Popular Science Monthly/Volume 33/May 1888/Darwinism and the Christian Faith I
THE publication of the "Life and Letters of Charles Darwin", a review of which has already appeared in the pages of the "Guardian," seems a fitting opportunity for attempting to face the question how far Darwinism affects Christian faith, and what are the points of traditional interpretation or apology which are modified by it. Christian theology has no fear of scientific discoveries. It claims all truth as belonging of right to Him who is the Truth. But Christian theologians are but slowly learning that panic fear of new theories is as unreasonable as the attempt to base the eternal truth of religion on what may eventually prove to be a transient phase of scientific belief.
With regard to evolution, however, we are dealing with what may fairly claim to be an established doctrine. Certainly it is not too much to say that in the scientific world it has won its way to security, and has brought over to its side the vast majority of those who have a right to give an opinion on the scientific question. In saying this, however, we do not mean that evolution is stereotyped in the form in which Darwin gave it to the world. No one would more indignantly resent such a possibility than Darwin himself. And it is remarkable that the year which told us the story of Darwin's work and life, found us face to face with two attempts to carry out the doctrine of evolution in different, and as it seems, mutually inconsistent lines. In the July number of the "Journal of the Linnæan Society," 1886, Mr. Romanes propounded a theory—perhaps we should more properly say suggested for consideration a theory—to which he gave the name of physiological selection. Last year, thanks to two excellent articles in "Nature," by Prof. Moseley, and a paper at the British Association on "Polar Globules," we were introduced to Prof. Weismann's "germ-plasma" doctrine.
What is commonly known as Darwinism includes in it two elements which are by no means necessarily connected—the one the Lamarckian theory of descent, the other the more strictly Darwinian theory of natural selection. We had got so accustomed to being told that the experience of one generation became the instinct of the next, and that the transmission of acquired habits was one of the most important as well as the most obvious factors in the variation in species, that it is somewhat startling to be told now that there is no verified case of the transmission of acquired characters, and that the Lamarckian doctrine of descent was never essential to Darwinism, though it existed as a survival in it. Yet this, in short, is Prof. Weismann's view, and it was received with general favor at the Manchester meeting of the British Association. It would seem to those who speak without special knowledge that the two views advocated respectively by Mr. Romanes and Prof. Weismann are mutually incompatible, and that the latter view if adopted would be fatal to some of the most cherished theories of Herbert Spencer. According to Mr. Romanes, "natural selection is not a theory of the origin of species." According to Prof. Weismann, natural selection is the main cause of such variation. Mr. Romanes talks of the "swamping effects of intercrossing," while Prof. Weismann sees in every case of sexual reproduction a multiplication of the possibilities of adaptation to an unfavorable environment. Finally, Mr. Romanes postulates a highly variable reproductive system of which no explanation is given, and by this he would explain the sterility of species inter se; Prof. Weismann carries us back to the Protophyta and Protozoa, where strictly speaking there is no reproduction, and to the direct action of environment upon these, from which, in the Metaphyta and Metazoa, by sexual reproduction we get "spontaneous" tendencies in geometrical ratio. These "spontaneous," or, as we prefer to call them, "inherent" tendencies or characters, are transmissible; acquired characters are not. We trust we have not misrepresented these views. We notice them not in the least with a view to deciding between them, though there is little doubt which way the balance of scientific authority at present inclines; still less with the wish to make capital out of their disagreement, but in order to emphasize the fact that, while Darwinism is generally accepted in the scientific world, there is much which as yet is unsettled; in other words, that, while every competent man of science now believes in the origin of species by progressive variations, we can not be too much on our guard against stereotyping any theory as to the proximate causes. It is nearly as true now as when Darwin wrote it in 1878 that, though "there is almost complete unanimity among biologists about evolution, . . . there is still considerable difference as to the means, such as how far natural selection has acted, and how far external conditions, or whether there exists some mysterious innate tendency to perfectibility."
In the present and a future article we propose to deal with the doctrine so far as it is generally accepted by scientific men, and, without attempting to discuss the evidence on which the doctrine rests, to answer the following question: Given a Churchman who accepts the dogmatic position of the English Church on the one hand, and who, so far as he is able to understand it, believes the doctrine of evolution to be the truest solution yet discovered by science of the facts open to its observation, what reconstruction of traditionally accepted views and arguments is necessary and possible? How is he to relate the new truth with the old?
In so stating the problem we put out of court three classes of persons: (a) those who, intrenched in the fortress of religious certainty, are content to leave intellectual problems alone and ignore the movement of scientific thought around them; (b) those who are so "immersed in matter" that the religious side of their nature has become atrophied by disuse; and (c) those who possess the wonderful power of keeping their intellectual and religious life "sundered as with an axe," who, if they were challenged to give a theory of human nature, would have to represent it as if it were a modern ironclad built in water-tight compartments.
In contrast, then, with these three classes we take the case of an ordinary Churchman with perhaps something more than the ordinary intellectual and speculative interests, and certainly with more knowledge of what is de fide and what is not, than most Churchmen possess; a man who rejects the modern panacea of indefiniteness, and refuses, even though he might claim the precedent of a Homeric goddess, to throw over the battle-field "a nimbus of golden mist" to cover the retreat or defeat of a favorite hero. Such a man, accepting Darwinism, will expect not only that a reconstruction, or at least a resetting, of his beliefs will be necessary, but also that real effort, moral and intellectual, will be required for the work. No new truth can, without effort, be related with the truth already appropriated by the mind, and the wider and more far-reaching the truth the greater the effort which will be required. This is why the in-rush of new truth means unsettlement, and perhaps, in the reconstruction, a renouncing of something which has been associated with spiritual truth, though not of the essence of the truth itself.
Dr. Asa Gray, the American botanist, writing to Mr. Darwin about the "Origin of Species," says: "It is refreshing to find a person with a new theory who frankly confesses that he finds difficulties, insurmountable at least for the present. I know some people who never have any difficulties to speak of."
In attempting to answer the question we have proposed to ourselves, we do not profess to be of the number of those happy or unhappy people who have "no difficulties." We can, at most, hope to remove some difficulties which are more apparent than real, and, with regard to others, to suggest hints which have helped us, in the hope that they may be of use to others:
1. The first difficulty which will probably occur to any one is this: Darwinism offers an explanation of the origin of species. How is this reconcilable with the first article of the creed, the first sentence of the Bible? A man of average intelligence will not hesitate long here, unless the issue has been confused for him by the one-sided statements of ignorant partisans. For science neither says, nor professes to say, anything about the ultimate origin of things. Mr. Darwin says: "I believe that all animals are descended from at most only four or five progenitors, and plants from an equal or less number,. . . All the organic beings which have ever lived on this earth may be descended from some one primordial form." And he adds, "There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed by the Creator into a few forms or into one."
Haeckel and some other evolutionists would go further. They would believe, though all the experimental evidence is at present against such a view, that life ultimately arose from inorganic matter. But even here there is no suggestion as to the ultimate origin of that matter, out of which all the world, as we know it, came. In the language of technical theology, evolution deals with secondary (i. e., derivative), but does not touch primary, creation. In Haeckel's less exact way of stating the distinction it deals with "creation of form," but knows nothing about "creation of matter." Of the latter, i. e., original creation, Haeckel says: "The process, if indeed it ever took place, is completely beyond human comprehension; and can, therefore, never become a subject of scientific inquiry."
Prof. Tyndall, speaking of the "evolution hypothesis," says: "It does not solve—it does not profess to solve—the ultimate mystery of this universe. It leaves, in fact, that mystery untouched." Prof. Clifford again says: "Of the beginning of the universe we know nothing at all." Herbert Spencer, indeed, rejects primary creation, but not on the ground that evolution offers an alternative for it, but because it is "literally unthinkable"; and Prof. Huxley, on the ground that, as science knows nothing about it, nothing can be known. Q. E. D. But Mr. Darwin tells us that "the theory of evolution is quite compatible with the belief in a God"; that when he was collecting facts for the "Origin" his "belief in what is called a personal God was as firm as that of Dr. Pusey himself";; while even at the time when the "Origin of Species" was published, he deserved to be called a theist." Later on he says: "The mystery of the beginning of all things is insoluble by us; and I for one must be content to remain an agnostic." Yet, three years later (1879), in a private letter, he writes, "In my most extreme fluctuations I have never been an atheist in the sense of denying the existence of a God." These quotations, which of course might easily be multiplied, are enough to show that evolution neither is, nor pretends to be, an alternative theory to original creation. An evolutionist, therefore, who denies the fact of creation, goes as far beyond the evidence which science offers as if he had asserted his belief in "the Maker of heaven and earth."
2. But then evolution does clearly offer us a theory as to how the world came to be what it now is, and in this we are told it contradicts the Bible and the unvarying faith of Christendom. We have here a clear issue raised between two alternative theories—the one the theory of Darwin, the other the theory of "special creation" and they are mutually destructive. If the theory of "special creation" is true, Darwinism is false; if Darwinism is true,"special creation" is false. And this issue is plainly accepted by both parties. Thus Mr. Darwin says, "I have at least done good service in overthrowing the dogma of separate creations"; and Haeckel, in the preface to his "Evolution of Man," boasts that "when, in 1873, the grave closed over Louis Agassiz, the last great upholder of the constancy of species and of miraculous creation, the dogma of the constancy of species came to an end, and the contrary assumption—the assertion that all the various species descended from common ancestral forms—now no longer encounters serious difficulty." Darwin was fully aware of the opposition his theory would have to encounter. And he feared the men of science as much as the theologians. "Authors," he says, "of the highest eminence seem to be fully satisfied that each species has been independently created." When he first hinted at the theory to Joseph Hooker in 1843, he says, "I am almost convinced that species are not (it is like confessing a murder) immutable," and his utmost hope is that he may be able "to show, even to sound naturalists, that there are two sides to the question of the immutability of species," and that "allied species are co-descendants from common stocks." Whether true or not scientifically, this does not sound like a dangerous heresy, and yet the outcry raised from the side of religion was as great as that raised by contemporary science. Even now religious people are surprised to be told that it is a purely scientific question, to be decided solely on scientific evidence, and to be dealt with effectively only by scientific men. It is not the question whether species were created by God or came into existence independently of him, or (as Huckleberry Finn puts it) "whether they were made or whether they just happened." For science repudiates chance—except as a name for unexplained causation—as earnestly as religion does. It is a question between two views as to secondary creation, or, more strictly, between a theory and the denial of the possibility of a theory as to the method of this creation. The question is this: Were species directly created at the firsts or by intermediate laws, as individuals are? Were they independently created, or descended from other species? "To say that species were created so and so," says Mr. Darwin, "is no scientific explanation, only a reverent way of saying it is so and so." "Special creation" is here on the agnostic side, while evolution at least attempts to bring God's action in the past in line with his action in the present; his creation of species with his creation of individuals. According to special creation, forms of life are produced by the will of God; having, indeed, the minutest analogies to one another, and yet having no relation to one another. According to evolution, species are not merely created by God, but created by him according to a method which relates each species with the rest, and explains their analogies, like family likenesses, by a common ancestry.
We have purposely stated this in the language of religion, as Mr. Darwin not unfrequently does. But it is a purely scientific question; and Mr. Darwin, we think rightly, afterward expressed his regret at having used "the Pentateuchal term of creation," because of creation, in its strict sense, as ultimate origin, science knows and can know nothing. The question thus becomes one between those who hold and those who deny the immutability of species. The last are commonly spoken of as "Transmutationists"; the former might have been nicknamed "Immutables," but unfortunately they were too often called "Creationists," and the scientific issue was obscured for both parties by theological animus. Hence a belief in God as Creator came to be associated with the denial of transmutation, and a theory of transmutation was supposed to imply a rejection of the Christian creed.
It is really time that the doctrine of "special creations," which some theologians cling to so tenaciously, was held up to the light. Where did it come from? Who invented it? Everybody will at once say, "The schoolmen," because nobody reads the schoolmen, and people have a vague notion that "genus" and "species" are as much a monopoly of the schoolmen as are "entity" and "quiddity." But the schoolmen were transmutationists! They didn't believe in fixity of species any more than they believed in the uniformity of nature. For them the transmutation of plants was as possible as the transmutation of metals. The "reign of law," which is a commonplace with us, was unknown even in the days of Bacon. It is hardly credible to us that Lord Bacon, the father of modern science, as he is called, though he was only a schoolman touched with empiricism, believed not only that one species might pass into another, but that it was a matter of chance what the transmutation would be. Sometimes the mediæval notion of vivification from putrefaction is appealed to, as where he explains the reason why oak-boughs put into the earth send forth wild vines, "which, if it be true (no doubt)," he says, "it is not the oak that turneth into a vine, but the oak bough, putrefying, qualifyeth the earth to put forth a vine of itself." Sometimes he suggests a reason which implies a kind of law, as when he thinks that the stump of a beech-tree when cut down will "put forth birch" because it is "a tree of a smaller kind which needeth less nourishment." Elsewhere he suggests the experiment of polling a willow to see what it will turn into, he himself having seen one which had a bracken fern growing out of it! And he takes it as probable, though it is inter magnalia naturæ, that "whatever creature having life is generated without seed, that creature will change out of one species into another." Bacon looks upon the seed as a restraining power, limiting a variation which, in spontaneous generations, is practically infinite, "for it is the seed, and the nature of it, which locketh and boundeth in the creature that it doth not expatiate." Here the fact of transmutation is taken for granted, generation from putrefaction being sometimes called in as a deus ex machinâ to explain it. But Bacon certainly had no idea that the existing species of plants and animals represent those originally created by God, and this is what special creation means.
It might be supposed, however, that the doctrine of "special creation" was the private property of commentators, suggested by the account of creation given in Genesis. And there were, no doubt, those who so interpreted the words "after his kind." But Christianity was in no way committed to this view, while St. Augustine distinctly rejects it in favor of a view which, without any violence to language, we may call a theory of evolution. The greatest of the schoolmen deliberately adopted St. Augustine's views and rejected that of special creation. His words are so remarkable that they are worth quoting, especially as we have never seen them referred to in this connection:
As to the production of plants, Augustine holds a different view. For some expositors say that on this third day (of creation) plants were actually produced each in his kind—a view which is favored by a superficial reading of the letter of Scripture. But Augustine says that the earth is then said to have brought forth grass and trees causaliter—i. e., it then received the power to produce them. This view he confirms by the authority of Scripture, which says, "These are the generations of the heaven and of the earth, when they were created, in the day that the Lord God made the earth and the heavens, and every plant of the field before it was in the earth, and every herb of the field before it grew." (Genesis, ii, 4.) Before then they came into being on the earth, they were made causally in the earth. And this is confirmed by reason. For in those first days God made creatures primarily or causaliter, and then rested from his work, and yet after that, by his superintendence of things created, he works even to this day in the work of propagation. For the production of plants from the earth belongs to the work of propagation.
Here, though there is no idea of the method by which the "kinds" were brought forth from the earth, or of their interrelations with one another, there is a clear conception of creation by growth or evolution, which is quite contrary to what is known g-s special creation. And when we remember that the schoolmen held what is now called abiogenesis and generation from putrefaction, both in botany and zoölogy, we feel at once how infinitely more elastic their theory of Nature was than that implied in the doctrine of special creation. But if special creation is a doctrine unknown to Bacon and rejected by St. Thomas, it is not likely to be essential either to science or religion.
Where, then, did it come from? It includes elements both scientific and religious, and it is interesting to notice how the elements combined.
Half a century after Bacon's "Novum Organum" was published, a great poem appeared, which has since then, often unconsciously, influenced theologians and apologists. It is, no doubt, a thankless and ungenerous task to bring the heavy artillery of science to bear upon poetry, and it is only justifiable when truth is endangered. Some time ago Nasmyth, by the help of the "Nautical Almanac," discovered that, if Sir John Moore was buried "at dead of night," he could not have had the advantage of "the struggling moonbeam's misty light," because the moon must have been far below the horizon at the time. When this criticism was reported to the late President of the Royal Irish Academy by Sir R. S. Ball, he is said to have replied, "I'll tell you what it is, the time will come when that little poem will be taken as the sole authority about the matter, and all your astronomical calculations will go for nothing at all." This is very much what has happened in the case of "Paradise Lost." People have come to think of it as a sort of inspired gloss on the early chapters of Genesis. Yet there is a huge difference between the text and the commentary. In the Bible we have, "And God said, 'Let the earth bring forth,'" etc., words which are at least consistent with a gradual development. But Milton says:
"The grassy clods now calved: now half appeared
This is literalism and realism with a vengeance! And yet it is hard to see why Milton should not do in poetry what Raphael in the Vatican had done in art.
But what gives such importance to the account of creation in "Paradise Lost" is, that it synchronized, curiously enough., with the first attempt to limit the logical term "species" to definite natural-history usage. This was the work of Milton's younger contemporary, John Ray, from whom the theory of the fixity of species may be said to date. Whether Milton influenced Ray, or Ray Milton, or whether the theory was "in the air," it is difficult to say. But in the next century, we find in Linnæus the meeting-point of Milton's a priori view of creation and Ray's unscientific doctrine of fixed species. The well-known words of Linnæus in the "Philosophia Botanica," "Species tot sunt, quot diversas formas ab initio produxit Infinitum Ens, quæ formæ, secundum generationis inditas leges, produxere plures, at sibi semper similes," are thus the first formulation of the theory of special creation, which angry evolutionists attack and unwise apologists defend. In Linnæus's own time it came to be generally accepted, though questioned by Buffon, who contended for the modifiableness of species. Popular belief in the Linnæan doctrine seems to have been shaken by Cuvier at the beginning of the present century, and destroyed by Darwin's "Origin of Species"; and yet the dead hand of an exploded scientific theory rests upon theology, and Christians, in all good faith, set to work to defend a view which has neither Biblical, nor patristic, nor mediæval authority.
It is difficult a priori to see how the question, except by a confusion, becomes a religious question at all. Writing to a lady who had consulted him as to the bearing of evolution on theology, Mr. Darwin says, "I can not see how the belief that all organic beings, including man, have been genetically derived from some simple being, instead of having been separately created, bears on your difficulties"; and at the close of the "Origin of Species" he had written, in the same spirit, "I see no good reason why the views given in this volume-should shock the religious feelings of any one."
The Bible, no doubt, in its vivid consciousness of the omnipresence of God, speaks of everything as wrought by him. He makes the grass to grow. He feeds the ravens. He clothes the lilies. He lets his breath go forth, and the beasts of the field are made. Children and the fruit of the womb are his gift. He covers the infant in the mother's womb, and fashions its limbs as they are made in secret. Does any sane man suppose that this conflicts with what we know of the laws of growth and generation, or that it implies an obliterating or an abridgment of what we call natural processes? There is no doubt that a theory of "special creation," as against "creation by derivation" (for this is the true antithesis), possesses a strange attraction for some minds, just as some cling to a Calvinistic theory of "immutable decrees," though at the price of making God an arbitrary, if not immoral, despot. But we do not really make God more mighty by ascribing to him actions which are unintelligible, nor do we derogate from his power by showing that the Maker of heaven and earth is not autocratic, or capricious, or irrational, but works according to law.
It may, however, be said: "Creation is a great mystery. Why attempt to theorize about it? To speculate upon a mystery is to rationalize it." There seems to be only one answer to this objection, and it is that reason is the gift of God and not of the devil, and therefore it can not be wrong to try and understand what we believe. Preaching at St. Paul's on Christmas-day, on the supreme mystery of the Incarnation, Dr. Liddon says:
It was perhaps inevitable that the question should be asked, How such a union of two natures which differ as the Creator differs from the creature—as the infinite differs from the finite—was possible? It might be enough to reply that with God all things are possible—all things, at least, which do not contradict his moral perfections—that is to say, his essential nature. . . . But, in truth, it ought not to be difficult for a being possessed of such a composite nature as is man to answer this question.
And he proceeds to draw out the analogy suggested and justified by the Athanasian Creed, "As the reasonable soul and flesh is one man, so God and man is one Christ." If it is not wrong, nay, if it is a very necessity of Christian reason to ask how the union of God and man is possible, it can not be wrong to ask. How is creation possible? and to answer it by the analogy of what we see and know.
But the moment this question is asked in the present state of scientific knowledge, two things become increasingly apparent: (a) the enormous difficulties which on the theological side alone a theory of "special creation" has to face; and (b) the remarkable gain to theology if evolution rather than "special creation" is true. In both cases we propose to put the scientific evidence for evolution on one side, and treat it as a bare hypothesis.
(a) Nothing has brought out the difficulty of the "special creation" theory more strongly than the modern science of comparative embryology. It has added enormously to our knowledge of the existence of (apart from its suggested explanation of) rudimentary organs, and rudimentary organs have always been a difficulty in the way of the "special creation" hypothesis. Take the case of the whale. As Prof. Flower pointed out at the Reading Church Congress, it possesses in the embryo state a complete set of teeth, together with rudimentary hind-legs, furnished with bones, joints, and muscles, of which there is no trace externally. Both teeth and legs disappear before birth. On the theory that the whale is a descendant of a land-animal, which used both legs and teeth, they are intelligible as survivals in a creature to which they are apparently useless. But that God should have created these structures in a new being, which had no organic relation with other created forms of life, seems almost inconceivable. We can neither believe that they were created "for mere sport or variety," nor that they are "Divine mockeries," nor as an ingenious but anthropomorphic writer in the "Spectator" suggested, that God economically kept to the old plan, though its details had ceased to have either appropriateness or use. The difficulties are even stronger in the case of man and the now well-known facts of his embryonic life. How is it possible, in the face of these, to maintain that we have in man a creation independent of the rest of God's creative work? Of course, if the theory of "special creation" existed either in the Bible or in Christian antiquity, we might bravely try and do battle for it. But it came to us some two centuries ago from the side of science with the imprimatur of a Puritan poet. And, though scientific men are now glad to palm off upon theologians their own mistakes, religion is not bound to wear, still less to be proud of, the cast-off clothes of physical science.
(b) On the other hand, and again apart from the scientific evidence in favor of evolution, as a theory it is infinitely more Christian than the theory of "special creation." For it implies the immanence of God in Nature, and the omnipresence of his creative power. Those who opposed the doctrine of evolution, in defense of "a continued intervention" of God, seem to have failed to notice that a theory of occasional intervention implies as its correlative a theory of ordinary absence. Arid this fitted in well with the deism of the last century. For deism, even when it struggled to be orthodox, constantly spoke of God as we might speak of an absentee landlord, who cares nothing for his property so long as he gets his rent. Yet anything more opposed to the language of the Bible and the Fathers can hardly be imagined. With St. Athanasius, the immanence of the divine Logos is the explanation of the adaptations and unity of Nature, as the fact that man is logikos is the explanation of the truth that man is made in the image of God. Cataclysmal geology and special creation are the scientific analogue of deism. Order, development, law, are the analogue of the Christian view of God.
We may sum up thus: For Christians the facts of Nature are the acts of God. Religion relates these facts to God as their author; science relates them to one another as integral parts of a visible order. Religion does not tell us of their inter-relations; science can not speak of their relation to God. Yet the religious view of the world is infinitely deepened and enriched when we not only recognize it as the work of God, but are able to trace the relation of part to part—to follow, if we may say it reverently, the steps by which God worked, to eliminate, so far as possible, from the action of Him, "with whom is no variableness, neither shadow of turning," all that is arbitrary, capricious, unreasonable, and even where as yet we can not explain, to go on in faith and hope.—The Guardian.