Does the Extended Evolutionary Synthesis Shed New Light on Theological Anthropology?

Particle physicist Stephen Barr often points out that contemporary physics is so mathematically elegant and challenging that even now, a century after Einstein, Newtonian physics remains the mainstay of the undergraduate physics classroom. His observation often came to mind as I worked on the 2nd edition of my textbook Faith, Science, and Reason: Theology on the Cutting Edge, not as I was writing Chapter 7 on physics and faith, but in Chapters 8 and 9, which are devoted to evolutionary biology and human origins. As I begin Chapter 8 I offer a very cursory explanation of Standard Evolutionary Theory (SET) for the sake of relating SET to Catholic doctrine and theology. As I wrote it, my mind kept wandering to a new model of evolution that is simply too new for an undergrad/high-school textbook. And yet this model offers intriguing opportunities for theological reflection, especially on the often misunderstood and yet entirely fascinating questions regarding the origins of our species, the “symbol-mongering” animal à la Walker Percy.[1]

What can the evolutionary sciences offer to theological anthropology? Answering this question requires attention to the current state of evolutionary theory. It is important to take into consideration the fact that contemporary scientific inquiry has a new twist, the Extended Evolutionary Synthesis (EES), in the tale it provides about the origin of our species. There is a growing consensus that the SET, for all it tells us, does not tell enough. Scientists have begun to reckon with new mechanisms that expand evolutionary biology beyond the assumptions of SET that all inheritance occurs through DNA and that natural selection is the sole cause of adaptation.[2] In light of hundreds of experiments, EES proponents such as Eva Jablonka, Kevin Laland and Gerd Müller point to several previously unrecognized mechanisms that challenge the theoretical assumptions of SET.

To get a glimpse into the revolutionary character of these new discoveries one need only consider the fundamental precept of SET that all biological inheritance is both genetic and random. It is often given a more philosophical expression (albeit an impoverished one) in the assumption of genetic determinism, the idea that an organism is simply an expression of genetic information, standing alone, with animal bodies no more than “giant lumbering robots” operated by their genetic engineers (in the words of Richard Dawkins), who are the real agents of evolution. To the contrary, it is now known that the expression of genes is affected by chemicals which attach to them, even chemicals produced by parental behavior and experiences. In a 2014 study, scientists at Emory discovered that mice which had been trained to fear the smell of almonds passed on, epigenetically, the tendency toward that fear to their direct offspring and even the subsequent generation.[3] Biological inheritance is inclusive not only of genes but also of extra-genetic changes, some of which arise from behaviors and experiences, which EES theorists refer to as developmental plasticity.

And this is only one of several mechanisms recognized in EES. Another is developmental bias, which governs evolution at a level prior to selection, and therefore challenges natural selection as the sole cause of evolutionary change, as we see in the phenomenon known as evolutionary convergence.[4] A third comes from the science of genomics, which reveals that genomic sequences can be acquired from other organisms, as seems to be the case with the evolution of the mammalian placenta from a retrovirus inserted in the genome of one of our pre-mammalian evolutionary ancestors over 130 millions years ago.[5] Finally, EES recognizes the evolutionary influence of niche construction or gene-culture coevolution, in which populations of organisms are actively involved in the formation of their environment, forming the selective conditions of later populations, as in the likely coevolution of modern hands and stone tool use among hominids.[6] EES theorists refer to gene-culture coevolution as a new way of thinking about not only human evolution, but of the entire animal kingdom. Social learning about diet, feeding, communication, mate and breeding-site choices are ubiquitous in mammals, birds, fish and insects. Behavioral differences once thought to be genetic are now known to be cultural traditions, such as the diversity of foraging techniques among orcas which may be driving them to split into several species. Over time, these extra-genetic traditions shape and inform how organisms adapt, and “drag genetic change in their wake.”[7] Therefore, EES theorists espouse the principle of reciprocal causation, in which proximate evolutionary mechanisms are recognized for their contribution to the dynamics of evolutionary change, while also being shaped by genetics.[8] If they are correct, no longer may we ask, “Is this trait the product of nature or nurture?” The nature/nurture, biological/behavioral, genetic/cultural divide has been transcended.

It is this final area, the effect of culture on evolution, that offers the most potential for informing theological anthropology. Indeed, it is already being recognized that EES opens up new avenues for scientific anthropology itself and the study of human origins, that its theoretical assumptions are more promising for understanding what it means to be and become human than those of SET.[9] In this regard, groundbreaking work has been done by the biological anthropologist and primatologist Agustín Fuentes of the University of Notre Dame, for which he has already been recognized in the realm of natural theology through his presentation of the 2018 Gifford Lectures, which he entitled “Why We Believe: Evolution, Making Meaning, and the Development of Human Natures.” Fuentes applies EES to argue compellingly that cultural continuity with our hominin ancestors and the uniqueness of our species are not mutually exclusive alternatives. He argues that it is in a community with longstanding and yet evolving cultural traditions that humans came to their unique capacities which are, in his words, “radically novel.”[10] No less a theological authority than J. Wentzel Van Huyssteen, widely regarded as the leading theological authority on human origins,[11] praised Fuentes for showing that “one can now envision a distinctive imagination as a core part of the human niche that ultimately enabled the possibility of metaphysical thought,” and that “the emergence of language and a fully developed theory of mind with high levels of intentionality, empathy, compassion, moral awareness, symbolic thought and social unity would be impossible without an extremely cooperative and mutually integrated social system . . . as our core adaptive niche.”[12]

This is not a new idea; it was one that was indirectly yet presciently anticipated by the founder of Laval Thomism, Charles De Koninck, in 1936, drawing on his simple observations of animal behavior:

Nothing equals the seriousness and pragmatism of the lower animals who do nothing useless. Higher animals, on the contrary, play . . . Nothing prevents us from imagining that it is in play, which requires a quick adaptation to new situations and sharp attention, that the higher animals have been progressively disposed and have called intelligence into the world. For the proper life of intelligence is above all play, a game within the principles of being and thought.[13]

De Koninck’s observation of the nature of animal play is connected to some idea of animal culture; indeed, he notes that “the love of irrational creatures is substantial.”[14]

There are many avenues down which EES-inspired anthropological inquiry can lead. But prior to those, a clear resonance between this vision of human origins and distinctness as emerging from a social context needs to be recognized and contemplated: the eminent fittingness of this new picture of human origins, emerging from animal culture and social learning, and the doctrine of creation ex Trinitate.

For the world to have its beginning in God the Creator means not only that it is created at every moment from nothing, with time, and freely, but also that it has its origin from the Trinity. Not simply from the Father—the Father, Son and Holy Spirit are one source of all that is. In the words of the Council of Florence,

Most firmly [this council] believes, professes and preaches that the one true God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, is the creator of all things that are, visible and invisible, who, when he willed it, made from his own goodness all creatures, both spiritual and corporeal, good indeed because they are made by the supreme good, but changeable because they are made from nothing, and it asserts that there is no nature of evil because every nature, in so far as it is a nature, is good.[15]

The Holy Trinity is a perfect communion of love, which means that the universe is the product of divine love. If the advent of the human is the culminating act of creation, penultimate only to salvation history and redemption in Christ, then it is to be expected, based on creation ex Trinitate that human origins were profoundly communitarian, and that the capax Dei implicated in all religious yearning emerged from a communal reality, one which, on the level of secondary causes, made us what we are. Reflecting on the 2nd Creation Account in the light of EES anthropology and the doctrine of creation ex Trinitate, is it not fitting to consider Adam and Eve as symbolic of a community, the first community to make the breakthrough to rationality and freedom embodied in communal interaction? In this context, we can consider Meister Eckhart’s image of creation from the laughter of the Trinity, in which human emergence is simply an extension, ad extra, of eternal divine joy. His words are worth recalling: “Do you want to know what goes on in the core of the Trinity? I will tell you. In the core of the Trinity the Father laughs and gives birth to the Son. The Son laughs back at the Father and gives birth to the Spirit. The whole Trinity laughs and gives birth to us.”[16] Laughter is a social reality, which comes from shared life and perspective. According to EES, such social realities are just as constitutive of human nature as genetic mutation.

Just as St. John Henry Newman anticipated Darwin’s evolutionary thinking, applying the concept to doctrine 14 years before Darwin applied it to biological life, Joseph Ratzinger anticipated the emphasis of EES on the primacy of culture in human evolution by developing a theological anthropology in which relation, not merely essence, is the proper level on which to access the theological meaning of personhood. From this perspective, personhood for humans is not exceptional to divine personhood, but is realized insofar as it reflects the “pure relativity of being turned toward the other” of the divine persons. In his perspective, “In Christianity there is not simply a dialogical [anthropological] principle . . . a pure ‘I-Thou’ relationship, for there is no mere ‘I’ nor ‘thou’ in God; ‘I’ and ‘thou’ exist in God only as integrated into the greater ‘we.’”[17] Consider his claim about the anthropological foundation of the concept of tradition in light of EES and its emphasis on reciprocal causation:

The human spirit creates history; history conditions human existence . . . intellect is basically memory—a context that fosters unity beyond the limits of the present moment . . it is as memory that intellect proves itself qua intellect; memory generates tradition; tradition realizes itself in history; as the already existing context of humanity, history makes humanity possible—for without the necessarily transtemporal relationship of person to person, humanity cannot be awakened to itself, cannot express itself.[18]

Could it also be the case that it was in community, or rather its breakdown, deformation or artificial restriction, that the rupture in God’s plan for humanity, which we refer to now as Original Sin, consists? Unsurprisingly, Joseph Ratzinger extends his “we” anthropology here, again moving beyond essence to relation. The fact that we are created “in the image of God” means that we are beings whose lives make no sense without community, being in genuine relationships with each other. Sin is the disturbance of relationships; whenever I sin, I make myself the center of the universe, rejecting God and others. The first sin damaged the network of relationships at the very beginning of human history. The world of human community we all enter “is marked by relational damage.” In Ratzinger’s interpretation,

At the very moment that a person enters human existence, which is a good, he or she is confronted by a sin-damaged world. Each of us enters into a situation in which relationality has been hurt. Consequently each person is, from the very start, damaged in relationships and does not engage in them as he or she ought. Sin pursues the human being, and he or she capitulates to it.[19]

Upon first hearing, it may seem that Ratzinger is suggesting what amounts to the heresy of Pelagianism, which considered the universality of sin entirely as a matter of imitation, not generation. And yet in light of what EES tells us about human origins, perhaps what he is hinting at here is a much more profoundly relational and interpersonal inheritance than our gene-centric assumptions might lead us to imagine. If what makes me is not simply my parents’ genetic information, but even their experiences, the culture in which I was born, etc. then Pelagius was wrong not first about imitation but above all about the human being as a monad who selects his own moral influences, much like a kid chooses desserts at a Piccadilly Cafeteria. When given careful theological reflection, EES offers empirical evidence of the Augustinian principle that “the human will is too leaky a vessel to serve as the ship of salvation.”[20]

Decades after this observation, and as Pope Benedict XVI, Ratzinger would complete this insight with the beautiful exception that proves the rule: the sinlessness of the Blessed Virgin Mary, preserved from all stain of sin from the moment of her conception. We all carry the “drop of poison” of thinking that, standing all alone, raising ourselves to God’s level, we will fulfill ourselves, finding real happiness. In his words, “We call this drop of poison ‘original sin.’” In sinning every human being “sets his sights on power, with which he desires to take his own life autonomously in hand. And in doing so, he trusts in deceit rather than in truth and thereby sinks with his life into emptiness, into death.” But God’s love and the love of others are gifts; trying to sinfully stand on our own is to enslave ourselves, for the freedom we have must be lived “with one another, and for one another” in order for it to be realized. Mary, on the other hand, shows us what freedom truly means, namely receiving one’s life through unrestricted closeness to others:

The person who turns to God does not become smaller but greater, for through God and with God he becomes great, he becomes divine, he becomes truly himself. The person who puts himself in God's hands does not distance himself from others, withdrawing into his private salvation; on the contrary, it is only then that his heart truly awakens and he becomes a sensitive, hence, benevolent and open person.

The closer a person is to God, the closer he is to people. We see this in Mary. The fact that she is totally with God is the reason why she is so close to human beings.[21]

To conclude, it is helpful to recall that St. John Paul II himself once asked the question undertaken here: “Does an evolutionary perspective bring any light to bear upon theological anthropology, the meaning of the human person as the imago Dei . . . ?” The emergence of EES, a new theoretical paradigm for evolution and human origins, seems to contain an exciting answer to that question, a refreshing stimulus to theological reflection. Thinking about theological anthropology in a way that is informed by EES, the Church may be able to overcome the pathology of a self-enclosed theological language in which nostalgia deforms methodology.[22] At the same time, it may open a way for the scientifically literate denizens of the 21st century to think about the Catholic Faith in terms they understand. Moving beyond the borders of disciplines in this way, we can hope that the Church may realize, in John Paul’s words, “in greater intensity the activity of Christ within her: ‘For God was in Christ, reconciling the world to himself’ (2 Cor 5:19).”[23]

[1] Walker Percy, “The Delta Factor,” pp. 3-45 in The Message in the Bottle: How Queer Man Is, How Queer Language Is, and What One Has to Do with the Other (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1992), 38.

[2] Kevin Laland and Tobias Uller, "About the EES," Extended Evolutionary Synthesis, accessed May 22, 2019,

[3] Kevin Laland, "Science in Flux: Is a Revolution Brewing in Evolutionary Theory? – Kevin Laland | Aeon Essays," Aeon, May 22, 2019,  accessed May 22, 2019, For the original study, see Brian G. Dias and Kerry J. Ressler, "Parental Olfactory Experience Influences Behavior and Neural Structure in Subsequent Generations," Nature Neuroscience 17, no. 1 (2013): 89-96.

[4] Gerd B. Müller, "Correction to ‘Why an Extended Evolutionary Synthesis Is Necessary’," Interface Focus 7, no. 6 (2017): 3, doi:10.1098/rsfs.2017.0065.

[5] Edward B. Chuong, : “The placenta goes viral: Retroviruses control gene expression in pregnancy,” PLoS Biology 16:10 (October 2018):: e3000028. https://; A. Muir, A. Lever, and A. Moffett, "Expression and Functions of Human Endogenous Retroviruses in the Placenta: An Update," Placenta 25, no. Supplement (April 2004): S16-S25, doi:10.1016/j.placenta.2004.01.012. For an example of  theological reflection on the placenta see Kristen M. Collier, “Some Human Beings Carry Remnants of Other Humans in Their Bodies,” Church Life Journal, July 25, 2019, accessed November 15, 2019,

[6] Sara Reardon, "Stone Tools Helped Shape Human Hands," New Scientist, April 10, 2013, accessed May 22, 2019,

[7] Kevin Laland, "Science in Flux.”

[8] K.N. Laland, K. Sterelny, J. Odling-Smee, W. Hoppitt, and T. Uller, “Cause and Effect in Biology Revisited: Is Mayrs Proximate-Ultimate Dichotomy Still Useful?” Science 334, no. 6062 (2011): 1514–15, doi:10.1126/science.1210879.

[9] See for example, Cameron M. Smith, Liane Gabora, and William Gardner-O'Kearney. “The Extended Evolutionary Synthesis Paves the Way for a Theory of Cultural Evolution,” Cliodynamics: The Journal of Quantitative History and Cultural Evolution 9:2 (2018): 84–107; Karola Stoltz, “Extended Evolutionary Psychology: the Importance of Transgenerational Developmental Plasticity,” Frontiers in Psychology 5 (2014). doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2014.00908; .

[10] Fuentes, Agustín. “Why We Believe: Evolution, Making Meaning, and the Development of Human Natures.” The Gifford Lectures, October 27, 2017, accessed May 22, 2019.

[11] See Christopher Lilley and Daniel J. Pederson, eds., Human Origins and the Image of God: Essays in Honor of J. Wentzel Van Huyssteen (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2017).

[12] J. Wentzel Van Huyssteen, "Human Origins and the Emergence of Morality and Religion," Gifford Lectures Blog, March 7, 2018, accessed May 22, 2019,

[13] Charles de Koninck, The Cosmos, pp. 235-354 in The Writings of Charles De Koninck, ed. and trans. Ralph McInerny, vol. 1 (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 2008), 310.

[14] Ibid., 308

[15] Ecumenical Council of Florence, Bull of Union With the Copts (1442), accessed May 21, 2019,

[16] Meister Eckhart,  Meister Eckhart: A Modern Translation, translated by Raymond Bernard Blakney (New York: HarperPerennial, 2004), 245.

[17] Joseph Ratzinger, “Concerning the Notion of Person in Theology,” Communio 17 (1990): 444, 449, 453.

[18] Ratzinger, Principles of Catholic Theology: Building Stones for a Fundamental Theology, translated by Mary Frances McCarthy (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1987), 87.

[19] Ratzinger, In the Beginning: A Catholic Understanding of the Story of Creation and the Fall, translated by Boniface Ramsey (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1986), 73.

[20] John D. Sykes, Flannery O'Connor, Walker Percy, and the Aesthetic of Revelation (Columbia, MO: 2007), 164.

[21] Benedict XVI, Homily on the Feast of the Immaculate Conception, December 8, 2005, accessed May 20, 2019,

[22] Józef Życiński, trans. by Kenneth W. Kemp and Zuzanna Maślanka, God and Evolutionism: Fundamental Questions of Christian Evolutionism (Washington: Catholic University of America Press, 2006), 4.

[23] John Paul II, “Letter.”

Featured Image: Sgerbic, Christchurch Art Gallery Light, taken on 26 November 2019; Source: Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 4.0.


Christopher Baglow

Christopher Baglow is Director of the Science & Religion Initiative of the McGrath Institute for Church Life at the University of Notre Dame. He is the author of Faith, Science and Reason: Theology on the Cutting Edge and is the co-recipient of the 2018 Expanded Reason Award in the Teaching category.

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