Darwin's God: a Lost Cause

a review of Finding Darwin's God by Kenneth R Miller

by Fred Clough

The publication in 1859 of Darwin's The Origin of Species, as is well known, dealt a heavy blow to theologically based views of the world, and generated a powerful adverse reaction. Though religion at that time was of less real social consequence in Britain than in most or all European states, its ruling class paid lip service to a religious ideology and conducted its social and political life with deference to religious forms and customs.

Darwin's work removed once and for all the intellectual underpinnings of those religious forms. Though it would be mistaken to classify Darwin himself as an atheist, or even an agnostic (and whether he was or not is beside the point), his explanation of the development of organic life showed that there was no longer any need—as there previously had been—to postulate a complex and all-powerful creator to explain the complexity of life, since this complexity had developed from extremely simple origins through the process of natural selection. As Richard Dawkins put it in his book The Blind Watchmaker, it was possible, after Darwin, to be an intellectually fulfilled atheist.

The immediate response to Darwin of Britain's ruling intellectual and social elite was to condemn his work, on purely religious grounds. The most famous salvo in the lengthy battle which ensued was Benjamin Disraeli's assertion in a speech made in 1864. 'What is the question now placed before society with a glib assurance the most astounding? The question is this—Is man an ape or an angel? My Lord, I am on the side of the angels.' But by the time of Darwin's death in 1882, the ever-increasing chorus of scientific assent to his work made it clear that he must somehow be subsumed into respectable intellectual culture. So, while princes of the church solemnly asserted that his work in no way compromised the claims of religion, his family's wishes for a quiet burial were overridden and he was accorded the honour of a funeral in Westminster Abbey, with all the trimmings.

Thus the British ruling class attempted to neutralise some of the consequences of Darwin's work, and it was left to the Soviet Union, in its foundation of the State Darwin Museum in Moscow, to afford him a celebration more fitting to his memory. But his work could never quite be tailored into complete respectability: the curious history of the reception of Darwinism over the past century and a half is a reflection of the fact that the implications of Darwin's work are profoundly at odds with the theological undercurrent which maintains a definite though weakening grip on the intellectual life of the West.

Some features of this history may be briefly mentioned. First of all, biological scientists continue to work within the paradigms established by Darwin, since these have not yet in any essential sense been shown to be obsolete: every serious biologist is, if you like, a Darwinist. The horrified reaction to his work of the 'respectable' intelligentsia of Darwin's day is mirrored in the present-day creationists. Like their predecessors, they are both serious enough about religion, and sufficiently aware of scientific criteria of evidence, objectivity and truth, to want to maintain a marriage between science and religion; though the separation caused by the publication of the Origin has bitten so deep that the creationists are now forced into remarkable intellectual subterfuges and contortions to maintain even a pretence of credibility in their rejection of all that Darwin stands for.

The response to the implications of Darwin's work by serious scientists has been mixed. There is no lack of defenders of his work, and plenty of attempts to translate Darwin's insights, illegitimately, to social and political spheres (which has given rise to such pseudo-sciences as Social Darwinism). There have, on the other hand, been attacks on Darwin's work by scientists, often working within another scientific discipline, which demonstrate an elementary misunderstanding of the mechanism of natural selection as Darwin described it. Such is the assertion by the physicist Fred Hoyle that natural selection is equivalent to a tornado whipping through a scrap yard and managing to assemble a Boeing 747. The almost obsessive tendency to belittle Darwin is strikingly illustrated in the American biologist Steven J Gould, who at various stages in his career has taken to arguing that—well, yes, Darwin was a very fine scientist, but he did get it wrong in a few important respects: such is Gould's theory of 'punctuated equilibrium', which is actually less revolutionary and far less damaging to Darwin's conclusions than first appeared. Gould is simply the top scientific brick in a widespread tendency to downgrade the importance of Darwin's work, or to ridicule those (such as Richard Dawkins) who have thought and written about the implications of Darwin's work from a strictly materialist and rigorously scientific viewpoint.

Finally, there have also been attempts by serious scientists, in line with the Dean of Westminster and his worthy colleagues who gave Darwin a state funeral, to assert that those who claim that Darwin's work strikes at the basis of orthodox theology have got it all wrong. Finding Darwin's God, written by a professor of biology at Brown University in the USA, and published in 1999, is just such an attempt.

I suggested earlier that whether Darwin was an atheist or an agnostic, whether it is in fact Darwin's God that we are looking for, is beside the point; particularly since he himself, unlike his co-worker T. H. Huxley, was loath to enter the lists in the theological battles sparked by the publication of The Origin of Species: he was interested in getting on with his scientific work, and little else. But, as a way into the claims of Kenneth Miller's book, it may be worth setting the record straight. Though Darwin's God keeps a pretty low profile throughout the volume, he does appear in the final few pages, for example in a quotation from the final sentence of The Origin of Species:—

There is grandeur in this 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 wonderful and most beautiful have been, and are being evolved.

'What kind of a God do I believe in?' asks Professor Miller. 'The answer is in those words. I believe in Darwin's God.' What the professor fails to tell us is that the reference to the Creator was absent from the first edition of Darwin's work, and was most likely inserted in later editions as a response to the storm of theological criticism of his work. Moreover, his Autobiography, written during his final years and never intended by Darwin himself for publication, as well as evidence from the letters, make it clear that his scientific work had gradually eroded Darwin's conventional religious faith, to the point where he asserts in the Autobiography that 'agnostic would be the most correct description of my state of mind'. It is when we find Miller actually quoting this latter sentence that we begin to realise—only in the final pages of the book—what his purpose is. Miller is too shrewd a thinker to defend a patently untenable position; so he admits that Darwin didn't really believe in Darwin's God—but that he was constantly looking for it. 'One hundred and fifty years ago it might have been impossible not to couple Darwin with a grim and pointless determinism. I believe this is why Darwin in his later years tried and failed to find God, or at least a God consistent with his theories.' Darwin, in his modest way, having failed to find Darwin's God, along comes Professor Miller one hundred and fifty years later, and finds—or at least invents him. Let's look at how he does this.

Briefly, he does so by appealing to two post-Darwinian developments in science, namely quantum theory and some aspects of twentieth century cosmology. But this is not until the final chapters of the book; and a reader who has taken in the dust-jacket blurb with its claim that 'the difficulties that evolution presents for Western religions are more apparent than real' may be surprised to find that most of it—all but the final three chapters—are concerned with affirming the central tenets of Darwinism and demolishing the pseudo-scientific attempts of creationists to discredit them. The United States, with a more vigorous religious culture than Britain, took more seriously the threat posed by Darwinist science, and creationism is its attempt to maintain a religious world view, under the onslaughts of that science, by constructing a pseudo-science which pretends to a comprehensive explanation of the material world, but by falsifying or disregarding the evidence at crucial points (as Miller demonstrates in some detail). Though the detailed demolition of creationist claims may seem unnecessary to a British reader who will hardly take seriously the claims of the creationists, Miller's strategy is clear: he is concerned to establish his impeccable scientific credentials by rejecting firmly all bogus attempts to unite the claims of science and religion, clearing the way for his own claim to have found the long-lost God of Darwin.

It is in his sixth chapter, 'Beyond Materialism', that he finally gets round to doing this. In a universe based on Newtonian physics, he explains, every event is strictly determined, and therefore—in theory at least—completely predictable. There is no room for God in 'a nonrandom universe of clockwork mechanisms that would also rule out active intervention by any supreme Deity.' In the early years of last century, however, the work of Max Planck and Niels Bohr laid the foundations of quantum theory, which demonstrated that, at subatomic levels, matter does not behave in this strictly determined way. We can never know everything about a particle (its mass, position and momentum) at any one time; and hence we cannot predict with certainly what will happen to a particle in the future. To employ an illustration used by Miller, we cannot predict which are the five per cent of photons directed at a mirror that will pass through it rather than be reflected; or we cannot predict when an unstable atomic nucleus will suddenly take it into its head to undergo radioactive decay, or when (to bring this home to biology) a particular atom in a DNA strand will behave in such a way as to trigger a genetic mutation.

So where does God come into all this? Miller is careful not to make any outrageous claims. 'We need not ask if the nature of quantum physics proves the existence of a Supreme Being, which it certainly does not', and a few pages later, 'It would be foolish to pretend that any of this rigorously proves the existence of God.' But having made these disclaimers, Miller exploits the indeterminacy of matter at the subatomic level for all it is worth. He begins cautiously. Though quantum physics does not prove the existence of God, it does, however, 'allow for it in an interesting way'. He doesn't immediately come clean as to what this interesting way might be, but then goes on to point out that the major world religions all concur in seeing the 'continued, personal activity of God to be an essential element of belief.' This activity—God interfering in his own creation—cannot, in the enlightened world in which we live, be anything so crude as appearing in a fiery chariot drawn by whirlwinds, or undertaking miracles which clearly suspend the laws of nature. Instead 'ordinary processes, rooted in the genuine materialism of science, ought to be sufficient to allow for God's work—yesterday, today, and tomorrow.'

We begin to suspect that quantum indeterminacy is the crack through which God is going to squeeze himself into the material world, that it is he who decides which of those photons are going to bounce off the mirror. And this is the position to which Miller finally commits himself, though in a rather offhand, almost embarrassed fashion.

Fortunately, in scientific terms, if there is a God, He has left himself plenty of material to work with. To pick just one example, the indeterminate nature of quantum events would allow a clever and subtle God to influence events in ways that are profound, but scientifically undetectable to us. Those events could include the appearance of mutations, the activation of individual neurons in the brain, and even the survival of individual cells and organisms affected by the chance processes of radioactive decay. Chaos theory emphasizes the fact that enormous changes in physical systems can be brought about by unimaginably small changes in initial conditions; and this, too, could serve as an undetectable amplifier of divine action.

The bit about chaos theory seems to be thrown in just for good measure. By the end of this section, Miller is waxing lyrical about a God who is 'the master of chance and time, whose actions, both powerful and subtle, respect the independence of His creation and give human beings the genuine freedom to accept or reject His love.' All very stirring stuff—but based on rather flimsy foundations. To summarise, quantum physics in no sense proves the existence of God, but it does allow him to interfere in the material world in highly roundabout—Miller would say 'subtle'—ways.

'To pick just one example'. In fact this is almost the only argument Miller brings forward for the possible existence of a deity, and the only one which has immediate relevance to the nature of organic existence. Just prior to his drawing conclusions from quantum theory, he treats us to what he calls 'a little side trip into the constants of the universe', which is advanced as further—and, some might say, more compelling—evidence of the existence of God. He draws attention to the well-known fact that the existence of the universe in its present form depends upon the precise value of a few physical constants—the gravitational constant, the strong nuclear force, the electromagnetic force. If the absolute value of any of these were ever so slightly different, the universe as it now is, and hence the development of organic life in that universe, could not have come into existence. What is the significance of this fact? Well, the most obvious conclusion to be drawn is that we are only able to observe these constants, and their crucial role in enabling the development of our universe, because they are as they are. If they had been slightly different, the universe would not have developed as it has done, and we would not be here to observe this fact.

But Miller wants to make more of it than that. As always, he starts out on a note of caution.

Now, before we get carried away, let's keep in mind that the physical constants we have been discussing are just that—constants. We have no way of knowing for sure how these constants were determined, whether or not they might be different in another universe, whether they were fixed by the condition of the big bang itself, or whether they reflect an unchanging physical reality that predated the big bang and the origin of our universe. We also have to keep our minds open to the possibility that future advances in physics may one day explain the apparent coincidences that seem to link so many of these constraints.

But then, after that initial caution, he does allow himself to get carried away. He reviews theories that attempt to explain these facts through postulating a number of parallel universes, of which ours just happens to be the one which allowed for the generation of organic life, dismisses them as logically untenable, and then firmly states that the 'alternative, of course, is God'. So, not only does God mess around at the subatomic level to influence our lives; he was there at the beginning of time, setting the value of certain physical constants to ensure that, at some stage along the line, in fifteen billion years or so, we would appear.

These two arguments—on the implications of quantum theory, and of the value of the basic physical constants governing the universe—are the sum total of Miller's attempts to bring God back into the material world, or at least to retain a small niche for him. Now the traditional cosmological argument for the existence of God—namely that the complexity of the organic world could not be explained on any other grounds than the existence of an all-powerful creator—was a strong argument, and (according to Richard Dawkins) unanswerable before Darwin showed how the complexity of the organic world had in fact developed. Miller makes no such claims for his arguments; in fact, he goes out of his way to assert that they are no firm proof for the existence of God, and that 'We are now far enough along in the development of science to appreciate that its track record suggests that ultimately it will find material causes for natural phenomena.' That is not a slip of the pen on his part: similar statements abound throughout the volume. Miller's God, then, is not a philosophical necessity, something without which the material world cannot be adequately explained. It is the invention of an irrational faith, which has, by virtue of two aspects of modern science, managed to insert itself into the material world not as a necessity but (as Miller admits) merely a possibility, and a rather remote one at that.

The substantial arguments of Miller's volume are these few pages in the seventh and eighth chapters which attempt to show that the existence of God is at least compatible with a rigorously materialistic description of the natural world (though Darwin's work in fact supplied no contradiction to this: it simply showed that God was philosophically and scientifically redundant). Much of the volume, however, indicates that Miller writes, not primarily as a scientist, but as a man of faith for whom theological considerations are paramount. In his discussion of miracles, for example, Miller asserts that 'Any God worthy of the name has to be capable of miracles…A key doctrine in my own faith is that Jesus was born of a virgin, even though it makes no scientific sense—there is the matter of Jesus's Y-chromosome to account for. But that is the point. Miracles, by definition, do not have to make scientific sense.' Evidently, therefore, there are areas in this world view where reason ceases to hold court, where some things have to be accepted on the authority of some Jewish writers two millennia ago. And this is the area where I propose we leave Professor Miller. His book may offer some consolation to scientists, or other active intellects, who hold some form of religious faith, and who have begun to see that there may be inconsistency in their views, that a scientific understanding of the world leaves religion precious little room for manoeuvre. It may enable such people to cling onto Darwin's God a little longer. The rest of us will have to be content with Darwin's magnificent and commanding legacy of thought, unconcerned at our loss of a God that even the man himself hardly believed in.

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