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Darwinian Natural Selection: A Covert Theology of Nature?

Image: William Paley, by George Romney, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

“What is life?” legendary father of quantum physics Erwin Schrödinger asked in 1943, arguing that the essence of life might best be defined as a force and form of agency. The contention appeared to imply an approving nod in the direction of the Lamarckian postulation of an invisible “pouvoir de la vie” (life power); and it is noteworthy that in 1956 Schrödinger went on to express the opinion that “it is difficult to believe that […] all resulted from Darwinian ‘accumulation by chance.’”1 He appeared to be steering a path in his thinking between Darwinian and Lamarckian paradigms, as was noted by Nobel Prize-winner Paul Nurse in his recent, identically titled analysis, What Is Life?2

Conflicting Paradigms

Observing distinct hints of Lamarckism in Schrödinger’s expositions, Nurse even went so far as to suggest that the veteran German scientist had come close to advancing a form of vitalism3 — a conception of animate nature long since banished from scientific discourse for being a residue of prescientific thinking. So for instance In the very early decades of the 17th century Shakespeare could portray an active external nature issuing portents of future misfortune as warnings to humanity. In the dramatist’s imagination Nature was active to such an extent as to be capable of “staging” such meteorological warning signs as thunderstorms and sundry other “horrid sights seen by the watch.” But such stage evocations are interpreted by today’s audiences only as dramatic devices (referred to technically under the name of pathetic fallacy). For hard on Shakespeare’s heels chronologically had come a finger-wagging brigade of mid to late 17th-century natural philosophers exhorting the bard’s intellectual heirs to view nature in considerably less responsive terms as an entirely passive phenomenon. No will or agency should henceforth be attached to natural phenomena, these early scientists insisted, and it was their understanding which was to become an informing axiom of post-Enlightenment science. Lamarck’s ideas of a spirited, self-making, and transforming Nature now seemed out of step with respectable science. Or were they?

Darwin, although he would officially retreat behind the safe and accredited confines of the new nature-as-passive axiom, was also known to flirt with Lamarckian ideas, most conspicuously in his attempt to postulate a link between ape and Homo sapiens. By 1871 Darwin no longer appeared to repose the same absolute faith in natural selection, as a mechanism capable of delivering limitless boons, as he did in the period preceding the publication of the Origin of Species in 1859. In order to put together a tolerably coherent explanation for the ape-to humankind transition, for instance, we find him appealing to what he had once bluntly denounced as the Lamarckian heresy. Hence in his Descent of Man he could write,

The mental powers of some earlier progenitor of man must have been more highly developed than in any existing ape, before even the most imperfect form of speech could have come into use; but we may confidently believe that the continued use and advancement of this power would have reacted on the mind itself, by enabling and encouraging it to carry on long trains of thought.4

The officially frowned-on Lamarckian idea of the use/disuse of organs is here quite conspicuously pressed into service as a helping or even — faute de mieux — necessary adjunct to his own theory of natural selection. 

What Makes Us Tick? 

It was in fact only in the era of neo-Darwinism that Darwin’s intellectual legatees would take it upon themselves to excise any last traces of Darwinian equivocation on this issue. Yet as Stanford history professor Jessica Riskin has pointed out in her The Restless ClockA History of the Centuries-Old Argument Over What Makes Us Tick (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2016), to which I am much indebted for what follows, the issue can hardly be said to be fully resolved even today. Riskin documents the many ways in which the matter of internal versus external agency has remained a live issue up to the present day. Hence even post-Enlightenment accounts of living phenomena can be observed being permeated by officially disallowed appeals to agency (as in Darwin’s case, cited above). The ostensibly losing opinion associated with the name of Lamarck has not been irretrievably lost to modern science.

The crux of the historical issue has been this: Do the order and action which we can all plainly observe in the natural world originate inside or outside of nature itself? Lamarck’s “inside” theory presupposed an immanent force driving plants and animals to form themselves and to “complexify” their structures over time to produce that plethora of different animal species we witness today. Harking back to ideas originally proposed by Denis Diderot and like-minded philosophes in the mid 18th-century, Lamarck proposed that creatures might be able to alter their own internal physiology and, by an act of will, develop such new organs as might be requisite to their purposes in life. His most (in)famous illustration of this claimed ability was the much-cited example of the giraffe over time possessing the ability to elongate its neck to be able to reach leaves at the tops of trees. 

Consistently with the tenets of his own theory of an immanent power in nature, Lamarck was to look askance at the famous watch-on-the heath analogy formulated by William Paley, insisting that the essential motor of the living being was integral to it rather than something coming from an external source. Paley’s watch on a notional Lamarckian heath would not presumably have needed to be periodically wound up by a divine Horologist. In that particular sense, as Riskin observes, Lamarck’s was the more “dangerous” idea since Lamarck posited self-evolving entities without apparent need of an external director. In Lamarck’s vision of things, as Schrödinger put it, “efforts at improvement are not lost in the biological sense but form a small but integrating part of the striving of the species towards higher and ever higher perfection.”5 In short, Lamarck had ostensibly replaced an external God with an inner force. 

Difficulties with History

Riskin makes the further point that Darwin may have been drawn to Lamarck not only pragmatically because Lamarckian ideas could plug cognitive gaps in his own argumentation (as in the example from his Descent of Man cited above) but also on ideological grounds. For despite its associations with antiquated animism, if one reframes the Lamarckian idea in the manner suggested by Riskin one can then see that “Lamarckism represented its era’s most naturalist, nontheological account of species-change.”6 It is a point she develops further by claiming,

The biologists and philosophers of biology of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries who have categorically excluded Lamarckian explanations and all nonrandom variation as beyond the bounds of legitimate science have believed they were expressing a commitment to an ongoing naturalism. But history places them in the opposite camp. In fact, they are the heirs to the tradition with which they meant to do battle: the argument from design.7

Both Darwin and more modern evolutionists essentially hitched their wagons to a tradition that from its early inception denied agency in Nature precisely in order to ascribe it to a designer God. The argument to which Darwin expressed his official allegiance was ab initio and by the express wish of its originators an argument to and from design since “a material world lacking agency assumed, indeed required, a supernatural god.”8 The 17th-century banishment of agency, perception, consciousness, and will from nature and natural science gave a monopoly on all those attributes to an external god: the paradigm simply could not function without “an accompanying theology.”9

Climbing Mount Improbable 

Because the devisers of modern science after circa 1650 banished mysterious agencies to within the exclusive jurisdiction of the Christian God, they left a more atheistically inclined posterity with a considerable dilemma. For the new, mechanistic science was adamant that one could not procure a lens instrument without an instrument maker. By the same token one could not have an eye without a divine Optician (hence Darwin’s famous shudder when he asked himself rather disconsolately how anything of such supreme intricacy as the eye could have been fashioned by natural selection). Darwin, to use the old cricketing cliché, had come out to bat on a decidedly sticky wicket in the larger arena of science. By which I mean that the problem for Darwin appeared to be logically insurmountable given that his quest was to find a purely secular mechanism for evolution without the “accompanying theology” obligatory to the theory as it had been established by its founding fathers in the century immediately preceding the Enlightenment.

If, as science had come to insist, nature was like a clock, a passive mechanism, it must needs be wound up by an external agent. The only vera causa of evolution would on this view have to be a divine one. No wonder that Sir Charles Lyell and others at the time were prompted to ask of Darwin, What agency was he proposing, precisely (if not a divine one)? In what did the creative power in Darwin’s theory consist and what was the driving force (vera causa) of his evolutionary ideas? Darwin’s famous answer was of course “natural selection” but it has perhaps been insufficiently acknowledged (either by Darwin or by his posterity) that this confident answer was to lose much of its force once Darwin had been compelled to confess that his theory of natural selection did not in reality select at all but merely preserved. Belatedly capitulating to colleagues’ numerous objections that natural selection was entirely unlike the “intelligent selection” practised by professional animal breeders, Darwin at that point had to throw in the towel, conceding in a letter to Lyell in 1860,

Talking of “Natural Selection,” if I had to commence de novo, I would have used natural preservation.10

The truly insurmountable obstacle confronting Darwin after that concession was that the term in which he had acquiesced, natural preservation, could by definition be only passive rather than active, so that the formation of new body parts (let alone new species) now became out of the question. As Michael Ruse recently pointed out, natural selection is better understood as a score-recording statistic than as a “true cause” of anything:

Natural selection is simply keeping score, as does the Dow Jones [Industrial] Average. The Dow Jones does not make things (cause things to) happen. It is just statistics about what did happen.11

The trouble with Darwin’s being forced to eat his own words and so revise his original theory so drastically was that notions of evolutionary innovation in terms of new body parts/species seemed now to be logically indefensible since mere preservation, by definition, cannot produce the kind of physiological innovation which could lead from a microbe to a whale (or even to a mouse). So redefined, natural selection cannot create anything at all. Darwin would have had to conclude that, by making this concession, he was being obliged to abandon what he had always thought of as the limitlessly creative force of his own theory. At some level of apprehension, he must have felt forced to accept that natural selection might have little or no motive force at all — a devastating conclusion entirely subversive of his theory (hence his later flirtation with Lamarckism).

Darwin Versus Modern Biological Science

What makes matters worse for Darwin posthumously is that a number of modern researchers have come forward to reinforce the sombre conclusion that (neo-)Darwinism simply has no theory of the generative to commend it since nothing in Darwin’s theory can account for anything bar trivial micromutations.12 The author’s semantic retreat was fatal to any more substantial, macromutational claims. As Professor Nick Lane has more recently explained on the basis of precise observations,

It is generally assumed that once simple life has emerged, it gradually evolves into more complex forms, given the right conditions. But that’s not what happens on Earth […] If simple cells had evolved slowly into more complex ones over billions of years, all kinds of intermediate forms would have existed and some still should. But there are none [….] This means that there is no inevitable trajectory from simple to complex life. Never-ending natural selection, operating on infinite populations of bacteria over millions of years, may never give rise to complexity. Bacteria simply do not have the right [physiological] architecture.13

Darwin’s espousal of the “outside” argument (as opposed to the Lamarckian interior force) makes it unsurprising that he had the gravest difficulty in trying to make his argument entirely secular and free of theistic implications. His aspiration to free his theory from the entangling toils of theology never really came off. His key metaphor of natural selection was in fact recently unmasked as little more than “an anthropomorphic but superhuman agency, ‘daily and hourly scrutinizing’ all variation, and making intelligent and benevolent decisions like a Paleyan Designer.”14 Indeed, according to Darwin’s somewhat hyperbolic evocations, the powers of natural selection transcended human intelligence to such a degree that he appeared to impute to it the capacity for intelligent design. He proposed that Nature, with limitless millennia at her disposal, could do a more comprehensive job of bringing about major physiological changes (and eventually new species) than could any human breeder, however resourceful and intelligent. He gave lyrical, arguably even mystical expression to that conviction in a famous passage in his Origin of Species:

It may metaphorically be said that natural selection is daily and hourly scrutinising, throughout the world, every variation. Even the slightest; rejecting that which is bad, preserving and adding up all that is good; silently and insensibly working, whenever and wherever opportunity offers, at the improvement of each organic being in relation to its organic and inorganic conditions of life. We see nothing of these slow changes in progress, until the hand of time has marked the long lapse of ages, and then so imperfect is our view into long past geological ages, that we only see that the forms of life are now different from what they formerly were.15

The tone of the above passage makes it unsurprising that Bishop Samuel Wilberforce became convinced that Darwin was implicitly ascribing to Nature the same ontological status as his fellow theists customarily ascribed to the Christian God. Darwin’s apparent raising of external nature to crypto-divine status was, concluded Wilberforce, just as much an article of faith as any of the more conventional forms of theistic allegiance available to him. Wilberforce (who was not alone in coming to this conclusion) surely had a point. Dov Ospovat ascertained in a foundational study some four decades ago that Darwin was often influenced by theological ideas without always recognizing them as theological ideas.16 Darwin did not for instance seem to have questioned why a process he insisted was blind should somehow be automatically in favor of progress. The fact that natural selection was effectively a theory of progressive (arguably even providential) development as much as of ad hoc or merely opportunistic adaptation appears to have been a matter of unquestioned faith for him. As Michael Ruse recently observed, 

Darwin’s theory, like Christianity, takes final cause very seriously. Organisms are not just thrown together; they show purpose — the eye for seeing, the hand for grasping. For the Christian, this was the work of God; for Darwin, of natural selection. This shared perspective is not accidental. Remember how Darwin started with Paley [author of Natural Theology, 1802].17

Squaring the Circle?

It is well enough known that Darwin maintained to the end of his days a significant residue of his earlier Christian faith and that in later years was apt to call himself a Theist (Darwin’s capitalization). There seems, then, to have been an unacknowledged providential dimension lying at the heart of Darwin’s thinking. For in later years he came to harbor the suspicion that there might be, in Thomas Huxley’s phrase, a “wider teleology” in nature’s processes which far exceeded the bounds of natural selection.

Hence it might even be claimed that Darwin’s theory was in an unwitting sense more a special form of Nature mysticism than an empirically demonstrable theory in line with modern demands for testability. Precisely this point was urged more than a century ago by the eminent botanist responsible for pioneering the then new science of Mendelian genetics in Cambridge at the beginning of the twentieth century, F. W. Bateson. Bateson expressed himself entirely dissatisfied with the lack of detail surrounding the term natural selection. He objected that the vagueness of Darwin’s description of natural selection as occurring by insensible and imperceptible stages could not possibly give the slightest hint as to what the precise operative mechanism might consist in. It was, he felt, wholly inadequate to talk in Delphic terms of organisms having “evolved” from simpler systems without supplying any detailed descriptors of what precise physiological modalities may have occasioned such changes.18

Darwin was plainly no doctrinaire atheist in the mold of his grandfather, Erasmus Darwin, and the famous instances of Angst he experienced in grappling with his faith may provide some indication that a “still small voice” was apt to whisper to him that his life’s work might rest on an insecure foundation of questionable assumptions. This would certainly account for some of his more tormented animadversions in the decade preceding his death concerning his riven attitude to the Christian faith. At that later point in his life Darwin appears to have been seriously tempted to return to the Christian fold, at least with one foot. For although he set his face against a once-and-for-all Creation of the Biblical sort, he nevertheless saw in the evolutionary process a force which could bring about the same net result as Divine creation. The prime difference was that this became a series of gradualistic movements in multiple creative phases requiring eons for its completion. Creation for Darwin was simply a continuous process rather than a “one-off.” Those in Britain and America in the latter half of the 19th century who interpreted the essence of Darwinism as being an explanation of evolution in (covertly) theistic terms appear to have had a point.19


  1. What Is Life? With Mind and Matter and Autobiographical Sketches, with Foreword by Roger Penrose (Cambridge: CUP, 1992), p. 109.
  2. Paul Nurse, What Is Life? (Oxford: Fickling, 2021)
  3. Nurse, What Is Life? p. 189.
  4. The Descent of Man and Selection in Relation to Sex, edited by James Moore and Adrian Desmond (London: Penguin, 2004), p. 110, emphasis added.
  5. Schrödinger, p. 107.
  6. Riskin, p. 363.
  7. Riskin, p. 363
  8. Riskin, p. 4.
  9. Riskin, p. 4
  10. Letter to Charles Lyell, September 1860. https://www.darwinproject.ac.uk/letter/?docId=letters/DCP-LETT-2935.xml
  11. Michael Ruse, Understanding Natural Selection (Cambridge: CUP, 2023), p.133.
  12. Steve Laufmann and Howard Glicksman, Your Designed Body (Seattle: Discovery, 2022), p. 370.
  13. Nick Lane, “Lucky to Be There,” in Michael Brooks (editor), Chance: The Science and Secrets of Luck, Randomness, and Probability (London: Profile/New Scientist, 2015), pp. 22-33, citations pp. 28, 32.
  14. Sander Gliboff, H.G. Bronn, Ernst Haeckel and the Origins of German Darwinism: A Study in Translation and Transformation (Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press, 2008), p. 136.
  15. Origin of Species, edited by Gillian Beer (Oxford: OUP, 2008), p. 66.
  16. Dov Ospovat, The Development of Darwin’s Theory: Natural History, Natural Theology and Natural Selection 1839-1859, 2nd edition (Cambridge: CUP, 1995), especially pp. 207-12.
  17. Michael Ruse, Evolution and Christianity (Cambridge: CUP, 2022), p. 60.
  18. Bateson’s objection has been taken up by Neil Broom, How Blind is the Watchmaker? Nature’s Design and the Limits of Naturalistic Science(Downers Grove and Leicester: Intervarsity Press, 2001) p. 39, note.
  19. See James R. Moore, The Post-Darwinian Controversies: A Study of the Protestant Struggle to Come to Terms with Darwin in Great Britain and America, 1870-1900 (Cambridge: CUP, 1981).