The anthropomorphic warning
This anthropomorphic warning can service several needs. In the seventeenth century Spinoza used it to defend his pantheism. Were not theists making out God to be something like themselves but with a deeper voice? "I believe," Spinoza wrote to a friend, "that if a triangle could speak, it would say, in like manner, that God is eminently triangular, while a circle would say that the divine nature is eminently circular."
On the other hand, Antoine Arnauld warned that the seventeenth century theodicies (solutions to the problem of evil) were guilty of anthropomorphizing God. The Jansenist rejected the theodicies of Malebranche and Leibniz which he thought subjected God to human reasoning.
But it was in the hands of the eighteenth century philosopher David Hume where the anthropomorphic warning found its application in evolutionary thought. Hume had argued that God could not have designed this world for all its misery. After all, wrote Hume, "A perpetual war is kindled amongst all living creatures," and nature is so arranged so as "to embitter the life of every living being."
Hume obviously was not concerned about Arnauld's warning as he assumed he knew what God would and would not create. Indeed, Hume amazingly retooled Spinoza's version of the warning to attack design from the rear. Not only did the problem of evil rebuke design, but any such appeal to design was faulty to begin with because we can't know God anyway:
we ought never to imagine that we comprehend the attributes of this divine being, ... let us beware, lest we think that our ideas anywise correspond to his perfections ... He is infinitely superior to our limited view and comprehension; and is more the object of worship in the temple, than of disputation in the schools.
Worship God, yes, but do not peer into the mysteries of the divine. Except, that is, when it comes to the problem of evil. It's not my dog, it didn't bite you, and besides you hit the dog first anyway.
Christ in the House of His Parents
The anthropomorphic warning reached a fever pitch a decade before Darwin published his book when the child prodigy John Millais unveiled his painting, Christ in the House of His Parents, first exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1850. Look carefully at the painting (above) before reading further.
In his painting, Millais portrays the young boy Jesus as, well, a young boy. He is very human and in fact has injured his hand in his father’s carpentry shop. Mother Mary attends to the boy while Joseph continues with his work; outside the door sheep patiently await their future savior. The scene is both symbolic and realistic, with wood scraps lying all about and workers going about their duties.
But the setting was altogether too realistic for a culture that separated the creator from the creation. The scriptures said that God became flesh and dwelt among us. He knew anxiety, sorrow, pain, temptation and joy. But this view of God was lost on the Victorians. They emphasized God’s wisdom, power and transcendence. Could he really have bruised his hand in a messy carpenter’s shop?
The Times complained that the painting was revolting, for its "attempt to associate the holy family with the meanest details of a carpenter’s shop, with no conceivable omission of misery, of dirt, even of disease, all finished with the same loathsome meticulousness, is disgusting …" Blackwood’s Magazine said "We can hardly imagine anything more ugly, graceless and unpleasant," and Charles Dickens called the painting "mean, odious, revolting and repulsive."
Next stop: Darwinism
According to many Victorians we ought not to think that God is like us and it is hardly surprising that Darwin would reuse Hume's argument. In Chapter Six of Origins Darwin made several failed attempts to reckon with the problem of how his blind process of evolution could create such wonders as the eye. It seemed absurd, but Darwin argued that while it is tempting to see God as the master engineer who crafted complex organs such as the eye, this would make God too much like man.
Darwin agreed that the perfection of the eye reminds us of the telescope which resulted from the highest of human intellect. Was it not right to conclude that the eye was also the product of a great intellect? This may seem the obvious answer but Darwin warned against it, for we should not "assume that the Creator works by intellectual powers like those of man." Better to imagine the eye as the result of natural selection's perfecting powers rather than having God too much involved in the world.
After Hume, Darwin had made strong arguments that God most certainly would never have created this world. There were, for example, many similar crustaceans, fish and other marine animals inhabiting the seas off the eastern and western shores of North America, the Mediterranean and Japan, and the temperate lands of North America and Europe. This, Darwin argued, was "inexplicable on the theory of creation" because God never would have used such a capricious design.
We cannot rationalize such similarities as due to the nearly similar physical conditions of the areas for elsewhere we find similar physical conditions (such as South America, South Africa and Australia) with utterly dissimilar inhabitants. Likewise, deep limestone caverns on different continents presented nearly identical conditions yet harbored dissimilar species.
Another problem for the doctrine of creation was that native plants and animals were often overtaken by those introduced by man. Darwin pointed out that many of "the best adapted plants and animals were not created for oceanic islands; for man has unintentionally stocked them far more fully and perfectly than did nature." If God had created the species they would have been optimally designed for their specific environments.
Similarly, frogs, toads and newts were only found on certain islands, such as New Zealand, New Caledonia, and the Andaman Islands. Darwin argued these were not genuine oceanic islands. Aside from these islands, the lack of frogs, toads and newts was "very difficult to explain" on the theory of creation.
These are but a few of the dozens of such religious arguments Darwin used to prove his new theory. The science was weak but the religion was strong. Like Hume, Darwin knew what God would and would not design.
And yet, on the other hand, when all else failed Darwin, after Hume, invoked the anthropomorphic warning. The eye may appear to be designed, but surely such thinking is guilty of anthropomorphizing God. It's not my dog, it didn't bite you, and besides you hit the dog first anyway.
Hume critic John Earman recently lamented, "I find it astonishing how well posterity has treated 'Of Miracles,' given how completely the confection collapses under a little probing." Unfortunately the confection did not end with Hume. Religion drives science and it matters.