Darwin and Theology

Time to expand your thinking. Philosopher Chris Cosans asks a radical question: Was Darwin a Creationist? Let me share a rather interesting excerpt from Cosans’ paper (Cosans C. 2005. Was Darwin a creationist? Perspect Biol Med. 48(3):362-71):

Darwin’s assertion in the Origin that all the living things we observe descended from one organism can be traced back to speculations he had made on theology during the 1830s.When considering the transmutation of species in his notebook from 1837 and 1838, Darwin considered the theological meaning of whether or not transmutation follows from a fixed natural law. He remarks at one point in his private notebook that:

“Astronomers might formely [sic] have said that God ordered each planet to move in its particular destiny.””In same manner God orders each animal created with certain form in certain country, but how much more simple, & sublime power let attraction act according to certain law such are inevitable consequences let animal be created, then by the fixed laws of generation, such will be their successors.” (Darwin 1838, p. 185)

Just as Newton showed the greatness of God in his Principia by explaining how the one law of gravity governs the motion of all the planets, Darwin is interested in showing that God did not make each species but created one organic being from which different species could be generated by fixed laws.

Although his beliefs about God developed over the ensuing 20 years, Darwin framed his biological Principia in a theological context. He opens the Origin with two epigraphs on natural theology. The first, by Whewell, refers to the British theological reconciliation of science and religion by holding that the laws discovered by science are secondary causes, while God, as the Creator of these laws, is the primary cause:”events are brought about not by insulated interpositions of Divine power, exerted in each particular case, but by the establishment of general laws.” A second quote, from Bacon, states no man can “be too well studied in the book of God’s word, or in the book of God’s works,” implying the need to study both scripture and science to understand the world in which we live. Almost 500 pages later, Darwin brings the Origin to a conclusion with a reference to Genesis that echoes his 1838 remarks about science and religion:”There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed 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” (Darwin 1859, p. 490). In a single sentence Darwin interweaves the metaphysical breath of Genesis with the physical gravity of Newton’s Principia.

Cosans also notes:

Popular culture views Darwin’s theory as providing scientific evidence against religion. However, this is not supported by a close analysis of the text of the Origin and its implications. A simple way of reading the Origin as supporting theistic thinking is to see the first progenitors and the laws of reproduction, variation, and selection as the results of God’s action. In his autobiography, Darwin confesses that this indeed was his conviction when writing the Origin. Many historians of science have discussed the ways Darwin’s analysis drew upon the Christian theology of his time (Brown 1986; Gillespie 1979, p. 124; Richards 1999, pp. 130″35). Although later in life Darwin began to entertain an agnostic perspective, this was after he had conceived of his theory. (emphasis added)

And:

Although usually ignored by neo-Darwinists, Darwin’s hint about the supernatural origins of life is actually a critical aspect of his framework of analysis. Throughout the Origin, he usually contrasts his account not with that of other evolutionists such as Lamarck or Chambers, but with that of someone we would now call a “special creationist.” The position of Darwin’s hypothetical creationist is the dialectical opposite of that endorsed in the Origin.The Origin’s creationist would seem in fact to be a younger less sophisticated version of Darwin himself. In the introduction to the Origin, Darwin tells us he used to believe that “each species has been independently created” (p. 6). While the Darwin of the Origin believes all life is united by its common ancestor, his creationist rejects the unity of life. Darwin believes “all living and extinct forms can be grouped together in one great system” (p. 433), but his creationist believes each form is special and unique. Darwin accounts for the diversity of life as the result of natural selection acting on existing variation; his creationist accounts for it as the result of God creating the progenitors of the varieties of organisms.Whereas Darwin believes life came into being only once, his creationist believes “that at innumerable periods in the earth’s history certain elemental atoms have been commanded suddenly to flash into living tissues” (p. 483).

And then this:

Owen claims that the special creationist and Darwin both ultimately rely on the action of God. Insofar as Darwin concludes the Origin with the Biblical phrasing, Darwin recognizes:”a direct creative act, something like that supernatural or miraculous one which, in the preceding page, he defines, as “certain elemental atoms which have been commanded suddenly to flash into living tissues” (Owen 1860, p. 191). Darwin is no less a creationist than his dialectical rival merely because he limits God to one intervention. Indeed, Owen argues that in Darwin’s theory, God’s act of creation is even more miraculous. For it requires God, at that one moment, to impart to the progenitor the capacity to vary in such a way as to eventually result in the present organisms’ “infinity of complications and their morphological results, which now try to the utmost the naturalist’s faculties to comprehend and classify” (Owen 1860, p. 191). Darwin’s theism requires God to have an incredible amount of foresight.

Advertisements

10 responses to “Darwin and Theology

  1. I hope Matheson reads this one. It might blow his Reformed mind.

  2. Nightcrawler

    Hello,

    I’m a lurker from biologos who came over to have a look. This is a VERY interesting point this philosopher makes. I had always assumed that Darwin refuted design. Now I’m not sure what to think. What about all the places where Darwin does attack design?

  3. Hi Nightcrawler,

    According to the Cosans, “Darwin is interested in showing that God did not make each species but created one organic being from which different species could be generated by fixed laws.

    So according to the article, Darwin would try to refute the idea of special creation, but would not necessarily try to refute the idea of the creation of the origin of life. And it sounds like he may have been very interested in Mike’s idea of front-loaded evolution. So perhaps should you and all your friends at Biologos.

  4. Hi Nightcrawler,

    Cosans makes a key point: “Just as Newton showed the greatness of God in his Principia by explaining how the one law of gravity governs the motion of all the planets, Darwin is interested in showing that God did not make each species but created one organic being from which different species could be generated by fixed laws.”

    and

    “Throughout the Origin, he usually contrasts his account not with that of other evolutionists such as Lamarck or Chambers, but with that of someone we would now call a “special creationist.” The position of Darwin’s hypothetical creationist is the dialectical opposite of that endorsed in the Origin.”

    Let those seek in.

    Darwin nevers refutes for design – he accepts design. It’s what his case is built on. By seeking to explain the design by secondary causes (the laws from God), it is the special creation, not design, that is being refuted.

  5. Nightcrawler

    Mike,

    But let me quote what Glen D. wrote to you:

    Other than the fact that he did. He quite specifically addressed the eye and its purported “design,” which was a favorite of design proponents, including Paley and many others. He also noted the cruelty of nature, arguing against a beneficent “designer” on that basis. Plus, the matter of vestigial organs (which do exist) were part of his argument both for evolution and against design, as no designer capable of life’s complexity would be stymied in getting rid of the coccyx, or goose flesh.

  6. Hi Nightcrawler,

    Compare those examples with examples of earthquakes, floods, or hurricanes. Darwin may have believed that God created the universe, but not specific instances of natural disasters that lead to misery and suffering.

    Likewise Darwin may have believed that God created the original life forms, but not the imperfect examples that life evolved into.

  7. Nightcrawler,

    Think about it. Those are arguments against special creation which attempted to account for biological phenomenon as the direct handiwork of God. Darwin responds to the eye as followers:

    Reason tells me, that if numerous gradations from a simple and imperfect eye to one complex and perfect can be shown to exist, each grade being useful to its possessor, as is certainly the case; if further, the eye ever varies and the variations be inherited, as is likewise certainly the case and if such variations should be useful to any animal under changing conditions of life, then the difficulty of believing that a perfect and complex eye could be formed by natural selection, though insuperable by our imagination, should not be considered as subversive of the theory.

    Darwin does not argue it was not designed; he argues it evolved from simpler precursors. This is a strike at special creation, not design. He is simply explaining the origin of the eye by secondary causes.

    Again from Cosons: “Although his beliefs about God developed over the ensuing 20 years, Darwin framed his biological Principia in a theological context. He opens the Origin with two epigraphs on natural theology. The first, by Whewell, refers to the British theological reconciliation of science and religion by holding that the laws discovered by science are secondary causes, while God, as the Creator of these laws, is the primary cause:”events are brought about not by insulated interpositions of Divine power, exerted in each particular case, but by the establishment of general laws.

    The cruelty of nature is not an argument against design; it’s an argument against God continuously intervening to create everything around us rather than employ secondary causes (see Bilbo’s reply to you). Again, a strike at special creation.

    Vestigial organs again are arguments for evolution and against common descent. In fact, it’s an example of using design logic to infer common descent.

    So once again, no where does Darwin argue against and refute design. How could he, since the whole idea of selection is to account for the reality of design. Keep in mind Darwin also relied heavily on the analogy with artificial selection which, as I have just shown in a recent blog entry, is an example of designed evolution.

  8. Mike quoting Darwin:

    …a perfect and complex eye could be formed by natural selection…

    You could substitute “designed” for “formed” without changing Darwin’s meaning. “Design” carries a deal more semantic baggage (like intelligence) than it did in Darwin’s day. I agree Darwin thought artificial selection such as pigeon breeding was strong evidence in favour of natural selection or niche design.

    PS,

    I read this comment of yours over at TT

    If Myers and Coyne had been working on scientific research, they would have been too busy to comment on Miller. They talked to the journalist because they were not absorbed in any scientific research and wanted the personal attention – they wanted to see their names in a mainstream paper. Well, they got the attention. So why are they whining?

    Just wondering why you think Myers and Coyne are whining about being quote-mined? Do you think they are making it up?

  9. Hi Alan,

    I hope your mother is doing better.

  10. Hi Bilbo

    She is, thanks. I did already reply in the earlier thread.

    I admire your independent line on circular reasoning at TT, BTW. Good arguments or bad should stand or fall, no matter who makes them.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s