Why is Charles Darwin sometimes called the last of the natural theologians?
Natural theology can be described as "the attempt to provide proofs or arguments for the existence of god" and, under this definition, a natural theologian would explain the properties of the natural world within a worldview that is consistent with the existence of god. A theological interpretation of nature relies on the direct action of a deity and aims to further religious understanding by studying nature. For natural theologians of Darwin's time, nature was the direct creation of god and so studying nature was studying god's work. Today, Darwin's fame rests on his theory of natural selection which is widely accepted in the scientific community. The majority of the supporters of Darwin's theory view his work as being completely secular because natural theology explains adaptation by supernatural action while Darwinism explains it by natural selection. However, Darwin himself was greatly influenced by the theological interpretations of organisms' adaptation and he had a tremendous impact on religious thought.
Darwin grew up at a time when Christian beliefs were common and expected. It is well known that religious sources, especially the natural theology of the eighteenth century, had a large impact on Darwin. As a young student at Cambridge University, he embraced a natural theological perspective and saw the stunning adaptations of creatures to their environments as irrefutable evidence of God's plan. Darwin saw the myriad complex and elegant designs in the natural world and interpreted this as only being possible if it were the expression of an omnipotent divine being. He maintained his religious beliefs during his expedition on HMS Beagle and often quoted scripture as an unanswerable authority.
However, as Darwin began to formulate his theory of natural selection, he was forced to reconsider the realities of the Christian doctrine as a scientist. Doubt began to creep into Darwin's mind and he reflected that the Bible's miracles seem incredible in a world where the fixed laws of nature were understood so precisely. In his diaries, Darwin noted the dogmatism of religion and his own waning devotion. He commented on the inevitable inaccuracy of the Gospels and claimed that the morality of the New Testament is largely based on the interpretation of metaphor and allegory. Despite this, he admitted to himself that he was still unwilling to give up his faith.
Darwin's creeping disbelief in Christianity was hastened by the death of his father Robert in November 1848, after a period of great suffering. He hated to see unnecessary anguish and misery and had great difficulty reconciling a loving god with the pain and agony he saw experienced by humankind. The death of his daughter at the age of ten – one of three children his family lost – marked the final destruction of Darwin's belief in a beneficent Christian god and a just and moral universe. The conventional orthodoxy of his youth made way for a sceptical agnostic outlook: "disbelief crept over me at a very slow rate, but was at last complete … this is a damnable doctrine".
As Darwin refined his ideas and prepared the first edition of On The Origin Of Species, he began to move away from the optimism of natural theology. His theory developed into an account that did not explicitly include a supernatural divine creator. Post Darwin there was no longer a distinction between god and science. He abolished the need for an explanation of the natural world in terms of a religious entity – nature was both the producer and the product. The beautiful designs of nature, which Darwin first saw as evidence of god's work, were now deemed to the products of natural selection. He wrote that, "the old argument of design in nature, which formerly seemed to me so conclusive, fails now that the law of natural selection has been discovered. We can no longer argue that, for instance, the beautiful hinge of a bivalve shell must have been made by an intelligent being, like the hinge of a door by man."
Over time, Darwin's conception of nature grew in complexity as he understood more fully the inherent dynamic of the principles of population. Natural theologians viewed the adaptation of organisms to be static whereas Darwin's model allowed for a path toward complex specialisation and, indeed, progress in which adaptation was redefined each generation. He no longer had any need for a god because his sagacious creator of the diverse living world was simply "selection" or nature itself. Darwin said that if any biological adaptation could be explained without resorting to a divine miracle "the way was free to an explanation for all adaptation, and thence for the diversity of species." Notably, Darwin also viewed homo sapiens to be a species like any other and refused to single humans out. The idea that one species ought to be divinely ordained over all others was absurd to him.
Despite this, Darwin avoided talking about the theological and sociological aspects of his theories and stressed that evolution and religion were not incompatible. However, other writers used his work to support their own ideas about society. It is only from later analysis and reference to his work that the theory of evolution gained the reputation of being incompatible with Christianity and effectively being the catalyst for the death of natural theology. Darwin never intended to denounce organised religion or to cast doubt on people's faith, but some offence was taken at the implications about god as the creator in On The Origin Of Species. Because of this, he went to great length to stress that evolution does not preclude belief in a Christian god. To distinguish between a providential creator and the evolutionary process Darwin emphasised his belief that organisms behave "selfishly" and that, under his theory of natural selection, they "act solely by and for the good of each."
Few people would consider Darwin to be a natural theologian in any form at all but, looking back over the way he approached his work, it is clear that religious beliefs strongly shaped the direction of his theory. Darwin grew up in a time where the accepted standard was to be a Christian who lived unerringly by the Bible and it took much of his life to realise that, rationally, his research asked some very searching questions of conventional religious beliefs. He had the early view that organisms were "perfectly" adapted and used other religious terminology and ideas in formulating his theory while Neo-Darwinian Christians managed to reconcile natural selection with their religious beliefs. In closing On The Origin Of Species, Darwin reflected that he ought to be called a theist but there is no denying that the theory of evolution revolutionised and, arguable, did much to secularise the biology of organisms. In the sense that he was one of the last to approach his attempt to understand the natural world from the perspective of a natural theologian, it is a fair term to describe him. However, the legacy of his work has proven not to further the ideas behind natural theology.
- Darwin, Charles. The Autobiography of Charles Darwin.
- Desmond, Adrian and Moore, James. Darwin: The Life of a Tormented Evolutionist (1994).