This is our second student post reflecting on the Fall 2015 Advanced Seminar for Religion and Science lecture series on Teleology. This post is based on the September 28, 2015 lecture by Dr. Robert J. Richards, Man, the Goal of the Evolutionary Process in Darwin’s Origin of Species.
Our featured writer is Adam Lohrman, a PhD student in his second year of coursework at the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago. He studies systematic theology, concentrating in science and theology, and his research explores the relationship between ecology and theology. Adam earned an M.A. in systematic theology at Luther Seminary and an M.S. in environmental studies at the University of Montana. Adam lives near Madison, Wisconsin.
Robert Richards on Darwin
Where might this fleet-footed fish be headed?
Darwinian Evolution: Aimless Operation or Progressive Process?
Does nature have goals? Is there a purpose to the process of evolution? Most evolutionary scientists today would probably answer those questions with a definitive, “No.” But apparently, the original developer of the theory of evolution had more complex views on these matters.
Charles Darwin has become something of a saint among secularists, and his Origin of Species is canonical for many people promoting a materialist philosophy of life. The prevailing view in this camp is that the story of evolution is a tale without direction or purpose. The mechanisms driving descent with modification may be a wonder to behold, but they aren’t driving anywhere in particular. Mother Nature is a “blind watchmaker” (Richard Dawkins); she has brought forth a community of life that is rich in complexity and diversity, but she doesn’t have any special goals in mind as she goes about her work.
The question is, did Darwin himself subscribe to this interpretation of evolution? What does the Origin of Species actually have to say about ends and purposes in nature?
These are matters to which Dr. Robert J. Richards has devoted significant attention. As a Professor in the History of Science at the University of Chicago, Dr. Richards is committed to understanding Darwin’s theory of evolution as Darwin himself conceived it. In his many books and articles on Darwin’s legacy, he has sought to set the record straight about what Darwin actually thought about the development of life on Earth.
In a recent presentation for the Zygon Center for Religion & Science entitled “Man, the Goal of the Evolutionary Process in Darwin’s Origin of Species,” Dr. Richards reiterated a point that he has made previously in some of his publications, namely, that “Darwin was not a neo-Darwinian” (Richards, “Darwin’s place,” 10059). That is, Darwin did not propose a theory of evolution that was entirely devoid of direction, purpose, and progress, as many of his admirers today presume. While his thinking was truly revolutionary in many respects, Darwin was also a product of his time. He made use of traditional concepts, symbols, and metaphors to make sense of natural selection, and Richards believes that these aspects of his work should not be discounted. Rather, he argues that “Darwin’s theory is embedded in his language” (Richards, 10056).
Richards points out that time and again in his writings, Darwin described natural selection as a progressive affair that facilitates the emergence of “higher animals,” with the goal of producing that uniquely moral creature known as humankind. Purpose, directionality, and morality are thus in some sense built into the Darwinian framework of evolution, and Richards suggests that this interpretation might have big implications for how evolution informs our worldviews today.
Richards also notes that instead of mechanistic language, Darwin preferred the metaphor of the mind to interpret the evolutionary process. In a line sure to elicit shudders from neo-Darwinians, he writes that, “The model by which Darwin attempted to explain to himself the operations of natural selection was that of a very powerful, intelligent being that manifested ‘forethought’ and prescience, as well as moral concern, for the creatures over which it tended” (Richards, 10058).
Those who oppose Richards’ reading of Darwin aver that he is making a mountain out of a metaphorical molehill. The quote above almost makes it sound as though Darwin was an early adopter of the contemporary “Intelligent Design” movement, and these critics staunchly deny that Darwin would have entertained any ideas of that sort. Rather, they suggest that Darwin’s poetic language and philosophical musings about the purpose of evolution can largely be chalked up to the cultural milieu in which he was steeped, and should not confuse or distract us from the pure scientific arguments that he lays out in the Origin of Species and elsewhere. Richards’ opponents might also add that regardless of whether Darwin actually thought that evolution manifests some kind of “intentionality” or directionality, that is of little concern for us today; now we know better, and we can forgive Darwin for his occasional lapses in scientific rigor. (For more on this topic, see Richards’ forthcoming book Debating Darwin, co-authored with his long-time academic adversary and friend, Dr. Michael Ruse).
What do you think? Should it matter whether the originator of the theory of evolution viewed natural selection as a progressive process? What difference does it make whether we think of evolution as a machine or a mind? Are we in need of a different metaphor altogether today?
Richards, Robert J. “Darwin’s place in the history of thought: A reevaluation.” PNAS, Vol. 106, June 2009: 10056-10060.