Popular Science Monthly/Volume 26/December 1884/Religion and the Doctrine of Evolution
THE regularity of nature is the first postulate of Science; but it requires the very slightest observation to show us that, along with this regularity, there exists a vast irregularity, which Science can only deal with by exclusion from its province. The world as we see it is full of changes; and these changes, when patiently and perseveringly examined, are found to be subject to invariable, or almost invariable, laws. But the things themselves which thus change are as multifarious as the changes which they undergo. They vary infinitely in quantity, in qualities, in arrangement throughout space, possibly in arrangement throughout time. Take a single substance such, say, as gold. How much gold there is in the whole universe, and where it is situated, we not only have no knowledge, but can hardly be said to be on the way to have knowledge. Why its qualities are what they are, and why it alone possesses all these qualities; how long it has existed, and how long it will continue to exist, these questions we are unable to answer. The existence of the many forms of matter, the properties of each form, the distribution of each: all this Science must in the last resort assume.
But I say in the last resort. For it is possible, and Science soon makes it evident that it is true, that some forms of matter grow out of other forms. There are endless combinations. And the growth of new out of old forms is of necessity a sequence, and falls under the law of invariability of sequences, and becomes the subject-matter of science. As in each separate case Science asserts each event of to-day to have followed by a law of invariable sequence on the events of yesterday; the earth has reached the precise point in its orbit now which was determined by the law of gravitation as applied to its motion at the point which it reached a moment ago; the weather of the present hour has come by meteorological laws out of the weather of the last hour; the crops and the flocks now found on the surface of the habitable earth are the necessary outcome of preceding harvests and preceding flocks, and of all that has been done to maintain and increase them; so, too, if we look at the universe as a whole, the present condition of that whole is, if the scientific postulate of invariable sequence be admitted, and in as far as it is admitted, the necessary outcome of its former condition; and all the various forms of matter, whether living or inanimate, must, for the same reason and with the same limitation, be the necessary outcome of preceding forms of matter. This is the foundation of the doctrine of evolution.
Now, stated in this abstract form, this doctrine will be, and indeed if science be admitted at all must be, accepted by everybody. Even the Roman Church, which holds that God is perpetually interfering with the course of nature, either in the interests of religious truth or out of loving-kindness to his creatures, yet will acknowledge that the number of such interferences almost disappears in comparison of the countless millions of instances in which there is no reason to believe in any interference at all. And, if we look at the universe as a whole, the general proposition as stated above is quite unaffected by the infinitesimal exception which is to be made by a believer in frequent miracles. But when this proposition is applied in detail it at once introduces the possibility of an entirely new history of the material universe. For this universe, as we see it, is almost entirely made up of composite and not of simple substances. We have been able to analyze all the substances that we know into a comparatively small number of simple elements—some usually solid, some liquid, some gaseous. But these simple elements are rarely found uncombined with others; most of those which we meet with in a pure state have been taken out of combination and reduced to simplicity by human agency. The various metals that we ordinarily use are mostly found in a state of ore, and we do not generally obtain them pure except by smelting. The air we breathe, though not a compound, is a mixture. The water which is essential to our life is a compound. And, if we pass from inorganic to organic substances, all vegetables and animals are compound, sustained by various articles of food which go to make up their frames. Now, how have these compounds been formed? It is quite possible that some of them, or all of them to some extent, may have been formed from the first. If Science could go back to the beginning of all things, which it obviously can not, it might find the composition already accomplished, and be compelled to start with it as a given fact—a fact as incapable of scientific explanation as the existence of matter at all. But, on the other hand, composition and decomposition is a matter of every-day experience. Our very food could not nourish us except by passing through these processes in our bodies; and by the same processes we prepare much of our food before consuming it. May not Science go back to the time when these processes had not yet begun? May not the starting-point of the history of the universe be a condition in which the simple elements were still uncombined? If Science could go back to the beginning of all things, might we not find all the elements of material things ready indeed for the action of the inherent forces which would presently unite them in an infinite variety of combinations, but as yet still separate from each other? Scattered through enormous regions of space, but drawn together by the force of gravitation; their original heat, whatever it may have been, increased by their mutual collision; made to act chemically on one another by such increase or by subsequent decrease of temperature; perpetually approaching nearer to the forms into which, by the incessant action of the same forces, the present universe has grown—these elements, and the working of the several laws of their own proper nature, may be enough to account scientifically for all the phenomena that we observe. We do not even then get back to regularity. Why these elements, and no others; why in these precise quantities; why so distributed in space; why endowed with these properties: still are questions which Science can not answer, and there seems no reason to expect that any scientific answer will ever be possible. Nay, I know not whether it may not be asserted that the impossibility of answering one at least among these questions is capable of demonstration. For the whole system of things, as far as we know it, depends on the perpetual rotation of the heavenly bodies; and without original irregularity in the distribution of matter no motion of rotation could ever have spontaneously arisen. And, if this irregularity be thus original, Science can give no account of it. Science, therefore, will have to begin with assuming certain facts for which it can never hope to account. But it may begin by assuming that, speaking roughly, the universe was always very much what we see it now, and that composition and decomposition have always nearly balanced each other, and that there have been from the beginning the same sun and moon and planets and stars in the sky, the same animals on the earth and in the seas, the same vegetation, the same minerals; and that though there have been incessant changes, and possibly all these changes in one general direction, yet these changes have never amounted to what would furnish a scientific explanation of the forms which matter has assumed. Or, on the other hand. Science may assert the possibility of going back to a far earlier condition of our material system; may assert that all the forms of matter have grown up under the action of laws and forces still at work; may take as the initial state of our universe one or many enormous clouds of gaseous matter, and endeavor to trace with more or less exactness how these gradually formed themselves into what we see. Science has lately leaned to the latter alternative. To a believer the alternative may be stated thus: We all distinguish between the original creation of the material world and the history of it ever since. And we have, nay all men have, been accustomed to assign to the original creation a great deal that Science is now disposed to assign to the history. But the distinction between the original creation and the subsequent history would still remain, and forever remain, although the portion assigned to the one may be less, and that assigned to the other larger, than was formerly supposed. However far back Science may be able to push its beginning, there still must lie behind that beginning the original act of creation—creation not of matter only, but of the various kinds of matter, and of the laws governing all and each of those kinds, and of the distribution of this matter in space.
This application of the abstract doctrine of evolution gives it an enormous and startling expansion—so enormous and so startling that the doctrine itself seems absolutely new. To say that the present grows by regular law out of the past is one thing; to say that it has grown out of a distant past in which as yet the present forms of life upon the earth, the present vegetation, the seas and islands and continents, the very planet itself, the sun and moon, were not yet made— and all this also by regular law—that is quite another thing. And the bearings of this new application of science deserve study.
Now, it seems quite plain that this doctrine of evolution is in no sense whatever antagonistic to the teachings of religion, though it may be, and that we shall have to consider afterward, to the teachings of revelation. Why, then, should religious men, independently of its relation to revelation, shrink from it, as very many unquestionably do? The reason is that, while this doctrine leaves the truth of the existence and supremacy of God exactly where it was, it cuts away, or appears to cut away, some of the main arguments for that truth.
Now, in regard to the arguments whereby we have been accustomed to prove or to corroborate the existence of a Supreme Being, it is plain that, to take these arguments away, or to make it impossible to use them, is not to disprove or take away the truth itself. We find every day instances of men resting their faith in a truth on some grounds which we know to be untenable, and we see what a terrible trial it sometimes is when they find out that this is so, and know not as yet on what other ground they are to take their stand. And some men succumb in the trial, and lose their faith, together with the argument which has hitherto supported it. But the truth still stands, in spite of the failure of some to keep their belief in it, and in spite of the impossibility of supporting it by the old arguments.
And, when men have become accustomed to rest their belief on new grounds, the loss of the old arguments is never found to be a very serious matter. Belief in revelation has been shaken again and again by this very increase of knowledge. It was unquestionably a dreadful blow to many in the days of Galileo to find that the language of the Bible in regard to the movement of the earth and sun was not scientifically correct. It was a dreadful blow to many in the days of the Reformation to find that they had been misled by what they believed to be an infallible Church.
Such shocks to faith try the mettle of men's moral and spiritual convictions, and they-often refuse altogether to hold what they can no longer establish by the arguments which have hitherto been to them the decisive, perhaps the sole decisive, proofs.
And yet, in spite of these shocks, belief in revelation is strong still in men's souls, and is clearly not yet going to quit the world.
But let us go on to consider how far it is true that the arguments which have hitherto been regarded as proving the existence of a Supreme Creator are really affected very gravely by this doctrine of evolution.
The main argument, which at first appears to be thus set aside, is that which is founded on the marks of design, and which is worked out in his own way with marvelous skill by Paley in his "Natural Theology." Paley's argument rests, as is well known, on the evidence of design in created things, and these evidences he chiefly finds in the framework of organized living creatures. He traces with much most interesting detail the many marvelous contrivances by which animals of various kinds are adapted to the circumstances in which they are to live, the mechanism which enables them to obtain their food, to preserve their species, to escape their enemies, to remove discomforts. All nature, thus examined, and particularly all animated nature, seems full of means toward ends, and those ends invariably such as a beneficent Creator might well be supposed to have in view. And while there is undeniably one great objection to his whole argument, namely, that the Creator is represented as an artificer rather than a Creator, as overcoming difficulties which stood in his way rather than as an Almighty Being fashioning things according to his will, yet the argument thus drawn from evidence of design remains exceedingly powerful, and it has always been considered a strong corroboration of the voice within which bids us believe in a God. Now, it certainly seems at first as if this argument were altogether destroyed. If animals were not made as we see them, but evolved by natural law, still more if it appear that their wonderful adaptation to their surroundings is due to the influence of those surroundings, it might seem as if we could no longer speak of design as exhibited in their various organs; the organs, we might say, grow of themselves, some suitable and some unsuitable to the life of the creatures to which they belonged, and the unsuitable have perished and the suitable have survived.
But Paley has supplied the clew to the answer. In his well-known illustration of the watch picked up on the heath by the passing traveler, he points out that the evidence of design is certainly not lessened if it be found that the watch was so constructed that, in course of time, it produced another watch like itself. He was thinking not of evolution, but of the ordinary production of each generation of animals from the preceding. But his answer can be pushed a step further, and we may with equal justice remark that we should certainly not believe it a proof that the watch had come into existence without design if we found that it produced in course of time not merely another watch but a better. It would become more marvelous than ever if we found provision thus made, not merely for the continuance of the species, but for the perpetual improvement of the species. It is essential to animal life that the animal should be adapted to its circumstances; if, besides provision for such adaptation in each generation, we find provision for still better adaptation in future generations, how can it be said that the evidences of design are diminished? Or take any separate organ, such as the eye. It is impossible not to believe, until it be disproved, that the eye was intended to see with. We can not say that light was made for the eye, because light subserves many other purposes besides that of enabling eyes to see. But that the eye was intended for light there is so strong a presumption that it can not easily be rebutted. If, indeed, it could be shown that eyes fulfilled several other functions, or that species of animals which always lived in the dark still had fully-formed eyes, then we might say that the connection between the eye of an animal and the light of heaven was accidental. But the contrary is notoriously the case—so much the case that some philosophers have maintained that the eye was formed by the need for seeing, a statement which I need take no trouble to refute, just as those who make it take no trouble to establish, I will not say truth, but even its possibility. But the fact, if it be a fact, that the eye was not originally as well adapted to see with as it it is now, and that the power of perceiving light and of things in the light grew by degrees, does not show, nor even tend to show, that the eye was not intended for seeing with.
The fact is that the doctrine of evolution does not affect the substance of Paley's argument at all. The marks of design which he has pointed out remain marks of design still even if we accept the doctrine of evolution to the full. What is touched by this doctrine is not the evidence of design but the mode in which the design was executed. Paley, no doubt, wrote on the supposition (and at that time it was hardly possible to admit any other supposition) that we must take animals to have come into existence very nearly such as we now know them: and his language, on the whole, was adapted to that supposition. But the language would rather need supplementing than changing to make it applicable to the supposition that animals were formed by evolution. In the one case the execution follows the design by the effect of a direct act of creation; in the other case the design is worked out by a slow process. In the one case the Creator made the animals at once such as they now are; in the other case he impressed on certain particles of matter, which, either at the beginning or at some point in the history of his creation, he endowed with life, such inherent powers that in the ordinary course of time living creatures such as the present were developed. The creative power remains the same in either case; the design with which that creative power was exercised remains the same. He did not make the things, we may say; no, but he made them make themselves. And surely this rather adds than withdraws force from the great argument. It seems in itself something more majestic, something more befitting him to whom a thousand years are as one day and one day as a thousand years, thus to impress his will once for all on his creation, and provide for all its countless variety by this one original impress, than by special acts of creation to be perpetually modifying what he had previously made. It has often been objected to Paley's argument, as I remarked before, that it represents the Almighty rather as an artificer than a creator, a workman dealing with somewhat intractable materials and showing marvelous skill in overcoming difficulties rather than a beneficent Being making all things in accordance with the purposes of his love. But this objection disappears when we put the argument into the shape which the doctrine of evolution demands, and look on the Almighty as creating the original elements of matter, determining their number and their properties, creating the law of gravitation whereby as seems probable the worlds have been formed, creating the various laws of chemical and physical action, by which inorganic substances have been combined, creating above all the law of life, the mysterious law which plainly contains such wonderful possibilities within itself, and thus providing for the ultimate development of all the many wonders of nature.
What conception of foresight and purpose can rise above that which imagines all history gathered as it were into one original creative act from which the infinite variety of the universe has come and more is coming even yet?
And yet again, it is a common objection to Paley's and similar arguments that, in spite of all the tokens of intelligence and beneficence in the creation, there is so much of the contrary character. How much there is of apparently needless pain and waste! And John Stuart Mill has urged that either we must suppose the Creator wanting in omnipotence or wanting in kindness to have left his creation so imperfect. The answer usually given is that our knowledge is partial, and, could we see the whole, the objection would probably disappear. But what force and clearness are given to this answer by the doctrine of evolution, which tells us that we are looking at a work which is not yet finished, and that the imperfections are a necessary part of a large design the general outlines of which we may already trace, but the ultimate issue of which, with all its details, is still beyond our perception! The imperfections are like the imperfections of a half-completed picture not yet ready to be seen; they are like the bud which will presently be a beautiful flower, or the larva of a beautiful and gorgeous insect; they are like the imperfections in the moral character of a saint who nevertheless is changing from glory to glory.
To the many partial designs which Paley's "Natural Theology" points out, and which still remain what they were, the doctrine of evolution adds the design of a perpetual progress. Things are so arranged that animals are perpetually better adapted to the life they have to live. The very phrase which we commonly use to sum up Darwin's teaching, the survival of the fittest, implies a perpetual diminution of pain and increase of enjoyment for all creatures that can feel.' If they are fitter for their surroundings, most certainly they will find life easier to live. And, as if to mark still more plainly the beneficence of the whole work, the less developed creatures, as we have every reason to believe, are less sensible of pain and pleasure; so that enjoyment appears to grow with the capacity for enjoyment, and suffering diminishes as sensitivity to suffering increases. And there can be no doubt that this is in many ways the tendency of nature. Beasts of prey are diminishing; life is easier for man and easier for all animals that are under his care: many species of animals perish as man fills and subjugates the globe, but those that remain have far greater happiness in their lives. In fact, all the purposes which Paley traces in the formation of living creatures are not only fulfilled by what the Creator has done, but are better fulfilled from age to age. And, though the progress may be exceedingly slow, the nature of the progress can not be mistaken.
If the "Natural Theology" were now to be written, the stress of the argument would be put on a different place. Instead of insisting wholly or mainly on the wonderful adaptation of means to ends in the structure of living animals and plants, we should look rather to the original properties impressed on matter from the beginning, and on the beneficent consequences that have flowed from those properties. We should dwell on the peculiar properties that must be inherent in the molecules of the original elements to cause such results to follow from their action and reaction on one another. We should dwell on the part played in the universe by the properties of oxygen, the great purifier, and one of the great heat-givers; of carbon, the chief light-giver and heat-giver; of water, the great solvent and the store-house of heat; of the atmosphere and the vapors in it, the protector of the earth which it surrounds. We should trace the beneficent effects of pain and pleasure in their subservience to the purification of life. The marks of a purpose impressed from the first on all creation would be even more visible than ever before.
And we could not overlook the beauty of nature and of all created things as part of that purpose, coming in many cases out of that very survival of the fittest of which Darwin has spoken, and yet a distinct object in itself. For this beauty there is no need in the economy of Nature whatever. The beauty of the starry heavens, which so impressed the mind of Kant that he put it by the side of the moral law as proving the existence of a Creator, is not wanted either for the evolution of the world or for the preservation of living creatures. Our enjoyment of it is a superadded gift certainly not necessary for the existence or the continuance of our species. The beauty of flowers, according to the teaching of the doctrine of evolution, has generally grown out of the need which makes it good for plants to attract insects. The insects carry the pollen from flower to flower, and thus, as it were, mix the breed; and this produces the stronger plants which outlive the competition of the rest. The plants, therefore, which are most conspicuous gain an advantage by attracting insects most. That successive generations of flowers should thus show brighter and brighter colors is intelligible. But the beauty of flowers is far more than mere conspicuousness of colors, even though that be the main ingredient. Why should the wonderful grace, and delicacy, and harmony of tint be added? Is all this mere chance? Is all this superfluity pervading the whole world and perpetually supplying to the highest of living creatures, and that, too, in a real proportion to his superiority, the most refined and elevating of pleasures, an accident without any purpose at all? If evolution has produced the world such as we see and all its endless beauty, it has bestowed on our own dwelling-place in lavish abundance and in marvelous perfection that on which men spend their substance without stint, that which they value above all but downright necessities, that which they admire beyond all except the law of duty itself. We can not think that this is not designed, nor that the Artist who produced it was blind to what was coming out of his work.
Once more, the doctrine of evolution restores to the science of nature the unity which we should expect in the creation of God. Paley's argument proved design, but included the possibility of many designers. Not one design, but many separate designs, all no doubt of the same character, but all worked out independently of one another, is the picture that he puts before us. But the doctrine of evolution binds all existing things on earth into one. Every mineral, every plant, every animal has such properties that it benefits other things besides itself, and derives benefit in turn. The insect develops the plant, and the plant the insect; the brute aids in the evolution of the man, and the man in that of the brute. All things are embraced in one great design, beginning with the very creation. He who uses the doctrine of evolution to prove that no intelligence planned the world, is undertaking the self-contradictory task of showing that a great machine has no purpose by tracing in detail the marvelous complexity of its parts, and the still more marvelous precision with which all work together to produce a common result.
To conclude, the doctrine of evolution leaves the argument for an intelligent Creator and Governor of the world stronger than it was before. There is still as much as ever the proof of an intelligent purpose pervading all creation. The difference is, that the execution of that purpose belongs more to the original act of creation, less to acts of government since. There is more divine foresight, there is less divine interposition; and whatever has been taken from the latter has been added to the former.
Some scientific students of nature may fancy they can deduce in the working out of the theory results inconsistent with religious belief; and in a future lecture these will have to be examined; and it is possible that the theory may be so presented as to be inconsistent with the teaching of revelation. But, whatever may be the relation of the doctrine of evolution to revelation, it can not be said that this doctrine is antagonistic to religion in its essence. The progress of science in this direction will assuredly end in helping men to believe with more assurance than ever that the Lord by wisdom hath founded the earth, by understanding hath he established the heavens.
- Abstracted from "The Relations between Religion and Science," by the Lord Bishop of Exeter.