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Devil’s Chaplain: Evolution as a “Theological Research Program”

Michael Flannery
Photo: Visitors admire the iconic Darwin statue at London's Natural History Museum, by Thomas Fabian, via Flickr.

“Evolution is best understood as a theological research program,” according to a new article by biophysicist Cornelius G. Hunter. This stands the standard historiography and received wisdom concerning the development of modern evolutionary theory on its head. While leaders of the Darwinian bandwagon insist we all must bow to the blind, directionless forces of evolution or be forced to wear the “unscientific” dunce cap, Hunter demonstrates with telling accuracy, quite the opposite: it is in actuality theology not science that drives this theory. Of course this research program’s principal investigator was Charles Darwin, and the epithet he chose for himself, “a Devil’s chaplain” — which he shared in a letter on July 13, 1856, to his close friend and confidant Joseph Dalton Hooker — is revealing:

What a book a Devil’s chaplain might write on the clumsy, wasteful, blundering low & horridly cruel works of nature! 

Claims of Darwinian Orthodoxy 

Expressed with mischievous glee while his 230-page 1844 manuscript draft lay in wait for Alfred Russel Wallace’s surprise letter from the tiny island of Ternate, to prompt delivery of his “one long argument” into the hands of publisher John Murray some three years later, this frank comment confirms Hunter’s analysis. 

I’ll return to this in a moment, but first it’s important to note that Hunter answers claims of Darwinian orthodoxy. They are as follows: Darwin’s religious views preceded (not followed) his transmutation ideas; Darwin’s theological premises are essential (not peripheral) to his argument; Darwin’s references to theology attach direct significance to the theory itself — he is not practicing reductio theology, employing it merely for its contrastive heuristic effect — the theology and the theory are inextricably intertwined; the epistemic assistance received from theology is central to the theory itself (the “scientific” evidence marshalled on its behalf is pretty thin); and finally, Darwin’s theological claims persisted well into the period of the neo-Darwinian synthesis (1930s and ’40s) and after. Readers should examine the article itself to see how Hunter establishes each point, all supported with extensive references.

But what of this “Devil’s chaplain”? Notice that Darwin is telling Hooker that the deficiencies of nature — its disutilities, inefficiencies, even its cruelties — are nothing a benevolent and omniscience god would have done, therefore, his theory based on chance and unguided fortuitous circumstance must be true. He even admits to not writing as a scientist but as a “Devil’s chaplain” who sees nature for what it is. There’s not a spot of science in it. But it is shot through with theological significance; it assumes what kind of world god might or might not have created.

Private Confession, Public Statements

Hunter effectively follows up on Darwin’s private confession by using his public statements many of which come from multiple editions of Origin. Hunter observes that Darwin’s scientific asseverations came after his religious convictions were well formed. We know this because while in Edinburgh when he was just 17 Darwin fell under the spell of Robert Edmond Grant, an acknowledged expert on aquatic invertebrates. Darwin claimed years later in his Autobiography that Grant’s radical ideas — a man described by Darwin’s biographers Desmond and Moore as “a freethinker . . . [who] saw no spiritual power behind nature’s throne” — were received “without any effect on my mind.” But even an otherwise sympathetic biographer like Janet Browne calls this “far too disingenuous” and “phlegmatic” to accept. The “Devil’s chaplain” attended Grant’s “seminary” and his evolutionary theory was substantively informed by it. Hunter’s thesis is well stated and confirmed by the “Devil’s chaplain” himself!

An Excellent Distillation

This essay does much to set the record straight; it is an excellent distillation of some very complex issues and contains important analyses not available elsewhere. The simplistic and shallow use of Darwinism as synonymous with science is completely wrong. Readers finding this article interesting and provocative should go further. Admitting that many historical details are beyond the scope of this article, Professor Hunter offers much more in his Darwin’s GodDarwin’s Proof, and Science’s Blind Spot.

I will end with a brief postscript. I have always shared Neal GillespieSilvan Schweber, and Frank Burch Brown’s views that Darwin was a positivist deeply influenced by Auguste Comte (see my Intelligent Evolution). It might be assumed that the positivists’ attempt to eschew all metaphysics in favor of a hard verificationism would free Darwin from any association with religion and religious speculation. But this misunderstands Comtean positivism.

Philosopher Henry Thomas has rightly called Comte’s ideas a “scientific philosophical religion.” Even more to the point Mabel V. Wilson explained long ago “that Comte never made a separation of his religion from his philosophy, but always regarded the former as an opportunity for the symbolic representation of his ideas.” Replace the word philosophy with the word science and you have fairly well stated Darwin’s position. His attributions of an omniscient and all-benevolent god are signposts of their incommensurability with a manifestly imperfect nature. By creating god as a facile abstraction and anthropomorphizing nature as “cruel” (both of which are essentially theological constructs) Darwin could play the role of reconciler. He needed — in an immediate and literal sense — what Jonathan Wells has called a “straw god” to bolster and “confirm” his science. Once Darwin’s straw god goes up in flames, so does his science. His theory rests upon ashes.