Accommodating science: Evolution and change

Robert J. Berry is a geneticist at University College London. He is also an evangelical Christian and has written a number of works on the compatibility of religion (his kind, anyway) and evolution (Berry 1975). He was moved to write to the science journal Nature, in which he took to task their editorial (Berry 2009):

The Church in England did not generally react so “badly” to Darwin’s ideas as readers of your Editorial may be led to believe (Nature 461, 1173–1174; 2009).

Reverend Charles Kingsley, Regius Professor at the University of Cambridge, UK, wrote in 1863 “God’s greatness, goodness and perpetual care I never understood as I have since I became a convert to Mr Darwin’s views.” The Bishop of Carlisle, Harvey Goodwin, proclaimed after Darwin’s funeral in Westminster Abbey “It would have been unfortunate if anything had occurred to give weight and currency to the foolish notion which some have diligently propagated, but for which Mr Darwin was not responsible, that there is a necessary conflict between a knowledge of Nature and a belief in God.” In 1884 Frederick Temple, Bishop of Exeter and future Archbishop of Canterbury, wrote “The doctrine of Evolution restores to the science of Nature the unity which we should expect in the creation of God.”Aubrey Moore, a leading theologian at the University of Oxford, welcomed Darwinism “as a friend in the disguise of a foe” because it struck at the heart of nineteenth-century deism.

Ironically, in view of later developments, even some of the authors of Fundamentals (a series of Christian booklets published in the United States between 1910 and 1915) were happy to see evolution as the method that God used in his work of creation.

The assumption that there must be conflict between evolution and religion was (and is) the result of the distorting “cultural lenses” that you mention. Modern creationism was born only in the twentieth century, largely through the efforts of the Canadian adventist George McCready Price. There has probably been less conflict in England than in most other countries.

None of this is to claim that all religious people view evolution in a positive light, nor that all evolutionists are objective about religion. But we need to remain aware of our cultural lenses.

Two things about this. One is that Berry is absolutely right about the conventional religious response to Darwin prior to 1920 or so. For the first 50 years, Darwin was generally seen as a friend to religion. Second, he is right also that we tend to read back into the past the battles of today, or overgeneralise one minority opinion of Christianity – the modern, post-1960, fundagelicals.

In this section I aim to discuss the real relations between religious institutions and doctrines on the one hand and the ideas that Darwin either did or was read to have held by his contemporaries. As always, it turns out that the truth is more complex than the simple textbook stories we usually hear or see on television. In fact, even some historians have been so overblown in the ways they have framed Darwin’s relation to religion that they have overlooked the actual evidence in favour of seeing the patterns of their favourite thesis, and this has found its way into popular culture, just in the past few decades.

What is philosophically objectionable to Darwin’s theories? It cannot be that they explain biological phenomena without reference to the deity, or every scientific theory that appealed to lawful explanations would be in the same boat. It cannot be that he appealed to unknown laws of variation, which he called chance, or the same thing would be true of dice games. It cannot be that Darwin assigned humans to the same taxonomic group as apes – Linnaeus did this over a century earlier, and he was quite convinced this was a Christian thing to do. So, what was the problem?

We had better first ask what it was that Darwin actually did theorise. It is important to realise that the categories we now use to define and delineate theoretical differences in science are properly applicable only to modern schools of thought. Just as nothing good comes of calling the Levellers and Diggers of the first English Civil War “Marxists”, nothing good comes from calling a scientist in the nineteenth century by the terms developed to cover scientists in the twentieth. This is a sin in history, known as Whiggism (Butterfield 1931).

Unfortunately, most emphasis by modern scientists and philosophers has been given to Darwin’s theory of natural selection. I say unfortunately, because in my view, it was neither original to him, nor the key idea of his theories. He came up with it, without much in the way of influence apart from some economic reading that derived from Adam Smith and Thomas Malthus, but he was anticipated by several writers. One hastens to add: the idea of a winnowing out of unfit varieties is old, very old. But Darwin saw that it could cause change if the nature of what was fit changed due to external processes. Apart from a few authors who had little impact, the notion that a selection process could cause rather than retard change in a population was Darwin’s.

But what was in fact his greatest achievement was the idea of what we now call common descent, or the evolutionary tree. Taxonomists had for some time represented the diversity of plants and animals in a treelike schematic of indented lists of taxa that were closely related, with braces used to indicate grouping. This naturally formed what any computer scientist today would call a binary tree structure, where each taxon (a node in the graph) is subsumed under one other node. For Darwin, this was how you explained that all mammals grouped together apart from birds or lizards, and why groups of each of these were divisible out of that larger group: they were all descended from a more recent common ancestral species than the others were. Darwin took this common representation and asked whether it was the structure it was because of genealogical relationships between taxa: in short, did a treelike representation derived from an actual historical process of descent and modification? This was both his core problem and his crowning achievement. The notion of descent with modification, which we now call evolution, resolved and explained this apparent pattern in the world, which is what any good empiricist wants to achieve.

Darwin thought that selection would fit any population of organisms to the novel features of a new environment, either due to migration into new territory for the taxon, or external changes in the environment itself. However, he went even further – he believed that selection was what caused new species. This is now very much a minority opinion in evolutionary biology, although all agree that some new species are the result of selection for varieties that are adapting to some novel or fragmented environments. Most biologists think, though, that the majority of new species are formed through a process known as vicariance. Here a subpopulation becomes isolated from the main populations, and through adaptation incidentally acquires changes in its mating and developmental lifecycle, so that when the populations come back into contact, if they ever do, they are now unable to interbreed freely. [1] Selection did not cause the new species to form, except in the sense that it caused the new species to adapt. Being a new species is an incidental side effect, happening at random. And chance was probably the most concerning issue for the nineteenth century intellectual.

I make out six theories that were argued for by Darwin, one of which is now debunked (pangenesis) and several more that are later additions. When we consider the conflicts between evolution and religion, we must ask which of these theories was in play at the time of the conflict. For instance, many objected to the role that variation played Darwin’s theory of natural selection, and argued that since it was unknown how that occurred, Darwinian evolution was not to be accepted over such alternatives as God’s direct intervention. Now we have the story of mutation and variation right down to the molecular level, and so that objection no longer holds (not that this stops some people from using it). The following table lays out the main theories. There are of course new approaches being advocated, such as epigenetic inheritance and systems theories, but they don’t change how Darwinian evolution was received in the past.

Post-Darwin theories of evolution

Theory and author Content Opposing view
1. Transmutationism (evolution); old view, first scientifically proposed by Pierre Maupertuis in 1745 Species change form to become other species Fixism (creationism)
2. Common descent (Descent with modification); Charles Darwin – some limited earlier examples Similar species share common ancestors Lamarckian
3. Struggle for existence; everyone since the Greeks who did natural history More are born than can survive and organisms compete in a zero sum game Mutualism
4. Natural selection (too many to count; Darwin first to make it an agent of universal change) Relatively better adapted have more offspring and come to dominate a population ?
5. Sexual selection; Erasmus Darwin, Charles’ grandfather, and possibly
More “attractive” organisms of sexual species mate more (and have more offspring), causing otherwise unfit traits to spread
6. Biogeographic distribution; Alfred Russel Wallace Species occur close by related species, explaining the distributions of various
Centres of origin (species were created at one place and then spread and changed from there)
7. Heredity All Darwinian theories of heredity involve the natural occurrence of variation
in a population
Fixism: populations come in fixed types that do not change
a. PangenesisDarwin Particles from the body cause some traits to be more strongly inherited if they
are used by an organism
No longer accepted; replaced by Mendelism
b. Weismannism; August Weismann after 1894 Germ cells (sex cells such as sperm and eggs) do not inherit the organism’s experience Lamarckism (organisms inherit their parents’ experiences)
c. Mendelian synthesis; Morgan and the Mendelians after 1900; Fisher and the Modern Synthesis after 1928 Genes are the bearers of heritable information, and are not modified by the
organism’s experience
8. Random mutation; arguably Darwin held this. “Mutation” just means “variation of heritable form” Changes in genes aren’t directed towards “better” alternatives; in other words, mutations are blind to the needs imposed by the ecology in which organisms find themselves Orthogenesis (changes occur based on either the needs of the organisms, or to a pre-directed end point)
9. Genetic drift/neutralism; Sewall Wright in the 1930s; Kimura and Ohno in the 1960s Some changes in genes are due to chance or the so-called “sampling error” of small populations of organisms. Molecular neutralism is the view that the most genes are about the same fitness, so changes are random “Panadaptationism” (a view ascribed to those who find selective advantage in every case of evolution)

Philosophically, and therefore theologically, there are three main conflicts with accepted ideas before Darwin, and one which was never the accepted view but is often wrongly said to be. The three main objections are change, chance and mindlessness. The wrongly attributed idea is essentialism.

Change: while naturalists before Darwin did not accept the idea that kinds are fixed, they also did not accept that there were long term changes in living kinds over time. There are two reasons for this: one is that until quite recently, as we have seen, the age of the earth was supposed to be short. There simply wasn’/span>t time. However, evolutionary change had been in the scientific air for a century before Darwin took it up, and there were all kinds of theories as to how it happened, including one by Darwin’s own grandfather, Erasmus Darwin, who unfortunately used bad poetry to get his ideas out. A more famous evolutionist before Darwin was Lamarck, who held that there was a physical driving force that caused lineages of organisms to become more complex. The other reason why evolution was not adopted earlier is rather obvious when you think of it: there were no scientific notions of fixed kinds until the seventeenth century. Only after the Ark became a scientific topic did it occur to anyone to give the Latin words species and genus a scientific definition.

It wasn’t change as such that most objected to. Throughout the middle ages popular and technical naturalism had monsters formed of interbreeding between species, which was a view put forward by Aristotle. For example, the giraffe was held to be a hybrid of the leopard and the camel (hence its medieval name camelopard), and the hyena a cross between a dog and a lion. What the problem was for most religious people was the idea that all animals, including humans, shared a common ancestor. Human exceptionalism was a strongly and emotively held belief. Previous evolutionary views held that humans evolved from some existing species like chimps (and modern chimps from some other existing species of ape, etc.) so that the rather stupid modern creationist slogan “If we evolved from monkeys, why are there still monkeys?” made sense then: if there was a monkey species, then it had to evolve all at once into a chimp, which in turn had to evolve all at once into a human, and so there should not be any monkeys or apes left once humans evolved. Lamarck’s solution to this was that there were many lineages each evolving at their own rate, and not historically evolved from each other or a shared ancestor.

Darwin’s solution to what we might call the problem of biodiversity was that only parts of species evolved into other species (if they didn’t go extinct first), so that where there had been one species (say, of a monkey that lost its tail) now there were two, and the group “apes” was formed. Species multiplied. But this meant that apes were not some primitive kind of thing that happened to resemble us, but were instead our second cousins, and modern apes were just as evolved as humans, only they were adapted to a different sort of lifestyle and ecology. The older versions of evolution always had the Europeans, and usually the actual nation of which the writer was a member, at the top of a ladder that different lines were attempting to climb. Darwin’s was more like groups spreading out and exploring a territory. No location was “more evolved” than any other. This more than simple evolution is what bothered many religious writers. It meant that the comfortable colonial assumption of superiority could not be easily maintained.

Chance: Despite the exhortations of the Preacher (“the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favour to men of skill; but time and chance happeneth to them all” [2]), the most objected-to notion by the Christian tradition was the notion of randomness. Darwin’s idea that “fortuitous variation” occurred at random was seen as a major challenge to a lawful universe, and thus to a lawgiver. Chance undercut the power of God and his plan, and worse, for many rationalistic believers, our ability to understand and predict it. Darwin was immediately compared to that old “atheist” Epicurus. And as we have seen, theologians immediately began to call Darwinian evolution “atheistic”.

Darwin’s sense of random was pretty standard: it equivocated between “causes as yet unknown” and “indeterminate”, which was the way chance was framed in educated discourse of his day. He never relied upon one or the other exclusively, although he tended to think that variation was accidental in the sense of being as yet not understood. But what he most required, as we will shortly see, is that the variations were not correlated with the needs of either the organisms or some deity or plan. They happened, for whatever reason, and then they were successful or not.

This was the period in which statistical thinking was being developed, and notions of chance were often debated. Chance as a degrader of order and progress was well understood, but Darwin treated it as a source of novelty and progress (even if of only a limited kind towards the best solution for present purposes). This was very hard to assimilate. Nowadays we know that chance plus what artificial intelligence researchers call “hill climbing” algorithms can solve multivariate problems, not perfectly, but well enough. In the 1860s, this was not at all so obvious. There was order and there was chaos, and chaos destroyed, not created.

Natural selection was seen as a disorder eliminator, as a winnower of accidental variation, and so many religious and philosophical writers argued that it could not be the cause of novelty in the world. Something else was needed to account for progress than natural selection. Ironically, given that we now associate Darwin with natural selection (his “dangerous idea” as Dennett has called it, 1995), it was in fact not widely adopted as a force in evolution for nearly 50 years after Darwin published the Origin. Religious critics were simply following the scientific trend until around 1908. It took perhaps another 20 years for selection to become understood as a creative force in biology, in part as new experiments were done to show that it was effective.

In another irony of history (this subject is loaded with them), “scientific creationism” developed just at about the time that scientists themselves were starting to see Darwinian evolution as a fact, shown by experiment and new mathematics to be the best theory, even if it took them time to work out the role that chance had apart from selection, as well as within it. George Macready Price, a seventh day adventist, published his “flood geology” from 1906 onwards, in which he claimed that science supported the book of Genesis. This view was very eccentric until the 1960s, when Henry Morris and John Whitcomb published their book The Genesis Flood in 1960 (Numbers 1992). The probability is that as science became less uncertain on these matters, the reaction against it increased to combat the loss of the faithful.

Mindlessness: Religious thinkers since the scientific revolution began have always had problems with undirected natural processes. When such laws were held to be the creation of God this was explained as part of God’s providence, in creating a natural order that allowed humanity to flourish. But some outcomes could not be the result of mechanical laws, and mind was, quite literally, one of them. An implication soon spotted within Darwin’s ideas had been spotted earlier in the writings of radicals and materialists who used a mechanistic evolutionary approach: it implied that our mind, and hence our intelligence, and all that made us special (in the eyes of God), was the outcome of mechanical processes, and not so special at all.

One reason this was so objectionable is that if complex mental powers could be caused by mindless processes like evolution by natural selection, then this tended to deprecate humanity’s special status in the natural world. As well as the obvious loss of status, this meant that we simply could not justify exploiting the natural world without regard for the outcomes, just as industrial capitalism needed to do exactly that (and still does). There was, I believe, a strong economic and political motivation for the objection to the idea that we are after all, animals come from animals.

There is a bit of a chicken and egg problem with this, and I do not mean whether a literal egg preceded a literal chicken, evolutionarily. Does religion object to the mindlessness of nature because it undercuts the socioeconomic structures of the day that it is a servant of (as the sociologists would argue), or do socioeconomic interests mirror the views of an authoritative religious philosophy, as critics of religion tend to say? Or is it a two-way interaction? I feel that religion tends to follow and confirm the ideas and interests of socioeconomic processes in society, but still ideas have consequences.

There is also the view held by many if not most religious adherents that there is “something more” to the world than just the physical-mechanical. It is often stated that this is, in fact, the default view of humans, that we are dualistic entities of mind and body, and that there is a spiritual realm as well as a material one. Personally, I doubt this. The default view is, I think, that we are bodies, and if you destroy the body, you destroy the person; only in later, very influential, times and traditions (including of course the Christian) does it become accepted folk wisdom that we are mind-body complexes. An argument might be made, in fact, that even in the “Abrahamic” religions, that idea came from the Indus Valley via Persia. Nevertheless, as the religious traditions stood when science took off, mechanical explanations were seen as somewhat shabby and disreputable, a kind of tradesman’s explanation only to be let in through the kitchen, and not through the hallowed front door of philosophy.

These three main objections represent tendencies rather than elaborate and sustained arguments against “Darwinism”, which is a protean entity in its own right. Many people held many views that were called “Darwinian” – most particularly “social Darwinism”, which predates Darwin by centuries and was so named during the second world war by historian Richard Hofstadter (1944) to make a polemic point against the fascists of his day. It was never a movement, and is little more than a term of disapproval (Bannister 1988). The social implications of Darwin were always at issue though, starting even before Darwin died. In the end, the major motivation for the rejection of Darwin is one of consequentialism: the morality of competition.

Marx and Engels dismissed Darwin’s work as “crude” and “English”, doing little more than making British commerce a law of nature. This view has been repeated by many subsequent authors. However, while it is clear that some of Darwin’s thinking was derived from the economist Adam Smith via David Ricardo, it is best to see it not as the affirmation of economics so much as using the new conceptions of how populations (“markets”) behave, taking ideas from Malthus (Young 1985).

Christian socialists also tended to see Darwinian thought (though always careful to exclude Darwin himself, at least when he lived) as a kind of apologia for rapacious capitalism. The consequences of social policy based upon unfettered competition led to effectively allowing the poor to die; which Darwin himself did not argue for – indeed, he argued weakly against it in the Descent of Man (Darwin 1871, 133f). Darwin cites a paper published about 5 years earlier by W. R. Greg, who argues that natural selection is not active among humans (or, as the convention had it then, “Man”). It is most interesting that he does, because Greg is the intellectual father of all those who think that civilisation, and in particular medicine and poverty relief, leads to a degradation of health and virtue. In short, Greg is the real father of social “Darwinism”. What is Darwin’s response? First he spends a dozen or so pages showing that in fact civilised human beings are still subjected to (different but active) selection pressures. Then he argues that this neither leads to progress nor decline.

If the various checks specified in the two last paragraphs, and perhaps others as yet unknown, do not prevent the reckless, the vicious and otherwise inferior members of society from increasing at a quicker rate than the better class of men, the nation will retrograde, as has too often occurred in the history of the world. We must remember that progress is no invariable rule. It is very difficult to say why one civilised nation rises, becomes more powerful, and spreads more widely, than another; or why the same nation progresses more quickly at one time than at another. We can only say that it depends on an increase in the actual number of the population, on the number of the men endowed with high intellectual and moral faculties, as well as on their standard of excellence. Corporeal structure appears to have little influence, except so far as vigour of body leads to vigour of mind. [p140]

Was Darwin a racist? Maybe. But Greg certainly was. [3] Darwin’s comments are somewhat moderate in contrast to this, at the time uncontroversial in its attitudes to negroes and other native ethnicities, popular essay. I particularly like Darwin’s summary:

Natural selection follows from the struggle for existence; and this from a rapid rate of increase. It is impossible not to regret bitterly, but whether wisely is another question, the rate at which man tends to increase; for this leads in barbarous tribes to infanticide and many other evils, and in civilised nations to abject poverty, celibacy, and to the late marriages of the prudent. But as man suffers from the same physical evils as the lower animals, he has no right to expect an immunity from the evils consequent on the struggle for existence. Had he not been subjected during primeval times to natural selection, assuredly he would never have attained to his present rank. [p142]

Essentialism: it is a myth that prior to Darwin, the dominant view of religious and philosophical thought was “essentialistic”, which meant that in order for something to be a member of a kind, it had to have all the defining properties of the kind, and no other kind had just those defining properties. In short, according to the essentialist story, if an organism was born of parents from which it differed in essential traits, then it was a new species all at once. The first human was born of ape parents, in this view. Only it never existed. It was caused by confusing the logical sense of a “species” with the use of that word by naturalists. Religious naturalists as much as more secularly inclined ones noted that organisms varied in the wild and under domestication. This is a distraction from the real issues of religion and evolution, and ultimately is incorrect. [4]

Was Darwin an atheist, an agnostic, or a bad Christian?

The subject of Darwin’s religion is in one sense quite irrelevant to the truth and relation of his several theories to the dominant religions views of his day, but in another sense it is rather illustrative. There is a well-trodden myth that Darwin lost his faith after the death of his beloved daughter Annie (Keynes 2001)but this has been roundly debunked (Van Wyhe and Pallen 2012). It is a classic case of looking in the sources for what was expected before you went looking. Darwin is a hook on which many prior expectations are hung. Another example is the so-called “class traitor” myth, that Darwin held off publishing for twenty years because he felt like a traitor to his class, given that evolution was associated with radical politics (Desmond and Moore 1991). Instead, Darwin had a plan that he kept to, to ensure that he had done his scientific due diligence before offering up a radical theoretical structure (van Wyhe 2007)

Darwin began his studies at Edinburgh in medicine, but he didn’t complete his degree, and so went to Cambridge to do an arts degree in order to qualify for ordination in the Church of England. He was, by all accounts, rather diffidently orthodox. At some point, Darwin began to have doubts. According to his autobiography, this happened in the years 1836–38, which occurred simultaneously with his formulation of the theory of evolution by natural selection, which culminated in October 1838. The more he developed his scientific ideas, the less he was religious, until he admitted to himself that he was an agnostic (a term later coined by his future friend, Thomas Henry Huxley). Annie did not die until April 1851, by which time he was already firm in his lack of faith.

What is much more interesting is Darwin’s attitude to religion after he developed and published his material, and had become agnostic. He steadfastly refused to draw any conclusions about religion in public or in private. He never ever claimed that his theory was incompatible with Christianity (perhaps in deference to the feelings of his devout wife Emma). In correspondence he wrote a number of telling comments (Darwin 1888, vol I, ch. 8):

Now I have never systematically thought much on religion in relation to science…[16 November 1871]

…the impossibility of conceiving that this grand and wondrous universe, with our conscious selves, arose through chance, seems to me the chief argument for the existence of God; but whether this is an argument of real value, I have never been able to decide. I am aware that if we admit a first cause, the mind still craves to know whence it came, and how it arose. Nor can I overlook the difficulty from the immense amount of suffering through the world. I am, also, induced to defer to a certain extent to the judgment of the many able men who have fully believed in God; but here again I see how poor an argument this is. The safest conclusion seems to me that the whole subject is beyond the scope of man’s intellect; but man can do his duty. [2 April 1873]

Mr. Darwin begs me to say that he … considers that the theory of Evolution is quite compatible with the belief in a God; but that you must remember that different persons have different definitions of what they mean by God. [1879, written by a family member]

I cannot pretend to throw the least light on such abstruse problems. The mystery of the beginning of all things is insoluble by us; and I for one must be content to remain an Agnostic. (Darwin 1969)

One letter that has been widely misused by opponents of evolutionary naturalism, especially Alvin Plantinga, includes this passage:

You would not probably expect anyone fully to agree with you on so many abstruse subjects; and there are some points in your book which I cannot digest. The chief one is that the existence of so-called natural laws implies purpose. I cannot see this. … But I have had no practice in abstract reasoning and I may be all astray. Nevertheless you have expressed my inward conviction, though far more vividly and clearly than I could have done, that the Universe is not the result of chance. But then with me 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 at all trustworthy. Would any one trust in the convictions of a monkey’s mind, if there are any convictions in such a mind? (Darwin to Graham, July 3 1881, Darwin 1888 I:315)[5]

Plantinga (2008) makes much of this comment about monkey brains as a defeater for evolutionary naturalism. But what neither he nor his commentator in the same journal (Mohrhoff 2008) go on to note is what subject Darwin is worrying over. It is not whether evolution is something a monkey brain can acquire knowledge over: it is God. Only about that does he suggest that a modified monkey’s brain is inadequate to the task of reasoning, about divinity and design. The irony is that Darwin in no way worried that such a brain was adequate to the task of uncovering the laws of nature themselves. This is rather disingenuous of Plantinga, and points up both Darwin’s rather careful abstract reasoning despite his disclaimer, and the fact that modified monkey brains may learn quite a lot about the world in an evolved naturalistic manner.

Darwin was visited by Marx’s daughter’s partner, Edward Aveling near the end of his life, in the company of a German atheist, the zoologist Ludwig Büchner. Darwin asked them “Why do you call yourselves Atheists?” Aveling reported (Aveling 1883, 5f) that

…we were Atheists because there was no evidence of deity, because the invention of a name was not an explanation of phaenomena, because the whole of man’s knowledge was of a natural order, and only when ignorance closed in his onward path was the supernatural invoked. It was pointed out that the Greek ?was privative, not negative; that whilst we did not commit the folly of god-denial, we avoided with equal care the folly of god-assertion: that as god was not proven, we were without god (?????) and by consequence were with hope in this world, and in this world alone. As we spoke, it was evident from the change of light in the eyes that always met ours so frankly, that a new conception was arising in his mind. He had imagined until then that we were deniers of god, and he found the order of thought that was ours differing in no essential from his own. For with point after point of our argument he agreed; statement on statement that was made he endorsed, saying finally: “I am with you in thought, but I should prefer the word Agnostic to the word Atheist.”

Upon this the suggestion was made that, after all, “Agnostic” was but “Atheist” writ respectable, and “Atheist” was only “Agnostic” writ aggressive. To say that one did not know was the verbal equivalent of saying that one was destitute of the god-idea, whilst at the same time a sop was thrown to the Cerberus of society by the adoption of a name less determined and uncompromising. At this he smiled and asked: “Why should you be so aggressive? Is anything gained by trying to force these new ideas upon the mass of mankind? It is all very well for educated, cultured, thoughtful people; but are the masses yet ripe for it?”

Darwin’s final comment is to adopt what we have called strategic compatibilism. Authority counts for nothing, of course, but those who think it is pandering to take the strategic accommodationist line should note that they must exclude Darwin himself from the morally pure set of Darwinians. This is a common thing, of course: Jesus was no Christian, and Marx no Marxist, by all appearances.

Providence and plans

The problem for theists is that most theisms assume that God has a plan. This is sometimes called providence: God provides for goals he has, for the benefit of the organisms, and in particular for humans, and for the achievement of his purposes. As soon as Darwin published, this became an issue, especially among evangelicals in America. Charles Hodge, the famous Princeton theologian, published his What is Darwinism in 1874 in which he argued that there were only three alternative views available to Christians: God created everything, God intervenes in physical processes, or atheism, and Darwinism was atheism, because it eliminates design from the universe.

Not all theisms are providential. Some, for example Japanese Shinto, or Buddhism, allow that the universe is a process in which things happen according to their natures, and humans either have to find ways to survive this or find redemption or nirvana themselves. But the major theisms of Judaism, Christianity and Islam are providentialist, and for them, Darwinism seems to present the conundrum that Hodge engaged. He decided that the existence of physical law itself was a providential act, but that was insufficient: God had to have done more than provide “chance and necessity” to create. He had to act personally.

Darwin, on the other hand, argued that giving credit to God undercut the very need for natural selection as a physical process. In the final chapter of the Variation of Animals and Plants under Domestication (1875), he took Asa Gray to task for suggesting that God made available to selection the variations it needed to achieve God’s plan

…if an architect were to rear a noble and commodious edifice, without the use of cut stone, by selecting from the fragments at the base of a precipice wedge-formed stones for his arches, elongated stones for his lintels, and flat stones for his roof, we should admire his skill and regard him as the paramount power. Now, the fragments of stone, though indispensable to the architect, bear to the edifice built by him the same relation which the fluctuating variations of each organic being bear to the varied and admirable structures ultimately acquired by its modified descendants.

Some authors have declared that natural selection explains nothing, unless the precise cause of each slight individual difference be made clear. Now, if it were explained to a savage utterly ignorant of the art of building, how the edifice had been raised stone upon stone, and why wedge-formed fragments were used for the arches, flat stones for the roof, &c.; and if the use of each part and of the whole building were pointed out, it would be unreasonable if he declared that nothing had been made clear to him, because the precise cause of the shape of each fragment could not be given. But this is a nearly parallel case with the objection that selection explains nothing, because we know not the cause of each individual difference in the structure of each being.

The shape of the fragments of stone at the base of our precipice may be called accidental, but this is not strictly correct; for the shape of each depends on a long sequence of events, all obeying natural laws; on the nature of the rock, on the lines of deposition or cleavage, on the form of the mountain which depends on its upheaval and subsequent denudation, and lastly on the storm or earthquake which threw down the fragments. But in regard to the use to which the fragments may be put, their shape may be strictly said to be accidental. And here we are led to face a great difficulty, in alluding to which I am aware that I am travelling beyond my proper province. An omniscient Creator must have foreseen every consequence which results from the laws imposed by Him. But can it be reasonably maintained that the Creator intentionally ordered, if we use the words in any ordinary sense, that certain fragments of rock should assume certain shapes so that the builder might erect his edifice? If the various laws which have determined the shape of each fragment were not predetermined for the builder’s sake, can it with any greater probability be maintained that He specially ordained for the sake of the breeder each of the innumerable variations in our domestic animals and plants;— many of these variations being of no service to man, and not beneficial, far more often injurious, to the creatures themselves? Did He ordain that the crop and tail-feathers of the pigeon should vary in order that the fancier might make his grotesque pouter and fantail breeds? Did He cause the frame and mental qualities of the dog to vary in order that a breed might be formed of indomitable ferocity, with jaws fitted to pin down the bull for man’s brutal sport? But if we give up the principle in one case,—if we do not admit that the variations of the primeval dog were intentionally guided in order that the greyhound, for instance, that perfect image of symmetry and vigour, might be formed,—no shadow of reason can be assigned for the belief that variations, alike in nature and the result of the same general laws, which have been the groundwork through natural selection of the formation of the most perfectly adapted animals in the world, man included, were intentionally and specially guided. However much we may wish it, we can hardly follow Professor Asa Gray in his belief “that variation has been led along certain beneficial lines,”like a stream “along definite and useful lines of irrigation. If we assume that each particular variation was from the beginning of all time preordained, the plasticity of organisation, which leads to many injurious deviations of structure, as well as that redundant power of reproduction which inevitably leads to a struggle for existence, and, as a consequence, to the natural selection or survival of the fittest, must appear to us superfluous laws of nature. On the other hand, an omnipotent and omniscient Creator ordains everything and foresees everything. Thus we are brought face to face with a difficulty as insoluble as is that of free will and predestination. [volume 2, pages 430-432]

By way of this parable, Darwin is arguing by analogy that if we grant that the theory of natural selection is sufficient to explain adaptation, then we have no need to impose God’s plan, and indeed God would need to be responsible for every “injurious” variant as well as the “beneficial”, which seems impious. However, in his last sentence, the final sentence of that work, he leaves open a solution, and it is a solution leapt upon by many theologians.

One such theologian is William Temple, who once said

I prefer a God who once and for all impressed his will upon creation, to one who continually busied about modifying what he had already done.

In his Gifford Lecture, Nature, Mind and God (1934), Temple expanded upon this:

…no Law of Nature as discovered by physical science is ultimate. It is a general statement of that course of conduct in Nature which is sustained by the purposive action of God so long and so far as it will serve His purpose. No doubt it is true that the same cause will always produce the same effect in the same circumstances. Our contention is that an element in every actual cause, and indeed the determinant element, is the active purpose of God fulfilling itself with that perfect constancy which calls for an infinite graduation of adjustments in the process. Where any adjustment is so considerable as to attract notice it is called a miracle; but it is not a specimen of a special class, it is an illustration of the general character of the World-Process. [Lecture X]

For Temple, God’s plan is the choice of a world process that delivers his goals, although he can act upon it differently if he chooses, which is a form of occasionalism. More recently theologian Holmes Rolston III has argued that while the world is able to generate information, and hence purpose, without an “informer”, still

[t]he creation of matter, energy, law, history, stories, of all the information that generates nature, to say nothing of culture, does need an adequate explanation: some sources, source or Source competent for such creativity. … This portrays a loose teleology, a soft concept of creation, one that permits genuine, though not ultimate, integrity and autonomy in the creatures. (Rolston 1999, 367)

So we are left with several options. We can say God is actively involved in the provision and maintenance of natural law, and may vary it at any time, or that God set up a world which would realise his aims, and if the latter, either he knew ahead of time that it would do so, or he ensures that it does. The choice is between necessity created by God, or chance.

Perhaps the final word on final causes should be left to Darwin’s supporter and friend, the Rev. Charles Kingsley, in the introduction to his sermons:

We will tell the modern scientific man—You are nervously afraid of the mention of final causes.You quote against them Bacon’s saying, that they are barren virgins; that no physical fact was ever discovered or explained by them.You are right: as far as regards yourselves. You have no business with final causes; because final causes are moral causes: and you are physical students only.We, the natural Theologians, have business with them. Your duty is to find out the How of things: ours, to find out the Why.If you rejoin that we shall never find out the Why, unless we first learn something of the How, we shall not deny that. It may be most useful, I had almost said necessary, that the clergy should have some scientific training. It may be most useful—I sometimes dream of a day when it will be considered necessary—that every candidate for Ordination should be required to have passed creditably in at least one branch of physical science, if it be only to teach him the method of sound scientific thought. But our having learnt the How, will not make it needless, much less impossible, for us to study the Why.It will merely make more clear to us the things of which we have to study the Why; and enable us to keep the How and the Why more religiously apart from each other.

But if it be said—After all, there is no Why. The doctrine of evolution, by doing away with the theory of creation, does away with that of final causes,—Let us answer boldly,—Not in the least. We might accept all that Mr Darwin, all that Professor Huxley, all that other most able men, have so learnedly and so acutely written on physical science, and yet preserve our natural Theology on exactly the same basis as that on which Butler and Paley left it. That we should have to develop it, I do not deny. That we should have to relinquish it, I do. (Kingsley 1881, xxif)

At the very least it is clear that some leading theologians in the western world attempted to deal with the science of evolution as it was. They did not always grasp it well, however, and often criticised Lamarck, or Huxley, or Haeckel as if these were all of the same mind morally, methodologically or theoretically. However, Huxley himself objected to Darwin’s theory of natural selection, adopting instead a kind of physical necessity not unlike the hated Owen had earlier proposed. Lamarck used mechanisms of “want” (besoin, it has the same ambiguity in French that “want” does in English) – what an animal was in want of was what would be acquired and passed on. Neither much liked any unguided process like natural selection. Haeckel, although he was all for selection, tended to raise its causal action to the level of types, groups or even races, unlike Darwin, who allowed selection to occur only at the level of the individual competing in a population, or at the most, a village or tribe in cultural evolution. This confusion was increased in the period after Darwin’s death, when a group that came to be known as “Neo-Lamarckians” came to the fore until the end of the 1920s; much of the criticism of evolution was targeted at these authors, who had a kind of vitalistic materialism in mind, and which was often very progressivist (in a crass and racist kind of way). The Scopes Trial, for example, was aimed at a kind of mishmash of Darwinism and Neo-Lamarckism, with elements of Haeckel’s anticlericalism and pantheism.

I have spent a lot of words on evolution largely because it looms so large in American anti science movements, and in many ways it has set the scene and strategy for much religious objection to science since. But it also returns us to where we started: the NCSE’s strategic decision to not exclude religious believers from the pro-science community. So one more example before we return to the argument: neurobiology and the mind.


Aveling, E. B. (1883). The religious views of Charles Darwin. London, Freethought Publishing Company.

Bannister, R. C. (1988). Social Darwinism: science and myth in Anglo-American social thought. Philadelphia, Temple University Press.

Berry, R. J. (1975). Adam and the ape: a Christian approach to the theory of evolution. London, Church Pastoral-Aid Society.

Berry, R. J. (1988). God and evolution. London, Hodder & Stoughton.

Berry, R. J. (2009). “Darwin respected by his religious contemporaries.” Nature 462(7272): 411-411.

Butterfield, H. (1931). The Whig interpretation of history. London, G. Bell.

Darwin, C. R. (1871). The descent of man and selection in relation to sex. London, John Murray.

Darwin, C. R. (1875). The variation of animals and plants under domestication. London, John Murray.

Darwin, C. R. (1888). The life and letters of Charles Darwin: including an autobiographical chapter. Lond., Murray.

Darwin, C. R. (1969). The autobiography of Charles Darwin, 1809-1882: with original omissions restored, edited with appendix and notes by his grand-daughter, Nora Barlow. New York, Norton.

Dennett, D. C. (1995). Darwins dangerous idea: evolution and the meanings of life. New York, Simon and Schuster.

Desmond, A. and J. Moore (1991). Darwin. Harmondsworth UK, Penguin.

Gordon, S. (1989). “Darwin and political economy: The connection reconsidered.” Journal of the History of Biology 22(3): 437-459.

Hofstadter, R. (1944). Social Darwinism in American thought. Boston, Beacon Press.

Keynes, R. (2001). Annie’s box: Charles Darwin, his daughter and human evolution. London, Fourth Estate.

Kingsley, C. (1881). Westminster Sermons. With a preface. London, Macmillan and Co.

Numbers, R. L. (1992). The creationists. New York, A. A. Knopf : Distributed by Random House.

Plantinga, A. (2008). “Evolution vs. naturalism: why they are like oil and water.” AntiMatters 2(3): 79-84.

Plantinga, A. (2008) “Religion and Science.” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy Winter.

Rolston, H. (1999). Genes, genesis, and God: values and their origins in natural and human history. Cambridge, Cambridge University Press.

Temple, W. (1934). Nature, Man and God: Being the Gifford Lectures Delivered in the University of Glasgow in the Academical Years 1932-1933 and 1933-1934. London, Macmillan.

van Wyhe, J. (2007). “Mind the gap: did Darwin avoid publishing his theory for many years?” Notes and Records of the Royal Society 61(2): 177-205.

Van Wyhe, J. and M. J. Pallen (2012). “The ‘Annie Hypothesis’: Did the Death of His Daughter Cause Darwin to ‘Give up Christianity’?” Centaurus 54(2): 105-123.

Wilkins, John S.( 2013). “Essentialism in biology.” In Philosophy of Biology: A companion for educators, edited by Kostas Kampourakis, 395-419. Dordrecht: Springer.

Young, R. M. (1985). Darwins metaphor: nature‘/span>s place in Victorian culture. Cambridge; New York, Cambridge University Press.


[1] They may be able to do what geneticists call “introgress” – have occasional successful hybrids that permit genes to flow one way or both. This is very common in flowering plants and ferns, for example.
[2] Ecclesiastes/Koheleth 9:11.
[3] I have reproduced the entire essay, which is rather hard to get access to, at my website:
[4] For a summary of the different meanings of “essentialism”, see my essay “Essentialism in biology” (Wilkins 2013)
[5] Also available in a newly-edited version on the Darwin Correspondence database <>

14 thoughts on “Accommodating science: Evolution and change

  1. This naturally formed what any computer scientist today would call a B-tree structure, where each taxon (a node in the graph) is subsumed under one other node.

    You should use either “tree” or “binary tree”, rather than B-tree here. As used in computer science, a B-tree is rather specialized for efficient use in databases.

  2. One issue I see is how a science organization that claims evolution is compatible with Christianity knows this to be true. How does it know it isn’t leading people straight to hell? Is it because it doesn’t believe in hell or believe that it doesn’t matter what one believes? I am sure at any time from 1859 to the present, one could find theologians who accepted evolution, were indifferent to evolution, and rejected evolution. Who is correct? What makes a theologian qualified to make claims about his or her religion in regards to scientific knowledge?

  3. ” What makes a theologian qualified to make claims about his or her religion in regards to scientific knowledge?”

    Biblical interpretation. The issue is literalism I would suggest. I would expect a theologian to be expert in interpretation of religious texts, this process will involve dipping you’re toe into areas you have no expertise or authority (but I would suggest that is the case for almost everyone engaged in any form of intellectual activity) and have to guided by debate and others expertise.

    I think with questions like this everyone has to be involved these are not issues for scientific authorities to act in an administrative role checking everyone’s papers are in order and seeking to exclude particular groups from debate.

    Culture is a diverse human enterprise I think you have to involve all those who use it. Everyone has a vested interest here as human beings.

    What one group can claim authority in such things as this?

    Although I would suspect that those lower down the food chain (or perceived to be of lesser importance by the administrative classes) will as always have to fight hard for the right to party or have a voice.

  4. >I think with questions like this everyone has to be involved these are not issues for scientific authorities to act in an administrative role checking everyone’s papers are in order and seeking to exclude particular groups from debate.<

    I agree – scientific organizations are excluding creationists from the debate by picking theologians who believe their religion is compatible with evolution. There is a big disagreement among Christian theologians about this issue – much more so than among scientists. This is also a potential issue with other religions and the problem of picking between religions with different narratives.

    1. Michael, I basically agree with both you and Jeb on what you’ve said here. The issue of whether one view (of the sort under discussion) is compatible with another is not a scientific question (it may be a philosophical and/or theological question).

      “There is a well-trodden myth that Darwin lost his faith after the death of his beloved daughter Annie (Keynes 2001)but this has been roundly debunked (Pallen 2012)(Van Wyhe and Pallen 2012). . . . Annie did not die until June 1850, by which time he was already firm in his lack of faith.”

      I appreciate this historical clarification.

      “. . . ‘Darwinism’, which is a protean entity in its own right.”

      A nice turn of phrase!

      Regarding “strategic compatibilism” (a major focus, and perhaps recommendation, of this post), I enjoy Greg Graffin’s refreshingly cynical analysis:

  5. John, one of your references seems to be erroneous.

    “Pallen, M. (2012). ‘Did the death of his daughter cause Darwin to give up Christianity?’ Evolution: Outreach and Education 54(2): 105–123.”

    I have not been able to track down such an article. Furthermore, the title, the volume and page numbers, and one of the authors are all identical to what’s given in your Van Wyhe and Pallen (2012) reference. The journal Evolution: Education and Outreach [sic] does exist, but it has only reached Volume 7.

    Having noted that, I must thank you for bringing Van Wyhe and Pallen’s work to my attention. This has allowed me to update and correct my 2002 article on “Darwin’s God.”

      1. You’re welcome, John. I’m also wondering about this statement in your post:

        “Annie did not die until June 1850, by which time he was already firm in his lack of faith.”

        Sources I’ve checked give Annie’s date of death as April 23, 1851.

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