Essay: What is Darwinism?

—by Asa Gray


The Nation, May 28, 1874

The question which Dr. Hodge asks he promptly and decisively answers: ‘What is Darwinism? it is atheism.

Leaving aside all subsidiary and incidental matters, let us consider–1. What the Darwinian doctrine is, and 2. How it is proved to be atheistic. Dr. Hodge’s own statement of it cannot be very much bettered:

His [Darwin's] work on the “ Origin of Species ” does not purport to be philosophical. In this aspect it is very different from the cognate works of Mr. Spencer. Darwin does not speculate on the origin of the universe, on the nature of matter or of force. He is simply a naturalist, a careful and laborious observer, skillful in his descriptions, and singularly candid in dealing with the difficulties in the way of his peculiar doctrine. He set before himself a single problem–namely, How are the fauna and flora of our earth to be accounted for? . . . To account for the existence of matter and life, Mr. Darwin admits a Creator. This is done explicitly and repeatedly. . . . He assumes the efficiency of physical causes, showing no disposition to resolve them into mind-force or into the efficiency of the First Cause. . . . He assumes, also, the existence of life in the form of one or more primordial germs. . . . How all living things on earth, including the endless variety of plants and all the diversity of animals, . . . have descended from the primordial animalcule, he thinks, may be accounted for by the operation of the following natural laws, viz.: First, the law of Heredity, or that by which like begets like–the offspring are like the parent. Second, the law of Variation; that is, while the offspring are in all essential characteristics like their immediate progenitor, they nevertheless vary more or less within narrow limits from their parent and from each other. Some of these variations are indifferent, some deteriorations, some improvements–that is, such as enable the plant or animal to exercise its functions to greater advantage. Third, the law of Over-Production. All plants and animals tend to increase in a geometrical ratio, and therefore tend to overrun enormously the means of support. If all the seeds of a plant, all the spawn of a fish, were to arrive at maturity, in a very short time the world could not contain them. Hence, of necessity, arises a struggle for life. Only a few of the myriads born can possibly live. Fourth, here comes in the law of Natural Selection, or the Survival of the Fittest; that is, if any individual of a given species of plant or animal happens to have a slight deviation from the normal type favorable to its success in the struggle for life, it will survive. This variation, by the law of heredity, will be transmitted to its offspring, and by them again to theirs. Soon these favored ones gain the ascendency, and the less favored perish, and the modification becomes established in the species. After a time, another and another of such favorable variations occur, with like results. Thus, very gradually, great changes of structure are introduced, and not only species, but genera, families, and orders, in the vegetable and animal world, are produced’ (pp. 26-29).

Now, the truth or the probability of Darwin’s hypothesis is not here the question, but only its congruity or incongruity with theism. We need take only one exception to this abstract of it, but that is an important one for the present investigation. It is to the sentence which we have italicized in the earlier part of Dr. Hodge’s own statement of what Darwinism is. With it begins our inquiry as to how he proves the doctrine to be atheistic.

First, if we rightly apprehend it, a suggestion of atheism is infused into the premises in a negative form: Mr. Darwin shows no disposition to resolve the efficiency of physical causes into the efficiency of the First Cause. Next (on page 48) comes the positive charge that ‘Mr. Darwin, although himself a theist,’ maintains that ‘the contrivances manifested in the organs of plants and animals . . . are not due to the continued cooperation and control of the divine mind, nor to the original purpose of God in the constitution of the universe.’ As to the negative statement, it might suffice to recall Dr. Hodge’s truthful remark that Darwin ‘is simply a naturalist,’ and that ‘his work on the origin of species does not purport to be philosophical.’ In physical and physiological treatises, the most religious men rarely think it necessary to postulate the First Cause, nor are they misjudged by the omission. But surely Mr. Darwin does show the disposition which our author denies him, not only by implication in many instances, but most explicitly where one would naturally look for it, namely–at the close of the volume in question: ‘To my mind, it accords better with what we know of the laws impressed on matter by the Creator,’ etc. If that does not refer the efficiency of physical causes to the First Cause, what form of words could do so? The positive charge appears to be equally gratuitous. In both Dr. Hodge must have overlooked the beginning as well as the end of the volume which he judges so hardly. Just as mathematicians and physicists, in their systems, are wont to postulate the fundamental and undeniable truths they are concerned with, or what they take for such and require to be taken for granted, so Mr. Darwin postulates, upon the first page of his notable work, and in the words of Whewell and Bishop Butler: 1. The establishment by divine power of general laws, according to which, rather than by insulated interpositions in each particular case, events are brought about in the material world; and 2. That by the word ‘natural’ is meant ‘stated, fixed, or settled,’ by this same power, ‘since what is natural as much requires and presupposes an intelligent agent to render it so–i.e., to effect it continually or at stated times–as what is supernatural or miraculous does to effect it for once.’[VIII-2] So when Mr. Darwin makes such large and free use of ‘natural as antithetical to supernatural’ causes, we are left in no doubt as to the ultimate source which he refers them to. Rather let us say there ought to be no doubt, unless there are other grounds for it to rest upon.

Such ground there must be, or seem to be, to justify or excuse a veteran divine and scholar like Dr. Hodge in his deduction of pure atheism from a system produced by a confessed theist, and based, as we have seen, upon thoroughly orthodox fundamental conceptions. Even if we may not hope to reconcile the difference between the theologian and the naturalist, it may be well to ascertain where their real divergence begins, or ought to begin, and what it amounts to. Seemingly, it is in their proximate, not in their ultimate, principles, as Dr. Hodge insists when he declares that the whole drift of Darwinism is to prove that everything ‘may be accounted for by the blind operation of natural causes, without any intention, purpose, or cooperation of God.’ ‘Why don’t he say,’ cries the theologian, ‘that the complicated organs of plants and animals are the product of the divine intelligence? If God made them, it makes no difference, so far as the question of design is concerned, how he made them, whether at once or by process of evolution.’ But, as we have seen, Mr. Darwin does say that, and he over and over implies it when he refers the production of species ‘to secondary causes,’ and likens their origination to the origination of individuals; species being series of individuals with greater difference. It is not for the theologian to object that the power which made individual men and other animals, and all the differences which the races of mankind exhibit, through secondary causes, could not have originated congeries of more or less greatly differing individuals through the same causes.

Clearly, then, the difference between the theologian and the naturalist is not fundamental, and evolution may be as profoundly and as particularly theistic as it is increasingly probable. The taint of atheism which, in Dr. Hodge’s view, leavens the whole lump, is not inherent in the original grain of Darwinism–in the principles posited–but has somehow been introduced in the subsequent treatment. Possibly, when found, it may be eliminated. Perhaps there is mutual misapprehension growing out of some ambiguity in the use of terms. ‘Without any intention, purpose, or cooperation of God.’- These are sweeping and effectual words. How came they to be applied to natural selection by a divine who professes that God ordained whatsoever cometh to pass? In this wise: ‘The point to be proved is, that it is the distinctive doctrine of Mr. Darwin that species owe their origin–1. Not to the original intention of the divine mind; 2. Not to special acts of creation calling new forms into existence at certain epochs; 3. Not to the constant and everywhere operative efficiency of God guiding physical causes in the production of intended effects; but 4. To the gradual accumulation of unintended variations of structure and instinct securing some advantage to their subjects.’ Then Dr. Hodge adduces ‘Darwin’s own testimony,’ to the purport that natural selection denotes the totality of natural causes and their interactions, physical and physiological, reproduction, variation, birth, struggle, extinction–in short, all that is going on in Nature; that the variations which in this interplay are picked out for survival are not intentionally guided; that ‘nothing can be more hopeless than the attempt to explain this similarity of pattern in members of the same class by utility or the doctrine of final causes’ (which Dr. Hodge takes to be the denial of any such thing as final causes); and that the interactions and processes going on which constitute natural selection may suffice to account for the present diversity of animals and plants (primordial organisms being postulated and time enough given) with all their structures and adaptations–that is, to account for them scientifically, as science accounts for other things.

A good deal may be made of this, but does it sustain the indictment? Moreover, the counts of the indictment may be demurred to. It seems to us that only one of the three points which Darwin is said to deny is really opposed to the fourth, which he is said to maintain, except as concerns the perhaps ambiguous word unintended. Otherwise, the origin of species through the gradual accumulation of variations–i.e., by the addition of a series of small differences–is surely not incongruous with their origin through ‘the original intention of the divine mind’ or through ‘the constant and everywhere operative efficiency of God.’- One or both of these Mr. Darwin (being, as Dr. Hodge says, a theist) must needs hold to in some form or other; wherefore he may be presumed to hold the fourth proposition in such wise as not really to contradict the first or the third. The proper antithesis is with the second proposition only, and the issue comes to this: Have the multitudinous forms of living creatures, past and present, been produced by as many special and independent acts of creation at very numerous epochs? Or have they originated under causes as natural as reproduction and birth, and no more so, by the variation and change of preceding into succeeding species?

Those who accept the latter alternative are evolutionists. And Dr. Hodge fairly allows that their views, although clearly wrong, may be genuinely theistic. Surely they need not become the less so by the discovery or by the conjecture of natural operations through which this diversification and continued adaptation of species to conditions is brought about. Now, Mr. Darwin thinks–and by this he is distinguished. from most evolutionists–that he can assign actual natural causes, adequate to the production of the present out of the preceding state of the animal and vegetable world, and so on backward–thus uniting, not indeed the beginning but the far past with the present in one coherent system of Nature. But in assigning actual natural causes and processes, and applying them to the explanation of the whole case, Mr. Dar-win assumes the obligation of maintaining their general sufficiency–a task from which the numerous advocates and acceptors of evolution on the general concurrence of probabilities and its usefulness as a working hypothesis (with or without much conception of the manner how) are happily free. Having hit upon a modus operandi which all who understand it admit will explain something, and many that it will explain very much, it is to be expected that Mr. Darwin will make the most of it. Doubtless he is far from pretending to know all the causes and operations at work; he has already added some and restricted the range of others; he probably looks for additions to their number and new illustrations of their efficiency; but he is bound to expect them all to fall within the category of what he calls natural selection (a most expansible principle), or to be congruous with it–that is, that they shall be natural causes. Also–and this is the critical point–he is bound to maintain their sufficiency without intervention.

Here, at length, we reach the essential difference between Darwin, as we understand him, and Dr. Hodge. The terms which Darwin sometimes uses, and doubtless some of the ideas they represent, are not such as we should adopt or like to defend; and we may say once for all–aside though it be from the present issue–that, in our opinion, the adequacy of the assigned causes to the explanation of the phenomena has not been made out. But we do not understand him to deny ‘purpose, intention, or the cooperation of God’ in Nature. This would be as gratuitous as unphilosophical, not to say unscientific. When he speaks of this or that particular or phase in the course of events or the procession of organic forms as not intended, he seems to mean not specially and disjunctively intended and not brought about by intervention. Purpose in the whole, as we suppose, is not denied but implied. And when one considers how, under whatever view of the case, the designed and the contingent lie inextricably commingled in this world of ours, past man’s disentanglement, and into what metaphysical dilemmas the attempt at unraveling them leads, we cannot greatly blame the naturalist for relegating such problems to the philosopher and the theologian. If charitable, these will place the most favorable construction upon attempts to extend and unify the operation of known secondary causes, this being the proper business of the naturalist and physicist; if wise, they will be careful not to predicate or suggest the absence of intention from what comes about by degrees through the continuous operation of physical causes, even in the organic world, lest, in their endeavor to retain a probable excess of supernaturalism in that realm of Nature, they cut away the grounds for recognizing it at all in inorganic Nature, and so fall into the same condemnation that some of them award to the Darwinian.

Moreover, it is not certain that Mr. Darwin would very much better his case, Dr. Hodge being judge, if he did propound some theory of the nexus of divine causation and natural laws, or even if he explicitly adopted the one or the other of the views which he is charged with rejecting. Either way he might meet a procrustean fate; and, although a saving amount of theism might remain, he would not be sound or comfortable. For, if he predicates ‘the constant and everywhere operative efficiency of God,’ he may ‘lapse into the same doctrine’ that the Duke of Argyll and Sir John Herschel ‘seem inclined to,’ the latter of whom is blamed for thinking ‘it but reasonable to regard the force of gravitation as the direct or indirect result of a consciousness or will existing somewhere,’ and the former for regarding ‘it unphilosophical “to think or speak as if the forces of Nature were either independent of or even separate from the Creator’s power’: while if he falls back upon an ‘original intention of the divine mind,’ endowing matter with forces which he foresaw and intended should produce such results as these contrivances in Nature, he is told that this banishes God from the world, and is inconsistent with obvious facts. And that because of its implying that ‘He never interferes to guide the operation of physical causes.’ We italicize the word, for interference proves to be the keynote of Dr. Hodge’s system. Interference with a divinely ordained physical Nature for the accomplishment of natural results! An unorthodox friend has just imparted to us, with much misgiving and solicitude lest he should be thought irreverent, his tentative hypothesis, which is, that even the Creator may be conceived to have improved with time and experience! Never before was this theory so plainly and barely put before us. We were obliged to say that, in principle and by implication, it was not wholly original.

But in such matters, which are far too high for us, no one is justly to be held responsible for the conclusions which another may draw from his principles or assumptions. Dr. Hodge’s particular view should be gathered from his own statement of it:

In the external world there is always and everywhere indisputable evidence of the activity of two kinds of force, the one physical, the other mental. The physical belongs to matter, and is due to the properties with which it has been endowed; the other is the everywhere present and ever-acting mind of God. To the latter are to be referred all the manifestations of design in Nature, and the ordering of events in Providence. This doctrine does not ignore the efficiency of second causes; it simply asserts that God overrules and controls them. Thus the Psalmist says: “I am fearfully and wonderfully made. My substance was not hid from Thee when I was made in secret, and curiously wrought (or embroidered) in the lower parts of the earth. . . . God makes the grass to grow, and herbs for the children of men.”- He sends rain, frost, and snow. He controls the winds and the waves. He determines the casting of the lot, the flight of an arrow, and the falling of a sparrow’ (pages 43, 44).

Far be it from us to object to this mode of conceiving divine causation, although, like the two other theistic conceptions referred to, it has its difficulties, and perhaps the difficulties of both. But, if we understand it, it draws an unusually hard and fast line between causation in organic and inorganic Nature, seems to look for no manifestation of design in the latter except as ‘God overrules and controls’ second causes, and, finally, refers to this overruling and controlling (rather than to a normal action through endowment) all embryonic development, the growth of vegetables, and the like. He even adds, without break or distinction, the sending of rain, frost, and snow, the flight of an arrow, and the falling of a sparrow. Somehow we must have misconceived the bearing of the statement; but so it stands as one of ‘the three ways,’ and the right way, of ‘accounting for contrivances in Nature; the other two being–1. Their reference to the blind operation of natural causes; and, 2. That they were foreseen and purposed by God, who endowed matter with forces which he foresaw and intended should produce such results, but never interferes to guide their operation.

In animadverting upon this latter view, Dr. Hodge brings forward an argument against evolution, with the examination of which our remarks must close:

Paley, indeed, says that if the construction of a watch be an undeniable evidence of design, it would be a still more wonderful manifestation of skill if a watch could be made to produce other watches, and, it may be added, not only other watches, but all kinds of timepieces, in endless variety. So it has been asked, If a man can make a telescope, why cannot God make a telescope which produces others like itself? This is simply asking whether matter can be made to do the work of mind. The idea involves a contradiction. For a telescope to make a telescope supposes it to select copper and zinc in due proportions, and fuse them into brass; to fashion that brass into inter-entering tubes; to collect and combine the requisite materials for the different kinds of glass needed; to melt them, grind, fashion, and polish them, adjust their densities, focal distances, etc., etc. A man who can believe that brass can do all this might as well believe in God’ (pp. 45, 46).

If Dr. Hodge’s meaning is, that matter unconstructed cannot do the work of mind, he misses the point altogether; for original construction by an intelligent mind is given in the premises. If he means that the machine cannot originate the power that operates it, this is conceded by all except believers in perpetual motion, and it equally misses the point; for the operating power is given in the case of the watch, and implied in that of the reproductive telescope. But if he means that matter cannot be made to do the work of mind in constructions, machines, or organisms, he is surely wrong. Sovitur ambulando,’ vel scribendo; he confuted his argument in the act of writing the sentence. That is just what machines and organisms are for; and a consistent Christian theist should maintain that is what all matter is for. Finally, if, as we freely suppose, he means none of these, he must mean (unless we are much mistaken) that organisms originated by the Almighty Creator could not be endowed with the power of producing similar organisms, or slightly dissimilar organisms, without successive interventions. Then he begs the very question in dispute, and that, too, in the face of the primal command, ‘Be fruitful and multiply,’ and its consequences in every natural birth. If the actual facts could be ignored, how nicely the parallel would run! ‘The idea involves a contradiction.’ For an animal to make an animal, or a plant to make a plant, supposes it to select carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, and nitrogen, to combine these into cellulose and protoplasm, to join with these some phosphorus, lime, etc., to build them into structures and usefully-adjusted organs. A man who can believe that plants and animals can do this (not, indeed, in the crude way suggested, but in the appointed way) ‘might as well believe in God.’ Yes, verily, and so he probably will, in spite of all that atheistical philosophers have to offer, if not harassed and confused by such arguments and statements as these.

There is a long line of gradually-increasing divergence from the ultra-orthodox view of Dr. Hodge through those of such men as Sir William Thomson, Herschel, Argyll, Owen, Mivart, Wallace, and Darwin, down to those of Strauss, Vogt, and Buchner. To strike the line with telling power and good effect, it is necessary to aim at the right place. Excellent as the present volume is in motive and clearly as it shows that Darwinism may bear an atheistic as well as a theistic interpretation, we fear that it will not contribute much to the reconcilement of science and religion.

The length of the analysis of the first book on our list precludes the notices which we intended to take of the three others. They are all the production of men who are both scientific and religious, one of them a celebrated divine and writer unusually versed in natural history. They all look upon theories of evolution either as in the way of being established or as not unlikely to prevail, and they confidently expect to lose thereby no solid ground for theism or religion. Mr. St. Clair, a new writer, in his ‘Darwinism and Design; or, Creation by Evolution,’ takes his ground in the following succinct statement of his preface:

It is being assumed by our scientific guides that the design-argument has been driven out of the field by the doctrine of evolution. It seems to be thought by our theological teachers that the best defense of the faith is to deny evolution in toto, and denounce it as anti-Biblical. My volume endeavors to show that, if evolution be true, all is not lost; but, on the contrary, something is gained: the design-argument remains unshaken, and the wisdom and beneficence of God receive new illustration.

Of his closing remark, that, so far as he knows, the subject has never before been handled in the same way for the same purpose, we will only say that the handling strikes us as mainly sensible rather than as substantially novel. He traverses the whole ground of evolution, from that of the solar system to ‘the origin of moral species.’ He is clearly a theistic Darwinian without misgiving, and the arguments for that hypothesis and for its religious aspects obtain from him their most favorable presentation, while he combats the dysteleology of Hackel, Buchner, etc., not, however, with any remarkable strength.

Dr. Winchell, chancellor of the new university at Syracuse, in his volume just issued upon the ‘Doctrine of Evolution,’ adopts it in the abstract as ‘clearly as the law of universal intelligence under which complex results are brought into existence’ (whatever that may mean), accepts it practically for the inorganic world as a geologist should, hesitates as to the organic world, and sums up the arguments for the origin of species by diversification unfavorably for the Darwinians, regarding it mainly from the geological side. As some of our zoologists and palaeontologists may have somewhat to say upon this matter, we leave it for their consideration. We are tempted to develop a point which Dr. Winchell incidentally refers to–viz., how very modern the idea of the independent creation and fixity of species is, and how well the old divines got on without it. Dr. Winchell reminds us that St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas were model evolutionists; and, where authority is deferred to, this should count for something.

Mr. Kingsley’s eloquent and suggestive ‘Westminster Sermons,’ in which he touches here and there upon many of the topics which evolution brings up, has incorporated into the preface a paper which he read in 187i to a meeting of London clergy at Sion College, upon certain problems of natural theology as affected by modern theories in science. We may hereafter have occasion to refer to this volume. Meanwhile, perhaps we may usefully conclude this article with two or three short extracts from it:

The God who satisfies our conscience ought more or less to satisfy our reason also. To teach that was Butler’s mission; and he fulfilled it well. But it is a mission which has to be refulfilled again and again, as human thought changes, and human science develops, For if, in any age or country, the God who seems to be revealed by Nature seems also different from the God who is revealed by the then-popular religion, then that God and the religion which tells of that God will gradually cease to be believed in.

For the demands of reason–as none knew better than good Bishop Butler–must be and ought to be satisfied. And, therefore, when a popular war arises between the reason of any generation and its theology, then it behooves the ministers of religion to inquire, with all humility and godly fear, on whose side lies the fault; whether the theology which they expound is all that it should be, or whether the reason of those who impugn it is all that it should be.

Pronouncing it to be the duty of the naturalist to find out the how of things, and of the natural theologian to find out the why, Mr. Kingsley continues:

But if it be said, “After all, there is no why; the doctrine of evolution, by doing away with the theory of creation, does away with that of final causes,” let us answer boldly, “Not in the least.” We might accept all that Mr. Darwin, all that Prof. Huxley, all that other most able men have so learnedly and acutely written on physical science, and yet preserve our natural theology on the same basis as that on which Butler and Paley left it. That we should have to develop it I do not deny.

Let us rather look with calmness, and even with hope and good-will, on these new theories; they surely mark a tendency toward a more, not a less, Scriptural view of Nature.

Of old it was said by Him, without whom nothing is made, “My Father worketh hitherto, and I work.” Shall we quarrel with Science if she should show how these words are true? What, in one word, should we have to say but this: “We know of old that God was so wise that he could make all things; but, behold, he is so much wiser than even that, that he can make all things make themselves?