Darwin’s Rhetoric of Positive Theology in the Origin of Species

Hesketh Of Apes and AncestorsIn his Of Apes and Ancestors: Evolution, Christianity, and the Oxford Debate (2009), Ian Hesketh stresses that the Origin, “far from being the secular text it is often presented as, establishes the theory of evolution from within the Christian framework.” Indeed, “Darwin was very careful to at least appear to be writing from within the tradition of natural theology.” Such claims may cause consternation for some, as in the case, for example, of one particular reviewer of Hesketh’s book on Amazon. This particular reviewer cites some prominent scholars for support: Harvard historian of science Janet Browne, evolutionary biologist Ernst Mayr, and even the legendary iconoclast John Hedley Brooke as allegedly “discrediting” Hesketh’s claim. Had the reviewer more carefully examined the dust jacket, however, he would have noticed that Brooke highly recommends the book.

More importantly, this particular reviewer actually misreads Hesketh’s commentary on Darwin’s Origin. Hesketh is not maintaining that the Origin was a particularly “Christian work”; rather, according to Hesketh, Darwin was keen on employing a particularly religious rhetoric throughout the book (and even more particularly, a Christian positive theological framework). This is especially true of the earliest editions. This is a peculiar misunderstanding—or omission—from this Amazon reviewer, considering that he maintains to have read facsimiles of the first edition of the Origin. In his zeal, this Amazon reviewer has taken passages from Browne, Mayr, and Brooke, wrested them out of their contexts, and applied them against claims that bear no relevance. That is, he not only misconstrues Hesketh’s claims, he also misconstrues claims by Browne, Mayr, Brooke, and, more egregiously, the text of Darwin’s Origin.

Besides a more careful reading of Origin, a helpful correction of this sort of thinking, and a helpful clarification of Hesketh’s claims in Of Apes and Ancestors, comes from Stephen Dilley’s “Charles Darwin’s use of theology in the Origin of Species,” found in the 2012 issue of The British Journal for the History of Science, and John Angus Campbell’s “Charles Darwin: Rhetorician of Science” in John S. Nelson, Allan Megill, and Donald N. McCloskey (eds.), The Rhetoric of the Human Sciences: Language and Argument in Scholarship and Public Affairs (1987).

Dilley argues that Darwin utilized positiva theology in order to justify (and inform) descent with modification and to attack special creation. By incorporating “God-talk” into the Origin, Darwin borrowed “from natural theology similar research problems, presuppositions, patterns of argumentation, metaphors, concepts and content.”

Darwin chose a particular passage from William Whewell’s Bridgewater Treatise to act as an epigraph for the Origin:

But with regard to the material world, we can at least go so far as this—we can perceive that events are brought about not by insulated interpositions of Divine power, exerted in each particular case, by the establishment of general laws.

Near the end of the Origin, Darwin also writes:

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.

In Darwin’s view, natural laws are unbroken. He claimed that “Everything in nature is the result of fixed laws.” As Dilley points out, “Darwin’s early notebooks…[endorsed] divine creation by law as ‘far grander’ than specific instances of creation by miracle, which were ‘beneath the dignity of him, who is supposed to have said let there be light & there was light.'” In short, Darwin rejected miracles and instead favored unbroken natural law, a belief found also in a number of Darwin’s intellectual mentors, including Whewell, John Herschel, Charles Babbage, and Francis Bacon. These authors all expressed the idea of “God inscribing matter with enduring, lawful qualities.” This allusion to a Master Architect rather than a Miracle Worker not only played a role in Darwin’s argument for evolution, but, as Dilley argues, “it may also have influenced the content of his theory itself.” A deistic theology commends a process of random variation, of purely secondary causes, which is the heart of Darwin’s theory.

The problem of pain also informed Darwin’s theory. “In the Origin,” writes Dilley, “Darwin argues that suffering itself was evidence for his theory: since natural suffering is more compatible with evolutionary theory than with special creation, it counted as evidence in favour of evolution.” In several places in the Origin and in his later autobiography, Darwin remarked that “‘the existence of suffering’ counts ‘against the existence of an intelligent first cause’ but ‘agrees well with the view that all organic beings have been developed through variation and natural selection.'” A benevolent, all-powerful, all-knowing God of special creation could not permit, according to Darwin, the pattern of death and cruelty in nature:

[It] may not be a logical deduction, but to my imagination it is far more satisfactory to look at such instincts as the young cuckoo ejecting its foster-brothers,—ants making slaves,—the larvae of ichneumonide feeding within the live bodies of caterpillars,—not as specially endowed or created instincts, but as small consequences of one general law, leading to the advancement of all organic beings, namely, multiply, vary, let the strongest live and the weakest die.

As Dilley aptly puts it, “the argument relies on the theological assumption that it is improbable that an omnibenevolent, omnipotent and omniscient God would have intentionally designed creatures to cause or experience great suffering.” Indeed, the Origin “tacitly endorsed a particular view of God’s nature and moral obligations, and used this view as direct epistemic support for evolution and against” special creation.

According to Dilley, Darwin’s homology also “hinged upon theology.” In these arguments Darwin drew directly from Richard Owen’s On Limbs (1849), which also used theological claims to reject “divine purposive adaptations” as explanations for homologous structures. To Owen, “a respectable God would not produce a skeletal structure—whether in the whale’s fin or the chick’s head—more intricate than needed to accomplish the structure’s function.” Any plausible view of “divine creativity must accord with human notions of parsimony.” By invoking Owen’s On Limbs, Darwin implicitly relied upon the same line of reasoning to make his homology argument succeed.

Darwin accentuated the reliability of the empirical evidence by linking it to God’s moral character. It was God’s “divine integrity…that favoured the evolutionary account over the special-creation account.” Interestingly enough, according to Dilley, much of the empirical evidence for evolution in Darwin’s day was at a standstill. So “Darwin turned to the heavens, citing God’s moral probity as the adjudicating factor. Rightly or wrongly, Darwin used God’s (alleged) non-deceptive character as more than just a mooring for a general philosophy of nature; it functioned as direct epistemic support for descent with modification.”

And in arguing against William Paley’s Natural Theology (1802), specifically his design argument about the vertebrate eye, Darwin ushered in “unmistakable theological ideas about human epistemology.” “Human beings…cannot know that their own causal powers are relevantly similar to the Creator’s causal powers.” That is to say, certain features of God’s nature, such as his creative power, were “inaccessible to human beings.” In the Origin,” writes Dilley, “Darwin apparently drew upon this ‘more sublime theology’ to hold meekly that God’s creative powers were opaque to humans. Once again, he commissioned theological claims to strengthen his naturalized account of organic history.”

Dilley concludes that “contrary to conventional wisdom, the Origin did not so much separate science from theology as it articulated science from the vantage of semi-deism. Moreover, it proposed evolution by natural selection as an alternative to another theology-laden explanation, special creation. In the final analysis, the contrast in the Origin is not between theistic creationism and naturalistic evolution, but between theistic special creation and semi-deistic evolution—the latter with specific (and perhaps conflicted) notions of the existence, character, and actions and obligations of God.”

In Campbell’s essay, Darwin is generally characterized as an rhetorician, and, more specifically, the Origin as a rhetorical work from the ground up. For one, its brevity demonstrated a particular rhetorical aim. As Campbell argues, “that The Origin made its appearance as a single compact volume, accessible to a general audience,” rather than Darwin’s intended, massive, multi-volume work Natural Selection, a book on transmutation which he had been planning since 1837, is just one indication of its rhetorical strategy.

Completed only in nine-month’s time, the Origin also displays a particular ethos. As Darwin’s son Francis observed, “The reader [of the Origin] feels like a friend who is being talked to by a courteous gentlemen, not like a pupil being lectured by a professor.” This is in addition to its use of “everyday language,” found in the themes of “origins,” “selection,” “preservation,” “race,” “struggle,” and “life.” The Origin is at once charming, intimate, and almost colloquial.

Another rhetorical strategy used by Darwin in Origins, as we have already noted, is its deference to English natural theology. Indeed, “Darwin urges his views as more in keeping with proper respect to the ways of Providence than the views of his opponents.”

More importantly, Campbell persuasively argues that Darwin’s private letters and notebooks testify that Darwin “thought long and hard, not only about nature, but about persuasion, and that he went to great lengths, including not developing his views on the evolution of man, to minimize the shock of novelty The Origin would occasion.”

Hesketh, Dilley, Campbell, and many others have demonstrated that rather than separating theology from science, Darwin, implicitly and explicitly, invoked a positiva theology into the text of the Origin. This was indeed a powerful rhetorical strategy—but it was also a theological argument itself, about God’s character and the nature of His creation.


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