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Darwinism and Design (S242: 1874)

Editor Charles H. Smith's Note: An anonymously-penned book review (of Darwinism and Design, by George St. Clair) printed in the 25 April 1874 number of Spectator. Original pagination indicated within double brackets. To link directly to this page, connect with: http://people.wku.edu/charles.smith/wallace/S242.htm

    [[p. 535]] This is an honest book, both in the frankness of its statements and in the carefulness of its execution. The author accepts the doctrine of evolution without the slightest effort, conscious or unconscious, at evasion; he is also, though the reverse of effusively or ostentatiously devout, a sincere believer in the creation of all things by God; and the object of his book is to show that, instead of invalidating faith in a Divine Being, the theory of development, which, after a century or more of conflict, has been generally accepted by physical philosophers, is calculated to elevate and to deepen our conceptions of God's power and wisdom. We should not expect Mr. St. Clair, or any other man, unless possessed of transcendent genius, which Mr. St. Clair, though not without ability, certainly is not, to exhaust the vast subject which he undertakes to treat, or even that he should, with precision and finality, enunciate the principles on which it might be exhaustively treated. It is not too much to say that the view of the physical universe accepted by the great body of men educated in science in the days of Paley has undergone revolutionary change, and that the old terms of alliance and association between physical science and natural theology must be comprehensively revised. It is an undertaking which will take many workers and many years, and all that can be fairly required of any one worker is that he be truth-loving and competent. Mr. St. Clair is the first in a high degree, the second in no mean degree. He never willingly misrepresents an opponent, and he frequently, if not generally, states the strongest objections in the words of the objectors. His answers and arguments are always clear, and sometimes ingenious. He is never fussy, vehement, or pretentious, and he does not fill [[p. 536]] up gaps in reasoning with bursts of platitudinarian eloquence. We shall have to read many books before seeing the end of the matter of which he treats, but we may find it useful and pleasant to read Mr. St. Clair's.

    The first paragraph is one of the most confused and ill-written in the book. It contains two sentences; in the one he says that the purpose of his essay is "to illustrate the wisdom and beneficence of the Almighty in the evolution of living things," in the other, that "it need not be attempted here to prove and illustrate the Divine Beneficence and Wisdom, but only to show that there is no a priori impossibility in the way of proving them, and that the Theory of Evolution may be accepted without banishing the Almighty to the region of the Unknowable." The purpose expressed in the second of these clauses is manifestly more limited than that expressed in the first. Probably it would not be easy, in the practical handling of the argument, to keep the two purposes quite distinct; but Mr. St. Clair generally contents himself with defensive warfare, making it his aim rather to neutralise objections to the perfections of God, than to adduce positive instances of divine wisdom and beneficence. Starting with the human will, he finds that it is a real force, capable of giving new direction to the powers of nature. From the human will he steps at once to the divine. As the human will, by Professor Huxley's express affirmation, "counts for something as a condition of the course of events," the greater Divine Will may, or must, count for something also. For what, then, does the Divine Will count? "Its action," replies Mr. St. Clair, "would be of the same kind as that of human wills in this respect, that it would not violate natural law, but work by means of it." This is the fundamental position in Mr. St. Clair's argument. "Our philosophers," he says, "are showing us that all the phenomena of the physical world result from the motion of matter. The so-called laws are neither of man nor of God." Man makes use of them in proportion to his knowledge, God in proportion to His knowledge. "He can only work in nature on the principles man works on, and with the same liability to incidental results; for He works with the same material, which has its unalterable results." Having made this plain, Mr. St. Clair proceeds to adduce grounds for believing that, in the arrangements of nature, there is proof of design and a Designer.

    Two remarks suggest themselves. The first is, that if nature and her laws are thus independent of God, we cannot be prevented from asking how nature came into existence, or from manifesting by other questions that our difficulty is not removed. "The production of matter out of nothing," says Mr. Herbert Spencer, "is the real mystery." "Whence," he asks, "the pre-existing elements?" Mr. St. Clair can only reply that, though we cannot fathom the mystery of the production of matter, "the present dispositions of matter" may be shown to be the work of a foreseeing intelligence. Perhaps; but can mere arrangement by means of evolution be called "creation"? Mr. St. Clair assures us that did we but recognise that the so-called laws of matter and motion are as necessary as the laws of mathematics--not necessarily imposed, not admitting of abrogation, so long as matter exists, and that all intelligent action in the universe is concerned with composing, decomposing, recomposing, throwing matter into new arrangements, giving energy new distributions--"a great deal of misconception would be got rid of, and the character of the Deity would be freed from the appearance of harshness." Like enough, but is not this equivalent to saying that God is kind and just except when He cannot help it? And would not this in an infidel be called irony? "The forces of nature"--it is Mr. St. Clair who speaks--"may tend relentlessly to mow us down; but God is on our side; fire is fitted to burn, not of His arrangement, but naturally, and He spreads the nerves of feeling over the surface of the body to give us warning pain; oxalic acid is fitted to kill, but by no law of His imposing, and He is not cruelly inflexible." That is to say, we are indebted to God for all the pretty and pleasant things, but must ask no questions as to where tigers and rattlesnakes, strychnine and vitriol, come from. Such theology might be convenient for pulpit purposes, but it leaves our mind, like Mr. Spencer's, still shadowed by mystery. It is in perfect good faith that Mr. St. Clair puts it forward, and, as we said before, he never preaches; but a God that can do no more than alter the juxtaposition of particles of matter, existent, with all its laws, independently of Him, corresponds more to the idea of the Gnostic Demiurgus than to that of the omnipotent God of Christian theology.

    Our second remark on Mr. St. Clair's fundamental position is that it does not help us to conceive how the Divine Being can alter the juxtaposition of matter, so as to arrange it on a plan of His own, even to the extent to which man alters it. The will of God, says Mr. St. Clair, acts upon matter in essentially the same way as the will of man. Well, the will of man acts upon matter only through material instrumentality. There is no mystery, there can be no doubt, about that. Man has a body. His will acts on a nerve, the nerve acts on a muscle. All the human minds in the planet could not put two sand-grains asunder, or, if asunder, could not bring them together, by mere force of will, by pure energy of thought. But Mr. St. Clair does not, we presume, intend to say that God has a body. All we are informed is that He is a mind, a will. We are again and again told that the divine mind and the human mind are, except in the degree of their power, the same. How is it, then, that the divine mind acts upon matter, seeing that the human mind, apart from the body in which it is enshrined, is absolutely incapable of doing so? The question does not seem to have occurred to Mr. St. Clair, but an essential link is omitted from his argument, unless he both puts and answers it.

    He is more successful, or at all events, ingenious and felicitous, in some of the subsidiary portions of his argument. Mr. Lewes, for example, and many others, have objected to the reasoning from design that there are parts of animals which are useless, or worse than useless, to their possessors, and which remain merely because they, or the organs from which they have atrophied, were of use in the animal economy at some earlier stage of development. "What," asks Mr. Lewes, "should we say to an architect who was unable, or being able, was obstinately unwilling, to erect a palace except by first using his materials in the shape of a hut, then pulling it down and rebuilding them as a cottage, then adding storey to storey, and room to room, not with any reference to the ultimate purpose of the palace, but wholly with reference to the way in which houses were constructed in ancient times?" "Suppose," answers Mr. St. Clair, "we inquire into the water supply of some town, tracing the course of the main pipe, and all the branches ramifying from it; and suppose that on one side of the town we find a pipe diverging half-a-mile into the country, and then bending round and returning, like the winding of some river. We ask, where is the wisdom of carrying the water through this mile of pipe, when it might go by the short cut? Why waste the tubing and waste the time, and do what has to be undone immediately, in sending the stream to a point from which there is no course but to return? On the supposition that the town was originally built as it now stands, every street and square having the position they now have, and not a house more nor less, our objection is valid. But if we learn that the diverging bend of pipe follows the route of streets which formerly existed, and that although the shorter cut would now seem better, yet it would cost more to take up the old pipes from the long route, and lay down pipes on the short route, than could possibly be gained by the process, we see the wisdom of leaving the arrangement as it is, and we read in the existence of the bend of pipe a page of the past history of the town."

    This, we say, is ingenious, and on the hypothesis that the Divine Being has no command over nature different in kind from that of man, may have some logical plausibility. But in the case of the water-pipes, the townsmen would have removed the tubing when it became no longer useful in its original position, if they had been able, without loss or trouble beyond what the thing was worth, to do so. The very notion of infinite power as belonging to God must be abandoned, if His workmanship is so severely limited as this comes to. The human architect removes the piles used in the construction of a bridge from the river-bed. It is an important consideration, however, which we put at Mr. St. Clair's service, that, but for the leaving of the pipes of his illustration in the old route, the architectural history of the town might have been irrecoverable. Creation by evolution has this advantage, that the procession of being leaves traces of its advance which man can read. So far as human reason can perceive, there was no other method by which the archives of the universe could be folded up and preserved for the instruction of intelligent creatures. If evolution has high intellectual uses which special creation would not have had, and if man is God's child, it is not presumptuous to pronounce evolution more worthy of God than special creation. With similar ingenuity, and much patient industry, Mr. St. Clair argues that monstrosities and failures in nature are no disparagement to the Divine wisdom.

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