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Darwin’s World of Pain and Wonder

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.

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Read the entire article on the New Atlantis website.

Published: April 15, 2010

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