Evolutionary theodicy

Michael Ruse, in his book Debating Design, quotes (as have many others) a letter from Charles Darwin to Asa Gray about why he cannot see the hand of a good creator in nature. The interesting thing is how he presents his argument. I’ll summarise it.

  1. Imagine a good man is killed by lightning.
  2. Many or most people will say that God designedly killed this man, but I can’t and don’t.
  3. Similarly I cannot believe God designedly brings a swallow to eat a particular gnat.
  4. The man and the gnat are in the same predicament.
  5. If the death of neither man or gnat are designed, then I don’t see how their birth is, either.

The example is, at least, close to home as my wife’s great-grandfather died from a lightning strike not long after this letter was written! The third proposition in the chain is, apparently, a mixed argument. On the face of it is seems to be saying, “How ridiculous it is that God should trouble over the fate of individual gnats and swallows.” But we should maybe also add in, as part of his thought, what he had said earlier in the letter, to the effect that he cannot bring himself to think that a loving God would design the cruel lifestyle of parasitic ants. It does occur to me that these arguments cancel each other out – if God ought to care about individual parasitised larvae, should he not also notice individual gnats? So the real force of the argument is the malevolence of the natural world as an argument against God.

But as he states it, the train of reasoning is purely a question of his own personal psychology and prejudices. He recognises that many, or most people, of his time would be quite confident that God’s providence does decide the destiny of men. I’m not sure how many people would haved troubled to consider if gnats are also within God’s individual providence – they were, however, aware that Jesus taught that sparrows are. Whether or not Darwin thinks most people would extend providence to gnats is not that relevant – the only logical connection between Darwin’s position on man and on gnats is that he has the same personal prejudice against divine providence in both cases.

The last proposition of the argument is nothing but a restatement of his original personal opinion reapplied to origins. If (as he seems to think a majority of people would have believed) the death of both man and gnat were designed, then so would be their origins on Darwin’s reasoning.

Note that he does not come to this position from observation of nature, but from his prior opinion about God’s providence regarding people. He simply applies that theological conviction to nature as well. It’s worth thinking where the idea might have from. This letter was written about 1860, and it is widely accepted that much of Darwin’s religious doubt came from the death of his eldest daughter nine years earlier. This was a terrible loss to him – but losing children was almost universal in Victorian families, as my own family history shows. Neither was such bereavement bound to lead to loss of faith – more often faith that “The Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away” was a comfort. Horatio Spafford famously lost his eldest son in 1871, his fortune shortly afterwards, and all four daughters in a shipwreck two years later, just prior to writing the hymn It is well with my soul.

There is no reason to insist that people should respond to life’s tragedies in the same way, of course, but neither was Darwin’s experience in the least uncommon. Given his family background in Enlightenment thinking, it is likely that he was influenced consciously by Hume’s famous dys-theodicy: that all the world’s evil excludes the existence of an all-loving, omipotent God.

The common response to Hume’s rationalist dys-theodicy was to attempt rational theodicy – and such attempts have persisted unsuccessfully (as in Darwin’s case) to this day, revealed religion now being distrusted in the relational answers it gives. Michael Ruse, again, pins down this approach:

Theodicy, therefore, came to be defined as an attempt to explain the nature of God through the exercise of reason alone. This is in juxtaposition to theology, which attempts to explain the nature of God using supernatural revelation and faith.

I’m going to suggest, in the light of what I’ve already learned and written about the theological history of natural evil, that Hume’s argument only had force because people had already become accustomed to think that the world was full of evils, whereas in former times Christianity had taught, and people had believed, that creation was fundamentally good. It’s a glass-half-full, glass-half-empty situation: if you see your troubles as “a frowning providence hiding a smiling face” you will tend to react more positively to¬† troubles than the person who sees this world as nothing but a vale of tears.

In other words, the strength of Hume’s argument comes very much from the fertility of the soil in which it was planted, a worldview which for maybe two centuries had come to see creation as largely evil. Any understanding of Darwin’s pessimism must be at least take into account this major strand of Enlightenment prejudice.

As I suggested earlier, Darwin’s unwillingness to see design in nature came, apparently, more from his own personal psychology than from scientific observation. That being so, there is no valid scientific reason for his successors to share his pessimistic outlook, except that they too share the legacy of Hume and the natural-evil theology that came, ultimately, from the replacement of the story of Adam – in which only mankind fell – with the tale of Pandora, in which the gods brought woes on the whole creation.

Jon Garvey

About Jon Garvey

Training in medicine (which was my career), social psychology and theology. Interests in most things, but especially the science-faith interface. The rest of my time, though, is spent writing, playing and recording music.
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