Popular Science Monthly/Volume 32/January 1888/Evolution and Religious Thought

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EVOLUTION AND RELIGIOUS THOUGHT.[1]

By Professor JOSEPH LE CONTE.

FROM what has preceded, the reader will perceive that we regard the law of evolution as thoroughly established. In its most general sense, i. e., as a law of continuity, it is a necessary condition of rational thought. In this sense it is naught else than the universal law of necessary causation applied to forms instead of phenomena. It is not only as certain as — it is far more certain than — the law of gravitation, for it is not a contingent, but a necessary truth like the axioms of geometry. It is only necessary to conceive it clearly, to accept it unhesitatingly. The consensus of scientific and philosophical opinion is already well-nigh if not wholly complete. If there are still lingering cases for dissent among thinking men, it is only because such do not yet conceive it already — they confound it with some special form of explanation of evolution which they, perhaps justly, think not yet fully established. We have sometimes in the preceding pages used the words evolutionist or derivationist; they ought not to be used any longer. The day is past when evolution might be regarded as a school of thought. We might as well talk of gravitationist as of evolutionist.

If, then, evolution as a law be certain; if, moreover, it is a law affecting not only one part of Nature — the organic kingdom — and one department of science — biology — but the whole realm of Nature and every department of science, yea, every department of thought, changing our whole view of Nature and modifying our whole philosophy, the question presses upon us, "What will be its effect on religious belief, and therefore on moral conduct?" This is a question of gravest import. To answer it, however imperfectly, is the chief object of this work. Except for this, it would probably never have been undertaken. All that goes before is subsidiary to this.

But I will doubtless be met at the very threshold by an objection from the scientific side. Some will say — because it is the fashion now to say  — that as simple, honest truth-seekers, we have nothing to do with its effect on religion and on life. They say we must follow Truth wherever she leads, utterly regardless of what may seem to us moral consequences. This I believe is a grave mistake, the result of a reaction, and on the whole a wholesome and noble reaction, against the far more common mistake of sacrificing truth to a supposed good. But the reaction, as in most other cases, has gone much too far. There is a true philosophic ground of justification for the reluctance with which even honest truth-seekers accept a doctrine which seems harmful to society. Effect on life is, and ought to be, an important element in our estimate of the truth of any doctrine. It is necessary for me to show this in order to justify this part of my work.

There is a necessary and indissoluble connection between truth and usefulness. We all at once admit this connection in one direction. We all admit that a truth must eventually have its useful application. It may not be now, nor in ten years, nor in a century, nor even in a millennium, but sometime in the future it will vindicate its usefulness. No truth is trivial or useless in its relation to human life, for man is a part of Nature, and his life must be in accordance with the laws of Nature. Every one admits this, but not every one admits the converse proposition, viz., that whatever doctrine or belief, in the long run and throughout the history of human advancement, has tended to the betterment of our race, must have in it an element of truth by virtue of which it has been useful, for man's good can not be in conflict with the laws of Nature. Also, whatever in the long run and in the final outcome tends to the bad in human conduct, ought to be received, even by the honest truth-seeker, with distrust, as containing essential error. The reason of this will now be further explained.

There are three primary divisions of our psychical nature, viz., sensuous, intellectual, and volitional, or moral. There are three corresponding primary processes necessary to make a complete rational and satisfactory philosophy: (1) There is first the instreaming of the external world through the senses, as impressions. These we call facts or phenomena. (2) The elaboration of these facts within, by the intellect, into a compact constant structure. This we call knowledge. (3) The outgoing of this knowledge by the will into the world as right or wise conduct. Now these three are all equally necessary. All these three portions of our complex nature are equally urgent to be satisfied. But, unfortunately, scientific workers are too apt to think only 1 and 2 necessary — that true facts elaborated into consistent theory are all we need care for. Theologians and metaphysicians, on the other hand, seem to think only 2 and 3 necessary. They elaborate a theory consistent in all its parts, exquisitely woven in beautiful and delicate pattern, and apparently satisfactory in its application to the right conduct of life, but are less careful to inquire whether it is in harmony with facts derived from the senses. But, we repeat, all three are equally necessary. The first gathers the materials, the second constructs the edifice, the third, by use, by practical application, tests whether it be a fit building to live in, whether it is constructed on sound architectural principles. The tendency of the olden time was to neglect the first; the tendency of the present time is to neglect the third. But we repeat with stronger emphasis that this third element is equally necessary. All admit that successful application in art is the surest test of the truth of science. Now, social conduct is the art corresponding to our philosophy of life, and therefore is the sure test of its truth. It follows, therefore, that unless all these three primary divisions of our nature are satisfied by any doctrine, there must result an ineradicable confusion and discord in our psychical nature, and cordial acceptance is not only impossible but irrational. We insist upon this the more because it has become the fashion in these latter days of dominance of science, to say that to inquire into effects on society is inconsistent with the scientific spirit, and unworthy of the honest truth-seeker. But, observe, I am speaking of effects on society only as a test of truth. I would not swerve a hair's breadth from absolute devotion to truth. It is necessary, indeed, to inquire into effects on society, but we must inquire only in the patient spirit characteristic of the truth-seeker. Whatever is really true will surely vindicate itself by its beneficence, if we will only wait patiently for final results. Evolution is no exception to this universal truth. It will surely vindicate its beneficence, but we must wait yet a little while — not very long.

So much it was necessary to say in justification of the inquiry which constitutes this third part of our work. But, after this justification, the question returns with additional emphasis, "What will be the effect of the universal acceptance of the law of evolution on religious thought, and through this on the right conduct of life?"

There can be no doubt that evolution, as a law affecting all science and every department of Nature, must fundamentally affect the whole realm of thought, and profoundly modify our traditional views of Nature, of God, and of man. There can be no doubt that we are now on the eve of a great revolution. But, as in all great revolutions, so in this, the first fears as to its effects are greatly exaggerated. To many, even friends and foes of Christianity, evolution seems to sweep away the whole foundation, not only of Christianity, but of all religion and morals, by demonstrating a universal materialism. Many are ready to cry out in anguish, "Ye have taken away our gods, what have we more? Ye have destroyed our dearest hopes and noblest aspirations, what more is left worth living for?" But I think all who are at all familiar with the history of the so-called conflict between religion and science will admit this is not the first time this cry has been raised against science. They have heard this danger-cry so often that they begin to regard it as little more than a wolf-cry — scientific wolf in the religious fold. It may not be amiss, then, to stop a moment to trace rapidly the main points of this conflict — to discuss the various forms of this scientific wolf.


First, then, it came in the form of the heliocentric theory of the planetary system. We once thought the earth the center of the universe, and so firm that it can not be moved. But science shows that it moves about the sun, and spins unceasingly on its axis. Every one has heard of the terror of the sheep produced by this discovery, and the nearly tragic results to the bold scientist. But now we look back with wonder that there should have been any trouble at all. Would any Christian now consent to give up the grand conceptions of Nature and of God thus opened to the human mind — the idea of infinite space full of worlds, of which our earth is one, moving in silent harmony as in a mystic dance? Verily, this wolf has proved itself a harmless, nay, a very noble, beast, and lies down in peace with the lambs.

Next, it came in the shape of the law of gravitation, as sustentation of the cosmos by law and resident forces. The effect of this on religious thought was even more profound, though less visible on the surface, because only perceived by the most intelligent. It seemed at that time to remove God from the course of Nature. This was the real ground of the skepticism of the last century, and also the real motive of Voltaire's ardent advocacy of Newton's views before these were generally accepted in France. But now, who would give up this grand idea — this conception of law pervading infinite space — the same law which controls the falling of a stone guiding also the planetary orbs in their fiery courses? This is indeed the divine spheral music, inaudible but to the ear of science, accompanying the celestial dance.

Next, it came in the form of the antiquity of the earth and of the cosmos. The earth which we had fondly thought made specially for us about six thousand years ago; sun moon, and stars, which we had vainly imagined shone only for our behoof — these, science tells us, existed and each performed its due course inconceivable ages before there was a man to till the ground or contemplate the heavens. Some of my readers may still remember the horror, the angry dispute which followed the promulgation of these facts. But now, who would consent to give up the noble conception of infinite time thus opened to our human mind and become forever the heritage of man?

Next it came in the form of the antiquity of man. It is probable, nay, certain, that man has inhabited the earth far longer than we had previously supposed we had warrant for believing. The fear of controversy on this question has indeed not yet entirely subsided. Some timid people still look askance at this wolf, but I think all intelligent people accept it and find it harmless.

Next, and last, it comes now in the form of evolution — of the origin of all things, even of organic forms, by derivation — of creation by law. We are even now in the midst of the terror created by this doctrine. But what is evolution but law throughout infinite time? The same law which now controls the development of an egg has presided over the creation of worlds. Infinite space and the universal law of gravitation; infinite time and the universal law of evolution. These two are the grandest ideas in the realm of thought. The one is universal sustentation, the other universal creation, by law. There is one law and one energy pervading all space and stretching through all time. Our religious philosophy has long ago accepted the one, but has not yet had time to readjust itself completely to the other. A few more years, and Christians will not only accept, but love and cherish this also for the noble conceptions it gives of Nature and of God.

But some will exclaim, "Noble conceptions of God, say you! Why, it utterly obliterates the idea of God from the mind. All other conflicts were for outworks — this strikes at the citadel. All others required only readjustment of claims, rectification of boundaries betwixt science and religion — this requires nothing less than unconditional surrender. Evolution is absolute materialism, and materialism is incompatible with belief in God, and therefore with religion of any kind whatsoever!" Before proceeding any further, it becomes necessary to remove this difficulty out of the way.


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  1. From advance sheets of Professor Le Conte's work on "Evolution and its Relation to Religious Thought," in preparation by D. Appleton & Co.