Mere Creation Conference

"You Guys Lost:
Is Design a Closed Issue?

By Nancy Pearcey

The setting was one of those notoriously colorful debates over evolution that scientists hate but the public loves. The combatants in this case were Vincent Sarich and creationist Duane Gish. Eventually Sarich turned to Gish in exasperation and denounced the debate as an exercise in redundancy. After all, he said, the same debate was conducted a hundred years ago, and "you guys lost."1 In other words, Sarich was saying, creation was discredited back in the nineteenth century by Darwin, so why are you resurrecting a dead issue?

It is commonly assumed that the battle over Darwinism was waged in the nineteenth century, and that Darwin won the day because his theory was supported by the scientific evidence. To cite just two examples, zoologist Ernst Mayr asserts that "Darwin solved the problem of teleology, a problem that had occupied the best minds for the 2000 years since Aristotle." Douglas Futuyma writes that "By coupling undirected, purposeless variation to the blind, uncaring process of natural selection, Darwin made theological or spiritual explanations of the life processes superfluous."2 In the modern world, Darwin's theory tends to be accepted by each new generation for the simple reason that it is part of the outlook in which we are reared and educated.

Yet I suggest that there are good reasons for returning to the site of battle and asking whether it was won fair and square. I propose to show that the battle was not won by Darwin in the sense normally intended: I will argue that Darwin was a turning point in biology not so much because the empirical evidence was persuasive but primarily because his theory proved useful in advancing a particular philosophy--a philosophy of science first of all and in many cases a general metaphysical position as well.

In modern culture, science is accorded intellectual authority to define the way the world "really is." The persuasive power of Darwinian theory stems from the aura of scientific factuality that surrounds it. If it can be shown that historically the primary motivation for advancing Darwin's cause was not so much scientific as philosophical, then the theory loses much of its persuasive force. For scientists have authority to tell us how the natural world functions, but they have no comparable authority to tell us what philosophy we ought to hold. If the motivation for accepting Darwinism was primarily philosophical, then we in the twentieth century are justified in calling for a resurrection of the old debate.

In this chapter, I will first examine the writings of Darwin's core supporters in the nineteenth century. Contrary to a common misconception, Darwin did not actually win over many contemporaries to his theory. Even those who identified themselves as supporters often did not in fact accept his theory of natural selection. It was not until the 1930s and 40s, with the development of the modern synthesis (i.e., the combination of Darwin's theory with findings from genetics), that natural selection was finally accepted as the central mechanism of evolution. Those who insist that Darwin closed the issue are anachronistically reading back into history the views held by most modern biologists.

Why, then, did Darwin become the focal point of debate in the nineteenth century, even for many who did not accept his theory? The answer has to do with a shift in the philosophy of science from an older epistemology that allowed for mind as a real cause in nature to a new epistemology that admitted nothing but natural causes. Darwin's theory seemed to show that a completely naturalistic account of living things was possible; as a result, it attracted many supporters whose main interest was in promoting naturalism, even if they shrugged off the theory's scientific details. By probing the writings of the early Darwinists, I propose to show that their motivation was in fact primarily philosophical.

Second, I will look briefly at those who adopted a peacekeeping strategy, seeking to reconcile design and Darwin. What effects did their efforts have historically?

Third, I will analyze one of the most important strategies Darwin and his supporters used in order to discredit design. As the battle became more heated, they sought to make design implausible by casting it as perpetual miracle. In so doing, they set up a straw man that continues to be useful to modern-day Darwinists.

Finally, I will suggest that the success of Darwin and his cohorts in the nineteenth century had much to do with their political expertise. They understood clearly that the battle is not only about ideas but also about institutions and power.

The Non-Darwinian Darwinians

The argument that Darwin won the day back in the nineteenth century, so why don't we all go home, ignores a key fact: namely, that Darwin did not win over most of his contemporaries. His theory was accepted by only a handful of scientists for a good three-quarters of a century, gaining wider support only after Mendelian genetics had provided a clearer understanding of heredity. The majority of Darwin's contemporaries came to agree that some form of evolution or development had occurred, but most championed other mechanisms and causes to explain the process. Generally they insisted either that God was directing the process or that it was propelled forward by some internal directing force.

Historian Peter Bowler goes so far as to suggest that the Darwinian revolution should be more accurately labeled the non-Darwinian revolution (which is the title of his book on the subject). Bowler argues that Darwin should be seen as "a catalyst that helped bring about the transition to an evolutionary viewpoint," but not specifically to a Darwinian viewpoint. Most commonly evolution was seen as an orderly, lawful, goal-directed, and purposeful process analogous to the development of an embryo to an adult--"the preordained unfolding of a rationally ordered plan," often a divine plan. As Bowler puts it, "once convinced that evolution did occur, they [Darwin's followers] turned their backs on Darwin's message and got on with the job of formulating their own theories of how the process worked." 3

Ironically, even those who championed Darwin's cause, and who identified themselves as Darwinians, did not generally adopt his theory. That is, they did not accept his proposed mechanism for evolution, which gave pride of place to natural selection. Many were Lamarckians or speculated on other mechanisms for evolution. These historical facts provoke a question: If even Darwin's supporters did not accept his proposed scientific mechanism, what exactly was his appeal?

The answer is that Darwin illustrated how one might frame a completely naturalistic account of living things--an accomplishment that was attractive to those whose metaphysical stance was naturalistic, and to others who felt that at least science itself should be completely naturalistic. Though his supporters did not think Darwin had succeeded in identifying the mechanism of evolution, still he had shown how one must reason in order to succeed eventually. He had focused on presently observable processes (processes of "ordinary generation," as he put it), and extrapolated those processes into the past. In short, it was not the specifics of Darwin's theory so much as his naturalistic methodology that attracted support.

For some time, pressure had been building to frame a naturalistic approach to biology. Since the triumph of Newtonian physics, many scientists had announced their intention of extending the domain of natural law to all other fields. But the complexities of living things had defied all attempts to fit them into any naturalistic mold. As Huxley asked plaintively in 1860, "Shall Biology alone remain out of harmony with her sister sciences?"4 For those caught in this dilemma, Darwin came to the rescue. His goal was to show how biology might be transformed to fit the naturalistic ideal already dominant in other fields of science. And not only biology but also the human sciences since, in explaining all life by completely naturalistic causes, his theory included human origins.

Neal Gillespie, in Darwin and the Problem of Creation, sums up the point neatly:

"It is sometimes said that Darwin converted the scientific world to evolution by showing them the process by which it had occurred. Yet the uneasy reservations about natural selection among Darwin's contemporaries and the widespread rejection of it from the 1890s to the 1930s suggest that this is too simple a view of the matter. It was more Darwin's insistence on totally natural explanations than on natural selection that won their adherence."5

Robert Young, in Darwin's Metaphor, makes a similar point. The principle effect of the 19th-century debate, he writes, was not providing an acceptable mechanism for evolutionary change. Rather it was "eliciting faith in the philosophical principle of the uniformity of nature"--bringing "the earth, life, and man under the domain of natural laws." From the 1860s to the 1930s, acceptance of Darwin's theory of natural selection actually declined, while adherence to naturalism as a foundational assumption in biology increased. As Young puts it, there was ongoing debate about the mechanism of evolution, but "the uniformity of nature was progressively assumed to apply to the history of life, including the life and mind of man."6 In short, both the primary motivation for supporting Darwin and the principle effect of his work was not so much scientific as philosophical.

Charles Darwin

This interpretation is borne out by examining the writings of key nineteenth-century Darwinians--beginning with Darwin himself. The typical account, certainly in popular works, portrays Darwin as a man forced to the theory of natural selection by the weight of the facts. But professional historians tell a different story. Long before formulating his theory, Darwin nurtured a sympathy for philosophical naturalism. He was therefore predisposed toward a naturalistic theory of evolution even when the evidence itself was weak or inconclusive.

In a personal letter, Darwin describes his gradual loss of religious belief and slide into naturalism. By the late 1830s, he writes, he had come to consider the idea of divine revelation in the Old Testament "utterly incredible." He had also rejected the biblical concept of miracles: In his words, "The more we know of the fixed laws of nature the more incredible do miracles become." This commitment to "the fixed laws of nature" preceded Darwin's major scientific work, and made it virtually inevitable that he would interpret the evidence through a naturalistic lens.

Gillespie notes the same progression. Once Darwin had decided, in the late 1830s, that "creationist explanations in science were useless," Gillespie writes, then "transmutation was left as virtually the only conceivable means of species succession." When Darwin began to consider the origin of species, "he did so as an evolutionist because he had first become a positivist, and only later did he find the theory to validate his conviction."7

Even when he found the theory, Darwin was quite aware that it could not be confirmed directly. Modern Darwinians often imply that the theory is so clearly supported by the facts that anyone who fails to concur must be intellectually dishonest or deranged. But Darwin was not so dogmatic. He described his theory as an inference grounded chiefly on analogy. And he praised the author of one review for seeing "that the change of species cannot be directly proved and that the doctrine must sink or swim according as it groups and explains phenomena."8 In an 1863 letter, he amplified by pointing out that evolution by natural selection was "grounded entirely on general considerations" such as the difference between contemporary organisms and fossil organisms. "When we descend to details," he wrote, "we can prove that no one species has changed [i.e., we cannot prove that a single species has changed]; nor can we prove that the supposed changes are beneficial, which is the groundwork of the theory. Nor can we explain why some species have changed and others have not."9 In other words, Darwin was quite aware that the scientific evidence was short of compelling.

Hence the key to Darwin's own thinking is his philosophical commitment. Consider his stance on the origin of life. In the last sentence of the Origin of Species Darwin resorted to Pentateuchal language, speaking of life, "with its several powers, having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one." (In a later edition he added, "by the Creator.") But over time Darwin drifted toward a more consistently naturalistic position, provisionally accepting the spontaneous generation of life from inorganic material despite a striking absence of evidence for the theory at the time. In a 1882 letter, he wrote: "Though no evidence worth anything has as yet, in my opinion, been advanced in favour of a living being, being developed from inorganic matter, yet I cannot avoid believing the possibility of this will be proved some day in accordance with the law of continuity." Here is the naturalist's faith: Darwin is confident that a naturalistic theory will be found, not because the facts point in that direction but because he believes in the "continuity" of natural causes.10

This belief achieved almost religious status for Darwin. Years later William Darwin was to describe his father's attitude toward nature in near-devotional terms: "As regards his respect for the laws of Nature," William wrote of his father, "it might be called reverence if not a religious feeling. No man could feel more intensely the vastness and the inviolability of the laws of nature."11 Darwin's intellectual journey seems to illustrate the adage that if one rejects a Creator, inevitably one puts something else in its place. In Darwin's case, he assigned god-like powers to the laws of nature.

To the end of his life, Darwin struggled with a residual belief in theism, so there is some question whether he held strictly to metaphysical naturalism. But there is no question that at least he held to methodological naturalism in science. He did not argue that design was a weak theory, nor even a false theory; he argued that it was not a scientific theory at all. In 1856 he wrote to Asa Gray: "to my mind to say that species were created so and so is no scientific explanation, only a reverent way of saying it is so and so."12 As philosopher of biology David Hull writes, Darwin dismissed special creation "not because it was an incorrect scientific explanation but because it was not a proper scientific explanation at all."13

On the other hand, when Darwin's own ideas were attacked, he defended them by arguing that at least his proposed theory was naturalistic--which begged the very question that lay at the heart of the controversy. As Young writes, "Whenever [Darwin] was really in trouble . . . he appealed to the very principle which was at issue, the uniformity of nature." Darwin's contemporaries understood his strategy precisely. As John Tyndall said in his 'Belfast Address' in 1874: "'The strength of the doctrine of Evolution consists, not in an experimental demonstration (for the subject is hardly accessible to this mode of proof), but in its general harmony with scientific thought.'"14 The underlying assumption is that genuinely "scientific thought" must be naturalistic. And once that assumption is granted, some form of naturalistic evolution will win the day by default.

Herbert Spencer

In his autobiography, Herbert Spencer recounts in excruciating detail the process by which he developed a naturalistic outlook, beginning when he was a boy. Over time, he writes, "a breach in the course of [physical] causation had come to be, if not an impossible thought, yet a thought never entertained."15 As in Darwin's case, members of Spencer's family described his adherence to naturalism in near-religious terms. His father drew a parallel between the son's naturalism and the father's own religion: "From what I see of my son's mind, it appears to me that the laws of nature are to him what revealed religion is to us, and that any wilful infraction of those laws is to him as much a sin as to us is disbelief in what is revealed."16

This semi-religious attachment to naturalism explains why Spencer eventually became a tireless promoter of Darwinism. It was not because he was persuaded by Darwin's scientific theory; indeed, he rejected Darwinism and embraced Lamarckianism. Yet Spencer saw clearly that once he had embraced philosophical naturalism, he had no alternative but to accept some form of naturalistic evolution. As he puts it, having discarded orthodox Christianity, he developed an "intellectual leaning towards belief in natural causation everywhere operating." And in that naturalistic leaning, "doubtless . . . a belief in evolution at large was then latent." Why latent? Because "anyone who, abandoning the supernaturalism of theology, accepts in full the naturalism of science, tacitly asserts that all things as they now exist have been evolved." In short, Spencer accepted naturalism first, and then accepted evolution as a logical consequence. He goes on: "The doctrine of the universality of natural causation, has for its inevitable corollary the doctrine that the Universe and all things in it have reached their present forms through successive stages physically necessitated."17 Just so: Once one accepts the philosophy of naturalism, some form of naturalistic evolution is an "inevitable corollary." Finding a plausible scientific theory is secondary.

In Spencer's writings we get a glimpse of the intellectual pressure that impelled him toward a naturalistic view of evolution. "I cheerfully acknowledge," he writes in The Principles of Psychology, that the hypothesis of evolution is beset by "serious difficulties" scientifically. Yet, "save for those who still adhere to the Hebrew myth, or to the doctrine of special creations derived from it, there is no alternative but this hypothesis or no hypothesis." And no one can long remain in "the neutral state of having no hypothesis."18

Similarly, in an 1899 letter, he writes that already decades earlier, "in 1852 the belief in organic evolution had taken deep root"--not for scientific reasons but because of "the necessity of accepting the hypothesis of Evolution when the hypothesis of Special Creation has been rejected." He concludes with these telling words: "The Special Creation belief had dropped out of my mind many years before, and I could not remain in a suspended state: acceptance of the only conceivable alternative was peremptory."19 Here is a candid admission that Spencer was driven by a sense of philosophical necessity--naturalistic evolution was "the only conceivable alternative" to creation--more than by a dispassionate assessment of the scientific evidence.

Thomas H. Huxley

Thomas Huxley christened himself Darwin's and offered his natural "combativeness," as he put it, in service to the cause. So it may come as a surprise to learn that Huxley was never convinced that Darwin's theory of natural selection amounted to much scientifically. Huxley argued that the effectiveness of the mechanism would not be proved until a new species had been produced by artificial selection. By the 1879s he was even speculating on the existence of a "law of variation" that would somehow direct evolution, an idea he favored over Darwin's concept of random variations.

What, then, gave Huxley his bulldog determination to fight for Darwin? The answer is, once again, largely philosophical. Before his encounter with Darwin, Huxley writes, "I had long done with the Pentateuchal cosmogony." He had also surveyed early forms of evolutionary theory, but found them all unsatisfactory. And yet, he writes, he continued to nurse a "pious conviction that Evolution, after all, would turn out true."20

When Darwin published the Origin, Huxley welcomed it as a vindication of that "pious conviction." As his son Leonard Huxley writes, "Under the suggestive power of the Origin of Species," his father experienced "the philosophic unity he had so long been seeking."21 Huxley himself recalls that the Origin "did the immense service of freeing us for ever from the dilemma--Refuse to accept the creation hypothesis, and what have you to propose that can be accepted by any cautious reasoner?"22 Apparently Huxley, like Spencer, was so eager to be freed from that dilemma that he was willing to champion any naturalistic theory, even one he himself found scientifically implausible, so long as it provided an alternative to creation.

Consider Huxley's response to spontaneous generation. His son notes that "there was no evidence that anything of the sort had occurred recently." (Louis Pasteur had discredited all currently held theories of spontaneous generation.) Nevertheless, his father persisted in believing that "at some remote period, life had arisen out of inanimate matter"--not because of any scientific evidence but as "an act of philosophic faith."23

Huxley was especially sensitive to pressures to bring biology under the naturalistic framework that had become dominant in other fields of science. Geology had recently been placed on a new philosophical footing by Charles Lyell, and Huxley writes that it was Lyell's Principles of Geology that persuaded him that new life forms must be generated by "ordinary agencies" at work today (by which he meant natural agencies). In his words, "consistent uniformitarianism postulates Evolution as much in the organic as in the inorganic world."24 In 1859 he wrote to Lyell: "I by no means suppose that the transmutation hypothesis is proven or anything like it. But . . . . I would very strongly urge upon you that it is the logical development of Uniformitarianism, and that its adoption would harmonize the spirit of Paleontology with that of Physical Geology."25 That spirit, of course, was a consistent and relentless naturalism. As Huxley wrote elsewhere, the "whole theory crumbles to pieces" if one denies "the uniformity and regularity of natural causation for illimitable past ages."26

Huxley was what Bowler terms a "pseudo-Darwinian": someone who rallied to Darwin for philosophical reasons even while remaining unconvinced of his scientific theory. In Bowler's words, Huxley was "guaranteed" to support Darwinism because of his "empiricist philosophy."27 Or, as Gillespie puts it, he "leaned toward transmutation from intellectual necessity."28 Huxley expresses his philosophical credo eloquently in Man's Place in Nature (1864): "Even leaving Mr. Darwin's views aside, the whole analogy of natural operations furnish so complete and crushing an argument against the intervention of any but what are called secondary causes, in the production of all the phenomena of the universe; that . . . I can see no reason for doubting that all are coordinate in terms of nature's great progression, from formless to formed, from the inorganic to the organic, from blind force to conscious intellect and will."29 As he put it more simply in a 1859 speech, if the world is governed by uniformly operating laws, then the successive populations of beings "must have proceeded from one another in the way of progressive modification."30 In other words, if you accept philosophical naturalism, then something very much like Darwinism must be true a priori. This explains why Huxley was willing to do battle for Darwin, without being overly concerned about the scientific details.

Deduction from a Philosophy

"You guys lost" may be a fair assessment of the intellectual battle in the 19th century. But the question is how the battle was lost. It is often said that what made Darwin unique is that he provided a genuinely scientific mechanism for evolution--that others had proposed vague or idealist causes but in natural selection Darwin provided the first genuinely empirical mechanism. Yet, since most of Darwin's supporters did not accept his theory, that cannot be the reason for his success. I have argued that the battle was "rigged"--that Darwinism won less because it fit the empirical data than because it provided a scientific rationale for those already committed to a purely naturalistic account of life.

Both Darwin's supporters and opponents understood that philosophical naturalism was the central issue. Among opponents, Princeton theologian Charles Hodge wrote an essay titled What Is Darwinism? He answered bluntly that Darwinism is tantamount to atheism: "Natural selection is selection made by natural laws, working without intention and design." And "the denial of design in nature is virtually the denial of God."31 Among supporters, Karl Vogt noted happily that Darwin's theory "turns the Creator--and his occasional intervention in the revolutions of the earth and in the production of species--without any hesitation out of doors, inasmuch as it does not leave the smallest room for the agency of such a Being."32 Emil de Bois-Reymond wrote: "The possibility, ever so distant, of banishing from nature its seeming purpose, and putting blind necessity everywhere in the place of final causes, appears, therefore, as one of the greatest advances in the world of thought." To have "eased" this problem, Bois-Reymond concludes, will be "Charles Darwin's greatest title to glory."33 And finally, August Weismann: "We must assume natural selection to be the principle of the explanation of the metamorphoses because all other apparent principles of explanation fail us, and it is inconceivable that there should be another capable of explaining the adaptation of organisms without assuming the help of a principle of design." Apparently only Darwinism would keep biology safe from design.34

Darwin and Design

Is it necessary, however, to drive such a sharp wedge between design and natural causes? Many if not most of the scientists in the Darwinian and post-Darwinian era sought some kind of middle ground. They gave God a directing role in evolution and asserted his constant supervision over the process. They located design not in the "contrivances" of living things (to use Paley's word) but in the laws that created those contrivances.

Gillespie calls this position nomothetic creation (creation by law) or providential evolution, depending on how much leeway is allowed to divine initiative. This category would include men such as Asa Gray, Charles Kingsley, the Duke of Argyll, St. George Jackson Mivart, Baden Powell, Robert Chambers, Richard Owen. Despite important differences among these men, they agreed that natural laws are expressions of divine purpose, and that God or mind directs or preordains the course of evolution. John Herschel states the position clearly: "An intelligence, guided by a purpose, must be continually in action to bias the directions of the steps of change--to regulate their amount--to limit their divergence--and to continue them in a definite course. We do not believe that Mr. Darwin means to deny the necessity of such intelligent direction."35

But Mr. Darwin did mean to deny the necessity of such intelligent direction. The design argument pointed to characteristics of living things that seemed analogous to the products of an intelligent mind, with its capacity for forethought, purpose, and design. The challenge Darwin took on was to identify completely natural processes capable of mimicking the products of a mind. Gillespie describes Darwin's goal in these words:

"It has been generally agreed (then [in Darwin's day] and since) that Darwin's doctrine of natural selection effectively demolished William Paley's classical design argument for the existence of God. By showing how blind and gradual adaptation could counterfeit the apparently purposeful design that Paley . . . and others had seen in the contrivances of nature, Darwin deprived their argument of the analogical inference that the evident purpose to be seen in the contrivances by which means and ends were related in nature was necessarily a function of mind."

Put simply, Darwin proposed to show that purposeless nature could "counterfeit purpose."36

Hence he emphatically rejected any attempt to sneak purpose in by the back door, so to speak. Consider his response to Asa Gray, who wedded Darwinian theory to fairly conservative Christian theology. Gray denied that variation, the raw material of natural selection, was random; instead he opted for a teleological view of evolution. In fact, Gray fancied that he comprehended the implications of Darwin's theory better than Darwin himself. In a letter written in 1863, he confessed to a bit of cunning: "Under my hearty congratulations of Darwin for his striking contributions to teleology, there is a vein of petite malice, from my knowing well that he rejects the idea of design, while all the while he is bringing out the neatest illustrations of it."37

But Darwin's response to Gray's notion of divine direction was unequivocal: In a letter to Lyell he wrote, "If I were convinced that I required such additions to the theory of natural selection, I would reject it as rubbish." Two years later he wrote again to Lyell: "The view that each variation has been providentially arranged seems to me to make Natural Selection entirely superfluous, and indeed takes the whole case of the appearance of new species out of the range of science." To say that variations are divinely ordained adds nothing scientifically, Darwin went on: It "seems to me mere verbiage." He summed up his view by charging that "Gray's notion [of guided variations] seems to me to smash the whole affair."38

Notice that Darwin's objections to providential evolution are twofold. First, it makes natural selection "superfluous," "rubbish," "mere verbiage." Natural selection was intended to replace design; hence, the presence of both is redundant. As Darwin wrote in his autobiography, "The old argument from design in nature, as given by Paley, which formerly seemed to me so conclusive, fails, now that the law of natural selection has been discovered. . . . There seems to be now more design in the variability of organic beings and in the action of natural selection, than in the course which the wind blows. Everything in nature is the result of fixed laws."39 The effort to superimpose divine direction onto a completely naturalistic process Young labels "theistic naturalism," an oxymoron that has resurfaced in recent debates.

Second, Darwin objected that adding divine purpose to evolution takes the discussion "out of the range of science." The implication is that science cannot countenance intelligent causation in any form. In Darwin's mind, divinely ordained evolution was no different in principle from direct creation. Both were inadmissible in science. As Hull notes, "Darwin insisted on telling a totally consistent naturalistic story or none at all."40

Those who reformulated Darwin to accommodate design were hoping to prevent the takeover of the idea of evolution by philosophical naturalism. They sought to extract the scientific theory from the philosophy in which it was embedded. But the two proved inseparable and, ironically, the effect of their effort was precisely the opposite of what they had hoped: It sped the acceptance of philosophical naturalism. As Hull writes, "The architects of the demise of teleology were not atheistic materialists but pious men . . . who thought they were doing religion a good service" in restricting God to working through natural laws. "What these men did not realize was that by pushing God further and further into the background as the unknowable author of natural law, . . . they had prepared the way for his total expulsion."41

Gillespie tells the same story: The restructuring of the design argument to adapt to evolution, he writes, was an important "step in the secularization of science and its eventual intellectual separation from theology." The idea of designed or directed evolution "eased a generation of often reluctant scientists into a 'naturalistic' and ultimately positivistic world view." In this naturalistic world view, God had no significant function and divine action was not required for a true understanding of the world. As a result, religious belief became "private, subjective, and artificial"; God "was, at best, a gratuitous philosophical concept derived from a personal need."42

Once God had been reduced to a "gratuitous philosophical concept" based on personal need, Darwin and his cohorts could afford to be tolerant toward religious believers. In the mid-1870s, Young writes, there are signs of the "benevolent tolerance of the victors."43 Religious believers could be treated gently so long as they agreed that God did absolutely nothing in the natural world studied by science. As Gillespie explains, the strategy of relocating design from contrivances to laws "gave the game to the positivist." It removed from the idea of design "any identifiable sign of divine action"--stripped it of any empirical content.44 And toward those who clung to such a tame and vacuous concept of design, even the most aggressive Darwinist could afford to be indulgent.

"Every Trifling Detail"

Another important facet of the nineteenth-century debate is the strategy employed to discredit design, and to redefine science in strictly naturalistic terms. As the debate intensified, Darwin and his allies increasingly identified creation with perpetual miracle. Historically, Paley and other proponents of design had insisted on the reality of both primary and secondary causality at work in the world. But the Darwinians ignored that history. Instead, they presented design as the denial of all secondary causes. They portrayed a designed world as a world at the mercy of divine caprice and arbitrary whim.

For example, in the Origin Darwin describes his opponents as holding that each variety of finch on the Galapagos Islands sprang full-blown from the Creator's hand. Moreover, he also describes his opponents as holding that the islands' unusual flora and fauna were "created in the Galapagos Archipelago, and nowhere else."45 Design was presented as the belief that God had created each minor variety in its present location--giraffes in Africa, tigers in Asia, and buffalo in America. Darwin referred to this as the theory of "multiple centres of creation," and in the Origin he demolished it.

Interestingly, Darwin concedes that, at the time, the idea of creation in situ rested on empirical, not theological, grounds.46 For example, it appeared to be the only explanation for the existence of the same species on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean. Surely no organism was capable of migrating across thousands of miles of salt water. Be that as it may, Darwin focused his argument on places such as the Galapagos Archipelago, where evidence for migration was strong. Was it really plausible that each variety of finch and tortoise had been specially created for each of the tiny islands, some of which were, in Darwin's words, hardly more than "points of rock"? For myself, he stated, "I disbelieve in . . . innumerable acts of creation."47

Much of the Origin is taken up with arguments for variability and migration. The idea of separate creations would be more plausible, Darwin noted in his journal, if each island had a completely unique set of plants and animals. But since many of the organisms are variations on a common theme, it is difficult to resist the conclusion that they descended from a single set of ancestral species that originally migrated to the islands. This and other patterns of geographical distribution, Darwin insists, are "utterly inexplicable on the ordinary view of the independent creation of each species." He warns that anyone who rejects the idea of migration, "rejects the vera causa of ordinary generation with subsequent migration, and calls in the agency of a miracle."48

What do we say to all this? The views Darwin attributes to proponents of design are so foreign today that we have to read our history books to learn about them. No design theorist today denies the reality of variation or migration. The consensus among even the strictest biblical creationists is that the Galapagos finches were not separately created but represent variations within a single species. For example, James Coppedge in Evolution: Possible or Impossible dismisses them as "only minor adaptation within types, as would be expected in any design of creation."49 Wayne Frair and Percival Davis in A Case for Creation note that the finches "may serve as an example of diversification" but "not evolution in the usual sense, because the changes were relatively minor."50 Walter Lammerts, who made detailed measurements of a large collection of Darwin's finches, notes that they exhibit complete intergradation of bill and body size. He concludes that the birds constitute a single species, "broken up into various island forms as a result of chance arrangement of their original variability potential."51

Clearly, design does not require the rejection of either variability or migration. In fact, historians have been hard put to explain why Darwin was so preoccupied with a position that, already in his own day, naturalists had all but abandoned. Some historians attribute it to Darwin's ignorance of the current state of the debate; others think he was setting up a straw man. I suggest he was framing a false choice between perpetual miracle and completely closed naturalistic world. His argument ran like this: Either invoke direct divine action to explain every phenomenon in biology ("call in the agency of a miracle"), or else admit that every phenomenon can be explained by natural processes of "ordinary generation."

Darwin urged this false choice again and again. In The Descent of Man he acknowledged that "our minds refuse to accept" an explanation of the universe based on the idea of "blind chance." Yet the alternative, he went on, is to believe that "every slight variation of structure,--the union of each pair in marriage,--the dissemination of each seed,--and other such events, have all been ordained for some special purpose."52 Darwin wrote to Sir John Herschel: "One cannot look at this Universe with all living productions & man without believing that all has been intelligently designed; yet when I look to each individual organism, I can see no evidence of this. For, I am not prepared to admit that God designed the feathers in the tail of the rock-pigeon to vary in a highly peculiar manner in order that man might select such variations & make a Fan-tail."53

In pressing the point, Darwin could not resist ridicule. In a book on the fertilization of orchids, he described design proponents as those who view "every trifling detail of structure as the result of the direct interposition of the Creator."54

In a letter to Asa Gray he wrote: "I cannot think that the world, as we see it, is the result of chance; and yet I cannot look at each separate thing as the result of Design." He confessed that he could not believe pigeon tail feathers were led to vary "in order to gratify the caprice of a few men."55 He asked Lyell: Could he really think that the deity had intervened to cause variations in domestic pigeons "solely to please man's silly fancies"?56

The argument became downright silly when Darwin challenged his friends to say whether God had designed his nose. He wrote to Lyell asking whether he believed that the shape of his nose "was ordained and 'guided by an intelligent cause'."57 In a similar vein, he asked Gray: "Do you believe that when a swallow snaps up a gnat that God designed that that particular swallow should snap up that particular gnat at that particular instant?"58

In these almost facetious comments Darwin was ignoring centuries of debate among Christians over the balance between God's direct activity and the action of created causes. As Anglican theologian E.L. Mascall writes, "The main tradition of classical Christian philosophy, while it insisted upon the universal primary causality of God in all the events of the world's history, maintained with equal emphasis the reality and the authenticity of secondary causes."59 Scottish theologian Thomas Torrance sums up this balanced view by speaking of the "contingent order" of creation. "Contingency" refers to the fact that the creation is not autonomous. It is not self-originating or self-sustaining; it was created by God and depends continually upon His power. On the other hand, "order" refers to the fact that God does not work in the world by perpetual miracle. He has set up a network of secondary causes that act in regular and consistent patterns.60 As Christopher Kaiser points out in his book Creation and the History of Science, attempts to conceptualize this balance have carried on since the time of the church fathers--notably by Basil of Caesarea in the fourth century.61 Darwin ignored this rich history and slashed the Gordian knot by insisting that one must choose either God or nature. Give any quarter to divine activity, he implied, and the entire world becomes an arena of perpetual and arbitrary miracle. On the other hand, allow that minor variation and diversification can be accounted for by natural processes, and one must place all the world and all life solely under the domain of natural law.

This false dichotomy continues to be useful to Darwinists today. Admit that natural processes account for the diversification of finch beaks or peppered moths or fruit flies, we are told, and one is logically committed to admitting that the same processes are adequate to create birds and fruit flies in the first place. Only recently has this strategy begun to wear thin, with biologists recognizing that minor variation is not the means of producing major innovations. Simply put, micro-evolution is not the mechanism for macro-evolution. Yet examples of micro-evolution continue to be exhibited as the prime factual evidence supporting naturalistic theories of evolution.

The Politics of Science

In considering how Darwin won the day, we must not ignore politics. The changes sought by nineteenth-century Darwinists were not only intellectual but also institutional. The older epistemology of science accommodated both religion and science: It allowed theology to place limits on the ideas acceptable in science. Once again, this was a balance rooted as far back as the church fathers. The second-century apologists accepted as much as they could of the science of their day (which was a product of Greek philosophy), but they insisted on certain limits: For example, they rejected the idea that the universe is eternal and instead insisted on an absolute beginning, on God's creation of the world ex nihilo.62

But the new naturalistic epistemology promoted by the Darwinists was aggressively autonomous. It demanded that science be completely independent of theology. Gillespie writes: "The very existence of a rival science or of an alternative mode of knowledge was intolerable to the positivist"; he was "intolerant of all other claims to scientific knowledge. Anyone not of his tribe was a charlatan, an imposter." As a result, these disagreements did not remain merely academic: They precipitated a struggle for power over social institutions. As Gillespie explains,

"It was not enough to drive out the old ideas. Their advocates had to be driven out of the scientific community as well. . . . In order for the world to be made safe for positive science, its practitioners had to occupy the seats of power as well as win the war of ideas. Both were necessary to the establishment of a new scientific orthodoxy."63

Many scientists are understandably uncomfortable with the idea that skill in politics and public relations help a theory gain acceptance. They like to believe that the dominant factor in the success of a theory is the objective evidence in its favor. Yet sociologists of knowledge are right in stressing that science is to some extent a social process, and that an advantage is gained by those who are skillful at controlling the social process, at attracting supporters while isolating opponents.

In hindsight, the strategies pursued by the nineteenth-century Darwinists are clear. Before publishing the Origin, Darwin carefully cultivated a nucleus of biologists who were prepared to support his work. These early converts then followed basic political strategies: They presented a unified front in public; they conceded minor points in order to make major points; they were willing to accept as allies people who disagreed over the details; they minimized open controversy that might alienate doubters and fence-sitters, while cultivating younger scientists who were open to the new ideas. In this way, the Darwinians gradually gained a majority. Their supporters were able to influence the educational system as teachers. They took control of the editorial process at scientific periodicals so that editors and referees became willing to accept papers from a Darwinian viewpoint. The new journal Nature was founded at least in part as a vehicle for spreading the Darwinian message. Darwin won the day in part because his supporters were adept at employing PR tactics, and they simply out-maneuvered their rivals.64

It would appear that latter-day design theorists have caught on. Today the movement has capable leadership (such as that provided by Phillip Johnson); it has launched a professional journal (Origins and Design), started a fellowship program at the Discovery Institute, founded an honors program at Biola, and is holding professional conferences (the Mere Creation Conference in 1996). I suggest that we are well on our way to building our own institutions, and there is surely reason to hope that we may one day turn the tide.

In closing, I would like to pose a sampling of questions that emerge from a survey of the history of the evolution debate. Since the nineteenth century, these have been among the most frequently raised objections to design, yet they have not been adequately answered by design theorists:

An understanding of history. The nineteenth century marked the birth of historical consciousness in every field, from philosophy to the sciences. But the notion of design was essentially static, and as a result it was swept away by theories that offered some account of the history of life. How do up-dated versions of design get beyond a static view of life, and account for history?

Mind as cause. What exactly is meant in speaking of a mind or intelligence acting in nature? What is primary causality? How is such a notion scientific? Does such a notion introduce sheer "mystery" and "caprice," as Gillespie puts it? One of Darwin's margin notes from 1838 reads as follows: "The explanation of types of structure in classes--as resulting from the will of the deity, to create animals on certain plans--is no explanation--it has not the character of a physical law / & is therefore utterly useless--it foretells nothing / because we know nothing of the will of the Deity . . . . "65 Darwin is quite right: We cannot directly know the will of God. How then can it be scientific to speak of divine intention and divine action in the world?

End of science?. Does design imply an end to scientific inquiry? Sir Joseph Dalton Hooker said he embraced Darwinism--what he called the "newest doctrines"--"not because they are the truest but because they do give you room to reason and reflect." By contrast, the old doctrines of design "are so many stops to further inquiry; if they are admitted as truths, why there is an end of the whole matter, and it is no use hoping ever to get to any rational explanation of origin or dispersion of species--so I hate them."66 Hooker's view is shared by many today: i.e., that to attribute something to design is not to explain it at all. It is to throw in the towel, to halt inquiry, no give up hope of any rational explanation. How do modern design theorists answer this objection?

Does the concept of design have any empirical content?. In the Origin, Darwin twits the design theorists of his day for allowing that some structures result from secondary causes, while insisting that others are designed, but offering no principle for distinguishing between the two. Why not just attribute all of them to secondary causes? he asks. In his words: "Several eminent naturalists have of late published their belief that a multitude of reputed species in each genus are not real species; but that other species are real, that is, have been independently created. This seems to me a strange conclusion to arrive at. They admit that a multitude of forms, which till lately they themselves thought were special creations . . . have been produced by variation, but they refuse to extend the same view to other and very slightly different forms. Nevertheless they do not pretend that they can define, or even conjecture, which are the created forms of life, and which are those produced by secondary laws. They admit variation as a vera causa in one case, they arbitrarily reject it in another, without assigning any distinction in the two cases."67 If design theorists insist on the reality of both primary and secondary causality, what principle do we offer for distinguishing between their effects?

The problem of evil. Darwin wrote there was just "too much misery in the world" for him to believe in design: "I cannot persuade myself that a beneficent and omnipotent God would have designedly created the Ichneumonidae with the express intention of their feeding within the living bodies of Caterpillars, or that a cat should play with mice."68 Other examples were "the young cuckoo ejecting its foster-brother" and "ants making slaves."69 How do contemporary design theorists explain the presence of evil in a designed world?

What philosophy of science does design theory entail?. Hull writes that older theories of design rested on two pillars: a Baconian understanding of induction, with its claim of guaranteeing absolute certainty, and an essentialist metaphysic. James Moore in The Post-Darwinian Controversies echoes the same theme, describing Christian anti-Darwinists as those who sought "ultimate certainty through inductive inferences," with the corollary belief that the world "contains a finite number of fixed natural 'kinds.'"70 Does the notion of design in fact require us to embrace these philosophical positions?


  1. William Dembski, "Not Even False?: Reassessing the Demise of British Natural Theology," Center for Interdisciplinary Studies, Princeton, NJ, nd., p. 2.
  2. Ernst Mayr, Introduction to Charles Darwin, On the Origin of Species, a facsimile of the first edition (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1964), p. xviii. Douglas Futuyma, Evolutionary Biology, 2nd ed. (Sunderland, MA: Sinauer Associates, 1986), p. 3.
  3. Peter Bowler, The Non-Darwinian Revolution: Reinterpreting a Historical Myth (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1988), pp 4-5, 10-11, 30-31, 50, 66-67 and passim. See also James R. Moore, The Post-Darwinian Controversies: A Study of the Protestant Struggle to Come to Terms With Darwin in Great Britain and America 1870-1900 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1979), and Robert J. Richards, The Meaning of Evolution: The Morphological Construction and Ideological Reconstruction of Darwin's Theory (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1992).
  4. Thomas Henry Huxley, Lay Sermons, Addresses, and Reviews (New York: D. Appleton and Co., 1879), p. 283.
  5. Neal C. Gillespie, Charles Darwin and the Problem of Creation (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1979), p. 147, emphasis added.
  6. Robert M. Young, Darwin's Metaphor: Nature's Place in Victorian Culture (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985), pp. 82, 122, 120.
  7. Gillespie, p. 46.
  8. Francis Darwin, ed., Life and Letters of Charles Darwin (New York: D. Appleton and Co., 1899), Vol. II, p. 155.
  9. Life and Letters of Charles Darwin, Vol. II, p. 210.
  10. Francis Darwin, ed., More Letters of Charles Darwin (New York: D. Appleton and Co., 1903), Vol. II, p. 171.
  11. Cited in John Durant, "Darwinism and Divinity: A Century of Debate," in Darwinism and Divinity: Essays on Evolution and Religious Belief, ed. John Durant (New York: Basil Blackwell, 1985), p. 18.
  12. Life and Letters of Charles Darwin, Vol. I, p. 437.
  13. David L. Hull, Darwin and His Critics: The Reception of Darwin's Theory of Evolution by the Scientific Community (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1973), p. 26.
  14. Young, p. 98.
  15. Herbert Spencer, An Autobiography (New York: D. Appleton and Co., 1904), Vol I, p. 172.
  16. Spencer, An Autobiography, Vol. I, p. 655.
  17. Spencer, An Autobiography, Vol. II, p. 7.
  18. Herbert Spencer, The Principles of Psychology (New York: D. Appleton and Co., 1896), Vol. I, p. 466n.
  19. David Duncan, Life and Letters of Herbert Spencer (New York: D. Appleton and Co., 1908), Vol. II, p. 319.
  20. Leonard Huxley, Life and Letters of Thomas Henry Huxley (New York: Macmillan, 1903), Vol. I, pp. 241, 243.
  21. Life and Letters of Thomas Henry Huxley, Vol. II, p. 1.
  22. Life and Letters of Thomas Henry Huxley, Vol. I, p. 246.
  23. Life and Letters of Thomas Henry Huxley, Vol. II, p. 16.
  24. Life and Letters of Thomas Henry Huxley, Vol. I, p. 243.
  25. Life and Letters of Thomas Henry Huxley, Vol. I, p. 252.
  26. Thomas Henry Huxley in Francis Darwin, ed., Life and Letters of Charles Darwin, Vol. I, p. 553.
  27. Bowler, pp. 70, 72.
  28. Gillespie, p. 33.
  29. Thomas Henry Huxley, Man's Place in Nature (New York: D. Appleton and Co., 1896), p. 151.
  30. Thomas Henry Huxley, "Science and Religion," The Builder, 1859, Vol. 17, p. 35 (emphasis in original).
  31. Charles Hodge, What Is Darwinism? And Other Writings on Science and Religion ed. and intro. Mark A. Noll and David N. Livingstone (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1994), pp. 85, 155.
  32. Cited in Hodge, p. 110.
  33. Emil du Bois-Reymond, "Darwin versus Galiani," cited in John Theodore Merz, A History of European Thought in the Nineteenth Century (New York: Dover Publications, 1904), Vol. I, p. 435n.
  34. Cited in Arnold Lunn, The Flight From Reason (New York: The Dial Press, 1931), p. 101.
  35. John Herschel, Physical Geography of the Globe (Edinburgh: Adam and Charles Black, 1867), p. 12n.
  36. Gillespie, pp. 83-85.
  37. Jane Loring Gray, ed., Letters of Asa Gray (New York: Burt Franklin, 1973), Vol. 2, p. 498.
  38. Life and Letters of Charles Darwin, Vol. II, pp. 6-7, 28, and More Letters of Charles Darwin, Vol. I, pp. 191-192.
  39. Nora Barlow, ed., The Autobiography of Charles Darwin 1809- 1882 with Original Omissions Restored (New York: W. W. Norton and Company, 1958), p. 87.
  40. Hull, p. 54.
  41. Hull, pp. 63, 65.
  42. Gillespie, pp. 119-120, 16.
  43. Young, pp. 110-112.
  44. Gillespie, p. 149.
  45. Charles Darwin, On the Origin of Species, a facsimile of the first edition, intro. Ernst Mayr (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1964), p. 398 (see also pp. 352, 365).
  46. Origin, pp. 365-366.
  47. More Letters of Charles Darwin, Vol. I, p. 173.
  48. Origin, pp. 355, 406, 352.
  49. James F. Coppedge, Evolution: Possible or Impossible? (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1973), p. 87.
  50. Wayne Frair and Percival Davis, A Case for Creation (Chicago: Moody Press, 1983), p. 72.
  51. Walter Lammerts, "The Galapagos Island Finches," in Why Not Creation?, ed. Walter Lammerts (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1970), p. 361.
  52. Charles Darwin, The Descent of Man and Selection in Relation to Sex, second ed. (New York: D. Appleton, 1896), p. 613.
  53. Notes and Records of the Royal Society of London, ed. Sir Gavin de Beer, Vol. 14, No. 1, 1959, p. 35.
  54. Charles Darwin, On the Various Contrivances by Which British and Foreign Orchids Are Fertilized by Insects and on the Good Effects of Inter-crossing (London: John Murray, 1862), p. 2.
  55. Life and Letters of Charles Darwin, Vol. II, p. 146.
  56. Life and Letters of Charles Darwin, Vol. II, p. 97.
  57. More Letters of Charles Darwin, Vol. I, pp. 193-194.
  58. Life and Letters of Charles Darwin, Vol. I p. 284.
  59. E.L. Mascall, Christian Theology and Natural Science (Hamden, CT: Archon Books, 1965), p. 198.
  60. Thomas F. Torrance, "Divine and Contingent Order," in The Sciences and Theology in the Twentieth Century, ed. A.R. Peacocke (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1981). Christopher Kaiser uses the phrase "relative autonomy" to mean the same thing. See Creation and the History of Science (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1991), pp. 15, 131.
  61. Kaiser, pp. 4-7.
  62. See Richard A. Norris, God and World in Early Christian Theology (London: Adam and Charles Black, 1965).
  63. Gillespie, pp. 152-153.
  64. Bowler, pp. 68-71.
  65. Cited in John Hedley Brooke, "The Relations Between Darwin's Science and his Religion," in Darwinism and Divinity, p. 46.
  66. Life and Letters of Sir Joseph Dalton Hooker, ed. Leonard Huxley (London: John Murray, 1918), Vol. I, pp. 481-82.
  67. Origin, p. 482.
  68. The Life and Letters of Charles Darwin, ed. Francis Darwin, Vol. II (New York: D. Appleton and Co., 1888), p. 105.
  69. Origin, pp. 242-244.
  70. Moore, pp. 205-206, 346.

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