Darwin as Prophet

eglaser's picture

In all of our classes, discussion groups and forum postings we have repeatedly run into the problem of how to classify Darwin’s Origin of the Species. Is it considered fiction or nonfiction? Foundationalist, Nonfoundationalist, empirical? I fear I must add to the current confusion by expressing my doubt that Darwin’s work can even be considered a scientific abstract. I agree that the intent, at least the conscious intent, was for this work to present a new scientific theory however, I believe that in the language he used and in his desire to avoid confrontation with the contemporary theory of descent he crafted a story that bore striking similarities to a religious document. Because of this I wish to argue that Darwin, in his attempt to explain the origin of species created an alternative faith rather then a scientific text.

Darwin lived in a world where much was explained through the Christian faith. The Great Chain of Being and the Tree of Life stories were both influenced by the story of creation in the bible. Needless to say, Darwin must have been aware that his new story was not only going against an opposing theory, but also an opposing faith which is much more difficult to overcome. How could science, no matter how carefully explained and documented, reverse the thinking of an entire belief system? In my opinion, Darwin did not try. As an empiricist Darwin was compelled to explain his theory by including his inexhaustible wealth of facts and data. But, because his theory of evolution was growing from a hierarchical, religious perspective, he needed to create an alternative religion to convince others of the validity of his argument. “Faith can only be opposed by another faith, not by facts, let alone hypotheses”( Lukyanenko, 323). In order to challenge a religious public, he had to create a religion himself.

Before I continue further, I must explain what I consider to be the difference between a religious text and a scientific one. Although many interesting points were brought up about this during our group’s discussion, for the purposes of this paper I will use the concept of worship as the defining factor. A scientist may be fascinated by his or her field of research, they may see it as beautiful and engaging, but they do not worship it. Religions alone are founded on the idolatry of something or someone, and that is what defines a religious text as opposed to a scientific one. A religious text will constantly bring the focus of the story back to this center of worship by connecting it to the observations made about other topics. A scientific text explains the “how” of something, as it was expressed in class, but a religious text alone will treat that something as self aware and worthy of worship.

In Darwin’s work the concept of natural selection is presented as this personified object of worship. One example of the way Darwin refers to his newly minted natural selection is this passage from page 336, “It may be said that natural selection is daily and hourly scrutinizing throughout the world … rejecting that which is bad, preserving and adding up all that is good.” Although natural selection is nothing more then a process of change, mindlessly creating variation without regards to human concepts such as good or bad, Darwin presents it as much more then that. Natural selection has been elevated to the status of a conscious force, capable of action. How can this force act on what is good and what is bad? Who makes these judgments and who caries them out? By describing the process of natural selection like this it sounds less like a scientific principle and more like God in the book of genesis surveying his newly created Earth, “and he saw that it was good.” (Gen 1: 18)

Although it is true that Darwin explains evolution as a continually progressing, unguided force, he still uses terms, incongruent to this argument, to describe the current and future state of evolution. As the previous quote already demonstrated, he uses qualities such as good and bad that evoke judgment of the different species that have evolved. This is a quality that is often lacking in scientific texts, after all, how do you call a chemical good, or an atom bad? The language he uses contains hints that evolution will eventually reach a point of perfection, each successive organism becoming closer to that perfection. “And as natural selection works solely by and for the good of each being, all corporeal and mental endowments will tend to progress towards perfection” (Darwin, 397). The term perfection, harkens back to the Great Chain of Being theory of descent where there are many layers of species with the highest being the closest to God. This implies that there is an end goal for evolution which Darwin treats as being better then the previously evolved forms. Considering this is a supposedly random process with no planned result, that seems an unusual prediction to make unless it was mirroring the previous religious theory.

Although Darwin’s text could be interpreted as a pseudo religious one, this in no way diminishes his authority or the value of his text. Science and religion are both far more similar then some would believe, after all they are just two ways of viewing the world. Two men observe a garden, they both see that it is beautiful, full of flowers, fruit and tangled weeds. Both men are awed at this sight and declares that such marvels much have been created over time by an incredibly powerful, unthinkably immense force. One names this force God and the other evolution. If there is one thing I have learned in this class it is that there are always alternative stories to everything. No concept is fixed, no universal truth can point us towards the most accurate story, we must observe the world around us and make the best story we can.

I have never understood the need to separate science and religion into two distinct categories. As one person declared in our discussion, evolution and the biblical creation story are so different that both could not be possible. I think that a viewpoint has arisen in our society that has cast these two topics as diametric opposites; one must either be religious or a scientist. But, if you look back, Darwin himself, the creator of one of the most unreligious of stories in history in fact used religious terms and ideas in his book. I do not know where this concept of science versus religion came from but throughout my life I have tried to combat it and reconcile the two. The creation story in genesis and the theory of evolution in The Origin of the Species are not two different stories. In my mind they are both intrinsically linked and do not need to exist in separate spheres. Darwin examined the natural world and came to create and worship the principle of natural selection. Darwin was more then the founder of a new scientific theory; he was the first prophet of the religion of evolution.

Works Cited
Charles Darwin, On the Origin of the Species by Means of Natural Selection (Broadview Press:
New York, 2003)
Sergei Lukyanenko, The Last Watch (Random house: London, 2008), 323


Anne Dalke's picture


You’re speaking here to what was clearly THE theme of our class forum this week, which was ALL about the similarities and differences between science and religion. What you’ve added to that public conversation is a careful attentiveness to the “religious-like” way in which Darwin presented his new theory. You go on from there to a claim that science and literature are NOT two different stories, and do NOT need to exist in separate spheres, that science actually now fills a religious role in our culture.

In staking that claim, you are countering both Stephen Jay Gould’s concept of ‘non-overlapping magisteria’ and amoskowi’s more local work on reconciling evolution and intelligent design; I’d be curious to hear you continue thinking aloud about these questions, after you’ve looked at their arguments. Some of what you say here actually anticipates their claims; perhaps your most striking idea is that religion is defined by the activity of worship (“idolatry” is actually a much more problematic word, even in religious studies…..); I’d even go further and say that, in its insistence on trying to understand, science explicitly refuses worship and mystery.

I see in your own writing some of the same conflict you identify in Darwin’s. On the one hand, you say that “God” and “evolution” are just two different names for the same “incredibly powerful, unthinkably immense force”; on the other, you call them “alternative stories.” Am not sure, finally, whether you see them as same or different.

I’ve got a couple of other questions for you: You measure Darwin by his own standards, but it’s not clear to me why you identify one strand of his argument—about “the supposedly random process”—as “true,” and the other—about perfection—as “incongruent” with the first. Wherefrom that standard? Doesn’t Darwin’s skeptical “we don’t have all the information” attitude suggest, for instance, something other than a worshipful approach to his task? What to do about other non-hierarchical passages, such as this one on p. 368: "I am aware that it is hardly possible to define clearly what is meant by the organisation being higher or lower"?

You say that “we must observe the world around us and make the best story we can”; that begs the question, doesn’t it, of what our standard is for “best”? And you end by saying that you don’t know where—or why--the view of science and religion as diametric opposites arose. Is that “speciation event” the next question you need to pursue? Might you better combat the opposition, if you knew more about its history?

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