Not only did Darwin’s Bulldog, Thomas Huxley, argue that evolution did not necessarily lead to atheism, he also considered that it did not entirely rule out teleology. He considered that it demolished the older teleological view, that organisms possessed particular organs for a particular function. Nevertheless, he felt that evolution left untouched a wider teleological view, that viewed the structure of living creatures as flowing from the forces and patterns of molecules contained in the gaseous nebula of the primordial universe. He also noted that William Paley, the great defender of special creation, had stated in his Natural Theology that creatures could be produced through a series of mechanical processes established and maintained by an intelligence. Huxley wrote:
‘A second very common objection to Mr. Darwin’s views was (and is) that they abolish Teleology, and eviscerate the argument from design. It is nearly twenty years since I ventured to offer some remarks on this subject, and as my arguments have as yet received no refutation, I hope I may be excused for reproducing them. I observed “that the doctrine of Evolution is the most formidable oppoent of all the commoner and coarser forms of Teleology. But perhaps the remarkable service tot he philosophy of Biology rendered by Mr. Darwin is the reconciliation of Teleology and Morphology, and the explanation of the facts of both, which his views offer. The teleology which supposes that the eye, such as we see it in man, or one of the higher vertebrata, was made with the precise structure it exhibits, for the purpose of enabling the animal which possesses it to see, has undoubtedly received its death-blow. Nevertheless, it i snecessary to remember that there is a wider teleology which is not touched by the doctrine of Evolution, but is actually based upon the fundamental proposition of Evolution. This proposition is that the whole worle, living and not living, is the result of the mutual interaction, according to definite laws, of the forces possessed by the molecules of which the primitive nebulosity of the universe was composed. If this be true, it is no less certain that the existing world lay pontentially in the cosmic vapour, and that a suifficient intelligence could, from a knowledge of th eproperties of the molecules of that vapour, have predicted, say the state of the fauna of Britain in 1869, whcih as much certainty as one can say what will happen to the vapour of the breath on cold winter’s day …
‘… The teleological and mechanical views of nature are not, necessarily, mutually exclusive. On the contrary, the more purely a mechanist the speculator is, the more firmly does he assume a primordial molecular arrangement of which all the phenomena of the universe are the consequences, and the more completely is he thereby at the mercy of the teleologist, who can always defy him to disprove that this primoridal molecular arrangement was not intended to evolve the phenomena of the universe.”
‘The acute champion of Teleology, Paley, saw no difficulty in admitting that the “production of things” may be the result of trains of mechanical dispositions fixed before hand by intelligent appointment and kept in action by a power at the centre, that is to say, he proleptically accepted the modern doctrine of Evolution; and his successors might do well to follow their leader, or at any rate to attend to his weighty reasonings, before rushing into an antagonism that has no reasonable foundation’.
Now Huxley here appears to assume a Newtonian ‘clockwork’ universe, in which the action of every atom is predetermined and one could predict the future state of the cosmos by observing the pattern of atoms and the interactions in the present. This conception of the cosmos has been seriously challenged by quantum physics and its discovery that atoms and sub-atomic particles follow probabilistic laws. The late palaeontologist and writer on evolution, Steven Jay Gould, denmied that the pattern of life was predetermined. He believed that if the history of the Earth was replayed, then it would be completely different with entirely new creatures arising. The Roman Catholic theologian, John F. Haught, in his God after Darwin: A Theology of Evolution, has nevertheless argued that evolution is teleological, in that new, higher forms of life have successively appeared from more primitive forms. Alister McGrath, in his Darwinism and Divine, also notes modern philosophers and theologians who have argued that God could act in nature to create new forms precisely through quantum indeterminacy. Thus Huxley, and some contemporary theologians and scientists, still consider that evolution is still teleological. For these contemporary theologians, God is still acting in the world, shaping His creatures through the evolutionary process. It’s a view that Paley was prepared to accept. This also means that Paley’s conception of special creation could also extend into something like modern Intelligent Design theory. Huxley was an opponent of special creation, but he did not argue, and indeed respected Paley, for considering the possibility of evolution, even if Paley believed that it was driven by a divine intelligence.
John F. Haught, God after Darwin: A Theology of Evolution (Boulder: Westview Press 2008)
Thomas Henry Huxley, ‘ON the Reception of the Origin of Species’ (London, 1887), in D.C. Goodman, ed., Science and Religious Belief 1600-1900: A Selection of Primary Sources (Dorchester: John Wright and Sons/ The Open University 1973) 455-82.
Alister E. McGrath, Darwinism and the Divine: Evolutionary Thought and Natural Theology (Chichester: Wiley-Blackwell 2011).