Darwin on tour

MOST PEOPLE THINK that scientific theories move around the world in a uniform way. But the richness of local stories about how people responded to evolution shows that this was not a debate between pure science and pure theology. It was always an embodied encounter in a cultural context in particular political circumstances. 

CH: Tell us some specific stories.

DAVID: In my research, I’m looking at Scots Presbyterians who settled in a number of key places across the globe—all subscribers to the Westminster Confession of Faith, all evangelical Presbyterians with a Calvinist theology, with a tradition going back to John Knox. But in different places, there were very different debates over Darwin because of local culture, local politics, local obsessions, and local events. 

Darwin really hit the headlines in the 1870s, and in 1874 Charles Hodge, in Princeton, New Jersey, brought out What Is Darwinism? Hodge thought that Darwinism is atheism because it leaves out any notion of divine purpose. Everything comes into being by the ordinary, humdrum effects of natural law. Hodge thought this ruled out a creator and that the notion of there being a Christian Darwinian is incoherent. When Asa Gray from Harvard claimed to be a serious Christian and a Darwinian, Hodge thought that just didn’t make sense.

Now let’s go across the Atlantic to Edinburgh in exactly the same year, 1874, to the opening of the new session of New College, Edinburgh, the home of the Free Church of Scotland. The principal of the college, Robert Rainy, delivered his inaugural lecture on the hottest scientific topic of the day: evolution. He was entirely happy to accept the transmutation of species; he was entirely happy to accept Darwin’s theory of natural selection; and he said theologians have no interest in whether human beings emerged from prehuman ancestors. That sounds very different from Hodge.

Then move across the Irish Sea to my own city, Belfast. The principal of the Presbyterian theological college gave his inaugural lecture that same September, and he was very worried by Darwin’s theory. Even more than Hodge was. He thought that Darwin’s theory would bring about a collapse in society and a whole tide of godlessness would sweep across the intellectual world. 

Why the difference? Let’s take Belfast first. The president of the British Association for the Advancement of Science, John Tyndall, had just given an inflammatory speech as part of a campaign to take cultural authority away from clergy and put it into the hands of professional scientists. He made it look like scientists were not interested in any cooperation with religion. Irish Presbyterians in fact organized a whole series of lectures that winter to combat Tyndall. I suppose in the long run, the scientists have won out in this. When there’s a crisis in British society, people don’t call for a day of prayer. They call in the technological experts. 

At the other extreme, Edinburgh theologians had far bigger problems than Darwin. They were extremely worried about Biblical scholar William Robertson Smith. Smith was interested in the prehistoric origins of sacrifice and thought the Eucharist might be rooted in ancient cannibalism. With that on the horizon, Darwin seemed pretty tame. And a number of Scottish scientists had already long accepted an ancient earth history. 

The Princeton Seminary case is more complicated because Hodge was not the only influential voice at Princeton. Just across the road at what became Princeton University was defender of Darwin, James McCosh. So Princeton, with several leading scientists who were also Christian believers, devised a very particular kind of purpose-driven evolution.

I’m looking at other areas as well. In the American South, Presbyterians were doubtful about what they called “unbelieving science” before Darwin came on the scene. They saw anthropology challenging Adam and Eve, and geology challenging the standard biblical chronology. Darwin was just another example of undermining the Bible.

Among Presbyterians in the South, the strongest defense of slavery was that slavery was entirely justified by a detailed literal reading of the Old and New Testaments. The only way defenders of slavery could hold on to that was to hold on to a pretty literal Bible. 

Any Christian sympathetic to Darwin had to be somewhat metaphorical about certain passages in the Old Testament. But southern Presbyterians did not want to turn metaphorical to accommodate evolution because they needed a literal Bible to support slavery. Race never appeared as an issue in Princeton or in Belfast or in Edinburgh, but you can understand perfectly well why it should in the American South.  

CH: How is this still relevant today?

DAVID: One temptation is to say that place and location don’t really matter anymore, but I think that’s mistaken. One example: creationism is flourishing in Islamic societies. So American Christians and Turkish Muslims, who might not talk otherwise, have gotten together over their common opposition to evolution. 

Another example: a colleague of mine gave an address to an international society of paleontologists saying he suspected adaptation of species might be less important than Darwin thought it was. Scholars interacted with him very calmly. But when it appeared on the front page of Science magazine for a more popular audience, he received a torrent of abuse from hyper-Darwinians. You can say things in certain places that you cannot get away with saying in other places. CH

By David Livingstone and the editors.

[Christian History originally published this article in Christian History Issue #107 in 2013]

David Livingstone is professor of geography and intellectual history at the Queen’s University of Belfast. He is addressing this topic in the 2014 Gifford Lectures at the University of Aberdeen and in a forthcoming book, Dealing with Darwin.
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