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Darwin, Charles

Contents

Charles Robert Darwin (1809-1882) (Rolf Bouma, 1996; includes a list of key figures in early debates around biological evolution and its theological significance)

Charles Robert Darwin (1809-1882) (Matt McLaughlin, 1998)

Charles Robert Darwin (1809-1882)

Rolf Bouma, 1996

 

Born: 12 February, 1809; died: April 19, 1882

Relationship of Natural Science to Theology in the 19th Century

The medieval west, it is said, considered theology to be queen of the sciences. The same can be said of the 18th and 19th centuries, as theology's status paralleled that of the 18th and 19th century monarchs. Where revered, it tended to take on the smugness of Victorian rectitude and privilege. Where reviled, it was beaten, kicked about, and even marched to the guillotine a la Marie Antoinette. In general, theology like monarchy was forced to come to terms with new paradigms in culture and society. Upstart disciplines such as the natural sciences rode a wave of meritocracy to power and prestige. Even if outright accommodation was not always the result, at least theology had to factor in and answer to the findings of the sciences if theology was to retain its intellectual dignity.

Such was the trend since at least the time of Descartes and Newton. Newton's work challenged the notion of a God who constantly tinkered with the workings of the physical world. His idea of a universe running along consistent laws had, by the early 1800's, been reconciled with theology. A God of constant tinkering was a poor planner, whereas a God who could establish immutable laws of nature to spin out the divine plan was a grand God of infinite foresight. By the late 18th century and the writings of William Paley, the universe was a lovely (if stifling) mix of consistent natural law and divine design. The physical universe was the realm of God's providential law (pro + videre = "to look ahead"), whereas the biological world manifested God's beneficent design in every detail of life. In Paley's view, tremendously popular in England, natural theology properly done resulted in a God of kindly Christian attributes.

Theology reconciled itself to Newton's physics. The next to engage was geology. The engagement actually began with a geological event: the Lisbon earthquake of 1755, in which tens of thousands of people were killed and the notion of Providence took a serious broadside./1/ More gradually, the fledgling science of geology became engaged. With the opening of the world through trade, exploration, and colonial expansion, scientists became aware of the diversity of geologic formations and the existence of fossil remains. By the early 19th century, the prevailing scientific view (one to which theology was accommodated) was old earth catastrophism, in which an ancient earth experienced several epochs of creation of biological forms, each epoch coming to a complete end through catastrophe, with no carryover from one epoch to another. Typically this was combined with a belief that some past processes simply no longer operated and that processes which did still operate had been more powerful in the past. This was harmonized with the biblical record by making the last catastrophe the universal flood. Although this view was challenged already in the 18th century, its first major opposition came from Charles Lyell in 1830. Lyell attempted to develop a uniformitarian geological theory based solely on presently observable processes operating at presently observable intensities. Furthermore, in opposition to catastrophic claims, Lyell claimed that the earth was a steady state system./2/ Fossil remains of marine animals at high elevations were not signs of a universal flood, but of the rising and subsiding of the earth's crust due to natural forces.

Theology barely had time to intersect with this theory before the issues expanded. Geology quickly slid over into biology, and early on in the discussion fossil evidence became the subject of debate, particularly as that evidence impacted the swirling discussion around the concept of species. At one end were those who believed the concept of species invalid, and that there was a gradation of forms with infinite variety, a modernized version of the great chain of being. At the other were those who held to the fixity of species. Species were created just so. The idea that species could change over time was dismissed as contrary to the evidence as well as violating theological principle.

The climate of the times, however, was opening itself up to notions of progress and evolution, not all of which were related to German Idealism. Already in 1802, the French biologist Lamarck advanced a mechanistic evolutionary theory. The difficulty was the means by which change could be effected and passed on to future generations. The essence of Lamarck's theory was that there was an innate principle of progress toward complexity and improvement within living matter. Extinction, in Lamarck's view, was contrary to this principle, and so adaptation became a key. Although Lamarck is best known for the mechanism of adapation (i.e. the inheritability of acquired traits), the mechanism was incidental to his theory and can be found in other thinkers of his time. Lamarck's overall theory was opposed by the leading thinkers of his day, and, in fact, his greatest influence was felt after Darwin's publication of The Origin of Species. Neo-Lamarckism was advanced as an alternative teleological theory of transmutation that did not have the unsavory side-effects of natural selection.

Thus the prevailing opinion in Darwin's day was still old earth catastrophism, but inroads had been made. For the most part, however, the view still held sway that species were fixed by God's design. The natural world was not considered to be in progress, but a work already completed and signed by the artist. For those few who believed that natural history paved a road of progress, most believed it unlikely that the roadside would be littered with castaway species.

Biography

Charles Robert Darwin was born in 1809 in Shrewsbury, England, the son of Dr. Robert and Susannah Darwin, and the grandson of the noted Free-thinker Erasmus Darwin. Darwin's family was well-to-do, and when Darwin experienced the loss of his mother at an early age, his older sisters oversaw his daily upbringing and schooling prior to his being sent to an academy at Shrewsbury in 1817.

He was, to say the least, inept at his studies, being more interested in carrying out unauthorized chemistry experiments than in the Shrewsbury curriculum of classics, history and geography. After an undistinguished term, he was trundled off to Edinburgh in 1825 to undertake medical studies with a view towards following in his father's footsteps. In Edinburgh, academic ineptitude combined with such revulsion at the operating theaters and dissecting rooms that he abandoned medicine in 1827. His Edinburgh period, however, did introduce him to the disciplines of zoology, botany, and geology, disciplines in which he dabbled to the detriment of his other studies.

Despairing of a career in medicine, his father determined that he should enter the clergy, and so he headed for Cambridge to complete theological studies. While in Cambridge, Darwin continued his scientific interests, and developed a fascination with natural history./3/ Scientific pursuits were considered a proper hobby for an English clergyman, and Darwin envisioned being ordained and retiring to a country parish from which he could carry on his naturalist interests without significant distractions. In 1831, he graduated from Cambridge, expecting a sedentary life in rural England.

Events conspired to provide him an opportunity for immortality, however, and, despite the initial opposition of his father, Darwin seized the moment. The opportunity was an invitation to serve as an unpaid naturalist on the Admiralty ship H.M.S. Beagle on a survey trip to South America.

Darwin's voyage on H.M.S. Beagle lasted from December, 1831, through October, 1836. Given on departure a copy of the first volume of Lyell's Principles of Geology with the instructions to read it but not to believe it, Darwin soon confirmed for himself the basics of Lyell's principles and began to interpret his observations from a uniformitarian perspective. Darwin's interests, however, were not so narrow as to be limited to geology. During the course of his voyage, he collected marine and terrestrial organisms, fossils, and rock specimens (shipping many back to England to be studied or held for his return), took voluminous notes, and began the process of puzzling through his findings. Even chance events conspired to magnify the opportunities of the voyage, as the Beagle was in the town of Concepcion when a severe earthquake struck, resulting in a raising of the surrounding land mass by several feet. Lyell was confirmed before his very eyes. By this time, however, Darwin was becoming bold enough to formulate his own geological (and biological) theories, diverging at important points from Lyell. At the same time, back in England, the specimens shipped ahead were the talk of England, so that when Darwin finally returned, the English scientific establishment was primed to hear the results of his observations.

Darwin's specimens were farmed out to recognized experts in the various disciplines, and when reports began to trickle in, the results were even more astounding than anticipated. What is more, it became apparent that unrecorded data and uncollected specimens were suddenly of immense importance. Darwin was forced to scour his memory and draw on crew members from the Beagle to reconstruct important information. In particular, a brief stayover at the Galapagos Islands proved fascinating because it now seemed obvious to Darwin that speciation had occurred among the finches and tortoises of the islands. Reflecting on these findings, Darwin began to keep a notebook in 1837 entitled Notebook on Transmutation of Species.

In 1839, Darwin married his first cousin, Emma Wedgewood. Since his return from South America, Darwin's health had been precarious./4/ Although Darwin remained active in scientific circles, he retired with his family to a house in Downe, some fifteen miles from London. He and Emma had ten children, of whom seven survived childhood. Darwin, who had had serious reservations about his faith for many years, finally tipped over into outright rejection of Christianity and into agnosticism on the death of his daughter Annie in 1851.

During this time, Darwin continue his investigations and musings which found their way into his journal. Much of his thinking Darwin did not discuss with his colleagues, hoping to have ironclad evidence supporting his ideas in place by the time he was ready to publish. There were two major problems which had to be overcome. First, some account needed to be made for the arising of variations within a species. Second, a mechanism had to be found by which traits could be passed on from the individual to the next generation. Darwin never successfully answered the second problem, having to take refuge in some vague hereditary principle./5/ He received an important clue to the former, however, on reading Malthus's essay on population. Although Malthus's theory was directed towards human populations, Darwin saw immediately that it must also apply to plant and animal populations. Since organic life constantly pushes the limits of capacity, any variation which produces an advantage increases the probability that that individual will be able to reproduce and pass its characteristics on to succeeding generations.

Darwin eventually confided his theory to Lyell and a few others. Lyell encouraged him to publish, but Darwin resisted, knowing the furor his theory would arouse. Then, in 1857, Darwin received a manuscript from Alfred Russel Wallace, a English naturalist in South America, who had arrived at identical conclusions independently./6/ After discussion with Lyell, Wallace, and others, in 1858 Darwin presented a brief sketch of his theory in a joint paper with Alfred Russell Wallace. Publication of The Origin of Species followed in 1859. The original run of 1250 copies was sold out in a day.

Darwin was temperamentally unsuited to the abuses of an adoring, much less a deploring, audience. Fortunately his cause was taken up by noted scientists of the day, including Lyell and Thomas Huxley, leaving him relatively free to continue his work. Darwin wrote three more books on various aspects of his theory. In 1871, in The Descent of Man, he finally made explicit what he had previously only hinted at, that his theory of evolution was consistent with human descent, both physically and mentally, from primates.

Darwin died on April 19, 1882. Although he had been at odds with the Anglican establishment for much of his life (and, it is reported, was denied knighthood because of Anglican objections), at the request of twenty members of Parliament he was allowed to be buried in Westminster Abbey.

Response to Darwin's Theory in Theology

One can ask why Darwin's Origin of Species created such a stir. After all, evolutionary theories were nothing new in either philosophy, theology, or science. The answer lies on several levels. On one level, it seems that in the metamorphosis of a new paradigm, Darwin's theory marked a critical juncture where public apprehension of the change from a static, divinely-ordered worldview to a dynamic, natural law worldview reached a level of sufficient clarity (as well as of alarmed confusion) that there was significant appreciation for what was at stake.

On another level, Darwin's theory held within it the nub of the political, religious and social ferment of his day. These disputes were multi-faceted. There were no simple political party lines such as Whigs and Tories along which the disputes fell (although that was one of them). Darwin himself was establishment in being part of the privileged classes. Yet, as an independent scientist, he was strangely at odds with the heretofore established scientific communities of Oxford and Cambridge. His theory fit with those who urged democratic reforms. His free-thinking heritage rebelled against the stifling smugness of the Anglican powers-that-used-to-be. His associations with Huxley, Malthus and Spencer carried political and social baggage with them.

Over the long run, the primary point of contention with Darwin was the notion of natural selection, not the transmutation of species. Darwin's reliance upon Malthus came at a point in time when public fascination with Malthus was on the wane. Wallace himself later wrote a paper saying that natural selection could not explain everything. Lyell's continuing reservations likewise focused on natural selection. There was much to push people towards internal developmental principles rather than natural selection as the explanation for transmutation. In fact, the bulk of theologians and philosophers (as well as many scientists) who embraced evolution in the late 18th century did so in forms which were neo-Lamarckian rather than Darwinian.

Darwin himself attempted to avoid a teleological or theistic interpretation of his theory,/7/ but he himself realized that reaction from theological circles was inevitable. The response was swift, and telling. Early objections focused on the shock of human descent from apes (itself often a misconstrual of Darwin's theory)./8/ Of deeper shock was the seeming damage to a universe by design. Paley's designing God was made superfluous at a single stroke.

There were those who held that no accommodation could be had between evolution and theology. Particularly in the years immediately following the publication of the Origins, evolution was attacked as anti-thetical to Christianity.. In America, Charles Hodge of Princeton Seminary was most opposed, although his son A.A. Hodge just a few years later was to maintain a cautious openness to the theory In England, Edward Pusey refused to allow the possibility that man had descended from other forms of life, although he allowed for evolution short of humankind.

Conversely, there were those who saw no conflict between Darwin's evolutionary theory and the Christian faith. In Germany, theologians accommodated themselves quite easily, although the scientist Ernst Haeckel did his jarring best to make things difficult. Kahler's assertion that "Hegel anticipated the whole of Darwin" may exhibit an irritating Germanic hubris, but it was true that German theology was not unduly shocked by Darwin's theory. Elsewhere, there were some who championed evolution. In England, the liberal Anglo-Catholic movement held Darwinism to be a friend in making theology appreciate the divine immanence in creation. There were even those who held that Darwin strengthened the argument from design. James Iverach of Scotland argued for Darwinism against Spencerian evolution, and held that Darwin's views implied a more coherent view of design than Paley's. And, most astonishingly, George Wright, a New England pastor, held that Calvinism and Darwinism were compatible so long as evolution allowed for the doctrine of divine sovereignty.

Finally, there were those who attempted to mediate between Darwinism and orthodox theology. Caution was the buzzword in these circles. Relying heavily on evolution's status as a theory, moderate theologians held out against too easy acceptance of evolution, yet gave assurances that, if true, evolution did not strike a mortal blow to Christian theology.

By the end of the century, an uneasy peace reigned. Darwinian evolution remained a theory in need of a mechanism of transmission of characteristics, as well as of proof of natural selection. Theology arrived in the main at a cautious accommodation, little anticipating the social and religious ferment which would, over the next few decades in America, inextricably link the terms "creation" and "evolution."

The Ongoing Challenge of Darwinism.

The Darwinian revolution had a different flavor than the Newtonian. While Newton's laws pushed God back from the physical realm, the result was still an orderly, closed system, with God as chief architect and legislator of physical laws. The unique status of humanity was left relatively untouched by Newton.

Darwin redefined humanity with an emphasis upon its link to all other physical, biological life. Now the question became what, if anything, distinguished the human from all other forms of life. What is more, Darwin's system portrayed the biological realm as dynamic, open-ended, and incomplete. Although the laws governing the process might be fixed, their operation with probabilistic results left an undetermined biological future. .

Darwinian staying power is related to its strength in two areas which are foundational to scientific theorizing: 1) simplicity and 2) explanatory power. The simplicity of the theory of natural selection entails its survival in the Darwinian sense: it is adaptable to a variety of teleological and non-teleological systems. Explanatory power means that it has the ability to give a satisfying account of natural processes. This very power to explain things in terms which fail to mention divinity threatens some with the notion that God is pushed out of the picture entirely.

Theistic evolution's attempt to keep God at the center of the process only leads to a deeper question. What sort of God uses natural selection to accomplish divine ends? As Annie Dillard puts it, "[i]t's a hell of a way to run . . . a universe."/9/ If an evolutionary system is a valuable system (and even the most ardent materialistic evolutionists consider it to be valuable. If not, why study it?), then two of the values which make it valuable are death and the struggle for existence -- things which are considered to be disvalues in most traditional theological systems.

Finally, the Darwinian emphasis upon species presents problems for individualist philosophies and theologies. If, as the saying goes, So careful of the type [Nature] seems, So careless of the single life, how does one construct an adequate understanding of the individual in an evolutionary system?

Selected Bibliography

Darwin's Works - Selected

Darwin, Charles. [1860] The Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favored Races in the Struggle for Life. New York: D. Appleton and Co. (1st edition, London, 1859).

--------. [1871] The Descent of Man and Selection in Relation to Sex. New York: D. Appleton and Co.

--------. [1868] Variation of Animals and Plants Under Domestication. New York: O. Judd & Co.

--------. [1872] The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals. London: John Murray.

Biography and Autobiography

Darwin, Francis, ed. [1892] The Autobiography of Charles Darwin and Selected Letters. Reprint New York: Dover, 1958.

Darwin, Francis. [1897] The Life and Letters of Charles Darwin. Vol. 2. New York: D. Appleton.

Desmond, Adrian and James Moore. [1991] Darwin: The Life of a Tormented Evolutionist. New York: Warner.

Selected Secondary Literature

Bowler, Peter. [1989] Evolution: The History of An Idea. Rev. ed. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Brackman, Arnold C. [1980] A Delicate Arrangement: The Strange Case of Charles Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace. New York: Times Books.

Gillispie, Charles Coulston. [1981] Dictionary of Scientific Biography. New York: Scribner.

Moore, James. [1979] The Post-Darwinian Controversies. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Ratzsch, Delvin Lee. [1996] The Battle of Beginnings: Why Neither Side Is Winning the Creation-Evolution Debate. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.

Welch, Claude. [1985] "Evolution and Theology: Detente or Evasion?" in Protestant Thought in the Nineteenth Century. Vol. 2. New Haven: Yale University Press. Pp. 183-211.

Dramatis Personae

Jean Baptiste Pierre Antoine de Monet Lamarck (1744-1829)

French naturalist whose studies of plants and animals led him to a theory of evolution some 50 years prior to Darwin's. Made important contributions in the classification of plants. His theory of evolution, known as Lamarckism, was a theory of progressive complexity and improvement in forms of life. For philosophical reasons he rejected the concept of extinction of species. Animals acquire traits in response to their environment, which traits are then passed on to their offspring. For instance, a giraffe, by stretching its neck to feed on the tops of trees, passes on the feature of an elongated neck to its offspring. With the rediscovery of Mendel's work in genetics, his theory of acquired traits was abandoned.

Sir Charles Lyell (1797-1875)

Scottish geologist who built upon the previous uniformitarian theory of James Hutton (late 18th C.), which held that the present state of the earth was due to a gradual series of changes over a long period of time under the same laws of nature and conditions as were present in his time, not the result of a series of violent, abrupt upheavals in the past (a theory known as catastrophism, an "old earth" version of which was predominant). Although principally interested in geology, he did recognize the close connection between geology and the manifestation of species. At first holding to a theory of the fixity of species (a view which would be consistent with his uniformitarianism), he later accepted Darwin's idea of transmutation, although with some reservations about natural selection.

Thomas Huxley (1825-95)

Close associate of Darwin who was a leading proponent of the view that proper scientific inquiry could answer most of humanity's pressing questions. Given Darwin's distaste for controversy, Huxley played an invaluable role as "Darwin's bulldog" (as he termed himself), championing the case for Darwin's theory against all opponents, and particularly relishing it when the opponents wore clerical garb.

William Paley (1743-1805)

Anglican clergyman and philosopher who was both educated at and taught at Christ's College, Cambridge. In 1802 he published a work entitled, Natural Theology, or Evidences of the Existence and Attributes of the Deity. Darwin in his younger days was an ardent admirer of Paley, and still retained a respect for his writings even when his views carried him far afield from Paley's. Darwin even patterned portions of his natural selection writings after chapters in Paley's Natural Theology. Odds are that Paley would not have been amused.

Alfred Russel Wallace (1823-1913)

British naturalist who formulated a theory of evolution by natural selection contemporaneously with Darwin. His observations were made in South America and Malaysia from 1848 to 1864. When he communicated his ideas to Darwin, Darwin brought forward his own manuscript, and the two published articles on natural selection jointly in 1858.

Thomas Malthus (1766-1834)

British economist whose 1798 essay on the relationship of population to economics included the theory that population tends to grow faster than the supply of goods available to its needs, a theory which was much debated in British political circles and which provided an essential link for Darwin's theory of natural selection.

Herbert Spencer (1820-1903)

British philosopher of history in the mid-19th century whose "Synthetic Philosophy" combined utilitarianism and a universal evolutionism. Although more enamored of Lamarck than Darwin, Spencer made famous the phrase "survival of the fittest," a phrase which Darwin ill-advisedly took on, laden as it was with political and social overtones.

Notes

1. For a study of the relation of the Lisbon earthquake to notions of divine providence, see T. D. Kendrick, The Lisbon Earthquake, (London: Methuen & Co., 1956).

2. Ratzsch, The Battle of Beginnings, (Downer's Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press. 1996), pp. 21-22.

3. Darwin became a copious collector of insects, specializing in beetles, and even hired people to scour the bottoms of Cam barges for specimens. The story goes that once, with both hands holding beetle specimens, Darwin spied a third beetle of a particularly rare species. Loathe to divest himself of either beetle in hand, Darwin popped one in his mouth to grab the third. Unfortunately, the one he chose to hold in his mouth was a bombadier beetle, so named because, when threatened, it excretes a caustic combination of fluids with the capacity to scald flesh.

In what must be one of history's (and God's) most delightful ironies, the bombadier beetle happens to be a favorite for use by adherents to creation science as a proof-by-design. The Institute for Creation Research (ICR) even publishes a children's book entitled Bomby, the Bombardier Beetle. Apparently God, every bit the Designer Paley held him to be, was attempting to get Darwin's attention already in his Cambridge days. For an interesting essay on the pitfalls of the argument from design and the ICR, see David Quammen, "Nasty Habits: An African Bedbug Buggers the Proof-by-Design" in Flight of the Iguana: A Sidelong View of Science and Nature, (New York: Anchor Books, 1988), pp. 25-31.

4. Darwin suffered from intense stomach pain. Because a cause was never determined, he has been accused of being a hypochondriac. A kinder theory is that he picked up a parasite in Argentina from being bitten by the "black bug of the pampas." This parasite causes Chagas' disease, whose symptoms match closely with those of Darwin's. The cause of the disease wasn't discovered until 1909.

5. Although Gregor Mendel's work in genetics was done within Darwin's lifetime, circumstances kept his findings in obscurity until after both his own and Darwin's death. It was only after 1900 that Mendel's work was rediscovered and could be linked to natural selection.

6. Arnold Brackman's book The Delicate Arrangement, (New York: Times Books, 1980) attempts to make a case that Darwin, Lyell, and others conspired to claim for Darwin the credit for Wallace's theory. While there is little doubt that Darwin was pushed to publish by Wallace's manuscript, and that Wallace had arrived at conclusions independently, the evidence seems to support the view that Darwin had developed his own theory of natural selection, but needed something to push him to publish. Brackman, an investigative reporter, does his best Oliver Stone imitation, but does not manage a very convincing case.

7. Moore, in his book The Post-Darwinian Controversies, (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1979) advances the thesis that Darwin's "theory of evolution by natural selection could be accepted in substance only by those whose theology was distinctly orthodox; that this was so because the theory itself presupposed a cosmology and a causality which, owing much to orthodox doctrines of creation and providence, could be made consonant a priori with orthodox theistic beliefs; and that, conversely, other theories of evolution, rationalist and immechanical alike, were embraced by those whose theology was notably liberal because such theories, themselves the product of heterodox theologies of nature, promised to secure theistic beliefs which Darwinism seemed bound to offend." (pp. ix-x) I question whether Moore proves his case. It seems that the very simplicity of Darwin's theory makes it amenable to a variety of systems. That Darwin's system bears hints of teleological language is unconvincing, since it is difficult to describe any such system without hints of teleology creeping in.

8. The exchange between Samuel Wilberforce, Bishop of Oxford, and Thomas Huxley at a meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science in 1860 was a preview of the nature of the debate. It was not pretty from the ecclesiastical side. Wilberforce, demonstrating his ignorance of Darwin's theory in his critique, asked Huxley whether it was through his father or his mother that he claimed descent from an ape. Huxley answered that, while he would not be ashamed to be descended from an ape, he would be ashamed of an ancestor who used his gift of eloquence in the service of falsehood.

9. Dillard's description of the theological problem of natural selection is a classic.

Say you are the manager of the Southern Railroad. You figure that you need three engines for a stretch of track between Lynchburg and Danville. It's a mighty steep grade. So at fantastic effort and expense you have your shops make nine thousand engines. Each engine must be fashioned just so, every rivet and bolt secure, every wire twisted and wrapped, every needle on every indicator sensitive and accurate.

You send all nine thousand of them out on the runs. Although there are engineers at the throttles, no one is manning the switches. The engines crash, collide, derail, jump, jam, burn. . . . At the end of the massacre you have three engines, which is what the run could support in the first place. There are few enough of them that they can stay out of each other's paths.

You go to your board of directors and show them what you've done. And what are they going to say? You know what they're going to say. They're going to say: It's a hell of a way to run a railroad.

Is it a better way to run a universe?

Dillard, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, 175-6. Although one can quibble with her analogy (natural selection would say that not all the engines are just so, that some are defective while others are especially well-built, still others made for a slightly different gauge of track, and the end result is the probability that 3 of the best engines remain), her conclusion is still apt: It's a hell of a way to run a railroad.

Charles Robert Darwin (1809-1882)

Matt McLaughlin, 1998

 

Life

Charles Robert Darwin (1809-1882) was born in Shrewsburg, England in 1809, the grandson of a nationally famous naturalist, Erasmus Darwin, and the son of a locally well respected medical doctor. He grew up as an intellectually unimpressive youth with a passion for beetle collecting and a keen sense, bestowed in him by his father, that he should do something of importance with his life. In 1825, his father sent him to the University of Edinburgh to study medicine; however, he dropped out after less than two years because he could not stand the sight of blood and human suffering. Disappointed, Dr. Darwin recommended that his son attend Christ’s College, Cambridge, to prepare for the ministry, which Charles did in 1828.

Somewhat ironically, Darwin’s theological studies at Cambridge were crucial for his development as a naturalistic thinker. For one, the theology taught at Cambridge was so rational and secular that it served as an excellent preparation for his later scientific work. Also, Darwin’s studies brought him into contact with two important scientists, the geologist Adam Sedgwick and the botanist John Henslow.

Darwin’s relation with the latter would lead, in 1831, to an invitation to become the unpaid naturalist aboard the HMS Beagle. At the time Darwin was working as a rural parson, but his passion was for nature, and his studies of fossils and natural history were already causing him to doubt traditional orthodoxy. Not surprisingly, then, he was elated at the prospect of an extensive scientific trip around the world. With the help of his uncle, Darwin overcame the opposition of his father and the aristocrat FitzRoy (the latter objecting to Darwin because he did not like Darwin’s nose), and he set sail late in 1831.

The voyage upon the Beagle would bring Darwin his first premonitions of evolution as the explanation of the origin of species. During the voyage, Darwin noticed the differentiated but similar varieties of finches inhabiting the Galapagos Islands. He speculated that these varieties are descended from a common ancestral origin. Darwin shared this initial intuition, what he would later call "descent with modification," in his 1839 memoir The Voyage of the Beagle.

Darwin returned to England with his hypothesis about the origin of species, but he lacked an explanation of the mechanism by which it happened. In 1838, Darwin’s chance reading of Malthus’ Essay on Population provided him the necessary clue. Malthus had put forth the thesis that populations increase at a geometrical rate, but resources can only increase arithmetically. Therefore, the population will eventually outrun the food supply, causing a competition for resources. Darwin reasoned that under these circumstances, there would be natural selection; that is, "favorable variations would tend to be preserved, and unfavorable ones to be destroyed" (from Livingston 1971, 226). Because it would cause the gradual accumulation of useful variations, Darwin saw natural selection as a plausible mechanism for an evolutionary theory of the origin of species.

For the next twenty years Darwin amassed an astounding amount of evidence in support of his theory. He originally intended to write a multivolume defense of his thesis when, in 1858, he received an essay from Alfred Russel Wallace that expressed ideas similar to his own. Worried that he would not receive credit for his research, Darwin presented his work along with Wallace’s essay at the Linnaean Society in 1858. Thereafter he gave up the idea of a massive work, and finally in 1859 published his defense of evolution and natural selection, The Origin of Species.

Partly out of respect for his wife’s religious convictions, Darwin did not extend his theory of evolution to account for the origins of humanity in The Origin of Species. But realizing that the conclusion was inevitable, he eventually argued in The Descent of Man (1871) that humans had evolved from a remote ancestral group of hominoids in prehistoric Africa. Darwin stressed that this made the human animal different in degree, but not in kind, from other living organisms: "We have given to man a pedigree of prodigious length, but not, it may be said, of noble quality" (Darwin 1969b, 528). Along with the death of his daughter, it is conclusions such as this one that caused Darwin to move towards agnosticism later in his life.

Darwin died a distinguished and well-respected scientist in 1882. His other works include his Autobiography (??) and a compilation of his letters published posthumously, The Life and Letters of Charles Darwin (1887).

The Origin of Species

In The Descent of Man, Darwin claimed that he had two goals in writing the Origin: "I had two distinct objects in view, firstly to shew that species had not been separately created, and secondly, that natural selection had been the chief agent of change" (Darwin 1969b, 152). For the former assertion, Darwin gave a number of arguments to support the alternative view of descent with modification. First, Darwin noted that geographically isolated areas harbored varieties of organisms similar but not identical to other nearby areas (such as the different finches of the Galapagos Islands). He argued from this that a mutual ancestor-form must have formerly inhabited both areas, and that each variety evolved from this form. Second, Darwin saw support for his thesis in morphological anatomical structures. That is, different species of the same class, even those varying widely in external appearance, "resemble each other in the general plan of their organization" (Darwin 1956, 120). Darwin thought that this could be best explained if the different species evolved from a common ancestor. Darwin found further support in comparative embryology. Embryos of distinct species are so similar that only an expert can typically differentiate between, for instance, a mammal and a bird embryo. This would imply a common ancestry as well. Finally, Darwin pointed out that breeders were able to produce varieties after a few generations that were distinctly different from the organisms of the first generation. He argued that if the evolution of organisms could be accomplished artificially, then in must happen naturally as well.

Darwin used the work of the breeder as an analogy for his second thesis, natural selection as the primary driving force of evolution (he also included sexual selection and Lamarckian environmental factors). The breeder selects as parents those organisms with desirable variations, while eliminating organisms with undesirable characteristics. According to Darwin, natural selection works in a similar way, preserving advantageous variations and eliminating harmful ones. But unlike artificial selection, which is a goal-oriented process, natural selection is a completely natural phenomenon, the physical consequence of the competition for resources predicted by Malthus. In the struggle for existence, beneficial traits will increase the chances that an organism will survive long enough to pass its traits along to progeny. Therefore, useful variations will be "selected" by nature for preservation through the reproduction of offspring that inherit these variations. The gradual accumulation of variations lead to different varieties of a species until the differences are profound enough that a scientist would deem (somewhat arbitrarily) two varieties as separate species. For Darwin, then, natural selection could explain both the differences between species and their origin from a common ancestry, all without reference to anything outside of the biosphere.

The Significance of Darwin’s Work for Theology

Darwin’s thought posed a profound challenge to the very foundation of Christian belief. His interpretation of nature was infinitely more damaging to a Biblical understanding of the world than the revolutions of either Copernicus or Newton. While the thought of the latter two men forced certain readjustments in the Christian conception of humanity’s and God’s place in nature, they did not threaten the Christian world-view of Creation, Fall, and Redemption to the extent that Darwinism did (Livingston 1971, 228). The doctrine that humanity was the aggregation of random, undirected variations was simply incompatible with Christian anthropology. If humanity evolved from "brutes," what sense does it make to speak of original sin and salvation? And if humanity is at is it only by blind chance, how can humans possibly be made in God’s image?

These are just a few of the problems that Darwinism posed to a Biblical conception of the world, issues still felt by contemporary Christian fundamentalists. But this was only one side of the two edged sword that Darwinism wielded against theology. The other edge was Darwinism’s challenge to the traditional scientific and metaphysical assumptions that supported theology. First, Darwin’s conception of nature as processive and impermanent was an affront against the predominant metaphysical commitment to a static world described by the "Great Chain of Being," where both God and humans were given a special status. Darwin’s work would become the death knell for an Aristotelian metaphysics that had supported much Christian theological reflection. Also, Darwin’s work was a devastating attack on the generally accepted connection between design and mind. Almost without objection, Darwin’s contemporaries assumed that the order of the world demanded an omniscient Mind. The most famous statement of this view comes in William Paley’s Natural Theology. Using the analogy of a watch, Paley argues that evidences of design necessitate a designer, and therefore the world, which is made of infinitely complex parts, requires an eternal omniscient Designer. Before Darwin’s views became widely accepted, Paley’s argument was so convincing that even the majority of scientists closely allied their work with natural theology, seeking evidence in nature for the intervention and direction of a Creator (Wilkins1987, 16). Darwin’s theory was revolutionary in this respect because it offered a mechanism for design, natural selection, that made no recourse to any explanation outside the natural realm. This rendered divine activity a superfluous hypothesis, removing God’s Providential Hand from the whole of natural history.

Responses to Darwin

Considering the significant challenge that Darwin’s thought posed to theology, it is not surprising that most theologians responded scathingly, often unreasonably, to his work. They were at least partly encouraged by eminent natural scientists, many of whom opposed Darwin for strictly scientific reasons (Darwin did, however, have his supporters in the scientific community, including Thomas Huxley in England, Ernst Haeckel in Germany, and Asa Gray in America). Still, it cannot be doubted that the religious community’s reaction was largely flippant and unscientific, as exemplified in Bishop Wilberforce’s famous question to Huxley: "If anyone were willing to trace his descent through an ape as his grandfather, would he be willing to trace his descent similarly on the side of his grandmother?" (from Livingston 1971, 229) The dialogue between Huxley and the bishop helped to foster the popular image of the courageous scientist battling against the arrogance and ignorance of the theologians.

However, there were some theologians who studied Darwinism seriously and reflected on its ramifications for theology. If one distinguishes between Darwinism (the scientific theory of evolution and its mechanism of natural selection) and Darwinisticism (any theory that draws metaphysical, moral, or economic claims from Darwin’s theory), the responses of these theologians can be classed in four groups: Religion against Darwinism, Religion of Darwinism, Religion and Darwinisticism in Concert, and Religion Above Darwinism (Wilkins 1987, 10).

Religion against Darwinism

Those theologians who took the "Religion against Darwinism" position thought that, at its core, Darwinism was atheism, and therefore it must be rejected if a Christian world-view is to be maintained. The best representative of this position is the Princeton theologian and common sense realist Charles Hodge (1797-1878). Hodge felt that any claim of science about nature and God must be tested by, and meet the requirements of, Scripture and common sense. In his Systematic Theology and What is Darwinism?, Hodge argues that Darwinism fails on both accounts. First, he points out that Darwin’s theory of natural selection denies any divine design in the selection process. Hodge felt this banishing of God from the natural world was intolerable and in contradiction to our common sense experience of the workings of mind in nature (Livingston 1971, 234). Second, he felt that Darwinism conflicted with the clear teachings of Scripture concerning the fixity and divine creation of species. For these reasons, Hodge felt that Darwinism must be rejected as both unscientific and irreligious.

Hodge supported his argument with pieces of scientific evidence that appeared to contradict evolutionary theories. In the 20th century, the science creationists have attempted to do the same while offering an alternative to Darwinism, scientific creationism. The leader of the contemporary creationist movement is Henry Morris, whose Scientific Creationism (1974) is the standard work in the field (Wilkins 1987, 54). Creationism is marked by a commitment to the Biblical conception of God combined with the belief that science defines what is true for all areas of human life. According to this view, evolution cannot be true science because it leaves out reference to God, a necessary part of a complete explanation of nature.

Religion of Darwinism

The "Religion of Darwinism" position welcomes and explicitly builds upon Darwin’s insights. Much like the "against" position, this approach sees science as of paramount importance for religious truth. But whereas the former group’s scientific inquiry arises out of a religious agenda, the latter group begins with the epistemology and methodology of science, and then elevates scientific knowledge into a Darwinian myth with metaphysical, religious, and ethical implications. (Wilkins 1987, 66).

One of the more extreme 19th century representatives of this rather eclectic movement was Robert Ingersoll (1833-1899), who popularized the idea of science as a revealing prophet. In his Some Mistakes of Moses, Ingersoll satirized the Judeo-Christian ethic as the cause of slavery, polygamy, war, and religious persecution. In his view, the only salvation comes from science and the control it gives humanity over its destiny. An ardent crusader against social injustices, Ingersoll viewed the institution of slavery as a parallel to organized religion: one enslaves the body, the other enslaves the mind. Darwinism was the revealing prophet that freed the mind from its supernaturalist fetters, allowing the reformation of society without restraints from the church.

An important 20th century figure in this category is the British biologist and theologian Julian Huxley, who interpreted religion in terms of an evolutionary ontology. Huxley argued that religion is an effort to come to terms with powers outside of humanity’s control, powers that are best understood today by the theory of evolution (Wilkins 1987, 82). In fact, the concept of God is itself a product of evolution, developed to explain processes that humans do not understand. For Huxley, religion is simply a way of framing those concepts like God that underlie the operations of the world and human experience. The goal of religion, then, is to seek a harmony between one’s own self and the foundational concepts framed by religion.

Religion and Darwinisticism in Concert

A third response to Darwin makes use of scientific theories of evolution to develop religious concepts. This view differs from the preceding one because it strives to remain in contact with traditional religious thought even while it revises theology in the light of evolutionary theory. The issue for these thinkers is how to reconcile God’s benevolent purposes that should be evident in nature and Darwin’s description of a world functioning quite well without God (Wilkins 1987, 94). Typically this is accomplished by broadening the definition of evolution in order to reintroduce God as an agent in the process of evolution.

One 19th century representative of this approach was the American theologian John Fiske (1942-1901). In his Outlines of Cosmic Philosophy, Fiske reconciled science and religion by differentiating between a thing in its relation to us, which we can know, and a thing absolutely, which we cannot know. According to Fiske, we can know the imminent God who works through the laws of nature. One of these laws, evolution, is God’s tool to create a humanity that can understand God’s work in nature. But we cannot know the transcendent deity who remains an inscrutable Power outside the ken of science. Thus, while Darwinism is the proper explanation of natural processes (the imminent aspect of God), ultimate reality (including the transcendent God) remains an open secret, free from a Darwinian interpretation.

A comprehensive vision of evolution and religion was offered in the early 20th century by the French Jesuit Pierre Teilhard de Chardin (1881-1955). Teilhard interpreted evolution to imply that we live in a universe in the making, not simply a cosmos but a "cosmogenesis" (Teilhard 1965, 297). The dynamic principle underlying this cosmogenesis is the "law of complexification," a movement in things toward increasing complexity of structure and internal unity. Teilhard argued that since this process of complexification has led to the personal as its highest form, the true extension of the process must be in the direction of "hyper-personalisation" (Teilhard 1965, 260). This movement will find its fulfillment in some ultimate center of maximum consciousness, which Teilhard called the "Omega Point." Teilhard identified the Omega Point of science with the revealed Christ, thus combining in one vision the cosmologies of evolution and Christianity (Wilkins 1987, 108).

Religion above Darwinism

The advocates of the "Religion above Darwinism" approach argue that religion is to be understood as a sphere of inquiry separate from science. These thinkers typically claim that scientific discoveries like Darwin’s have little impact on true religious faith when those discoveries are stripped of metaphysical claims. In the 19th century, Asa Gray (1810-1888) took this position, arguing that science in and of itself does not make metaphysical claims one way or another. Science studies the "how" of nature, the secondary causes, while religion focuses on the "why" questions, primary causes and design (Wilkins 1987, 129). Therefore, questions of design and divine providence belong to the theologians, and Darwinism can neither support nor refute them

The "above" approach gained a powerful voice in the 20th century through the Neo-Orthodox theologians, particularly Karl Barth (1886-1968) and Emil Brunner (1889-1966). According to Barth, nothing in the human study of creation can reveal God’s intentions, so religion need not concern itself with scientific issues. Brunner, who was more receptive to scientific issues, felt that creation and evolution could be brought into agreement, but not identity, with one another. The person of faith assumes that God created the world in such a way that it appears as evolutionary to scientists, but he or she also sees the "invisible background of Evolution," the Creation of God (Wilkins 1987, 146). In Brunner’s view, science can inform religion, but it cannot replace revelation in answering religion’s foundational questions.

Bibliography

Primary Sources

Charles Darwin

Darwin, Charles. 1969a [????]. The Autobiography of Charles Darwin. ed. Nora Barlow. New York: W.W. Norton and Company.

________. 1969b [1871]. The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex. intro. by John Bonner and Robert May. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

________. 1887. The Life and Letters of Charles Darwin. ed. Francis Darwin. 3 vols. London: John Murray.

________. 1936 [1859]. On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle of Life. 6th edition. New York, The Modern Library.

________. 1956 [1859] On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle of Life. ed. and abridged from the 6th edition by Charlotte and William Irvine. New York: F. Ungar Publishing Company.

________. 1988 [1839]. The Voyage of the Beagle Diary of the voyage of H.M.S. Beagle. ed. Richard Keynes. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Religion Against Darwinism

Hodge, Charles. 1872-1873. Systematic Theology. 3 vols. New York: Scribner, Armstrong, and Company.

________. 1874. What is Darwinism? New York: Scribner, Armstrong, and Company.

Morris, Henry. 1985 [1974]. Scientific Creationism. El Cajon, California : Creation-Life Publishers.

Religion and Darwinisticm in Concert

Tielhard de Chardin, Pierre. 1965 [1955] Revised from first English edition 1959. The Phenomenon of Man. New York: Harper & Row.

Secondary Sources

Birx, James. 1991. Interpreting Evolution. Buffalo: Prometheus Books.

Livingston, James. 1971. Modern Christian Thought: From the Enlightenment to Vatican II. New York: The Macmillan Company.

Moore, James. 1979. The Post-Darwinian Controversies. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Wilkins, Walter. 1987. Science and Religious Thought: A Darwinian Case Study. Ann Arbor, Michigan: UMI Research Press.

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