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Popular Science Monthly/Volume 33/June 1888/Darwinism and the Christian Faith II

< Popular Science Monthly‎ | Volume 33‎ | June 1888


UP to the point at which we have arrived, a churchman, in accepting Darwinisn, finds no real difficulty. It neither gives nor suggests an alternative for God's primary creation of the world. And though in the "origin of species" it does not offer an alternative for "special creation," a Christian is only called upon to abandon a theory recently admitted into theology for one which is not only soluble in the Christian view of creation, but on grounds both scientific and theological is more in keeping with what we know of God in his present working. Those who have followed the argument of a previous paper will admit Prof. Huxley's statement, that, so far as the "origin of species" is concerned—

Evolution does not even come into contact with theism, considered as a philosophical doctrine. That with which it does collide, and with which it is absolutely inconsistent, is the conception of creation which theological [Quaere scientific?] speculators have based upon the history narrated in the opening of the book of Genesis.

We are prepared even to go further, and to say not only that theism does not lose, but that it actually gains by the exchange. If Darwinism has destroyed the "dogma of special creation," it has destroyed a "dogma" which was a scientific, or rather unscientific, theory, and from which Christianity, like science, should be glad to shake itself free.

3. But the doctrine of natural selection is said to have destroyed the argument from design in Nature. This is a much more serious matter. For a Christian is bound to believe that Nature is the work of an all-wise and beneficent Creator, whom he also believes to be almighty, so that the Christian can not accept the view adopted by Mr. J. S. Mill, and make a division of labor or of territory between God and a power which limits and thwarts him. We propose to state the difficulty here as clearly and as strongly as we can, because we believe that it is the difficulty which presses most heavily upon thinking men at the present time. In the case of Mr. Darwin himself we notice that, while the substitution of derivation for special creation seems even to have strengthened his belief in the grandeur of creation, the substitution of natural selection for Paley's teleology cut away the main argument for believing in a God at all.

We are not surprised, then, to find those who are at least in imperfect sympathy with Christianity rejoicing in the discomfiture of the theologians. Mr. G. H. Lewes's pæan of triumph, in the "Fortnightly" of 1868, is perhaps the locus dassicus for this view. Prof. Huxley, with ill-concealed exultation, tells us that what struck him most forcibly on his first perusal of the "Origin of Species" was "the conviction that teleology, as commonly understood, had received its death-blow at Mr. Darwin's hands."[1] Haeckel, in the same strain, says,[2] "Wir erblicken darin den definitiven Tod aller teleologischen und vitalistischen Beurtheilung der Organismen"; and in his "History of Creation,"[3] "I maintain, with regard to the much-talked-of 'purpose in Nature,' that it really has no existence, but for those persons who observe phenomena in animals and plants in the most superficial manner."

From the insolent dogmatism of Haeckel, and the anti-theological animus of Lewes and Huxley, it is refreshing to turn to the cautious and reverent utterances of Charles Darwin. In his letters we are able to trace every stage through which he passed on this question. At Cambridge, circa 1830, he read carefully and with "much delight" Paley's "Evidences" and his "Natural Theology," and speaks of the reading of these books as the only part of the academical course which was of the least use in the education of his mind,[4] but he "did not trouble about" Paley's premises—i. e., he took the existence of God as a personal being for granted. Later on, apparently between 1836 and 1839, though he still "did not think much about the existence of a personal God," he abandoned Paley's view, and never returned to it:

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.[5]

An incidental allusion, in a letter of 1857,[6] shows that he had come to look upon a belief in design and a belief in natural selection as alternatives, and mutually exclusive. But here Darwin began to realize the contradiction in which he was involved. On the one side his theory was opposed to Paley's, on the other it was saturated with teleology. "The endless beautiful adaptations which we everywhere meet with,[7] the extreme difficulty, or rather impossibility, of conceiving this immense and wonderful universe, including man with his capacity of looking far backward and far into futurity, as the result of blind chance or necessity,"[8] the fact that "the mind refuses to look at this universe, being what it is, without having been designed"[9]—these had to be set off against "the difficulty from the immense amount of suffering,[10] and the a priori unlikelihood that an omniscient Being should have willed the world as we know it. In 1860, the year after the publication of the "Origin of Species," Darwin had reached the stage of utter bewilderment:

I grieve to say [he writes to Asa Gray] that I can not honestly go as far as you do about design. I am conscious that I am in an utterly hopeless muddle. I can not think that the world, as we see it, is the result of chance; and yet I can not look at each separate thing as the result of design.[11]

And in an earlier letter of the same year he says:

I am bewildered. I had no intention to write atheistically. But I own that I can not 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 can not 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. Not believing this, I see no necessity in the belief that the eye was expressly designed. On the other hand, I can not 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.[12]

Elsewhere he says of this suggestion, "I am aware it is not logical with reference to an omniscient Deity."[13]

It was immediately after the publication of the "Origin of Species" that Darwin set about his work on orchids, in which, more than in any other of his writings, the notion of purpose is prominent; and some ten years later we find him gladly recognizing the inherently teleological character of evolution, which had been pointed out in a review by Dr. Asa Gray. Dr. Gray had written:

Let us recognize Darwin's great service to natural science in bringing back to it teleology; so that instead of morphology versus teleology, we shall have morphology wedded to teleology.

Darwin writes back:

What you say about teleology pleases me especially, and I do not think any one else had ever noticed the point. I have always said you were the man to hit the nail on the head.[14]

Here we are brought face to face with the paradox which had been puzzling Darwin. The theory, which destroyed Paley's doctrine of design, or the old teleological doctrine, unconsciously introduced a new teleology. And the gradual recognition of this new fact is alike curious and instructive. In 1864, when the "Origin of Species" had been four years, and the "Fertilization of Orchids" two years, before the world, Prof. Kölliker, an advanced evolutionist, and a strong opponent of final causes, accuses Darwin of being "in the fullest sense of the word a teleologist," and adds that "the teleological general conception adopted by Darwin is a mistaken one."[15] Prof. Huxley answers Kölliker, and, in defending Darwin, is driven to distinguish between the teleology of Paley and the teleology of evolution. Two years later, in 1866, appeared the Duke of Argyll's "Reign of Law," in which Darwinism was claimed on the side of the doctrine of design; and the next year Huxley, again in criticising a German professor, Haeckel, and his repudiation of teleology, published the remarkable review, some pages from which reappear in the chapter he contributes to Darwin's "Life and Letters,"[16] and which has more than once been quoted in this connection:

The doctrine of evolution [he says] is the most formidable opponent of all the commoner and coarser forms of teleology. But perhaps the most remarkable service to the philosophy of biology rendered by Mr. Darwin is the reconciliation of teleology and morphology, and the explanation of the facts of both, which his views offer. The teleology which supposes that the eye, such as we see it in man or one of the higher vertebrata, was made with the precise structure it exhibits, for the purpose of enabling the animal which possesses it to see, has undoubtedly received its death-blow. Nevertheless, it is necessary to remember that there is a wider teleology which is not touched by the doctrine of evolution, but is actually based upon the fundamental proposition of evolution.[17]

Haeckel's denial of teleology is thus shown to prove too much. And the appeal to rudimentary organs against teleology, Huxley points out, places the evolutionist of that day in a dilemma:

For either these rudiments are of no use to the animals, in which case. . . they ought to have disappeared; or they are of some use to the animal, in which case they are of no use as arguments against teleology.[18]

We can hardly he wrong in assuming that Dr. Asa Gray had this review of Huxley's in his mind when he spoke of—

The great gain to science from Mr. Darwin's having brought back teleology to natural history. In Darwinism [he adds] usefulness and purpose come to the front again as working principles of the first order; upon them, indeed, the whole system rests,[19]

Is there, then, no difference between the old and the new teleology? Is the old argument rehabilitated? Can we say here, as in the triumph of derivation over special creation, that the Christian faith loses nothing and gains much? We are by no means prepared to defend this paradox. The old and rapid argument from Nature to an omnipotent and beneficent Author was never logically valid. To a thinking man its death-knell was sounded by Kant long before the death-blow was given by Darwin. In spite of the reverence with which Kant treats an argument, which he speaks of as "the oldest, the clearest, and most in conformity with human reason," he sees that the very most which could be established by it would be the existence of "an Architect of the world, not a Creator." It must fall very far short of its proposed aim—viz., to prove the existence of an all sufficient original Being.[20] Modern science has only brought out in its own way and for ordinary people a truth which metaphysicians already knew—viz., that the argument was, as Dr. Gray puts it, "weighted with much more than it can carry. . . . The burden which our fathers carried comfortably, with some adventitious help, has become too heavy for our shoulders."[21] The older teleologists noted certain favorable instances, and based on them an argumentative structure which the foundation was quite insufficient to sustain; while, if instances of apparent meaninglessness or misery were adduced, they were put on one side with Dieu le veult In the present day a Christian, whether he is an evolutionist or not, has to rim the gantlet with an army of facts and arguments of which his forefathers knew nothing. No intelligent man could now write as Paley does:

It is a happy world after all. The air, the earth, the water teem with delighted existence. In a spring noon, or a summer evening, on whichever side I turn my eyes myriads of happy beings crowd upon my view. "The insect youth are on the wing." Swarms of new-born flies are trying their pinions in the air. Their sportive motions, their wanton mazes, their gratuitous activity, their continual change of place without use or purpose, testify their joy, and the exultatation which they feel in their lately discovered faculties. . . . The whole winged insect tribe, it is probable, are equally intent upon their proper employments, and under every variety of constitution, gratified, and perhaps equally gratified, by the offices which the Author of their nature has assigned to them.[22]

The Christian of to-day believes, no less firmly than Paley did, that God is omnipotent, and that God is love. But the old couleur de rose view of Nature is no longer possible, "Destruction is the rule; life is the exception." The waste is enormous; the suffering terrible. The many perish; the few survive. All down the scale of sentient being, "perfected by suffering" seems written in unmistakable characters. The law of God's work in Nature is indeed progress, but progress at a tremendous and, as it seems to us, reckless cost. These are facts for which neither evolution, except incidentally, nor any other theory of Nature, is responsible. But they are facts of which any theory, theological or scientific, must now take cognizance. They are as fatal to the old teleology of Paley as the facts of embryology are to the theory of independent creations. We may still reverently say, "It is God's will," but that is only an admission that we can not explain the facts, or justify them to the reason or the conscience. It may be a necessary, as it certainly is a devout, attitude of mind, but there is in it an undertone of despair.

Evolution is not responsible for the problem. Can it help us in the solution? The old teleology was destroyed by the new facts, and Darwin offers us a deeper and wider view of purpose based upon these facts. We used to start with the assumption that everything exists solely for the good of man. And though we expressed our belief in an all-wise and beneficent Creator, our teleological inquiries would sometimes take the unsubmissive form of Pourquoi Dieu fait-il tant de mouches? (Why did God make so many flies?) a question which was popularly supposed to merge itself in that of the origin of evil. The new teleology proceeds differently. It seeks to give a reason for the existence of each species, by fitting it into its place in the genealogical tree, and relating all the species to one another in the unity of the whole. As Asa Gray puts it:

The forms and species, in all their variety, are not mere ends in themselves, but the whole is a series of means and ends in the contemplation of which we may obtain higher and more comprehensive and perhaps worthier, as well as more consistent, views of design in Nature than heretofore."Darwiniana," p. 378.

So in the case of organs, we believe that "organs have been formed so that their possessors may compete successfully with other beings and thus increase their number."[23] We fearlessly then ask, in reference to each part, What is its use? And if it is of no present use, we do not say, "The Creator put it there for symmetry, or as part of a plan," but we ask. What meaning has it had in the past? How can we relate it with by-gone if not with existing conditions? If ontogeny, the history of the individual, gives us no answer, we fall back upon phylogeny, the history of the race. Organs, which on the old theory of special creations were useless and meaningless, are now seen to have their explanation in the past or in the future, according as they are rudimentary or nascent. There is nothing useless, nothing meaningless in Nature, nothing due to caprice or chance, nothing irrational or without a cause, nothing outside the reign of law. This belief in the universality of law and order is the scientific analogue of the Christian's belief in Providence. And, as Prof. Huxley admits, it is an "act of faith," brought to Nature, and slowly, and as yet only in part, verified in Nature. Yet to doubt that Nature is everywhere rational, and therefore intelligible, would be for a scientific man an act of intellectual suicide.

But if we believe in law and order everywhere in Nature, though there is so much which is as yet hopelessly irreducible to law, and if that belief is read into Nature long before we can read it in Nature, may we not approach the moral difficulty in the same spirit? For there is here a curious parallel. What our rational nature resents is not the existence of facts which we can not explain, but of facts which have no explanation; and what the moral nature rebels at is not suffering and pain, but needless—i. e., meaningless—pain, suffering which might have been avoided. And here Darwinism gives us a hint, if it is but a hint: "Natural selection works solely by and for the good of each being."[24] The arrangement of the world is "generally beneficent,"[25] and "tends to progress toward perfection." But then—

Without the competing multitude, no struggle for life, and without this no natural selection and survival of the fittest, no continuous adaptation to changing surroundings, no diversification and improvement leading from lower up to higher forms. So the most puzzling things of all to the old school of teleologists are the principia of the Darwinian.[26]

It is no final solution of the difficulty, and yet man, who is so wise and good that he is always saying with King Alphonso of Castile, "If God had called me to his councils things would have been in better order," has invented competitive examinations, which mean suffering* and pain for all, without even a compensating "survival of the fittest" or improvement of the race!

To sum up thus far. One who believes, in the God of Christianity is bound to believe that creation is his work from end to end, that it is a rational work and the work of a being who is wholly good. He is bound to believe that "God's mercy is over all his works," that "not a sparrow falls to the ground" without his knowledge, that there are design and purpose everywhere. But he is not bound to know or to say that he knows what that purpose is, or to show that marks of beneficence are everywhere apparent. Still less is he bound to assert, as the old teleology did, that he can demonstrate the wisdom and goodness of God from Nature alone. Evolution starts with an "act of faith," a postulate of our rational nature—viz., that everything is rational and has a meaning, even that which is at present irreducible to law. In this belief much which was once meaningless becomes intelligible, and a scientific man's faith is not staggered by the fact that much as yet remains outside, which science has not explained. On the moral side also we start with an "act of faith," a postulate of our moral nature, that God is good and can not be the cause of meaningless and unnecessary pain. And our faith is not staggered by much which seems, as yet, like useless suffering. Even if Darwin's mature judgment that on the whole "happiness decidedly prevails" were not true, we should still believe in the goodness of God, in spite of all that seems to contradict it, and look forward to the time when our children, or our children's children, will see clearly what to us is dim or dark.—The Guardian.


  1. "Lay Sermons."
  2. "Generelle Morphologie," i, p. 160.
  3. Vol. i, p. 19, English translation.
  4. "Life and Letters," i, p. 41.
  5. "Life and Letters," i, p. 278.
  6. i, p. 478.
  7. i, p. 279.
  8. i, p. 282.
  9. i, p. 283.
  10. i, p. 276.
  11. i, p. 146.
  12. ii, p. 105.
  13. ii, p. 247.
  14. "Life and Letters," ii, p. 367.
  15. Quoted in "Lay Sermons," pp. 329, 330.
  16. i, p. 554.
  17. "Critiques and Addresses," p. 305.
  18. "Critiques and Addresses," p. 308.
  19. "Darwiniana," chap. iii.
  20. "Critique," Max Müller's translation, p. 535.
  21. "Darwiniana," p. 374.
  22. "Natural Theology," pp. 370, 371.
  23. "Life and Letters," i, p. 280.
  24. "Origin," p. 428.
  25. i, p. 279.
  26. Asa Gray, p, 378.