Popular Science Monthly/Volume 33/July 1888/Darwinism and the Christian Faith III

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WE come now to that which most people feel to be the real difficulty in the way of accepting Darwinism. No well-instructed churchman supposes that the faith of Christ stands or falls with the theory of special creations, or that the existence of God is less certain because we have learned that the witness of conscience is necessary to interpret the witness of Nature, and that physical science by itself can tell us less than we thought about the personality and the love of God.

4. But Darwinism means a great deal more than the substitution of derivation for special creation, or of the new teleology for the old argument from design. It means a new view of man, and his place in creation. Darwin foresaw this from the first, and in the "Origin of Species" asserted his belief that "much light will be thrown on the origin of man and his history."[1] Now, if this had only meant a chemical analysis of "the dust of the ground" out of which man was formed, if, like Matthew Henry, Darwin had assured us—on grounds for which, indeed, no evidence is given—that the dust was "not gold dust, powder of pearl, diamond dust, but common dust: dust of the ground"; "not dry dust, but dust wetted with the mist which went up from the earth," it is clear religion would have felt that it had lost as little as science would have gained. But Darwin's theory connected man with the higher vertebrata by analogies as strong as those which made other species descendants from a common stock. This was the secret of the opposition to the "Origin of Species." It was not so much what was stated, as the obvious implications of the doctrine, which men shrank from. Darwin, who had nothing of the defiant arrogance of some who speak in his name, was even accused of dishonesty in not clearly stating at the outset the hearing of the doctrine on man. And his volume on "The Descent of Man" was his answer to the charge. But his letters show how fully he realized the consequences of his theory from the first:

I am deeply convinced [he wrote to Lyell, while revising the proof-sheets of the "Origin"] that it is absolutely necessary to go the whole vast length, or stick to the creation of each separate species.[2]. . . I can see no possible means of drawing the line and saying, Here yon must stop.[3]. . . I believe man is in the same predicament with other animals. It is, in fact, impossible to doubt it.[4]

For the scientific acceptance of the theory, as Darwin says, "ce n'est que le premier pas qui coûte,"[5] but for people generally, who judge a theory by its consequences, not on its evidence, it is, as he says of Carpenter, "the last mouthful that chokes."[6] Of course, as he admits, it is open to every one to believe that man appeared by a separate miracle,[7] but to hold the doctrine of special creation here and here only is to ignore the arguments which, ex hypothesi, carried conviction everywhere else.

It was on this point that Darwin and Wallace parted company, though the divergence is commonly represented as far greater than it was. Wallace admitted the evolution of man out of a lower form, but contends, and this was what he calls his "heresy," that natural selection would have only given man a brain a little superior to that of an ape, whereas it is greatly superior. He therefore contrasts "man" with the "unaided productions" of Nature, and argues that, as in artificial selection, man supervenes and uses the law of natural selection to produce a desired result, so "a higher intelligence" may have supervened, and used the law of natural selection to produce man. Whether from the scientific side this is rightly called a "heresy" or not it is not necessary to decide; but certainly, from the religious side, it has a strangely unorthodox look. If, as a Christian believes, the "higher intelligence" who used these laws for the creation of man was the same God who worked in and by these same laws in creating the lower forms of life, Mr. Wallace's distinction, as a distinction of cause, disappears; and if it was not the same God, we contradict the first article of the Creed. Whatever be the line which Christianity draws between man and the rest of the visible creation, it certainly does not claim man as the work of God, and leave the rest to "unaided Nature."

We have then to face the question, If it be true that man, "as far as his corporeal frame is concerned,"[8] is created, as other species were, by evolution from lower forms; if he was not, as we have been accustomed to think, an independent creation, but related through his whole bodily structure with "the beasts that perish"; if he was not an absolutely new departure, but the last term in a progressive series—how does this new view affect our Christian faith?

We might have been ready to answer. It no more touches the Christian view of human nature than a scientific proof, if it had been possible, that our blessed Lord was very man would affect the truth of his divinity. And the analogy is a very close one. It is not heresy to assert that Christ is Άνθρωπος, but that he is ψιλὸς ᾆνθρωπος, man and nothing more. Similarly, say what we will of the affinities of man's physical nature, it is only when we deny that he is anything more that we really degrade him. As Bacon somewhere puts it—

They that deny a God destroy man's nobility; for certainly man is of kin to the beasts by his body; and if he be not of kin to God by his spirit, he is an ignoble creature.

Unfortunately, Christian apologists have missed an important distinction. They have not seen that their controversy with a Darwinian agnostic is a controversy with his agnosticism, not with his Darwinism; with his limitation of all knowledge to the facts of sense, not with any doctrine he may scientifically prove as to the interrelations of the facts observed.

We are constantly told that Darwinism is degrading, that it is unworthy of the dignity of man, that it is a "gospel of dirt." If such a charge had come from a representative of those nations which held the descent of man from gods or demigods, it would have been intelligible enough, but it sounds strange in the mouth of those who believe that "the Lord God formed man of the dust of the ground." Indeed, what in Darwinism is called a "gospel of dirt," appears in the Bible as a "gospel of grace." We naturally, as Kingsley says, seek—

To set up some "dignity of human nature," some innate superiority to the animals, on which we may pride ourselves as our own possession, and not return thanks with fear and trembling for it as the special gift of Almighty God.[9]

But the inspired writers "revel in self-depreciation" that they may the more exalt the love and condescension of God. The moral, as distinct from the scientific, teaching of the Bible can not be mistaken in this matter. Man made in the image of God, inbreathed with the breath of life, is formed of the dust of the ground. God's method is always to choose "the base things of the world and things which are despised," and use them for his purposes. The chosen people traced their descent from "a Syrian ready to perish." They were the "fewest of all people," and constantly reminded of their origin. "Remember that thou wast a bond-servant." "Look unto the rocks whence ye are hewn, and to the hole of the pit whence ye are digged." And yet they were what they were, the destined repository of the oracles of God, and the religious teachers of the world. The Bible at least gives no color to a view which refuses a degraded origin for man.

But Darwinism, dealing with man, as it is bound to do, simply from the side of his animal and corporeal nature, has done something to give man his true place in the physical universe. It has, by the application of its own methods and its own tests, recognized him as the roof and crown of all things visible. And by so doing it has rendered any form of Nature-worship henceforth impossible. The highest, or the least degrading of these, was the worship of the sun. When Anaxagoras ventured the speculation that the great god Helios was a mass of molten metal, he was condemned as a heretic. Science has trodden in his footsteps, and we know now that the sun is a very large ball of solid and gaseous matter, in a state of fierce incandescence, and supported by involuntary contributions. It has been "found out," as completely as the Boxley rood, when people were shown its works—

No man [as the Duke of Argyll says] can worship a ball of fire, however big; nor can he feel grateful to it, nor love it, nor adore it, even though its beams be to hira the very light of life. Neither in it, nor in the mere physical forces of which it is the center, can we see anything approaching to the rank and dignity of even the humblest human heart.[10]

Nor can we any longer worship organic Nature. For we are ourselves, if Darwinism is true, the last term in the series. If man must have a visible god, he must henceforth worship himself or something lower. In Genesis he is made lord of the visible world, to have dominion over the fish of the sea, and the fowl of the air, and every living thing that moveth upon the earth. What Genesis speaks of as the will of God, Darwinism reads in Nature as a fact:

Man [says Darwin] in the rudest state in which he now exists is the most dominant animal that has ever appeared on this earth. He has spread more widely than any other highly organized form, and all others have yielded before him.[11]

It is not true, then, that Darwinism degrades man, for in tracing his descent it chronicles his rise from the lowest origin to the highest order of being of which science has any knowledge.

And what about the soul? If man, in his animal nature, was evolved from lower creatures, when did God "breathe into his nostrils the breath, of life"? Was the soul, too, created by evolution, or was that at least a "special creation"? We are here, be it observed, going beyond the range of our subject, which was the relation of Darwinism to the Christian faith, and passing into a region where neither science nor religion has spoken. Dr. Pusey says "theology does not hold transformist theories excluded by Holy Scripture, so that they spare the soul of man." But science spares the soul of man, just as it spares original creation, because it can not have any knowledge of either. It can deny both. What is there that man can not deny? It may even cover its dogmatic denial by a semblance of reason with the help of the major premise: "What science can not know can not be known." From this, no doubt, the conclusion follows with logical necessity. But we answer with negatur maior. With regard, however, to the question of the origin of the soul, as a theological problem, it is perhaps easier to say what is not true than what is. The soul can not be a "special" creation whether in Adam or in his children. There is no "species" of soul. We may call it, if we will, an "individual" creation; but is not all creation individual creation from the religious point of view? And if so, it is a phrase which does not help us.

We can, however, explain the difficulty in precisely the same way in which science explains a law—namely, "by substituting one mystery for another."[12] We may say that there is no actual or conceivable difficulty in the creation of the soul of Adam which does not recur in the case of every child born into the world. Is its soul inherited, like its bodily organism, or is it added to the body? The instincts of Christianity, rather than any formal decision, have throughout been against traducianism, or the inheritance of the soul. Creationism, or the infusio animæ, on the other hand, guards a truth which traducianism loses. But in spite of all the authority which can be claimed for it, it sounds crude and strange, to our ways of thinking. The very word infusio, and, in a lesser degree, the barbarous word "insufflation," suggest that the soul is a thing which at a definite though unknown moment is put into the body "like a passenger in a boat," as Aristotle has it. If so, the body before the advent of the soul was not in any real sense human. For "the reasonable soul" is as essential to true humanity as the "flesh." And if the analogy suggested in the Athanasian Creed justifies us in appealing to that greater mystery, on which Christian thought, in defense of the faith, has been compelled to speculate and define, we have to remember that it is heresy to assert that "that Holy Thing," which in the fullness of time was to be born of the Virgin, became at any moment the Word of God. In the history of the individual, so far as his physical structure is concerned, science can trace each step from the microscopic cellular germ to the fully developed man. If we believe that man as man is an immortal soul, though we can not say when he became so, or that, strictly speaking, he ever did become so, we need not be surprised to meet the difficulty again in the evolution of man from lower forms.[13]

In both cases man is what he is, whatever he came from. We do not say a man is not rich because we have found out how he made his fortune. We do not say the eye can not see because we can trace it back to a speck of pigment sensitive to light. Whether God formed man literally "from the dust of the ground," or raised him by progressive selection to what he is; whether, in scientific language, man rose to manhood "by the final arbitrament of the battle for life";[14] or whether, as Mr. Wallace thinks, there is a certain amount of "unearned increment" to be accounted for, man is still man, "the glory and the scandal of the universe." Darwin, feeling "the extreme difficulty, or rather impossibility," of conceiving the universe as not being the work of "a First Cause having an intelligent mind in some degree analogous to that of man,"[15] is driven back into agnosticism by the question, "Can the mind of man, which has, as I fully believe, been developed from a mind as low as that possessed by the lowest animals, be trusted when it draws such grand conclusions?"[16] Yet when Darwin, in all the wealth of his scientific experience, and all the strength of his disciplined reason, gives us his matured judgment on the processes of Nature, who would dream of saying," How can I trust the conclusions of a man who was once a baby"? We trust him for what he is, and not for what he was. And man is man, whatever he came from. And what is man?—

""Distinguished link in being's endless chain!
Midway from nothing to the Deity!
A beam ethereal sullied and absorpt!
Though sullied and dishonored, still divine!
Dim miniature of greatness absolute!
An heir of glory! a frail child of dust!
Helpless immortal! insect infinite!
A worm! a God! "[17]

What a piece of work is man [says Hamlet]. In action, how like an angel; in apprehension how like a god! the beauty of the world! the paragon of animals! And yet, to me, what is this quintessence of dust?[18] Man is a part of Nature [it has been said], and no artificial definitions can separate him from it. And yet in another sense it is true that man is above Nature— outside of it; and in this aspect he is the very type and image of the supernatural.[19]

By Nature we understand all visible things, including man so far as he can be observed by the naked eye or the microscope—his morphology, his physiology, his histological development. But for a Christian this does not exhaust human nature. For him visible Nature is the segment of a circle, "we see but in part." And the visible is not coextensive with the known. Bather the ultimate explanation of "the things which are seen" is to be sought in "the things which are not seen." There are forces which refuse to be measured by "foot-pounds," facts which forever must escape the microscope, realities which cast no bands upon the spectrum field, a life which the scalpel can neither discover nor destroy, A Christian believes with Mr. Darwin "that man in the distant future will be a far more perfect creature than he now is," and finds it "an intolerable thought that he and all other sentient beings are doomed to complete annihilation after such long-continued slow progress";[20] but he holds it in a different way and on different grounds. And, believing in the truth of man's divine nature, he can watch without anxiety, not without interest and gratitude, the work of those who are showing us man's place in the physical world. Darwin tells us that, as he lay on the grass on an April morning at Moor Park, amid the joy of opening spring-tide, he "did not care one penny how any of the beasts or birds had been formed."[21] Amid the supreme realities of the moral and spiritual world, or in the devotional study of the Word of God, it becomes a matter of relative unimportance to a Christian whether he is to trace his pedigree back directly or indirectly to the dust. For it is God's world after all. We believe in the resurrection of the body as well as the immortality of the soul. That which is material is not "common or unclean":

What we are [says Kingsley], we are by the grace of God. . . . Saint Francis called the birds his brothers. Whether he was correct, either theologically or zoologically, he was plainly free from that fear of being mistaken for an ape, which haunts so many in these modern times. Perfectly sure that he himself was a spiritual being, he thought it at least possible that birds might be spiritual beings likewise, incarnate like himself in mortal flesh; and saw no degradation to the dignity of human nature in claiming kindred lovingly with creatures so beautiful, so wonderful, who (as he fancied in his old-fashioned way) praised God in the forest, even as angels did in heaven.[22]

With regard to all this higher side of man's nature, Mr. Darwin was an agnostic. He uses the word more than once of himself, and yet, with that transparent honesty which characterizes all that he did, he admits the difficulty as well as the unsatisfactoriness of his position. There was a time when men dared to say that because the presence of sin veils the knowledge of God, therefore they who do not accept Christianity in a Christian country must be guilty of secret, if not open, sin. That phase, thank God, has passed. And then—that men might have a theory—they talked of intellectual pride. Intellectual pride, which is self-assertion, no doubt obscures the vision of God. It is as much a rejection of God as a sinful life is. But dare any one say that loss of faith or the inability to receive it must spring from one of these two causes—immorality or intellectual pride? We believe it is impossible to read Darwin's "Life and Letters" without noticing as the most striking characteristics of Darwin's mind his intense modesty, his self-forgetfulness, his shrinking from popularity or applause, while gladly welcoming the testimony of those who were competent to judge of the truth of his work, his devotion to truth as shown by the weight he gave to unfavorable facts, his humility, his simplicity, his reverence. How could such a lovable nature, we are tempted to ask, have rejected Christianity? or, to put it differently, how could Christianity have failed to make good its appeal to such a nature as this?

In the whole record there is nothing so intensely interesting as Darwin's account of his religious opinions and the steps by which he became an agnostic. What was his religious history? His mother was a Unitarian, his father he describes as "a freethinker in religious matters," though nominally belonging to the Church of England. Darwin himself was christened and was meant to belong to the Church, but he was sent to a day-school kept by the Unitarian minister. His mother attended the Unitarian chapel and took her sons with her. She died when he was eight years old, and after that he seems to have gone to church, and later on we hear of his intention of "going into the Church"[23]—an intention which was not abandoned till the Beagle voyage. His view of the ministry is incidentally given in a letter from Lima in 1835: "To a person fit to take the office the life of a clergyman is a type of all that is respectable and happy."[24] During all this period he "had not thought much about the existence of a personal God."[25] He had read Paley, but had taken Paley's premises "on trust,"[26] so that even his Unitarianism, which, as he tells us, his grandfather spoke of as "a feather-bed for a falling Christian," was hardly enough to break the fall. Under such conditions we are not surprised to hear that the intention to be a clergyman "died a natural death."[27] That idea abandoned, the two props on which his religion rested—Paley's "Natural Theology" and Pearson "On the Creed"—gradually gave way. The Paleyan argument disappeared with the abandonment of special creation; the Old Testament, from which Pearson started, seemed "no more to be trusted than the sacred books of the Hindoos."[28] "Disbelief crept over me at a very slow rate, but was at last complete. The rate was so slow that I felt no distress."[29] One of his difficulties is worth noticing as showing how little he had brought religious truth under that great conception of growth which dominated all his physical inquiries. It seemed to him "incredible" that, if God were now to make a revelation to the Hindoos, he would permit it to be connected with the belief in Vishnu, Siva, etc., as Christianity is connected with the Old Testament. Why? except for the very reason that makes it "incredible" that man should be evolved directly from a fish, and not "incredible" that he should be evolved from the higher vertebrates. He has organic relations with both, but these relations are not such as to make it indifferent from which he is derived.

It was not religion alone, however, that "died a natural death" in Darwin's case. It is almost pathetic to read his account of the way in which he fell out of correspondence with poetry and painting. Up to thirty or beyond he delighted in both. Gradually they ceased to interest him, and finally they became 'positively distasteful;

I can not endure to read a line of poetry: I have tried lately to read Shakespeare, and found it so intolerably dull that it nauseated me. I have almost lost my taste for pictures or music. . . . My mind seems to have become a kind of machine for grinding general laws out of large collections of facts. But why this should have caused the atrophy of that part of the brain alone on which the higher tastes depend, I can not conceive. . . . If I had to live my life again, I would have made a rule to read some poetry and listen to some music at least once a week; for perhaps the parts of my brain now atrophied would thus have been kept active through use.[30]. . . It is an accursed evil to a man [he writes to Hooker in 1858] to become so absorbed in any subject as I am in mine.[31]

We shall not, we trust, be accused either of want of sympathy or want of charity, if, in the light of what Darwin has told us of his religious history, we sum it up in the words the atrophy of faith. That which Bacon sets first among the "Idola Specûs," the tendency to draw everything round to the predominant pursuit, shows itself in as many forms as there are absorbing studies. A theologian or moralist rarely appreciates the strength of scientific evidence: a scientific man underrates the value of moral and spiritual forces. It is unfortunately always easy to discredit or ignore facts which are not in pari materiâ with those which lie nearest to our heart, or to offer, in terms of our own special study, an explanation which only explains the facts away. So the theologian will pooh-pooh scientific discoveries which do not readily and at once fall under his own categories of thought; and the scientific specialist will blandly put aside religion, because he can not without trouble relate it with what he can touch and taste and handle. To relate truths which belong to different orders plainly requires a greater effort than to relate those which belong to the same. Yet if the effort be not made, the predominant study may still advance, but at a real, perhaps a fatal, cost. The atrophy of faith is commoner than atrophy elsewhere. For men have come to think that while they must devote a lifetime to science, or philosophy, or art, or literature, they can pick up their religion as they go. And the result is, that religion becomes like a tender exotic in their lives, and in their struggle for existence "the thorns spring up and choke it." Agnosticism is often an ex post facto, though honest, justification in theory for a religious atrophy which has already taken place in fact, just as men deceive themselves and appeal to "other-worldliness" to cover the neglect of daily duties. Christianity makes faith the Christian's work. It knows no short cut to spiritual truth, only the royal road of individual search and personal effort. But there are agnostics like Darwin, and there are agnostics whose agnosticism is a thin disguise for plump self-satisfaction. There are evolutionists like Darwin, who can not see their way to Christ; there are also evolutionists like the great American botanist, just dead, who speaks of himself as—

One who is scientifically, and in his own fashion, a Darwinian, philosophically a convinced theist, and religiously an accepter of the "Creed commonly called the Nicene" as the expression of the Christian faith.


Among the many difficulties which in the preceding articles we have not touched, there are two which will probably be present to the minds of many. Without attempting to discuss them, we may state them, and suggest the lines on which, as it seems to us, they should be dealt with.

1. It may be said, "Then you are prepared to give up Genesis?" To which it may be answered, "Yes," if by "giving up Genesis" you mean refusing to claim for it what it never claims for itself—that it is a prophetic anticipation of nineteenth-century science, and a revealed short cut to Darwinism. We can not sympathize with those "reconcilers" who would read between the lines of the Mosaic history a meaning which, if had been stated in plain words, would have put an infinitely greater strain on the faith of those for whom it was written than even its verbal accuracy would put on ours in the present day.

2. Then, it may be asked, "How about the fall? Is that an allegory, or a metaphorical name for a step forward in evolution?" We answer briefly: The fall implies a change, and a change for the worse, in the relation of man as "a living soul" to his Creator—God. Positive science—and Darwinism is in every way bound by the limits of positive science—will neither help nor hinder us in discussing the relation between two terms, both of which are outside its range.

In a word, we are as little prepared to consult Genesis on the order of the paleontological series as to ask the high-priests of modern science to solve for us the difficulties of our moral and spiritual life.—The Guardian.


  1. P. 428.
  2. "Life and Letters," i, p. 519.
  3. i, p. 526.
  4. ii P. 59.
  5. [It is only the first step that costs.] ii, p. 30.
  6. ii, p. 35.
  7. ii, p. 68.
  8. Darwin, ii, p. 140.
  9. "Prose Idylb," p. 22.
  10. "Unity of Nature," p. 309.
  11. "Descent of Man," p. 48.
  12. Mill, "Logic," i, p. 527.
  13. Cf. "Origin," p. 412.
  14. "Descent of Man," p. 48.
  15. "Life and Letters," i, p. 282.
  16. Ibid.
  17. "Night Thoughts," i.
  18. Act ii, scene ii.
  19. "Unity of Nature," p. 308.
  20. i, p. 282.
  21. i, p. 471.
  22. "Prose Idylls," pp. 24, 25.
  23. i, p. 146.
  24. i, P. 234.
  25. i, p. 278.
  26. i, p. 41.
  27. i, p. 89.
  28. i, p. 277.
  29. i, p. 278.
  30. i, pp. 81, 82.
  31. i, p. 495.