Friday, May 15, 2009

Was Darwin a Darwinist?

5/15/2009--Well, of course he was. But what kind of Darwinist? For a Daniel Dennett or a Richard Dawkins, evolution is based on chance. This suggests a blind, indifferent universe. Ultimately, then, existence might be thought to be without meaning. Or at least that is the sense they give me. I remember Dennett crowing in March in NYC, "What you are, your presumed self, is actually an alliance of machines in your brain."

Darwin may not have been a Darwinist of that sort. Here is the last paragraph of Darwin’s masterpiece, Of the Origin of the Species:

“It is interesting to contemplate an entangled bank, clothed with many plants of many kinds, with birds singing on the bushes, with various insects flitting about, and with worms crawling through the damp earth, and to reflect that these elaborately constructed forms, so different from each other, and dependent on each other in so complex a manner, have all been produced by laws acting around us. These laws, taken in the largest sense, being Growth with Reproduction; inheritance which is almost implied by reproduction; Variability from the indirect and direct action of the external conditions of life, and from use and disuse; a Ratio of Increase so high as to lead to a Struggle for Life, and as a consequence to Natural Selection, entailing Divergence of Character and the Extinction of less-improved forms. Thus, from the war of nature, from famine and death, the most exalted object which we are capable of conceiving, namely, the production of the higher animals, directly follows. There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.”

There is nothing in this description to demoralize one’s hope that existence might be grand and beautiful. And for that matter that there might be a point of evolving “the higher animals.” Such a general direction might reflect something more than chance. I don’t mean the will of God, but perhaps a tendency built into matter toward consciousness. Anyway, the question of direction, purpose and meaning would have to be left open.


  1. For a Daniel Dennett or a Richard Dawkins, evolution is based on chance. This suggests a blind, indifferent universe.This is dead wrong. All evolutionists, whether atheist or not, believe that evolution is a product of chance and natural selection.

    To theistic evolutionsts, the potential for life itself is proof enough of a purposeful universe.

  2. It is true that the mechanism of evolution depends on the appearance of a trait, which itself depends on chance. On the other hand, over the immmense time frame of the universe, chance may be seen as necessity. Under certain circumstances it may be quite predictable that certain traits will appear and be selected. Convergent evolution, in which organisms not closely related independently acquire similar characteristics suggests this. Consciousness itself may be built in once life gets going.

    I don't disagree about the potential of life itself as suggestive of purpose. The appearance of life is also one of those chance events that in retrospect appear inevitable.

  3. I think we're in basic agreement.

    The notion of apparent inevitability you speak of is like the lottery. Someone is almost certain to win. Nonethless, the fact that it happened to a specific individual would not support her claim that her choice of the winning number was either inevitable or miraculous.