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Review: Creationism and Its Critics in Antiquity

Reports of the National Center for Science Education
Volume: 
30
Year: 
2010
Issue: 
6
Date: 
November–December
Page(s): 
24–26
Reviewer: 
James G Lennox
This version might differ slightly from the print publication.
Work under Review
Title: 
Creationism and Its Critics in Antiquity
Author(s): 
David Sedley
Berkeley: University of California Press, 2007. 269 pages.

In 1900, Jane K Sather David Sedley - Creationism and Its Critics in Antiquity - book coverendowed a Visiting Professorship in Classics at the University of California, Berkeley, which, beginning in 1920, included an obligation to deliver a series of lectures, to be published as a book, that would make an original contribution to our understanding of the Classical world. The series of monographs that has resulted from that endowment contains many of the most important contributions to Classical studies of the past century, such masterpieces as Paul Shorey's Platonism, Ancient and Modern, ER Dodds's The Greeks and the Irrational, and Bernard Williams's Shame and Necessity. David Sedley's Creationism and Its Critics in Antiquity deservedly takes its place in this noble lineage.

As with many of its predecessors, Sedley's is a controversial book that reaches well beyond the world of classical scholarship. It is a study of defenders and critics of the idea that the cosmos, the orderly world around us, is the product of a divine, extra-natural designer. Sedley leaves no doubt that it is appropriately reviewed in this journal. As Laurence Professor of Ancient Philosophy at Cambridge, his College, Christ's, he reminds us in the preface, was also the college of both the Reverend William Paley, famous for his "watch on the heath" defense of the argument from design, and Charles Darwin, famous for arguing that apparent design in nature is due to natural selection. Sedley also reminds us that his Sather Lectures were delivered in America, where "it would have been a mistake to consign the debate [over intelligent design] to history" (p xv). His aim, he tells us, is to use history to shed new light on the debate (p xvi). Though infused throughout with Sedley's mastery of the Greek and Latin sources, Creationism and Its Critics in Antiquity achieves its goal of wide accessibility by keeping the scholarly details in footnotes and appendices. For a work of such immense learning, the integrity of the narrative is remarkable.

The chapters have a conventional layout in two respects: they examine the key figures chronologically, and they are organized around the narrative's chief protagonists. The first two chapters target two Presocratics, Anaxagoras and Empedocles, chapter 3 the pivotal figure of Socrates, and chapter 4, his disciple Plato. The chief critics of "intelligent design" in the Ancient world, the Atomists, are taken up in chapter 5. Sedley apologizes for placing the discussion of that entire tradition, from Leucippus and Democritus to Epicurus and his Roman spokesman Lucretius, before his chapter on Aristotle — justified, since the early Atomists predate Aristotle; yet problematic, because the later Atomists were clearly reacting to Aristotle. Sedley then turns to the Stoics and concludes with a Galenic epilogue, viewing Galen's teleology through the traditions he inherits.

While the layout is conventional, the interpretations are iconoclastic. Some examples: Anaxagoras and Empedocles, read through the eyes of Plato and Aristotle as they typically are, are materialists and reductionists, in search of the ultimate material roots of all. In Creationism and Its Critics in Antiquity, however, Sedley portrays them as design teleologists, stressing the overarching role of Mind (Nous) in Anaxagoras and of Love and Strife in Empedocles. Anaxagoras' Nous is a designer (in fact, Sedley suggests, of the agricultural variety! [p 22–24]), but Anaxagoras' motivations are "not theological ... but scientific and causal" (p 25). Likewise, Empedocles is portrayed as the author of a cosmic cycle, controlled alternately by the powers of Love and Strife, giving rise to a "double zoogony", the production of myriad animals both on the way toward a perfectly spherical cosmos and on the way from it and toward the complete separation of the four elements under Strife's rule. Sedley seeks to unseat "the presumption that teleology plays no significant part in Presocratic philosophy" (p 52), which, he argues, has blinded readers to an obvious role for divine craftsmanship in Empedocles.

If Sedley's presentation of these two great Presocratics as arch-teleologists comes as a surprise, his portrait of Socrates is eye-popping! Rather than relying on the voluminous, but also problematic, evidence of the Platonic dialogues for his Socrates, Sedley turns to Xenophon's defense of Socrates against the charges of impiety in his Memorabilia. "Xenophon's Socrates," Sedley proclaims, "is a fundamentally anti-scientific creationist" (p 78). Our uniquely human attributes (intellect, hands, upright posture) and the clear evidence that other animals exist for our use are evidenced to develop an explicitly "anthropocentric teleology" (p 80). Much later in the narrative we are shown how this very passage serves as a source for Stoic theology (p 212–25), while passages in Aristotle discussing the same human attributes lead Sedley, with far less plausibility, to ascribe the same sort of teleology to the Stagirite (p 201–3). But Aristotle and the Stoics must wait. I am convinced by the portrait of Socrates painted here, in part because we hear echoes of these arguments in Plato's Socrates as well. Summing up Socrates' argument in Memorabilia I 4.2–7 (translation and text appear on p 214–5 during that discussion of the Stoic legacy), he asks, rhetorically, "Do we not have here the earliest instance, or at least direct forerunner, of the Argument from Design?" Even more important, Sedley finds in Xenophon's Socrates an explicitly theological, rather than scientific, defense of design. In Plato's Phaedo (96–9) Socrates reports his early enchantment and gradual rejection of the natural scientific route to discovering why the cosmos was ordered as it was. In the last pages of this chapter, Sedley neatly returns us to Anaxagoras, whom Plato portrays in the Phaedo as Socrates' last hope for a naturalist cosmology. As I noted earlier, Sedley's Anaxagoras is not the one Plato or Aristotle leads us to expect. All the more reason, then, to suspect that the obvious connection we see between Socrates' disappointment in the Phaedo and Plato's "later move into physics" in the Timaeus (the primary topic of the next chapter) is a link, as Sedley puts it, planted in the text (p 92).

The chapter on Plato, principally focused on the dialogue that the echoes through the history of science, the Timaeus, is too rich in argument and interpretation to do it justice here. Suffice to say Sedley's final assessment is well-justified: "Even at its most mythical or its most comic, it is a profound guide to Plato's own views on the world's teleological origin, purpose, and structure" (p 132). Indeed, Plato's Timaeus is my candidate for the single most influential source for the history of natural theology.

Sedley's take on Aristotle on the issue of creationism is as unorthodox as his reading of Anaxagoras, and less convincing. He states it clearly at the outset: "... I want to defend a portrayal of Aristotle's teleological worldview as a reasoned modification of Plato's creationism" (p 167). To give you a sense of the difficulties in the way of such a defense, you only need to be reminded that Aristotle is not a creationist! Sedley says as much: "The world, along with its resident species, is not [according to Aristotle] the product of an intelligent act of creation, for the simple reason that it had no beginning at all but has always existed ..." (p 168). Better, then, to see this as a reasoned rejection of Plato's (and indeed anyone's) creationism. Likewise, we are told that Aristotle's theory of causation as formal replication is essentially Platonic (p 179). Odd, then, that after presenting a defense of his theory of causality in Metaphysics VII 8, Aristotle announces that it renders Plato's account of generation by reference to separate Forms "of no use" (1033b27–30). Aristotle's very un-Platonic understanding of the causes of generation is displayed vividly in his Generation of Animals. It is thus unfortunate that, while acknowledging that Aristotle is "the ancient world's greatest zoologist," Sedley announces that "my focus will not be on Aristotle's biological writings" (p 167).

The final section of Sedley's discussion of Aristotle is entitled "Aristotle's Platonism" (p 203–4). Yet it contains the following sentence: "The result is that, while Aristotle's world retains all the positive values — both functional and other — that Plato had associated with divine craftsmanship, these are now explained by on the one had phasing out the divine craftsman, and on the other representing nature as so closely isomorphic with craft in its structure as to be capable of producing its results even in the absence of a controlling intelligence" (p 204; compare p 208). Especially when one remembers Aristotle's oft-repeated (intentionally anti-Platonic?) maxim that "art imitates nature," it is hard to see the point of referring to this principled rejection of a cosmos created by intelligent design as Platonism.

Similarly, but more plausibly, Stoic cosmology is interpreted as deeply indebted to Socrates (as presented by Xenophon) and to Plato's Timaeus (compare p 205–10). This chapter (largely an English version of a 2005 essay published in French) presents the Stoic doctrine of Cosmic Intelligence as reported by the Skeptic Sextus Empiricus. As he had with Anaxagoras, Socrates, Plato and Aristotle, Sedley again detects an anthropocentrism in the Stoic arguments for cosmic design.

This is an important and timely volume. In the fifth century BCE the Greeks originated a tradition of defending theories about the cosmos and its origins and order by reason. Almost immediately philosophers conceived of "the argument from design," the claim that the apparent order in the cosmos is best understood as created by an intelligent craftsman. As David Sedley recounts the story, the only fundamental attack on this argument was that of the Atomists. My only disappointment with this remarkable work of philosophical synthesis is that it reinforces an injustice done to Aristotle by his Christian apologists. For it was Aristotle who challenged the argument from design by challenging the need for an intelligent creator to explain the order of the cosmos. Sedley acknowledges this, of course, but by treating Aristotle's challenge as a "modified Platonism" he undermines its significance. This one misgiving aside, I urge everyone concerned about the revival of "intelligent design" to read this compelling story of its origins in Ancient Greece.

About the Author(s): 

James G Lennox
Department of History and Philosophy of Science
University of Pittsburgh
Pittsburgh PA 15260

James G Lennox is Professor of History and Philosophy of Science at the University of Pittsburgh and the author of Aristotle's Philosophy of Biology: Studies in the Origins of Life Science (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001).