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Evolutionary Theory as Magical Thinking

Neil Thomas
Photo: An ichneumon wasp, seen by Charles Darwin as a challenge to theism; by IronChris, CC BY-SA 3.0 , via Wikimedia Commons.

Editor’s note: We are delighted to present a series by Neil Thomas, Reader Emeritus at the University of Durham, “Darwin and the Victorian Crisis of Faith.” This is the sixth 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).

Charles Darwin himself exemplified the Argument from Pique, alluded to in past entries in this series, to a tee when he once wrote that he could not, on humanitarian grounds, see why anybody would even wish Christianity to be true.1 In a letter to American academic Asa Gray Darwin doubled down on this thought, writing:

I cannot persuade myself that a beneficent and omnipresent God would have designedly created the Inchneumonidae with the express intention of their feeding within the living bodies of caterpillars, or that a cat should play with mice. Not believing this, I see no necessity in the belief that the eye was expressly designed.2

In this irredeemably muddled mixture of biological and theological thinking Darwin sought to convince himself on the irrelevant grounds of moral sensibility that God could not have been an active shaper of evolution. It need hardly be pointed out that this conclusion is not a logical inference but more a response to that growing groundswell of religious disaffection in mid-Victorian Britain in which Darwin grew to maturity. 

A Malthusian Idea

Much of Darwin’s fascination with that Malthusian idea he chose to term natural selection will have arisen from this desire to detach the development of the biosphere from the idea of a first cause. This was shown when on reading Malthus he wrote, “favourable variations would tend to be preserved, and unfavourable ones to be destroyed. The results of this would be the formation of new species’’ (emphasis added). Yet Malthus wrote nothing of the formation of new species, much less of untenanting God from His creation. This is a non sequitur which Darwin will have tacked on because it tallied with those unproven ideas of the transmutation of species first given currency by the ancient Greek atomists and later reprised by his freethinking grandfather, Erasmus Darwin.

The “Self-Evolving” Biosphere

The shaky logical basis of Darwin’s thinking has not gone entirely unremarked. The notion of a supposedly unintelligent yet remarkably independent “self-evolving” biosphere (like the postulation of a self-creating cosmos) presents, when dispassionately considered, an offense to logic great enough to invite attempts to square the circle.  A fairly recent publication which accepts this challenge came in the form of Simon Powell’s Darwin’s Unfinished Business: The Self-Organizing Intelligence of Nature (Rochester: Park Street Press, 2012). Powell willingly concedes that “to state nonchalantly that evolution just happens and that it involves no more than changes in a gene pool over time, or that it is simply descent with modification, is really not good enough. Nature is crying out for a more decent appraisal.” (p. 18)

Indeed so, yet Powell’s ambition to attribute what he terms “bio-logic” to nature, now declared by him to be intelligent, can hardly be said to advance a fresh naturalistic explanation or make convincing his claim that “this new paradigm can be delivered without recourse to supernatural forces.” (p. 26) 

For the contention begs the question of the origin of such intelligence. Ancient Greek philosophers in the Aristotelian tradition referred to the necessity of a nous (mind) and logos (reason or rationality) behind all things. Unless one subscribes to Spinoza’s conflation of God with Nature (Deus sive Natura) it is difficult to accept Powell’s theory. He explains elsewhere in the volume that his thinking owes much to Christian de Duve’s intuition of a “cosmic imperative.” Yet de Duve himself conspicuously failed to overcome the logical obstacle of explaining how an “imperative” could issue itself (without invoking the notion of crypto-magical automatism!). Paradoxically, therefore, the net result of Powell’s book can only be the unintentional one of giving further ammunition to the case for a theistic explanation of the ultimate nature of things.

Next, the final post in the series, “Darwin and the Victorian Crisis of Faith: A Postscript.”


  1. See The Autobiography of Charles Darwin, 1809-1882, edited by Nora Barlow  (New York: Norton, 1958), pp. 85-96.
  2. The Correspondence of Charles Darwin (Cambridge: CUP, 1985), volume 8, p. 224.

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.



ancient GreeksArgument from PiqueAristotelian traditionatomistsautomatismBaruch Spinozabio-logicCharles DarwinChristian de DuveChristianityDarwin and the Victorian Crisis of Faith (series)Darwin’s Unfinished BusinessErasmus Darwinfreethinkinglogosmagical thinkingmoral sensibilitynousphilosophersSimon PowellsupernaturalThomas Malthus