Charles Darwin was one of the 19th century’s greatest thinkers, yet he was profoundly disturbed by the implications of his ideas. He delayed for some years before publishing in 1859 his greatest work, The Origin of Species, in which he outlined his theory of evolution.
His was the first fully materialist explanation of the natural world. As such it was a rebuff for superstition and religion, and it was this that frightened him.
Still, few people today doubt the importance of the theory of evolution. Its development is one of the great achievements of Western science.
We can study the theory of evolution as an example of how it is possible to gain profound insight into our world.
But of course Darwin’s theory is not merely interesting as an example of knowledge — it has also affected our understanding of ourselves and our place in the universe.
There has been tension between evolution and theology ever since bishop Samuel Wilberforce enquired of Darwin’s great champion Thomas Henry Huxley on which side of his family he claimed descent from an ape.
Today fundamentalist Christians in the US still manage to make themselves look ridiculous by attempting to remove the teaching of evolution from school curriculums.
Most Christians are smarter than this, of course, and increasingly claim that there is no great difficulty in reconciling evolutionary ideas and Christian belief.
This is the argument from design, which says that the world, or some of the things in it, show marks of design, therefore, there must be a designer.
The most famous exponent of this view was William Paley, who published his major work, Natural Theology, in 1802.
The workings of a plant or animal, he said, are much more elaborate than that of a watch. So the argument for a designer in the former case is stronger even than that in the latter.
This argument has a good deal of superficial plausibility, but its merits cannot survive close scrutiny. The philosopher David Hume had already subjected the argument from design to a devastating critique in the mid-18th century.
Hume argued that, even if the argument from design succeeds in showing that the world must have a designer, it has little power to disclose what that designer is like.
The world is filled with avoidable evil — war, disease, natural disasters and so on — and any creator of the universe either lacked the power or the will to prevent these evils.
But of course an omnipotent being could not lack the power, and an infinitely benevolent one could not lack the will, so the argument from design contradicts some of the traditional attributes of the deity.
A further weakness of the argument from design is that it is not a unique explanation — and it is certainly not the best explanation. And that, finally, is what evolution provides us with — the best available account of the origin of life.
It may be that one day we will find a much better one. But to render the argument from design completely useless we have only to note that evolution provides a vastly better explanation than does a vague appeal to a creator about whom nothing whatsoever is known.
Recently, some rather surprising people have devoted considerable effort to denying that evolution challenges religion.
The biologist Stephen Jay Gould, who died in 2002, insisted on a radical division between science and religion. These are, he said, wholly independent spheres of thought, and therefore no possible threat to one another.
Despite the authority that Gould commands, I am unconvinced. This is because, as the biologist Richard Dawkins has argued, science — and especially evolutionary theory — has undermined any plausible grounds for believing that there are gods or other supernatural beings.
This is why I think religious believers — and not merely the fundamentalist variety — are quite right to try to undermine Darwinism. And as Dawkins notes, because their attempts to do this are wholly unsuccessful, there is nothing worthwhile left of the argument from design.
Moreover, without the argument from design, there is very little left of religion generally. In the unfamiliar company of fundamentalist Christians, I believe there is a clash, and that the religiously minded are right to be fearful of the general acceptance of evolutionary thought.