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Charles Darwin, Theologian: Major New Article on Darwin’s Use of Theology in the Origin of Species

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When the Discovery fellows get together — at their secret volcano lair, of course — they sometimes joke that a clever constitutional lawyer could probably succeed in having Darwin’s Origin of Species (1859) banned by a federal judge. The book should be kept out of public school science classrooms because of its considerable theological content. No one should be talking about God in a science classroom.
Of course, this is a joke, or is meant to be. Whatever one thinks of its arguments and evidence, the Origin of Species stands near the top of the list of the classics of science and should be understood by any student.
Which is why this new article in the British Journal for the History of Science (BJHS) is so significant. The author, Steve Dilley, is an Arizona State University-trained philosopher of science who studies the relationship between science, theology, and philosophy. His analysis, “Charles Darwin’s use of theology in the Origin of Species,” BJHS 2011, argues that Darwin used theology throughout his 1859 masterwork to argue for the truth of his theory of descent with modification by natural causes. Darwin’s theology was not merely negative, entertaining the assumptions of his creationist opponents as hypotheses simply to contradict those assumptions with evidence.
Rather, Dilley argues, Darwin employed theology in a positive fashion, as support for his own position. “In the Origin,” Dilley writes, “Darwin used a specific theological view of God’s relationship to natural laws in order to argue for evolution and against special creation.” The Origin supplies abundant evidence of theology in action; as Dilley observes:

I have argued that, in the first edition of the Origin, Darwin drew upon at least the following positiva theological claims in his case for descent with modification (and against special creation):
1. Human begins are not justfied in believing that God creates in ways analogous to the intellectual powers of the human mind.
2. A God who is free to create as He wishes would create new biological limbs de novo rather than from a common pattern.
3. A respectable deity would create biological structures in accord with a human conception of the ‘simplest mode’ to accomplish the functions of these structures.
4. God would only create the minimum structure required for a given part’s function.
5. God does not provide false empirical information about the origins of organisms.
6. God impressed the laws of nature on matter.
7. God directly created the first ‘primordial’ life.
8. God did not perform miracles within organic history subsequent to the creation of the first life.
9. A ‘distant’ God is not morally culpable for natural pain and suffering.
10. The God of special creation, who allegedly performed miracles in organic history, is not plausible given the presence of natural pain and suffering.

Nothing in Dilley’s article can be construed as challenging evolutionary theory, or supporting ID; his scholarly concerns lie elsewhere. As a student of the science-theology-philosophy triad, Dilley wants to understand how these areas of human understanding mutually inform each other. In that, his new article succeeds wonderfully, and will become a locus classicus for future analysis of the history and nature of evolutionary theory.
The article will also be a category-buster to illuminate current discussions, where evolutionary biologists (such as Jerry Coyne or Richard Dawkins) continue to use theology to make their case for Darwinian evolution.

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