A SYMPTOM OF METAPHYSICAL MALAISE
by Robert M. Young
Although I am not an expert on Intelligent Design or the history of creationism, my experiences in writing on Darwin and Darwinism and on metaphysical problems in the paradigm of explanation of modern science may be of some help in understanding some of the deeper issues behind this latest critique of Darwinism. Believers in Intelligent Design and some fundamentalists feel strongly that nature, living nature and human nature cry out for an account that is more meaningful, richer, less desiccated, and more redolent of hope than the one on offer from the scientific reductionism advocated, sometimes in a bullying manner, by modern scientific materialists. I cannot support the idea of Intelligent Design. I wish to suggest, rather, that those to whom it appeals might look for hope and meaning in ways that are less simplistic and less in opposition to some of the grandest achievements of science.
The theory of Intelligent Design usually has two premises. The first, though not always explicitly acknowledged and sometimes even denied by its proponents, is a privileged position for The Bible over all other repositories of knowledge. There are a number of manifestations of this view, the most stringent of which is Biblical fundamentalism or literalism (or inerrantism), whose advocates claim that every word of The Bible is the inspired word of God. It follows that if The Bible says that God created the heavens and the Earth and all of life, including humankind, in six days, then it is literally so. Believers in Intelligent Design need not be strict Biblical literalists or even, at one extreme, specify what the Intelligence is. They can, for example, adopt various forms of Biblical realism, e.g, believing that Biblical “days” were eopchs or ages of considerable length (a position held by many in the nineteenth century, both before and after Darwin). Obviously, one can adhere strictly to "the Word of God" as it appears in The Bible in many ways, including, at the liberal extreme, taking account of the findings of Biblical scholars about the historical contingency of The Bible and other sacred or putatively sacred writings
The second premise of Intelligent Design is that certain forms of life, or at least certain structures, cannot be scientifically accounted for by the mechanism of random mutation and natural selection, which is Darwin’s basic explanation for the occurrence of evolutionary change – the entire history of life. This view is historically continuous with the argument from design or natural theology: something that strikes us as obviously contrived, e.g., a watch, implies a contriver, e.g., a watchmaker. It could not have come about except as a result of the action of an intelligent agent. Generalizing this argument, nature and life are so rich and complex that only a Divine Watchmaker, God, could have created the universe (see chapter by Michael Ruse in this volume). A third premise is implicit in those two – that God performs miracles as he did in the Old and New Testaments and is required to have done to bring about the astonishing and otherwise inexplicable changes which it is claimed that Darwinian evolution could not have brought about. Once again, not all advocates of Intelligent Design wold be this explicit about the role of God in the history of nature, living nature and human nature.
Some believe that peace between religion and science can be achieved by granting that God created the laws of nature and that the universe continues to obey them. I don’t think this can be right according to most Christians. In that strand of Christianity which has been particularly receptive to the recent articulation of intellgent Design, the idea of divine intervention has been especially prominent. I would say that most Christians believe that Christianity depends on suspending or superseding of the laws of nature in several claimed historical events (e.g., miracles are a precondition for sainthood in the Catholic church). Ones that come to mind are the parting of the waters of the Red Sea by Moses, thus rescuing his people; the Incarnation; the Virgin birth; the raising of Lazarus; the feeding of the multitudes (loaves & fishes multiplied, water turned into wine), the Resurrection of Christ from the dead. Don’t most Christians believe that God intervenes in history whenever a sinner is saved? Otherwise, why believe in Christ’s saving ministry and the divine purpose of His crucifixion?
I am clear about these things (or perhaps, it might be said, about certain versions of them), because I was brought up a fundamentalist in Texas, the fifth generation in our church and the son of a Presbyterian deacon and grandson of a missionary who worked in China at the time of the Boxer Rebellion. When I went East to university I took a course on religion (the first of many) in which the professor carefully spelled out the inconsistencies and contradictions in the accounts given in the four Gospels. I felt it right to go up after his lectures and point out his errors, interventions to which he reacted gently. More recently, I have read a more extensive scholarly account of The Bible by Robin Lane Fox, a distinguished Oxford classical historian, The Unauthorized Version: Truth and Fiction in the Bible (1991), in which he argues, inter alia, that Genesis presents two incompatible versions of Creation and that the story of the Nativity in Matthew and Luke is nonsensical. He treats the whole book as a human creation, full of problems for the believer.
Some years after my introduction to scholarly Biblical studies I addressed myself to the debate between science and religion surrounding Darwin’s development of the theory of evolution by natural selection. I have also devoted considerable energy to philosophical problems in the paradigm of explanation of modern science as applied to the life sciences and to the understanding of human nature (see References). In relating my findings in these two realms to each other, I may be able to offer some insight into the real philosophical problems that might be said to lie behind Intelligent Design.
First, we shall sketch on a broad canvas the history of modern reductionism and its problems. Then we shall see that Darwin had a lot of sympathy with the central argument of Intelligent Design, though he narrowly came down on the side of natural selection, albeit supplemented by rather a lot of other explanatory factors (not including the direct action of God). Alfred Russel Wallace, the co-discoverer of the theory of evolution by natural selection, saw natural selection as adequate to explain almost all living nature, but, to Darwin’s dismay, he made an exception of the origin of man and, in particular, the human brain, and employed the argument from design in doing so. Intelligent Design has a long history, as Ruse demonstrates, and it has taken other forms besides the current one. I have no wish to support the antiscientific strand of this tradition, only to note its venerable place in the history of the evolutionary debate. Moreover, I know that many of the opponents of Intelligent Design accuse its proponents, ironically, of bad faith and of covertly pursuing a political agenda. I am not concerned with this aspect of the debate. To the anti-creationists I say, “Don’t write off the whole argument just because it may be made in a biased and simple-minded way. There are deeper and more subtle issues at stake”.
My larger purpose, however, is to draw attention to some features of Darwin’s argument, in particular the role of teleology and anthropomorphism at the heart of his theory, and then to connect these to some fundamental issues in the paradigm of explanation of modern science which have been put forward by some eminent philosophers, notably Alfred North Whitehead, Edwin Arthur Burtt, and Peter F. Strawson. Doing so will draw attention to some deep shortcomings and evasions in the materialist reductionist paradigm of explanation of modern science, especially where the biological and human sciences are concerned. These shortcomings and evasions have left those who yearned for purpose and meaning in life and nature to complain that scientific explanation, at least in its current form, is just not enough. The consequent split between mechanism and purpose and a number of other splits subsidiary to it have left us with the problem of two cultures and an ongoing conflict between the arts and the sciences. The success of what Charles Gillespie called the advancing “edge of objectivity” that we owe to science has, unnecessarily in my view, worsened the split and led decent people to abjure the scientific world view in certain respects. Meanwhile, certain of the advocates of science have been monumentally arrogant and tactless in trampling on the sensibilities of sincere people who have expressed their disquiet about the life sciences in a way that is, I grant, simplistic, but simplistic in a cause that has some philosophically defensible, even admirable, roots. The theological opponents of Darwinian evolution exemplify some legitimate criticisms of the reductionism of the modern scientific world-view. It is not that I agree with them, for my beliefs have come to lie (somewhat wistfully) somewhere between agnosticism and atheism, and I am a Darwinian. Rather, I think their opposition to the adequacy of scientific explanations of the earth, life and human nature are symptoms of a legitimate malaise, one that merits some sympathy and which the scientific and philosophical communities need to address and, if possible, ameliorate.
The paradigm and its price
The separation of fact and value that we associate with modern science lies at the bottom of the science-religion split, which was codified in the seventeenth century. The framework of explanation that prevailed in ancient and mediaeval times was the Aristotelian one in which causes or aitia (literally, the 'comings to be' of things) always occurred in fours: the material, the efficient, the formal, and the final cause. If you did not come up with all four causes you did not have an explanation. Most of them are familiar to our modern scheme, because versions of them were carried over into the paradigm of explanation of modern science. The material cause told you out of what the effect came -- the matter. Our modern concept of matter, including the periodic table of elements and of fundamental particles, corresponds to this. The material cause of an ordinary chair would be wood. The efficient cause is that which imparts energy to it and would include intrinsic ideas of energy not altogether unlike our own but also that which imparted change, in this case, the carpenter. The formal cause was hugely important in the writings of Plato and Aristotle, but we can only dwell on certain aspects -- what type it was, where is sits in a classification. The chair could be said to partake of the form of 'chair-ness', but the formal cause can embrace architect's plans, formal arrangements, structures, shapes, types, taxonomies. There were also forms for the good, the true, the beautiful, for humankind, for dishonorableness, for dirt, even for shit. As I say, there were and still are major debates about forms or types -- where they come from and how we get them into our heads. People such as Locke, Kant, Piaget, Chomsky and, in psychoanalysis, Wilfred Bion have pondered such things. The fourth and last explanatory factor was the purpose or use or aim and was called the final cause. The final cause of a chair is to provide somewhere to sit.
The first three of the four Aristotelian causes found their way into the explanatory paradigm of modern science, but the final cause was considered not objective and was split off and relegated to the minds of God and of people. It is not part of a scientific explanation, at least not a reductionist or materialist explanation. That's the official story, at least, but it kept sneaking back in, for example in functional explanations in anatomy, physiology and medicine, in evolutionary theory, in the functionalist tradition in the human sciences which was based on biological analogies, e.g., social structures, social functions and organic analogies. But make no mistake: strictly speaking, they had no place in the explanatory paradigm of materialist science which allowed only matter, motion and number to appear in explanations.
René Descartes, whose Discourse on Method, published in 1637 and often called the founding document of modern philosophy, was explicit about these issues concerning what counts as a scientific explanation. He divided the world into two sorts of things -- extended substances and thinking substances. Extended substances had extension, figure and motion and made up the world of matter, while thinking substances were defined negatively as that which does not pertain to matter, and their essence was will. We were left with a world of minds and bodies -- since called Cartesian dualism.
The paradigm of explanation worked out by Descartes, Galileo, Newton, and others specified that no terms or concepts that are subjective, teleological (referring to purposes), or anthropomorphic (using categories belonging on the mental side of the mind-body split, especially ones referring to intentions) should appear in a scientific explanation. More or less enthusiastically, it was urged that people do experiments, but whatever the varying views on this issue, it was agreed that scientific conclusions should take the form of explaining all phenomena in terms of matter and motion. This injunction is summarized in the preface to Newton's Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy (1687):“All the difficulty of philosophy seems to consist in this — from the phenomena of motions to investigate the forces of nature, and then from these forces to demonstrate the other phenomena.”
This radical re-definition of reality was useful for certain scientific purposes, but it left a dreadful legacy of unsolved problems, for example, how minds and bodies interact. Many philosophers have lamented this split. One of my favorites is Alfred North Whitehead, co-author with Bertrand Russell of Principia Mathematica (1910, 1912, 1913), one of the great mathematical works of all time and the foundation stone of modern symbolic logic. Late in his life Whitehead accepted an invitation to give the Lowell Lectures at Harvard. He stood back and reflected on Science and the Modern World (1925), in which he had this to say about the modern scientific world-view:
The seventeenth century had finally produced a scheme of scientific thought framed by mathematicians, for the use of mathematicians… The enormous success of the scientific abstractions, yielding on the one hand matter with its simple location in space and time, on the other hand mind, perceiving, suffering, reasoning, but not interfering, has foisted onto philosophy the task of accepting them as the most concrete rendering of fact.
Thereby, modern philosophy has been ruined. It has oscillated in a complex manner between three extremes. There are the dualists, who accept matter and mind as on equal basis, and the two varieties of monists, those who put mind inside matter, and those who put matter inside mind. But this juggling with abstractions can never overcome the inherent confusion introduced by the ascription of misplaced concreteness to the scientific scheme of the seventeenth century.
Another philosopher who reflected on the consequences of the world-view of modern science was Edwin Arthur Burtt, who taught philosophy and theology at Cornell and wrote about The Metaphysical Foundations of Modern Physical Science (1932). Reflecting on the consequences of this world-view for any attempt at understanding human nature, he said,
...it does seem like strange perversity in these Newtonian scientists to further their own conquests of external nature by loading on mind everything refractory to exact mathematical handling and thus rendering the latter still more difficult to study scientifically than it had been before. Did it never cross their minds that sooner or later people would appear who craved verifiable knowledge about mind in the same way they craved it about physical events, and who might reasonably curse their elder scientific brethren for buying easier success in their own enterprise by throwing extra handicaps in the way of their successors in social science? Apparently not; mind was to them a convenient receptacle for the refuse, the chips and whittlings of science, rather than a possible object of scientific knowledge.
Whitehead and Burtt are eloquent in their renditions of the consequences of Cartesian dualism for our ways of thinking about experience. Whitehead says,
The occurrences of nature are in some way apprehended by minds, which are [somehow] associated with living bodies. Primarily, the mental apprehension is aroused by the occurrences in certain parts of the correlated body, the occurrences in the brain, for instance. But the mind in apprehending also experiences sensations which; properly speaking, are qualities of the mind alone. These sensations are projected by the mind so as to clothe the appropriate bodies in external nature. Thus the bodies are perceived as with qualities which in reality do not belong to them, qualities which in fact are purely the offspring of the mind. Thus nature gets credit which should in truth be reserved for ourselves: the rose for its scent; the nightingale for its song; and the sun for its radiance. The poets are entirely mistaken. They should address their lyrics to themselves, and should turn them into odes of self-congratulation on the excellency of the human mind. Nature is a dull affair, soundless, scentless, colourless; merely the hurrying of material, endlessly, meaninglessly.
On the other hand, Whitehead grants that these abstractions have been enormously successful. The problem lies in accepting them as reality itself.
Burtt draws out the consequences of the paradigm in nearly identical terms:
The world that people had thought themselves living in -- a world rich with colour and sound, redolent with fragrance, filled with gladness, love and beauty, speaking everywhere of purposive harmony and creative ideals -- was crowded now into minute corners in the brains of scattered organic beings. The really important world outside was a world hard, cold, colorless, silent, and dead; a world of quantity, a world of mathematically computable motions in mechanical regularity. The world of qualities as immediately perceived by man became just a curious and minor effect of that infinite machine beyond. In Newton the Cartesian metaphysics, ambiguously interpreted and stripped of its distinctive claim for serious philosophical consideration, finally overthrew Aristotelianism and became the predominant world-view of modern times.
Limitations of space have precluded my spelling out the precise historical developments leading to the overthrow of Aristotelianism and the establishment of the materialist reductionist paradigm of explanation of modern science. This story is clearly spelled out in the books by Whitehead and Burtt that I have quoted.
Darwin as an example of these issues
Darwin and Wallace’s theory is an example of some features of the critique mounted by Whitehead and Burtt. On the one hand, Darwinian evolutionism was the central theory for connecting humanity to the rest of living nature and life to the history of inanimate nature. On the other hand, it shows just how refractory biological explanation has proved to consistent materialist reductionism.
What made Darwin’s explanation of evolution by means of wholly natural processes plausible was that his six-year voyage around the world, which widened his sense of the space and time available to the history of life, along with the geological writings of Sir Charles Lyell, had persuaded him that small changes over vast periods of time could bring about the large changes known to have occurred in the history of life. The pressure (a concept he derived from the population theory of T. R. Malthus) that brought about those changes was competition in the struggle for life, resources and mates, leading to he survival of more viable offspring whose progeny prevailed. The smallest change could produce an advantage, and advantages accumulated over long periods of time.
Even so, some phenomena tested Darwin’s faith in natural selection, and he had to reassure himself and his readers. He presented a brave, even slightly taunting, front. The natural theologian William Paley, whose writings had delighted him at Cambridge and which he said were the only part of the university course which “was of the least use to me in the education of my mind,” had suggested that contemplation of the eye was a cure for atheism: such a beautiful and complex structure could only have been contrived by an Omnipotent Designer. Darwin took up this point in his chapter, "Difficulties on Theory," in a section entitled "Organs of Extreme Perfection and Complication."
To suppose that the eye, with all its inimitable contrivances for adjusting the focus to different distances, for admitting different amounts of light, and for the correction of spherical and chromatic aberration, could have been formed by natural selection, seems, I freely confess, absurd in the highest possible degree. Yet reason tells me, that if numerous gradations from a perfect and complex eye to one very imperfect and simple, each grade being useful to its possessor, can be shown to exist; if further, the eye does vary ever so slightly, and the variations be inherited, which is certainly the case; and if any variation or modification in the organ be ever useful to an animal under changing conditions of life, then the difficulty of believing that a perfect and complex eye could be formed by natural selection, though insuperable by our imagination, can hardly be considered real.
In private Darwin was less confident. He wrote to Asa Gray in 1860, "I remember well the time when the thought of the eye made me cold all over, but I have got over this stage of the complaint, and now small trifling particulars of structure often make me very uncomfortable. The sight of a feather in a peacock's tail, whenever I gaze at it, makes me sick!
We see here a great scientist teetering on the edge of granting the theistic argument, then called the argument from design or natural theology and revived in our own time as Intelligent Design. Indeed, as time went on he granted that other factors played a role in evolutionary change, but all were natural, not supernatural. The same cannot be said of the co-discoverer of evolution by natural selection, Alfred Russell Wallace, who sent him a letter from Malay Archipelago in 1858, just as Darwin was finally getting down to writing his “big book.” Wallace’s short account contained, quite literally, the chapter headings of Darwin’s magnum opus. A compromise was reached, and they published a joint paper and shared credit for the discovery of the theory.
Their relationship had its ironies. Unlike Darwin, Wallace believed that natural selection was a wholly adequate explanation for the history of life up to the origin of man, But in 1870 Wallace wrote an article in which he argued that many features of humanity could not be accounted for by natural selection and the survival of the fittest, e.g., the brain, the hairless body, the voice, the moral faculties. He concludes,
The inference I would draw from this class of phenomena is, that a superior intelligence has guided the development of man in a definite direction, and for a special purpose, just as man guides the development of many animal and vegetable forms… we must therefore admit the possibility that, if we are not the highest intelligence in the universe, some higher intelligence may have directed the process by which the human race was developed, by means of more subtle agencies than we are acquainted with.
This is precisely the same argument mounted by nineteenth-century natural theology and current advocates of Intelligent Design: some features of living nature cannot be explained by natural selection, so a higher intelligence is required to account for them.
In the case of man, Wallace was willing to grant that natural selection was not an adequate explanation, a view he held and reiterated up to writing his autobiography in 1905, long after Darwin’s death where he claims that here is a difference in kind, not degree between man and other animals. When he saw Wallace’s 1870 paper, Darwin was most disappointed. In The Descent of Man the following year, he argued for continuity between man and the higher apes. Wallace, for his part, was disappointed by Darwin’s use of what came to be called the metaphor of natural selection because of its voluntarist overtones, a topic to which I return below. This matter is central to my critique of the materialist reductionist program of the modern scientific world-view. Darwin’s writing is replete with teleological, voluntarist, and anthropomorphic terms.
Let us look into Darwin’s language in some detail. Here is a paragraph that he added to the third edition of On the Origin of Species, published in 1861. I have come to believe that the issues raised by this passage are fundamental to the philosophy of science. Here is the text:
Several writers have misapprehended or objected to the term Natural Selection. Some have even imagined that natural selection induces variability, whereas it implies only the preservation of such variations as arise and are beneficial to the being under its conditions of life. No one objects to agriculturists speaking of the potent effects of man's selection; and in this case the individual differences given by nature, which man for some object selects, must of necessity first occur. Others have objected that the term selection implies conscious choice in the animals which become modified; and it has even been urged that, as plants have no volition, natural selection is not applicable to them! In the literal sense of the word, no doubt, natural selection is a false term; but who ever objected to chemists speaking of the elective affinities of the various elements? - and yet an acid cannot strictly be said to elect the base with which it in preference combines. It has been said that I speak of natural selection as an active power or Deity; but who objects to an author speaking of the attraction of gravity as ruling the movements of the planets? Every one knows what is meant and is implied by such metaphorical expressions; and they are almost necessary for brevity. So again it is difficult to avoid personifying the word Nature; but I mean by Nature, only the aggregate action and product of many natural laws, and by laws the sequence of events as ascertained by us. With a little familiarity such superficial objections will be forgotten.
Let’s work our way through this paragraph. First, Darwin says he is not talking about the causes of variability; he's not talking about why species change, why they are modified. He is only talking about the ones that get preserved. Second, he is not a Lamarckian (after what was often mistakenly thought to be the theory of the French biologist, J-B Lamarck). He is not talking about animals or plants striving with the results of effort being inherited, e.g., the giraffe stretches its neck to get food, and the acquired changes get inherited. Third, and of interest to us, he plunges into the philosophy of science, and we will be staying with him there for the rest of this essay.
What about “natural selection”, what I have called “Darwin's Metaphor”? He says it is not a literal term. Then he says, rightly in my view, that chemists use such terms – “elective affinity” is the example he gives, and that physicists speak of the “attraction of gravity” ruling the movements of the planets. “Every one knows what is meant and is implied by such metaphorical expressions', he says, and “they are almost necessary for brevity.” The metaphorical basis of his style is central to my argument, so we will return to this topic below. The next -- and closely related -- issue is his habit of writing about nature as if it is a conscious agent, i.e., anthropomorphically. “So again it is difficult to avoid personifying the word Nature; but I mean by Nature, only the aggregate action and product of many natural laws, and by laws [I only mean] the sequence of events as ascertained by us. With a little familiarity such superficial objections will be forgotten.” I don't think they are superficial, and they certainly did not get forgotten. They plagued him for the rest of his life. I think that they are the legacy of unresolved problems from the scientific revolution of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, problems that Whitehead called “the Achilles heel of the whole system”.
What's going on here? Darwin had earlier written to his great mentor and hero, the geologist Charles Lyell, to say that he felt in good company, since Leibniz had objected to the law of gravity and claimed that it was opposed to natural religion, because Newton could not show what gravity is. If it's okay for gravity to rule the planets, why can't natural selection rule the history of life? Well, I'd say this makes me think that there are deep and unresolved philosophical issues about phrases in the natural sciences such as elective affinity and gravity rather than casting doubt on the phrase natural selection.
We are not talking here about an occasional bit of florid language but about his consistent representation of the concept -- natural selection -- which binds life to the conditions of existence, binds humanity to the rest of life and underpins the historicity of life and mind and society. Indeed, if, with Whitehead, we take the concept of organism to be a more fruitful basic unit for metaphysics than matter, force or particle, Darwin's theory could be seen as the basic, deepest idea in all of science and all of society.
The issue is, therefore, important, to say the least. It has also been -- I'd say until recently -- a much controverted matter. That is, although Darwin says repeatedly that the analogy between the selection of breeders and farmers and pigeon fanciers was the basis for his analogy to what nature does -- natural selection -- some historians of biology have claimed that his was not the true path. I think that a paper by L. T. Evans on “Darwin's Use of the Analogy Between Artificial and Natural Selection” (1984) makes a convincing case for the role of this analogy in the period leading up to Darwin's crucial reading of Malthus -- just as Darwin says in his autobiography:
In October 1838, that is, fifteen months after I had begun my systematic inquiry, I happened to read for amusement Malthus on Population, and being well prepared to appreciate the struggle for existence which everywhere goes on from long-continued observation of the habits of animals and plants, it at once struck me that under these circumstances favourable variations would tend to be preserved, and unfavourable ones to be destroyed. The result of this would be the formation of a new species. Here, then, I had at last got a theory by which to work; but I was so anxious to avoid prejudice, that I determined not for some time to write even the briefest sketch of it.
The phrase 'natural selection' and the ways that he wrote about it are absolutely full of voluntaristic, anthropomorphic, taboo words as far as the official rules of science are concerned. One of the cardinal rules of modern science is to avoid explaining things in terms which draw on human intentions and to eschew evaluative language. The abandonment of explanation in terms that draw on analogies to human intentions and which explain in terms of values and purposes (teleology) is, as I’ve shown above, supposed to set modern science off against earlier forms of explanation of the phenomena of the natural world. There is no escaping the fact that this kind of thinking lies at the heart of Darwin's ideas. , Further, I think we can generalize this point to other kinds of science, Doing so can, I think, provide insight into, and perhaps even a wistful sort of sympathy for, recent arguments from design.
Darwin stressed this point again in a letter he wrote to his friend, Joseph Hooker. He said in 1844, “I have read heaps of agricultural and horticultural books and have never ceased collecting facts. At last gleams of light have come, and I am almost convinced (quite contrary to the opinion I started with) that species are not (it is like confessing a murder) immutable”. He goes on to say, “I believe all these absurd views arise from no one having, as far as I know, approached the subject on the side of variation under domestication, and having studied all that is known about domestication.”
We know that in the case of domestic breeders there is a conscious selecting agent. Darwin also says elsewhere, “...all my notions about how species changed derive from long-continued study of the works of agriculturalists and horticulturalists”. After the merest semi-colon, he continues, writing of nature as a selecting agent: “and I believe I see my way pretty clearly on the means used by nature to change her species and adapt them to the wondrous and exquisitely beautiful contingencies to which every living being is exposed....”
This analogy between human breeders and nature is of crucial significance, since Alfred Russel Wallace denied, in their joint paper of 1858—the very paper in which their theory was announced to the world—that any inferences could be drawn about conditions under nature from the study of artificial selection. He says, “We see then, that no inferences as to the permanence of varieties in a state of nature can be deduced from the observation of those occurring among domestic animals.”
Let us now notice more of the ways Darwin wrote about natural selection, a term which Evans tells us Darwin began employing after he read a treatise by a man named Youatt on “Cattle, their Breeds, Management and Diseases” in March of 1840. Another key concept that has the same overtones is that of “picking”, which he used before then and for which, to a considerable extent, “selection” was substituted.
Evans argues that the study of works of this kind was crucial for preparing Darwin for the insight that occurred on reading Malthus in 1838. After this event, or this extended process, Darwin wrote, for example, “It is a beautiful part of my theory, that domesticated races of organisms are made by precisely the same means as species -- but latter far more perfectly and infinitely slower.” In another place he writes about greyhounds, race horses and pigeons and then speculates “Has nature any process analogous if so she can produce great ends.” “But how [he is here rehearsing how he is going to spell out his theory] - Make the difficulty apparent by cross-questioning. - even if placed on Isld - if &c &c - Then give my theory. - excellently true theory.”
Darwin wrote a pencil sketch of his ideas in 1842, and in 1844 wrote out a more extended one. He was anxious lest he die before going public and left instructions for the publication of the theory if he did. Even though he was so concerned about his mortality, he did not actually publish the theory for another fifteen years and then only in a summary version.
Ten years after writing the 1844 essay he got down to his big book, never published in his lifetime, called Natural Selection. The first two chapters were on variation under domestication - two hundred pages, which he finished by October 1856. He then wrote the part on natural selection, which he finished at the end of March of 1857. By the middle of June of 1858, he was well along when he received Wallace’s letter out of the blue. Wallace's concepts were the same as his own chapter headings -- an extraordinary independent discovery of evolution by means of natural selection. He was absolutely appalled by this coincidence, even though Charles Lyell had warned him that Wallace was hot on his heels, thereby catalyzing Darwin's finally getting down to writing what was intended to be his magnum opus. Darwin wrote to Lyell: “I never saw a more striking coincidence; if Wallace had my MS sketch written out in 1842, he could not have made a better short abstract! Even his terms now stand as heads to my chapters.”
What actually turned out to be Darwin's biggest book - and the one he wrote even before turning to The Descent of Man, was The Variation of Animals and Plants Under Domestication: two volumes, 300,000 words, published in 1868. He published no other section of Natural Selection. Evans concludes from this:
Darwin's recognition of the power of selection in changing organisms was almost entirely due to what he learned of plant and animal breeding. Simple as this may seem now, it involved a bold and brilliant step, namely comprehending that he could use the facts and insights of breeding to understand species in nature. Sir Walter Raleigh and others had previously made this assumption, but the belief had grown during subsequent centuries that domesticated varieties were quite unlike wild species, being much more variable as a result of better nutrition and care and liable to revert in its absence.
Let us get a greater sense of his language. On the first page of chapter 6 of the big book, the chapter on natural selection, Darwin says, “If we reflect on the infinitely numerous & odd variations in all parts of the structure of those few animals & plants, on which man may be said to have experimentised by domestication.…” He illustrates these with a wealth of examples and then turns to nature. Note the verbs, adverbs and adjectives. He says,
See how differently Nature acts!… She cares not for mere external appearance; she may be said to scrutinise with a severe eye, every, nerve, vessel & muscle; every habit, instinct, shade of constitution, -- the whole machinery of the organisation. There will be here no caprice, no favouring: the good will be preserved and the bad rigidly destroyed… Nature will not commence with some half-monstrous & useless form... Nature is prodigal of time & can act on thousands of thousands generations: she is prodigal of the forms of life.... Can we wonder then, that nature's productions bear the stamp of a far higher perfection than man's product by artificial selection.
In the introduction to the Origin, he says,
At the commencement of my observations it seemed to me probable that a careful study of domesticated animals and cultivated plants would offer the best chance of making out this obscure problem. Nor have I been disappointed; in this and in all other perplexing cases I have invariably found that our knowledge, imperfect though it be, of variation under domestication, afforded the best and safest clue. I may venture to express my conviction of the high value of such studies, although they have been very commonly neglected by naturalists.
In the sketch of 1842 he writes (much of this language gets carried over to the 1844 sketch and to the Origin): “But if every part of a plant or animal was to vary..., and if a being infinitely more sagacious.…” So we start out with the being man, the selector, the breeder, the horticulturalist, the pigeon fancier, and now he says,
if a being infinitely more sagacious than man (not an omniscient creator) during thousands and thousands of years were to select all the variations which tended towards certain ends ([or were to produce causes which tended to the same end]), for instance, if he foresaw a canine animal would be better off, owing to the country producing more hares, if he were longer legged and keener sight - greyhound produced [Darwin is writing cryptic notes]... Who, seeing how plants vary in garden, what blind foolish man has done in a few years, will deny an all-seeing being in thousands of years could effect (if the Creator chose to do so), either by his own direct foresight or by intermediate means.
In 1857, he wrote to a friend (and reproduced the letter as part of his case for priority over Wallace) of “a being who did not judge by mere external appearances... I think it can be shown that there is such an unerring power at work in Natural Selection (the title of my book), which selects exclusively for the good of each organic being.” Here we have the cumulative power of natural selection. Indeed, we have the words in the title of this book. How's this for a scientific treatise in a tradition of scientific explanation which is supposed to have banished teleology from science: On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life? Those terms -- selection, preservation, favoured, struggle, indeed “life” itself -- sit uneasily when considered in the light of the reductionist programme in modern philosophy of science.
In fact, Darwin says in the chapter on “The Struggle for Existence,”
We have seen that man by selection can certainly produce great results, and can adapt organic beings to his own uses, through the accumulation of slight but useful variations, given to him by the hand of Nature. But Natural Selection... is a power incessantly ready for action, and is as immeasurably superior to man's feeble efforts, as the works of Nature are to those of Art.
In the chapter on “Natural Selection” he again writes quite comfortably in this vein: “Can the principle of selection, which we have seen is so potent in the hands of man, apply in nature? I think we shall see that it can act most effectually.” And also: “As man can produce and certainly has produced a great result by his methodical and unconscious means of selection, what may not nature effect?” He goes on (this is my favorite passage):
It may be said that natural selection is daily and hourly scrutinising, throughout the world, every variation, even the slightest; rejecting that which is bad, preserving and adding up all that is good; silently and insensibly working, whenever and wherever opportunity offers, at the improvement of each organic being in relation to its organic and inorganic conditions of life.
Here we have a cascade of anthropomorphic descriptions of nature. He is showering the reader with examples of what the critics of Victorian poetry call 'the pathetic fallacy' (Miles, 1965), attributing human emotions and intentions to nature: “acting”, “nature's power of selection”, “skills”, “powers”, “visual power”, “a power intently watching”, “natural selection will pick out with unerring skill”.
He is at it again in the “Recapitulation and Conclusion” (I shall italicize the salient phrases):
There is no obvious reason why the principles which have acted so efficiently under domestication should not have acted under nature.... If then we have under nature variability and a powerful agent always ready to act and select, why should we doubt that variations in any way useful to beings, under their excessively complex relations of life, would be preserved, accumulated, and inherited? Why, if man can by patience select variations most useful to himself, should nature fail in selecting variations useful, under changing conditions of life, to her living products? What limit can be put to this power, acting during long ages and rigidly scrutinising the whole constitution, structure, and habits of each creature, - favouring the good and rejecting the bad? I can see no limit to this power, in slowly and beautifully adapting each form to the most complex relations of life. The theory of natural selection, even if we looked no further then this, seems to me to be in itself probable.
Wallace couldn't stand it. He wrote to Darwin and said,
I have been so repeatedly struck by the utter inability of numbers of intelligent persons to see clearly, or at all, the self-acting and necessary effects of Natural Selection, that I am led to conclude that the term itself, and your mode of illustrating it, however clear and beautiful to many of us, are yet not the best adapted to impress it on the general naturalist public.
He gives examples of writers who had badly misunderstood Darwin. One of them
considers your weak point to be that you do not see that ‘thought and direction are essential to the action of Natural Selection.’ The same objection has been made a score of times by your chief opponents, and I have heard it as often stated myself in conversation. Now, I think this arises almost entirely from your choice of the term ‘Natural Selection’ and so constantly comparing it in its effects to Man's Selection, and also your so frequently personifying nature as ‘selecting’, as ‘preferring’, as ‘seeking only the good of the species,’ etc., etc. To the few this is a clear as daylight, and beautifully suggestive, but to many it is evidently a stumbling-block.
He adds that “people will not understand that all such phrases are metaphors”, and suggests that Darwin should instead use “the survival of the fittest” -- which seemed to Wallace no different. It was only after Darwin didn't pay a blind bit of attention that Wallace wrote a section in a paper headed “Mr. Darwin's Metaphors Liable to Misconception.”
Darwin replied, “I formerly thought, probably in an exaggerated degree, that it was a great advantage to bring into connection natural and artificial selection; this indeed led me to use a term in common, and I still think it some advantage.” He said he had just completed a new edition of the Origin that was already at the press and concluded with a bit of a tease about Wallace's preferred phrase:
The term Natural Selection has now been so largely used abroad and at home that I doubt whether it could be given up, and with all its faults I should be sorry to see the attempt made. Whether it will be rejected must now depend ‘on the survival of the fittest.’ As in time the term must grow intelligible the objections to its use will grow weaker and weaker.
Many Christian writers took comfort from Darwin’s use of the analogy between artificial and natural selection, and argued that it supported the argument from design. For example, in 1869, the distinguished periodical The Quarterly Review contained an eloquent defense of design. In it, evolution and even natural selection are seen as perfectly acceptable. The author insists, however, that these depend on design. An extra principle is needed over and above the natural laws, and the argument is supported by reference to Darwin's voluntarist language about natural selection. Darwin's metaphorical language is acknowledged to be figurative, but it is said to help us to see the ultimate dependence of evolution on design. The author, J. B. Mozley, concludes,
So on the field of Nature natural selection, supposing Mr. Darwin's theory of Progress to be true, cannot relieve us from the need of some prior principle, some intelligence, however mysterious, which has worked for an end in Nature, and under whose guidance this progress has proceeded… He must either make his theory rational, then, by the admission of design; or by the omission of design he must leave it a substantially epicurean hypothesis, accounting for the formation of the animal world by chance.
And so we come round to Paley again.
When, in 1874, Asa Gray wrote that Darwin had done a "great service to Natural Science in bringing back to it Teleology: so that instead of Morphology versus Teleology, we shall have Morphology wedded to Teleology," Darwin commented, "What you say about Teleology pleases me especially, and I do not think any one else has ever noticed the point.” Darwin saw no point in banishing teleology and was content, as I have abundantly exemplified, to eschew the strictures of the reductionist paradigm which banished final causes, purposes, and analogies to human intention.
Darwin’s use of analogies to human intention, anthropomorphism, teleology and other explanatory terms that are taboo in the reductionist paradigm of modern scientific explanation makes it clear that biological explanations, to say nothing of explanations in the human sciences, routinely and centrally use concepts that break the rules of materialist reductionist explanation. In a longer essay I have shown in detail how this occurs in central texts in the history of biology and physiology since William Harvey, the discoverer of the circulation of the blood (1628). Harvey was far from a mechanist, however much he has been mis-described as one by doctrinaire historians of science. The same can be said of the central figure in eighteenth-century physiology, Albrecht von Haller, originator of the concepts of “sensibility” and “irritability” (1751) which remain central to physiology. Elsewhere, I offer further examples are offered in this vein down to the present.
If we return to the critiques of the paradigm of explanation mounted by Whitehead and Burtt, we can use what I have spelled out about Darwin and Wallace, co-authors of the deepest explanatory theory in the biological and human sciences, to assert that the reductionist paradigm of explanation was and remains routinely disobeyed in the biological sciences. The discovery of particulate genetics and the structure and mechanism of DNA have not superseded Darwin’s argument or his way of making it. They have only demonstrated the more detailed micro-mechanisms on which the larger process of natural selection depends. Whitehead and Burtt and the more recent philosophical writings of P. F. Strawson (1959) can be brought together to proffer the claim that the metaphysics of our actual world view does not rest on matter, motion, and number, on minds and bodies. The concept of a “person” is more philosophically deep than those of mind and body, that of “organism” is more basic than structure and function. The goal of reducing all explanations to matter, motion and number impoverishes our world view. Is it any wonder that sincere people reach for theological explanations to husband and celebrate the wonders of nature, life and human nature and seek to ground them in transcendent processes which continue to use poetic and celebratory language to characterize truth, goodness and beauty? Appeals to the writings of poets, moralists and philosophical writers are, in the view of evolutionary reductionists like the evolutionary theorist Richard Dawkins and the so-called Darwinian psychologists, thought to be less deeply explanatory than appeals to competition and other animal instincts and motivations to explain human nature. I hope we can have both the wisdom of the humanities and the findings of scientific research but see nothing to be gained and much to be lost by claiming that the sciences offer us deeper truths and will, in the long run, supersede humanistic reflections.
In my irenic keenness to show the affinity between scientific writers who stop short of zealous reductionism, on the one hand, and some of the goals of Christian writers, on the other, I fear that I may have bent the twig a bit far in favor of the deeper and more laudable goals of those sympathetic to Intelligent Design. If so, I hope the twig settles in an upright position without dogmatism or censorship on either side. If the deep malaise that engenders sympathy for Intelligent Design could be better understood, and if the zealotry of some of the reductionists could be made more apparent and subjected to as severe a philosophical critique as the ones they mount against the fundamentalists and design proponents (though, hopefully, more civilly), then perhaps we could have more balanced and more profound debates. We might take a leaf out of the Victorian debates between science and religion. Many theologians came to see the grandeur in Darwin’s view of the history of nature, which he celebrated at the end of On the Origin of Species. I quote from the second edition, which added the words I have italicized:
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 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.
One could say that Darwinism provides the bridge between human nature and the sciences. Let's place Darwin in the great scheme of the history of ideas. There have been a number of blows to human arrogance. The Copernican solar system dethroned the Earth from being regarded as the centre of the universe. Darwinism showed that humanity is not the specially created pinnacle of all living beings. Marxism showed that economic and ideological forces fundamentally condition what humans do. Freud showed that we do not even have access to the greater part of our motivations, which are unconscious. These explanations mitigate our conception of the human species and our planet as central in the firmament and our humanity as adequately characterized by rational intentionality and conscious control over our actions. It is not surprising that many Christians cry out, “Enough!”
But the range and profundity of Darwin’s vision also appeals to our sense of grandeur. If we look at Darwin’s theory as one of the great ideas in the history of science, we can characterize it as follows. Evolution ranks with gravity, the central concept in physics, and affinity, the key idea in chemistry, as one of the most basic concepts in the sciences. Beyond that, however, evolution by natural selection is a widely applicable theory in two senses. It is the law that binds all of life together and defines its relations with the physical environment — how the history of living nature relates to the history of nature. And, of course, it binds humanity by causal laws to the rest of life and nature. Evolution by natural selection is the process that accounts for the history of living nature, including human nature. It is arguably the most important idea in the history of the natural or human sciences.
In their different ways, to conclude, Darwin and Wallace make more than passable bedfellows to certain tenets of a theistic view of life. They share with Christians a visionary conception of the world. Speaking of bedfellows, it is worth recalling that when Darwin died in 1882, a grateful Anglican nation interred his body in Westminster Abbey. By the time he was laid to rest there, his biographers tell us, he was honoured by “the greatest gathering of intellect that was ever brought together in our country.” It could be said that natural selection was ‘“by no means alien to the Christian religion” -- not if it was rightly understood, with selection acting ‘under Divine intelligence’ and governed by ‘the spiritual fitness of each man for life hereafter’.” “The Abbey service was to be a visible sign ‘of the reconciliation between Faith and Science’... The ‘new truths’ of biology were ‘harmless’, their discoverer a secular saint.” The burial “proved that the scientists’ moral duty in furthering human evolution was best exercised in harmony with the old religious ideas ‘upon which the social fabric depends’.” The most emphatic lesson of Darwinism was “the gospel of infinite progress.” In his funeral sermon Dean Farrar said, “This man, on whom years of bigotry and ignorance poured out their scorn, has been called a materialist. I do not see in all his writings one trace of materialism. I read in every line the healthy, noble, well-balanced wonder of a spirit profoundly reverent, kindled into deepest admiration for the works of God.” The Times was perfectly candid and right to say of Darwin’s body that “The Abbey needed it more than it needed the Abbey.”
Among the other people honored by being buried there are Geoffrey Chaucer, Oliver Cromwell, John Dryden, George Frideric Handel (composer of ‘The Messiah’), Samuel Johnson, Alfred Tennyson (who coined the phrase “nature red in tooth and claw”), Rudyard Kipling (who celebrated the survival of the fittest) and the other greatest scientist of all time, Isaac Newton, who lies just a few feet from Darwin. I do not find these strange bedfellows. I want to live in a culture in which all these creative persons can rest in peace together.
Beer, G. (1983) Darwin's Plots: Evolutionary Narrative in Darwin, George Eliot and Nineteenth-Century Fiction. London: Routledge.
Darwin, Charles (1975) Charles Darwin's Natural Selection. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Dawkins, Richard (2004) A Devil’s Chaplain: Selected Writings. London: Phoenix.
Dennett, Daniel C. (1995) Darwin’s Dangerous Idea: Evolution and the Meaning of Life. London: Simon and Schuster; reprinted Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1996.
Desmond, Adrian and Moore, James (1991) Darwin: The Life of a Tormented Evolutionist. London: Michael Joseph; reprinted Harmondsworth: Penguin, 2004.
Gillespie, Charles C. (1960) The Edge of Objectivity: An Essay in the History of Scientific Ideas. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press.
Slotten, Ross A. (2004) The Life of Alfred Russel Wallace: The Heretic in Darwin’s Court. New York: Columbia University Press.
Young, Robert M., (2000) “Science and the Humanities in the Understanding of Human Nature”, Inaugural Lecture as Professor of Psychotherapy and Psychoanalytic Studies at the Centre for Psychotherapeutic Studies of the University of Sheffield.
I have drawn on some of my earlier writings in composing this paper. All of the references by R. M. Young are available on-line at
There is an extensive on-line archive on Darwin, Darwinism and Darwinian psychology, including numerous books and papers by Darwin and others, at http://human-nature.com/
Young, Robert M., 1985. Darwin's Metaphor: Nature's Place in Victorian Culture. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Quoted in Burtt, E. A., 1932. The Metaphysical Foundations of Modern Physical Science, 2nd ed. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, p. 204.
Whitehead, A. N., 1925. Science and the Modern World. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press; reprinted London: Free Association Books, 1985, p. 70.
Burtt, The Metaphysical Foundations of Modern Physical Science, pp. 318-19.
Whitehead, Science and the Modern World, pp. 68-9.
Burtt, The Metaphysical Foundations of Modern Physical Science, pp. 236-7.
Darwin, C. R., 1958. The Autobiography of Charles Darwin,1809-1882 with original omissions restored. London: Collins, p. 59.
Darwin, Charles, 1861. On the Origin of Species, third edition. London: Murray, pp. 186-7.
Darwin, F., ed., 1887. The Life and Letters of Charles Darwin, 3rd ed. London: Murray, 3 Vols., Vol. 2, p. 296.
Wallace, A. R.,1870. “The Limits of Natural Selection as Applied to Man”, reprinted in Natural Selection and Tropical Nature, 1891, pp. 186-214, pp. 194-99, 204.
Wallace, A. R., 1905. My Life: A Record of Events and Opinions, 2 Vols. London: Chapman and Hall, Vol. 1, p. 17.
Darwin, C. R., 1859. On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or The Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life, sixth edition, with additions and corrections. London: Murray, 1895, pp. 58-9.
Whitehead, Science and the Modern World, p. 71.
Darwin, The Autobiography of Charles Darwin, p. 120.
Darwin, F. The Life and Letters of Charles Darwin, Vol. 2, pp. 23, 29-30.
Wallace, A. R., 1858. “On the Tendency of Varieties to Depart Indefinitely from the Original Type”, reprinted in Natural Selection and Tropical Nature. London: Macmillan, 1891, pp. 20-33, p. 31.
Evans, L. T. (1984) “Darwin's Use of the Analogy between Artificial and
Natural Selection,” Journal of the History of Biology 17:113-40, p. 123.
Darwin, C. R., 1987. Charles Darwin’s Notebooks, 1836-1844: Geology, Transmutation of Species, Metaphysical Enquiries, edited by Paul H. Barrett, Peter J. Gautrey, Sandra Herbert, David Kohn, and Sydney Smith. London: British Museum (Natural History) and Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, p. 416, Evans, “Darwin’s analogy,” p. 125; Darwin, Charles Darwin’s Notebooks, p. 430, Evans, “Darwin’s analogy,” p. 126; Ibid.
Darwin, F., Life and Letters, Vol. 2, p. 116.
Evans, “Darwin’s analogy,” p. 133.
Darwin, Charles Darwin’s Natural Selection, p. 214; Evans, “Darwin’s analogy,” p. 137.
Darwin, Charles Darwin's Natural Selection, pp. 224-5; Evans, “Darwin’s analogy,” p. 137.
Darwin, On the Origin of Species, third edition, p. 4.
Darwin, C. D. and Wallace, A. R., 1958. Evolution by Natural Selection. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, p. 44, pp. 45-6.
Darwin & Wallace, Evolution by Natural Selection, pp. 264-5.
Darwin, Origin, third edition, p. 61.
Darwin, Francis, and Seward, A. C., eds., 1903. More Letters of Charles Darwin. 2 vols.
London: Murray, p. 267.
Ibid., p. 269, 268; Wallace, A. R., 1868. “Creation by Law”, reprinted in Natural Selection and Tropical Nature: Essays on Descriptive and Theoretical Biology. London: Macmillan, 1891, pp. 141-66, pp. 144-5.
Darwin and Seward, More Letters of Charles Darwin, pp. 270-71.
Mozley, James, 1869. "The Argument of Design", Quarterly Review 127: 134-176, pp. 172, 176.
Darwin, F., Life and Letters, Vol. 3, p. 189, cf Vol. 2, p. 387.
Young, R. M., 1989. “Persons, Organisms and... Primary Qualities”, in J. R. Moore, ed., History, Humanity and Evolution: Essays for John C. Greene. Cambridge University Press, pp. 375-401.
Peckham, Morse, ed. (1959). The Origin of Species by Charles Darwin: A Variorum Text. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, p. 759.
Desmond, A. and Moore, J. R., 1991. Darwin. London: Michael Joseph; reprinted Harmondsworth: Penguin, 2004, pp. 671-676; Young, R. M., Darwin's Metaphor, p. 15.