Charles Darwin on Faith and Chance

In a prior post, I mentioned Darwin as a marker in our modern era of life in process, consistent with the notion of our Living God, Nameless God, our God that is, with the world, becoming.  As Copernicus and Galileo challenged the Church’s assumption that the earth, the locus of humankind’s domain, was the center of the universe, so Darwin challenged the notion that humankind was specially created to have dominion over the earth and life upon it.  Early in the 20th century the latter conflict was formalized in the Scopes Monkey Trial.  Thereafter, Christian fundamentalists have dismissed the dialog concerning the actual science of the phenomenon of evolution by framing it as a conflict between science and religion, in which case biblically literal religious faith trumps pretentious scientific knowledge.  To the other extreme, atheists also pose the issue as a conflict between religion and science, in which objective science trumps subjective religious faith.

As I see it, Christian fundamentalists and radical atheists merely represent two sides of the same coin: each would strip physical life of mystery and sacred value, but for different reasons.  Darwin is neither a threat to Christian faith, nor the friend of atheism.

A young admirer asked Darwin about his religious views (the original inquiry is lost), and the great naturalist answered:

It is impossible to answer your question briefly; and I am not sure that I could do so, even if I wrote at some length.  But I may say that the impossibility of conceiving that this grand and wondrous universe with our conscious selves, arose through chance, seems to me the chief argument for the existence of God; but whether this is an argument of real value, I have never been able to decide.

Although Henri Bergson has not been the focus of bad press, as has Darwin, yet he recognized that evolution by mere chance is not a necessary conclusion of Darwin’s theory of evolution.  Rather, the procession of life from a simpler form to a more complex and advanced form is possible only through a coordination of many changes, none of which, without the other, bears any advantage over the earlier life form.  Henri Bergson gave that coordinating principle a non-descriptive and non-limiting name: vital elan, or “vital principle.”  Such a notion of biological encoding had long been recognized in the function of genetics.  The fact that such coordination was necessary for biological advantage invites an exploration of the mechanics of that function. addresses What Darwin Said About God:

No figure in modern history has received as much religiously based criticism as Charles Darwin.  He is seen as worse than an atheist; his work has been attacked as a threat to the belief that the universe and mankind are God’s creations.

Charles Darwin was not the first person to write about evolution.  In his book Origin of Species he gives credit to 24 naturalists who discussed the idea before he did.  Since Darwin did the most work to research and promulgate the topic, the concept of evolution has been identified with him.

Many who are angrily anti-Darwin have not read the Origin or examined Darwin’s personal life.  At Cambridge University he studied to be a minister.  However, he felt that science should be objective in nature, and was careful to keep any reference to God or a creator out of his work, particularly in his two major works On the Origin of Species and The Descent of Man.  For example, he states in the Origin, “They [creationists] believe that many structures have been created for the sake of beauty, to delight man or the Creator (but this latter point is beyond the scope of scientific discussion)”

Toward the end of his life Darwin’s reluctance to discuss God diminished.  It is in the sixth edition of the Origin where this shift is most noticeable.  The sixth edition was the last edition edited by Darwin.  It was released in 1872 — some thirteen years after the first edition was published.  The word “evolution” appears for the first time in the last edition.

Darwin used the word “Creator” nine times, and the word “God” twice in the sixth edition. Of greater importance is what he said about life and the Creator’s role in it.  Darwin never said that evolution was Godless or directionless.  In fact, a reading of the sixth edition of Origin proves that both of these assertions are factually incorrect.  The second page of the Origin prominently displays this quote:

To conclude, therefore, let no man out of a weak conceit of sobriety, or an ill-applied moderation, think or maintain, that a man can search too far or be too well studied in the book of God’s word, or in the book of God’s works; divinity or philosophy; but rather let men endeavour an endless progress or proficience in both.  – Bacon: “Advancement of Learning.”

Darwin addressed several objections to evolution in the sixth edition of his Origen of Species.  (He added a Chapter Seven titled “Miscellaneous Objections to the Theory of Natural Selection.”)  One of best-known criticisms of natural selection was that nothing as complicated as an eye could have evolved purely by chance.  Darwin’s response was that we can observe many examples of the evolution of light-sensitive cells in nature.  The most intriguing thought Darwin had on this subject was that just because we don’t understand how something can evolve does not mean that the Creator wasn’t behind it.  His exact words in the sixth edition of Origin were “Have we any right to assume that the Creator works by intellectual powers like those of man?”  Using the telescope as an example of a man-made optical instrument, he added: “May we not believe that a living optical instrument might thus be formed as superior to one of glass, as the works of the Creator are to man?”

For a more detailed discussion, see Myth 5: Darwin thought evolution relied on accidents and chance at

 See, also, Why Do We Care About Human Evolution Today?  at

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