Tuesday, April 05, 2011

Designing Evolution - Christianity's Influence on Darwin

The following is a paper I stumbled on today, that I wrote for my Science and Religion class at Dalhousie on February 13, 2009.  Although it is not nearly as detailed as it deserves, I think its a good introduction to this topic.  Enjoy!  (P.S.  I remember I did well on this paper, but I don't remember how well.  But the clever title was certainly worth an A itself).

Designing Evolution – Christianity’s Influence on Darwin
Charles Darwin (1809-1882) did not come up with his theory of evolution in a cultural vacuum – he was influenced by and responded to the social, philosophical/theological and scientific ideas of his culture.  Of especial importance, both positively and negatively, to the formulation of his ideas in On the Origin of Species was Christianity.  Christianity provided both the framework for his own outlook on the universe, on which his theory was established, and provided the antithesis to his ideas, to which he would have to respond.
            ‘In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth,’begins the Judaeo-Christian creation account, and indeed many Christians today would view this statement as being in direct contradiction to Darwin’s theory of evolution.  However, Darwin in his younger days was a Christian, fond of quoting Scripture, and this important passage would have shaped much of his worldview, just as it had shaped the worldview of many naturalists before him.  Indeed, he called his famous tree diagrams, which he used to illustrate descent with modification, the ‘tree of life’, in direct reference to Genesis 2.  It is therefore worth examining some of the points in which Genesis may have, perhaps unconsciously, contributed to his theory of evolution.
            Genesis 1 depicts a universe in which all things, both the animate and inanimate, ultimately derive their existence from God.  The structure of Genesis one reveals some of its purpose.  The earth is depicted as being ‘formless and empty’ (Gen 1:2), a statement that sets up what is to follow.  When God creates, the basic structures of the earth are first given form (days 1-3) and then filled (days 4-6), with each of the forming days corresponding to a matching filling day (on day four, what was formed on day one is filled; on day five, what was formed on day two is filled, etc).  The structure of this chapter was orderly and reasoned, signifying that creation was also ordered and reasoned.  The world was not chaotic or confusing, where things happened just for the sake of happening – rather, there was a Reason that permeated the world.  The Christians sourced this Reason in the divine Word of God, the incarnation of Christ, and being raised up with Christ as images of God, humans too could discern this order.  And indeed they had, through the likes of Euclid, Galileo, Kepler, Newton, etc.  Like the physicists that came before him, Darwin too believed that he was uncovering laws, biological laws of variation and speciation, which further attested to the world’s order.  In a chaotic world not ordered by reason, there would be no reason to suspect that these laws existed.  Even when Darwin could no longer accept the Christian God, for both personal reasons (the death of his daughter) and metaphysical reasons (natural evil), it was this order that he had uncovered that kept his mind vacillating around the idea of God. 
            Genesis 1 also depicts creation as being progressive, from inanimate to animate, from unintelligent to intelligent, from plant to animal to human, from subordinate to master, and it is the humans that are given unique status in all of creation as beings made in the image of God, perfected by their designer.  There is a sense of progress in Darwin’s writings as well (although many will contest this).  According to Darwin, natural selection has caused existing organisms to be more perfect than those organisms that existed before; extinction occurs when these ‘new and improved’ varieties supplant the old.  This view allowed him to reconcile his difficulties with the Ichneumonidae: they could be viewed as evolutionarily perfected killing machines, rather than the products of a warped Imagination.  The Christian notion of human superiority could also be kept, with humans as the pinnacles of evolution.  There are of course differences between Genesis and Darwinian notions of progress (progress is based on the hierarchy of being in Genesis, with creatures lower on the hierarchy being created first, whereas in Darwin’s theory progress occurs genealogically as one moves up the tree of life), but both views required the creative force to be in some way good.  God works for our good; natural selection works for the good of the organisms it is acting on.  Darwin did indeed word his views on natural selection in a way that was reminiscent of biblical writers’ descriptions of God, God’s creation, and our response before God to such a creation.  ‘And as natural selection works solely by and for the good of each being, all corporeal and mental endowments will tend to progress towards perfection,’ for example, seems to be an allusion to Romans 8:28 (‘We know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him’).  The almost reverent, Psalmist-like awe Darwin felt towards natural selection is best expressed when he wrote, ‘What limit can be put to this power, acting during long ages and rigidly scrutinising the whole constitution, structure, and habits of each creature,--favouring the good and rejecting the bad? I can see no limit to this power, in slowly and beautifully adapting each form to the most complex relations of life.’  Although Darwin would eventually reject the Christian Scriptures, his writings were often flavoured with this sermon-like zeal, a possible holdover from his biblical training.
            Genesis 1, then, shaped much of the groundwork for Darwin’s theory.  It shaped his view that the world could be rationally understood, despite, as later philosophers have pointed out, there being no evolutionary, materialistic reason for our evolved brains to be able to grasp the workings of the universe.  Genesis 1 also provided Darwin with allusions to draw from (the tree of life), his notions of progress, and his awe for the complexity of the natural world.  It is interesting to note that the emphasis on progress-through-genealogy in evolution fit in nicely with Genesis’ emphasis on genealogies, to the extent that non-western thinkers viewed evolution as inherently patriarchal.  Of course, Genesis also provided a worldview to which Darwin would have to respond: namely, that the Creator had created each species independently.
            William Paley (1743-1805), an Anglican, was a populariser of the design argument.  His watchmaker thesis was read and initially believed by a young Darwin, who recognized that there was power to the argument that complex things required a designer.  Paley’s writings fuelled Darwin’s imagination and prompted him to ask how this design could come about.  Darwin saw evidence in nature that contradicted special creation, but, unlike those who believed that the chance survival of a plausibly infinite variety of things had led to the biological life we see today, he had too much respect for Paley’s design argument to simply dismiss it.  Darwin saw that the appearance of design was a challenge.  In fact, since he did believe in God in his earlier days, he could have been motivated to develop his theory by Paley’s argument on contrivance.  Paley argued that God did not give people the miraculous gift of vision without sense perception, even though he could have; instead, he limited his power, allowing the human eye to work according to physical laws (refraction, etc.), so that we would have no choice but to infer a designer.  Darwin could have seen evolution as taking this to the next level – God limited his power to the extent that he did not even create each species, but rather allowed evolutionary laws to create species naturally.  This is indeed allowed in the conclusion to Darwin’s Origin, even if Darwin himself later doubted these ideas. 
            Darwin’s theory allowed room for a Creator (albeit in a slightly different way than literalists would have allowed), but Darwin also knew that many people would not see it that way.  William Paley did not make this any easier for Darwin, by declaring that any theory which did not attest to the art or skill of the designer was absurd, and could only be branded as atheism.  This argument moved Darwin enough to hold off publication of Origin out of fear of being branded an atheist, a term which those in his social circles would have found repulsive.  He had no desire to bring down the monarchy like the French revolutionists, and was afraid of the social consequences of being an atheist.  Despite his precautions, the reaction to Origin was mixed in the religious community, and many did label him an atheist.
            The immutability of species was taken for granted by William Paley and many other natural philosophers and theologians.  Much of the Origin was written as a response to these people.  The discussion on the fossil record, the design of the eye, and the evolution of social insects, for example, were included to give greater force to Darwin’s arguments, arguments which he structured much in the line of Paley’s Natural Theology.  He knew he would face resistance, and he shaped his book accordingly.  Ironically, he spent a great deal of time discussing migration, as he needed to explain how life could start in one area and then move across oceans, a task also performed by Flood-believing literalists.  Darwin’s true genius is seen in that he was able to shape a compelling argument despite lacking key elements, such as the mode of variation, inheritance, or continental drift.  It was as if Paley was describing Darwin when he wrote, ‘He knows enough for his argument: he knows the utility of the end: he knows the subserviency and adaptation of the means to the end. These points being known, his ignorance of other points, his doubts concerning other points, affect not the certainty of his reasoning. The consciousness of knowing little, need not beget a distrust of that which he does know.’  It is indeed possible that Darwin derived courage from these words, written years before by an Anglican theologian.
            Describing the influence of Christianity on Darwin’s theory is like describing an iceburg – for every obvious observation, there are innumerable connections that remain hidden.  All of Darwin’s identity and way of thinking was influenced by Christianity; Christianity’s impact is too vast to completely describe.  There is so much more that could be discussed – Darwin’s associations with Anglican professors, the impact of Robert Chambers’ Vestiges, the harmonizing of science and religion, especially with regards to geology and the old age of the universe (and what this concordism meant for both the acceptance of evolution and the authority of the literal school of biblical interpretation), Hugh Miller’s views of God as still being active in creation (which could have paved the way for the Christian acceptance of evolution), the work of the proto-evolutionists, Hume’s rebuttal of the design argument and the influence of scepticism on Darwin in his later years – all of these and more could be discussed.  The influence of Christianity on Darwin was great indeed.
            Genesis proposed a rational universe that could be understood, and it was this framework that allowed Darwin to even think that he could discover biological laws.  Without the belief in an orderly universe, evolution could (some would argue ironically, given its predisposition towards randomness) never have been developed.  Furthermore, proponents of special creation, who used Genesis as their source material, fuelled a controversy to which Darwin was forced to respond.  But had they not insisted on the strength of the design argument in the first place, evolution also may have never been developed.  After all, why search for natural answers to questions that are never raised?


jmchebib@ucalgary.ca said...

Are there prevalent ideas out there that purport great minds creating their ideas in a vacuum? We have all been influenced by the experiences we have had and the culture we have grown in.

Matthew said...

Ha, no! Chalk that up to an idiotic undergrad rapidly writing a midterm paper. I did not post this as a perfectly written essay. I mostly posted it because I needed to post something, and my mind was shot by Pigliucci's textbook on plasticity. I literally could write nothing. So any jokes at my undergrad past-self are certainly welcome.

Keith Shields said...