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Quotations from Charles Darwin on "Design"

Further Quotations from Darwin on "Design"

The subject of the evolution of complex structures also deserves a little aside on Darwin's opinion of the "design" argument in general. The quotations below are from The Life and Letters of Charles Darwin:

  • "With respect to the theological view of the question. This is always painful to me. I am bewildered. I had no intention to write atheistically. But I own that I cannot see as plainly as others do, and as I should wish to do, evidence of design and beneficence on all sides of us. 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 Ichneumonidae [wasps] with the express intention of their [larva] feeding within the living bodies of Caterpillars, or that a cat should play with mice. Not believing this, I see no necessity in the belief that the eye was expressly designed. On the other, I cannot anyhow be contented to view this wonderful universe, and especially the nature of man, and to conclude that everything is the result of brute force. I am inclined to look at everything as resulting from designed laws, with the details, whether good or bad, left to the working out of what we may call chance. Not that this notion at all [original italics] satisfies me. I feel most deeply that the whole subject is too profound for the human intellect. A dog might as well speculate on the mind of Newton. Let each man hope and believe what he can. Certainly I agree with you that my views are not at all necessarily atheistical. The lightning kills a man, whether a good one or bad one, owing to the excessively complex action of natural laws. A child (who may turn out an idiot) is born by the action of even more complex laws, and I can see no reason why a man, or other animals, may not have been aboriginally produced by other laws, and that all these laws may have been expressly designed by an omniscient Creator, who foresaw every future event and consequence. But the more I think the more bewildered I become; as indeed I probably have shown by this letter. Most deeply do I feel your generous kindness and interest. Yours sincerely and cordially, Charles Darwin"

    (Darwin to Asa Gray, [a minister] May 22, 1860)

  • "One word more on 'designed laws' and 'undesigned results.' I see a bird which I want for food, take my gun and kill it, I do this designedly. An innocent and good man stands under a tree and is killed by a flash of lightning. Do you believe (and I really should like to hear) that God designedly killed this man? Many or most persons do believe this; I can't and don't. If you believe so, do you believe that when a swallow snaps up a gnat that God designed that that particular swallow should snap up that particular gnat at that particular instant? I believe that the man and the gnat are in the same predicament. If the death of neither man nor gnat are designed, I see no good reason to believe that their first birth or production should be necessarily designed."

    (Darwin to Asa Gray July 1860)
  • "Your question what would convince me of Design is a poser. If I saw an angel come down to teach us good, and I was convinced from others seeing him that I was not mad, I should believe in design. If I could be convinced thoroughly that life and mind was in an unknown way a function of other imponderable force, I should be convinced. If man was made of brass or iron and no way connected with any other organism which had ever lived, I should perhaps be convinced. But this is childish writing."

    (Darwin to Asa Gray, Sept. 17 [1861?])
  • Did God ordain, Darwin asked, "that the crop and tail-feathers of the pigeon should vary in order that the fancier might make his grotesque pouter and fantail breeds? Did he cause the frame and mental qualities of the dog to vary in order that a breed might be formed of indomitable ferocity, with faws fitted to pin down the bull for man's brutal sport?" Surely no one could admit divine providence in these matters! Darwin concluded, then, by parity of reasoning, that "no shadow of reason can be assigned for the belief that variations, alike in nature and the result of the same general laws, which have been the groundwork through natural selection of the formation of the most perfectly adapted animals in the world, man included, were intentionally and specially guided."

    (Darwin in Variations of Animals and Plants Under Domestication, II [D. Appleton and Company, 1875], P.415, as cited by Ric Machuga in his article, "Clockwork Origins?" in Books & Culture: A Christian Review, Jan./Feb. 1996, P. 19.)
  • "...With respect to Design, I feel more inclined to show a white flag than to fire my usual long-range shot. I like to try and ask you a puzzling question, but when you return the compliment I have great doubts whether it is a fair way of arguing. If anything is designed, certainly man must be: one's 'inner consciousness' (though a false guide) tells one so; yet I cannot admit that man's rudimentary mammae [nipples]... were designed. If I was to say I believed this, I should believe it in the same incredible manner as the orthodox believe the Trinity in Unity. You say that you are in a haze; I am in thick mud; the orthodox [creationist Christian] would say in fetid, abominable mud; yet I cannot keep out of the question. My dear Gray, I have written a deal of nonsense. Yours most cordially, C. Darwin"

    (Darwin to Asa Gray Dec. 11, 1861)

Creationists should get to know the real Darwin, not some caricature of the man and his ideas based on a few quotations lifted out of context. I do hope that any creationists reading the above two paragraphs from Darwin's letters will not cite merely the final sentences, namely, "...this is childish writing," and, "I have written a deal of nonsense." Of course, if such quotations were lifted out of context and began appearing in creationist magazines, they would fit nicely with others we have examined in issues of this newsletter!


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