What Was Darwin’s ‘Original’ Thought?

By Nancy Pearcey | February 12, 2018 | 11:29am EST
Charles Darwin (Screenshot)

Today, February 12, fans of Charles Darwin celebrate his birthday, which they have dubbed “Darwin Day.” The city of Shrewsbury, Darwin’s birthplace, will hold its annual celebration with toasts, tours, and lectures. For this year’s festivities, the tagline is that Shrewsbury is “the origin of original thinking.”

Original thinking? The truth is that there was little about Darwin’s scientific theory that was original—and the part that was original was not scientific.

The idea that organisms undergo minor variations was not original. For millennia, farmers and breeders have known that they could induce minor changes in a breeding population (typically a species or genus). This process also happens in nature, where it is called microevolution.

What was original was Darwin’s proposal that the same minor variations might accumulate via undirected natural selection to originate completely new organs and body plans (generating higher taxonomic categories such as orders, classes, or phyla). This is called macroevolution—and it does not happen in nature.

Again, this is something farmers and breeders have known for millennia. Minor changes do not accumulate to produce the near-endless variation required by Darwin’s theory—even under the direction of intentional as opposed to natural selection The further an organism is bred from the wild type, the weaker it grows, and the more prone to disease, until it becomes sterile and dies out. Most highly bred animals would not survive long in the wild. 

Even today, pick up any magazine written for farmers and breeders, and you will find articles dealing with the many diseases to which highly bred animals are prone.

Darwin was a skilled propagandist, and he sought to overwhelm readers’ objections by highlighting the sheer variety that can arise within an existing breeding pool. An amateur pigeon breeder himself, he illustrated his theory with pouter pigeons, fantail pigeons, trumpeter pigeons, and a host of other surprising variations that have emerged from the common rock pigeon.

What he ignored, of course, was that they were all still pigeons. None of the changes occurred in the diagnostic features that made them pigeons.

As a result, the part of Darwin’s theory that was original—his naturalistic mechanism for macroevolution—was entirely speculative. His goal was not so much scientific as philosophical: to discredit the concept of design in nature. In his words, all organic change is “without purpose and insofar accidental.”

“This denial of purpose,” notes historian Jacques Barzun, “is Darwin’s distinctive contention.” It is what made Darwin’s theory different from earlier theories of evolution.


Up to this time, it seemed evident that living things are structured for a purpose: Eyes are for seeing, ears are for hearing, fins are for swimming, and wings are for flying. Each part of an organ is exquisitely adapted to the others, and all interact in a coordinated, goal-directed fashion to achieve the purpose of the whole.

An integrated structure of this kind is the hallmark of design. From the time of the ancient Greeks, it seemed clear to many that nature is teleological, from the Greek word telos, which means purpose or goal.

“Love Thy Body: Answering Hard Questions about Life and Sexuality”

Even modern biologists cannot avoid the language of teleology, although they often substitute phrases like “good engineering design.” Scientists say an eye is a good eye when it is fulfilling its purpose. A wing is a good wing when it is functioning the way it was intended.

The most impressive examples of engineering design, however, have become visible only with the invention of the electron microscope. The cell is replete with nanomachines (such as proteins and ribosome) far more complex than any molecular machines that have been artificially constructed.

Researchers conduct experiments that they describe as “reverse engineering,” as though they had a gadget in hand and were trying to reconstruct the process by which it was designed.

The smoking gun for design is in the cell’s nucleus—its command and control center. The DNA molecule stores a staggering amount of information. Geneticists talk about DNA as a “database” that stores “libraries” of genetic information. That information is “transcribed” into another biomolecule, RNA, which carries the genetic information into the cell’s cytoplasm. There, molecular machines in the cell “translate” the four-letter language of DNA/RNA nucleotides into the twenty-letter language of proteins.

The search for the origin of life has been reframed as the search for the origin of biological information.

And information implies the existence of a mind—an agent capable of intention, will, plan, purpose. The latest scientific evidence suggests that the New Testament has it right: “In the beginning was the Word” (John 1:1). In the original Greek, the term translated “Word” is logos, which also means reason, rational order, or information.

Darwin could not deny that nature appears to be designed, of course. But having embraced the philosophy of materialism, he tried to show that the appearance of design was an illusion. He hoped to demonstrate that although living structures seem to be teleological, in reality they are the result of blind, undirected material forces.

Darwin’s “original” thought, then, was a purely speculative idea proposed to shore up a metaphysical, even theological, belief. By denying purpose, he hoped to undermine the biological evidence for a Creator—a mind or intelligence behind the world of living things.

“Darwin deduced the theory of natural selection to explain the adaptations in which he had previously seen the handiwork of God,” explained the late Cornell biologist William Provine. “He understood immediately that if natural selection explained adaptations, and evolution by descent were true, then the argument from design was dead and all that went with it, namely the existence of a personal god, free will, life after death, immutable moral laws, and ultimate meaning in life.”

No wonder Richard Dawkins famously said, “Darwin made it possible to be an intellectually fulfilled atheist.”

Darwin Day may be a good time to clarify what the famous British naturalist actually bequeathed to the world—not an original scientific theory but an original creation myth suitable for atheists.

Nancy Pearcey is author of the newly released “Love Thy Body: Answering Hard Questions about Life and Sexuality,” on which this article is based. Her earlier books include “The Soul of Science” and “Total Truth.” She is editor at large of the Pearcey Report, and professor and scholar in residence at Houston Baptist University.



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