Thursday, 26 February 2009

Ten propositions on Darwin and the deity

by Kim Fabricius

1. Charles Darwin (1809-1882) finally lost his faith in God. Not that he had ever been a committed Nicene Christian. Forced by his free-thinking father to study for the Anglican priesthood at Cambridge after a false start in medicine at the University of Edinburgh (dissection and surgery made him physically sick), young Charles plodded his way through the set theological texts – only Evidences of Christianity by William Paley (1743-1805) really grabbed him – more interested in beetles than the Bible – and a girl named Fanny Owen. Within the year of his graduation (1831), his belief theistic rather than Trinitarian, Darwin was aboard the Beagle, beginning the enthralling five-year expedition on which he would wave goodbye to the clerical vocation. Darwin died an agnostic (a term coined by his “bulldog” Thomas Huxley), yet he was buried in Westminster Abbey, the most hallowed church in England – at the end of the month that begins with Fool’s Day.

2. Should it be of concern to Christians that Darwin was never more than a nominal believer? Only if, rejecting universalism, you are concerned about the destiny of his immortal soul. Otherwise – well, are you concerned whether your surgeon, mechanic, or hair stylist goes to church? Of course not. Your only concern is that she wields a scalpel, wrench, or scissors with know-how and dexterity. So too with a scientist: one’s only concern should be that he is an honest and skilled practitioner of his craft. And Darwin wasn’t just an able and meticulous biologist, he was a bloody genius. If his theory of evolution by natural selection is the best theory in town that explains the evidence (palaeontological, morphological/taxonomical, molecular/genetic) – and it is – deal with it. Of course refute it on empirical grounds if you can, but don’t rubbish it because you don’t like its theological or moral implications, or because you have a political agenda. Fight science with science – not with the pseudo-science of creationism or the bad science of ID (not to mention the bad theology of both). On the other hand, is it not a sad but salient observation that as Darwin’s faith receded, so did his finer feelings for art?

        Sweet is the lore which Nature brings;
        Our meddling intellect
        Misshapes the beauteous forms of things –
        We murder to dissect.
         (William Wordsworth)

3. Of course Darwinism had its scientific detractors – as well as its religious supporters – from the get-go of The Origin of Species (published in 1859, but its thesis adumbrated, if sat on, since the early 1840s), and it remained seriously deficient until Gregor Mendel’s work on genetics (completed in the 1860s, but unrecognised until the early twentieth century) led to the neo-Darwinian synthesis. Indeed Darwinian civil wars rage today on the detail and scope of natural selection and adaptation, with the scientific arguments further befuddled by the philosophical and ideological disagreements, not to mention the temperamental differences, of the antagonists (Stephen Jay Gould floated like a butterfly, Richard Dawkins stings like a flea). But it is a good start to know exactly what Darwin did and didn’t say: he never claimed to account for the origins of life from inorganic matter, let alone ex nihilo; rather he argued that his theory explained how present-day species evolved from earlier ones. Even the later Darwin could speak of life being “breathed by the Creator”.

4. The venerable argument from design, to which Paley added biological spin, is, observes Herbert McCabe, “a silly one…. You can no more say, ‘This sort of world must have been made by God,’ than you can say, ‘This sort of world must exist’.” Only causes within creation make the world what it is; therefore the argument is self-defeating because, assuming a competitive understanding of divine and human activity, it effectively turns the Creator into a creature. When the Scottish hit man David Hume (1711-76) (whom Darwin read) whacked the argument from design in the Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion, he actually did faith a favour. ID’s exhumation of the corpse, a blatant example of the god of the gaps, is a gruesome sight. Nor, following Michael Buckley, should one miss the irony that by trying to demonstrate the existence of a designer-deity independent of revelation, advocates of physico-theology actually advanced the development of modern atheism.

5. Darwin himself finally found the ecological cheerfulness (not to mention the ideological conservatism) of Paley’s natural philosophy quite untenable, in utter denial of the zoological carnage observable even in an English country garden. Nevertheless, the younger Darwin did not dismiss the idea of design, because the only alternative seemed to be chance, which could not explain nature’s order; he believed in a deistic design of the laws of nature. However, with the development of his theory, observes Diogenes Allen, “Darwin supplied what Hume lacked”: in contrast to the prevailing Aristotelian view of the fixity of species, “an account of present-day life forms arising by natural processes from earlier ones. The argument for a designer, which moves directly from present-day life forms to a designer, can no longer be employed because the only alternative to chance is not design.” Allen correctly continues: “the fundamental issue nature’s order poses is whether it is intended, not whether it is designed.” Darwin finally found the idea of divine design surplus to biological, if not cosmological, requirements; while the more he thought about the issue of divine intention, the more inscrutable he found it.

6. For those who would still insist, confounding the biblical Creator with Paley’s watchmaker, that Darwin remains the implacable enemy of Moses, I cannot resist referring to a lovely little letter Karl Barth wrote to his grandniece Christine, who had become disconcerted by a classroom discussion. “Has no one explained to you in your seminar,” Barth wrote, “that one can as little compare the biblical creation story and a scientific theory like that of evolution as one can compare, shall we say, an organ and a vacuum-cleaner – that there can be as little question of harmony between them as of contradiction?… The creation story deals only with the becoming of all things, and therefore with the revelation of God, which is inaccessible to science as such. The theory of evolution deals with what has become, as it appears to human observation and research and as it invites human interpretation… So tell the teacher concerned that she should distinguish what is to be distinguished and not shut herself off completely from either side.”

7. Scientific theory and philosophical considerations, however, were relatively light loads in the cumulative burden that eventually flattened Darwin’s faith. One heavier weight was specifically moral: the doctrine of hell and everlasting punishment. Public recoil from this traditional teaching of the church was hardly unique in Victorian culture, such that from the 1860s many revivalist preachers themselves dowsed the fire and brimstone. For Darwin the brutalities of the struggle for survival on earth were harsh enough without the divine supplement of an eternal slaughterhouse for unbelieving Homo sapiens. In his Autobiography Darwin wrote: “I can 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.”

8. But the straw – or rather the bale – that finally broke the back of the biologist’s belief was suffering: in the titles of two famous works by C. S. Lewis, not The Problem of Pain, which had always vexed Darwin, but A Grief Observed. In the summer of 1850 his nine-year-old daughter Annie became ill, and as spring sprung in 1851 Darwin took her to Malvern for the popular water cure. After a short period of convalescence, Annie’s condition rapidly deteriorated and, with her father at her bedside, she died three days after Easter. The death of his favourite girl, made all the more poignant by the birth of his ninth child Horace just three weeks later, left Darwin inconsolable, and although (as he wrote to his friend and collaborator Joseph Hooker on the death of his own six-year-old daughter in 1863) his tears eventually “lost that unutterable bitterness of former days,” he could hardly ever speak of Annie again. From his home in Downe, Kent, the only sound of faith that Darwin would henceforth hear was its “melancholy, long, withdrawing roar” echoing, seventy miles southeast, from Matthew Arnold’s Dover Beach.

9. From the beginning, it was moral panic more than scientific scruple that drove Christians to jump on the bandwagon of anti-Darwinism. But it wasn’t just driven by the ignominy of the common biological ancestry of all hominids (captured by the joke of caged apes asking, “Am I my keeper’s brother?”); even more significant was the elimination of teleology from the study of nature and its implication for social ethics. But this is actually exceptionally good news. Because the fact that “the causal heart of Darwinian theorizing is against the idea of progress” (Michael Ruse) clears an intellectual space for biblical eschatology: more precisely, for the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus as the world’s apocalyptic counter-evolutionary moment in which the weakest kata sarka turn out to be the “fittest” kata pneuma. John Howard Yoder famously said that “those who bear crosses are walking with the grain of the universe.” Strictly speaking, that should be: against the grain of “nature, red in tooth and claw” (Tennyson; cf. Romans 8:22), and with the grain of the new creation, where babies play with sidewinders (cf. Isaiah 11:8).

10. It is important, if trivial, to remember that Darwin was a man of his age. If The Descent of Man (1871) contains rather repugnant passages on “the savage races”, even the libertarian Walt Whitman could speak of Africans as a “superstitious, ignorant, and thievish race”. In fact, Darwin too was an ardent abolitionist, and he resisted the Social Darwinism of zealots like Herbert Spencer. Nor should we project the truculent scientism of the son Richard Dawkins back onto the ambivalent, even confused, religious views of the father who immersed himself in Paradise Lost during the voyage of the Beagle, who had actually studied the theology he finally rejected, and who consistently denied that The Origin of Species was inherently atheistic. Darwin was ever a humble thinker, keenly aware (in good Augustinian fashion!) of the dangers of intellectual self-deceit. John Brooke and Geoffrey Cantor, reflecting on how Darwin’s theory has influenced our understanding of the deity, suggest that “two images of God took a beating”: “the artisan or mechanic”, and “the magician” of special creation. Which perhaps invites us to re-imagine the Creator more as an improvising artist or musician. John Coltrane’s “A Love Supreme”, anyone?


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