This entry is part 3 of 5 in the series: ‘Modern Myths’ (Sampson)
The story of Charles Darwin and his discovery of evolution has become as much a part of our culture as the story of Adam and Eve before it. It has become ‘common knowledge’ that living beings have evolved over millions of years, and that we occupy no privileged place in the animal kingdom.
The story of Darwin, together with that of Galileo, marks the turning-point when science dispelled the superstitions of religion and ushered in the modern world. Evolutionary theory (for some, even more than the Enlightenment) bears the weight of our understanding about the world and our place in it.
Richard Dawkins has commented: ‘If superior creatures from space ever visit the earth, the first question they will ask, in order to assess the level of our civilisation, is: “Have they discovered evolution yet?”‘
Darwin – the received version
The mechanism of evolution is well-known: change takes place by means of random mutation and natural selection.
As an example of evoutionary development in the wild, the example of the peppered moth has often been given. New, darker, forms of the moth evolved as an adaptation to the darker (due to pollution) tree-trunks on which they rested. However, it is well-known that no new mutation is involved. Indeed, it is disputed whether peppered moths rest on tree trunk at all, whether light or dark.
Evolution as metaphor is a powerful ‘creation-myth’ and is freighted with many of the themes of modernity.
The story begins with Darwin’s voyage on The Beagle. On the Galapagos Islands, he noticed that the finches on each island were adapted to the differing environments. He inferred that, millions of years before, a few finches had been blown there from South America, and had then evolved separately on each island.
It is said that Darwin delayed publication of his findings for many years, for fear of persecution from the church. It was a battle between scientific progress and religious superstition. We have a hero and a villain, and a plot which sets one against the other. However, Darwin was himself a reluctant hero, and so is replaced in the story by his ‘bulldog’, T.H. Huxley. The plot says that the cosmos is a bigger place than the church imagined, and reserves no privileged place for humanity. Of course, it is misleading to say that Darwinism demoted man, for evolutionary theory places man at the peak of nature.
All good stories have a pivotal moment of drama. In the case of evolution, this came in the celebrated showdown between Huxley and Bishop Wilberforce. The story is that at a meeting in 1860 of the British Association for the Advancement of Science, the bishop insulted Huxley by referring to his ancestors as apes. Huxley is said to have delivered a crushing riposte which demolished his opponent and won the day for Darwinism.
Wilberforce was, in fact, far from an ill-informed cleric who could rely on nothing apart from ridicule. He was the vice-president of the BAAS. He was conversant with current science, especially geology and ornithology, and had a first-class degree in mathematics. Far from having not ‘troubled to read’ Darwin (as some modern authors imply), he had already prepared a review of The Origin, which Darwin later admitted, ‘picks out with skill all the most conjectural parts, and brings forward well all the difficulties’. Nor do contemporary accounts of the meeting agree with the received version. Writing to Huxley after the meeting, Darwin wrote that it had done good by ‘showing the world that a few first-rate men are not afraid of expressing their opinion’. This is far from a claim that Huxley had ‘annihilated’ Wilberforce in the debate. According to the historian John Lucas, the received account of the meeting is ‘legendary’.
The idea that the conflict over evolution was organised on science versus religion grounds is misleading. Many leading scientists were Christians, and many of the clergy were keen (if amateur) naturalists. In fact, the response to Darwin was mixed:-
1. Many did reject Darwin outright and some of these did so from a perceived incompatibility with the early chapters of Genesis. Others did so on scientific grounds, and Wilberforce was one of these.
2. Many Christians accepted evolution. However, the sub-plot that this acceptance led to widespread crises of faith lacks evidence. In fact, many of the leading representatives of evangelical orthodoxy, such as Warfield, saw no great conflict between Darwin’s theory and their Christian faith.
3. Some, such as Henry Drummond, Charles Kingsley and Rudyard Kipling, sought to synthesis evolution and Christianity. A more recent example would be Pierre Teilhard de Chardin.
4. Others – both churchmen (such as Spurgeon) and scientists simply suspended judgment, awaiting further evidence.
If Darwin hesitated to publish his ideas, it was not so much because of fear of religious people, but because of fear of his fellow-scientists. He realised that the evidence was partially lacking – he was especially worried about the gaps in the fossil record. Many contemporary scientists did in fact attack Darwin’s ideas for their lack of explanatory power. Physicists such as Lord Kelvin were especially sceptical. But embryologists, anatomists and palaeontologists also tended to reject Darwinism as speculative. Adam Sedgwick, a pioneer of modern geology, ridiculed parts of The Origin.
The acceptance of Darwinism by scientists was neither rapid nor progressive. Many geneticists opposed Darwinian gradualism. Recent palaeontologists have judged Darwin to be over-optimistic about the likelihood of finding the host of intermediate forms required by his theory. The most sceptical scientists continue to be the mathematicians and the physicists. Hoyle judged Darwinian evolution to be ‘an uneasy combination of dogma and wishful thinking’.
Darwin’s ideas made relatively slight impact on the learned bodies. And although Darwin received many scientific honours, these were nearly always for his solid work on barnacles or earthworms, rather than his speculations on the origin of species.
It is interesting to note in passing the tendency of Darwin’s supporters to use quasi-religious language in relation their ideas. Nature was often personalised, even deified. As recently as 1953 Julian Huxley confessed that his beliefs were ‘something in the nature of a religion’.
The evolution of natural selection
Darwinism raises such fundamental questions about the nature of man that Dawkins can cheerfully cite G.G. Simpson as saying, ‘All attempts to answer [the question ‘What is man??’] before 1859 are worthless and…we will be better off if we ignore them completely.’
Marx drew links between the evolutionary idea of the survival of the fittest and the human struggle for existence. These ideas were welcome among those who were beginning to question the fixity of social status and develop strategies for social progress and capitalist expansion. In recent decades, however, unrestrained competition has seemed less desirable. A kind of post-modern Darwinism is emerging which supplements gradualism with stepwise change, random mutation with design, competition with co-operation, and earthly evolution with cosmic interaction.
The orthodox story sees Darwinism as a mark of civilisation, in contrast to the narrow bigotry of religion. But it promoted (a) an unregulated laissez-faire approach to business, for to regulate markets and working practices would be to flout a primal law of nature. The survival of the fittest meant the survival of a privileged few; (b) prejudice against the so-called ‘lower’ or less-favoured races (and against the ‘weaker sex’; (c) eugenics, in the form of active control of human breeding (a programme not exclusive to, but vigorously taken up by, the Nazi regime).
Although Darwin would have been repelled by some of the supposed consequences of his ideas, he himself was forced to acknowledge the social implications as developed by Spencer.
As Whitehead pointed out, the watchwords derived from evolutionary theory – struggle for existence, competition, class warfare, international rivalry, military warfare – have been construed into a gospel of hate. Who would have thought that Darwin’s metaphor would give birth to such monstrous developments!
Based on P. Sampson, Six Modern Myths Challenging Christian Faith, (IVP) 47-68.