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Evolution and Theodicy, a reading from "Darwin’s God. Evolution and the Problem of Evil"

2001

In this reading from the book  Darwin’s God, Evolution and the Problem of Evil, C.G. Hunter argues that behind the scientific story is the story of Charles Darwin’s grappling with questions about God, reality, and the nature of the universe. Hunter shows that the religious position of the English naturalist was not necessarily atheistic, but Darwin’s inability to reconcile his understanding of a benevolent God with the cruelty of nature ultimately led him to develop a theodicy called evolution.

One of Darwin’s favorite works of literature was John Milton’s Paradise Lost. [4]  He carried a well-worn copy of the classic on his voyage around the world in the HMS Beagle. Paradise Lost was not just a favorite of Darwin; it was immensely popular in Victorian England, to the point of having the status of official Christian doctrine for some. [5]

The main purpose of Paradise Lost was to solve the problem of evil. If God is loving and all-powerful, why does he allow evil to exist at all? Milton tried to explain the purposes of God, or as he put it, “justify the ways of God to man.” His solution was that God need to let humans choose between good and evil so he could separate the good from the bad. Although this solution maintained God’s purity, it also made him somewhat passive, distanced from the events of history. This epic tale is in many ways a telling signpost of where the modern era was going with its view if God and creation. Creation was on its own, rather than under God’s influence and control.

An important similarity between Darwin and Milton should not be missed. The two are sometimes contrasted, since Darwin was rapidly moving toward a naturalistic explanation of the world, whereas Milton saw God as the creative force of the world. But both men were dealing with the problem of evil- Milton with moral evil and Darwin with natural evil- and both found solutions by distancing God from the evil. And most important, the two held similar conceptions of God.

Medieval theologians had attempted to prove the existence of God using logical arguments and the evidence of the created order. In the seventeenth century and after, modern theologians and philosophers internalized and amplified this tradition. Science’s new discoverers about nature were fitted into proofs of God. But a God whose existence could be proved was a God who was subject to human reasoning. Increasingly theologians and philosophers felt free to place bounds on what God could do. [6]

This was the dominant view of God amongst modern intellectuals, and it was shared by Darwin and Milton. This link between the two thinkers is more important than their differences. It would be more accurate to view Darwin not as opposing Milton but as extrapolating from Milton. Milton may have justified God, but he did so by distancing God from the moral evils of the world. Darwin, dealing with natural evils, simply distanced God even further. And though Darwin made repeated references to the Creator, he never needed to define his terms, for the modern view of God was widely accepted.

In constructing the arguments for his theory of evolution, Darwin repeatedly argued that God would never have created the world that the nineteenth- century naturalists were uncovering. Shortly after going public with his theory, Darwin wrote to a friend: “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.” [7]

Darwin had a long biological quandaries that did not fit with the view of God that was popular in his day. There was, for example, the problem of hybrids. Why should species cross so easily if they were created separately? And if fauna and flora were specifically created for their environments by a wise Creator, how is it that plants that are introduced into a new region may be successful though they have little in common with the indigenous flora? What seemed to be specialized fauna or flora sometimes flourished in foreign environments. Why were the inhabitants of similar but separated environments, such as cave- dwelling creatures on different continents, often so vastly different? Then there were the ill-adapted species, such as the land with webbed feet and the marine creatures with nonwebbed feet. Insects that spent hours underwater differed little from their terrestrial cousins. Why was the water ouzel, a member of the thrush family, so active underwater, and why were woodpeckers found in treeless pampas? And there was that annual “incalculable waste” of  pollen. [8]

Nature seemed to lack precision and economy in design and was often “inexplicable on the theory of creation.” [9] In addition to this growing list of imperfections and mistakes, Darwin questioned the way the various species were designed. He observed, on the one hand, that different species use “an almost infinite diversity of means” for the same task and that this should not be the case if each species had been independently created by a single Creator. [10] On the other hand, Darwin observed that different species use similar means for different tasks. [11] This too, he argued, does not fit with the theory of divine creation.

What exactly did Darwin expected  God’s creation to look like? We may never know, but for our purposes the point is that Darwin was significantly motivated by nonscientific premises. He had a specific notion of God in view, and as it had for Milton, that view defined the framework of his thinking. Though biology was young and little was known about how organisms actually worked, Darwin believed he had sufficient evidence to show that God would not have created this world. God’s world had to fit into certain specific criteria that humans had devised.

This view was not peculiar to Darwin. Philosophers and scientists had  become quite confident in their knowledge of God. This attitude developed over many centuries, and by Darwin’s day it was internalized and needed no justification. Today this view continues to be evident in evolutionary literature, from popular presentations of the theory to college-level textbooks.

Evolutionists sometimes claim that religious ideas play no role in their theory. Darwin’s references to the Creator, they say, were necessary to address the claims of the opposing theory – creation. It is true that Darwin addressed the idea of creation that was influential at the mine. But Darwin’s criticisms of creation were more than this. They served as de facto arguments for evolution and […] this theme continues in today’s evolution literature.

Evolutionists use negative theological arguments that give evolution its force. Creation doesn’t seem very divine, so evolution must be true. Evolution is a solution to the age-old problem of evil. The problem of evil states that if God is all-powerful and all-good, then he should not allow evil to exist. For centuries theologians and philosophers have tried to solve this problem. As Milton showed in Paradise Lost, moral evil can be explained as the result of human autonomy, but natural evil is more difficult to rationalize. The seventeenth-century philosopher Gottfried Leibniz was interested in the problem of  evil. He coined the term theodicy for any explanation to the problem. By Darwin’s day the list of such explanations was growing. One strategy was to try to show that God was somehow disconnected from creation. Natural evil arose not from God’s direction but from an imperfect linkage between Creator and creation.

In addition to natural disasters, fires, and plagues, natural evil can include the vagaries of  the biological world. The carnage in nature had always been obvious, but the scientific revolution was revealing it in increasing detail. Also, naturalists were finding the created order to be full of apparent inefficiencies and anomalies. From parasites  to extinctions, nature seemed to be less than ideal. This facet of natural evil began to be addressed in the eighteenth century when early theories of evolution appeared. They were crude in detail, but they suggested that nature is best explained as the result not of a divine hand but of some combination of unguided forces.

Darwin’s concern with the problem of natural evil is apparent in his notebooks and in his published works. His theodicy had a strong scientific flavor, to the point that most readers lost sight of the embedded metaphysical presuppositions. Where earlier solutions laced details. But Darwin’s general approach followed the earlier attempts. God was constrained to benevolence and was distanced from the evils of creation through the interposition of natural laws. Positing natural selection operating in an unguided fashion on natural biological diversity was Darwin’s unique solution. But his overall approach, to distance God from evil, was predictable.

But if God must be distanced from creation’s evils, some believed he still must be kept within view to account for morality. Our strong inner sense of right and wrong seems to go beyond personal opinion or preference. For the eighteenth-century philosopher Immanuel Kant, our innate moral sense is sufficient to prove the existence of God. The nineteenth-century geologist Reverend Adam Sedgwick would concur with Kant’s conclusion.

Sedgwick was a popular figure at Cambridge in Darwin’s day and was known for engaging lectures, which he continued to give until the age of eighty-six. He was at different times president of the Geological Society of London, president of the British Association, and vice-master of Trinity College. Scientists and philosophers have for centuries argued that the created order is proof of an almighty Creator. Sedgwick agreed but, following Kant, also found such proofs within our own morality: “In the material world we see in all things the proofs of intelligence and power; not less power; so also, that in the immaterial world we find proofs , not less strong, that man is under the moral government of an all-powerful, benevolent, and holy God.” [12]

Sedgwick consistently focused on morality and its link to the natural sciences. He believed that God governed by general, fixed laws in both the moral and physical worlds. This moral imperative, for Sedgwick, meant that we must keep God in view. He believed that exploring the created order is a privilege for naturalists, which they should not abuse by denying the divine hand behind creation. Sedgwick denounced pre-Darwin theories of evolution, calling them nothing better than a “phrensied dream.” [13]

In one of his summer field expeditions to Wales, Sedgwick took on the young Charles Darwin. It was a good experience for Darwin, and the two men remained friends, but as Darwin matured in his studies of nature he increasingly viewed nature as anomalous, inefficient, and downright brutal. How could and all-good God create such a gritty reality?

The problem was aggravated by the rather two-dimensional God the Victorians had in view. It was a tradition that had been building for centuries, and by Darwin’s day the popular conception of God was a very pleasant one. Positive divine attributes such as wisdom and benevolence were emphasized to the point that God’s wrath and use to evil were rarely considered.

Few people promoted this doctrine of God more avidly than the orthodox Sedgwick. Sedgwick often spoke of God’s power, wisdom, and goodness. His main point of application was how these positive attributes are manifest in creation. The student of nature, according to Sedgwick, should find the natural world full of beauty, harmony, symmetry, and order. Biology was full of beautiful form and perfect mechanism “exactly fitted to the vital functions of the being.” [14] And it was all driven by God’s wonderful laws: “What are the laws of nature but the manifestations of his wisdom? What are the material actions but manifestations of his power? Indications of his wisdom and his power co-exist with every portion of the universe. They are seen in the great luminaries of heaven- they are seen in the dead matter whereon we trample.” [15]

According to Sedgwick, nature was never anomalous or fortuitous. Sedgwick’s idealism was as apparent in what he did write as in what he did not write. When he quoted Scripture he consistently avoided the passages that link God and evil. Sedgwick quoted the passage in Job where God reveals his power but not the passage where God reveals that the ostrich treats her young harshly because he has deprived her of wisdom. He quoted the Romans passage where Paul revels in God’s eternal power and how it is reflected in creation but not the passage where creation groans because God has subjected it to futility. He quoted the psalmist’s proclamation that creation declares God’s glory but not Isaiah’s prophecy of how God creates calamity. [16]

Sedgwick and his generation had rather idyllic expectations for the natural world. What was a young naturalist like Darwin to think when he found parasites slowly torturing their hosts? Nature was turning out to be less pretty than Sedgwick had predicted, and Darwin searched for an explanation. His solution was to distance God from creation by interposing a natural law — his law of natural selection.

Darwin’s theory of evolution was very much a solution to the problem of  natural evil —a theodicy. The problem had confounded thinkers for centuries. They needed to distance God to clear him of any evil doings. Darwin solved the problem by coming up with a natural law that he argued could account for evil. Natural selection, operating blindly on a pool of  biological diversity, according to Darwin, could produce nature’s carnage and waste.

Darwin’s solution distanced God from creation to the point that God was unnecessary. One could still believe in God, but not in God’s providence. Separating God from creation and its evils meant that God could have no direct influence or control over the world. God may have created the world, but ever since that point it has run according to impersonal natural laws that may now and then produce natural evil.

Darwin may have solved the problem of how nature’s evil could arise without God, but what about Sedgwick’s morality? Though he respected Darwin’s effort, Sedgwick criticized his theory of evolution scathingly. Predictably enough, the main complaint was that by distancing God, Darwin was disregarding the moral imperative that was so obvious to Sedgwick. After reading Darwin’s book, The Origin of Species, Sedgwick wrote to Darwin:

There is a moral or metaphysical part of nature, as well as physical. A man who denies this is deep in the mire of folly. ‘Tis the crown and glory of organic science that it does through final cause, link material and moral; and yet does not allow us to mingle them in our first conception of  laws, and our classification of such laws, whether we consider one side of nature of the other. You have ignored this link; and, if  I do not mistake your meaning, you have done your best in one or two pregnant cases to break it. [17]

After the sixteenth century, modernism had tended to view God as removed from creation, but Darwin was now increasing this separation to the point that the link between creation and God was severed. Sedgwick disagrees with Darwin’s removal of God, not with Darwin’s conception of God. Sedgwick complained that Darwin had removed the moral imperative, but he failed to see that it was modernism’s doctrine of God —a highly constrained view of God that he and Darwin shared— that drove Darwin’s reasonings.

Sedgwick reiterated the popular idealism of the day: “I can prove,” he wrote, that God “acts for the good of His creatures.” [18] This sort of  thinking simply fueled Darwin’s theory. For if God acts for the good of his creatures and those creatures are sometimes found to be in dire straits, then God’s acts must have been hindered along the way. If God did not act directly upon creation but instead installed a law such as natural selection as its governor, then creation’s scars could be explained.

The difference between Sedgwick and Darwin, then, lay not in their conception of God but in the metaphysical problem that colored their study of nature. Sedgwick was concerned with morality, and Darwin was concerned with evil. Darwin, it seemed to Sedgwick, had removed the moral authority— but did this mean Darwin was blind to nature’s moral implications, as Sedgwick charged? Not at all; in fact, it was nature’s cruel and wasteful aspects that especially concerned him. Darwin was having difficulty reconciling the modern God with what he saw in nature. If a benevolent God manifested himself in an idyllic world, then why was Darwin seeing so much imperfection? Darwin’s gritty and chaotic world —the real world seen up close by naturalists— implied no such Creator. Creation was irrational, and therefore there was no such benevolent Creator, or at least not one who attended to details. Darwin summarized this metaphysical argument that underlies evolution in his autobiography:

Suffering is quite compatible with the belief in Natural Selection, which is not perfect in its action, but tends only to render each species as successful as possible in the battle for life with other species, in wonderfully complex and changing circumstances.

That there is much suffering in the world no one disputes. Some have attempted to explain it in reference to human beings, imagining that it serves their moral improvement. But the number of people in the world is nothing compared with the numbers of all other sentient beings, and these often suffer greatly without any moral improvement. 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 sufferings of millions of lower animals throughout almost endless time? This very old argument from the existence of suffering against the existence of an intelligent First Cause seems to me a strong one; and the abundant presence of suffering agrees well with the view that all organic beings have been developed through variation and natural selection. [19]

Darwin’s reconciliation resolved the metaphysical dilemma that bothered him but not Sedgwick— the problem of evil. But now, with one metaphysical dilemma gone, another stepped in to take its place— the one that bothered Sedgwick: the problem of morality. What is the source of our moral law?

Sedgwick and Darwin were opposed over a deep theological question that cannot be resolved with a scientific theory. The question had already been debated many times. The terminology changes over time, but the core issue remains the same. The existence of evil seems to contradict God, but the existence of our deep moral sense seems to confirm God.

Evolution takes a position on this ancient question, but in doing so it becomes much more than a scientific theory. It is a description of reality based on a metaphysical presupposition, and as such it makes truth claims as no scientific theory can.


[4] Charles Darwin, The Autobiography of Charles Darwin (New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1958), 85.

[5] A.N. Wilson, God’s Funeral (New York: W.W. Norton, 1999), 192.

[6] See for example: Karen Armstrong, A History of God (London: Heinemann, 1992), 362, 335-36; and Stanley J. Grenz and Roger E. Olson, Twentieth- Century Theology: God and the World in a Transitional Age (Downers Grove, III. : InterVarsity Press, 1992), 18-23.

[7] Quoted in Steven Jay Gould, “Nonmoral Nature,” in Hen’s Teeth and Horse’s Toes (New York: W.W. Norton, 1983).

[8] Gillespie, Charles Darwin and the Problem of Creation (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1979) 72, 77-79, 126-27.

[9] Charles Darwin, The Origin of the Species, 6th ed. (1872; repr. London: Collier Macmillan, 1962), 467-72. While the author is aware that the original title of Darwin’s work was On the Origin of Species, since the reprint being cited is entitled The Origin of Species, it will be referred to as such throughout the book.

[10] “We can see why throughout nature the same general end is gained by an almost infinite diversity of means, for every peculiarity when once acquired is long inherited, and structures already modified in many different ways have to be adapted for the same general purpose. We can, in short, see why nature is prodigal in variety, though niggard in innovation. But why this should be a law of nature if each species has been independently created no man can explain” (ibid., 468-69).

[11] For example, Darwin wrote: “How curious is, to give a subordinate though striking instance, that the hind-feet of the kangaroo, which are so well fitted for bounding over the open plains, — those of the climbing, leaf eating koala, equally well fitted for grasping the branches of trees,— those of the ground — dwelling, insect or root-eating, bandicoots,— and those of some other Australian marsupials, -should all be constructed on the same extraordinary type, namely with the bones of the second and third digits extremely slender and enveloped within the same skin, so that they appear like a single toe furnished with two claws. Notwithstanding this similarity of pattern, it is obvious that the hind feet of these several animals are used for as widely different purposes as it is possible to conceive… Nothing can be more hopeless than to attempt to explain this similarity of pattern in members of the same class, by utility or by the doctrine of final causes” (ibid., 434-35).  

[12] Adam Sedgwick, A Discourse on the Studies of the University (London: John W. Parker, 1833), 51.

[13] Ibid., 23.

[14] Ibid.,19.

[15] Ibid.,14.

[16] Job 38:3-21; 39:13-17; Romans 1: 19-20; 8:20-22; Psalm 19:1; Isaiah 45:7.

[17] Charles Darwin, Life and Letters of Charles Darwin, ed. Francis Darwin (London: John Murray, 1887), 2:249.

[18]  Ibid.

[19] Darwin, Autobiography, 90.

C.G. Hunter, Darwin’s God. Evolution and the Problem of Evil (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2001), pp. 11-18.