Thursday, April 13, 2017

Darwin and the Bible

For the first edition of his Origin of Species in 1859, Darwin put two epigrams opposite the title page.  The first was from William Whewell's Bridgewater Treatise: "But with regard to the material world, we can at least go so far as this--we can perceive that events are brought about not by insulated interpositions of Divine power, exerted in each particular case, but by the establishment of general laws."

The second was from Francis Bacon's Advancement of Learning: "To conclude, therefore, let no man out of a weak conceit of sobriety, or an ill-applied moderation, think or maintain, that a man can search too far or be too well studied in the book of God's word, or in the book of God's works; divinity or philosophy; but rather let men endeavor an endless progress or proficience in both."

Darwin thus intimated to his reader the relationship of his book to the Bible.  In defending his "theory of natural selection" as superior to the "theory of special creation," The Origin of Species has been seen by many biblical believers as an attack on the Bible's account of God's creation of everything in six days, including His creation of Adam and Eve in His image.  But these two epigrams suggest Darwin's way of presenting his theory as compatible with the Bible.

The quotation from Bacon conveys an idea that was often used by early modern scientists to justify their natural science as a worthy activity for a biblical believer--the metaphor of two books: one can read God's word in the Bible, or one can read God's works in nature.  These two books were often identified as revealed religion and natural religion.

The quotation from Whewell conveys the thought that God's works in nature are not so much miraculous interventions by God that break nature's order but the divine establishment of the general laws of nature.  This is the idea of the metaphysics of dual causality that Darwin introduces in the Origin--God's establishment of general laws constitutes the primary causes of the universe, while the natural scientist studies the secondary causes that govern the observable world.  (I have written about this in a previous post.)

This makes it possible to interpret Darwin as what today would be called a theistic evolutionist or an evolutionary creationist--like Francis Collins and others associated with Collins' BioLogos organization.  In the beginning, the evolutionary creationist believes, God created the natural laws of the Universe and then allowed the natural evolution of everything to occur within those laws.  This allows the biblical believer to accept both the religious truth of biblical creationism and the scientific truth of evolutionary biology.

This is suggested by Darwin's echoing of the language of the biblical creation story in the eloquent last sentence of The Origin of Species: "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; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being evolved."  The phrase "by the Creator" was added to this sentence in the second edition of Origin

In 1863, Darwin read an article in which the author said that explaining the origin of life requires "a creative force, . . . which Darwin could only express in Pentateuchal terms as the primordial form 'into which life was first breathed.'"  In a letter of March 29, 1863, Darwin wrote about this: "I have long regretted that I truckled to public opinion, and used the Pentateuchal term of creation, by which I really meant 'appeared' by some wholly unknown process.  It is mere rubbish, thinking at present of the origin of life; one might as well think of the origin of matter" (The Autobiography of Charles Darwin and Selected Letters, ed. Francis Darwin, p. 272).  Some of Darwin's religious critics have quoted this remark as evidence that he was not serious in his use of the biblical language of "creation" and "Creator," and that it only shows how he "truckled to public opinion."

In any case, we see Darwin here admitting that the origin of all things is an unresolvable mystery for him that creates an opening for religious belief in some First Cause.  In his Autobiography, Darwin said that when he was on board the Beagle, he was a very orthodox Christian, who quoted the Bible as the unanswerable authority on morality.  But then in the first few years after his return to England, 1836-1839, when he was first developing his theory of natural selection, he thought a lot about religion, and "disbelief crept over me at a very slow rate, but was at last complete" (Autobiography, ed. Nora Barlow, pp. 85-87).  Some of this writing about his loss of religious belief was cut out of the first publication of the Autobiography in 1887 by Darwin's son Francis at the request of his mother, who said that she wanted to avoid any offense to the feelings of Darwin's friends who were believers.  (I have written about the struggles of Darwin and his wife Emma over religious questions here and here.)

When he was writing The Origin of Species, Darwin reports, he felt compelled "to look to a First Cause having an intelligent mind in some degree analogous to that of man; and I deserve to be called a Theist."  But then this belief gradually became weaker, and he began to doubt whether the human mind could ever fathom the meaning of a First Cause to everything.  "I cannot pretend to throw the least light on such abstruse problems," he admitted.  "The mystery of the beginning of all things is insoluble by us; and I for one must be content to remain an Agnostic" (Autobiography, pp. 92-94).

The biblical language in the last sentence of the Origin is one way that Darwin tried to convey this "mystery of the beginning of all things."  But his language is not exactly the same as what Genesis says. Darwin says that life was "originally breathed by the Creator into a few forms or into one."  Here's the biblical verse, in the King James translation: "And the Lord God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul" (Genesis 2:7).  Moreover, it is said, "God created man in his own image, in the image of God created he him, male and female created he them" (Genesis 1:27).  So, in the biblical story, God's breathing the breath of life into man to make him a living soul is a special creation of humanity as uniquely set apart as the image of God from all other life. 

Genesis also says that God called the first man Adam, and then Adam named the first woman Eve.  Thus, it seems that all of humanity is descended from these two individuals specially created by God.  But in Darwin's story, the Creator's breath of life animates one or a few forms of life; and apparently, as Darwin made clear in The Descent of Man, human beings were not specially created by God, but rather they evolved naturally from some ancestral species of animals.  Also, Darwin never speaks of Adam and Eve as the first two human beings.

This difference between the Bible and Darwin is more bluntly indicated in one of Darwin's notebooks from 1838 that was not written for publication: "Man in his arrogance thinks himself a great work, worthy the interposition of a deity, more humble & I believe true to consider him created from animals" (Notebooks, 300).

The first chapter of Descent is entitled "The Evidence of the Descent of Man from Some Lower Form."  After surveying the similarities between man and the lower animals, Darwin concludes the chapter with remarks resembling his comments in his notebook: "It is only our natural prejudice, and that arrogance which made our forefathers declare that they were descended from demi-gods, which leads us to demur to this conclusion [that human beings are evolved from lower forms]. But the time will before long come when it will be thought wonderful, that naturalists, who were well acquainted with the comparative structure and development of man and other mammals, should have believed that each was the work of a separate act of creation" (I:32-33).  Although it's not completely clear, the reference here to the false belief in human beings being "descended from demi-gods" could be a reference to the creation of Adam and Eve.  If so, this could be a denial of the teaching that human beings were created in God's image.

Darwin returns to this point in the last sentence of Descent:
"I have given the evidence to the best of my ability; and we must acknowledge, as it seems to me, that man with all his noble qualities, with sympathy which feels for the most debased, with benevolence which extends not only to other men but to the humblest living creature, with his god-like intellect which has penetrated into the movements and constitution of the solar system--with all these exalted powers--Man still bears in his bodily frame the indelible stamp of his lowly origin" (II:405).
The reference to the "god-like intellect" of human beings suggests that there might be some truth in the biblical idea that human beings bear the image of God.  But, still, Darwin argues, all of the "noble qualities" of humanity can be explained as products of a natural evolution from lower animals.

To support this conclusion, Darwin offered evidence of the anatomical, behavioral, and mental similarities between human beings and other animals.  But since he did not understand genetics, Darwin could not recognize the genetic similarities that might support his argument for human evolution from ancestral animal species.

Now, with the growing knowledge of the human genome and of the genomes of other species, and of the techniques for comparing genomes, it is now possible to infer the pathways of human genetic evolution from other lower forms of life.  That provides new evidence for testing evolutionary theory.  But it also raises new questions about whether the science of human genetic evolution is compatible with the biblical creation story of Adam and Eve, or whether that science must deny that story.

Once again, we must wonder whether the two books--the Bible as read by faith and Nature as read by science--are compatible or contradictory.  In recent years, that question has created a great intellectual and spiritual crisis for many Christians--particularly, American evangelical Christians.  It has been called the search for the historical Adam.  That will be the question for my next few posts.

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