By Kumar David –
The materialist scientist par excellence: Darwin’s impeccable methodology
Darwin was a more consistent materialist than Marx in theoretical exertion for the reason that the latter’s domain was human society, and inescapably, he had to wander into social consciousness, subjective influences and ideologies, the role of leaders and peoples, and class and race awareness. Darwin’s good fortune was that his field of exploration troubled him with no such intrusions by man or god; hence he was an impeccable practitioner of the materialist methodology. An intelligent designer is redundant to practical science and if he/she/it (hereafter ‘It’) exists, would make not one iota of difference to one scientific theory. That is, ‘It’ has nothing to do with the practice of functioning science whose domain is exclusively materialist. The spirit does not factor in the choice of equations or god set input parameters.
That great designer cannot be observed, measured, weighed, no known spectrometer is sensitive to its spectral spread, no Geiger counter can register its emissions, and no antenna can intercept its electromagnetic radiation. No scientist in the prosecution of scientific work batted an eyelid or stopped to hear a pin drop from It. Scientific activity is exclusively materialistic. That quaint and irrelevant designer occupies a different parallel universe.
Does this mean that outstanding scientists cannot believe in god? Plenty of fine scientists, involved up to the neck in 100% materialist scientific work, are thoroughly religious; so experience says the answer is no. They do not seem to suffer philosophical schizophrenia – I have some difficulty in living in two mentally watertight compartments. I guess this tells us more about the structure of the mind than about the pursuit of science.
If precedence is excuse there is justification for compartmentalised crania. Newton, indisputably the greatest scientist ever, was a strange fellow. One compartment in his brain was sheer genius inventing the calculus, crafting classical mechanics, solving the riddle of the heavens, explaining the tides and delving into the theory of light. But other boxes were decidedly peculiar. He indulged in alchemy to find the ‘philosopher’s stone’ to turn base metal into gold, and invoked the occult seeking to distil the ‘elixir of life’ which grants eternal life. He also wrote arcane tracts on Biblical topics. Thankfully, antiquities greatest scientist-mathematician, Archimedes of Syracuse, who stands between Newton and Darwin in schoolboy rankings of greatest scientist of all time, was like Darwin quite normal and shunned the occult and the theological.
I am aware of the argument that the intelligent design hypothesis is not necessarily theistic; but I find the distinction specious. Both are divorced from the materialist methodology of science, so I group them together. However, if a scientist is a strict materialist in the pursuit of science (seeks and justifies knowledge by repeatable, falsifiable observation and experiment, making no reference to a spiritual dimension), then why should it bother me, if in a different and parallel dimension of his/her existence, god, intelligent design, Sai Baba or other mumbo jumbo manifests itself in the mind. Ok, point taken; some of these chaps have done quality work using the materialist compartment of their cranium that’s all one asks for.
There is a way in which the intelligent design hypothesis could be bent and boxed and arm-twisted into compliance with the evolution of species specifically and materialism in general. That is to propose that ‘It’ set all things in motion, invoked and included all the laws of science and the option of evolution within ‘Its’ grand design, and pushed off never to intervene or be seen again. This is an unfalsifiable first cause hypothesis, however, it will cost its proponents the price of abdicating a personal god who intervenes in human affairs, answers prayers and is receptive to human supplicants. It is also an amoral god. If intelligent design protagonists want to take that option, ok it’s up to them.
Darwin the materialist
Notebooks maketh a man! And Darwin’s copious notebooks track his strictly empirical and material evidence based methodology. This was the core of his impeccable approach to scientific investigation. He would ponder, argue with himself; repeat a study or experiment, and meet or correpond with naturalists, animal breeders, and botanists (John Stevens Henslow, Charles Lyell, Robert Owen, Asa Grey, Joseph Hooker and John Gould) in search of concrete evidence. Not once did he conceal an uncomfortable fact even if it drove him to perplexity. The most famous example of course is that he never solved the problem of the mechanism by which characteristics were passed on to later generations. Nevertheless he refused to accept the ‘inheritance of acquired characteristics’ since there was no material basis, no mechanism by which it could operate. History vindicated him when, decades later, genetics emerged and together with the theorems of probability settled the mechanisms of inheritance and speciation, spawning the celebrated science of neo-Darwinism.
Was Darwin a Christian?
I think it would be fair to say yes he was, but a decidedly odd one. He came from a Unitarian family but was brought up in an Anglican ethos. When he made a hash of his medical studies in Edinburg his father arranged for him to join Cambridge to read for an ordinary degree in arts with the intention of enrolling in the Anglican Ministry. At Cambridge he preferred riding and beetle collecting to studies but graduated in 1931 near the top of his class. At the start of the voyage of the Beagle in December 1831Darwin was very much a devout Christian; at its end, in October 1836, he was not so sure. The distribution and variation of finches, tortoises and other creatures and changing geological structure of the world (how did sea shells end up on high mountains in Chile?) persuaded him that “such facts undermine the stability of species”; but not yet ready to plunge into a desertion of the faith, on second thoughts he added the word “would” before “undermine”. That was Darwin still on the Beagle in 1836.
It is clear from contemporary sources that Darwin had settled on his thesis of evolution by natural selection or survival of the fittest before 1840. It is known that he read Malthus in October 1838 and the theory of population and struggle for existence had a profound effect on the still young scientist still less than 30 years of age. “At once it struck me that under these circumstances favourable variations would tend to be preserved, and unfavourable ones destroyed. The result would be the formation of new species. Here, then, I had at last got a theory by which to work”.
In later life Darwin preferred going for long walks to Church on Sunday and though he never abandoned Christianity or forcefully rejected theism there is clear evidence of an agnostic element creeping into his stance. In 1879, three years before his death, he wrote “I have never been an atheist in the sense of denying the existence of a God. I think that generally an agnostic would be the most correct description of my state of mind”.
Why did Darwin hold fire for so long?
The first principles of the origin of species and evolution by natural selection had been worked out in Darwin’s mind and notebooks if not by 1840, at least in the early 1940s. Yet he did not go public till that memorable but hurriedly arranged meeting of the Linnean Society on 1 July 1858 at which a paper by Alfred Russell Wallace proposing a theory of natural selection and an outline of Darwin’s work were both presented. The reason for Darwin’s hurried presentation is a well known and fascinating tale in the history of science, but why he delayed so long is another matter to which I will turn in a moment. On 18 June Darwin received a paper from Russell who was working in Borneo which indeed proposed evolution. Darwin was distraught at being piped at the post but his friends persuaded him to agree to a joint presentation. Neither author was present so the papers were read on their behalf by Charles Lyell and J.D. Hooker.
Why despite this apparent joint precedence in the presentation of the theory is the Theory of Evolution known as Darwin’s; why is Wallace not given equal recognition? Wallace’s was an extraordinary flash of brilliant insight to justify which he had scant evidence. While working with the flora and fauna in the Amazon and the Malay Archipelago he had been struck by the sequences and branching of natural life forms. The title of the paper he sent to Darwin in June 1858 was “On the Tendency of Varieties to Depart Indefinitely from the Original Type” and clearly he was on the right track. What he lacked was a lifetime’s collection of hard empirical data to establish his theory beyond scientific doubt. Here Darwin the materialist won out and the theory is rightfully hailed as his.
So why did Darwin hang fire for 20 years without going public with his world shaking findings? There were two reasons, one relating to the public domain, the other personal. It is not true that Darwin was fearful of giving offence to Christians by refuting the Genesis creation yarn. Most educated Christians took the whole creation in seven days myth with a fistful of salt by the middle of the Nineteenth Century. Origin of Species was greeted favourably by liberal and younger Anglican clergy. Too much is made of the Oxford Debate in 1860 between Bishop Samuel Wilberforce and Professor Joseph Hooker aided by Professor Thomas Huxley (Darwin’s bulldog). Seven Anglican theologians wrote a book of essays and reviews in 1860 defending evolution as majestic manifestation of god’s “design” – today’s intelligent design protagonists are wearing an old hat.
The problem was not the creation yarn; the nigger-in-the-woodpile was materialism. Yes the abomination materialism could drive a stake into the heart of religious and ideological hierarchies and establishments. Darwin knew it would be abhorred and resisted. That was the fight he ducked until he no longer could. Hic Rhodus! Hic salta to quote Aesop via Hegel and Marx. Darwin’s premonition has remained true to this day. For example in the backward white supremacist bible-belt states of southern USA (south of the old Mason-Dixon line) more than half of even the educated classes are convinced of the creation yarn and think evolution theory is bunkum.
The other matter that troubled Darwin was his wife Emma, a devout Christian who would remark “the thought that we would not be reunited in heaven would be unbearable”.
“But the dread of something after death-
The undiscovered country, from whose bourn
No traveller returns- puzzles the will,
And makes us rather bear those ills we have
Than fly to others that we know not of
Materialism has no comforting answer to this mystery. And so the purveyors of intelligent design will always have a ready market.