The Origin Of Species and Darwin's Reference to "the Creator"
In the closing paragraph of certain editions of The Origin of Species, there appears a reference by Charles Darwin to a “Creator.” The passage reads as follows:
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 circling 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.
Some have used this fact to suggest that Darwin himself was neither an atheist nor an agnostic, but, rather, was a God-fearing English gentleman.
Such a conclusion is incorrect, however. There are several important questions that need to be raised in examining this issue. First, why was the ending reference to “the Creator” not in the first edition of The Origin (there were other references throughout the book, but nothing so blatant as the reference in the last paragraph)? Second, why was the reference added to the closing paragraph in editions two through six? Third, did Darwin himself have anything to say in his later years about that reference?
Fortunately, Charles Darwin’s life is an “open book.” Not only is his Autobiography available (edited by Nora Barlow and his granddaughter), but the numerous volumes of his Life and Letters also are available, as are his Notebooks and several other important works that shed an immense amount of light on his journey from “belief ” to “agnosticism.” When one goes to the trouble to investigate all of Darwin’s life and works, and not just his ending comment in The Origin, it becomes evident that the references to a “Creator” were nothing but a sop added for two distinct reasons: (1) while Darwin’s family was not at all religious, his wife (the former Emma Wedgwood) was extremely so; references to a “Creator” apparently represented an ill-fated attempt to “keep peace” in his own home, and with her relatives (her grandfather was Josiah Wedgwood of Wedgwood pottery fame); (2) Darwin undoubtedly recognized, even before The Origin was first published (on November 24, 1859), the impact that the book would have, and wanted to “soften the blow” by tossing in, here and there, a reference to a “Creator.”
In an article titled “Darwin’s Real Message: Have You Missed It?,” Carl Wieland discussed these very items when he wrote:
Darwin’s casual aside about a “creator” in earlier editions of The Origin of Species seems to have been a ploy to soften the implications of his materialistic theory. Ernst Mayr’s recent book on Darwin, One Long Argument: Charles Darwin and the Genesis of Evolutionary Thought (Harvard, 1991) also acknowledges that Darwin’s references to purpose were to appease both the public and his wife. His early, private notebooks show his materialism well established. For instance, in one of them he addresses himself as, “O, you materialist!” and says, “Why is thought, being a secretion of brain, more wonderful than gravity as a property of matter?” He clearly already believed that the idea of a separate realm of the spirit was nonsense, as is further shown when he warns himself not to reveal his beliefs, as follows:
“to avoid saying how far I believe in materialism, say only that emotions, instincts, degrees of talent which are hereditary are so because brain of child resembles parent stock.”
In 1837, when Darwin was only 28 years old, he wrote in a private notebook, responding to Plato’s belief that the ideas of our imagination arise from preexistence of the soul, “read monkeys for preexistence.” He seems to have violently opposed Alfred Wallace’s suggestion of a “divine will” behind the evolution of man, at least.
In summary, then, Darwin was fully aware that his idea was a frontal assault on the very notion of an intelligent Designer behind the world. In fact, he might very well have formulated it precisely for that purpose. The idea of a spiritual realm apart from matter seems to have been anathema to him as a young man already. The primary inspiration for his theory of natural selection did not come from observation of nature. Perhaps not incidentally, his writings also reveal glimpses of specific antipathy to the God of the Bible, especially concerning His right to judge unbelievers in eternity.
Darwin knew, and virtually all the world’s foremost students of his idea know, that belief in his concept quite simply spells materialism with a capital “M.” The idea of no designer, no purpose, no guiding intelligence, no progressive plan—these are not afterthoughts to Darwin’s evolution, but form the very core of it. Accept Darwin’s “baby,” and this “bathwater” has a nasty habit of coming along, as the drastic decline in belief among evolution-compromising churches attests (1994).
Ernst Mayr, professor emeritus at Harvard, is arguably the world’s most distinguished evolutionary taxonomist. Wieland is correct in his use of Mayr to document his point. In Dr. Mayr’s book, One Long Argument: Charles Darwin and the Genesis of Evolutionary Thought, he does indeed point out that Darwin’s references to a Creator were to appease both the public and his wife. Furthermore, as the renowned evolutionary biologist and historian of science at the University of California, William B. Provine, has noted:
When Darwin deduced the theory of natural selection to explain the adaptations in which he had previously seen the handiwork of God, he knew that he was committing cultural murder. He understood immediately that if natural selection explained adaptations, and evolution by descent were true, then the argument from design was dead and all that went with it, namely the existence of a personal god, free will, life after death, immutable moral laws, and ultimate meaning in life. The immediate reactions to Darwin’s On the Origin of Species exhibit, in addition to favorable and admiring responses from a relatively few scientists, an understandable fear and disgust that has never disappeared from Western culture (as quoted in Gingerich, 1994, p. 30, emp. added).
Harvard entomologist and evolutionist, Edward O. Wilson, commented in a similar vein when he wrote:
Darwin dismissed the entire controversy as pointless and premature: “It will be some time before we see slime, protoplasm, etc., generating a new animal. But I have long regretted that I truckled to public opinion, and used the Pentateuchal term of creation, by which I really meant ‘appeared’ by some wholly unknown process. It is mere rubbish, thinking at present of the origin of life; one might as well think of the origin of matter” (1973, p. 594; the quote from Darwin appears in an extremely anti-religious letter he wrote to J.D. Hooker on March 29, 1863, as reproduced in Francis Darwin’s Life and Letters of Charles Darwin, 1887, 3:17, emp. added).
It is not helpful for creationists, or anyone else, to use Darwin’s reference to a Creator. Darwin himself later admitted that he truly regretted using that “Pentateuchal term,” when what he really meant was that things had “appeared by some wholly unknown process.” Creationists who have studied Darwin (and/or Darwinism) to any degree are well aware of the fact that Darwin later expressed regret for having included such references to a Creator in The Origin—which is why those of us at Apologetics Press do not employ Darwin’s reference to a Creator in our apologetics efforts.
Darwin, Francis (1887), The Life and Letters of Charles Darwin (London: D. Appleton).
Gingerich, Owen (1994), “Dare A Scientist Believe in Design?,” Evidence of Purpose: Scientists Discover Creativity, ed. John Marks Templeton (New York: Continuum Press), pp. 21-32.
Wieland, Carl (1992), “Darwin’s Real Message: Have You Missed It,? Creation Ex Nihilo, 14:16-19, September-November.
Wilson, E.O., et al. (1973), Life on Earth (Sunderland, MA: Sinauer Associates).