|Darwin and design: historical essay|
At the beginning of the nineteenth century in Britain, religion and the sciences were generally thought to be in harmony. The study of God's word in the Bible, and of his works in nature, were considered to be part of the same truth. One version of this harmony was presented in William Paley's Natural theology, or evidences of the existence and attributes of the deity (1802).
This was one of the most popular works of theology ever written in the English language. It was widely read and debated through the first half of the nineteenth century, and it formed part of the standard curriculum at Oxford and Cambridge universities. Paley claimed that proof of God's existence could be found in the uniformity of plan observable in the universe, and that evidence of God's nature, especially his benevolence, lay in the exquisite mechanisms by which organisms were fitted to perform specific purposes. One such mechanism was the human eye. Paley wrote:
Another important example of this kind of natural theology was a series of scientific books known as the Bridgewater treatises. These were financed by Francis Henry Egerton, the eighth earl of Bridgewater, whose last will and testament provided eight thousand pounds for the publication of works 'On the Power, Wisdom, and Goodness of God, as manifested in the Creation'. Eight volumes were produced between 1833 and 1840 by leading authorities in moral philosophy, natural history, astronomy, physiology, chemistry, and geology. The books were widely discussed, and extracts often appeared in sermons.
A sense of what these books were like can be gained by looking at one example, the
treatise on geology. It was written by William Buckland, the professor of geology at
Oxford. It contained chapters entitled, ‘
The animal had been reconstructed from fossilised remains in the early nineteenth century. Because of its massive size, and its apparently awkward proportions, some experts thought it must have been doomed to an unhappy life and a speedy decline. How could an intelligent and beneficent God have designed such an animal?
Buckland remarked that the animal was an ‘
Some key fossils of Megatherium had been supplied by Darwin, who found them on the coast of Chile during the Beagle voyage. The case of Megatherium thus shows how Darwin's earliest research helped to further the programme of natural theological science.
Another form of natural theology can be found in the work of the comparative anatomist
Richard Owen. In a series of publications in the 1840s, Owen argued that the animal
kingdom was arranged according to four distinct organisational plans or types (fish,
birds, reptiles, and mammals). These ‘
For Owen, God's unity of plan was expressed both in the clear morphological divisions that separated animal groups, and in underlying structures that connected these divisions into a single order of creation. Owen developed this theory of underlying structures in another set of works on the vertebrate skull and skeleton.
He argued that the human skull consisted of twenty-eight separate pieces which ultimately united into single whole along a series of sutures. These pieces, he claimed, were in essence vertebrae:
Owen went on to extend this theory of the human skeleton to other vertebrate animals. The bony frames of mammals, birds, reptiles, and even fishes, were thus all connected, from head to toe (or claw, or fin), thus showing the unity of plan of God's creation.
Owen's highly theoretical anatomy was quite different from Buckland's more empirical programme. Owen's arguments about the structural unity of nature were also very different from Paley's arguments, which emphasised highly differentiated structures, adapted for specific purposes. In comparing the work of Paley, Buckland, and Owen, it becomes clear that natural theology was not a single, unified tradition. There were in fact different, and to some degree competing, versions of natural theology.
Natural theology was also not without its own controversies. These were especially evident in geology. Discoveries of the fossil remains of extinct creatures, together with other evidence of the age of the earth presented in the work of Charles Lyell and others, challenged the literal reading of the creation story in Genesis. One reading of Genesis, for example, assigned each day of creation to a different geological epoch. Creation was viewed by some as a progressive unfolding, rather than as a single event. Further questions were raised about the role of God in relation to the operation of natural forces and laws.
Some natural philosophers and astronomers, such as William Herschell, speculated about
the origins of the universe, and posed the ‘
Other competing versions of natural theology were offered in evangelical circles. The geologist and Calvinist Hugh Miller wrote a book entitled Footprints of the creator (1847), arguing that evidence of the biblical flood and of the decline and degradation of life since Adam's fall could be found in fossil formations. In places, Miller's work verged on the scriptural geology favoured by extreme evangelicals who supported a literal reading of Genesis.
Finally, natural theology was also controversial within the Church of England. Some Anglicans, like the Oxford theologians John Keble and John Henry Newman, claimed that looking to nature for evidence of God's existence and attributes was misguided. Belief, they argued, should not be based on reasoned inferences or observations of the senses, since these were always flawed; rather, belief should be based on the authority of the Church and its leaders.
Darwin's work is usually viewed as undermining natural theology by replacing Paley's model of an ingeniously designed creation with a theory of functional adaptations, acquired through a process of random variation, and then accumulated through natural selection.
Darwin's own view, presented in his Autobiography, seems to support this:
Autobiography, p. 50
Yet Darwin's beliefs about the role of a Creator changed over time. Nor does his criticism of Paley mean that he necessarily discounted other versions of natural theology, such as that of William Herschell. Indeed, the second edition of Origin of species (1860) contains a new epigraph from the famous Christian apologist, Joseph Butler, which reads:
Reactions to Darwin's work also show that its meaning as regards design in nature was far from straightforward. The correspondence Darwin received in the years following the publication of Origin reveals an extremely wide range of interpretations, from complete condemnation to subtle accommodation, to active support.
Darwin's explanation for species change, natural selection, was often interpreted in religious form, as an instrument of God's design.
One of Darwin's most avid readers was the Anglican cleric, Charles Kingsley. Best known for his role in the Christian socialist movement, and as the author of Alton Locke and The water babies, he would later become professor of modern history at Cambridge. Kingsley wrote to Darwin shortly after the publication of Origin:
Kingsley was able to incorporate evolutionary theory into a reformed vision of nature as a product of beneficent design. His remarks pleased Darwin so much that he had this sentence inserted in the second edition of Origin.
One of Darwin's most intimate correspondents and leading supporters was the American botanist Asa Gray, a devout Presbyterian.
Gray helped to arrange for Origin to be published in America, and wrote a series of reviews in leading journals. One point that Gray argued at some length was that natural selection was not inconsistent with natural theology. Darwin, according to Gray, said only that nature proceeded according to fixed laws; he wrote only of secondary causes, not of first causes. He left questions such as the origin of life, and the design of nature's laws open, for theologians to answer as they might.
Darwin's response was again enthusiastic. He praised Gray's reviews, and financed their publication in pamphlet form for distribution in England.
The correspondence between Darwin and Gray is especially rich in discussions of design in nature. It is clear from these discussions that there were different versions of natural theology, different positions on the role of God in nature being considered. These were not debates between science and religion, they were debates within natural theology, and within science itself. And they were not new, they had been going on for decades prior to the publication of Origin.
Darwin's work thus did not introduce controversy into natural theology, nor did it sweep natural theology away. But what did happen in the years following Origin , is that the public debates became more polemical, and a polarised view of science and theology was introduced by a few very vocal protagonists.
Just such a polemical view of science and religion is presented in reports of the famous
exchange between Thomas Huxley and Samuel Wilberforce, bishop of Oxford, at the meeting
of the British Association for the Advancement of Science in 1860. Supposedly the
spectacle of man of God ‘
Huxley used Darwinism as a platform for a political campaign against the authority of the clergy in education. Occasionally referred to as 'Pope Huxley' by friends and critics alike, he sketched Darwin as a bishop in a letter of 1868, giving audience to a humble believer, in the form of a German naturalist.
Like Gray, Huxley wrote a series of reviews of Origin . But he presented a completely different picture: one in which Darwin's critics were branded as biblical literalists or arch-conservatives.
In many of the accounts of the encounter at the British Association meeting, observers gave the victory to Wilberforce; one Darwinian was reconverted to special creation after hearing the bishop’s speech. Wilberforce's own review of Origin suggests that he was not in fact opposed to transmutation, only to Darwin's particular explanation for it.
The political aspect of the evolution debates is of course even more pronounced today, and it is crucial to understanding how Darwin continues to be a watchword. Today we have to contend not only with pervasive misrepresentation and misquoting, but also with the strong tendency to oversimplify the issues at stake, as if we had only two choices: science or religion; evolution or belief in God. Darwin's correspondence shows that this certainly was not the case, not for Darwin, and not for his readers. The letters give a richer picture of Darwin, and of the debates in which his work was embroiled.
Persons and works referred to:
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