The Language of God: On Darwin

The Language of God, Chapter 4

By B.J. Marshall

Collins spends only three pages discussing the history of Darwin’s publishing his theory of evolution through natural selection, but there are a few points that I want to discuss concerning how Collins (and apologists in general) lift quotes, provide misinformation, and arrange material to help guide the reader to draw certain conclusions. Now, I’m not saying that atheological counter-apologists – if I may use such a phrase – are immune from committing these same errors. I am saying that, as a critical reader, it is important to notice these things. Or, at least, it’s important to ask a few questions.

One such question is, “Did [whomever the author is attributing a quote] actually say that?” One example is when Collin cites Darwin’s last sentence in the last chapter (Recapitulations and Conclusions) of “On the Origin of Species”:

“There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed by the Creator into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved” (p.98-9).

So, I found a copy of the first edition of On the Origin of Species at both TalkOrigins and Project Gutenberg. Neither copy of the first edition contains the words “by the Creator.” I was sure to check multiple sources in order to corroborate evidence – I consider Project Gutenberg a neutral source, whereas I’m sure Creationists could argue that Talk Origins is biased. Richard Dawkins mentions the omission of “by the Creator” in this video. There are web sites that mention Darwin being pressured to include “by the Creator,” but I cannot substantiate or corroborate those claims yet. I did get a distinct sense that Darwin was writing in a similar vein as Laplace, when the latter told Napoleon he “had no need of that hypothesis [of God]“.

While I fully grant that Darwin’s subsequent editions of “Origins” included “by the Creator,” I found it interesting that Collins simply took this for granted. Honestly, though, I imagine most people take the “by the Creator” part for granted. The concept of natural selection is difficult enough for people to wrestle with; the lay reader probably doesn’t know or care about differences among editions. But that raises another point: The reader – at least Collins’ intended audience – probably just takes his word for it, thus falling prey to an argument from authority.

Another example of lifting quotes is the dreaded ellipsis (…). Collins uses is when describing how Darwin did not see the conflict between evolution by natural selection and religious belief.

“I see no good reason why the views given in this volume should shock the religious feelings of anyone…. A celebrated author and divine has written to me that ‘he has gradually learnt to see that it is just as noble a conception of the Deity to believe that He created a few original forms capable of self-development into other and needful forms, as to believe that He required a fresh act of creation to supply the voids caused by the action of His laws’ (p.98).”

The part Collins omits involves a comparison to how the great discovery of the law of gravity was attacked by Leibniz. OK, not a terrible thing to exclude, since a Leibniz attack doesn’t affect the context or meaning of the passage being quoted. But it’s still good to check. Of course, the “celebrated author” still misses the point. Darwin’s point was to show that populations of species change over time. Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection doesn’t have anything to say about abiogenesis, which is what the “celebrated author” seems to purport. To me, it seems that Collins includes this quote about the “celebrated author” as a red herring.

Finally, Collins talks about how Darwin’s personal beliefs “remain ambiguous” and seemed to vary throughout the last years of his life (p.99). First, I’m not sure whether Collins wants to paint Darwin in a bad light here, as if changing one’s beliefs is a bad thing. I’m willing to give him the benefit of the doubt, but a less charitable person might not. Collins drops two quotes here with no context:

“At one time, [Darwin] said, ‘Agnostic would be the most correct description of my state of mind.’ At another time [Darwin] wrote that he was greatly challenged by ‘the extreme difficulty, or rather the impossibility, of conceiving this immense and wonderful universe, including man with his capacity for looking far backwards and far into futurity, as the result of blind chance or necessity. When thus reflect I feel compelled to look to a First Cause having an intelligent mind in some degree analogous to that of man, and I deserve to be called a Theist’ (p.99).”

I want to first address the typical misunderstanding between (a)gnosticism and (a)theism. Many videos are around that cover this topic, but here it is in a nutshell. (A)gnosticism is a position about knowledge; (a)theism is a position about belief. Here’s how one can break it down:

  • Agnostic atheist: I do not believe any gods exist, but I don’t know that they don’t. Examples include me and Matt Dillihunty, who leave ourselves open to the possibility that a god might exist.
  • Gnostic atheist: I know no gods exist.
  • Agnostic theist: I believe a god(s) exist, but I don’t know that it/he/she/they don’t.
  • Gnostic theist: I know a god(s) exist. Examples include William Lane Craig, who asserts that the self-authentication of the Holy Spirit is enough to convince him of God’s existence even in the face of any possible evidence you could throw at him. (Also mentioned early in his book Reasonable Faith: Christian Truth and Apologetics.)

Now that’s out of the way, I want to discuss these two quotes that Collins tosses about. Even if we concede that agnosticism and atheism are not compatible (which I wouldn’t normally do), there’s no way of telling which quote came first. Was Darwin agnostic/atheistic before or after he was a Theist? I found the Theist quote on page 93 of Darwin’s autobiography, but the surrounding context for this quote doesn’t look so good for Collins. Immediately following that sentence, Darwin continues:

“This conclusion was strong in my mind about the time, as far as I can remember, when I wrote the Origin of Species; and it is since that time that it has very gradually with many fluctuations become weaker. But then arises the doubt – can the mind of man, which has, as I fully believe, been developed from a mind as low as that possessed by the lowest animal, be trusted when it draws such grand conclusions? May not these be the result of the connection between cause and effect which strikes us as a necessary one, but probably depends merely on inherited experience? Nor must we overlook the probability of the constant inculcation in a belief in God on the minds of children producing so strong and perhaps an inherited effect on their brains not yet fully developed, that it would be as difficult for them to throw off their belief in God, as for a monkey to throw off its instinctive fear and hatred of a snake.”

I encourage you to check out that link because the quote I just provided comes with footnotes. It includes an exhortation by Emma Darwin to her son, Francis, to not include a portion of the above so as to avoid pain to Darwin’s religious friends. So, Darwin questioned childhood indoctrination, eh? Why didn’t Collins say anything about that?? Interesting.

While this section didn’t have much to do with the overall theme of Collins’ book – the successful harmonization of science and belief – I’d like to conclude this post with some observations that might help the critical reader:

  1. Question sources: I find it very helpful to take an obscure portion of a quote and Google it. I get better results then when I Google themes like “Darwin Agnostic” and “Darwin Theist.”
  2. Quote mining: I find it helpful not just to find out the correct attribution of a quote, but to also read the surrounding paragraphs or even pages.
  3. Corroborate: Similar to what I did to confirm that the first edition of “Origin” did not include “by the Creator,” it isn’t enough to just find a single source that agrees with your hypothesis. In addition, the source that does agree with your hypothesis might itself be of dubious merit. (For example, I wouldn’t give much credence to the evidence for UFOs by looking at a web site entitled “Uncle Bob’s Story of His First Sober UFO Encounter.”)

Other posts in this series:

Atlas Shrugged: The Workers' Paradise
How the Cross Is Like the Confederate Flag
A Christian vs. an Atheist: On God and Government, Part 13
Atlas Shrugged: The Colossal Contradiction
About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, Arc of Fire, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.


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