A Fourth Century North African’s Theory of Ambiogenesis

A Fourth Century North African’s Theory of Ambiogenesis

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The first scholarly work to cite Saint Augustine as a proponent of evolutionary theory was George Mivart’s The Genesis of the Species.1  Opposing visions of Augustine’s theory were immediately advanced in response to Mivart, but it was only until Michael J. McKeough’s The Meaning of Rationes Seminales in Saint Augustine that the debate was stabilized.2  Here McKeough argued that although Augustine did not hold a robust theory of evolution, for he did not allow for the notion that one definite species of living organisms developed from another, he did hold that through the interaction of inorganic bodies organic bodies came into being.  This is enough, said McKeough, to establish him as the “father of evolution.”  The critical conceptual structure used by McKeough to link Augustine with evolution is his theory of rationes seminales, a Latin expression which could be translated as “seminal formulae” or “seminal causes”, and which refers to the power (vis) within the elements of earth and water to develop into living things.3  McKeough argues that it is the autonomy of these principles, their natural power to develop into life, that solidifies the connection between Augustine and evolutionary theory.  McKeough’s reading was then immortalized some 20 years later when the great Medievalist Etienne Gilson referenced him as an authority in his famous work The Christian Philosophy of Saint Augustine.4  Due to the cogence of McKeough’s argument and the support of Gilson little development on the topic was made from that time to the present.  But in a provocative encyclopedia entry by Rowan Williams this received wisdom is challenged.5  Williams argues that the creation of any given species by God cannot be explained by natural forces alone, and must presuppose some form of special intervention by the Creator, and in support of this thesis he cites several passages from Augustine’s De Genesi ad Litteram that have not been previously advanced.  However, Williams theory, although compelling, does not withstand a critical examination of the relevant texts.  More specifically, new technology, like the research software of the Cetedoc Library of Christian Latin Texts, allows much easier access to remote passages concerning the rationes seminales, and review of one of these passages in particular establishes that, for Augustine, these principles do have the autonomous power to develop into organic life.

Augustine’s use of the rationes seminales is generally exegetical.  For example, in his work De Genesi ad Litteram, his earliest treatment of the concept, he uses it in order to clarify the book of Genesis’ claim that the world was created in seven days.  Augustine begins his interpretation of Genesis by recounting the story of the seven days of creation.  According to this story, on the first day of creation God brought into being light, on the second day the sky, on the third the earth and plant life, on the fourth the heavenly bodies, on the fifth aquatic creatures and birds, on the sixth terrestrial creatures and man, and on the seventh He rested.  Augustine then notices that there is a literary template repeated in the description of each day of creation.  The template is comprised of four assertions: the assertion, “Then God said, “Let there be [x]”, the assertion, “And so it was done”, the assertion, “God made [x]”, and the assertion, “God saw that it was good.”  Augustine then goes on to explain what the Author of Genesis intends to communicate by this template, and in the course of this explanation he addresses the authors use of the word “then” in the first assertion. Augustine says it would seem that the use of “then” indicates temporal succession in the act of creation, however this is not the case.  He argues that the causal connection between the days is ontological, not temporal.  In other words, he believes that scripture is describing a relationship of ontological dependence, and not a sequence of events in time. The reason for this is that Augustine believes that all things were created at once in a single creative act, and he supports this by appealing to Ecclesiastis 18:1 which reads “He created all things simultaneously together.”6  The creation template is repeated over the seven days because it signifies this original single act of creation.  He says that because things were made simultaneously the full nature of a given species, whether plant or animal, was not realized instantly upon its creation, for this would require too much time, that is, the time which each species requires to grow and reach maturity.  So, although created beings were made at once, this time for growth must be allotted for because, according to Augustine, all species have a natural period of growth that is an irrevocable dimension of their nature: that is to say, part of what it is to be an organism of a given kind is to take a determinate number of days to reach maturity, and therefore living things could not have been created fully actualized in one literal day.  In the process of explaining the origin of life and this necessary connection between species and gestation, Augustine uses the example of birds, and through this example he gives one of the most abstract descriptions of the rationes found in Augustinian corpus:

[H]ow many days would have been needed for birds to start flying, if from their very origins they had to reach the stage of feathers and wings through the number of days proper to their measure?  Or perhaps only eggs were created, is that it, when it says on the fifth day that the waters were to throw up every winged flying thing according to its kind?  Or granted for the sake of argument, that the reason this could have been said quite rightly is that the eggs contained in liquid form everything that would coalesce through a definite number of days and then somehow or other break out of the shells, and this because the very formulae of their measures and numbers were already present, being woven incorporeally into the texture of corporeal things, why could not this have been rightly said even before the egg stage, when in the liquid element itself the very same formulae were being made, according to which the fowls of the air would be able to arise and reach full growth and perfection through the periods of time proper to each kind?  The creator, after all, about whom scripture told this story of how he completed and finished his works in six days, is the same as the one about whom it is written elsewhere, and assuredly without there being any contradiction, that he created all things simultaneously together (Sirach 18:1).7

The hypothetical question expressed in the second sentence above is meant to express the objection that perhaps species such as birds were created in a more primitive determinate form, in this case an egg, a possibility that, if true, would allow for the  further possibility that bird life was created in one day.  Augustine responds to this objection by stating that, from the perspective of scripture, one should say that all things are created at once, a position that requires the more radical claim that the forms of all things are latently present within the seminal formulae.  It is the presence of these implanted formulae within the cosmos that allows living things to come into being in accordance with the times required of their nature.  Further, here too one can see that the potential for life is intimately connected with the elements, in this case water.  This potential for life is a power “woven” into the very structure of the cosmos.  Finally, it is “according to” the rationes that organic life attains full “growth” and “perfection,” and so here it can be said that Augustine appears to imply their autonomy.

From the above it is clear that Augustine believes that revelation itself points to the necessity of the rationes seminales, but it is important to note that he also believes that empirical observation forces one to postulate them as well.  For example, in De Trinitate 3.13 Augustine makes a distinction between two types of seed, the corporeal and the incorporeal. The first can be seen with the naked eye in things like fruit and the reproductive substances generated by living things.  The second type is that incorporeal force within the corporeal elements of the world “from which, at the bidding of the Creator, the water produced the first swimming creatures and fowl, and the earth the first buds after their kind, and the first living creatures after their kind.” He then explains that this power within the elements is still potent.  That is to say, these seeds did not exhaust their potential to create new life after having brought life into being.  The reason one usually does not see things generated in this manner is that the correct combination of properly conditioned elements needed to generated life is difficult to achieve.  Finally, in a more precise treatment of the concept of seed he names, and hierarchically organizes, three principle types:

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; nor yet so many animals, without any previous commixture of male and female; whether on the land, or in the water, which yet grow, and by commingling bring forth others, while themselves sprang up without any union of parents.8

For Augustine, one experiences three types of seed.  First there is the “shoot,” the living branch that can be severed from a plant and then reinserted into the earth in order to produce a second one of the same kind.  The second and most familiar kind of seed is the “grain,” the visible germ that produces plant and animal life.  In a rather remarkable passage, he then says that natural reason demands that we postulate a third kind of seed, a “force within the elements,”  that is, the seminal formulae, to explain the very origin of plant and animal life.  He gives two reasons why it is necessary for reason to postulate such a principle.  The first of these reasons is fairly weak, for he says that if the seminal formulae did not did not exist “then there would not so frequently be produced from the earth things that had not been sown there.”  In other words, without seminal reasons there is no way to explain how plants are generated in places where seeds have not been sown.  Clearly, from the perspective of both the ancient and modern world this argument is not strong, for common sense dictates that visible seeds are dispersed widely through the natural force of wind.  Fortunately, Augustine’s second argument is more compelling.  The second argument states that without seminal formulae there would not be produced animals “without any previous commixture of male and female, whether on the land, or in the water, which yet grow, and by commingling bring forth others, while themselves sprang up without any union of parents.”  More formally, the argument runs as follows.  There must be a first set of parents, but the first set cannot be brought about by a previous set: therefore, the first set must have been generated by another power, and the elements are the only remaining possible one.  So Augustine believes that the rationes seminales are a force within the elements that must be posited by natural reason in order to explain the origin of life.

The correct interpretation of Augustine’s stand on evolution has always hinged on the correct interpretation of the seminal formulae: if the formulae act independently in the generation of species then Augustine is a proponent of evolution, if they are dependent upon God’s intervention after the initial act of creation then he is not.  As we noted earlier Michael McKeough defends the former interpretation.  McKeough believes that the self-determining nature of the rationes can be seen in a passage from De Genesi ad Litteram which explains, by appealing to the seminal formulae, how creation was totally completed in a single act: “[T]he fact that we now see these things moving themselves through intervals of time to develop that which is proper to each one’s nature, comes from those implanted formulae or ideas which God so to say scattered like seed in the very moment of fashioning them, when he spoke and they were made: gave orders, and they were created (Ps 33:9).”9  According to McKeough this passage demonstrates that “things develop those characteristics which are proper to each one’s own nature,” and that “this fact is due to the principles or seminal reasons which God put there in the beginning,” and therefore, “that beings develop true to their own forms is due to the powers God gave them at the beginning.”10  Simply, according to McKeough, the seminal formulae develop autonomously because God has given them the power to act in accordance with their specific nature from the beginning.  There is, however, a difficulty with McKeough’s position which prevents him from providing a definitive picture of Augustine’s understanding.  The key passage McKeough uses to establish his argument says that the nature of a given being comes from the powers the seminal formulae possessed from their inception, but it does not say how these powers were actualized.  In order to see why this is a problem one must first briefly consider the objection set forth by those who argue that the rationes are dependent upon God’s special intervention in order to be actualized. 

In the premier reference text on Augustine in the English speaking world, Augustine Through the Ages, Rowan Williams gives a provocative account of Augustine’s proto-evolutionary theory of species development, for here he argues that the rationes must be, for lack of a better expression, “assembled” by God in time:

In contrast to Plotinus who uses a similar concept (Ennead 3.1.2 & 2.1) but expounds it in a purely naturalistic way like the Stoics from whom the terminology ultimately derives, Augustine sees the rationes as determining the limits of a range of eventualities: which of these are actually realized depends upon God’s will.  ‘[Dei] voluntas rerum necessitas est’ (De Genesi ad Litteram 6.15.26): it is the will of God that make things happen.  God’s continuing providence or “administration’ of the world is what determines events, not an internal principle of necessity.11 

The above establishes that there are two opposing theories of Augustine’s account of seminal formulae, the passive theory and the active theory.  As seen in the above, according to the passive theory the rationes seminales are dependent upon God’s intervention to actualize their potential to bring forth life.  In order to understand Williams interpretation, one must keep in mind the key phrase “range of eventualities.”  For him the seminal formulae merely constitute a field of possibilities built into the elements which do not yet have a fully definite goal.  Instead, all the matter and force necessary to construct a given form of life is present, but it needs to be “assembled,” that is, given a fully definite form through the proper arrangement of the elements by God.  The passage Williams uses to ground this interpretation is De Genesi ad Litteram 6.15.26.  Here Augustine says that in the case of the creation of Adam, the rationes could have been allowed to reach their ultimate form through God’s direct guidance of the elements.  More precisely, Augustine wants to defend the possibility that Adam was created miraculously from earth in literally one day as found in Genesis 2:7.   According to Williams reading, Augustine says that, if this is the case, then seminal formulae would have had no pre-programmed plan for maturation, for Adam would have been created with the potential for a multiplicity of paths to maturity.  So, for example, God, by assembling the seminal formulae in a given way in time, could determine whether man attained his full form immediately, that is, in the very first moment of creation, or at a moment later in time, that is, days, months, or years later.  There would in this case be no pre-programmed formulae for the path to maturity within the rationes, for the nature of this path would require that God arrange, after the initial act of creation, the elements so that a definite path to full growth could be achieved. Simply, the elements would not have the power to develop into life on their own and would be dependent upon God to order them in the manner necessary for life to develop.  The second theory, the active theory, holds that the rationes seminales have an internal principle of development that allows them to evolve into determinate species autonomously.  That is, in keeping with the traditional reading of Augustine, this theory holds that the origin of vegetative and sentient life is the consequence of the interaction between inorganic forces alone.

The impasse produced by these competing theories prevents a strong sense of continuity in Augustine’s theory of seminal formulae, and, as a result, his stand on evolutionary theory.  Therefore, What is Augustine’s ultimate understanding of the rationes seminales?  In order to answer this question, it must first be noted that the reading of the passage upon which Williams bases the passive theory is questionable.  For example, it appears that Augustine entertains the possibility of the passive theory only in the special circumstance of the creation of Adam, and it also seems that he held that the formulae could have been created with potential for autonomous development and the potential for Divine manipulation.  However, there is not space enough to treat such objections here.  For the sake of argument they will be set aside, and the potential difficulty that a reading such as William’s poses for McKeough will be now be turned to, for it is the solution to this difficulty that will establish Augustine’s true vision of the seminal formulae.  As a proponent of the passive theory, Williams would respond to McKeough’s example by saying that it is true that the specific nature of a given created being is found in the formulae from the beginning, it is found in the range of possibilities latent within the elements, but this range of possibilities still requires God’s special intervention in order to take up their definite form: therefore, simply because the rationes give each thing the power to develop that which is proper to its nature from the beginning doesn’t necessarily mean that they still don’t require God’s special intervention.  From Williams perspective McKeough assumes that because the act of creation was totally complete in a single act through the potency latent in the rationes, no further intervention by the creator was required, but this is an association not a necessary inference.  The only way to show that the formulae are self-determinate is to show how they bring organic life into being.

The new research software in the Cetedoc Library of Christian Latin Texts permits access to passages concerning the rationes seminales that have been overlooked, and analysis of these passages demonstrates that Augustine did in fact hold an active theory of seminal formulae. This is significant because in The Meaning of Rationes Seminales in Saint Augustine, McKeough cites passages that imply the active power of the rationes but relates no passage that definitively proves that Augustine held them to be so. For example, such a passage may be found in his work Quaestiones in Heptateuchum, for here Augustine gives his most explicit definition of these principles and the nature of their operation. More specifically, Augustine is explaining a scene from the book of Exodus in which Moses demands that Pharoh free the Israelite people. In order to demonstrate to Pharoh that he speaks with the authority of God, Moses transforms the staff of his friend Aaron into a serpent. In response to this, the priests of Pharoh transform staffs of their own into serpents. Then, in an act intended to show the superiority of the God of Israel, the serpents of Moses consume the serpents made by the priests. Because he wants to uphold both the autonomy of nature and the truth of scripture, this story poses a problem for Augustine. Simply put, it is not clear to him how it is that the priests of Pharoh are able to produce serpents from staffs. In order to solve this problem he argues that it is not the priests alone who cause them, but, strangely, the priests in conjunction with corrupted angels, and ironically, in this super-natural explanation of Exodus Augustine reveals, and from his perspective protects, the natural autonomy of the cosmos:

But to demonstrate how [the serpents are generated] is difficult, still even if the snakes were truly made from the staff of the priests, neither the priests nor the corrupt angels were the creators by which those snakes of the ministers functioned. There are certain hidden seminal principles in corporeal things, throughout all the elements of the world, which, when the opportunity of time and condition is given, break forth into species owing to their own modes and ends. And thus the angles who make these animals are not called creators, just as farmers are not called creators of cornfields, or trees, or whatever is planted in the earth, although they know to supply certain visible opportunities and causes in order that they are born. However, what these farmers make visibly the angles make invisibly. Indeed, the one and only creator is God, who sows the causes themselves and the casual seeds into things.12

Augustine’s rhetorical style of writing and exegetical focus prevented him from presenting his theory with the clarity of a systematic inquiry into the development of organic life performed for its own sake typical of the contemporary hard sciences of today or even the natural philosophy of his own time. This fact makes the above passage all the more remarkable, for, in the above, he explicitly states that the rationes develop according to “their own modes and ends.” In other words, in answer to the question, “How is it that the seminal formulae generate life?”, Augustine says, “by breaking forth in accordance with their own modes and ends.”  The goals and forms attained through the activity of the seminal reasons are not imposed by some force outside of them but from an active principle within them.  It is clear that Augustine understands this principle to belong to the rationes themselves because of the use of the Latin word suis: the modes and ends are their own.  Therefore, it is also clear that, according Augustine, the cosmos has a natural and autonomous power to generate organic bodies through the action and interaction of inorganic bodies, and this passage puts to rest the notion that the seminal formulae are dependent on God to actualize them after they have been created so that life may be generated.  This interpretation is supported by what follows the essential line treated above, for here Augustine explains that no created thing can properly be called a creator.  Created things, such as the priests and angels, arrange the necessary conditions so that the autonomous power latent within the elements may be actualized. This is analogous to the manner in which farmers produce corn and trees by providing visible seeds with the conditions necessary to actualize their potential for growth, conditions and causes such as the heat and moisture generated by the sun and rain. Augustine holds that only God is truly called creator because he puts the formulae for self-development into created things. It is also important to notice that although they act autonomously the Latin word “finis” indicates that the seminal formulae are goal oriented. True to their Stoic origin, they reflect cosmic order and purpose.

In summation.  The traditional understanding of Augustine’s theory of seminal formulae argues that he held them to be autonomous.  This theory has been challenged recently on the ground that there seems to be passages concerning the rationes which indicate that they need to be structured by God after the act of creation in order to bring about life.  A close reading of Augustine’s Quaestiones in Heptateuchum, however, supports the traditional reading by specifically describing how it is that the seminal formulae bring forth life; that is, it says that they “break forth into species owing to their own modes and ends.”  Further, it was established that natural reason grasps the necessity of the seminal formulae, and that the seminal formulae explain the origin of life: therefore, through the creative use of reason, that is, through the projection of a’ posteriori synthetic knowledge, Augustine explains how God, through a self-determining cosmos, brings about the creation of living beings.  



1See, Mivart, G. The Genesis of Species, (New York, 1871).

2 See, McKeough O. Praem., M. The Meaning of Rationes Seminales in Saint Augustine, (a thesis presented to the Catholic University of America in partial fulfillment of the requirements for Ph.D), (1926).  Kevin Guinagh gives a good history of the debate prior to McKeough, a debate which spanned from the late 19th century to the mid-twentieth century.  The major figures before McKeough were Canon Dorlodot, who taught that Augustine was a proto-evolutionist, and Fr. Henry Woods, who argued that he was not.  See, Guinagh, K. The Classical Weekly, Saint Augustine and Evolution, (volume 40, 1946), p. 26, Dorlodot, C. Darwinism and Catholic Thought, (New York, 1922), and Woods, H. Saint Augustine and Evolution, (New York, 1924).

3 On Genesis, trans. E. Hill, (New York: New City Press, 2002), p. 272-273.

4 Gilson, E. The Christian Philosophy of Saint Augustine, (New York: Random House, 1960).

5 Williams, R. “Creation”, Augustine Through the Ages: an Encyclopedia, ed. A. Fitzgerald, O.S.A., (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1999), p. 252.

6 Interestingly, this is not the only passage from scripture that Augustine uses to support his position.  According to Augustine, after the enumeration of created things in Genesis chapter, scripture makes a curious reference to the fact that all things were created in potency: “Thus the heavens and the earth and all their array were completed.  Since on the seventh day God was finished with the work he had been doing, he rested on the seventh day from all the work he had undertaken.  So God blessed the seventh day and made it holy, because on it he rested from all the work he had done in creation.  Such is the story of the heavens and the earth at their creation. At the time when the LORD God made the earth and the heavens – while as yet there was no field shrub on earth and no grass of the field had sprouted, for the LORD God had sent no rain upon the earth and there was no man to till the soil, but a stream was welling up out of the earth and was watering all the surface of the ground – the LORD God formed man out of the clay of the ground and blew into his nostrils the breath of life, and so man became a living being.”  So in the above the author of Genesis says that the seven days of creation relate the story of the making of the world “while as yet there was no field shrub on the earth and no grass in the field” and yet on the third day the story says the plant life was created: in order to account for this paradox Augustine says that this passage is referring to creation through seminal formulae.

7 De Genesi Ad Litteram: 4.33.52: Deinde quot diebus opus erat, ut aves volarent, si a suis primordiis existentes, ad plumas et pennas per naturae suae numeros pervenerunt? An forte ova tantum creata erant, cum quinto die dictum est quod eiecerint aquae omne volatile pennatum secundum suum genus? Aut si propterea recte hoc dici potuit, quia in illo humore ovorum iam erant omnia, quae per numeros certos dierum coalescunt, et explicantur quodammodo, quia inerant iam ipsae numerosae rationes incorporaliter corporeis rebus intextae; cur non et ante ova idipsum recte dici potuerit, cum iam eaedem rationes in elemento humido fierent, quibus alites per temporales sui cuiusque generis moras oriri et perfici possent? De quo enim Creatore Scriptura ista narravit, quod sex diebus consummaverit opera sua, de illo alibi non utique dissonanter scriptum est, quod creaverit omnia simul.  All English passages can be found in Augustine’s, On Genesis: A Refutation of the Manichees/Unfinished Liteal Commentary on Genesis/The Literal Meaning of Genesis, trans. E. Hill & M. O’Connell (Hyde-Park: New City Press, 2002), and The Trinity, trans. E. Hill(Brooklyn: New City Press, 1996).

8 De Trinitate 3.13: Ecce enim brevissimus surculus semen est; nam convenienter mandatus terrae arborem facit. Huius autem surculi subtilius semen aliquod eiusdem generis granum est et huc usque nobis visibile. Iam vero huius etiam grani semen quamvis oculis videre nequeamus, ratione tamen conicere possumus quia nisi talis aliqua vis esset in istis elementis, non plerumque nascerentur ex terra quae ibi seminata non essent, nec animalia tam multa nulla marium feminarumque commixtione praecedente sive in terra sive in aqua, quae tamen crescunt et coeundo alia pariunt, cum illa nullis coeuntibus parentibus orta sint.

9 De Genesi ad Litteram: 4.33.51.

10 The Meaning of Rationes Seminales in Saint Augustine, p. 57.

11 Augustine Through the Ages, p. 252.

12 My translation.  Quaestiones in Heptateuchum Sed demonstrare difficile est quomodo etiam si veri dracones facti sunt ex virgis magorum, non fuerint tamen creatores draconum, nec magi, nec angeli mali quibus ministris illa operabantur. Insunt enim corporeis rebus per omnia elementa mundi quaedam occultae seminariae rationes, quibus cum data fuerit opportunitas temporalis atque causalis, prorumpunt in species debitas suis modis et finibus. Et sic non dicuntur angeli, qui ista faciunt, animalium creatores; sicut nec agricolae segetum vel arborum vel quorumque in terra gignentium creatores dicendi sunt, quamvis noverint praebere quasdam visibiles opportunitates et causas, ut illa nascantur. Quod autem isti faciunt visibiliter, hoc angeli invisibiliter; Deus vero solus unus creator est, qui causas ipsas et rationes seminarias rebus insevit.