Science in Christian Perspective

Letter to the editor

Darwinism & Contemporary Thought A Review

Richard F. Aulie,
Chicago State College 6800 S. Stewart
Chicago, Illinois 60621

From: JASA 20 (December 1968): 123-125. 
Because readers of the American Scientific Affiliation would be interested in an article no "Darwinism and Contemporary Thought" which appeared last year in Christianity Today, I wish to give my reaction to it.1
The author, a Professor of Pharmacology at the University of Illinois Medical Center, is first of all concerned with theories of the chemical origin of life, their derivation from the thought of Charles Darwin (1809-1882), and the degree to which modem science has repudiated the "Darwinian postulates". The author mistakenly attributes to Darwin the view that life originally may have been generated spontaneously from non-living matter. The author argues that "Darwin, when he formulated his theories of the origin of life assumed that order arose automatically out of chaos. Secondly, the author calls for a "return to creationism as an increasingly valid scientific stance". He does so because he mistakenly thinks that Darwin ascribed conscious purpose to inanimate nature, and that the Darwinian position as derived from The Origin of Species in fact requires the assumption of a self-sufficient inanimate nature. Furthermore, he holds that the process of natural selection that Darwin described, acting in a self-regulating system, has become in modern thought a substitute for divine providence.

This article is therefore as puzzling to biologists as it can only be misleading to non-biologists. For it attributes to Darwin views he never held, and it denies to Darwin views that are clearly, expressed in the Origin. Darwin denied those views the author thinks he held, and he clearly expressed views the author thinks he didn't hold. The author unfortunately associates theological and metaphysical implications with the doctrine of evolution that were neither intended nor implied by anything Darwin ever wrote.2 The article thus shows a basic misconception about The Origin of Species. It is therefore important to be clear on just what it was Darwin said in his famous book. And we should also be clear on what he did not say, quite apart from whether we are comfortable with him or not.

What did Darwin say about the "origin of life"? There is not a sentence anywhere in any of the six editions of The Origin of Species in which he advanced a "theory" concerning the origin of life, as distinguished from the origin of species.-3 Nowhere did Darwin take up the question of whether his conception of natural selection may extend also into the realm of the inorganic, or the transition from the inorganic to the organic. Once only did he approach the question: on page 484 of the last chapter of the first edition, we find, '. . . probably all the organic beings which have ever lived on this earth have descended from some one primordial form, into which life was first breathed". In the second and succeeding editions he finished the last sentence of his book by saying that "life ... having been originally breathed by the Creator into a few forms or into one . ."4

Certainly these two passages do not make a theory. Furthermore, they do not support the author's conclusion that, to use the author's own words, "Darwin could therefore assume ... that life did arise spontaneously". For if the first "life" were introduced from the outside by the Creator, as Darwin here claimed it did, it could scarcely have arisen "spontaneously" in the sense in which the author uses that adverb. Darwin thus took no position on the origin of life, beyond declaring the action of the Creator in this event. Indeed, he could not, for organic chemistry had not developed sufficiently in his day to support any particular theory on chemical origins. Furthermore, whether molecules acted in such and such a way is a question quite independent, of whether Darwin said they did or did not. Besides these two brief allusions in the Origin, I believe there
are only two other passages in Darwin's writings in which he mentioned the chemical origin of life; in both passages, appearing in letters toward the end of his life, lie remained skeptical5.

What did Darwin say about "creationism"? Although The Origin of Species certainly may be considered as an argument against the doctrine of "special creation", Darwin's rejection carried 150 dichotomy between "evolution and creation". According to this old doctrine, all species were discrete entities; they were essentially non-historical, existing as independent events since their creation ex nihlo, with no connection or relatedness between them, certainly not an hereditary one, save an ideal connection that existed as a "type" or eternal idea in the mind of the Creator. Naturalists viewed animals on a series of distinct taxonomic levels, each level exhibiting variations, to be sure, but existing withal independently of its neighbors. The animals occupying these levels were viewed as decreasing in worth below man-presumably the northern European variety-who perched at the apex. When grafted onto the Genesis account, this view suited the needs of a superficial piety. And this view was useful in its time: morphology and palaeontology grew up in it, and classical embryology had its start in it. But this hierarchical idealism had more in common with Aristotle's History of Animals and Plato's Tinioens than it did with the Biblical doctrine of divine creation, which views oil animals as holy, and sanctified by reason of their common, divine origin6.

For Darwin, on the other hand, variations were all-important, not the taxonomic level. Variations meant a hereditary relatedness, rather than fluctuations of a Platonic "type" that had been created ex nihilo in the beginning. It is this break with the Greek eidos or "type" thinking of the past that is the essence of the Darwinian achievement. Darwin broke, not with the Biblical tradition per se, but with a philosophical view of organic nature that was falsely equated with the Biblical tradition. By natural selection, he meant, not a conscious agent that would make nature creative, not a substitute for divine providence, but a method of describing events in nature without applying to them any metaphysical or theological meanings. Those who were schooled on "special creation" found Darwin's approach disturbing, either because they had not read the Origin carefully, or because they could not understand it. Many thought that when he had figured out how populations change into species, it was as though he was saying God did not do it! So for biologists of the mid-19th century it was difficult to understand what Darwin had accomplished, given the Platonic conception of species then extant. But it should not be difficult for biologists in the middle of the 20th.

While rejecting "special creation", did Darwin also rule out divine providence? By no means ... Nowhere
in the Origin did he imply that "'dead nature' has itself become creative", nor did he ascribe "creative properties to dead matter", a view the author worriedly associates with the Darwinian position. Indeed, Darwin
declared the opposite. In five passages in which he referred to the Creator, plus the passages added with the second edition, mentioned above, Darwin clearly recognized the troubled feelings of those who saw ill him a threat to theism. In his chapter on "Difficulties of the Theory", he observed that ". . , it has pleased the Creator .,.", and then asked, "Have we any right to assume that the Creator works by intellectual powers like that of man? And again, ". . . as the works of the Creator are (superior) to those of man". In his fourth chapter of the second edition lie took pains to show that he did not consider natural selection as an "agent acting within nature to make it "creative". "It has been said that I spoke of natural selection as an active power or Deity; but who objects to an author speaking of the attraction of gravity , he wrote. And in his last chapter he mentioned "tile laws impressed on matter by the Creator"7. If these brief passages in context do not indicate that Darwin readily acknowledged the role of divine providence in nature, then what combination of words ought he to have used to convey this meaning?

If all that is meant by a "return to creationism" is a theological statement of divine origin and meaning, there is no difficulty. Darwin himself allowed as much on pages 186, 188, 189, 488, and 490 of the first edition, and in each of the other editions as well". But it is not to my mind a strengthening of theism to entertain a return to a view of organic nature that can only resemble the hierarchical idealism of a bygone age.

It is not that the author does not take evolution seriously enough, hot that he takes it too seriously. He needlessly thinks it inimical to theism. But evolution is essentially descriptive, not normative. There is no denial of ultimate causation, divine providence, or meaning. Evolution is no more inimical to theism than gravity, the atomic theory, DNA, or any other scientific abstraction. So, on the one hand, we do not hesitate to apply it as a model for organizing events in nature, and, on the other, we do not extol it as a basis of faith.

C. S. Lewis has reminded us in The Discarded Image that "Nature has all sorts of phenomena in stock and can suit many different tastes"°. The doctrine of "special creation", admirably suited to its time, gave way to the evolutionary doctrine, which remains the model for our age. It may be that in some future age, a different model will emerge, according to new requirements, though surely incorporating features of the present. But we must not miss the point of Lewis' sentence: it is nature that provides the phenomena for the model, not the Bible.


1. Smith, A. E. Wilder, "Darwinism and Contemporary Thought". Christianity Today, May 26, 1967, pp. 3-6.
2. All the main objections to Darwin were raised and answered, and answered well, in my view, much before the end at the 190s century. Two goad discussions at the controversy are:
(a) Gray, Asa, Darwiniana, Essays and Reviews Pertaining to Darwinism. (New York, Appleton, 1876) Cambridge, Harvard Belknap, 1963. (xxiv, 327 p.) (This is a discussion of the American objections to Darwin.)
(b) Ellegard, Alvar, Darwin and the General Reader, The Reception of Darwin's Theory of Evolution in the British Periodical Press, 1859-1872. Goteberg, Acta Universitatis Gotolburgesis, 1958. Vol. 64, No. 7 (394 p.)
3. Peekhaia, Morse, The Origin of Species by Charles Darwin, a Variorium Text. Philadelphia, University of Pennsylvania, 1959. ( 816 p. 1 (This volume is useful for comparing passages in all the editions of Darwin's book.
4. Darwin, Charles, On The Origin of Species. Harvard University Press, 1964. Facsimile of the first edition of 1855, with introduction by Ernst Mayr. (xxviii, ix, 502 p. 1 ( Mayr's introduction is a lucid and balanced discussion of Darwin's impact on the biological thought of the 19th century. There are six editions of the Origin, if we count the two issues of the 1859; the others are 1861, 1866, 1869, and 1872.)
5. (a) Dc Beer, Sir Gavin, Charles Darwin, a Scientific Biography. New York, Doubleday, Anchor, 1965. (xx, 295 p.) Quote, p. 271. (b) Darwin, Francis, Editor, The Life and Letters of Charles Darwin, London, Murray, 1887. (3 vols.) Vol. 3, pp. 168-169.
6. Thus we may ready understand the recoil or revulsion among some present-day critics of Darwin from the theory that man is in the lineage of lower primates. This emotion is correctly directed, not at the Biblical view of creation, but at this ancient Greek, hierarchical view of the animal kingdom. Ideas are persistent. There should he no distress concerning our lineage if wi accept the Biblical view of the holiness and sanctity of all life. Tons, it is no accident that ideas of "white supremacy- found support in the doctrine of 'special creation''. Ideas have consequences. There is no such parochialism in the writings of Darwin.
7. I am not trying to read any particular religious view into these brief passages; Darwin was not a theologian. But it does seem to me that when we get into a discussion of "evolution and creation'' then what Darwin actually said in print on religion ought really to count for something.
8. Darwin was a theist at the time lie wrote the first edition:
(a) Reference 5h, Vol. 1, pp. 312,313.
(b) Darwin, Francis, Editor, The Autobiography of Parrein arid Selected Letters. New York, Dover, 1958. (vi, 354 p.) (New York, Appleton, 1892) P. 66.
(e) Steelier, Robert M.., "The Darwin-Tones Letters. The Correspondence of air Evolutionist with his Vicar, 1848-1884". Annals of Science, 17, 1961, 201-258,
But then it is irrelevant to comment on Darwin's religious views (probably Deistic in part), in order to assess the validity of his scientific views, since the behavior of populations in nature is certainly independent of anyone's religion; presumably the behavior of populations may not be expected to alter for either an atheistic or a theistic observer,
9. Lewis, Clive S., The Discarded Image. Cambridge, University Press, 1964. (x, 232 p.) P. 221,