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The Art of Concealment: Darwin and Chance

Photo credit: John Wardell, via Flickr (cropped).

For the first decades of Victoria’s reign, any scientific theory dependent on the postulation of chance would by definition have condemned itself as being oxymoronic and as an irredeemable contradiction in terms. The common opinion of the leading men of science in the first half of the 19th century tended towards an unobtrusive form of deism, for educated opinion by the 1830s had become comfortable with a remote God acting indirectly in nature through designed laws. Against the backdrop of that comfortable consensus, Darwin’s unheralded announcement of a process of “natural selection” working on random variations/mutations to create the whole panoply of terrestrial life must have come as a very counterintuitive claim indeed. Victorians certainly found it difficult to envisage the supremely intricate organic order having emerged from a process so heavily dependent on chance, for they will have noted in Darwin’s exposition that natural selection must necessarily always depend for its operations on prior, chance variations having already occurred. 

Darwin’s Desperate Idea

The idea that purely random variations lay at the root of a process that subsequently gave rise to design (either real or, as is habitually alleged, “apparent”) was so sharply opposed to mainstream scientific thinking that it is unsurprising that eminent figures such as William Whewell and Sir John Herschel immediately rejected the idea of chance playing any causative role. Darwin therefore knew that he would have an uphill battle to convince people of the key role chance played in his theory, a fear amply confirmed by reviews of the first edition of his Origin of Species in late 1859. His British nemesis, St. George Mivart, and many others now proceeded to criticize Darwin’s dependence on what Mivart termed “mere fortuity.”1

How then could Darwin get an idea offensive to accepted scientific tenets under the wire and into the safe space of public acceptance or at least acquiescence? Desperate, or perhaps more accurately, cunning measures seemed to be called for, as Curtis Johnson makes clear in an exceptionally close look at Darwin’s private notebooks and letters on the subject of chance. These writings reveal that Darwin — once bitten, twice shy, so to speak — became now increasingly concerned to “massage” his material rather than lay it out in a neutral and disinterested way for all subsequent editions of the Origin (of which there were five).2 Collectively, Darwin’s modifications to the way he presented his material were in effect to become part of an activist campaign in the interests of promoting his ideas.

A Cunning Plan

Mivart’s criticism had served to forewarn and forearm Darwin. Thus from 1860 onwards he “adapted a variety of rhetorical strategies that added up to a deliberate campaign to retain chance as a central element while making it appear to most readers that he did not.”3 In other words, Darwin became steadily convinced of the necessity to insinuate his dangerous idea into the consciousness of his peers by any such means of verbal dexterity he was capable of devising. In short, he felt he must smuggle his idea into Victorian England by somehow contriving to bypass his peers’ critical antennae in a subtle (and arguably somewhat unscrupulous) campaign of trompe-l’oeil.

The Darwin who had once termed himself a “master wriggler” (verbally) would now double down on those of his expository arts which a recent biographer, A. N. Wilson, rightly termed “slithery.”4 Accordingly, from this point forward he strove to downplay the idea of chance for all readers of later editions of Origin, and by the fifth edition references to chance or accident had almost disappeared even though they were integral to his theory. To cover his tracks he now introduced the deliberately vague euphemisms of “spontaneous generation” and “laws of growth” (although one may doubt that the ploy could have been effective with more discerning readers capable of seeing through such semantic legerdemain).5 In this way he hoped that the criticism of his theory from “chance” might go away with the expurgation of the word, a hope that his then comrade-in-arms Alfred Russel Wallace appeared to share when he advised Darwin to delete the word “accident” and replace it with some such bland circumlocution as “variations of every kind are always occurring in every part of every species.”6 That these careful locutions were to become part and parcel of a studied policy of obfuscation is confirmed by further reference to his notebooks where Johnson records how Darwin would for instance confess to glossing over his true views on religion to the larger public and abstain from using the term “materialism” with approbation — even whilst privately admitting that this term described his own beliefs most accurately.7

Giving the Game Away 

Darwin’s least successful ploy to get his readers on board was the habit emerging in his correspondence, and later finding expression in The Variation of Animals and Plants under Domestication (1868), of glossing natural selection by introducing the metaphor of an architect. This was in the mistaken thought that he would make natural selection clearer to his readers. However, as Sir Charles Lyell warned him, the architect metaphor worked at cross-purposes with his messaging intentions since an architect is manifestly intelligent, in contradistinction to natural selection. To make matters worse, the image had been employed for centuries (in such locutions as a “cosmic architect”) to refer to the very deity Darwin wished to exclude.8

What is telling about the unfortunate choice of the architect image is that Darwin’s metaphors are sometimes more eloquent of what their author was really thinking than his formal statements, an issue I have discussed before (here and here). The ostensible take-away message from his writings foregrounded the “dangerous idea” of the purely chance origin and evolution of life on this planet. On that reading, God had been shown the door as being superfluous to proceedings said to be unfolding autonomously. Yet Johnson observes that in notes not for public consumption, Darwin asked himself, “Do these views make me an atheist?”, whereupon he responds with a vehement “NO”! In later notes he describes himself variously as theistic or agnostic (he was ever a Hamlet figure!). Both terms, though, “preserve the possibility, even the likelihood, of a Creator who designed a world in the beginning that would operate in definite and predictable ways.”9 This would imply that Darwin in his heart may in reality have been tempted to return to the status quo ante, that is, to the common deistic prepossessions of the scientific community in the first half of the 19th century. Apparently his still small voice was apt to whisper to him that his life’s work had been built on a foundation of false assumptions — which would account for some of his more tormented lucubrations in the decade preceding his death, especially those concerning his riven attitude to the Christian faith in which he had been reared.

Of Algorithms and Waving Marble Statues

But where Darwin was moved to harbor honest doubts about the role of chance in evolution, many of his 20th-century legatees have shown themselves remarkably free of such reservations. Here is Daniel Dennett expounding with unruffled finality what he terms his “algorithmic” ideas about natural selection:

Can the biosphere really be the outcome of nothing but a cascade of algorithmic processes feeding on chance? And if so, who designed that cascade? Nobody. It is itself the product of a blind algorithmic process.10

An equally remarkable computation of the power of chance can be found in Richard Dawkins’s The Blind Watchmaker where, in the context of assessing whether certain phenomena might be adjudged impossible or merely improbable, Dawkins seriously moots the possibility (albeit remote) of a marble statue moving its arm: 

In the case of the marble statue, molecules in solid marble are continuously jostling against one another in random directions. The jostlings of the different molecules cancel one another out, so the whole hand of the statue stays still. But if, by sheer coincidence, all the molecules just happened to move in the same direction at the same moment, the hand would move. If they then all reversed direction at the same moment the hand would move back. In this way it is possible for a marble statue to wave at us. It could happen.11

I confess that on first reading that paragraph I did not know whether to laugh out loud or question my own sanity. The latter worry was in fact only finally allayed when I came across the volume entitled Answering the New Atheism which allowed me to discover with some relief that it “was not just me.” The two authors of that volume, Scott Hahn and Benjamin Wiker, also quote the same paragraph because, as they explain, “if we merely reported it, no sane person would believe that Dawkins had written it.” They continue:

Our concern for now is whether Dawkins’ unconquerable faith in the powers of chance is rational. For Dawkins, whatever God could do, chance could do better, and that means that any event, no matter how seemingly miraculous, can be explained as good luck…. And if such impossible things are possible, why isn’t it possible that it was indeed a miraculous occurrence? Why isn’t the miraculous itself a possibility.12

Wiker and Hahn are to be commended for pointing out what the professional reviewers of Dawkins’s volume made no mention of. One can only suppose that that group’s uncritical genuflection was motivated partly by materialist confirmation bias and partly by a form of intellectual doffing of the cap to an Oxbridge grandee. Effectively it is as if the reviewers had been caught in the headlights of a car which froze their critical faculties and rendered them incapable of delivering an honest verdict on what appears to me to be the sheer illogic behind such a candidly professed faith in the purportedly limitless powers of chance. 

It would of course be possible to argue that both chance and the postulation of an intelligent designer are equally unverifiable, or “unfalsifiable” in Karl Popper’s term. Darwin is sometimes said to have merely replaced one form of unknown and unknowable with another form of the same since neither God nor chance is falsifiable. However, the contention that an appeal to an inscrutable divine source is as much an admission of ignorance as is an appeal to chance is surely open to serious question (even by the present writer who has been a secular humanist all his adult life). By which I mean that the postulation of chance as a predictable agency capable of producing the lawful regularities of the organic world contradicts our empirical observations of what is possible, whereas the creator hypothesis confirms our common experience of a result requiring a cause (ex nihilo nihil fit / “nothing can arise from nothing”). There can be no question of a probabilistic equivalence between the two options. God, like chance, may be beyond explanatory reach but, unlike chance, does not lie beyond logical reach. The inference to a theistic explanation certainly possesses more logical coherence than does the alternative.

Historical Perspectives

In order to judge whether deliberations on any given issue of human concern may be sensible or otherwise, it is conventional, even something of a cliché, to ask the question, “How would a Martian react to all this?” That is of course a truly imponderable question but what is not imponderable is how our ancestors in earlier epochs reacted to the same kind of debates in their own time and place because we have tangible evidence to show how they felt and thought. So, for instance luck or chance in her personified form as a female goddess revolving her infamous wheel (rota Fortunae) was often portrayed in the iconography of the medieval world as the most fickle of the divinities of the Classical pantheon, on a par with the two-faced god, Janus. Not for nothing did Geoffrey Chaucer write in his 14th-century Knight’s Tale of “Fortune and hire false wheel, / That noon estat assureth to be weel” (“Lady Luck and her untrustworthy wheel which guarantees nobody’s good fortune”) — a quotation which has stayed with me since school days since it expresses a bitter truth we have surely all been obliged to taste, and doubtless on many more occasions than we would have preferred. 

It is entirely appropriate that Fortuna’s emblematic representation with her ubiquitous wheel should have gone on to become the prototype of the modern roulette wheel. But even though she was apostrophized in the Carmina Burana as Fortuna Imperatrix Mundi (“Fortune the world’s empress”) she was never described as Fortuna Creatrix Mundi (“Fortune the creator of the world”). To be asked to believe that the biological equivalent of the supremely untrustworthy Lady Luck was in good part responsible for the evolution of all organic life is a very big ask and, I fancy, an idea which our medieval predecessors (not to mention current players of the National Lottery) would likely have laughed out of court. 


  1. St. George Jackson’s On the Genesis of Species (New York: Appleton, 1871) was a studied riposte to Darwin.
  2. Curtis Johnson, Darwin’s Dice: The Idea of Chance in the Thought of Charles Darwin (Oxford: OUP, 2015).
  3. Johnson, Darwin’s Dice, p. xvii.
  4. A. N. Wilson, Charles Darwin: Victorian Mythmaker (London: John Murray, 2017).
  5. Johnson notes that Darwin’s “dangerous idea” concerning chance was in later years given full expression in his “Old and Useless Notes” — indicating if proof were needed that his use of circumlocution in the later editions of Origin was indeed an obfuscatory ploy. See Darwin’s Dice, p. 226.
  6. Darwin’s Dice, pp. 138 and 156, note 12.
  7. Darwin’s Dice, p. 114, note 11
  8. See discussion of this point in Darwin’s Dice, pp. 136-143.
  9. Johnson, Darwin’s Dice, p.227.
  10. Dennett, Darwin’s Dangerous Idea: Evolution and the Meanings of Life (London: Allen Lane, 1995), p. 59.
  11. The Blind Watchmaker (London: Penguin, 1986), pp. 159-60.
  12. Scott Hahn and Benjamin Wiker, Answering the New Atheism: Dismantling Dawkins’ Case against God (Ohio: Emmaus Road, 2008), pp. 11-13.