Recently, I have been reading the Origin of Species and quite a few times Darwin says that nature selects. But it seems like he is personifying nature. Could we say that nature=reality for him? And then that reality selects means that there are some conditions(structure) in reality that favor only the fittest individuals to survive in those conditions? By his own words the definition of natural selection is:

"This preservation of favourable variations and the rejection of injurious variations, I call Natural Selection."

But I did not find any definition of 'Nature' - from reading it seems like some kind of deity because it selects, it is active.

  • 3
    It means the opposite, that selection occurs "naturally", without human or any other agent doing the selecting. When we say that a car disobeys or computer thinks we do not mean that cars and computers are agents either, it is a typical manner of speaking because antropomorphic metaphors help assimilate more to what is already familiar. There is no structure that favors "fittest individuals" in Darwin either. "Survival of the fittest" is Spencer's misleading phrase, the "fittest" are tautologically those who survive
    – Conifold
    Commented Dec 10, 2021 at 12:32
  • For a definition of nature see Aristotle's coinage of the term physis (Latin: Natura) Nature - in Heidegger's “On the Essence and Concept of Physis in Aristotle’s Physics B, 1,” Sheehan 1998. This is not just one definition amongst many, it is the original coinage. Commented Dec 10, 2021 at 16:19
  • @Eauriel "it seems like some kind of deity because it selects, it is active." Really?! Well, then, "It is raining" says that "it" is doing something, it is active, it must be some deity. The flower grows and turn to the sunlight, so it is active, so it must be a deity. The Earth revolves around the Sun so it, too, must be a deity. Everything does something, everything is active, so everything must be a deity. Which is good, there is nothing left for God to do, right? Commented Dec 10, 2021 at 17:52
  • Added tag naturalism
    – J D
    Commented Dec 10, 2021 at 18:02

5 Answers 5


In his introduction to On the Origin of Species, Darwin gave a succinct summary of the theory:

In the next chapter the Struggle for Existence amongst all organic beings throughout the world, which inevitably follows from their high geometrical powers of increase, will be treated of. This is the doctrine of Malthus, applied to the whole animal and vegetable kingdoms. As many more individuals of each species are born than can possibly survive; and as, consequently, there is a frequently recurring struggle for existence, it follows that any being, if it vary however slightly in any manner profitable to itself, under the complex and sometimes varying conditions of life, will have a better chance of surviving, and thus be naturally selected. From the strong principle of inheritance, any selected variety will tend to propagate its new and modified form.

The fact that some heritable features give an organism a "better chance of surviving" in the "complex and sometimes varying conditions of life" (i.e., the conditions found in the organism's environment) can be taken as a definition of "natural selection". For example, if thicker fur gives some members of a population a better chance of survival in an arctic environment, and the result is that members of the population with thicker fur out-breed members with thinner fur, that would be an instance of natural selection in action. "Nature" simply refers to the sum total of all environmental conditions which might be responsible for giving different heritable features different chances of surviving and reproducing, nothing more is implied.

In modern mathematical models of Darwinian evolution this is formalized with the concept of different genomes having differential fitness, the probabilistic expected value for the number of offspring an organism with that genome would have in a specific environment (say, a modern arctic tundra). See "The propensity interpretation of fitness" in the SEP article on fitness, which says:

Among philosophers of biology there has been a wide consensus that the solution to the problem of defining individual ‘fitness’ is given by treating it as a probabilistic disposition. As such it causally intervenes between the relationship of environments to organisms that cause it, and the actual rates of reproduction that are its effects. Thus, fitness turns out to be a “garden-variety” dispositional concept like ‘magnetic’ or ‘fragile’. These properties, and all dispositions are distinguished both from the actual behaviour to which they give rise—e.g., attracting iron filing or breaking in the case of magnetism or fragility; some items are magnetic and others fragile without ever actually attracting iron filings or breaking. Similarly, an organism can have a probabilistic disposition to have n offspring and yet “unluckily” never actually reproduce.

edit: In the comments, @JD asks for evidence that when Darwin talks about the chances of survival "under the complex and sometimes varying conditions of life" he is referring specifically to chances given the organism's natural environment. To me this seems fairly self-evident, simply because I can't think of any other sensible interpretation of what the phrase "complex and sometimes varying conditions of life" could mean for a wild animal or plant (and the plural nature of the phrase doesn't seem to fit with the idea that he was talking about selection by a singular purposeful agent, whether 'God' or an anthropomorphized 'Nature'). But for further support for this reading, in chapter 3 he elaborates on the notion of natural selection:

Owing to this struggle for life, any variation, however slight and from whatever cause proceeding, if it be in any degree profitable to an individual of any species, in its infinitely complex relations to other organic beings and to external nature, will tend to the preservation of that individual, and will generally be inherited by its offspring. The offspring, also, will thus have a better chance of surviving, for, of the many individuals of any species which are periodically born, but a small number can survive. I have called this principle, by which each slight variation, if useful, is preserved, by the term of Natural Selection, in order to mark its relation to man’s power of selection.

Here he is referring to variations that give an organism a "better chance of surviving" in the context of its "infinitely complex relations to other organic beings and to external nature", which again sounds like odds of survival given the sum total of everything in its natural environment.

In chapter 4 he gives some examples of natural selection that again are all due to varied environmental factors, like a change in climate causing some species to go extinct:

We shall best understand the probable course of natural selection by taking the case of a country undergoing some physical change, for instance, of climate. The proportional numbers of its inhabitants would almost immediately undergo a change, and some species might become extinct.

Later in the chapter he gives some "imaginary illustrations" of natural selection:

In order to make it clear how, as I believe, natural selection acts, I must beg permission to give one or two imaginary illustrations. Let us take the case of a wolf, which preys on various animals, securing some by craft, some by strength, and some by fleetness; and let us suppose that the fleetest prey, a deer for instance, had from any change in the country increased in numbers, or that other prey had decreased in numbers, during that season of the year when the wolf was hardest pressed for food. Under such circumstances the swiftest and slimmest wolves have the best chance of surviving, and so be preserved or selected, provided always that they retained strength to master their prey at this or some other period of the year, when they were compelled to prey on other animals.

The deer are a part of the wolf's natural environment (specifically its 'relations to other organic beings' mentioned in chapter 3), and the "swiftest and slimmest" wolf therefore have the best chance of catching enough deer to survive.

Then there is this example:

Let us now take a more complex case. Certain plants excrete a sweet juice, apparently for the sake of eliminating something injurious from their sap: this is effected by glands at the base of the stipules in some Leguminosæ, and at the back of the leaf of the common laurel. This juice, though small in quantity, is greedily sought by insects. Let us now suppose a little sweet juice or nectar to be excreted by the inner bases of the petals of a flower. In this case insects in seeking the nectar would get dusted with pollen, and would certainly often transport the pollen from one flower to the stigma of another flower. The flowers of two distinct individuals of the same species would thus get crossed; and the act of crossing, we have good reason to believe (as will hereafter be more fully alluded to), would produce very vigorous seedlings, which consequently would have the best chance of flourishing and surviving. Some of these seedlings would probably inherit the nectar-excreting power. Those individual flowers which had the largest glands or nectaries, and which excreted most nectar, would be oftenest visited by insects, and would be oftenest crossed; and so in the long-run would gain the upper hand. Those flowers, also, which had their stamens and pistils placed, in relation to the size and habits of the particular insects which visited them, so as to favour in any degree the transportal of their pollen from flower to flower, would likewise be favoured or selected.

Again the interaction between the insects and the flower is just another environmental factor, one which favors flowers with stamens and pistils placed in such away that the insects are more likely to carry their pollen.

  • You make claim about Nature meaning the sum total, etc. Yet, you provide no citation that was the intention of the author. While I am friendly to your contemporary interpretation, in fact as an atheist I share it, that nonetheless, doesn't demonstrate it is the appropriate interpretation. It might be. Or it might not. You simply don't support the claim that was the author's position. I'm open to proof, otherwise it send more likely it is the filter of modernity casting its gaze backwards. So where's the beef?
    – J D
    Commented Dec 11, 2021 at 1:21
  • The question asks, what was Nature to Darwin? Is there a quotation to support that Darwin supported metaphysical naturalism devoid of the influence of the God he believed in?
    – J D
    Commented Dec 11, 2021 at 1:26
  • I've highlighted the two strongest parts of your answer, your characterization of Nature, and your quite important claim that there is no logical implication in the text. That's something my own answer misses: the lack of logical implication is extremely important. I'll roll-back the downvote because your edit shifts the weight from personal interpretation to likely interpretation of Darwin...
    – J D
    Commented Dec 11, 2021 at 15:05
  • Clearly for secular thinkers (myself included) natural selection defines naturalism and naturalism defines Nature. But certainly natural theology has a different approach of defining Nature as liberal Catholic elements must defend. In modern parlance, 'nature' might be read as 'theological naturalism' or 'an ecosystem within scientism', and it seems the evidence you produce supports the latter reading. But I support a moderate scientism, so I might be blind to evidence of a non-Christian, theological interpretation. Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. Thanks for pushback!
    – J D
    Commented Dec 11, 2021 at 15:11
  • I think I'm going to go fishing in ChristianitySE and see what theists produce to support their views that evolution is compatible with church doctrine.
    – J D
    Commented Dec 11, 2021 at 15:20

This deity would not be the Christian God, according to G.K. Chesterton

About the time when the Stoic idealism had begun to show the weaknesses of pessimism, the old nature worship of the ancients had begun to show the enormous weaknesses of optimism. Nature worship is natural enough while the society is young, or, in other words, Pantheism is all right as long as it is the worship of Pan. But Nature has another side which experience and sin are not slow in finding out, and it is no flippancy to say of the god Pan that he soon showed the cloven hoof. The only objection to Natural Religion is that somehow it always becomes unnatural. A man loves Nature in the morning for her innocence and amiability, and at nightfall, if he is loving her still, it is for her darkness and her cruelty. He washes at dawn in clear water as did the Wise Man of the Stoics, yet, somehow at the dark end of the day, he is bathing in hot bull's blood, as did Julian the Apostate. The mere pursuit of health always leads to something unhealthy. Physical nature must not be made the direct object of obedience; it must be enjoyed, not worshipped. Stars and mountains must not be taken seriously. If they are, we end where the pagan nature worship ended. Because the earth is kind, we can imitate all her cruelties. Because sexuality is sane, we can all go mad about sexuality. Mere optimism had reached its insane and appropriate termination. The theory that everything was good had become an orgy of everything that was bad.

On the other side our idealist pessimists were represented by the old remnant of the Stoics. Marcus Aurelius and his friends had really given up the idea of any god in the universe and looked only to the god within. They had no hope of any virtue in nature, and hardly any hope of any virtue in society. They had not enough interest in the outer world really to wreck or revolutionise it. They did not love the city enough to set fire to it. Thus the ancient world was exactly in our own desolate dilemma. The only people who really enjoyed this world were busy breaking it up; and the virtuous people did not care enough about them to knock them down. In this dilemma (the same as ours) Christianity suddenly stepped in and offered a singular answer, which the world eventually accepted as THE answer. It was the answer then, and I think it is the answer now.

This answer was like the slash of a sword; it sundered; it did not in any sense sentimentally unite. Briefly, it divided God from the cosmos. That transcendence and distinctness of the deity which some Christians now want to remove from Christianity, was really the only reason why any one wanted to be a Christian. It was the whole point of the Christian answer to the unhappy pessimist and the still more unhappy optimist.


  • +1 Presuming it is a deity and not just seems, an economical retort, indeed. :D
    – J D
    Commented Dec 10, 2021 at 16:52

Regardless of Darwin's theology and beliefs its abundantly clear what is meant by the term "Natural Selection".

"Natural Selection" is the opposite of "Artificial Selection" ie the breeding of domestic animals by humans.

So when humans selectively breed variations of animals its artificial selection, when some variations of animals breed more successfully without human intervention its natural selection. There is no implied _super_natural intervention in the process. Indeed the exact opposite.


  • The question is not what did he mean by natural selection or did he make supernatural claims, but what was his understanding of Nature, particularly because he spoke of it in the same way a Theist speaks of a Creator. What, then, was Nature to Darwin?
    – J D
    Commented Dec 11, 2021 at 1:24
  • If Nature was free of God's influence, how can we reconcile the fact that he was interested in becoming clergy to advocate the Bible? I'm an athiest, so I reject a Nature with supernatural elements, but can you provide evidence the Darwin did too? He was quite clear he was NOT an atheist.
    – J D
    Commented Dec 11, 2021 at 1:30
  • @JD If Nature was free of God's influence, how can we reconcile the fact that he was interested in becoming clergy to advocate the Bible? Only in his youth! His inclination towards theism declined with time, by 1880 he could write to a correspondent that "I am sorry to have to inform you that I do not believe in the Bible as a divine revelation, & therefore not in Jesus Christ as the son of God."
    – Hypnosifl
    Commented Dec 11, 2021 at 4:21
  • 1
    @JD my point is that you are asserting that darwin had a supernatural view of "nature" because you say "nature selects" implies agency. when in fact the term "natural selection" is used to mean a lack of agency regardless of whether the author believes in a god that actively influences "nature". You are conflating the two concepts
    – Ewan
    Commented Dec 11, 2021 at 9:32
  • @Hypnosifl Rejecting Christianity and rejecting theism are not the same. I'll read your revised answer.
    – J D
    Commented Dec 11, 2021 at 14:40

Darwin was born a Christian and was a sincere believer when he set out on his famous expeditionary voyage on The Beagle. In this period, Nature to him would simply be a manifestation of God's law.

However, the story becomes more complex with him harbouring doubts about Christanity and according to some accounts, breaking with it around forty.

Some people have viewed this at best as him becoming agnostic. One might posit at this point in his life, were he to think about Nature, he may have seen it as a personification of the universe itself. However, I think it's important to remember a commentary by the Ayatollah Khomeni on a hadith about jihad where he reminds the reader that it is normal for human beings below the rank of prophets to have doubts. This suggests that faith for most people is a journey and so it was for Darwin.

Most historians consider that Darwin was a sincere Christian when he came to write his most famous book and that he was most likely a deist when he published it. Thus agnosticism mis-characterises his beliefs at this stage. He was a philosophical monotheist as opposed to being attached to Christian monotheism - and which to some people would make him an athiest - but of course this is untrue.

James Moore, a Darwin expert called the Origin of the Species, a "pious" work that was against miraculous creation but was an argument for creation by law. Whilst philosopher Stephen Dilley has written "that theology was a hand-maiden to Darwin's science".

Thus at his later stage of belief, nature was not a personification of the universe; but again a manifestation of God's will in the world but not neccessarily the Christian understanding of God.

According to some accounts he returned to Christisnity later in life. These relate that when he was on his death-bed, an evangelist called Lady Hope visited him and found him reading the Book of Hebrews. When she mentioned the Genesis creation story. He babbled at little about how "unformed" ideas of his youth had spread like "wildfire" and some had made "a religion out of them". In this, his insight was perspicuous.

Nietzsche for example comes to mind, with the enormous crimes typified by the European genocide of the Jews and romanies as undesirables. He did, after all say in his Will to Power that

the vast majority of men do not have a right to life ... I do not grant the unfit that right. There are even unfit peoples.

And also in the Anti-Christ:

The weak and the failures shall perish: first principle of our love of man. And they shall be given every possible assistance.

Why Nietzsche isn't seen as the Nazi philosopher par excellance beats me. He is deliberately advocating mass genocide on the basis of 'fitness to live'. Apparently he is the philosopher of 'life', of hedonism. Except for him, for an elite to really enjoy life, the vast majority of men, women and children must die. When he named himself the Anti-Christ, he named himself well. He turned Darwinism into a religion and he it's first prophet. It's the first materialist religion of the modern age.

Source: Ted Davis, The Evolution of Darwin's religious faith (2016, biologos.com)

  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat.
    – Geoffrey Thomas
    Commented Dec 13, 2021 at 9:05
  • You wrote: "Why Nietzsche isn't seen as the Nazi philosopher par excell[e]nce beats me." Well, isn't it because there are such things as idolization and selfishness? Also, Phil SE even has a "nietzsche" tag, so you should ask your own moderators about this implicit approval of studying a racist philosopher.
    – user21820
    Commented Dec 13, 2021 at 11:54


The role of the theory of evolution used to discredit religiosity is contentious, and it's likely you'll see answers pro and con in interpreting 'Nature' as supporting the rejection or support of theology. This answer will (poorly) characterize the nature of the philosophical disagreement. Anyone who gives you a definitive answer might pause to consider that Darwin himself never articulated sophisticated philosophical views of his beliefs about 'Nature'. Thus, the what 'Nature' is in light of the affirmation of natural selection is just as contentious today as in Ancient Greece.

EDIT 2021-12-11

As an atheist, my personal views are that natural selection determines nature, and thus I have a Nature that is devoid of the supernatural, however, Darwin was clearly not an atheist, and I think it important not to project scientism onto Darwin's views on Nature which don't appear to be addressed in his work on natural selection. The notion that an author's views are confined to a single text would be poor critique.

Short Answer

The linguistic construction 'Nature' used by Darwin metaphorically as a stand-in for Creator, is a very important moment in philosophy of science, in that it is frequently adduced in defense of metaphysical naturalism, and has been frequently used as an attempt to discredit theories of knowledge that do not reject supernaturalism. The theory was so successful, that it affected Darwin's own religious views shifting him from Believer to non-Believer. Thus, what Darwin meant by 'Nature' itself changed as his own views changed, and any claims that it meant to Darwin are dubious unless they are part of a systematic argument. See the bibliography of the last cited WP article for a range of resources on the material.

EDIT 2021-12-12

What Darwin seemed to have believed by Nature was something in between the theological view that Nature was actively managed by God, and that God had no role in it's creation or function. To wit from the WP article on his views: In one 1860 letter to Gray, Darwin expressed his doubts about the teleological argument which claimed nature as evidence of god, though he was still inclined to vaguely believe in an impersonal God as first cause. The article goes on to supply correspondence with Asa Gray to support this claim.

Long Answer

Theists and Non-Theists, Naturalism and Supernaturalism

It means the opposite, that selection occurs "naturally", without human or any other agent doing the selecting. When we say that a car disobeys or computer thinks we do not mean that cars and computers are agents either, it is a typical manner of speaking because anthropomorphic metaphors help assimilate more to what is already familiar. There is no structure that favors "fittest individuals" in Darwin either. "Survival of the fittest" is Spencer's misleading phrase, the "fittest" are tautologically those who survive – Conifold

Conifold in his wisdom has called out the metaphor for what it is, a linguistic substitute for a role traditionally reserved for gods. This is the typical belief of those who embraced a naturalized epistemology and reject the supernatural in biological thinking. The nineteenth century was instrumental in the secular drive to remove theological philosophy from scientific theory, a tension that goes back through rationalists to the foundations of philosophy in Ancient Greece where one might divide philosophers into physiki who correspond to contemporaneous agnostics and atheists, and theologi who advocated various forms of divine agency.

For a definition of nature see Aristotle's coinage of the term physis (Latin: Natura) Nature - in Heidegger's “On the Essence and Concept of Physis in Aristotle’s Physics B, 1,” Sheehan 1998. This is not just one definition amongst many, it is the original coinage. – Chris Degnen

Certainly, Degnen is right that Aristotle is tremendously important in his views on nature, but any implication that first is best is obviously suspect. Designers of fighter jets don't start with the work of the Wright Brothers in their designs, and many modern philosophers, while appreciating Aristotle's view, particularly the Scholastics, no longer look to Aristotle for theoretical inspiration considering how his theories have largely been outgrown in the modern era. Newton and his natural mechanics is a prime example of where Aristotle fell woefully short, which, to be fair, might have more to do with the fact he reasoned millennia ago, when science had a meaning more closely tied to episteme than epistemology.

Darwin, Natural Selection, and Nature

To be clear, Darwin wasn't the first, but rather the biggest. Some notions of people coming from fish go back to the Pre-Socratics. Darwin's theory of evolution is very much concerned with the mechanics of the differentiation of species in contradistinction to long-held views on natural kinds. In a way, Darwin helped to redefine nature from the immature views of Aristotle on the matter, to the present day theory that unifies almost all theory in biology. So, the foundation to understanding Darwin's views is rooted by the question, How has the view of 'nature' changed? But that's an entirely different topic.

What can be said is that Darwin might be a representative of the Zeitgeist, as he came on the heels of the transformation of Christianity in the face of the Aufklärung, or as we Englishphones say, the Enlightenment. There's too much to cover about how rationalism and empiricism affected philosophical discourse in the 18th century, and how Kant reshaped the face of philosophy with his Critique of Pure Reason, among others. Remember, the emergence of Deism was representative of growing movement to abandon transcendence in philosophies. During the Middle Ages, the Catholic church reigned supreme, but with the advent of modern science, there was a growing body of philosophical irrelgiosity.


What Darwin meant by 'Nature' is a controversial topic, because Darwin's religious views are a source of research and disputation. So, it is irrefutable that the definition of 'Nature' still is contentious, and theists and atheists have different conceptions still. It is fair to say that both the militant atheist Richard Dawkins and the current Pope both support evolution predicated on a different understanding of nature. Darwin himself was a Believer and Christian congregant early on:

On the Origin of Species reflects theological views.[not verified in body] Though he thought of religion as a tribal survival strategy, Darwin still believed that God was the ultimate lawgiver,11 and later recollected that at the time he was convinced of the existence of God as a First Cause and deserved to be called a theist. This view subsequently fluctuated,13 and he continued to explore conscientious doubts, without forming fixed opinions on certain religious matters.8

His personal views on 'Nature' have to be drawn from both theological and scientific notions, the latter including Newtonian mechanics and natural laws. In the end, it is safe to say that Darwin's conception of 'Nature' is ambiguous, as he himself expressed a lack of knowledge on theological matters. From WP:

generally "an Agnostic would be the more correct description of my state of mind."8 He went as far as saying that "Science has nothing to do with Christ, except insofar as the habit of scientific research makes a man cautious in admitting evidence. For myself, I do not believe that there ever has been any revelation. As for a future life, every man must judge for himself between conflicting vague probabilities."

  • Darwin's personal uncertainties about theological matters do not imply he intended "nature" to have any theological import, evolution by natural selection was intended as a scientific theory which did not take a position on such issues.
    – Hypnosifl
    Commented Dec 11, 2021 at 0:00
  • @Hypnosifl Source to support your claim?
    – J D
    Commented Dec 11, 2021 at 1:07
  • The whole point of the post is predicated on the notion that there is no clear line of division between a metaphysical interpretation of Nature that accommodate general relevation conducive to theology and one that that discourages it. Thus, when one asks what does Nature mean in the book, one can only look to the author and the period to hypothesize the meaning intended. I think you may overestimate the capacity of a 19th century thinker to clearly explicate naturalism. Natural philosophy was largely predicated on theological thinking, as I understand it.
    – J D
    Commented Dec 11, 2021 at 1:13
  • Was 19th century naturalism that much more sophisticated?
    – J D
    Commented Dec 11, 2021 at 1:15
  • See the revision to my answer for evidence that "natural selection" simply referred to chances of survival given the sum total of environmental conditions. And there's a good discussion of Darwin's views on theology and metaphysics in this paper, see in particular p. 224 on his covert sympathy for purely materialistic explanations of human behavior, and p. 229-230 where he is dismissive towards any appeal to Aristotelian "final causes" (considered as something fundamentally different than material 'efficient cause'), as well as "providential teleology".
    – Hypnosifl
    Commented Dec 11, 2021 at 4:15

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