Science in Christian Perspective
C. S. Lewis on Creation and Evolution: The Acworth Letters, 1944-1960
Gary B. Ferngren
Department of History
Oregon State University Corvallis, OR 97331
Ronald L. Numbers
Department of the History of Medicine
University of Wisconsin
1300 University Avenue
Madison, WI 53706-1532
From: PSCF 48 (March 1996): 28-33.
In his voluminous publications, C.S. Lewis infrequently addressed the subject of creation and evolution, and on such occasions he usually endorsed some version of theistic evolution. In a series of previously unpublished letters to his friend Captain Bernard Acworth, written between 1944 and 1960, Lewis explained at some length his views on the question of origins. These letters reveal that during the last years of his life Lewis grew increasingly uncomfortable with the claims being made for organic evolution. Here we present for the first time in their entirety the passages of Lewis's letters to Acworth that deal with creation and evolution; we also describe the historical context in which they were written.1 Unfortunately, Acworth's letters to Lewis seem not to have survived; at least they are not among the Lewis papers in the Marion E. Wade Collection at Wheaton College in Illinois.
Exactly when Bernard Acworth (1885-1963) and C. S. Lewis (1898-1963) first metˇor began correspondingˇis unknown. It is clear, however, from the earliest of Lewis's ten surviving letters to Acworth that this was not the first contact between the two men. Lewis closed with a cordial invitation "to spend a night with me next term," and Acworth's son, Richard, recalls that his father sometimes stayed overnight with Lewis and his brother when visiting Oxford.
In the mid-1940s Lewis, a fellow of Magdalen College, Oxford, was already a famous medievalist, novelist, and Christian apologist. Acworth, too, was well known, especially in military and political circles. The son and grandson of Anglican clergymen, he had trained at the Royal Naval College before embarking on an illustrious career as a submariner, winning the D.S.O. during World War I and later becoming a pioneer advocate of sonar. Following his retirement from the Royal Navy about 1930, he became a freelance journalist, serving as naval correspondent for such newspapers as The (London) Morning Post and The Yorkshire Post. A staunch opponent of socialism, air power, and imported oil, he twice stood unsuccessfully for Parliament, in 1931 and again in 1942. His outspoken opposition to the policies of Winston Churchill during World War II and his calls for peace with Japan prompted the prime minister to urge electors to vote against Acworth and moved the London Daily Mirror to demand his arrest. The resulting notoriety severely damaged Acworth's reputation in the publishing world and led to what he called a "literary boycott" of his work. About the same time he became increasingly interested in evangelical Christianity and for a brief period toyed with the idea of becoming a lay reader in the Church of England.2
In 1929 Acworth published the first of over a dozen books, entitled This Bondage, an eccentric critique of evolution, relativity theory, and air power provoked in part by the military's growing infatuation with airplanes. Convinced that biologists derived one of their most conclusive proofs for the truth of organic evolution from the "mysterious and wonderful" migratory habits of birds, he sought to demonstrate that "the scientific treatment of birds in flight"ˇespecially their alleged insensitivity to the windˇargued against the theory of evolution.3 Although largely ignored by the scientific community, the book attracted the attention of Douglas Dewar (1875-1957), barrister and amateur ornithologist, who himself was beginning to doubt the validity of organic evolution. Dewar invited Acworth to lecture at the Victoria Institute, a religiously conservative organization that had long served as a haven for the dwindling remnant of British creationists. There Acworth met other like-minded men, including the distinguished electrical engineer Sir Ambrose Fleming (1849-1945), then president of the institute.4
In the mid-1930s Acworth, Dewar, and Fleming launched the Evolution Protest Movement, dedicated to opposing the teaching of organic evolution as a scientific fact. By this time Acworth had become convinced that evolution was not only false but responsible for "the present bankruptcy of civilisation." In a book entitled This Progress: The Tragedy of Evolution (1934), he denounced evolution as a child of Satan. "The goal of evolution," he declared, "through psycho-analysis, is moral degradation; through organised mass birth-control, and sterilisation, extinction; and through its social creed of communism, revolution." He concluded with a call to overthrow evolution so that he could see "England prosperous, England merry and England free."5
Acworth's conviction of the incompatibility of evolution and Christianity no doubt prompted him to press Lewis for his viewsˇand to attempt to recruit his pen and prestige in the protest against evolution. Lewis's replies show that although he at first rebuffed Acworth's overtures to endorse creationism, he was by 1951 inclined to agree with Acworth in regarding evolution "as the central and radical lie" governing modern civilization. However, he still remained unwilling to lend his name publicly to the antievolution crusade. The following excerpts from Lewis's surviving letters to Acworth (which include everything in the correspondence relating to science and religion) chronicle Lewis's views.
September 23, 1944: "Do I agree that the theory of evolution, its truth or falsehood, is of fundamental importance to the Xtian faith?" This question can have several senses, in some of which the answer yes wd. most seriously misrepresent my position. I believe that Man has fallen from the state of innocence in which he was created: I therefore disbelieve in any theory wh. contradicts this. It is not yet obvious to me that all theories of evolution do contradict it. When they do not, it is not my business to pronounce on their truth or falsehood. My "message" on any biological theorem wh. does not contradict (or wh. I, with my imperfect process of reasoning, do not perceive to contradict) the Creed, is not "equivocal" but non-existent: just as my message about the curvature of space is not equivocal but non-existent. Just as my belief in my own immortal & rational soul does not oblige or qualify me to hold a particular theory of the pre-natal history of my embryo, so my belief that Men in general have immortal & rational souls does not oblige or qualify me to hold a theory of their pre-human organic historyˇif they have one.
December 9, 1944: Thanks for your interesting letter of the 8th:ˇI can't have made my position clear. I am not either attacking or defending Evolution. I believe that Christianity can still be believed, even if Evolution is true. This is where you and I differ. Thinking as I do, I can't help regarding your advice (that I henceforth include arguments against Evolution in all my Christian apologetics) as a temptation to fight the battle on what is really a false issue: and also on terrain very unsuitable for the only weapon I have. Atheism is as old as Epicurus, and very few polytheists regard their gods as creative.
There is no evidence that Lewis ever read the Genesis account of creation literally.
June 14, 1950: Thanks very much for the booklet. I don't see how at my age, I can start making myself a good enough Biologist to reply to the Darwinians.
September 13, 1951: I have read nearly the whole of Evolution [probably Acworth's unpublished "The Lie of Evolution"] and am glad you sent it. I must confess it has shaken me: not in my belief in evolution, which was of the vaguest and most intermittent kind, but in my belief that the question was wholly unimportant. I wish I were younger. What inclines me now to think that you may be right in regarding it as the central and radical lie in the whole web of falsehood that now governs our lives is not so much your arguments against it as the fanatical and twisted attitudes of its defenders. The section on Anthropology was especially good. ... The point that the whole economy of nature demands simultaneity of at least a v. great many species is a v. sticky one. Thanks: and blessings.
October 4, 1951: No, I'm afraid. I shd. lose much and you wd. gain almost nothing by my writing you a preface. No one who is in doubt about your views of Darwin wd. be impressed by testimony from me, who am known to be no scientist. Many who have been or are being moved towards Christianity by my books wd. be deterred by finding that I was connected with anti-Darwinism. I hope (but who knows himself!) that I wd. not allow myself to be influenced by this consideration if it were only my personal concerns as an author that were endangered. But the cause I stand for wd. be endangered too. When a man has become a popular Apologist he must watch his step. Everyone is on the look out for things that might discredit him. Sorry.
December 16, 1953: Many thanks for your cheering card...I can't help sharing a sort of glee with you about the explosion of poor old Piltdown [the fossil remains of an alleged human ancestor exposed as a hoax earlier in the year]: but I hope no one on the other side will rush in and try to exploit it. We might lay ourselves open to v. easy replies: (1) That the scientists have not yet been convicted of so many frauds as the Christiansˇforged decretals, faked miracles, and all! (2) That they themselves have discovered their own frauds & published them. But of course one inevitably feels what fun it wd. be if this were only the beginning of a landslide. I've never read [Charles] Lyell: should I?
September 18, 1959: I am most interested to hear of your young biologist [unidentified]; and his experience impresses me again with the suspicious disingenuousness of orthodox biologists.
March 5, 1960: Did you know that your theory of a catastrophic shift in the angle between our axis and the ecliptic [which Acworth invoked to account for the Noachian deluge and the sudden change of climate that froze the Siberian mammouths] is closely paralleled in [John] Milton's P[aradise] Lost Bk. Xˇor possibly IX. This in his view is one of the ways in which the change of conditions after the Fall cd. have been produced. Have you read this book by the Jesuit [Pierre Teilhard] de Chardin (The Phenomenon of Man) wh. is being praised to the skies? This is evolution run mad. He saves "continuity" by saying that before there was life there was in matter what he calls "pre-life." Can you see any possible use in such language? Before you switched on the light in the cellar there was (if you like to call it so) "pre-light;" but the English for that is "darkness." Then he goes on to the future and seems to me to be repeating [Henri] Bergson (without the eloquence) and [George Bernard] Shaw (without the wit). It ends up of course in something uncomfortably like Pantheism: his own Jesuits were quite right in forbidding him to publish any more books on the subject. This prohibition probably explains the succ╦s fou he is having among our scientistsˇon the same principle whereby [Boris] Pasternak's (really, v. second rate) novel owes its [illegible] fame to the condemnation of the Russian government.
These letters to Acworth shed welcome light on Lewis's personal views regarding evolution. They complement the evidence from his published works and reveal to some extent the development of those views.
There is no evidence that Lewis ever read the Genesis account of creation literally. Repeatedly and publicly he described it as a folk tale or myth. In The Problem of Pain, published in 1940, four years before his first surviving letter to Acworth, Lewis constructed his own "myth" of human origins, which he described as "an account of what may have been the historical fact." Professing no objection to the notion that "man is physically descended from animals," he suggested that over time God "perfected the animal form" that was to become the first man by endowing it with human consciousness. The resulting "Paradisal man" engaged in full and unbroken communion with God while remaining, by our standards, a savage. Although he was as yet untainted by sin, his technology remained primitive. In joining an evolutionary picture of human biological development to the biblical account of the Fall, Lewis wished to demonstrate that the two views are not (as they seem to be) mutually exclusive. For him, technological backwardness implied nothing about intelligence or virtue, both of which might have been highly developed in prehistoric humans. When early man fell into sin (under circumstances Lewis does not describe), his spirit began to lose the control it had previously held over his body:
The total organism which had been taken up into his spiritual life was allowed to fall back into the merely natural condition from which, at his making, it had been raisedˇjust as, far earlier in the story of creation, God had raised vegetable life to become the vehicle of animality, and chemical process to be the vehicle of vegetation, and physical process to be the vehicle of chemical.6
Lewis's acceptance of divinely guided human evolution prompted him to modify not only the Genesis account of creation but also the traditional Christian understanding of the Fall.
Lewis's acceptance of divinely guided human evolution prompted him to modify not only the Genesis account of creation but also the traditional Christian understanding of the Fall. The existence of pain in the animal kingdom especially troubled Lewis, who devoted an entire chapter to the subject in The Problem of Pain. Theologians, he noted, had previously attributed the origin of animal suffering to the Fall of man. But the scientific evidence that carnivorousness was "older than humanity" had led Lewis to conclude that evil had manifested itself long before Adam in the law of tooth and claw. To account for this fact, he postulated a hypothetical pre-Adamic fall, in which Satan corrupted the world and caused animals to live by preying on one another.7
Lewis may have accepted a theistic version of organic evolution, but he resisted attempts to draw broad philosophical implications from scientific theories. This reticence is suggested most notably in his posthumously published essay on evolutionism, "The Funeral of a Great Myth," probably written in the 1940s. In this piece he distinguished between "the doctrine of Evolution as held by practising biologists," which he deemed to be "a genuine scientific hypothesis," and the speculative versions of evolution that preceded Charles Darwin's Origin of Species. Scientific evolution, he argued,
is a purely biological theorem. It takes over organic life on this planet as a going concern and tries to explain certain changes within that field. It makes no cosmic statements, no metaphysical statements, no eschatological statements.
By contrast, popular evolutionism often claimed to account for the origin and development of both the universe and terrestrial life from an initial state of chaos to a future of almost infinite possibilities. According to the popularizers,
Reason has "evolved" out of instinct, virtue out of complexes, poetry out of erotic howls and grunts, civilization out of savagery, the organic out of inorganic, the solar system out of some sidereal soup or traffic block. And conversely, reason, virtue, art and civilization as we now know them are only the crude or embryonic beginnings of far better thingsˇperhaps Deity itselfˇin the remote future.
Lewis especially objected to the idea that human reason and an ordered universe could have arisen from the inorganic and irrational.8
The above statements on evolution, which date from the 1940s, suggest that Lewis accepted evolution while rejecting evolutionism. None of his published writings show a basic antipathy to science, although Lewis came to believe that all scientific theories are tentative and as dependent on changing presuppositions and climates of opinion as on new empirical data. Writing in the late 1940s, Chad Walsh, an acquaintance of Lewis's, described him as
not anti-scientific in a Fundamentalist sense. He is not troubled by the "conflict between science and religion" for the reason that his theology does not conflict with anything that science has so far discovered or is ever likely to discover. One cannot imagine him voting to prohibit the teaching of evolution in the schools of Britain.9
Lewis's early letters to Acworth, which deny that biological evolution is incompatible with Christianity, lend compelling support to this irenic portrait of the Christian apologist.
The later Acworth letters, however, indicate that during the 1950s Lewis became increasingly critical of evolutionism and what he called "the fanatical and twisted attitudes of its defenders."
The later Acworth letters, however, indicate that during the 1950s Lewis became increasingly critical of evolutionism and what he called "the fanatical and twisted attitudes of its defenders." He had much earlier come to feel that evolution was often held for dogmatic rather than for scientific reasons. Thus in "The Funeral of a Great Myth" he quoted D.M.S. Watson's assertion that evolution "is accepted by zoologists not because it has been observed to occur or... can be proved by logically coherent evidence to be true, but because the only alternative, special creation, is clearly incredible."10 Lewis's later writings reveal his belief that evolutionism had become a theological creed, a view that found humorous expression in his poem "Evolutionary Hymn," which concludes with the following verse:
On then! Value means survival-
Value. If our progeny
Spreads and spawns and licks each rival,
That will prove its deity
(Far from pleasant, by our present
Standards, though it well may be).11
Evolution was a creed so pervasive and so deeply held that even to appear to question it was to invite attack. For example, in a vitriolic article the Marxist geneticist J.B.S. Haldane accused Lewis of getting his science wrong and of traducing scientists in his works of science fiction.12 It is probably because evolution formed the basis of theories of philosophical naturalism like Haldane's, which had become the dominant secular world view, that Lewis agreed with Acworth in regarding it "as the central and radical lie in the whole web of falsehood that now governs our lives."
To what extent Lewis came in his later years to reject his earlier belief in theistic evolution is more difficult to ascertain. His Oxford colleague Dame Helen Gardner recalled a conversation with Lewis over dinner in which she suggested that Adam was probably a "Neanderthal ape-like figure," to which Lewis coolly replied, "I see we have a Darwinian in our midst."13 Nothing in his published writings suggests, however, that he gave up his long-held view that biological evolution was compatible with Christianity. Nevertheless, Lewis seems to have been favorably impressed upon reading Acworth's unpublished attack on evolution. "I must confess," he wrote on September 13, 1951, "it has shaken me." Lewis's later correspondence with Acworth suggests that he had begun a gradual shift away from his earlier unquestioning acceptance of evolution, but had stopped short of adopting Acworth's antievolutionist stance.
A few years ago a prominent young-earth creationist lamented Lewis's attempt in the 1940s to reconcile evolution and Scripture. "I like to think," wrote David C.C. Watson, "that, had he lived another 20 years,... Lewis would have acknowledged his... error."14 It is doubtful that Lewis would have felt comfortable espousing the views of present-day creationists. He always carefully indicated that he opposed evolutionism as a philosophy, not evolution as a biological theory. At the same time his correspondence with Bernard Acworth suggests that he had come in his later years to entertain more doubts about the claims made for organic evolution than his published works indicate.
1The original letters remain in the private possession of Captain Acworth's son, the Rev. Dr. Richard Acworth, who has graciously permitted us to quote from them and to deposit photocopies in the Marion E. Wade Collection at Wheaton College. Ronald L. Numbers has quoted a few sentences from these letters in The Creationists (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1992), p. 153. C.S. Lewis's Letters to Captain Bernard Acworth copyright ę1992, 1996 C.S. Lewis (Pte) Limited, reproduced by permission of Curtis Brown, London.
2This biographical sketch is based on A. G. T[ilney], "Origin of Evolution Protest Movement," Evolution Protest Movement Pamphlet No. 82 (1963); Ronald L. Numbers's interview with Richard Acworth, October 2, 1984; "Capt. Bernard Acworth," Who Was Who, 1961-1970 (London: Adam & Charles Black, 1972), pp. 4-5; and "Arrest This Man," (London) Daily Mirror, February 14, 1942.
3Bernard Acworth, This Bondage: A Study of the "Migration" of Birds, Insects and Aircraft, with Some Reflections on "Evolution" and Relativity (London: John Murray, 1929), pp. 1, 4.
4On Dewar, see Numbers, The Creationists, pp. 145-47.
5T[ilney], "Origin of Evolution Protest Movement"; Bernard Acworth, This Progress: The Tragedy of Evolution (London: Rich & Cowan, 1934), pp. 115, 333-34. E.P.M. publications date the founding of the society in 1932, but no extant evidence documents any activities before 1935.
6C.S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain (London: Geoffrey Bles, 1940), pp. 70-71. On Genesis 1 as myth, see ibid., p. 59; on Genesis 1 as folk tale, see C.S. Lewis, Miracles: A Preliminary Study (London: Geoffrey Bles, 1947), p. 42.
7Lewis, The Problem of Pain, p. 121. For criticism of Lewis's theory of a pre-Adamic Fall, see Austin Farrer, "The Christian Apologist," in Light on C.S. Lewis, ed. Jocelyn Gibb (London: Geoffrey Bles, 1965), pp. 41-42; and C.E.M. Joad, "The Pains of Animals: A Problem in Theology," The Month 189 (1950): 95-104. Joad's essay, together with a reply by Lewis, is reprinted in C.S. Lewis, Undeceptions: Essays on Theology and Ethics, ed. Walter Hooper (London: Geoffrey Bles, 1971), pp. 128-37. In his reply to Joad (ibid., p. 135), Lewis elaborates briefly on Satan's influence on the animal kingdom.
8C.S. Lewis, "The Funeral of a Great Myth," in Christian Reflections, ed. Walter Hooper (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1967), pp. 82-93.
9Chad Walsh, C.S. Lewis: Apostle to the Skeptics (New York: Macmillan, 1949), p. 129. For Lewis's views on scientific models, see C.S. Lewis, The Discarded Image: An Introduction to Medieval and Renaissance Literature (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1967), pp. 221-22.
10Lewis, "The Funeral of a Great Myth," p. 85.
11The Cambridge Review 79 (November 30, 1957): 227; reprinted in C.S. Lewis, Poems, ed. Walter Hooper (London: Geoffrey Bles, 1964), pp. 55-56.
12"Auld Hornie, F.R.S.," Modern Quarterly, n.s., 1 (Autumn, 1946): 32-40. Lewis composed a rejoinder, "A Reply to Professor Haldane," which he never completed. It appeared posthumously in C.S. Lewis, Of Other Worlds: Essays and Stories, ed. Walter Hooper (London: Geoffrey Bles, 1966), pp. 74-85.
13A.N. Wilson, C.S. Lewis: A Biography (New York and London: W.W. Norton, 1990), pp. 209-10.
14David C.C. Watson, "C. S. Lewis and Evolution," Biblical Creation 7 (Spring, 1985): 9-10.