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Charles Darwin’s “Intelligent Design”

Robert F. Shedinger
Photo: Orchids, by Arne and Bent Larsen or A./B. Larsen, CC BY-SA 2.5 DK , via Wikimedia Commons.

I wrote here yesterday about Charles Darwin’s orchid book. Shortly after its publication, reviews of the book began appearing in the British press. Unlike with the Origin, the reviews were overwhelmingly positive. Reviewers were extremely impressed with Darwin’s detailed documentation of the variety of contrivances in orchids. But much to Darwin’s dismay, they did not see this as evidence of natural selection.

An anonymous reviewer in the Annals and Magazine of Natural History wrote in response to Darwin’s contention that nature abhors perpetual self-fertilization:          

Apart from this theory and that of ‘natural selection,’ which we cannot think is much advanced by the present volume, we must welcome this work of Mr. Darwin’s as a most important and interesting addition to botanical literature.

Other reviewers went much further. M. J. Berkeley, writing in the London Review, said:

…the whole series of the Bridgewater Treatises will not afford so striking a set of arguments in favour of natural theology as those which he has here displayed.

Marvels of Divine Handiwork 

A review by R. Vaughn in the British Quarterly Review opined:

No one acquainted with even the very rudiments of botany will have any difficulty in understanding the book before us, and no one without such acquaintance need hesitate to commence the study of it. For, in the first place, it is full of the marvels of Divine handiwork.

According to the Saturday Review:

By contrivances so wonderful and manifold, that, after reading Mr. Darwin’s enumeration of them, we felt a certain awe steal over the mind, as in the presence of a new revelation of the mysteriousness of creation. 

“New and Marvelous Instances of Design” 

Even Darwin’s pigeon-fancier friend, William Tegetmeier, noted the existence in the book of “new and marvelous instances of design.” And an anonymous reviewer in the British and Foreign Medico-Chirurgical Review wrote:

To those whose delight it is to dwell upon the manifold instances of intelligent design which everywhere surround us, this book will be a rich storehouse.

Darwin’s “flank movement on the enemy” failed miserably. Unable to make a convincing case for natural selection in his broader species work, he tried instead to stealthily impress the scientific world by appeal to the exquisite variety of fertilization methods among orchids. Darwin impressed the scientific world alright. He showed how difficult it is to understand the variety of living organisms without appeal to design. 

His orchid book may well be the most important of all Darwin’s publications. It made a unique contribution to 19th-century natural history — or is that natural theology? I can think of no greater irony than the fact that Charles Darwin, who Richard Dawkins felt made it possible to be an intellectually fulfilled atheist, actually bequeathed to 19th-century natural historians one of the most impressive cases for intelligent design ever made.