Darwinism and the Argument to Design

Dialogue & Alliance 4, no. 4

The controversy between Christianity and Darwinism involves a number of complex issues. One of these is a conflict over design. According to the received view, the root of the conflict is that Darwinism undermines the argument that God’s existence can be proved from design in living things.

It seems to me that there is a basic conflict between Christianity and Darwinism on the issue of design. In my view, however, the source of the conflict is not the argument that God’s existence can be proved from design, but something far more serious. The purpose of this essay is to analyze the logical function of design in the controversy between Christianity and Darwinism.


As used in the following discussion, “Christianity” refers to the mainstream theological traditions of the Eastern Orthodox, Roman Catholic, and Protestant branches of Christianity. To make the discussion manageable, I have chosen two representative theologians from each branch: Athanasius and Maximus from Orthodoxy; Augustine and Aquinas from Catholicism; and Luther and Calvin from Protestantism. The only issue of interest here is design: how does design function in the thought of these representative theologians?

The first noteworthy observation is that arguments for the existence of God from design in the creation are almost completely absent. Aquinas, to be sure, referred in his Summa Theologiae to the tendency of natural bodies to act for ends, as a way to prove the existence of God; and he referred in his Summa Contra Gentiles to the argument that God’s existence can be proved from the general order of the world.(1) In the context of Aquinas’ work as a whole, however, these references are isolated and almost insignificant. Indeed, it has been argued that Aquinas did not advocate a natural theology at all, but was merely cataloging arguments used by others.(2) Likewise, although Calvin wrote that God “daily discloses himself in the whole workmanship of creation,” he considered the disclosure to be “in vain” (because of the fall) without the “spectacles” of scripture.(3)

In fact, the argument for God’s existence from design in the creation was something of an aberration in the history of Christian theology, its prominence being limited to Anglo-American thought from the end of the seventeenth century to the middle of the nineteenth century. References to design are prominent in the history of Christian theology, but not as premises in proofs for the existence of God. Instead, design consistently functions as a conclusion which follows from the nature of God. God’s existence thus implies design, rather then vice versa.

For example, Athanasius affirmed, in opposition to Arianism, that the full divinity of the Logos is the basic starting point for all Christian theology. This means that the generation of the Logos must not have been an act of God’s will, as though God could have chosen to be without the Logos or as though there could have been a time when the Logos did not exist. To be fully divine, the Logos must have been generated not by will but by nature: “A man by counsel builds a house, but by nature he begets a son; and what is in building began to come into beginning at will, and is external to the maker; but the son is proper offspring of the father’s essence, and is not external to him.” Therefore, the fundamental difference between the Logos and the creation is that the former is eternally generated by nature, from God’s own substance; while the latter is produced by an act of God’s will, and has a beginning in time.(4)

The creation, then, unlike the Logos, is the result of divine counsel or deliberation. Athanasius emphatically rejected the notion that “things have come into being of themselves, and in chance fashion,” or that things have originated independently of purpose. On the contrary, “counselling goes before things which once were not, as in the case of all creatures,” and the Son “is Himself the Living Counsel of the Father, by which all things have come to be.” The Son, however, like the Father, is “unalterable and unchangeable”; so the divine counsel is eternal, and God’s will and purpose were with God “before the world.” Whatever exists is thus preceded by “its pattern in God.”(5)

Athanasius maintained that God’s creatorship, like God’s providence, extended to small details: “If then it be not unworthy of God to exercise His Providence, even down to things so small, a hair of the head, and a sparrow, and the grass of the field, also it was not unworthy of Him to make them. For what things are the subjects of His Providence, of those He is Maker through his proper Word.”(6) Since God’s providence and creatorship extend ” even down to things so small,” they extend a fortiori to the human species. God not only “fashioned the race of men” in “His own image,” but also foresaw the fall and provided for redemption: just as a wise architect would make provisions for repairing a house “should it any time become dilapidated,” so “in the same way prior to us is the repair of our salvation founded in Christ.”

In other words, the incarnation of the Logos in a human body was predestined from eternity. Christ’s body, which “is of no different sort from ours,”was thus made, at the proper time, according to God’s eternal plan.(7)

Maximus the Confessor, in opposition to Origen’s implicit claim that God creates by necessity, relied on the Athanasian distinction between nature and will to reaffirm God’s freedom. According to Maximus, the logoi, or patterns, of all creatures exist eternally in the mind of God, but they are the products of God’s will rather than God’s nature. At the appropriate time, God creates substantial realities according to their pre-existent logoi, which are thus the bases for diversity and movement in the corporeal universe. Therefore, all things are the intended products of God’s creative act. This does not mean that every detail of every being conforms perfectly to its pe-existent logos. Maximus allowed for some variation due to the tropos, or mode of existence, which affects the extent to which a being actualizes its eternal and unchanging logos. Nevertheless, by affirming that God’s will is the origin not only of all created beings, but also of their pre-existent patterns, Maximus safeguarded God’s sovereignty and purposefulness.(8)

Human beings, in particular, are created according to the will of God. Whereas Origen had taught that human bodies were the result of the fall of pre-existent souls, Maximus held that God creates body and soul together. Though body and soul are distinguishable, they are inseparable, and only together do they form a complete species. The one constitutive factor for both is the will of God, whose divinity is reflected in the psycho-physical unity of the whole human being, and not just the soul.(9) According to Maximus, the human being is designed to be a microcosm in which the mental, spiritual, and physical aspects of creation are united. Furthermore, this microcosm is intended to unite with, and partake of, the divine nature, thereby uniting the world with its creator. This cosmic union, which is finally achieved in the incarnation of the Logos in Christ, is the fulfillment of God’s original purpose for creating the universe. The incarnation was thus foreordained, independently of the fall, from eternity.(10)

Augustine, opposing the cosmogonic dualism of the Manicheans, affirmed that the creator of all that exists is God: “Whatever is, since it is, and in whatever degree it is, has its existence from the one God.” In defense of God’s sovereignty, Augustine insisted that all created beings have their forms or rationes aeternae in “the very mind of the Creator.” All things are thus made according to God’s eternal and unchanging plan: “Because therefore the Word of God is One, by which all things were made, which is the unchangeable truth, all things are simultaneously therein, potentially and unchangeably; not only those things which are now in this whole creation, but also those which have been and those which shall be.” In other words, “the Wisdom of God, by which all things have been made contains everything according to design before it is made.”(11)

According to Augustine, God’s creatorship extends to all forms of existence: “even the lowest form is of God. And the same may be said of species.” The “lowliest and the smallest creatures are obviously fashioned by such a remarkable plan that a moment’s serious attention to them fills the beholder with inexpressible awe and wonder”; and if they appear to us to be tiny and contemptible, it may only be that “on account of our pride, God appointed that tiny and contemptible creature to torment us.” But if God’s design extends even to the lowest forms of life, it extends a fortiori to human beings, who were “certainly” created in the form which God foreordained “before the ages.”(12)

Although it is not completely clear whether Augustine believed that foreordination extends to the precise form of every individual, it is clear that Augustine considered human beings and every other kind of creature to be designed by God: “all things are created on a rational plan, and man not by the same rational plan as horses, for it is absurd to think this. Therefore individual things are created in accord with rationes unique to them.”(13)

Aquinas endeavored to synthesize Christian theology with Aristotelian philosophy. Since Augustine’s notion of the rationes aeternae was borrowed from the Neoplatonists (though unlike Plato or the Neoplatonists, Augustine placed the ideas in the mind of the supreme deity), and since Aristotle had rejected the Platonic doctrine of ideas, it might be expected that Aquinas would reject the Augustinian doctrine of ideas. Quite to the contrary, however, Aquinas considered it “necessary to suppose ideas in the divine mind,” just as “the likeness of a house pre-exists in the mind of the builder.” According to Aquinas, things receive their determinate forms because “in the divine wisdom are the types of all things, which types we have called ideas, i.e., exemplar forms existing in the divine mind.”(14)

The fact that Aquinas’ view of the divine ideas resembles Augustine’s, however, does not mean that Aquinas merely incorporated the doctrine in his theology out of respect for authority. Although the language may be borrowed from Augustine, the concept follows directly from central aspects of Aquinas’ doctrine of God. First, it follows from God’s intelligent, purposeful, and free creatorship. Since “the world was not made by chance, but by God acting by His intellect,” therefore “there must exist in the divine mind a form to the likeness of which the world was made. And in this the notion of idea consists.” The doctrine safeguards God’s intelligent purposefulness, since it necessarily implies previous planning in the production of creatures, and “those who say that all things happen by chance cannot admit the existence of ideas.” It also safeguards God’s freedom, in opposition to the notion that the world emanates by necessity from God’s nature. Creatures pre-exist in God’s nature only “after the mode of intellect,” but they “proceed from Him after the mode of will.” Since “a form considered by the intellect does not move or cause anything except through the will,” it is God’s free will and not God’s nature which determines what is actually created.(15)

Second, the doctrine of ideas is implied in the doctrine of the trinity, since “in the Word is implied the operative idea of what God makes.” Just as there “pre-exists in the mind of a craftsman a certain image of his external work,” so also does there “pre-exist in the mind of one who pronounces an exterior word a certain archetype of it.” This archetype, or “interior word,” is the word of God; and the ideas of things to be made are thus metaphorically called the word of God. Aquinas interpreted the prologue to the Gospel of John accordingly: “In the beginning was the Word” means the things originate from God’s intellect and purpose, “and not from chance.”(16)

In particular, the human species was deliberately designed by God. Although it is possible that some species distinctions do not have their source in the divine ideas, Aquinas maintains that the human soul is “made to the image of God,” and that “God fashioned the human body” in order to “make it suitably proportioned to the soul.”(17)

Luther considered the essential teaching of the Old and New Testaments to be our total dependence on God in Christ. Our total dependence on God, in turn, presupposes that we owe our very existence to God as our creator.(18) For God to be the creator means, for Luther, that “the creation is not fortuitous but the exclusive work of divine foresight.” From all eternity, God “has a Word, a speech, a thought, or a conversation with Himself in His divine heart”; and from this conversation, “heaven and earth, all creatures, both the visible and the invisible, come into being.” Therefore, “all His works are some words of God, created by the uncreated Word.” Since God creates out of nothing, which means without the need for any instrumentality or pre-existing material, Luther considers creation to be “a kind of birth.” This birth, however, takes place “at the command of God,” as a product of God’s will rather than as a pantheistic emanation from God’s nature. But Luther is less concerned with issues such as this than he is with the immediate significance of the doctrine of creation for the faith of the believer: we should know, for example, that even ” great sea animals” are created by God, “lest we be frightened;” then “we may more readily believe that God can preserve us too, even though we are far smaller beings.” Similarly, according to Luther, God tells us in Isaiah 40:28, “I have made all these things, they are my creatures, they are under My control, they cannot touch the least hair of your head. Do not be afraid.” God’s creatorship, then, means that “we must take note of God’s power that we may be completely without doubt about the things which God promises in His word.”(19)

It is not merely the initial creation of the universe which demonstrates God’s power. Luther explained that God is not like a carpenter who “turns over the house to its owner” when he finishes constructing it; instead, God “continues to preserve His creation through the Word.” In fact, “if the Creator, who continues to work forever and ever, and His Co-worker were to interrupt Their work, all would go to wrack and ruin in a twinkling.” Luther draws from this the lesson that “as we human beings did not create ourselves, so we can do nothing at all to keep ourselves alive for a single moment by our own power. The fact that I grow and develop is God’s work alone,” and Luther meant this in the strongest possible sense. He even interpreted Isaiah 44:24 as being equivalent to a statement by God that “whatever is done, I alone have done it.”(20) Modern commentators point out that, for Luther, God is thus the only true agent. God does absolutely everything, and whatever happens is a direct result of God’s activity. Therefore, created beings are what Luther calls larva dei, or visible masks of the invisible God, testifying to God’s omnipresent power, and encouraging us to “fear and trust only in God.”(21)

Given Luther’s belief that God does all and creatures can do nothing, it is unlikely that he would attribute even the smallest detail of creation to anything other than God’s purposeful activity. Among the forms of life that he specifically attributes to God’s design are “herbs and trees,” which were created “for our sustenance.” He also considers the mouse to be “created by the Word of God with a definite plan in view,” so that “here, too, we admire God’s creation and workmanship.” Furthermore, “the same thing can be said about flies.” Above all, however, man and woman were “created by the special plan and providence of God,” specifically “for the knowledge and worship of God.”(22)

Calvin considered the creation a “theater of the divine glory,” but because of the fall “we have not the eyes to see this unless they be illumined by the inner revelation of God through faith.” Once we have been given the “spectacles” of scripture, however, “the most perfect way of seeking God” is “to contemplate him in his works.” Through the eyes of faith the believer sees design in the creation, which then nourishes that faith in return. Thus “although it is not the chief evidence for faith, yet it is the first evidence in the order of nature, to be mindful that wherever we cast our eyes, all things they meet are works of God, and at the same time to ponder with pious meditation to what end God created them.”(23)

Of all God’s works, the “most excellent example” is humankind. Calvin interprets the “let us make man” of Genesis 1:26 as God’s way of “commending to our attention the dignity of our natures,” since God made all other creatures by command, but “enters into consultation” before making us. Furthermore, human beings are created in the divine image, the “chief seat” of which is in the mind and heart, though some “scintillations” shine in every part, including the body. Human beings are especially created “to seek God” and “to behold the works of God,” and they are endowed with reason and under-standing “that they might acknowledge their Creator.” The rest of the universe, in turn, was “established especially for the sake of mankind.” According to Calvin, “the world was originally created for this end, that every part of it should tend to the happiness of man.” God “filled the earth, waters, and air with living things, and brought forth an abundance of fruits,” and thereby “shows his wonderful goodness toward us.”(24)

Calvin emphasized that God not only created but also preserves and governs the world. In fact, according to Calvin, God completely controls all events. Without denying the existence of secondary causes, Calvin nevertheless insisted that “nothing happens except what is knowingly and willingly decreed” by God. Calvin specifically objected not only to those who would “substitute nature for God” by making nature “the artificer of all things,” but also to those who would attribute anything less than absolute control to God. Included in this latter category are people who “in place of God’s providence substitute bare permission — as if God sat in a watchtower awaiting chance events,” as well as people who attribute to God a providence which merely “by a general motion revolves and drives the system of the universe” but which “does not specifically direct the action of individual creatures.” For Calvin, God “so regulates all things that nothing takes place without his deliberation,” and “not one drop of rain falls without God’s sure command.” What may appear to be a chance occurrence is “only that of which the reason and cause are secret,” and the secret cause is God’s foreordination. Though “for us they are fortuitous,” such events are “governed by God’s incomprehensible plans.”(25) Since there is no such thing as chance, according to Calvin, God must have designed every detail of every living thing.

This survey of representative theologians demonstrates that design was important to all of them. It was not important, however, as a reason for believing in God; instead, it followed as a logical consequence from their understanding of God’s nature. In a sense, they used, not an argument from design, but an argument to design. Although they differed in their notions of what creatures, exactly, were designed by God, they all agreed that human beings were designed, and that this claim is central to Christian belief.

In Christian theology, then, two fundamentally different design arguments can be distinguished:

The Argument From Design

If human beings are designed, then God exists.

Human beings are designed.

Therefore, God exists.

The Argument To Design

If God exists, then human beings are designed.

God exists.

Therefore, human beings are designed.

In a discussion of Darwinism, it is important to note that the logical consequences of denying design differ radically in the case of these two arguments. It would be illogical, for example, to conclude from a denial of design, via the argument from design, that God does not exist: this would be the fallacy of denying the antecedent. On the other hand, it follows necessarily (by modus tollens) that a denial of design, in the argument to design, is tantamount to a denial of God’s existence. Since the argument to design is prominent in the mainstream theological traditions of Christianity, any theory which denies that human beings are designed would amount, for those traditions, to an affirmation of atheism. (This was the reasoning used by Princeton theologian Charles Hodge in his 1874 book, What Is Darwinism?)(26)

The question, then, is: does Darwinism claim that human beings are not designed?


It is well known that Charles Darwin did not originate the notion of evolution. Etymologically, “evolution” means “unrolling,” and it was first used in biology about two centuries ago to refer to the development of an embryo. As used in modern biology, however, evolution refers in its most general sense to the origin and diversification of living organisms, in which later stages are somehow descended or derived from earlier ones. Although Darwin contributed to the wide acceptance of biological evolution by adducing a large amount of evidence for it, his principal contribution was to propose a theory about its mechanism. Since the general phenomenon of evolution is distinct from any particular theory about its mechanism, one may be an evolutionist without being a Darwinist (as, for example, Lamarck was an evolutionist before Darwin.)

As used in the following discussion, Darwinism refers to the theory set forth by Charles Darwin himself in the various editions of The Origin of Species, The Descent of Man, The Variation of Plants and Animals Under Domestication, and in his correspondence. Darwin’s theory ascribes evolution to the natural selection of small variations which occur among the individuals in any given species. According to the theory, those variations are random with respect to the fitness of the in-dividual or to the direction of evolution (i.e., they do not arise in response to the needs of an organism or in accordance with any plan), and any given environment “selects” (in a manner analogous to a breeder of plants or livestock) those individuals whose variations render them more likely to survive (i.e., natural selection is survival of the fittest).

Harvard botanist Asa Gray, Darwin’s most influential ally in nineteenth-century America, defended every aspect of Darwin’s Origin of Species except its apparent exclusion of design. Gray believed that naturalists are justified in seeing design in the variations which give rise to species, and he advised Darwin to assume “that variation has been led along certain beneficial lines. Streams flowing over a sloping plain by gravitation (here the counterpart of natural selection) may have worn their actual channels as they flowed; yet their particular courses may have been assigned.” Gray also compared variations to raindrops: those which fall into the ocean “are as much without a final cause as the incipient varieties which come to nothing! Does it therefore follow that the rains which are bestowed upon the soil with such rule and average regularity were not designed to support vegetable and animal life?” Gray did not insist, however, that all variations must be designed: “the accidental element may play its part in Nature without negativing design in the theist’s view.” Indeed, the accidental element in Darwin’s theory is the basis of its advantage in explaining useless or harmful adaptations. But Gray was convinced that useful adaptations testify to design: since natural selection merely picks out variations which are independently presented to it, the presence of design in the result indicates that at least some variations are designed.(27)

Darwin disagreed. He wrote to Gray that he was “charmed” with the stream metaphor, but he concluded his next book, The Variation of Plants and Animals Under Domestication, with a lengthy refutation of Gray’s position.(28) Using the metaphor of a house built by an architect utilizing uncut fragments of stone, Darwin explained that “the fragments of stone, though indispensable to the architect, bear to the edifice built by him the same relation which the fluctuating variations of each organic being bear to the varied and admirable structures ultimately acquired by its modified descendants.” The shape of each fragment “may be called accidental, but this is not strictly correct; for the shape of each depends on a long sequence of events, all obeying natural laws.” Nevertheless, “in regard to the use to which the fragments may be put, their shape may be strictly said to be accidental.” In Darwin’s metaphor, of course, the architect is natural selection.(29) Darwin continued:

Can it be reasonably maintained that the Creator intentionally ordered, if we use the words in any ordinary sense, that certain fragments of rock should assume certain shapes so that the builder might erect his edifice? If the various laws which have determined the shape of each fragment were not predetermined for the builder’s sake, can it with any greater probability be maintained that He specially ordained for the sake of the breeder each of the innumerable variations in our domestic animals and plants; – many of these variations being of no service to man, and not beneficial, far more often injurious, to the creatures themselves? Did He ordain 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 jaws fitted to pin down the bull for man’s brutal sport? But if we give up the principle in one case – if we do not admit that the variations of the primeval dog were intentionally guided in order that the greyhound, for instance, that perfect image of symmetry and vigor, might be formed – 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.(30)

In his correspondence, Darwin elaborated on his claim that variations could not be designed. His reasoning can be divided into three categories: scientific, philosophical, and theological. The first category includes the observation that the vast majority of variations are useless or harmful rather than beneficial. It thus makes no sense to Darwin to say that variations are designed: if someone says “God ordained that at some time and place a dozen slight variations should arise, and that one of them alone should be preserved in the struggle for life and the other eleven should perish in the first or first few generations, then the saying seems to me mere verbiage. It comes to merely saying that everything that is, is ordained.” The second category of reasons includes the philosophical assumption that naturalistic science is competent to investigate and explain the origin of species. The idea that “each variation has been providentially arranged seems to me to make Natural Selection entirely superfluous, and indeed takes the whole case of the appearance of new species out of the range of science.” The third category includes Darwin’s conviction that designing each slight variation would be beneath God’s dignity and contrary to God’s benevolence. Referring once again to the breeding of domestic pigeons, Darwin notes that “it seems preposterous that a maker of the universe should care about the crop of a pigeon solely to please man’s silly fancies.” Furthermore, “I cannot persuade myself that a beneficent and omnipotent God would have designedly created the Ichneumonidae with the express intention of their 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.”(31)

Darwin reasons that unless all variations are designed, none of them are. If the “interposition of the Deity” is uncalled for in the case of domestic variations, he could “see no reason whatever for believing in such interpositions in the case of natural beings.” Or “if anything is designed, certainly man must be,” but Darwin “cannot admit that man’s rudimentary mammae…were designed,” therefore (by implication) man is not designed. Such all-or-nothing reasoning seems to be based primarily on Darwin’s commitment to naturalistic explanation: either the origin of species can be explained in exclusively naturalistic terms, or it cannot really be explained at all. Darwin writes that he “would give absolutely nothing for the theory of Natural Selection, if it requires miraculous additions at any one stage of descent.” To a lesser extent, his reasoning may have been based on his understanding of the idea of God: if the deity were going to pre-ordain any details, then an omnipotent and omniscient deity would presumably pre-ordain all; but a wise and benevolent deity would not ordain many of the details which are actually observed; therefore (by implication), no details are pre-ordained. Whatever the basis, Darwin’s reasoning leads him to conclude that all variations are undesigned.(32)

Darwin also denies that natural selection, the second major element in his theory, could lead to designed results. Although he compares natural selection to an architect, he repeatedly denies that he intends to attribute conscious agency to it. He repudiates the anthropomorphic connotations which many of his contemporaries associate with the selection metaphor, insisting that he uses it only “as a geologist does the word denudation – for an agent, expressing the result of several combined actions.” Since natural selection is power-less without variations, which arise independently of it, he sometimes wishes he had used the term “natural preservation”; but by the time the confusion became obvious, the former term was “so largely used abroad and at home that I doubt whether it could be given up.” In addition to this negative reason for retaining the term, Darwin has positive reasons as well: natural selection is analogous to artificial selection not only in its dependence on variations, but also in the impressiveness of its results. Natural selection solves the problem of how organisms become adapted to the conditions of life, “as artificial selection solves the adaptation of domestic races for man’s use.” Furthermore, the former is more efficient than the latter: a domestic breeder “scarcely selects except external and visible characters, and secondly, he selects for his own good; whereas under nature, characters of all kinds are selected exclusively for each creature’s own good.” Darwin can thus see “no limit to the perfection of the coadaptations which could be effected by Natural Selection.” It is still the case, however, that “natural selection means only the preservation of variations which independently arise.”(33)

In what senses, then, could natural selection be said to produce designed results? One twentieth-century study of Darwin’s own views on the subject concludes that there are at least three such senses: natural selection [1] will always produce adaptation of the organism to its environment, [2] will never produce in an organism structures that are harmful to it, and [3] will never produce structures in one organism solely for the benefit of another. Since these can legitimately be regarded as “purposes,” it would be incorrect to say that Darwin considers natural selection totally purposeless. On the other hand, natural selection does seem to exclude the claim that specific organs or organic forms are designed. According to Darwin, not even organs of sight or the order of primates, much less the human eye or the human species, could be considered designed results of natural selection.(34)

Therefore, Darwin concluded that “there seems to be no more design in the variability of organic beings, and in the action of natural selection, than in the course which the winds blow.”(35) This does not mean, however, that Darwin is willing to attribute every aspect of evolution to chance. He repeatedly affirmed his “inward conviction” that “the Universe is not the result of chance.” Although he distrusted this conviction, since he believed that the human mind is descended from the minds of lower animals, he appeared to be genuinely persuaded of “the extreme difficulty or rather impossibility of conceiving this immense and wonderful universe” as “the result of blind chance or necessity.” This put him in “a simple muddle; I cannot look at the universe as the result of blind chance, yet I can see no evidence of beneficent design, or indeed of design of any kind, in the details.” Although he feared that the issue may ultimately be incomprehensible, he is “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.”(36)

This last statement is probably the best summary of Darwin’s mature position on design. Although it is likely that he never resolved the question of ultimate purpose to his own satisfaction, he at least believed that his theory does not exclude all design: someone could embrace Darwinism and yet consistently maintain that natural laws, including the laws of variation and natural selection, are designed. According to Darwin’s own understanding of the theory, however, specific details are due to chance, not merely in the sense that their causes are unknown but in the sense that they are really accidental. Neither of the two major elements in the theory can be plausibly interpreted as directed: not variation, because it is predominantly useless or harmful; and not natural selection, because its only function is to insure that the few survivors of the struggle for life will be better able to withstand the next round. If evolution is really due to these two factors, then the particular forms taken by organisms, species, genera, and orders are accidental. Therefore, Darwin’s version of Darwinism excludes the possibility that any specific form of life is designed. In particular, it implies that human beings, as the latest products of an inherently directionless process, must be regarded as undesigned.

Note that this issue here is not methodological agnosticism with regard to design, but a complete exclusion of designed results. The former, it seems, is a necessary characteristic of all scientific theories, and in that sense such theories might be called “ateleological.” Darwin’s theory, however, (at least according to his interpretation of it) takes a further step and might properly be called “anti-teleological.” To illustrate: Newton’s laws of motion ignore the issue of design, but they may be used to produce designed results; given a complete knowledge of initial conditions, the result can be predicted. Darwin’s theory, however, precludes any determinate outcome of evolution. In particular, Darwinism excludes design in human beings.

Thus there is a fundamental conflict between Darwin’s theory and the Christian theological tradition. The conflict is not between Christianity and evolution, and has nothing to do with natural theology. For the Christian theologians surveyed here, a basic consequence of Christian belief in God is the belief that the human species was designed by God. Darwin denies the latter, and thus logically denies the former as well.

There are, of course, people who disagree, and who regard Christianity and Darwinism as perfectly compatible with each other. The two cannot be regarded as compatible, however, unless the former is taken to mean something other than what the mainstream theological tradition through the Protestant Reformation has meant by Christianity, or the latter is taken to mean something other than what Charles Darwin meant by Darwinism.


  1. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae, trans. by Fathers of the English Dominican Province (New Tork: Benziger, 1947), Ia, q. 2. art. 3; Aquinas, Summa Contra Gentiles, trans. by Anton Pegis and James Anderson (London: Notre Dame, 1955-1956), chap. 13.
  2. Victor Preller, Divine Science and the Science of God (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1967), 258.
  3. John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, ed. by John McNeill (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1960), I:5,1; I:5,14; I:6.
  4. Athanasius, “Discourses Against the Arians,” 1.29; 3.62 (all references to works by Athanasius are in Select Works and Letters, in Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, ed. by Philip Schaff [Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1974]).
  5. Athanasius, “On the Incarnation of the Word,” 2; Athanasius, “Discourses Against the Arians,” 3.61-3.65; 1.35-1.36; 2,76-2.78; Athanasius, “Against the Heathen,” 4.
  6. Athanasius, “Discourses Against the Arians,” 2.64, 1.26, 2.24-25; Athanasius, “Defense of the Nicene Definition,” 7-9.
  7. Athanasius, “Discourses Against the Arians,” 2.25, 2.75-78; Athanasius, “Against the Heathen,” 2-3; Athanasius, “On the Incarnation of the Word,” 8-18.
  8. George Florovsky, Collected Works (Belmont, MA: Nordland, 1976), 4:61; Florovsky, “Idea of Creation in Christian Philosophy,” Eastern Churches Quarterly 8 (1949-1950), 63-65, 73-74; John Meyendorff, Byzantine Theology (New York: Fordham, 1974), 131-134; Meyendorff, Christ in Eastern Christian Thought (Washington: Corpus, 1969), 100-101; Polycarp Sherwood, in Maximus, The Ascetic Life, Four Centuries on Charity (New York: Longmans, 1955), 46-47; Sherwood, Earlier Ambigua (New York: Herder, 1955), 165-176; Lars Thunberg, Microcosm and Mediator (Lund: Gleerup Lund, 1955), 81, 96-97, 100-101.
  9. Meyendorff, Byzantine Theology, 140-142; Maximus, The Ascetic Life, Four Centuries on Charity, 52-53; Thunberg, Microcosm and Mediator, 100-104.
  10. Meyendorff, Byzantine Theology, 160; Meyendorff, Christ in Eastern Christian Thought, 105-106; Thunberg, Microcosm and Mediator, 457; Constantine Tsirpanlis, “Aspects of Maximian Theology of Politics, History, and the Kingdom of God,” Patristic and Byzantine Review 1 (1981), 5-7.
  11. Augustine, “Two Souls: Against the Manichaeans,” 6.9, in Writings Against the Manichaeans and Against the Donatists, ed. by Philip Schaff (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1974); Augustine, Eighty-three Different Questions, trans. by David Mosher (Washington, DC: Catholic University Press, 1982), q. 46; Augustine, On the Holy Trinity, ed. by Philip Schaff (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1974), 4.1; Augustine, Homilies on the Gospel of John, ed. by Philip Schaff (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans), 1:15.
  12. Augustine, “Of True Religion,” in Earlier Writings, trans. by J.H.S. Burleigh (Philadelphia: Westminster), 18.35; Augustine, The Literal Meaning of Genesis, trans. by John Taylor (New York: Newman Press, 1982), 5.21-5.22, 6.15; Augustine, Homilies on the Gospel of John, 1:15.
  13. Augustine, Letters, trans. by William Parsons (Washington, DC: Catholic University Press, 1951), 14; Augustine, Eighty-three Different Questions, q. 46.
  14. Aquinas, Summa Theologiae, Ia, q. 15, art. 1; q. 44, art. 3. See also F.C. Copleston, A History of Philosophy (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1962), vol 1, pt. 1, 188-205; vol. 1, pt. 2, 35-45.
  15. Aquinas, Summa Theologiae, Ia, q. 15, art. 1; q. 19, art. 4; Aquinas, Truth, trans. by Robert Mulligan (Chicago: Regnery, 1952), q. 3, art. 1; Aquinas, Summa Contra Gentiles, bk. 1, chap. 72, art. 6.
  16. Aquinas, Summa Theologiae, Ia, q. 34, art. 3; Aquinas, Truth, q. 4, art. 1; Aquinas, Commentary on the Gospel of St. John, in Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, ed. by Philip Schaff [Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1974]), 65.
  17. Aquinas, Summa Theologiae, Ia, q. 15, art. 2; q. 14, art. 9.
  18. Paul Althaus, Theology of Martin Luther (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1966), 129; Althaus, “Schöpfungsgedanke bei Luther,” Sitzungsberichte der bayerischen Akademie der Wissenschaften 7 (1959), 3, 7-8; David Löfgren, Theologie der Schöpfung bei Luther (Gottingen: Vandenhoek & Ruprecht, 1960), 52.
  19. Martin Luther, Works (St. Louis: Concordia, 1958), 1:36, 22:8-12, 13:91-92, 17:29.
  20. Luther, Works, 22:26-29, 17:118.
  21. Althaus, “Schöpfungsgedanke bei Luther,” 3-5; Althaus, Theology of Martin Luther, 105-111; Löfgren, Theologie der Schöpfung bei Luther, 25, 38-43, 58-60; Regin Prenter, Spiritus Creator (Philadelphia: Muhlenberg, 1953), 193-195.
  22. Luther, Works, 1:36-56, 1:80-84; see also 1:104, 1:119, 11:15, 28:183-196; Löfgren, Theologie der Schöpfung bei Luther, 63, 67-69, 77-78.
  23. Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, bk. 1, chap. 14, secs. 1 ,9 & 14; chap. 6, sec. 1; chap. 14, sec. 20; Calvin, Commentary on the Epistle to the Hebrews, trans. by John Owen (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1949), 11:3.
  24. Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, bk. 1, chap. 14, secs. 2, 20 & 22; bk. 1, chap. 16, sec. 6; Calvin, Commentary on the First Book of Moses Called Genesis, trans. by John King (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1948), 1:26; Calvin, Commentary upon the Acts of the Apostles, trans. by Henry Beveridge (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1949), 17:26; Calvin, Commentary on the Epistle to the Hebrews, 11:3; Calvin, Commentary on the Book of Psalms, trans. by James Anderson (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1949), 8:6.
  25. Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, bk. 1, chap. 16, sec. 3; chap. 5, sec. 4; chap 18, sec. 1; chap. 16, sec. 4; chap. 17, sec. 6; chap. 16, secs. 3, 5, 8, 9; chap. 17, secs. 2, 7.
  26. Jonathan Wells, Charles Hodge’s Critique of Darwinism: An Historical-Critical Analysis of Concepts Basic to the 19th Century Debate (Lewiston, NY: Edwin Mellen Press, 1988).
  27. Asa Gray, Darwiniana (New York: Appleton, 1876), 148, 157, 154-155.
  28. Francis Darwin, Life and Letters of Charles Darwin (New York: Appleton, 1887), 2:80.
  29. Charles Darwin, Variation of Plants and Animals Under Domestication (London: Orange Judd, 1868), 2:514-515.
  30. C. Darwin, Variation of Plants and Animals Under Domestication, 2:515-516.
  31. F. Darwin and A.C. Seward, More Letters of Charles Darwin (New York: Appleton, 1903), 1:194, 191; F. Darwin, Life and Letters of Charles Darwin, 2:97, 105.
  32. F. Darwin, Life and Letters of Charles Darwin, 2:97, 174, 7, 13.
  33. F. Darwin and A.C. Seward, More Letters of Charles Darwin, 1:126, 271, 208, 128, 145; F. Darwin, Life and Letters of Charles Darwin,
  34. Dov Ospovat, “God and Natural Selection,” Journal of the History of Biology 13 (1980), 185.
  35. F. Darwin, Life and Letters of Charles Darwin, 1:280, 283-284, 278-279.
  36. F. Darwin, Life and Letters of Charles Darwin, 1:285, 282; 2:105-106; F. Darwin and A.C. Seward, More Letters of Charles Darwin, 1:321.

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.