Monthly Archives: January 2014

Darwin, God, Alvin Plantinga, and Evolution: I; Darwin and God

Charles Darwin regarded our minds, like our bodies, as the products of undirected evolution. He therefore considered them unreliable on topics vastly more abstruse than the experiences that had shaped them. Alvin Plantinga claims that minds produced by undirected evolution could not even be trusted to interpret day-to-day experience. From this he infers that undirected evolution is false, and belief in it self-contradictory. Darwin doubts our capacity to think sensibly about whether or not there is a God, while Plantinga regards the fact that we can think about reality at all as proof of His existence. In Part II of this essay, I will discuss Plantinga’s views in more detail, and show that they arise, not merely from an eccentric epistemology, but also from a profound misunderstanding of the workings of evolution.


Watercolour, Darwin after return from The Beagle, by George Richmond

Darwin’s correspondence includes extensive discussion of religious matters, but it could be argued that what he says there is tempered to his audience. However, his private Autobiography includes a short but revealing chapter on religious belief, and that is what I mainly drawn on here. The family regarded this as so contentious that it was not made public in full until 1958, and I see no reason to regard it as anything less than a full and open account. In less than four thousand words, he traces his progress from rigid orthodoxy to a principled rejection of all dogmatic positions. In the process, he lays out with admirable brevity the standard arguments against religion, using language so clear and striking that one hears echoes of it today, even, perhaps unwittingly, in the arguments used by his opponents.

Darwin initially contemplated becoming a clergyman. He tells us that he “did not then in the least doubt the strict and literal truth of every word in the Bible”, and was much impressed by Paley’s argument from the perfection of individual organisms to the existence of an intelligent creator. He was still quite orthodox while on the Beagle, but in the two years after his return he reconsidered his position, and gradually came to reject orthodox religion for many reasons. Old Testament history is manifestly false (he cites the Tower of Babel, and the rainbow as a sign given to Noah), and describes its God as having the feelings of “a revengeful tyrant.” As for the New Testament, the beauty of its morality may be due to selective interpretation. The New Testament miracles (and here I think he includes the Virgin Birth and the Resurrection) beggar belief in a more scientific age, and the Gospels describing them are mutually contradictory, and written long after the events they claim to describe. For a while, he hoped that new archaeological discoveries would confirm the Gospel story, but gradually he moved towards total rejection on moral, as well as historical and logical, grounds. As the Autobiography puts it,

“I can indeed hardly see how anyone ought to wish Christianity to be true; for if so the plain language of the text seems to show that the men who do not believe, and this would include my Father, Brother and almost all my best friends, will be everlastingly punished.

And this is a damnable doctrine.”

Darwin’s widow Emma, a few months after his death, annotated this passage as one she did not wish to see published, saying “Nothing can be said too severe upon the doctrine of everlasting punishment for disbelief—but very few now wd. call that ‘Christianity.'”[1] Emma was a Unitarian, and would also, at that time, have had the strongest possible reasons to reject this doctrine, but rather optimistically regarded it as a thing of the past (for the robust expression of this view, by a Church represented on a Scottish local authority School Board, see here).

As for the implications of science, Darwin’s conclusions are interesting. “The old argument of design in nature, as given by Paley … fails, now that the law of natural selection has been discovered…. Everything in nature is the result of fixed laws.” At this point he refers to an argument he had given elsewhere, in Variations of Animals and Plants. Randomly shaped stone fragments can be assembled to build a house, but it would be wrong to infer that the stones acquired their shapes for this purpose. Similarly, natural selection among variants gives rise to well-structured living things, but this is no reason to think that the production of variants is intentionally guided.


17th century dry stone wall, Muchalls Castle, Scotland, photo by Anlace

Regarding what he called, despite the deaths of three of his children, “the generally beneficent arrangement of the world”, this he explained as itself the result of evolution. In order to survive, creatures must be so constituted that pleasure outweighs pain and suffering, which “if long continued, causes depression and lessens the power of action.” As for the opposite argument, which he himself had used more than once, “…what advantage can there be in the sufferings of millions of the lower animals throughout almost endless time? This very old argument from the existence of suffering against the existence of an intelligence as cause seems to me a strong one; whereas… the presence of much suffering agrees well with the view that all organic beings have been developed through variation and natural selection.” In short, the argument from the goodness of the world fails, and the existence of suffering is explained, if the capacities to experience pleasure and suffering, and the balance between them, are seen as naturally evolved adaptations.

Darwin deals briskly with several of the remaining arguments for the existence of an intelligent God. Most people, he says, feel a deep inward conviction that such a God exists, but “Hindoos, Mahomadans and others might argue in the same manner and with equal force in favour of the existence of one God, or of many Gods, or as with the Buddists of no God” [nomenclature and spelling in original]. Darwin also suggests a possible analogy, still used (without acknowledgement) by some advocates of religion, that the nonbeliever who cannot see God in nature is like someone who is colourblind. His response is that the colourblind person must admit the existence of the colour red, although he cannot himself perceive it, since those around him use the term consistently, but that there is no such consistency in religious belief. The emotional response to the beauty and grandeur of nature, which Darwin had experienced in full measure, has much in common with the emotional response to music, and, like that response, “can hardly be advanced as an argument for the existence of God.”

One argument, however, retained conviction at the time when he was writing On the Origin of Specie, namely “the extreme difficulty or rather impossibility of conceiving this immense and wonderful universe… as a result of blind chance or necessity.” Notice that Darwin makes a clear distinction, which today’s “Intelligent Design” advocates systematically blur, between Paley’s argument from the design of particular things (rejected, as we saw earlier), and the more powerful argument from the possible presence of design in the universe as a whole. The latter he finds convincing enough to say, at the very time that he was composing On the Origin of Species, that “I deserve to be called a Theist”.

Later, however, Darwin wonders, “can the mind of man, which has… been developed from a mind as low as that possessed by the lowest animal, be trusted when it draws such grand conclusions?”  Or, as he says elsewhere, “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.” Moreover, generations of religious teaching may have produced a “strong and perhaps an inherited effect” on the minds of children. (Notice that here Darwin is considering the possible inheritance of an acquired characteristic, a view that we generally associate with the much earlier work of Lamarck.) Given such inherited limitations, “The mystery of the beginning of all things is insoluble by us, and I for one must be content to remain an Agnostic.” In other words, our minds evolved to deal with commonplace reality, and we must doubt whether they are adequate instruments for speculating so far beyond that. “Agnostic” was a term then newly coined by his friend and prominent supporter, Thomas Huxley, and refers, not to a wishy-washy uncertainty, but to the principled conviction that there was no adequate way of deciding the question.

Darwin concludes by considering the question of rules to live by, which, for a non-believer, he says, must the outcome of reflection on one’s own behaviour and of what he calls the social instincts. For himself, he considers that he has acted rightly in devoting his life to science. He has no great sin on his conscience, but regrets he was not able to devote some time to philanthropy.

From our perspective, it is difficult to see what philanthropic venture he could have engaged in of greater value than the insight his work has given us into our own nature, and our place in the universe.


Darwin in 1881, photo by Herbert Rose Barraud (all images through Wikimedia Commons)

An earlier version of this was posted at

[1] Footnote supplied by Nora Barlow, Darwin’s grand-daughter, in the edition I have been using. The editors of the Penguin Classics edition, although familiar with Barlow’s, ignore the information in this footnote and in my view, both here and elsewhere, end up misinterpreting their subject.

Noah’s Ark Zoo Farm Responds to Criticism

Last month, Professor Alice Roberts visited Noah’s Ark Zoo Farm, a creationist establishment recommended by Answers in Genesis, and wrote a highly critical report of what she found there. The Zoo Farm has replied on the Bristol culture website, and their response only adds further credibility to her strongest accusations. Since this website does not want to be accused of quote mining, I attach, in full, the Zoo’s statement, with our own comments inserted as appropriate. It should be remembered that the Zoo offers a range of what it describes as educational activities, including “an educational day out” for schools, with price discounts, on-site workshops described as being linked to the National Curriculum, and school and nursery outreach packages.

Portrait of Alice Roberts

Professor Alice Roberts, from her web site

Prof Roberts tells of posters in the auditorium and children’s play area, which is presumably where the on-site workshops take place, claiming among other things that there are “30 reasons why apes are not related to man”, that humans were around at the same time as the first tetrapods (was Tiktaalik tasty, one wonders), that rates of radioactive decay were greater in the past, and that these possibilities should be considered as part of “an open, critical approach to explain what we see in the natural world.” She comments

I believe that religious fundamentalism has the potential to ruin scientific education. Apart from obscuring scientific facts, it teaches a way of thinking that is incredibly rigid. The evidence for a (very) old Earth and for evolution is overwhelming.

But believing in these things isn’t like a religious faith – it comes from a belief in evidence…. This [the zoo presentations] is, purely and simply, subversion of science to fit a religious agenda. At Noah’s Ark, you are not allowed to question the Bible. And where science and the Bible clash, every piece of scientific evidence is called into question, shoehorned into place if possible, or thrown out if it’s too dissonant.


A poster at Noah’s Ark Zoo Farm disputes the common ancestry of humans and apes. Image by Pip, via Wikipedia

I can only agree; if anything, I am surprised by the moderation of her language. But it is time to see what the Zoo has to say in reply:

There has been some local interest this week in a Guardian online article written about Noah’s Ark Zoo Farm by television personality Alice Roberts (BBC’s Coast, Don’t Die Young).

The article presents Alice’s personal view on the Christian message which forms a part of our zoo and which is well known by our visitors.

We’re not surprised by her comments as she is well known as a television atheist and humanist who doesn’t like the notion of God being introduced to science.

Alice Roberts is a University Professor (a fact belatedly acknowledged at the very foot of the Zoo Farm’s statement), qualified physician, Ph.D. in palaeopathology, former University Lecturer in Anatomy at Bristol, the University of Birmingham’s first Professor of Public Engagement in Science, and author of over 30 peer reviewed articles and technical reports, in addition to four books and numerous less formal articles.

Her critique of the Zoo Farm does not even mention Christianity. It does describe religion as being based on faith (surely the Zoo Farm’s owners would not dissent from this), and criticises the Zoo Farm for treating the Bible as a source of information on scientific topics. In all of this, every mainstream Christian denomination in the UK would agree with her.  So, indeed, would most Christians in the US, and even one in three US Evangelicals. Prof Roberts is, in private life, an atheist, and she is among other things a highly respected television presenter of science, but the claim that she is a “television atheist” is without foundation.

Noah’s Ark is a Christian organisation which wants to give people the scientific freedom to believe in God as part of their view of how life was made and has changed over time.

No one is restricting anyone’s freedom to believe whatever they like, but the Zoo Farm’s claim that creationism is the same thing as believing in God is a monstrous piece of spiritual pride, and, according to Theologian Canon Prof Keith Ward, “the kind of thing that brings both religion and science into disrepute.” [KW to PB, private communication].

Christianity is the leading religion in the UK and followed either casually or seriously by over 31 million people (2011 Census), an interesting statistic when compared to the 13 million people who characterised themselves as having ‘no-religion’ in the same survey. An important part of our country’s heritage and education system for many decades, like many others we believe religious discussion is still very relevant and compatible with modern society, and the field of science.

Within two covered areas at our 100 acre park we provide some discussion boards which explain the theories of evolution, creationism and re-colonisation; a new paradigm which accepts both the role of God and the complexity of the genome for evolution after an initial creation. We also question whether the biblical story of Noah and his Ark could be true and what evidence there is for a global flood – a popular story which ties in nicely with the theme of the zoo.

The suggestion that Christianity implies creationism is, as discussed above, mischievous nonsense. So is the suggestion that evolution and creationism are theories, in the same sense of the word. There is no evidence for a global flood, and if Noah’s flood is “a popular story,” or even a popular story with an important moral message, so are Aesop’s fables. Evolution is a well attested historical fact, as well as being the theoretical framework for the whole of modern biology, while creationism is a simpleminded fable based on a theology that was looking old-fashioned a thousand years ago. Re-colonisation is not, as claimed, “a new paradigm which accepts both the role of God and the complexity of the genome for evolution after an initial creation,” but an arbitrary and pseudoscientific hodgepodge that accepts the story of Noah’s Ark as history, but places it at the base of the Archaean.

Noah’s Ark is keen to promote thought and discussion for interested visitors, certainly not forcing religious views and pressuring unsuspecting families as unfortunately Alice Roberts’ article confusingly portrays.

For a scientist, Prof. Roberts [sic] article was surprisingly dominated by persuasive language and subversive opinion rather than simply a factual account of her visit, presumably with the intention of encouraging people to share her angry sentiments.

As the article makes clear, Noah’s Ark does indeed force religious views on unsuspecting families, by presenting nonsense as scientific fact. And does the Zoo Farm expect its critics to use unpersuasive language, and who or what is it accusing Prof Roberts of subverting?

It was interesting for us to see Alice with her family during her visit to Noah’s Ark, particularly her young daughter who apparently thoroughly enjoyed our indoor play barn and the large Rainbow Slide, unconcerned by posters discussing God and evolution – probably a little tedious for an energetic child. If Alice is concerned by the effect of these displays on children’s young minds, hopefully her happy daughter enjoying the zoo might allay her fears!

At the risk of aggravating the offence by drawing attention to it, I would ask what right the Zoo has to be monitoring Prof Roberts’s preschool daughter in this way, and publicising the way she spent her day there.

As a popular family attraction at the end of our busiest year with record visitor numbers, we remain confident that people are intelligent enough to make their own minds up about God, creation and evolution if they are interested in reading the discussion we provide at the zoo, and fundamentally come to Noah’s Ark for the enjoyable day out we continue to offer.

A well-known tourist attraction in the south west and winners of important industry awards including the regional ‘Access for All’ award from the Bristol Tourism & Hospitality Awards we have been recognised for providing good access for people of all religions and no religions, race, gender, age and sexuality.

For us, receiving occasional criticism for our Christian theme by opinionated atheists is not new and gives little cause for concern – fundamentally we are a popular family zoo with an excellent and well-cared for collection of animals which is enjoyed by thousands of public and school visitors each year. With the opening of the internationally recognised ‘Elephant Eden’ shortly and more exciting plans for 2014 we are looking forward to another bumper season after the Christmas break.

We enjoy Prof. Roberts television work and public contribution and wish her well in her future projects – both her and her family are very welcome to visit us again should they ever wish to.

Again, my apology for the tedious length. And again, the completely misleading equation of Christianity with creationism, coupled here with distracting remarks about equal access (is the Zoo claiming special credit not excluding gays?).

As my friend the Rev Michael Roberts continually points out, this kind of creationism is a 20th century heresy, spreading through the Abrahamic religions like a cancer, and the plain duty of church leaders is to denounce it as such. A duty that they are dismally failing to perform.

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