Charles Darwin (1809-1882):
A Fulcrum Appreciation
by Michael Roberts
February 12th 2009 sees the bicentenary of Darwin’s birth. Along with Isaac Newton he was one of the greatest British scientists, though his science is still controversial. To some he was a great scientist and to others the devil incarnate!
He was a quiet family man, whose life was marred by illness. He was born into an affluent home in Shrewsbury and went to Cambridge to study for the Anglican ministry. In 1831 he was invited to join the Beagle to sail round the world. That changed his life and the course of science. On that voyage he was more interested in geology and only later “moved” over to biology.
Darwin learned his science at both Edinburgh and Cambridge and some of his student notes survive. His family was scientific and as a teenager he had a well-equipped chemistry lab in an outhouse at the Mount, the family home. At Cambridge he joined the Rev John Henslow’s unofficial natural history classes and fieldtrips and was introduced to the geologist, the Rev Adam Sedgwick. In August 1831 he joined Sedgwick on a geological trip to North Wales, which gave Darwin the finest teaching a budding geologist could hope for and the grounding for the Beagle voyage.
His priority on the voyage was geology, and he also collected many biological specimens. On return Darwin wrote up his geology in three volumes and got other naturalists to deal with biology. After marriage to Emma Wedgwood in 1839, he moved to Downe in 1842 by which time illness had struck. For many years he carried out detailed work on barnacles, while developing with his species theory. He had written two drafts in 1842 and 1844. In the late 1850s he was working on a big book on evolution, but was jolted into action by the arrival of a letter from Wallace in 1858 in which Wallace independently proposed the theory of natural selection. As a result, he wrote a shorter book The Origin of Species, which was published in 1859. Over the next twenty years he wrote a series of biological books on orchids, insectivorous plants, climbing plants, cross- and self-fertilisation in plants, and, finally, on worms. The book, which gave the greatest challenge to some theological views was The Descent of Man (1871), which posited a totally evolutionary view of humans. His published works fill 29 volumes and represented the cutting edge of biology in his day.
The great achievement of Darwin was to show how all life is inter-related and tied into the physical structure of this planet. By showing the evolution of humans he demonstrated that we are part of the natural world and not separate from it. Though aspects of his work have been superseded, his basic theory still holds today. To put it simply, Darwin took over earlier ideas of geology and the succession of life from trilobites and invertebrates, through dinosaurs and other vertebrates and finally to humans. Drawing from many aspects of biology he argued that life forms change over time and that ultimately all living things have a common ancestor. This now forms the basis of all biology and TV programmes on wildlife like those of David Attenborough.
When Darwin set sail on the Beagle he had intended to become an Anglican clergyman, but that faded during the voyage. The Darwin-Wedgwood family came from radical dissenting stock, though Charles was baptised in St Chad’s Church Shrewsbury, and with his parents and siblings worshipped at the Unitarian Church. How far his faith was simply nominal we cannot say, but before the Beagle he showed some signs of devotion and his notes on the evangelical John Sumner’s Evidence of Christianity show some serious theological thinking. However, by 1839 all that had gone and he was open to his future wife, Emma, about his lack of belief. He wavered between a vague theism and atheism and ‘must be content to remain an agnostic’. I consider Moore and Desmond’s argument that he lost his faith after the death of his ten-year-old daughter, Annie, overstated and not based on hard evidence. At Downe he was a flying-buttress member of the church.
Some portray Darwin as destroying all morality because of our evolutionary ancestry. Darwin was a highly moral person, both in his personal life and concern for others. He supported many good causes, including SAMS (South American Missionary Society). He is often charged with being a racist, and perhaps he was according to 21st century PC standards. However he was the third generation Darwin/Wedgwood to oppose slavery. He was appalled at slavery in Brazil and in the 1860s objected to the slavery in the Southern states of the USA. Same anti-evolutionists claim that Darwin’s views lead straight to Mein Kampf and the Holocaust, as if Darwin was responsible for the twisted ideas of Hitler. A close study does not support that, and we need to note that anti-evolution has often resulted in racism as in the Southern States and Apartheid South Africa.
The Effect of Darwin on Christian Belief
Darwin is often credited with making Christian belief intellectually untenable. He never considered that to be the case and the greatest challenge to biblical orthodoxy came from biblical criticism and a new theology. Compared to Essays and Reviews (1861) the Origin of Species had little theological impact. It is often not known that decades before 1859 most educated Christians had rejected a literal Genesis (if they had ever held it, which I doubt), a young Earth, a worldwide flood and a theodicy dependent on physical death coming in at the fall of Man. In a recent BBC Wildlife magazine, Attenborough repeated this incorrect opinion that “This[the date of 4004BC for creation] was based on the calculations of archbishop Ussher”.
Where Darwin has impacted negatively on belief this has been far more later generations reading back to Darwin rather than what Darwin said. This negativity is epitomised by Samuel Wilberforce and his “debate” with Huxley, which came to the fore in the 1890s when T H Huxley and others wrote their memoirs and claimed there had been a battle royal in the 1860s, which gave rise to the conflict thesis of science and religion which has been rejected by recent historians of science. However it is repeated by many today, e.g. Richard Dawkins, Steve Jones and much pop history of science. It is still adopted by several church historians and theologians, despite constant criticism.
Christian opposition to Darwin and Evolution
The popular perception is that the Christians have always been implacably opposed to Darwin, despite the vast volume of scholarship contradicting this. However, ever since 1859 some Christians have opposed Darwin. Initially some, who accepted geology, rejected evolution for various reasons, but none from a Young Earth position, which claims that the earth is no more than 10,000 years old.
During the last twenty years in Britain, Young Earth Creationism (YEC) has come to prominence. YEC is not the traditional Christian view, as it originated with the Seventh Day Adventists in the late 19th century from Ellen White and George McCready Price. It remained a minority view among American evangelicals until YEC was kick-started again in 1961 with the publication of The Genesis Flood. YEC now dominates American evangelicalism and is growing rapidly in Britain.
A more recent anti-evolution movement is Intelligent Design, which is now closely associated with YEC. Neither YEC nor ID has any credence as science.
Anglicans and Darwinian Evolution
Contrary to some opinion the Anglican Church has been very postive towards all science for 500 years. While Galileo was under house arrest, the Revd John Wilkins published a Copernican book. Many of the early fellows of the Royal Society were Anglican clergy; I shall only mention John Ray. From 1780 many Anglicans supported the rising science of geology and some of the most significant world geologists before Darwin were Anglican clergy like Adam Sedgwick, William Buckland and William Conybeare. In the period 1800 to 1855, over 80% of Anglican clergy accepted geology (an approximate figure from my reading as many writers as possible). A small and vociferous minority did oppose geology; for example the Revd Henry Cole calling the evangelical Sedgwick an ‘infidel scoffer’. However, these devout anti-geologists were savaged by clerical-geologists like Sedgwick and disappeared by 1855 only to re-appear, Phoenix-like, in the 1980s.
The reaction to Darwin was varied. Some happily accepted evolution: Frederick Temple, R. W. Church, Hort (but Westcott was wary), Baden Powell, Liddon, Pusey (just!), Symonds and two evangelicals – H. B. Tristram of Durham and Prof C Babbington of Cambridge. Within decades most thinking Anglicans had accepted evolution but often insisted on the direct creation of humans. Some Anglicans opposed evolution, archetypically Samuel Wilberforce, but all opponents accepted geological time. Some of the main opposition to Darwin came from physicists and geologists.
This rapprochement between Christianity and evolution continued until 1980, with most, including the majority of evangelicals, accepting evolution, with a minority rejecting evolution but not geology. In fact, I can only find one YEC Anglican from 1855 until the 1970s. That was W. H. Griffith Thomas, who accepted evolution while principal of Wycliffe Hall, Oxford. He went to North America in 1910 and by 1917 came to accept a Young Earth through the influence of the Seventh Day Adventist autodidact McCready Price. I cannot find of another Anglican example, and teachers from Moule to Packer and Stott all accepted evolution. (Bishop J. C. Ryle accepted geological time albeit not evolution, and represents the ultra-conservative Anglican of 1900.)
Things began to change after the publication in Britain of The Genesis Flood by Morris and Whitcomb in 1968. Since then increasing numbers of British evangelicals have rejected evolution and espoused the biblical literalism of YEC. My informed impression is that possibly 5% of Church of England clergy are YEC. At least two, Kevin Logan and Martin Dowe, have written paperbacks of doubtful value promulgating YEC. There are more who are sympathetic to Intelligent Design, which is marginally more scientific than YEC.
Against that, the majority of Christians, whether or not Anglicans simply don’t care about doubts about evolution and take it for granted! For the last 130 years most Anglican theological writers have happily accepted evolution, whether they were conservative or liberal. Some have focussed on science and religion and from a previous generation include Mascall, Yarnold, Raven and Smethurst. The late Arthur Peacocke and John Polkinghorne have dominated the scene since 1980, with Alister McGrath of increasing significance. Very few concentrate on Darwin and evolution, apart from R. J. Berry, a geneticist.
To some, Darwin’s theory of evolution nullifies the Christian faith and both Richard Dawkins and Creationist Christians share that opinion. These opinions and those of the majority, agnostic or Christian, who reckon that Darwin does not affect the Christian faith will be heard loudly and widely this year.
Understandably some don’t like the thought that they are descended from apes and ultimately from an amoeba. At first sight this makes us less than human and that our morals have no basis. Atheists like Richard Dawkins in The God Delusion claiming that you have to choose between God and evolution, or even science, do not help this. Compared to that strident claim, those who take the bible literally with a six day creation as in Genesis seem plausible – until you examine their arguments and find that their science is simply appalling, as well as their biblical interpretation.
In one sense I can see why some Christians are disturbed by Darwin or evolution, but the whole picture of a five billion year old Earth which first produced life four billion years ago and then ultimately all the intricate variety of life we know today is breathtaking and should fill us with awe and wonder – of the Creator. As the Revd. H. B. Tristam, a Victorian evangelical and naturalist, always said, “as we were evolved, sorry, created”.
Now where do I stand? I became a Christian through a Christian Union a few weeks before I graduated in geology. For several years I was unaware there was a clash between science and faith! The conflict between science and faith came as a surprise to me, partly for family reasons as my physicist uncle was ordained and my biochemist father non-religious. I happily keep my faith and science together. To me, all science enhances my faith. I have a particular interest in Darwin, as I have researched his geology in depth. The more I study the man, the more I respect him, but I get irritated with either gross adulation or denigration of a great scientist. He was not a Christian, but was a very moral person. His science was brilliant in its day and laid the foundation for the future. I will enjoy celebrating Darwin’s bicentenary.
The Revd Michael Roberts, Vicar of Cockerham, Winmarleigh and Glasson is an authority on Darwin’s geology and author of Evangelicals and Science (Greenwood Press, 2008) and book chapters and papers on science and religion and Darwin’s geology.
The literature is vast and of uneven quality.
Janet Browne has probably written the best biography.
More popular is
Van Wyhe, John, 2008, Darwin, the story of the man and his theories of evolution. London Andre Deutsch.
Alexander, Denis, 2008 Creation or Evolution. Monarch
Young, Davis & Stearley, 2008 The Bible, Rocks and Time. IVP
Miller, Ken, 1999. Finding Darwin’s God. Harper/Collins
Roberts, M., 2008 Evangelicals and science. Greenwood Press.
These posts are by guest authors for Fulcrum