Christianity and Darwinism: Can There Be No Common Ground?

Christianity and Darwinism: Can There Be No Common Ground?

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Are Christianity and Darwinism mutually exclusive? In contexts where the answers to this question have led to political and legal battles of great intensity, the consequences can be saddening as compared to those from Darwin’s own country, where historically the polarisation has not been so pronounced. In England there were plenty of folk deeply shocked by Darwin’s theory with its threat to human dignity and uniqueness. But somehow events conspired to prevent the dichotomies from rigidifying in the way they have in certain North American constituencies. To share an ancestry with the apes may have been no laughing matter, but the English Press injected an element of humour that may have helped to defuse the situation. Here’s a poem from Punch, just after Darwin had published:

The Vestiges taught,
That all came from naught,
ChristBy “development”, so called, “progressive;”
That insects and worms
Assume higher forms
By modification excessive

Then Darwin set forth
In a book of much worth,
The importance of “Nature’s selection;”
How the struggle for life
Is a laudable strife,
And results in “specific distinction.”

Let pigeons and doves
Select their own loves,
And grant them a million of ages,
Then doubtless you’ll find
They’ve altered their kind,
And changed into prophets and sages.

The verse, ostensibly from London Zoo, was dated May 1861, and signed by “Gorilla”.

For many educated folk in Britain the Genesis narratives were no longer taken literally. It had become increasingly recognised that the Bible contained many different literary genres: poetry, allegories, parables, stories that spoke of the human condition and which tried to make sense of it. Earlier discoveries in geology had already extended the age of the Earth, so Darwin added nothing new on that score. And as Mark Twain was to observe, “it takes a long time to prepare a world for man, such a thing is not done in a day”.1 . In England, there were leaders of evangelical opinion, such as the nonconformist minister John Pye Smith, who before Darwin published, had already acknowledged the accommodation of biblical texts to the state of knowledge of the times and contexts in which they had been written.

Even Darwin’s hard-nosed disciples, for all their pugnacity and determination to raise the cultural authority of the scientist in Victorian society, refused to associate the theory with atheism. Thomas Henry Huxley certainly resented the hold the Anglican clergy had over education and was particularly hostile to the Roman Catholic Church, which he felt had often obstructed the development of science. But Huxley was also adamant that Darwin’s theory had no more to do with theism than had the first book of Euclid, meaning nothing at all. Darwin himself, though increasingly agnostic, had not set out to attack the Christian faith and, even late in life, insisted that he deserved to be called a theist.

Representatives of the Established Church in England gradually came to terms with evolution as a creative process. Not all, of course. But leaders of opinion were among the converted. One of Darwin’s first converts was the Christian socialist Charles Kingsley who pleased Darwin by suggesting that it could be a loftier view of God if He were conceived to be working through natural laws rather than interfering with his creation. Most importantly, Frederick Temple became Archbishop of Canterbury in the 1880s having made no secret of his evolutionary views.

Even within relatively conservative evangelical circles there has often been a willingness to assimilate Darwin’s science. The current editor of the journal Science & Christian Belief, Denis Alexander, explains how this has been possible: “evolution is an excellent theory to explain the origins of biological diversity, but it has little or no religious significance – it can be placed equally well within an atheistic or theistic context”. For the Christian, he continues, “God can bring about his intentions any way he chooses, and all that scientists can do is try to describe how he did it”.2


Such a neat solution can, however, bypass problems that students may have if they have been educated in biology and a biblically oriented Christianity. These are problems that should not be trivialised. They have been recognised by religious writers whose views have commanded respect. Sometimes they have appeared so intractable that the search for common ground has been abandoned. Does not the Christian doctrine that we are made in the image of God imply a uniqueness for the human race that is difficult to square with a Darwinian emphasis on our animal ancestry? Is there not another problem in the interconnectedness of Scripture, where Jesus Christ is seen as the “second Adam” sent to redeem humanity from the sin of the first? Does it even make sense to speak of the “Fall” as a historical event when the emergence of human beings may look more like a rise from humbler forms of life? Then there is surely the problem of divine agency: what kind of deity would use such a method of trial and error to produce humankind? This was a genuine problem for Darwin’s disciple in the study of animal behaviour, George Romanes, who contrasted the tortuous and bloodstained trail of evolution with what might be expected from the God envisaged by the noblest forms of religion.

The problem of suffering was also highlighted by Darwin’s mechanism of natural selection. Darwin himself considered it one of the strongest arguments against belief in a beneficent deity that there should be so much pain and suffering in the world. And could one speak of God’s design or intention in a world where the appearance of design might be dismissed as illusory? The problem here, as Darwin explained to the distinguished Harvard botanist Asa Gray, was that the variations present in the population of any species, and on which natural selection worked, did not appear to have been produced with any prospective use in mind. Creatures that looked as if they were designed had been formed from the gradual accumulation of favourable variation over countless generations. This problem, that under the theory the appearance of design might be illusory, led the Princeton theologian Charles Hodge to reject Darwin’s mechanism for evolution as effectively atheistic.

A related but not identical problem is to be found in Mark Twain’s question: “Was the World Made for Man?” We have just seen that he did not believe it could be made in a day. After tracing the history of organic forms, he mischievously identified another source of agnosticism:

Such is the history of it. Man has been here 32,000 years. That it took a hundred million years to prepare the world for him is proof that that is what it was done for. I suppose it is. I dunno. If the Eiffel tower were now representing the world’s age, the skin of paint on the pinnacle-knob at its summit would represent man’s share of that age; and anybody would perceive that that skin was what the tower was built for. I reckon they would, I dunno. 3

Such problems should not be trivialised. There are, however, different degrees of incommensurability between a Christian and an evolutionary world view. For example, Charles Hodge did not say that evolution must be rejected because it is contradicted by Scripture. Nor was evolution an intrinsically atheistic theory. It was the specifically Darwinian mechanism of natural selection that Hodge rejected as incompatible with a Christian understanding of Providence. By contrast Samuel Wilberforce, who was Bishop of Oxford and another critic of Darwin, accepted that there is a kind of selection going on in nature, a process of the survival of the fittest that prevents the deterioration of species but which does not generate new ones. Darwin himself admitted to a degree of common ground as his theory had developed. In his Descent of Man (1871) he stated that he had been so deeply influenced by the theological belief that every feature of an organic structure has a useful function that he had found it extremely difficult to renounce it.

It does not follow from the fact that some incommensurability between Christian teaching and Darwinism is sometimes asserted that the search for common ground has to be abandoned. Despite his agnosticism on the question whether the world was made for man, Mark Twain still considered it “likely” that it was. There was no proof, but there was evidence: “it is too early, yet, to arrange the verdict, the returns are not all in”. 4 And then he added a few words of wisdom that have been heeded all too rarely: “we must not be impatient, we must not get excited, we must be calm, and wait. To lose our tranquillity will not hurry geology; nothing hurries geology”.5


In addressing the kinds of problem I have just been indicating, a few distinctions may be helpful. One was made by Darwin himself: a distinction between the origin of species and an ultimate origin of life. The distinction was significant for Darwin because he was reluctant to speculate about the origin of life, partly because theories of spontaneous generation were open to ridicule. In his Origin of Species Darwin even used theological language, referring to a Creator breathing life into one or a few forms. This meant that he was reproached by some contemporary scientists, such as the physicist John Tyndall, for not being naturalistic enough. Religious commentators were tempted to exploit the gap, but in so doing they were in danger of sacrificing a Christian God, active in everything, for a “god-of-the-gaps” vulnerable to further scientific advance.

Another important distinction is that between Darwinism as a technical scientific theory, explaining how new species emerge, and Darwinism as a worldview in which purpose and meaning are excluded from the universe. This distinction can again be found in Darwin himself. He was always annoyed when his theory was judged by criteria other than its success in explaining how new species arise from pre-existing species. On the metaphysical level, he simply argued that if the birth and death of individuals can be explained without miraculous intervention (and without causing offence) why should it be any different with the birth and death of species? In the last chapter of Darwin’s Origin he argued for the superiority of his theory over a theory of separate creation or “independent acts of creation”. Other scientists, including his mentor Charles Lyell, had argued for the separate introduction of new species when there was a physical environment that could sustain them. Darwin’s argument was primarily directed against this interpretation of the history of life and was not an attack on the doctrine of Creation understood in its classical form – that everything ultimately depends for its existence on a transcendent Creator.

The crucial distinction here is between “creation” understood as a series of supernatural interventions and “creation” as understood by the greatest theologians of the monotheistic traditions who have affirmed an original and continuing dependence of all there is on a divine power and will. This is not to deny that the first sense of creation has often been used to support the second, but the second did not necessarily need that kind of support. Paul Tillich put it well:

The doctrine of creation is not the story of an event which took place “once upon a time”. It is the basic description of the relation between God and the world. It is the correlate to the analysis of man’s finitude.6

Among some early Christian commentators on Darwin’s theory, it was even said that Darwin had done Christianity a service by pensioning off an intervening deus ex machina , a kind of magician, leaving the transcendent God of classical theism more transparent.

Another basic distinction is that between different kinds of truth and between the forms of communication best suited to their expression. This can be a sensitive issue but the best vehicles for communicating spiritual insights into the human condition can be stories, allegories, poems and parables, and one might wish to add art and music. To read the Genesis creation narratives as historical or scientific reportage ironically deprives them of the deeper meanings that can be found in them. Their authority does not reside in their historicity or scientificity. As Calvin pointed out long ago, if one wished to learn astronomy one would not turn to the Bible.

This is such an important point that it may be worth reminding ourselves of the deeper meanings that Christian theologians have found in the Genesis texts. These would include the dependence of the world on a Creator; the intrinsic goodness of that which the Creator created; the fallenness of creation understood as our evasiveness and alienation from the deity – an alienation captured in God’s question to Adam, where art thou? Other meanings include our responsibility as custodians of Creation, deriving from the gift of dominion over it. And so one could continue. For those who insist on extracting insights that might be brought into relationship with a scientific cosmology there is the opportunity to say that Creation is not depicted as a single act but takes place in stages. And, as Augustine observed, it would be an obvious mistake to take the six days literally, given the time it takes for the seeds of things to come to fruition. There is also the opportunity to observe that the text does not say “Let there be man” but “Let us make man”. An analogy might be drawn with an impressionist painting: one has to stand back from the picture to get the message in depth.

There is a further distinction, so important that it should not be excluded from lessons in biology. This is simply the difference between evolution as a description of how life forms have succeeded each other through the transformation of species, and the mechanism whereby this occurs. Darwin described the process as descent with modification, the mechanism as natural selection. There is a genuine difficulty here because how we describe the process and how we reconstruct the lines of evolutionary change may be affected by the theory we hold about the mechanism. The basic distinction is, however, crucial. It was crucial even in the immediate post-Darwinian debates. For example Huxley and Darwin differed over whether sudden mutations could be incorporated into the story. Darwin would not allow them. Interestingly, however, Darwin included in his mechanism elements that we now describe as Lamarckian and which were later purged from the theory: the effects on an organ of use and disuse and the direct effects of the environment in inducing change. In his Descent of Man, Darwin even confessed that he had given too much weight to natural selection in the first edition of his Origin of Species.

This distinction between evolution as a well corroborated historical process and the more specific hypotheses proposed for the mechanism is important for at least three reasons. It was important historically because natural selection remained controversial for much of the nineteenth century and well into the twentieth. It has been important theologically because Christians who have favoured an evolutionary account have tended to supplement or even replace natural selection with other mechanisms that have seemed more in tune with their theism. Inherent drives towards greater complexity, intrinsic to living organisms, have often been proposed and ascribed to a Creator. This was certainly easier and more comfortable before the neo-Darwinian synthesis of the 1930s. A third reason for the importance of the distinction is, however, a topical one. Critics of evolutionary theory have tried to make capital from exposing disagreement between Darwinians over the finer points of the mechanism. But it is of course a non sequitur to suggest that such disagreements affect the status of the theory in its more general sense. Natural selection was eclipsed at the end of the nineteenth century; but, as Peter Bowler has argued, that did not mean that appeal to Genesis or to divine intervention gained in credibility as a consequence.

One more distinction is especially important. This is the difference between consistency and entailment. Cultural meanings of great diversity can be extracted from a single scientific theory. Yet polemicists, whether for Darwinism or for some kind of creationism, often write as if a particular scientific conclusion entails a particular metaphysical or theological conclusion. A knowledge of the history of science can be of immense value here because the use of science to argue for one ideological position rather than another has a very long history. Broadly speaking most scientific innovations have been susceptible of either a theistic or an atheistic reading. To show that they are consistent with either theism or atheism is an instructive exercise. To claim that they imply or even entail the one rather than the other can be seriously misleading.

Some of the more popular science writers of today have tended to be atheistic and have even said that what they like about Darwin’s theory is its potency against religious belief. Richard Dawkins writes that the universe revealed by evolutionary theory “has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil and no good, nothing but blind, pitiless indifference”.7 A red light ought to flash whenever we see those two words “nothing but” because they usually belong to a rhetoric of reductionism. Earlier generations of Darwinian scientists were by no means unanimous on such an interpretation.

Another way of making this point is to say that scientific theories are not born with cultural implications. They have them thrust upon them. It may seem an obvious point but it is often missed in the heat of controversy. There can sometimes be a kind of fear, among both scientific and religious apologists, that to accept a particular proposition would be risky because it would supposedly play into the hands of one’s opponents. But the truth of a proposition cannot be determined by reflecting on the uses to which it might be put. Evolutionary theory does not entail atheism even though it might be compatible with it. Belief in the separate appearance of every species does not entail the intervention of a deity even though it might be compatible with it. A lot of heat could be taken out of the controversy, if this difference between entailment and compatibility were more openly admitted. Modern evolutionary theory gives a magisterial account of how we came to be here and even how a capacity for moral awareness arose. But to explain is not to explain away.

Can there be no common ground?

With such distinctions in mind can we find common ground? In one respect the answer is an obvious “yes” because many Christian writers have found it and have provided reasonable grounds for their belief. A telling example would be Benjamin Warfield, a Calvinist who believed in the inerrancy of Scripture and who was also open to the idea of evolution. This is Warfield in 1915 commenting on Calvin’s use of the distinction between primary and secondary causes:

All that has come into being since [the original creation of the world stuff] – except the souls of men alone – has arisen as a modification of this original world-stuff by means of the interaction of its intrinsic forces…. [These modifications] find their account proximately in ‘secondary causes’; and this is not only evolution but pure evolutionism.8

Clearly there could be common ground once one recognised that the deity used secondary causes as instruments of the divine will. This point is often missed in modern exchanges, where it is often assumed that scientific and religious accounts must be in competition, the one invoking the natural the other the supernatural. Yet that very dichotomy misrepresents a great deal of philosophy in the Christian tradition in which it was a case not of either/or but of both/and. Newton, to give a famous example, had God using comets to replenish matter in the sun and so prevent aninstability in the solar system. In quarrels over evolution it is sometimes forgotten that in everyday life we give many complementary accounts of the same event and that these are not mutually exclusive. An architect’s account of a house might differ from that of the builder; a chemist’s account of a gene might differ from that of a biologist; but the two discourses in each case are not mutually exclusive.

The possibility of common ground was certainly considered by Darwin himself. In one of his early notebooks he wrote that the Creator “creates through laws”. It did not have to be laws rather than a Creator. By the time he published his Origin of Species he had rejected Christianity but principally on moral rather than scientific grounds: he found the doctrine of eternal damnation “damnable”. But a Creator who had impressed laws on matter still featured in his book. This is one reason why Christian commentators were able to assimilate the theory. In 1860 Frederick Temple preached a sermon in Oxford in which he welcomed the expansion of scientific explanation. To extend the domain of natural law added plausibility to the notion of a world in which there was also a binding moral order. Temple explicitly drew the distinction we noted earlier between two kinds of god: a god-of-the-gaps too often favoured by timid theologians, and a God active in everything.

Temple, Kingsley and later in the nineteenth century Aubrey Moore, all thought that Darwin had done Christianity a favour by helping to erase the childish image of a conjuring god. Of old, wrote Kingsley, God was so wise that He had made all things. But was ‘He’ now not so much wiser having made all things make themselves? Moore was equally eloquent: under the guise of a foe Darwin had done the work of a friend. Moore’s point was that the language of intervention suggests a god who is inactive except when intervening. In his view Darwin had helped Christians to reassert the immanence, the creative participation of God in the evolutionary process. He had sharpened the choice between belief in a deity who was active in everything or active in nothing.

It is useful to examine these earlier thinkers because they staked out positions that are too easily eclipsed in popular discussion today. To resurrect them is not to dwell in the past because they emphatically have their modern counterparts. Arthur Peacocke, awarded the Templeton Prize for “progress in religion”, has often cited Aubrey Moore with approval. Peacocke certainly finds common ground between Darwinism and a theology of divine immanence. When Jacques Monod argued that the chance elements in evolutionary change were so pervasive that teleological language would be inappropriate, Peacocke replied that it is the very interplay between chance and necessity that is creative. This was his ripost to Monod:

Instead of being daunted by the role of chance in genetic mutations as being the manifestation of irrationality in the universe, it would be more consistent with the observations to assert that the full gamut of the potentialities of living matter could be explored only through the agency of the rapid and frequent randomization which is possible at the molecular level of the DNA.9

In other words there is more to true creativity than slavishly following a blueprint.

There has been room for common ground for a quite different reason. Within the tradition of Christian natural theology much has been made of the unity of nature. In William Paley’s Natural Theology (1802) the universality of Newton’s laws is said to demonstrate the unity of the Godhead. It was not a perfect argument because belief in the unity of God had been one of the grounds on which Newton had supposed his law of gravitation to be universal. Whichever way round it was argued, there was a kind of symbiosis between the affirmation of the unity of nature and a monotheistic religion. It may sound paradoxical but there were at least four respects in which Darwin’s thesis served to unify nature more resoundingly than models of separate creation:

First, many otherwise disparate data, drawn from the fossil record, the geographical distribution of species, the study of variation, and from attempts at classification were co-ordinated within one theory as never before. Second, Darwin postulated the development of all species ultimately from one primitive form of life – unification on a grand scale. He sometimes postulated a few original forms but his preference for a single origin was also stated on grounds of economy and analogy. The lure of the single origin was irresistibly strong. Third, all living things could then be said to be products of a single process, which in turn commended a further unification. By contrast with theories of multiple origins (polygenism) the Darwinian theory secured an ultimate monogenism. Benjamin Warfield is revealing again in this context. He knew that those who favoured multiple origins for human races were often driven by a racial pride that had its uglier side. Writing in the Princeton Theological Review in 1911, Warfield identified common ground between scriptural orthodoxy and Darwinism: “the prevalence of the evolutionary hypothesis has removed all motive for denying a common origin to the human race”10

There was still more to this vision of a unified creative process. In the minds of some religious commentators Darwin had helped with a central problem of apologetics. This was the problem of suffering, to which Darwin was no stranger. But if as he argued, suffering was to be expected on his model of natural selection, and if natural selection was the engine of a creative process, perhaps a revitalised natural theology was possible. It has been said that the theologians’ problem became Darwin’s solution. Might Darwin’s solution also be the theologians’ solution? This is where the Harvard botanist Asa Gray found common ground with Darwin:

Darwinian teleology has the special advantage of accounting for the imperfections and failures as well as for successes. It not only accounts for them, but turns them to practical account. It explains the seeming waste as being part and parcel of a great economical process. Without the competing multitude, no struggle for life; and without this, no natural selection and survival of the fittest, no continuous adaptation to changing surroundings, no diversifications, and improvement, leading from lower up to higher and nobler forms. So the most puzzling things of all to the old-school teleologists are the principia of the Darwinian.11

Gray spoke of a teleology “free from the common objections”. Darwin himself had entertained, even if he had not developed, the possibility of a new theodicy. A deity who had created each species separately would be directly responsible for what Darwin described as a whole train of “vile molluscous animals”. On an evolutionary view one could argue that a world in which it had been possible for human beings to emerge was a world in which it was also possible for the gruesome to appear. Darwin’s aversion to the ichneumon, which laid its eggs in the bodies of caterpillars, is well known.

This brief excursion by no means exhausts the terrain on which common ground might be found. Wherever traditional Christian doctrines have been reformulated in the light of evolutionary theory, a degree of commonality, albeit controversial, has been achieved. An obvious example would be the claim that, far from refuting the doctrine of original sin, Darwinism gives it new meaning and plausibility with reference to our bestial past. My point, however, is that through historical example we can escape the extremes that dog so much discussion. There has been middle ground and many middle positions that we should keep in sight. Darwin referred to his inward conviction that so wonderful a universe could not be the product of chance alone. He spoke of designed laws with the details left to chance – though like the honest thinker he was, he would doubt whether he should trust his own convictions.

Concluding Reflections

In the sensitive domain of ‘science and religion’ the problem of what one should or should not be allowed to teach has a long history. One of the accusations levelled against Galileo was that he had taught the Copernican system when he had been prohibited from doing so. But that famous case underlines an ambiguity and yet another distinction. To teach or provide instruction can mean simply to expound what a particular theory or a particular religious creed contains. That is of course very different from teaching in the sense of indoctrination. It was perfectly possible to teach the Copernican theory without the additional claim that it must be believed. There is certainly a problem in that there can easily be slippage from the one to the other. In Galileo’s book on the subject he clearly did wish to promote the Copernican system, not merely explain what it was. In schools it can be very difficult to maintain the distinction, when to explain what someone believes, whether in science or in religion, will immediately raise the question whether the belief is worth entertaining. Ministerial guidelines have sometimes addressed the issue by recommending that questions of ethics and values should be addressed in the science classroom, where instruction must not be given in religious beliefs. A question might be whether such veto is intended to apply simply to the strong sense of indoctrination or even to the weak sense of providing information when it is sought. The problem with too strong a veto is that for someone with a religious commitment religious (and not merely ethical) issues are raised by biological theory and biotechnology. To permit the discussion of human values but without any reference to the religious beliefs which for many people underpin them, can lead to an artificial compartmentalisation. There is of course a long tradition within Christian theology that sees human beings as collaborators with the deity, working for the improvement of creation – a tradition within which beneficial technologies can be accommodated.

I have been suggesting that we need to transcend the heated and often undignified debates that polarise the possibilities for our youngsters when middle positions may embrace a greater wisdom. To include some history of science in a science syllabus might be one way forward. Properly taught it would show that science does not take place in a cultural vacuum. Well-chosen examples would allow both teacher and student to stand back from the fray and to see that new forms of science are routinely appropriated for political ends. To refer to the religious beliefs of past scientists could hardly be seen as religious instruction, unless one took the extreme view that even to allow that such beliefs have been held by rational thinkers is a form of instruction. It is perhaps easier when dealing with a history of science and religion to avoid the slippage from teaching in the weak sense to indoctrinating in the strong. An opportunity would nevertheless be created for students to see for themselves that the issues are many sided and that it would be a mistake to accept the view that science and religion, even evolution and creation, have always been sworn enemies.


1 Mark Twain, “Was the World made for Man?”, in The Works of Mark Twain. What is Man? And Other Philosophical Writings (ed. Paul Baender) Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1973, 246-50, 247

2 The Guardian 25 August 2001

3 Twain, p. 250

4 Ibid., 246

5 Ibid., 247

6 Paul Tillich, Systematic Theology: Three Volumes in One Chicago: University Of Chicago Press, 1967, 1252

7 Richard Dawkins, River out of Eden, New York: Harper Collins1995, 132-3; Carroll 321

8 Cited by David Livingstone & Mark Noll, “B. B. Warfield (1851-1921): A Biblical Inerrantist and Evolutionist”,Isis 91, 2000, 283-304, 284

9 Arthur Peacocke, Theology for a Scientific Age: Being and Becoming-Natural, Divine and Human, Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress Press, 1993

10 Livingstone and Noll, 302-3

11 Asa Gray, Darwiniana (ed. A Hunter Dupree), Cambridge: Belknap Press, 1963