 1889). Interested in pursuing a career in natural history from a young age, Mivart was prevented from engaging in these studies at prestige English universities by his conversion to Catholicism in 1844, which excluded him from attending Oxford and Cambridge. Instead he pursued a career in law with admission to the Bar in 1851. His interests in zoology, natural history and comparative anatomy nonetheless continued to develop, and he attended the lectures of the leading comparative anatomist of Victorian England, Richard Owen (1804-92) at the Royal College of Surgeons, followed by attendance of the lectures of Darwin's leading advocate in Britain, Thomas Henry Huxley (1825-95) at Imperial College, London. These prepared Mivart to carry out an important series of scientific studies on primate anatomy. In 1862 he received the appointment to a lectureship in anatomy at St. Mary's Hospital in London, which he maintained until 1884. He was also elected a Fellow of the Linnean Society and a Fellow of the Royal Society of London, establishing him as a leading scientist of the period.

Mivart's relation to Darwinism was largely defined by his publication of a major examination and critique of Darwin's theory in 1871 under the title The Genesis of Species. This work considerably exercised Darwin, requiring a new chapter seven to be added to the final sixth edition of the Origin (1872) to deal with some of Mivart's arguments.

The Genesis of Species raised objections to Darwin's theory drawn from comparative anatomy. Mivart also raised criticisms based on the plausibility of complex structures, such as wings, being created by slight modifications as assumed by Darwin. He also argued for evidence for the stability of natural species. All of these amounted to a strong critique of natural selection theory, if not to the more general theory of descent with modification. Mivart's own account was generally saltationist--the theory that new species and groups arose by discontinuous jumps. In the final chapter he also dealt with the relations of evolution and theology.

Subsequently expanding on these arguments in several smaller publications, Mivart attempted to refute certain anti-religious interpretations of Darwinism, with the goal of reconciling a version of evolutionism with Catholic theology. Although his conciliatory approach was criticized from many sides within and without the Church, he nonetheless received an honorary doctorate in 1876 from Pope Pius IX for his scientific work, and his role as a "defender of the faith" was acknowledged at that time. His later writings on other topics, particularly on the possibility of universal salvation and the reality of hell, however, led to the placement of several of his late writings on the Index of Forbidden Books, and he was excommunicated from the Church in 1900, a few months before his death (Gruber 1960, 1974; Blum 1996). This sequence of events in Mivart's career was also to have impact on Zahm's own future.

Mivart's influence on Zahm was deep, and much of Zahm's approach to evolutionary theory can be read in light of Mivart's earlier arguments. Furthermore, as a Catholic priest, he was in position to become a prominent public spokesperson in America for the reconciliation of modern natural science, and particularly evolutionary biology, with Catholic theology.

Zahm developed his views in a series of articles and monographs that commenced with his The Catholic Church and Modern Science (Zahm, 1886), and ended with his three books published in 1896 (Zahm, 1896a, b, c). These generally emerged from public lectures he delivered in an effort to bring modern science to the American Catholic populace at a time when the debates over the compatibility of evolutionary biology and religion were becoming more contentious in America and Europe. Understanding this context requires a brief review of the difficulties that came to face Darwin's theory after the publication of the Origin of Species in 1859.



AS several studies have detailed (Vorzimmer, 1970; Bowler, 1992; Gayon, 1998), the decades immediately following the publication of Darwin's Origin of Species in 1859 were years of considerable controversy over the claims of Darwinian theory as presented in the Origin and other writings by Darwin after 1859. These generated internal debates within the scientific community that can be distinguished from the larger "popular" debates over evolution in the late nineteenth century. The latter, for example, often conflated Darwin's theory with the more general "evolutionism" put forth in widely read popular works, such as the anonymously-authored Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation by Scottish publisher Robert Chambers (1802-71) that preceded Darwin's work by 15 y and went through more editions and printings in the nineteenth century than Darwin's Origin itself (Secord, 2000). These popular debates also made little distinction between Darwin's arguments and those put forth in the widely influential writings on social evolutionism by popular philosopher Herbert Spencer (1820-1903).

The scientific debates, by contrast, were of a different character, although there was some inevitable interpenetration between popular and scientific discussions. These professional debates took place in scientific monographs and journals, and involved geologists, paleontologists, taxonomists, embryologists and comparative anatomists who held institutional positions in universities, marine laboratories, museums of natural history and scientific societies in Europe and the United States (Hull, 1973). This group generally accepted the main thesis of the transformism of species over time with modification from common ancestors, and unlike the popular evolutionists inspired generally by Chambers and Spencer, the scientific community was aware of the important differences separating Darwin's "branching" model of evolution from the non-Darwinian "simple to complex" linear evolutionary models found in the early writings of Jean-Baptiste de Lamarck (1744-1829). Those aware of the details of embryology, comparative anatomy and paleontology knew that a simple linear progressionism could not handle the empirical data. AS Darwin illustrated his arguments in the one diagram to appear in the Origin in all its editions, evolution was envisioned as a branching and radiating process that could not be captured by a linear arrangements of forms. From this point of consensus, however, a wide variety of theoretical developments emerged in the post 1859 period.

Most generally at issue was the adequacy of Darwin's theory of "natural" selection to explain the development of life over time. The "eclipse" of Darwinism, as it has been termed by some scholars (Bowler, 1992), characterizes the period from approximately 1870 to 1930 when natural selection theory as the explanation of evolutionary development was rejected by much of the scientific establishment. Since in contemporary biology, natural selection theory and Darwinian evolution seem inseparable, and both are embraced by the scientific community, it is important to see the reasons for these rejections.

In Darwin's original formulations of his theory of natural selection, developed in the first four chapters of the Origin of Species, Darwin had placed primary emphasis on the importance of "slight, individual differences" as the raw material of the process. By this he meant exactly that--the material basis of evolutionary change was supplied by the minor morphological and physiological variations found between any two individuals in a natural species, or between individuals in a single litter of domestic animals. These differences, considered "accidental" differences by the prior tradition, were those selected upon to produce change of form, and eventually of species, over time. In the first chapter of the Origin, selection on this variation by human action is used to explain the origins of the various domestic animals and the development of breeds and varieties within these. In the second chapter of the Origin, the existence of similar variation in natural populations is emphasized, and in chapter four, this is made the material on which, in the first, if not the final presentation of his theory, "nature" selects to produce differences in natural forms. As the argument is developed in the first four chapters of the Origin, there are no natural limits to the accumulation of such variations: the degree of difference is purely relative to the time coordinates, and the diagram in the Origin can represent the relations of varieties within a species, species within a genus, or eventually the relations of major groups to one another in one great "tree of life."

Darwin's insistence on the crucial role of this modest source of difference as the primary ingredient of evolutionary change was in keeping with his commitment to the principle he adapted from Sir Charles Lyell's (1797-1875) geological theory set out in his Principles of Geology (1830-33). Lyell relied on the effects of slight, continuous causes acting gradually over long periods of time to produce major geological change. Just as there are no "catastrophes" in geology that suddenly produce mountains and continents, there are, for Darwin, no sudden jumps in the history of life (Darwin [1859], 1964, p. 95). This point remained an axiom of the original Darwinian theory and was maintained, with some important modifications, through all six editions of the Origin (Vorzimmer, 1970). In a statement unchanged through the various editions, Darwin even went so far as to claim that "if it could be demonstrated that any complex organ existed, which could not possibly have been formed by numerous, successive, slight modifications, my theory would absolutely break down" (Darwin, 1964, p. 189). This strong claim created the ensuing difficulties for Darwin's theory for a seventy-year period, difficulties that can be summarized in the following points:

(1) The Darwinian account of selection upon slight individual variation implies slow, gradual transitions between species. The empirical evidence for this either in the fossil record or in the present relations of organisms was, by Darwin's own admission, generally lacking. Species instead seem to be coherently definable entities in most cases, in spite of variations in characters.

(2) There is no clear explanation of the origin of variation supplied by Darwin's account. The Origin speaks only of "unknown laws" governing variation.

(3) The claim that this variation is additive without natural limits is contradicted by all experience with domestic forms. Human selection, the most accessible "test case" on which Darwin built his original argument, seems unable to produce more than varietal differences in domestic species.

(4) There was no coherent theory of inheritance available before 1900 to explain how such additive variation could be transmitted. Any marked variation when it appears would plausibly be swamped out by interbreeding, tending to return the population to a mean condition.

(5) Natural selection is a plausible account for the weeding out of species and a likely explanation of extinction, but it cannot explain the origins of new forms, complex structures, and major animal and plant groups.

These difficulties, although generally considered solved today, were all in play in the late 19th and early 20th Century discussions within evolutionary science itself, resulting in major disagreements in the scientific community over the theory of natural selection, with many seeking its replacement by some other causal explanation of historical changes of species. The renewed appreciation of Gregor Mendel's landmark paper of 1866 by the scientific community around 1900 that might seem to have solved issue (4) above, in fact served to reinforce the arguments against natural selection theory among the early founders of the science of genetics. Mendelism allowed Darwin's variation to be explained by the mathematical recombinations of atomic "factors" that were still confined within limits. In the words of one of the foremost expositors of Mendel's theory in English, Cambridge Professor of Biology William Bateson (1861-1926), writing in the main 50 y commemorative volume celebrating the publication of the Origin, "the Selection of minute random variations is an unacceptable account of the origin of [species] diversity ... [and] we must relegate Selection to its proper place" (Bateson in Seward, 1909, p. 96). If Darwin was still a respected scientific authority on the centennial of his birth and the half-century anniversary of the Origin, his natural selection theory was considered by many leading scientific authorities as inadequate to the task at hand.

As a result of these difficulties, a wide array of theories were put forth after 1870 by embryologists, paleontologists, comparative anatomists and morphologists as alternative explanations of evolutionary development. These theories have been generally classified as "neo-Lamarckian," "orthogenetic", and "saltational" or mutational (Bowler, 1992). These may be briefly characterized as follows. What became known as "neo" Lamarckianism had little real connection with the theories of the historical Lamarck, except that its proponents accepted two principles that are loosely related to Lamarck's own positions. The first was that of evolutionary change by direct adaptation to the conditions of life. These external conditions were assumed by neo-Lamarckians to induce changes that could become hereditary and cumulative. Second, at least in some widely disseminated expressions of neo-Lamarckianism, the organism was considered to possess some kind of inner driving force, even, in some versions (e.g., Samuel Butler), a conscious will, that enabled them to generate new structures in response to new environmental conditions. The history of the neo-Lamarckian theories that emerged in Britain, Germany, France and the United States in this period constitutes a major chapter in the history of evolutionary biology (Bowler, 1992, chp. 4).

Orthogenetic theories had certain lines of affinity with neo-Lamarckianism, but these theories, generally developed by paleontologists, emphasized the existence of non or even anti adaptive changes that could arise spontaneously or in relation to simple physical forces and anatomical plan restraints. These could then become inherited and drive evolution along direct (i.e., orthogonal) lines governed by such principles as the "law of acceleration and retardation" (Cope, 1887, chp. 5). Such canalizing could even lead species into extinction through maladaption, as in the case of the Irish Elk with its immense horns. Thus, the action of "laws of form," or principles of anatomical structure could act independently of Darwinian natural selection to produce change and also prevent utilitarian adaptation to conditions as assumed in Darwinian theory. Those adhering to these theories claimed that orthogenesis better fit the actual evidence from the fossil record.

The third group of theories can be termed saltational. These assumed that Darwinian natural selection could not account for more than micro-evolutionary change and that any development of new species was by some kind of discontinuous process. This was put forth by several evolutionists, and was embraced by Mivart. Saltational accounts were also given a mathematical rationale by Francis Galton (1822-1911), and were subsequently developed through empirical studies by William Bateson and Dutch botanist Hugo DeVries (18481935). Following the formulation of Mendelian theories of inheritance after 1900, Mendelian factors, later named "genes," were assumed to supply the causal explanation for Darwin's "slight, individual" variations. New species must, therefore, arise by a discontinuous process, which DeVries named "mutation." This could then be acted upon by natural selection within limits, but the mutationists denied that natural selection could operate in the way envisioned by Darwin. Developments in this story after the 1890s take us beyond Zahm's historical period (Provine, 1971; Gayon, 1998).


Zahm encountered evolutionary theory in the 1870s at the beginning of these debates. As he commented in his first writing on science and theology, "the subject of evolution, although but little discussed until about twenty-five years ago ... is now one that excites more interest than any other one subject whatever" (Zahm, 1889, p. 16-17). To prepare himself for this encounter, Zahm studied the various alternative views available to him at that time, and then presented his arguments in widely popular summer and winter lectures between 1892 and 1896, delivered at Plattsburg (New York), Madison (Wisconsin), and New Orleans (Louisana). In these lectures, Zahm presented a survey of the nature of evolutionary theory, the basic evidence for evolutionary change over time, and he summarized the main lines of objection to Darwin's theory that had developed. Although neither trained in biology, nor involved in teaching the subject, he displays a firm grasp of traditional Darwinian, neo-Lamarckian, orthogenetic and saltational options. He was also aware of the emergence of critiques of Lamarckian inheritance theories developed in what was known at the time as "neo" Darwinism, commonly associated with the name of the German zoologist August Weismann (1834-1914). He does not display familiarity with the statistical and populational approaches to natural selection theory that were being developed in the latter part of the century by Karl Pearson (1857-1936) and Walter Weldon (1860-1906) that lead eventually to the modern mathematical theory of natural selection (Gayon, 1998, chp. 7-10).

It is important to note that Zahm did not commit himself to any of the main alternatives known to him. Zahm's own words on this are instructive:
   Whatever, then, may be said of Lamarckism, Darwinism and other
   theories of Evolution, the fact of Evolution, as the matter now
   stands, is scarcely any longer a matter for controversy. Hence, it
   is the factors which have been operative during the long course of
   organic development, and a theory that can be brought into harmony
   with these factors, and which is at the same time in consonance
   with the phenomena observed, that men of science are now seeking.
   Whether the divers conjectures which at present obtain, regarding
   the method according to which Evolution has acted in past time, and
   according to which it must still act, be true or false, matters
   little so far as Evolution itself is concerned. The true, the
   all-embracing theory, which is now the object of the earnest quest
   of so many ardent investigators the world over, and which, as
   Professor Owen believed, should constitute the chief end and aim of
   biological research, is something which we must look to the future
   to supply. (Zahm, 1896a, p. 201-202).

While certainly a believer in a form "theistic" evolution and a strong promoter of a harmony between science and Catholic theology, Zahm was deeply concerned to let "science have its say" in these matters, and he was not interested in altering the science to fit his theology. If he does not embrace natural selection theory, it is because a very large portion of the scientific community did not do so at that time.

For this reason, Zahm is not easily placed in the category of "theistic evolutionists" commonly discussed in secondary works (Bowler, 1992, chp. 3; Moore, 1979, chp. 10). This group, comprised of a wide variety of mainly Protestant interpreters of evolution, emphasized issues of evolutionary progress, Lamarckian adaptationism, and inner evolutionary drive, all of which were undermined by subsequent empirical and theoretical developments. Zahm's obvious inspiration, to the contrary, was generally Mivart's Genesis of Species, a book Zahm put on his list of the 100 most important books for Notre Dame students to read (Zahm, 1887 in Weber, 1961, p. 199). Zahm was even known as the "Mivart of America" during the 1890s (Weber, 1961, p. 57). A careful reading of Mivart's final chapter in his Genesis of Species, entitled "Theology and Evolution," displays in brief the themes that Zahm generally elaborated in more detail in his own work.

In this chapter, Mivart had sketched out a theory of "derivative" creation that Zahm would later exploit. According to Mivart, a concept of creation that operated over time could be found in the writings of the early Christian Fathers of the Church, especially Gregory of Nyssa and St. Augustine, and in the writings of the great Scholastics, especially Thomas Aquinas and Francisco Suarez. The claim Mivart made was that the concept of creation found in these authors is compatible with a general evolutionary interpretation of the origin of species (Mivart, 1871, p. 979-286). Mivart, and Zahm following him, attribute considerable importance to the writings of St. Augustine as the foundation of this concept. As Zahm puts this in Evolution and Dogma:

God, then, according to St. Augustine, created matter directly and immediately. On this primordial or elementary matter He impressed certain causal reasons, causales rationes; that is, He gave it certain powers, and imposed on it certain laws, in virtue of which it evolved into all the myriad forms which we now behold. (Zahm, 1896a, p. 283).

In other words, creation involves the creation of matter ex nihilo, but it is the creation of matter endowed with potentialities that can then produce a historical evolution of forms by purely natural processes. As a natural system, it also required no further miraculous intervention for its future development:

... derivation or secondary creation is not, properly speaking, a supernatural act. It is merely the indirect action of Deity by and through natural causes. The action of God in the order of nature is concurrent and overruling, indeed, but is not miraculous in the sense in which the word "miraculous" is ordinarily understood. He operates by and through the laws which He instituted in the beginning, and which are still maintained by His Providence. (Zahm, 1896a, p. 305).

Again following Mivart, Zahm also rejected what he considered to be crudely anthropomorphic views of the action of the Deity in creation of the kind appealed to in British natural theology with its image of the "Divine Watchmaker," made current in the 19th Century by William Paley's Natural Theology (1st ed., 1802). This "watchmaker" image of creation envisions organic design and structure as requiring the concept of an intelligent designer, much as the existence of a watch implies a watchmaker. This image conveniently functioned for Darwin, and has functioned ever since, as a straw man which could then be easily demolished by Darwinian theory. The deficiences of this argument were clearly recognized by both Mivart and Zahm (Mivart, 1871, p. 270ff; Zahm, 1896a, p. 307-309). The "derivative" view is, to the contrary, strictly restricted to the domain of natural causes and laws without the need for miraculous interventions or "Intelligent Design" as this is commonly understood today. "God administers the material universe by natural laws, and not by constant miraculous interventions" (Zahm, 1896a, p. 313). Nothing in this, it should be noted, is alien to the sentiment expressed by the Rev. William Whewell (1794-1866) that Darwin placed as the first of his quotations on the frontispiece of all editions of the Origin: "... we perceive that events are brought about not by insulated interpositions of Divine power, exerted in each particular case, but by the establishment of general laws" (Darwin, 1859, 1964). Whewell's comment allowed many of Darwin's early readers to see him as favorable to a sophisticated form of natural theology (Gray, 1860). Because neither Mivart nor Zahm relied on the "Watchmaker God" interpretation of the relation of God to nature, neither saw their arguments vulnerable to common Darwinian objections to a theistic interpretation of evolution drawn from natural evil, the existence of suffering, the haphazard and contrived nature of animal adaptations, or the evidence for a struggle for existence in the natural world. Such objections implied a "low and restricted Anthropomorphism," whereas a sophisticated natural theology must move to the level of the source of the existence of the natural laws themselves: creation is a free act of an omnipotent deity. Such creation ultimately accounts for why there is something rather than nothing, including the existence of any order whatever. The laws of nature themselves are contingent upon a divine creative act. With this recognized, one could move to a "grander, more comprehensive, more effective and more conclusive" theological understanding that involves,--Zahm here seems to paraphrase Mivart as if giving a quotation--the "enchainment of all the various orders of creatures in a hierarchy of activities, in harmony with what we might expect to find in a world, the outcome of a First Cause possessed of intelligence and will." (Zahm, 1896a, p. 375 referencing incorrectly; Mivart, 1889, p. 483-484).

It is important for understanding the Mivart-Zahm argument to appreciate that it is not a form of neo-Lamarckianism, nor does it involve an appeal to an inner vital force that directs evolutionary development, as was commonly encountered in other forms of theistic evolution that drew upon Lamarck. There is, to be sure, for both Zahm and Mivart, an inner-directed purposeful development of the natural world as a larger system, and in this sense evolution is a teleological process: "In spite of all that may be said to the contrary, the unbiased and reverent student must see in nature the evidence of a Power which is originative, directive, immanent; a Power which is intelligent, wise, supreme." (Zahm, 1896a, p. 376).

But this neither depends on an inner will of the organism, nor does it mean there can be no mistakes, extinctions or dead ends in the process. Neither does it discount the working of a system that displays a Darwinian struggle for existence. The critical issue for Zahm is that the system works by natural laws, and it is the existence of the laws themselves, rather than their specific mode of action in time, that is at the center of Zahm's theistic evolution.


The issue that was, of course, most sensitive in the nineteenth-century discussions, both within and outside Catholic circles, was the extension of Darwin's theory to human origins. This issue entered Darwin's Origin in a subtle way. He simply hinted at this application in two quiet sentences in the conclusion of the Origin: "Psychology will be based on a new foundation, that of the necessary acquirement of each mental power and capacity by gradation. Light will be thrown on the origin of man and his history" (Darwin, 1964, p. 488). But anyone who understood Darwin's arguments in chapter four, and saw the implications of his diagram, could quickly see where this was tending. While reserving his own public statements on this issue until 1871 when he published the Descent of Man, his early disciples, notably Thomas Henry Huxley in Britain (1863) and University of Jena zoologist Ernst Haeckel (1834-1919) in Germany (1868), were the first out of the blocks in applying Darwinian accounts to human origins. But it is important to see that these early efforts were not exactly the same as Darwin's own later synthesis. Thomas Huxley, whose views on human evolution were the most influential in the English literature prior to the publication of Darwin's Descent, initiated this discussion with the delivery of a series of lectures to the Working Men's Association in 1860, published in 1863 as Evidence as to Man's Place in Nature (Huxley, 1898).

Huxley's texts, however, confined themselves to a discussion of comparative anatomy and the evidence for the physical homologies between man and the other primates, and Huxley did not attempt to press these homologies to the inner life, consciousness and social attributes of human beings. Huxley's concluding paragraph of his most relevant essay displays a position that was not necessarily opposed to anything claimed later by Mivart and Zahm:

Our reverence for the nobility of manhood will not be lessened by the knowledge that Man is, in substance and in structure, one with the brutes; for, he alone possesses the marvellous endowment of intelligible and rational speech, whereby, in the secular period of his existence, he has slowly accumulated and organised the experience which is almost wholly lost with the cessation of every individual life in other animals; so that, now, he stands raised upon it as on a mountain top, far above the level of his humble fellows, and transfigured from his grosser nature by reflecting, here and there, a ray from the infinite source of truth (Huxley, 1898, p. 155-156).

This conclusion provided the opening for Huxley's one-time friend and protege, Mivart, to enter with his own solution to the human question in the concluding chapter of Genesis of Species. The fact that Mivart's Genesis appeared the same year as Darwin's Descent meant that he could not deal with the breathtaking expanse of Darwin's two-volume treatise on human origins, which took on a whole range of human phenomena not considered by earlier evolutionists like Huxley. Mivart instead expanded on a line of argument that had been raised by Alfred Russel Wallace in an important address to the London Anthropological Society in 1864 (Wallace, 1973). In this Wallace had argued that natural selection could account only for the physical properties of the human frame, and that once mentality was involved, human evolution was autonomous from Darwinian principles. Mivart used this argument and expanded on the point to claim that it supported his own view of "derivative" creation in which "another law, or laws, other than 'Natural Selection' have determined the evolution of all organic forms, and of inorganic forms also" (Mivart, 1871, p. 298 emphasis in original). On this he built his argument that natural evolution by "derivative creation" has possibly produced the human body by natural means from other forms of life, but "this animal body must have had a different source from that of the spiritual soul which informs it, from the distinctness of the two orders to which those two existences severally belong" (Mivart, 1871, p. 300).

This theory of a dual origin of man, with one component arising by natural process, the other due to direct divine action, was strongly criticized in some Catholic circles at the time, but to Mivart's triumph, efforts to have his book placed on the Index of Forbidden Books were unsuccessful, and instead he was awarded an honorary doctorate by Pins IX in 1876 (Artigas, (;lick, Martinez, 2006, chp. 7). Mivart's solution could therefore be embraced by Zahm with conviction that it was not theologically suspect (Zahm, 1896a, p. 353-354).

But the context in which Zahm was lecturing and writing on these issues was considerably different than that of England in the early 1870s. The stakes had been considerably raised by the publication of Darwin's Descentin 1871, which constituted a distinct dividing line between a period of generally favorable response to the Origin among many theists, including, for example, John Henry Newman, and a hardening of positions that occurred after 1871. In this second major work, Darwin reworked some of the familiar anatomical arguments already appealed to by Huxley and generally accepted by people like Mivart concerning the clear affinities of the human and primate body. But unlike these authors, Darwin now extended his theory of natural, and its subordinate principle of sexual, selection to provide all-encompassing evolutionary explanations of rationality, ethics, social life, culture and even religion by derivation from more elementary features and behaviors found in other animals.

Furthermore, the footnotes to this work affirmed Darwin's favorable attitude to the writings of well-known radical German materialists such as Karl Vogt (1817-95) and Ludwig Buchner (1824-99), and he cited with approval the "excellent discussions on the steps by which man became a biped" in one of the most anti-religious of all of Ernst Haeckel's works, the Natural History of Creation (Naturliche Schopfungsgeschichte) of 1868 (English ed., 1876). The moderate claim with which Huxley ended his Man's Place quoted is in stark contrast to that at the end of Darwin's Descent. Here Darwin argues that natural (and sexual) selection not only operates to produce the human frame, but he also suggests that "[man] might by selection do something not only for the bodily constitution and frame of his offspring but for their intellectual and moral qualities." And in a line of argument that understandably was to make some of Darwin's defenders, such as Thomas Huxley, later lament, (Huxley, 1893), Darwin concludes that:

if [man] is to advance still higher, it is to be feared that he must remain subject to a severe struggle. Otherwise he would sink into indolence, and the more gifted men would not be more successful in the battle of life than the less gifted. Hence our natural rate of increase, though leading to many and obvious evils, must not be greatly diminished by any means. There should be open competition for all men; and the most able should not be prevented by laws or customs from succeeding best and rearing the largest number of offspring. (Darwin, 1874, 1998, p. 642).

The publication of the Descent and the flood into the United States of English translations of the polemical writings of Ernst Haeckel, including his strongly anti-religious Evolution of Man [Anthropogenie, oder Entwicklungsgeschichte des Menschen, (1874, English Edition 1879)], added to the challenges Zahm faced in defending evolution. As Robert Richards has recently argued, no single individual is more responsible for the "warfare" of evolutionary biology and theism than Haeckel, whose string of writings presented his evolutionary philosophy of monism as an alternative to all religious views of man and nature (Richards, 2008, chp. 1). America became a place where this warfare was played out with a vehemence that persists to the present.

Zahm dealt with two of Haeckel's most strident works (Haeckel, 1876, 1894) in a full lecture devoted to "Monism and Evolution." In Zahm's view, Haeckel "draws conclusions from Darwinism at which many of its advocates stand aghast" (Zahm, 1896a, p. 231), even though Haeckel is "a type of a class, and of quite a large class of scientific men who hold similar views, and who reason in a similar manner" (p. 252). Zahm was therefore forced to develop his own version of theistic evolution in this overheated atmosphere created particularly by Haeckel and at a time when Mivart was having his own difficulties with Church authorities.

Like Mivart, Zahm distinguished between the evolution of the human body by secondary causes, and the creation of the human soul, and argued that "granting that future researches in paleontology, anthropology and biology, shall demonstrate beyond doubt that man is genetically related to the inferior animals ..., all that would logically follow from the demonstration of the animal origin of man, would be a modification of the traditional view regarding the origin of the body of our first ancestor"(Zahm, 1896a, p. 364).

Zahm is quite circumspect about the origin of the soul in this text, and it can be argued that for him to invoke direct divine action in this case would be to violate the principle of non-interference in derivative creation that he advocated earlier in the same chapter of his book (305). Nonetheless, he endorsed a "two origins" theory, and this seemed to resolve in his view the main issues for both science and theology.

Zahm was, however, unsuccessful at the time in gaining acceptance within Catholic circles for his strong defense of evolution. His early reviewers and detractors, particularly, it seems, European Jesuits, severely criticized the Italian translation of the book (1896) in the main Roman Jesuit periodical, La Civilta Cattolica. This led to its subsequent denunciation to the Sacred Congregation of the Index in November of 1897 by Archbishop Otto Zardetti, then residing in Rome, who had been bishop of the diocese of Saint Cloud in Minnesota during the period of Zahm's well-known lectures (Artigas et al., 2007, p. 143). The ensuing theological difficulties that led to the recommended Indexing of Zahm's book, and the excommunication of Mivart by Cardinal Vaughn in England for his writings on the unreality of Hell (but not for his defense of evolution), have been shown by scholars to have more to do with the controversy over "Americanism"--the efforts within late 19th Century American Catholicism to incorporate democratic principles into the Catholic Church--than over science as such (Appleby, 1987; Artigas et al., 2007, p. 143). This combination of events nonetheless resulted in a cloud descending over evolutionary theory in Catholic circles that discouraged its favorable discussion in Catholic intellectual culture and restricted its teaching in Catholic schools and universities for the first half of the 20th Century.

A shift in this these attitudes began in 1950 with the Encyclical Humani generis by Pope Pius XII that allowed Catholic scholars to discuss evolution as a "hypothesis," and adopted something like the Mivart thesis on the acceptability of the evolutionary origin of the human body (Pius XII, 1950; Ewing, 1960; Nemesszeghy and Russell, 1971). Since then, acceptance of evolutionary theory within Catholic circles has been generally favorable and there are increasing signs of a positive attitude to evolutionary theory in even the highest circles of the Roman Catholic Church, evidenced by the forthcoming conference in March of 2009 in Rome that is sponsored in part by the Vatican Council on Culture to commemorate the sesquicentennial of the publication of Darwin's work.

Indicative of this new attitude is the important letter on evolution of the late Pope John Paul II of October of 1996, addressed to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences. This letter, while lacking the official status of an encyclical, nonetheless suggested to the scientific community, as well as to those in Catholic theological circles, that evolutionary biology was here to stay and that it presented no threat to human dignity or to theism when interpreted in light of certain theological principles. Acknowledging that "this theory has been progressively accepted by researchers, following a series of discoveries in various fields of knowledge. The convergence, neither sought nor fabricated, of the results of work that was conducted independently is in itself a significant argument in favour of this theory," the Pope spoke of evolutionary theory as now "more than a hypothesis" (plus qu'une hypothese). At the same time he followed the Mivart-Zahm line of a dual origin of humankind. As he states in paragraph five:

The Church's Magisterium is directly concerned with the question of evolution, for it involves the conception of man: Revelation teaches us that he was created in the image and likeness of God (cf. Gn 1:2729). The conciliar Constitution [of the Second Vatican Council] Gaudium et spes has magnificently explained this doctrine, which is pivotal to Christian thought. It recalled that man is "the only creature on earth that God has wanted for its own sake" (n. 24).... It is, by virtue of his spiritual soul that the whole person possesses such a dignity even in his body. Pius XII stressed this essential point: if the human body takes its origin from pre-existent living matter, the spiritual soul is immediately created by God.... (John Paul II, 1996).


John Zahm would certainly have been pleased to see some of the fundamentals of his view of evolution eventually accepted by the highest levels of Catholic thought.


APPLEBY, S. 1987. Between Americanism and modernism: John Zahm and theistic evolution. Church History, 56:474-89.

ARTIGAS, M., T. F. GLICK AND R. MARTINEZ. 2007. Negotiating Darwin: the Vatican confronts evolution, 1877-1902. Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore. 326 p.

BATESON, W. 1909. Heredity and variation in modern lights, p. 85-101. In: A. C. Seward (ed.). Darwin and modern science. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge. Available at: http://post.

BLUM, C. 1996. St. George Mivart, Catholic natural philosopher. Unpublished Doctoral Dissertation, University of Notre Dame. 410 p.

BOWLER, P.J. 1992. The eclipse of Darwinism. Rev. Edition. Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore. 291 p.

BURRELL, D. B. 2009. When faith and reason meet: the legacy of John Zahm C.S.C. Unpublished MS in preparation, expected publication 2009 (personal communication).

COPE, E. D. 1887. The origin of the fittest. Appleton, New York. 467 p.

CROWE, M. J. 1977. Who was H. J. Mozans? Isis, 68:111.

DARWIN, C. 1859, 1964. On the origin of species by means of natural selection. Facsimile of first Edition. Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts. 513 p.

DARWIN. 1874, 1998. The descent of man and selection in relation to sex, 2nd edition, with introduction by H. J. Birx. facsimile reprint. Prometheus Press, Amherst, New York. 698 p.

DOBZHANSKY T. 1973. Nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution. The American Biology Teacher, 35:125-29, available at

EWING, J. F. 1960. Current Roman Catholic thought on evolution, p. 19-28. In: S. Tax (ed.). Evolution after Darwin: Vol. III: Issues in evolution. University of Chicago Press, Chicago, Illinois. 310 p.

GAYON, J. 1998. Darwinism's struggle for survival: heredity and the hypothesis of natural selection. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge. 516 p.

GRAY, A. 1860, 1963. Natural selection not inconsistent with natural theology, p, 72-145. In: A. H. Dupree (ed.). Darwiniana: essays and reviews pertaining to Darwinism. Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts. 327 p.

GRUBER, J. W. 1960. A conscience in conflict: the life of St. George Mivart. Columbia University Press, New York. 266 p.

--. 1974. St. George Jackson Mivart. In: C. Gillispie (ed.). Dictionary of scientific biography IX. Scribners, New York. p. 428-9.

HAECKEL. E. H. 1868. Naturliche Schopfungsgeschichte. Reimer, Berlin. 568 p.

--. 1895. Monism as connecting religion and science: the confession of faith of a man of science, trans. J. Gilchrist. A.C. Black, London. 117 p.

--. 1876. The evolution of man: a popular exposition of the principal points of human ontogeny and phylogeny. 2 Vols. Werner Co., Akron, Ohio. 467+504 p.

HULL, D. L. (ed.). Darwin and his critics: the reception of Darwin's theory of evolution by the scientific community. University of Chicago Press, Chicago, Illinois. 473 p.

HUXLEY, T. 1893. Evolution and ethics. MacMillan, London. Available at etext/2940

--. 1898. Man's place in nature and other anthropological essays. Appleton, New York. 328 p.

JOHN PAUL II. 1996. Osservatore romano 44 (30 October). Available on-line at http://www.its.caltech. edu/~nmcenter/sci-cp/evolution.html

MIVART, ST. G.J. 1871. The genesis of species. Appleton, New York. 314 p.

--. 1889. On truth: a systematic inquiry. Kegan Paul, Tench and Co., London. 580 p.

MOORE, J. A. 1979. The post-Darwinian controversies. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge. 314 p.

NEMESSZEGHY, E. AND J. RUSSELL. 1971. The theology of evolution. Theology Today No. 6. Fides Publishers, Notre Dame, Indiana. 93 p.

Pigs, XII. 1950. Humani generis. Promulgated 12 August, 1950. Available at holy_father/pius_xii/encyclicals

PROVINE, W. 1971. The origins of theoretical population genetics. University of Chicago Press, Chicago, Illinois. 201 p.

RICHARDS, R. 2008. The tragic sense of life: Ernst Haeckel and the struggle over evolutionary thought. University of Chicago Press, Chicago, Illinois. 551 p.

SECORD, J. A. 2000. Victorian sensation: the extraordinary publication, reception, and secret authorship of the vestiges of the natural history of creation. University of Chicago Press, Chicago, Illinois. 624 p.

SEWARD, A. C. (ed.). 1909. Darwin and modern science. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge. 595 p.

VORZIMMER, P.J. 1970. Charles Darwin: the years of controversy. Temple University Press, Philadelphia. 300 p.

WALLACE, A. R. 1973. The development of human races under the law of natural selection, p. 303--71. In: Contributions to the theory of natural selection, reprint of 1870 edition. AMS Press, New York.

WEBER, R. E. 1961. Notre Dame's John Zahm: American Catholic apologist and educator. University of Notre Dame Press, Notre Dame, Indiana. 214 p.

ZAHM, J. 1886. The catholic church and modem science. University of Notre Dame Press, Notre Dame, Indiana. 57 p.

--. 1887. A list of one hundred best books, compiled for Notre Dame students. Notre Dame Scholastic 21 May, 1887. In Weber 1961, p. 199-201.

--. 1896a. Evolution and dogma. D. H. McBride and Co., Chicago, Illinois. 461 p.

--. 1896b. Science and the church. D. H. McBride and Co., Chicago, Illinois. 299 p.

--. 1896c. Scientific theory and Catholic doctrine. D. H. McBride and Co., Chicago, Illinois. 307 p.

--. 1898. Evolution and teleology. Popular Science Monthly, 52:815-24.


(1) Present address: Program of Liberal Studies/Program in History and Philosophy of Science, University of Notre Dame, Notre Dame, Indiana 46556; e-mail:
COPYRIGHT 2009 University of Notre Dame, Department of Biological Sciences
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 2009 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Author:Sloan, Phillip R.
Publication:The American Midland Naturalist
Geographic Code:4EUUK
Date:Apr 1, 2009
Previous Article:In homage to our founder; a brief biography of Reverend Julius Aloysious Nieuwland, C.S.C.
Next Article:Grassland botanical structure influences lek spatial organization in Gryllotalpa major S. (Orthoptera: Gryllotalpidae).

Terms of use | Privacy policy | Copyright © 2022 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters |