Read AN EXAMINATION OF THEISM: CHAPTER VII of Theism / Atheism‚ The Great Alternative, free online book, by Chapman Cohen, on


It has already been indicated that it is not really necessary, in order to prove design, to establish the fact that the design is perfect or that it exhibits complete goodness. It is enough that there be design. Its moral quality or value is quite another question. Nevertheless, it will be as well to deal with this latter aspect of the subject, and to see what kind of “plan” it is that nature does exhibit, even assuming the existence of some design.

Now it is evident that if there be design in nature, and if the design is the expression of a single supreme mind one quality of that plan should be unity. The products should, so to speak, dovetail into each other in such a way that they work together, and even harmonise with each other. But this is, notoriously, not the case. If from one point of view there is a certain harmony throughout the world of living beings in virtue of which life is preserved, it is at least equally true that from another point of view the harmony is one of destruction. And in the end death wins. Sooner or later death overtakes all forms of life, while in the grand total of living beings born into the world, a far larger number perish than can reach maturity. Wasted effort is the mildest judgment that can be passed upon these abortive attempts. And not only does death eventually win in the case of each individual, and against which may be set the consideration that in the economy of nature death plays a part in the development of life, but eventually death will, if we are to trust science, reap a sweeping and universal triumph by the consummation of terrestrial conditions that will render the maintenance of life impossible.

Or, again, the relations of species are clearly not what we have a right to expect in the working out of a reasonably wise and benevolent plan. It is a general truth that, with the exception of a few instances, chiefly connected with the relations existing between insects and flowers, the development of one species in relation to another is not that of mutual helpfulness. The general rule here is that of mutual injury. The carnivora prey on the herbivora and upon each other; and the herbivora crush each other by methods that are as effective as the method of direct attack. Any variation is “good” provided it be of advantage to its possessor. And the “good” of the one kind may mean the destruction of another order. All the exquisite design shown in the development of the finer feelings of man, and upon which theistic sentimentalists love to dwell, may be seen in the structure of those parasites which destroy man and bring his finer feelings to naught. The late Theodore Roosevelt says of the Brazilian forests:

In these forests the multitude of insects that bite, sting, devour, and prey on other creatures, often with accompaniments of atrocious suffering, passes belief. The very pathetic myths of beneficent nature could not deceive even the least wise being if he once saw the iron cruelty of life in the tropics. Of course, “nature” in common parlance a wholly inaccurate term, by the way, especially when used to express a single entity is entirely ruthless, no less so as regards types than as regards individuals, and entirely indifferent to good or evil, and works out her ends or no ends with utter disregard of pain and woe (Cited by E. D. Fawcett in The World as Imagination; p. 571-2).

And Mr. Carveth Reade expresses the same thing in a more elaborate summing up:

The merciless character of organic evolution appears to us, first, in reckless propagation and the consequent destruction. Every species is as prolific as it can be compatibly with the development of its individuals; and the deaths that ensue from inanition, disease, violence, present a stupefying scene. The best one can say for it is that, as life rises in the organic scale, the death rate declines. Yet even man still suffers outrageously by violence, disease, inanition; the notion that “Malthus’s Law” no longer holds of civilised man is a foolish delusion. But more sinister than the direct destruction of life is the spectacle of innumerable species profiting by a life, parasitic or predatory, at the expense of others. The parasites refute the vulgar prejudice that evolution is by the measure of man, progressive; adaptation is indifferent to better or worse, except as to each species, that its offspring shall survive by atrophy and degradation. The predatory species flourish as if in derision of moral maxims; we see that though human morality is natural to man, it is far from expressing the whole of Nature. Animals, at first indistinguishable vegetables, devour them and enjoy a far richer life. Animals that eat other animals are nearly always superior not only in strength, grace and agility but in intelligence. There are exceptions to this rule; some snakes eat monkeys (thanking Providence), and the elephant is content with foliage; but compare cats and wolves with the ungulates that make a first concoction of herbs for their sake. It is true that our monkey kin are chiefly frugivorous; for it may be plausibly argued that man was first differentiated by becoming definitely carnivorous, a sociable hunter, as it were, a wolf-ape. Hence the advantage of longer legs, the use of weapons, the upright gait and defter hands to use and make weapons, more strategic brains, tribal organisation, and hence liberation from the tropical forest, and citizenship of the world. The greater part of his subsequent history is equally unedifying: having made the world his prey, he says that God made the world to that end, and those who have preyed upon their fellows, and enslaved them, and flourished upon it, have declared that to have been the intention of nature. (The Metaphysics of Nature; p. 344-5).

A perpetual pulling down and building up, and the building altogether dependent upon the demolition. The tiger built with tastes and capacities for catching the gazelle: the gazelle built with capacities that enable it to escape the tiger. There is no evidence here of the existence of a single mind working out an intelligent plan. At most we have either the proof for a number of warring powers, each one striving to destroy what the other is striving to create, or a single mind that has deliberately fashioned things so that each part may work for the destruction of the other part, the whole to presently end in a grand catastrophe.

But that is not all. If we limit our attention to man, can it be said that we find in the human structure what we might reasonably expect to find if man be indeed the crown of the divine plan, the event to which, for untold ages, all things were designedly tending? What we actually do find is that the structure of man, physically and mentally, is such as to altogether negative the notion of complete or harmonious adjustment to environment. That the human has within it a large number of vestigial structures some scientists place it as high as one hundred and seventy is now well known, and forms at the same time one of the evidences of evolution and an impeachment of the theistic theory. There is only need to instance now the vermiform appendage, which forms the seat of appendicitis, the “wisdom” teeth, of very little use, and one of the most fruitful of causes of disease of the teeth, the hair which covers the human body, now of no use whatever, except to form a lodgment for microbes, and so makes the acquisition of disease the more certain. In addition to the number of rudimentary organs that actually encourage disease Metchnikoff counts among these the larger intestine the body is full of rudimentary muscles and structures that when not positively harmful, impose a tax on the organism for which no corresponding service is performed.

The meaning and significance of these structures are, however, so well recognised that one need not dwell upon their existence. Not so well known is the complementary fact that just as in his physical structure man bears evidence of his emergence from lower forms of life, which result in a certain degree of disharmony between him and an ideal environment, so in his psychic life his instincts and feelings are often such as to prevent that ideal adaptation which so many desire. The earlier conception of optimistic evolutionists that the instincts of man were, through the operation of natural selection, converted into beneficent guides is quite faulty. In itself this was probably a survival of the theism which tried to prove that this was the best of all possible worlds, and which led evolutionists to try and prove that their theory was also ethically desirable. At any rate, the theory of the wholly beneficent nature of human instincts is not tenable. Our instincts are inherited from our animal ancestors; they were brought to fruition under conditions different in form from those which obtain with human beings, with the result that whether an instinct is helpful or the contrary depends largely upon the educational quality of the environment, and even then inherited tendencies may be so strong as to make them a source of danger to the community rather than of benefit.

It is noted, for example, that a deal of what may be called crime, or at least lawlessness, is the result of an individual being born with tendencies developed in a way that fits him for an environment of centuries ago, rather than an environment of to-day. Very many of our national heroes of a few centuries ago would rank as criminals to-day, just as many of our criminals to-day would, had they been born a few centuries since, have been handed down to us as examples of chivalry or of national heroism. Instead of what one may call the natural endowments of man pointing towards a more civilised form of life, they point to a less civilised form, while it is the artificially or socially induced feelings and ideas that point to a better future.

Thus, if we take the primitive or brute feeling of retaliation we find it assuming the form of war. And without discussing the value of war in the past, or even its admissibility in special circumstances in the present, I do not think it will be seriously disputed that the great need of the present is to transfer that feeling from the lower level of brute force to the higher one of adventure in the interests of science and human betterment. Here it is not the existence of a lofty “god-given” endowment that puts man out of harmony with his environment; it is, on the contrary, the operation of an earlier form of feeling manifestation which retards the coming of a better day.

There is, in fact, not a single quality of human nature that can be said to act with inerrancy. The baby seizes objects indiscriminately and puts them in its mouth. The man falling into the water does the very thing he should not do throws up his arms. Intense cold lulls to somnolency, instead of rousing to activity. The love of children, on which the preservation of the race depends, is absent with many; while with others the sexual instinct undergoes strange and morbid manifestations. A complete list of these disharmonies would fill a volume indeed, Metchnikoff, in his “Nature of Man,” has filled half a volume with describing some of the instances of physiological disharmony, and then has not exhausted the list.

It would indeed seem as if nature, with its method of never creating a new organ or structure, but only transforming and utilising an old one, had attached a penalty to every successful attempt to rise above a certain level. If man will walk upright she sees to it that his doing so shall involve a great liability to hernia. If he will live in cities, she has ready the ravage of consumption. If he will use clothing she makes him carry round a coating of useless hair as a method of trapping disease microbes. So soon as one disease is conquered another is discovered. Pleasures have their reverse side in pains, and to some pains the pleasures bear a small relation, being chiefly of the character of the pains being absent. As a social animal man is only imperfectly adapted to the state, there going on a constant warfare between his egoistic and altruistic impulses. In fact, it would certainly be an arguable proposition, if we allow intention in nature, to say that man was intended to remain at the animal level, and that, having so far defeated nature’s intention, he is dogged by a disappointed creator, and made to pay the fullest price that can be exacted for every step of progress achieved.

Of course, of proof of design in nature there is positively none. Design, as I have said, is not a natural fact, but a purely human construction. But, if admitted, it is a two edged weapon. For, if assumed anywhere, it must be assumed to exist everywhere. And designing intelligence must be made responsible for the whole scheme. But this the most extravagant piety refuses to do. Either we have the primitive theory of a devil who divides with God the responsibility for the state of the world, or we have the plea that evil may be only good disguised, or good in the making, or it is argued that we have to contemplate the “plan” as a whole, and must wait for some future state to pass judgment. And whichever view we take, there is the implied admission that the plan of creation as we know it cannot be harmonised with the theory of God that modern theism places before us. And instead of man being the miracle of perfection that an earlier generation saw in his structure, we know that the human structure is such that, given the power to create, science could really fashion, in the light of its present knowledge, a better organism.

Finally, disharmony is implied in and necessitated by the very fact of progress. Progress means a better adjustment, and the discomfort of maladjustment is the spur to improvement. A perfect equilibrium is as impossible as perpetual motion, and it is only with a perfect equilibrium that change, which is the condition of progress, would cease. The ceaseless desire for something better is, therefore, in itself an impeachment of things as they are. It is an indication of there being something wanting, of the existence of a want of complete harmony between man and his surroundings. Nor is the case of the theist bettered if he retorts that without the sense of imperfection or of dissatisfaction there would be no such thing as a conscious striving after improvement. That may be admitted, but that is only proving that perfection can never be achieved, and that even in this last resort “God” has so designed things as to make a mock of man at the end. The want of complete harmony that is seen in the physical structure of man is carried over into his mental life. If theism be true man is mocked by a mirage. And the knowledge is made the more depressing by the belief that the plan is not accidental, it is not a product of the working of non-conscious forces, it is the preordained outcome of a plan that was deliberately resolved on by a being with full power to devise some thing wiser and better. At the side of that, any theory of things is, by comparison, hopeful and inspiring.