When Charles Darwin wrote The Descent of Man[i], the title was a play on words. In the context of the book, Darwin meant the word in the sense of “derivation from an ancestor”; “the fact or process of originating from an ancestral stock”; and/or “the shaping or development in nature and character by transmission from a source”.[ii] Descent, of course, can have a quite different meaning.
The word, descent, can also mean “the act or process of descending from a higher to a lower level, rank, or state”; “an inclination downward”; and/or “a downward step (as in station or value”), as in decline.
Darwin probably meant the word in this sense, also, in that philosophers and scientists and thinkers of all types before him had mostly viewed man standing apart from the rest of the natural world, standing above it (just a little lower than the angels). Darwin’s theory revealed man descending not from heaven, but descending (originating from ancestral stock) from lower life forms and ascending (evolving) from those lower life forms to the complexity the human species is today. This is the play on words.
In thinking about these things many generations after Charles Darwin coined the book title, in the context of all that has developed since his time, the subtlety and nuance of the play on words strikes me, but not in the way Darwin likely intended.
To be fair, Darwin was not dogmatic in his approach to evolution. In fact, he was rather humble and honest about it, as I understand his character from what I have read. In his autobiography, Charles Darwin expressed his own doubt and asked an honest question of his own convictions:
But then with me the horrid doubt always arises whether the convictions of a man’s mind, which has been developed from the mind of the lower animals, are of any value or at all trustworthy. Would anyone trust in the convictions of a monkey’s mind, if there are any convictions in such a mind?
That humility and honesty doesn’t necessarily describe the champions of Darwinism in the world today, however. Darwinism in the years since Darwin lived has become extremely dogmatic, and Darwinists have largely entrenched the theory of evolution in a naturalistic worldview. This view of life and of the progress of the human species hitches to Darwin’s idea that we have descended from lower life forms, but have ascended (through incremental changes driven by evolution) to levels of increasing complexity (biologically) and increasing social, cultural, scientific and ethical sophistication.
This view of the progression of man, the ascension from lower to higher strata by the vehicle of random, natural processes, is, perhaps, the single most influential idea inhabiting modern thought, according to Ernst Mayr.[iii]
Darwin did not invent the idea of a “teleological march toward greater perfection”, as Mayr notes. The thought of man’s progress toward perfection has been around since Aristotle. But, Darwin’s work aided subsequent generations in severing the tether of this progress from supernatural influences, freeing man to guide his own progress in a neutral and natural world unfettered by divine interference.
Or so the modern materialist would affirm.
“The truly outstanding achievement of the principle of natural selection is that it makes unnecessary the invocation of ‘final causes’—that is, any teleological forces leading to a particular end. In fact, nothing is predetermined…. Darwinism rejects all supernatural phenomena and causations. The theory of evolution by natural selection explains the adaptedness and diversity of the world solely materialistically. It no longer requires God as creator or designer…. From the Greeks onward, there existed a universal belief in the existence of a teleological force in the world that led to ever greater perfection…. Darwinism swept such considerations away.”[iv]
Alfred Machin, in the Ascent of Man[v], called the theory of evolution, driven by natural selection, “a new Gospel”.[vi] For Machin, and many modern thinkers since him, evolution and the progress (ascent) of man go hand in hand.[vii]
This “new Gospel” stands in contrast to the Judeo-Christian notion that mankind fell from perfection to sinful, brutish existence and have been climbing out of that pit ever since. The new gospel turns that notion on its head, declaring that man originated from lower life forms, having no responsibility (and therefore no culpability) for his original state. Through the process of natural section and the human ingenuity that has evolved from it, we have climbed out of the primordial abyss on our own two feet, unaided by supernatural favor or influence.
Many a materialist takes pride in the idea that we, of all creatures, have emerged from the swarms of primitive life, like that one sperm among millions that reaches the egg and, upon arriving, has the vitality left to spark life into being. It seems to me, though, any pride in the accomplishment of modern man is at once misplaced and undermined by the very foundation of materialism.
Richard Dawkins proclaimed in his first debate with John Lennox (with evident immodesty) that the theory of evolution forged by Charles Darwin is the “greatest achievement” of man because it allowed man to release himself from the artificial structure of religion and false sense of divine security and to stand firmly on his own two feet in the vast landscape of the universe, unaided (and unhindered) by God.
Odd it is (I think) that Dawkins would call such a discovery of truth (if it be the truth) an “achievement”. Odd too that a person might take so much apparent delight in reaching and affirming that conclusion that we are alone in the cold, dark world.
If that be the case, then so be it. There is not much to be gained, but a false sense of security, in believing otherwise. But of our existence, what pride is there in the “achievement” if it merely is the product of natural selection working on blind, random chance? I find it not only odd, but illogical for a materialist to think of anything in the sense of an achievement in such a world.
As I read about Darwin and think of modern and postmodern worldviews, I think of a divergent view in which descent takes on contrary nuances. Not that man has descended from perfection and ascends to perfection again, not that man descends from lower life forms and ascends from the primordial chaos, emerging with conscious awareness to his own order in the world. I think of the story of God descending from his lofty “place” to become one of us, taking on the very form He created, to show us Himself in the person of Jesus Christ.
It isn’t about us. Whether we are the result of blind, random forces or creations made by God, it isn’t about us. Though we audaciously take pride in the achievement of the molecules in motion in our head, like the fly on the back of the chariot boasting of the dust he thinks he raises behind it, though we dare to think we are the equivalent, or the better, of God, casting our moral judgment on the creator and the universe, it isn’t about us.
When I think of the fantastic odds that a universe would be so finely tuned for life on a very small planet, rotating around a small star in a very modest solar system, out of the utter vastness of the space in which this life exists, tuned from the moment of existence to sustain this life we know, it doesn’t seem so fantastic that a God may have created and finely tuned that world, and may have descended and entered into it to reveal Himself to His creation. More fantastic, really, is the notion that a universe, or anything, could come from nothing – that a thing could create itself out of no thing.
That we would know very much at all about such a vast universe of our own accord is also so unlikely as to be fairly implausible, but no less plausible than the Creator of that universe revealing it and Himself to us. In such a world, the answer would not lie in ascent by descent, progress from regress, complexity creating itself from simplicity, but in the descent of the Creator to our level to raise us up and to show us the way to ascend to Him.
But as many as received Him, to them He gave the right to become children of God, even to those who believe in His name, who were born, not of blood [descent] nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God. (John 1:13)
[i] Darwin, C. (1871). The descent of man, and selection in relation to sex. London: John Murray, Albemarle Street. The Descent of Man followed Darwin’s more famous, Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life, published in 859, and explored his theory of evolution applied to human beings.
[iii] Mayr, Ernst Darwin’s Influence on Modern Thought published in the Scientific American November 24, 2009.
[v] Machin, A. (1925). The ascent of man by means of natural selection. London, New York: Longmans, Green and Co.
[vi] Machin, at Introduction XIII
[vii] Machin, at p. 4