What Darwin Said About God
No figure in modern history has received as much religiously based criticism as Charles Darwin. He is seen as worse than an atheist; his work has been attacked as a threat to the belief that the universe and mankind are God's creations.
Charles Darwin was not the first person to write about evolution. In his book Origin of Species he gives credit to 24 naturalists[i] who discussed the idea before he did. Since Darwin did the most work to research and promulgate the topic, the concept of evolution has been identified with him.
Many who are angrily anti-Darwin have not read the Origin or examined Darwin's personal life. At Cambridge University he studied to be a minister. However, he felt that science should be objective in nature, and was careful to keep any reference to God or a creator out of his work, particularly in his two major works On the Origin of Species and The Descent of Man. For example, he states in the Origin, "They [creationists] believe that many structures have been created for the sake of beauty, to delight man or the Creator (but this latter point is beyond the scope of scientific discussion)"[ii].
Toward the end of his life Darwin's reluctance to discuss God diminished. It is in the sixth edition of the Origin where this shift is most noticeable. The sixth edition was the last edition edited by Darwin. It was released in 1872 -- some thirteen years after the first edition was published. The word "evolution" appears for the first time in the last edition.
Darwin used the word "Creator" nine times, and the word "God" twice in the sixth edition [iii]. Of greater importance is what he said about life and the Creator's role in it. Darwin never said that evolution was Godless or directionless. In fact, a reading of the sixth edition of Origin proves that both of these assertions are factually incorrect. The second page of the Origin prominently displays this quote:
To conclude, therefore, let no man out of a weak conceit of sobriety, or an ill-applied moderation, think or maintain, that a man can search too far or be too well studied in the book of God's word, or in the book of God's works; divinity or philosophy; but rather let men endeavour an endless progress or proficience in both. - Bacon: "Advancement of Learning"[iv]
Darwin addressed several objections to evolution in the sixth edition. (He added a Chapter Seven titled "Miscellaneous Objections to the Theory of Natural Selection.") One of best-known criticisms of natural selection was that nothing as complicated as an eye could have evolved purely by chance. Darwin's response was that we can observe many examples of the evolution of light-sensitive cells in nature. The most intriguing thought Darwin had on this subject was that just because we don't understand how something can evolve does not mean that the Creator wasn't behind it. His exact words in the sixth edition of Origin were "Have we any right to assume that the Creator works by intellectual powers like those of man?"[v]. Using the telescope as an example of a man-made optical instrument, he added: "May we not believe that a living optical instrument might thus be formed as superior to one of glass, as the works of the Creator are to man?"[vi].
Two more quotes by Darwin in the sixth edition mention the Creator, and these give the Creator credit for starting the "laws" of evolution. The first passage reads:
To my mind it accords better with what we know of the laws impressed on matter by the Creator, that the production and extinction of the past and present inhabitants of the world should have been due to secondary causes, like those determining the birth and death of the individual.[vii]
Addressing objections to evolutionary theory, Darwin commented: "He who believes that each equine [horse] species was independently created, will, I presume, assert that each species has been created with a tendency to vary, both under nature and under domestication[.]" He criticized this view: "It makes the works of God a mere mockery and deception[.]" This was clearly a reference to the "works of God" [viii].
In the last sentence of the sixth, edition Darwin placed the Creator at the beginning of life on earth:
There is grandeur in this [natural selection] view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed by the Creator 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.[ix]
Darwin was arguing that the Creator's input into a few life forms was not life, but the laws of natural selection. So it remains an open question whether or not and how God created life. It should be noted that Origin is called The Origin of Species, not The Origin of Life.
While Darwin, in the passages where he referred to the Creator, did not state that God created life [x], he did state that the Creator was there at the beginning, and "breathed" the laws of natural selection into early forms of life, to enable them to adapt to changing climates, etc. Why did Darwin leave the question of whether God created life open? A plausible explanation is that Darwin wanted to leave the specific correlation between God and the beginning of life unanswered so that those who believe in God could follow their beliefs, and those who did not could follow theirs. This leaves the laws of natural selection as a research field to be pursued by the naturalist, which is what Darwin felt the theory of natural selection should be.
The argument over whether or not God exists is hotly debated today, and perhaps always will be. Darwin did not want to make his biologically based arguments dependent upon a person's belief in God. (But it should be added that by placing the "Creator" at the start of life, Darwin did take a somewhat ambiguous stand on the issue).
Darwin did mention a Creator and God in the last edition of The Origin of Species. But he did not say that God created life or specifically created man. Those who oppose Darwin do not want to allow for the possibility that Darwin brought a Creator (with a capital C) into the picture. But he clearly did.
Perhaps Darwin was being more liberal in allowing others to choose to believe in God or not. Perhaps he had more respect for believers and atheists than they have for him. As a scientist, he felt that a priority should be placed on describing the changes to life we see in the natural world as proceeding along natural "law" which, in his time, was the a topic for the investigations of the naturalist. For example, Newton describes the "laws" of motion. Darwin sought to find those laws in the early forms of life.
In the final view, Darwin's work is like a Rorschach inkblot test: people will see what they want to see, what is consistent with their beliefs. However, as readers of his work we must factually report what he actually said, not what we want to believe he said. Critics of Darwin's work are then attacking him for not believing the same thing they believe, rather than for what he actually wrote.
[i] "An Historical Sketch of the Progress of Opinion on the Origin of Species" pp. xiii-xxi.
[ii] p. 159.
[iii] Origin, Sixth Edition, London: John Murray, 1876. See Reference.
[iv] Second page of front matter, which states edition and date.
[v] p. 146.
[vi] p. 146.
[vii] p. 428.
[viii] p. 130.
[ix] p. 429.
[x] Darwin never stated that the Creator did not create life.
Charles Darwin. The Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, Or The Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life. Sixth Edition, With Additions and Corrections to 1872. London: John Murray, 1876.