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In the Light of Evolution, Volume I: Adaptation and Complex Design
physical phenomena could be accounted for as long as the causes were adequately known.
The advances of physical science brought about by the Copernican Revolution had driven mankind’s conception of the universe to a split-personality state of affairs, which persisted well into the mid-19th century. Scientific explanations, derived from natural laws, dominated the world of nonliving matter, on the Earth as well as in the heavens. However, supernatural explanations, which depended on the unfathomable deeds of the Creator, were accepted as explanations of the origin and configuration of living creatures. Authors, such as William Paley, argued that the complex design of organisms could not have come about by chance or by the mechanical laws of physics, chemistry, and astronomy but was rather accomplished by an Intelligent Designer, just as the complexity of a watch, designed to tell time, was accomplished by an intelligent watchmaker.
It was Darwin’s genius to resolve this conceptual schizophrenia. Darwin completed the Copernican Revolution by drawing out for biology the notion of nature as a lawful system of matter in motion that human reason can explain without recourse to supernatural agencies. The conundrum faced by Darwin can hardly be overestimated. The strength of the argument from design to demonstrate the role of the Creator had been forcefully set forth by philosophers and theologians. Wherever there is function or design, we look for its author. It was Darwin’s greatest accomplishment to show that the complex organization and functionality 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 adaptations 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, that is, 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, and the human hand is made for grasping. But Darwin went on to provide a natural explanation of the design. The seemingly purposeful aspects of living beings could now be explained, like the phenomena of the inanimate world, by the methods of science, as the result of natural laws manifested in natural processes.
Darwin occupies an exalted place in the history of Western thought, deservedly receiving credit for the theory of evolution. In The Origin ofSpecies, published in 1859, he laid out the evidence demonstrating the evolution of organisms. Darwin did not use the term “evolution,” which did not have its current meaning, but referred to the evolution of organisms by the phrase “common descent with modification” and similar expres-