The Religious Response to On the Origin of Species

Jupsat Pro Astronomy Software

Secrets of the Deep Sky

Get Instant Access

Christians who reject evolution tend to reject it for one or both of two reasons. Common descent conflicts with biblical special creation. The Bible in one literal reading tells of the universe's creation in six days, yet data from physics, astronomy, geology, and biology support a picture of the universe unfolding over billions of years. First there was the Big Bang, then gas clouds, then stars, and only about 4.5 billion years ago did planet Earth form. Life did not appear for another billion years or so, and then not all at once (see chapter 2). The Bible read literally also suggests that this creation event occurred a relatively short time ago, geologically speaking—a span measured over thousands rather than billions of years. Yet data from physics and geology firmly support the inference that Earth is ancient. A literal reading of Genesis has animal kinds appearing in their present form, and varying only within the kind, whereas biology, genetics, and geology strongly support the inference that species change through time. The perspective of special creationism holds to a sudden, recent, unchanging universe, whereas the perspective of evolution is that of a gradually appearing, ancient, changing universe. It is not surprising that two such different perspectives clash.

Modern mainstream Christians generally are not biblical literalists and thus do not regard the incompatibility of evolution with biblical literalism as a reason to reject the former. Not believing in created kinds, they have no theological objection to living things descending with modification from common ancestors. But there is a second reason that Christians reject evolution, shared by literalists and nonliteralists alike, and this is the issue of design, purpose, and meaning.

The Problem of Design and Purpose. In Aristotelian philosophy, the purpose or end result of something is thought to be a cause. Explaining something by its purpose, as I mentioned earlier in this chapter, is known as teleology. Up until the nineteenth century, the cause of the marvelous wonders of nature, including the intricacies of anatomical structure, was widely considered to be God's purposive design. Thus, the fit of an organism to its environment was the result of the special creation of its features.

While he was a college student, Darwin read William Paley's 1802 Natural Theology; or, Evidences of the Existence and Attributes of the Deity, Collected from the Appearances of Nature, which he thought a splendid book. Paley's view was that God specifically designed complex structures to meet the needs of organisms. Natural Theology was also an apologetic, or religious proof of the existence of God; Paley's version of the argument from design is considered a classic. God's existence could be proved, said Paley, by the existence of structural complexity in nature. In a famous analogy, he compared finding a stone on a heath to finding a watch. The former could have been there forever; it was a natural object and did not require any special explanation. But the watch was obviously an artifact—its springs, wires, and other components had been assembled to mark the passage of time. Structural complexity that achieved a purpose was evidence for design and therefore of a designer. When we see a natural structure such as the vertebrate eye, which accomplishes the purpose of allowing sight, we can similarly infer design and hence a designer. The existence of structures such as the vertebrate eye is evidence for the existence of God, according to this analogy.

Paley contrasted design with chance, and it was clearly as absurd to believe that something like the vertebrate eye could assemble by chance as it was to believe that the parts of a watch might come together and function as a result of random movements of springs and wires. Modern creationists take the same view, equating evolution with chance (in the sense of being unguided and purposeless, and therefore random and chaotic) and contrasting it with guided design. A favorite creationist argument is quite similar to that of Paley: many cite astronomer Fred Hoyle's estimate of the possibility of life forming "by chance" as equivalent to a Boeing 707 airplane's being assembled by a whirlwind passing through a junkyard (Hoyle 1983). A current YEC book, in fact, is entitled Tornado in a Junkyard (Perloff 1999).

But even before Darwin's Origin, the argument from design was proving to be not useful in understanding the natural world. This was partly because of increased knowledge of the natural world during the 1700s and early 1800s. As naturalists examined the world and its creatures more carefully, it became clear that William Paley's ideas of the perfection of structural complexity didn't match reality. Although there were many wonderful structures that admirably suited organisms to their environments— the waterproof feathers of ducks, or the hollow bones of birds that provide strength with lightness—there were also curious constructions that didn't seem to make survival more probable, like reduced wing size in kiwis and similar flightless birds. Other structural oddities seemed unnecessarily complex, such as the migration of the eyes of young flounders from a normal position on either side of the head to both eyes on one side of the head. If flounders are to be adapted to living flat on the ocean floor, why are they not born with both eyes on the same side of the head? Examples can be multiplied (for examples from a modern author, see Gould 1980), but the point was recognized even before Darwin that there were many examples of odd structures that didn't appear to have been the direct creation of an omniscient, benevolent God. The weight of natural historical observations weakened the argument from design.

Natural selection, of course, provided a natural means to explain complex structures that adapted their owners to their environments. As discussed in chapter 2, those organisms with structures that better suited them to a particular environment were more likely to leave descendants than were those that lacked the useful structures. Populations would thus change over time, as their members became better adapted to their environments. Paley was correct to choose design over chance, but he did not know that there was a natural as well as a transcendent source of design.

But how to choose between transcendent design and natural selection? Obviously an omniscient creator could specially create structures such as the vertebrate eye—but so could natural selection. Either the direct hand of God or natural selection could explain well-designed structures. In fact, in Origin, Darwin used Paley's example of the vertebrate eye to illustrate how a complex structure might plausibly result through natural selection. More difficult for the supporters of the argument from design was explaining those structures that just barely worked or were obviously cobbled together from disparate parts having other functions in related species. Natural selection can operate only on available variations, so if the "right" variation is not available, either the population dies out or some other structure will have to be modified into an adaptation. So nature is full of oddities like antennae modified into fishing lures, or jawbones turned into hearing structures—things that don't look so much engineered as tinkered with (Jacob 1977).

Along the same lines, some structures are not "fearfully and wonderfully made" (Psalm 139:14) but seem to barely work; that's tough to explain through an omniscient, benevolent designer. But because natural selection is the survival of the "fit enough," it is not expected that "perfect," optimal structures will always be the end result. Thus, natural selection can account for both well-designed (in the sense of good or efficient operation) and poorly designed structures. On the other hand, for God to have deliberately created jerry-rigged, odd, or poorly designed structures is of course possible, but it is theologically unsatisfying and empirically untestable. Natural selection, in fact, offered a theological way out to those concerned with this issue: God could work through natural selection and thus not be stuck with accusations of deliberately creating bad design.

The power of natural selection to explain the oddities of nature drew people away from design as a scientific explanation. It became possible to explain structural complexity and adaptation through natural causes. Still, there remained a theological problem: if Darwin was right, and natural selection explained design, the implication was clear: God did not need to create humans directly. But if God did not create humans directly, did this mean that humans were less special to God? Traditional teleological views held that humans existed because God created them with a specific purpose. If humans were the result of a natural process that didn't require the direct involvement of God, did that negate an ultimate meaning or purpose to life? (Chapter 12 presents theological responses to this question.)

Both biblical literalism and problems with design and purpose played roles in the reception of Darwin's ideas in the nineteenth century. In the early nineteenth century, both arguments were raised against evolution, at a time when links between science and religion were still strong.

Science and Religion. In the United States, early nineteenth-century religious intellectuals (including clergy and theologians, as well as religious scientists and laypeo-ple) embraced science as providing proof of design, the existence of God, and other Christian theological positions. Many nineteenth-century scientists worked within a theological framework and frequently referred to religious views in discussing scientific positions. "The existence of God, the reality of His providential concern for his creation, the veracity of miracles, the importance of humanity as the focus of divine plan—all these doctrines appeared to be legitimate inferences from the clearest disclosures of scientific investigation" (Roberts 1988: 13).

As geologists explored the fossil record in the early half of the century, the sequence of changing forms through time was seen to reflect separate creations—and progressively improved ones, as well. This, too, harmonized with the Christian view that there was a divine providential plan unfolding through time. That these now-extinct creatures were also adapted to their environments reinforced the argument from design. It was, however, a time of rapid growth of scientific knowledge, and these same geological observations encouraged an alternative explanation: the transmutation of species (the changing of one species into another).

Science itself was evolving into a more naturalistic methodology, as natural explanations provided more testable and reliable inferences than supernatural causes. one of the early presentations of the idea of transmutation of species appeared in Robert Chambers's Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation, published anonymously in 1844—just about the time Darwin was beginning to work in earnest on the principle of natural selection. In Chambers's view, living things adapted to their environments in response to God-created law rather than having been specially created for that purpose. His hands-off, non-miracle-generating Creator was widely rejected by many clerics because it did not reflect the personal God with which they were familiar (Roberts 1988). Furthermore, scientists were unimpressed by the somewhat wispy scientific mechanisms that Chambers proposed.

By midcentury, then, transmutation and changes in ideas of how science should be done were in the air. Darwin's science pushed the boundaries much farther than did Chambers, and On the Origin of Species subsequently experienced an even stronger reaction from the religious community. But the seeds of change had been sown: the concept of a dynamic rather than a static world, already accepted in astronomy and growing in geology, would eventually wash over biology as well. But if the universe were in a state of change, of evolution, did this negate the Christian view that there was an overarching purpose for the universe? For humankind? There were many theological issues affected by Darwin's views, some of which are still being grappled with today.

Religious Responses in Context. The religious response to Darwin's ideas is not easily summarized. According to Roberts (1988), there was no pressure on clerics to modify traditional views until the scientific community agreed on transmutation of species; the scientific community had rejected previous theories of species change such as Chambers's, thereby obviating the need for the theological community to grapple with contradictions between the new science and traditional Christianity. However, by the mid-1870s, the scientific community became convinced of transmutation, and religious leaders were forced to consider evolution seriously (Roberts 1988). The initial reaction of the British clergy to Darwin's ideas was mixed, but eventually the strength of the science and the need for coherence between science and theology brought about sufficient accommodation.

Still, the process took decades, and in some denominations, resolution was not achieved until the twentieth century. The acceptance of Darwinian ideas was neither uniform nor simple, reflecting not only the growing tension between religion and science but also local issues that at some times and places were more important than the scientific or theological ones. Even within a religious tradition, there could be significant differences in the degree to which evolution was accepted. In Presbyterian Edinburgh, Scotland, for example, during the 1870s, evolution was generally accepted by the leading clerics, who were less concerned about evolution than with the growth of German modernism and biblical criticism, and their consequences for Presbyterian theology. In the late 1870s and 1880s, Presbyterians in the United States, led by the Princeton Theological Seminary theologian, Charles Hodge, generally accepted evolution but rejected Darwin's mechanism of natural selection. On the other hand, in Belfast, Ireland, Presbyterians spoke out strongly against both evolution and the natural selection mechanism (Livingstone 1999).

The Catholic response to evolution was similarly complex, reflecting social movements and consequent church politics over the struggle of American Catholics to define a Catholic identity that reflected their national and cultural needs. The late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries were periods of increased immigration to the United States by European Catholics, primarily from Ireland, Germany, Italy, and Poland. They faced a great deal of prejudice both because of their nationalities and their religion in what was a largely Anglo-Protestant America: the No Irish Need Apply signs had their equivalent for other foreigners as well. Progressive American Catholic leaders were eager to integrate the largely working-class newcomers into American society, to educate and Americanize them. Americanizing the newcomers would also Americanize Catholicism, and vice versa. Progressive Catholics sought to define Catholicism in terms of American tradition and history. However, the Vatican considered Americanism, which included the separation of church and state, support of labor unions (important to immigrants), individual liberty, and material as well as spiritual progress, a threat (Appleby 1999). Progressive Catholics promoting

Americanism were also more accepting of biblical criticism, science, and evolution, thus tainting evolution in the eyes of the Vatican. The fact that liberal Protestants largely accepted evolution made evolution even less palatable to conservative Catholics.

Turn-of-the-century Catholic immigration generated a nativist backlash from the Anglo-Protestant majority, and this, too, became entangled with attitudes toward evolution. Evolution and natural selection were incorporated into the anti-immigration arguments and into the subsequent eugenics movement of the early twentieth century. Thus, evolution became associated in some minds with anti-Catholicism, sterilization of the "feeble-minded" (read: Catholic immigrants), birth control, and racism (Appleby 1999). To be sure, there was doctrinal opposition to evolution, but because the acceptance or rejection of evolution was so embedded in other issues, as these other issues evolved, it made it easier for the Catholic Church to eventually accept evolution:

First, the debate over Darwinism itself, for all its virulence, was actually an occasion for American Catholics to work out a number of identity-defining issues facing the immigrant community. second, the debate did not leave a strong antievolutionist legacy to future Catholic educators in quite the way Protestant fundamentalism did. The advent of evolutionary theory, in other words, served as a catalyst for the resolution of internal Catholic issues rather than as a sustained evaluation of Darwinism and evolutionary theory in itself. Despite the seeming victory of the conservatives, moreover, the scientific theory of evolution was never formally condemned, and Roman Catholicism modified its general anti-evolutionist stance several times in the twentieth century; this was a process that culminated in the conditional approval of the theory by Pope Pius XII in 1950. (Appleby 1999: 179)

in addition to Pius Xii, subsequent popes have offered an accommodation of Catholic theology to science along the lines sketched in the nineteenth century by the Catholic scientist St. George Jackson Mivart: God directly infuses the human soul, but the body has evolved from animal predecessors. Catholic high schools thus routinely teach evolution, as it has no formal doctrinal conflict with Catholic theology.

In both the United States and Great Britain, religious objection to evolution was spurred on by the anticlericalism of some of Darwin's early defenders, especially Thomas Henry Huxley and Herbert Spencer. It was easy for religious intellectuals to reject evolution by natural selection when some of its supporters presented it as compelling atheist belief. The active support of evolution in the 1860s and 1870s of a number of American scientists who were also active churchmen, such as Asa Gray, greatly helped to defuse the idea that evolution was an inherently atheistic idea (Numbers 1998).

By the mid-twentieth century in Great Britain, Europe, and North America, the scientific community no longer questioned whether evolution occurred. The neo-Darwinian revolution of the 1930s and 1940s had been successful (see chapter 3). In Great Britain and Europe, but not in North America, evolution was included matter-of-factly in textbooks and curricula of education systems. In the United States, however, evolution was a topic consistently taught only at the college level—largely absent from the K—12 curriculum. Understanding this difference requires a closer look at American history.

Was this article helpful?

0 0
Telescopes Mastery

Telescopes Mastery

Through this ebook, you are going to learn what you will need to know all about the telescopes that can provide a fun and rewarding hobby for you and your family!

Get My Free Ebook

Post a comment