Skip to content

God and evolution 1

Last updated on 22 Jun 2018

[I have decided to restart ET for a bit, but given my circumstances, it will be sporadic at best. This is the first in a series that will be tagged “Living with Evolution”, and is the first rough draft of what I hope will be a book.]

The common view these days is the religion and evolution are incompatible, but ironically evolution was widely and almost universally adopted by the major denominations in the nineteenth century when Darwin published the Origin in 1859. One of Darwin’s first defenders and popularisers was the Rev. Charles Kingsley, an Anglican minister, whose The Water Babies was published in 1862 and 63. In it he made use of a somewhat distorted account of evolution:

Does not each of us, in coming into this world, go through a transformation just as wonderful as that of a sea-egg, or a butterfly? and do not reason and analogy, as well as Scripture, tell us that that transformation is not the last? and that, though what we shall be, we know not, yet we are here but as the crawling caterpillar, and shall be hereafter as the perfect fly. The old Greeks, heathens as they were, saw as much as that two thousand years ago… [Chapter 2]

The Water Baby in question, Tom, encounters a Professor Ptthmllnsprts who argues that men did not come from apes:

He held very strange theories about a good many things. He had even got up once at the British Association, and declared that apes had hippopotamus majors in their brains just as men have. Which was a shocking thing to say; for, if it were so, what would become of the faith, hope, and charity of immortal millions? You may think that there are other more important differences between you and an ape, such as being able to speak, and make machines, and know right from wrong, and say your prayers, and other little matters of that kind; but that is a child’s fancy, my dear. Nothing is to be depended on but the great hippopotamus test. If you have a hippopotamus major in your brain, you are no ape, though you had four hands, no feet, and were more apish than the apes of all aperies. But if a hippopotamus major is ever discovered in one single ape’s brain, nothing will save your great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-greater-greatest — grandmother from having been an ape too. No, my dear little man; always remember that the one true, certain, final, and all-important difference between you and an ape is, that you have a hippopotamus major in your brain, and it has none; and that, therefore, to discover one in its brain will be a very wrong and dangerous thing, at which every one will be very much shocked, as we may suppose they were at the professor.— Though really, after all, it don’t much matter; because — as Lord Dundreary and others would put it — nobody but men have hippopotamuses in their brains; so, if a hippopotamus was discovered in an ape’s brain, why it would not be one, you know, but something else.

But the professor had gone, I am sorry to say, even further than that; for he had read at the British Association at Melbourne, Australia, in the year 1999, a paper which assured every one who found himself the better or wiser for the news, that there were not, never had been, and could not be, any rational or half-rational beings except men, anywhere, anywhen, or anyhow; that nymphs, satyrs, fauns, inui, dwarfs, trolls, elves, gnomes, fairies, brownies, nixes, wills, kobolds, leprechaunes, cluricaunes, banshees, will-o’-the-wisps, follets, lutins, magots, goblins, afrits, marids, jinns, ghouls, peris, deevs, angels, archangels, imps, bogies, or worse, were nothing at all, and pure bosh and wind. And he had to get up very early in the morning to prove that, and to eat his breakfast overnight; but he did it, at least to his own satisfaction. Whereon a certain great divine, and a very clever divine was he, called him a regular Sadducee; and probably he was quite right. Whereon the professor, in return, called him a regular Pharisee; and probably he was quite right too. But they did not quarrel in the least; for, when men are men of the world, hard words run off them like water off a duck’s back. So the professor and the divine met at dinner that evening, and sat together on the sofa afterwards for an hour, and talked over the state of female labour on the antarctic continent (for nobody talks shop after his claret), and each vowed that the other was the best company he ever met in his life. What an advantage it is to be men of the world!

From all which you may guess that the professor was not the least of little Ellie’s opinion. So he gave her a succinct compendium of his famous paper at the British Association, in a form suited for the youthful mind. But, as we have gone over his arguments against water-babies once already, which is once too often, we will not repeat them here.

Now little Ellie was, I suppose, a stupid little girl; for, instead of being convinced by Professor Ptthmllnsprts’ arguments, she only asked the same question over again.

“But why are there not water-babies?”

I trust and hope that it was because the professor trod at that moment on the edge of a very sharp mussel, and hurt one of his corns sadly, that he answered quite sharply, forgetting that he was a scientific man, and therefore ought to have known that he couldn’t know; and that he was a logician, and therefore ought to have known that he could not prove a universal negative — I say, I trust and hope it was because the mussel hurt his corn, that the professor answered quite sharply:

“Because there ain’t.”

Here the debate being parodied is between Richard Owen, who said that there was no hippocampus major in the brains of apes, only in humans, which Thomas Huxley took great delight in showing to be wrong. Owen argued in favour of the “divines”, the Anglican hierarchy to which he owed his station and position; Huxley in favour of a secular science. Both, however, were empiricists. Facts took priority over theory, even for Owen. I think I must have missed that British Association paper in 1999, though, for all that I am a Melbourne resident.

Kingsley’s account was one of the reasons why evolution was so quick to be adopted. At the end of the 1860s, almost all scientists, and a large number of public intellectuals, counted themselves “Darwinians”, at least to the extent that they agreed that existing species had evolved from previous species by a process of modification. Even Owen accept the idea of modified descent, as evolution was called. What he and others did not accept, though, was the idea that the driving mechanism of evolution was an unguided process of natural selection. While evolution was adopted, natural selection was considered disagreeable to morality and religion. In fact, the notion that natural selection even could be an engine of evolution was at issue until almost 70 years later, although there were plenty of advocates for it, both scientific, and political.

Until the 1960s, the idea that evolution itself did not happen, that all living things are now as they were created a few thousand years ago, was the province of a few crackpots and the Seventh Day Adventist church, within which creationism developed in the early part of the twentieth century. While Darwin did object to “special creationism” (where the adjective “special” means “of species), it was a different beast. By Darwin’s time, those who believed in special creationism held that species were the result of divine intervention, not natural processes, but they had accepted that this was an ongoing process over at least several millions of years, a view proposed by Georges Cuvier in the early part of that century.

Modern creationism, which held that the Bible was scientific and that the world was young, was invented, more or less, out of whole cloth by George Macready Price, a Canadian amateur geologist, in the 1910s. Objections to evolution itself had been made by a few, especially during the Scopes trial of 1925 by William Jennings Bryan, who used Price’sideas.

On the whole, though, religious institutions did not object to evolution. In fact, the Catholic intellectual community, when it met to discuss the latest innovations in science, objected first to Dalton’s atomism, as it undercut the rationale for the doctrine of transubstantiation in the Mass. Darwin was discussed, but opinions were split. In the 1910s, though, German Catholic entomologist Erich Wassmann, argued that species could only modify so much, a view that dated back to Buffon in the late 18th century. The objections to evolution, and not just natural selection, weregathering pace.

In the 1960s, certain fundamentalists began to argue that the Bible (or in some cases, the Qur’an) was scientific, and that what the holy writings asserted must be taken literally. This is therefore called “literalism”, and although it is a view that has persisted over the last two thousand years, it has always been a minority opinion amongst believers. Most of the time, the scriptures were taken as being a mixture of allegory (metaphor and hidden theological meaning) and factual claims.

Still, there was something faintly worrying about evolution for many religious. It was taken to be a stalking horse for atheism, for immorality, and for opposition to religion. The proponents of evolution themselves did not help in this impression, either. From Thomas Huxley’s agnosticism, to the views of the so-called “social Darwinists”, traditional beliefs were seen to be under challenge. It did not matter that many religious also thought evolution was correct; only the opponents of religion were seen.

Today a similar trend exists: old arguments never die, as the philosopher John Dewey once noted, we merely get over them. Many proponents of evolution now say much the same things, although a lot more forcefully than in the older times. Evolution requires a loss of faith, a loss of belief in human specialness, and the relativising of morality. In this series, I aim to consider these and other issues that arise for the ordinary person trying to make sense of it all.

Moses Mainonides, a Jewish philosopher of the 12th century, wrote a book entitled A Guide for the Perplexed, about the philosophy of the day. This is something like that. While I will give my own views, I won’t insist upon them. I have my conclusions; you come to yours. What this series will be predicated upon is the view that evolution is true. I won’t argue for that. There are plenty of books and sites that do that. So if you think that evolution is not true, stop reading. You have nothing to learn from this, except how those with whom you disagree may think. That might be worthwhile, though.


  1. A delightful surprise. Sporadic or not, I look forward to you continuing this series.

  2. Emma Louise Pursey Emma Louise Pursey

    So, so worthwhile.

  3. “Objections to evolution itself had been made by a few, especially during the Scopes trial of 1925 by William Jennings Bryant, who used Price’s ideas.”

    IIRC, Price disagreed. Price had wanted to be called as an “expert” witness at the Scopes trial, which Bryant avoided, although he cited him. Price afterwards (and after Bryant’s death) attacked him vigorously for that.

    Need I say “sporadic” is much better than “none”?

  4. Aaron Clausen Aaron Clausen

    I think it’s extremely important to underline the fact that Biblical literalism was, for most of Christianity’s history very much a minority view. This is something both Creationists and the more strident of my fellow atheists seem frequently unaware of.

    Christianity grew out of Hellenized Judaism, and both owe a considerable debt in philosophy, metaphysics and theology to Hellenic concepts. My favorite example is the flat earth described in ancient Hebrew cosmography found in Genesis. No educated 1st century Jew or Christian would read such passages literally, though their ancestors a thousand years before had accepted it as a literal description of the universe. Even by the 1st century enough wrong ideas had been supplanted (admitededly often by equally wrong-headed ideas) that the idea of basing an entire world view off of literal interpretation if Scripture would have seemed more the province if the ignorant and unlearned.

    • David Duffy David Duffy

      Like in Whiston’s New Theory of the Earth (1698), of which Locke said ‘…not heard any one of my acquaintance speak of it, but with great commendations, as I think it deserves’?

      Whiston complains “Others [affect that] the plain letter is no more to be accounted for, or believed, than the fabulous representations of Aesop, or at best, than the mystical parables of our Saviour. Of which mischievous consequence this latter is commonly esteemed, I need not say.”

  5. Thank you, John. This sounds like an excellent book idea.

    Consider this for another chapter: Perhaps the first conservative Baptist to incorporate theistic evolution is theology was Augustus Hopkins Strong in the1899 CHRIST IN CREATION AND ETHICAL MONISM:

    And here is the 1912 edition of his SYSTEMATIC THEOLOGY:

    According to modern standards of science, his 1899 book looks humorous, but he, nonetheless, was a genius of his time.

  6. Jeb Jeb

    I and I feeling Irie!

  7. Oh Happy Dance! I’m glad you are back, my brain cells need the exercise. 🙂

  8. ronvanwegen ronvanwegen

    “Evolution requires a loss of faith, a loss of belief in human specialness, and the relativising of morality.”

    Them’s fighten’ words!

    • I am paraphrasing others. I think this is not true.

  9. Jeb Jeb

    “So the professor and the divine met at dinner that evening, and sat together on the sofa afterwards for an hour, and talked over the state of female labour on the antarctic continent (for nobody talks shop after his claret), and each vowed that the other was the best company he ever met in his life. What an advantage it is to be men of the world!”

    The messy and difficult bit of it all I find and a live attack to this type of argument lurks within it. Ius gentium.

  10. “Bryant” needs to be corrected to “Bryan.”

Comments are closed.