An article recently published in the journal Public Understanding of Science reports that 54% of Americans today agree with the statement "Human beings, as we know them today, developed from earlier species of animals" (Miller et al. 2021). This is a remarkable increase from 2005, when only 40% of Americans agreed with that statement (Miller et al. 2006).
In 2005, as compared with 34 countries, the United States had the second lowest public acceptance of human evolution. Only Turkey was lower. Today, despite the increase in American acceptance of evolution, it is still lower than in the European countries and in many other countries around the world.
This research suggests many questions. Why does the U.S. still lag behind many other countries in the public acceptance of evolution? Is there some feature of American moral, religious, or political culture that creates a resistance to Darwinian evolution? Why has the acceptance of evolution increased in America over the past 15 years? And is there any way to improve the teaching of the American public about evolutionary science to make it more acceptable?
In their study of the public opinion surveys of Americans on the issue of human evolution, Jon Miller and his colleagues identify six factors that predict the acceptance or rejection of evolution. The second most important factor is "civic scientific literacy": those who show a lot of knowledge of science tend to accept evolution. The third most important factor is college science courses: those who have taken many such courses are more likely to accept evolution. The fourth ranked factor is education: those with advanced educational degrees usually accept evolution. The fifth ranked factor is age: younger people are more inclined than older people to accept evolution. The sixth ranked factor is ideological partisanship: liberal Democrats are more inclined than conservative Republicans to accept evolution.
But the most influential factor by far is American religious fundamentalism: religious fundamentalists usually reject evolution. "Religious fundamentalism" is measured by how people answer five questions. (1) They agree that "There is a personal God that hears the prayers of individuals." (2) They agree that "The Bible is the actual word of God and is to be taken literally." (3) They report that they usually attend at least one religious service in a typical week. (4) They report that they pray at least once in a typical week. (5) And they agree that "We depend too much on science and not enough on faith."
Presumably, religious fundamentalists reject the Darwinian idea of human evolution from earlier species of animals because they believe this contradicts what the Bible says about God creating everything, including human beings, and about God as a Personal Deity who hears prayers and demands faithful obedience. They think the Bible as God's Revelation contradicts Darwin's naturalistic science of evolution.
There is another influential feature of American fundamentalist religion that is not considered by Miller and his colleagues: American fundamentalists often see biblical creationism in the Declaration of Independence, which claims "that all men are created equal" and "endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights," and that this Creator is the source of "the Laws of Nature and of Nature's God," and also "the Supreme Judge of the World" who exercises "divine Providence." Therefore if Darwinian evolution denies biblical creationism, it denies a fundamental principle of the American creed: that human beings have a unique moral dignity as created in the image of God, and as subject to His laws, His judgment, and His providence. In the history of the American fundamentalist attacks on evolution, William Jennings Bryan in the 1920s was the first one to charge that Darwinian evolution denied the imago Dei teaching of the Declaration of Independence.
Here I will challenge both of these reasons for the fundamentalist rejection of Darwinian evolution. First, I will argue that there has been no biblical revelation that clearly resolves the debate over creation and evolution. Second, I will argue that there is no good reason to believe that the Declaration of Independence requires a biblical creationism that denies Darwinian evolution.
I will be drawing from some previous writing here, here, and here.
REVELATION HAS NOT RESOLVED THE CREATION/EVOLUTION DEBATE
The theistic religiosity of evangelical Christians is grounded in their faith in the supreme authority of God's revelation--the special revelation of the Bible and the general revelation of nature, the "two books" in which God's revelation can be read by human beings. Remarkably, however, neither biblical revelation nor natural revelation provides a clear teaching to resolve the debate among evangelical Christians over creation and evolution.
This becomes evident if one reads a book edited by J. B. Stump--Four Views on Creation, Evolution, and Intelligent Design (Zondervan, 2017). Four positions in the creation/evolution debate are represented by four leading proponents: Young Earth creationism (Ken Ham), Old Earth creationism (Hugh Ross), evolutionary creation (Deborah Haarsma), and intelligent design (Stephen Meyer). This is the first time that these four people have engaged one another directly. Each of the four has written a chapter, followed by responses from the other three, and then a rejoinder by the chapter's author.
In John 17, Jesus prays to God that all believers will be as one, that they will come to complete unity, "so that the world may believe that you have sent me." It seems that Christians give witness to the truth of revelation by showing their agreement about that revelation. In Stump's "Introduction" to Four Views, he says that a primary purpose of this book was to pursue unity in what revelation teaches about origins (16). But in his "Conclusion" to the book, he laments that this has not been achieved: "I doubt that readers will come away from this book with the feeling that we are any closer to the goal of Christian unity on the topic of origins" (232).
There are three possible explanations for this. Either there has been no revelation (through the Bible or through nature) of God's teaching about origins. Or there has been such a revelation, but it's so obscure that it conveys no clear message. Or the revelation does convey a clear message, but human beings have a stubborn bias that blinds them to that clear message. Hugh Ross says that "since most humans will choose autonomy over submission to God," most humans will refuse to see the clear evidence of God's creative activity in nature (166). But this atheistic bias cannot explain why faithful Christians--like the four authors in this book--would refuse to recognize the clear teaching of revelation. So we are left with the first two explanations for why these Christians cannot come to agreement about origins: either there has been no revelation about origins, or the revelation is not clear enough to be understood. All four of the authors believe that God has sent the Holy Spirit "to guide us persistently to truth" (71, 76, 107), but here the Holy Spirit has failed to guide them to agreement about the revealed teaching concerning origins.
Like the other three authors, Ken Ham (the young earth creationist) sees God's revelation both in Scripture and in nature. But he thinks the biblical revelation is clearer and more truthful than natural revelation, because after Adam's Fall, God cursed creation, and so "the creation gives a confusing message about the Creator" (19). The creation reveals the Creator to all people, but it does not teach us how and when God created. For that, we must go to the Bible (101).
Ham insists that the "clear teaching" of the Bible, particularly in the first 11 chapters of Genesis, is that God created everything over six literal days about 6,000 years ago; and therefore the claim of evolutionary science that life and the universe evolved naturally over billions of years is false. But Ham is silent about the fact that the dating of Creation at 6,000 years ago is not in the Bible. This date was inferred by Bishop James Ussher, who relied not just on the Bible but also on non-biblical documents. So this is not a "clear teaching" of the Bible. Moreover, Ham admits that "most Christians" or "many Christians" do not agree with his interpretation (24, 28, 31, 34, 38, 44, 46).
Ham also claims that the Bible is clear in declaring that God created all the forms of plant and animal life by creating distinct "kinds" (Hebrew min), and that these created kinds correspond to what in modern taxonomic classification would be called the family (not species or genus) (41, 105). Thus, new species can arise by natural evolution, but this evolutionary change is within the boundary of a "kind" or "family." Ham is silent, however, about how, prior to Darwin, "kinds" were interpreted as species. Once Darwin had shown how species can emerge by natural evolution, some creationists, beginning with Frank Marsh in 1941, began to argue that the Hebrew min was an "imprecise term," and that it should be interpreted not as species but as family. (I have written about this here.) Ham has adopted this interpretation without acknowledging that it is an interpretation that is not a "clear teaching" of the Bible. (I have written a post on Ham's debate with Bill Nye in 2014.
Against Ham, Hugh Ross (the old earth creationist) insists that the Bible clearly teaches that the six days of creation in Genesis 1 are not literal 24-hour days but "ages"--long expanses of time that correspond to the billions of years for the creation of the universe, the earth, and life that has been confirmed by modern science. And yet, while disagreeing with Ham about dating, Ross agrees with Ham in reading the Genesis story literally. So, for example, he agrees with Ham that the human species was originally created with God's creation of Adam and Eve; and he predicts that genetic models will eventually show an initial human ancestral population of 2. The creation narrative in Genesis is "in perfect accord--both descriptively and chronologically--with the established scientific record" (83). The Book of Scripture and the Book of Nature are in concord.
Ross believes that the evolutionary history of the universe and life show gaps that cannot be explained by purely natural evolutionary processes, because these gaps arise from God's miraculous intervention. For example, there is an unbridgeable gap between human beings and all other animals, because the creation of Adam and Eve was a miraculous work of the Creator. Similarly, mass extinction and mass speciation events show God's interventions into natural history.
Unlike both Ham and Ross, Deborah Haarsma (the evolutionary creationist) does not see the creation story in Genesis as a literal history of nature's origins, and she does not see gaps in evolutionary history that require miraculous interventions by God to create what cannot arise by natural evolution. She writes: "Evolutionary creation is the view that God created the universe, earth, and life over billions of years, and that the gradual process of evolution was crafted and governed by God to create the diversity of all life on earth. Thus, evolution is not a worldview in opposition to God but a natural mechanism by which God providentially achieves his purposes" (125).
Compared with the other three positions, Haarsma's evolutionary creation is closest to Darwin's idea of "dual causality": Darwin speaks of the laws of nature as manifested in evolution as "secondary causes," which leaves open the possibility of God's creative power acting through "primary causes" to create the original order of nature itself. I have written about this here and here.
Haarsma has carefully chosen the term "evolutionary creation" as an alternative to the term "theistic evolution," because the later term often suggests a deism in which the divine First Cause lacks the personal and providential traits of the Biblical God. Haarsma's Creator chooses to act through the evolutionary laws of nature rather than miraculous interventions, which distinguishes her position from that of Ham and Ross. But her Creator does engage in those miraculous acts that are necessary for human salvation--such as the incarnation and resurrection of Christ. Her Creator hears and answers prayers. Her Creator really is the Biblical God and not just Meyer's Intelligent Designer. (As I have indicated in another post, Darwin would have disagreed with Haarsma on this point, because he did not see any clear evidence that the Bible was a divine revelation.)
According to Haarsma, Genesis does not answer the how and when questions of science, but it does answer the who and why questions (131). Much of the Genesis story repeats the creation stories of the ancient Near East that the Israelites would have known. God accommodated his teaching to these beliefs. He could have corrected this cosmology, Haarsma observes, but he chose not to do that. God's only concern was to teach that there is only one God who is the sovereign creator of all, which departed from the ancient origin stories (128-30). In this interpretation, Haarsma follows the lead of John Walton, who argues that the Bible was written first to the peoples living in the ancient Near East, and therefore we should not expect that the cosmological teachings should correspond with a modern scientific understanding. (I have written about this here.)
But as Ham points out, this "accuses God of using error to teach truth" (156). If God had corrected the errors of ancient Near Eastern cosmology, wouldn't this have confirmed God's revelation as truth that was beyond human understanding prior to modern science? If there is no correction of ancient cosmology, does this imply that this is not really a revelation of a truth beyond the human beliefs of that time?
Haarsma might respond that we can see this was a true revelation because it corrects ancient theology in teaching a monotheistic religion of a creator God that was new. But if we're going to read the Bible within its cultural setting, then we might notice that parts of the Bible seem to accept the polytheistic idea that different peoples have different gods (for example Judges 11:24). We might then wonder whether Yahweh was originally one of many gods who at some point was elevated to be the one universal and transcendent god of Israel, which is the argument of Thomas Romer in The Invention of God (Harvard, 2015). So why isn't God a cultural invention? To deny this, it would help to have a revelation in the Bible of cosmological truths that correct traditional cosmologies in ways that people of the ancient Near East could not have understood, but which might be confirmed by modern science.
To all of this, Stephen Meyer (the intelligent design theorist) responds by arguing that although he personally believes in biblical revelation, he sees that the case for an intelligent designer as an alternative to materialist natural science is best made on purely scientific grounds without any appeal to biblical authority. He claims that the evidence of science based on our natural observations of the world point to the existence of an intelligent designer to explain the appearance of design in the natural world that cannot be explained plausibly by Darwinian evolutionary science.
I have argued in another post that Meyer's reasoning is dishonest and sophistical.
Here, I only want to make the point that the disagreement over origins among these four faithful Christians who have carefully studied both the Bible and science suggests that there has been no divine revelation that clearly resolves the debate among evangelical Christians over creation and evolution.
So what? What difference does this make for orthodox believing Christians? Sometimes the authors in this book say the debate over origins is only a "secondary issue" for Christians, because one can be a believing Christian without resolving this debate (44-45, 60). But then Ham contends that the literal truth of Genesis 1-11 is the "foundation" of all the other doctrines of Christianity--it is "the foundation of the whole rest of the Bible" (18). If this is so, then those who disagree with Ham's interpretation of Genesis are destroying Christianity.
Ham refers to the famous case of Anthony Flew, the British philosopher who argued for philosophic atheism until he was persuaded to accept the argument for intelligent design, and he became a deist. Ham observes that since Flew never accepted the clear revelation in the Bible of God as Creator and Jesus as Savior, he died "as a Christ-rejecting sinner who sadly will spend eternity in Hell" (210). So those who fail to receive the correct revelation of Biblical creationism will go to Hell! (My posts on Flew can be found here, here, and here.)
Even if they don't go to Hell, professors at Christian schools who don't receive the correct revelation of creationism might lose their jobs. For example, the editor of Four Views--Jim Stump--was for many years a respected professor of philosophy at Bethel College in Indiana. But then the College adopted this declaration as part of their statement of faith: "We believe that the first man, Adam, was created by an immediate act of God and not by a process of evolution." Since Stump is a proponent of evolutionary creation, who works for Haarsma's BioLogos, the organization promoting evolutionary creation, he believes that Adam was indeed created by God through a natural process of evolution. Consequently, he was forced to resign from Bethel College. (I have written about the Adam controversy here.)
So why are faithful Christians unable to reach any agreement about this question of creation, evolution, and ultimate origins? If the revelation of God's teaching in the Bible or in nature about origins is untrustworthy or unclear, why should they believe that there has been any revelation at all?
It seems that the Holy Spirit failed them.
For this reason, William Jennings Bryan (1922, 1924) warned that Darwinian evolution was an assault on the American political theology of the Declaration, which was one of his reasons for joining the prosecution in the famous Scopes trial in 1925, where John Scopes, a public school teacher, was charged with teaching that human beings evolved from a lower animals, in violation of a Tennessee law prohibiting such teaching.
As an alternative to teaching Darwinian evolution, Bryan and his followers have argued for teaching "creation science" or "intelligent design theory." Proponents of intelligent design have been motivated by their belief that Darwinian evolution promotes a culturally degrading materialism that denies the creationist theology that is foundational not only for American life but for Western civilization in general. The Discovery Institute, the leading organization promoting intelligent design theory, made this point clear in 1998 in the founding document for its "Center for the Renewal of Science and Culture," which has a reproduction of Michelangelo's "Creation of Adam" painting on its cover, and which begins:
"The proposition that human beings are created in the image of God is one of the bedrock principles on which Western civilization was built. Its influence can be detected in most, if not all, of the West's greatest achievements, including representative democracy, human rights, free enterprise, and progress in the arts and sciences."Thus, the Darwinian denial of the creationist theology of the Declaration of Independence can be seen as a general denial of the whole idea of human rights. Theorists of human rights like Michael Perry (1998, 2007) have contended that international norms of human rights must be founded on the principle of the sacredness of human life as created in God's image (the subject of a previous post).
Against my argument for "Darwinian liberalism," Adam Seagrave (2011) and many others (Dilley et al. 2013), including the Straussians, have insisted that the Lockean liberal conception of natural rights depends on Locke's creationist anthropology, which is contrary to Darwin's evolutionary science (the subject of posts here and here).
Similarly, Carl Becker in his classic study in 1922 of the Declaration of Independence concluded that modern Darwinian science had refuted the Declaration's recourse to "God or the Transcendent Idea." After all, Becker explained, Darwin had shown how all forms of life could be explained as the result of purely natural material causes:
"When so much the greater part of the universe showed itself amenable to the reign of a purely material natural law, it was difficult to suppose that man (a creature in many respects astonishingly like the higher forms of apes) could have been permitted to live under a special dispensation. it was much simpler to assume one origin for all life and one law for all growth; simpler to assume that man was only the most highly organized of the creatures (the missing link would doubtless shortly be found), and to think of his history accordingly, as only a more subtly negotiated struggle for existence and survival" (Becker 1941, 274-75).This dispute over whether Darwinism contradicts the theology of the Declaration depends on how one identifies the God of the Declaration. If one interprets the Declaration's deity as a transcendent creative agent working against the laws of nature in miraculously endowing human beings with a supernatural soul, that would contradict the Darwinian account of natural human evolution. But if one interprets the Declaration's deity as an immanent creative power working through the laws of nature for the emergent evolution of human beings, that would be compatible with Darwinian science. In this case, we could see the appeal in the first sentence of the Declaration to "the laws of Nature and of Nature's God" as implying that God and Nature are two ways of talking about the same thing. Nature's God is the God of the deists, the God of Spinoza, a way of talking about God without invoking the supernatural God.
One of the first of America's revolutionaries to declare his belief in "Nature's God" was Thomas Young. In 1770, three years before he would become the instigator of the Boston Tea Party, Young responded to a sermon by the revivalist George Whitefield denouncing American Deists as Satanic atheists. In the Boston Evening Post (August 27, 1770), Young proudly professed his deist faith in the God who could be known by reasoning about nature rather than from biblical revelation: "That the religion of Nature, more properly stiled the Religion of Nature's God, in latin call'd Deus, hence Deism, is truth, I now boldly defy thee to contest."
To better understand this "Religion of Nature's God," Young recommended "[Alexander] Pope's little Essay on Man, confessedly deduced from the inspiration of Lord Bolingbroke, and perhaps every sentence adopted by me." Indeed, the first appearance of the term "Nature's God" in English was in Pope's Essay on Man, a philosophical poem published in 1734, where in explaining how "Virtue alone is Happiness below," he observes:
"Slave to no sect, who takes no private road,
"But looks thro' Nature, up to Nature's God" (4.331-32)Echoing the monistic naturalism of Epicurus, Lucretius, and Spinoza, Pope speaks of Nature and God interchangeably, in denying sectarian religion in favor of a natural religion in which "true piety," as Lucretius declared, is not to bow before the gods, but to contemplate nature's wondrous order (On the Nature of Things, 5.1197-1203).
Pope's Essay on Man also shows the first published use of the phrase "science of Human Nature" (Pope 2016, lv, 4).
Pope's book was dedicated to Henry St. John, Viscount Bolingbroke (1678-1751), who became notorious for his posthumously published Philosophical Works that attacked Christianity and promoted an Epicurean and Spinozist atheism or natural religion. "The law of nature is the law of God," he explained, and therefore the laws of the Bible that contradict nature cannot truly be God's laws. As a young man, Thomas Jefferson copied this and many other passages from Bolingbroke into his Literary Commonplace Book (sec. 36).
In his private correspondence, Jefferson affirmed his Epicurean materialism: "I too am an Epicurean" (letter to William Short, October 31, 1819). In his correspondence with John Adams, he rejected the "spiritualism" of traditional Christianity and defended a monistic conception of human nature in which mind is an activity of the physical brain. (I have written about that here.) He thought that Jesus was originally a great teacher of natural morality, but then his moral teaching was corrupted by a tradition of Christian miracle-working spiritualism. He edited his own personal version of the New Testament in which he cut out all of the stories of miracles and of the divinity of Jesus.
Although Jefferson kept all of this private during his lifetime, his published writing--and particularly his Notes on the State of Virginia (written in 1781 and published in 1787)--provided enough evidence for him to be generally identified as an "infidel." In the presidential election of 1800, ministers published sermons warning Christians not to vote for this "open infidel." John Mitchell Mason (1991 [originally 1800]) quoted one of the most infamous passages in the Notes on Virginia: "The legitimate powers of government extend to such acts only as are injurious to others. But it does me no injury for my neighbor to say there are twenty Gods or no God. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg." Mason identified this as a clear statement of infidelity or atheism, because it affirmed that a society could be founded in atheism, and that religion was not necessary for social order.
Remarkably, Mason said that many Christians in 1800 were saying that "there is no prospect of obtaining a real Christian, and we had better choose an infidel than a hypocrite" (1991, 1468). His reply was to argue that it was better to vote for hypocrites like George Washington and John Adams--who hide their infidelity behind their professions of religion--than to vote for an open infidel like Jefferson, because at least hypocrites show public respect for religion. The fact that the Constitution of the United States never mentions God makes it even more imperative, Mason observes, for Christians to elect either Christians or hypocrites rather than open infidels, if there is to be any chance of slowing America's decline into atheism.
But even if Jefferson was infected with the Epicurean infidelity of Lucretius, Spinoza, Bolingbroke, and Pope, one might assume that the political theology of the Declaration of Independence echoes the Christian creationism of John Locke. But many of Locke's Christian critics--including Bishop Stillingfleet, Leibniz, and William Carroll--accused Locke of hiding his Epicurean and Spinozist infidelity behind his pretensions of orthodox Christianity. Carroll argued that Locke had advanced a "double View, double Design, intended to fool the pious while promoting Spinozism." After all, a careful reading of Locke shows his slippery language--sliding between "the laws of God," "the laws of Nature," or "the laws of God and Nature," and moving from "God has designed" to "Nature has designed"--so that his deity looks like Spinoza's: "God or Nature" (see The Second Treatise of Government, secs. 1, 4, 60, 66, 142, 195; Essay Concerning Human Understanding, 2.9.12, 2.10.3). (For a meticulous account of how Epicurean naturalism was transmitted through Lucretius, Spinoza, and Locke to the American founders, see Matthew Stewart's book Nature's God: The Heretical Origins of the American Republic.)
How one interprets the theology of the Declaration of Independence is connected with one's interpretation of its Lockean morality of natural rights. A transcendent conception of the Declaration's deity will support a transcendent conception of its morality, so that its Lockean morality will depend upon the supernatural authority of God's commands as revealed in the Bible. Consequently, infidelity or atheism will deny that morality. By contrast, an immanent conception of the Declaration's deity will support an immanent conception if its morality, so that its Lockean morality will depend upon human reason's grasp of a natural moral law known by human experience without any need for supernatural revelation.
The Declaration is open to both interpretations. The openness to a transcendent deity was enhanced by the changes made to Jefferson's first draft. In that first draft, "Nature's God" was Jefferson's only reference to a deity. Later, other members of the Congress added three more references to deity: "they are endowed by their Creator" in the second sentence; "appealing to the Supreme Judge of the world for the rectitude of our intensions" in the penultimate sentence; and "with a firm reliance on the protection of divine Providence" in the last sentence. God as Creator, as Supreme Judge, and as Providential Caregiver does suggest a divine agency above or beyond the natural world that might intervene miraculously in the natural world against natural law to serve His purposes, and thus enforcing a transcendent morality. (On the drafting of the Declaration, see Becker's book.)
So, for example, as I indicated in my previous posts, some American charismatic evangelicals can appeal to "the protection of divine Providence" in their belief that God intervened in the presidential election of 2016 to give Donald Trump a miraculous victory in response to prayers from Christians asking for His aid.
But if one interprets "Nature's God" as the immanent creative power of nature itself, one could affirm a natural Lockean morality rooted in human nature and reason. That was Jefferson's position in arguing for a natural moral sense that did not necessarily depend on believing in a transcendent God of the Bible who enforced morality with supernatural rewards and punishments. Darwin agreed with this, and it has been reinforced by recent developments in the evolutionary psychology of morality.
When Jefferson and Adams resumed their correspondence in 1812, after it had broken off during their period of being political opponents, much of what they wrote over the next 15 years was about their hope that Nature's God of the scientific Enlightenment would finally prevail over the priestly superstition enforcing tyranny over the human mind. In his letter of September 14, 1813, Adams wrote to Jefferson saying that he would be happy to hear that the British Parliament had passed a bill to repeal the provisions of the Toleration Act of 1689 that made it illegal to deny the Christian doctrine of the Trinity; and he declared:
"The human Understanding is a revelation from its Maker which can never be disputed or doubted. There can be no Scepticism, Pyrrhonism or Incredulity or Infidelity here. No Prophecies, no Miracles are necessary to prove this celestial communication. This revelation has made it certain that two and one make three; and that one is not three; nor can three be one. We can never be so certain of any Prophecy, or the fulfillment of any Prophecy; or of any miracle, or the design of any miracle as We are, from the revelation of nature i.e. nature's God that two and two are equal to four. Miracles or Prophecies might fright Us out of our Wits; might scare us to death; might induce Us to lie; to say that We believe that 2 and 2 make 5. But We should not believe it. We should know the contrary" (Cappon, 1987, p. 373).Clearly then, Nature's God is not three (Father, Son, Holy Spirit), but one with Nature itself; and Nature's God is known not by faith in miracles but by human understanding of the natural order of things.
Some of these points are elaborated in posts here, here, here, and here.
Here is that same passage as it appears in the final version: "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights."
Although the first version conveys the idea of human beings as created equal and deriving rights from that equal creation, the addition of "by their Creator" in the final version makes it clearer that the agent of creation is the divine Creator.
Here is the last sentence in the first edition of Charles Darwin's Origin of Species published in 1859: "There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed 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."
In the second edition of this book, Darwin added the phrase "by the Creator" after the word "breathed." Darwin's language here about creation through "breathing" echoes the language of the King James translation of Genesis 2:7--"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." As in the revision of the Declaration, Darwin's addition of "the Creator" makes the implication clear that there's a divine agent at work in the origin of life.
In the Biblical story of Creation, there seems to be something special about God's creation of human beings, and that human specialness is emphasized by the Bible's declaration that "God created man in his own image, in the image of God created he him; male and female created he them" (Genesis 1:27). There is also a suggestion of human specialness in the Declaration's claim that human beings are endowed by their Creator with rights.
In Darwin's text, however, the powers of life were originally breathed by the Creator "into a few forms or into one," implying that human beings were not specially created but rather evolved from lower forms of life. And, in fact, Darwin explicitly rejects the "theory of special creation"--the theory that the Creator had to miraculously create each species of life separately--in affirming "the theory of natural selection"--Darwin's theory that all living species of life have naturally evolved over millions of years from one or a few primordial forms of life.
The exact dating of creation is not clear either in the Bible or in the Declaration. "In the beginning, God created the heaven and the earth" (Genesis 1:1). But Genesis does not give us a date for "the beginning." God's acts of creation are said to be spread out over six days, and yet it's not clear whether these are meant to be literal 24-hour days. In the seventeenth century, Bishop James Ussher tried to calculate the chronology of Biblical history, and he estimated that the "beginning" of creation was 4,004 years before the birth of Christ; so that the whole world was no older than 6,000 years. But the Bible does not clearly state this. And the Declaration takes no position on this dating.
Although it was impossible for Darwin to date the history of life precisely, he saw that the natural evolution of all forms of life would require at least hundreds of millions of years. One of the achievements of geology in the first half of the nineteenth century was reaching a general agreement that the Earth was surely much older than 6,000 years. Nevertheless, by the beginning of the twentieth centuries, there were some "young-Earth creationists" who defended Ussher's dating, although the "old-Earth creationists" were willing to concede that the geological evidence was against Ussher, and that the "days" of creation in Genesis should be interpreted as "ages" much longer than 24 hours. William Jennings Bryan, for example, was an old-Earth creationist.
So is the Darwinian science of human evolution compatible with what the Declaration says about the creation of human beings by the Creator? Well, it depends on what one means by "creation" and "the Creator." As I have already indicated, there are different kinds of creationism, and while some kinds clearly contradict Darwin's science, some do not--as suggested by Darwin himself in his reference to "the Creator." A Creator whose creative activity is always against the laws of nature denies Darwin's science. But a Creator whose creative activity works through the laws of nature--who acts as Nature's God--is compatible with Darwin's science.
There are six kinds of creationism--the theory of special creation, young-Earth creationism, old-Earth creationism, intelligent-design creationism, evolutionary creationism, and Spinozistic creationism. Spinozistic creationism is completely compatible with Darwinian science, and evolutionary creationism is largely so.
Most scientific creationists today concede that Darwin refuted the "theory of special creation"--the idea that the Creator had to miraculously create every plant and animal species separately. The Bible speaks of God as creating the "kinds" of life, but these "kinds" are not necessarily all the "species" of life. Some creation scientists claim that "created kinds" correspond not to "species" but to groups of plants or animals at a taxonomic level higher than species, perhaps at or near the taxonomic rank of family. So, for example, Todd Wood concedes that Peter and Rosemary Grant have presented convincing evidence for the evolution of diverse species of "Darwin's finches" on the Galapagos Islands as adaptations to the environment of the Galapagos. But still, Wood argues, all of these species of finches belong to a single "kind" created by God.
Wood also concedes that the human species might have evolved from ancestral primate species, so that human beings and apes might belong to some "kind" that was originally created by God with the genetic potential for evolving into all of the primate species.
Unlike the young-Earth creationists (like Wood), the old-Earth creationists (like Hugh Ross) concede that the universe is billions of years old, and so Ussher's dating of 6,000 years is false. But over those billions of years of cosmic history, Ross argues, God had to miraculously intervene at critical points for supernatural creative activity that cannot be reduced to natural evolution.
The evolutionary creationists (or theistic evolutionists) like Francis Collins and Deborah Haarsma believe that God could have acted as First Cause in originally creating the general laws of nature, but then He could have allowed natural evolutionary history to unfold just as evolutionary scientists have explained it, without any need for God to miraculously disrupt the natural order of things.
Darwin introduces the idea of dual causality into The Origin of Species: 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 here, here, and here.)
The signers of the Declaration of Independence were familiar with a similar conception of dual causality in Isaac Newton's version of deistic religion. The universe is a "machine" governed by the mathematical laws of nature. But God is the "Maker" of the machine.
This Newtonian conception of the "clockmaker God" creates a dilemma, however, for anyone who wants to see God as a transcendent being beyond the immanent order of nature. As Gottfried Leibniz pointed out in his debate with Samuel Clark, either God must intervene regularly to rewind or repair the clock, which shows that God is an incompetent clockmaker; or the clock works fine all by itself, and God the clockmaker is indistinguishable from God the clock. If it's the latter, then Newton's God is Spinoza's God, who is the same as Nature.
In one of the most influential statements of Lockean political philosophy in the eighteenth century--Cato's Letters--John Trenchard and Thomas Gordon resolved this debate in favor of Spinoza. In their essay on how to dispel "superstitious fears" by recognizing that what appear to be miraculous events are probably works of natural causes, they argue:
"The works of Almighty God are as infinite as is his power to do them. And 'tis paying greater deference to him, and having higher conceptions of his omnipotence, to suppose that he saw all things which have been, are, or ever shall be, at one view, and formed the whole system of nature with such exquisite contrivance and infinite wisdom, as by its own energy and intrinsick power, to promote all the effects and operations which we daily see, feel, and admire; than to believe him to be often interposing to alter and amend his own work, which was undoubtedly perfect at first" (no. 77, Liberty Fund edition, 2:565).This same Spinozistic idea of identifying God and Nature was adopted by Darwin. After reading one of the first copies of The Origin of Species, Charles Kingsley--a prominent clergyman of the Church of England and a friend of Darwin--wrote a letter to Darwin, which included this remark:
"I have gradually learnt to see that it is just as noble a conception of Deity, to believe that he created primal forms capable of self development into all forms needful pro tempore & pro loco, as to believe that He required a fresh act of intervention to supply the lacunas which he himself had made."Darwin wrote to John Murray, his publisher, that Kingsley's "capital sentence" should be inserted into the second edition of Origin, "in answer to anyone who may, as many will, say that my Book is irreligious." This sentence was introduced into the concluding section of Origin as showing that there is "no good reason why the views given in this volume should shock the religious feelings of any one" (Origin of Species, Modern Library/Random House, 1936, pp. 367-68).
But can the creation of human beings "in the image of God" arise by purely natural evolution without any miraculous intervention by God? Pope John Paul II and Pope Francis--and Catholics generally--have embraced theistic evolution in conceding that Darwin's theory of evolution has been verified. But they have also declared that the creation of the human soul requires an "ontological leap" through a miraculous divine act that transcends natural evolution. (I have written about that here.)
Darwin suggests, however, that even the creation of the soul might be explained by natural evolution. Here is the last sentence of The Descent of Man:
"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."Darwin's 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 he also saw that human beings were unique in their capacities for language, self-conscious reflection, and the moral sense. Now, recent research in evolutionary neuroscience allows us to explain the emergent evolution of the mind in the brain, which includes the human mind's capacity for moral judgment, which allows us to recognize our natural rights, such as life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
Jefferson foresaw this, because he studied some of the earliest neurological experiments showing how mental activity was correlated with the stimulation of the brain, which Jefferson took as evidence of how mind arises naturally from the material brain. This came up in his correspondence with John Adams: "Why may not the mode of action called thought, have been given to a material organ of peculiar structure? as that of magnetism is to the Needle, or of elasticity to the spring by a particular manipulation of the steel?" (letter to Adams, March 14, 1820). (I have written about this here.)
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Bryan, William Jennings. 1924. Seven Questions in Dispute. New York: Fleming H. Revell.
Cappon, Lester J., ed. 1987. The Adams-Jefferson Letters. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press.
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Jefferson, Thomas. 1989. Jefferson's Literary Commonplace Book. Ed. Douglas L. Wilson. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
Mason, John Mitchell. 1991 (orig. 1800). "The Voice of Warning to Christians." In Political Sermons of the American Founding Era, 1447-1476. Ed. Ellis Sandoz. Indianapolis: Liberty Press.
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Perry, Michael. 2007. Toward a Theory of Human Rights. New York: Oxford University Press.
Pope, Alexander. 2016. An Essay on Man. Edited and with an Introduction by Tom Jones. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
Seagrave. S. Adam. 2011. "Darwin and the Declaration." Politics and the Life Sciences 30: 2-16.
Stewart, Matthew. 2014. Nature's God: The Heretical Origins of the American Republic. New York: Norton.