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Did Darwin’s theology devour itself?

The Worm Ouroboros

That’s the thesis of a deeply interesting paper by Momme von Sydow, cognitive psychologist and philosopher of science at the University of Göttingen. In his analysis, “Charles Darwin – A Christian Undermining Christianity? (in D.M. Knight and M.D. Eddy, eds., Science and Belief: From Natural Philosophy to Natural Science, 1700-1900 [Burlington: Ashgate, 2005], pp. 141-156), von Sydow shows how the construction of Darwin’s theory “essentially hinges on religious or metaphysical tenets” (p. 141). These tenets, “which initially appeared to him to have strong ethical and religious appeal” (p. 155), were the following:

…three of the main influences on Darwin’s biological theory which had a direct or indirect religious origin: Paley’s belief in the divine design of nature, secondly, the conviction that God rules by laws which are eternal, universal and unchangeable, and finally, Malthus’ principle of population, partly presented as a theodicy. (p. 142)

Von Sydow argues that Darwin’s strong theological motivations — a topic explored in George Hunter’s new book, Science’s Blind Spot — led ultimately to the undermining of Darwin’s own theology, eroding away the very ground from which he had begun:

Although Darwin’s biological theory of pan-adaptationism and of an unchangeable law of natural selection was based on Paley’s natural theology, it nevertheless became a main cause for Darwin’s loss of faith. Darwin successively lost his belief in divine revelation, his confidence in a Paleyian benign conception of nature and, finally, even a belief in deism. Instead, he came to advocate a world view based on a remorseless struggle for life and one which offered no hand outstretched to the losers. (p. 150)

From a larger perspective, von Sydow demonstrates the pervasive entanglement of evolutionary reasoning with theological presuppositions.

So, for instance, when one sees a diagram of pentadactyl limbs in a biology textbook, with the question “Why?” — i.e., if not common descent by natural processes, then why this pattern? — know that behind the “Why?” lies a theological worldview. As von Sydow puts it,

…it can be seen that science and belief are neither uncoupled nor simply in opposition, but are interwoven, mutually influencing and undermining each other and, indirectly, even undermine themselves. From this point of view, Darwinism is neither a particular form of ‘Christian’ nor of ‘anti-Christian biology’, but – paradoxically – both. (p. 155)

Just dig out the theology: it’s there.

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3 Responses to Did Darwin’s theology devour itself?

  1. I have named his magna opus in Brazil as “One Long Theological Argument”.

  2. 2

    Paul, you reference the book by Mr. Hunter and give his name as George. On Amazon it is Cornelius G.
    Does he go by George?

    I’ve said it before and will again here, Mr. Hunter’s book “Darwins God” is also an excellent discourse on this same issue. I haven’t read “Science’s Blibd Spot” yet, but am looking forward to it.

  3. Yes, sorry about that — Hunter uses “George” among friends. I keep forgetting that his given first name is Cornelius.

    Science’s Blind Spot is great.

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