“Man is but a worm.” An unkindly caricature, published by Punch magazine as part of their 1882 Almanac in 1881, just prior to Charles Darwin’s death. The message shows that there was still much conjecture about the origin of species at that time.
Public Domain image.
The English physician and naturalist Erasmus Darwin died in 1802, approximately seven years before Charles Darwin’s birth. Nonetheless, he provided the philosophical framework and intellectual environment for his grandson Charles’ work on evolutionary theory, which led to the publication of On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, [hereafter shortened to Origin of Species] in 1859.1 In his publication Zoönomia, Erasmus Darwin stated:
Would it be too bold to imagine that, in the great length of time since the earth began to exist, perhaps millions of ages before the commencement of the history of mankind… that all warm-blooded animals have arisen from one living filament, which the great First Cause endued with animality, with the power of acquiring new parts, attended with new propensities, directed by irritations, sensations, volitions and associations, and thus possessing the faculty of continuing to improve by its own inherent activity, and of delivering down these improvements by generation to its posterity, world without end!2
Although we would not easily identify this as modern heredity theory, it is likely that Charles Darwin would have viewed this as a strong rationale for seriously contemplating the likelihood of deep time and for questioning the immutability of species.
Darwins, demons, demiurges, and the anguish of discovery
In his Origin of Species, Darwin provided a thesis that largely avoids the need for any divine intervention in the origin of life, although humans are not included in this “long argument” (Darwin’s term). Despite this omission, many of his 19th century contemporaries initially failed to embrace his work (e.g., Charles Lyell), or saw it as a direct threat to the established order of society.
Although enlightened with respect to earlier centuries, the British of the mid to late 1800s were far from a secular society; in particular, the Church of England had a very considerable influence on all aspects of life—including politics and science. Darwin was all too aware of this, and he agonized over the polarizing effect he knew his work would have—as many saw it as a direct threat to the widely accepted, and socially cohesive, relationship between man and God.3 It is clear that this antagonism deterred Darwin from discussing humanity’s place in evolution in the Origin of Species. Furthermore, it is a testament to his deep anguish about the likelihood of public rejection of his species theory.
The need to reconcile or soften his science with the spiritual (and visceral) disquietudes of many of his family and friends was perhaps the first of Darwin’s demons.4 Other demons included the inability to fully explain the process of heredity and insufficient time for evolution through natural selection. Nevertheless, his views upon the place of a demiurge (i.e., the Creator of the world) apparently changed, for although the first edition of Origin of Species had no reference to a God, he included due reverence to the Creator in the last paragraph of later editions.
When he deemed the time right, Darwin finally placed humans in the greater scheme of things in his book, The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex (1871),5 wherein he firmly adheres to scientific principles. In addition, the evolution of man is debated, defended, and later verified on these principles.3 It is clear that Darwin would have had a much easier time of it if he had been living in the present because we:
- more fully appreciate the magnitude of time that has elapsed since our world began;
- have a comprehensive knowledge of the age of the Earth;
- have a remarkably complete fossil record; and
- possess a good understanding of the mechanisms of inheritance within living organisms.
We must consider that these advances followed the groundbreaking work of naturalists like those of the Darwin family, nonetheless.
Darwin and religion
The relationship Darwin had with religion is complex; early on, he had plans to enter the ministry, although his enthusiasm quickly waned.6 Even though Darwin was a theist in his early years, at the end, he was an agnostic (not certain if there is a God or other deities), rather than an atheist (believes there is no God or other deities), and he reflected upon this in his letters:
What my own views may be is a question of no consequence to any one but myself. But, as you ask, I may state that my judgment often fluctuates. … In my most extreme fluctuations I have never been an Atheist in the sense of denying the existence of a God. I think that generally (and more and more as I grow older), but not always, that an Agnostic would be the more correct description of my state of mind.7
It is of significance that Darwin did not close the door on religion, although in Descent of Man,5 he clearly entertained the idea that the Creator was potentially a manifestation of human culture:
The idea of a universal and beneficent Creator of the universe does not seem to arise in the mind of man, until he has been elevated by long-continued culture.5
Science and spirituality
However, in light of current scientific advances, we should be mindful that any reconciliation of science through and within religion is almost certainly doomed to fail: the two concepts are incomparable—the former concept founded in empiricism, and the latter in faith. We should appreciate that this discussion is not new, nonetheless; and surprisingly, it was even opined by leaders in the early Christian Church, e.g. in 408 A.D., when Saint Augustine, in De Genesi ad litteram (The Literal Meaning of Genesis), lamented:
… it is a disgraceful and dangerous thing for a Christian to talk nonsense on (elements of this world)… and we should take all means to prevent such embarrassment.8
A key component of Darwinian evolution through natural selection is that life arose from non-living matter. In contrast, creationist dogma such as intelligent design (ID) states that life is too complicated to have been created through natural selection. If we accept that science is conducted objectively, and that it involves the systematized observation of, and experimentation with, phenomena, however, we must anticipate that some scientific theories may be falsi?able—i.e., conditions may arise under which a theory becomes untenable. When falsified, a new hypothesis to account for the observations is proposed.
ID however, cannot be assessed scientifically—even though some proponents claim that “organic design” through the intervention of a supernatural body is legitimate science. Clearly, any restructuring of empiricism just to accommodate ID is inherent nonsense; at best, it is naïve; at worst, it is fraudulent and immoral. ID necessitates acceptance that all that humans observe (and experience) in nature is to some degree “pre-ordained.” From this, it is but a short move towards fundamentalist fatalism, which must ultimately result in the abdication of a duty of care towards other cultures, creeds, and the natural environment.
This is totally incompatible with one of the most ennobling of human aspirations: environmental stewardship. Any widespread adoption of the principles of ID would induce catastrophic effects upon science because the essence of science embraces open inquiry, as well as the quest for truth. Furthermore, the inability of ID advocates to demonstrate any level of, or commitment to, empiricism, would ensure that the scientific process would come to an abrupt halt.9
There is more to this story than science or faith alone, however. Humans are spiritual beings, and arguably, there is a good reason for this.10 It is not imperative that we excise science in pursuit of spirituality (or vice versa). Although many religious groups have appreciated this point rather slowly, it would be advantageous for every person to accept sound science alongside their individual creeds.
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