Re: [asa] Darwin's belief (was: Cameron- question of Adam)

From: Cameron Wybrow <>
Date: Fri Jun 19 2009 - 18:24:44 EDT

Dear Jon:

Your challenge is a fair one, and thanks for bringing the discussion around to some specific texts. Let me make a general statement before commenting on them. And let me warn you that this post will need to be long, because you have raised a substantive issue that requires analysis of texts and subsequent argument.

When trying to figure out what a thinker's beliefs about anything are, we
can look at two things: (1) What he says his beliefs are when he is not
actually at work applying them, but is reflecting at leisure, in letters to
friends, relatives, etc.; (2) What beliefs are actually operative when he is
doing his theoretical work. Ideally these two would always be in harmony,
but in practice that is not always the case. Where they are not in harmony,
it seems to me that the decisive beliefs are those which actually function
in the thinker's work.

Thus, ideally, one should be able to extract "Darwinism" either from
Darwin's private comments or from his theoretical writing, but in practice,
it may be that Darwin the man allowed himself a certain intellectual
looseness and vagueness which does not show up in his theoretical writing.
I call the rigorous and consistent part of Darwin's thinking "Darwinism".
That is the publically significant "Darwinism". The vast majority of people
who have ever commented on "Darwinism" have not, as modern Darwin scholars have,
combed over every letter, note, and remark that proceeded from Darwin's
mouth or pen. They have read his two great works, and possibly his
autobiography, and possibly some of his frequently-quoted letters to the
famous scientists of his day such as Lyell and Gray. So by "Darwinism" I
mean the view of nature and of evolution that dominates Darwin's central
works and has become the focus of public discourse.

In his central writings Darwin constantly makes a contrast between
"miraculous" and "natural" explanations in science. Regarding the origin of
species he uses this contrast over and over again. If you search his works
on-line, using key words such as "miraculous", and "miracle", you can see
this clearly. He is scornful of those who would appear to special
interventions of God to create a new species, when natural explanations,
without any special interventions, are (in his view) sufficient.

Here is what he says about his predecessor, Lamarck:

>He first did the eminent service of arousing attention to the probability of all change in the organic, as well as in the inorganic world, being the result of law, and not of miraculous interposition. [OS, Historical Sketch]

In line with this, he later bluntly says:

>As species are produced and exterminated by slowly acting and still existing causes, and not by miraculous acts of creation and by catastrophes ... [OS, Conclusion]

Responding to criticisms of Lyell, Darwin writes:

>"Must you not assume a primeval creative power which does not act with uniformity, or how could man supervene?"-I am not sure that I understand your remarks which follow the above. We must, under present knowledge, assume the creation of one or of a few forms in the same manner as philosophers assume the existence of a power of attraction without any explanation. But I entirely reject, as in my judgment quite unnecessary, any subsequent addition "of new powers and attributes and forces;" or of any "principle of improvement," except in so far as every character which is naturally selected or preserved is in some way an advantage or improvement, otherwise it would not have been selected. If I were convinced that I required such additions to the theory of natural selection, I would reject it as rubbish, but I have firm faith in it, as I cannot believe, that if false, it would explain so many whole classes of facts, which, if I am in my senses, it seems to explain....

>I would give absolutely nothing for the theory of Natural Selection, if it requires miraculous additions at any one stage of descent. I think Embryology, Homology, Classification, &c. &c., show us that all vertebrata have descended from one parent; how that parent appeared we know not. If you admit in ever so little a degree, the explanation which I have given of Embryology, Homology and Classification, you will find it difficult to say: thus far the explanation holds good, but no further; here we must call in "the addition of new creative forces." I think you will be driven to reject all or admit all: I fear by your letter it will be the former alternative; and in that case I shall feel sure it is my fault, and not the theory's fault, and this will certainly comfort me. [To Lyell, Life and Letters of Darwin, Vol. II, p. 212]

Responding to the views of those who think that some forms were created, but that others evolved via naturalistic means (i.e., to the sort of person who might grant Darwinian processes, but make special exceptions in the case of the Cambrian Explosion, or the fish-to-land transition, or the reptile/mammal transition, or the hominid/human transition), Darwin has this to say:


>Several eminent naturalists have of late published their belief that a multitude of reputed species in each genus are not real species; but that other species are real, that is, have been independently created. This seems to me a strange conclusion to arrive at. They admit that a multitude of forms, which till lately they themselves thought were special creations, and which are still thus looked at by the majority of naturalists, and which consequently have all the external characteristic features of true species,-they admit that these have been produced by variation, but they refuse to extend the same view to other and slightly different forms. Nevertheless they do not pretend that they can define, or even conjecture, which are the created forms of life, and which are those produced by secondary laws. They admit variation as a vera causa in one case, they arbitrarily reject it in another, without assigning any distinction in the two cases. The day will come when this will be given as a curious illustration of the blindness of preconceived opinion. These authors seem no more startled at a miraculous act of creation than at an ordinary birth. But do they really believe that at innumerable periods in the earth's history certain elemental atoms have been commanded suddenly to flash into living tissues? Do they believe that at each supposed act of creation one individual or many were produced? Were all the infinitely numerous kinds of animals and plants created as eggs or seed, or as full grown? and in the case of mammals, were they created bearing the false marks of nourishment from the mother's womb? Undoubtedly some of these same questions cannot be answered by those who believe in the appearance or creation of only a few forms of life, or of some one form alone. It has been maintained by several authors that it is as easy to believe in the creation of a million beings as of one; but Maupertuis' philosophical axiom "of least action" leads the mind more willingly to admit the smaller number; and certainly we ought not to believe that innumerable beings within each great class have been created with plain, but deceptive, marks of descent from a single parent.

I think these quotations should be sufficient to establish my point, i.e., that Darwinian evolution is entirely naturalistic evolution, not evolution interfered with by special guidance from God. Even Darwin's granting of the existence of a few original created forms is grudging; note this:


>We must, under present knowledge, assume the creation of one or of a few forms

-- which implicitly grants the possibility that future knowledge may enable us to dispense with the creation of even these few forms (see his speculations in a private letter about life arising chemically in a warm pool). The trajectory of Darwin's thought is "molecules to man" via wholly naturalistic means. I.e., the trajectory of Darwin's thought is Carl Sagan.

Now, before going on, let me stress that I am not saying that Darwin was an atheist or even that Darwinism need be atheist. Darwinism is compatible with Deism. It is compatible with a God who sets the ball rolling, by creating the first life forms, or at least the laws of nature which produce the first life forms, and then ceases to act, and lets nature produce what it will, without any special guidance.

So when, in your quotations, Darwin speaks about being a "Theist", what does he mean? Does he make the modern distinction that we do between a "theist" who believes in an active God and a Deist who believes in a remote one? I don't think we can be sure what he means by Theist there. He may have meant the word merely literally, i.e., as referring to one who believes in "a God". And so he may mean merely a God who establishes the laws of nature, sets up the physical universe, the earth, etc., and then lets nature proceed under its own powers.

Similarly, when he speaks of "design" in your quotations, does he mean design *in living things*? Or is he only speaking of the broad design of nature, Kepler's Laws and the laws of chemistry and so on, which make life possible? He speaks of design in "the universe", but it is not clear to me that his vague, general endorsement of design in those quotations was meant to be applied to the evolutionary process -- especially when he says in one of them that he sees no design in it "of any kind".

True, he says that he cannot understand "the universe" as merely the result of blind chance; but again, by "the universe" is he talking about living things, or only the laws of physics?

More generally, in the quotations to Hooker and Gray, he seems to be meditating theologically upon the implications of his theories -- he even uses the term "theology" in one of them. He is not at this point writing theoretically about how nature actually functions. In his theoretical writing, he does not show the agonizing, the lack of confidence, that he shows in letters like these. If you read the conclusions of The Origin of Species or The Descent of Man, you find a bold and uncompromising Darwinism.

My conclusion is that yes, indeed, personally, Darwin could not shake off the feeling that there was a rational order in nature and that the laws of the universe did not arise by blind chance, and that maybe even there was something about life that was not the product of blind chance; yet, as an evolutionary theorist, he stubbornly maintained that there was no design, no adjusting of variations to pre-ordained ends, in the origin of species.

Does that rule out an overarching design to the entire evolutionary process? Maybe not. But if there is no design in the individual creatures, as Darwin indicates, how could there be a design in the whole? Perhaps, one might say, that the evolutionary process as a whole was "front-loaded", with the details left to chance. But does Darwin ever indicate having thoughts along those lines? I know of no passages where he speaks of anything like front-loading, fine-tuning, etc. Perhaps there are such passages, but I have never seen them.

So in Darwinism there is no clearly no local guidance, no interventionism, no "miracles". That is, there is no locally applied design. So if there is design, it would have to be in the grand plan, yet Darwin never outlines what that grand design might be, and even if in his metaphysical moods he entertains a vague idea of such a design, it never comes into his actual theorizing about the origin of species. He makes it a firm rule that changes in nature proceed in accordance with general laws, and he understands those laws to be undirected towards the specific creatures that evolution happens to throw out.

Keep in mind that many clergymen of Darwin's day were sympathetic with his theory, and tried to make use of it as "the plan through which God created the species". Darwin could easily have run with that, and tried to make his theory more popular and palatable by giving popular lectures or writing popular works reconciling evolution with God's providential plan for man. In other words, Darwin could have become a 19th century TE. But he did not. Nor, even in his private letters, does he say much about how well his beliefs fit in with traditional religion. If anything, they show that he had severe doubts that they did. He agonizes to his correspondents over chance and and the lack of design -- which he would hardly have done if this theory did not, at least on the surface, appear, even to himself, to be a theory of chance which left no room for design. These are the words of a man who fears that "chance" and "no-design" might be *real* features of nature, not merely a "metaphysical" private interpretation of methodologically neutral scientific facts. He shows nothing of the breezy confidence of modern TEs that one can dispense with any threat merely by postulating a distinction between methodological and metaphysical naturalism. And, as the founder of "Darwinism", he ought to know, better than anyone, if the threat was really there.

Well, that is my case. I could say more, but that is roughly how I would justify describing "Darwinism" as I have, and how I would justify my belief that the true disciples of Darwin are not Collins and Miller and other TEs, but are Dawkins, Gould, Sagan, etc. It is not their atheism that I have in mind when I declare them true disciples of Darwin; he was no crude atheist. It is their uncompromising naturalism and their uncompromising rejection of design in the biological process. I maintain that, until very recent years, when TEs have tried to "twig" the definition to make it milder, "Darwinism" was generally understood, by both the lay public and by the philosophers, to mean what I mean by the term, i.e., a form of evolution that excludes design from the process. And as I believe that design is a real feature of nature, I cannot be a Darwinian -- which does not mean that I cannot be an evolutionist.


----- Original Message -----
From: "Jon Tandy" <>
To: <>
Sent: Thursday, June 18, 2009 1:10 PM
Subject: [asa] Darwin's belief (was: Cameron- question of Adam)

> Cameron,
> You have repeatedly made the case that "Darwinism" is not simply a natural
> methodology for explaining natural events in the world, but it is (with
> heavy reliance on "Darwin's own views of what his theory entailed") a
> complete metaphysical program that excludes design by definition. At
> least
> I believe this is a fair summary of your representation of Darwin's and
> Darwinism's position.
> I find from the recent ASA newsletter a quotation from Darwin as follows:
> Darwin told the author William Graham in one of his last letters, "You
> have
> expressed my inward conviction that the Universe is not the result of
> chance." And from Darwin's letter in 1879 to John Fordyce: "It seems to
> me
> absurd to doubt that a man may be an ardent Theist and an evolutionist .
> In
> my most extreme fluctuations, I have never been an atheist in the sense of
> denying the existence of a God."
> In addition to these quotations is the article at
>, which gives a history of
> some
> of Darwin's theological beliefs. This article contains the following
> quotations, among others:
> From 1860 letter to Asa Gray. "I grieve to say that I cannot honestly go
> as
> far as you do about Design. I am conscious that I am in an utterly
> hopeless
> muddle. I cannot think that the world, as we see it, is the result of
> chance; and yet I cannot look at each separate thing as the result of
> Design. . . . Again, I say I am, and shall ever remain, in a hopeless
> muddle". That he "cannot think that the world, as we see it, is the
> result
> of chance."
> From 1870 letter to J. D. Hooker: "My theology is a simple muddle; I
> cannot
> look at the universe as the result of blind chance, yet I can see no
> evidence of beneficent design, or indeed of design of any kind, in the
> details. As for each variation that has ever occurred having been
> preordained for a special end, I can no more believe in it than that the
> spot on which each drop of rain falls has been specially ordained."
> From his Autobiography: "Another source of conviction in the existence of
> God, connected with the reason and not with the feelings, impresses me as
> having much more weight. This follows from the extreme difficulty or
> rather
> impossibility of conceiving this immense and wondrous universe, including
> man with his capacity of looking backwards and far into futurity, as a
> result of blind chance or necessity. When thus reflecting I feel compelled
> to look to a First Cause having an intelligent mind in some degree
> analogous
> to that of man; and I deserve to be called a Theist."
> I trust that you have seen this information. With this in mind, how can
> you
> justify the sweeping statement about what is Darwinism (in the mind of its
> author), that you have repeatedly made here? It seems that Darwin's view,
> confused though it was, was to disbelieve in the possibility of "blind
> chance", to allow for the possibility that there was some higher form of
> design in nature, and yet he held that design on a "detail" level
> (individual raindrops, individual mutations, etc.) does not appear
> convincing. Theistic Evolutionists would agree, as probably even yourself
> would agree that God doesn't decree the exact trajectory of every single
> raindrop. With this admittedly very simplified view of Darwin's belief, I
> don't find much significant difference in the way Theistic Evolutionists
> and
> Darwin seem to have viewed nature. The most significant difference is not
> natural, but metaphysical, in that TEs clearly hold that there is a Theos
> who is directly responsible for all of nature, where Darwin was agnostic
> about this religious belief, but not atheistic (or anti-theistic, as your
> words seem to imply). At the very least, how can you say that Darwinism
> is
> anti-design, when Darwin was at the worst personally confused about what
> to
> think about design?
> Jon Tandy
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Received on Fri Jun 19 18:26:14 2009

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