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The Enlightenment (Re)turn to Atomism

Image: Phoenix, by Bertuch-fabelwesen.JPG: Friedrich Johann Justin Bertuch (1747–1822)derivative work: Tsaag Valren, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

Editor’s note: We are delighted to present a new series by Neil Thomas, Reader Emeritus at the University of Durham, “Charles Darwin and the Ghost of Epicurus.” This is the second article in the series. Look here for the full series so far. Professor Thomas’s recent book is Taking Leave of Darwin: A Longtime Agnostic Discovers the Case for Design (Discovery Institute Press).

Howard Gruber once described the frame of reference that Charles Darwin brought with him to his biological studies as being that of “a family Weltanschauung1 and that in the back of his mind Charles always cherished the idea of extending the family tradition initiated by his illustrious ancestor, Erasmus Darwin. Charles, by his own admission no great classicist or linguist, nevertheless acquired knowledge of ancient evolutionary thought indirectly via his grandfather, Erasmus. The latter, more scholarly and intellectual than his grandson, had already in the previous century meditated seriously on the Lucretian legacy as had Diderot and other freethinking philosophes of 18th-century France with whom Erasmus corresponded and enjoyed a lively cross-fertilization of ideas. 

So it was that by the end of the 18th century Lucretian ideas had influenced not only Erasmus Darwin but also the celebrated philosopher David Hume in his Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion. In this imagined debate, one of the disputants argues that, over vast swathes of time, matter itself can produce ordered forms having the appearance of design. Or as Richard Dawkins more recently formulated the same thought, “Biology is the study of complicated things that give the appearance of having been designed for a purpose.”2 God’s design, following on from that argument, represents an unnecessary hypothesis. The basic idea here appears to have been the speculation, that, given an infinite length of time, particles eventually hit on every possible combination, and that these combinations, once hit upon, become forms of order which perpetuate themselves.3

Plato, Aristotle, and the Stoics 

In stark contradistinction to the minority school of the atomists, the overwhelming majority of philosophers of both the classical and Christian centuries went back in their intellectual origins to Plato, Aristotle, and the Stoics and the theory of a divine artificer. They together with the pre-Socratic philosophers thought that the order of the world required a mind (nous) or rational principle (logos) to provide an agency to set it in motion. The pioneering medical authority of the ancient world, Galen, had little but derision for the atomists. For him, those philosophers’ exclusion of divine causation left nature stranded and unintelligible. Even though members of the atomist school were wont to appeal to the vis infinitatis (the power of infinity or a limitless time-space scale) they were still obliged to postulate accident on a risibly vast scale, objected Galen.4 Cicero had already made the same point as the pioneering physician a century before him.5

Dawn of the Enlightenment

The ancient binary of teleology versus atomism/materialism continued to be discussed in the philosophy of the Enlightenment period, but the major philosophers concurred with Galen and Cicero against Epicurus and Lucretius. Immanuel Kant maintained that the archetypal structure of organisms suggested that they had been produced by the very ideal they embodied which, he stated, could reside only in what he termed the intellectus archetypus, commonly referred to now as the mind of God.6 He was echoed by the philosopher Schelling who concluded that the absolute mind must have been responsible for producing individual minds and their various moral structures.7 The opposing, Lucretian attempt to explain reality on an anti-teleological basis  together with the related  claim that the world only looked like it had been crafted by some unknown designer, would, as observed, be mediated to the modern world by David Hume. But just as Lucretianism remained a minority view in antiquity and up to the mid 19th century, so Humeism failed to get much traction either in the late 18th century or in the first half of the 19th. Not surprisingly, it may be thought, for to some readers it has seemed that Lucretian philosophy represented not so much disinterested science as “an ideologically driven metaphysics that masquerades as science.”8 In fact, Lucretianism did not begin to be taken seriously as a respectable or even properly debatable postulate until Darwin came on the scene to give it a form of cover which, rightly or wrongly, was taken to be “scientific.” The world after the Enlightenment, it seems, needed science, or at least the pretence of such, to validate the unsubstantiated meditations of philosophers.

The Nature of Reality

At the root of the Epicurean/Aristotelian conflict lay the question of whether reality is at its base purposeful and intelligent or mindless and purely material, and that ancient crux has become ground zero for the present Darwinian culture wars. Viewed from that single philosophical perspective, the older Western tradition of speculation bequeathed to the modern age a simple either/or choice, and Darwin in effect chose the minority Lucretian/Humean model. It was Darwin’s choice of what is essentially the Lucretian explanatory model which was to light the slow-burn fuse under the pyre whose fires would soon all but engulf the Aristotelian/Christian conception of ultimate reality, at least for large sections of the intellectual classes.

Evolutionary explanations, in order to make sense, clearly require the postulation of a substitute for Aristotle’s cosmic designer, and this Darwin thought to have located in natural selection. This process, we are asked to believe, was somehow able to mimic a designer. In other words, the idea that Aristotle, Cicero, Galen, Aquinas, and many later distinguished thinkers had long since called out for its manifest absurdity was now, Phoenix-like, rising from the ashes to which it had been relegated by the leading thinkers of the early Western tradition for well over a thousand years.

To Mimic a Designer

Is it possible to mimic a designer? Put more formally, does the term “mimic a designer” have a locatable referent in the real world? If so, it lies outside the bounds of my own experience and empirical observation.9 Getting something for nothing, fashioning a building without an architect, magicking forth a design without a designer: sounds like a good trick if you can pull it off but I am strongly convinced it lies wholly outside the realm of sensible discussion. The fundamental premise of the atomist philosophy should surely be called out for being nonsense: not as a term of vulgar abuse but in the sense in which that term was defined by the Logical Positivist school of philosophy of the early to mid 20th century, that is, a contention not properly discussible by reference to rational criteria.

Next, “The Ghost of Epicurus and the Doctrine of Natural Selection.”


  1. Gruber explained, “We fall back on the term Weltanschauung to mean something at once more general and less systematic than formal philosophical thoughts; we mean a general perspective composed as much of attitudes and feelings as of explicit thought; we mean an outlook expressed in work and play and action, whether or not in words.” See Darwin on Man: A Psychological Study of Scientific Creativity, second edition (Chicago, Chicago UP, 1981), p. 47.
  2. The Blind Watchmaker (London: Penguin, 2006), p. 1.
  3. The analogy appears to have been the observation of how particles of dust can come together through the agency of electrostatic forces and of how other inanimate matter can form spontaneously into regular patterns (such as is the case of quartz crystals which require no superintending designer), or, at the cosmic level, the way that the force of gravity gathers matter into galaxies and stars, whole solar systems forming from rotating clouds of cosmic debris.
  4. “Does it not deserve amazement on my part that there should be anyone who can persuade himself that certain solid and indivisible bodies travel through the force of their own weight, and that by an accidental combination of these bodies a world of the utmost beauty and splendour is created? I do not see why the person who supposes this can happen does not also believe it possible that if infinitely many exemplars of the twenty-one letters of the alphabet, in gold or in any material you like, were thrown into a container then shaken onto the ground, they might form a readable copy of the Annals of Ennius [a lost Roman history]. I’m not sure that luck could manage this to the extent of a single letter.” See further discussion of this point in David Sedley, Creationism and Its Critics in Antiquity (California: California UP, 2009), pp. 155-6.
  5. Cicero, On the Nature of the Gods, translated by Horace McGregor (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1972), pp. 158-9.
  6. Robert J. Richards, The Romantic Conception of Life (Chicago: Chicago UP), p.8.
  7. Richards, Romantic Conception of Life, p. 526. 
  8. William Dembski in his Foreword to Benjamin Wiker, Moral Darwinism. How We Became Hedonists (Downers Green: Intervarsity Press, 2010), p. 11.
  9. For an extended discussion of the point see William Dembski, Uncommon Dissent: Intellectuals Who Find Darwinism Unconvincing (Wilmington, Delaware, ISI Books, 2004), Preface.