We have often been told in recent years that humans share 96% of DNA with the great apes. I have no reason to suppose that this statement is not true. But what does it mean? The usually unstated implication is that as a result there really are few or no essential or important differences between the two species and that therefore human beings are merely a somewhat more sophisticated version of the great apes, not different in kind from them. This talk about similarities in DNA reminds me of something Hilaire Belloc wrote in an essay published in the 1930s.
I shall never forget a personage of my early youth who gave us boys lectures in chemistry.... He came out one day with this enormity: "A diamond is therefore" (Oh, glorious "therefore"!) "the same thing as a lump of coal." Why, a man might go to jail for pretending that they were the same thing! A diamond is not a lump of coal, and a lump of coal is not a diamond.... Upon one line of analysis...a lump of coal gave the same results as a diamond. They both...presented themselves as what he called "carbon"; and "carbon" was what he called an "element"...in which there was but one kind of hypothetical "atoms." The atoms he was quite sure were atoms of carbon, and therefore (Oh, glorious "therefore"!) the diamond and the carbon, whose differences stared him in the face, were the same thing.[i]
The same kind of thinking is behind both the assertion about DNA and that about coal and diamonds. Both look only at one aspect of a thing, the material factor, as if I could take all the words, or even all the letters, that constitute Hamlet, mix them up and rearrange them into a work of my own, and say that this new work contains 100% of the material of Shakespeare's play. One could say this only by ignoring the obvious. But with regard to the similarities in the DNA of men and apes, we are also ignoring the obvious. For human beings quite clearly are not apes. Regardless of what one thinks of macroevolution, regardless of any physical connection which might exist between the various forms of life on earth, clearly they are not the same. One need only observe human beings and apes in action to see that they are different. Despite the cognitive capacities that other species may sometimes attain to, they obviously are not rational animals such as we ourselves are. The other animals do not build cultures, do not have true histories, but go on from century to century behaving as they always have. Mankind, on the other hand, learns, and moreover, can transmit that learning to other members of his species and thus change the way they live. Human beings make changes in their way of life based on ideas, on ideologies, cultures, religions. But such a thing does not occur among great apes or dolphins or any of the other animals. They continue in the same mode of living from age to age.
But if it is true that the DNAs of so many forms of life are so similar, surely it must mean something significant about them? Surely it means something? No doubt it does mean something, but if we go back to the philosopher who in almost every case laid down the fundamentals of human knowledge, Aristotle, we can learn something of what it means and what it does not mean. In book II, chapter 3 of his Physics, one of the most important books ever written, Aristotle sets forth his doctrine of the four causes, the material, the efficient, the formal and the final. The material cause is that out of which something is made - "e.g., the bronze of the statue, the silver of the bowl" (and here is the explanation of both the DNA and of Belloc's carbon), while the efficient cause is the active agent or originator of something - "e.g., the man who gave advice is a cause, the father is cause of the child." These two causes we readily recognize today; even if we do not always designate the material cause as a cause, we certainly recognize the fact of its existence. But with the next two causes, formal and final, it is different. Broadly speaking, it is not too much of an exaggeration to say that the entire modern world is built upon a denial of those causes. But what are they?
As to formal cause, Aristotle says, "the form or essence or the archetype, i.e., the statement of the essence...are called `causes.'" And as to final cause, he identifies it as the "end or `that for the sake of which' a thing is done." Let us consider further exactly what these two causes are and where they are operative.
When we are speaking of the acts or products of human volition, especially of something physically made, we can see that there is something to what Aristotle says about formal and final causes. A sculptor makes his image after some archetype in his mind (formal cause), and he makes it for a definite reason, for the sake of something (final cause). In such a case modernity does not deny either formal or final causality. But the fact is that Aristotle does not restrict the scope of these causes to things made by purposeful human acts. In book II, chapter 8 he states "that Nature belongs to the class of causes which act for the sake of something," and "where a series has a completion, all the preceding steps are for the sake of that." This is not the place to set forth at length the arguments for the validity of Aristotle's doctrine that there is final and formal causality in natural processes. In brief, Aristotle, in his brilliant discussion of chance events in chapters 4 through 8 shows that if nature were merely the interaction and arrangement of chance events, the obvious natural order that we perceive could not exist. Chance occurs when two separate causal sequences happen to come into some kind of contact. But such coincidences do not and cannot produce any such regularity as we see in the workings of nature.[ii]
If it is true that final and formal causality exist in nature, I must explain further how they differ from those causes as they function in purposeful human acts. Aristotle certainly did not think that a tree or a bird consciously intends some activity according to an image or archetype and for some end. Rather when we say that nature acts for an end, we mean that within each natural thing is the form (nature) by and after which that thing effects its end. And what is that end? Most often, in the sub-human world, the final and the formal causes are the same. The plant exists for the production of the fruit, containing the seed of a new plant. The animal exists for the production of its young. These are both formal and final cause - the archetype or image for the sake of which the entire natural process operates. In fact, in a certain sense, even in human acts the final and formal causes can be looked at as identical, since a sculptor works to realize the image or archetype that is his model or form in the external world. If we asked why does the sculptor work, one legitimate answer would be that he seeks to translate the internal form in his mind into external reality. Of course, one could also say that he works to fulfill his commission, for fame, for money, etc. But nevertheless it is true to say that he works to make the image or archetype real, and thus in a way that the final and formal causes are the same.
Now the various philosophies beginning with Descartes, or even before that with the Nominalists, denied or ignored this whole doctrine of formal and final causes, outside of human acts of course. And with what result? The creation of a certain mentality or way of thinking which, by eliminating final causality from natural processes, ends up by privatizing purpose and restricting it to human acts with conscious and necessarily subjective ends. Let us look at some of the results of this.
First within our own physical selves. The various physical processes within the human body, such as nutrition or sexuality, seem to have a natural end. That is, an end independent of the conscious purposes of any particular human. Thus with food. Although I might want to consume sweets all day long and assert that my only purpose is to enjoy their taste, my body thinks otherwise. It assumes that I am trying to nourish myself and processes the fats and the calories and—like it or not—I generally gain weight. The entire system of eating and drinking exists primarily for the purpose of nourishing the human body. Of course, this is not to say that other values connected with eating are wrong—the fellowship of a meal, the taste of good food and drink—but unless these are subordinated to and regulated by the primary purpose of nutrition, we create a disorder which will end up with some kind of physical harm to the body. Unless my enjoyment of food is roughly limited to my body's need for nourishment, and unless my enjoyment of drinking beer with friends is regulated by my body's ability to handle and process alcohol, I will end up obese or drunk. If we ignore the fact that the bodily process itself has an inherent purpose and concentrate only on our conscious intentions, we end up hurting ourselves.
The same is true of sex. Just as the process of eating and drinking exists primarily for the preservation of the individual, so the entire sexual process is clearly oriented towards reproduction, for the preservation of the species. Again, this does not exclude secondary ends, such as the mutual joy and pleasure of spouses celebrating their love, but such legitimate secondary ends must be subordinate to and regulated by the primary and inherent end which is reproduction. The whole array of contraceptive devices pretends to do away with the need to respect the primary end of sex. But they either act in a manner that obviously destroys both the natural harmony of sex, and likewise diminishes the pleasure, or involve chemicals and devices injurious to the woman's body. The strength of nature and her inherent final causality is such that they can be ignored only to our detriment.
Modernity does not want to acknowledge the existence of final (or formal) causality except in conscious human purposes. This restriction of final causes to conscious intentions goes beyond the two instances of eating and sex I just discussed and influences our entire approach to life, both individual and social. One very important area that it affects is the economy. Now an economy is not like a body. It does not have a real nature, but rather is based on the social nature of man. In fact, an economy can hardly be called a thing in the strict sense, but is a complex relationship of many and various activities. But nevertheless we can say that it has a quasi-nature, that is, it has inherent purposes and ends which ultimately are based on human needs and capabilities. Moreover, as with the purposes inherent in the human desire for food or sex, purposes which we deny or ignore to our own hurt, if we deny or ignore the inherent purpose of economic activity, we likewise injure ourselves. And just as today most people think that only their personal desires with regard to food or sex have any importance and they ignore, as best they can, their natural and inherent purposes, so people think of economic activity and the economy as simply a field for the fulfillment of their own private desires.
The inherent purpose of economic activity is based on man's need for and ability to procure the goods necessary for human survival, and beyond that, for creating a worthy human life. But such goods are for the sake of something else, not ends in themselves. Therefore the mere piling up of goods can hardly be the natural end of economic activity. They exist for the sake of sustaining human life, not mere survival, but human life in its fullness, so that we can spend our time, as much as that is possible, on what really matters, on our families, our intellectual, cultural and recreational life, on the worship of God. Since this is the purpose of the production of material goods, any economic arrangements which hinder that end are an obstacle, an interference with the natural working of an economy, no matter how much they furnish us with an abundance of cheap goods. Cheapness of goods is not a final criterion of the successful working of an economy, but rather the flourishing of our family life, our intellectual and cultural life, our spiritual life. Economic activity exists to support them and is therefore naturally subordinate to them. They must be the standard by which we measure the success of any human economy and society. No matter then what quantity of goods are produced, if a society is marked by a degradation of family life, by an absence of beauty, by a frantic preoccupation with mere money-making and the acquisition of the latest technologies, that society is not served well by its economy. Of course much more than the economy contributes to the order or disorder of a culture. But the economy is such a key part of any society that when it is misdirected toward mere money-making or the production of useless things that do not truly serve the human good, then such a culture can only with difficulty recognize its failings and attempt to reform itself.
Unfortunately the capitalist system itself is a chief contributor to such cultural and social disorder. We should understand, however, that by capitalism I mean something very specific, namely, "that economic system in which were provided by different people the capital and labor jointly needed for production."[iii] Now we should note that there is nothing intrinsically unjust with someone owning capital and employing others to work for him, so long as he pays them just wages. But given the defects of our fallen human nature, such a system is both unstable and dangerous. Why so? Hilaire Belloc succinctly set forth the reasons why capitalism is such a dangerous arrangement for an economy:
But wealth obtained indirectly as profit out of other men's work, or by process of exchange, becomes a thing abstracted from the process of production. As the interest of a man in things diminishes, his interest in abstract wealth—money—increases. The man who makes a table or grows a crop makes the success of the crop or the table a test of excellence. The intermediary who buys and sells the crop or the table is not concerned with the goodness of table or crop, but with the profit he makes between their purchase and sale. In a productive society the superiority of the things produced is the measure of success: in a Commercial society the amount of wealth accumulated by the dealer is the measure of success.[iv]
In an economy subordinated to human life as a whole and thus oriented toward the natural fulfillment of genuine human needs, the amount and kind of goods produced would be in rough approximation to those needs. In a capitalist economy, the tendency is always to approximate the amount and kind of goods produced to what can be sold, regardless of actual human needs or social requirements. And advertising exists to persuade people to buy things the need for which is doubtful or non-existent. And even worse than the mere piling up of useless and often shoddy goods is the preoccupation with mere surrogates for real goods, money and its equivalents.
Here let us listen to St. Thomas Aquinas, who wrote, "...the appetite of natural riches is not infinite, because according to a set measure they satisfy nature; but the appetite of artificial riches is infinite, because it serves inordinate concupiscence...."[v] Even the most materialist of persons and societies must eventually call a halt to the production or acquisition of stuff - for at some point there will be no more space to store it. But money and stock certificates take up very little room, and they are even more removed from supplying genuine human needs than are piles of cheap junk. At least the latter usually satisfy some passing human desire, but "artificial riches," can be heaped up well beyond any possible legitimate need. An economy dominated by those who own or control such "artificial riches" will be an economy in which legitimate economic activity, and the real human needs which it is designed to serve, suffers neglect and exploitation to serve the "inordinate concupiscence" of financiers.
In the precapitalist economy of the Middle Ages most of the work of a craftsman was done in response to orders by customers. A tailor made a suit of clothes when a customer requested one. In such an economy the relation between production and human need was obvious. No one needed to be persuaded to buy things whose use was doubtful. We probably do not need to go so far to restore the balance between production and use that we have lost sight of, but it is helpful to keep the medieval method in mind as a clear example of the inherent purpose of economic activity, the reason why God created us with the need for and the capacity to produce and use external goods. Otherwise the economy becomes a field in which human subjective desire, usually the desire to become rich or richer, rules, and those who possess or can obtain power pervert the working of the economy for their own personal and selfish ends. The result, as Pius XI described it, is that "the whole economic life has become hard, cruel and relentless in a ghastly measure."[vi]
Although Aristotle's doctrine of the four causes doubtless seems remote from our current socio-economic predicament, in fact the neglect of final causality has been one of the chief intellectual errors of modernity, an error which helped unleash the disparate desires and passions of a human nature wounded by the Fall of our first parents. With their sin human nature became unhinged. Instead of operating in proper subordination to the intellect, each faculty or passion in human nature now desires to go its own way, even when this brings obvious and sometimes even swift harm. The teaching of the Catholic Church, expressed over and over again, shows us the error of allowing such free reign to human appetites. Only if we can regain a sense that everything operates for an end, and that human will and our subjective desires ignore those ends to our peril, can we perhaps begin to bring human thinking and acting back to a respect for their natural norms.
[i]. "Science as the Enemy of Truth" in Essays of a Catholic (1931), reprinted by TAN Books, 1992, pp. 149-152.
[ii]. It is sometimes held that Darwin's doctrine of natural selection invalidates the idea of final causes since, according to him, organisms do not act for ends, rather those that happen to exhibit characteristics and behavior that conduce toward their survival will in fact survive and propagate their kind. But it seems to me that Darwin assumes a final causality on a deeper level, namely, the innate urge on the part of the organism to survive and propagate its kind, without which natural selection makes no sense. Natural selection in fact assumes a competition on the part of organisms for survival. Note that the subtitle of The Origin of Species is the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life.
[iii]. Pope Pius XI, Quadragesimo Anno, no. 100.
[iv]. An Essay on the Nature of Contemporary England (New York : Sheed & Ward, 1937) p. 67.
[v]. Summa Theologiae, I-II, q. 2, a. 1 ad 3.
[vi]. Quadragesimo Anno, no. 109.