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The dynamism of nature and the appearance of man at the end of the evolution of primates


In this lecture, Jacques Maritain (1882-1973) offers his philosophical vision, respectful of paleontological data, on the process of hominization. Within an Aristotelian-Thomistic perspective – according to which potencies already present as such in nature can be actualized by a new form educed from existing matter (as far as inferior psychisms are concerned), or by a new form created by the First Cause (in the case of consciousness and self-reflection) – Maritain suggests that the first human being came into the world thanks to the gift of a spiritual soul that God the Creator bestows on a fetus conceived by a non-human couple. Maritain's reflections are interesting especially in the light of his university career as a biologist and of his production in anthropology and philosophy of nature. The French philosopher concludes: "So we can now understand how, with regard to the ultimate disposition of matter, the advent of man has been at one and the same time truly the term of the evolution of life in its ensemble and of the evolution of the primates in particular, but thanks to the final intervention of an absolutely free and gratuitous choice exercised by God the Creator, and transcending all the possibilities of material nature; and on the other hand (with regard to the new infused substantial form) truly an absolutely free and gratuitous work of creation, but thanks this time to a long presupposed history of living organisms, willed by God from the very beginning, and thanks finally to the transformation of an animal species into the human species."

The first [remark] concerns the opposition between the two terms animal and man, which is used constantly in ordinary speech and according to which the problem of the appearance of man is posed for the informed public, just as it is for scientists and philosophers. This choice of words is incorrect, for man is also an animal. We should say on the one hand an animal not endowed with reason, and on the other an animal endowed with reason (or, as the ancients did, beast and man). But let us pass over this and accept the ordinary manner of speaking, without forgetting that this may set us up for some nasty tricks.

The second remark concerns the encounter of science and philosophy, and on the sphere of competence proper to each of them, when there is question of the two opposed expressions animal and man. The philosopher, on his own particular level, knows what an animal is as opposed to man. It is an animal with a sensitive soul but without that spiritual power which is the intellect. But if there is question of an animal inasmuch as its physical and psychic structure as well as its behavior are an object of observation, and offer, from the amoeba to the chimpanzee, an infinitely varied detail of differences (and of problems), the philosopher has no right to speak of this unless he first knows what the scientist thinks of it. Inversely, the scientist, on his particular level of observation and experiment, knows a host of things about man and about the human psychism as different from the animal psychism, but if there is question of man and his psychism considered in their ontological structure, he has no right to speak of them if does not first know what the philosopher thinks of them. These are epistemological rules true in themselves, indeed too true to be respected in ordinary practice – the difficulties due to human weakness and to the weaknesses of the different states of culture, ours included, are discouraging. Where the scientist would like to put some questions to philosophy, he finds the philosophers in total disagreement. Where the philosopher would like to know what science thinks on its particular level of competence, he sometimes finds scientists oriented in their scientific ideas, without admitting it, by a consciously or unconsciously accepted philosophy or prephilosophy, and also on occasion scientists of different schools who fight among them­ selves (this is not the privilege of philosophers alone), and sometimes too he finds scientists who on their own particular level (and precisely because they insist on it) share with him the uncertainties and hesitations of science along with the points that science has established.

My third remark, which is somewhat long, relates to the term hominian. This term signifies a living being of the order of primates situated in the phylum or group of phyla (monophyletism or polyphyletism, monogenism or polygenism, I leave these questions open for the moment) which ends up or end up in man. But this is a truly ambiguous term, which in the dialogue between the scientist and the philosopher leads to singular difficulties.

Let me explain. Point number 1: the scientists tell us that absolutely no animal (not one of the animals that the spectacle of nature spreads before our eyes) is capable of making the tools that the Neanderthals made for example, or of attaining a "culture" (pre-culture would be a more exact word) like the one they achieved. Superior hominians such as these were not animals, simple animals (in the sense of the word animal in the two opposing terms animal-man). This is what the scientists hold. And we should consider their authority on this point as irrecusable. The psychism of these hominians incontestably surpassed the capacity of all the animals which populate nature around us.

Does this mean that they were already men, primitive men? This is evident, is it not? This is what the pair of opposing words animal and man lead us to conclude immediately. Not being animals they must certainly be men. This is the conclusion naturally established by the paleontologists. Hominians of varying types, through whom the man of the later quaternary and of today was prepared, were primitive men.

And now for point number 2. To know what man is first and foremost the business of the philosopher, who (and I have in mind, of course, a philosopher worthy of the name) defines man as an animal endowed with an intellective, spiritual, and immortal soul: a concept foreign to the epistemological domain of the scientist.

Indeed, the philosopher knows that the intellect is spiritual and hence must emanate from a spiritual soul. He knows that between the soul of a simple, animal and the soul of man there is an absolute, abyssal difference because the senses, enclosed in materiality, perceive only the particular, whereas the intellect perceives the universal and reflects upon itself (and this implies immateriality in both cases) so that in its exercise the intellect certainly does develop, as we see in the child; but as a power it is given, with the intellective or spiritual soul, from the very first instant when that soul is infused into an organism sufficiently elevated for an ultimate disposition of the matter to call for it there. To think (as some scientists and even some philosophers seem to do, what a pity) that what current speech calls animal intelligence, which is an interior sense (called estimative by the philosopher), can succeed, advancing step by step, in finally becoming intellect, is just as absurd as to think that an architect will one day reach the moon by building higher and higher towers, or that by dint of perfecting its scent a well-trained hunting dog will succeed some day, when his master has become an art dealer, in distinguishing a Rouault from a Vermeer or an authentic Picasso from a fake one.

Now that all this has been established, what is the philosopher going to think of our hominian who is a man, a primitive man? Well, the philosopher quickly perceives that all this is unthinkable. I hope to examine this more in detail in another seminar. Let it suffice for me to say at present that we are faced with a dilemma: Either our higher hominian belongs to a species (I mean an ontological species, the kind that interests the philosopher) different from the ontological species to which the man of the later quaternary or of today belongs, or he does not belong to an ontological species different from that of the man of the later quaternary and of today. There is no middle ground. But both hypotheses involve an absurdity.

Indeed, in the first hypothesis (primitive men belonged to an ontological: species different from that of the man of the quaternary and of today) it has to be admitted that there are several human species which came one after the other, and this is absurd. An animal whose specific difference (having an intellective, spiritual, and immortal soul) separates him from all other animals, constitutes one single and unique ontological (and taxonomic) species – the only species, moreover, that we can perceive with certitude.

And in the second hypothesis (primitive men did not belong to an ontological species different from that of the man of the later quaternary and of today) it must be admitted that the human species-the unique human species which, in the hypothesis in question, began to exist much earlier, from the very beginning of the quaternary – did not arise at the term of an evolution in the course of which higher and higher forms of animals finally became almost men, in other words prepared man until the ultimate disposition of matter called for an intellective soul; on the contrary, it rose to a rung of still relatively low animal development on the hominian evolutive ladder; it was born of animal forms too low on that ladder for their cerebral and psychic development to produce in these beings an ultimate disposition of matter calling for an intellective soul. In short, the animal preparation necessary for the advent of the human species was lacking. Such a supposition is, in its turn, sheer philosophical absurdity – as if it could be imagined, no longer in the case of the evolution of living beings, but this time in the case of human embryological development, that an intellective soul could be infused at the very first stage of development, from the instant the ovule is fecundated. I might add that the supposition in question, which is an absurdity, is also directly contrary to any genuine philosophy of evolution (for which indeed it is necessary to recognize the essential importance of the ultimate disposition of matter which takes place at each substantial mutation required by the passage to a higher degree of evolution).

The philosopher notes that the two horns of the dilemma – the higher hominian regarded as a primitive man belonged or did not belong to an ontological species different from that of the man of the later quaternary or of today – are equally unthinkable. And as a consequence, he has to declare that the higher hominians regarded as primitive men could not really have been men. They were not animals, declares science. They were not men, declares philosophy. Now here we have a first-rate aporia.

Let me stop here for a moment, for I feel the urge once again to insert a parenthesis. This one will bear on two words which play a major role in the theories of the origin of man. First of all, the word primitive man. This word can involve two entirely different ideas. It can signify a man not completely disengaged from animality (or more exactly, from bestiality, for we must never forget that man himself is an animal). Then the idea signified by the word primitive man is no more than a pseudo-idea. From the instant that a being is constituted in the human species, from the instant that he is a man with his intellective, spiritual, and immortal soul, that being remains, of course, immersed in human animality (and this says quite a bit), but it is completely disengaged from the animality of beasts. The word primitive man has only one intelligible meaning: and that is when it is understood as a man still in the childhood or humanity.

The second word to look at is the word hominization, in which Father Teilhard took such delight, and which the best paleontologists also make use of. This word has a perfectly valid meaning: To say that an animal is hominized is to say that it draws closer and closer to man or that it takes on more and more advanced humanoid characteristics. But it is used in another sense which has no meaning except for the mentally lazy (like quite a number of words which slip from time to time into the vocabulary of scientists, doctors, and philosophers); a meaning that I will not call mythic (that would be too flattering), but simply magical – so magical in fact that it explains everything without requiring any thought at all. To become hominized then means to become more and more a man, all the while remaining –less and less– an animal (a beast, deprived of reason).

If we try anyway to include some idea or other under the word hominization it becomes clear that we can include under this expression, used in this particular way, only three conceptualizations. The first conceptualization: The beings in question, which are animals, become more and more men in the sense that they are at first 75 percent animal and 25 percent human, then 50 percent animal and 50 percent human, and subsequently 25 percent animal and 75 percent human. In short, they are, not by juxtaposition end to end, but in their intrinsic constitution, centaurs; they are two different species at one and the same time. This is a concept all right, but a contradictory one, good for nothing but dazzling a befuddled mind.

Second conceptualization: The beings in question are already men, but they pass from a lower human species to a higher human species. This is an absurdity, as we pointed out a few moments ago.

Or finally, the third conceptualization: Perhaps the beings in question already have a real human intelligence which begins to operate but do not have an intellective, spiritual, and immortal soul, which only we will eventually receive. Another dazzling idea but difficult to digest. To possess a truly human intelligence, like the intelligence that after millennia of development an existentialist writer or a disciple of Michel Foucault would eventually possess, and still not have a human soul, what a pity after all.

Everything I just said does not diminish by one iota the value of the words hominization and to hominize as they are used by authentic scientists an eminent paleontologists. But there have always been here and there in the world a few inauthentic scientists, and there is especially that great multitude of people who, without being either scientists or philosophers, today get their information about the fashionable theories through the mass media, a multitude with no defense against such confused ideas and exposed to many a low  blow. This is why I consider my parenthesis not entirely useless.

Well that's over. So let me return to our aporia: beings which cannot be called animals and which cannot be called men either. What are we to do now? Abandon the whole matter here? A philosopher is not so quickly discouraged. There must be a way out.

Let me make two remarks about this: In the first place, and what could be more normal, the animal that the scientists and we too are talking about is the animal as we know it, such as the spectacle of nature offers everywhere to our view. We must note, however, that this is the animal of the historical ages, from the Iater quaternary till today; but the animal involved in questions of the origin of man, the animal of the phyla in mutation of pre-historic times, was a part of that evolutive process which lasted so many centuries and is now completed. As a part of that process it showed a plasticity that we are far from finding in the animals of historical time. In the second place, I have noticed that at the peak of the development of the higher primates, more precisely of the hominians, at a given moment there must have appeared a more or Iess ephemeral series of animals which came very close to man and at the end of this series (I have already noted this) there appeared an animal which was almost a man, the kind from which man could be born.

Then the idea came to me that perhaps there was a way – the only conceivable way – out of the impasse in which our aporia seemed to imprison us. And this was to establish the hypothesis, breaking the dilemma animal or man which locked us into the aporia, that between "animal" and "man" a third term should be introduced, and that, at the peak of the more or less ephemeral series of higher primates I just spoke of – and during a relatively short and unique period in the history of life, justly so because it was the period in which the aspiration of matter toward its supreme actuation, by an intellective soul, would find its ultimate fulfilment, there were animals whose psychism, while remaining only in the sensitive order, surpassed the level of the psychism of all the other animals of prehistoric times, as well as the level of all the animals of our historical times. For the moment let us call them overdeveloped animals, or, if you prefer, pre-men. Then we no longer have to deal with the pair of opposed terms animal and man, but with a triplet or trio of terms: animal, overdeveloped animal, and man. This overdeveloped animal did not belong to the animal kingdom solely in the way that the animal endowed with reason belongs to it. Unlike man, who is informed by an intellective soul, it continued to belong to the immense category of living beings informed by a sensitive soul or a purely animal soul. But he was part of the last stages disposing these particular living beings to give birth to the human species. And because of a mutation of major importance, which prepared the final and definitive mutation, its psychism, while still remaining in the purely sensitive order, was already emerging (how? I have a little key in my pocket, but it is still too early for me to use it) superior to the mental capacities of all the other animals. In other words, this overdeveloped animal, or pre-man, was capable of producing tools and of attaining that "culture" (or rather pre-culture) in which today everybody believes he recognizes the characteristic signs of primitive men not yet set apart from bestiality.

The hypothesis I am proposing here is a philosophical hypothesis, but one which, I believe, might prove useful and fruitful in the hands of the paleontologists, even though on the level proper to science, it can appear no more than probable and is not susceptible to verification. But on the philosophical level it can be verified, and by this I mean established by a convergence of arguments which is compelling for the mind.

For the moment I will be satisfied to recall that paleontology, when it comes to treating man and his appearance on earth, tackles a problem which, when inquiring into human nature, or what man is, does not depend on science alone but also and above all on philosophy. Are not the most eminent paleontologists aware of this when, having come to his point, they invoke the testimony of such and such a philosopher? l will be satisfied too that between the primitive men they tell us about and the overdeveloped animals of my hypothesis the resemblance is so great that I have nothing to fear for the latter; here I am not referring to the mental habits and the philosophical presuppositions of the paleontologists but to the paleontological criteria of differentiation. This is why I feel free in the last part of this seminar to take my stand on this hypothesis (still unverified, but to be so later), as long as it is clearly understood that in our effort to verify this hypothesis we have the obligation to give our most careful consideration to the data of science, that is, of animal psychology and paleontology. This is what I would like to do in the next seminars, if God gives me the time and the strength to do so.

Now that my preliminary remarks are finished, let me pass on to my exposition, in which, by hypothesis, I shall maintain that the hominians, even though they are very high up on the evolutive ladder, even though they belong to the highest group of hominians, l shall maintain that all these hominians are overdeveloped animals and not men. (I would add that the very highest among these overdeveloped animals perhaps, no one knows, have left no fossil trace; being still without intellect, and already groping in the vicinity of the spirit, they were undoubtedly less well equipped than the others with that innate knowledge which is a part of the instincts of animals without reason, and consequently were less fitted to defend themselves against their enemies.)

You may recall that [elsewhere] I used as an example to clarify our discussion the case of an anthropoid, or austriacopithecus, giving birth to an animal of specific degree higher than that of his begetters, and a little closer to the hominians, although still very far from them.

Let me now take another example, this time from the group at the highest degree of the evolution of the primates, so that we can consider those animals which were the immediate ancestors of man and whose (sensitive) soul was by hypothesis at the highest point of the stem on which man would appear. I shall call these immediate ancestors of man (in conformity with the fundamental hypothesis on which I have just explained my position) animals overdeveloped to the highest limit, or hominians of the highest level, completely refined hominians, of the highest species. They reproduced themselves and propagated their species and, under the general directing divine motion which activates the whole of nature, gave birth to living beings of the same degree of being, hominians of the highest level like their begetters. All these animals, overdeveloped to the very limit, were the immediate ancestors of man, but only in potency. Their species was like a flower, full-blown at the top of the evolutive stem.

The nucleus of this species, however, continued to be included in the stem, and the living beings which composed it always tended to pass on to a higher degree of being.

Let us suppose now that among these hominians of this most highly developed level included within the evolutive stem, a single couple, or as many couples as you like (I am not a polygenist; but I already pointed out that for the moment I am leaving this question open. I will treat it in another seminar) engenders or engender, in fact, living beings of a higher degree of being, that is, the first human beings.

The soul of these particular beings will be a human soul created by God. This means that God, by an absolutely free act, chose the particular hominian couple or couples I just mentioned, with the purpose of infusing into the living beings engendered by them, in the course of the prenatal life of these living beings, an intellective, spiritual, and immortal soul, which will have been called for by an ultimate disposition of matter, produced in the hominian fetus or fetuses, at a certain instant of its or their intra-uterine development, and this soul will in a very particular way already be human (I will try to explain this precisely in a moment).

So we have here, as regards the intellective soul which is the substantial form of the human being, the creation of this soul by an act of God implying an absolutely free and gratuitous divine choice. And on the other hand as regards the ultimate disposition to be produced in matter, a superelevating and superforming divine motion which is no longer a general motion with regard to the world of life but, this time, an exceptional and absolutely unique motion, depending on the same absolutely free and gratuitous divine choice, which at one and the same time includes that motion which calls man forth by an ultimate disposition of matter, and the act by which man is created by the fact that God has created the soul which is the cause of his existence.

It will be good for us to pause now (not too long, I hope) on this difficult notion of the ultimate disposition of matter.

This ultimate disposition takes place at an instant of time, at a single and identical chronological instant when the form that has been informing up till; that moment – the sensitive or animal soul of the hominian fetus in the present case (and we should recall that this happens likewise in the case of human embryonic development) – returns into the potency of matter. At this same instant the newly informing form is either educed from the potency of matter, or else – in the present case (as in the case of human embryonic development) – not educed from the potency of matter but rather created by God and infused into the fetus.

Along with this, however, in the ultimate disposition there are two instants of nature to be considered. At a first instant of nature, precisely because it is the ultimate disposition – in the present case, at the term of the sensitive development of the hominian fetus which is going to become human – this disposition supervenes in a substance (in the present case, the fetus in question) which is still informed, for an instant of time by that form (in the present case, the sensitive animal soul) which is about to return into the potency of matter.

And at a second instant of nature, this ultimate disposition exists within the substance already informed by the new form (in the present case, it exists in the hominian fetus that has already become human, already informed by the spiritual soul created by God).

From this it follows that the ultimate disposition produced in matter under the exceptional and absolutely unique motion of God that I spoke of (and let us note in passing that this motion is exercised on the embryonic development of the hominian fetus, which is in the process of becoming human, from the very instant of the fecundation of the ovule), this ultimate disposition supervening at the term of the sensitive development of the fetus in question is, at the first instant of nature, already virtually human, I mean already human as far as the quality of the sensitive life of the fetus is concerned, already raised to the human in this particular regard, in other words, already raised, in this particular regard, to a level that is beyond the capacities of material nature and of life immersed in matter. This is the precision I wanted to make. (At the second instant of nature, the fetus has received the intellective soul, and the ultimate disposition is formally human: all this taking place in the same chronological instant).

My digression on the ultimate disposition of matter is over now, and I hope it was not too dry. In any case, what is important is to understand that if a hominian couple or couples has or have given birth a child or to several children, this could not have come about except through a double manifestation of the absolute freedom of the first Cause: manifested on the one hand in the preparation of matter and its ultimate disposition, by an exceptional and absolutely unique motion, raising an animal nature to a level of being which transcends animality and the entire dynamism that nature is capable of by itself, even under the genera superelevating and superforming motion with regard to the world of life; manifested on the other hand, in the newly produced substantial form, the creation and infusion of an intellective, spiritual, and immortal soul. So we can now understand how, with regard to the ultimate disposition of matter, the advent of man has been at one and the same time truly the term of the evolution of life in its ensemble and of the evolution of the primates in particular, but thanks to the final intervention of an absolutely free and gratuitous choice exercised by God the Creator, and transcending all the possibilities of material nature; and on the other hand (with regard to the new infused substantial form) truly an absolutely free and gratuitous work of creation, but thanks this time to a long presupposed history of living organisms, willed by God from the very beginning, and thanks finally to the transformation of an animal species into the human species.

The hominian couple or couples I spoke of has or have been, in the animal kingdom, our immediate ancestors in act. They are not the father and mother of the human race. There is no creature which is the father or the mother from whom the human race was born because it is from God, and created by Him, that man receives the soul which makes him a man, and that the first man received his soul – or in the case of polygenism, which I will not discuss now – that the first men received their souls. As St. Luke said in tracing the genealogical lineage of Jesus: "Cainan, who was the son of Henos, qui fuit Seth, qui fuit Adam, qui fuit Dei." We are descended from Seth, who was the son of Adam, who was the son of God.

Let us conclude by returning to the text of St. Thomas that we began with, that the sensitive soul is in potency to the intellective soul just as the vegetative soul is in potency to the sensitive soul, just as matter in the form of the element is in potency to the form of the mixed body, and just as prime matter is in potency to the form of the element; and that, consequently there is an ontological (metaphysical) tendency or aspiration of matter toward higher and higher forms, and finally toward the human soul as toward its ultimate form.

This ontological (metaphysical) tendency – since it is stretched out over time in a universe in movement and historical development, which is not the universe of the ancients but our own – is also a physically efficacious tendency (I mean "physically" in the sense that it is put into operation by powers proper to the world of material nature, the object of Physics in the Aristotelian sense, or of the Philosophy of Nature). It is a physically efficacious tendency in that cosmic élan which, throughout the entire (the stars and the earth), causes matter to pass through all its physical and chemical transformations. It is physically efficacious too in the evolutive élan which, once it has crossed the threshold of life, causes matter to pass from the first living cells to more, differentiated, though still very primitive, living beings, informed like the very first cells, with a vegetative soul. Then these most primitive and simplest vegetative living beings, formed in the bosom of the oceans which covered the crust of the earth, were transformed into aquatic, then terrestrial living beings, informed by sensitive souls, would blossom into higher and higher species in the course of evolution (just as, after the continental surfaces had arisen, plants, born of the most primitive forms of vegetative life, would do in their tum). The dynamism of nature by itself alone is all that was needed in these two cases: in the first case (that of the cosmos) under the directing and absolutely general divine motion; in the second case (the case of the evolution of life and the crossing of the threshold of life) under the superelevating and superforming divine motion, still general, at least with regard to the world of living beings in evolution.

The tendency I am speaking of was physically efficacious up to this point. But once this point was passed, and if there was question of the passage from the animal living being to the human living being, then in this case the tendency in question was not physically efficacious; it did not remain solely an ontological (metaphysical) tendency; it always existed "physically" in matter but in this case inefficaciously. The dynamism of nature by itself alone, even under the superelevating and superinforming divine motion, general as it was with regard to the world of living beings in evolution, was not enough to make it efficacious.

There had to be the transcendent action of the first Cause and an absolutely free and gratuitous divine choice – on the one hand bringing living matter under an exceptional and absolutely unique motion, to a disposition surpassing the capacities of material nature and life immersed in matter, and, on the other hand, creating ex nihilo, an intellective, spiritual, and immortal soul – in order to satisfy from above the tendency in question and to make it capable of attaining in the very bosom of the tangible and visible, "physical" (in the Aristotelian sense) reality of the world of nature, the final term to which it was ordered from the creation of the world and which is itself of the metaphysical order or beyond all material nature, since it is the intellective, spiritual, and immortal soul, the human soul.

J. Maritain, Untrammeled approaches, in Id. Opera Omnia (University of Notre Dame Press, Notre Dame, IN 1997; trad. B.E. Doering), Vol XX, pp. 118-129.