Darwin’s Doubt in His Own Theory
Richard Dawkins is well known for saying that Charles Darwin made it possible to be an intellectually fulfilled atheist. So Darwin’s theory seems to have clarified matters for Dawkins. Darwin himself, it would seem, was not so sure. Here I’ll discuss two passages, the second perhaps more significant than the first.
The closing statement in the 1872 edition of the Origin of Species reads: “There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed by the Creator 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”.
The Christian writer Denis Alexander cites this as evidence that “when he wrote the Origin of Species, Darwin was clearly still a deist, someone who believes that God establishes the laws of nature but otherwise remains distant from the process of creation”¹. Perhaps he should have done some more research because the words “by the Creator” were not included in the original 1859 edition, although they did appear from 1860 onwards. However, in March 1863 Darwin wrote about this to Joseph Hooker: “I have long regretted that I truckled to public opinion and used Pentateuchal term of creation, by which I really meant ‘appeared’ by some wholly unknown process”, clearly indicating, by including this phrase, that he was not expressing his own view, but pandering to contemporary sentiment. (For some reason this regret did not lead to the words being omitted from subsequent editions.) However, as the blogger Larry Arnhart points out, Darwin “regrets that using the ‘Pentateuchal term of creation’ might be read as endorsing a literal reading of the Creation story in Genesis… yet he wants to recognize the ineluctable mystery of how matter and life originated ‘by some wholly unknown process’ ”². At the very least, therefore, Darwin is saying quite correctly that his theory offers no plausible explanation for the origin of life.
More noteworthy is this passage from his correspondence:
“Another source of conviction in the existence of God follows from the extreme difficulty or rather impossibility (!) of conceiving this immense and wonderful universe… as the result of blind chance or necessity. When thus reflecting I feel compelled to look to a First Cause having an intelligent mind in some degree analogous to that of man; and I deserve to be called a Theist…
“But then arises the doubt — can the mind of man, which has, as I fully believe, been developed from a mind as low as that possessed by the lowest animal, be trusted when it draws such grand conclusions? May not these be the result of the connection between cause and effect that strikes us as a necessary one, but probably depends merely on inherited experience? Nor must we overlook the probability of the constant inculcation in a belief in God on the minds of children producing so strong and perhaps an inherited effect on their brains not yet fully developed, that it would be as difficult for them to throw off their belief in God, as for a monkey to throw off its instinctive fear and hatred of a snake”³.
So, Darwin’s intuition or gut-instinct told him, correctly I would say, that it is impossible to conceive of this wonderful universe as the result of blind chance. Yet he has allowed his mind to persuade him that this is not the case on the basis of his unproven hypothesis; he may believe that the mind of man has been developed from a mind as low as that of the lowest animal, but there is no conclusive scientific proof of that. This is merely an a priori assumption derived from a materialistic premise, and a spiritual perspective would say otherwise; our mind has not evolved from that of lowest animals, for we are incarnating souls. We may have acquired the mind during the descent into matter.
Rationalists, of course, elevate the mind to a status higher than intuition and gut-instinct, which are obviously not infallible. On this occasion, however, Darwin’s intuition was almost certainly correct.
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1. Creation or Evolution: Do We Have to Choose?, Monarch Books, 2008, p169
3. letter to W. Graham, The Autobiography of Charles Darwin, Nora Barlow (ed.), Collins, 1958, p92. Quoted by Joseph Campbell, Flight of the Wild Gander, New World Library, 2002, p82 — originally published 1969.