Wesley and extinction

From: Ted Davis <tdavis@messiah.edu>
Date: Mon Aug 01 2005 - 13:38:32 EDT

George Hunter wrote, relative to extinction:

#1 goes back to Wesley and Jefferson in the 18th century. How's that for
bracketing the theological spectrum? A Wesleyan (literally) and a deist both
making the same identical point, that God would not have species go
extinct.

Ted comments:
I'm interested to have more precise information about Wesley. In my cases
in my experience, when people cite Wesley on some aspect of nature, it's
something from Wesley's "Compendium of Natural Philosophy," a massive work
that has lots of passages taken wholesale from Charles Bonnet and other
authors. It can be tricky to know which opinions are Wesley's and which
aren't. My general advice it, not to cite Wesley on natural philosophy
without first checking the larger context for the citation.

Now, assuming that Wesley agreed with the general 18th century (and late
17th century) consensus view, that a good God would not allow extinction,
then the crucial person to confront next is not Darwin but Cuvier. It was
Cuvier who made the argument from various forms of fossil elephants, that
extinction is a reality in nature. Ironically, in order to establish this
point, he had to rule out transmutation (ie, evolution). First he asks, why
don't we find these exact animals out there anymore? He then considered 3
possibilities: (1) transmutation--they have become something else; ruled out
on actualistic (ie, a posteriori) grounds, since we have no evidence that
transmutation happens and abundant evidence that it doesn't (namely, we
observe no evolution over 5,000 years in mummified animals and humans from
Egypt). (2) migration--the "extinct" animals are still out there somewhere
in unexplored regions of the globe, a possibility he ruled out for animals
as large as elephants as geographical knowledge grew and we still didn't
find them. and (3) actual extinction, so that the economy of nature has
been broken up.

George Murphy's comments on the "chain of beings," etc are a propos here.
Belief in the sanctity of speces per se is rooted both in the Christian
tradition (God values what God creates, hence no extinction) and in the
Greek philosophical tradition (God's goodness requires that whatever can
exist must exist, and once it exists it would not be good were it no longer
to exist). My students seem to think that valuing species as species is
some wild belief coming from "tree huggers" and other modern folks; some
even associate this (believe it or not) with "evolutionists." It of course
has quite different roots. Ironies all over the place today.

Ted
Received on Mon Aug 1 13:39:38 2005

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