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


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.


Natural Selection Detailed Plan Automatic Response Christian Faith Evolutionary Thought 
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  1. 1.
    Nora Barlow, ed., The Autobiography of Charles Darwin (New York: W. W. Norton, 1969), pp. 92–94. Following Darwin's usage, I will throughout employ the word theist to describe his pre-1859 views, meaning by it: belief in a “First Cause” that has established the laws of nature. In the same way, I will describe Darwin's view of nature in this period as “theistic.”Google Scholar
  2. 2.
    The most important recent and forthcoming additions are Howard Gruber and Paul Barrett, Darwin on Man (New York: E. P. Dutton, 1974), which includes Barrett's transcriptions of Darwin's M and N notebooks and his “Old and Useless Notes”; Robert Stauffer, ed., Charles Darwin's Natural Selection (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1975); and the complete correspondence of Darwin, now in preparation under the editorship of Frederick Burkhardt, David Kohn, William Montgomery, and Sydney Smith.Google Scholar
  3. 3.
    John Greene, “Reflections on the Progress of Darwin Studies,” J. Hist. Biol., 8 (1975) 246; also John Greene, The Death of Adam (Ames, Iowa: Iowa State University Press, 1959), esp. pp. 10–13, 284; Maurice Mandelbaum, “Darwin's Religious Views,” J. Hist. Ideas, 19 (1958), 363–378; and Maurice Mandelbaum, History, Man, and Reason (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1971), pp. 85–87. Since this paper was written, a book by James R. Moore has appeared in which Darwin's theology is treated with insight and sympathy: The Post-Darwinian Controversies (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1979), pp. 307–326.Google Scholar
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    It ought to be observed that even if Darwin was in 1838 questioning the existence of God (and the evidence does not seem to me to support this interpretation), this would not be grounds for concluding he then became an agnostic. Many have doubted and then decided their faith was well-founded. Darwin's conclusion seems to have been that it is impossible to believe the universe is the result of chance.Google Scholar
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    Howard Gruber and Paul Barrett, Darwin on Man (New York: E. P. Dutton, 1974), “Old and Useless Notes”, pp. 393, 396; Manier, Young Darwin, p. 223 (a transcription of Darwin's comments on John Abercrombie, Inquiries concerning the Intellectual Powers and the Investigation of Truth; from Darwin's Library, CUL). On Darwin's Lamarckism and its relation to his speculations on behavior, see Sandra Herbert, “The Place of Man in the Development of Darwin's Theory of Transmutation, Part II”, J. Hist. Biol., 10 (1977), 204–205; and Robert J. Richards, “Influence of Sensationalist Tradition on Early Theories of the Evolution of Behavior”, J. Hist. Ideas, 40 (1979), 85–105.Google Scholar
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  38. 38.
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    B. p. 232. W. Faye Cannon has offered one possible reason for Darwin's undertaking this task; see “The Whewell-Darwin Controversy”, J. Geol. Soc., 132 (1976), 381.Google Scholar
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    Howard Gruber and Paul Barrett, Darwin on Man (New York: E. P. Dutton, 1974), pp. 208, 212, 314; Manier, Young Darwin, p. 204n13; Schweber, “Revisited”, pp. 308–309. See also, Stephen J. Gould, Ever since Darwin (New York: W. W. Norton, 1977), p. 25; and Ernst Mayr, “Darwin and Natural Selection”, Amer. Sci. 65 (1977), 323.Google Scholar
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  45. 45.
    To be fair to Manier I must point out that he says Darwin was not an atheist. He also says he was not a theist. He seems to suggest he was a pantheist (Young Darwin, p. 186). In the M and N notebooks and the “Old and Useless Notes” I have seen two explicit references to atheism. At one point Darwin said that Comte's ideas on free will “would make a man a predestinarian of a new kind, because he would tend to be an atheist” (M, p. 74). Later he wrote, following William Kirby, “this materialism does not tend to Atheism” (Gruber and Barrett, Darwin on Man, “Old and Useless Notes”, p. 394n).Google Scholar
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    E, p. 58, which is sometimes taken to be a condensed statement of the theory of natural selection, makes no mention of the crucial element of chance variations. The first passage that clearly does so is E, pp. 111–112 (March 1839), but other references to chance make it probable that Darwin had fully recognized its importance by early December 1838 (E, pp. 68–69). Schweber has asserted that chance variation was recognized by Darwin by July 1838 (Schweber, “Revisited”, pp. 235, 264), but I have seen no evidence for this in the notebooks. The best statement of the view that Darwin's pre-Malthus theories did not involve chance is David Kohn, “Theories to Work by: Rejected Theories, Reproduction, and Darwin's Path to Natural Selection”, in press.Google Scholar
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    M, p. 154 (Sept. 23–Oct. 2, 1838). This was written a few days after the passage quoted in the preceding paragraph (note 41). Darwin's view at this time was the traditional view of Boyle, but without, probably, Boyle's notion of God's “general concourse”. See Robert Boyle, The Works, ed. Thomas Birch, new ed., 6 vols. (London, 1772), V, 413–414.Google Scholar
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    In addition to the passages cited just above, see D, pp. 36–37, 74e, 135e; M, pp. 135–136 (quoted below); Darwin MSS, vol. 71, fols. 53–58, CUL (Gruber and Barrett, Darwin on Man, pp. 418, 419).Google Scholar
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    C, p. 166. Cannon justly remarks, with reference to this passage, that Darwin thought his materialism “made God grander than other ways of thinking did” (“Whewell-Darwin Controversy”, p. 379.Google Scholar
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    Darwin and others used “perfection” in many senses, only one of which is relevant here. As an instance of a usage that is not relevant, Darwin often spoke of the “perfection” of the eye, meaning merely that the eye is admirably suited for its function. By “perfect adaptation,” however, I mean the doctrine that orgnisms are constructed in the best possible manner for the situation in which they live. In Darwin's day there were two principal variants of this doctrine. One was that organisms have, in effect, the best conceivable form for their conditions. Each is designed expressly for a particular place in nature, and every organ is constructed solely in reference to its function. This is the doctrine of Paley and Charles Bell; it is incompatible with the doctrine of evolution. The second was that organisms have the best possible form within the limits imposed by their basic typical or hereditary structure. This was the view of the leading biologists of Darwin's generation, including Owen, William B. Carpenter, Louis Agassiz, and Darwin himself until the 1850s. See Ospovat, “Perfect Adaptation,” pp. 33–39.Google Scholar
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    Camille Limoges has shown that in 1837 Darwin rejected the first variant of the doctrine of perfect adaptation (see preceding note), but Limoges does not discuss the second. La séléction naturelle (Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 1970), pp. 76–77.Google Scholar
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    Stauffer, ed., Natural Selection, pp. 224, 380, 386. Like many of Darwin's mature ideas, relative adaptation is hinted at in one or two early notes (Darwin MSS, 205.9, CUL), but Darwin's theory long continued to operate on the assumption of perfect adaptation.Google Scholar
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    Aslong as he wanted to, Darwin could have continued to use his early explanation of the origin of the idea of God, in the following way: an intellectual being, whether man or some other, that happened to be produced by natural selection would, in thinking about causation, inevitably conceive of a first cause. In the Descent of Man, pp. 95–98, however, he employed a very different argument.Google Scholar
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    As late as 1870 Darwin wrote Hooker, “I cannot look at the universe as the result of blind chance;” F. Darwin and A. C. Seward, ed., More Letters, I, 321.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© D. Reidel Publishing Co 1980

Authors and Affiliations

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

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