The Rise of Evolution (Part 2): Darwin’s Problem with Evil

This series of articles will consider how evolution got to the place of prominence that it now enjoys.  The story goes that Darwin “discovered” evolution on the isles of Galapagos.   While this is popular, it is also untrue.  Darwin’s path to evolution was not governed by scientific discovery, but by his own brand of theology; attempting to reconcile the problem of natural evil.  Even in this regard, Darwin’s theology was not unique, only his method made him stand out.  In this article, I’ll explain the great influence the problem of evil had upon Darwin’s forming of evolution.

These articles were inspired by Darwin’s God: Evolution and the Problem of Evil by Cornelius Hunter. 

The purpose of these articles will be to show that, “at it’s core, evolution is about God, not science” (Cornelius Hunter, Darwin’s God).

The Modern View of God

As was discussed in the previous article in the series, the popular view of God that developed in the two hundred years leading up to Darwin was a God that only acted through natural laws.  God’s actions could be rationally explained and God could be logically verified.  A God that acted through the natural laws, instead of just arbitrarily breaking them at whim, had much more wisdom and power.

However, what was not discussed was the view of God that the pious Victorians held.  This article does not have the space to contain even a sufficient summary of Victorian thought, so a simple statement will have to do.  The consensus among Victorians of the purpose of science in the early 1800’s was to demonstrate “the Power, Wisdom and Goodness of God, as manifested in the Creation” (Bridgewater Treatises).  The focus is on the clean parts of God, completely to the exclusion of God’s judgement, wrath and use of evil.

Where the apostle Paul saw nature groaning, the Victorians looked only for signs of a pleasant Creator.  

Where David declares that “Our God is a consuming fire”, the Victorians declared that God must be omni-benevolent.

Although Isaiah proclaimed that God creates calamity, the Victorians focused on where Isaiah proclaimed God’s glory.

Darwin, on the other hand, could not reconcile what he saw in nature with this “all-nice” Creator.

Darwin’s Problem with Evil

The general premise of the problem of evil is “if a benevolent God exists, therefore evil shouldn’t exist”. 

Darwin wrote to Asa Gray in 1860:

There seems to me too much misery in the world.  I cannot persuade myself that a beneficent and omnipotent  God would have designedly  created the [parasitic wasp] with the express intention of their feeding within the living bodies of caterpillars, or that the cat should play with mice.

The definition of God that the modernists and Victorians had laid down, the definition of God that Darwin subscribed to, did not fit with what was so easily observable in nature.  Since God had to make rational sense, then why should species cross so easily if they were created separately? Also, seemingly specialized and unique fauna flourished in foreign environments (Charles Darwin and the Problem of Creation, Neal C. Gillespie).  It just didn’t follow.

And there were the mal-adapted species; land animals with webbed feet and the marine creatures with non-webbed feet.  Why was there just so much wasted pollen?

Nature seemed to lack precision and economy in design that was “inexplicable on the theory of creation”.  Darwin observed that different species used “an almost infinite diversity of means” to accomplish the same task and that this is inconsistent with the design of independent, special Creation.  Yet, on the other hand, Darwin viewed that different species used similar methods for different tasks.  To Darwin, this too argued against special creation.  (The Origin of the Species, 6th edition).  

What Darwin expected Creation to look like, we’ll never know.  The point is that Darwin was greatly influenced by non-scientific arguments against special creation.  Especially the ones that boil down to “God would not have done it this way”.  He had a specific idea of God, defined by the modernist thinkers and Victorian naturalists, that informed the direction of his thinking.

Paradise Lost

John Milton’s Paradise Lost was one of Darwin’s favorite works (The Autobiography of Charles Darwin, Charles Darwin).  Not only was Paradise Lost a favorite of Darwin, but it was supremely popular in Victorian England to the point of being almost church doctrine (God’s Funeral, A.N. Wilson).  The point of Milton’s work was to “Justify the ways of God to man”.  Specifically, in regards to evil, God had to let man choose between good and evil, so that He could separate the good from the bad.  This absolved God of any responsibility of evil, but it also made God passive and somewhat aloof from the events of history.

Obviously, Milton and Darwin were on opposite sides of the spectrum with Darwin leaning farther towards naturalism as his life went on, and Milton having God as the ultimate source of creation.  However, both men were dealing with the problem of evil; Milton with moral evil and Darwin with natural evil.  And both men found solutions that maintained the purity of God but more importantly, both men had similar views of God.

The Evolution Theodicy

A theodicy is a branch of  theology/philosophy concerned with explaining the problem of evil.  Just as Milton’s Paradise Lostwas a theodicy for the problem of moral evil, evolution is a theodicy for the problem of natural evil.  While Milton’s theodicy removed God from the choices of human beings, Darwin’s theodicy removed God from the workings of nature.  If everything could be explained by natural phenomena, and all things could come about through natural processes, then surely God was not responsible for the misery, death and waste that was so obvious to Darwin. 

The added affect of this is that God became unnecessary.  Separating God from creation and it’s evils meant that God could have no direct influence or control over the world.  The gruesome, wasteful and chaotic world – the world observed by naturalists of Darwin’s day – did not fit with the modern definition of God.  Creation was irrational, therefore there was no benevolent Creator, or at least not one who was involved in the world.

In his autobiography, Darwin summarized:

Suffering is quite compatible with the belief in Natural Selection, which is not perfect in its action . . . A being so powerful and so full of knowledge as a God who could create the universe is to our finite minds omnipotent and omniscient.  It revolts our understanding to suppose that his benevolence is not unbounded, for what advantage can there be in the suffering of millions of lower animals throughout almost endless time?

The obvious implication is that suffering is NOT compatible with an all-powerful, all-benevolent God, therefore “all organic beings have been developed through variation and natural selection” ( Autobiography).  

Darwin summarized his position in his letter to Asa Gray:

I am inclined to look at everything as resulting from designed laws, with the details, whether good or bad, left to the working out of what we may call chance.

From what Darwin saw in nature, God needed to be absolved of responsibility for the suffering and misery apparent in it.  Evolution allowed Darwin to reconcile his observations with his definition of God.

A Theodicy is Not Empirically Verifiable

The point isn’t whether Darwin was correct or incorrect, logical or illogical in his explanation for natural evil.  The point is that the arguments he found “convincing”, and are still convincing to evolutionist today, are not scientifically testable.  Darwin’s argument, which basically boils down to “God wouldn’t and couldn’t do it this way”, is not only immune to empiricism itself, it is also based upon presuppositions laid down by the modernists and Victorians and how they defined God.  Since God is limited to working only through benevolent means, then surely God is not involved in this world in the slightest.

As we’ll see in the rest of the series, these kind of negative theological arguments are used to support of evolution all the time.  In fact, they’re what give evolutionary evidence it’s power and what brought evolution to where it is now.  Nature doesn’t seem very divine, therefore evolution must be true.

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12 Comments on “The Rise of Evolution (Part 2): Darwin’s Problem with Evil”

  1. B Says:

    A good second post. The beginning of evolution and the theory was created by mere questioning rather than facts. And, it stands true even today.

  2. Eric Kemp Says:

    B

    Exaclty, negative theology. This sure doesn’t look like God would do it so therefore evolution is correct. This will become more apparent when I get into the individual evidences that are commonly used.


  3. […] confused about his belief in God, and his theory (not fact or truth, just theory) only made his spiritual stupor worse! **Darwin fully understood, and at times agonized over, the threat that his work might pose […]

  4. dwilli58 Says:

    Thanks, Eric, a great deal of good info here!

    “Darwin’s argument, which basically boils down to “God wouldn’t and couldn’t do it this way”, is not only immune to empiricism itself, it is also based upon presuppositions laid down by the modernists and Victorians and how they defined God. Since God is limited to working only through benevolent means, then surely God is not involved in this world in the slightest.”

    Not only is this bad science, it is totally contrary to the word of God. Perhaps Darwin should have read and sought the leading of the spirit, in the word, as opposed to the leading of the WORLD!

    There is a way which seems right to a man, But its end is the way of death. (Proverbs 16: 25)

  5. Eric Kemp Says:

    David

    Yea, it’s not even science! These theological and metaphysical arguments are what give evolution it’s power and they can’t make an argument without them. I like that Proverb, very appropriate. And Darwin really did subscribe to the modern definition of God. Only this definition, his conclusion makes sense. If only he had read Scripture and realized that his definition of God, and the God described in Scripture, did not match up.

    Thanks brother

  6. Matt Says:

    Hi Eric,

    The modern evolutionist’s argument is not “God wouldn’t do it this way”. In fact, for the modern evolutionist the question of God is neither here nor there.

    So I’m afraid if that’s the point of your article then your whole premise falls over.

    And I must completely disagree with every element of your final paragraph:

    “. . . these kind of negative theological arguments are used to support of evolution all the time.”

    Wrong. These arguments are only used to defend evolution against those who claim it’s not true because it (for example) contradicts the bible. Left to their own devices, biologists would not mention, or even consider, God in the evolutionary equation at all.

    The fact that Darwin did was a reflection of the society in which he lived. It’s no guide to modern scientific thinking.

    Newton believed in alchemy, but we don’t consider his classical laws of physics as any kind of evidence or justification for continued belief in transmutation.

    The science of astronomy has its roots in astrology and worship of the stars as Gods, but that doesn’t mean astronomy is in any way beholden to these views.

    “In fact, they’re what give evolutionary evidence it’s power and what brought evolution to where it is now.”

    Wrong. The power of evolutionary theory, like any other powerful scientific theory, is in its predictive nature, its consistency, its rationality, its explanative power of the evidence we observe and the fact that as new evidence in different areas of science continues to arise, we find nothing that contradicts it and many, many new ways in which it is supported.

    “Nature doesn’t seem very divine, therefore evolution must be true.”

    Wrong. You’re just offering the negation of your own view that “nature does seem divine, so evolution must not be true.”

    The evolutionist’s actual view is just that evolution is true. And divinity or otherwise is irrelevant.

  7. Eric Kemp Says:

    Matt

    Welcome back sir!

    “The modern evolutionist’s argument is not “God wouldn’t do it this way”. In fact, for the modern evolutionist the question of God is neither here nor there.”

    C’mon Matt. Do we really have to start out like this? Are you really going to ignore the entirety of the two articles so far? I have shown very clearly that Darwin was very concerned with God and how nature reflects, or doesn’t reflect, God’s providence. If you have some counter evidence to suggest that he was not concerned with God, then please present it, but claiming something doesn’t make it true.

    “So I’m afraid if that’s the point of your article then your whole premise falls over.”

    I feel compelled to tell you again that claiming something doesn’t make it so. Now, if I was just claiming that evolution centered around a particular definition of God, then I’d have a problem too. However, I’ve supported this premise solidly. If you disagree, please show me how and where my support of this premise has fallen, don’t just claim it.

    “Wrong. These arguments are only used to defend evolution against those who claim it’s not true because it (for example) contradicts the bible.”

    Unfortunately, Darwin’s own words, which I have quoted, contradict your position. Also, you say it’s used to “defend” and I say it’s used to “support”, it’s the same thing. By defending your position, you are supporting it. By supporting it, you are defending it.

    “Left to their own devices, biologists would not mention, or even consider, God in the evolutionary equation at all.”

    Yes, these negative theological and metaphysical arguments (including the ones I haven’t written about yet) are so ingrained into the modern pysche that no one even knows they are there. Don’t worry, I’ll get to the part where current evolutionary proponents are blind to the roots of their arguments. They are about God wether or not they admit it.

    “The fact that Darwin did was a reflection of the society in which he lived. It’s no guide to modern scientific thinking.”

    But that’s exactly the point. It IS a guide to modern thinking. It’s only been 150 years since Darwin wrote Origin, thought hasn’t changed that much. And as much as it has changed, it is still firmly based upon the definition of God set down by the time Darwin was born.

    Honestly friend, you’re going to have a very hard time supporting this position. Please rethink it. Let me put it this way: You are missing the entire point of these articles. The point is that Darwin was able to distance God even further than his predecessors, using the theory of evolution to do it. Even though current thought ignores these roots, they are still there. You are hitting on the exact direction in which this series is headed. Current evolutionary thought is steeped in the thought of Darwin’s day and I will show this clearly.

    “Newton believed in alchemy, but we don’t consider his classical laws of physics as any kind of evidence or justification for continued belief in transmutation.”

    Strawman and false comparison. I never said that Darwin’s belief in God, and his negative theological arguments used to support evolution, should justify current belief in God. That’s not the point. The point is that Darwin used those metaphysical arguments in the first place, and they are still used today (as I will show). It is a false comparison because Newton’s laws of physics weren’t based upon a particular definition of alchemy, while Darwin’s evolution IS based upon a particular definition of God and his particular problem with evil.

    “The power of evolutionary theory, like any other powerful scientific theory, is in its predictive nature, its consistency, its rationality, its explanative power of the evidence we observe and the fact that as new evidence in different areas of science continues to arise, we find nothing that contradicts it and many, many new ways in which it is supported.”

    This is a very, very important point. I want us to remember this point that you have made. I will come back to it after my next article in the series and show you how metaphysical this claim is. In fact, what I will do is, after posting the next article about “metaphysics”, I will respond to this point in the comment section.

    “Wrong. You’re just offering the negation of your own view that “nature does seem divine, so evolution must not be true.”

    This is another very important statement, but I will tackle this one now.

    1. Strawman. I never once said that I find nature to be “divine”, nor does it “seeming” in any way prove or disprove evolution.

    2. That’s the whole point! Darwin was surrounded by Victorian thought which was that in order for God to have created nature, nature must therefore act divine. In other words, God can only act benevolently (nice) therefore He must have created an “all-nice” creation. This is a theological presupposition! The observation of nature acting divine so therefore God exists, or nature doesn’t act divine therefore He doesn’t exist, are based upon the presupposition that God must act “all-nice” and everything He creates is “all-nice”. As I alluded to in the article, this is not the God described by the Bible. Also, the point isn’t that any of those arguments or presuppositions are wrong or right, the point is that they were, and are, used in support of evolution (and creation for that matter).

    3. You can say it’s wrong all you want, but Darwin’s own words show you that he argued this way, and that this was his definition of God.

    Read this again from Darwin’s letter to Asa Gray and tell me that he isn’t arguing that “An all-nice God didn’t create this world”: There seems to me too much misery in the world. I cannot persuade myself that a beneficent and omnipotent God would have designedly created the [parasitic wasp] with the express intention of their feeding within the living bodies of caterpillars, or that the cat should play with mice.

    His argument is based upon the Victorian definition of God which states that God must act “beneficent”.

    “The evolutionist’s actual view is just that evolution is true. And divinity or otherwise is irrelevant.”

    This is circular reasoning. Because the only way that any divinity is irrelevant, is if evolution is true. Divinity is not irrelevant, if evolution isn’t true.

    And again, you’ve missed the point. Darwin didn’t have much science in his day. And, as I showed in my “Modernism” article, God was already thought to have been irrelevant from nature. Evolution didn’t prove God’s irrelevance, God’s irrelevance was assumed and out of this thinking came evolution. I showed this from quotes of thinkers of the time and if you want more evidence, I’ve got it on hand and didn’t include it because the article would be too long. You can claim it’s false all you want, but if you don’t have counter evidence, it’s just a claim.

    But I’m confused Matt, you didn’t respond to the main point of my article, which was the evolution is a theodicy. Why not?

  8. Matt Says:

    Hi Eric,

    Let me explain the “your whole premise falls over” comment:

    Your premise is that modern evolutionary theory, having its roots in a particular theological worldview, is beholden to metaphysics.

    “I have shown very clearly that Darwin was very concerned with God and how nature reflects, or doesn’t reflect, God’s providence.”

    Yes, you have shown that. But it’s irrelevant to your argument.

    Modern evolutionary theory (which is what I’m talking about – and what you’re trying to make a link to) has moved way beyond the ideas of Darwin.

    Darwin may have been beholden to metaphysics, but modern evolutionary theory has more than enough natural evidence to stand on its own. It’s beholden to no such thing. Not even Darwin! Many of his ideas have been superceded.

    My comparison to Newton wasn’t a strawman at all. Science has moved way beyond many of his ideas too.

    “. . . these negative theological and metaphysical arguments (including the ones I haven’t written about yet) are so ingrained into the modern pysche that no one even knows they are there.”

    So you’re saying the arguments are there, but so well hidden they’re never referred to?

    This sounds like the type of argument used by conspiracy theorists. You know, lack of evidence is just evidence that there’s been a cover-up.

    It sounds to me like these arguments are not really there at all.

  9. Eric Kemp Says:

    Matt

    “Your premise is that modern evolutionary theory, having its roots in a particular theological worldview, is beholden to metaphysics.”

    Yup.

    “Modern evolutionary theory (which is what I’m talking about – and what you’re trying to make a link to) has moved way beyond the ideas of Darwin.”

    If this is the crux of the disagreement, then we’ve stepped ahead of ourselves. My only point in this particular article is the evolution is a theodicy, which puts the “pure science” claim into dire straights.

    I’ll tell you the structure of the rest of my series. Next article is going to be about evolutionary metaphysics (those still used today), the article after that will be how they are able to blind themselves to those metaphysics, then I will tackle the individual evidences used to support evolution (DNA, comparative anatomy etc…) and how those metaphysical arguments are intertwined inseparably with the empirical evidence and that the empirical evidence, taken by itself, doesn’t point to evolution necessarily, only when the metaphysics are used, and agreed upon, does evolution become convincing.

    “Darwin may have been beholden to metaphysics, but modern evolutionary theory has more than enough natural evidence to stand on its own.”

    I will show this statement to be completely false. Indeed, this is the entire point of my article series, to show that evolution is not about science completely, and is inseparable from it’s metaphysics.

    “This sounds like the type of argument used by conspiracy theorists. You know, lack of evidence is just evidence that there’s been a cover-up.”

    No, I don’t think they are all conspiring together to deny their metaphysical beliefs because they know they have them. I think they deny their metaphysics because they’ve truly fooled themselves into thinking they don’t have any.

  10. Eric Kemp Says:

    Matt

    I was thinking . . . are you saying that Darwin’s arguments for evolution are no longer viable? And if so, why?

  11. Matt Says:

    Not at all.

    I’m just saying that his views were, in a sense, the primitive origins of the modern science of evolution.

    We now know a lot more about genetics and heredity than Darwin did, and those areas give a much more solid foundation to the theory than Darwin’s relatively vague notions about how selection worked.

    It’s not that Darwin was wrong, just that he didn’t have all the details. We still don’t have all the details!

    If anything, that makes his work all the more remarkable.

  12. Eric Kemp Says:

    Matt

    Sorry it took me this long to approve your comment and get back to you. I moved this weekend and I’m still dark at my new place. In fact, the only reason I’m getting back to you is because I took a quick peek at school!

    As for Darwin, my point isn’t that Darwin didn’t have all the scientific details, therefore evolution is based on a certain idea of God. Or that since Darwin didn’t have the technology we have today, therefore he had to use metaphysics and modern evolutionists don’t. The point is that not only is the entire theory, at it’s most basic, dependent upon a certain view of God, as I’ve shown, but that every single argument that has come out since Darwin is as well. All the genetics and microbiology can’t exempt evolution from the negative theology and metaphysics that make the theory compelling. That is, any scientific evidence for evolution does not, in itself, make evolution compelling, or even MORE likely than anything else. Only with the metaphysical arguments, if you buy into them, does evolution become a compelling theory.

    I hope my most recent article, posted today, has helped with seeing that the metaphysical arguments used to support evolution in Darwin’s day, are used just as much today. In fact, I’m sure you’ve used those metaphysical arguments I talked about many times over. My only wish is that you see how unscientific those arguments are.


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