Darwin Evolutionary Theory

Bibliotheca Sacra 152 (July-September 1995): 334-54

Darwin’s Evolutionary Theory and 19th-Century Natural Theology
John C. Hutchison

Few factors have influenced Western thinking during the past two centuries more than the writings of Charles Darwin, which sparked a virtual revolution in the thought processes of science and society. While the ensuing drift of secularization has often been related only to scientific thought, a study of this period reveals the deeper theological and philosophical moorings of Darwin, his supporters, and his critics. To understand the development of Darwinian thinking in 19th-century Britain one must explore the cultural milieu that produced it, including the personal factors influencing Darwin himself. Though Darwin was a pioneer of ideas, his story clearly illustrates the intellectual struggles of his day concerning science and religion. The pervasive teaching of natural theology in the scientific community of early 19th-century Britain had a profound effect on young Darwin, producing within him a reaction that would significantly shape his life’s work. This article seeks to explore major factors that influenced Darwin’s writings, especially his reaction to the natural theologians of his day, many of whom were fellow scientists. His story epitomizes the radical shift that took place in the ’rules’ of scientific interpretation in that century, moving from a science that promoted the glory of the Creator to a scientific community that (philosophically or methodologically) excluded God completely. In light of the claims of 19th-century British natural theologians, the origin of Darwin’s frustrations is not difficult to understand. The teaching of mainstream natural theology had become excessive in some areas, including manipulative and coercive agendas that had no scriptural support. Both natural theologians and those, like Darwin, who opposed religious influence in science had reasons for their viewpoints. As might be expected, the pendulum reaction of naturalistic science has left little room today for a more balanced integration of Christian belief and scientific study. Lessons learned from Darwin’s debate with natural theology can provide insight for contemporary scientists and theologians who seek to unify the study of the physical and the metaphysical, of God and science.

The Perspective of Natural Theology in Britain

Science and God in the 17th and 18th centuries.

During the period leading to Darwin’s publication of The Origin of Species in 1859, a new approach to science was being expressed. While it is difficult to identify clearly which factors were causes and which were effects, all are characteristics of a changing relationship between science and religion in the 19th century. In earlier centuries pioneer scientists such as Robert Boyle (1627-1691) and Isaac Newton (1643-1727) rarely separated the discussion of science and theology, seeing their work as valuable for both believers and atheists. Newtonian science viewed the study of the physical world as an apologetic tool to convince the atheist. ’He must be blind who from the most wise and excellent contrivances of things cannot see the Infinite Wisdom and Goodness of their Almighty Creator, and he must be mad and senseless who refuses to acknowledge them.’ Boyle, Newton, and those who followed in their tradition understood the great dangers of a scientific enterprise that would exclude a theological purpose, and were determined to prevent the exclusion of God from scientific study. The title of William Derham’s book, Physico-Theology, or A Demonstration of the Being and Attributes of God from His Works of Creation, written in 1714, clearly states the purpose for his scientific study. This book and others like it provided the foundation for William Paley’s Natural Theology, Britain’s classic 19th-century work. Derham maintained a close relationship with Scripture in his viewpoints, something that cannot be said of later theological writers such as Paley. In fact the later absence of any authoritative role of Scripture contributed to the wide acceptance of Darwinism. Joseph Priestley (1733-1804) taught that natural philosophy, the earlier term for scientific study, demonstrates the existence of a Creator and the continued supervision of the world by divine intelligence. Much of the Puritan tradition can be seen in the writings of 17th- and 18th-century scientists. Scientific investigators of God’s creation were portrayed as participating in the worship of God, experiencing a sense of awe and great confidence in the Creator. Though the devotional dimension of scientific study held a less prominent place later in the 18th century, the central truth of nature as a showcase of God’s providence was left unchallenged. Yet, even though the pioneers of modern science in the 17th and 18th centuries held fast to its theological purpose, one must examine closely the effects Enlightenment thinking had on their theology. Funkenstein argues that a ’secular theology of sorts’ emerged in the 16th and 17th centuries.

It was secular in that it was conceived by laymen for laymen. Galileo and Descartes, Leibniz and Newton, Hobbes and Vico were either not clergymen at all or did not acquire an advanced degree in divinity. They were not professional theologians, and yet they treated theological issues at length. Their theology was secular also in the sense that it was oriented toward the world, ad seculum. The new sciences and scholarship, they believed, made the traditional modes of theologizing obsolete.

Though some theologians in Darwin’s era were theologically trained, others were not. The ’secular theology’ from the Enlightenment period, and especially its agendas and themes, contributed to a weakened, more secularized theology in the 19th century.

Doctrines of Natural Theology in 19th-Century Britain

Early 19th-century scientists in Britain may be categorized in three groups, according to their convictions about theology in the scientific enterprise. Some believed no connection is to be made between physical science and religious truth. Michael Faraday (1791-1867) and John Dalton (1766-1844) are representatives of this group. A second group depicted science as the witness of a divine plan for the universe. Uniformitarianism proves that God’s provision for the laws of nature is immutable; science demonstrates the divine origin of the creation by demonstrating its self-sufficiency and invariability. Included in this tradition are scientists who laid the foundation for Darwin’s developmental, uniformitarian presuppositions, including Robert Chambers (1802-1871) and Charles Lyell (1797-1875). They had little or no interest in reconciling the findings of science with the Bible. A third group viewed science as discovering a deity who is not only the First Cause, but also an active Governor of creation; He directly and continually participates in development to benevolent ends, thus demonstrating His watchfulness. This was known as the Neptunist or catastrophist tradition. Scientists who were devoted to natural theology in their practice of science came primarily from the catastrophist tradition (the third group), but other writers who accepted the uniformitarian viewpoint (the second group) also believed in natural theology. With a few exceptions the proponents of 19th-century natural theology in all three groups held the following beliefs: (1) God is personally and purposefully involved in the original creative act and in continuing acts of creation. Scientists differed significantly in their view of God’s methodology (e.g., the question of the literalness of Genesis 1-2 or the extent to which God uses processes and laws of nature), thus including both uniformitarian and catastrophist assumptions. The important issue, however, was the direct involvement of God in the process. (2) God’s design in the created world reflects His attributes. The teaching of natural theology emphasized God’s rationality, consistency, orderliness, power, goodness, wisdom, and purposefulness, and the evidence for these in the created world. (3) Species are immutable.

William Paley’s contributions

Among the major proponents of natural theology was William Paley (1743-1805). His book Natural Theology, which appeared in 1802, became one of the most popular theological and philosophical works of its day, espousing a proof for the unity of God from ’the uniformity of plan observable in the universe.’ Paley depicted science as the means of discovering the plan of God’s universe, a purpose that clearly returned to Newtonian ideas. While it may be accidental that his book appeared shortly after Erasmus Darwin’s writings on ’development’ (an early form of evolutionary theory in the late 1700s), his natural theology was probably written as a reaction to it. Though deism and agnosticism had always posed a threat to the Christian view of origins, Paley’s writings continued to inspire the union of science and religion through the argument from design.

There cannot be design without a designer; contrivance without a contriver; order without a choice; arrangement without any thing capable of arranging; subserviency and relation to a purpose, without that which could intend a purpose; means suitable to an end, without the end ever having been contemplated, or the means accommodated to it. Arrangement, disposition of parts, subserviency of means to an end, relation of instruments to a use, imply the presence of intelligence and mind.

Paley, an Anglican priest, believed that God could have arranged things in the universe far more simply, but their arrangement is intended to show that He exists. Most of Paley’s concepts were not original and could be found in the writings of other natural philosophers, but the extent to which he argued for design in creation set a significant example for others in the early 19th century. Natural theology became more dogmatic, insisting that every feature of every organism had been specifically designed for its function. He appealed to many practical illustrations from nature, using them as apologetic tools and as arguments for social order.

Paley taught that the universe exists for the production of human happiness, but the world is so constructed that perfect happiness is not possible on the earth. This life, therefore, is a probationary period under the providence of God. Since nature shows God’s great benevolence and providence, it should always lead individuals to seek Him and follow His Word.

Whatever one concludes about Paley’s theology, his insistence on the authority of Scripture and its complementary role alongside the theology of nature reveals a crucial priority that is often lacking in later scientists and theologians. Partly because of the influence of European rationalism, natural theology in the late 19th century progressively weakened through the erosion of its biblical base and authority, leading ultimately to the demise of the design argument in science and philosophy.

Many of Paley’s illustrations of God’s design tried to prove too much about God. The Scriptures support an apologetic value for the study of nature as a testimony to the glory of its Creator; they do not, however, claim that people can know everything about God through the world. When the existence of God is too closely tied to the unity of creation’s design, as Paley described it, history shows what can happen. Darwin simply provided a natural mechanism (instead of God) which he said could have produced nature’s consistencies as well as its inconsistencies. Paley and his followers too often ignored data that did not support a perfectly designed world, thus leading to Darwin’s later criticisms.

The Influence of William Buckland and Adam Sedgwick

Geologists William Buckland of Oxford and Adam Sedgwick of Cambridge became the most vocal proponents in the early 1800s for a metaphysical and moral purpose in scientific study. Buckland argued as follows:

The evidences afforded by the sister sciences exhibit indeed the most admirable proofs of design and intelligence originally exerted at the Creation; but many who admit these proofs still doubt the continued superintendence of that Intelligence, maintaining that the system of the Universe is carried on by the force of the laws originally impressed on matter, without the necessity of fresh interference or continued supervision on the part of the Creator. Such an opinion . . . nowhere meets with a more direct and palpable refutation, than is afforded by the subservience of the present structure of the earth’s surface to final causes; for that structure is evidently the result of many and violent convulsions subsequent to its original formation.

Buckland and Sedgwick both had practical as well as philosophical reasons for emphasizing the moral lessons to be gained from scientific study. Neither Oxford nor Cambridge had given the study of science a significant role in its curriculum; this area was not covered in final comprehensive examinations nor was incentive given to students to attend science lectures. Buckland’s and Sedgwick’s public and academic lectures on geology reflected their fervent desire to see scientific study take a more prominent place in university studies.

Sedgwick expressed the viewpoint that science was a powerful force to aid in the task of keeping individuals faithful to the Word of God. He and Buckland opposed the uniformitarian ideas of Lyell’s group and the evolutionary ideas presented by Robert Chambers. Buckland’s challenge of uniformitarian principles is included in the Bridgewater Treatises. Both Sedgwick and Buckland saw their geological discipline as confirmation of God’s Word, especially in two important conclusions: (1) mankind came late through creation, not by evolution, and (2) Flood geology must be interpreted through catastrophist, not uniformitarian, principles. Sedgwick warned that if Chambers’s evolutionary philosophy were ’accepted by the multitude as true [what] then will follow? The reader can judge for himself: I can see nothing but ruin and confusion in such a creed. . . . If current in society it will undermine the whole moral and social fabric, and inevitably will bring discord and deadly mischief in its train.’

The Bridgewater Treatises

Commissioned by Francis Henry Egerton, eighth Earl of Bridgewater, this important group of essays was written in the 1830s to demonstrate ’the Power, Wisdom, and Goodness of God, as manifested in the Creation.’ Lord Bridgewater charged the Archbishop of Canterbury, the bishop of London, and the president of the Royal Society, to select four clergymen, four physicians, and three lecturers in geology from British universities to write the essays.

All the Bridgewater writers opposed the uniformitarianism championed by Lyell as a denial of God’s active participation in the creation. However, they differed in their views on the extent to which the design argument can be used as an apologetic tool. Thomas Chalmers, for example, held that the design argument as a proof of God’s existence was not compelling. He saw science as a discipline that raised important questions about the origin and purpose of creation, which unbelievers ought to be asking and which would lead them to more satisfying answers in the Bible.

The Unique Approach of Hugh Miller

While rarely given the recognition of a Paley, Buckland, or Sedgwick, Scotsman Hugh Miller presented one of the most effective arguments for a balanced natural theology and against the neoevolutionary ideas of Robert Chambers.

Miller was probably the last and one of the ablest scientists to develop his professional capacities under the stimulus of an old-fashioned, romantic love of nature. . . . Learning geology from the standard texts when Miller’s books and public lectures were available would be like thrusting Shakespeare aside to study English literature in the dictionary. . . He had a grand, vigorous style, an extraordinary power of evocative description, and an equally impressive manner of delivering political, social, and religious judgments.

As Gillispie wrote, ’It is refreshing to come upon a religious thinker who required a divinity rather than a landscape gardener for his God, and whose Christianity centered around the redemption, salvation, and immortality of the individual soul.’ Miller has been viewed by some as the last of the tradition he represented. After his era, the authority of scriptural writings seems to have been superseded by the findings of science, especially geology and biology. For most, this was accomplished by separating science from Scripture.

The Duke of Argylle and Asa Gray

Although natural theology had its strongest influence in pre-Darwinian Britain, the use of teleological language in science continued after the publishing of The Origin of Species with a new form of the design argument. One example of this is in the writings of the Duke of Argylle, a student of Richard Owen’s providentially designed evolution. Argylle supported the use of teleological language in science and claimed that Darwin used it because he could not help it. Just as design must have a designer and law a lawgiver, so selection must have a Selector. He wrote that the laws of nature only state ’the rules,’ but not the ’how’ or the ’why.’ These questions, he concluded, were beyond science and must be answered by religion. Yet he said that to deny the truth of design was to reject an intuitive response to nature and was, he wrote, ’the weakest sort of evasion.’ Asa Gray’s exchanges with Darwin between 1850 and 1870 show the transition of personal views by a man who was genuinely impressed by Darwin’s work. Before reading The Origin of Species Gray held to Paley’s natural theology. After acknowledging Darwin’s genius in the mechanism of natural selection, Gray went on a quest to find a new form of the design argument that could answer Darwin’s logic. During most of this process he seems to have been naive concerning the threat of Darwin’s positivism and his theory of evolution by natural selection. Gray’s only recourse was to retreat to a view of complete separation between the realms of science and religion.

The Cultural Influence of Natural Theology

As already noted, natural theology served the valuable function of stimulating dialogue on issues in science and religion. Even if one acknowledges the theological inaccuracies and excesses in this British tradition of thought, it must also be noted that this dialogue helped prompt the pursuit of knowledge in many fields. One factor encouraging this process was the large number of clerics who were scientists as well.

Culturally, Enlightenment thinking in Britain had a distinct character of ’inclusiveness.’ The study of science led not only to a study of God, but also to a discussion of society and morality. Natural theology emphasized God’s immanence and providence, leading naturally to questions about His will and involvement in society. Utilitarian social philosophy was often tied with natural theology, and God’s providential guidance of nature through laws was also applied to society. Providentialists feared that both nature and civil order might dissolve if they were not held together by God. Many scientists who emphasized natural theology wrote with societal, social, and moral issues in mind.

Darwinism and evolutionary thinking were initially seen as a threat to the utilitarian, societal application of science, and some opposed it on that basis. A class system, for example, could be justified, some thought, on the basis of God’s providential system for harmony in society, just as He governs nature through laws. When Darwin’s theory substituted chance for God, many were concerned that the stability of society would be affected. But given time, utilitarian scientists were able to adapt and they found Darwin useful. The implications of his ’survival of the fittest’ mechanism in nature seemed to work well when applied to classes of society.

The Darwinian Conflict with Natural Theology

New Ideas in a Changing Science

Ideas matter. In fact, what we believe and the way we see things largely determine the type of people we will become and the behavior we will exhibit. Because ideas matter, Christians and non-Christians alike should desire to know truth wherever it can be found. . . . The modern era has been called the era of science. Whether or not this is true, one thing seems clear--scientific ideas have had an impact on what people believe and how they see the world, as well as on the methods of investigation they think ought to be employed in our search for knowledge.

The Darwinian revolution and neo-Darwinian period in scientific thought has witnessed the replacement of one set of ideas for another. A science that enthusiastically proclaimed the glories of the Creator has been replaced by one that denies His existence. This great shift in ideas abandoned the place of natural theology or a design argument in any scientific discussion.

The virtual disappearance of natural theology from scientific discourse by the century’s end signified more than the passing of a generation of scientists who had been born and educated in a more devout era. It indicated a change in the way scientists thought about nature and science, and in the practice of science. Not impiety but positivism had banished both theological explanations and concerns from the minds of working scientists.

The new post-Darwinian positive science clearly opposed the earlier theistic approach. New ideas were rapidly replacing the old. For example the old science invoked divine will as an explanation of unknown phenomena and it appealed more to the inductive reasoning process; by contrast the new science appealed to impersonal laws (some of which were yet to be discovered) and tended to abandon induction as the normal scientific method.

Surrounded by ’inductionists,’ Darwin was not always confident of the propriety of his practice. Kuhn has remarked that ’all crises begin with the blurring of a paradigm and the consequent loosening of the rules for normal research.’ In the present case those who drifted away from special creation also tended to abandon ’induction’ as normal scientific method. Darwin embodied the innovative use of ’hypothesis’ at its best, but he never fully accepted its philosophical implications, nor did he completely overcome the inhibitions of one who knew that he was innovating and necessarily violating the supposed Baconian methodological canons of his time. The old science was heavily influenced by the church, while the new science made every attempt to declare its independence from established religion. Those who supported Darwin’s views, and even some who criticized him, resented the strong clerical influence in the scientific establishment. J. D. Hooker expressed in a letter to Asa Gray his resentment of ’parsons’ in science, naming Whewell, Powell, Sedgwick, and Buckland. They were thought to be caught in a double loyalty and sometimes to be ignorant of the fundamentals of science. Theological thinking was seen by most positivists as inhibiting the progress of true science. The old science had a distinctly theological base, while the new science saw any theistic discussion as an intrusion, or at best, a redundancy. In the old science the concept of design pointing to a Designer had retained the strong theological purpose--to show the omnipotence and omniscience of the Creator. After Darwin, however, positive science discouraged theological concerns and explanations. The old science appealed more to the data of Scripture because many scientists held it to be inspired by God. The new positivism separated the two major sources of truth, natural and revealed. Scientific truth could be discovered only through empirical methods of observation and experiment; even for those who did believe in some form of the inspiration of Scripture, it was rarely applied to scientific issues. Since many Christian scientists believed the two branches of truth (science and Scripture) must eventually agree, there was a strong tendency toward treating biblical language as figurative--the six days of creation became more widely accepted as periods of time, God’s method of creating was viewed as evolution rather than divine fiat, the creation of animal life was spread out over geological time, the Flood was seen as a series of local catastrophes, and so forth. While some scientists had always espoused mixed views of the historical reliability of the biblical stories, a stronger, united antibiblical voice characterized the new positive science.

Chambers and Lyell and Evolutionary Thinking

Darwin’s influence on modern scientific thinking has been a story of transition and change. In writing The Origin of Species and later works his intent was not to address the issue of a First Cause, the origin of life itself. Instead his plan was to defend a scientific theory, a mechanism, concerning the origin of various species, an explanation he found more believable than the science he knew as a boy. Darwin’s ’new wine,’ however, could not be placed into ’old wineskins’ and his theory of origins brought with it a revolution of scientific thought and methodology.

While many writers and ideas helped shape Darwin’s thinking in the 1840s and 1850s, two stand out as laying the foundation for his The Origin of Species. One such idea was Robert Chambers’s concept of ’development.’Chambers’s neoevolutionary theorydiffered significantly from Darwin’s more naturalistic proposal 15 years later, but Chambers’s concept of ’development’ was an important prototype of what would follow. Chambers believed the universe was under the dominion of God-given natural law. His approach to science was anything but positivistic; he practiced the old more traditional science, not the new. The essence of his innovation was not to question the divine source of creation, but rather the method of creation. He expressed a great uneasiness with one aspect of 19th-century natural theology, which Darwin later challenged even more successfully. The common approach of natural theologians called for regular, immediate exertions of God’s creative power to create new species. However, Chambers responded in this way:

How can we suppose an immediate exertion of this creative power at one time to produce zoophytes, another time to add a few marine mollusks, another to bring in one or two crustacea, again to produce crustaceous fishes, again perfect fishes, and so on to the end. This would surely be to take a very mean view of the Creative Power--to . . . reduce it to some such character as that borne by the ordinary proceedings of mankind.

God’s direct intervention into the laws of nature was not only contradictory to Chambers’s conception of ’law,’ but it also seemed to be wasteful and out of keeping with God’s character. Why would a wise, omnipotent God not shape the laws of nature accordingly, without requiring continual intervention to accomplish His plan? The function of natural law in the universe was more logical and reflective of the Creator’s dignity and craftsmanship, and an important part of the theory of ’development.’

Though Chambers was widely read and much was written in response to his theory of ’development,’ most scientists completely disagreed with him and labeled him a heretic. Gillispie identifies the most controversial aspect of his theory.

Biblical fundamentalism was not the issue, and to regard it as such is to misread whatever light the discussion casts upon the Victorian mind--that unsatisfactory and indispensable abstraction. The trouble really lay in the difficulty of relying primarily on the material evidence for the existence and continuing activity of the Deity without accepting materialism--a dilemma which pious and good-hearted men of limited imagination could dodge only by denying self-sufficiency to the cosmic order. They sought to show the necessitarian character of physical phenomena while at the same time [showing that] the inadequacy of spontaneous natural causation was the proof that the development of the universe took place under divine direction. . . . In any case, development seemed a dangerous idea.

Many feared the implications of Chambers’s ideas. The ’inadequacy of spontaneous natural causation’ is the element Darwin later provided through the mechanism of evolution by natural selection, replacing divine direction in the process. Ironically Chambers’s deep personal faith in God motivated his proposal of the idea of ’development,’ but Darwin developed a form of that idea that opposed God’s role.

Darwin was also significantly influenced by Charles Lyell’s concept of uniformitarianism.Though Lyell did not originate the idea of uniformitarianism in geology, his Principles of Geology was the first published objection to catastrophism. Uniformitarian principles had earlier been argued by other geologists, and were a new way of thinking about nature which emerged in the 18th century, as noted by Charles Taylor.

The advance of this new stance to nature, whether inspired by materialism or proto-Romanticism, helped to foster a new sense of cosmic time. . . . The biblical universe was historical but of a relatively short duration, a few thousand years, something that felt immense at the time but that the imagination could easily encompass. In either case, to be in the universe was to be in an ordered whole whose extent and limits could be grasped. The eighteenth century sees the dawning of a real sense of geological time: that is, not only of the immense time scale in which the universe has evolved, but also the cataclysmic changes which have filled these aeons. This change was partly a matter of scientific discovery, leading up to the eventual formulation and general acceptance of Darwin’s theory.

Lyell was also heavily influenced by the views of George Scropes concerning volcanic activity. Scropes had concluded that given enough time one could account for all lava formations, and he extrapolated this claim to all geological changes on the earth. The subtitle to Lyell’s Principles of Geology points up his central thesis: Being an Attempt to Explain the Former Changes of the Earths Surface, by Reference to Causes Now in Operation.

Lyell, a student of catastrophist and natural theologian William Buckland, advanced the principle of uniformity through his three-volume work, in which he provided ample scientific data in support of his views. While the concept of uniformity strongly influenced young Charles Darwin, the underlying methodology and the presuppositions accompanying it had a greater effect on Darwin’s approach to biology.

Both Lyell and Darwin were living in an era of shifting thought and theories. For Lyell the issue went far beyond geology to scientific methodology. He believed the scientific enterprise and learning itself was entering a more advanced stage; phenomena that in the past were ignorantly attributed to miracles, demons, divine interventions, or other outside agencies could now be clearly understood as part of a natural system of laws on earth. His methods strongly opposed the natural theology tradition of science in several ways. First, he used theological terms like ’creation’ and ’Creator’ in a way that differed from that of natural theologians. ’Lyell was employing creation in the second conventional sense . . . as symbolic of an unknown mode of divine action that stayed within the confines of the laws of nature and, while involving a continuing divine initiative, did not require disruptions of that order.’ Gillespie suggests that this was probably the meaning intended by young Darwin in his Beagle diary, which showed the influence of a new way of thinking. Second, Lyell believed the past must be studied by analogy with the present, with the assumption that identical processes govern both. His was an absolute uniformitarianism; not only are present causes the only ones that operated in the past, but also their degree of operation is the same as it always has been. While some advocates of natural theology adopted modified uniformitarian principles, there was always an inconsistency in certain aspects of their reasoning. If one attempts to factor into geology biblical events like the Flood, he is committing himself to some form of catastrophism. Lyell did not believe that the Flood, if it really took place, had any effect on earth’s geology; other uniformitarians who were stronger biblicists simply treated it as metaphorical in Scripture, or at least localized in its effects. The uniformitarian dogma thus became for Lyell a greater source of authority than statements from Scripture. Third, Lyell believed the theological dimensions of contemporary science were an intrusion from a superstitious past. Evident in Lyell’s writings, as well as later in Darwin, are some of Auguste Comte’s views on the evolution of religion.

The superstitions of a savage tribe are transmitted through all the progressive stages of society, till they exert a powerful influence on the mind of the philosopher. He may find, in the monuments of former changes on the earth’s surface, an apparent confirmation of tenets handed down through successive generations, from the rude hunter, whose terrified imagination drew a false picture of those awful visitations of floods and earthquakes, whereby the whole earth as known to him was simultaneously devastated.

Like Chalmers in his neoevolutionary approach, Lyell was determined to rid science of the so-called faulty reasoning of natural theologians and biblicists. Both men held to an intelligent First Cause, never questioning the ultimate origin of life itself. Through science they sought to produce knowledge worthy of their concept of God.

But Lyell’s references to God are much more indirect, and at times deistic or even pantheistic. He was not an enemy of natural theology itself, but he sought to protect scientific study from the restricting and misdirected influence of past superstitions. To give geology and other disciplines the healthful freedom they deserved, he believed they had to be completely separated.

Lyell and the others, of course, were not enemies of theology as such. Lyell’s aim, like that of Bacon and Galileo before him, was to protect science from the inhibitions and misdirections of theology. This he did, not in order to harm religion, but in order to serve science. His lesson was not lost on Darwin, but his disciple was to go far beyond him.

In Lyell’s view invoking theological reasoning in science had been an inhibitor to investigation. Popular preconceptions about the age of the earth (based on the Old Testament) were viewed by him as the reason it had taken so long for his viewpoint to be presented. Lyell was convinced that a new way of practicing science was essential to progress.

Darwin’s Theory versus 19th-Century Natural Theology

As noted, Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection accompanied and to a large degree contributed to a methodological and epistemological shift in science. The more significant changes in this transition can be appreciated by contrasting Darwin’s view of science with the prevalent views of natural theologians in five areas.

First, Darwin believed true scientific inquiry was inhibited by the presence of natural theology in science. In his experience traditional science discouraged the dynamic process of discovery, relying on long-accepted, redundant statements of truth. In Darwin’s estimation scientists in this tradition accepted generalities or invoked God’s wisdom as an explanation, rather than pursuing specific, naturalistic reasons for phenomena.

On the ordinary view of each species having been independently created, we gain no scientific explanation of any one of these facts. We can only say that it has so pleased the Creator to command that the past and present inhabitants of the world should appear in a certain order and in certain areas. . . . But by such statements we gain no new knowledge; we do not connect together facts and laws; we explain nothing.

Darwin believed that terms such as ’plan of creation’ or ’unity of design’ were often used as facades to hide ignorance. He saw the conquest of his theory of evolution over continual creation as an emancipation of biological science, much like Lyell’s uniformitarianism, which had defeated catastrophism in the field of geology. Darwin predicted, ’As modern geology has almost banished catastrophism, so will natural selection, if it be a true principle, banish the continued creation of new organic beings, or any great sudden modification in their structure.’ One writer who seemingly influenced Darwin’s attitude toward the old science in his formative years was Comte. His contention that all science stands in opposition to all theology came from an evolutionary view of science itself. Comte’s proposed three stages in the development of every science--theological, metaphysical, and positive--induced Darwin to claim superiority of his views over an obsolete system of the past. This complete victory was important, for Darwin’s evolutionary ideas were calling for a radically new system, not a modification of the old. Second, Darwin was convinced that nature itself did not show what one would expect from the God portrayed in traditional natural theology. His questions focused on three areas of God’s attributes: wisdom and creativity, goodness and love, and omniscience and omnipotence. If creativity and intelligence were behind nature, why would it not be more creative and less predictable through laws? If species were so perfectly suited to their environment, demonstrating the wisdom of their Creator, why does one find significant mismatches and exceptions to this principle? These questions began to bother Darwin on his Beagle voyage to South America. Gillespie documents a number of examples of Darwin’s ’surprises’ in nature and comments:

The ’ordinary view’ [of special creation] often claimed that species and their environments were so closely adapted to one another that only intelligent design could explain it. Darwin, on the contrary, found the world filled with anomalous matches and unused opportunities. . . .

Darwin would find no answer to these anomalies in the assumption of a rational and economically designed world. Descent with modification and migration, however, caused everything to fall into place. . . .

Another hint was the curious tucutuco, a mole-like rodent that lived under ground and was usually blind. ’The blindness,’ Darwin wrote in the 1839 Journal, ’though so frequent, cannot be a very serious evil; yet it appears strange that any animal should possess an organ constantly subject to injury.’ . . . Animals with pointless habits of behavior; birds that laid large quantities of eggs only to have many of them rot; bees that stung only to destroy themselves thereby--all were . . . ’imperfections and mistakes’ that were inexplicable to the special creationist, but which yielded without too much difficulty to the believer in evolution. The advocate of a designed creation could only escape these dilemmas by confessing to a degree of mystery in the world that destroyed the rational union of purpose and utility that underlay his argument.

A more troubling aspect of natural theology was its claim to portray a benevolent God who shows His goodness through His creation. Why, asked Darwin, are there waste, pain, and even cruelty and irrationality in nature? His writings reflect an intense philosophical struggle with the problem of pain and evil in the world. Though he agreed that good ends sometimes result from suffering in nature, he resented the ’happy face’ caricature Paley and others had assigned to the entire world of nature.

These inconsistencies between natural theology and his observations of nature caused Darwin to raise questions about omniscience and omnipotence. If He is all-knowing and all-powerful, this means He knows of the glaring imperfections in His creation, and is able to do something about them. Why, then, did anomalies of nature happen in the first place, and why do they continue to occur? Natural theologians and their greatest critic, Darwin, both ’retreated’ to allow for the existence of evil in the presence of the Creator. Natural theologians argued for a degree of mystery in God’s plan for the world, which may not be subject to rational analysis but must be accepted by faith. Darwin, on the other hand, retreated to a positive form of science, in which events are explained through natural processes, without needing to defend their theological or moral implications. While Darwin’s evolutionary theory provided an apt mechanism for investigating many questions of nature, it also undermined completely the place of a sovereign Creator.

Third, Darwin resisted the design argument for Gods existence in traditional natural theology. The teleological argument for God’s existence greatly frustrated Darwin because the existence of a Designer required that science discover His purposes in nature. For Darwin, such a goal derailed true scientific investigation. He accused most of his contemporaries of seeking theological rather than scientific meaning.

Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection postulated a purely naturalistic and logical explanation for what previously had been attributed to the work of a Designer.

Darwin had devastating consequences for belief because of the intellectual structures in which faith had come to be cast, mainly but not only in Protestant countries. In the previous two centuries there had been an immense investment in the argument from design as a certain proof of the existence of the Deity. . . . Darwin, by showing how there could be design without a Designer, blew a gaping hole in this whole way of reasoning.

It is no exaggeration to state that Darwin’s theory historically negated the influence of Paley’s traditional views. Darwin’s ideas provided not only an answer for scientific questions, but also a model for scientific investigation.

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. Darwin showed how blind and gradual adaptation could counterfeit the apparently purposeful design that Paley, the Bridgewater writers, and others had seen in nature. . . . Darwin now substituted an alternative hypothesis which was logically adequate to account for forms of organisms, and philosophically more appealing to positivists. . . . The design argument to the positivist was no longer scientific, but philosophical and religious; by abandoning the empirical world it had entered the area of religion, where belief in design became an act of faith in an incomprehensible divine wisdom and its ends, and having no scientific value.

Modern neo-Darwinian scientists, in spite of 136 years of data gathered since The Origin of Species, must still acknowledge the huge ’faith commitment’ required to accept Darwinian evolution, especially the spontaneous origin of life from the ’prebiotic soup.’ Sir Fred Hoyle, founder of the Cambridge Institute of Theoretical Astronomy, has said, ’The chance that higher life forms might have emerged in this way [spontaneously from the ’prebiotic soup’] is comparable with the chance that a tornado sweeping through a junk-yard might assemble a Boeing 747 from the material therein.’ Hoyle and his research partner, in a book proposing that life on earth had to originate from other intelligent life somewhere in space, make the following comparison of Darwinism and Paley’s design argument:

The speculations of The Origin of Species turned out to be wrong, as we have seen in this chapter. It is ironic that the scientific facts throw Darwin out, but leave William Paley, a figure of fun to the scientific world for more than a century, still in the tournament with a chance of being the ultimate winner.

What was Darwin’s relationship to God? Most scholars who have studied Darwin’s writings agree that he was a theist before he wrote The Origin of Species. Theism must always be distinguished from Christianity, however, and whatever Christian beliefs he might have held earlier had left him before he began to write his magnum opus. Letters from his wife Emma in his autobiography indicate this. His writings show very little personal piety or knowledge of the Scriptures, and whatever theism he held turned to agnosticism after 1860. He represented a generation of young scientists who reacted against the excesses of natural theological teaching in science. The atheism of his brother Erasmus (and perhaps his grandfather, also named Erasmus), as well as Lyell’s liberal religious views seem to have influenced him. Science became Darwin’s god and his source of authority, and for him this left no room for compromise. Fourth, Darwin disagreed with the conviction of many natural theologians that God had created each species. The older, traditional science was committed to the premise that species are immutable, thus requiring an act of creation to produce a new species. Darwin proposed instead a uniformitarian process of speciation by descent with modification. He was convinced of the likelihood of transmutation (not creation) of species. Borrowing the concepts of uniformitarianism and unlimited time from Lyell’s geology, this principle of new species from older ones became a vital part of Darwin’s thinking. One cannot overlook the importance of definitions of terms in scientific writing, and the meaning of a ’species’ was quite unclear in Darwin and in natural theology. By denying the miracle of the creative act in producing a new species, however, Darwin sought to remove the unexplainable mystery claimed by natural theologians and to open up the matter for investigation. Fifth, Darwin argued for the extensive use of analogy in scientific reasoning, resulting in a dominant theory that best explains the data available. This methodological premise, perhaps the most controversial aspect of Darwin’s approach, is critical in the support of neo-Darwinism today. On this point catastrophists and uniformitarians had agreed, but not until Darwin’s theory did the use of analogy become absolutely essential in understanding science. The uniformitarian model of geology provided an excellent example for Darwin’s biology.

Some Implications for Contemporary Scientific Discourse

The Darwinian debate with 19th-century natural theology illustrates some important factors that ought to be considered in contemporary scientific dialogue about ’design’ in creation. Dating back to the birth of modern science in the 16th century, early Christian or theistic ’fathers of science’ delighted in presenting the evidence for a Creator through scientific study of the physical world. In the last century, however, such claims have been received with skepticism or contempt by the atheistic or agnostic scientific community, and by fellow theistic scientists who exclude God from any discussion of science. This demise of the ’design argument’ is largely the result of Darwin’s revolution in scientific thinking and the methodology accompanying it. However, this view is now being seriously challenged by well-respected scientists, philosophers of science, and historians of science in books and articles. Works such as The Fingerprint of God;The Creation Hypothesis: Scientific Evidence for an Intelligent Designer; and Darwin on Trial are receiving well-deserved attention from the scholarly scientific community. Evidence for intricate design in the universe and in all forms of life has been brought forth in every field of scientific investigation, and new discoveries regularly add to this support. In seeking to exclude God from any discussion of science the scientific establishment is violating its own rules of logic. The history of evolutionary thinking needs to be studied and reevaluated by every scientist, including an acknowledgment of the huge ’faith commitment’ required of evolutionists as well as theists. Proponents of the design argument must guard against weaknesses evident in the pre-Darwinian views on design. Theological claims brought forth from scientific study must be tested by and compared with scriptural statements about God and His character. While the Bible strongly supports the design argument--the view that the physical world reveals its Creator--the Scriptures also indicate this message has limitations (it does not reveal all God’s attributes) and that the design argument is intended to lead one to seek God further through the propositional revelation of the Bible (Rom. 1:18-20). The biblical teaching of sin must also be considered, including its effects on man’s ability to perceive God’s revelation and the result of the Fall on the physical world itself. Natural theologians during the Darwinian period largely ignored the problems of suffering, evil, and imperfections in the world, items that were a great irritation to Darwin, who devised a mechanism that included these realities. While 19th-century natural theology sought to point up the perfections of God from the wonders of the world, that theology failed to describe the world as it exists. The greatest safeguard against excessive or inaccurate claims in discussing design in creation is a natural theology that is continually compared with scriptural claims. Scientific practitioners, philosophers, and historians who wish to make claims about God from their work must themselves be students of the Scriptures, continually testing their theories and maintaining an open dialogue with theologians and biblical scholars. While Scripture supports the thesis that ’design’ in the physical world leads to knowledge of a Designer, history has shown that care must be taken when presenting this point to those who doubt or deny it. Through a commitment to the authority of Scripture and a theology accurately grounded in it, natural theology can again become an effective tool of God-fearing scientists.

Terug naar document-overzicht
Dit artikel wordt u aangeboden door Het BijbelArchief.
Mocht u vragen en/of opmerkingen hebben over dit artikel kunt u contact opnemen met de aanbieder.