On Beyond Darwin | On Beyond Darwin - Chapter 2


On Beyond Darwin

Hans Reichenbach in his book The Rise of Scientific Philosophy says:

The evolution of life is but the last chapter in a longer story, the story of the evolution of the universe. [1]

Charles Darwin in his 1859 book The Origin of Species set out his basic ideas of the evolution of life—the “story of the evolution of the universe” has been the subject of much investigation since that time.

Evolution is change and development over a period of time. For Darwin the nature of the change was fundamentally a gradual one, neither abrupt nor cataclysmic.

Evolution need not be something that happens over a long period of time. A book by Nobel Prize winner Steven Weinberg called The First Three Minutes says this:

In the beginning there was an explosion. Not an explosion like those familiar on earth, starting from a definite center and spreading out to engulf more and more of the circumambient air, but an explosion which occurred simultaneously everywhere, filling all space from the beginning, with every particle of matter rushing apart from every other particle… These particles—electrons, positrons, neutrons, photons—were continually being created out of pure energy and then after short lives being annihilated again. Their number therefore was not preordained, but fixed instead by a balance between processes of creation and annihilation. [2]

The book describes what happened, according to the best current information, in the first three minutes after the creation of the universe. The subject of creation or initiation of the universe is not discussed—that topic is quite beyond scientific investigation.

As Werner Heisenberg, the author of the uncertainty principle in physics, puts it:

Causality can only explain later events by earlier events, but it can never explain the beginning. [3]

Or, as Reichenbach says:

To ask how matter was generated from nothing, or to ask for a first cause, in the sense of a cause of the first event, or of the universe as a whole, is not a meaningful question.

Explanation in terms of causes means pointing out a previous event that is connected with the later event in terms of general laws. [4]

In Weinberg’s account of the early evolution of the universe, he says that particles of matter and photons—particles of radiation— “were continually being created out of pure energy.” Just what “pure energy” is I do not know but naturally there is no explanation of where it comes from. It is an unanswerable question. Whenever a question seems unanswerable by rational or scientific means, it has been a habit of people in the past to explain the situation by stating that it was the act of the Creator of the universe. The existence of a Creator explains creation. Before Darwin, most people, including scientists, accepted the idea that each species of living beings had been created—by the Creator—in a special act of creation, presumably sometime after the creation of the universe. Darwin said:

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 the 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 not as special creations, but as the lineal descendants of some few beings which lived long before the first bed of the Silurian system was deposited, they seem to me to become ennobled. [5]

Darwin’s theory removed the active participation of the Creator from the development of the different species but continued to attribute the origin of “the laws impressed upon matter” to the Creator. Darwin’s aim—perhaps influenced by his wife, who was religious—was, in fact, to show that biological events followed a law—the law of evolution—just as astronomical events did. In his preface to a modern edition of The Origin of Species , John Burrow says:

Darwin had asked in his 1842 sketch, comparing the state of biology to physics, “What would the Astronomer say to the doctrine that the planets moved [not] according to the laws of gravitation, but from the Creator having willed each separate planet to move in its particular orbit.” After 1859 biologists no longer needed to say things of that kind and nor did anyone else. [6]

Darwin himself in The Origin of Species writes:

… 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. [7]

The use of the word “fixed” in connection with “law of gravity” shows that Darwin took the law as given. There is no indication that he believed that the law might have evolved over time. It has been the aim of scientists ever since Newton’s time to try to discover the laws, presumed to be fixed and constant everywhere, by which the universe operates. These laws, being themselves unexplained, were presumed to be the work of the Creator. Man’s relationship to the Creator was judged as special within the creation in that he could know what was in the “mind” of the Creator.

Prince Albert, consort of Queen Victoria, indicated his view of the special position that man, as scientist, holds:

His Reason being created after the image of God, he has to use it to discover the laws by which the Almighty governs His creation and, by making these laws his standard of action, to conquer nature to his use; himself a Divine instrument. [8]

Darwin’s work had merely repositioned the Creator’s main activity to an initiating one, of laying down the laws and starting creation, rather than a continuing one. As Gertrude Himmelfarb points out in her book on Darwin:

Macmillan’s Magazine argued that the basic religious beliefs—the nobility of conscience, our power of communion with God, and our hopes of immortality—were in no way impugned by Darwinism, since no matter how far back Darwin succeeded in tracing the evolution of man, the laws governing that evolution must still ultimately be ascribed to a Creator. [9]

One reaction to Darwin’s work shortly after its publication came from Frederick Temple, who emphasized that God’s power is found in the laws rather than in miraculous interference with them:

The fixed laws of science can supply natural religion with numberless illustrations of the wisdom, the beneficence, the order, the beauty that characterize the workmanship of God … [10]

Temple uses the term “natural religion.” Sometimes this is referred to as “natural theology,” a knowledge of God—the Creator—through nature. Himmelfarb says:

“Natural theology”—the search for “evidences” of Christianity and God in the facts of nature—was not a device invented by shrewd theologians to make science subservient to religion. It was, rather, an attempt to explore nature in the only way that seemed to make nature, as well as God, intelligible—in terms of design. Paley set down the first principle of the creed: “There cannot be design without a designer, contrivance without contriver.” And although he himself preferred to look for illustrations of design where he could find no evidence of natural or mechanical laws, others found design precisely in the operation of such laws…

Earlier, in the seventeenth century, it had been mathematics that had been invoked to demonstrate the rationality and thus the divine providence of the universe: Newton’s scientific work was inspired by the same religious mission that led him to devote so many years to the allegorical examination of the prophecies of Daniel. In the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries it was natural science that was ransacked for “Christian evidences.” [11]

This activity of looking to nature for confirmation of God’s existence was more accessible to the general population through the life sciences than through the physical sciences. As Burrow says:

To pursue in any detail the pleasing evidence of harmony and divine purpose in the Newtonian heavens required some rather abstruse mathematics; to trace the same evidences in each leaf, stamen and antenna was well within the scope of any country clergyman with a collecting basket. To follow the workings of nature was to explore the mind of its Creator and to receive renewed assurances of his benevolence. [12]

Burrow indicates that this great popularity of finding God in nature in Victorian times had a kind of fifth column effect:

Bug-hunting was the Trojan horse of Victorian agnosticism. [13]

It was after all through this kind of activity—bug hunting—that Darwin’s theory evolved . Darwin’s theory was based on the chance events of variation and natural selection, not on any predetermined design for any particular species, even man. Darwin resisted any attempt to introduce a purpose or telos into the evolutionary chain of events. Himmelfarb reports:

When Asa Gray interpreted him [Darwin] as saying that the system of nature had “received at its first formation the impress of the will of its Author, foreseeing the varied yet necessary laws of its action throughout the whole of its existence, ordaining when and how each particular part of the stupendous plan should be realized in effect,” Darwin protested that this was not at all what he meant. To find such evidences of design not only in the end product of natural selection but also in each stage of it was to deny his theory altogether. For if each variation was predetermined so as to conduce to the proper end, there was no need for natural selection at all, the whole point of his theory being that, out of undesigned and random variations, selection created an evolutionary pattern. [14]

Darwin anticipated his critics in the Origin itself:

That many and grave objections may be advanced against the theory of descent with modification through natural selection, I do not deny. I have endeavoured to give to them their full force. Nothing at first can appear more difficult to believe than that the more complex organs and instincts should have been perfected, not by means superior to, though analogous with, human reason, but by the accumulation of innumerable slight variations, each good for the individual possessor… and, lastly, that there is a struggle for existence leading to the preservation of each profitable deviation of structure or instinct. [15]

He emphasizes that the temptation to see design in complex organs is almost overwhelming but must be resisted:

It is scarcely possible to avoid comparing the eye to a telescope. We know that this instrument has been perfected by the long-continued efforts of the highest human intellects; and we naturally infer that the eye has been formed by a somewhat analogous process. But may not this inference be presumptuous? Have we any right to assume that the Creator works by intellectual powers like those of man?… Let this process [variation and natural selection] go on for millions on millions of years; and during each year on millions of individuals of many kinds; and 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 those of man? [16]

Still, the Creator and his methods—those of evolution now—are very apparent. Even though initial design and purpose of the creation are not to be believed, predetermined principles or laws governing the evolution and operation of the universe are acceptable ideas.

Darwin had made a great step forward over his scientific forebears in evolution. Thomas Kuhn notes:

All the well-known pre-Darwinian evolutionary theories—those of Lamarck, Chambers, Spencer and the German Natur Philosophen had taken evolution to be a goal-directed process. The “idea” of man and of the contemporary flora and fauna was thought to have been present from the first creation of life, perhaps in the mind of God. [17]

Darwin knew that the scientific community would not abandon the idea of a goal in creation lightly, and he was right. Himmelfarb summarizes the situation:

What all his critics assumed to be a major difficulty in his theory, he blandly took as confirmation of that theory. While they objected that perfection implied design, that complex and intricate organs could not have evolved by the slow process of selection acting upon chance variations, he insisted that such organs could never have been created in a perfect state. [18]

Not all members of the community were displeased to see chance triumph over design as Himmelfarb continues to say:

Some Calvinists gloried in it precisely because it exalted chance, not design. It was this that confirmed their faith in special providence, in the arbitrary election of the chosen, and in the spontaneous, unpredictable, and often tragic nature of the universe. [19]

It has often been the case that freedom from strict adherence to law has been welcomed by religious thinkers as a loophole through which God might intervene, as Providence, in the operation of the universe without contravening His own design principles. Of course, such an intervention would mean that the chance events were not really chance events and design principles based on chance would indeed have been contravened.

The position of natural theology, as it stands now, rests on finding evidence for God in the existence of the laws that govern—or describe—the universe, including the law of evolution. As was mentioned by Burrow, the reason people preferred to look at the life sciences rather than the physical sciences for evidences of design was that Physics involved some rather “abstruse mathematics” and for many people even a simple physical formula is abstruse.

Most peoples’ faith in the confirmation of religion by science is usually somewhat secondhand. They look to the distinguished men of science for statements of faith, and these statements are not hard to find. Albert Einstein is one of the most distinguished:

Everyone who is seriously involved in the pursuit of science becomes convinced that a spirit is manifest in the laws of the universe—a spirit vastly superior to that of man, and one in the face of which we with our modest powers must feel humble. [20]

Einstein is just one in a long succession of scientists before and after Darwin who accepted the existence of universal laws as evidence of a Divine plan. Newton started it all with his universal law of gravitation and his laws of motion—and many since have seen similar evidences of the hand of the Creator. Maupertuis in 1747 invented a principle called the principle of least action which he believed was evidence of the wisdom of the Creator. Leibniz invented the idea that this was the best of all possible worlds, an idea that Voltaire mocked in Candide .

As an apologia on the title page of the Origin Darwin quoted Bacon’s Advancement of Learning :

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. [21]

This is a clear statement that science was an investigation in the “book of God’s works.” Darwin weakened but did not destroy natural theology.

Natural theology is alive and well today. A surgeon friend of mine recently offered a talk, as a layman, at a church service which I attended. He spoke with great conviction about the fact that his belief in God rested securely on the magnificence of the law and order of the universe. Dr. Werner Von Braun, the rocket specialist, stated in a letter in 1972:

One cannot be exposed to the law and order of the universe without concluding that there must be design and purpose behind it all.

But, many modern theologians are not pinning their religious beliefs on natural theology. Paul Tillich in his Systematic Theology I states:

If the element of fore-seeing [in Providence] is emphasized, God becomes the omniscient spectator who knows what will happen but who does not interfere with the freedom of his creatures. If the element of fore-ordering is emphasized, God becomes a planner who has ordered everything that will happen “before the foundations of the world”; all natural and historical processes are nothing more than the execution of this supratemporal divine plan… Both interpretations of Providence must be rejected… Providence is not interference; it is creation. Providence is a quality of every constellation of conditions, a quality that “drives” or “lures” toward fulfillment… It is not an additional factor, a miraculous physical or mental interference in terms of supernaturalism. It is the quality of inner directedness present in every situation. [22]

Tillich rejects a “supratemporal divine plan” and rejects “miraculous interference.” But, he does affirm a teleological principle as an “inner directedness present in every situation.”

But, if a divine plan is truly evident from the laws of nature, how could such evidence for the existence of God be rejected by theologians?

From the earliest days of experimental science the mention of God has been absent from scientific writing—not in scientific memoirs. Heisenberg says:

In this period [of Galileo] there was in some cases an explicit agreement among the pioneers of empirical science that in their discussions the name of God or a fundamental cause should not be mentioned. [23]

Laplace said, “I have no need of the hypothesis of God,” meaning that scientific explanation does not need to include any reference to the name of God. This is not to say that Laplace rejected God or that God is a hypothesis. But, science does refer to natural laws and laws imply design and as Paley said, “There cannot be design without a designer.” Is it possible in science to say “I have no need of the hypothesis of design”?

The title of this chapter is On Beyond Darwin . Darwin argued that design as a part of the explanation of the evolution of life was not necessary; I would like to go beyond Darwin and remove design as an essential part of the explanation of the evolution of the physical universe.

But, how can design be denied? Hoffman in his biography of Einstein says:

The supreme task of the physicist is to arrive at those universal elementary laws from which the cosmos can be built up by pure deductions. [24]

There are few physicists who would venture for a moment to say that there are not fundamental—or elementary—laws “from which the cosmos can be built up.” Are not these laws behind the order we observe in our universe? And without order there would be no science. But, I maintain that it is possible to have order without design. It is my thesis that there is no more evidence for design in the elementary laws of physics than there is in biological evolution, and this book is an attempt to put before you an argument which will convince you of the validity of that statement. I believe that the implication of design evidenced by natural law was introduced by Newton and has remained, almost unmodified, to the present day. When we accept the idea that natural law implies design we are accepting, without realizing it, an argument for the existence of a Designer based on natural evidence. It is my belief that proving the existence of God is not possible from facts about the physical or biological universe. Neither would it be possible to deny the existence of God—or a Designer—if no evidence for design is found in nature.

But, my interest here is not in the religious aspects of this, although these are profoundly important. What I think has happened is that the religious beliefs of scientists in the past, like Newton, have set a pattern for science that may not be entirely appropriate for today. The pattern involves the unquestioning acceptance of the existence of natural laws. I believe that this metaphysical idea has become a basic premise of physical science, just as special creation of each species was a metaphysical idea behind pre-Darwinian biological science. What I found was that, when I gave up accepting the premise of the existence of natural laws, many of the discrepancies I had found in Physics could be resolved.

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