This myth says a lot about the default views of western thinking, rather like the issue of teleology.
One of the constant and incessant complaints made against Darwin by theists in particular, is that he introduced chance and purposelessness into our worldview. I don’t believe in such entities as worldviews, but leave that for now: did he introduce chance, and if so, does it imply a general lack of purpose in the world?
Here are some classic examples of that complaint. From Is Darwin Right? Or, The Origin of Man in 1877, William Denton wrote:
… it has been said that those who advocate evolution are desirous of driving God out of the world, and so reducing man to the level of the brutes, from which they believe him to have been derived. The belief in a mechanical or day-laboring God must die with increasing intelligence, and it is worse than useless to attempt to save it; but this is no hap-hazard world, nor is man a mere come-by-chance. We are not the accidental result of a million accidents, each fortunately, yet accidentally, contributing to the grand result. [p109]
And this by theologian Rudolf von Schmid in The Theories of Darwin and Their Relation to Philosophy, Religion, and Morality (1883)
This is a grave and deeply important subject. Far, far beyond the question how living things have come into being, is the all-absorbing one as to the highest of created things, and his position in the world around him. His past, his present, his future are realities which have been consecrated upon the altar of a great belief, by the most profound scholars and the deepest thinkers of ages which boasted of greater men than the present generation has seen. This belief is the soul of man’s existence on earth. It is that which exalts him far above all other organised things. It is the beautiful but mystic light which has shone upon his otherwise unknown future. It is that which supports him in misfortune and sorrow. It is that which gladdens his heart when all around him is dark and cold and cheerless. For the sake then of what we value here and hereafter, let us not cast away such a belief for the weak and illogical and unproved, and, as I believe, unprovable hypothesis which tells us that the world around us has risen in its majestic beauty at the bidding of blind force or a chance variation. [p51]
The Darwinian psychologist James Mark Baldwin noted this in 1909:
To Darwin’s opponents ‘chance,’ ‘fortuitous or spontaneous variation,’ was to take the place of intelligent creation, Providence, God. If there be no rule of selection and survival save that of utility, and no source of the useful save the overproduction of chance cases, where is the Guiding Hand? Does not Natural Selection dispense with a ruling Intelligence altogether? [p82]
Much of the unease with which theists regarded evolution comes from this, although the real wave of objections to transmutation as such based on its use of chance seem to appear after 1900 as natural selection becomes more widely accepted. What is this problem with chance? It undercuts Providence and Design. If things are down to accident rather than design, or as Samuel Butler put it, Luck or Cunning?, then there seems to be no place for a deity at all. I have argued against this before, rather recently, but as it’s a myth, let’s consider Darwin’s own views in more detail.
Initially, according to Dov Ospovat (1980), chance played no place in Darwin’s view of evolution, but he soon came, by 1840, to introduce “chance variation”. Even so, by the 1844 Essay, it hardly plays much of a role, getting only two mentions. What counted was variation, which he had empirical reason to think was ubiquitous. But even with that, he still made appeal to the cosmological argument – that the universe was itself ordered and probably created, though individually living things were not. He wrote
I cannot persuade myself that a beneficent & 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. On the other hand I cannot anyhow be contented to view this wonderful universe & especially the nature of man, & to conclude that everything is the result of brute force. I am 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. Not that this notion at all satisfies me. (Darwin to Gray, 22 May 1860)
The phrase “of what we may call chance” is particularly interesting, as it indicates Darwin did not really think that chance was a metaphysical actor. In fact elsewhere, when discussing the origins of variation on which natural selection operated, he wrote
I have hitherto sometimes spoken as if the variations?so common and multiform in organic beings under domestication, and in a lesser degree in those in a state of nature?had been due to chance. This, of course, is a wholly incorrect expression, but it serves to acknowledge plainly our ignorance of the cause of each particular variation. [Origin, p131, first edition]
…we are far too ignorant to speculate on the relative importance of the several known and unknown laws of variation… [p198]
He did think the causes of variation were due to environmental influences on parents, which turned out to be right in a weird kind of way – as mutations are usually the result on environmental insults during gametogenesis, but that’s not at all what he or his contemporaries meant.
John Beatty thinks, correctly in my estimation, that Darwin meant by “chance” what historians now call “contingency”, which is a kind of counterfactual property – had things been slightly different, the outcome would have been different also. Beatty reckons that Darwin’s empirical work that established this was his book On the Various Contrivances by which British and Foreign Orchids are Fertilised by Insects (1862):
The multiplicity of possible outcomes of evolution by the natural selection of chance variations, and hence the contingency of the actual results (like us), is surely one of the most unsettling aspects of the Darwinian revolution. Darwin chose to demonstrate this contingency empirically in a book on . . . orchids.
Baldwin correctly summarises the matter, I think, in the passage that follows the one above:
We have only to understand the present-day statement of this problem to see the enormous concession to naturalism which the theory of Darwin has forced. Instead of ‘chance’ in the sense of uncaused accident, we now have the notion of ‘probability,’ a mathematically exact interpretation of what is only to superficial observation fortuitous and capricious; instead of an interfering Providence, we have universal order born of natural law. And it is within such conceptions as these, now taken as common ground of argument, that the discussion of teleology is conducted. The world is no longer thought of as a piece of mosaic work put together by a skilful artificer?as the old design theory looked upon it?but as a whole, a cosmos, of law-abiding and progressive change. A philosopher who knows his calling today seeks to interpret natural law, not to discover violations of it. The violations, if they came, would reduce the world to caprice, chance and chaos, instead of providing a relief from these things.
So Darwin’s view, while administering a coup de grâce to theories of chance and special creation, both equally desultory, capricious and lawless, replaced them once for all with law. [p83]
Baldwin, James Mark. Darwin and the Humanities, Library of Genetic Science and Philosophy. Vol. 2. Baltimore: Review Publishing Co., 1909.
Beatty, John. “Chance Variation: Darwin on Orchids.” Philosophy of Science 73 (2006): 629?41.
Butler, Samuel. Luck, or Cunning, as the Main Means of Organic Modification? An Attempt to Throw Additional Light on the Late Mr Darwin’s Theory of Natural Selection. London, 1887: Trübner & Co., 1886.
Denton, William. Is Darwin Right? Wellesley, MA: Denton Publishing Company, 1881.
Ospovat, D. “God and Natural Selection: The Darwinian Idea of Design.” J Hist Biol 13, no. 2 (1980): 169-94.
Schmid, Rudolf von. The Theories of Darwin and Their Relation to Philosophy, Religion, and Morality. Translated by Gustav Adolf Zimmermann. Chicago: Jansen McClurg & Co., 1883.