Science in Christian Perspective



An Extended Book Review Essay

111. Christian Darwinism
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From: JASA 34 (September 1982): 163-168.

Based on The Post-Darwinian Controversies: A Study of the Protestant Struggle to Come to Terms with Darwin in Great Britain and America, 1870-1900 by James R. Moore. London, New York and Melbourne: Cambridge University Press, 1979. This is part three of a four-part essay.

The most compelling and fascinating sections of the entire book are Chapter 11 and the analysis that follows in Chapter 12. Here we have four conservative Christians, all distinguished in science and theology, who for many years did everything they could to make Darwinian evolution palatable to the public at large. The number is really six, if we consider the two American thinkers, James McCosh and Joseph Van Dyke, whom Moore includes as transition figures in Christian Darwinisticism. I daresay many readers might examine these two chapters first to find out how it could possibly be that conservative Christians would actually defend Darwinian evolution, especially at a time when many scientists were not at all sure about natural selection, and, what's more, at a time when Darwin himself was losing his religious faith. But defend Darwin they did. Moreover, their theological arguments in favor of the Darwinian mode remain unexcelled to our day in acuteness and ingenuity of reasoning, and in understanding of the weighty issues involved. What these Darwinians lacked in numbers they made up in erudition. 

Revisionism came to Princeton following the death of Charles Hodge (p 241-251). The influence of his book, What is Darwinism? waned following the publication in 1886 of the book by Presbyterian minister and Princeton tutor Joseph S. Van Dyke, Theism and Evolution. Not only did Van Dyke declare that evolution as a biological theory was not atheism after all, but almost in the same breath he added that "if Darwinism should become an established theory .... there is no just cause for fear" by Christians (p 244 in Moore). Archibald Hodge, son of the late Charles Hodge, provided the imprimatur of his famous name by writing the introduction to this book. He also found that "evolution is not antagonistic to our faith as either theists or Christians" (p 241 in Moore), although he prudently outlined the limitations of evolutionary theory. Former Church of Scotland minister James McCosh, while president of the College of New Jersey, later Princeton University, discussed Darwinism in a series of books on Christianity and science. The survival of the fittest did not worry him, he was critical of Spencer, and he seemed to favor natural selection as the primary method of evolution. McCosh it was who hit upon a happy means of shielding his Christian readers from becoming upset at the mere utterance of the word evolution-he substituted the word "development," and all was well (p 246-247). He was perpetuating the standard, pre-Darwinian term for evolution. I've always wondered why that euphemism survives today. With Charles Hodges dead, Princeton underwent a volte-face. But not completely. Van Dyke and McCosh both required a special divine intervention to account for the appearance of man, and for this reason Moore sees them as transition figures, "The Darwinists nearest Darwin" (p 241).

It seems to me that Moore's four Christian Darwinians fully understood the issues raised by Darwin when they focused their attention on the impact of natural selection itself on the Christian doctrine of Providence. Exactly how does God act through natural law? What is a natural law?

Four conservative Christians,, all distinguished in science and theology, for many years did everything they could to make Darwinian evolution palatable to the public at large.

How do particular adaptations represent the actions of God and fulfill His purposes? What has happened to the design argument? These are the sorts of questions that resonate through their discussions. In striving for sound answers, they carried the considerations of theology well beyond the position embraced by Christian Darwinisticism.

In The British Isles

James Iverach, at the 'Free Church College in Aberdeen, labored for many years to defend the Christian faith against the inroads of unbelief threatened by Spencerian agnosticism and Hegelian idealism. God is never absent from nature, he insisted, and natural selection, which can be "dealt with quantitatively and mechanically," provides a proximate description of divine guidance in nature. The design argument is strengthened, he went on, and because God is always present in nature we are delivered "from the tyranny of chance" (p 257, 256). The Christian Darwinians in Britain saw in Deism a threat to Christian faith, and possibly for this reason Iverach emphasized God's immanence.

Attributing man's unique origin to a particular divine action was to invoke "a certain kind of deism," which in Iverach's view was an entirely outmoded interpretation. "Is there no way of conceiving of the Divine presence and power in the world save that of continual interference?" Rejection of Deism implicit in his rhetorical question meant that he could not accept that man appeared as the result of distinct stages in the natural history of life, stages such as the transition from inorganic to organic, sensation and consciousness, and the higher human faculties. Man is unique in his rationality and self-consciousness, yes, but the differences between man and the lower animals are differences in degree, because man and the lower animals are not distinguished by a difference in origin. In explaining the appearance of man's unique qualities, theologians must not account for the origin of his physical body by one set of causes and his rational faculties by another. Iverach declared: "To me creation is continuous. To me everything is as it is through the continued power of God." But his concept of immanence certainly was not pantheistic, for he referred to the "creative and sustaining activity of the Logos" (p 258-259).

Even more weighty and interesting were the views of the Oxford High Church theologian and church historian Aubrey L. Moore (no forebear of the author, I gather), who did much to reduce the antagonism of the English church toward Darwin. Like Iverach the influence of Deism. Aubrey Moore, apparently any Kantian distinction between the supernatural natural, denied any antithesis between evolution and tion. Such a separation would represent "a sort of unconscious Deism" by suggesting that God inter nature from time to time to bring forth species and adaptions, as though on other occasions He was like absentee landlord" (p 261, 264). On the other hand~ should not suppose, he continued, that adaptations from certain properties inserted into nature by God a beginning. "It is of the first importance that a his apologist should not use language which seems to invest world with a power of self-unfolding, for it is this, than any theory of evolution, which contradicts belief God," he wrote (p 261-262).

To say that God had things "make themselves" that God withdrew from His own creation, Aubrey Moore thought, and this meant Deism all over again. He was worrying about the doctrine of special creation, which' he "has neither Biblical, nor patristic, nor mediaeval autho
rity" (p 263). In his view, special creation and catastropy were "the scientific analogue of Deism," while concepts development and law were "the scientific analogue of the Christian doctrine of Providence" (p 264, 265). Both Iverach and Aubrey Moore therefore saw in the doctrine of special creation a resurgence of Deism, which they abhorred.

Believing in God's transcendance and immanence, Aubrey Moore found he had fresh cause to exult in the Christian doctrine of the Trinity. In his view, Deism, which had risen afresh out of the Enlightenment to darken Christian faith, was then in abeyance because of the new discoveries in science, and his understanding of the Trinity had been enriched by the Darwinian revolution. "Science had pushed the Deist's God farther and farther away, and at the moment when it seemed as if He would be thrust out altogether Darwinism appeared, and, under the guise of a foe, did the work of a friend," he exclaimed with a flourish (p 268).

Since when is "Darwinism" the friend of Christian theism? What was Aubrey Moore talking about, anyway? Although he was exercised primarily about the dangers of English Deism, I believe that Deism can turn up in our country, but without the name. In his worries about Deism, he was inveighing against what is sometimes called the "God of the gaps." That is, whenever you have no scientific explanation, you simply say that God does it. For instance, when you marvel at a biological structure that excites your admiration by its complexity you exclaim, "Now really, how could biology explain a thing so wondrous; God must have made it as it is." I think Aubrey Moore might have applied his apt phrase, "unconscious Deism," to such talk. Why? Because you are also necessarily implying by your exclamation that the less marvellous structure, which perchance you find is quite explainable by science, is less dependent on God-and that means that God is absent, or at least less present, a view that is biblically and theologically unsatisfying. Aubrey Moore was aware that the progress of science, by explaining more and more about nature, was making this deistic concept of God less and less necessary. So it is that when a student today takes a course in biology and promptly loses his faith in God, he is really losing his faith in the God of Deism; he had no faith in the God of Christian theism to start with. Similarly in the story about Napoleon, Laplace's retort was not so much an expression of French atheism or hauteur as it was an insistence that science deals only with ways and means. In the context of French thought, the hypothesis he did not require was the God of Deism, the God that is called upon only when science has no answer.

What Aubrey Moore had in mind when he said that "Darwinism" was a friend of Christian theism, I think, was this. And what he had to say was rather strong medicine. Just a~ in the deistic conception of nature, in which God is first present then absent, so it is that according to the doctrine of special creation, God is more active at one time than at another; after all, creation is "special." But Darwin claimed that natural selection acts all the time and everywhere in the biological realm. A Christian could account for such pervasive action, said Aubrey Moore, only as the consequence of an immanent Providence, superintending all events in nature. He did not say that providence and natural selection were the same. The Darwinian theory of evolution was therefore "infinitely more Christian than the theory of special creation," he wrote, because "it implies the immanence of God in nature, and the omnipresence of his creative power" (p 263-264).

For Iverach and Aubrey Moore, the immanence of the Logos enabled them to embrace natural selection while nurturing their faith in Providence.

In the United States

The American Christian Darwinians were Asa Gray at Harvard University and his friend and collaborator for fourteen years George F. Wright, who was first at Andover, Massachusetts and later at Oberlin College in Ohio.

Wright in 1871 published an article on inductive reasoning, which Gray read. Gray, intrigued, made discrete inquiries as to what sort of preacher this Wright could possibly be, writing so learnedly over there at Andover. Wright, meanwhile, was fascinated to find views so much like his own in articles published by some unknown writer who was supporting Darwinian evolution. These articles were appearing from time to time in various periodicals, including the Atlantic Monthly. Gray, not wishing to have his name bandied about, was publishing anonymously. Then in 1874, Gray, aged 64, brought out his anonymous review of Hodge's What is Darwinism?, in the periodical The Nation. Wright, aged 36, was stirred to action. Making inquires of his own, he was surprised to learn that the celebrated Harvard botanist was his mysterious author. Far from intimidated, he at once wrote a letter that Gray could not resist: "It was your Christian faith and your clearness of conception and statement that, when once I had access to a library where I could find what had been written on the subject, were the most important factors in leading me to my present views" (Gray, Darwiniana, 1963, p xx). Gray, drawn gingerly out of his shelf, finally had someone he could talk to, The genteel fencing having ended, the two Christians became close friends, and formed an alliance.

The two Christian friends soon had occasion to try out their new alliance. An anti-evolutionist was in Boston on a showy crusade with a mixture of pretentious sounding scientific talk and coarse attacks on Darwin. Ordinarily such displays were beneath Gray's notice, but Wright was thoroughly alarmed that the public would be misled. Wright enticed Gray into joining him in the fray with serious statements on the compatibility of science with Christian theism (Dupree 1968, p 369-370).

Moore points out that evangelical Calvinism was a prominent theme uniting the joint efforts of Gray and Wright to win a favorable reception for Darwin in America. The two friends baptized Darwinian evolution with a stream of articles and books that brought before the public an earnest statement of the theological resources available to Christians for accepting Darwin's theory. Darwin, becoming well acquainted with their Christian stand, followed their publications with appreciation. He wrote letters of enen couragement to Gray

Richard P. Aulie holds the doctorate in the history of science from Yale University, the B.S. from Wheaton College and the M.S. from the University of Minnesota. Formerly a high school biology teacher, he has published frequently in the professional journals on the history of science, including articles on the nonbiblical and pre- Christian origins of the doctrine of special creation. Continuing his interest in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, he is now writing a book on the scientific results of the voyages of Captain James Cook. He is cited in Who's Who in the Midwest.

 and often asked him stimulating questions. While the transatlantic friendship between Darwin and Gray is already well known, Moore has emphasized the Christian orientation of their dialogue. He has also brought to prominence the significance of the Gray-Wright partnership, and he has given us a much-needed reminder of the Wright contribution to Christian thought (p 269-298).

Seeing at once that Darwinian evolution was neutral on questions of Christian theism, in 1860 Gray had brought out a 15,000 word, favorable review of the Origin of Species, following which he helped to bring out the first American edition of Darwin's book in the same year. He then published assorted essays on various aspects of evolution, each with a theological slant. He discussed the design argument, showing that Darwin's theory was not based on chance and did not mean atheism; examined the doctrine of special creation and alternative evolutionary theories; discussed the species concept; reviewed Hodge; and wrote a series of articles on natural selection and theology. In 1876 Wright talked Gray into publishing these papers as one volume, Darwiniana, which introduced the eminent Harvard botanist by name before the public as a professing, orthodox Christian, an advocate of Darwinian evolution, and friend of Darwin. In 1963 his book came out again as a useful reprint.

The question at issue between Darwin and Gray was the extent to which God's Providence could account for the multitude of variations among animals and plants. Gray insisted that Christian theism extended to every part of nature, even to those variations that seemed fortuitous, but Darwin would have none of it. Pressing on, in 1860 Gray developed a metaphor of a stream flowing across a plain by the force of gravity, which represented natural selection, to show how divine design was represented by the channels that were formed, even while natural laws governed their formation. Darwin was not convinced, pointing out the "enormous field of undesigned variability" from which natural selection brought forth a useful purpose. In 1868 he then put forward a metaphor of his own, a stone house built of fragments left by the "omniscient Creator" in various odd shapes, many of which were left-over and useless. "I understand your argument perfectly," replied Gray, "and feel the might of it." Gray in 1876 had the last word on metaphors. This time he did a better job: a sailing vessel moving by the wind, representing variations, but guided by a rudder, which represented natural selection. Moore reproduces these charming-and telling-metaphors in full to bring out the differences between Darwin and the Christian Darwinians in America (p 274-276). But they are too long for me to include here, even in an essay of this length.

And so for about twenty years Darwin and Gray discussed natural selection and Christian theism, replying to each other with letters, essays, and chapters in various books. Darwin, recognizing that "an omnipotent and omniscient Creator ordains everything and foresees everything," but remaining in a quandary about the ultimate meaning of apparently superfluous variations, admitted that he was left "with a difficulty as insoluble as is that of free will and predestination" (p 275-276). Although Gray for his part was not directly contending for the Christian faith,-then again maybe he was,-somehow, in reading Moore's analysis of their altogether engaging dialogue back and forth across the Atlantic, I was reminded of the famous confrontation between Paul and Agrippa. Darwin and Gray did agree that evolution dealt only with efficient causes, that is, with observable events in nature, and Gray was convinced that final causes, God's ultimate mysteries and the ultimate purposes of variations, remained untouched by evolution, "just as they were before," he said (p 274). Moore puts the unresolved issue this way (p 280): "To Gray an evolutionary teleology was but the human conception, a conception thus fraught with enigma and mystery, of the continued and orderly outworking of God's sovereign purposes in nature."

Special creation and catastrophism were "the scientific analogue of Deism, I" while concepts of development and law were "the scientific analogue of the Christian doctrine of Providence. "

Meanwhile, Gray's kindred spirit was turning out a series of pieces on Darwinian methodology in the conservative journal Bibliotheca Sacra. Darwin, who read offprints that Wright sent, was pleased to find an accurate account of his theory in 1876, and in due course Wright received a warm letter of thanks. Wright discussed how inductive and deductive reasoning affected the reliability of evolutionary principles. Once again the Baconian presence is manifest, but this time in a statement severely critical of Bacon. Science offers approximations, not certainties-only a "high degree of probability," Wright explained (p 285). In 1881 Wright moved to Oberlin to assume a faculty position in New Testament, and there in isolation among the woods and corn stalks of Ohio, far from his famous friend at Harvard, from the libraries, the convivial oyster suppers, and from the steamers that brought flattering letters from England, he continued his lifework with resourcefulness and devotion. Boldly he took up objections that were raised against Darwinian evolution such as the troublesome questions of blending inheritance and of the origin of variations, questions which were still unsettled in biology. As a geologist, he sought to explain the gaps in the fossil record, and how natural selection could have occurred in the apparently insufficient lapse of time.

On Scientific Method

Wright put forward his basic-and strongest-argument against special creationism, an argument, I think, that had not been made before. He claimed that special creationism was anti-scientific. "The simple assertion, 'so God has made it,' would be suicidal to all scientific thought, and would endanger the rational foundation upon which our proof of revelation rests," he wrote in 1882 (p 287). 1 think we might pause for a look at the first part of his statement, certainly on the face of it rather a strange thing for an orthodox Christian to be putting out concerning the beliefs of fellow Christians. He was suggesting that the special creationists were posing some sort of threat to the whole enterprise of science. Moore points out that they were rejecting what Wright called "secondary causes" as explanations for the origin of species. If this position were adopted in practice, Wright seemed to be saying, science would no longer be possible. What did he mean? Surely not that people would quit studying biology-Aristotle did supremely well at biology without any concept of evolution. No, I think Wright could only have meant that the special creationist position, if generally accepted as the predominant view, would fatally damage the scientific method of investigating nature. This is the method, as we know, that arose during the Renaissance.I would like to go beyond Moore's discussion by suggesting a line of reasoning Wright might have followed to his conclusion. How could he think as he did? After all, he probably realized that the founders of modern science also believed that "God has made it." The answer that comes first to mind is that one must always distinguish between the final or ultimate cause, "Why?" from the immediate or efficient cause, "How?" This is something the special creationists were not doing, Wright might have said. Like many answers that have the ring of truth, this one was a long time in achieving recognition.

George F. Wright (1882): "The simple assertion, 'so God has made it,' would be suicidal to all scientific thought, and would endanger the rational foundation upon which our proof of revelation rests. "

During the Renaissance the Christian naturalists posed two fundamental questions of far-reaching consequence. How has the great Author of all things constituted the world? And, supposing the world to be so constituted, what is the cause of phenomena? Striving to free themselves from Aristotelianism, they developed a mechanistic view of nature. God made the world out of corpuscular matter and local motion. God made this corpuscular matter to be completely inert, completely free of any inner, self-directing agency. God invented, or fabricated, the world out of this corpuscular matter to be like a machine with moving parts that are interrelated and act on one another. (I am far from suggesting that these three sentences represent a "Christian" scientific model of the world, as there is no such thing; nor indeed are they a scientific conclusion since scientific models change from age to age.) Local motion, created within the mechanism, is responsible - r the motion of the parts. This metaphor turns up in varying forms in Andreas Vesalius, Galileo Galilei, William Gilbert, certainly in William Harvey, of course in Bacon, especially in Robert Boyle (after the Renaissance) and culminates in Isaac Newton. The human body is a fabrica, the Earth is a magnet, the heart is a pump, the solar system is a clock. The cause of an action of a part comes from inside the mechanism, not the outside; the cause is the immediately preceding motion of another part. "Matter and motion," said Boyle somewhere, is more honorable to God than even the idea of nature.

Listen to how Boyle put the matter. He was the Honourable Robert Boyle of Christian piety, the Sceptical Chymist of Boyle's Law fame, charter member of the Royal Society of London, devout naturalist and author of the Christian Virtuoso, and the appointed Governor of the Company for the Propagation of the Gospel in New England. In 1686 he wrote:

He must be a very dull inquirer who, demanding an account of the phenomena of a watch, shall rest satisfied with being told, that it is an engine made by a watchmaker; though nothing be thereby declared of the structure and coadptation of the spring, wheels, balance, and other parts of the engine, and the manner, how they act on one another, so as to co-operate to make the needle point out the true hour of the day.

If you believe that God made those material corpuscles to be completely inert; if you believe that out of those inert corpuscles God invented the world to be like a machine with moving parts-animals, atoms, gases, plants-that are interrelated and act on one another, then you will assume that, because matter is totally inert, this mechanism lacks any inner necessity or any self-directing agency, and therefore it will not act capriciously. The mechanism will not suddenly run off and do what it wants, and you will assume that you can therefore find out how the mechanism works by studying the parts. If you prefer twentieth century terminology to the language deployed by these Renaissance luminaries, you say that nature is fully contingent.

Not so, implied the nineteenth century special creationists, and now I come back to what vexed Wright. If species are specially created, he might have reasoned, they are not related to other species, and they are "fixed" in isolation. Therefore they cannot "act on one another," as did the wheels and spring in Boyle's watch. You can never be sure but that God has the same arrangement-isolation and independence of action-with every other part. Therefore each part would receive its causation directly from God, instead of from the local motion that God created within the mechanism. If the parts are not interrelated, we cannot be sure that they act on each other. We cannot be certain that we can establish reliable cause and effect relationships, or that natural law describes their behavior. In other words, feared Wright, you would then have to look upon a natural process, not as a causally-related sequence of events defined by science, but as a collection of discrete entities, each requiring a divine impetus of some sort; concepts of natural law would no longer be efficacious or even necessary.

"We may conclude, " declared Wright, "that Darwinism has not improperly been styled 'the Calvinistic interpretation of nature'. "

This, I think, is why Wright drew the conclusion that special creationism was basically anti-scientific. Could you ever rest assured that nature is fully contingent? If we allow for special creation as an exception, maybe nature is partially contingent, which is not the same thing. On the contingency of nature, the Renaissance divines entertained no doubts at all, for they were fully persuaded that the Almighty had installed regularity and uniformity when He invented the world.

What Wright meant by the last part of his sentence, on "our proof of revelation," I think might be this. If special creationism were correct, then historical explanations in general would be in jeopardy, including those involving Christian belief and even the canon of Holy Writ. Perhaps historical documents of all sorts were specially created. He seemed to think that to throw doubt on Darwinian evolution was to doubt the veracity of God, and that is a rather strong position indeed. I do not want to put words in Wright's mouth, but only to suggest that a good way of grappling with these complex issues-why special creation is anti-scientific, and the differences between Darwinian evolution and special creationism-is to take account of those vibrant ideas that have come down to us from the Renaissance. But now I should get on with what we know Wright did say.

Evolution, like Christianity, argued Wright, must agreement with the observed facts. A theologian certainly ought to be able to tackle Darwin's powerful stone-house metaphor which had baffled Gray, he thought, and so he tried his hand with a metaphor which likely occurred to him by what he could have watched any day at Oberlin. In 1882 (Darwin died that year, Gray in 1888) he devised a symbolic sawmill to show that, just as left-over wooden chips served many useful purposes, plant and animal variations may serve domestic uses while partaking in a comprehensive Providential design unknown to man (p 291, 335). Here, he was warming to his Calvinist interpretation of teleology.

Wright found he did not require any new theology to accommodate Darwinian evolution. Ordinary Calvinism would do. Believing that divine sovereignty "comprehends" all of nature, including man, he developed five ingenious analogies between Calvinism and Darwinian evolution (p 293-298). (1) Natural selection involves both the extinction and the origin of species; the catechism teaches man's fall and redemption. (2) Darwinism and Calvinism agree on the unity and common origin of mankind, the forme r requiring the inheritance of variations, the latter teaching that man's nature was foreshadowed in Adam. (3) Predestination and freewill cause perplexity for the Calvinist, and for the Christian Darwinian so does the consistency he sees of evolution with design in nature. (4) Darwinism and Calvinism are both hypotheses because each is founded on probable evidence. (5) Darwinism and Calvinism agree on the reign of law throughout nature-in the history of each God has acted by natural means. "We may conclude," declared Wright, "that Darwinism has not improperly been styled 'the Calvinistic interpretation of nature' " (p 295).

                                                                (to be concluded)