[Tom Hart has generously shared with the readers of the Victorian Web the preceding materials from his ongoing project, Anti-Darwin: The Literary and Philosophical Opposition to Darwinism. He welcomes comments.]
The first edition of Darwin's On the Origin of Species. [Click on thumbnail for larger image]
Darwin's contribution, unintentional though it may have been, to the problem of reconciling belief and science is in the perception that his work removes and eliminates the possibility of a designing God, one who, in his providence, watches over every sparrow and microbe and virus. Darwin draws a parallel between the way in which varieties, or breeds, such as dachshunds, Saint Bernards, beagles, and others are produced by human manipulation, and the way in which varieties and species are produced naturally. The difference, however, is that the breeder of dogs produces the variations intentionally, in conformity with an ideal design, while natural selection produces such results without conscious intention. Darwin states this more or less explicitly as follows:
Can it, then, be thought improbable, seeing that variations useful to man have undoubtedly occurred, that other variations useful in some way to each being in the great and complex battle of life, should occur in the course of many successive generations? If such do occur, can we doubt, (remembering that many more individuals are born than can possibly survive) that individuals having any advantage, however slight, over others, would have the best chance of surviving and procreating their kind? [XLIX, 40]
Darwin's assertion rests on the belief that favorable variations are preserved, and unfavorable variations contribute to destruction. Those variations that are "neither useful nor injurious" are not affected by natural selection, and would be left either in a state of flux, or "would ultimately become fixed, owing to the nature of the organisms and the nature of the conditions" (XLIX, 40). Darwin is at pains to deny that Natural Selection induces variability. The action of natural selection is both preservative, towards those variations that confer an advantage, and eliminative, towards those variations that lead to injury or death. It is the accumulation of variation that induces the distinctions between species. The difference between human and natural selection is neatly encapsulated, "Man selects only for his own good: Nature only for that of the being which she tends" (XLIX, 41).
What in Paley's hands might have been turned to as proof of the providence of a Divine and beneficent God, is, in Darwin's hands, an instance of the preservative power of Natural Selection.
When we see leaf-eating insects green, and bark-feeders mottled-grey; the alpine ptarmigan white in winter, the red grouse the colour of heather, we must believer that these tints are of service to these birds and insects in preserving them from danger. [XLIX, 42]
This is true enough. The question though is whether the preservative effect comes about as the result of an intelligent design that is peculiar to each species, i.e., providential design, or whether it comes about because leaf-eaters that are not green and bark-feeders that are not mottled grey get eaten before they can reproduce. Paley's answer was to assert the providential nature of each accommodation. Darwin's answer was to posit the variation of species through the "going away," or death, of the unfit members of the species.
Darwin does not see his theory as hindering anyone's religious beliefs:
I see no good reason why the views given in this volume should shock the religious feelings of any one. It is satisfactory, as showing how transient such impressions are, to remember that the greatest discovery ever made by man, namely, the law of the attraction of gravity, was also attacked by Leibnitz, as subversive of natural, and inferentially of revealed, religion.' A celebrated author and divine has written to me that she had gradually learnt to see that it is just as noble a conception of the Deity to believe that He created a few original forms capable of self-development into other and needful forms, as to believe that He required a fresh act of creation to supply the voids caused by the action of His laws'. [XLIX, 239]
The theory of evolution, or more precisely the doctrine of natural selection, is thus linked with gravity. Both are implicitly assumed to be true, and an instance of religious opposition to the latter doctrine, gravity, is cited. The mistaken notion of Leibnitz that gravity in some way impugns both natural and revealed religion is thus used to ridicule th idea that the doctrine of natural selection in some way impeaches either natural or revealed religion or both. The anonymous citation of the "celebrated author and divine," however, reasserts the relevance of the tradition of natural theology by asserting that it is the result of laws that are laid down by God, or that it can be taken as the result of such laws that were laid down at the beginning of time.
The effect, however, is still the same. God is removed from the province of intimate interaction with His creatures. This has the result of making Him less immanent. It does not, however, compensate by making Him more transcendent. He is still in the position of the clock-maker who starts up things, but rather than having to interfere periodically, as Newton thought, He is simply there in the background with nothing much to do.
The overall effect of evolution, and of the doctrine of natural selection was to remove Mind, the transcendent, designing, purposive Mind of God from the universe. This despite Darwin's assertions to the contrary, such as:
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 (XLIX, 243).
Darwin harkens back to the first chapter of Genesis with his "breathed by the Creator," but his Creator is immediately relegated to the background with the invocation of "the fixed law of gravity." The fixity of gravity is implicitly contrasted with continuing processes, those things which have a beginning, and hence are subject to change in time. The change is emphasized by the shift in tense from "have been" to "are being" which asserts the continuity of change. The continuing flux of life is thus a permanent condition, much like gravity, and all that was necessary was for the Creator to put a few laws into motion, and then rest.
The steps from believing in a God who creates eternal and unvarying laws in a beginning moment of creation to believing in only the eternal and unvarying laws themselves, while either relegating belief in a Creator to the background, maintaining a position of agnosticism, or asserting an outright denial, are small steps. To some Darwinism would come as a supreme liberation. Some, such as Nietzsche, would see it as a tragedy, and criticize its defenders for not realizing that it did, in fact, displace God from the universe, leaving Him, in effect, dead. Some, like Samuel Butler and George Bernard Shaw would not see this death as a metaphysical tragedy, but would go on, nonetheless, to formulate their own personal and idiosyncratic variants of Lamarckian doctrine. Shaw, in fact, goes on to term his evolutionary beliefs a new religion.The effect of the relegation of God to a position of permanent rest, a relegation that starts in the project of the natural theologians, can still be seen in the recurrent debates over evolution in the schools, and in the heated debates over "young earth" and "old earth" beliefs that continue in a variety of print and electronic media.
Last modified 1999