Charles Darwin and His Theory

John C. Rankin

[excerpted from the 1999 First the Gospel, Then Politics … Vol. 2, unpublished]

The Theory

Any theory is the product of a person’s life and times. This is certainly true with Darwin (1809-1882). With the influence of the Enlightenment and deism in particular, orthodox Christianity was under fire among the intellectual elite in Europe and America. In the field of biology, Carolus Linnaeus had established principles for the classification of species which had been the rule since the mid-1700s. He was a “vitalist,” believing that all the species were specially and directly created by God, each with its own uniqueness. As represented by William Paley’s Evidences of Christianity (1794), theology and biology were viewed as complementary disciplines, with theology as “the queen of the sciences,” providing the basis for the study of the natural sciences. Paley argued that everything in nature is ordered and reflects intricate design and purpose. The presence of such design pointed to a Designer, and thus the observation of the natural order was clear evidence of God’s existence and personal involvement in the created order. Against this, the Enlightenment mentality sought an alternative hypothesis. The existence of a personal God, understood by the culture as the biblical Creator, militated against their pursuit of Epicurean, Stoic or other definitions of pleasure.

In his youth, Darwin was well provided for materially and he did not have much interest in his studies. At his father’s prodding he enrolled in divinity school at Christ’s College, Cambridge in 1828, but was half-hearted in his interest. In 1831, he was given the opportunity to serve as a naturalist on the H.M.S. Beagle. He was overjoyed, and his duties were to survey the south coast of Tierra del Fuego and the South Sea Islands.

It was on this trip that Darwin made detailed observations that catalyzed his proto-evolutionary ideas. Two observations were central.

First is the question of morphology and homology. In present linguistic usage, morphology is the study of form and structure in organisms, and homology is the study of similarities based on common descent. At one point the two terms were nearly synonymous in usage, but Darwin helped move us toward the modern usage. Darwin said:

“It is, in short, scarcely possible to exaggerate the close similarity in general structure of the tissues, in chemical composition, and in constitution, between man and the higher animals, especially the anthropomorphous apes” (Descent, pp. 13-14).

He then concluded:

“The homological construction of the whole frame in the members of the same class is intelligible, if we admit their descent from a common progenitor, together with their subsequent adaptation to diversified conditions. On any other view the similarity of pattern between the hand of a monkey, the foot of a horse, the flipper of a seal, the wing of a bat, etc., is utterly inexplicable” (ibid. p. 31).

Darwin’s basis for this argument rested on the use of analogy, and in his appeal to a common organic ancestry for all life, he rejected special creation. Also, he used this analogue to suggest that similar behaviors between man and animals based on homological usage also meant similar mental capacities between man and animals – that there was no important distinction between animal instincts and human reasoning, other than a higher form of evolution for man.

The second observation Darwin made on the H.M.S. Beagle was a sense of “cruelty” in nature. He could not reconcile the struggle for existence he saw in nature with his concept of a loving God. That concept included assumptions that God cannot be the author of the cruelties and waste seen in nature, that God would not create a world which misleads honest inquiry, that he only created through general laws, and that he would not “stoop” to mess with the specificities in nature. Here the bent of his theological training and assumptions is manifest. Darwin was also personally affronted by contemporary “catastrophists” (those who believed that geological formations on the planet are entirely a result of Noah’s flood).

These catastrophists argued that God created “ready-made” fossils to give the impression that the earth was older than it really was. Darwin rejected such an argument that God as Creator would simultaneously be a deceiver. Thus he ruled out what he saw as “arbitrary” interferences of God in the “natural order.” He also rejected views of God where God’s involvement in the natural order meant that by necessity he had to fatalistically predestine every detail of life, including every bird that swallowed every gnat in history. Darwin made an either/or proposition: Either God is involved in every trivial detail in nature, or not at all.

Thus we see 1) an analogue based on outward similarity of organic structure between different species, and 2) a revulsion against a concept of a God that allows cruelty and deceit, and who is picayune by nature.

With no Designer at the source of the natural order, Darwin moved toward the embrace of “chance” as the primary force in life. Yet at the same time he had difficulty embracing it completely:

“Mere chance, as we may call it, might cause one variety to differ in some character from its parents …. but this alone would never account for so habitual and large amount of difference as that between varieties of the same species and species of the same genus” (Origin, p. 118).

This tension surfaced repeatedly in his life, especially as he sought to overcome objections such as gaps in the fossil records and the infertility of hybrids:

“Authors of the highest eminence seem to be fully satisfied with the view that each species has been independently created. To my mind it accords better with what we know of the laws impressed on matter by the Creator, that the production and extinction of past and present inhabitants of the world should have been due to secondary causes, like those determining the birth and death of the individual. When I view all beings as the lineal descendants of some few beings which lived long before the first bed of the Silurian system was deposited, they seem to become ennobled” (ibid. p. 424).

Thus, Darwin finds his sense of “order” in a free-wheeling set of “secondary causes” that came from a one-time event of spontaneous generation, put in place by a far removed Deity. The highest concept he has of a god is one who initiates a process of chance then effectively disappears. This is a classic deism, of a variety where it is ethically the same as atheism, since God disappears altogether from the scene in favor of secondary material causes. These material causes become the true god for Darwin. Either “descent” or “chance” could be labeled as his god.

Darwin, to my knowledge, gave no indication that he was directly familiar with Epicurus. But the concept of the “Epicurean swerve” was current in much of the Enlightenment thinking which served as Darwin’s backdrop for his ideas, and the interest was very high among European intellectual elites to find an alternative to the “God-hypothesis.” The very nature of the biblical God included design and teleology (purpose), and its antithesis had to land pretty close to undesign (chance) and purposelessness. However, the “Epicurean swerve” was a primitive idea, and it had no plausible scientific mechanism to explain how it might work. So when Darwin published Origin in 1859, the intellectual elitists were poised to accept and lionize it.

Darwin provided the mechanism. He took Thomas Malthus’s “struggle for existence,” but did not draw a gloomy outlook for mankind as did Malthus, who saw population growth far outstripping food resources, and where catastrophe becomes the only scenario. Darwin instead posited the struggle for existence in the terms of the Roman coliseum, where in a gladiatorial contest for the “survival of the fittest,” the emperor would give “thumbs up” for the victor and “thumbs down” for the loser. A pagan analogy for a pagan worldview. This struggle became a means whereby the progress of the whole race or species occurred, where evolution to higher forms took place. In the concluding words to Origin, Darwin trumpeted this optimism:

“Thus, from the war of nature, from famine and death, the most exalted object which we are capable of conceiving, namely, the production of higher animals, directly follows. There is grandeur in this view of life; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being evolved” (ibid. p. 425).

Darwin argued that “natural selection” would favor the preservation of any “beneficial” chance variation or mutation that happened to an individual. The mechanism of inheritance would ensure this. But his perspective on the individual member was only in relation to the survival of the race or species at large. No premium was placed on the individual’s survival or happiness per se. Any individual that did not at least maintain the favorable variations it inherited would not be as important to the species, and thus might fall prey to extinction by means of natural selection. The priority in macroevolution is on the race, with the individual taking a subservient and sacrificial role, if need be, to that end. But in a material view, there is nothing at the very end. Natural selection thus becomes a mechanism only enabling the strong to survive a little longer than the weak, and is just as pagan as the Epicurean view.

Critique of the Assumptions

Charles Darwin had an agenda to deny teleology – to deny that there is purpose in life, to deny that God is good. Thus to deny the Gospel. At three points his argument is faulty. First is his basis of homological analogy; second is his denial of Paley’s argument by deliberate refusal to deal with him; and third is his postulate that chance variations can produce order and “progress.”

1. Analogy

Darwin was impressed by the homological similarities in the plant and animal kingdoms. His bias is evident in that he makes it a homological argument to begin with, not a morphological one. Namely, and by definition of the terms themselves as he used them, homology assumes an organic lineage (i.e., macroevolution); whereas morphology is a more objective term, which simply observes structural similarities between lower and higher forms of life, and where an organic lineage may or may not be deduced. In other words, by stating it as a homological argument, Darwin excludes any competing theory to be given consideration from the outset.

And Darwin’s only basis to assume common organic origins as the explanation was by the force of analogy. By definition, analogy is a tertiary element in argument, since all analogies are limited by their nature, and many analogies can be devised to support a single supposition. The choice of analogy is subjective, at the discretion of the one who makes the analogy, and in accord with his presuppositions.

Thus, when we have presuppositions at play, we must be up front about them. Darwin was not. And macroevolution’s intellectual force today still has no more basis than Darwin’s original use of analogy. The use of a monkey’s hand and a human hand equals a point of analogy, but it says nothing about why their uses supposedly can accomplish similar results. As well, the nature of the human opposable thumbs breaks the analogy, for it helps the human hand accomplish tasks much superior to that of a monkey’s hand, and in conjunction with the human brain. The difference between a monkey’s scrawl on a canvass if given a paint brush, and a man or woman’s ability to create art, beauty, language and literature, speaks for itself. When Darwin supposed that animal and human brain structures required an organic relationship in thought and instinct patterns, he did not give evidence of that organic relationship – he only used analogy.

In 1845, a writer in a popular magazine criticized this type of argument in a challenge to Darwin’s forerunner, A.R. Wallace. The writer describes a person who believes he has discovered an explanation for the unifying factor in a room full of furniture. Noting that the chairs, sofas, foot-stools, chest of drawers, beds and other pieces all have four legs, he concludes that they are all organically related by development and modification, i.e., that they have evolved from the simple stool. Darwin, in his homological analogies relative to bone structure, is no more scientific.

2. Paley

Darwin’s agenda is clear when he makes the homological analogy. He is intellectually dishonest when he dismisses all arguments other than “descent from a common progenitor,” that “any other view” to explain “homological” (not “morphological”) similarities between different species “is utterly inexplicable.” It is dishonest because Darwin knew well that Paley’s argument for a Designer, and that Linnaeus’s system of classification upon which he depended, assumed a Creator, and were the leading theories of the day. Darwin knew well that there were two possible explanations for morphological similarities.

Either there is a Creator who designed the bone structure of various species consistent with anatomical patterns that are good for all (e.g., the digits in a fish’s fin, or in a cat’s paw, or in a monkey’s hand, or in a human hand all have specific functionability suitable for each form of life, as the principle of separable digits applies in a cross-species fashion). Or there is the idea a common organic progenitor. The argument for a common Designer had and still has overwhelming intellectual force, and is by far the simplest theory. In contrast,  whereas the argument for a common organic source is still a theory without scientifically testable evidence, with complexity in reasoning multiplying upon complexity to make it sound plausible. If Darwin were honest, he would not have dismissed Paley’s argument by discounting it out of hand. He would have defined Paley’s position, contrasted it with his own, given his best argument, and would have admitted that his view was a new one seeking to challenge the reigning paradigm. But he did not.

3. Chance

Because Darwin wanted to deny teleology and God as a personal Creator, his only alternative in describing homological/morphological similarities was by chance variation. But then, as well as now, there is no evidence in the observable universe that a lower form of order ever produces a higher form, that nothing ever produces something, that non-life ever produced life, that a one-time or repeatable spontaneous generation has ever occurred. Cause and effect is universally demonstrated, and the logical assertion that all causes must trace back to an original Cause seems impeccable to me. What data has ever been produced that shows otherwise? Also, since part of the cause and effect reality of the universe includes human personality and choice, the original Cause must include superior personality and the power of choice. Only the biblical Yahweh Elohim meets these criteria, in contrast to all the gods or secular philosophies.

The Battle of Origins

Thus we arrive again at the question of origins, and a contest between the order of creation and contrary understandings. It is no mistake that the very title of Darwin’s original work, Origin of Species, deals with origins, and was designed to challenge the one origin text on the planet, Genesis, that addresses what precedes the existence of the universe. Just as pagan texts do not deal with what preceded or produced the “eternal universe,” so too macroevolutionary partisans today dismiss such a concern as theological and not scientific. This is the reality of “theological baggage” I discussed in Volume 1, where secularists fear that any discussion of religion will seek to impose itself against good science and personal freedom to be skeptical. We need to articulate the power of only Genesis to redress such fears, which too often have a basis in people’s experiences with the church or at least, certain representatives of the church.

Around 1995 I had a delightful talk with a French astrophysicist at a secular humanist conference in Toronto (I then drove a diesel Peugeot, and he liked that). When I asked him what preceded the universe, he argued for a multitude of expanding and shrinking universes, drawing me a diagram on a piece of paper showing how they cycle through our “closed” universe, only to later return. It was really an ancient post-Jain Hindu argument. But it also gave him a “scientific” out in terms of the origins of time. So when I asked him what was greater in size and nature than this putative cycle of universes, he had no answer. Many secularists refuse to deal with the larger question, I believe, because they cannot control and define it.

Darwin died in unease, and there were two large obstacles his mind could never dismiss. First was the absence in the fossil record of “intermediary” life forms giving evidence to gradual evolutionary progress from one species to another. He expressed confidence that in time the fossil record would demonstrate the evidence. And yet it still cannot.

The second obstacle was the question of how the eye could have evolved. Namely, if each stage of evolution requires adaptation in order to survive, then each stage must be more useful in survival than the prior stage. But the eye is useless unless fully developed. Darwin said:

“To suppose that the eye, with all its inimitable contrivances for adjusting the focus to different distances, for admitting different amounts of light, and for the correction of spherical and chromatic aberration, could have been formed by natural selection, seems I freely confess, absurd in the highest possible degree. Yet reason tells me, that if …” (ibid. p. 399).

He continues with a case of special pleading to allow for the eye by means of evolution from a simple photon, but clearly argues against his own better sense (and as well, he did not know the science where a photon is not so “simple,” but highly complex already). His “reason” which tells him this is a possibility is a reason in conflict with reason.

There have been many attempts to overcome this problem of the eye by macroevolutionists over the years. But recent work in microbiology and genetics only deepens their crisis. For example, it is now known that the ey gene which controls the development of the eye is virtually identical in drosophila (fruit flies), mice and men. It is also closely related to the parallel ey gene in aseidians (sea squirts), cephalopods (such as the squid and octopus) and nemerteans (ribbon worms). What this means is the ever increasing likelihood that the ey gene functions as a universal control mechanism in multicellular organisms, able to give the same general instruction to very different organisms. The evidence is moving further and further away from Darwin, not in his direction as he hoped. It sustains the argument of a Common Designer, not the possibility of a common organic progenitor through descent with modification which arose by chance to begin with.

As well, recent arguments examining the “irreducible complexity” in microbiology on the one hand, or in advanced mathematical theorems on the other, profile unrelenting design in the whole universe –  in organic life, and in non-organic matter. When the math is worked out, and we arrive at 10 to the -32 seconds after the explosion of the Hot Big Bang, all the math then points at infinity. At this point the limits of macroevolutionary analogies for life are far transgressed, for the ultimate question is what precedes, is greater than and defines the universe in which we live.

Perhaps the greatest reality of the origins of Origin of Species, is how it is rooted in the reversal, and not in the order of creation. For example, it represented Darwin’s failure to note or understand the moral distinction in Genesis 1 between humans as made in God’s image, and animals made after their own “kind.” The order of creation precludes macroevolution from the start. Apart from the genetic and biological realities of this, and prior as well, is the question of the reason why God did not have man evolve from lower forms of life – namely the gift of moral choice.

In this light, Darwin’s ethical observations on the H.M.S. Beagle were based on his not understanding the biblical assumptions of creation, sin and redemption. Namely, he confused sin with creation, and thus had no view toward redemption. When he spoke of cruelty in nature, he assumed that God in his creation ordained moral cruelty, for as well, he knew of cruelty in human nature as he experienced it. Namely, cruelty in nature – of one animal eating another – is not morally cruel since lower forms of life do not bear God’s image and do not have moral choice. Man is made after God’s own kind and equipped with moral responsibilities, but the other forms of life are not. So in a human attempt to “rescue” some sort of purpose in life, Darwin argued that the war of the “survival of the fittest” was indeed a type of “progress.” This is indeed a reversal of the order of creation, where man starts at the bottom, and is not the crown of God’s creation. It is where the nature of man’s fall from true human graces is replaced with an ascent to a humanity that struggles to get past cruelty. No different ethically than paganism.

As well, in his theological understanding, Darwin rejected the idea that God would fatalistically predestine every detail of life, such as what bird would swallow what gnat when. Here we can note that he had no grasp of the eternal nature of Yahweh Elohim as greater than space, time and number, and the ethics of the balance between his definitive sovereignty and our human choice, as we outlined in Chapter Four. How much of his assault against the Creator was rooted in deficient theologies he may have been exposed to in divinity school? He ethically regarded Yahweh as a Marduk while likely being historically unfamiliar with this contrast to begin with.

In addition, Darwin had to deal with a false representation of the Gospel, with the catastrophists of his time who feigned a reconciliation between a creationism that said the age of the geological earth was very young (a view just coming onto the scene in the 1830s), but while acknowledging evidence of much older fossils. They were willing to say that God put deceptive markers in the fossil records, as it were, to fool the skeptics. What this really reflects is the failure of the catastrophists to grasp the ethical nature of only Genesis and the goodness of the order of creation as a witness to the broken remains of God’s image in unbelievers, as a witness to the power to live in the light and the power to love hard questions. It also represented their failure to embrace such questions, and the balance of intellectual integrity, honesty and humility that it entails. Thus, most deeply, it profanes God by calling him a deceiver. It provided fodder for Darwin to rationalize a resistance to the word of God. So much evil gains a foothold to survive its own follies, simply because we as believers have misrepresented the Bible on its own terms.