He Told You So


Charles Darwin turns 200 today, and the global hoopla (books are being spawned, scholars consulted, radio shows broadcast, and taxidermised mockingbirds exhibited) suggests that nerds do celebrity culture better than anyone, especially where there are Research Council funds to be milked. 

Despite a lifetime of controversy-dodging, Charles Darwin has become the pin-up boy for Reason, Science, Common Sense, Atheism, Scepticism, and (this, from the Darwin Day banner, perhaps an appropriation too far) Humanity.  

It’s not hard to see the appeal: unlike other contenders (Einstein, arrested twice in 1906 for domestic violence, or Newton, mixed up with the alchemy set), modest old Charles Darwin had an endearing procrastination habit, liberal politics (a new book suggests that his research was animated by anti-slavery sentiment), extracurricular interests, a South American intestinal parasite, an eight-year obsession with barnacles, actual social skills, and a theory that goes to the heart of why and who and what we (and most things around us) are.

He also has, to this day, a vocal opposition, most recently centred in Christian denominations based on biblical literalism. Both Rome and the Church of England have boarded the Darwin bicentennial juggernaut, affirming in amorphous terms the compatibility of Christianity with science. Liberal Christians have generally surrendered to evolutionary theorists the question of how the world came to be the way it is, on condition that they get to keep the why, but evangelicals and fundamentalists have been consistently concerned about Darwinism, and often violently antagonistic to it, since the publication of On The Origin of Species 150 years ago.

The concern is on three fronts: Darwinism threatens the authority of the Bible as a literal revelation of God’s work in the world; second, whereas the natural creation had once been viewed as prima facie evidence for the existence of a creator, Darwinism suggests that the "creation" is the result of an impersonal, very slow, and non-purposive process; and finally Darwinism erodes humanity’s special metaphysical status, putting humans in continuity with other animals.

In 1844 Darwin wrote to Joseph Hooker, "I am almost convinced (quite contrary to opinion I started with) that species are not (it is like confessing a murder) immutable." But if the victim of this murder was supposed to be biblical authority, then Darwin came too late. Enlightenment theology and earth history had both already made some serious trouble for literal readings of Genesis.

Two years before the publication of On The Origin of Species, marine biologist and Plymouth Brethren chaplain Phillip Henry Gosse published an infamous attempt to reconcile the apparent antiquity of the world with his faith: in the midst of his seven-day creation, a few thousand years earlier, God had planted fossils and moulded mountains to simulate the actions of vast geological time.

Meanwhile, other threats to biblical authority were bubbling over. Published in 1860, the book Essays and Reviews presented a collection of seven articles by prominent broad church intellectuals, some of whom argued against miracles and called for a philosophical, scientific, historicised reading of the Bible, and led to three heresy trials. These blows to the biblical account made for more controversy than On the Origin of Species had the previous year.

Darwin had a far more direct hand in the more limited role of displacing God from the idea of creation than he did in de-authorising the whole Bible. The first edition of On The Origin of Species is littered with phrases like "far higher workmanship" and "the laws impressed on matter by the creator", which Darwin later attempted to edit from the text. But even the term "natural selection" permits a "selector".

These symptoms of Darwin’s immersion in a culture that believed strenuously in a creator open The Origin up to claims, like that of the Catholic Church this week, that "biological evolution and the Christian view of Creation" are "complementary". Yet such complementarity is resisted by some of Darwinism’s deepest tenets. "Randomness in the production of variation," says philosopher Daniel Dennett, "is difficult to square with divine control."

Darwin followed the publication of The Origin with The Descent of Man (1871) and The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals (1872), both of which confirmed what The Origin had implied, that this business of natural selection meant continuity between humans and other animals. The British Society convention at Oxford on 30 June 1860 is most often remembered for Samuel Wilberforce’s slur on TH Huxley’s ancestry: was it through Huxley’s grandmother or grandfather that he claimed descent from a monkey? Huxley’s retort (that he would rather be a monkey’s descendent than an impediment to truth) made him a hero for Team Science, but did nothing to allay the concern that evolutionary theory puts humans into uncomfortably close relationship with other primates.

There were, of course, 19th century philosophers who embraced the applicability of evolutionary theories to humanity. Herbert Spencer, who coined the term "survival of the fittest", promulgated one of the first versions of what is today termed social Darwinism (although Spencer’s development hypothesis in fact preceded Darwinism and has more in common with the evolutionary theory of Jean-Baptiste Lamarck). The development hypothesis placed humans, their social relations, and their psychology within the scope of evolutionary theory — an act almost as controversial today (in the wake of last century’s eugenics movement or such productions of evolutionary psychology as Thornhill and Palmer’s A Natural History of Rape from 2000) as in the 19th century.

The confrontation between Darwin’s research and his own religious views was not as direct as it is popularly imagined. After dropping out of medicine at Edinburgh, Darwin dawdled towards a BA at Cambridge in preparation for ordination in the Church of England. Although, in his own words, "quite orthodox" at the time, he was in no hurry for the priesthood, and the four-year voyage of HMS Beagle was grimly anticipated by Darwin’s father as another desultory step away from his career. Darwin never became a priest, and in his autobiography of 1876 he announces that he is an agnostic.

But ultimately what Darwin found unsatisfactory about the Christian approach to the world was not primarily its failure to account for the living things in it. The chapter in his autobiography on religious belief recites standard doctrines of Victorian scepticism: that the Gospels cannot be proven to have been written by eyewitnesses, that they differ on important points, and that the Old Testament offers a "manifestly false history of the world" (not with respect to its account of creation, but in "the Tower of Babel, the rain-bow as a sign, etc"). Darwin is also repulsed by Old Testament depictions of God as "vengeful tyrant" and describes eternal damnation as itself a "damnable doctrine".

Darwin’s account of how he "gradually came to disbelieve in Christianity as a divine revelation" has very little to do with the scientific theory that so vexes fundamentalist Christianity today. For Darwin at least, Christianity had far more problems undermining its credibility than whether or not evolutionary theory could be
made compatible with it.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.