Essay:Darwin's The Origin of Species: Supplanting William Paley's Notion of Creator

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This essay is an original work by PhyllisS. Please comment only on the talk page.


In 1859, Charles Darwin published The Origin of Species, which put forth the theory that creation occurred through means of evolution. After making a voyage from 1831-1836 on the HMS Beagle, he began to collate his observations in notebooks in July 1837. At this time, other theories about the creation of nature were in existence. One of the most prominent theories was put forth by William Paley in his 1802 book Natural Theology, which purported that a being with intelligent faculties is necessary in the creation of nature. He states, “[t]here cannot be design without a designer; contrivance, without a contriver; ... means suitable to an end, and executing their office in accomplishing that end, without the end ever having been contemplated.” (Paley, 15-16) His claim that the “end” must be “contemplated” insinuates the existence of an intelligent being. Paley's theory is the 1802 form of the contemporary theory “intelligent-design”, which is defined as the “design or creation in nature or the universe by an intelligent entity, adduced by those who believe that life is too complex to have evolved solely through by the action of natural processes.” Darwin extensively studied Paley's works while at the Christ's College of Cambridge University, but he and others claim that his theories remained uninfluenced by the theories of Paley or other intelligent-design proponents.

Darwin states that he “without any theory collected facts on a wholesale scale” (Darwin, 42), meaning that he dissociated his ideas and theories about nature from the already existent ideas and theories, such as Paley's. A literary critic by the name of Gillian Beer, who studied Darwin's work extensively, notes his severance from theory; she states that Darwin “refused the notion of precedent Idea with its concomitant assumption of preordained Design” (Beer, 73). Here, she capitalizes “Idea” because she is drawing on a quote of the critic Matthew Arnold (who is not relevant to our discussion), and capitalizes “Design” to perhaps denote that she is referring to intelligent-design. Beer thus seems to claim that Darwin's severance from ideas comes with a severance from theories of intelligent-design.

However, there lies an incongruity in Beer's argument. Although she states that Darwin severed himself from intelligent-design theories, she also notes that he uses intelligent-design lexical terms. In a passage from The Origin of Species that studies the similarity between the wings of different species, Darwin states: “What can be more curious than that the hand of a man formed for grasping, that of a mole for digging ... should all be constructed on the same pattern, and should include the same bones, in the same relative position?” (Darwin, 415). Beer notes that “in this passage ... there are vestiges of design and of intentionalist language in the verb 'formed for' ... and in the carefully passive interrogative form that [wings] 'should all be constructed on the same pattern'” (Beer, 80). Beer states that there are traces of intelligent-design language apparent in Darwin's language, insinuating that Darwin did not entirely dissociate his theories from intelligent-design theories.

In particular, Darwin uses the lexical terms of Paley's theories. But Darwin alters the terms' meanings and manipulates them, so that they better fit his own theories. As I will show later, Darwin uses the lexical term “Creator” that Paley does, and then modifies it to mean natural selection so that it better supports his own theory. By using the term “Creator” in this way, Darwin is supplanting Paley's definition of Creator by replacing it with his own.

It is important to clearly differentiate this concept of supplantation from other depictions that scholars have made of the relationship between Darwin's works and Paley's. By supplantation, I do not mean that Darwin's Origin is a response or counterargument built from Paley's arguments, as literary critic Francisco J. Ayala implies: “[t]here is a possible reading of Darwin's Origin of Species that sees it, first and foremost, as a sustained effort to solve Paley's problem of how to account for the design of organisms” (Ayala, 55). I also do not mean to imply that this supplantation is purposeless in Darwin's writing, as Beer suggests by stating Darwin uses Paley's language simply out of habit: “Darwin draws unselfconsciously on the older language of design and contrivance” (Beer, 123) In this essay, I will affirm that Darwin drew on Paley's work by using and manipulating Paley's lexical terms. I will argue that, in doing so, Darwin supplants Paley's idea of Creator by replacing it with his own. Finally, I will explore the possibility that the purpose of this supplantation was to gain supporters for Origin.

In order to see how Darwin may have supplanted Paley's ideas, we must first explore how Creator is used by both Darwin in Origin and Paley in Natural Theology. By definition, “Creator” means “The Supreme Being who creates all things”. In his text, Paley refers to “the wisdom of an intelligent and designing Creator” (Paley, 230); this implies that Paley's notion of Creator is one endowed with intellectual powers. Furthermore, Paley is actually quite clear in stating that the being “who creates all things” is God: “The marks of design are too strong to be gotten over. Design must have had a designer. That designer must have been a person. That person is GOD” (Paley, 441). Thus, Paley is referring to God when he uses the term Creator. However, since Creator is not exactly synonymous with God, the term has the potential to take on different meanings if placed in a different context, which happens in Darwin's Origin.

When Darwin puts forth his notion of Creator in Origin, is he deriving this notion from Paley's notion of Creator, or is he creating it independent of Paley? To answer this question, we must study the lexical context in which the term “Creator” appears. Darwin first discusses Creator in a passage in Chapter Six, where the context is: “... comparing the eye to a telescope. We know that this instrument has been perfected by the long-continued efforts of the highest human intellects; and we naturally infer that the eye has been formed by a somewhat analogous process” (Darwin, 154). In Natural Theology, Paley discusses “... comparing ... an eye, for example, with a telescope. ... They are made upon the same principles; both being adjusted to the laws by which the transmission and refraction of rays of light are regulated.” (Paley, 18). It seems that Darwin drew his eye-and-telescope discussion from Paley – especially since both authors discuss the way in which the eye and telescope were made. The fact that Darwin embeds his discussion of Creator within Paley's lexical context of the eye-and-telescope analogy suggests that Darwin derived his notion of Creator from Paley.

Even when Darwin indirectly speaks of Creator, he presents it in Paley's lexical context. In a discussion about “injurious organs”, or organs that harm an individual in some way, Darwin states: “Natural selection will never produce in a being anything injurious to itself, for natural selection acts solely by and for the good of each. No organ will be formed, as Paley has remarked, for the purpose of causing pain or for doing an injury to its possessor” (Darwin, 168). The juxtaposition of these two sentences is curious. In the first sentence, Darwin is stating that natural selection will not create injurious organs; in the second sentence, Darwin is invoking Paley's argument that a Creator will not create injurious organs. The discrepancy between the two statements is quite clear; yet their juxtaposition implies that the two arguments are analogous, and thus that natural selection and Paley's Creator are the same. In the second sentence, Darwin switches to the passive voice – “[n]o organ will be formed” – in order to avoid specifying precisely who or what is creating the organ. Thus, in this passage, even when Darwin discusses Creator indirectly, he surrounds it with Paley's lexical context in order to supplant Paley's conception of a Creator with his own.

Before entering a discussion of Darwin's notion of Creator, I must point out that his notion is extremely complex. When Darwin first discusses Creator in Origin, it takes on a dual meaning of being either God or natural selection. At the end of Origin, the term refers mostly to natural selection, and Darwin even seems to “mock” those who believe in a Creator that is God. Darwin – by first presenting a Creator in Paley's lexical context that is in accordance with Paley's Creator, and then modifying it to fit his own theory – is actually replacing and supplanting Paley's notion of Creator with his own.

Darwin's notion of Creator differs from Paley's; while Paley's Creator is roughly synonymous with God, Darwin's Creator initially takes on a dual meaning of either God or natural selection. Let us analyze Darwin's notion of Creator in Origin. First, Darwin proposes that the Creator did not need human-like intelligence to create: “Have we any right to assume that the Creator works by intellectual powers like those of man?” (Darwin, 154). Darwin pushes this point further to suggest that the Creator is actually natural selection itself: “natural selection will pick out with unerring skill each improvement. Let this process go on for millions on millions of years ... may we not believe that a living optical instrument might thus be formed as superior to one of glass, as the works of the Creator are to those of man?” (Darwin, 154). First, Darwin assigns the active verb “will pick out” to “natural selection”, implying that it created nature. Second, because Darwin first describes natural selection as the force that created the living optical instrument, and then subsequently implies that the living optical instrument is one of the works of the Creator, he is implying that the Creator is natural selection.

But in these bits of text, Darwin does not address the origin of natural selection itself – that is, he does not address whether the law of natural selection arose through nature, or was created by a deity. Thus, Darwin's Creator has a dual meaning: it can be natural selection itself, or it can be a God that created natural selection.

Before continuing this discussion of how exactly Darwin portrays “Creator” in Origin, I would like to address a counterargument that one might have to the dual meaning of Creator I have just proposed. One may argue that a Creator as God is incompatible with Darwin's theory; for example, Ayala states that “The Origin [argues] ... [t]he design ... is not 'intelligent design', imposed by God as Supreme Engineer or by humans; rather, it is the result of a natural process of selection” (Ayala, 28). Ayala seems to believe that Darwin's natural selection is mutually exclusive with theories of creation by God. However, this view is not in agreement with an argument put forth in 1844 by Scottish author Robert Chambers. Chambers argues that a theory of creation that posits a set of governing laws strengthens rather than rejects evidence of God as a Creator. He states that persons “do not perhaps consider how powerful an argument in favour of the existence of God” (Chambers, 82) such a theory is, because the origin of the laws must be a Creator that is God: “When all is seen to be the result of law, the idea of an Almighty Author becomes irresistible, for the creation of a law ... could have no other imaginable source” (Chambers, 155). It is completely plausible, then, that Darwin is positing a dual meaning of Creator in Origin.

Does Darwin give the reader any clues about whether he leans more towards Creator as God or as natural selection? The answer to this question is most apparent in the final paragraph of The Origin of Species:

It is interesting to contemplate an entangled bank, clothed with many plants of many kinds, with birds singing on the bushes ... [these forms] have all been produced by laws acting around us. These laws ... being Growth with Reproduction ... Variability ... a Ratio of Increase so high as to lead to a Struggle for Life, and as a consequence to Natural Selection, entailing Divergence of Character and the Extinction of less-improved forms. ... Thus, from the war of nature ... the production of the higher animals, directly follows (Darwin, 396).

There are two points in this paragraph that suggest Darwin's conception of Creator – that is, Darwin's idea of what created the species – is natural selection itself, without a God. First, Darwin states that all the species in the entangled bank are produced by the “laws acting around us” and “the war of nature”, or natural selection, and does not mention God-like being at all. Second, he capitalizes the first letters of the various laws, such as Growth, Divergence, and Extinction, which implies that he is almost deifying them. These two points suggest that Darwin is defining Creator as natural selection. But recall that, when Darwin first discusses a Creator in The Origin of Species in Chapter Six, the term's meaning is ambiguous: it can either mean God, and be the same as Paley's conception of Creator, or it can mean natural selection. Thus, Darwin is supplanting Paley's conception of Creator with his own conception of Creator as natural selection.

Origin's final paragraph about the “entangled bank” is not the only paragraph in the closing chapter that leans heavily towards natural selection as Creator. The second-to-last paragraph also leans toward this view because Darwin seems to subtly mock those who believe in God as Creator:

As natural selection acts by competition, it adapts and improves the inhabitants of each country only in relation to their co-inhabitants; so that we need feel no surprise at the species of any one country, being beaten and supplanted by the naturalized productions from another land. Nor ought we to marvel if all the contrivances in nature be not, as far as we can judge, absolutely perfect ... Authors of the highest eminence seem to be fully satisfied with the view that each species has been independently created. To my mind it accords better with what we know of the laws impressed on matter by the Creator, that the production and extinction of the past and present inhabitants of the world should have been due to secondary causes, like those determining the birth and death of the individual. (Darwin, 395-396)

We must analyze this passage very carefully. Darwin first tells us that, by accepting the law of natural selection, we should escape confusion at certain phenomena in nature. He then tells us that even though very prominent authors believe that the species arose independently of one another (an intelligent-design view), the development of the species makes far more sense if natural selection and the means by which it works (the means that cause birth and death, such as disease or predation) are accepted as true. Darwin implies that, if one does not accept natural selection but adheres to intelligent-design, certain phenomena in nature will not make sense.

But there is a deeper feeling hidden in this passage; Darwin seems to be teetering on the verge of mocking intelligent-design followers. He implies that those who do not accept natural selection reject that “the secondary causes ... determining the birth and death of the individual” influence “the production and extinction of the past and present inhabitants of the world.” It is obviously true that the causes of birth and death of inhabitants affect them, and for Darwin to assume that intelligent-design proponents refute this fact that is so overtly true is to imply that they are somewhat irrational. He refers to “the laws impressed on matter by the Creator” possibly to mitigate the effect of the mockery, and make himself appear to agree with intelligent-design proponents. Because Darwin seems to be subtly mocking intelligent-design followers, his insinuation of Creator as God here is not genuine; once again, he seems to lean towards a definition of Creator that is natural selection.

This essay has extensively described Darwin's notion of Creator and how it supplanted that of Paley. Darwin accomplished this supplantation by initially defining Creator in a way that agreed with Paley, embedding Creator in the lexical context of Paley, and then modifying the definition of Creator to fit the theory of evolution. The next question to consider is: why would Darwin want to supplant Paley's notion of Creator? Up until this point, we have only analyzed text from the first edition of Origin, but there is a peculiar discrepancy between the first and second editions that might answer this question. Gillian Beer states that “The second edition ... follows the first edition in most particulars, but even here some striking shifts take place, perhaps the most striking being the re-admission of the Creator and his works” (Beer, xxiii). This re-admission of Creator is most apparent in the last sentence of Origin. In the first edition, the sentence appears as follows: “[t]here is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one ...” (Darwin, 384). This sentence is ambiguous as to who or what “breathed into a few forms or one”. However, in the second edition, the sentence appears as: “... having been originally breathed by the Creator into a few forms or into one” (Darwin, 396, my italics). The second edition asserts that the Creator “breathed a few forms into one”. This addition is a somewhat drastic change to Origin, and warrants investigation.

Darwin already discussed Creator in the first edition, so why is this addition of Creator in the second edition significant to our discussion? Here, “Creator” cannot be interpreted as natural selection like it was in the first edition of Origin, because the sentence it appears in is parallel to a sentence found in Genesis of the Bible: “the LORD God formed the man ... and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being” (Genesis 2:7, NIV). This sentence is parallel to Darwin's in that they both apply the verb “breathed” to a creating figure, to illustrate how forms of life first came into existence. This parallel strongly implies the definition of Creator in this sentence is God, not natural selection.

Why would Darwin add a Creator that is God to the second edition? Gillian Beer states that “[t]he second edition was issued only a very few weeks after the first, so here we can observe Darwin under the stress of the very first responses to his work. The opening section of the book's final sentence includes a reparation” (Beer, xxiii). Beer is implying that the “reparation” of Origin's final sentence – that is, the addition of Creator as God – is enacted to deflect criticisms of Darwin's work. As she states, Darwin “used later editions to respond to criticisms” (Beer, xxiii). Thus, it seems Darwin adds a Creator synonymous with God – that is, Paley's Creator – to Origin in order to make his theory more accepted. This action suggests that gaining support was a priority of Darwin's – and further suggests that, even in the first edition, Darwin supplanted Paley's already accepted notions in order to render his theory more appealing in the generally Christian, Victorian public sphere.

Why might Darwin be concerned about his work being received negatively by the Victorian public? In the middle of the 19th century, Victorian society harbored an immense fear of being invaded by foreign forces; James Buzard remarks that “some Britons worried ... [about] swamping the capital city with foreigners. ... [one] way of thinking of the British nineteenth century is as a period bracketed by powerful fears of invasion” (Buzard, 440). It was a possibility that, upon hearing Darwin's new and radical theory, people of Victorian England would harbor this fear of foreign invasion (xenophobia) toward Darwin's theories. An example of possible xenophobia toward Darwin's theories is seen in a letter by the Victorian citizen Mr. Carlyle, to the British Architect: “'What is the chief end of man? To glorify God, and enjoy him for ever.' No gospel of dirt, teaching that men have descended from frogs through monkeys, can ever set that aside” (British Architect, 34). The reason that Carlyle dismisses the theory of evolution is to prevent this “foreign” idea from invading his religious beliefs, which are familiar; a contemporary verifies this familiarity by stating that “Mr. Carlyle was heard to say that he was seeking his way back to the simple faith of his childhood” (British Architect, 34). Thus, it was quite possible that many individuals in Victorian England would reject Darwin's theory on the grounds that it was a foreign invader of existing theories and religions. Darwin, by supplanting Paley's familiar ideas rather than presenting entirely new ones, could gain more acceptance in the xenophobic society of Victorian England.

Darwin also attempts to make his work appear more familiar to Victorian society by making another addition to the second edition of Origin. He adds a mention of parthenogenesis, which Beer defines as virgin birth, in a discussion about reproduction (the italicized portion denotes the addition): “In the case of animals and plants, with separated sexes, it is of course obvious that two individuals must always (with the exception of the curious and not well-understood cases of parthenogenesis) unite for each birth” (Darwin, 73, my italics). Beer affirms that Darwin adds this subject to respond to objections or criticisms of his readers: “Virgin birth (parthenogenesis) returns. His changes tend to avoid confrontation, or evade uncertain claims” (Beer, xxiv). Darwin's addition of parthenogenesis occurs in order to avoid confrontation about how his theory is not inclusive of, specifically, the immaculate conception of Jesus in Christianity. His attachment of the adjectives “curious and not well-understood” to parthenogenesis further suggests reference to Mother Mary. Thus, Darwin seems to make this addition for the purpose of making his theory corroborate with the Christian religion, and perhaps to make it seem more familiar to Victorian England.

Possibly because of this effort to make Origin seem familiar, the theory of evolution that Charles Darwin put forth in The Origin of Species was radically successful. Colleges such as Christ's College of Cambridge University, where Darwin himself once studied the intelligent-design works of Paley, have been replaced by colleges that intensively study the theory of evolution, such as Princeton University. The prevalent notion of nature's “Creator” – once God – has become natural selection. Thus, Darwin did not just supplant Paley's conception of Creator within Origin; he supplanted it on a worldwide scale, gaining global support for his work.

--PhyllisS 16:17, 1 May 2010 (EDT)

References

Ayala, Francisco J. Darwin’s gift to science and religion. Washington, D.C. : Joseph Henry Press, c2007. (28-55)

Ayala, Francisco J. “In William Paley's Shadow: Darwin's Explanation of Design.” Ludus Vitalis. 12.21 (2004). Web.

Beer, Gillian. Darwin’s plots: evolutionary narrative in Darwin, George Eliot, and nineteenth-century fiction. Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press, 2009. (73-80)

Buzard, James. “'Then on the Shore of the Wide World': The Victorian Nation and its Others.” A Companion to Victorian Literature and Culture. Malden, Massachussetts: Blackwell Publishing, 1999. (447-448)

Chambers, Robert. Vestiges of the natural history of creation. New York : Wiley and Putnam, 1846. (82-155)

Darwin, Charles. Autobiography of Charles Darwin, 1809-1882 : with original omissions restored. Ed. Nora Barlow. New York : Harcourt, Brace, c1958.

Darwin, Charles. The Origin of Species. New York: Barnes and Noble Books, 2004. (145-394)

Darwin, Charles. The Origin of Species. New York: Oxford University Press, 1996. (xxiii-396)

The Holy Bible: New International Version. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondenvan, 2005.

Hughes, Linda K. “1870.” A Companion to Victorian Literature and Culture. Ed. Herbert F. Tucker. Malden, Massachussetts: Blackwell Publishing, 2006. 35-50.

Paley, William. Natural Theology. New York: Sheldon, 1854. (15-441)

“Notes on Current Events.” British Architect. 7.3 (1877): 34. British Periodicals. Web. 19 Jan. 1877

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