The Origins of Doubt
and the Rebirth of Praise
3 of God and Science
P. Henderson, Jr.
cannot begin to fathom the dilemma of western culture without reflecting upon
Darwin and The
Origin of Species. Obviously, Darwin's theories about the evolution of
life on this planet stand at the very center of the controversy between science
and religion. We are reminded of this by the increasing efforts of creationists
to gain equal time for the Bible in the public schools of America, but these rearguard
efforts to turn back the pages of history and re-enact the Scopes
trial are of far less significance than the continuing cold war between the
world's leading scientists and theologians. For this is a controversy being conducted
not in the rural countryside of Arkansas and Nebraska but in the leading universities
and at the most advanced frontiers of human thought.
To be sure, the contradictions
between evolution and the Bible have been addressed again and again. In fact,
the critical issues were successfully resolved long before Darwin published his
views on natural selection in 1859. What has not been repaired is the breach that
opened up between science and religion generally in the period following the publication
Darwin realized that he had opened up the most serious problems at the
interface of science and religion, but in the end he could not resolve them even
to his own satisfaction. He ended his career in a state of total confusion about
the one problem which his great book purports to solve; namely, how to explain
the origin and evolution of life in scientific terms without an appeal to religion.
As he confided in a letter to one of his closest colleagues, "I am in an
utterly hopeless muddle."'(1)
failure to resolve the problem of faith both personally and as a professional
scientist has had a lasting effect upon scientific endeavor since the 1850s.
Darwin set out on his
epic voyage aboard the H. M. S. Beagle in 1831, he had no intention of rocking
the world with controversy. At the beginning of his journey he was not a seasoned
scientist well-equipped to address the fundamental issues of his time. He was
a fresh graduate of Cambridge with a degree in theology. His personal agenda was
to complete the requirements for ordination in the Church
of England and secure a quiet, country parish where he could practice the
ministry while at the same time pursue his favorite hobbies: hunting, fishing,
and collecting rare specimens of rocks or beetles. His appointment as a "naturalist"
on what was conceived as a routine scientific expedition to the southern coast
of Tierra del Fuego would
not yet have qualified Darwin as a professional scientist. The British Admiralty
was not prepared to pay his salary; the government would only provide for his
expenses and accommodations aboard the unwieldy and unseaworthy Beagle; but the
chance to circumnavigate the globe and explore the coast of South America appealed
to his sense of adventure.
The Beagle sailed on December 27, 1831, a date
which Darwin later marked as the beginning of his "second life."(2)
The notations in his diary and his letters home mark out the successive steps
in the transformation from enthusiastic amateur to serious and dedicated man of
science. To his father he wrote, "I think if I can so soon judge, I shall
be able to do some original work in natural history. I find there is so little
known about many of the tropical animals."(3)
At the beginning of the voyage his primary enthusiasm was
for hunting, but after two years at sea he had given up his gun and had thrown
himself entirely into the task of collecting specimens of rocks, plant life, and
animals. Again he wrote home, "There is nothing like geology; the pleasure
of the first day's partridge shooting or first day's hunting cannot be compared
to finding a fine group of fossil bones, which tell their story of former times
with almost a living tongue."(4) Already Darwin
had exhibited a penchant for metaphor which, as we shall see, was central to his
own thinking and characteristic of that whole mode of thought which today goes
by the name of Darwinism.
popular conceptions of the scientific endeavor call to mind technicians dressed
in white robes in a laboratory somewhere, Darwin's journey aboard the Beagle gives
us quite an alternative view. As the Beagle traced its course around the continent
of South America, Darwin explored areas as diverse as the barren Falkland Islands,
the tropical rain forest, the Rio Negro, and the volcanic mountains of Chile.
On February 20, 1835, Darwin had one of those experiences that change the character
of one's whole life work. While exploring the mountains near Valparaiso,
his imagination was drawn to the solid masses of granite rising up out of the
forests "as if they had been coeval with the very beginning of the world."(5)
The granite fascinated him because it seemed to be the most basic and fundamental
building block in the earth's solid crust. Penetrating to this basic, geological
bedrock seemed to bring one close to the "classic ground" of creation.(6)
However, as he lay peacefully in a forest near Valdivia
speculating about such impressions of nature, he felt the shock waves of a major
earthquake. In the forest the drama of the earthquake was shocking enough, but
when he returned to the port at Talcuhano he was horrified to find that every
dwelling place had been demolished. The earth itself had been rent by deep crevasses,
and the granite rock formations, which formerly appeared so solid and unshakable,
had been shattered into fragments. "An earthquake like this at once destroys
the oldest associations; the world, the very emblem of all that is solid, moves
beneath our feet like a crust over a fluid; one second of time conveys to the
mind a strange idea of insecurity, which hours of reflection would never create."(7)
As Darwin's awareness of nature broadened and deepened, so the solid crust
of conventional scientific wisdom began to disintegrate. That all things are in
a state of change and flux may have been the most important lesson which Darwin
brought home from his long voyage. Darwin's notebooks give ample evidence of a
mind itself going through a process of transformation. His imagination raced from
one subject to the next. He did not focus upon any single issue of science; rather
his thoughts ran free across the fields of geology, biology, paleontology, and
anthropology. Curiously, in proportion as he became more deeply fascinated by
science, Darwin became less interested in religion. He never seemed to experience
a particular crisis of faith, but gradually and steadily his faith simply disappeared.
He described the change much later in the pages of his Autobiography;
had gradually come, by this time, to see that the Old Testament from its manifestly
false history of the world, with the Tower of Babel, the rainbow as a sign, etc.,
etc., and from its attributing to God the feelings of a revengeful tyrant, was
no more to be trusted than the sacred books of the Hindoos, or the beliefs of
any barbarian.... I gradually came to disbelieve in Christianity as a divine revelation....
Thus disbelief crept over me at a very slow rate, but was at last complete.(8)
Such passages from Darwin, and there are
many others of a similar nature, seem to offer to both defenders of faith and
to devotees of secular science an obvious lesson. The moral drawn by both camps
is that Darwin's life and work demonstrate the incompatibility of religion and
science. Believers should avoid science because scientific inquiry inevitably
conflicts with and possibly destroys religious faith; and, likewise, scientists
should avoid religion because it has no more to do with the pursuit of truth than
the "beliefs of any barbarian."
There seems to be a perfect syllogism
here: true religion is undermined by science, and a true science is corrupted
by religion; therefore, the two are locked in unceasing conflict. As tempting
in its simplicity as this conclusion appears to be, and though this is precisely
the lesson drawn out of Darwin by serious scientists and people of faith today,
it simply cannot be sustained in the face of a deeper inquiry into his life and
To be sure, one must push to a level of analysis beyond that required
in the acknowledgment that certain biblical stories, like the narrative of the
tower of Babel, present a "manifestly false history of the world!" If
belief in God stands or falls on the historical accuracy of such stories, then
the world's major religions would not have survived to Darwin's time. The question
as to the truth or falsehood of religion, and its relevance to science, hinges
on more basic issues than this, and Charles Darwin, drawing on his Cambridge theological
education, was capable of wrestling with the issues at the deepest level.
Darwin reflected upon the vast diversity of life as he saw it in the natural world
and when he tried to understand how the various species came to be distributed
in all their variety across the face of Europe and America, he quickly saw that
the central issue was not so much a specific conflict between the affirmations
of the Bible and the facts of natural history. Many leading scientists and theologians
alike had recognized that the Bible could not be taken literally as providing
an accurate or complete history of the natural world. The theory of evolution
had been proposed long
before Darwin's birth. In fact, his grandfather Erasmus
Darwin, had been one of evolution's leading exponents. Evolution had been
widely debated in theological as well as in scientific circles, but until Darwin
no one had demonstrated that evolution shed any more light upon the mysteries
of life's origins than the reigning theory of that era.
In the opening
decades of the nineteenth century the most widely accepted explanation for the
diversity and distribution of life was the theory of special creation. According
to this popular notion, all creatures great and small were the direct product
of a special act of God. Whatever the sequence of timing, the place of origin,
the pattern of migration, the growth or decline of populations, the crucial point
was that each species was specifically created by God and uniquely adapted by
the Creator for a particular setting in the natural world. A common corollary
of this theory was that the species, as created by God, were immutable. Since
God had designed each creature for a specific purpose at a particular time, any
change in the characteristics of a species would be a perversion in God's plan
of creation. In this view all life had been frozen in about the same form since
creation. It is important to note that the theory of special creation is not exclusively
the product of religion; it is not even rooted in the Bible. It was a conclusion
supported as much by science as by religion.
Furthermore, special creation
seemed to explain a great deal of what any good scientist saw in looking out upon
the natural world. What any careful observer finds in nature is a vast array of
animals all wonderfully adapted to their environments. Polar bears have thick
fur capable of retaining body heat under conditions of extreme cold; fish have
gills to draw oxygen from water just as lungs draw oxygen from the air. Likewise,
birds have wings designed with awesome efficiency to carry them in graceful flight.
Such observations, carried out rigorously and systematically, together with a
careful analysis of animal behavior and anatomy, provided the underpinnings for
the life sciences. All this early scientific work proceeded under the banner of
special creation. The theory was both comprehensive and overarching; and it was
thought to lie at the core of both science and religion, holding both together.
The problem was that special creation had become a quick substitute for understanding.
Darwin was the first to show that a systematic appeal to special creation as an
all-encompassing dogma was incompatible with true science (just as, he went on
to suggest, it was incompatible with religion).
For, once one affirms that
a specific creature is a work of God, what more is there to learn? Having said
all there is to be said about the ultimate origins of life, what interest remains
to explore the finite questions, the detail that is required for a clearer understanding
of why each creature has come to be or by what means the creator proceeds? Moreover,
the theory of special creation tended to support the impression that each species
was the result of divine fiat. An all-powerful God need not follow any prescribed
laws; a particular species can be created by God completely without reference
to any existing patterns or principles of nature. Were life in fact created in
this way science would he quite literally impossible, for studying one creature
or even one thousand creatures might tell one absolutely nothing about any other
creatures. The secrets of life would be locked forever within the inscrutable
mind of God.
Throughout his career Darwin's attacks upon special creation
became continually more unrestrained. In the Origin, he chides those
who affirm this theory:
|Do they really believe that at innumerable periods in the
earth's history certain elemental atoms have been commanded suddenly to flash
into living tissues? Do they believe that at each supposed act of creation one
individual or many were produced? Were all the infinitely numerous kinds of animals
and plants created as eggs or seed, or as full grown?(9)
Darwin clearly saw that special creation,
taken as a total explanation for the origin of the species, was the fit subject
of satire. Writing much later in The Descent of Man (1871), Darwin was
totally unrestrained. Unless one is content to look at the phenomena of nature
"like a savage," he argued, one "cannot any longer believe that
man is the work of a separate act of creation."(10)
Unfortunately, by the time he reached the degree of certainty required by his
accusation that the proponents of special creation must think like savages, Darwin
appears to have left behind him the major lesson of his own theological education.
Also, in waging his battle against special creation he resorted to strategies
of satire and derision which prevented him from taking his own theology much beyond
where he had abandoned it to take up his adventures aboard the H. M. S. Beagle.
Cambridge Darwin had read the work of William
Paley who was the Church of England's most influential theologian. Paley was
required reading at Cambridge and Darwin had to pass examinations on what were
thought to be Paley's most important books, Evidences of Christianity and
Moral and Political Philosophy. As an undergraduate Darwin approved
so much of Paley that he went on to read Natural Theology, a work of
more lasting significance and the one which made the deepest impression on him.
At the core of Paley's theology is a clear and vivid analogy which makes his whole
work seem deceptively simple. Paley's book begins:
crossing a heath, suppose I pitched my foot against a stone, and were
asked how the stone came to be there; I might possibly answer, that, for anything
I knew to the contrary, it had lain there forever: nor would it perhaps be very
easy to show the absurdity of this answer. But suppose I had found a watch upon
the ground, and it should be inquired how the watch happened to be in that place;
I should hardly think of the answer which I had before given, that, for anything
I knew, the watch might have always been there. Yet why should not this answer
serve for the watch as well as the stone?(11)
The reason, says Paley, is obvious. A simple
examination of the watch leads the mind inexorably forward:
|The inference, we think, is inevitable; that the watch must
have had a maker; that there must have existed, at sometime, and at some place
or other, an artificer or artificers, who formed it for the purpose which we find
it actually to answer; who comprehended its construction, and designed its use.
too, continues Paley, all the works of nature, indeed, "every organized natural
body" whether plant or animal, simple or complex, likewise leads one inevitably
to the conclusion that it too must have a maker.
|For every indication of contrivance. every manifestation
of design, which existed in the watch, exists in the works of nature; with the
difference, on the side of nature, of being greater and more, and that in degree
which exceeds all computation. I mean, that the contrivances of nature surpass
the contrivances of art, in the complexity, subtilty, and curiosity of the mechanism;
and still more, if possible, do they go beyond them in number and variety.(13)
Thus, Paley concludes, all the works of nature
point to God in the same way that a simple machine points to its human maker.
In this analogy Paley was repeating a formal argument which had been used many
times before by philosophers and theologians, but he stated it in such a clear
and convincing way that he gained a place in the history of ideas if only because
his presentation was so lucid.
Yet there was more to commend Paley's book
than its clarity. Paley argues not only as a theologian but also as a scientist.
His text is generously salted with references to scientific literature of
the period. He displays a familiarity with the latest findings in fields as disparate
as biology and astronomy. Like Darwin, Paley's mind reached across the boundaries
of every scientific discipline to draw the most comprehensive inferences and conclusions.
Writing at the turn of the century, he even dealt in some depth with the latest
theories of evolution as they had been developed a full decade before the birth
of Charles Darwin (1809). Paley rejected evolution for precisely the same reason
Darwin found these earlier theories to be unsatisfactory; that is, they could
provide no real explanation how or why particular life forms emerged or what laws
guided their development. Early theories of evolution could not provide a coherent
explanation for the existence of birds as distinct from mammals, not to mention
the larger challenge of accounting for the origin of the human species. Paley
was justified in rejecting evolution in 1801 on purely scientific grounds; a great
deal of research was needed before evolution could be raised as a comprehensive
theory that would replace the notion of special creation.
One further point
needs to be emphasized about Paley. His description of God's creative work in
and through the natural world anticipates and successfully avoids the shortcomings
of special creation, narrowly conceived. Paley argues that God's activity in the
world does not consist in setting aside the laws of nature to impose a supernatural
power and superior intelligence upon the mindless face of the material world.
"When a particular purpose is to be effected, it is not by making a new law,
nor by the suspension of the old ones, nor by making them wind, and bend, and
yield to the occasion; (for nature with great steadiness adheres to and supports
them;)."(14) But it is, according to Paley,
by an activity "corresponding with these laws" that God works to create
the wonders of nature. In fact, for Paley, God has sacrificed omnipotence, allowing
the creative process to proceed according to clearly discernible laws of nature,
and it is in and through the very laws of nature that God has accomplished the
creation of life. "It is this," concludes Paley, "which constitutes
the order and beauty of the universe. God, therefore, has been pleased to prescribe
limits to his own power, and to work his ends within those limits. The general
laws of matter have perhaps the nature of these limits."(15)
In fact, Paley's understanding of creation allows for the maximum element
of continuity, uniformity, and regularity in nature. Far from setting up a wall
against further scientific inquiry, Paley's natural theology represents an invitation
and even a prelude to science, for under the rubric of his natural theology one
may regard the phenomenon of nature with constant reference to the Creator. "The
world thenceforth becomes a temple, and life itself one continued act of adoration."(16)
As indicated earlier, there lies an analogy at the heart of Paley's work,
and for purposes of comparison the analogy can be represented graphically as follows:
Paley put his analogy forward as a logically coercive
proof for the existence of God, and, while his argument remains popular and appealing
to many people even today, it has been attacked by philosophers of science
and theologians so systematically and with such force that the impression is created
that William Paley is completely passť. His four-sided analogy has been attacked
from all sides by those who fail to see any justification for comparisons between
a watch and a work of nature, between a watchmaker and God; it has been similarly
asserted that one can learn nothing more about God from the study of creation
than one could learn about a civilization which produced watches if one had no
more evidence than an isolated mechanical device found by accident in a "heath"
Indeed, the whole force of Paley's
argument does rest upon his famous analogy, and he illustrates the first analogy
with a second. Compare, he suggests, the human eye and the telescope. Both evidence
similar principles of design and construction; both are modeled according to the
same laws of optics; the eye differs only in being more versatile and more subtle
in its operations. As the telescope is inconceivable apart from its designers,
so too is the eye. In fact, Paley argues that an examination of the eye is itself
a cure for atheism. Thus Natural Theology consists of one analogy following
after the next, and in the simple observation that this is so Paley's whole work
has been written off as dead. For what is an analogy but an attempt to bring to
light the hidden relationships between two or more dissimilar things? It is a
bridge between two worlds, constructed of mere words. Surely, that is no proof
As a proof, Paley's argument is rightly open to such criticism,
for all analogies fall apart if you push them too far. However, Paley has been
consigned to the footnotes of history far too readily by contemporary scholars.
Today Paley is not only out of fashion, his Natural Theology is out of
print. I believe this is a situation which should be corrected if only for the
clarity which Paley brings to our understanding of Darwin, or, putting it the
other way around, Darwin's misunderstanding and misreading of Paley needs to be
accounted for because it is at precisely this point that Darwin's own theory falls
Darwin thought that he had not only mastered Paley at
Cambridge but also that he had defeated Paley in the formulation of his own concept
of evolution. Hence he wrote in The Autobiography:
|The old argument of design in nature, as given by Paley,
which formerly seemed to me so conclusive, fails, now that the law of natural
selection has been discovered. We can no longer argue that, for instance, the
beautiful hinge of a bivalve shell must have been made by an intelligent being.
like the hinge of a door by man.(17) |
Most contemporary scholars accept Darwin's words about
Paley at face value. For example, historian Neal C. Gillespie, drives another
nail into the Paley casket in Charles Darwin and The Problem of Creation.
"It has been generally agreed (then and since) that Darwin's doctrine
of natural selection effectively demolished William Paley's classical design argument
for the existence of God."(18) In fact, Gillespie
is one of those secular interpreters of Darwin who goes to great lengths to reinforce
the impression that the lesson to be drawn from Darwin is precisely that science
and religion are completely unrelated and incompatible. "In the final analysis,"
he writes, "Darwin found God's relation to the world inexplicable; and a
positive science, one that shut God out completely, was the only science that
achieved intellectual coherence and moral acceptability."(19)
Gillespie convincingly argues that in order to transcend
the limits of special creation it was easier to "shut God out completely."
When a single theory so dominates the world of thought that further inquiry into
basic questions becomes impossible, then certainly a case can be made for taking
another look at the particular assumptions behind such a theory. However, if special
creation had become such a debilitating dogma then, it certainly is not so now.
In fact, when the best work of an important theologian like Paley can be dismissed
in a phrase, as Gillespie has Darwin dismissing Paley ("Darwin downed Paley"(20)),
then perhaps it is time to look through the wreckage of the old theory to see
whether there are any useful elements that have been wantonly abandoned. In this
case, a comparison of William Paley's natural theology with Darwin's own theory
of natural selection reveals that Darwin did not defeat Paley after all; rather,
he incorporated Paley into his own theory.
While denying that he could
see the design that Paley saw in nature and loudly protesting the doctrine of
special creation, he describes natural selection in such a way that the element
of design in nature becomes all the more pronounced. While Darwin's theory is
today put forward as a replacement for Paley, Darwin and Darwinism may be Paley's
most important product. Yet the credits are denied not just to Paley, but more
importantly to God.
If Paley's theology can be reduced
to an analogy, all the more so can natural selection. The step-by-step process
that Darwin went through in putting together his theory is well documented by
friends and foes alike, and there is almost universal agreement as to what constitutes
his basic building blocks. The most concise and at the same time accurate account
of the origin of The Origin is contained in an essay by Stephen
Jay Gould, who may be the leading disciple of Darwin today. Gould teaches
biology at Harvard and his series of articles and books on natural history in
itself constitutes an important milestone in the relationship between science
and religion. More on Gould later, but first to his anatomy of natural selection.
Always alert to the possibility that Charles Darwin is not the most perceptive
interpreter of Darwin, Gould cites a note in what he calls Darwin's "misleading
|In October 1838, that is, fifteen months after I had begun
my systematic inquiry, I happened to read for amusement Malthus on Population,
and being well prepared to appreciate the struggle for existence which everywhere
goes on ... it at once struck me ... I had at last got a theory by which to work.(21)
Gould draws upon his encyclopedic knowledge
of the literature to demonstrate that Darwin did not stumble blindly upon Malthus.
Rather, Darwin was intentionally rereading Malthus following an excursion into
the distant fields of philosophy and economics. Just prior to his rereading of
Malthus, he read a long review of philosopher Auguste
Comte's Cours de philosophie positive. In this work Comte insists
that any useful theory must be both predictive and, at least potentially, quantitative.
Darwin then read a book on Adam
Smith, the economist whose theory of society focuses upon the actions of the
individual as the key element in a market economy. The work of a philosopher and
an economist lead Darwin next to a statistician, Adolphe
Quetelet, who had applied a statistical analysis to the now famous and controversial
claim of Malthus that the human population grows geometrically and food production
only arithmetically, thus resulting in an inevitable and tragic "struggle
for survival." Summarizing these intellectual wanderings, Gould writes:
|In reading Schweber's detailed account of the moments preceding
Darwin's formulation of natural selection, I was particularly struck by the absence
of deciding influence from his own field of biology. The immediate precipitators
were a social scientist, an economist, and a statistician. If genius has any common
denominator, I would propose breadth of interest and the ability to construct
fruitful analogies between fields. In fact, I believe that the theory of natural
selection should be viewed as an extended analogy--whether conscious or unconscious
on Darwin's part I do not know--to the laissez faire economics of Adam Smith.(22)
Adam Smith's argument is the still familiar
assertion used by those who favor an unrestrained, free-market economy. In order
to achieve a productive economy providing maximum advantage and opportunity for
all, individuals must pursue their private interests unrestrained by government
or monopolies. Ironically, the maximum public good flows inevitably and naturally
from the maximum pursuit of private profit. The theory of natural selection is
nothing less and not much more than a simple analogy taken from the economics
of Adam Smith and applied to the whole realm of living things. As individuals
in the simple pursuit of their own private interests inadvertently strengthen
the whole economic and social structure, so individual animals in their struggle
for survival inadvertently work toward the betterment of a whole species.
In reading Malthus through the lens provided by Adam Smith, Darwin
transformed Malthus from a prophet of doom into a prophet of evolution's unlimited
promise. In so doing, Darwin drew still another analogy, this one from his own
experience as a pigeon breeder. It is crucial to note that the very term "natural
selection" refers to the activity of the breeding of domestic animals and
is a precise analogy. As the pigeon breeder selects only those individuals showing
the most desirable traits as most suitable for breeding, so nature selects those
individuals best suited for survival, thus resulting in the slow but steady "improvement"
of the whole animal kingdom. Note that Darwin's theory also took the form of a
simple, four-sided analogy which may be depicted accordingly:
Thus Darwin proceeds from an analogy taken from the
economics of Adam Smith to an analogy taken from his own experience as a pigeon
breeder. The comparison with Paley is not limited to their penchant for analogies,
for, when we make a specific comparison between the work of natural selection
as described by Darwin and the work of God as described by Paley, the parallels
are exact. Darwin depicts nature as a "power, acting during long ages and
rigidly scrutinising the whole constitution, structure, and habits of each creature,--favoring
the good and rejecting the bad."(23) Similarly
|It may metaphorically be said that natural selection is
daily and hourly scrutinising, throughout the world, the slightest variations;
rejecting those that are bad, preserving and adding up all that are good; silently
and insensibly working, whenever and wherever opportunity offers, at
the improvement of each organic being.(24) |
Darwin dearly states that there is a grand design in
the silent and invisible work of natural selection. "We may look with some
confidence to a secure future of great length. And as natural selection works
solely by and for the good of each being, all corporeal and mental endowments
will tend to progress toward perfection."(25)
We remember that it was William Paley who was accused of being overly optimistic!
In fact, when one summarizes all the things which Darwin has natural selection
doing toward the creation and improvement of life on this planet, one has an exact
duplicate of what Paley and theologians generally attribute to God. Thus if natural
selection does everything that God is supposed to do, don't we simply have God
by another name?
As conceived by Charles Darwin, the
theory of natural selection shuttles back and forth between science and religion
and does the work of both. In this context there is a further likeness between
William Paley and Charles Darwin. Both worked at the interface of science and
theology; they both developed and popularized powerful metaphors of creation.
Both Paley's natural theology and Darwin's natural selection are basically creation
myths much like the Gilgamesh epic or the stories of Genesis. They both give a
clear and coherent account of the origins of human life that make it accessible
to human understanding and invite further study.
For the same reasons Paley's
analogies have been rejected as a proof of God, Darwin's could be rejected as
science. Darwin was himself aware of this difficulty, and he commented:
|It has been said that I speak of natural selection as an
active power or deity; but who objects to an author speaking of the attraction
of gravity as ruling the movements of the planets? Everyone knows what is meant
and implied by such metaphorical expressions; and they are almost necessary for
brevity. So again it is difficult to avoid personifying the word Nature; but I
mean by Nature, only the aggregate action and product of many natural laws, and
by laws the sequence of events as ascertained by us. With a little familiarity
such superficial objections will be forgotten.(26)
Yet we are in the grips of something more
that a "superficial objection." Here Darwin is up against that fundamental
problem of both science and theology; indeed it is the problem of cognition itself.
In every science, including the science of theology, it is necessary to make generous
and liberal use of analogies. In the pursuit of knowledge, analogies are the best
we humans can come up with, for we only have a human way of speaking and a human
way of understanding inhuman, superhuman, or sub-human things, and there is precious
little that is human in this wide universe. We only occupy a tiny niche; we are
the angels dancing on the head of a pin. As we look out upon the world and as
we attempt to understand what is happening in a dimension beyond the immediate
reach of our five senses, we have got to depict what is happening in human terms.
Our analogies, our metaphors, and our anthropomorphic images are all that stand
between ourselves and the external world. Darwin demurred briefly before this
situation but tried to pass it off as a minor problem--"everyone knows what
is meant and implied by such metaphorical expressions"--but, of course, it
is rather the case that no one knows what is meant by such metaphors. If the whys
and wherefores of life on this planet could be included among the things everyone
knows, then both science and theology would be superfluous.
what happens to natural selection when Darwin tries to get behind the analogy
to a bedrock of fact which everyone can know. Behind his own images which personify
nature Darwin asserts that "I mean by Nature, only the aggregate action and
product of many natural laws, and by laws the sequence of events as ascertained
by us." Hence there actually is no other basis or bedrock of fact behind
his theories after all, except a sequence of events-- as ascertained by us.
Darwin, though, tried to do much more than give an accurate account of the sequence
of events which we call natural history. He tried to give a scientific accounting
of the precise relationship that exists between one event and another. Likewise,
like a theologian, he tried to plumb the meaning of life's basic processes.
maintained that natural selection, even as it represented an advance in science,
also advanced our understanding of God. As he put it in the concluding sentences
of the Origin:
|To my mind it accords better with what we know of the laws
impressed on matter by the Creator, that the production and extinction of the
past and present inhabitants of the world should have been due to secondary causes....
There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally
breathed by the Creator into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet
has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning
endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved?(27)
Such positive and even rhapsodic passages
are counterbalanced in Darwin by those comments inspired by the darker side of
nature and natural selection. For, if natural selection works toward the improvement
of every living being, nature moves each species forward with the inexorable force
of extinction and death, eliminating by sudden violence, starvation, or any other
of a thousand natural calamities all those unfit for survival.
to justify the element of waste and wanton destruction in the natural world in
much the same way theologians try to reconcile the existence of evil and suffering
with the existence of an all-powerful and all-loving God. He wrote in Natural
|We must regret that sentient beings should be exposed to
so severe a struggle, but we should bear in mind that the survivors are the most
vigorous & healthy & can most enjoy life: the struggle seldom recurs with
full severity during each generation: in many cases it is the eggs, or very young
which perish.(28) |
might ask, though, how Darwin could take the measure of an animal's joy or fear
for the purposes of comparison. Darwin makes a bold attempt to bring suffering
and death under the protection of evolution's all-embracing arms, but in the last
analysis he meets with little more success than theologians who try to solve the
problem of evil by talking of God's mysterious and inscrutable will. In Darwin's
case the form of his argument is clearly that in nature's case the end justifies
the means: "Thus, from the war of nature, from famine and death, the most
exalted object which we are capable of conceiving, namely, the production of the
higher animals, directly follows. There is grandeur in this view of life."(29)
Yet Darwin was aware that such "answers" are only partly satisfying
and at times he pondered the possibility that there was no grand design in nature
after all. Perhaps evolution moved forward haphazardly; perhaps even the highest
forms of life, even humanity itself, are the product of blind chance. Shortly
after the publication of The Origin he carried on a long correspondence
with his friend and colleague, Asa
Gray, confessing his own doubts and his sense of confusion about the end and
ultimate directions of evolution.
|I am conscious that I am in an utterly hopeless muddle.
I cannot think that the world, as we see it, is the result of chance; and yet
I cannot look at each separate thing as the result of Design.(30)
I am in thick mud; the orthodox would say in fetid abominable mud. I believe
I am in much the same frame of mind as an old gorilla would be in if set to learn
the first book of Euclid... yet I cannot keep out of the question.(31)
Darwin kept wavering throughout his lifetime.
At one moment he would express confidence that natural selection represented nothing
less than God's own design impressed upon the face of this whole creation. Evolution
itself then amounted to nothing more than a random sequence of events strung together
by fiat of the human mind. Darwin wandered between these possibilities throughout
his life. He never succeeded in climbing his way out of his theological muddle.
Many disciples of Darwin have no such difficulty.
Stephen Jay Gould, for example, is absolutely clear: God does not superintend
natural selection. In fact, Gould extends himself again and again to say that
evolution follows its own rules and heeds its own counsel; it cannot be the work
of a divine Creator. By way of illustration, Gould argues in The Panda's Thumb:
|Our textbooks like to illustrate evolution with examples of optimal
design--nearly perfect mimicry of a dead leaf by a butterfly or of a poisonous
species by a palatable relative. But ideal design is a lousy argument for evolution,
for it mimics the postulated action of an omnipotent creator. Odd arrangements
and funny solutions are the proof of evolution-paths that a sensible God would
never tread but that a natural process, constrained by history, follows perforce.
No one understood this beter than Darwin.(32)
Gould quotes Francois Jacob to the effect
that nature is "an excellent tinkerer, not a divine artificer."(33)
What his beguiling essay (and indeed his lifework in natural history) adds up
to is the argument from design turned against itself. Gould tries to turn Paley
upside down. The designs we see in nature resemble those of an amateur inventor,
not an omnipotent Creator; parts originally fitted for one function are adapted
to another; new species are "jury-rigged from a limited set of available
components."(34) What Gould tries here, and
elsewhere in his writing, is the most obvious and familiar maneuver of scientific
atheism. He sets up God as a Perfect Being for the explicit purpose of showing
how such a God could not possibly have created this imperfect world. In so doing
he seems entirely oblivious to the lesson which "no one understood better
than Darwin"; namely, William Paley's simple point that God, limited only
by the laws of nature, must rely on artifice and contrivance. Whereas Paley rummaged
the whole natural world for examples of God's design, Gould searches the same
territory for those awkward, amateurish moves which show nature to be guided by
something less than an omnipotent, omniscient Creator.
Gould writes eloquently, vividly, and graphically of natural selection;
he uses one metaphor after another, but he assiduously avoids religious metaphors.
In fact, he favors images drawn from the age of machines. He calls natural selection
the "primary mechanism" of evolution. In another context, discussing
human evolution, he writes: "We are here for a reason after all, even though
that reason lies in the mechanics of engineering rather than in the volition of
a deity."(35) One wonders why it is more
acceptable to see nature working like a machine. A machine is a human contrivance.
To see evolution working like a machine does not solve the problem many scientists
have seen in religion. If it is misleading to refer to creation as an act of God,
it is doubly misleading to describe it as a machine. In making the transition
from the former metaphor to the latter, one has only complicated matters, resorting
to a more obscure form of anthropomorphic imagery.
The fact is we are locked into a position of having to describe inscrutable phenomena
in terms accessible to human understanding. One can conceal this fact by resorting
to abstractions or oblique images like Gould's, but one cannot thereby climb out
of the muddle which is the human condition. All his disclaimers aside, Gould still
describes natural selection as the creator, sustainer, and superintendent of life;
as in Darwin, so in Gould, natural selection intervenes in nature to design and
continually to redesign the diverse forms of life. Ironically, Gould proves Paley
right: wherever we find design, there must be a designer; wherever one sees contrivance,
one must conceive a contriver. For Gould and for many secular scientists natural
selection functions as a stand in for God.
be that Darwin, with all his inconsistency and confusion, was closer to the truth
than Gould? Could it be that the most perceptive observers of nature draw their
metaphors and spin their analogies freely from religious tradition as well as
from the laws of mechanics, drawing upon the depths of imagination as well as
In Darwin's age and in reaction
against the stranglehold which the doctrine of special creation had upon the human
imagination, it may have been necessary to construct a secular science, free of
all appeals to God. In the closing moments of the twentieth century, however,
when nature is not generally taken to be a window looking out upon divinity, it
is an opportune moment to recapture something of the grandeur in this view of
life. Nature is at once a sequence of events ascertained by science and an act
of God. It may be time, in other words, to repair the breach that has opened up
between the Darwins and the Paleys, to acknowledge that they were never that far
apart, and to continue searching for a conception of the origin, end, and purpose
of life that invites not only our continuing study but also our praise.
1. Neal C. Gillespie. Charles
Darwin and the Problem of Creation (Chicago: University of Chicago, 1979),
2. Gertrude Himmelfarb, Darwin and the
Darwinian Revolution (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1959), p.65
4. Ibid., p.75
Ibid., p. 79.
6. Ibid., p.79.
8. Charles Darwin, The Autobiography
of Charles Darwin, ed. Nora Barlow (London: Collins, 1958), pp.85-87.
Charles Darwin, The Origin of Species (New York: Collier and Son,
10. Charles Darwin, The Descent
of Man; and Selection in Relation to Sex (New York: A. L. Burt, 1874), p.694.
11. William Paley, Natural Theology: or, Evidences
of the Existence and Attributes and of the Deity, Collected
from the Appearances of Nature (Boston:
Gould, Kendall and Lincoln,
14. Ibid., p. 26.
16. Ibid., pp. 293-94.
Darwin, The Autobiography of Charles Darwin, p.87.
Gillespie. Charles Darwin and the Problem of Creation, p.83.
19. Ibid., p.133.
21. Stephen Jay Gould, The Panda's Thumb: More
Reflections in Natural History (New York: Norton, 1982), p.64.
23. Darwin, The Origin of Species,
Ibid., p. 506.
26. Ibid., pp. 88-89.
Ibid., pp. 505-6.
28. Quoted in Gillespie. Charles
Darwin and the Problem of Creation, p.128.
Darwin, The Origin of Species, p. 506.
Gillespie. Charles Darwin and the Problem of Creation, p.87.
The Panda's Thumb, pp. 20-21.
33. Ibid., p.26.
34. Ibid., p. 20.
Ibid., p. 139.