To be viewed from the perspective of epistemology and/or the philosophy of science.


Darwin, like scientists of his day, often spoke of “Laws” that inevitably cycle forth the results implicit in their form.


In what ways did Darwin delve into the question of why there is life as opposed to a strictly abiotic world?

Did he try to define such a Law of biology that would answer the “why”?

  • 4
    Your question is about Darwin (thus: historical interest), about current status of evolutionary theory (thus: scientific interest) or about "what do believe those who belive in evolutionary theory" (and this is probably misleading: evolutionoary theory is a scientific theory and not a religious belief) ? Jul 3, 2018 at 14:44
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    I'm voting to close this question as off-topic because this is a biology question without real philosophical content. It is also polemic in its attempt to separate evolutionists from the religious, which are not opposing groups.
    – user9166
    Jul 3, 2018 at 14:44
  • You might be interested in reading Dawkins's essay "The Replicators" that is the second chapter of The Selfish Gene. It describes how evolution is already at work as soon as molecules with the ability to replicate come into existence.
    – littleO
    Jul 3, 2018 at 15:32
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    I'm not sure why this question is formed in a way to suggest that there aren't people who follow God's teachings that also accept science. Jul 3, 2018 at 15:33
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    @Jayant : "Obviously, believing in evolution does not leave a place of the creator." Did you mean "does not leave a place for the creator"?. Did you ever hear about theistic evolution? You should have, if you are interested in this topic. The vast majority of theists have nothing against evolution. If you are seriously interested in this area of philosophy, you have to consider it, because internet memes and strawmen created by the new atheist movement are a poor way of understanding how people believing in God view science in general and evolution in particular.
    – vsz
    Jul 4, 2018 at 4:40

4 Answers 4


One has to keep apart different layers: a) abiogenesis (the emergence of life) vs. evolution (the development of existing life over generations) and b) the incompatibility of biblical accounts of the origin of species with evolution vs. the incompatibility of the belief in God being the creator of life with evolution.

I will first answer the title question and then address the second layer.

Darwin on the origin of life

Charles Darwin himself did never explicitly write that it is the case that life developed gradually by natural processes, but this was due to the impossibility to scientifically prove this possibility at the time. It was his personal conviction, though: he did not believe in teleological or theological explanations of life.

This point is made and shown as valid in the paper: Peretó, J., Bada, J. L., & Lazcano, A. (2009). Charles Darwin and the Origin of Life. Origins of Life and Evolution of the Biosphere, 39(5), 395–406. http://doi.org/10.1007/s11084-009-9172-7

The abstract reads:

When Charles Darwin published The Origin of Species 150 years ago he consciously avoided discussing the origin of life. However, analysis of some other texts written by Darwin, and of the correspondence he exchanged with friends and colleagues demonstrates that he took for granted the possibility of a natural emergence of the first life forms. As shown by notes from the pages he excised from his private notebooks, as early as 1837 Darwin was convinced that “the intimate relation of Life with laws of chemical combination, & the universality of latter render spontaneous generation not improbable”. Like many of his contemporaries, Darwin rejected the idea that putrefaction of preexisting organic compounds could lead to the appearance of organisms. Although he favored the possibility that life could appear by natural processes from simple inorganic compounds, his reluctance to discuss the issue resulted from his recognition that at the time it was impossible to undertake the experimental study of the emergence of life.

They use letters and notes. One of the last letters is quoted in full towards the end of the paper and reaffirms the point:

He was to maintain the same attitude for many years to come, as shown by the letter mailed on March 28, 1882, near the end of his life, to George Charles Wallich (de Beer 1959). In it Darwin wrote that,

«My dear Sir,

You expressed quite correctly my views where you say that I had intentionally left the question of the Origin of Life uncanvassed as being altogether ultra vires in the present state of our knowledge, & that I dealt only with the manner of succession. I have met with no evidence that seems in the least trustworthy, in favour of the so-called Spontaneous generation. I believe that I have somewhere said (but cannot find the passage) that the principle of continuity renders it probable that the principle of life will hereafter be shown to be a part, or consequence of some general law; but this is only conjecture and not science. I know nothing about the Protista, and shall be very glad to read your Lecture when it is published, if you will be so kind as to send me a copy.

I remain, my dear Sir,

Yours very faithfully

Charles Darwin»

Thus, Darwin was convinced, but not able to scientifically demonstrate, that life emerged following laws of nature, i.e. "naturally". Consequently, he withheld this conviction in his scientific publications. As such, Darwin was a true scientist.

God as the creator of life vs. evolution

Darwin himself seemed to be against the idea that God did create life. At least, he saw no conclusive reason to think that he did. The authors of the paper referred to earlier write:

In a letter he sent in February 28, 1882 to D. Mackintosh (Letter 13711, Cambridge University Library, DAR.146:335), he included an indirect reference to Wöhler’s synthesis of urea and added that

«[...] If it is ever found that life can originate on this world, the vital phenomena will come under some general law of nature. Whether the existence of a conscious God can be proved from the existence of the so called laws of nature (i. e. fixed sequence of events) is a perplexing subject, on which I have often thought, but cannot see my way clearly...».

But this does not mean that belief in God is incompatible with evolutionary theory in principle, although standing at odds with the descriptions given in the Bible. As written in Stewart-Williams, S. (2010). Darwin, God and the Meaning of Life: How Evolutionary Theory Undermines Everything You Thought You Knew. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press (a recommended read for all those interested in this problem):

From the moment Darwin put forward his theory, it was obvious to his contemporaries that, if he was right, the biblical account of the origin of life must be wrong. In principle, people might have concluded that the Bible was wrong about the details of how God created life, but not about the fact that God existed in the first place. (p.44)

  • I am not even sure that it is in odds with descriptions given in the Bible: one may assume creator creating plants, animals, etc. as prime concepts and not as physical objects.
    – rus9384
    Jul 4, 2018 at 19:39
  • @rus9384: Man created at day 6 is hardly in accord with the picture you describe and the physicality of the creation is quite obvious when considering Adam's "rib" over which the "flesh" was mended again...
    – Philip Klöcking
    Jul 4, 2018 at 19:47
  • Well, Abrahamic God created days on the 4th day (there was no sky prior), so, I will left it on the Bible. But this can mean these days were not our days. Also, many theories consider chapters 1 and 2 as completely different. Also, 7th day could be the time of the reality, which means all those concepts came to reality only on the 7th day. So, Adam was physically created on 7th day and who knows if there is only one God described in the book of genesis.
    – rus9384
    Jul 4, 2018 at 19:58

Different subject matters

Note: Philip Klöcking answers the title question, this answers the question in the body.

The original work of Darwin was named "On the origin of species by means of natural selection", and not "On the origin of life".

Evolution takes place after Abiogenesis.

So asking someone trusts that evolution by natural selection is an accurate model for speciation what they think about the origin of life, is kind of like asking an electrician what they think about a power station. The subject matters are related, yes... without electricity there would not be any need for the electrician to do any work. Similarly, without an origin of life there could be no evolutionary process.

But they are still two different fields of interest. At the power station electricity is created, but out at the substations and in the buildings of end-users, is where the electricity is routed, distributed and used.

Conflating two arguments

The godly use two arguments (among many others) to try to prove their case for a deity:

  • Life could not have originated without a creator
  • Life could not have become as complex as it is without a designer

The theory of evolution refutes only the latter statement. It does not validate or invalidate the first statement. Presently there are hypotheses about the origin of life, but no established scientific theory about the origin of life.

These are two different arguments and they are validated/invalidated separately. You can have a creator that made life, but then did not meddle with evolution. You can have a designer that took preexisting life and started meddling with it. These are two different matters that do not necessarily reinforce each other. .

"I do not know"

People that regard the theory of evolution as an accurate model of speciation are usually scientifically minded. Scientifically minded people will — when asked about a matter, and there is no theory on the subject — commonly answer: "I do not know".

And such is the case here.

One more thing...

You say:

why life was formed

Science never asks "why". It asks "how". "How does gravity work?". "How does evolution work?". "How did/do the stars form?". "How did life originate?".

Asking "why" implies you are looking for a purpose. Science does not look for purpose. It looks for an understanding of how reality works.

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    "Science never asks "why"." Are you sure ? Jul 3, 2018 at 14:00
  • @MauroALLEGRANZA Yes, absolutely. Because the only answer you will ever get from that is another "how". For example: "Why are those mountains there?" "Because of plate tectonics". "How do plate tectonics work?". So a "why" in this context is just a synonym for "how does the underlying mechanism work?".
    – MichaelK
    Jul 3, 2018 at 14:17
  • And why do you think that for most of facts this is not the only "why" ? Jul 3, 2018 at 14:25
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    @MauroALLEGRANZA I will let Richard Feynman answer that: enjoy
    – MichaelK
    Jul 3, 2018 at 14:27
  • No one scientists opinion controls what all science ever asks.
    – user9166
    Jul 3, 2018 at 14:35

(This is not a philosophy question. It has no philosophical content of its own. It is straightforward question about the history and current state of biological science.)

Darwin's noted solution here, spontaneous generation, is basically wrong. It is incredibly unlikely that life should spring, fully functional, from non-biological matter. There is intermediate biological matter like viruses, which follow the laws of evolution, but are not yet life forms. Without modern technology, he could not have known that.

So the most common evolutionary answer to this question avoids Darwin and starts from DNA: Life started because given enough time self-replicating molecules were unavoidable. Once you have self-replicating molecules, they create a competition for the resources out of which they are made. Life forms arise naturally as the simplest solutions to the problems of how to collect, store and re-use energy for competition.

Check out Richard Dawkins and the theory of the selfish gene.

  • 1
    [Citation needed] on that one. Can you point to anyone actually saying that, as requested by the question?
    – MichaelK
    Jul 3, 2018 at 14:24
  • @MichaelK I see no request for a reference in the question. I don't even see reference-request as a tag. Please do not invent things that are not there.
    – user9166
    Jul 3, 2018 at 14:31
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    Read the question carefully: "what do those believe in evolutionary theory say". It is not "what is the explanation for the origin of life", but "what to those particular people say".
    – MichaelK
    Jul 3, 2018 at 14:35
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    @MichaelK As one of those particular people, I can just say what I (or my segment of that population) say. But it is based on an authority, which I have mentioned. I have responded to the question as asked.
    – user9166
    Jul 3, 2018 at 14:50
  • "It is incredibly unlikely that life should spring, fully functional, from non-biological matter.' - is it just your own belief? There is no biological matter that does not consist of non-biological - every molecule consists of atoms. Of course, this depends on what do you call full functionality. Yet, I am not sure that viruses preceed first unicellular beings. Also, DNA was not present in first beings, they got well with proteins and RNA (and maybe obly with proteins).
    – rus9384
    Jul 4, 2018 at 19:46

There is a point in human understanding where science and philosophy (people also interchangeably state 'religion') meet. That meeting point is the key to answering the question on origin of life. The 'why' and 'how' in this case can both be answered if we combine these two areas of thought. Charles Darwin definitely was looking at an empirical way of observations - scientific experiments with technology and understanding developed by that time - to answer the question; hence, he was not able to provide an explanation on the origin of life ... perfectly understandable. For the answer itself, that would be another question which can be answered :-)

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