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Toward a New Natural Theology

Neil Thomas
Alfred Russel Wallace
Image: Alfred Russel Wallace, plaster relief by A. Bruce-Joy, via Wikimedia Commons.

Editor’s note: We are delighted to host a series by Neil Thomas, Reader Emeritus at the University of Durham: “The Return to the God Paradigm,” of which this article is the fourth entry. Thomas is reviewing three books: Is Atheism Dead?, by Eric Metaxas; Return of the God Hypothesis, by Stephen Meyer; and God of the Details, by Cristian Bandea. Find the full series here. Professor Thomas’s recent book is Taking Leave of Darwin: A Longtime Agnostic Discovers the Case for Design.

I must stress that my discovery of the Divine has proceeded on a purely natural level, without any reference to supernatural phenomena. It has been an exercise in what is traditionally called natural theology.

Antony Flew

Against what he somewhat brusquely terms the revealed religions’ “human fabrications” (p. 2), Cristian Bandea advocates for new forms of natural theology. In yet another cyclical movement of intellectual history, this puts us in mind of Alfred Russel Wallace after his break with Charles Darwin in the mid 1860s. Wallace, it may be recalled, had originally parted company with Darwin on the subject of the human mind with its unprecedentedly advanced language facility. For him, no simple ape-to-human progression was any longer tenable, as is evidenced in the different language competences of apes and humans. To establish a convincing evolution of ape to human it would be necessary to establish that simians could over time have increased their communicative vocabularies so as to transform inarticulate emotional cries into specific vocal symbols. But this in turn brings up the closely related problem of how to explain the rapid mental processing on which articulate speech depends. Without the simultaneous co-adaptation of the simian brain, how could the facility of speech, which depends on the interdependent agency of the brain in tandem with the specialised organs of vocal articulation, have developed by the uncoordinated processes of natural selection?

Amateurish Brainstorming

In order to prove that connection, one would have to be able to point to a precisely coordinated physiological cumneurological pathway of development, and the explanation Darwin advanced for his alleged perfectly orchestrated co-adaptation in The Descent of Man amounted to little more than amateurish brainstorming, as for instance when he muses on where we humans might have got our superior IQ from: 

The mental powers of some earlier progenitor of man must have been more highly developed than in any existing ape, before even the most imperfect form of speech could have come into use; but we may confidently believe that the continued use and advancement of this power would have reacted on the mind itself, by enabling and encouraging it to carry on long trains of thought.1

Wallace for one could at length no longer “confidently believe” in such airy speculations and felt he could no longer assent to the ontological equivalence of humans and nonhuman animals posited by Darwin (and later subjected to a reductio ad absurdum by the Australian philosopher Peter Singer, best known for his Animal Liberation (1975) and his advocacy of a normalization of sexual relations between human and nonhuman animals). Wallace’s position received the backing of Friedrich Max Müller, professor of Indo-European philology at Oxford in the 1860s and of premier American linguist Noam Chomsky in the 20th century. More recently, Wallace’s position has been endorsed by Bonfire of the Vanities author Tom Wolfe who in a bracing and well-informed contribution to the debate concludes that despite Darwin’s decades-long quest to find evidence of human language having evolved from animal grunts, groans, and other exhalations, no usable evidence has emerged. Wolfe contends that Darwin “fell into the trap of cosmogonism, the compulsion to find the ever-elusive Theory of Everything” and that many modern linguists have sensibly called for a formal moratorium on the fruitless quest to find the origins of human language.2

From the Pages of Nature

Wallace was arguing his position from simple logic rather than on the authority of revelation from any of the Abrahamic faiths or indeed on the authority of any creedal religion whatsoever. As Michael Flannery recently put it, “Wallace’s was a natural theology without a church, mosque or temple.”3 Wallace’s spiritual position could be described as “revealed” only in the special sense that it could be understood from the pages of Nature itself since for him the divine was not a matter of formal revelation. Yet even though it remained unapprehendable directly it could still be inferred from the powers of Nature. Like the poet Wordsworth a century before him, Wallace began to feel there was within nature something additional, something “more deeply interfused,” an intuition which the early 20th-century theologian Rudolf Otto described in a celebrated book as in and of itself an apprehension of the Holy: “a power that instils a sense of its absolute superiority, and makes us feel our personal submission to it and submergence in it.”Wallace’s was a rational form of theism based on data revealed by Nature itself.

Wallace’s conception of what could or could not be expected of natural selection makes him something of a prophet of the modern intelligent design (ID) trend which also denies that “irreducible complexity” could have been thrown together by the undiscriminating forces of natural selection. The way in which Wallace’s legacy has been strengthened and confirmed by the ID direction in contemporary science in challenging the Darwinian narrative is a difficulty for Darwinism little adverted to in traditional accounts of evolutionary debate. In fact, there appears to be a tendency to airbrush Wallace from the historical record. Richard Dawkins, for instance, writes in tones of breath-taking finality (in blatant disregard of Wallace’s later rejection of his own theory) that “our own existence once presented the greatest of all mysteries, but it is a mystery no longer because it is solved. Darwin and Wallace solved it. Though we shall continue to add footnotes to their solution for a while yet.”5

Despite such egregious misrepresentations, however, Wallace is at long last beginning to receive the attention he deserves, pre-eminently via the recent publications of Michael Flannery.6 This is yet another index of the way that the beginning of wisdom for many in the 21st century is felt to be directing us back to an era prior to 1859. Just as Communism in the old East Germany has been described as a 40-year experiment in social engineering that failed, so Darwinism is beginning to be seen by increasing numbers as a 160+ years false turn that can no longer command universal support.

A “Universal Acid”?

Biological science, once assumed to be particularly corrosive of metaphysical beliefs (a “universal acid” in Daniel Dennett’s rather macabre image), has somewhat unexpectedly become a stimulus to the emergence of a new form of natural theology which has caused some self-styled rationalists (myself included, I must confess) to reassess all that they thought they previously knew. William Paley once quipped that observation of the complexity of the human eye (which perplexed and vexed Darwin to the end of his days) provided “a cure for atheism.” Extending Paley’s quip, I would add that if the eye doesn’t do it for you, the brain with its quadrillions of synchronized electro-chemical operations almost certainly will! 

Cytology, the study of cells, has in fact led to a wholly unexpected revival of the fortunes of Paley’s once derided natural theology. As to why Paley’s evidence-based inferences should ever have been thrown over in favour of Darwin’s sub-Lucretian conjectures may now in fact seem somewhat puzzling. Even Denis Diderot — one of the free-thinking French philosophes who was speculating on evolutionary matters at roughly the same time as Charles’s grandfather, Erasmus Darwin — was ready to accept the Argument from Design. It seemed self-evident to Diderot that the empirically observable and palpable “works of nature” were more convincing of a divine hand then any amount of philosophizing or theologizing.7 There seems at any rate little justification for that inerrant posture of epistemic closure which characterises the mindset of many of Darwin’s more dogmatic modern apologists or for the position of “scientific cringe” taken up by the Church of England in 2008 when it made a retrospective apology to Darwin for its historical opposition to him, a decision which seems in retrospect to have been little but an insufficiently thought-through and credulous genuflection to the new god of (supposedly) inerrant science.

Next, “Materialist Science as Paternalistic Propaganda.”

Notes

  1. Charles Darwin, The Descent of Man and Selection in Relation to Sex, edited with an Introduction by James Moore and Adrian Desmond (London: Penguin, 2004), p. 110.
  2. Tom Wolfe, Kingdom of Speech (London: Jonathan Cape, 2016), citation p. 20. See also pp. 3-6 for Wolfe’s account of unsuccessful attempts to pin down the origins of the human language facility.
  3. Michael Flannery, “Alfred Russel Wallace’s Intelligent Evolution and Natural Theology (Religions 11 (2020)), p. 12.
  4. Cited by Paul Harrison, Elements of Pantheism, third edition (Shaftesbury: Element, 2013), p. 43. Otto’s book Das Heilige appeared in 1917 (in English as The Idea of the Holy in 1923).
  5. Richard Dawkins, The Blind Watchmaker (London: Penguin, 1986), p. 1.
  6. See his Alfred Russell Wallace and his Evolution from Natural Selection to Natural Theology (Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2018).
  7. For discussion of this point see Mitchell Stevens, How Atheism Helped Create the Modern World (London: Palgrave, 2014), pp. 118-21.