The Darwin Puzzle

[tab:In the Air]

In the Air

Evolution had to happen. No, I don’t mean evolution is a fact. I mean someone, at some point, was going to come up with a completely materialistic explanation for the diversity of living things. That “someone,” as we all know, was Charles Darwin. His groundbreaking work, On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, hit the bookshelves on November 24, 1859.

So yes, evolution was in the air. Consider Darwin’s immediate intellectual forerunners. There was Erasmus Darwin, Charles’ own grandfather. There was the French zoologist, Jean-Baptiste de Lamarck. There was Robert Chambers, who softened up the English masses with a God-lite version of natural history. And then there was Alfred Wallace. Working independently of Darwin, Wallace developed a theory of evolution based on natural selection. The arrival of Wallace’s essay in 1855, mailed all the way from Borneo, set the cat among the pigeons. Vexed by the thought of someone beating him to the punch, Darwin rushed to finish his book. The ensuing political maneuvers, which gave Darwin the lion’s share of the credit—and the profits—are a matter of controversy to this day.

So what was special about Darwin? And, more importantly, why was Victorian England primed to adopt his theory? There are, I would like to suggest, four essential pieces to the Darwinian puzzle.

[tab:1. Naturalism]

1. Naturalism

Charles Darwin wanted to formulate a completely natural explanation for the diversity of life. Officially, he had no beef with God, as long as God stayed out of the natural world. In taking this position, Darwin was enshrining a core commitment of Enlightenment skepticism. We can trace the rise of this naturalism, as it came to be called, in three important moves.

First, Isaac Newton set the world on fire with science. He offered an explanation for events in the natural world without any appeal to magic or miracle. But how did the planets maintain their nice, steady orbits? Newton had no answer, except to invoke the ongoing providence of God.

In the next move, Pierre-Simon Laplace set out to finish what Newton had started. According to one spurious but oft’-repeated story, Napoleon took an interest in Laplace’s work on celestial mechanics. But the emperor had a question: Why no mention of God? “Sire,” Laplace famously replied, “I have no need of that hypothesis.” The moral was obvious: scientists shouldn’t use God to plug the gaps in their theories. It was bad for science because it closed the doors to further study. And it was bad for faith because it made God look unnecessary.

The third and final move required a sustained attack on the design argument. In 1755 a young German philosopher by the name of Immanuel Kant proposed a completely natural, purposeless explanation for the solar system. The universe was a machine blindly following an unwavering system of laws written into the fabric of the world. God would be allowed to frame those laws. But even this “world-author” grew increasingly distant and irrelevant. For Kant, the appeal to design was nothing more than an admission of our own ignorance. Self-respecting students of nature, he insisted, would always yield to the findings of empirical science.

Meanwhile, in the English-speaking world, David Hume threw everything but the kitchen sink at the design argument. Several barbs missed their mark entirely, but two points would take pride of place in Darwin’s work. First, there was the time-worn but oh-so-convenient problem of suffering. How could a wise and good Creator make a world with so many mistakes and so much pain and death? And second, causes and effects must be similar. God and the world, Hume contended, are not similar. We are better off, he thought, limiting natural causes to natural effects.

Naturalism propelled Darwin to a completely materialistic explanation. Sure, the world might look designed, but appearances can be deceiving. These things were natural, and they demanded a natural answer. Darwin paid lip service to the “laws impressed on matter by the Creator,” but it didn’t really matter. It was time to do for biology what Kant and Laplace had done for cosmology and, as we are about to see, what Hutton had done for geology.

[tab:2. Uniformitarianism]

2. Uniformitarianism

In the opening chapter of his book, Darwin leads off with a discussion of domesticated species. If puny man could do so much in so little time, he gushed, imagine what nature could achieve over eons of geological time.

Where did he get all that time? And why think that small-scale changes in horses and pigeons and roses could work relentlessly to produce the immense variety of life we see on earth today?

The first question is easy. Long ages of geological time were a given in Darwin’s day. Although James Ussher had fixed the date of creation to October 23, 4004 BC, belief in the literal text of the Bible was beginning to wane. Adam Sedgwick is a classic case in point. Sedgwick showed Darwin how to do geological fieldwork, but savaged the Origin when it came out. He believed in a miraculous, purposeful creation, but embraced German higher criticism. Having given up on a literal reading of Genesis, there was no incentive to develop a sophisticated understanding of the rocks in terms of a relatively recent worldwide flood. For men like Sedgwick, the immense thickness and complexity of geological strata suggested a much longer timeframe than Ussher could provide.

The second question can be answered by a deceptively simple slogan: “The present is the key to the past.” This operates under the imposing title of uniformitarianism. It begins in the now-familiar territory of a mechanical universe where the laws of nature reign supreme. Laws not only are uniform in space and time, they are uniform in the way and rate at which they work. If I observe sand building up an inch per year in a river delta, and then come across a hundred foot sandstone cliff, the implications are obvious, and have nothing to do with a catastrophic flood. The delta deposits of the present will be my guide to the sandstone strata of the past.

James Hutton, the “father” of uniformitarianism, published his Theory of the Earth in 1795. He rejected any kind of miraculous intervention in nature and put no limits on geological time. Earth’s history, he said, had “no vestige of a beginning,—no prospect of an end.” These ideas remained fairly obscure until they were popularized by Charles Lyell in his Principles of Geology—a massive three-volume work published between 1830 and 1833. He sent the first volume to Charles Darwin, who was serving as naturalist to the H.M.S. Beagle. Lyell’s second volume introduced the young Darwin to Lamarck and started him thinking about the distribution of plants and animals around the world. A third volume continued Lyell’s assault on the Genesis flood.

Through the lens of Lyell’s writing, Darwin saw an indescribably ancient world marching resolutely to the drumbeat of natural cause and effect. For Darwin, this applies just as much to the world of living things as it does to the planet on which they depend for their very survival. He expressed this view in a common Latin saying of the day: natura non facit saltum (“nature never makes leaps”). Ironically, he borrowed this phrase from his opponents who insisted on a hard and fast separation between the species. But Darwin was trying to emphasize the manner and rate of change, not the very possibility of change. On his view, the law of natural selection will proceed by “the shortest and slowest steps,” and so the kind of small-scale changes observed in domesticated species will become large-scale changes over long periods of geological time. Neither nature nor God can interfere by creating whole new species out of nothing.

Today, geologists might allow the odd catastrophe here and there, but for all practical purposes, they function as uniformitarians. Similarly, biologists might concede the possibility of rapid evolution, while insisting that it proceed in a series of very small steps. It is important to recognize, however, that the commitment to uniformitarianism, like the commitment to naturalism, is a dubious philosophical assumption. It is imported into science, and is neither a finding of science nor a precondition for doing science.

[tab:3. Social Status]

3. Social Status

What was Darwin doing on the Beagle? After all, he holds a newly minted degree in divinity from Cambridge. Shouldn’t he be finding a nice, quiet Anglican parish in which to spend the rest of his days?

Indeed, a career in the church was a respectable option for someone of Charles’ social standing. He was born into “new money.” His father and grandfather were successful physicians. His maternal grandfather and future father-in-law were members of the wealthy Wedgwood family. As a child, Charles received a good education. He attended medical school in Edinburgh for a short while, but it was not to his liking.

The church, however, would never have satisfied Charles’ fascination with nature. He availed himself of the best science professors at Edinburgh and Cambridge. When the invitation came to join the Beagle, he was able and willing to take on a voyage of scientific discovery.

In reality, Charles did not need a paying job. Through a substantial inheritance and wise investments, Charles and his wife Emma were able to live a comfortable life. Charles answered to no one. More importantly, the couple’s religious inclinations were decidedly unorthodox. Unitarianism featured prominently in their upbringing. Even in his pre-evolution days, Charles had a hard time accepting the Trinity and other essential doctrines of the mainstream Anglican Church.

All of this put Darwin in a perfect position to study and write while building valuable social connections. Wallace never had this privilege. At the same time, Darwin was a religious nonconformist. The road from marginal Anglican to self-described agnostic was very short indeed.

[tab:4. Bad Theology]

Bad Theology

The religious consensus in Darwin’s day had settled on a position known as Species Fixity. This was a view endorsed Carl Linnaeus—the highly respected father of modern taxonomy. Like Newton, Linnaeus took himself to be studying the order of God’s creation. He arranged living things around the basic unit of species. On the assumption that species were equivalent to the kinds mentioned in Genesis 1, and knowing that God had commanded each plant and animal to reproduce after its own kind, Linnaeus concluded that species never changed. Sounding like a rash politician, Linnaeus promised “no new species” (nullae species novae).1 With the discovery of what we now call mutations and hybrids, Linnaeus retreated to a more moderate position,2 but the cat was out of the bag.

Of course, Linnaean “species” and Genesis “kinds” are not the same thing. One is intended for scientists and the other is intended for Moses’ readers, but this was not the only problem. Linnaeus and his contemporaries embraced a great “chain of being” in which everything had its divinely appointed place. The appearance of new species or, for that matter, the extinction of existing species, would imply a change in God’s created order. If God can’t change, then species can’t change either.

Species Fixity led to a closely related position known as Independent Creation. If geological events changed the surface of the earth, but species can’t change to match the new conditions, how can they survive? The solution was to have God create the right species at the right time in the right place. This is not the creation we find in Genesis, but as we have seen already, taking the text at face value was going out of fashion.

Both positions were vulnerable to keen observers of nature. To undermine Species Fixity, Darwin only needed to show the potential for tremendous variation within a species. This is where the analogy to domesticated plants and animals came in handy. After confessing his obsession with the all-things pigeon, Darwin drew attention to the “astonishing” diversity of  breeds.3 An English carrier pigeon and a short-faced tumbler might be mistaken for two different species. They are not, of course, but the very possibility was enough to make Darwin’s point. If the critics would yield an inch, Darwin was willing to take a mile, and more. If they refused to budge, they would be consigned to the trash heap of scientific progress. It was an all-or-nothing deal. A more moderate position wasn’t on the table, and so the pendulum swung from absolute fixity to unlimited change.

As for Independent Creation, Darwin relied on his observations of two remote island groups: the Cape Verde Islands off the coast of Africa, and the Galapagos Islands off the coast of South America. In many respects, the island groups were very similar. Why, Darwin asked, would God create entirely different sets of plants and animals in each location? And why were the island inhabitants strikingly similar to their respective mainland cousins? The facts of nature suggested a natural explanation. It made much more sense to imagine several species of finches evolving from one or two flocks of mainland immigrants.

Once again, Darwin leaves his modern readers underwhelmed. The original species and the new species are still only finches. This hardly proves the case for evolution writ large. But Darwin wasn’t in the business of proof. It was enough to float the possibility of change through space and time. And so the pendulum swings from the half-baked notion of Independent Creation to the completely materialistic origin of all species on earth.

The mechanism of natural selection was a vaguely plausible explanation for the origin of small-scale variations. Darwin offered no proof that this actually worked to produce whole new species. But remember, he didn’t have to. He only had to suggest a naturalistic alternative to bad theology and the rest, as they say, is history.



All of the pieces are now in place. Given Hume’s naturalism, Lyell’s uniformitarianism, the family fortune and an ill-equipped opponent, Darwin was ideally situated to drive a wedge between the Creator and His creation. But this is more than history. Darwin relied on highly questionable assumptions to craft a very weak argument. Those assumptions—naturalism and uniformitarianism—must be at the front and center of our response to evolution. And weak though his argument may have been (and still is after 150 years), we must also acknowledge the mistakes of Darwin’s contemporary opponents. We need to defend our faith (1 Peter 3:15), but our defense needs to rest on the best theological and scientific foundations available.

[A version of this article appeared in Think, February 2009, pp. 24-25.]


  1. For a brief discussion and convenient translation of Linnaeus’ Observationes, see Eric Voegelin, The Collected Works of Eric Voegelin, pp. 29-30.
  2. The statement is absent from the 10th edition (1758) and following.
  3. Darwin, Origin, p. 21.


© 2008 – 2011, Trevor Major. All rights reserved.

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