A Dialogue on Darwin                                         

Cutting Both Ways - Darwin Among the Devout:
A Response to David Livingstone, Sara Miles, and Mark Noll

James Moore

Faculty of Arts
The Open University
Milton Keynes MK7 6AA U.K.

[From Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith, 45 (September 1994): 169.]
©1994 by the American Scientific Affiliation

Recent evangelical reviews suggest how Adrian Desmond's and my Darwin (1991; Norton Paperbacks, 1994) may be a double-edged sword, a terrible swift tool for dividing asunder not only the bones and marrow of divinity, but the thoughts and intents of historians' hearts.

For a century Christian apologists have tried in vain to do what Darwin has won secular prizes for. It historicizes natural selection, restores the Asocial" to Darwinism, and makes Darwin a man of his times. In 800 pages the "Devil's Chaplain" is enrolled in heresy's Hall of Fame, joining the other members of the modern Unholy Trinity, Marx and Freud. Darwin's theory is shown to be, not "fact, fact, FACT," but the contingent product of complex inferences between the Victorian natural and social orders.1

This is all Good News - to evangelical innocents. Not David Livingstone. In his lucid and generous review he picks up Darwin's sword gingerly.2 He is helplessly attracted to its edgy, full-blooded portrait and notes approvingly that "the comfortable territorial boundary between Darwinism and social Darwinism has simply been erased." He also realizes that Darwin's "defiantly social" historiography can cut two ways.

"Crude sociological reductionism" haunts him. He fears that Darwin may encourage it. "It is not always easy to fathom precisely how the political and the scientific, the cultural and the natural, are meant to snap together." He wants reassurance about Darwin's political language; he needs its "sociology of scientific knowledge" spelled out. "We need help Yto ascertain precisely what explanatory power" it has. For unless one knows "precisely what kind of biographical account" is offered, Darwin's interest in "pure scientific investigation" might be erased by "crass social necessitarianism." Truth would be a will-o'-the-wisp, "seeing `the light'" impossible.

"Precisely" - more or less. Livingstone may ask too much of a popular biography, but he is shrewder than some.3 Darwin has theological implications. Even so, doubtful dichotomies litter his argument: "constitutive" v. "decorative" metaphor; "a political biography" privileging "the private"; "a life as it is lived" v. "a life as it is told"; and above all "Darwin speaking" v. "his speech being stage-managed."

Do dead authors speak? Can texts interpret themselves? If the Bible's don't, why a fortiori should Darwin's?

The biographical passage that worries Livingstone describes Darwin's seed-floating experiments in connection with the on-going Crimean War. In the passage "beachhead" is used to refer to the landing point where sea-borne seeds struggle to form a new biotic community. Livingstone would rather have heard the word "from [Darwin's] own lips." This, I presume, would satisfy him that the war influenced Darwin's dispersal ideas. But sadly no; "beachhead" is the authors' gloss, and Livingstone wrings his hands: "Do we have a telling exposÈ of a militaristic basis for the migration theory, or is it just an extremely arresting mode of writing that is used to carry the narrative?...Do we find here constitutive links between cultural conditions and scientific theory, or just dexterous textual juxtapositioning?"

Now consider: Darwin began experimenting on seeds - immersing them in bottles of brine, even keeping the bottles in tanks of snow - on March 30, 1855, at the end of that bitter Crimean winter, when tens of thousands died.4 His first results were reported in an article, "Does Sea-Water Kill Seeds?" one of his six publications on seed vitality during the latter months of the war. The article ends:

It should be borne in mind how beautifully pods, capsules, etc., and even the fully expanded heads of the Compositae close when wetted, as if for the very purpose of carrying the seed safe to land. When landed high up by the tides and waves, and perhaps driven a little inland by the first inshore gale, the pods, etc., will dry, and opening will shed their seed; and these will then be ready for all the many means of dispersal by which Nature sows her broad fields, and which have excited the admiration of every observer. But when the seed is sown in its new home then, as I believe, comes the ordeal; will the old occupants in the great struggle for life allow the new and solitary immigrant room and sustenance?5

This was published on May 26th, 1855. The siege of Sebastopol was then eight months old. The English invaders were closing on the south fortifications from the port at Balaklava, the French from the southwest and their base at Kamiesh Bay. The tide had turned on the 24th with the French capture of Kerch, and the mopping up lasted until October. In all the siege cost over 100,000 lives.

Of course Darwin's words "ordeal," "great struggle," "old occupants," and "immigrant" may not have been penned with Sebastopol in mind, but we know from other passages that he saw the "struggle for existence" as all of a piece, among plants, animals, and humans. "The doctrine that all nature is at war is most true."6 "Beachhead" or no, political parlance applied.

No Country can be named in which all the native inhabitants are now so perfectly adapted to each other, and to the physical conditions under which they live, that none of them could anyhow be improved; for all the countries, the natives have been so far conquored by natralized productions, that they have allowed foreigners to take firm possession of the land.  And as foreigners have thus everywhere beaten some of the natives, we may safely conclude that the natives might have been modified with advantage, so as to have better resisted such intruders.7

This is from the Origin of Species. Who dares say that the book, which "omits man," was not about human evolution? Or that "cultural conditions," via metaphor, were not constitutive of Darwin's science? The Origin's language was as political as a Times editorial.

Sara Miles, too, is haunted by sociology, worrying that Darwin's double edge may injure evangelical readers. While being informed and entertained they "may find themselves accepting the implied conclusions derived from the authors' implicit interpretative stance." In an otherwise most kind and careful review she closely associates this stance with the "extreme" view that "external factors, not the reality of Nature, determine the content and expression of science...Nature does not do the informing; society does."8

Although this dichotomy is false, and characterizes neither Darwin nor recent work in the historical sociology of scientific knowledge, Miles, like Livingstone, is shrewdly aware of the relativizing potential of Darwin's example. Theological truth, not just scientific, is at stake. "God may exist, but truth claims about his nature and activity are as invalid as truth claims in science about natural objects and events. Theology becomes nothing more than a socially-shaped statement of what we believe about God; it is not limited or shaped by what God says about himself."

Unfortunately, Miles does not explain how unmediated, univocal knowledge of God is to be acquired, or how it could be held objectively (rather than existentially) to be "true." Perhaps she would say that, as in science, the "framing" of theological explanations, "while originating in our experience" of God's revelation, "nevertheless is always partial, always biased, always influenced by a particular historical context, and constantly requiring reformulation."9 If so, the question of "influence" is just one of degree. Darwin's contextualism merely outstrips Miles', in science and theology alike.

Among Darwin's evangelical reviewers, Mark Noll has sounded the tocsin in the most dulcet tones. His long, judicious, and winsome commentary (abbreviated in 1992 as a Christian Century cover-story) correctly identifies its authors as "more or less materialist historians" who see "class, gender, and economic factors as providing great explanatory power in accounting for ideas and beliefs." If, however, Darwin is to be applauded for "relativizing the imperialistic claims of science," Christians should beware that its "methods are just as subversive of efforts to explain the grounds of Christian belief apart from the political and economic interests shaping that belief." In Darwin, "claims to the objectivity of religious belief...come off just as badly as claims for the objectivity of science."10

Which is highly inferential - but never mind. Noll's response is a new form of the old tu quoque trotted out by Miles and Livingstone. Miles asks, "What social factors determined what Desmond and Moore could see?" Livingstone warns that if "all knowledge claims" in the history of science are "socially reducible, then the whole project seems caught in a hopeless self-referential dilemma." Neither Livingstone nor Miles believes this to be the case, nor does Noll. But instead of conjuring the bogeys of determinism and reductionism, he augurs "a Christian faith that might escape the conventions of Desmond and Moore's view of the world," just as Darwin's authors "make it possible to conceive of a Christian faith that escaped the conventions of William Paley's proprieties." Noll's hopeful faith would not be "always subservient to social interest" and would, I presume, be based on "the traditional Christian God," not "the traditional Christian God as interpreted for the ideological needs of Enlightenment England."11

Here the orthodox supernaturalist assumption is that knowledge of uninterpreted, essential, and timeless Christian truths can be acquired by humans within history. This is not unlike the orthodox rationalist belief that there are ultimate truths of nature of which humans can have knowledge through the historical progress of research. Both views presuppose the existence of a non-natural, unconditioned, or transcendental knowing mind; both have been contested repeatedly by historical sociologists of knowledge (not to mention philosophers, anthropologists, and psychologists). But the debate arose first and most instructively in theology, as David Bloor explains. 12

F. C. Baur and his T¸bingen school of church historians in the early nineteenth century argued for the "social construction" of the New Testament and early Christian doctrine. Their aim was not to prove one party or another theologically correct, nor to pass judgment on the authenticity of individuals' inner religious experience. What mattered was the political process (Hegelian or not) in Christian communities, the development of all doctrine through pressure, negotiation and compromise, and its reformulation from age to age.

The T¸bingen "strong programme" was savaged by confessional supernaturalists. To them Christian history had two aspects: the record of apostolic truth faithfully expounded; and the record of heresy and doctrinal deviation. The life of the early church was to be reconstructed without confusing these two records. "postolic truth, flowing from divine sources, was its own historical explanation, self-attesting and self-perpetuating among consecrated minds. Heresy, however, was caused by finite factors clouding the vision of the faithful and leading them astray. "mbition, greed, ignorance, lust - social sins - explain historic deviations from the path of true doctrinal development.

Many historians of science today are studying their world's most cherished beliefs in the same way that Baur and his colleagues studied theirs. And just as the T¸bingen school was accused by supernaturalists of attacking Christianity (which was hardly Baur's design), so a sociologically informed or "contextualist" analysis of scientific knowledge is often read by rationalist historians as if it were an attack on science.

Livingstone, Miles, and Noll appear, in varying degrees, to have read Darwin in this way. Indeed, for them rationalism in philosophy of science and supernaturalism in theology evidently stand or fall together. Bloor explains the connection:

Both are dualist theories. Both divide the world into opposing principles with a characteristic asymmetry of evaluation and explanation. The opposition of spirit and flesh becomes the opposition of knowledge and society. The word of God expressed through Church doctrine is replaced by the inner dialectic which drives knowledge forward. Dogma becomes the hard core and heuristic of a research programme. The internal history of science thus replaces the history of apostolic truth. The category of error replaces that of sin, and heresy in its modern form is hunted down under the name "irrationality."13

Darwin has not yet been "hunted down," but its evangelical reviewers have picked up an unsavory scent. They are shrewd. Like Darwin himself, a "Devil's Chaplain," the book is oxymoronic and subversive. It impresses the innocent while promoting an even-handed - or double-edged - social history of truth. That such magnanimous critics as Livingstone, Miles, and Noll also welcome the book gives me hope and great pleasure.


1Michael Ruse's phrase in Darwinism Defended: A Guide to the Evolution Controversies (Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley, 1982), p. 58.

2David Livingstone, "A Commentary on Darwin,"Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith, 46 (June 1994), 123-127.

3E.g., in Science and Christian Belief, 5 (1993), 73-78. Paul Marston finds nothing objectionable in Darwin's history. Its "method," he says, "(allowing for a certain sensationalism) is generally credible."

4Frederick Burkhardt and Sydney Smith, eds., The Correspondence of Charles Darwin (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989), 5:300 n. 1; Paul H. Barrett, ed., The Collected Papers of Charles Darwin (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1977), 1:264.

5Gardeners' Chronicle and Agricultural Gazette, May 26, 1855, in Barrett, Collected Papers, 1:258. On a clipping of his article Darwin underlined "solitary" in the last sentence and wrote in the margin "no": Burkhardt and Smith, Correspondence, 5:334 n. 10.

6R. C. Stauffer, ed., Charles Darwin's Natural Selection: Being the Second Part of His Big Species Book written from 1856 to 1858 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1975), p. 175.

7Charles Darwin, On the Origin of Species by means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life (London: John Murray, 1859), pp. 82-83.

8Sara Miles, "Darwin: A Man of His Times - A Theory of Its Time?" Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith, 45 (1993), 193-94.

9Ibid., p. 194.

10Mark Noll, "Science, Religion, and a New Biography of Charles Darwin," Intellectual History Newsletter, 15 (1993), 54.

11Ibid., p. 55.

1212David Bloor, "Rationalism, Supernaturalism, and the Sociology of Knowledge," in Imre Hronszky, M·rta FehÈr, and Bal·zs Dajka, eds., Scientific Knowledge Socialized: Selected Proceedings of the 5th Joint International Conference on the History and Philosophy of Science organized by the IUHPS, VeszprÈm, 1984 (Dordrecht: Kluwer, 1988), pp. 59-74; David Bloor, Knowledge and Social Imagery, 2d ed. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1991), pp. 183-85.

13Bloor, "Rationalism, Supernaturalism," p. 62.