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The uneasy relationship between Darwinian evolution, abiogenesis and atheism

The uneasy relationship between Darwinian evolution, abiogenesis and atheism

by Barend Vlaardingerbroek | May 02, 2019

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Ernst Haeckel (1834-1919) – a brilliant and bombastic figure of 19th Century science, but also an alleged scientific cheat and vitriolic atheist. He was also a skilled illustrator

Detractors of Charles Darwin would do well to turn to the last page of “The Origin of Species”, from which I quote (2nd edition of 1860):

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.

Classical Darwinian evolution is explicitly theistic. Those who claim it to have been intended as a vehicle for atheism have either not read Darwin or are lying through their teeth.

The theism inherent to Darwin’s case is not, however, of the kind that today’s unrefined fundamentalist would recognise as such. Rather, it was of the deist kind. Deism was a paradigm that entered theological thinking in the late 17th Century. It took a strong hold among the English intelligentsia – Newton was a deist. The deist view was that God had created the laws that made the Universe work and then stepped back and allowed them to operate without further direct intervention.

Darwin did not conjure up the idea of evolution – that had been around for a century before him under such labels as “transmutation of species” – but came up with a viable mechanism for it, namely natural selection. (He was not the first to come up with a proposed mechanism; Jean-Baptiste Lamarck first proposed such a mechanism in the form of “the inheritance of acquired characteristics” in 1809.) Darwin drew on the readily demonstrable variation within life forms and the tendency for living beings to overproduce young, first elaborated on by Malthus in the late 18th century.

Natural selection is simply the recognition that any advantageous variation an organism has inherited, no matter how small the competitive advantage it confers, will enhance its prospects of survival and reproduction, thereby enabling it to pass that advantageous attribute to its offspring. As a result, the frequency of that trait will increase in subsequent generations. In the classical Darwinian construct, natural selection was one of the “laws” that the Creator had put in place. As explained by Michael Ruse:

As Darwin delved more and more into the mysteries of nature … he became convinced that all can be explained by unbroken law… Initially, Darwin certainly did not think that his evolutionary argument challenged the fact of a designer. Rather, what was challenged was the need for such a designer to work through special directed laws, or to intervene miraculously in His creation.

Darwin had studied geology under Charles Lyell (another deist), the principal architect of the “silent revolution” in geology that had replaced the “cataclysmic” model of geomorphology with a gradualist model involving natural forces working over very long periods of time. This paved the way for a similar paradigm explaining the gradual appearance of numerous life-forms through incremental changes. Natural selection fitted the bill perfectly.

Darwinian evolution does not address the origin of life – indeed it cannot, as natural selection needs a reliable hereditary mechanism between generations for it to be able to bring about directional change. But such theoretical considerations did not enter into the thinking of the early Darwinists with regard to life’s beginnings. Some were of the view espoused in “The Origin” that God had created the first life forms, thereby circumventing the issue. Others – particularly the upcoming new breed of modern scientists – were open to the suggestion that life had been brought about by purely natural processes, but were rightly wary of forging any apparent association with the doctrine of spontaneous generation. Long gone were the days of “formulae” for “making” mice, cockroaches and the like that paraded as serious science in the Middle Ages, but while down, spontaneous generation was not yet out, and the early evolutionists were wise to disavow any connection with it for fear of sullying their own case.

Ernst Haeckel, a German professor of zoology, enters the picture at this stage. Haeckel is best remembered for his Recapitulation Theory – the view, long discredited, that an organism’s embryological development retraces its evolutionary history.  (Haeckel did himself no favours by apparently embellishing – or, as many put it, falsifying – the photographic plates of embryos that he used to promote his theory.)

More pointedly in the context of this article, Haeckel was also keenly interested in the origin of life. He initially believed that the spontaneous generation of simple micro-organisms (“parazoa”) was an on-going process. In pursuit of this hypothesis, he analysed sediments dredged from the English Channel and discovered such an “organism”. Thomas Huxley named it Bathybius haeckelii. It turned out to be no more than an artefact of alcohol preservation of sedimentary samples. A red-faced Haeckel (he had already written the “organism” up, how it moved, fed, etc.) was forced to concede that “… under conditions quite different to those of today, the spontaneous generation which now is perhaps no longer possible, may have taken place”.

Herein lies the momentous importance of the Bathybius fiasco: it pushed the origin of life back to a point in the dim and distant past, thereby severely weakening, if not severing, the link between the origin of life and the spontaneous generation paradigm as that existed at the time. Huxley coined the term “abiogenesis” – or a natural process by which life has arisen from non-living matter -- to further distance the origin of life from what was left of spontaneous generation theory. In an 1870 article, he wrote:

If it were given to me to look beyond the abyss of geologically recorded time to the still more remote period when the earth was passing through physical and chemical conditions, which it can no more see again than a man can recall his infancy, I should expect to be a witness of the evolution of living protoplasm from not living matter.

It will be noted that the term “evolution” is here applied to abiogenesis. But it is not Darwinian evolution – indeed, not even biological evolution – that Huxley is alluding to. In modern scientific parlance, the term “chemical evolution” is applied to abiogenesis.

Darwin had next to nothing to say about the origin of life, although in a letter to Hooker he once mentioned a “warm little pond”, foreshadowing the primordial “chemical soup” model that subsequently became central to abiogenesis theory. But his view in later life is encapsulated in his assertion that, “The mystery of the beginning of all things is insoluble by us; and I for one must be content to remain an Agnostic”. (“Agnostic” was another of Huxley’s neologisms.)

Enter Professor Haeckel again. The Richard Dawkins of his day, he regarded science as intrinsically atheistic because of its reliance on mechanistic causes. From his 1900 book “The Riddle of the Universe at the Close of the Nineteenth Century”:

When atheism is denounced… it is well to remember that the reproach extends to the whole             of modern science… Mechanism… alone can give us a true explanation of natural phenomena, for it traces them to their real efficient causes, to blind and unconscious agencies…

Darwin… proved by his theory of natural selection that the orderly processes in the life and structure of animals and plants have arisen by mechanical laws without any preconceived design.

Haeckel took this thesis further by applying it to the origin of life. In the words of Philip Rehbock:

Darwin was able to provide a mechanistic explanation for the diversity of organisms and their alteration through time, but as to the source of the first primitive organisms on earth, he refused to comment. Here Haeckel entered the picture. He insisted that the complete mechanistic Weltanschauung demanded an abiogenetic starting point as an a priori necessity.

By the late 19th Century, deism was in tatters, and by the early 20th Century the stark choice which many people thought they faced was between evolution and atheism on the one hand, and scriptural literalism and fundamentalism on the other hand. This remains a common fallacy particularly in the US.

And of course poor old Charlie Darwin is popularly cast as the villain of the piece – including by commentators who really ought to know better and some of whom appear on this website. If a villain you must have, pick on Ernst Haeckel – better still, forgo the puerile “goodies versus baddies” mindset altogether.

As a closing thought, the late great Stephen Hawking had the following to say:

I believe that the universe is governed by the laws of science. The laws may have been decreed by God, but God does not intervene to break the law.

Now there’s a sentiment many an 18th or 19th Century deist would be able to identify with. Darwin would probably agree, albeit guardedly in his later years; even Huxley might proffer a conciliatory grunt of approval. Haeckel, though, would most certainly not.

Barend Vlaardingerbroek BA BSc BEdSt PGDipLaws MAppSc PhD is an associate professor of education at the American University of Beirut. Evolution education is one of his areas of interest.     

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