Charles Darwin: Modern (1809–1882)


Chapter 14

As this whole volume is one long argument, it may be convenient to the reader to have the leading facts and inferences briefly recapitulated.

That many and grave objections may be advanced against the theory of descent with modification through natural selection, I do not deny. I have endeavoured to give to them their full force. Nothing at first can appear more difficult to believe than that the more complex organs and instincts should have been perfected not by means superior to, though analogous with, human reason, but by the accumulation of innumerable slight variations, each good for the individual possessor.

Nevertheless, this difficulty, though appearing to our imagination insuperably great, cannot be considered real if we admit the following propositions, namely,—that gradations in the perfection of any organ or instinct, which we may consider, either do now exist or could have existed, each good of its kind,—that all organs and instincts are, in ever so slight a degree, variable,—and, lastly, that there is a struggle for existence leading to the preservation of each profitable deviation of structure or instinct. The truth of these propositions cannot, I think, be disputed.

Charles Darwin has become the personified line-in-the-sand that divides the religious from the atheist. He would have been disappointed.  He was first and foremost a scientist and began his life in training for the clergy.  His later years found him wrestling with the concept of God and in the end he was an ambivalent agnostic.  God simply didn’t make sense to him.

John Mark Reynolds said this in his book, The Great Books Reader:

Reading Darwin only to attack him continuously is foolhardy.

First, it prevents following the argument where it leads. Not listening prevents learning.

Second, it avoids seeing where he is most persuasive. If Darwin is wrong, some of his ideas still have motivated much scientific and biological progress over the last century. Darwin is a man, not a devil, and he deserves his due.

So read this selection with an open mind; follow the presentation, and then analyze it. Charles Darwin cannot be read to get the best modern take on evolutionary mechanisms or the data now used to support biological evolution. Still, one can examine Darwin to see if one is persuaded that the type of answer he proposes is likely to succeed. Is he proposing a strong general strategy to the biological problems he faces? Is he ignoring important philosophical problems? Is he making tacit theological assumptions? Does he assume he knows what a Creator would and would not create?

Ask Darwin hard questions with an open mind. To his credit, that is the purpose for which he wrote his books.

How much of Darwin’s work have you actually read?

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John 1:1

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.



John Mark Reynolds is the president of The Saint Constantine School, a school that aspires to preschool through college education. He is also a philosopher, administrator, and joyous curmudgeon. Reynolds was the founder and first director of the Torrey Honors Institute at Biola University. He was provost at Houston Baptist University where he was instrumental in starting the graduate Apologetics program and a cinema and new media arts major. John Mark blogs at Eidos on the Patheos Evangelical platform and has written for First Things and the Washington Post. He is an owner of the Green Bay Packers.


D I G  D E E P E R

On Nature and Survival

Phil Johnson

The concluding chapter of Darwin’s masterpiece is exceptionally important because it provides an overview of the logic of the entire book, which Darwin frankly describes as “one long argument” in support of his theory. In brief, the gist is that the theory must be true because it could be true; it explains an immense number of facts; the objections to it either can be shown or will eventually be shown to be inconclusive or even groundless.

At the start, Darwin concedes that it may at first appear difficult to believe that the “complex organs and instincts of animals have been perfected” not by some intelligent oversight, “but by the accumulation of innumerable slight variations, each good for the possessor.” The last phrase is important. Natural selection is a blind, purposeless process with no ability to preserve a presently useless innovation that might become useful for a descendant organism at a future time. Unless the innovation is immediately useful in empowering the organism possessing it to leave more offspring than another organism not possessing it, the innovation will not be passed on to the next generation.

Darwin continues, saying that the apparent difficulty in believing that an unintelligent process can perfect complex organs and instincts cannot be considered real, if we consider that there are many variations in these organs and instincts and there is a struggle for existence, leading to the preservation of profitable variations, and that gradations in the state of perfection of each organ may once have existed, each good of its kind. It may be difficult even to conjecture all the details of the process, and there are cases of particular difficulty, but Darwin has shown in other chapters how some of the difficulties can be overcome.

This brings us to a point of particular interest. It may be conceded that where there are heritable variations in any population, the variant forms best fitted to survive and reproduce will succeed in leaving descendents, and these descendents will resemble their successful parents. The difficulty is not in establishing that such a process occurs, but in testing whether it truly accounts for the transformation of a species into a basically different and more complex organism. On the contrary, it may be that natural selection so described is a conservative force, accounting for how a species can continue to thrive under different environmental conditions without undergoing any radical transformation. Critics have summarized the point by saying that, despite its title, Darwin’s “Origin” describes the “survival of the species, but not the arrival of the species.”

The creative natural selection required by Darwin’s theory has never been observed in nature or in laboratory experiments. Supporters say this is because creative evolution occurred so long ago and over so long a time period. This is a reasonable explanation, if we presume the theory to be true, but maybe creative natural selection has not been observed because it has not occurred.


Three passages from this chapter are particularly thought-provoking:

(1) Darwin’s struggle against entrenched orthodoxy.

Darwin wrote that: “Although I am fully convinced of the truth of the views given in this volume . . . I by no means expect to convince experienced naturalists whose minds are stocked with a multitude of facts all viewed, during the long course of years, from a point of view directly opposite to mine. . . .” Against such narrow partisans of the old school, Darwin could only appeal to a hoped-for new generation of scientists “who will be able to view both sides of the question with impartiality.” This appeal from an old guard’s orthodoxy to a new generation’s more flexible mentality is ironic for later readers, because Darwinism is now itself the entrenched orthodoxy, and those who would present an alternative have to appeal to a later generation of scientists whom they hope will be more willing to consider their ideas.

(2) Darwin’s theory versus the fossil record.

Darwin recognized that his doctrine of evolution by the accumulation of an immense number of small variations via natural selection implied that there must have been an infinitude of connecting links between the living and extinct inhabitants of the world. It puzzled him that the fossil record did not show the existence of the many fine gradations required by the theory. This absence of links, he thought, was the most obvious of the many objections that may be urged against the theory.

Darwin admitted that he could answer this objection only by supposing that the fossil record must be far more imperfect than most geologists believed at the time. He thought the imperfection stemmed from the fact that only a very small percentage of the fossil beds that must exist on the earth had been explored as of 1859.

Darwin’s argument implied that future fossil discoveries would tend to confirm the presence of innumerable intermediate forms in the fossil record. Now that 150 years have passed since he published On the Origin of Species, the question is whether the enormous efforts that have been made to discover evidence that would validate his prediction have resolved the difficulty. On the contrary, fossil experts have observed that, especially where the fossils are most abundant, there is a consistent pattern of sudden emergence of new forms of life, followed by long periods of stasis, meaning the absence of significant change. The fossils show that, over time, there has been change in the kind of organisms living on the earth, but not that the change has occurred by the Darwinian method.

(3) Is there a place for God in Darwin’s theory?

Darwin said: “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.’ ”

There has been much speculation as to whether this reassurance was meant sincerely or whether Darwin merely hoped it would mollify some religious objectors, including his own wife. Some of his supporters objected to the reassurance as a failure of nerve, and Darwin dropped it from later editions of The Origin.

It may be that it’s a noble conception of God to suppose He supplied the first organisms and equipped them with everything they would need to evolve into more complex forms. Darwin’s objective, however, was not to support a noble view of God but rather to provide a scientific explanation of the history of life from which God was rigorously excluded. Subsequent Darwinists have made it a priority to extend this naturalistic explanation to the ultimate origin of life from non-living components. Any suggestion that God needed to intervene at any point in the process is derided as an attack on science itself.

The answer to the question, then, is no. There is no place for God in Darwin’s theory, although many suppose they can reconcile belief in his theory with belief in the existence of God. If God does exist, it seems that, from a Darwinian standpoint, He is unnecessary, because the origin of all the many forms of life proceeds very well without the need for His participation.

Philip Johnson, JD, is a professor emeritus of Law at Berkeley Law School and is considered one of the founders of the modern Intelligent Design movement. He is the author of many books, including Darwin on Trial, Defeating Darwinism by Opening Minds, and The Wedge of Truth.

John Mark Reynolds, The Great Books Reader: Excerpts and Essays on the Most Influential Books in Western Civilization (Grand Rapids, MI: Bethany House, 2011).