Origin of Conflict

“GOD KNOWS what the public will think,” wrote Charles Darwin to fellow naturalist Alfred Russel Wallace in November 1859. Darwin’s celebrated work On the Origin of Species had just been published, and he was resigned to the fact that his case for biological evolution would be controversial. It would certainly make famous the young man who had once set out for Edinburgh to become a doctor, then had gone to Cambridge, where his revised plan was to become an Anglican priest. Instead, from 1831 to 1836, he traveled the world on HMS Beagle as companion to Robert Fitzroy, the ship’s captain, who wanted to have a naturalist on board. From those voyages would one day come his book.

The main idea in Darwin’s book, that species might be transformed over time, was not itself original. It had been proposed by Darwin’s own grandfather, Erasmus Darwin, half a century earlier and by the French naturalist Jean-Baptiste Lamarck. Even the idea that humans had an animal ancestry had already been the subject of intense public debate in Britain owing to Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation (1844), a work anonymously published by Scottish popular-science writer Robert Chambers. Even while condemned as pseudo-science and “base materialism,” Vestiges sold like hot cakes. But Darwin is the one we remember.

Why? Because Origin of Species argued that evolution was scientifically credible. It introduced the concept of “natural selection” as the key to understanding how new species could derive from pre-existing forms. Darwin wrote that given variation, however small, among the individual members of a species, those members whose variations had a competitive advantage in the struggle for existence would tend to leave more offspring than those who were less advantaged. Over countless generations, Darwin argued, the continual action of this selective process could lead to gradual modification and the emergence of a new species. Accordingly he proposed that all living things, diverging from their ancestors, had ultimately evolved from a few, or perhaps only one, original life form.

Darwin once said that to understand his theory one had to be “staggered”—that is, shocked into seeing the world in a new way—by the picture it presented of successive appearance, displacement, and disappearance of living forms on a massive scale, under ever-changing conditions and over immense periods of time.

Early in life there had been much to stagger Darwin as he journeyed around the world on HMS Beagle. In South America his love of natural history was reinforced by the sublime beauty of the Brazilian rain forest. Fascinated by the fossils there, he had the stunning realization that large numbers of species were now extinct. The remarkable similarity between living forms and the extinct species like them—which he particularly observed in the case of armadillos—raised tantalizing questions about the relationship between them.

Although Darwin did not develop a confident belief in what he called “the transmutation of species” until he returned home, he was enthralled by the geographical distribution of the species he observed. For example he noticed that island species most closely resembled those found on the nearest mainland. This was true both in the Cape Verde Islands, where the resemblance was to African species, and in the Galapagos archipelago, where the resemblance was to those of South America.

Did Darwin have a “Eureka” moment on the Galapagos when he realized that each island had its own species of finch, mockingbird, and thrush? Not really—having no reason to expect such a pattern, he had muddled many of his specimens. Nevertheless he later described the Galapagos data as the foundation for all his views. His observations there were the basis for his hypothesis that migrant species from the nearest mainland had modified differently on various islands as a result of isolation and the effect of different islands’ unique ecologies.

During the Beagle voyage, Darwin was astonished too by the “struggle for existence” he saw in the natural world. In the Andes he witnessed nature in the raw as giant condors preyed on young cattle. He encountered a colonial struggle between the forces of General Rosas (future dictator of Argentina) and native Indians. He also experienced the devastating consequences of an earthquake in Concepcion, describing its destroyed cathedral as “the greatest pile of ruins I ever saw.” Frequently he came face to face with instability in environments less hospitable than the “happy world” described by widely read Christian philosopher William Paley in his Natural Theology (1802).

Darwin was staggered again when he visited Tierra del Fuego, where he wrote that the natives—called Fuegians—had a wretched existence in the least hospitable of places. Their behavior and appearance prompted his question: “Were our ancestors men like these?”

On board Beagle were some Fuegians who, having earlier been taken by Fitzroy to England, had been educated and prepared to evangelize their own people. Accompanied by a missionary, they were now coming home. But the experiment ended in disaster; they quickly reverted to the norms of their primitive society, and the missionary fled for his life.

Darwin was left to ponder how thin the veneer of civilization could be. And, in one other respect, the Fuegians and their experience made a lasting impact on his views about religion. His cousin Hensleigh Wedgwood had assured Darwin that humans differed fundamentally from animals in having an innate sense of God. Yet in the Fuegians and among Australian aborigines, Darwin detected little evidence of this innate sensibility. He wrote that the Fuegians had no word for “God” and no ritual worship. In his autobiography Darwin later recalled a key moment in the autumn of 1838 when he read an essay on population by political philosopher Thomas Robert Malthus (1766–1834). Attacking rationalist dreams of the era when humans would one day reach a social utopia, Malthus insisted there were natural constraints to unlimited progress. Famously he argued that, in the absence of checks, human populations would tend to increase far faster than the food supply could be increased to sustain them.

The argument acquired a high political profile when used to question whether the poor should receive charity that would only encourage them to breed more prolifically. Malthus used his own argument to advocate sexual restraint and the desirability of marrying late.

For Darwin the effect was to trigger a realization that there was something inexorable about the competitive struggle for existence that the voyage had already prepared him to appreciate: “It at once struck me that under these circumstances favourable variations would tend to be preserved, and unfavourable ones to be destroyed. The result of this would be the formation of new species. Here, then, I had at last got a theory by which to work.”

nature’s face is but a mask

Calling this process “natural selection” was, however, not without problems since the description of nature selecting was clearly metaphorical. Darwin drew an analogy between what seemingly happened in nature and the activity of breeders—like pigeon fanciers— who artificially accentuated chosen features of domestic animals and birds by selecting promising pairs for reproduction. Darwin was struck by the enormous diversity of form that had been produced in this way.

The analogy between natural and artificial selec- tion became crucial when he presented his theory to the public. In Origin of Species, he observed that even a well-trained ornithologist (expert on birds) would be inclined to regard the many fancy varieties of pigeon as separate species if he did not already know they were all derived from the common rock pigeon. If so much transformation could be achieved by artificial selection in a short time frame, how much more might natural selection have achieved during what many nineteenth-century naturalists acknowledged was the vast age of the earth?

Some of Darwin’s readers supposed that because human intelligence intervened in the deliberate choices of the breeders, his account of the transmutation of species implied the direct mediation of divine intelligence in shaping living forms. When he wrote Origin of Species, Darwin still believed in a creator who had designed the laws of nature. But he did not believe that such a creator had micromanaged every detail of the evolutionary process. He had rejected Christianity several years earlier and in later years would describe himself as an agnostic.

Was Darwin’s departure from Christian orthodoxy a direct consequence of his science? In 1839 when he married his cousin Emma Wedgwood, she expressed concern that the high standards of evidence required in the practice of science might adversely affect his attitude to the Bible (see “Did you know?” inside front cover).

He had doubts about miracle stories in Scripture, later declaring that “the more we know of the fixed laws of nature the more incredible miracles become.” His twin ideas of “descent with modification” and natural selection themselves departed from conventional Christian teaching. And his projection of a long, tortuous struggle onto nature—an expansion of what he had read about in Thomas Malthus—could certainly corrode a simple faith in the harmony of creation. “The contented face of nature is but a mask,” he declared in his writings, as he reflected on predators and their prey, death, and the sheer extent of extinction.

But, by Darwin’s own account, these were not the main reasons why he renounced Christianity. Like many other Victorian intellectuals, Darwin developed a deep-seated moral objection to the doctrine of eternal damnation for the unrepentant as it was preached in his day. He felt this was a “damnable doctrine,” not least because it would have condemned his freethinking father and brother to hell for eternity. On this issue he could not see why anyone could wish Christianity to be true.

A second reason he expressed was the difficulty ofreconciling suffering in the world with a loving God. For Darwin the question had deep personal significance. He himself experienced recurrent ill health. Early in 1851 he observed the suffering and death of his daughter Annie at the age of 10, a bitter blow.

Those around him sometimes rationalized suffering as conducive to moral improvement. But Darwin wrote in his autobiography that even if this justification worked for humans, it did not for the “sufferings of millions of the lower animals throughout almost endless time.” Here his scientific and religious reflections came together in his argument that “the presence of so much suffering agrees well with the view that all organic beings have been developed through variation and natural selection.”

To reject Christianity need not make one an atheist. Darwin claimed he had never been an atheist in the sense of denying the existence of God. Corresponding with Harvard botanist Asa Gray in 1860, he said he was inclined to see living things as the result of designed laws with the details left to chance. It is often noted that Darwin’s account of evolution undermined the celebrated arguments of Paley, who saw in the beautiful contrivances and adaptations of living organisms unassailable evidence of design. The action of natural selection as described by Darwin offered an alternative explanation.

But this did not mean that the laws of nature were not designed. Darwin confessed to an “inward conviction” that “this beautiful Universe” is not the result of chance. But with Darwin there was always a nuance or qualification. Should he trust his own convictions? Perhaps not, he thought, for “the horrid doubt always arises whether the convictions of man’s mind, which has been developed from the mind of the lower animals, are of any value or trustworthy.”

debate and defiance

Despite his agnosticism, Darwin never doubted that religious beliefs and practices had contributed to the evolution of humanity’s moral sense. Unlike both his most determined champions and detractors today, he did not believe that his theories implied atheism, considering it “absurd” to suppose that one could not believe in both God and evolution.

He was confident of this because among his earliest converts were Christian clergymen. In England these included novelist and Christian socialist Charles Kingsley and future archbishop of Canterbury Frederick Temple. Both affirmed that a God who could make all things make themselves was more admirable to them than a God who periodically intervened to conjure new species into existence. In the United States, Asa Gray at Harvard and James McCosh at Princeton, both Presbyterians, combined Darwinian evolution with Christian commitment.

But Darwin posed a difficult challenge to others. In England the bishop of Oxford, Samuel Wilberforce, proclaimed that Christ’s redemptive mission conferred a dignity on humankind that Darwin effectively destroyed. In the United States, Princeton theologian Charles Hodge declared in his book What Is Darwinism? (1874) not that evolution itself was necessarily atheistic but that Darwin’s distinctive mechanism of natural selection, heavily dependent on random variation, was effectively so. And so the great controversy began. CH

By John Hedley Brooke

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

John Hedley Brooke has been Andreas Idreos Professor of Science and Religion at the University of Oxford, Fellow of Harris Manchester College, and director of the Ian Ramsey Centre. He is the author of Science and Religion: Some Historical Perspectives and other books on the history of science.
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