Charles Darwin: Origin of Species (Review)

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At best Darwin can explain the survival of the fittest, not the arrival of a new species. Survival, not arrival.

If this book were written today, it wouldn’t have caused such an uproar. Some of that is we are familiar with his thesis. But not all of Darwin’s book is controversial. Parts are quite technical and of interest only to bird specialists and such.

The mechanism of evolution is natural selection. Interestingly, Darwin is still using causal language, in noting that there must be some “efficient cause” (Darwin 9).

Key point: “A much more important rule….is that, at whatever period of life a peculiarity first appeared, it tends to reappear in the offspring at a corresponding age” (11).

Darwin gives a running commentary on different changes in microevolution. Most of this is true, but illustrates a point left unsaid: all of these variations are evidence of design (by humans), not of random selection.

Darwin admits no one has come up with a good definition of species (24). This point shouldn’t be overlooked. If species aren’t locked in stone, then we need to acknowledge the possibility that a critter could be “80% dog.” Or even more alarming, 75% human.

He admits that varieties cannot be distinguished from species except only if we have the intermediate linksonly if we have the intermediate links (31). This is the Holy Grail of Darwinism.

Darwin comes back to this point at the end of the book. By the end of the book he is quite clear that our classifications aren’t arbitrary, but follow a logical and natural order. I agree with him, and while this isn’t a contradiction per se, it does show that Darwin comes down to some sort of unity and not pure randomness. I hesitate to use the word “design,” but you see where I am going.

Thesis: Natural selection is the preservation of favorable individual differences and the destruction of those which are injurious (40).

Darwin admits his term “Natural Selection” is misleading. Evolution posits a blind, unguided process and natural selection implies an active guider. And Nature’s evolution takes place over “long periods of time” (49). This is key because it will create huge problems with the Cambrian fossil record.

Darwin follows up with objections raised. Most of these are quite uninteresting and is literally an argument against certain bird specialists. He does make one interesting comment in passing (chapter 7)

“Lastly, more than one writer has asked, why have some animals had their mental powers more highly developed than others, as such would be advantageous to all” (106)?

This anticipates Plantinga’s “Evolutionary Argument Against Naturalism.” If I don’t have a mind or soul,If I don’t have a mind or soul, nor have I freedom, this means that everything I do is causally determined by events, circumstances, and neurons firing. This means either (a) beliefs themselves are physical states (remember, on Darwin’s reading there is no soul) or (b) are reduced to physical states. If that’s the case, in order to survive I don’t need to believe in (x), I just need to react vis-a-vis my nervous system. If naturalism is true, then why should I believe it to be true?

Of course Darwin doesn’t mention any of that, nor do his critics. I think the reality and presupposition of the soul was still dominant that there was no point. Later in the chapter Darwin mentions of a certain species’s “Powers of movement” (115). I find it interesting that he is still using Aristotelian language.

Chapter 8: Instinct

Most of this chapter is a reflection on the relationship between instinct and habit. Nothing major hinges on it. The only possible problem arises when we get to categories like “dispositions” and the like. These aren’t physical states. They are mental states.

Darwin is very honest about the conditions under which his theory would be falsified: where is the evidence? And did that evidence arise gradually or at once? To be fair, he offers different models that explain the evidence (or lack thereof). That is a perfectly legitimate move in science, and he ends the chapter with admittedly beautiful prose. But let’s pay attention to what he just did: this isn’t merely using the scientific method and testing a hypothesis. We are now substituting a model to explain away the lack of evidence.

Conclusion

I don’t know if the whole book is worth reading. And regardless of my criticisms of Darwin, I strongly urge fellow theists to read this book. If you read it you will be better informed on evolution than most federal judges and ACLU lawyers. But you probably don’t need to read the whole book. Definitely read chapters 1-2, 4, 6, 10, and the final few pages

About J. B. Aitken

Interests include patristics, the role of the soul in the human person, analytic theology, Reformed Scholasticism, Medievalism, Substance Metaphysics
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