#2 Evolutionary Thought

During the 17th and 18th century classification of the natural world led to the observation that species of plants and animals are found as variations on common themes.  It is this observation that impressed many naturalists and in the 19th century led Charles Darwin to seek an explanation.

A general belief in direct creation by God prevailed in Christian Europe at this time. But by the 19th century, naturalists generally believed in the continuous special creation of each species of plant and animal, while varieties belonging to species were believed to be produced by secondary causes.  The secondary causes included the artificial breeding of animals and cultivation of plants by Man to produce a great diversity of varieties.  It was known that extinctions had occurred in past geological eras and that ancient forms of life found as fossils are no longer found living today.  It was thought by many that God replenished the Earth with the creation of new species after extinctions had occurred; there was a general belief in Progressive Creationism.

Over the course of the famous five year voyage around the world as naturalist on board HMS Beagle between 1831 and 1836, Charles Darwin became convinced that species are not fixed.  Many years later, after much work on barnacles, beetles, orchids and all manner of other natural things including a hobby in pigeon fancying, Darwin wrote On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life published in 1859.

In The Origin of Species Darwin argued against the doctrine of the creation of each separate species.  Belief in the design of each species of plant and animal by God was known as the fixity, immutability or permanence of species. 

There had already been some attempts at an evolutionary understanding of the world, the most famous of which was proposed by the French naturalist Chevalier de Lamarck in Zoological Philosophy (1809).  Lamarck’s evolutionary ideas were quickly rejected, although the term ‘biology’, which he coined, became widely used.  Darwin’s own grandfather, Erasmus Darwin (1731-1802) also held evolutionary views.  Erasmus Darwin was a free thinker and political radical, who founded a philosophical society in Derby.  He had an unusual talent for writing scientific treatises in rhyming verse.  Erasmus Darwin wrote Zoonomia or the Laws of Organic Life in 1794-1796 in which he expressed the notion that species modify themselves by adapting to their environment with purpose residing in the desires of the animal itself.  Lamarckism was similar to this view.

Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation (1844) published anonymously by the Scottish autodidact and publisher Robert Chambers also had some influence at the time.  The case for evolution in Vestiges rested upon the observation that fossils found from the most ancient to the most recent geological strata demonstrate a gradual ‘ascent’.  It was proposed that new species could arise by sudden mutations in the course of reproduction.  These ‘hopeful monsters’ met with much ridicule from other naturalists and professors such as Adam Sedgwick.  However, Sedgwick argued against Vestiges on the grounds of theology, rather than science.  (The geological collection of Adam Sedgwick is kept at Cambridge University and is open to the public).

Evolution was ‘in the air’, especially among families with progressive ideas such as the Darwins, but Charles Darwin went much further.  He hit upon a new idea and followed it up with detailed scientific arguments.  Darwin proposed what he described as a principle of evolution and laws of variation in organic beings; he named the principle Natural Selection.  Natural Selection, as conceived by Darwin, is a natural process which is not guided towards any defined purpose or preconceived goal.  Even so, Darwin believed that the principle would have been set up by God in the beginning with the creation of the first forms of life. 

In how Natural Selection stands in relation to the Creator, Charles Darwin suggests that the Creator created the laws of science.  Darwin states emphatically in letters such as in a letter written to Asa Gray dated 22nd May 1860, that he never had the intention to write “atheistically” (Francis Darwin 2000, page 249).  Darwin writes in this letter, “I am inclined to look at everything as resulting from designed laws, with the details, whether good or bad, left to the working out of what we may call chance.”  Further down Darwin concludes, “I can see no reason why a man, or other animal, may not have been aboriginally produced by other laws, and that all these laws may have been expressly designed by an omniscient Creator, who foresaw every future event and consequence.”

Within Darwin’s concept of Natural Selection described in The Origin of Species there are three main strands of evolutionary thought.  I will explore the three strands of evolutionary thought under the subtitles Modified traits, Highly perfected organs and Replacement of less-improved forms.

#2 History of the Idea of Evolution

Charles Darwin presented his theory of evolution through natural selection in 1859 here in Britain.  It was a controversial theory because it challenged the view that God had created all the species on earth exactly as we see them today.  This led to debate within the Anglican Church and in universities that were essentially run by the church.  The debate spread to the Catholic Church on the continent.

My first point is that debate is good and new ideas are good – if we all agreed on everything, we could not debate anything. Church parishes are a good place for debate since Christians are encouraged to think about things.

By the end of the 1860s, Thomas Huxley – sometimes called Darwin’s bulldog – was succeeding in separating the church from universities and making science into a secular occupation.

During the 19th century what was called the Materialist Philosophy was gaining support in some quarters.  It was the belief that matter had always existed and was eternal, and so it was not necessary to believe in God as the originator of matter and the universe.  This led to modern Atheism.

Through the 20th century the big idea of evolution started to replace God as the ultimate explanation for all things.  To the question where do things come from?  The answer was no longer that God created them, but that they had evolved.

The rise of Communism and the Soviet Union brought a new idea – that life had evolved from non-life in some kind of primeval ocean full of organic molecules.  (This idea was brought to Britain by Marxist biologists).  This idea was not the idea of Charles Darwin who believed in the original creation by God of multicellular life as a few or one basic type.

How was the church going to survive what appeared to be an onslaught on one of its core beliefs?  Namely that God had created life?

Anglican theologians in Britain and Catholic theologians in Europe were quick to get to work to sort out the church’s response to the new scientific theory.

They adopted a new theology: that God is still the Creator, but he had created life through the processes of evolution.  Christians who believe this are called Theistic Evolutionists.  Historically there have been two types of Theistic Evolutionists:

  • By the 1950s Theistic Evolutionists were claiming that God guided evolution according to his own purposes.  Thus, God caused evolution to lead to the evolution of human beings from apes. Many Christians who held this view worked in biology. 
  • More recently Theistic Evolutionists inspired by observations of constraints on the natural world and on evolution, changed their belief to state that natural processes are constrained such that humans would evolve anyway whatever happened.  So God had to just wait for it to happen, and it was not necessary for him to intervene at all.

This is where we’re at now.  Most Christians see no conflict between their Christian faith and the theories of modern science. They believe that God metaphorically created the universe with its galaxies and stars, and life on earth.  However, the real active principle was the natural processes of evolution as described by science.

Why do we Christians still need a God if everything was going to happen under its own impetus anyway?

Possible answers are:

  • God is present in people’s personal lives
  • God lends meaning to the whole in a theological way

Theology has embraced modern secular science almost without question. Science is equated with truth, and theologians tag along behind. This certainly makes life easy and comfortable.  It allows us to avoid conflict with the secular world around us. But do we now worship a pocket-sized God? A little God who we don’t need often?

#4 Evolution – God’s method of creation?

In the second half of the 19th century biology became increasingly dominated by the Philosophy of Naturalism promoted by X-Club members led by T. H. Huxley.  Their project was successful in secularizing science.

In the 20th century the church in crisis took the line of compromise with secularism – liberal Anglicans took on evolution as a form of continuous creation such that evolution became God’s method of creation.

By the 1950s Marxist biologists brought the additional idea that natural selection could bring life from non-life.  No known law of chemistry could explain this.  At this point natural selection was no longer a mechanism for modifying existing life forms and producing new species, but a force bringing life itself into existence.

Many Catholic and Anglican Christians then went for the Cosmic Christ where the Christ is the god of the evolutionary force.

Evangelical Christians opposed the whole ‘science of evolution’ project in the 1960s onwards with Biblical Creationism based on a literal reading of Genesis.  Some Creationists later became followers of Intelligent Design.

Meanwhile other Christians who were Theistic Evolutionists found acceptance in the secular scientific community.  They made contributions to NeoDarwinism and the New Synthesis which is Darwinian natural selection combined with the science of genetics, and studies in population genetics.

Biblical Creationists became ‘fair game’ for any Atheists promoting themselves in science.  Theistic Evolutionists then came under attack themselves from militant Atheists trying to prove the total irrelevance of God with the idea that science is the only source of truth.

The present day is probably seen in too much detail to be able to draw any real conclusions out of it.  It’s quite hard to end a history in the present day – we only know what happened by what came next – but none of us know what is coming next.  Thus, my history of science and faith is left hanging – suspended between heaven and hell, awaiting salvation of some sort.

Parte Alta Coquimbo