Gregory Radick of the University of Leeds gave the final lecture in the fall semester “Debating Darwin” series at the University of Chicago earlier this month. The video is now up and it’s well worth watching. His topic, “Lessons of the Galapagos,” addressed what Radick calls the “No Designer Worth His Salt” argument, namely, that certain biological phenomena are inconsistent with our conception of the actions of a wise and benevolent designer. Thus, goes this often heard line of analysis, it is more reasonable to infer that these phenomena evolved.
Radick critiqued this argument, drawing on philosopher of biology and Center for Science & Culture fellow Paul Nelson’s 1996 Biology and Philosophy paper (“The Role of Theology in Current Evolutionary Reasoning”), along with a 2007 paper by Elliott Sober.
Radick focused on a passage in the Origin (1859, pp. 397-9) where Darwin wonders about the Galapagos fauna. Why, Darwin asked, do these animals so closely resemble the fauna of South America? “On the ordinary view of independent creation,” Darwin argues, “the grand fact” that island fauna actually most closely resemble the nearest mainland species “receives no sort of explanation.” Descent with modification, however — “the principle of inheritance” — gives “their original birthplace.”
Radick placed this argument in the context of Darwin’s relationship with the geologist Charles Lyell, who was a providentialist theist. In a letter to Darwin on October 4, 1859, following his reading of the proofs of the Origin, Lyell said that “the creative power foreknows” the Galapagos circumstances; thus, the creative power would foresee that the Galapagos species would need to be endowed with characters similar to those of the mainland species, to enable the former to compete with colonizing species.
Darwin’s reply shook Lyell very deeply. Darwin pointed out that European plants, when introduced to Argentina, dominated the native species. On Lyell’s view, however, the native species (being specially created for their local circumstances) should have prevailed.
Radick’s gloss of this exchange drew on Nelson 1996 and Sober 2007. A “theological weak spot” pervades the Darwin/Lyell interaction, Radick argued, because both positions rest on unsupported assumptions about the Designer’s likely actions or motives. Yet there is little reason, either in 1859 or today, to suppose that Darwin and Lyell have (a) correctly grasped what God should have done, or (b) exhausted the possibilities available to the design theorist.
Radick’s main point turned on the importance of critically analyzing the “No Designer Worth His Salt” argument. He pursues such analyses with his own students at Leeds. It is more than a passing irony, Radick observes, that the very book (i.e., the Origin of Species) widely supposed to have eliminated “the supernatural” (Radick’s term) from biology, in fact keeps theology and the supernatural alive by employing theological assumptions in its key arguments.