Review of Metaphysics

This review of the first edition was originally published and copyrighted in The Review of Metaphysics; June 2003; 56, 4 – reprinted with permission. Reviewer is Dr. Curtis L. Hancock, who holds the Joseph M. Freeman Chair of Philosophy at Rockhurst University.

Review of Origin of the Human Species

By Curtis L. Hancock, Ph.D.

That Darwinism has been immune generally from philosophical and scientific criticism says something about its iconic status as a paradigm. As Alvin Plantinga has said, “Darwinian evolution has become an idol of the contemporary tribe…part of the intellectual orthodoxy of our day.” After many decades of presumptive authority as a paradigm, some philosophers and scientists are at last examining whether Darwinian theory ought to be persuasive. Dennis Bonnette’s book is an outstanding addition to this important new examination. In fourteen chapters and an epilogue, compressed into 145 pages of exposition, Dennis Bonnette summarizes both the strengths and weaknesses of modern evolutionary theory. In the first four chapters of the book he tests whether evidence for macroevolution is convincing. Relying on the unpublished manuscripts of the Australian philosopher Austin M. Woodbury, he concludes that neither the fossil record nor the fact of microevolution justifies the enthusiastic conviction, so common in the academy and even the popular culture, that macroevolution is the case. In addition to criticisms marshaled by Woodbury, creation scientists (among whom neither Woodbury nor Bonnette should be numbered) have exposed over the past several decades a number of problems endemic to the way paleontologists have interpreted the fossil record. Still, Bonnette is willing cheerfully to concede that evolution may be true: “we should remember that the weakness of arguments favoring evolution does not necessarily prove that evolution does not occur” (p. 9). As a Catholic and a philosopher, Bonnette wonders what its truth would mean for philosophy and theology. In accord with the way Catholic thinkers (for example, Augustine, Gilson, and Maritain) have commented on the subject, Bonnette argues that the doctrine of evolution, if rightly interpreted, coheres with a sound philosophy of nature, metaphysics, and theology. This conclusion, reiterated and justified throughout the book, and effectively summarized in the closing chapters, separates Bonnette’s position from that of the creation scientists, whom he treats with scrupulous fairness, as he does representatives of atheistic or naturalistic evolution.

Bonnette’s study is distinctive because it brings the classical realist tradition of the philosophia perennis to bear on the debate. Relying on the Aristotelian-Thomistic synthesis, Bonnette goes beyond the empiriological questions about evolution and asks what philosophy (especially the philosophy of nature) should say about the nature and origin of species, especially the origin of the human species. One of the objectives of Bonnette’s book is to make the case that it is only philosophy in the last analysis that can differentiate species. Biological taxonomy is only a descriptive classification of the accidental characteristics represented by empiriological methodologies, a kind of perinoetic knowledge (using Maritain’s vocabulary) that does not permit inference to the essence of a thing. The perinoetic is in contrast to the dianoetic, a certain way of knowing that the philosophy of nature and metaphysics employ. In light of this, the debate about evolution has its full significance as it relates to philosophy, and ultimately to theology. “As scandalous as this might sound to the professional biologist, search for essential natural species must transcend the methodology proper to the biological sciences. The limitations inherent in perinoetic intellection, the proper intentional act of biological science, mean that the quest for essential distinctions between living organisms is actually meta-biological, beyond biology. This quest requires the methodology of the philosophy of nature” (p. 22). Following Gilson, Bonnette shows that philosophically there are, in fact, only three natural species: the vegetative, the animal, and the human (chapters 2 through 8).

One of the advantages of a philosophical assessment of evolution is that one can expose the naturalistic bias in both scientific and nonscientific discourse. Bonnette agrees with Stanley Jaki that much of evolutionary theory “masks a fierce counter-metaphysics.” Naturalism is assumed but not argued for. The reader will enjoy Bonnette’s account of how this bias manifests itself in research purporting to show that apes have symbolic language and rational intelligence (chapter 5). His summary of this research is very instructive and an assist to all who want to put in perspective the exaggerated claims of these primate experiments. That summary alone makes the book a valuable addition to one’s library. When one considers that the chapter also demonstrates the weaknesses of a purely naturalistic account of the human person, it is doubly edifying.

Having distinguished the human species as different in kind from other animals, Bonnette responds to a fascinating set of questions, spanning everything from the human soul’s divine origin (chapter 6) to locating the first true humans (chapter 11). A battery of empirical, philosophical, and theological issues come to play in these discussions as the remaining chapter titles show: “The Question of Extraterrestrial Life” (chapter 7); “The Metaphysical Structure of Natural Species” (chapter 8); “Natural Science and Theology” (chapter 9); “The Truths of Revelation” (chapter 10); “Adam and Eve’s Origin” (chapter 12). An absorbing analysis of the debate over Genesis is discussed in chapter 13. And the fascinating challenge brought to orthodox paleontology by Michael Cremo’s and Richard Thompson”s book, Forbidden Archaeology, completes the volume.

It is a delight to read a work on evolution by a researcher who has a command of the relevant scientific data, the history of the debate, and its chief assumptions. It is especially delightful to read the subject as treated by a good philosopher presenting the subject in an even-handed and cogent manner. —Curtis L. Hancock, Rockhurst University.