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Darwinian Theory: Science or Speculative Philosophy?

Neil Thomas
Photo credit: Zoe Margolis, CC BY 2.0 , via Wikimedia Commons.

Editor’s note: We have been delighted to present a series by Neil Thomas, Reader Emeritus at the University of Durham, “Natural Selection: Discovery or Invention?” Find the full series here. This article is the concluding entry. Professor Thomas’s recent book is Taking Leave of Darwin: A Longtime Agnostic Discovers the Case for Design (Discovery Institute Press).

Charles Darwin’s slowly evolving theory, contrary to what might be intuitively expected, had little to do with empirical observation of the natural world at all, as Dov Ospovat found when he concluded:

The formation and transformation of Darwin’s theory represented not so much the results of an interaction between the scientist and nature as between the scientist and socially constructed conceptions of nature. His interaction with nature was mediated by assumptions and ways of perceiving nature that he derived from other naturalists, both his predecessors and his contemporaries and from the culture in which he was educated and carried out his work.1

Bottom line: Darwin did not have a single scrap of empirical fieldwork to document his conjectures. As Howard Gruber once put it in his special study of Darwin’s notebooks, “Darwin’s greatest works represent interpretative compilations of facts gathered by others.”2

The Humboldtian Influence

Ospovat also uncovered one further telling similarity of outlook between Darwin and another eminent naturalist of his era, the legendary German explorer, Alexander von Humboldt (1769-1859).3 Darwin took Humboldt’s account of his explorations aboard the Beagle with him and, as Andrea Wulf recently put it, “throughout the Beagle’s voyage, Darwin was engaged in an inner dialogue with Humboldt — pencil in hand, highlighting suggestions in [Humboldt’s] Personal Narrative. Humboldt’s descriptions were almost like a template for Darwin’s own experiences.”4 Darwin’s sister picked up on the mimetic, ultra-suggestible way in which her brother worked when she found reason to complain to him that he was in his letters copying Humboldt’s locutions to a tee, flowery Gallicisms-cum-“poetic” transports included (where she would have preferred her brother’s unvarnished English style). 

It was from Humboldt that Darwin will have derived ideas of what is termed the German tradition of Naturphilosophie, underlying which is the covertly theistic conception that all nature is governed by a “world spirit.”5 The Humboldtian influence on Darwin’s thinking may go some way to explaining why Darwin never appeared to consider the possibility that transmutation of species might result in accidental degradation as well as improvement of species. He always had faith that things would develop in a benign (crypto-providential?) way, a position which might not unreasonably be glossed as a theodicean conviction springing from his albeit nebulous Christian faith. He does not seem to have questioned or “problematized” why a process he insisted was blind should be somehow automatically in favor of progress. The fact that natural selection was effectively a theory of positive development as much as of merely opportunistic adaptation appears to have been a matter of unexamined faith for him.

A Comparison with Erasmus

Nothing shows Darwin’s ambivalence in religious matters more than a comparison with his grandfather Erasmus who, despite tokenistic obeisances to Anglican piety, once indulged in a very conspicuous piece of materialist proselytizing. This consisted in his having the words E Conchis Omnia (“everything comes from seashells”), inscribed on the door of his coach, an action which for sheer chutzpah must have been without precedent until, two and a half centuries later, Richard Dawkins paid to have the somewhat unprepossessing motto “THERE’S PROBABLY NO GOD. NOW STOP WORRYING AND ENJOY YOUR LIFE” emblazoned on the sides of London buses. Erasmus’s impudent tag indicated rather too clearly to a clerical neighbor, one Canon Seward, that Erasmus was uttering the abiogenetic heresy of a spontaneous (as opposed to divine) origin of humankind. Seward, offended by the idea that sea urchins should be identified as the putative ancestors of humans, even went so far as to attack this exhibitionistic show of philosophical materialism in a satirical poem, comparing Erasmus with the reviled Epicurus and Lucretius, those founding fathers of the materialist philosophy of atomism. The upshot of the spat was that Erasmus was obliged to expunge the offending motto lest he should lose serious revenue from his medical practice.

Darwin’s Guarded Reaction to Atheists

Compare that episode with the time in the grandson’s later life when the endorsement of the now venerable Charles Darwin was sought by two militant secularists, Charles Bradlaugh (the first atheist Member of Parliament) and his ally, Dr. Edward Aveling. Whilst consenting to receive them in his house at Downe, Charles nevertheless contrived to keep them at arm’s length, wanting nothing to do with the petitioners’ clear intention to instrumentalize his work as a battering ram to further the cause of atheism.6

To some extent Darwin’s guarded reaction was partly attributable to what he conceived of (given somewhat straight-laced Victorian mores) as simple good breeding (i.e., not “scaring the horses” too much). He assured the two men that he supported the ideal of free thought, but did not agree with their bully boy tactics (Bradlaugh was a pugilistic London East Ender who seemed to revel in his frequent physical skirmishes with the authorities). Partly, however, he could not support such unashamed proselytizing because he remained even in older age something of a Hamlet figure, never entirely sure of his ground in matters of religion. What has been justly termed Darwin’s epistemological double vision7 may at first seem curious. Yet it was familiar enough to the mid-Victorian mindset, having been shared by a writer famed for her agnostic views: George Eliot, the translator into English of Ludwig Feuerbach’s Essence of Christianity of whom it has been claimed that she “abandoned a deeply felt form of Christianity, but retained in her agnostic years a deep sense of divine providence in the world.”8 This makes Darwin a more ambiguous but also, I would contend, a more interesting and sympathetic figure than some of his more doctrinaire present-day exegetes would have us believe. 


  1. Dov Ospovat, The Development of Darwin’s Theory: Natural History, Natural Theology and Natural Selection 1839-1859, second edition (Cambridge: CUP, 1995), p. 230.
  2. See Gruber’s Darwin on Man: A Psychological Study of Scientific Creativity, second edition (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1981), p. 63.
  3. Dov Ospovat, The Development of Darwin’s Theory, especially pp. 207-12.
  4. Andrea Wulf, The Invention of NatureThe Adventures of Alexander von Humboldt, the Lost Hero of Science (London: John Murray, 2016), p. 225.
  5. See Robert J. Richards, The Romantic Conception of Life: Science and Philosophy in the Age of Goethe (Chicago; University of Chicago Press, 2002), especially pp. 514-553, and Andrea Wulf, The Invention of Nature,  especially pp. 217-34.
  6. See James Moore, The Darwin Legend: Are Reports of his Deathbed Conversion True? (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1995), pp. 24-40.
  7. The phrase is that of Neal C. Gillespie, Charles Darwin and the Problem of Creation (Chicago; Chicago UP, 1979) , still one of the best studies of Darwin’s riven spirituality.
  8. A. O. J. Cockshut, The Unbelievers: English Agnostic Thought, 1840-1890 (London: Collins, 1964), p. 10.

Neil Thomas

Neil Thomas is a Reader Emeritus in the University of Durham, England and a longtime member of the British Rationalist Association. He studied Classical Studies and European Languages at the universities of Oxford, Munich and Cardiff before taking up his post in the German section of the School of European Languages and Literatures at Durham University in 1976. There his teaching involved a broad spectrum of specialisms including Germanic philology, medieval literature, the literature and philosophy of the Enlightenment and modern German history and literature. He also taught modules on the propagandist use of the German language used both by the Nazis and by the functionaries of the old German Democratic Republic. He published over 40 articles in a number of refereed journals and a half dozen single-authored books, the last of which were Reading the Nibelungenlied (1995), Diu Crone and the Medieval Arthurian Cycle (2002) and Wirnt von Gravenberg's 'Wigalois'. Intertextuality and Interpretation (2005). He also edited a number of volumes including Myth and its Legacy in European Literature (1996) and German Studies at the Millennium (1999). He was the British Brach President of the International Arthurian Society (2002-5) and remains a member of a number of learned societies.



agnosticsAlexander von HumboldtAndrea WulfatheistsatomismCanon SewardCharles BradlaughCharles DarwinChristianityDarwin’s notebooksDov OspovatdownEdward AvelingEpicurusErasmus DarwinevolutionGallicismsGeorge EliotHMS BeagleHoward GruberLondonLucretiusLudwig FeuerbachNatural Selection: Discovery or Invention? (series)Naturphilosophieworld spirit