Politically Dead Wrong

Review of What is Darwinism? And Other Writings on Science and Religion by Charles Hodge Published in Origins & Design 17, no. 2

Review of What is Darwinism? And Other Writings on Science and Religion
Charles Hodge, Edited and with an introduction by Mark A. Knoll & David N. Livingstone
Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1994. 182 pp.

The central administration building at Princeton Theological Seminary is Hodge Hall, named after the most prominent and respected Presbyterian theologian in mid-nineteenth-century America. Charles Hodge taught theology at Princeton for fifty-six years, and his “Princeton Theo-logy” was a major force in American culture. Nowadays, however, most people at Princeton Seminary would rather not talk about him. At the very institution which rose to prominence under his intellectual leadership, Charles Hodge is a skeleton in the closet.*

Hodge earned his present oblivion by committing an egregious act of political incorrectness. He did not advocate racism; in fact, he was an outspoken defender of the unity of the human family, in a century when many others considered non-whites to be inferior species. Nor did he disparage women, or bash homosexuals, or encourage cruelty to animals, or inhibit academic freedom. No, Hodge’s crime was simply this: he opposed Darwinian evolution.

In the academic culture of the late twentieth century, Darwinism is the queen of the sciences. The context for all scholarly research and professional training is no longer Christian theism, but metaphysical naturalism, the doctrine that nature is all there is. This doctrine is justified by reference to the biological doctrine that all living things evolved from a common ancestor by random variations and survival of the fittest. People who challenge either doctrine are often shunned in a manner reminiscent of the excommunication of medieval heretics. Since no one likes to be shunned by one’s colleagues, most academics (including theologians) accept whatever scientists say about biological origins, no matter how thin the evidence or speculative the claim. In such an environment, it is politically incorrect to challenge Darwinism openly, and dead wrong to oppose it on theological grounds.

Yet that is exactly what Charles Hodge did. Fifteen years after the first publication of Darwin’s theory in 1859, Hodge published his objections to it in What Is Darwinism? By the turn of the century Hodge’s book was languishing in obscurity, but it has recently been re-published with help from Mark Noll and David Livingstone. Noll and Livingstone are historians with a special interest in the relationship between evangelical religion and Darwinian evolution, and both have previously written about Hodge. The present volume combines What Is Darwinism? with Asa Gray’s review of the book and with some of Hodge’s other writings on the subject. It includes an introduction by Noll and Livingstone and an excellent short bibliography for those interested in further reading.

A modern reader might be surprised to learn that Hodge was not a biblical fundamentalist who defended a literal interpretation of Genesis. Although he was a biblical theologian, he accepted scientific evidence and interpreted the “days” of Genesis as geological ages, so biblical chronology played virtually no role in his critique of Darwinism. Like many of his contemporaries, he faulted Darwin’s theory on scientific and philosophical grounds; it wasn’t warranted by the available evidence, and it made implausible assumptions. But his principal objections were theological. First, although Darwin acknowledged that God may have originally breathed life “into a few forms or into one,” he attributed their subsequent evolution to autonomous natural forces instead of to God’s superintending providence. Hodge objected that Darwinism, in this respect, was a form of deism (the view that God created the world but then turned it loose to run by itself).

Second, Darwinism excludes design from nature. According to “Mr. Darwin’s theory,” what appears to be design in living things is actually the result of “blind, unintelligent physical causes.” A theory of evolution could be deistic and yet be compatible with design in nature, but Darwinian evolution is inherently random and cannot produce designed results. Human beings, instead of being the crowning achievement of God’s purpose for creation, are for Darwin an unintended by-product of forces which had no particular goal. Hodge considered this exclusion of design “tantamount to atheism.”

Why would an exclusion of design be tantamount to atheism? Like many of his contemporaries in England and America, Hodge believed that design in nature provided evidence for God’s existence. But Hodge knew classical logic well enough to realize that natural theology did not warrant the charge that Darwin’s exclusion of design was tantamount to atheism. The logical form of the argument from design is: If living things are designed, then a designer (God) exists. In this argument, a denial of design does not entail a denial of God’s existence; to claim that it does would be the logical fallacy of “denying the antecedent.” Darwin’s theory undercut the argument to design, but this did not make Darwinism atheistic. After all, Immanuel Kant had undercut the argument from design on philosophical grounds a century earlier, and Hodge did not consider Kant an atheist. A person may reject natural theology and still find rational grounds for believing in God.

The God in which Christians believe, however, created human beings in His image – that is, by design. In other words, the Christian doctrine of God entails design. As John Henry Newman put it in his Letters and Diaries, “I believe in design because I believe in God; not in a God because I see design.” In effect, this is an argument TO design: If God exists, then living things are designed. But Darwin’s theory denied that human beings (or any other living things) were designed. In the argument TO design, this logically entails a denial of God’s existence. If human beings are not designed, then the God of Christianity does not exist.

Modern scholars sometimes portray Hodge as the defender of a provincial and outmoded natural theology (the argument from design played almost no role in Christian theology before the eighteenth century, and flourished only in nineteenth-century England and America). But Hodge’s opposition to Darwinism was actually based on a notion of design which is central to the Christian tradition, and pervades the writings of every major theologian, so it is a mistake to dismiss him as provincial and outmoded. Other modern scholars object that Hodge exaggerated Darwin’s exclusion of design. But when Harvard botanist Asa Gray, the most prominent defender of Darwinism in America, argued that Darwin’s theory was compatible with design, Darwin himself made it clear (in the conclusion of his Variation of Plants and Animals Under Domestication) that Gray was wrong.

So Hodge did not argue for a literal interpretation of Genesis chronology, nor was he primarily a defender of natural theology. He faithfully represented the mainstream Christian theological tradition when he affirmed the centrality of design, and he accurately represented “Mr. Darwin’s theory” when he pointed to its exclusion of design. The two are utterly incompatible with each other. Modern scholars who want to preserve a place for Christianity in the reigning Darwinian paradigm sometimes claim that the two ARE compatible, but they must be talking about something other than Charles Darwin’s theory, or something other than the Christian theological tradition.

Design is an essential corollary of Christian belief in God, but Darwin’s theory excludes design and thus logically excludes belief in God. This is the essence of Hodge’s critique of Darwinism. Hodge wrote in the heat of intellectual battle, however, when the issues were at least as confusing as they are now. Reading What Is Darwinism? is not unlike reading classics in the history of science, in which the central idea is never presented with textbook clarity, but is always obscured by details and detours which only a historian could love. As historians, Noll and Livingstone focus on some of those details and detours in their introduction. As a theologian, I prefer to go to the conceptual heart of Hodge’s critique, and I found their introduction less penetrating than it might have been. But I am delighted to see What Is Darwinism? in print again. The Darwinian controversies are far from over, and Charles Hodge’s contribution to them is as relevant now as it was in 1874.

* There exists now, however, an active “Charles Hodge Society” at the seminary (Charles Hodge Society, PTS, Box 821, Princeton, NJ, 08542).

Jonathan Wells

Senior Fellow, Center for Science and Culture
Jonathan Wells has received two Ph.D.s, one in Molecular and Cell Biology from the University of California at Berkeley, and one in Religious Studies from Yale University. A Senior Fellow at Discovery Institute's Center for Science and Culture, he has previously worked as a postdoctoral research biologist at the University of California at Berkeley and the supervisor of a medical laboratory in Fairfield, California. He also taught biology at California State University in Hayward and continues to lecture on the subject.