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Darwin and the Loss of the Enlightenment Paradigm

Neil Thomas
Image: Voltaire reads the Orphan of China, by Anicet Charles Gabriel Lemonnier, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

In two articles so far (here and here), I have been exploring how justified the new atheists’ appropriation of Darwinian ideas is. This is the third and final post. As we’ve seen, Erasmus Darwin was a quintessential legatee of Enlightenment prepossessions. As its somewhat virtue-signaling name implies, the thinkers of the Enlightenment wished to distance themselves from anything that smacked of religious “superstition.” This led to the determination to declare a unilateral declaration of independence from the metaphysical sphere in favor of purely “scientific” modes of explanation. Yet in the face of the last century of scientific discoveries we have come to realize that hubristic expectations stemming from the Enlightenment dream of encompassing the whole of reality in some grand material theory of everything have been forced into a reluctant retreat.1

Almost Complete Ignorance

As a plethora of popular books, articles, and TV programs have recently intoned, our almost complete ignorance of the nature of ultimate reality has been laid bare by the work of Planck, Einstein, Heisenberg, Carlo Rovelli, and a host of microbiology specialists. Taken together, these scientific advances have united to challenge the Newtonian/Enlightenment paradigm. Scientists can no longer deliver certainty and predictability in the aftermath of such disconcerting advances in physics or in microbiology, which represent an unsuspected level of ultra-diminutive reality that has only revealed its bare existence in the last seven decades or so thanks to the invention of the electron microscope in 1944. Indeterminacy and probabalism have emerged to subvert the Enlightenment conception of a predictable clockwork universe. We have been forced to acknowledge that the dimension of reality we know of is merely the observable, superficial part and that this rests on and is sustained by invisible trestles of substrate reality of which we have little inkling and to which our Cartesian notions of predictability and comprehensibility do not, alas, apply. 

Whose Reality? 

In short, the bright new dawn of Erasmus Darwin’s Enlightenment world has been replaced by the hauntingly surreal specter of what is now routinely referred to as “quantum weirdness.” Like it or not, Erasmus’s simple and predictable world is no more, and we now find ourselves confronted by the truly vertigo-inducing predicament of being subject to an unpredictable cosmos we simply do not understand. It appears to me that the only intellectually defensible position to adopt in the light of such unanticipated scientific advances is to keep an open mind. The new atheists on the other hand continue to cling anachronistically to the same would-be omniscient paradigm of reality as that in which Erasmus Darwin reposed his faith. But whereas Erasmus had the extenuation of knowing nothing of the profounder reaches of reality into which modern scientific advances have given us at least some fleeting glimpses, the same excuse cannot be pleaded for the new atheists whose stance, either tacitly or wittingly, turns a blind eye to those hidden dimensions of existence. 

Under the illusion of being the “bright” (their term) or enlightened ones, they appear, on the contrary, to have become the doctrinaire victims of a peculiarly modern form of obscurantism. It is as if they are doggedly clinging to an obsolete worldview which denies the relevance of much cutting-edge science. Their outlook has little in common with that of Charles Darwin whose later years were marked by what Peter Vorzimmer once termed “frustrated confusion.”2 In that respect Darwin might be posthumously welcomed as an avatar of postmodern man in that he anticipated the decidedly non-omniscient spirit of our modern age. Such, needless to say, is not the mental universe inhabited by the new atheists whose philosophic stance seems more akin to that of Charles’s grandfather than to that of the grandson.


  1. See on this point Marcus de Sautoy, What We Cannot Know: From Consciousness to the Cosmos (London: Fourth Estate, 2017) and Carlo Rovelli, Reality Is Not What It Seems: The Journey to Quantum Gravity (London: Penguin, 2016).
  2. Darwin: The Years of Controversy, p. 254.      

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.



Albert EinsteinBrightsCarlo RovelliCharles DarwinEnlightenmentErasmus DarwinevolutionMax PlanckNew AtheistsPeter Vorzimmerquantum weirdnesssuperstitionWerner Heisenbergworldview