Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Charles Darwin on "Chance"

Although the theory of evolution is now progressed far beyond Darwin's original work On the Origin of Species, I thought it would be interesting to read through it, for historical perspective, and to round out my education (I never did learn very much biology). I'm not finished, but a couple of things have caught my eye that I wanted to write down.

Many people take issue with Darwinism based on the general idea that it promotes chance over design, thus making the universe out to be chaotic and purposeless. But that's not how Darwin himself wrote about it. Chapter V is framed by the following statements:
I have hitherto sometimes spoken as if the variations--so common and multiform with organic beings under domestication, and in a lesser degree with those under nature--were due to chance. This, of course, is a wholly incorrect expression, but it serves to acknowledge plainly our ignorance of the cause of each particular variation.


Our ignorance of the laws of variations is profound. Not in one case out of a hundred can we pretend to assign any reason why this or that part has varied. But whenever we have the means of instituting a comparison, the same laws appear to have acted in producing the lesser differences between varieties of the same species, and the greater differences between species of the same genus.
In other words, we only perceive natural selection as due to "chance" because it occurs in systems of so many constituent parts that we cannot possibly know how they all relate to one another. Or better, "chance" is simply an expression of our ignorance, not nature's chaos.

Darwin's assumption is a very modern one: there must be some underlying principles which are both comprehensible to humans and universally applicable to what humans perceive in nature as distinct objects. Creationism, by contrast, asserts that the existence of the several species is fundamentally inexplicable: God spoke, and the species came into being, and that's as far as we can go. I consider both of these ways of thinking to be in tension throughout the history of Judeo-Christian thought. On the one hand, God's inexplicable intervention into history is central to the message of Scripture, particularly on Mount Sinai and at the resurrection of Christ. On the other hand, God's faithfulness, sovereignty, and wisdom are also essential parts of his character, and creation is thus characterized as fundamentally driven by principles which are comprehensible to human beings.

Can we therefore say that Darwin's idea is thoroughly unbiblical? True, it goes beyond the creation account in Genesis, as some would say attempting to see the "story behind the story." But if one were to completely forbid this kind of attempt from Christian thought, would we not have to give up all talk of the Triune existence of God, seeing that we do not ever see this explicitly spelled out in Scripture? Indeed, most Christians see the Trinity in the first few lines of Genesis: the Spirit is present in the "wind," and the Son is present as the Word of God speaking all things into existence (cf. John 1). Is this not also an example of seeing the "story behind the story"?

One final point: discovering the underlying principle does by no means remove all mystery from the universe. Even in light of modern genetics, there is no way we will ever be able to predict the long-run outcomes of evolution, as it is driven by countless tiny variations of which we will never be fully aware; much less can we possibly conceive of their future use. Because the process is so far beyond our control, we may thus call it a matter of "chance," but only if we are so inclined for reasons other than the facts themselves.

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