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Taking his name in vain: Charles Darwin, himself a theist, didn’t believe in the completely random mutation of genes

"The search for final causes is utterly useless in physics." Descartes's resounding pronouncement in 1641 heralded the beginning of the end of trying to explain things by reference to purposes, goals or end-states. Descartes was a believing Catholic, and he argued strongly for the existence of a divine creator behind the cosmos; but he thought it was the height of rashness and presumption to attempt to delve into God's inscrutable purposes. And as far as physics was concerned, he saw no place for teleology: the only useful explanations had to be couched in terms of mathematical laws and micro-mechanisms. The new scientific age was born.

The biological world, for a while, seemed to defy the march of mechanical physics, since the thrustings and strivings of living things seem ineliminably purposive. But as we all know, these too were eventually captured by the modern Darwinian synthesis. True, everyone continues to use the language of function and purpose (the kidneys are there for the sake of filtering the blood; the tomcat climbs over the garden fence in order to copulate with the female next door). But these, we are told, are just convenient shorthands. There was no purpose in the evolutionary chain that led to mammals having kidneys, just a series of random mutations that happened to confer a selective advantage. And in striving to reproduce, the cat is merely (in Richard Dawkins's trenchant phrase) a "lumbering robot" responding to the stimulus of the pheromones emitted by the female, a response in turn dictated by the programming of its genes.

Yet out of this blind series of material mechanisms unrolling over countless millennia came the strange anomalous beings that are us: able to create new ideas, to initiate new courses of action, able to delve into the structure of logic and mathematical truth, able to perceive and respond to beauty, to feel the call of goodness and justice. In short, the supposedly blind process of evolution seems to have been moving inexorably towards the emergence not just of survival-based responsiveness to the environment, such as the other animals have, but of self-conscious reflection and cognitive grasp of a whole rich world of independent meaning and value.

All this generates a niggling doubt that something in the modern Darwinian materialist worldview doesn't quite add up. True believers, of course, have no doubts. The militant atheist Daniel Dennett gleefully tells us in a recent retrospective roundup of his ideas that Darwinism is the "universal acid": it will eat through "just about every traditional topic . . . ethics, art, culture, religion, humor, and yes, even consciousness . . ." But although in many quarters it is heresy to question the Darwinian consensus, one of Dennett's most distinguished compatriots, the philosopher Thomas Nagel has recently dared to do so. His book Mind and Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature Is Almost Certainly False, has called down the predictable fury of the orthodox cultural establishment, its devotees perhaps all the more exasperated by the fact that Nagel cannot be condemned as a religious crank, since he is an avowed atheist. Indeed, Nagel is on record in previous writings as saying, rather weirdly, that not only does he not believe theism is true, but that he hopes it isn't true: "I don't want there to be a God; I don't want the universe to be like that."

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