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Darwin’s natural selection redefined the idea of design

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Charles Darwin is not around today to explain his views to critics who decry evolution on religious grounds. But among his voluminous writings and correspondence are occasional passages that indicate how he might have answered if questions on such matters were posed to him today. Science News Editor in Chief Tom Siegfried composed the following questions about Darwin’s religious beliefs and views; the answers are all in Darwin’s own words, drawn largely from Charles Darwin: His Life Told in an Autobiographical Chapter, and in a Selected Series of his Published Letters (1902), edited by his son Francis Darwin.

Are you an atheist?

What my own views may be is a question of no consequence to any one but myself. But, as you ask, I may state that my judgment often fluctuates.… In my most extreme fluctuations I have never been an Atheist in the sense of denying the existence of God. I think that generally (and more and more as I grow older), but not always, that an Agnostic would be the more correct description of my state of mind.

Before you left for your voyage on the Beagle, you studied at Cambridge to prepare for the ministry. Were your views changed on your voyage?

Whilst on board the Beagle I was quite orthodox, and I remember being heartily laughed at by several of the officers (though themselves orthodox) for quoting the Bible as an unanswerable authority on some point of morality.… But I had gradually come by this time, i.e., 1836 to 1839, to see that the Old Testament was no more to be trusted than the sacred book of the Hindoos….

By further reflecting that the clearest evidence would be requisite to make any sane man believe in the miracles by which Christianity is supported, — and that the more we know of the fixed laws of nature the more incredible do miracles become … I gradually came to disbelieve in Christianity as a divine revelation. The fact that many false religions have spread over large portions of the earth like wildfire had some weight with me.

Today some people cite the arguments of William Paley that the design exhibited in the living world proves the existence of an intelligent designer. You read Paley while at Cambridge and expressed admiration for his work. What do you think about it now?

The old argument from design in Nature, as given by Paley, which formerly seemed to me so conclusive, fails, now that the law of natural selection has been discovered. We can no longer argue that, for instance, the beautiful hinge of a bivalve shell must have been made by an intelligent being, like the hinge of a door by man. There seems to be no more design in the variability of organic beings, and in the action of natural selection, than in the course which the wind blows. But I have discussed this subject at the end of my book on the Variation of Domesticated Animals and Plants, and the argument there given has never, as far as I can see, been answered….

I cannot see as plainly as others do, and as I should wish to do, evidence of design and beneficence on all sides of us. There seems to me too much misery in the world. I cannot persuade myself that a beneficent and omnipotent God would have designedly created the Ichneumonidæ with the express intention of their feeding within the living bodies of caterpillars, or that a cat should play with mice.…

On the other hand, I cannot anyhow be contented to view this wonderful universe, and especially the nature of man, and to conclude that everything is the result of brute force. I am inclined to look at everything as resulting from designed laws, with the details, whether good or bad, left to the working out of what we may call chance. Not that this notion at all satisfies me. I feel most deeply that the whole subject is too profound for the human intellect. A dog might as well speculate on the mind of Newton. Let each man hope and believe what he can.

How would you describe your feelings about religion generally?

It is impossible to answer your question briefly.... But I may say that the impossibility of conceiving that this grand and wondrous universe, with our conscious selves, arose through chance, seems to me the chief argument for the existence of God; but whether this is an argument of real value, I have never been able to decide....

Nor can I overlook the difficulty of the immense amount of suffering through the world. I am, also, induced to defer to a certain extent to the judgment of the many able men who have fully believed in God; but here again I see how poor an argument this is. The safest conclusion seems to me that the whole subject is beyond the scope of man’s intellect.

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