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Darwin's Discovery: Design without Designer

The strength of the argument-from-design to demonstrate the role of the Creator is easily set forth. Wherever there is function or design we look for its author. A knife is made for cutting and a clock is made to tell time; their functional designs have been contrived by a knifemaker and a watchmaker. The exquisite design of Leonardo da Vinci's Mona Lisa proclaims that it was created by a gifted artist following a preconceived purpose. Similarly, the structures, organs, and behaviors of living beings are directly organized to serve certain functions. The functional design of organisms and their features would therefore seem to argue for the existence of a designer. It was Darwin's greatest accomplishment to show that the directive organization of living beings can be explained as the result of a natural process, natural selection, without any need to resort to a Creator or other external agent. The origin and adaptation of organisms in their profusion and wondrous variations were thus brought into the realm of science.

Darwin accepted that organisms are "designed" for certain purposes, i.e., they are functionally organized. Organisms are adapted to certain ways of life and their parts are adapted to perform certain functions. Fish are adapted to live in water, kidneys are designed to regulate the composition of blood, the human hand is made for grasping. But Darwin went on to provide a natural explanation of the design. He thereby brought the seemingly purposeful aspects of living beings into the realm of science.

Darwin's revolutionary achievement is that he extended the Copernican revolution to the world of living things. The origin and adaptive nature of organisms could now be explained, like the phenomena of the inanimate world, as the result of natural laws manifested in natural processes. Darwin's theory encountered opposition in some religious circles, not so much because he proposed the evolutionary origin of living things (which had been proposed before, and accepted even by Christian theologians), but because the causal mechanism, natural selection, excluded God as the explanation for the obvious design of organisms.It may be worth noting that Darwin's theory of evolution by natural selection encountered vehement opposition among scientists as well, but for different reasons.  There are many thoughtful discussions...

The Roman Catholic Church's opposition to Galileo in the seventeenth century had been similarly motivated not only by the apparent contradiction between the heliocentric theory and a literal interpretation of the Bible, but also by the unseemly attempt to comprehend the workings of the Universe, the "mind of God." The configuration of the Universe was no longer perceived as the result of God's Design, but simply the outcome of immanent, blind, processes. There were, however, many theologians, philosophers, and scientists who saw no contradiction then nor see it now between the evolution of species and Christian faith. Some see evolution as the "method of divine intelligence," in the words of the nineteenth century theologian A.H. Strong. Others, like the American contemporary of Darwin, Henry Ward Beecher (1818-1887), made evolution the cornerstone of their theology. These two traditions have persisted to the present. Pope John Paul II has recently (October 1996) stated that "the theory of evolution is more than a hypothesis. It is … accepted by researchers, following a series of discoveries in various fields of knowledge." The views of "process" theologians, who perceive evolutionary dynamics as a pervasive element of a Christian view of the world, are well represented in this volume.

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Go to Evolution Topic Index

Darwin's Discovery: Design without Designer

Evolution: Topic Index
The Darwinian Revolution
Natural Selection as a Directive Process
Natural Selection as a Creative Process
Natural Selection as an Opportunistic Process
Chance and Necessity
Teleology and Teleological Explanations
The Compatiblity of Teological and Causal Explanations
Coda: Science as a Way of Knowing


Dr. Francisco Ayala
Dr. Francisco Ayala


See also:

The Relation of Science & Religion
Purpose and Design
The Argument From Design
The Anthropic Principle
Charles Darwin
Sir Isaac Newton
DNA Double-Helix