Ants, a Priest-Scientist, and the Catholic Reception of Evolution

Double Vocation: Priest and Scientist

Erich Wasmann, a Jesuit priest and accomplished scientist, was one of the leading voices in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century championing the compatibility of the theory of evolution with the Christian faith. There can be little doubt that his influence helped obtain for the theory of evolution the acceptance in the Catholic world that it has now enjoyed for many decades.

He was born in Tyrol, Austria, in 1859, the very year Charles Darwin published his Origin of Species. Erich’s father, the painter Friedrich Wasmann, encouraged his son's interest in living things at an early age. Already, when he was a student at the Jesuit College (a secondary school in Feldkirch, Austria), his classmates gave him the nickname “Carabus,” meaning “ground beetle.” It was while at that school that he made the decision to join the Jesuit order. The Jesuits, however, had been expelled from Germany in 1872 as part of the Kulturkampf. Wasmann thus began his novitiate in the Netherlands, in 1875. Unfortunately, he contracted a bad cold a few years later that resulted in severe lung hemorrhaging, which weakened him. Therefore, he could not continue his theological studies in England, as planned, but pursued them in private and was ordained a priest in 1888.

The book Ants, Bees, and Wasps, written by the polymath John Lubbock in 1874 and translated into German in 1883, sparked new interest in eusocial insects, and Wasmann was asked to contribute some articles on the subject for a Jesuit periodical. In 1884, he started to study ants, first in their natural habitat and later by building artificial ant colonies. He would build up a unique collection that ultimately comprised more than 1,000 ant species, 200 termite species and 2,000 species of myrmecophiles. During his lifetime, Wasmann described 933 new species.

He studied the interaction between ants of the same species, as well as between ants of different species, and between ants and their inquilines, the so-called “myrmecophiles,” most importantly the beetles of the order Staphylinidae. He first described the phenomenon that is still known today as “Wasmannian mimicry,” noting that the myrmecophiles resemble their hosts by sending olfactory signals, or by imitating them in size, figure, color or surface microstructure. Through adaptation over time they became similar to their hosts but different from their closest relatives. Wasmann’s scientific work convinced him of the explanatory power of Darwin’s theory of evolution. He defined “amical selection” as a specific form of natural selection between ants and their guests.

Wasmann’s compatibilist views on the theory of evolution and the Christian faith remained known only to his fellow entomologists and to a readership of educated Catholic lay people. This would dramatically change in 1904, however, when his book Die moderne Biologie und die Entwicklungstheorie came to the attention of the well-known biologist Ernst Haeckel.

Reception of Darwin’s Theory in German-Speaking Countries

The core of Darwin’s theory of evolution is that the environment shapes evolutionary pathways through the process of natural selection was in strong contrast to the earlier theory of Lamarck, who suggested that evolution occurs through individual creatures passing on to their descendants characteristics that they acquire during their lifetime. When it came to the human species, Darwin always advocated that it had a single origin (monophyletism), not many. Although he was personally either an atheist or an agnostic, Darwin did not argue for a definite metaphysical viewpoint and considered that theism and the theory of evolution might be compatible.

Darwin’s view contrasts with the reception of his theory and his work in the German-speaking countries. Two figures in particular stand out, both of whom took a strongly atheistic view of evolution. The first (although often forgotten) was Emil Heinrich du Bois-Reymond, who was known for his research on electrical activity in nerve and muscle fibers. In 1859, he read Darwin’s Origin of Species and recognized that the principle of natural selection allowed him to understand biology while discarding any form of design, purpose, or final causation in nature.  

The second was the influential Ernst Haeckel. In 1864, Haeckel read Darwin's Origin of Species and soon was an outspoken advocate. He immediately ventured into metaphysical realms, declaring that evolution does away with any dualism (Creator and creation, matter and spirit, etc.) and brings everything together into what he called a “monism”. During his lifetime he went from materialism to pantheism, from one monistic position to another. This may be puzzling to some people, but Wasmann explained it: “If we subtract everything we call ‘the world’ from what monism calls ‘God,’ the result is zero.” Haeckel placed greater emphasis on the common origin of all living things than on the mechanism on natural selection and sometimes even took a Lamarckian view.

In Origin of Species, Darwin discussed the “Laws of Embryology,” which had been proposed in 1828 by Karl Ernst von Baer. Baer had shown that animal embryos started from one, or a few, shared basic forms and then developed in a branching pattern into increasingly different-looking organisms. Much to von Baer’s chagrin, Haeckel used this insight and proposed the biogenetic law “ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny,” which states that the embryological development (= ontogenesis) of an individual represents a shortened form of the evolutionary history (=phylogenesis) that leads from earlier and simpler kinds of organisms to later more complicated ones. In the twenty-first century, Haeckel’s proposition is no longer considered a law, but rather a rule with limited application.

Haeckel was a gifted artist, and his 1904 book Kunstformen der Natur (“Art forms of nature”) still today evokes a sense of awe and wonder. But for illustrating his “biogenetic law”, he used drawings of embryos of different species that could not be replicated by other scientists and that bordered on fraud. In today's terms, this would require retraction of the publication; but the latter half of the nineteenth century was more liberal about such things, although this question led to a major discussion with leading experts, a discussion in which Wasmann also was involved in later years.

Haeckel, like Thomas Huxley in England, was not only an advocate for evolution, but also a science popularizer. His books The History of Creation (1876; 1868 German original) and The Riddle of the Universe (1901; 1899 German original) reached a wide circle in society. As a young man, Ernst Haeckel harbored a conventional set of Lutheran beliefs, mostly structured by the theology of Schleiermacher. His take on Darwin and the sudden death of his young wife shifted his ideas towards those of Goethe and Spinoza. His battles with proponents of Christian belief became more intense after 1880, and in 1905 he gave three lectures that directly attacked Erich Wasmann, seeing in his person and work a direct attack on his own monistic ideas about the theory of evolution.

Erich Wasmann and “Theistic Evolution”

In lectures that he delivered in 1907 in Berlin, Wasmann was the first to use the term “theistic evolution.” In German, he used the term “theistische Entwicklungslehre,” which was translated in the 1910 English version as “theistic doctrine of evolution,” but, “theistic evolution,” is a more accurate translation.

In his lectures, Wasmann set forth a set of “postulates” that defined theistic evolution. The first three postulates described God as Creator, as personal God who is the fullness of being and who is intrinsically “participating in the actions of all creatures, through His interior presence.” The universe, created “out of nothing,” is finite and bound to time. Once matter was created, the cosmic evolution and the evolution in the inorganic world could take place over millions of years, governed by laws. Wasmann emphasized that “a God who could create a living world capable of evolution is immeasurably greater and higher in His wisdom and power than a God who could only set all living creatures in the world as fixed, unalterable automata.”

The fourth postulate was about the origin of the first organisms: Wasmann saw this as an aspect of natural philosophy, not theology. He assumed a creative act of God, but also stated that,

Should science [ever] be in a position to prove that spontaneous generation was actually possible, and that living beings could proceed spontaneously from inorganic matter, theism would at once give up this fourth postulate, for it is merely conditional and not essential to the Christian theory of the universe.

We should see Wasmann’s words also in a historical context: “Spontaneous generation” had been the accepted thesis through ages in science, philosophy and theology and was only finally rejected due to the experiments of Louis Pasteur as late as 1859, only about 50 years prior to Wasmann’s lecture.

In his fifth postulate, he said that the earliest laws of evolution were laid down for the organic world at the production of the first organisms. Importantly, those laws comply with the laws of physics and chemistry, but living beings, unlike non-living things, have a purpose from within.

With our “modern evolutionary synthesis,” which combines the theories of genetics and evolution, we see genetic modifications in the germ cells as the random factor providing diversity, with natural selection being the directing force. We also acknowledge the importance of population genetics, genetic drift, and isolation. Recently, a broader framework, termed the extended evolutionary synthesis (EES), has been developed, maintaining that important drivers of evolution cannot be reduced to genes, but must be woven into the very fabric of evolutionary theory.

Wasmann considered natural selection to be one of the driving factors in evolution, but not the only one, since he regarded natural selection as an exclusively negative force that needed to be supplemented by positive directing forces, which he saw in processes inherent to individual development. In this assumption, he was not alone, but followed important biologists of his time, and he referred specifically to three: August Weissman, Oskar Hertwig, and Theodor Boveri.

August Weismann proposed what he called “germinal selection,” showing that genetic variability had to be located in the germ cells, not in other cells of the body (called somatic cells) and opposed the Lamarckian view that acquired traits could be transmitted to the progeny. Oskar Hertwig took a critical stance towards both Weismann and Darwin, putting forward the thought that there is “continuity in the process of development, and the principle of progression, that is to say, that development” (both ontogenetic and phylogenetic) “progresses steadily in a definite direction.” Seen from today’s perspective, we may not agree with Hertwig’s view of evolution, but his contribution to developmental biology was important and long-lasting: he was the first to study sexual reproduction under the microscope, and the first to recognize “nuclein” (what we call now nucleic acids) as the substance responsible not only for fertilization but also for the transmission of hereditary characteristics. The third scientist to whom Wasmann referred approvingly was Theodor Boveri, who described chromosomes as distinctive units of inheritance.

Finally, in his sixth postulate, Wasmann discussed human origins and emphasized that, although man is dust and will return to dust, he also has a “divine spark,” an immortal, spiritual soul.

Wasmann on Human Origins

Wasmann returned to the question of the descent of man later in his lectures. “Investigating the descent and origin of man, the chief question is: ‘Whence comes his higher part?’ not: ‘Whence comes his lower part?’” Therefore, also theology and psychology have a say in the discussion about humanity: “In short, the question that we have to discuss . . . is not a purely zoological one, and we must do our best, as far as possible, to do justice to all the various aspects of it, and not to confuse them with one another.”

Wasmann saw experimental animal psychology on his side in affirming a gap, a divide between the faculties of animals and the spiritual dimension in humans. Only humans have the ability to go beyond the sensible. “What characterizes human thought is the fact that man possesses the power to form concepts, and to deduce from them general conclusions, and to raise himself by the aid of his reason above all particular phenomena.” Wasmann emphasized the essential difference between animal and human in a mental and spiritual area that cannot be bridged by mere evolution.

With regard to the corporeal dimension of human origins, Wasmann’s main point was that neither paleontology, nor morphology, nor embryonal development provided evidence of the origin of mankind from animal precursors. His main emphasis was on paleontology. At the time, there were only two fossils known that could be part of human ancestry: Pithecanthropus and the Neanderthals. Pithecanthropus, found in Java in 1895, was considered by eminent scientists like Virchow not to belong to human ancestry, but to ape ancestry.

Only later findings in China led to the reclassification of “Java Man” in 1950 to the species Homo erectus, placing them directly in the human evolutionary lineage. Whether the Neanderthals belonged to a separate species or were part of an older human race was a disputed question among experts at the time. Wasmann claimed that the Neanderthals belonged to the species Homo sapiens, heavily relying on the concept of “natural species,” referring to the Austrian paleontologist Melchior Neumayr who used the term “paleontological species.”

As Wasmann noted, Haeckel built a tree of human ancestry based mainly on “imagination”, inventing missing links that simply did not exist; in addition, Haeckel described human races (what we would also call ethnicities) as branching out from different parts of this tree, thus implying that not all humans today have a common human ancestry. Haeckel’s view was thus in strong contrast to the concept of monophyletic ancestry of all human beings alive today, as affirmed both by Darwin and by today’s science. While our present picture of human origins may present itself as a tangled tree, scientists are convinced that all human beings share common human ancestors. Wasmann accepted the monophyletic origin of humans, but remained skeptical of human descent from non-humans, waiting for additional data. In his words:

Every atom in the human body had its primary origin in a creative act of God at the first formation of matter, although millions of years of cosmic development were to elapse before it became a living part of a human body; and, in just the same way, we might imagine a hypothetical history of humanity, governed by the laws of natural development, which God impressed upon the first cells at the moment when life originated. In accordance with this purely speculative supposition, man would have become man completely only when the organized matter had so far developed through natural causes, as to be capable of being animated with a human soul.

He concludes:

The creation of the first human soul marks the real creation of the human race, although we might assume that a natural development lasting millions of years had preceded it . . . If ever science is able to demonstrate to us the natural development of man from an ancestry resembling beasts, the divine origin and the divine end of humanity will nevertheless remain unassailed and firmly established as before.

Wasmanm’s Silence and His Legacy

In 1910, Father Wasmann gave another series on lectures on evolution and the Catholic faith in Innsbruck, and said in an even more forceful way:

Evolutionary theory does not stand in hostile opposition to the Christian doctrine of creation, but it complements it in the most beautiful way. A God who was able to create a living world capable of development is immeasurably greater and more sublime in his power and wisdom than a God who could only put all creatures into the world as rigid, unchangeable automatons. This has already been presciently expressed by great minds of the Christian Middle Ages and antiquity, such as Thomas Aquinas and Augustine. We may therefore remain calm and firm in our sublime Christian words of creation: In the beginning, God created heaven and earth.

In later years, he would return to the danger he saw in Haeckel's monism, and he continued his entomological research. He became silent on the topic of evolution, however. In 1908, he had received a letter from the Jesuit Superior General, Fr. Franz Xaver Wrenz, asking him to refrain from the question of human evolution. Wrenz, being involved in two cases brought before Congregation of the Index, knew of negative views on this question by several cardinals and reviewers at that time. In 1909, the Pontifical Biblical Commission on Genesis published a decree on the first three chapters of Genesis. Wasmann’s personal notes to this decree reveal that his silence was a self-imposed silence, out of filial obedience to the teaching authority of the Church.

Nonetheless, Wasmann’s influence was already going beyond the borders of the German-speaking world: he carefully supervised the Italian translation of his 1904 book, a translation initiated and promoted by the scientist and Franciscan priest Giovanni Agostini. In 1906, the Belgian zoologist, psychologist, and Jesuit priest Robert Sinety provided a thorough examination of Wasmann's work. In Spain, the Jesuit Jaime Pujiula Dilmé, an expert in embryology and histology who had studied in Germany and Austria, took a similar stance, although he excluded the possibility of an origin of life without divine intervention.

Wasmann was invited to write an article for the Catholic Encyclopedia, bringing his work to attention in the English-speaking world. The Question Box, a book widely read by American lay people, cites Wasmann in several places. In his article in the Catholic Encyclopedia, which appeared in 1909, Wasmann first described the basics of biological evolution and then said, “This is the gist of the theory of evolution as a scientific hypothesis. It is in perfect agreement with the Christian conception of the universe.” 

Wasmann was appreciated as a scientist, and as a friend and teacher. He died peacefully in 1931. Franz Heikertinger, an agnostic and fellow entomologist, summarized his life in these words:

With Father Wasmann one of the most famous representatives of the entomological world—and not only of the entomological one—has passed away. A man who found in investigating the relations of ants to their guests the main task of his life, who turned the results of his work into attempts to solve the most extensive biological problems, who undertook to interest wide circles, who tried to build a scientific bridge between the Bible and Darwin, a man who did not shy away from the fight, and even sometimes promoted it. That was Wasmann.


In the first explicit statement of the Church about evolution, Pope Pius XII said in his 1950 encyclical Humani Generis,

The Teaching Authority of the Church does not forbid that, in conformity with the present state of human sciences and sacred theology, research and discussions, on the part of men experienced in both fields, take place with regard to the doctrine of evolution, in as far as it inquires into the origin of the human body as coming from pre-existent and living matter—for the Catholic faith obliges us to hold that souls are immediately created by God.

And in 2004, the document Communion and Stewardship: Human Persons Created in the Image of God produced by the Vatican’s International Theological Commission confirmed: 

Acting indirectly through causal chains [i.e. of cosmic evolution and biological evolution] operating from the beginning of cosmic history, God prepared the way for what Pope John Paul II has called “an ontological leap . . . the moment of transition to the spiritual.” While science can study these causal chains, it falls to theology to locate this account of the special creation of the human soul within the overarching plan of the triune God to share the communion of trinitarian life with human persons who are created out of nothing in the image and likeness of God, and who, in his name and according to his plan, exercise a creative stewardship and sovereignty over the physical universe.

Pope Francis addresses our uniqueness as humans being in his encyclical Laudato Sí in these words:

Human beings, even if we postulate a process of evolution, also possess a uniqueness which cannot be fully explained by the evolution of other open systems. Each of us has his or her own personal identity and is capable of entering into dialogue with others and with God himself. Our capacity to reason, to develop arguments, to be inventive, to interpret reality and to create art, along with other not yet discovered capacities, are signs of a uniqueness which transcends the spheres of physics and biology.

He continues:

The sheer novelty involved in the emergence of a personal being within a material universe presupposes a direct action of God and a particular call to life and to relationship on the part of a “Thou” who addresses himself to another “thou”. The biblical accounts of creation invite us to see each human being as a subject who can never be reduced to the status of an object.

Wasmann carefully accepted the theory of evolution within certain boundaries, specifically in the context of human origins: the human body may be the subject of evolution, but the soul, as “divine spark,” created directly by God, is constitutive to our nature. Seen from the perspective of today, we can see a unifying thread from Wasmann, to Pope Pius XII, right up to Pope Francis.

EDITORIAL NOTE: This article is part of a collaboration with the Society of Catholic Scientists (click here to read about becoming a member). You can read a more complete version of this article with extensive footnotes here.

Featured Image: Michael SummersAlien Ant Attack; Source: Flickr, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.


Berta M. Moritz

Berta M. Moritz has a Ph.D. in Zoology/Biochemistry from the Univ. of Graz, Austria. She works in pharmaceutical drug R&D in industry and academia.

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