Tuesday, February 15, 2005

On a Mistaken Impression

Chesterton famously once said that there are many people who are under the mistaken impression that they have read Darwin's Origin of Species, a paradox that, like many Chestertonian paradoxes, is startlingly true. There is a common impression, for instance, that Darwin uses the theory of natural selection to argue against design. He certainly doesn't in The Origin of Species; and, while I haven't made a thorough search of all Darwin's correspondence, I haven't ever found a case in his letters, either. When Darwin argues against design, he typically argues on the basis of the argument from evil (in particular, he gives cases of the brutality of nature), and usually says something about his theological agnosticism. It is possible also that this is facilitated a bit by his Lamarckianism, which allows him to think of physiology in terms of uses rather than functions or roles. And there's reason to think that Darwin wasn't missing a real opportunity here, since it is doubtful that the theory of natural selection actually can show that things are not designed (and when people since have tried to defend the view that the theory of natural selection implies a non-designed world, they have typically had to fall back, like Darwin, on the argument from natural evil - an example is James Rachel's Created from Animals: The Moral Implications of Darwinism, in which the actual hefty philosophical work is done entirely by the argument from natural evil - to be sure, Rachel uses Darwin's own formulation, but this is hardly what we ordinarily call 'Darwinism'). In any case, in the next week or so I hope to do a post, perhaps more than one, on the logic of the argument of The Origin of Species (it is a beautifully constructed argument), so I wanted to get this point out of the way. That way I can discuss what sort of position Darwin's argument actually opposes (what is usually called the theory of special creation) without any cross-contamination.

[UPDATE (2/18 1:33 AM) Lest there be any confusion for those who aren't regular readers of my weblog (since this has been linked elsewhere), I oppose what typically goes by the name 'intelligent design theory'; I think it confuses things that should be distinguished. Nothing I say above should be seen as any sort of support for it. My point here is simply that (1) Darwin in his actual argument was going for a specific doctrine, which I'll look at when I actually get around to the series, that should not be conflated with design arguments generally, nor even with any particular design argument (unless it implies the theory of special creation); (2) more generally, the scientific issues involved in the theory of natural selection really don't address all the philosophical issues brought up by design arguments generally, so it's not surprising that Darwin deals with them in the way he does, rather than the route of 'the theory of natural selection shows that these things apparently designed really aren't'.]

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