Review: Darwin's God

Reports of the National Center for Science Education
Volume: 
22
Year: 
2002
Issue: 
1–2
Date: 
January–April
Page(s): 
49–51
Reviewer: 
Donald Nield
This version might differ slightly from the print publication.
Work under Review
Title: 
Darwin's God: Evolution and the Problem of Evil
Author(s): 
Cornelius G. Hunter
Grand Rapids (MI): Brazos Press, 2001. 192 pages.


This book is far from a dispassionate account by a professional historian. Rather, the author, formerly senior vice president of a high tech firm in Silicon Valley, is currently completing a PhD in biophysics at the University of Illinois. The book is part of the literature produced in line with the "Wedge" strategy of the group of "intelligent design" theorists associated in various ways with the Discovery Institute's Center for the Renewal of Science and Culture. This group is led by Phillip Johnson, and includes Michael Behe, William Dembski, and Stephen Meyer, all of whom have lauded the book on its dust cover. According to Johnson, Hunter brilliantly argues that Darwinism is a mixture of metaphysical dogma and biased scientific observation, that "at its core, evolution is about God, not science". According to Behe, Hunter argues perceptively that the main supporting pole of the Darwinian tent has always been a theological assertion: "God wouldn't have done it that way."

In chapter 1, Hunter writes "Darwin's concern with the problem of natural evil is apparent in his notebooks and in his published works" (p 14). However, Hunter does not document his claim, either here or elsewhere in his book. (In fact, Hunter gives very few direct quotations from Darwin, and almost all of these refer to scientific matters.) There is, however, one famous quotation from Darwin, that Hunter actually includes twice in his book – a quotation from a letter to Asa Gray (referred to via Stephen Jay Gould and David Hull), namely: "I cannot persuade myself that a beneficent and omnipotent God would have designedly created the Ichneumonidae with the express intention of their feeding within the living bodies of caterpillars."

Chapters 2, 3, and 4, on comparative anatomy, small-scale evolution and the fossil record, respectively, follow a common pattern. Hunter gives an outline of evidence for evolution, then discusses the problems he sees with the evidence, and finally talks about metaphysical arguments.

In chapter 5, Hunter looks at the works of five evolutionists who saw fit to continue with Darwin's long argument, namely Joseph Le Conte, HH Lane, Arthur W Lindsey, Sir Gavin de Beer, and Verne Grant. Hunter says that his survey shows that evolutionists who have attempted to prove their theory rigorously have routinely resorted to nonscientific claims. Hunter says that the arguments put forward in support of evolution "are either arguments for the mere plausibility of evolution or arguments against the doctrine of divine creation. Over and over we find arguments about why God wouldn't have done it that way, which work only with a certain concept of God" (p 113).

In chapter 6, Hunter asks and answers the question, how did the evolutionists' notion of God become so popular that it needed no justification? Hunter says that the answer lies in the history of religious thought, and after discussing the ideas of Descartes, Burnet, Halley, Whiston and Leibniz, he points out that one's view of evil is profoundly influenced by one's view of God. Hunter next turns to the theodicies of Milton, the Cambridge Platonists, Leibniz, Grew and Hume (a theodicy is a defense of the attributes of God against objections resulting from the existence of physical and moral evil). These writers moved away from the view that God creates and controls the world and toward a view that God must be separated from evil, and Hunter argues that Darwin followed the same theodicies and just filled in the details.

In chapter 7, Hunter examines how the modern doctrine of God influenced early 19th-century thought and Darwin's formulation of evolution. However, Hunter says remarkably little about Darwin, other than the quote from the letter to Asa Gray mentioned above. In the following chapter, Hunter gives a brief survey of divine sanction and intellectual necessity in evolutionary thought and how the acceptance of evolution has influenced our current metaphysics. Hunter gives another extract from a letter of Darwin to Asa Gray. With reference to a man killed by lightning and a gnat snapped up by a swallow, Darwin wrote; "If the death of neither man nor gnat are designed, I see no good reason to believe that their first birth or production should be necessarily designed." Hunter says that it was reasonable for Darwin to argue that God would not be personally involved in the swallow's attack on the gnat – not because of any finding of modern science but because of the persistence of Gnosticism into modern times, and given such a premise it was then reasonable to conclude that God is altogether removed from the world.

In a final chapter titled "Blind Presuppositionalism", Hunter discusses theistic evolution as expounded by Theodosius Dobzhansky, BB Warfield, Terry Gray, Howard van Till, Kenneth Miller, and John Haught. We are told that "like Gray and van Till, Miller professes to be a Christian", and "like Miller, Haught professes to be a Christian" (p 170, 172). According to Hunter, all these people except Warfield "accept and even rely on the Darwinian type of metaphysical arguments against the view that a divine hand is active in creating and sustaining the world." Hunter goes on to say:
Darwin … believed that God could not be responsible for nature's carnage and inefficiency, so he proposed a purely naturalistic explanation. Evolution was a theodicy, and keeping this in mind helps explain the different responses to evolution, including those critics such as Hodge and the theistic evolutionists. This perspective also helps explain how those who accept evolution wholeheartedly can be content with evidence that establishes merely the plausibility of evolution (p 173-4).
Hunter quotes a statement from the National Academy of Sciences that "No body of beliefs that has its origin in doctrinal material rather than scientific observation, interpretation and experimentation should be admissible as science in any science class", and he concludes that on this criterion evolution should not be taught in science classes because it includes religious presuppositions outside of science. His final sentence is: "Ultimately, evolution is about God" (p 175).

The question now is whether Hunter has made his case or whether his book should be regarded as a revisionist reading of history in line with the "Wedge" doctrine of the "intelligent design" movement. There is no doubt that Darwin was concerned with the religious implications of evolution, but was he driven by religious considerations? To help to answer this question, I have studied the book Charles Darwin and the Problem of Creation by Neal C Gillespie (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1979). The author was Professor of History at Georgia State University. Hunter gives eight inconsequential references to Gillespie's book, but does not seriously engage its ideas. Gillespie (p 135) wrote:
There can be no real doubt as to Darwin's theism during the years that he prepared for and wrote the Origin. Aside from the strong evidence in his writing, he tells us in his Autobiography that the need for postulating an intelligent First Cause as initiating the universe – a belief implied in the theological arguments in the Origin – "was strong in my mind about the time, as far as I can remember, when I wrote the Origin of Species." When Dr Pusey seemed to accuse him of having written the Origin as an attack on religion and not as science, Darwin replied indignantly that Pusey was "mistaken in imagining that I wrote the Origin with any relation whatever to theology" (not exactly the case, as we have seen), and that "when I was collecting facts for the Origin, my belief in what is called a personal God was as firm as that of Dr Pusey himself."
Theodicy is not listed in the index of Gillespie's book. In light of this, I find Hunter's thesis difficult to accept. Elsewhere (p 133) Gillespie notes that later in his life, in the passage that concludes The Variation of Animals and Plants under Domestication, Darwin presents us with the quandary that he himself never resolved: if God is omnipotent and omniscient then it is hard to see why he is not also irrational and even immoral in producing superfluous laws of nature and waste of life. "Thus we are brought face to face with a difficulty as insoluble as that of free will and predestination." Darwin certainly recognized that his work involved the problem of theodicy, but that is completely different from Hunter's claim that it was consideration of theodicy that led Darwin to advance his theory of evolution.

References

About the Author(s): 

Donald A Nield
Associate Professor
Department of Engineering Science
University of Auckland
Private Bag 92019
Auckland New Zealand
d.nield@auckland.ac.nz