© Original content written by James R. Carlson
Charles Darwin earned only one degree in his lifetime and that was in Theology. He majored in medicine before leaving school. And when he returned to school he studied theology with enthusiasm. His interests also led him to the field of natural science and he coupled this with his work in theology to study everything he could about natural theology, what we call creationism today. As far as the record shows, Darwin is the most famous natural theologian in history. And his natural theology was natural selection.
As a student at Christ’s College, Cambridge in the University of Cambridge system, Darwin studied to become a member of the English Clergy along with his cousin William Darwin Fox. Darwin and Fox became fast friends while at school. And they spent considerable time together studying the natural specimens (beetles) they could find in the English countryside. It was the tradition of the English Clergy to study natural science in order to give God praise for his natural creation.
During his first year in 1828, Darwin’s professors included the geologist Rev. Adam Sedgwick and Rev. William Whewell. Whewell was a natural theologian who later wrote the third in a series called the Bridgewater Treatise (1833), two years after Darwin graduated. Whewell was a natural theologian who used the philosophical scientific tool of Induction in his study of natural theology. Darwin included a quote from Whewell as an epigraph to his book, Origins, showing that his work would present his view of natural theology and like Whewell he would use the philosophical tool of Induction to present his evidence.
In his second year Darwin took residence in the same quarters that once housed the famous natural theologian William Paley. In his third year Darwin studied Paley’s Evidences of Christianity with enthusiasm. In his fourth year he studied Paley’s Principles of Moral and Political Philosophy. Darwin also read Paley’s Natural Theology or Evidences of the Existence and Attributes of the Deity. Darwin later recalled:
I do not think I hardly ever admired a book more than Paley’s Natural Theology: I could almost formerly have said it by heart.
[Darwin to John Lubbock (22 Nov 1859)]
Paley not only set out to support the idea that design in nature proved that there was a creator (a 19th century version of ‘Intelligent Design’), he also set out to refute the naturalist arguments of David Hume who opposed the design argument of a creator. Darwin was in effect a student of Paley and absorbed much of his thinking while in school.
Darwin was also enraptured with the work of John Herschel who wrote, Preliminary Discourse on the Study of Natural Philosophy, in which he praised the philosophical tool of science called Induction. This was supposed to be a key to discovering God’s design in nature where observation and theory found a balance. Darwin was so enthusiastic about Herschel that he later called him one of the greatest philosophers.
When on board H.M.S. Beagle, as naturalist, I was much struck with certain facts in the distribution of the inhabitants of South America, and in the geological relations of the present to the past inhabitants of that continent. These facts seemed to me to throw some light on the origin of species — that mystery of mysteries, as it has been called by one of our greatest philosophers [Herschel].
As noted earlier with Whewell, Darwin set out to present his own version of natural theology in his Origins using the philosophical tool of Induction.
After graduating with his degree in Theology early in 1831, Darwin set about his work on the famous voyage on the Beagle. He had read the work of Alexander von Humboldt whose tales of adventure sparked his own interest in the discovery of the natural wonders of the world. Humboldt presented the idea that species were fixed in various geographic zones due to climate and geography. The variation of these species occurred due to these elements. Darwin set about to repeat this effort of von Humboldt’s and exceed it if he could.
While aboard the Beagle Darwin happily wrote his family about his prospects of becoming a member of the Clergy and continuing with his work in natural science. He wrote to his sister-in-law, and later his cousin, about his prospects for the future.
I find I steadily have a distant prospect of a very quiet parsonage, & I can see it even through a grove of Palms.
[Charles to Caroline Darwin (25–6 April 1832]
To a person fit to take the office, the life of a Clergyman is a type of all that is respectable & happy: & if he is a Naturalist and has the “Diamond Beetle”, ave Maria; I do not know what to say.—You tempt me by talking of your fireside, whereas it is a sort of scene I never ought to think about.
[Darwin to W. D. Fox (9–12 August 1835)]
Fox had graduated before Darwin and was giving Charles Darwin good reason to anticipate a career within the Clergy working in the study of natural science.
Although the young Darwin was ambitious to serve in the Clergy and continue with his studies in natural science a change took place during his voyage around the world. Darwin was introduced to many ideas of 18th century evolutionary (Transformationist) thinking by his teacher Robert Edmund Grant who was a Lamarckian evolutionist who supported the idea of acquired characteristics. Even his grandfather, Erasmus Darwin, had written a book titled, Zoonomia (1794), that the young Darwin read while in school. Erasmus followed this same line of thought as Lamarck and was a part of the 18th century Transformationist community. The younger Darwin was open to the idea of the transformation of species but had not commented on it for the record while in school.
During his time on the Beagle he became acquainted with other works such as Thomas Malthus’ An Essay on the Principle of Population and Charles Lyell’s Principles of Geology. Of Malthus Darwin wrote:
In October 1838, that is, fifteen months after I had begun my systematic inquiry, I happened to read for amusement Malthus on Population, and being well prepared to appreciate the struggle for existence which everywhere goes on from long- continued observation of the habits of animals and plants, it at once struck me that under these circumstances favourable variations would tend to be preserved, and unfavourable ones to be destroyed. The results of this would be the formation of a new species. Here, then I had at last got a theory by which to work.
[Charles Darwin, from his autobiography. (1876)]
Sadly, Darwin confused species variations with species transformations. Natural selection works to make changes in species characteristics but not in creating new species.
Captain Fitzroy also gave Darwin a copy of Lyell’s book, Principles of Geology, while they were aboard the Beagle. Darwin discovered a geological perspective of uniformitarianism where the slow layering of the earth’s surface occurred over many geological ages. This impacted his thinking about both geology and biology. Humboldt already connected geography with biology and Darwin continued to fuse the two branches of science into one idea of the slow development of both.
As Darwin put his notes together in his diary he had an entry titled Zoonomia showing his thinking on the subject at hand. Darwin was slowly embracing the idea of evolution even though he had previously been a student of natural theology and could have been called a Creationist (a modern term) while in school.
Darwin’s ‘aha’ moment reportedly came during his voyage to the Galapagos Islands off of South America. There he saw the variation of species that made him wonder how that could have occurred. He combined the ideas of species variation with the idea of transformation (E. Darwin and Lamarck), with population dynamics (Malthus), with bio-geography (Humboldt), and with long geological time (Lyell) to present his own view of natural selection. Natural selection was Darwin’s explanation of the variation of species that he presented in his book, On the Origin of Species, by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life (1859). His work focused on the origin of speciation and not on the origin of life.
Darwin’s career as a theology student conflicted with his new theology of natural selection. After publishing his Origins, Darwin wrote his friend Charles Lyell telling him about his conflict of soul.
…thinking of the many cases of men pursuing an illusion for years, often & often a cold shudder has run through me & I have asked myself whether I may not have devoted my life to a phantasy.
[Darwin to Lyell (23 November 1859)]
Lyell had not accepted the notion of Lamarkian transformation theory when he first wrote Principles of Geology but he finally supported Darwin’s transformationist view in his Origins. This gave Darwin some relief but as he said, he was torn in his own mind about whether this idea of natural selection was true. In fact, natural selection is true only for species variations but false for species transformations.
As noted previously, Darwin used a philosophical tool of science (Induction) to present (not prove) his thesis of natural selection. As such he organized his ideas around a materialist approach to the origin of species without the influence of God (the Holy Spirit). To Darwin the selection of species that would survive required no action from an active Creator. The mechanism of species variation/transformation was therefore material and not spiritual. And instead of divine selection for species variation, Darwin’s approach was natural selection. Ultimately, Darwin’s natural theology was natural selection that was materialist not spiritualist (Wallace, etc.).
Today many people believe in evolution following the work of Charles Darwin. However, most people do not know that what they believe in is a form of natural theology. In fact, Charles Darwin is the most famous of the natural theologians who never rejected a belief in God; Darwin was not an atheist. Many people talk about evolution as being atheistic but it began with a theistic viewpoint without the active agency of God; theistic evolution was Darwin’s viewpoint. However, as Darwin did not require God to make changes to species in time and space, atheists embraced the new theology of Darwin’s materialism and have since turned evolution into the religion of atheism.
In the early 20th century, the Modern Synthesis worked to remove any vestige of spiritualism (Wallace, etc.) from the theory of evolution. The ideas of vitalism, entelechy, and teleology were removed and rejected as having no place in the materialism of modern Darwinian evolutionary theory. However, instead of removing them, they have been replaced with self-complexity, self-organized criticality (SOC), autocatalysis, and hyper cycles. These modern explanations of increased complexity in life forms from simple forms still bear the emblems of the earlier spiritualized ideas of vitalism, entelechy, and teleology. Instead of removing the spiritual ideas that comprised 19th century evolutionism, they traded it for the ideas of 20th century materialism. Materialism is a central element to Darwin’s natural theology.
Sadly, Darwin never proved his philosophical thesis of evolution empirically. His own cousin, Francis Galton, disproved the idea of pangenesis, which Charles Darwin thought was the mechanism of evolution. Pangenesis, however, was originally the thesis of Erasmus Darwin, the grandfather of Charles Darwin and Francis Galton; so Galton actually disproved his grandfather’s idea. And to date, all Neo-Darwinists have also failed to prove their ideas of evolution empirically, resorting to philosophical arguments instead to substantiate it.
The theology of Darwin is a widely held belief in the modern world. Although God is active in the affairs of man and nature (aka the world), evolution leads people to reject this in the minds of some. While natural selection can explain the variations of characteristics within a species it cannot explain species transformations. There have never been any observed transformations of species in nature or the lab and Darwin’s failure was not recognizing that species can mutate but do not trans-mutate. Darwin’s idea of Origins of Species and Natural Selection was original to him but having removed God from the daily life of nature and mankind opened the doors to theological error. His theology remains a central part of modern society and thinking but has been rejected by those who view his theology as without foundation in either the Bible or science. As a theology, evolution is heresy. As a science, it is philosophical without empirical foundation. All-in-all, it simply is not true for species transformations.