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Many people have claimed that Darwin doubted his theory by claiming it was absurd to think the human eye could have evolved. Is this argument valid?
Many people today insist that even Charles Darwin did not really believe his own ideas about evolution. They claim that he saw many flaws in the idea of natural selection as the agent of evolution, and that in his writings he expressed these misgivings. Some even claim that Darwin’s own words show he ultimately abandoned his belief in evolution. This is plainly not the case.
One very frequent “evidence” used to show that Darwin did not believe his own theory involved the human eye. In The Origin of Species, we read:
To suppose that the eye with all its inimitable contrivances for adjusting the focus to different distances, for admitting different amounts of light, and for the correction of spherical and chromatic aberration, could have been formed by natural selection, seems, I freely confess, absurd in the highest degree.”1
Darwin called the evolution of the eye “absurd”! Doesn’t that show he really didn’t believe in evolution? Isn’t this proof enough?
If our reading stopped here, then yes, we might argue Darwin had given up on his theory. However, reading further we find the following:
“When it was first said that the sun stood still and the world turned round, the common sense of mankind declared the doctrine false; but the old saying of Vox populi, vox Dei,2 as every philosopher knows, cannot be trusted in science. Reason tells me, that if numerous gradations from a simple and imperfect eye to one complex and perfect can be shown to exist, each grade being useful to its possessor, as is certainly the case; if further, the eye ever varies and the variations be inherited, as is likewise certainly the case; and if such variations should be useful to any animal under changing conditions of life, then the difficulty of believing that a perfect and complex eye could be formed by natural selection, though insuperable by our imagination, should not be considered as subversive of the theory.”3
Now we see, by reading Darwin’s entire statement in context, that he in no way abandoned his theory. He did, indeed, indicate that the evolution of the eye was “absurd.” Nonetheless, his “reason” led him to accept that this “absurd” thing could actually occur by means of natural selection.
Continuing to address the problem of the human eye’s complexity, Darwin wrote the following in February 1860 in a personal correspondence with Asa Gray, a Professor of Natural History at Harvard:
. . . Now I will just run through some points in your letter. What you say about my book gratifies me most deeply, and I wish I could feel all was deserved by me. I quite think a review from a man, who is not an entire convert, if fair and moderately favourable, is in all respects the best kind of review. About the weak points I agree. The eye to this day gives me a cold shudder, but when I think of the fine known gradations, my reason tells me I ought to conquer the cold shudder.”4
Darwin indicated that even though he was troubled by this concept, his “reason” would prevail. After all, there are many variations of eyes in nature, ranging from “simple” to complex. His presupposition that evolution was true, led him to believe that the increasing complexity of the eye was due to natural selection, and he left it at that. The how of this supposed progression was not explained by Darwin.
Darwin did describe the concept of human eye evolution as seemingly “absurd,” but his worldview caused him to accept natural selection as an adequate explanation.
Did the eye cause Darwin to doubt evolution? No, it didn’t. The “doubtful Darwin” is another argument Christians should not use.