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No clash between Darwin and faith

11 February 2009

The Church Times found no discrepancy between evolutionary theories and Christianity 100 years ago: an unsigned leader from 12 February 1909

“Brilliant observer” . . . but not profound: Charles Darwin at Downe

“Brilliant observer” . . . but not profound: Charles Darwin at Downe

No doubt the battle-ground has shifted. Those conjectures associated with Darwin’s name form, properly enough, the occasion of biological dispute. They have ceased to be, as they ought never to have been, the cause of strife among theologians.

We can admit by this time with perfect frankness that the divines who believed themselves to be championing religion because they attacked Darwinism were greatly mistaken. True, there was a discrep­ancy, not to be made good by any attempt at reconciliation, between Darwin’s views and a certain form of cosmogony. But the cosmogony thus assailed was, in point of fact, not that of the Bible, but that of Paradise Lost.

When excited champions believed themselves to be upholding or im­pugning the inspiration of scripture, the point actually at issue between them was the infallibility of John Milton. If, however, when we recall the curious strife of 50 years ago, we admit that Darwin’s religious op­pon­ents were wrong, we do not imply that his supporters were right.

On the contrary, the blame must be distributed equally between both parties; between those imagining that The Origin of Species attacked the doctrines of revelation, and those others who welcomed it on this very account, and hastened to proclaim that the Bible once for all was dis­credited. And the latter fallacy has outlived the former.

There is no thinker of today who would maintain that the Christian must forfeit his belief as the condi­tion of accepting Darwinism. Yet there are writers, of whom Haeckel is an egregious instance, who main­tain, with not less absurdity, that Darwin’s “law” of natural selec­tion has made illogical the retention of Christianity.

IT SEEMS probable that, as the custom is at “centenaries”, we may be invited to attribute to Darwin an importance which by no means is his due. That he was a brilliant observer must be fully admitted. That he did much to popularise the idea of evolution is equally patent. But his claim to rank as a really profound thinker is much more dubious.

His arguments are marred by his constant tendency to “beg the ques­tion”, tacitly to assume in parenthesis the very point at issue, and then to claim at the end that his case was proved. This was no trick of rhetoric: he had no intention of evading difficulties; he was entirely honest in believing in the soundness of his conclusions.

The fact was that he suffered from a want of lucidity in his mental processes; he was incomparable in noting facts, he was very far from trustworthy when he came to make those facts the foundation of theories. In other words, he was, as we have hinted, a great observer, but not a great thinker. Far less severely by those who differed from him for theological reasons than by Huxley, his disciple and admirer, were the many flaws in his reasoning em­phasised.

Among people who are not well-informed, his name is still one to con­jure with. They imagine still that he “discovered” evolution, and that evolutionary law and Darwinism are synonymous. His studies of nature were of the highest importance, and every scientist of today is his debtor for them. But his doctrines have lost very much of their importance. Of “Darwinism” in the strict sense of the word, probably no whole-hearted supporter remains among eminent men of science.

YET so much popular confusion exists upon the point, that it may be well to make this matter quite clear. The theory of evolution — namely, that all life is descended from a few simple forms, and perhaps ultim­ately from one speck of vital proto­plasm — was in existence before Darwin’s day. That which he did was to explain the evolutionary process in a particular way, and to account for the origin of the various species by the operation of “natural selec­tion”, resulting in the survival of the fittest.

And the chief flaw in this attempt lies in the truth that while natural selection may have played, and prob­ably did play, a great part in the perpetuation of the “fittest” species, it does not explain how there came to be these “fittest” species to survive. In other words, to uphold it as ex­plain­ing the “origin” of species is a confusion of thought; natural selec­tion may have preserved species, but it did not originate them.

Even in this lesser function, its success must have been less marked than the reader of Darwin’s books would suppose. The weakness of the theory has been emphasised by those scientists, of whom there are many in France and Germany, who reject “Darwinism” in toto. To discuss them here would be to go beyond our present scope.

A single example, readily to be understood, of these objections must suffice us. The saving factors of “the fittest”, which, according to Darwin, have preserved fortunate individuals when others, less well equipped for the struggle, have perished, are, for the most part, developed only in matur­ity. But it is in the first days, weeks, or years of life that the struggle is most severe, that the mor­tal­ity is highest. How did the individuals who may have been the “fittest” at a subsequent period sur­vive this early stage? Certainly not by the possession of characteristics which at that date were quite un­developed.

Yet, while there is much to be said against natural selection, there are many and striking phenomena which can be urged in its favour. It cannot be adduced, as Darwin thought, to account for the origin of species, but that it played an import­ant part in the evolutionary process seems to the majority of scientists, in this country at least, indisputably true. Only it is not by itself a sufficient explanation of the process. Other factors must have been at work as well.

And when we have included those associated with the name of Lam­arck, and, indeed, all others which as yet have been suggested, the sum of them is inadequate to account for the result. There are still, we must sup­pose, unknown factors. These may be revealed in time, for evolu­tionary science itself is still in process of evolution. But, when the last of them has been found, the evolu­tionary theory will still be only modal, and not causal.

It will show us plainly how things happened, but not why they happened. Not in the slightest degree will it have invalidated Christian belief. When, to use a rough analogy, you have discovered every secret of the sculptor’s art, when you have made plain to the man in the street what tools he used, by what stages the work progressed, and what tools were employed upon each separate detail, you have not “explained away” the sculptor, or made belief in his existence a needless superstition.

While, therefore, we do right to honour Darwin as a sincere seeker after truth, as a splendid naturalist, and as one who threw at least some light upon the mode of the evolu­tionary process, some words spoken by Huxley, as long ago as 1880, deserve to be remembered, since their anticipation to some extent has been fulfilled:

History warns us that it is the customary fate of new truths to begin as heresies and to end as superstitions; and, as matters now stand, it is hardly rash to antici­pate that in another 20 years, the new generation, educated under the influence of the present day, will be in danger of accepting the main doctrines of The Origin of Species with as little reflection, and it may be with as little justi­fication, as so many of our con­temp­oraries 20 years ago rejected them.

Darwin and God was priced wrongly last week. It is £9.99 (£9).

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