You Ever Met
- Darwin: What difference would it make if we could meet this man in person?
- What do you know about this man?
- Would you let him make important decisions for you?
- Might we simply reflect on Darwin as a person and therein see that we, as he, are seeking to make sense of life?
Actually, we've already learned something interesting about a personal struggle Darwin encountered with regard to natural evil. This tells us something about how he thought about life especially within the mental framework of the Victorian era (see related page on Darwin's Dilemma). We too live in times where our thought life is distracted by multiple influences. The dilemma of the modern being is an assault of information in audio, video, and text, coming from every conceivable avenue. We get immersed in the din and rapid flux—without discerning minds we are directionless.
To get to know Charles Darwin is to hear about his schooling, health, thoughts, doubts, and achievements. None of this is integrated into the conclusions on evolution. Seeing and thus meeting the man puts us all on a level playing field.
The short answer is that Darwin was truly a thinker and deserves our respect. To understand the man as human—even to the point of seeing his logic and struggles—means thinking beyond blindly accepting Darwinism. To meet Darwin means learning of his humanity as well as his theories. And further, if we were to meet him, he'd be asking us of recent science news. In this process he might reveal a changing mind! We encourage that you be an active thinker—but with the advantage of seeing perspectives unobtainable in Darwin's day. Still new developments and data will certainly come tomorrow, but today we decidedly have an edge on the limited database of ages past.
Many of us 'meet' Charles Darwin through textbooks and other forms of media that give an account of his theory on evolution. Let's look at a thumbnail sketch of a number of key steps in Darwin's life.
Charles Darwin (1809-1882):
Dr. Spetner, among many other sources, gives a brief account of Darwin's life. He notes how Charles Darwin, at 16, was taken from grammar school and sent early to study medicine at Edinburgh University. But this did not last and Darwin next found himself at Cambridge University, now 19, preparing for a career in the clergy. At age 22 Darwin graduated, but instead of launching a career with the church his path lead him to follow his interests in science.
The turning point of his career came when he received an appointment as the naturalist on the scientific voyage around the world of the HMS Beagle. The appointment carried no pay, but it afforded Darwin the opportunity to apply his talents to the study of nature. Spetner (NBC) page 8
The voyage was to last two years, but ended up lasting five. Darwin returned home a mature and filled with a wide knowledge of field geology, botany, zoology, and paleontology. He would later use much of this knowledge in building his theory. ... Two years after returning from his voyage he married his first cousin, Emma Wedgwood. His father settled a sizable sum of money on him, and Emma also received a respectable dowry from her father. Darwin invested the money wisely and was able to live on the income. ... His research covered a variety of topics, yet all the while his theory of evolution was percolating in his mind. He wrote several works before 1859 that stemmed from the Beagle voyage. These included volumes on geology, among which were one on coral reefs and one on volcanic islands. He also wrote on zoology. These works contained both his observations and his theorizing. His most extensive work during this period was a four-volume work on barnacles, which brought him and the Royal-Society medal for biology in 1853. Spetner (NBC) page 9
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On might think Charles Darwin was active in the pursuit of science, but his health was poor which in turn restricted travel and participation in scientific meetings! So, while working on his manuscript—The Origin of Species—it was the writings and work of Alfred Russell Wallace, who was then exploring Malaysia, that caught up to Darwin by way of the mail. Darwin was faced by another scientist's work describing a theory much like his. With two works so much alike, it was Lyell who suggested both authors publish their work together.
Thus Wallace's paper, together with extracts a of Darwin's sketch of his theory written in 1844, were presented jointly as papers to the Linnean Society. Spetner (NBC) page 10
To understand Darwin's work you have to distinguish between his theory of descent and his theory of natural selection. The full name of the first is the theory of descent with modification. Some call it the fact of evolution, and some call it the doctrine of evolution. Darwin's theory of natural selection was his explanation of how descent works. Spetner (NBC) page 11
But we have already observed, Darwin's theory makes no account for chemical origins nor probabilities for life's origin. He simply picks up the story after life's appearance—however that may have come about. His ideas on descent skip past major hurdles that science today is unable to surmount.
Voices from the halls of science tell us we should accept evolutionary theory. Yet, what might we sense about Darwin's theory were we to actually assimilate more than the textbook description alone. Might there be doubts even in Darwin's mind? He would describe how he revised his writings over time, a fact often left unspoken. And how might he even describe the influence of the Victorian Era on the way his ideas were adopted and promoted. Even more curious, if you could report to Darwin the modern molecular findings and evidence for irreducible complexity (i.e., such as cellular and biochemical features that are apparently beyond the ability of evolution to produce) and even cite the current findings in support of intelligent design ... what might he say? In fact, he might embrace such reports. The relief in having answers, whether agreeable or contrary to his initial thinking, would be answers to his questions and proposals!
What is your impression of this man? So many photos project a serious and studious image of this iconic figure. How should he be characterized?
Such remarks belie the picture often painted of Darwin as a hardheaded scientific agnostic. On the contrary, if anything, he was a reluctant advocate of his views and very far from the ruthless crusader against religion and religious obscurantism as were so many of his followers, such as that arch anti-cleric, Thomas Huxley.
Darwin was not only a man of great personal sensibilities but he was also a man of great integrity, especially in scientific matters. He was by nature cautious and well aware that not only were his conclusions controversial but that the evidence was in many ways insufficient. He was acutely aware that the whole edifice he had constructed in the Origin was entirely theoretical. Denton (ETC) Page 55
What were you taught about Darwin's response to publication of his own work? If Denton is correct, the popular impressions of a conquering theory are simply superficial.
The popular conception of a triumphant Darwin increasingly confident after 1859 in his views of evolution is a travesty. On the contrary, by the time the last edition of the Origin was published in 1872, he had become plagued with self-doubt in and frustrated by his inability to meet the many objections which had been leveled at his theory. Denton (ETC) Page 69
Like everyone, Darwin made a lifelong transition in thought. Where did his transition lead him? Nancy Pearcey reveals a bit of the complexity to Darwin's path:
The typical account, certainly in popular works, portrays Darwin as a man forced to the theory of natural selection by the weight of the facts. But professional historians tell a different story. Long before formulating his theory, Darwin nurtured a sympathy for philosophical naturalism. He was therefore predisposed toward a naturalistic theory of evolution even when the evidence itself was weak or inconclusive.
In a personal letter Darwin describes his gradual loss of religious belief and slide into naturalism. By the late 1830s he writes that he had come to consider the idea of divine revelation in the Old Testament "utterly incredible." He had also rejected the biblical concept of miracles. In his words, "The more we know of the fixed laws of nature the more incredible do miracles become." This commitment to "the fixed laws of nature" preceded Darwin's major scientific work and made it virtually inevitable that he would interpret the evidence through a naturalistic lens. ... When Darwin began to consider the origin of species, "he did so as an evolutionist because he had first become a positivist, and only later to define the theory to validate his conviction" (Gillespie 1979, 46). Pearcey (MC) Page 77
If we could hear Darwin's account of how all this transpired, would we accept his words? That is, as convincing as he might have been, would we stop asking questions? If he rationalized to the point of skipping evidence, then he was finding the Victorian era's human comfort zone—not hard conclusions based on science alone.
Even when he found the theory, Darwin was aware that it could not be confirmed directly. Modern Darwinians often imply that the theory is so clearly supported by the facts that anyone who fails to concur must be intellectually dishonest or deranged. But Darwin was not so dogmatic. He described his theory as an inference grounded chiefly on analogy. And he praised the author of one review foreseeing "that the change of species cannot be directly proved and that the doctrine must sink or swim according as it groups and explains phenomena " (Darwin 1899, 2:155). In an 1863 letter, he amplified by pointing out that evolution by natural selection was "grounded entirely on general considerations" such as the difference between contemporary organisms and fossil organisms. "When we descend to details," he wrote, "we can prove that no one species has changed [i.e., the cannot prove that a single species has changed]; nor can we prove that the supposed changes are beneficial, which is the groundwork of the theory. Nor can we explain why some species have changed and others have not" (Darwin 1899, 2:210). In other words, Darwin was aware that the scientific evidence was short of compelling. Pearcey (MC) Page 77
Darwin's writings reveal his thoughts along the way.
An account by Nancy Pearcey reflects how Darwin admits to the lack of evidence for evolution, yet at the same time he believes it will come in time. He falls back on the concept of 'continuity' to assure himself this will be the case. Darwin's beliefs are a form of faith lacking evidence. And back then as today, the argument against design was based on a perception of what is scientific.
... Darwin's intellectual journey seems to illustrate the adage that if one rejects a Creator, inevitably one puts something else in its place. In Darwin's case, he assigned godlike powers to the laws of nature.
He did not argue that design was a weak theory or even a false theory; he argued that it was not a scientific theory at all. In 1856 he wrote to Asa Gray: "to my mind to say that species were created so and so is no scientific explanation, only a reverent way of saying it is so and so " (Darwin 1899, 1:437). As philosopher of biology David Hull writes, Darwin dismissed special creation "not because it was an incorrect scientific explanation but because it was not a proper scientific explanation but because it was not proper scientific explanation at all" (Hull 1973, 26).
When Darwin's own ideas were attacked, he defended them by arguing that at least his proposed theory was naturalistic—which begged the question. Pearcey (MC) Page 78
The question is: Are all explanations for life simply to be founded on naturalism (i.e., naturalistic) or is there something more to it? We are not saying nature plays no part in revealing the world or how things work. But on origins, nature falls short of providing all the explanatory data. Herein we find Darwin struggling against the idea of a Creator's hand—working in whatever way may be envisioned—and his assumption that natural means provide the mechanisms driving evolution.
Notice that Darwin's objections to providential evolution are twofold. First, it makes natural selection "superfluous," "rubbish," "mere verbiage." Natural selection was intended to replace design; the presence of both is redundant. As Darwin wrote in his autobiography, "The old argument from design in nature, as given by Paley, which formally seemed to me so conclusive, fails, now that the law of natural selection has been discovered. ... There seems to be now more design in the variability of organic beings and in the action of natural selection, than in the course which the wind blows. Everything in nature is the result of fixed laws " (Barlow 1958, 87). ...
Second, Darwin objected that adding divine a purpose to evolution takes the discussion "out of the range of science." The implication is that science cannot countenance intelligent causation in any form. In Darwin's mind, divinely ordained evolution was no different in principle from direct creation. Both were inadmissible in science. Pearcey (MC) Page 84
Again, there seem few alternatives. Either evolution and naturalism or something about design in the universe. Somehow science is necessary to the explanation. We agree to science as a tool to detect the nature of our origin and even to help define evolution. But if science finds limits to whatever science can say—so be it. Dogmatism arises only when one insists everything must be defined only in terms of science. Yet, for a long time the scientific research playing field has been defined in these terms. If the limits encountered by science are seen as opportunities for further exploration, then one can hope to advance the discussion, clarify issues, reveal new evidence, and end up closer to a sound conclusion. Limitations and confounding examples only forced a continued struggle in Darwin's mind for he struggled with examples.
Darwin wrote to Sir John Herschel: "One cannot look at this Universe with all living productions & man without believing that all has been intelligently designed; yet when I look to each individual organism, I can see no evidence for this. For, I am not prepared to admit that God designed the feathers in the tail of the rock-pigeon to vary in a highly peculiar manner in order that man might select such variations & make a Fan-tail " (de Beer 1959, 35). ... He asked Lyell: Could he really think that the deity had intervened to cause variations in a domestic pigeons "solely to please man's silly fancies"? (Darwin 1899, 2:97). ... In these facetious comments Darwin was ignoring centuries of debate among Christians over the balance between God's direct activity and the action of created causes. Pearcey (MC) Page 87
We are only touching on a bit of the broader character of Charles Darwin because he was human. This is not intended to marginalize his contribution, for his position gives a base from which to compare and contrast. That is a part of functional science as long as we are not painted into corners made of artifact and assumption.
Elsewhere we've included Dr. Spetner's comments on non-randomness in relation to evolution. This is an example of a recent writing that reveals calculations that help in comparing and contrasting a prior position. Perhaps Spetner's work would have intrigued Darwin and help modify the thought transition referred to at the start of this page. Again, to keep the dialog an open one, we recognize that Darwin had doubts and changed his thoughts over time ... he was essentially a critical thinker.
If Darwin had today's scientific evidence we'd see a completely different mental landscape!
If we could meet him today, there'd be a dialog going on. This is why we need to look at Darwin's initial thoughts but not be bound by them. Today, the thinking needs to be constructively critical as to allow an evolution of theory and a constantly renewing view of what the most recent evidence supports. In the past Darwin got caught up in his thought world. Indeed, what would be the outcome be if we could chat with him today!
Without some investigative thinking, we just don't give ourselves license to consider what outcomes would surface if we had a first hand understanding from other perspectives. If we went back in time we'd be able to recognize how the debates formed about biological evolution theory. The critics would be as real as the brute force of the textbook portrayal of Darwin's theory examined without criticism from his contemporaries. If we brought Darwin forward in time he'd engage a diverse audience and perhaps even chastise blind acceptance of any theory in an era when additional evidence broadens and illuminates new conclusions.
Quotations from "Mere Creation" (MC) edited by William A. Dembski are used by permission of InterVarsity Press, P.O. Box 1400, Downers Grove, IL 60515. www.ivpress.com All rights reserved. No portion of this material may be used without permission from InterVarsity Press.
Quotations from Dr. Michael Denton's "Evolution: A Theory in Crisis" are used by permission of Adler and Adler Publishers Inc., 5530 Wisconsin Ave, Suite 1460, Chevy Chase, MD 20815
Quotations from "Not By Chance" (NBC) written by L. Spetner, are used by permission granted by Dr. Lee Spetner.
Writer / Editor: Dr. T. Peterson, Director, WindowView.org
The WindowView drops many of the typical presumptions to take another look. What does scientific data tell us if we start without assumptions? And ... how contiguous is science information if examined along with scriptural perspectives provided by the Bible? The Bible is the only religious or holy book we know of that is in fact consistent with science. While not a textbook, the Scriptures are either contradictory or complementary to scientific perspectives. Have you looked at these perspectives? To see 'Science and Scripture in Harmony' is to reveal life, reality, and your future.