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Charles Darwin, Theologian: Major New Article on Darwin's Use of Theology in the Origin of Species

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When the Discovery fellows get together -- at their secret volcano lair, of course -- they sometimes joke that a clever constitutional lawyer could probably succeed in having Darwin's Origin of Species (1859) banned by a federal judge. The book should be kept out of public school science classrooms because of its considerable theological content. No one should be talking about God in a science classroom.

Of course, this is a joke, or is meant to be. Whatever one thinks of its arguments and evidence, the Origin of Species stands near the top of the list of the classics of science and should be understood by any student.

Which is why this new article in the British Journal for the History of Science (BJHS) is so significant. The author, Steve Dilley, is an Arizona State University-trained philosopher of science who studies the relationship between science, theology, and philosophy. His analysis, "Charles Darwin's use of theology in the Origin of Species," BJHS 2011, argues that Darwin used theology throughout his 1859 masterwork to argue for the truth of his theory of descent with modification by natural causes. Darwin's theology was not merely negative, entertaining the assumptions of his creationist opponents as hypotheses simply to contradict those assumptions with evidence.

Rather, Dilley argues, Darwin employed theology in a positive fashion, as support for his own position. "In the Origin," Dilley writes, "Darwin used a specific theological view of God's relationship to natural laws in order to argue for evolution and against special creation." The Origin supplies abundant evidence of theology in action; as Dilley observes:

I have argued that, in the first edition of the Origin, Darwin drew upon at least the following positiva theological claims in his case for descent with modification (and against special creation):

1. Human begins are not justfied in believing that God creates in ways analogous to the intellectual powers of the human mind.

2. A God who is free to create as He wishes would create new biological limbs de novo rather than from a common pattern.

3. A respectable deity would create biological structures in accord with a human conception of the 'simplest mode' to accomplish the functions of these structures.

4. God would only create the minimum structure required for a given part's function.

5. God does not provide false empirical information about the origins of organisms.

6. God impressed the laws of nature on matter.

7. God directly created the first 'primordial' life.

8. God did not perform miracles within organic history subsequent to the creation of the first life.

9. A 'distant' God is not morally culpable for natural pain and suffering.

10. The God of special creation, who allegedly performed miracles in organic history, is not plausible given the presence of natural pain and suffering.

Nothing in Dilley's article can be construed as challenging evolutionary theory, or supporting ID; his scholarly concerns lie elsewhere. As a student of the science-theology-philosophy triad, Dilley wants to understand how these areas of human understanding mutually inform each other. In that, his new article succeeds wonderfully, and will become a locus classicus for future analysis of the history and nature of evolutionary theory.

The article will also be a category-buster to illuminate current discussions, where evolutionary biologists (such as Jerry Coyne or Richard Dawkins) continue to use theology to make their case for Darwinian evolution.


Hi, Brian:

Plus, Kepler never used theology to prove planet three laws. The three planet laws are discovered by observation and mathematical calculation. No theology involved.

While evolutionists use theology to prove evolution. "Because God didn't do it, therefore it must be the work of evolution." Note that evolution is supposed to be a theory belongs to scientific realm. It is strange to use theology (outside of scientific realm) to prove a scientific theory.

Liming Tang

Dear Brian:

"God wouldn't have done it that way" is homemade theology. Where does these word come from? From what authority?

Liming Tang

That's right. Theology is the study of Nature's God and not of nature. But that doesn't mean it doesn't have profound truths and principles to guide science. The ideas of natural law and the scientific method have their roots in Christian theology.

"Science is thinking God's thoughts after Him." - Johannes Kepler

Likewise Darwin. According to this article and apparently according to "Origin of the Species", Darwin's theory was founded on the idea that "God wouldn't have done it that way; therefore he didn't." Do you deny this theological?

Don't they just use a reverse of the "god of the gaps" type argument? They point out all the places where God seems to be missing. All the "God forsaken", instances in the physical. Then use that as proof that evolution without a creator must be true. Because God (the creator) is so obviously missing!
Of course they totally ignore all the places where God is seen! And vigorously protest with endless objections. When anyone points out (like Creationist do) obvious (signs) of that same God/Creator! With the final, when all else fails, "that is religion and has no place in science" plea!

Scientific theories have theological implications. However, in Origin of Species, theology is the horse that pulls Darwin's cart.

So many people in the evolution debate have not actually read The Origin cover to cover. After I first read The Origin I was astounded at how little science was actually contained in its hundreds of the pages (I realize of course that my expectations were perhaps not properly calibrated -- after all, we're dealing with the mid-19th century state of knowledge). While The Origin is utterly disappointing in terms of substantive content, it is on the other hand a brilliant piece of 19th century rhetoric, and Darwin was indeed a skilled writer and gifted rhetorician.

There are nuances, to be sure, but Darwin's basic argument throughout The Origin consists roughly of two things: (i) if we are creative enough we can imagine (Darwin's word, not mine) how the complexity and diversity of life around us might have come about by small, imperceptible, ordinary changes extrapolated over time, and (ii) God would not have created things as we see them. The latter assertion, wholly religious, is a key part of his argument througout The Origin.

In addition to the obligatory obeisance to Darwin that is still displayed today, his approach is worth noting precisely because this is exactly the approach still taken by almost all major evolutionary proponents of our time, from Dawkins to Gould, to those in between. Indeed, the entire line of "bad design", "poor design," "evil design" arguments put forth by evolutionary apologists rests squarely on this religious argument Darwin made so long ago.

Paul Nelson said

This isn't simply a matter of history, which is why Dilley's article is so relevant. You can find plenty of theology in the current science writings of John Avise, Jerry Coyne, Richard Dawkins, Francisco Ayala, or indeed, almost any evolutionary biologist who wants to persuade others of the truth of evolution by natural causes.

There is also the shameless religiosity of Ken Miller's Finding Darwin's God and FrancisCollins'The Language of God Aren't such books sufficient reason to ban evolution theory from public school science classrooms?

I immediately sensed the hypocrisy when the Dover plaintiffs chose Ken Miller as their lead expert witness. Wouldn't it have made much more sense to choose, say, PZ Myers, who said that he "metaphorically pukes on the shoes" of accommodationists (i. e., evolutionists who are not theistic evolutionists but who tolerate them)?

Evolutionists often talk about how the supposed simplicity and elegance of evolution enhances religious faith. But a belief that living things are too complex to be the products of evolution can also enhance religious faith. And evolution theory has become so complex that it appears to be intelligently designed

Oleg wrote:

A biologist gives a technical talk describing his latest research and at the end of it jokes about Darwin anticipating later developments in genetics, namely the possibility of neutral mutations. What is exactly the problem with that? Wasn't Darwin right about that?

Oleg also wrote:

But come on, guys. Darwin is so 1859. It hardly matters what arguments were used back then.

Darwin doesn't matter -- so 1859, you know -- and that's why we name symposia in his honor, and mark the anniversaries of his birth, death, major publications, etc. Not to mention the annual Darwin Day (Feb 12) events around the world.

Of course it was a Darwin event -- that's why I provided the link. Find another scientist from the period (1859) who receives the continual adulation, the near-scriptural citation, the reverence, accorded to Charles Darwin.

BTW, for anyone interested, those Technion lectures are first-rate. Marc Kirschner's, for instance, on the shortcomings of neo-D and the need for 'facilitated variation,' is worth a listen.

Hi Paul,

As I understand, Yanai gave his talk at a conference in November 2009, i.e. on the 150th anniversary of Darwin’s On the Origin of the Species. The conference was entitled, not surprisingly, "From Darwin to Evo-Devo." Here is a description of the conference in Technion's e-magazine:

Internationally renowned scientists who work at the interface of evolution and other life sciences presented their cutting-edge research in sessions that included Systems Biology; Evolutionary Ecology; Molecular Biology; and Evo-Devo. Prof. Eugenia del Pino from the Pontificia Universidad Catolica del Ecuador fascinated the audience with her keynote talk on embryonic development in tropical frogs, of which there are more than 400 species in her geographical area alone. She explained how frogs have evolved some 20 different reproductive modes to reduce or eliminate their dependence on water. “There are different ways to make a frog,” del Pino said. “We know more about frog embryonic development then we do human embryonic development.

So evolutionary biologists gave talks on their cutting-edge research and some saw it fitting to give a shout-out to Darwin. At a conference that mentions him by name. The horrors!

Yanai spent 50 seconds at the end of his 25-minute talk on Charles Darwin. Furthermore, you cite his words out of context. Here is what he said: "I just want to end with a quote from Darwin because it's a fashionable thing to do at this symposium." (Emphasis mine.)

So what do we have here? A biologist gives a technical talk describing his latest research and at the end of it jokes about Darwin anticipating later developments in genetics, namely the possibility of neutral mutations. What is exactly the problem with that? Wasn't Darwin right about that? And why is Paul Nelson having a field day with this?

Hi, Brian:

But no one used theology to prove a scientific theory before materialist's evolution theory came along. Theology only direct scientists to search, not as a tool for proof.

Liming Tang

Here's an example of the "citing Darwin" practice I mentioned:


See Yanai's remarks starting at 17:00. He says citing Darwin is "a fashionable thing to do" and Darwin's insights need to "be returned to center stage." This research seminar was held at the Technion (Israel) in 2009, with an international list of speakers.

Hi Oleg,

This isn't simply a matter of history, which is why Dilley's article is so relevant. You can find plenty of theology in the current science writings of John Avise, Jerry Coyne, Richard Dawkins, Francisco Ayala, or indeed, almost any evolutionary biologist who wants to persuade others of the truth of evolution by natural causes.

You must not spend much time around evolutionary biology programs at most universities, where citations to Darwin and the Origin are a regular feature of science publications (including primary research articles). Some evolutionary biologists are dismayed about this practice, in fact, seeing "citing the words of the master" as a misguided appeal to Darwin's near-scriptural authority.

Cornelius Hunter's blog (and his books) are the most recommended resources for learning more about how Darwin and his successors use theology.

@ Oleg T: I have challenges:

1. As a UD and ENV reader I hear about many examples where modern day evolutionists use theology. Francisco Ayala comes to mind as one of many. So does Darrell Falk. It seems that they're just following in Darwin's tradition. What say you?

2. You correctly point out that the science of evolution has changed much since Darwin's time. That seems like a moot point since the ENV article says it's not talking about challenging science: "Nothing in Dilley's article can be construed as challenging evolutionary theory, or supporting ID; his scholarly concerns lie elsewhere." So doesn't it seem like they are making a different point than attacking the science of evolution? What say you?

3. Try claiming Darwin is irrelevant at the next Darwin Day celebration when they're worshipping Old Saint Darwin. You'll be shouted down. Darwin doesn't seem so irrelevant to today's concerns. What say you?

Your disavowal of Darwin would have more resonance if the old man's name was not so regularly invoked by evolutionary theorists, especially when trotting out their triumphalist narratives. And you are in factual error as well: Darwin is still taught, and not simply as an intellectual fossil in history of science programs. Most evolutionary biology departments offer or require significant historical and/or philosophical coursework (otherwise how else would we know how evolutionary theory itself evolved?). Jerry Coyne, for instance, begins with Darwin for his class on speciation at UChicago.

It's interesting that you bring up Newton. Obviously few places teach his mechanics out of the primary sources, though why you think that's nutty is unclear to me. Newton himself had several "intelligent design" presuppositions himself, was quite open about them, and connected them to his physical observations which he did not make sense otherwise. We assume he made a mistake here, but how do we know this prior to an understanding of his arguments?

Hmmm. Does this mean that Charles Darwin actually dabbled in "Theological Naturalism?" Suddenly, I'm reminded of Cornelius Hunter's recurring aphorism that "religion drives science, and it matters." I'm also cognizant of an observation once made by the Creator: "But wisdom is justified by her works."

I find the premise of the article a bit silly, even if it is a joke. Nobody* uses Darwin's book to teach evolutionary biology, just like nobody* teaches Newtonian mechanics out of Principia. These works, although revolutionary in their times, present only a historical interest nowadays.

The classic texts are hopelessly outdated and when someone says that they "should be understood by any student" I suspect that this person has never been a science instructor or is trying to sabotage the learning process. Perhaps both.

I understand that On the Origin of Species is forever stuck in creationists' collective craw. But come on, guys. Darwin is so 1859. It hardly matters what arguments were used back then. Evolutionary biology of today isn't your great-great-grandfather's evolutionary biology. Stop tilting at the windmills.

*With the exception of St. John's College with its archaic instructional methods.

"genius accepts genius unconditonally". That is a quote from an interesting author Dan Brown in his science fiction novel Digital Fortress.

In that statement rests the fundamental truth that intelligence recognises and acknowledges intelligence.

Therefore any denial of intelligence in nature requires someone to be infinitely dull intellectually.

Predictability can be said to be the most important element in a design, for it is this that gives a clue to the fact that the design has mind and intent behind it, counterbalanced with what is not intended - both represented by the predictable behaviour of the design.

Earth and its environment together with the animate and inanimate 'goods' in it show high amounts of measurable predictability - evidence of design - which can not be rationally denied.

"Theodosius Dobzhansky, and Francis Collins all used theology" - The idea of "Natural Law" arises from Christian theology. See Sir Francis Bacon and Roger Bacon.

Yes, Theodosius Dobzhansky, and Francis Collins all used theology to prove their "Scientific" points.

And Galileo wrote, "Beware you theologians...", as I recall from a PBS program on Galileo.

I think the most interesting thing about this is how the anti-theists will respond.

They're so adamantly anti-theology, so if Darwin used theology to come up with his conclusions, it might throw them for a loop!

Although it really wouldn't be all that surprising.
Most of the early scientists used their theological understanding to help them in their scientific research.
It's not irrational to assume that the universe has laws, and that there must be a law-giver.