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Creation and Evolution

By the time Mill’s Essays were published in 1887, religious believers felt under threat more from evolutionary biology than from empiricist philosophy. On the Origin of Species and The Descent of Man were greeted with horror in some Christian circles. At the meeting of the British Association in 1860, the evolutionist T. H. Huxley, so he reported, had been asked by the Bishop of Oxford whether he claimed descent from an ape on his father’s or his mother’s side. Huxley—according to his own account—replied that he would rather have an ape for a grandfather than a man who misused his gifts to obstruct science by rhetoric.

The quarrel between Darwinian evolutionists and Christian fundamentalists continues today. Darwin’s theory obviously clashes with a literal acceptance of the Bible account of the creation of the world in seven days. Moreover, the length of time that would be necessary for evolution to take place would be immensely longer than the 6,000 years that Christian fundamentalists believe to be the age of the universe. But a non-literal interpretation of Genesis was adopted long ago by theologians as orthodox as St Augustine, and many Christians today are content to accept that the earth may have existed for billions of years. It is more difficult to reconcile an acceptance of Darwinism with belief in original sin. If the struggle for existence had been going on for aeons before humans evolved, it is impossible to accept that it was man’s first disobedience and the fruit of the forbidden tree that brought death into the world.

On the other hand, it is wrong to suggest, as is often done, that Darwin disproved the existence of God. For all Darwin showed, the whole machinery of natural selection may have been part of a creator’s design for the universe. After all, belief that we humans are God’s creatures has never been regarded as incompatible with our being the children of our parents; it is no more incompatible with us being, on both sides, descended from the ancestors of the apes.

At most, Darwin disposed of one argument for the existence of God: namely, the argument that the adaptation of organisms to their environment exhibits the handiwork of a benevolent creator. But even that is to overstate the case. The only argument refuted by Darwin would be one that said: wherever there is adaptation to environment we must see the immediate activity of an intelligent being. But the old argument from design did not claim this; and indeed it was an essential step in the argument that lower animals and natural agents did not have minds. The argument was only that the ultimate explanation of such adaptation must be found in intelligence; and if the argument was ever sound, then the success of Darwinism merely inserts an extra step between the phenomena to be explained and their ultimate explanation.

Darwinism leaves much to be explained. The origin of individual species from earlier species may be explained by the mechanisms of evolutionary pressure and selection. But these mechanisms cannot be used to explain the origin of species as such. For one of the starting points of explanation by natural selection is the existence of true breeding populations, namely species.

Many Darwinians claim that the origin and structure of the world and the emergence of human life and human institutions are already fully explained by science, so that no room is left for postulating the existence of activity of any non-natural agent. Darwin himself was more cautious. Though he believed that it was not necessary, in order to account for

the perfection of complex organs and instincts, to appeal to ‘means superior to, though analogous with, human reason’, he explicitly left room, in several places of the second edition of On the Origin of Species, for the activity of a creator. In defending his theory from geological objections he pleads that the imperfections of the geological record ‘do not overthrow the theory of descent from a few created forms with subsequent modification’ (OS 376). ‘I should infer from analogy’, he tells us, ‘that probably all the organic beings which have ever lived on this earth have descended from some one primordial form, into which life was first breathed by the Creator’ (OS 391).

Indeed, Darwin claims it as a merit of his system that it is in accord with what we know of the divine mode of action:

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. When I view all beings not as special creations, but as the lineal descendants of some few beings which lived long before the first bed of the Silurian system was deposited, they seem to me to become ennobled. (OS 395)

It was special creation, not creation, that Darwin objected to.

When neo-Darwinians claim that Darwin’s insights enable us to explain the entire cosmos, philosophical difficulties arise at three main points: the origin of language, the origin of life, and the origin of the universe.

In the case of the human species there is a particular difficulty in explaining by natural selection the origin of language, given that language is a system of conventions. Explanation by natural selection of the origin of a feature in a population presupposes the occurrence of that feature in particular individuals of the population. Natural selection might favour a certain length of leg, and the long-legged individuals in the population might outbreed the others. But for this kind of explanation of features to be possible, it must be possible to conceive the occurrence of the feature in single individuals. There is no problem in describing a single individual as having legs n metres long. But there is a problem with the idea that there might be just a single human language-user.

It is not easy to explain how the human race may have begun to use language by claiming that the language-using individuals among the population were advantaged and so outbred the non-language-using individuals. This is not simply because of the difficulty of seeing how spontaneous mutation could produce a language-using individual; it is the difficulty of seeing how anyone could be described as a language-using individual at all before there was a community of language-users. Human language is a rule-governed, communal activity, totally different from the signalling systems to be found in non-humans. If we reflect on the social and conventional nature of language, we must find something odd in the idea that language may have evolved because of the advantages possessed by language-users over non-language-users. It seems almost as absurd as the idea that banks may have evolved because those born with an innate cheque-writing ability were better off than those born without it.

Language cannot be the result of trial and error learning because such learning presupposes stable goals that successive attempts realize or fail to realize (as a rat may find or fail to find a food pellet in maze). But there is no goal to which language is a means: one cannot have the goal of acquiring a language, because one needs a language to have that wish in.

If it is difficult to see how language could originate by natural selection, it is equally difficult to see how life could originate that way. However successful natural selection may be in explaining the origin of particular species of life, it clearly cannot explain how there came to be such things as species at all. Darwin never claimed that it did; he did not offer an explanation of the origin of life.

Neo-Darwinians, by contrast, often attempt to tell us how life began, speculating, say, about electrical changes in some primeval organic soup. These explanations are of a radically different kind from those that Darwin put forward to account for evolution. Neo-Darwinians try to explain life as produced by the chance interaction of non-living materials and forces subject to purely physical laws. These accounts, whatever their merits, are not explanations by natural selection.

Natural selection and intelligent design are not incompatible with each other, in the way that natural selection is incompatible with the Genesis story. But though ‘intelligent design’ may be used in political circles as a euphemism for biblical fundamentalism, in the sheer idea of an extra-cosmic intelligence there is nothing that commits one to a belief in the Judaeo-Christian, or any other, religious revelation. To be sure, discussion of the possibility of such an intelligence does not belong in the science classroom; if it did, the intelligence would not be an extra-cosmic one, but a part of nature. But that is no reason why philosophers should not give it serious consideration.

The most fundamental reason in favour of postulating an extra-cosmic agency of any kind is surely the need to explain the origin of the universe itself. It is wrong to say that God provides the answer to the question, ‘Why is there something rather than nothing?’ The question itself is ill-conceived: the proposition ‘There is nothing’ cannot be given a coherent sense, and therefore there is no need to ask why it is false. It is not the existence of the universe that calls for explanation, but its coming into existence. At a time when philosophers and scientists were happy to accept that the universe had existed forever, there was no question of looking for a cause of its origin, only of looking for an explanation of its nature. But when it is proposed that the universe began at a point of time measurably distant in the past, then it seems perverse simply to shrug one’s shoulders and decline to seek any explanation. In the case of an ordinary existent, we would be uneasy with a blithe announcement that there was simply no reason for its coming into existence. Unless we accept a Kantian view of the limitations of reason, it seems irrational to abandon this attitude when the existing thing in question is all-pervasive, like the universe.’

p. 296-305, – Philosophy in the Modern World Vol. 4, Anthony Kenny, 2007.