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CHARLES DARWIN

The Origins of Doubt and the Rebirth of Praise

Chapter 3 of God and Science
by Charles P. Henderson, Jr.

One cannot begin to fathom the dilemma of western culture without reflecting upon Charles 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 of TheOrigin.

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)

Darwin's 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.

When 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.


If 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;

I 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 work.

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.

When 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.

At 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:


In 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. (12)

So, 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:

watchmakercreator
watchcreation

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" somewhere.

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 of God!

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 apart.

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 autobiography":

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:

pigeon breedernatural selection
pigeonsnature

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 Darwin writes:

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.

Also, look 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.

He 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.

Darwin tried 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 Selection:

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)

One 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.

Could it 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 technical reason?

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.



The Galapagos Islands

 

1. Neal C. Gillespie. Charles Darwin and the Problem of Creation (Chicago: University of Chicago, 1979), p.87.

2. Gertrude Himmelfarb, Darwin and the Darwinian Revolution (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1959), p.65

3. Ibid., p.75.

4. Ibid., p.75

5. Ibid., p. 79.

6. Ibid., p.79.

7. Ibid., p.80.

8. Charles Darwin, The Autobiography of Charles Darwin, ed. Nora Barlow (London: Collins, 1958), pp.85-87.

9. Charles Darwin, The Origin of Species (New York: Collier and Son,

1909), p.500.

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, 1849), p.6.

12. Ibid.,p.6.

13. Ibid., p.13.

14. Ibid., p. 26.

15. Ibid.,p.26.

16. Ibid., pp. 293-94.

17. Darwin, The Autobiography of Charles Darwin, p.87.

18. Gillespie. Charles Darwin and the Problem of Creation, p.83.

19. Ibid., p.133.

20. Ibid.,p.84.

21. Stephen Jay Gould, The Panda's Thumb: More Reflections in Natural History (New York: Norton, 1982), p.64.

22. Ibid.,p.66.

23. Darwin, The Origin of Species, p. 487.

24. Ibid.,p.91.

25. Ibid., p. 506.

26. Ibid., pp. 88-89.

27. Ibid., pp. 505-6.

28. Quoted in Gillespie. Charles Darwin and the Problem of Creation, p.128.

29. Darwin, The Origin of Species, p. 506.

30. Gillespie. Charles Darwin and the Problem of Creation, p.87.

31. Ibid.,p.87.

32. Gould, The Panda's Thumb, pp. 20-21.

33. Ibid., p.26.

34. Ibid., p. 20.

35. 35. Ibid., p. 139.

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Charles Henderson

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The Rev. Charles P. Henderson is a Presbyterian minister and Executive Director of
  CrossCurrents.
He is the author of God and Science (John Knox Press, 1986).  
A revised and expanded version of the book is appearing here.
God and Science (Hypertext Edition, 2005).
He is also editor of a new book, featuring articles by world class scientists and theologians, and illustrating the leading views on the relationship between science and religion:
Faith, Science and the Future (CrossCurrents Press, 2007).

Charles also tracks the boundry between the virtual and the real at his blog: Next World Design, focusing on the mediation of art, science and spirituality in the metaverse.  

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