It is no secret that science and religion, once allied in homage to divinely crafted harmonies, have long been growing apart. As the scientific worldview has become more authoritative and self-sufficient, it has loosed a cascade of appalling fears: that the human soul, insofar as it can be said to exist, may be a mortal and broadly comprehensible product of material forces; that the immanent, caring God of the Western monotheisms may never have been more than a fiction devised by members of a species that self-indulgently denies its continuity with the rest of nature; and that our universe may lack any discernible purpose, moral character, or special relation to ourselves. But as those intimations have spread, the retrenchment known as creationism has also gained in strength and has widened its appeal, acquiring recruits and sympathizers among intellectual sophisticates, hard-headed pragmatists, and even some scientists. And so formidable a political influence is this wave of resistance that some Darwinian thinkers who stand quite apart from it nevertheless feel obliged to placate it with tactful sophistries, lest the cause of evolutionism itself be swept away.
As everyone knows, it was the publication of The Origin of Species in 1859 that set off the counterrevolution that eventually congealed into creationism. It isn’t immediately obvious, however, why Darwin and not, say, Copernicus, Galileo, or Newton should have been judged the most menacing of would-be deicides. After all, the subsiding of faith might have been foreseeable as soon as the newly remapped sky left no plausible site for heaven. But people are good at living with contradictions, just so long as their self-importance isn’t directly insulted. That shock was delivered when Darwin dropped his hint that, as the natural selection of every other species gradually proves its cogency, “much light will be thrown on the origin of man and his history.”
By rendering force and motion deducible from laws of physics without reference to the exercise of will, leading scientists of the Renaissance and Enlightenment started to force the activist lord of the universe into early retirement. They did so, however, with reverence for his initial wisdom and benevolence as an engineer. Not so Darwin, who saw at close range the cruelty, the flawed designs, and the prodigal wastefulness of life, capped for him by the death of his daughter Annie. He decided that he would rather forsake his Christian faith than lay all that carnage at God’s door. That is why he could apply Charles Lyell’s geological uniformitarianism more consistently than did Lyell himself, who still wanted to reserve some scope for intervention from above. And it is also why he was quick to extrapolate fruitfully from Malthus’s theory of human population dynamics, for he was already determined to regard all species as subject to the same implacable laws. Indeed, one of his criteria for a sound hypothesis was that it must leave no room for the supernatural. As he wrote to Lyell in 1859, “I would give absolutely nothing for…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.