Darwin and the “new atheists”
The somewhat antiquated 19th century “conflict model” once used to define beleaguered evolutionary and religious claims to the status of truth has made an unprecedented comeback in our time in the writings of a diverse group of social commentators widely called the “new atheists”. ”1 For much of the 20th century, this older pattern of conflict, represented by the writings of the late Victorian era, Andrew Dixon White2 and others, has been modified in light of intellectual developments that have come predominantly to view science and religion as separate domains, each with its own sharply defined epistemological boundary.3 In recent decades, however, some ideologically committed scientific activists and commentators, led by former Oxford biologist Richard Dawkins, have seized the opportunity to weaponize Darwinism to advance an atheistic agenda in the context of what they see as a dangerous rise in world religion. feeling. In this article and in the two following articles, I want to explore the extent to which the group’s appropriation of Darwinian ideas is justified.
First of all, there is surely a certain historical irony in the attempt to enlist Charles Darwin posthumously in defense of the atheist cause when he persistently resisted efforts to drag his name into a conflict that he didn’t consider it his choice. During his lifetime, Darwin ostensibly opposed efforts to instrumentalize his ideas in the cause of militant atheism, notably when he refused to give his stamp of approval to Britain’s first openly atheist MP, Charles Bradlaugh. From this polite but firm refusal, one can deduce that Darwin, if he had lived, would have done the same to the Bradlaughs of the last days. As the later course of his scientific career demonstrated, Darwin’s preferred path was the quietist path of avoiding conflict and controversy, which manifested itself in his devotion of the last decades of his life to the uncontroversial subject. barnacles. Yet Darwin’s capricious desire for a life without controversy only tells part of the story. The most substantial reason for his reluctance to join the contemporary ranks of Bradlaugh, Annie Besant, and other materialistic proselytes was that with age came the grace to disavow any implied claim to omniscience. At this point in his life, he felt compelled to admit frankly that he was not totally convinced of his own theory.
Darwin had always believed that his grandfather’s writings on evolution were overly speculative. And in truth, Erasmus was able to offer very little substance that distinguished his ideas from the first human being to speculate on evolution since the beginning of written records, namely the Greek Anaximander in the sixth century BC – he had been a natural philosopher. which commands respect even today.4 Read Erasmus Temple of Nature Where zoonomy one always encounters the same underlying narrative of organic life emerging from the primordial silt and evolving and branching out from an organic zero point as that advanced by Anaximander and his disciple Anaximenes.5 And like the Greeks, Erasmus offered no empirical evidence that would test his claims. It is therefore not surprising that evolution was widely considered before 1859 as the minority concern of a group of eccentrics rather than a key to unraveling the mysteries of human existence.
Fast forward to a century later and we find that Charles Darwin was acutely aware of the checks and balances put in place by modern science in order to establish a given theory as provable. do. Realizing that his grandfather’s ideas did not meet modern evidentiary standards, he sought a stronger causal foundation for the Erasmian contribution to evolution. This he was to find in the theory of natural selection which he derived and developed from the writings of Thomas Malthus. It was through Malthus that Darwin thought he had discovered a mechanism or will cause to back up his grandfather’s ideas. Over time, however, he began to have doubts about what he had once confidently hoped would be his game-changer with the ability to usher evolutionary thinking into a new era of public acceptance and prestige. .
During the last decades of his life, however, Charles began to doubt that his postulated theory of natural selection would have been sufficient on its own to effect all the extraordinary transmutations evidenced by the world’s profusion of vastly different species. This thought even led him to flirt with the Lamarckian ideas of evolution which he had hitherto despised.6
The result of the author’s reflections was that the sixth edition of the Origin was very different from the 1859 version and in some cases quite incompatible with the first iteration of his ideas.seven Most strikingly, a growing tension arose in him regarding his public postulation of a theory of evolution dependent on natural selection and his claim in old age to be a “theist” (Darwin’s own capitalization).8 It therefore appears that the most valid historical parallel for new atheists is not Charles himself but Charles’ grandfather. The Darwin family’s preoccupation with evolutionary speculation was something that grew in stages9 and it is at a much earlier stage that a less ambiguous correlation between evolutionary thought and atheism emerges.
Atheists old and new
What connects Erasmus Darwin to modern proponents of atheism is that the grandfather grew up in the context of this crypto-atheistic doctrine of deism according to which God had shrunk to the status of a deus absconditus or – to use the derogatory contemporary nickname – “absent owner”. In such a context of unbelief, the question arises: what came first in Erasmus’ thought: the chicken or the egg? By this I mean: his desire to think about the possibilities of a purely material and naturalistic process of creation and evolution was triggered by a deistic conviction that, even if God had never existed, he had long since disappeared from knowledge. human and was in that sense functionally unrelated to human affairs? In other words, was his entire theory of evolution triggered by what is now called materialistic confirmation bias (as is strongly suspected the New Atheists do)? For it is clear that if one has been convinced (or if one has convinced oneself) that there is and never can be any proof of divine guidance in human affairs, then one is forced to speculate on some completely material alternative, however illogical, impractical and physiologically improbable it may seem.
Next“Erasmus Darwin and Credible Denial.”
- See The Four Horsemen: Dawkins, Dennet, Harris, Hitchens with a foreword by Stephen Fry (London: Transworld/Penguin, 2019).
- A History of the War of Science with Theology in Christendom (New York: Appleton, 1896).
- James Moore, The post-Darwinian controversies: a study of the Protestant struggle to reconcile with Darwin in Britain and America 1870-1900 (Cambridge: CUP, 1979).
- See renowned quantum mechanic Carlo Rovelli The First Scientist: Anaximander and His Legacy (Yardley PA: Westholme, 2011).
- See Erasmus Darwin, The temple of nature, facsimile of the 1803 edition (Aldershot: Scolar Press, 1973), canto 1, ll. 295-315.
- Erasmus Darwin was perhaps the first to suggest that life emerged from the depths of the oceans and evolved into different species in response to a search for perfection in different environments. It was the somewhat simplistic (and misguided) conception of physiological adaptation by sheer will that he shared with Denis Diderot and the French biologist Lamarck.
- See Peter J. Vorzimmer, Charles Darwin: The Controversial Years: The Origin of Species and Its Detractors 1859-1882 (London: London UP, 1972).
- As Neal C. Gillespie once remarked, Darwin succeeded in banishing God from his science, but not from his worldview. See his Charles Darwin and the problem of creation (Chicago: Chicago UP, 1979).
- The absolute origin of the constant concern of the Darwin family dates back to the year 1719 when the father of Erasmus Darwin, Robert, discovered the fossilized skeleton of a large part of a plesiosaur, described in the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of the same year and now on display at the Natural History Museum in London. For Erasmus, the discovery of a off organism was taken as evidence that species over long ages must undergo quite drastic morphological changes, and this inference was to lead him to develop his theory of common descent from the animal types of the world. See The Life of Erasmus Darwin by Charles Darwin, edited by Desmond King-Hele (Cambridge: CUP, 2003), Introduction, p. xiii.