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Mandeville’s Ship: Theistic Design and Philosophical History in Charles Darwin’s Vision of Natural Selection

From: Journal of the History of Ideas
Volume 69, Number 3, July 2008
pp. 441-465 | 10.1353/jhi.0.0000



This essay examines the analogy of a savage observing a sailing ship found in the final chapter of Darwin’s Origin of Species, an image that summed up his critique of British natural theology’s “design” thesis. Its inspiration drawn from works by Mandeville and Hume, and Darwin’s experience on the Beagle voyage, the ship illustration shows how Darwin conceived of natural selection’s relationship to theistic design in terms of a historical consciousness developed by Scottish Enlightenment thinkers. That outlook involved a dual emphasis on the rationality of historical inquiry and the largely irrational character of the actual historical process. Symbolized by the history of ship construction, this perspective aided Darwin in formulating his response to British natural theology.