Darwin's Theory III: Science and Religion

Readings for this week:
Darwin: Conclusion on Evolution from Origin of Species.
Darwin: Views on Religion, from his Autobiography.
Asa Gray: Evolution and Theology.
T. H. Huxley: Agnosticism.

Guide for this week's readings:
Darwin's Concluding Remarks on the Origin of Species
The Variety of Religious Views and Darwin's Religious Views.
Other Views on the Relatin between Evolution and Theology (Grey and Huxley).
Study questions for this unit.

Darwin's Concluding Remarks on the Origin of Species

The first reading for this week is Darwin's "Conclusion" to the Origin of Species (6th edition), which you can read by clicking here. In the conclusion, Darwin sums up how his theory constitutes a scientific revolution, and responds to critics as well.

Darwin begins the conclusion by noting that the work has been "one long argument", based on facts (evidence) and inferences (reasoning): "As this whole volume is one long argument, it may be convenient to the reader to have the leading facts and inferences briefly recapitulated." I will leave you to read at your leisure the sections of the conclusion, which is a brief recapitulation of the work. Here, I want to focus for the moment on the last two paragraphs of the book, which are relevant to our special topic for this week: Darwin, Evolution, and Religion, and will lead on to the further study of the controversy over evolution and religion next week. Darwin paid very careful attention to the words he used to end his work, words that were the result of some 20 years of reflection (and delay in publication). For ease in reading, I have broken the paragraphs into parts, and given them number and letter designations. I indicate a break in a paragraph which I have added with an asterisk "*", and number paragraphs which are part of one paragraph in the original as "1a", "1b", ... "2a", "2b", etc:

(1a) "Authors of the highest eminence seem to be fully satisfied with the view that each species has been independently created. To my mind it accords better with what we know of the laws impressed on matter by the Creator, that the production and extinction of the past and present inhabitants of the world should have been due to secondary causes, like those determining the birth and death of the individual. When I view all beings not as special creations, but as the lineal descendants of some few beings which lived long before the first bed of the Cambrian system was deposited, they seem to me to become ennobled.

(1b)* "Judging from the past, we may safely infer that not one living species will transmit its unaltered likeness to a distant futurity. And of the species now living very few will transmit progeny of any kind to a far distant futurity; for the manner in which all organic beings are grouped, shows that the greater number of species in each genus, and all the species in many genera, have left no descendants, but have become utterly extinct. We can so far take a prophetic glance into futurity as to foretell that it will be the common and widely-spread species, belonging to the larger and dominant groups within each class, which will ultimately prevail and procreate new and dominant species.

(1c)* "As all the living forms of life are the lineal descendants of those which lived long before the Cambrian epoch, we may feel certain that the ordinary succession by generation has never once been broken, and that no cataclysm has desolated the whole world. Hence we may look with some confidence to secure future of great length. And as natural selection works solely by and for the good of each being, all corporeal and mental endowments will tend to progress towards perfection.

(2a) "It is interesting to contemplate a tangled bank, clothed with many plants of many kinds, with birds singing on the bushes, with various insects flitting about, and with worms crawling through the damp earth, and to reflect that these elaborately constructed forms, so different from each other, and dependent upon each other in so complex a manner, have all been produced by laws acting around us.

(2b)* "These laws, taken in the largest sense, being Growth with Reproduction; Inheritance which is almost implied by reproduction; Variability from the indirect and direct action of the conditions of life and from use and disuse: a Ratio of Increase so high as to lead to a Struggle for Life, and as a consequence to Natural Selection, entailing Divergence of Character and the Extinction of less-improved forms.

(2c)* "Thus, from the war of nature, from famine and death, the most exalted object which we are capable of conceiving, namely, the production of the higher animals, directly follows. There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed by the Creator into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being evolved."

These two paragraphs, broken into parts, merit special attention, as Darwin has carefully chosen his words to conclude his "one long argument" in order to most effectively address his audience and convince them of his case:

You will note that Darwin twice uses the term "Creator". Moreover, from his notes of 1842 and an unpublished essay of 1844, we know that he had devised these last two paragraphs some 15 years earlier, and kept them almost word for word; so he attached considerable importance to this formulation. This leads us to consider Darwin's views on religion as part of our study of the Evolution and Religion Controversy.

The Variety of Religious Views and Darwin's Religious Views

To understand Darwin's religious views, we'll also have to look at the dozen or so pages that Darwin devoted to this subject in his Autobiography. This text, which you can read by clicking here, was first published by his son Francis in 1887, a few years after Darwin's death. However, it contained numerous omissions requested by Darwin's wife, Emma, who found some of the comments offensive to her religious sensibilities (she remained highly religious all her life, whereas as your reading will readily show, Darwin grew less and less religious). The sentences deleted in 1887 were restored in 1958 by Nora Barlow, Darwin's grand-daugher, for a new edition of the Autobiography. They are underlined in the text so you can readily identify them.

Theoretically, a number of different positions with respect to God, or the Creator, are possible, of which some of the most important are:

Finally, there are two negative views on God, though they differ in significant ways:

Hopefully, this will help in trying to decipher Darwin's views. See the study questions below for more on this topic. The bulletin board and chat room would be the best places to discuss this problem.

Two Other Views of the Relation between Evolution and Theology

Finally, let's look at two differing views on the relation between evolution and theology by two of Darwin's most important defenders: Asa Gray, in the United States, and T. H. Huxley in Great Britain.

Asa Gray (1810-1888) was a professor of botany at Harvard University (then: Harvard College). He was an early supporter of Darwin who argued for the reconciliation of evolution and religion (in general), arguing that evolution was a law of nature guided by a divine plan (but not specific divine interventions to create species). Gray accepted Darwin's concept of "natural selection" as a mechanistic process whereby individuals that were had the appropriate variations were selected as the environment changed, but thought that God's plan for evolution foresaw sufficent variation that species could survive. This latter aspect of his theory would not be considered as part of biology today, but it is of interest that Darwin's chief supporter in this country was a religious believer. Click here to read Gray's "Evolution and Theology" (1874), which appeared as an article in the journal The Nation.

T. H. Huxley (1825-1895) was Gray's counterpart in England, and was known as Darwin's "bull-dog" for his determined defence of evolution. Interestingly, Huxley was mildly sceptical of natural selection as the chief factor of evolution, and awaited empirical evidence of its operation; but he had no doubt that evolution as a process had occurred, given the paleontological evidence (fossil evidence). It was Huxley who coined the term "agnosticism" to describe the view which neither believed in the proof of God nor in the disproof of God. Rather, Huxley argued, belief must be suspended and neither alternative adopted in the absence of convincing argument or evidence. Huxley was known not only for his often controversial views, but also for his talent as an essayist and debater. Click here to read Huxley's "Agnosticism" (1889), which appeared in the English review The Nineteenth Century

Study Questions

(1) What does Darwin mean when he refers to the "Creator" in the conclusion of Origin of Species?
(2) Is this view of God consistent with Darwin's evolutionary theory?
(3) What arguments in his Autobiography does Darwin use to describe his later loss of religious faith?
(4) Do you consider evolution and religion as consistent (and if so, based on which of the above concepts of God), or inconsistent (and if so, are evolutionists agnostic or atheistic?)