Darwin, Evolution, and God

| By on Reading the Book of Nature

ABOVE: William Whewell, a professor whom Charles Darwin knew at Cambridge, wrote a treatise on natural theology that includes a chapter on divine action in nature—a hugely important topic even in Darwin’s day. Darwin not only read Whewell’s book, he borrowed a sentence from that chapter and placed it right at the front of the Origin of Species, even before the title page. Photograph by Edward B. Davis.

Last time I provided a glimpse of Darwin’s personal religious story, emphasizing the fact that his religious beliefs didn’t just disappear overnight. Today, we see how his lingering theism influenced his understanding of evolution when he was developing the theory.

Most historians think (as I do) that Darwin believed in God when he wrote the earliest versions of his most famous book, The Origin of Species, and quite a few think that he was still some type of deist even as late as 1859, when The Origin was published. Indeed, the first edition of the book contains evidence of this. As James Moore has said, “From start to finish, The Origin of Species was a pious work” that was both an argument “against miraculous creation but equally a theist’s case for creation by law” (cited below, p. 147). Philosopher Stephen Dilley has recently argued not only that theology was important “to the case for evolution as a whole in The Origin,” but also “that theology was a handmaiden and accomplice to Darwin’s science” (cited below, p. 29).

Darwin developed his theory between 1837 and 1844, before he had fully given up belief in God. He first wrote it as a 35-page “Sketch on Natural Selection” in 1842, followed by a much longer essay in 1844. In the former, he spoke of “a being infinitely more sagacious than man (not an omniscient creator),” who could mold organisms for their benefit over time, “either by his own direct foresight or by intermediate means.” The latter also includes some fascinating passages, showing that he continued to think in terms of creation by natural law even as he developed his theory of evolution, but before examining them we need some additional context.

Darwin, “Physics Envy,” and the “Mystery of Mysteries”

At that point in his life, you might say that Darwin suffered from “physics envy.” As a naturalist—not a physicist or an astronomer—he was a bit jealous of the great success that physics and astronomy had achieved by explaining motion on the Earth and in the Solar System in terms of wide-reaching natural laws—especially Newton’s law of gravitation. Darwin sought to make biology resemble physics as far as possible: he wanted to know how biological diversity could also be explained by natural laws, thereby making biology more fully scientific.

In a previous column I told you about philosopher John Herschel, whom Darwin met during his voyage on the Beagle. I explained that Herschel famously referred to the origin of biological diversity as “the mystery of mysteries,” and that he endorsed the idea of a Creator who “operates through a series of intermediate causes.” If we were ever to understand the production of new species, Herschel believed, it “would be found to be a natural in contradistinction to a miraculous process.”

Shortly before Darwin embarked on that voyage, Herschel had published a major work, A Preliminary Discourse on the Study of Natural Philosophy (1830). Ten years later, the great polymath William Whewell, whom Darwin knew at Cambridge, published Philosophy of the Inductive Sciences, founded upon their History (1840). Herschel and Whewell both presented Newtonian astronomy as the ideal type of scientific theory. Why? Because it showed that many diverse phenomena followed logically from just a few general laws that applied universally to nature.

Darwin wanted to make Herschel’s “mystery of mysteries” conform to natural laws established by the Creator, as in this passage from his 1844 essay (note especially the words I have rendered in bold type):

“I must here premise that, according to the view ordinarily received, the myriads of organisms, which have during past and present times peopled this world, have been created by so many distinct acts of creation. It is impossible to reason concerning the will of the Creator, and therefore, according to this view, we can see no cause why or why not the individual organism should have been created on any fixed scheme. That all the organisms of this world have been produced on a scheme is certain from their general affinities; and if this scheme can be shown to be the same with that which would result from allied organic beings descending from common stocks, it becomes highly improbable that they have been separately created by individual acts of the will of a Creator.”

In other words, arbitrary acts of divine creation function as science stoppers. If God actually created all things separately and miraculously, then we will never be able to say anything more than that. According to Darwin, however, if we can show that various creatures look as if they have common ancestors then it seems unlikely that God created them separately. And Darwin believed, of course, that various creatures really do look as if they have common ancestors. As Darwin continues in the next passage, note the way in which he favorably compares the “general laws” of Newtonian astronomy with arbitrariness of special divine action:

“For as well might it be said that, although the planets move in courses conformably to the law of gravity, yet we ought to attribute the course of each planet to the individual act of the will of the Creator. It is in every case more conformable with what we know of the government of this earth, that the Creator should have imposed only general laws. As long as no method was known by which races [biological types] could become exquisitely adapted to various ends, whilst the existence of species was thought to be proved by the sterility of their offspring, it was allowable to attribute each organism to an individual act of creation. But in the two former chapters it has (I think) been shown that the production, under existing conditions, of exquisitely adapted species, is at least possible.”

In other words, if we want to understand planetary motion, we appeal to the law of gravity. Darwin knew that was a done deal—physicists had been explaining the Solar System in terms of natural law for a long time, and there was nothing controversial about it. Likewise, if we want to understand the production of “exquisitely adapted” species, we need to appeal to some “general laws”; otherwise, we are left grasping for straws. What exactly were those general laws? To answer that question, we turn to the last part of the published version of the Origin of Species.

“Physics Envy” in the Origin of Species

Vestiges of Darwin’s theism are still evident in the published version from 1859. Six pages from the end of the book, Darwin summed up his overall position on common ancestry, stating his belief “that animals have descended from at most only four or five progenitors, and plants from an equal or lesser number.” Five sentences later he went even further, suggesting that “probably all the organic beings which have ever lived on this earth have descended from some one primordial form, into which life was first breathed” (p. 484). Note the language borrowed from Genesis 2:7, which can only have been intentional—regardless of the specific intention behind it.

The final paragraph in the book (pp. 489-90) is justly famous. Let’s dissect it in light of what I’ve said about his residual theism; again I use bold type to highlight certain phrases. The first sentence reads, “It is interesting to contemplate an entangled 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 on each other in so complex a manner, have all been produced by laws acting around us.

What were these laws? “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 external 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.” Next, Darwin gave readers a glimpse of his theodicy—he struggled with the struggle for existence, and he gave it an eschatological twist. “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.”

The final sentence of the book provides further evidence of physics envy. “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.”

It’s the only use of the word “evolved” in the whole book, and we look in vain for even a single instance of the word “evolution.” Nevertheless that’s what we now call his theory.

Darwin’s Appeal to William Whewell’s Natural Theology

The first edition of Darwin’s On the Origin of Species was published on 24 November 1859. This particular copy, now in the library of St John’s College, Cambridge, belonged to the novelist Samuel Butler. Opposite the title page are two epigraphs. The one on the bottom, from Francis Bacon’s highly influential book, The Advancement of Learning (1605), recommends diligent study of both “the book of God’s word” (the Bible) and “the book of God’s works” (the creation). The other one comes from Whewell’s Bridgewater Treatise. (image source)

 As surprising as it might seem, Darwin’s language about “general laws” in the 1844 essay harks back to a sentence in one of the great works of British natural theology. In 1833, while Darwin was somewhere off the South American coast, William Whewell had published Astronomy and General Physics Considered with Reference to Natural Theology. In a brilliant penultimate chapter “On the Physical Agency of the Deity”, the deeply Christian author argued that we ought to base design arguments on what philosophers now call the “lawlikeness” of nature—that is, the regularities nature exhibits—and not on any miraculous exceptions to it. Here’s the relevant passage, with my bold type for emphasis (pp. 356-7):

“We are not to expect that physical investigation can enable us to conceive the manner in which God acts upon the members of the universe. The question, ‘Canst thou by searching find out God?’ must silence the boastings of science as well as the repinings of adversity. Indeed science shows us, far more clearly than the conceptions of every day reason, at what an immeasurable distance we are from any faculty of conceiving how the universe, material and moral, is the work of the Deity. But with regard to the material world, we can at least go so far as this—we can perceive that events are brought about not by insulated interpositions of Divine power, exerted in each particular case, but by the establishment of general laws. This, which is the view of the universe proper to science, whose office it is to search out these laws, is also the view which, throughout this work, we have endeavoured to keep present in the mind of the reader.”

Darwin used the bolded sentence as an epigraph for his book. Just two pages later, Whewell unreservedly praised John Herschel’s statement that God “doth accomplish and fulfill his divine will in all things, great and small, singular and general, as fully and exactly by providence, as he could by miracle and new creation, though his working be not immediate and direct, but by compass; not violating Nature, which is his own law upon the creature” (quoted by Whewell, p. 358). Darwin quoted Whewell, because in context Whewell was thinking exactly what Darwin had suggested in the essay of 1844: God created not by miracles, but through general laws.

Published in London and Philadelphia between 1833 and 1840, the Bridgewater treatises consisted of eight titles (bound in twelve volumes) by leading British scientists and clergy. Each author was commissioned to demonstrate “the power[,] wisdom and goodness of God as manifested in the creation” from his own scientific or theological expertise. William Whewell’s treatise on Astronomy and General Physics, shown here in between important works by geologist William Buckland and theologian Thomas Chalmers, was the third book in the series. It had seven editions before 1840, indicative of the wide readership it found on both sides of the Atlantic. Photograph by Edward B. Davis.

Natural Theology After Darwin

I doubt Darwin foresaw the possibility that Whewell’s language about “the establishment of general laws” would point the way to a new type of natural theology. Evolution by natural selection, operating on “chance” variations, undermined the kind of natural theology done by William Paley, whose work Darwin had appreciated as a student. Like many others since Robert Boyle and John Ray in the late seventeenth century, Paley had emphasized the wisdom and goodness of the Creator as seen in the many wonderful ways that God had specially created plants and animals to fit perfectly and harmoniously into specific, unchanging environments. As Darwin realized, if his theory was correct, then Paley was wrong: there are no unchanging environments, perfect adaptation is a chimera, and nature exhibits a struggle for existence rather than a harmonious balance. Anyone interested in doing natural theology after Darwin would need a new place from which to begin.

Ironically, Whewell’s words provided exactly what was needed to rebuild natural theology on a new foundation. As I explained in another series, natural theology did not disappear after Darwin and it took precisely the turn anticipated by Whewell. Just five years after Darwin’s book appeared, a devout Unitarian chemist from Harvard, Josiah Parsons Cooke, replied to Darwin in a profound book with an intriguing title, Religion and Chemistry; or, Proofs of God’s Plan in the Atmosphere and Its Elements, published during the Civil War in 1864. Cooke deftly sidestepped evolutionary objections to Paley by inquiring into the basic properties of matter itself—the features of the physical universe that make life possible in the first place. “There is abundant evidence of design in the properties of the chemical elements alone,” he argued, especially as they combine to make the unique substance we call water. Since natural selection doesn’t apply before life exists, this type of natural theology is one that “no theories of organic development can shake.”

A leading contemporary proponent of this kind of post-Darwinian natural theology is John Polkinghorne. He doesn’t talk about water, but he explores features of the whole universe that offer “general hints of the divine presence” behind it. He also understands that “appeal[ing] to cosmic rationality and the anthropic form of the laws of nature” constitutes a “new-style natural theology.” Contrary to Paley and other pre-Darwinian natural theologians, such an approach

“in no way seeks to be a rival to scientific explanation but rather it aims to complement that explanation by setting it within a wider and more profound context of understanding. Science rejoices in the rational accessibility of the physical world and uses the laws of nature to explain particular occurrences in cosmic and terrestrial history, but it is unable of itself to offer any reason why these laws take the particular (anthropically fruitful) form that they do, or why we can discover them through mathematical insight.”

I can almost hear William Whewell standing up to applaud, and perhaps even Darwin is paying attention. Contrary to what is often said, Darwin’s theory wasn’t atheistic, and it didn’t destroy natural theology. It was all about creation by natural laws—essentially the same view that BioLogos calls Evolutionary Creation—and left the door open for others to formulate newer, even more powerful, arguments from design.

Looking Ahead

This series concludes next time with a column about Darwin’s contemporary critic, the Scottish engineer Fleeming Jenkin. If you haven’t heard of him before, or if you haven’t read his severely critical review of the Origin lately, you’ll probably find that column very interesting.




Davis, Ted. "Darwin, Evolution, and God"
http://biologos.org/. N.p., 3 Nov. 2016. Web. 20 October 2017.


Davis, T. (2016, November 3). Darwin, Evolution, and God
Retrieved October 20, 2017, from http://biologos.org/blogs/ted-davis-reading-the-book-of-nature/darwin-evolution-and-god

References & Credits

References and Suggestions for Further Reading

I have quoted from James Moore’s chapter in Galileo Goes to Jail and Other Myths about Science and Religion (2010), ed. Ronald Numbers. Stephen Dilley wrote an excellent article on “Charles Darwin’s use of theology in the Origin of Species,” British Journal for the History of Science 45 (2011): 29-56, that develops at length the same argument about Herschel, Whewell, and Darwin that I present here, but I did not see his article until this column was almost finished and I’ve taught my view to students for several years. The account of John Herschel’s influence on Darwin is based closely on Michael Ruse, The Darwinian Revolution: Nature Red in Tooth and Claw (1979), a beautifully written work that in some ways has never been surpassed; see pp. 56-63 in the first edition. For a careful study of Josiah Parsons Cooke, see Stephen M. Contakes and Christopher Kyle, “Josiah Parsons Cooke Jr.: Epistemology in the Service of Science, Pedagogy, and Natural Theology,” HYLE – International Journal for Philosophy of Chemistry 17 (2011): 1-23.

About the Author

Ted Davis

Ted Davis is Fellow of the History of Science for the BioLogos Foundation and Professor of the History of Science at Messiah College. A former high school science teacher, Ted studied history and philosophy of science at Indiana University, where his mentor was the late Richard S. Westfall, author of the definitive biography of Isaac Newton. With the English historian Michael Hunter, Ted edited The Works of Robert Boyle, 14 vols. (London: Pickering & Chatto, 1999-2000), but his interests include the whole 2000-year interaction of Christianity and science. Author of dozens of scholarly articles and essays, Ted is one of few historians who have written extensively about both the Scientific Revolution and modern America. He and his wife Kathy enjoy theater, music, and traveling to new places.

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