An Insane Simplicity

The ever-quotable Chesterton once credited the materialist’s explanation of the world with having “a sort of insane simplicity.”[1] Materialists derive inordinate pleasure from the physical stuff of the universe while demeaning everything that truly matters to everyone else, namely, beauty, purpose, morality, mind and, of course, God.

It is important to realize that metaphysical materialism provides the overarching framework for Darwinian evolution. We are so used to seeing evolution invoked to “explain” everything from rape to gossip that it is tempting to treat evolution as a self-contained worldview. But evolution is in fact a core doctrine of materialism.

Richard Lewontin is quite frank about the issue:

…we have a prior commitment, a commitment to materialism. It is not that the methods and institutions of science somehow compel us to accept a material explanation of the phenomenal world, but, on the contrary, that we are forced by our a priori adherence to material causes to create an apparatus of investigation and a set of concepts that produce material explanations, no matter how counter-intuitive, no matter how mystifying to the uninitiated. Moreover, that materialism is absolute, for we cannot allow a divine foot in the door.[2]

Not allowing a divine foot in the door is precisely what Darwin was trying to achieve in his Origin of Species (1859). Only in the second (1860) and following editions of the Origin do we find Darwin crediting the Creator for the first appearance of life. Was this a concession to some sort of deism? Not at all. Darwin was simply trying to soften the blatant materialism of the first edition. Even so, in a private letter to his good friend Joseph Hooker, Darwin second-guesses these changes:

I have long regretted that I truckled to public opinion, and used the Pentateuchal term of creation, by which I really meant “appeared” by some wholly unknown process at best.[3]

We can see the same duplicity in his correspondence with the eminent botanist and conservative Congregationalist, Asa Gray. Darwin assured his biggest American fan that he had no intention to “write atheistically.”[4] But when Gray lobbied for divine activity in the workings of natural selection, Darwin would hear nothing of it. In the closing paragraph of his two-volume work on The Variation of Animals and Plants (1868), Darwin explicitly repudiated Gray’s attempt at providential evolution.[5]

Darwin had no time for Gray’s God because he had, as Lewontin would put it, a “prior commitment” to materialism. In a notebook dating to 1838, Darwin suddenly realizes that he is speculating on an entirely physical explanation for the mind. “Oh, you materialist!,” he cheekily exclaims to himself.[6] Later in that same year, Charles’ disbelief becomes a source of concern to his future wife, Emma Wedgewood.[7] All of this is going on just as Darwin is formulating his evolutionary views. So it is simply disingenuous for Darwin to claim in his autobiography that disbelief crept over him slowly and relatively late in life.[8] He goes on to embrace the “Agnostic” moniker, but the accompanying explanation trots out the same hackneyed attacks on God and the Bible we hear from atheists.

My purpose in revisiting Darwin’s motivations is twofold. First, in the wake of all the Darwin commemorations last year, there has been an increasing emphasis on the life and work of Alfred Russel Wallace who, independently of Darwin, developed a theory of evolution based on natural selection. However, Wallace ultimately rejected a materialistic understanding of evolution. Indeed, Michael Flannery argues that whereas Darwin came to evolution through his materialism, Wallace came to design through his science.[9] The diverging trajectories of these two men illustrate the powerful connection between atheism and the contemporary Darwinian enterprise.

And second, I am no longer willing to give Darwin a pass on his metaphysical views. For me it was always a matter of epistemology, of what Darwin said we could and could not know from nature. If he limited himself to a study of the physical world, then it made a certain twisted sense to remain agnostic on the subject of God. But this view, I now recognize, is far too generous. It fails to make a strong enough case to the Grays of today, to people we would now call theistic evolutionists. Christians who embrace Darwinism need to understand the insane simplicity of materialism that drove the man and his theory, and they need to understand that this metaphysical commitment is completely at odds with theistic anything, let alone theistic evolution.

[A version of this article appeared in Think, July 2010, p. 25.]


[1] G.K. Chesterton,  Orthodoxy. San Francisco, CA: Ignatius Press, 1995 (1908), p. 27.

[2] Richard C. Lewontin, “Billions and Billions of Demons,” The New York Review of Books, January 9, 1997, p. 31.

[3] Letter of Charles Darwin to J.D. Hooker, March 29, 1863.

[4] Letter of Charles Darwin to Asa Gray, May 22, 1860.

[5] Darwin promoted Gray’s pamphlet on providential evolution in the second edition of the Origin (1860), but dropped it from the third edition (1866).

[6] Charles Darwin, Notebook C, February-July 1838, p. 66.

[7] Letter of Emma Wedgwood to Charles Darwin, November 21–22, 1838.

[8] Nora Barlow, ed., The Autobiography of Charles Darwin. London: Collins, 1958, p. 87.

[9] Michael A. Flannery, Alfred Russel Wallace’s Theory of Intelligent Evolution, virtualbookworm.com, 2009.

© 2010 – 2011, Trevor Major. All rights reserved.

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