Darwin, God, Alvin Plantinga, and Evolution

by Paul Braterman


Watercolour, Darwin after return from The Beagle, by George Richmond

Charles Darwin regarded our minds, like our bodies, as the products of undirected evolution. He therefore considered them unreliable on topics vastly more abstruse than the experiences that had shaped them. Alvin Plantinga claims that minds produced by undirected evolution could not even be trusted to interpret day-to-day experience. From this he infers that undirected evolution is false, and belief in it self-contradictory. Darwin doubts our capacity to think sensibly about whether or not there is a God, while Plantinga regards the fact that we can think about reality at all as proof of His existence. In Part II of this essay, I will discuss Plantinga's views in more detail, and show that they arise, not so much from anything unusual in his epistemology, as in a profound misunderstanding of the workings of evolution.

Darwin's correspondence includes extensive discussion of religious matters, but it could be argued that what he says there is tempered to his audience. However, his private Autobiography includes a short but revealing chapter on religious belief, and that is what I mainly drawn on here. The family regarded this as so contentious that it was not made public in full until 1958, and I see no reason to regard it as anything less than a full and open account. In less than four thousand words, he traces his progress from rigid orthodoxy to a principled rejection of all dogmatic positions. In the process, he lays out with admirable brevity the standard arguments against religion, using language so clear and striking that one hears echoes of it today, even, perhaps unwittingly, in the arguments used by his opponents.

Darwin initially contemplated becoming a clergyman. He tells us that he “did not then in the least doubt the strict and literal truth of every word in the Bible”, and was much impressed by Paley's argument from the perfection of individual organisms to the existence of an intelligent creator. He was still quite orthodox while on the Beagle, but in the two years after his return he reconsidered his position, and gradually came to reject orthodox religion for many reasons. Old Testament history is manifestly false (he cites the Tower of Babel, and the rainbow as a sign given to Noah), and describes its God as having the feelings of “a revengeful tyrant.” As for the New Testament, the beauty of its morality may be due to selective interpretation. The New Testament miracles (and here I think he includes the Virgin Birth and the Resurrection) beggar belief in a more scientific age, and the Gospels describing them are mutually contradictory, and written long after the events they claim to describe. For a while, he hoped that new archaeological discoveries would confirm the Gospel story, but gradually he moved towards total rejection on moral, as well as historical and logical, grounds.

As the Autobiography puts it,

I can indeed hardly see how anyone ought to wish Christianity to be true; for if so the plain language of the text seems to show that the men who do not believe, and this would include my Father, Brother and almost all my best friends, will be everlastingly punished.

And this is a damnable doctrine.

Darwin's widow Emma, a few months after his death, annotated this passage as one she did not wish to see published, saying “Nothing can be said too severe upon the doctrine of everlasting punishment for disbelief—but very few now wd. call that 'Christianity.'”1 Emma was a Unitarian, and would also, at that time, have had the strongest possible reasons to reject this doctrine, but rather optimistically regarded it as a thing of the past.

As for the implications of science, Darwin's conclusions are interesting.

The old argument of design in nature, as given by Paley … fails, now that the law of natural selection has been discovered…. Everything in nature is the result of fixed laws.

At this point he refers to an argument he had given elsewhere, in Variations of Animals and Plants. Randomly shaped stone fragments can be assembled to build a house, but it would be wrong to infer that the stones acquired their shapes for this purpose. Similarly, natural selection among variants gives rise to well-structured living things, but this is no reason to think that the production of variants is intentionally guided.


17th century dry stone wall, Muchalls Castle, Scotland, photo by Anlace

Regarding what he called, despite the deaths of three of his children, “the generally beneficent arrangement of the world”, this he explained as itself the result of evolution. In order to survive, creatures must be so constituted that pleasure outweighs pain and suffering, which “if long continued, causes depression and lessens the power of action.” As for the opposite argument, which he himself had used more than once,

…what advantage can there be in the sufferings of millions of the lower animals throughout almost endless time? This very old argument from the existence of suffering against the existence of an intelligence as cause seems to me a strong one; whereas… the presence of much suffering agrees well with the view that all organic beings have been developed through variation and natural selection.

In short, the argument from the goodness of the world fails, and the existence of suffering is explained, if the capacities to experience pleasure and suffering, and the balance between them, are seen as naturally evolved adaptations.

Darwin deals briskly with several of the remaining arguments for the existence of an intelligent God. Most people, he says, feel a deep inward conviction that such a God exists, but

Hindoos, Mahomadans and others might argue in the same manner and with equal force in favour of the existence of one God, or of many Gods, or as with the Buddists of no God

[nomenclature and spelling in original]. Darwin also suggests a possible analogy, still used (without acknowledgement) by some advocates of religion, that the nonbeliever who cannot see God in nature is like someone who is colourblind. His response is that the colourblind person must admit the existence of the colour red, although he cannot himself perceive it, since those around him use the term consistently, but that there is no such consistency in religious belief. The emotional response to the beauty and grandeur of nature, which Darwin had experienced in full measure, has much in common with the emotional response to music, and, like that response, “can hardly be advanced as an argument for the existence of God.”


Title page of On the Origin of Species, 1st ed., 1859

One argument, however, retained conviction at the time when he was writing On the Origin of Specie, namely “the extreme difficulty or rather impossibility of conceiving this immense and wonderful universe… as a result of blind chance or necessity.” Notice that Darwin makes a clear distinction, which today's “Intelligent Design” advocates systematically blur, between Paley's argument from the design of particular things (rejected, as we saw earlier), and the more powerful argument from the possible presence of design in the universe as a whole. The latter he finds convincing enough for him to say, at the very time that he was composing On the Origin of Species, that “I deserve to be called a Theist”.

Later, however, Darwin wonders,

…can the mind of man, which has… been developed from a mind as low as that possessed by the lowest animal, be trusted when it draws such grand conclusions?

Or, as he says elsewhere,

I feel most deeply that the whole subject is too profound for the human intellect. A dog might as well speculate on the mind of Newton. Let each man hope and believe what he can.


Darwin in 1881, photo by Herbert Rose Barraud (all images through Wikimedia Commons)

Moreover, generations of religious teaching may have produced a “strong and perhaps an inherited effect” on the minds of children. (Notice that here Darwin is considering the possible inheritance of an acquired characteristic, a view that we generally associate with the much earlier work of Lamarck.) Given such inherited limitations,

The mystery of the beginning of all things is insoluble by us, and I for one must be content to remain an Agnostic.

In other words, our minds evolved to deal with commonplace reality, and we must doubt whether they are adequate instruments for speculating so far beyond that. “Agnostic” was a term then newly coined by his friend and prominent supporter, Thomas Huxley, and refers, not to a wishy-washy uncertainty, but to the principled conviction that there was no adequate way of deciding the question.

Darwin concludes by considering the question of rules to live by, which, for a non-believer, he says, must the outcome of reflection on one's own behaviour and of what he calls the social instincts. For himself, he considers that he has acted rightly in devoting his life to science. He has no great sin on his conscience, but regrets he was not able to devote some time to philanthropy.

From our perspective, it is difficult to see what philanthropic venture he could have engaged in of greater value than the insight his work has given us into our own nature, and our place in the universe.

1 Footnote supplied by Nora Barlow, Darwin's grand-daughter, in the edition I have been using. The editors of the Penguin Classics edition, although familiar with Barlow's, ignore the information in this footnote and in my view, both here and elsewhere, end up misinterpreting their subject.