Evolution’s End: The Beatific Vision
One of the reasons why many Christians are uncomfortable with the idea of human evolution is that it seems to suggest that the fact that we are here is a mere accident, and that there is nothing stopping us from evolving into something else down the road. There are many ways to address the question of why the human species evolved, but I want to focus on the end of evolution. Specifically, I want to ask the questions: Is there some stopping point for evolution? Is there a goal for the evolutionary process?
In looking for an end of evolution, we must first ask whether evolution has actually come to rest at any point in the past. For any plant or animal species we find in nature the answer is, in part, yes. Evolution has contributed to the production of a population of organisms that are, for the most part, adapted to their environment. Of course, this assumes that the environment is stable, which brings us to the “no” part of the answer. Any stable population of organisms that finds itself in a new environment, assuming it can survive at all, will begin to adapt to the new surroundings.
Like so many natural processes, therefore, evolution does not come with a determined endpoint. Its operation depends on many factors. Gravity may bring a boulder to rest on the edge of a cliff, but an additional push, whether by wind, earthquake, or human hand, will start the process of falling again until gravity finds the boulder a new place of rest. Arguing for an absolute endpoint intrinsic to evolution would seem to require that all evolution be pushing life to the same state of rest which, if the diversity of life is any indication, seems unlikely.
If there is no absolute endpoint for evolution, we can still ask about the specific states of rest we find. In particular, we might want to ask, is the human species still evolving? This is a complicated and much debated question. For instance, many cultural variations, ranging from skin color, to lactose intolerance, to the ability to breathe at higher altitudes, have been traced to particular populations of humans settling in particular geographic locations with their unique environmental pressures. Further, there is robust evidence for relatively recent adaptations among humans in our genetic resistance to various diseases.
It is clear that evolution is always at work on small scales, adapting the human species to better survive in particular environments. Nevertheless, there is no evidence to suggest that any one sub-group of the human population is diverging from the other individuals on the planet such that they would become a new post-human species.
Some have argued that our ability to change our environment – as we did with the invention of agriculture – and the fact that the human population is no longer geographically isolated have largely slowed the evolutionary forces that theoretically could have led to the genesis of several post-human species. Could we conceive of a scenario where we would not be able to control our environment enough to prevent the diversification of the human population into novel species? Perhaps, but at this time, that possibility seems to be thoroughly in the realm of science fiction.
What then of the second sense of end, the sense of a goal towards which evolution tends? Naturally speaking, because there is no absolute endpoint for evolution, as discussed above, there cannot be an absolute goal for this process of change and adaptation. There are only relative endpoints and relative goals involving the adaptation of this particular population in this particular environment at this particular time. And one of the relative endpoints for evolution, an endpoint that appears to be particularly stable, is the evolution of our species, a species that is able to radically control and alter the environment for its own sake and for its own survival.
But the scientific answer to the question of evolution’s end is not the only answer available to faith and reason. Evolution, like all natural processes, is an instrument of God, caused and maintained in all of its working by His divine providence. Like all other instruments, the mechanism of evolution can be ordered to some end other than the one that it could attain by its nature alone.
Consider the craftsman who is able to transform a piece of wood into a violin. Wood on its own is not ordered towards the production of music, but in the hands of a master artisan and of an expert musician, it can do so much more than it could have done by nature. Indeed, from the perspective of a violin maker, the true “end” of a spruce tree is the masterful performance of a Beethoven symphony, though this end for the tree is not something that could have been discovered by the scientific method.
In the same way, as we explained in an earlier essay, from the theological perspective, we can affirm that biological evolution was a 3.5 billion year process, directed by God, to advance living matter until it was apt to receive a human soul. By its nature, evolution is not intrinsically ordered to the appearance of an animal materially capable of being informed by an immaterial soul, but this is, in fact, what it has achieved through the ordering and providential hand of God, the master Creator.
Given that God has used evolution for the production of the human body, we can ask whether this particular goal of the divine plan is absolute, or whether it is a mere a stepping-stone to something else. Once again, our answer must be both yes and no.
In the Incarnation, Jesus Christ took to Himself our human nature in order to save us. Indeed, our nature has been redeemed, because it was assumed. In a letter, St. Gregory of Nazianzus (4th century A.D.), explained this Catholic intuition this way: “For that which He has not assumed He has not healed; but that which is united to His Godhead is also saved.”1 If some sub-group of the human population evolved into a post-human species with a post-human nature, it is unclear how these individuals could and would share in the salvation merited for us by the Savior.
Thus, it seems unlikely that God would allow evolution to produce a post-human creature incapable of attaining beatitude because of his separation, in his very nature, from the humanity of Christ. It suggests that in the divine plan for salvation history, the appearance of the human creature is arguably the goal of evolution. While St. Thomas knew nothing of biological evolution and could not speculate on its possible goal, he does speculate on the end on other natural processes, including the seemingly everlasting motion of the heavenly bodies. There he is perfecting willing to state, “We hold then that the movement of the heavens is for the completion of the number of the elect. … It is a definite number of souls that is the end of the heavenly movement: and when this is reached the movement will cease.”2
With St. Thomas, we can view biological evolution as ordered not only to the population of man in this world, but also to the population of man in the “the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come.” This new life, begun in the sharing of the inner life of the Triune God, who is Father, Son, and Spirit – the beatific vision – and completed when our bodies are resurrected to a new heavens and a new earth, will not be achieved by evolution or by any natural process, but by the salvation won for us by Jesus Christ who is true God and true man.
— Bro. Thomas Davenport, O.P.