Darwin and God: Then and Now

For the naturalist himself, there were no simple answers.

By John Hedley Brooke

Harvard has long been known for the warmth of the welcome it has given to European visitors. There is perhaps no more striking example than the welcome it gave to the great Swiss naturalist Louis Agassiz, who arrived in America in 1846, soon to become Harvard’s Professor of Geology and Zoology. Why was Agassiz given such a rousing reception? Part of the answer lies in the interpretation he gave to living forms. His Platonist philosophy of nature struck a chord with the religious ideals of many in the College. Agassiz had no time for theories of evolution that involved material connections between species. Rather, in the fossil record he saw evidence of progressive creation as epoch succeeded epoch. Living things were the instantiation of ideas in the mind of the Creator. As he once put it: “There will be no scientific evidence of God’s working in nature until naturalists have shown that the whole creation is the expression of thought and not the product of physical agents.”

Agassiz was not alone in that view. In England, Richard Owen also ascribed the common bone structures of the vertebrates to an archetypal idea in the mind of God. Owen had risen to fame through his expertise in anatomy and paleontology; and it was he who coined the word “dinosaur.” Owen was willing to see the emergence of new species as the result of natural causes but, at the same time, the whole process as an unfolding of a divine plan. The many different vertebrates looked to him to be instantiations of a common skeletal structure—an archetypal idea in the mind of the Creator. There was a sense in which “creation” was continuous.

In Darwin’s view, unity of form was the consequence of a historical process in which species were related by common descent.

During Agassiz’s tenure at Harvard, Charles Darwin published his Origin of Species. Here was a quite different account of the unity of form. For Darwin, it was the consequence of a historical process in which species were related by common descent. The clash was transparent. Agassiz proclaimed that “the intervention of a Creator is displayed in the most striking manner, in every stage of the history of the world.” Darwin’s mechanism of natural selection required no such intervention. Agassiz communicated his verdict to Asa Gray, who had been Harvard’s Professor of Botany since 1842: Darwin’s work was “poor—very poor.”

A few years later, a scientific meeting was held in Boston at which both Agassiz and the British physicist John Tyndall were present. Tyndall left a poignant account of a scene that marks the passing of an age:

Rising from luncheon, we all halted as if by common consent, in front of a window, and continued there a discussion which had been started at table. The maple was in its autumn glory, and the exquisite beauty of the scene outside seemed, in my case, to interpenetrate without disturbance the intellectual action. Earnestly, almost sadly, Agassiz turned, and said to the gentlemen standing round, “I confess that I was not prepared to see [Darwin’s] theory received as it has been by the best intellects of our time. Its success is greater than I could have thought possible.”

To speak of the passing of an age captures something of the Darwinian impact, but it also misses a vital element. This is the remarkable diversity of the religious response. Asa Gray, to whom Agassiz confided his poor opinion of Darwin, took a very different view. He positively promoted the theory of natural selection, claiming that it had theological advantages. It underlined the unity of the human races, in a way that Agassiz’s science did not. And it even helped the theologians with their most difficult problem—the problem of suffering. If competition in a struggle for existence was the motor of evolution, then there was perhaps a sense in which the concomitant suffering was a precondition of the very possibility of our existence. Gray even proposed to Darwin that the variations on which natural selection worked could be said to be under the control of providence.


The Diversity of Reception

Darwin had of course wondered, and worried, how his theory might be received. “God knows what the public will think,” he mused to one correspondent. To admit the mutability of species, he once remarked, had been like confessing a murder, so great was the stigma. He knew his book was likely to have a polarizing effect, as it often did in public settings. When the politician Benjamin Disraeli suggested that a choice had to be made between apes and angels for the template of human beings, he was depicted in the press as having sprouted large angelic wings. The threat to human dignity that so worried Samuel Wilberforce, the bishop of Oxford, was often captured in cartoons: there were monkeys impatient to have their tails clipped in order to take their true place in society. Bruising attacks from some members of the clergy made Darwin almost say that those who opposed his theory by snarling were merely confirming their animal origins.

To admit the mutability of species, Darwin once remarked, had been like confessing a murder.

At a deeper level the responses of three women reveal additional problems and other layers of diversity. Darwin’s wife, Emma, admitted late in life that some aspects of his writing had been painful to her—particularly the view that the moral sense had been the product of evolution. An elderly Mary Somerville observed with nostalgic regret that the beauty of a bird’s plum-age and song could no longer be enjoyed as having been designed for our delight. It was their utility to the birds themselves that mattered now. For a feminist leader such as Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Darwinism offered the bright prospect of emancipation. “The real difficulty in woman’s case,” she wrote, “is that the whole foundation of Christian religion rests on her temptation and man’s fall.” By accepting the Darwinian theory that “the race has been a gradual growth from the lower to a higher form of life, and the story of the fall is a myth, we can exonerate the snake, emancipate the woman, and reconstruct a more rational religion for the nineteenth century.”

There was an even greater variety of reaction. If our question were “Darwin and God: Where and When?” we would discover that geographical parameters have played a key role in shaping receptivity to Darwinian ideas. As David Livingstone has shown, Presbyterians in Princeton reacted very differently from those in Northern Ireland and differently again from those in Scotland. The reasons were often local. In Belfast, the same John Tyndall who recorded the autumnal melancholy of Agassiz delivered an address in 1874 that associated Darwin’s theory with a more thorough naturalism than Darwin’s own. Tyndall’s aggression toward theology in the context of educational priorities sparked an intensity of reaction that had no equivalent in Princeton.

On the question of race, the reception of Darwin’s theory in New Zealand was quite different from perceptions in the  American South. In Britain we have never had the “monkey trials” and the high profile court cases that have been part of the story in the United States. In England, a future archbishop of Canterbury, Frederick Temple, was already speaking in favor of evolution and against a god-of-the-gaps as early as 1860. Such contrasts may suggest a distinction between religious responses shaped by a popular understanding of what is meant by “God” and more sophisticated responses informed by serious theology. The distinction was made at the time by Francis Ellingwood Abbott, a liberal clergyman and one of Darwin’s correspondents. In 1871, the year Darwin’s Descent of Man appeared, Abbott wrote the following:

If I rightly understand your great theory of the origin of species, it contains nothing inconsistent with the most deep and tender religious feeling. It certainly conflicts with the popular notion of God, but it seems to me to harmonize thoroughly with the enlightened ideas concerning him held by all highly cultured minds of today . . . and for one I feel that you have done a vast service to true religion by your labours.

By the close of the nineteenth century this was not such an un-common view. In England, the Oxford theologian Aubrey Moore declared that, under the guise of a foe, Darwin had done the work of a friend—protecting Christianity from a deistic travesty in which God was active only when interfering in the natural order.

It should be clear that in speaking of Darwin and God we are not dealing with “science versus religion” in any straightforward sense. In some ways, and in some places, the debate is more polarized now than it was then, as a recent anecdote reminds us: An anxious patient asks his physician whether the prognosis is good in light of the TB that has just been diagnosed. The doctor replies by asking whether the patient is a creationist. He replies that he is, but, “Why do you ask?” Because, the doctor replies, “I need to know whether you want me to treat the bug as it was before antibiotics—or as the multiple-drug-resistant strain it has since evolved into.” Thrown by the word “evolved,” and facing a di-lemma, the patient tentatively asks what the newer drugs are like. To which the doctor replies, “They’re intelligently designed.”

Contrary to modern creationist rhetoric, Darwin was, in his own words, “never an atheist in the sense of denying the existence of a God.” He continued to refer to a Creator—a creator who, again in his own words, created “through laws.” Because Darwin himself anticipated some of the more sophisticated theological moves, much of the remainder of this essay will be devoted to his reflections on religion.


Preliminary Problems

There is a preliminary problem that arises whenever questions are asked about the religious beliefs of scientists from the past. There is no simple answer to the question, What did Darwin believe about God? There are several reasons why this is so. Most significant, his views changed over time. Having studied for the Christian ministry during his Cambridge years, he became a deist during the 1850s and increasingly agnostic later in life. Even during one and the same period, it would be difficult to categorize him because he admitted that his beliefs often fluctuated. When referring to himself as an agnostic in May 1879, he would add the caveat “but not always.” At other times he would imply that he deserved to be called a theist.

If we try to compress a complex matter into sound bites, we shall certainly get it wrong. Darwin sometimes said that he could not believe that this wonderful universe could be the result of chance alone. And such remarks have lent themselves to apologetic exploitation. But to appropriate them in that way misses the nuance that Darwin so often inserted. He could not believe that the universe was the result of chance, but nor could he look at the structures of living organisms and see in them the product of design. As he disarmingly wrote to Asa Gray, “I am in a hopeless muddle,” or, on another occasion, “I am in thick mud.”

Finally, there is the complication that stems from the privacy of belief. Darwin once reproached an inquirer by saying that he could not see why his beliefs should be of concern to anyone but himself. His public remarks were sometimes deliberately calculated to give minimal offense. In contrast to some of his modern disciples, he did not believe that religious beliefs, however distasteful, should be confronted head-on. But the consequence is a frustrating degree of ambiguity in Darwin’s references to the deity.


Formative Experiences

The story of how Darwin’s science was shaped by his experiences on the five-year voyage of the HMS Beagle has been told so many times—and so brilliantly—that I shall not repeat it here. But I would like to pick out three encounters that also left a permanent mark on his religious outlook. One was an encounter with the beauty of a virginal nature. Having been enchanted by the travelogues of Alexander von Humboldt, the young Darwin found the lure of the Brazilian rain forest irresistible. The experience, when it became real rather than vicarious, was to cast a seductive spell on a Romantic sensibility. It was during the voyage that Darwin gradually gave up the idea of being a clergyman, and one hears the stirrings of a surrogate religion. When he finally arrived in the Brazilian jungle, he recorded the experience in almost ecstatic language: “Twiners entwining twiners, tresses like hair, beautiful lepidoptera, Silence, hosannah.”

To encounter nature in the raw was also to encounter that struggle for existence that was to play such a crucial role in his theory of natural selection. The world Darwin encountered in South America was not the “happy world” described by William Paley in his Natural Theology. It was, rather, nature red in tooth and claw, and writ large, as giant condors preyed on young cattle. In Argentina, Darwin witnessed a human struggle—a colonial struggle in which native Indians were being massacred by the forces of General Rosas. Even the earth itself was turbulent: arriving in Concepción, Darwin found the cathedral in ruins, destroyed by a recent earthquake. This prompted him to speculate how the entire condition of England would have been changed had such subterranean forces still been active. It would have been a tale of famine, pestilence, and death. A struggle to survive in one of the most inhospitable regions on earth was indelibly stamped on his mind when he encountered the savages of the Tierra del Fuego.

This particular encounter deserves special consideration.  Darwin would eventually ask whether our progenitors had been primitive men like these. His interest in them stemmed in part from an evangelical experiment that he was able to witness. On board ship were three Fuegians who had earlier been taken to England with a view to their being refined and educated in the gospel. The plan was to return them to their own people in the company of a missionary in the hope they would exert an edifying influence. The Christian hope was even inscribed in the names by which they were now known, one having the distinction of being called York Minster. Darwin was intrigued to see how the experiment would work. In fact, it ended in failure and the missionary had to flee for his life. This left two questions to ponder. There was clearly an enormous difference between savage and civilized humans; but might the veneer of civilization, in general, be thinner than was usually imagined?

More crucial, perhaps, Darwin found himself asking whether there is a clear line of demarcation between humans and animals. His cousin Hensleigh Wedgwood had proposed that there certainly was: only humans had an innate sense of God. After observing the Fuegians (and the natives of Australia) Darwin recorded his doubts. He would do so again, years later, when writing on religion in his Descent of Man: “there is ample evidence . . . from men who have long resided with savages, that numerous races have existed, and still exist, who have no idea of one or more gods, and who have no words in their languages to express such an idea.” As he had surmised during the voyage, there was no universal sense of God.


A Theological Question

Darwin’s study of variation and his conception of natural selection were products of the two years that followed his return to England. As with Alfred Russel Wallace later, the reading of Malthus’s Essay on Population triggered the realization that, in a fiercely competitive struggle for resources, favorable variations would tend to be preserved, unfavorable ones destroyed. Darwin’s use of the phrase “natural selection” raised another theological question. The meta

phor of selection was substantiated by reference to the role of human breeders in selecting for the characteristics they wished to enhance in cattle, dogs, or pigeons. If domestic breeders could effect such changes in a short span of time, how much more might not nature achieve, given aeons of time?

Pigeons in particular gave a boost to Darwin’s rhetoric in the Origin of Species. Unless he knew that all the varieties produced by the pigeon fanciers were derived from the common rock pigeon, even a well-trained ornithologist, Darwin declared, would be inclined to categorize them as separate species. But here is the question: If human intelligence intervenes in the practices of the domestic breeder, might there not be, by analogy, a Selector, with a capital S, working through natural processes? For some of Darwin’s contemporaries this seemed a reasonable enough inference and, for them, it took the sting out of the theory. But it was not Darwin’s view. To postulate a Selector other than the course of nature was to miss the point, conjuring up the image of God as micromanager of the evolutionary process. This was an image that Darwin steadfastly resisted. And so we must ask why.

Either it was Darwin’s science that destroyed his faith, or his loss of faith that made possible his radical science.

It seems obvious that his resistance had something to do with the loss of his Christian faith. But then a further question arises. What precisely was the relationship between the gains he made in science and his loss of faith? At this point we often find in the literature one of two extreme positions. Either it is simply assumed that it was his science that destroyed his faith. Or, in complete contrast, it is asserted that it was his loss of faith that made possible his radical science. In a contribution to Harvard Magazine, Edward Wilson has presented the choice in precisely these stark terms. He writes: “The great naturalist did not abandon Abrahamic and other religious dogmas because of his discovery of evolution by natural selection, as one might reasonably suppose. The reverse occurred. The shedding of blind faith gave him the intellectual fearlessness to explore human evolution wherever logic and evidence took him.”

But are these the only alternatives? My own view is that a more subtle analysis is necessary. While it is largely true that Darwin’s loss of faith was not occasioned by his science, there were, at the very least, indirect connections. Even before his marriage, Emma worried that the critical, skeptical mentality necessary for constructive science would corrode his faith. And the second option, that preferred by Wilson, cannot be entirely correct because Darwin had not definitively renounced Christianity in the early 1840s when the first substantial draft of his theory was entrusted to Emma for publication in the event of his death.

Another problem with this structuring of alternatives is that some of Darwin’s deepest reflections involved both scientific and religious considerations simultaneously. For example, his science highlighted the theological problem of pain and suffering. He once wrote that the existence of so much pain and suffering in the world seemed to him one of the strongest arguments against belief in a beneficent deity; but, he continued, it “accords well with my theory of natural selection.” And he would some-times reflect on features of nature that needed neither sophisticated science nor sophisticated theology to read them. These were the gruesome features that deeply offended his aesthetic sensibilities. How could the ichneumon wasp be the product of benevolent design when it laid its eggs in the bodies of caterpillars that were then devoured by the hatching grubs? Was there not something devilish in such a phenomenon?


Darwin’s Loss of Faith

I would argue that Darwin’s science did to a degree corrode his faith, and for the following reasons: the quality of the historical evidence, commonly adduced for the miracles and divinity of Christ, Darwin considered poor compared with the stringent evidential support required of a scientific theory. Moreover, reports of miracles had been rendered increasingly suspect because of advances in scientific understanding to which he was himself contributing. As he put it in his Autobiography, “The more we know of the fixed laws of nature the more incredible do miracles become.” Considerations drawn from science featured again because, although he was ignorant of the causes of variation, he was convinced that their appearance was random. Many variations were deleterious, and even those that turned out to be advantageous could hardly be said to have been produced with their prospective use in mind.

It was on this point that Darwin and Asa Gray parted company. Gray’s advice to Darwin was that, until such time as the cause of variation was understood, it would be wise to ascribe it to providence. This was one reason why Gray felt no dissonance between natural selection and natural theology; he could interpret the variations as having been led in propitious directions. Darwin dissented, arguing that because a builder happened to use a pile of available stones to build a house, it in no way followed that the stones had come into being in order that he could build the house. Purposiveness was read out of the story and Gray had to concede that he had no answer—except to say (and there is surely a lesson here for some) that the perception of design is ultimately a matter of faith.

Darwin’s science did contribute to his agnosticism in one further respect. I have already referred to his conviction that the universe as a whole could not be the product of chance. But, in another of his captivating nuances, he would add that there were reasons why he should not trust even his own convictions. If the human mind was the product of evolution, what guarantees were there that it was equipped to deal with such metaphysical and theological niceties?

Having identified these corrosive aspects of his science, I would still want to say that some of the more interesting reasons for his agnosticism had nothing to do with his theory and could have been shared by many of his contemporaries. To that extent, I certainly agree with Professor Wilson.


Existential Grounds of Religious Doubt

Darwin was a participant in a well-documented moral revolt against certain Christian teachings, notably the doctrine of eternal damnation for the unredeemed. It was a pressing matter, because members of his family were beyond the pale of Chris-tian orthodoxy. His grandfather, Erasmus Darwin, had been a freethinker, his father took the view that religion was only for women, and his brother Erasmus was an avowed atheist. Emma Darwin later suggested that her husband had reacted against a caricature of Christian doctrine, but there is no doubting the in-tensity of his reaction. It was in the context of recoil against this “damnable doctrine” that Darwin issued his fiercest attack on Christianity, declaring that he could not see how anyone could even wish it to be true. We have already seen how he was affected by the realization that an innate sense of God was not universal. As he experienced and studied other cultures, he found it impossible to accept the idea of a unique revelation. The ignorance of the biblical writers was transparent to him, and the relationship of New to Old Testament he found incongruous.

As James Moore has brilliantly shown, Darwin was deeply affected by the death early in 1851 of his 10-year-old daughter, Annie. The letters that passed between Charles and Emma as Annie gradually lost her private battle for existence are deeply moving. Even as late as 1851, in distress and under duress, Darwin still invoked the name of God in his most intimate correspondence. But the loss of so innocent a child—and his favorite—left a terrible scar. Was this not the problem of pain and suffering, justice even, writ large?

In one of Darwin’s letters to Asa Gray, we find yet another con-sideration that could scarcely be counted as scientific. Darwin asked Gray whether, if a man standing under a tree were struck by lightning, he really believed that the accident had happened designedly. Many people, Darwin supposed, did believe this; but he could not. When, on a summer night, a swallow caught a gnat, did Gray really believe that it had been predetermined that that particular swallow should swallow that particular gnat at that particular moment? For Darwin, the particularities, the contingencies, the accidents of both human and nonhuman life—the absence of any intelligible pattern—made belief in providence extremely difficult, if not impossible.


Now and Then

My title promises something of the present as well as the past. Much, of course, has changed. I doubt that a latter-day Agassiz would be quite as welcome to Harvard scientists if he were to defend a Christian Platonism. But if we can accept Edward Wilson’s assertion that there is a timeless quality and inspiration in Darwin’s science, there can surely still be a timelessness about a refined religious sensibility and even a traditional theological argument. The claim that “God is able completely to cause causes to be causes” is still made today, as it might have been in Darwin’s own time.

On scientific matters, inspiration is still to be found in Darwin’s own insights. Those who have recently been retrieving and refining concepts of group selection have celebrated a passage in the Descent of Man where Darwin indicated that natural selection could accommodate group selection:

There can be no doubt that a tribe including many members  who, from possessing in a high degree the spirit of patriotism, fidelity, obedience, courage, and sympathy, were always ready to aid one another, and to sacrifice themselves for the common good would be victorious over most other tribes; and this would be natural selection.

Not surprisingly, David Sloan Wilson gives this passage pride of place in his recent study of altruism, Darwin’s Cathedral.

Without wishing to minimize the many problems that Darwinian science has raised for religious orthodoxies, I believe it is also possible for religious thinkers to look to Darwin himself for inspiration, both from his thinking and from his conduct. For example, Darwin anticipated the development of theodicies based on evolutionary motifs. If species had all been separately created, then the deity must bear direct responsibility for those that may appear to us—as they did to Darwin—devilish. But if they had not been separately created, if they were simply possibilities in a process that made human beings possible, might this not be a welcome attenuation of divine responsibility? In the earliest drafts of his theory Darwin certainly thought so. His science would exonerate the deity for the appearance of what he called a “long succession of vile molluscous animals.”

This distancing of God from the direct determination of natural phenomena has found its place both in process theologies and in those kenotic theologies which stress the self-limitation of deity in allowing nature its relative autonomy. These developments have occurred in the years separating Darwin from ourselves, but they have opened doors for conciliation that he himself had glimpsed.

What inspiration might religious thinkers find in the real, as distinct from the caricatured, Darwin? Actually, we might all learn something from Darwin’s humility. In matters concerning discourse about God there were, for him, no simple answers. On ultimate questions about intentionality and purpose in evolutionary processes, he preferred humility to arrogance, saving his severest censure for those who believed they could reason from nature to God.

We might also learn from Darwin’s honesty—the honesty he displayed when admitting the difficulties his theory faced. It contrasts sharply with the appearance of dishonesty in many of his detractors who seize on any internecine dispute within evolutionary biology as evidence of a theory in disarray.

And dare I say there is something to learn from Darwin’s sensitivity to the limitations of his science. He knew there were the limit questions and never pretended to explain the origins of the universe or the origins of life. Darwin was neither a dogmatic materialist, nor even a dogmatic naturalist, as John Tyndall recognized when reproaching him for his restraint. Darwin was even willing to use biblical language when speaking of the life breathed into the first few living forms. There was an openness in his agnosticism that is sometimes missing in his disciples.

At the same time we have to respect his wisdom in sidestepping the plea from Asa Gray that he should acknowledge the direct hand of God in guiding variations in predetermined directions. Once the origin of variation became explicable through genetic mutation, Darwin was surely vindicated. This means, of course, that he would have something to say to proponents of intelligent design in its recent manifestations. He was fully aware that the elements of complex systems could be assembled into functioning wholes by long historical processes, fully aware that this might involve the co-opting of parts that had once served other purposes.

But more than that, he recognized the theological damage that can be done by conflating different kinds of causality. In a recent essay, the Catholic philosopher and theologian William Carroll has written the following: “To explain the development of complex biological structures by an appeal to causes other than those in the natural order would suggest that God could not have created a natural order endowed with causal principles adequate to produce the changes in that order.” Interestingly, and perhaps to some surprisingly, he would have an ally in Darwin. To suggest that the deity was unable to effect its purposes through natural causes, Darwin declared, would be an act of profanity.

John Hedley Brooke is the Andreas Idreos Professor of Science and Religion at Oxford University. This essay is adapted from a talk he gave at Harvard Divinity School on February 9, 2006. This was the third in a series of lectures sponsored by the Evolution and Theology of Cooperation Project at Harvard University, directed by Professors Sarah Coakley and Martin Nowak and supported by a grant from the John Templeton Foundation.

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