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Darwin’s World of Pain and Wonder

Algis Valiunas

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This essay appears in the Fall 2009/Winter 2010 print edition of The New Atlantis, available soon in bookstores and on newsstands.

No other thinker’s mere name stirs an argument the way that of Charles Darwin does. It has been always thus. In the Proceedings of the Royal Society of London, Darwin’s obituary noted the supreme achievement of On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life (1859), where he introduced what is commonly known as the theory of evolution; the obituary also remarked the intensity with which the theory’s champions and detractors alike reacted to it: “It is doubtful if any single book, except the ?Principia,’ ever worked so great and so rapid a revolution in science, or made so deep an impression on the general mind. It aroused a tempest of opposition and met with equally vehement support.” One hundred fifty years have passed since the publication of Origin, and while those who carry Darwin’s banner proclaim that there is nothing more true than evolution, multitudes remain who refuse to believe it. Some of the unbelievers are credulous to the point of insensibility, choosing to put their faith instead in Biblical literalism, while others are exceedingly subtle and learned, promoting the contrarian ideas of irreducible complexity and intelligent design.

Darwin’s modern defenders protest that intelligent design is precisely the outmoded belief that their hero expelled from the precincts of respectable science. As Satan travels under other diabolical monikers, so intelligent design is but an alias for natural theology, the teaching that thrived especially in the Anglican tradition from Richard Hooker in the sixteenth century to William Paley in the early nineteenth, and that held that God can be known in His wisdom and beneficence through an understanding of the works of nature. To Darwinists, natural theology confounds the study proper to nature, which is scientific, with that proper to divinity, which has no place in science. Thus intelligent design, certain Darwinists insist, particularly those who disbelieve in God in the first place, is a means of sneaking Christian piety into science by the back door.

The antipathy between Darwinists and anti-Darwinists is so fierce because the stakes are so high: one might even say that everything is at stake. The goodness, the power, the nature, indeed the very existence of God, and the origin, the place, the purpose, indeed the very soul of man are the matters in dispute. Some people come to atheism by way of Darwin, while others gravitate toward Darwin because they are atheists; some anti-Darwinists believe in God because they see truth in design, while others believe in design because they believe in God (as the Victorian Roman Catholic thinker John Henry Cardinal Newman said of himself). Yet as most every serious commentator on Darwin will tell you, Darwin himself was not in fact an atheist, and there have been staunch Darwinists of high intellectual caliber who found a place in his thought for design and Christian piety. The distinguished writer Harriet Martineau, whom Darwin knew quite well—she was a romantic friend of his brother, Erasmus, though the romance likely went unconsummated—remarked that there was altogether too much of God in the Origin to suit a thoroughgoing atheist like herself. On the other hand, many passionate Christian readers have become incensed because natural selection seems to crop God from the picture.

And thus to portray nature as an abattoir with some fiendish sadistic touches, a welter of meaningless slaughter. Tennyson of course wrote of “Nature red in tooth and claw” in his monumental elegy In Memoriam, but the poem’s ultimate effect is of theodicy, justifying the ways of God to men, mitigating if not quite explaining the world’s pain. With Darwin as with Tennyson, does the undeniable savagery of nature have a saving purpose? Is one correct to see in Darwin’s nature an incalculable pointless horror, or does all come right in the end? The famous closing sentences of Origin suggest that Darwin found not merely consolation but elevation in the process he discovered:

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 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.

(A subsequent edition specified that life’s several powers had been breathed “by the Creator” into their forms.)

The war of nature, the struggle for existence, survival of the fittest are among the best-known terms for the essential Darwinian conceptions: that the earth produces a superabundance of life, some of which is bound to die out while its competition flourishes, thanks to inherited variations of form and function that favor certain individuals and, over the immense length of time, the species. Darwin could not say what caused the variations, which sometimes led to the development of new species; he was inclined at times to call it the work of chance, but he admitted that chance is just a name for something we don’t understand. There is a profound connection, then, between nature’s wanton indifference to—or at least vast carelessness with—the life it brings forth and the suspicion that life is an inexplicable accident. One way of describing that connection—and this is the way that post-Darwinian science frequently employs—settles the immemorial problem of evil, the bleeding question why living beings have to suffer, with a single swift, hard stroke. The natural world operates with no sense of kindness or fairness or decency, according to implacable laws apparently promulgated in and by the void. The hardness of nature is not the work of an evil Demiurge or of a benevolent God. There is no world behind the world, no shaping agency to direct the course of nature. Nature just is what it is. To live reasonably you must purge yourself of comforting fantasies about a supernatural order beyond this life whose justice and mercy will make you forget all the agonies of the earth. These agonies are sovereign and unredeemed. If you are fortunate, there will be pleasures in your life to offset them, or at least to soften their grip on your mind and heart. But even the most fortunate life knows a terrible measure of cruelty. Better then to develop a callus on what used to be called one’s soul. Although to become a perfect Stoic is an impossible feat—no one can harden himself to such marmoreal nobility—a fair touch of stoicism is likely called for. Severe pagan virtue rather than Christian tender-heartedness best serves the human being set down in the Darwinian wild with only his modern mind to help him.


Read the entire article on the New Atlantis website (new window will open).

Posted: 25-Dec-2009

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