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Journal of the History of Biology

, Volume 13, Issue 2, pp 169–194 | Cite as

God and natural selection: The Darwinian idea of design

  • Dov Ospovat
Article

Conclusion

If we arrange in chronological order the various statements Darwin made about God, creation, design, plan, law, and so forth, that I have discussed, there emerges a picture of a consistent development in Darwin's religious views from the orthodoxy of his youth to the agnosticism of his later years. Numerous sources attest that at the beginning of the Beagle voyage Darwin was more or less orthodox in religion and science alike.78 After he became a transmutationist early in 1837, he concluded that the doctrine of secondary causes must be extented even to the history of life and that after the first forms of life were created, there was no further need for divine intervention, except where man was concerned. Man's body, he thought, was produced by the process of transmutation, but he believed for a time that man's soul was “superadded.” By mid-1838 he had become convinced that nothing, after the creation of life, was due to miracles. God works only through laws, which are capable of producing “every effect of evey kind which surrounds us.” The existence of man, the idea of God in man's mind, and the harmony of the whole system were in his eyes prearranged goals of deterministic laws imposed by God. Such a conception excludes the miracles on which Christianity depends; but it is not possible to say whether Darwin's loss of Christian faith, which occurred at about this same time, preceded and made possible his “materialism” or was rather caused or hastened by it.79 In the weeks after his reading of Malthus, Darwin's belief in a plan of creation gave way to the belief that God created matter and life and designed their laws, leaving the details, however, to the workings of chance. This remained his view until the 1860s.

There is no exact parallel between this development of Darwin's religious views and the development of his ideas on evolution, but there is a general correspondence. When he believed in a plan of creation, Darwin's theory of transmutation did not depend on struggle or the selection of chance variations. Adaptation was, for him, an automatic response to environmental chance. From late 1838 to 1859 he believed in designed laws and chance, and this belief, too, has its parallel in his theory. The element of chance in natural selection meant that there could be no detailed plan,in which even man's idea of God would be a necessary outcome of nature's laws (man himself is not a necessary outcome of the working of natural selection).80 But Darwin still believed nature was programmed to achieve certain general ends. We might say that he believed in a general, though not a special, teleology. Natural selection was for him a law to maximize utility, creating useful organs, retaining vestiges for future use. For many years it was a law designed to produce organisms perfectly adapted to their environments. Only later did Darwin come to doubt even this sort of design in nature.81 One way of describing the development of Darwin's evolutionary thought is to say that it shows a gradual abandoning of his “theistic” assumptions, so that by the late 1860s his theory was informed to a slighter extent by notions of purpose and design than it was in 1838 or 1844 or 1859.

Keywords

Natural Selection Detailed Plan Automatic Response Christian Faith Evolutionary Thought 
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References

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Copyright information

© D. Reidel Publishing Co 1980

Authors and Affiliations

  • Dov Ospovat
    • 1
  1. 1.University of NebraskaLincolnUSA

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