Posts Tagged 'Evolution'

Ken Miller’s Near-Perfect “Finding Darwin’s God”

Kenneth R. Miller’s Finding Darwin’s God is “a scientist’s search for common ground between God and evolution.”  Though it was first published in 1999, I took a decade to discover and finally read this near-perfect effort to reconcile science and Western religion.  I admit that I wasn’t looking all that hard until three years ago.  As I finished the book, I thought “Okay then.  It’s resolved!  Game over.”  Apparently not!   Contemporary debates about science and religion continue with seldom a mention of this wonderful book.

Skip the Polemics

I became aware of Ken Miller by a chance invitation to one of his brilliant lectures.  He is a leading cell and molecular biologist at Brown University and a Roman Catholic with serious interest in traditional Christian theology.  He is also co-author of high school biology texts and is committed to introductory biology education, which has entangled him in the debates—and legal proceedings—that have turned high school biology curriculum choices into key battles of the ongoing culture war in the United States.  This entanglement turned Dr. Miller into a public “apologist” for evolutionary theory, in the sense of intellectual defense by edifying explanation (in contrast to saying you’re sorry for things gone wrong).  His explanations are indeed edifying and effective in defense of both evolutionary theory and Western (particularly Christian) theology.  Finding Darwin’s God commits Dr. Miller’s apologetics to print in a superbly written tour de force of the science-religion debate.

Why then has this excellent work had so little impact on the public consciousness?  If I knew better the history of science-religion publishing in the past few decades, I might be able to offer a definitive answer.  All I can do at this point is to recommend you read this book as the best balanced summary of the evolutionist-creationist-intelligent-design arguments I’ve seen so far. 

As Prof. Principe stated (in his lectures I introduced in my previous posting more than a full year ago!), the conflict as we know it today is “a fabrication of the late 19th century” motivated by concern for political and social control and fueled by poor-quality theology dueling with poor-quality science.”  The ongoing cultural struggle is not really about the reality of evolution.  It is for control of the public narrative about the meaning of life on earth.

Dr. Miller’s very important contribution is to re-introduce both high-quality science and high-quality theology into the debate.  If you want to save a great deal of time, just read this book and skip the polemical books of Phillip Johnson, Michael Behe, Richard Dawkins and Edward O. Wilson, to name but a few whose claims are too often (says Prof. Principe) “philosophically naive and clothed in arrogant sarcasm and dismissive disdain” that forbid interesting and productive discussion.  My purpose here is to glean insight into the true nature of the modern science-religion debate and take that back to my exploration of the views of Charles and Emma Darwin on the Question of God.

Evolution as History and Mechanism

Dr. Miller starts by establishing that “evolution” has two different meanings: history and mechanism.  The first is “a living natural history in which the roots of the present are found in the past,” a time sequence of change shaped by “descent with modification” (Charles’s term for evolution).  The second is a mechanism by which the modification occurs during descent from ancestral forms to species of the present day (what Charles called “natural selection”).  Thus, “evolution” is both a set of facts (the fossil record and the present-day diversity and distribution of living species) and a theory that attempts to explain these facts.   Dr. Miller convincingly confirms the logic of drawing inferences from present-day evidence of the past and the current distribution of species, denying that we have to directly witness the history of the natural world anymore than we have to be witness to human history to be convinced of its reality by artifacts of the past.  Evolution as history was fairly well established among learned people before Charles set sail on the Beagle.  His distinction was to offer and thoroughly document a theory to explain the past and present of life, a theory that has accurately predicted subsequent discoveries and been confirmed by new understandings of genetics, biochemistry, and cellular and molecular biology.

Creation Science

Then Dr. Miller takes on the three prominent versions of concerted criticism.  First, Young-Earth Creationism—Prof. Principe points out that “an enormously wide range of distinct viewpoints” bear the label “creationism,” so we must be careful to specify which viewpoint we’re talking about. 

Led by the writings of Henry Morris and colleagues at the Institute for Creation Research, the Young-Earth Creationists are the strictest, maintaining that the Earth is no older than 10,000 years.  In defense of this extreme position, their rejection of evidence in all fields of science is breathtaking.  Nonetheless, Dr. Miller plays the role of good scientist, respectfully and carefully examining the Young-Earth Creationist assertions in light of evidence and logic.  To counter the abundant, incontrovertible evidence that the Earth is billions of years old, these adherents of “creation science” back themselves into a very awkward position that “corrupts both science and religion” (in Miller’s words on p. 80).  They concede the evidence of great age but propose that God created the universe in a way that creates the “appearance of age” (in their words).  It is impossible to escape the implication that God means to deceive us humans through an elaborate and seemingly pointless planting of evidence of a very old universe.  Dr. Miller harshly concludes that these attempts to explain the mountain of evidence that contradicts naively literal reading of Genesis deserve “a place in the intellectual wastebasket.”

Beyond a Reasonable Doubt?

Next, Dr. Miller counters the more sophisticated critics who know better than to attack all science head on.  Instead they focus on biology and allege specific factual defects in evolutionary theory.  Phillip Johnson, a UC Berkeley law professor, has led this version of creationism by creating the “reasonable doubt” typically used to undermine criminal indictments.  Ironically and very strategically, the attack seizes on the notion of “punctuated equilibrium” first proposed and then made well-known by the late Stephen Jay Gould, the super-star Harvard biologist and popularizer of evolutionary theory.  In a 1972 paper with Niles Eldredge, Gould observed that the fossil record often shows long periods of little change “punctuated” by sudden, short bursts of major change.  Challenging Darwin’s emphasis on the gradual nature of evolutionary change, Gould and Eldredge made too much of “punctuated equilibrium” as a new understanding of evolution.  Johnson and others picked up on this whiff of scientific dissent from Darwinism to suggest that the jury was still out in the case against evolutionary theory. 

Johnson invoked an “intelligent designer” as an alternative but non-scientific explanation of facts that seemed to violate the assumptions of Darwinian theory.  These punctuations of the fossil record could in fact have been events of “special creation” of new species by the Intelligent Designer.  How else to explain the development of complex organisms, like whales, that seemed to have no progenitor in the fossil record or, more particularly, no series of intermediate forms that connect them through time to land mammals?  Surely these problems with predictions of evolutionary theory create sufficient reasonable doubt to force serious consideration of an alternative explanation. 

Again, Dr. Miller uses evidence and logic to defeat the argument for special creation of species.  When we narrow the timeframe from hundreds of millions of years to focus on the much shorter periods of rapid change, we find again a continuous series of changes over time explicable by natural selection, not a sudden appearance of something totally new.  Moreover, subsequent fossil discoveries have filled the gap in the record of whale evolution and other gaps as well.  Thus, Johnson’s arguments for special creation of species succumb one by one to the ongoing process of scientific discovery.

The argument from design depends on there being phenomena that elude explanation by science in terms of material forms changing through material mechanisms.  When science fails to provide a naturalistic explanation, the default is intelligent design; it hinges on our ignorance of material causes and mechanisms.  This Intelligent Designer is the God of the Gaps.  But this god leads a precarious existence, constantly threatened by science’s well-demonstrated ability to discover naturalistic explanations for phenomena once thought to be inexplicable. 

The Miraculous Cell

Next, Dr. Miller takes on the biochemist Michael Behe, who makes a very sophisticated argument for design based on the fact that the living cell includes complex biochemical processes that depend on a very particular number of components.  The removal of any one of these components would abort the overall processes.  How could such complexity have evolved from simpler processes that were missing one or some of these key components?  This harkens back to the similar argument of William Paley’s Natural Theology (1803) that the vertebrate eye had to be as complex as it is today in order to serve any function at all.  How could it have evolved through a series of simpler forms that could serve no function remotely resembling sight?  What purpose would such intermediate structures serve?  Again, Behe like Paley believes our ignorance forces us to default to intelligent design—not in service of special creation of whole species but to explain how new, “irreducibly complex” biological systems, like the biochemical systems of the cell, can arise.  Behe claims that Darwinian evolution offers no explanation. 

Once again, Dr. Miller uses logic and evidence to demolish the argument from design.  To start, he shows that the intermediate forms between simple and complex organ systems have been found and are known to serve a function that is favored by natural selection—the visual and auditory organs of vertebrates, for example.  The complexity is not irreducible.  But can Darwinian theory account for the molecular structure of life, as Behe asks quite reasonably.  There is no fossil evidence to look for, so how can we test the ability of evolutionary processes to produce complex biochemical systems?  Behe foolishly goes out on a skinny limb by claiming such tests have never been done and implying they never can be done.  Miller simply saws off the limb by describing persuasive studies that Behe himself could have cited.   

An Intellectually Fulfilled Atheist

Dr. Miller asks why intelligent critics of evolution, who are certainly aware of the very strong evidence against them, persist in opposing evolution with such passion and persistence.  He finds the answer among the attitudes and actions of scientists—“the reflexive hostility of so many within the scientific community to the goals, the achievements, and most especially the culture of religion itself.”  Most scientists seldom think of themselves as hostile to religion, but we create a hostile environment for “believers” simply by assuming that “religious belief is something that people grow out of as they become educated” to quote Dr. Miller (pp. 184-85). 

“The prospect of an educated person who sincerely believes in God, who prays and fasts, or who is naive enough to think there is actually such a thing as sin, is just not taken seriously.  There is, in essence, a fabric of disbelief enclosing the academic establishment.  My colleagues do their best to be open, fair-minded, and tolerant.  They practice these wonderful virtues of free inquiry and free expression.  But their core beliefs do not allow them to accept religion as the intellectual equal of a well-informed atheistic materialism. 

In practice, their exultation at seeing evolutionary biology successfully provide material explanations for the origin of species and the history of life leads to triumphant excess.  Even though philosophical conclusions about meaning and purpose are generally thought to lie outside science, any number of self-assured scientists display no hesitation in claiming that evolutionary biology is capable of making a powerful and profound statement on the ultimate meaning of things.”

He is talking about Stephen Jay Gould, Richard Lewontin, Richard Dawkins, Edward O. Wilson, Daniel C. Dennett and many less known “self-assured scientists,” who appreciate Charles Darwin’s work as having “made it possible to be an intellectually fulfilled atheist,” as Dawkins put it so memorably.  The wording is telling.  An atheist looking for intellectual (scientific) justification of his or her personal belief system is the counterpart of a believer in God, like Phillip Johnson or Michael Behe, who searches for intellectual respectability by claiming that science is wrong.

Blind, Pitiless Indifference

When both sides frame the argument in terms of what scientific materialism can or cannot explain, the atheists seem to carry the day.  But many atheists are not content to win the argument on purely scientific grounds.  As Richard Lewontin put it (quoted by Miller on p. 186), “science is in the midst of a ‘struggle for possession of public consciousness between material and mystical explanations of the world,’ a struggle against ignorance and spirituality that it cannot afford to lose.”  Feeling so threatened, these scientists surge beyond the boundaries of science to use evolution as an anti-religious weapon, not just to disprove literal interpretations of Genesis but prove the fundamental purposelessness of life.  As Dr. Miller states (p. 187), “Without purpose to the universe, there is no meaning, there are no absolutes, and there is no reason for existence.”  By insisting that evolution implies a universe ruled by “blind, pitiless indifference,” Dawkins and the others advance an absolute materialist worldview that is anathema to “people who see the world as a place of deliberate moral choice, who see clear differences between good and evil, and who cherish virtues such as courage, honesty, and truthfulness” (Miller, p. 171).  “The backlash to evolution is a natural reaction to the ways in which evolution’s most eloquent advocates have handled Darwin’s great idea, distilling from the raw materials of biology an acid of hostility to anything and everything spiritual” (Miller, p. 189). 

Though “these writers have gone well beyond any reasonable scientific conclusions that might emerge from evolutionary biology” (Miller, p. 185), they have convinced many believers in God that evolution is their enemy—“that evolution isn’t really about science, but is instead an ideology of belief, power, and social control” (Miller, p. 190).  These believers are emotionally committed to discrediting these dangerous ideas of science in general, and evolution in particular.  However, they have chosen the wrong strategy.   They believe they must show that science cannot explain the natural world, despite overwhelming evidence that it can. 

Offering one of his most important contributions to understanding this clash of opposing philosophical worldviews, Dr. Miller claims that the most extreme viewpoints depend on the same unspoken assumption that “if the origins of living organisms can be explained in purely material terms, then the existence of God—at least any God worthy of the name—is disproved” (p. 190).   

What if this assumption is wrong?  Dr. Miller goes on to challenge the logical connections between materialism and atheism.  Accepting as scientific truth “that the world runs according to material rules, that we are material beings, and that our biology works by means of the laws of physics and chemistry,” Ken Miller asks, “What if the regularities of nature were fashioned in a way that they themselves allowed for the divine?” (pp. 190-91).  He then engages in an Augustinian effort to reconcile science and religion without forcing either to make unacceptable concessions to the other. 

Two Assumptions

Ken Miller’s argument starts with two assumptions.  The first is based on science—that the natural, material world is self-sufficient.  In simplest terms, this means that all natural phenomena are part of a universe driven by natural causes, the laws of physics and chemistry that control the behavior of matter and energy.  No immaterial, unnatural causes are required for this universe to function as we see it functioning.  The second assumption is based on theology in the “Western tradition”—Judaism, Christianity and Islam—that a nonmaterial, spiritual being called God created the material universe and everything in it by an act of His own volition; humans exist as a direct result of God’s will; and God has revealed Himself to us.  There is a spiritual reality that surpasses the physical reality of nature.  This spiritual reality is beyond the detection of science, but God is quite capable of reaching out from that spiritual reality to act in the material world in ways that seem personal—as though each of us is treated like an individual person.  But God chooses not to intervene in the material world in any way that denies humans the free will to choose good or evil, to love God or reject Him. 

Note that Miller has to be quite explicit in defining the theology he refers to, because there are so many theologies to choose from, whereas there is just one science.  That’s because theology deals with a “reality” we can only guess at, but science comes from (directly or indirectly) observable reality.  By itself, this difference convinces many of us to reject theology as a useful exercise, but this discomfort does not by itself disprove the spiritual.  More positively, there are scientifically unsolved problems in our understanding of the universe that imply existence beyond the material.

Three Problems Unsolved by Science

The first problem is posed by thermodynamics.  “The enormous energy expended by the sun and its multitude of sister stars had to come from somewhere, for eventually it would burn down to nothing” (Miller, p. 223).  Had to come from somewhere before and therefore outside the material universe.  The need for a First Cause is no longer just philosophical.  All evidence indicates the universe started with the Big Bang, which had to have a cause.  Philosophical materialism, which insists there is nothing beyond the material, natural reality, is left speechless in the face of evidence of creation ex nihilo—something from nothing, a material universe from a nonmaterial reality before and beyond. 

The second problem is the “anthropic principle”—the physical constants of the universe (like the gravitational constant) are set at values that allow life to exist.  Even slight changes in these values and there would be no stars, no planets, no water, no carbon, no life, no humans.   Given we live on a tiny planet revolving around a small star on the edge of a minor galaxy among a vast multitude of galaxies, it is hard to believe we humans are at the center of the universe.  Yet the values of the physical constants support the opposite conclusion, that the universe was designed for life, if not specifically for us. 

Of course, the notion of design is anathema to nonbelievers.  Some, notably Daniel Dennett, have proposed an alternative view that our universe is only one among many “parallel universes” with a variety of value settings for the physical constants; one of these universes just happens to be suitable for the evolution of life, and of course, we are only aware of the universe that permits us to live and measure the physical constants!   Dennett maintains his multiple universe hypothesis is a reasonable alternative to “any traditional alternative,” which is to admit that his alternative is equally untestable scientifically.  But Dennett’s multiplying swarm of universes is no less outlandish than the notion of a designer God.  And it doesn’t address the First Cause problem.

The third problem is Heisenberg’s “uncertainty principle,” which states that we cannot know with precision both the position and the momentum of a sub-atomic particle—the fundamental uncertainty of quantum mechanics.  Since these particles and their behavior are the building blocks of all material existence, unpredictability is an inherent characteristic of nature, of material existence itself.  The impacts are not confined to a sub-atomic micro-level that is irrelevant to our macro-level lives.  While the quantum behavior of electrons is averaged out into statistical laws that are descriptive of what happens at the more macro level, the level of Isaac Newton’s physics, the next move of an electron is inherently unpredictable.  Electron behavior causes chemical changes that lead to firing neurons and mutating genes that drive individual behavior and evolutionary change.  “Life is surely explicable in terms of the laws of physics and chemistry … but the catch is that those laws themselves deny us an ultimate knowledge of what causes what, and what will happen next” (Miller, p. 208-09). 

The Absentee God

The deterministic physics of Newton left philosophers from the 17th through the 19th centuries (including Charles Darwin) with the conclusion that God plays no role in the day-to-day world run by laws that could be used—in principle—to predict the behavior of every atom.  This Deist view regards the universe as a kind of clockwork, built and wound up by God but allowed to run untouched ever since the Creation.  Nature could be described as “a system of parts whose energies, positions, and velocities, if known, would be absolutely sufficient to predict each and every future position of the system.  Reality would be set in stone.” (Miller, p. 204). 

An Active, Personal God

The quantum physics of the 20th century falsifies this deterministic view of the universe.  It does not disprove the absentee God of the Deists, but it does allow the possibility that God plays a role at the sub-atomic level of reality, influencing events without being obvious to humans operating at the macro-level.  Ken Miller builds upon the indeterminacy of the quantum reality of the physical sciences to develop his Theist theology of an involved deity.

Miller doesn’t pander to emotionally unsatisfying notions of God as a “smart, modern and sophisticated” (p. 221) label for love or the universe or the laws of nature.  His notion of God is the unabashedly traditional God of the great Western religions—the Creator of the universe who somehow has been involved in the history of our world and continues to be involved in our lives in a very personal way.  How can this be?  Especially given Miller’s insistence on the sufficiency of material explanations for the events and substance of our material world?    

 Never abandoning his commitment to logic and evidence, Ken Miller makes a convincing case that evolution through random genetic variation winnowed by natural selection, as described by Charles Darwin and those who followed, can be seen by thoughtful, scientifically wise people as the mechanism for fulfilling the divine intention to create a universe in which a sentient species arises with the ability to know its creator and discover the very mechanism of its creation—the physical laws that make chemistry, life and evolution possible.  It is a breathtaking theological insight.  God has created a fully self-sufficient material universe that runs according to physical laws and needs no further tinkering to keep on ticking, like Paley’s watch, but God also has built in (by design) the mechanisms to change, elaborate and diversify into the fantastically complex world around us on earth.  God can and does intervene in the operation of the material world, but only rarely and then only at the indeterminate sub-atomic level of reality, in order to remain scientifically undetectable to his sentient creatures.  Okay, but why this subtle and elaborate process to create an independent material world, if God is quite capable of intervening to directly control events accordingly to His will?  Why even create a material world?

Free Will and the Problem of Evil

Ken Miller draws on traditional Western theology to explain such an elaborate approach to creation (p. 243):

“By any reasonable analysis, evolution does nothing to distance or to weaken the power of God.  We already know that we live in a world of natural causes, explicable by the workings of natural law.  All that evolution does is to extend the workings of these natural laws to the novelty of life and to its changes over time.  A God who presides over an evolutionary process is not an impotent, passive observer.  Rather, He is one whose genius fashioned a fruitful world in which the process of continuing creation is woven into the fabric of matter itself.  He retains the freedom to act, to reveal Himself to His creatures, to inspire, and to teach.  He is the master of chance and time, whose actions, both powerful and subtle, respect the independence of His creation and give human beings the genuine freedom to accept or reject His love.”

And on p. 253:

“The Western God stands back from His creation, not to absent Himself, not to abandon His creatures, but to allow His people true freedom.  A God who hovers, in all His visible power and majesty, over every step taken by mere mortals never allows them the true independence that true love, true goodness, and true obedience requires.

For our freedom in this world to be genuine, we must have the capacity to choose good or evil, and we must be allowed to face the consequences of our actions.”

Such language is directed to those who are comfortable with the Christian worldview.  Ken Miller addresses a good part of his book, perhaps most of it, to Christian objections to evolution, trying to show believers that belief in the Darwinian process of evolution need not be threatening to their Christian worldview.  In that, I think he is highly successful.  But he is less persuasive for those who believe in evolution already and are struggling with the implications of a divine creation process that not only allows but requires the commonplace and massive destruction of life in order to fuel the natural selection that drives the evolution of life. 

The evolutionary process seems too cruel to be the work of a loving God who is personally involved with His creatures.  This was a particular problem for Charles Darwin, especially after the death of his ten-year-old daughter, Annie.  This wanton destruction of life in the material world has long been and remains a major barrier to belief in a personal, loving, creator God.  Miller explains this evil as the price of human free will—allowing the choice to do good also allows the opportunity to choose evil instead.  That could explain the evil wrought by human beings.  But wanton destruction is “woven into the very fabric” of the continuing change process that has taken billions of years to create a sentient being capable of free will.  Evil is not due solely to the sins of human beings; it is in the fabric of the universe itself.

Free-lance Theology

This inherent capacity for evil is better explained by the late Harold Kushner, a rabbi distraught over the untimely illness and death of his son.  In When Bad Things Happen to Good People, Rabbi Kushner reconsidered the traditional Western concept of God as always loving, all knowing and all powerful.  He concluded that the frequency of apparently random evil (bad things happening to good people) forbids us from believing that God can have all three of these divine characteristics.  Rather than conclude that God does not exist or is not personally supportive in our lives, as many others have done, Rabbi Kushner settles on God not being all powerful.  He can’t intervene directly in the flow of material events on our behalf or on behalf of any of His creatures.  He can only strengthen us spiritually in our struggles in the material world.  God is Great—but not Perfect.

Ken Miller seems to disagree.  God can intervene.  The quantum uncertainty of sub-atomic reality allows God to intervene without being detected and thereby compromising the free will of human beings.  But God mostly chooses not to intervene, because to do so too often would, well, blow His cover!  So here we have a fundamental disagreement among those who share belief in God’s existence and active participation in the world—in a Theistic rather than a Deistic God.  One says God doesn’t intervene in the material world, because He is not powerful enough to provide more than spiritual support.  The other says God is powerful enough, but He doesn’t want to intervene, even to prevent the suffering of our world.  Nonetheless, He can affect material events if He so chooses, and He does so, but only for very good reason and only very rarely. 

For many readers, both believers and disbelievers, this kind of theological disagreement may seem silly and unimportant.  To the contrary, theology is very practical in seeking to understand what we can expect from God.  We could be setting expectations of God that are unreasonable even for God to meet.  We may childishly insist that God must be Perfect or else God cannot possibly exist.  And if we deny the existence and influence of something so important as God, we have a very incomplete grasp of reality.

Building on both Miller’s and Kushner’s points, perhaps God is always loving and all knowing and also all powerful—Perfect—but His system of creation is imperfect and God knows this all too well.  It is the tragic genius of the creation mechanism in the material universe that it has to operate in this randomly destructive way beyond His direct control—in order to be creative.  Perhaps there is no other way available, even to God!  This flaw (what else can you label something so destructive of so many little lives?) in the creative system may be inherent in any complex system driven by only a few universal rules working from a small set of initial conditions.  This flaw should be a caution against the hope of perfectability of complex systems, especially perfectability forced through extensive centralized control, whether the system be divine, natural or human-made.

Miller and Kushner do seem to agree that God can and does strengthen and guide the spirit within a receptive human being, thereby affecting human consciousness and behavior in ways that have no better explanation (so far! we have to be careful to acknowledge).  In so doing God’s “will,” we can act as God’s agents in the material world – a form of divine intervention in the traditional sense favored by Miller.  Like a parent watching over an adult child, God may love and care desperately for each of us and seek to guide us when the opportunity arises, knowing full well (and sadly) that however much we mess things up, He cannot live our lives for us.

All three of us, Miller, Kushner and I, are free-lancing as theologists, but this reasoned following of logical threads anchored to observable reality is more or less how good theology is done by the professionals.  It leads to a reasonable and possible concept of God.  Another free-lancer, Charles Darwin, could have appreciated these insights into the power of God in relation to the evolutionary process.  If created by God, even if influenced by God at critical moments, the process is still not controlled in its details by God.  However, this concept of a self-limiting God was unavailable to Charles. 

Genesis, the Straw Man

Ken Miller makes the crucial point that naively literal understanding of the book of Genesis, which had become the rule in most Christian denominations, including the Church of England, by the 19th century, made an easy target for anti-Theists and anti-religionists in general.  In fact, Genesis was presented by Christian authorities in England and elsewhere as a scientifically valid account of the creation of the universe and all its component parts.  By pinning the reputation and validity of Christian religion on this literal interpretation of the Bible, in direct opposition to scientifically well-established knowledge of the material world, the Church of England made it all too easy for its many intellectual, social and political enemies to discredit Christianity in general, and thereby undermine the authority and power of Christianity in modern society.  In the 19th century, the only alternative to the biblical account was the Newtonian determinism that seemed to have no need of divine existence much less intervention.  This was all that was available theologically to free-lance thinkers like Charles Darwin, who saw too much evidence against biblical inerrancy.  It seemed that God could not really exist, at least not a Theistic God.  The implications of quantum indeterminacy were unknown, and even today are little understood. 

The modern-day conflict between creationists and atheists is driven by their unspoken agreement that discrediting the Bible and associated “god talk” is sufficient to discredit religion and even the concept of God as the creator of and currently active agent in the universe. The Bible and Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution have become the “weapons of disbelief” (Miller, p. 269) in a battle that is more about control of the social and political agenda than it is about theology and science. This is a travesty for both the Bible and Charles Darwin, for religion and for science. 

Darwin’s God 

The great value of Ken Miller’s wonderful book is that he shows quite conclusively that this conflict between Western science and Western religion need not be so.  His theme is summed up on his second to last page (p. 291):

Those who ask from science a final argument, an ultimate proof, an unassailable position from which the issue of God may be decided, will always be disappointed.  As a scientist I claim no new proofs, no revolutionary data, no stunning insight into nature that can tip the balance in one way direction or the other.  But I do claim that to a believer, even in the most traditional sense, evolutionary biology is not at all the obstacle we often believe it to be.  In many respects, evolution is the key to understanding our relationship to God.  God’s physical intervention in our lives is not direct.  But His care and love are constants, and the strength He gives, while the stuff of miracle, is a miracle of faith, hope, and inspiration.

Ken Miller closes by stating, “I believe in Darwin’s God.”  Many of us think we do, too.  But until Ken and the rest of us can more convincingly account for the evil “woven into the fabric” of God’s creation, we haven’t found the God that Charles was looking for.

Copyright 2010 by Chris Dunford.  May be quoted in part or in full only with attribution to Chris Dunford (


The Voyage of the Beagle – Species and Change

When the Beagle expedition set sail in 1831, the great majority of English natural philosophers believed that each species of plant, animal, even microorganism was a unique and direct result of divine creation.  Given the unknowable purpose of the Creator, a human person could not predict what sorts of creatures would be found as the European explorers fanned out across the earth.  Certainly the outrageous variety of the planet’s creatures seemed consistent with such divine unpredictability.  For Charles Darwin, there was no counterpart of Charles Lyell’s Principles of Geology for the living world, to explain this living material in terms of material causes.  He had instead William Paley’s books, particularly Natural Theology (or Evidence of the Existence and Attributes of the Deity, collected from the appearances of nature), which were so widely accepted as conventional wisdom in English society as to be an essential element of Cambridge University education (I will review Natural Theology in a later post).  Charles took uncharacteristic interest in Paley’s books, no doubt because they spoke to his passion for natural history.  His Cambridge mentor, Professor John Stevens Henslow, and the Beagle’s captain, Robert FitzRoy, wholeheartedly embraced Paley’s explanations in terms of direct divine creation of each species.  According to Alan Moorehead’s account in Darwin and the Beagle (page 37), FitzRoy urged a very willing Darwin to use the voyage as a grand opportunity to substantiate the Bible, particularly the book of Genesis – looking for evidence of the Flood and the first appearance of all created things upon the earth – performing a valuable service by interpreting their scientific discoveries in the light of the Bible.


Linnaeus and the Collecting Imperative


Divine creation gave supreme importance to species as distinct entities presumed to be unchanged since their creation, much as the physical world was assumed to be now as it always was.  The great project for naturalists was to discover, describe, and catalogue these species, as a testament to the work of God.  Carl Linnaeus, of Sweden, less than a century before, had gathered the existing catalogues of species into a rational system of classification that serves us still.  The Linnaean system groups species into larger categories of similar organisms – genus, family, order, class, phylum, and kingdom.  It is significant that this systematic grouping subtly contradicts the notion of divine unpredictability by its implicit acknowledgment of relatedness among species.  Relatedness implies kinship, which means descent from a common ancestor.  The Linnaean system is built from a platonic notion of the species as a divinely created archetype, which is manifested in the real world as living creatures with some imperfect variation from the perfect archetype.  The archetypes bear no necessary relationship to one another, other than all being created by the same Creator.  However, the relatedness embedded in this classification system invites us to associate the species idea with individual humans related by descent from a common ancestor or with breeds of domestic plants and animals that can be traced back to common ancestors in the wild.  It is only a small step from Linnaeus to a notion of new species developing from existing species rather than directly from God. 


The Linnaean system of classification energized those with a natural bent for collecting, because his system gave a unique name to each existing species and established rules for naming and describing newly discovered species (and for giving recognition in perpetuity to the first person to do so for each new species!).  Linnaeus established the rules of a game many people were eager to play, including Charles Darwin and also Captain FitzRoy and a few other members of the Beagle crew.  They were schooled in the techniques for preserving specimens of species for description and naming and storage for posterity by expert curators of the British Museum or university museums or private collections.  A scientific voyage like the Beagle’s was expected to bring back to England a rich trove of specimens of species from across the full range of life on earth.


Charles’ shooting skill and physical fitness served this collecting imperative very well.  He also had lots of help from his servant, Sims Covington, and others of the crew or local people hired to guide his travels inland.  The collectors’ determination is exemplified in a passage of Charles’ Journal of Researches about his foray into the Brazilian rainforest near Rio de Janeiro.  One of his party shot a howler monkey dead as its prehensile tail was wrapped tight around a limb high in one of the taller forest trees.  The poor monkey’s body hung by its tail, frozen in a death grip on the tree limb.  Not to be so easily thwarted, they felled the enormous tree with their machetes, just to secure the prize specimen.  After a couple of years of avid pursuit of such specimens, ranging from the minute to the enormous, Charles found his geological hammer more in keeping with his focus on geology than his guns, which he handed over to Covington for the work of shooting birds, mammals, and other fast-moving creatures.


The Argentine Fossils — Species Replacing Other Species Over Time


On the low bluffs of the seashore and river banks of Argentina, Charles made discoveries that straddled his interests in geology and biology.  In the deeper layers of ancient sediment, Charles found the fossil remains of giant mammals vanished from the earth thousands of years before – they were not unlike the present-day sloths, armadillos, and guanaco, but much more massive.  Other fossilized remains resembled elephants and hippopotamus, which no longer live in the Americas.  He even found a fossil horse, showing that horses once roamed these plains and then became extinct long before horses were reintroduced to the New World by the Spanish. 


Extinction poses a problem for understanding divine creation of species.  Why would a species created by God be so imperfect as to go extinct?  Captain FitzRoy and others had answers in keeping with the Biblical story – for example, some species just did not make it onto Noah’s Ark in time, the larger species being the harder to accommodate.  If their answers seem forced, it is because they had to acknowledge somehow the fossil evidence of extinction; a rich assortment of fossils of now extinct animals and plants had been known for decades in Europe.  These fossil giants of Argentina added some spectacular new evidence, but they were significant mainly as direct personal confirmation for Charles that the species we see here and now are not all the same as the ones we would have seen thousands of years before in this same location.  Fauna and flora, like the geology, change over time.


The layer or stratum in which each fossilized animal is embedded tells a story of the environment of that animal in its own time, and Charles figured from the fossil-bearing strata that climate and vegetation then were similar to the present.  Therefore, the extinction could not be explained by catastrophic or even gradual geological or climate change.  Charles thought at first that species, like individuals, might have “a fixed and determined length of life” beyond which they would lose their vigor and go extinct.  Even if this were true (which it is not), Charles found it curious indeed that the giant mammals had been replaced over time by similar species, but almost all of much smaller stature.


Two Rheas — One Replaced the Other as Charles Traveled South


Charles devoted long passages of his Journal of Researches to description of the animals he encountered, often drawing from reports of local people and his own observations of their behavior and ecology.  One animal he was particularly taken with was the “ostrich” (now called the rhea) of South America.  Actually, there were two species, one of which was later named darwinii after Charles himself, from a specimen he pieced together from the remains of a bird his party had shot for food and mostly eaten by the time Charles realized this was the rarer species reported by his guacho companions.  Most interesting to Charles was that the common rhea of the pampas gave way to Darwin’s rhea in Patagonia, the dividing line being around the Rio Negro at 41º South – one rhea species rather abruptly replacing the other going south, yet the landscape and ecology changed only very gradually.  


Isolated Archipelagos — No Fear Where No Man Has Been 


First in the Falkland Islands and much later in the Galapagos, Charles was amazed by the tameness of the land birds of these islands – that is, the birds were unafraid of people, allowing themselves to be approached closely and even touched (or killed with a stick).  He noted that “of the few archipelagoes of any size, which when discovered were uninhabited by man, these two are among the most important.”  He also noted that “Few young birds in England have been injured by man, yet all are afraid of him: many individuals, on the other hand, both at the Galapagos and at the Falklands, have been injured, but yet have not learned that salutary dread.”  Charles concluded that fear of humans is a particular instinct directed at humans, not just part of a general caution arising from other sources of danger.  He also concluded that fear of humans “is not acquired by them in a short time, even when much persecuted; but that in the course of successive generations it becomes hereditary.  With domestic animals we are accustomed to see instincts becoming hereditary; but with those in a state of nature, it is more rare to discover instances of such acquired knowledge.”  It seems to me this remarkable passage gets insufficient notice in works on Darwin’s development of the theory of evolution.  Yet here already is a sound understanding of change within a wild species due to a new challenge in the environment of the species, much like the change brought about by selective breeding of domestic animals for various physical and behavioral traits.


Islands and Mainlands and the Species Problem



The Galapagos Islands are more associated in the public mind with Charles Darwin and the voyage of the Beagle than any other stopover of the five-year expedition, yet the Beagle spent barely more than a month exploring this archipelago and might have skipped the islands altogether in the crew’s eagerness to return home.  This distorted perception reflects the uniqueness of the Galapagos and its fauna and Darwin’s own recognition that this fauna and its distribution among the numerous islands triggered a line of thinking that led to his theory of evolution by natural selection.  However, the Galapagos stopover also came toward the end of the voyage, and after maturation of Charles’s conviction of the correctness of Charles Lyell’s worldview in which change is gradual and relentless over long periods of time, allowing highly improbable events to become commonplace, like the lifting up of the ocean floor to become the high Andes.  He had read about the Galapagos and was eager to see these volcanic islands where raw, new land was almost at its moment of birth and certainly in its early infancy.  Here he could see life just getting established.  What he saw was a fauna and flora composed of only a few species, unique to these islands but clearly related to the fauna and flora of South America, filtered by ability to cross 600 miles of ocean. 


In short, the creation of species seemed to be derivative from what was already available nearby, rather than de novo.  Though he did not mention it in his Journal of Researches, Charles must have noticed that the land animals of the Galapagos were quite different from those of the Cape Verde Islands, which are very similar in being volcanic, arising from beneath the sea, about 600 miles from the nearest continent (Africa), and quite arid though tropical.  The fauna of each archipelago is closely related to that of the nearby continent and very different from the other archipelago, a third of the way around the world.  One would think direct divine creation would be free to generate on both archipelagos the same, or very similar, species well adapted to tropical, arid, oceanic island environments. 


Charles admitted in his Journal of Researches that he was slow to realize how much variation existed between closely related species on different islands of the Galapagos archipelago – “it never occurred to me, that the productions of islands only a few miles apart, and placed under the same physical conditions, would be dissimilar.”  He was alerted by a claim by the vice-governor of the islands that he could ascertain the island of origin of each of the famous tortoises just by the shape of the shell.  Charles himself could distinguish three species of mockingbird.  He found mockingbirds on some islands but not on other similar islands, and each of the islands with mockingbirds had only one species.  This was a pattern of distribution consistent with a mockingbird species arriving by chance from South America and landing on one island, from which subsequent generations managed to reach a few other islands and then changed over time in isolation on those other islands.  Charles did not state this conclusion explicitly in his Journal, because he was barely aware of the pattern when he was in the Galapagos.  He missed the pattern entirely among the thirteen species of finches, because he “did not attempt to make a series of specimens from the separate islands.”  He was not even aware that the variation among the finches was enough to constitute separate species until he returned to England and had his collection analyzed by John Gould.


When the Beagle departed the Galapagos Islands, Charles had in hand and in mind the important pieces of the “species problem” that challenged the notion of direct divine creation of species that remain unchanged thereafter.  Certainly he and FitzRoy debated this problem as they puzzled over the evidence in the tiny captain’s cabin, making Charles very aware of how controversial it would be to follow his line of thinking about “mutability” of species to its logical conclusions.  However much his thinking had been set in motion, Charles did not admit in his Journal of Researches to evolutionary conclusions during the voyage itself.


The Thin Skin of Civilization — the Fuegian Experiment


This account of Charles’s observations about species and change during the voyage of the Beagle would be incomplete without mention of his observations about the people he encountered.  Most important were the three Fuegians, a mature man and two adolescents, a boy and a girl, whom FitzRoy had taken back to England from his first voyage to Tierra del Fuego.  He had them schooled to take on the manners of civilization, dressing, talking and acting like proper gentle folk, sufficient to present the threesome at the Court of St. James, in fact, to the Queen herself.  At his personal expense, FitzRoy implemented a grand but naive experiment to return the three Fuegians with an English missionary to establish a foothold for Christianity at the southern extreme of the inhabited world, among a people easily considered among the most primitive in existence.  The crew of the Beagle, Charles included, became quite fond of the two adolescents, charmingly named Jemmy Button and Fuegia Basket.  Certainly all had high hopes when the Beagle put the Fuegians and the missionary ashore to establish an outpost of English civilization among the primitives.  The Beagle then sailed away for a few weeks of coastal surveying and returned to find a disaster. 


The “civilized” Fuegians had been quickly co-opted by the local primitives and reabsorbed into the local culture, such as it was.  The missionary himself was besieged and felt at risk to his life.  The Beagle rescued the missionary and sailed away again.  After about a year, the Beagle returned and found only Jemmy Button, who lived like a typical Fuegian savage.  He and his new wife came out to the ship in a Fuegian canoe and spent time with the crew, clearly retaining his ability to interact like an Englishman, with wistful affection for his former comrades.  However, Jemmy freely chose to remain with his primitive wife and his savage life.  For Charles, this deeply troubling experience must have been a profound lesson on the “mutability” of the human person and species, making the boundary separating the gentleman from the savage seem shockingly thin and porous.  And given the animal-like existence of the Fuegians, even the separation of the human from other animals must have seemed distressingly slight.  The very notion of the human being as a special creation in the image of God was challenged.


Tahiti and New Zealand — Darwin and FitzRoy on the Missionaries


Don’t assume from this incident that Charles’s confidence in the superiority of Christian civilization was shaken.  Our modern mentality might jump to a conclusion of cultural relativism, in which all cultures are of comparable value in their appropriate contexts.  But this was not the mentality of early 19th century England, which was filled with unashamed confidence in the superiority of its own culture.  We “moderns” would deride this mentality as arrogant, paternalistic and imperialistic; however, before settling on this condemnation, we should read with an open mind Charles’s account of the expedition’s stopover in Tahiti.  He was very taken with beauty of the island and its people and of their way of life, including their rather sophisticated culture.  He was equally impressed by the impact of the English missionaries on the culture.  He makes a convincing case that introduction of Christianity by these missionaries actually changed the Tahitian mindset and way of life and thereby provided very real benefits for the average Tahitian, especially by eliminating truly savage practices which had been current only a few years before.


In contrast, Charles found the native culture of New Zealand repugnant, despite the same Polynesian roots as Tahiti.  Even worse, in his view, were the newly arrived English colonists.  Thus, Charles was not simply tilting toward his own kind; rather, he was holding all to a higher standard of behavior and civilization, a Christian standard.  This he made clear in his account of his visit to Waimate, a missionary-led agricultural community, where he found young Maoris quite transformed for the better by their adoption of the Christian standard.  Charles and FitzRoy were of one mind on this topic.  In fact, the two friends published a joint article (the first publication for both of them) on the success of the missionaries at Tahiti and at Waimate, New Zealand.  The editors of the Penguin Books edition of the Journal of Researches, Janet Browne and Michael Neve, make an important observation (page 25) that “it seems very probable that  Darwin’s views were shaped as much by his close relationship with FitzRoy as they were by his enthusiasm for Lyell or his own private love-affair with nature.” Charles’s correspondence from the Beagle “indicates a frank, cheerful trust in each other animated by a marked community of tastes and boyish camaraderie” which were fostered by “… long discussions, dangerous journeys, dust, dirt and shared enthusiasms …”


Australia — “one Hand has surely worked throughout the Universe” 


Finally, I’ll mention Charles’s impressions of Australia, founded as a British colony only 48 years before the Beagle’s visit in early 1836.  He was duly impressed by the uniqueness of the Australian fauna, especially the dominance of marsupial mammals.  But he argued from his observation of an ant-lion capturing insects in its unique conical pitfall trap, just as its sister species would in Europe, to reject the notion this mostly different fauna might be proof that two Creators were at work, one in Australia, the other elsewhere – “one Hand has surely worked throughout the Universe.” 


Charles noted the remarkable development of the economy and culture of British Australia.  Returning from his first walk around Sydney, Charles was “full of admiration at the whole scene.  It is a most magnificent testimony to the power of the British nation.  Here, in a less promising country, scores of years have effected many times more, than the same number of centuries have done in South America.  My first feeling was to congratulate myself that I was born an Englishman.” 


As he came to know Australia better, however, Charles was disappointed in the state of society, its focus on acquiring wealth, its treatment of the aborigines and the convict servants, and its low interest in intellectual pursuits.  He decided he could never willingly follow the many other Englishmen emigrating to Australia.  His parting comment was “Farewell, Australia! you are a rising infant and doubtless someday will reign a great princess in the south: but you are too great and ambitious for affection, yet not great enough for respect.  I leave your shores without sorrow or regret.”  Rather harsh words!  Which Australia must have forgiven or forgotten as the new nation named the capital city and major port of its Northern Territory after Charles Darwin!


Charles on the Question of God — Answers from Nature, Society and Family Life


This post brings to conclusion my series of four posts reviewing Charles Darwin’s voyage of discovery with Captain Robert FitzRoy and the Beagle.  This was the most formative and influential event of Charles’s life.  Almost all that followed in his scientific and writing career built upon the relationships, events and observations I’ve tried to summarize for you.  What I will do from this point onward is review the post-voyage unfolding of Charles’s thinking and activities leading to his theory of evolution and his gradual abandonment of belief in the God of early 19th century English Christianity.  I will explore the possibility that the theory and the abandonment of belief were not necessarily cause and effect, as we all have come to assume.  My exploration will go as deeply as it can into Charles Darwin’s personality and family life and into the nature and origin of his society’s thinking about God.  My hypothesis is that these personal and social factors influenced Charles’s attitude toward God and religion at least as much as his observations of nature and Man and the theory he concocted to explain it all. 



Copyright 2008 by Chris Dunford.  May be quoted in part or in full only with attribution to Chris Dunford (





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This blog by Chris Dunford explores the meaning of Charles Darwin's life, work and words in relation to the Science-Religion Debate. It is committed to intellectual honesty and historical perspective. Please click on the "Why this Blog" tab under the banner photo to learn more. Started in July 2008, this has been a very slow work-in-progress. Be patient with me and check in occasionally, if only to enjoy the banner photo!