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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.

Charles_Darwin_by_G._Richmond

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.

Muchallscastledrystone

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.

Charles_Darwin_photograph_by_Herbert_Rose_Barraud,_1881

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

An earlier version of this was posted at http://www.3quarksdaily.com/3quarksdaily/2013/09/darwin-god-alvin-plantinga-and-evolution-i-darwin-and-god.html#sthash.qBScWnjG.dpuf


[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.

Darwin, Wallace, Evolution, and Atheism (Part II of Bears, whales, God, Darwin, and Peter Hitchens)

[For Part I, see here]

Peter Hitchens, younger brother of the late Christopher, says in the notorious London Daily Mail that the implication of evolution “is plainly atheistical, and if its truth could be proved, then the truth of atheism could be proved. I believe that is its purpose, and that it is silly to pretend otherwise.” Pat Robertson claims that “the evolutionists worship atheism.” Richard Dawkins tells us that he lost his faith in God when he learned about evolution, the claim that evolution is intrinsically atheistical is used repeatedly by advocates of creationism, including that bizarre oxymoron, “scientific creationism”, and the Discovery Institute’s Wedge Document describes it as part of a malignant materialism that debunks traditional views of both God and man. Discovery Institute fellows also coached Ann Coulter, who went on to tell us that evolution is itself a discredited religion, related to the mental disorders of liberalism and godlessness.

Yet from the very outset there have been believers who actively welcomed evolution. Asa Gray, the botanist to whom Darwin dedicated his own book Forms of Flowers, saw evolution as the natural process through which God worked. Charles Kingsley, the Christian social reformer and historian now best remembered for The Water Babies, wrote appreciatively to Darwin, on previewing The Origin of Species, that a Deity who created “primal forms capable of self development” was “a loftier thought” than one who had created each kind separately. In our own time, we have evolution theology and Evolution Sunday. Ken Miller, a committed Catholic, is prominent as molecular biologist, textbook writer, and legal witness on behalf of evolution, while Dennis Venema’s postings on the website of BioLogos, an organization dedicated to the acceptance of science from a Christian perspective, are model expositions of evolutionary science.

Against this background, it may be helpful to look at the religious views of Charles Darwin himself, and also those of Alfred Russel Wallace, the two independent originators of the concept of evolution as the inevitable outcome of natural selection. Warning: this post will be longer than most. The Victorians do not lend themselves to sound bites.

File:Darwin-Wallace medal.jpg

Darwin’s private Autobiographies include a short but revealing chapter on religious belief. This the family regarded as so contentious that it was not made public in full until 1958. Darwin initially contemplated becoming a clergyman. He tells us that he “did not then in the least doubt that strict and electoral 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 on historical, logical, philosophical, and indeed moral grounds. As he later wrote,

“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.”

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.” 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, “The very old argument from the existence of suffering against the existence of an intelligence as cause seems to be 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 and the counter-argument from suffering both fail, since the capacities to experience pleasure and suffering, and the balance between them, are themselves explained as evolved adaptations.

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, 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? … The mystery of the beginning of all things is insoluble by us, and I for one must be content to remain an Agnostic.” Our minds evolved to enable us 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.

Alfred Russel Wallace is a much more complicated case. He seems to us self-contradictory and changeable, an opponent of the supernatural who nonetheless took Spiritualism seriously. He was also much more wordy than Darwin; his autobiography runs to two thick volumes. I have therefore relied mainly on secondary sources,[1]  together with his review of Lyell’s writings on geology, in the April 1869 issue of The Quarterly Review[2], and his 1871 reply to critics.

In his teens, Wallace came into contact with the reformist ideas of Robert Owen, and abandoned conventional religion, with its emphasis on original sin, for a belief in human improvability based on the natural sense of justice. Throughout his adult life, he described himself as a Socialist, and wrote a book in favour of the nationalization of land. He seems to believe in a Creator, and indeed advances, as an argument in favour of evolution, that separate design for every creature would reduce that Creator to the level of a second-rate craftsman[3] (compare Charles Kingsley’s comments, above). However, only two years before formulating his own version of the theory of natural selection, he had written of how far, in his view, the beauty and diversity of the forms of living things goes beyond what could, for him, be explained in terms of their requirements.[4]

 This last conclusion may help make sense of his 1869 review of Lyell, in which he asserted that there were things about humanity, in particular, that could not be explained by natural selection. Abstract thought, moral sense, and the design of the hand, all as much present in what he called the savage as in civilized man, seemed to him superfluous to the requirements of the savage’s life. This despite having lived among such savages while collecting specimens, and observing the demanding nature of their lifestyles, the skill of their toolmaking, and the subtleties of their social organization. He also makes the linked arguments that evolution cannot explain the development of consciousness (for contrary opinions, see Dennett’s Kinds of Minds and Cairns-Smith’s Evolving the Mind), and that materialism cannot explain how consciousness could exist at all (here, I think, Wallace is referring to a problem that we are no nearer solving now than we were then).

But does this mean that he was willing to embrace the supernatural? Quite the reverse! In his answers to critics, he says very plainly that he does no such thing. What he does do, is reject materialism. There is more in the universe than matter, but nothing that is beyond the scope of natural science.

So what of Peter Hitchens’s (and, for what it’s worth, Pat Robinson’s) claim, given that neither Darwin nor Wallace could be pigeonholed as atheists, and that Wallace was not even a materialist? Totally false. Grossly insulting to the entire scientific community, portrayed as choosing its key concepts according to an ideological agenda quite outside science. As I said before regarding all evolution denialism, dependent on a conspiracy theory. And a warning to all of us; if this is typical of journalistic comment in the areas that we know about, like science, how should we regard such comment in areas that we cannot so readily examine, like Syria?

There remain some serious questions. Is it possible to accept evolution without being an atheist? Quite obviously, yes, as Darwin, Wallace, and many examples listed here clearly show. But human psychology is notoriously quirky and tolerant of self-contradictions). So, as a matter of logic, is religious belief compatible with the acceptance of the fact of evolution?

The answer, surely, must depend on the kind of religion, and here my sympathies lie entirely with their Evolution Sunday crowd. Evolution demolishes one version of the argument from design, but even when I was a believer I did not find that version convincing. And, for the reasons spelt out over the past 150 years by Kingsley, Darwin, and many others, evolution poses no new problems for religion in general, and indeed may blunt some of the traditional arguments used against it.

What is not consistent, either with present-day scientific knowledge, or with any kind of scientific approach to reality, is a religion dependent on an overriding belief in the literal truth of its sacred text. Such a position renders impossible any sensible discussion of evolution, or of nature in general, or, indeed, of God.

[1] See e.g. Helena Cronin’s The Ant and the Peacock, which discusses Darwin’s and Wallace is different views on sexual selection and cooperation; Natural Selection and and Beyond, ed. Charles H Smith and George Beccaloni.

[2] Confusingly indexed in QR under Lyell, not Wallace.

[3] Smith and Beccaloni, p. 327.

[4] Ibid p. 370.

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