Tuesday, May 03, 2011

God in the Origin of Species

It is an interesting and much-observed phenomenon that the language of technology can be appropriated for describing the world in new ways.   The best example of this today comes from philosophy of mind and consciousness, where analogies from the computer sciences have helped us envision how the mind operates.  It is interesting to ponder how our concept of mind would have developed without the advent of computer processors.

In the 1600s one of the most remarkable pieces of technology was the clock.  The clock had indeed been around for hundreds of years, but by the late 1500s it had gained an unprecedented level of complexity.  The second Strasbourg clock, for example, which was completed in 1574, contained moving statues and automata, played music, and could track both the time and the movement of celestial bodies.  One of the great ironies of history was that a device whose history began as a simple shadow caused by the movement of the sun, would become one of the most powerful images for the movement of the universe.

Clockwork-universe analogies preceded Newton (i.e. Descartes), but the so-called Laws of Physics which Newton discovered provided imaginative strength to the analogy.  In the same way that a clock could be designed to move and function without the constant attention of the watchmaker, so too could the universe unfold according to physical laws first established by the universe-maker.  And how simple (and wonderful) were these laws!  God’s grandeur and perfection were all the more celebrated as people marvelled at the creativity of a God who could design a deterministic world that did not need his intervention.

One of the chief contributions of Newton’s work was that he united the heavenly celestial realm with the realm on earth.  The harmonious movement of the celestial spheres had, prior to Newton, been considered to be perfect and unspoiled, in a sense more spiritual than the goings on in a material and fallen world.  Newton, who was an avid student of biblical prophecy, firmly believed that prophetic images used in a New Testament book could also apply to the Old Testament, and vice versa.  This unity of interpretation he then extended to the physical world, since what was true of God’s revealed book (the Bible) must also be true of God’s book of Nature.  By applying the laws of earth to the laws of heaven, Newton not only gave predictive power to the goings on down here, but he explained in a materialistic fashion God’s will for those outer spheres.

The clock then became an image of unity between two worlds.

The biological realm, however, did not seem explicable in terms of physical forces.  Although organisms certainly were bound by the laws of physics, it was difficult to see how physical laws could result in organisms with perfect and harmonious adaptations to their environment. 

William Paley (1743-1805), in Natural Theology, used a watch as an argument against materialistic interpretations of life:

IN crossing a heath, suppose I pitched my foot against a stone, and were asked how the stone came to be there; I might possibly answer, that, for any thing I knew to the contrary, it had lain there for ever: nor would it perhaps be very easy to show the absurdity of this answer. But suppose I had found a watch upon the ground, and it should be inquired how the watch happened to be in that place; I should hardly think of the answer which I had before given, that, for any thing I knew, the watch might have always been there. Yet why should not this answer serve for the watch as well as for the stone? why is it not as admissible in the second case, as in the first? For this reason, and for no other, viz. that, when we come to inspect the watch, we perceive (what we could not discover in the stone) that its several parts are framed and put together for a purpose, e. g. that they are so formed and adjusted as to produce motion, and that motion so regulated as to point out the hour of the day; that, if the different parts had been differently shaped from what they are, of a different size from what they are, or placed after any other manner, or in any other order, than that in which they are placed, either no motion at all would have been carried on in the machine, or none which would have answered the use that is now served by it…This mechanism being observed (it requires indeed an examination of the instrument, and perhaps some previous knowledge of the subject, to perceive and understand it; but being once, as we have said, observed and understood), the inference, we think, is inevitable, that the watch must have had a maker: that there must have existed, at some time, and at some place or other, an artificer or artificers who formed it for the purpose which we find it actually to answer; who comprehended its construction, and designed its use.

Biological systems, argued Paley, were like watches.  They were composed of complex parts, and those parts were there to serve a particular function.  A watch has gears for moving the hands, but those gears and hands are useless without numbers on the dial and without some sort of covering to keep dust and dirt from clogging the workings; the covering is useless if it is opaque and prevents one from seeing the numbers.  The combination of complexity and function that one sees in a watch implies some sort of designer.  In the world of life, creatures are complex, and their parts are ‘perfectly’ tuned to meet the challenges of their respective environments.  Argues Paley, it is inconceivable that nature alone could account for such creatures.  There needed to be a designer.

But now here is the question: does the designer need to create all of these perfectly adapted creatures at once and whole?  After all, watches are not functional until they are complete.  Or can the designer work through biological laws that were put in place at the beginning, to produce these adapted organisms?  In other words, can the watch of biology be subsumed under the clock of the universe?

Charles Darwin took up this question.  Shortly after his voyage on board the Beagle, in about 1839, Darwin’s observations of the natural world culminated in a theory that he felt accounted for Paley’s watch of biology.  This theory he would call evolution by natural selection and descent with modification.  He waited twenty years to publish his theory, in the meantime collecting all sorts of evidence from breeders on how humans have been agents of selection in nature.  He targeted competition as the agent that replaced human intelligence for selecting variants.  He delved into several scientific problems of the day, from instinct to biogeography, and showed how his theory could explain those problems, creating what his mentor William Whewell would call a ‘consilience of induction.’

By the time Darwin published On the Origin of Species, he was certain that his theory was a theory in the true sense of the word: a theory on par with Newton’s theory of gravity.  And like Newton before him, Darwin felt he had uncovered laws of nature, organic rather than physical, which explained how species became adapted to their environments, and how species evolved into new forms.

It is no accident that, in the first edition of On the Origin of Species, Darwin uses the word ‘law’ over one hundred times.  (By contrast, ‘evolved’ he only uses once, and at the very end).  The laws he believed he had uncovered were:

1. Growth and reproduction

2. Inheritance – Traits are passed from parents to offspring.

3. Variation – Even in a constant environment, offspring can differ from one another in appearance; whatever causes inheritance also allows the formation of new heritable varieties.  Not only do siblings differ, but individuals within a population will vary, as will populations within a species, such that it is sometimes difficult to tell if two populations are the same species or not.  One need only look at the different strains developed from a single domestic species (i.e. breeds of pigeons, dogs, cattle, etc) to see the power of variation among animals and plants.

4. Ratio of increase/Struggle for life – organisms increase rapidly in number if food is plentiful, but in most instances food is not plentiful; organisms struggle, one against the other, for survival among limited resources

5. Natural selection – Some of the variants will have an advantage over others, and will therefore get more food, escape from enemies, survive and produce more offspring than others.  Their successful traits will thus be passed on to more individuals than the less-successful traits.  This process gets renewed with the emergence of a new, more successful variant.

6. Divergence of character/extinction of less successful forms – Over long periods of time, the extinction of varieties with less-successful characteristics and the emergence of even more-successful varieties leads to descent with modification, and the presence of all of the varieties of life on this planet.

Each of these general laws, in turn, were composed of smaller laws.  Just as physical laws govern the movement of celestial bodies and the processes on earth, so too do these laws govern the formation of species.

Darwin also felt that his discovery stayed within the tradition of Newton by enhancing our ability to worship God.  Newton’s laws showed us that God allowed the clock of the universe to unfold gradually.  Darwin’s laws showed us that God allowed the watch of adaptation to similarly evolve.  No longer would we have to think of God directly intervening to specially create every creature; instead, God could allow species to change with their changing environment.  What skill this showed in the Creator!

That this is a main theme of Darwin’s work is shown in the quotes he chooses to open his book: the two quotes in the first edition (and the third in later editions) were all written by scientists/philosophers commenting on the power of God to create the world through Newtonian laws.  It is in these quotes, not in the body of his book, that Darwin defines the ‘natural’ of ‘natural selection.’  He quotes Joseph Butler, who said, ‘What is natural as much requires and presupposes an intelligent agent to render it so.’  (Read my article on these quotes here).  What then is natural selection?  Is it a materialistic explanation for how life evolved?  Yes.  Do such materialistic explanations circumvent the need for God?  No.  Natural selection, for Darwin, was a secondary cause with its ultimate source in the primary cause of the Creator.

After summarizing the laws in the conclusion to his book, Darwin writes, in the sixth edition of his work: ‘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.’

This is without a doubt his most famous quote (although certain people, with certain motivations, expunge the middle part of this quote – see the movie Creation, for example), and in it he brings his entire argument to a close: just as the world is governed by the laws of gravity, so too is this world governed by laws of biology.  But these laws do not require, or even suggest, an atheistic interpretation.  If God could set into motion the laws of gravity, he could also breathe life (an allusion to Genesis 2:7) into the laws of biology, and allow those laws to unfold according to His will.

In the first edition of On the Origin of Species, the phrase ‘by the Creator’ is absent.  People misunderstood this ambiguity, thinking he meant that creatures compelled themselves to evolve through some internal life force.  Darwin corrected them in later editions, and refused to remove this phrase even against the objections of some of his more openly anti-religious friends.

In later editions he also addressed some of the concerns of the religious.  In the sixth edition, in chapter 15, Darwin writes:

“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 Liebnitz, ‘as subversive of natural, and inferentially of revealed, religion.’”

Some members of the church had had a difficult time accepting that the ‘mind of God’ had been revealed through Newton’s laws.  Similarly, today, people have difficulty with God creating through evolution.  Darwin thought that these reactions were analogous, and believed that the church would one day come to accept him as they had Newton.  His hope was well-grounded.  Darwin wrote:

“A celebrated author and divine has written to me that ‘he has 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.’”

The intellectual journey of this ‘celebrated author and divine’ has been mirrored by numerous Christian groups.  Today the Catholic Church and many Protestant denominations have accepted the modern redefining of Darwin’s seminal work; it is quite certain that in the near future, many of the other Christian holdouts will learn that there is nothing to fear in a God-driven Origin of Species.

In later life Darwin’s belief in God wavered.  He would describe himself as an agnostic (a phrase coined by his friend Thomas Henry Huxley).  In letters to his friends Joseph Hooker and the Christian biologist Asa Gray, he famously wrote that he could not believe in God because of the suffering in the world (he cites the example of parasitic wasp larvae eating caterpillars alive from the inside out, but it is likely the death of his daughter played a large role in this as well), but he also could not reject God precisely because of the beauty of the laws of Nature.  The facts of the watch of life were horrible; but the laws, the laws were beautiful.  The horror of suffering and the beauty of the laws caused a tension that Darwin was never able to resolve.

Darwin passed away in 1882.  Fittingly, he was buried in Westminster Abbey, right next to Isaac Newton.


Keith Shields said...

Another great post my friend. This is exceptionally readable and allows us a better understanding of a world created by a holy, mysterious, logical, involved, loving, God.

jmchebib@ucalgary.ca said...

Darwin was the first person to bring light to evidence for a theory that shook the foundations of the seemingly indomitable teleological argument. Freeing the human mind to study biology as a natural science in its own right as great thinkers like Newton did before him.

Matthew said...

Jobran! I always appreciate your candor. I do not even know where to begin. Newton would have been shocked to hear that people rejected the God of Scripture because of the discovery of his laws - Newton considered himself to be a Prophet whose role was to bring the church back to what he considered the true interpretation of scripture. To say that Darwin 'freed the human mind' is a gross overstatement. Biology certainly pre-existed Darwin and was 'natural' in the sense that religious people were doing good experiments that did not require them to introduce God as a proximate explanation. As I have argued here and elsewhere, Darwin's own ability to come up with a naturalistic explanation for the origin of species is deeply rooted in the religious culture of his day. If you really want to see the beginning of the natural study of biology, look to Genesis 1, where God is defined as separate from Creation; ie material objects like the seas and the sun do not have wills of their own, and as such can be studied. Modern biology is a uniting of the Christian concept of contingency in creation with the rationalism of the Greeks