Pull Question: The Origin of the Species

Why is the existence of God beyond the scope of science for Darwin?

Darwin’s Origin of the Species ends with the following sentence:

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.

I was rather surprised—and pleased—to find that Darwin does not immediately couple his theory of evolution with atheism. In this last sentence, he even alludes to life as being initiated by the Creator. There are several conclusions I can reach from a cursory glance at this ending:

First, Darwin is writing to lay people. Before this time, he had produced other scientific works, but none were directed to the common people. The Origin of the Species was meant to be read by the unscientific masses, and when Darwin published the book in 1859, most of the West was still Christian. To publish such a theory and not still attribute existence to God would have severely damaged the reception of the work.

Second, Darwin never claims to know the source of all life. He writes in his conclusion, “It may be asked how far I extend the doctrine of the modification of species. The question is difficult to answer…it does not seem incredible that…all the organic beings which have ever lived on this earth may be descended from some one primordial form.”

Notice here that while Darwin postulates that all life may have descended from one original species, he makes no move to claim that this species sprang into existence of its own volition. He does not cite the big bang theory. In fact, he states, “I see no good reason why the views given in this volume should shock the religious feelings of any one.” Darwin simply steers clear of the original source.

The existence of God is outside the scope of Darwin’s work. Darwin understands that speculating on the original source is a question of Why and not of What. In Mere Christianity, C.S. Lewis states:

But why anything comes to be there at all, and whether there is anything behind the things science observes – something of a different kind – this is not a scientific question…The statement that there is any such thing, and the statement that there is no such thing, are neither of them statements that science can make. (Book 1, Chapter 4)

Science is an observational practice. This means that it is relegated to answering the question What? It cannot move to answer the question Why?—that is the job of religion. Darwin very wisely sticks to answering What? He observes that species gradually change over time, and conjectures that perhaps they modify from one species to another over longer periods of time. But he stays away from guessing at the original source of all life, because that would be answering Why life exists.

Atheists have since encompassed the source of all life in the theory of evolution, which  moves the theory from the realm of science to that of religion. Darwin never made that claim. At one point, he comments, “My conclusions have lately been much misrepresented, and it has been stated that I attribute the modification of species exclusively to natural selection…I am convinced that natural selection has been the main but not the exclusive means of modification.”

However Christians may disagree with Darwin, we cannot rebuke him for denying the existence of God. He never did it.

Grade School Mythbusters: Christopher Columbus Edition

“In 1492, Columbus sailed the ocean blue…” but not because he wanted to defy any maniacally tyrannical flat earthers. That this falsehood still endures in countless textbooks is both remarkable and (if you’re like me) completely maddening.

You see, there were no serious flat earthers in Columbus’ time. None. Everyone with much education knew that the world was, is, and ever shall be, round. In fact, everyone had known this about the earth for ages.

It’s as simple as that.

So why is it that my daughter’s homework today read “On Columbus Day, we remember a sailor named Christopher Columbus. During his time, people thought the world was flat.”? Half the books I found in the library echoed the same refrain, despite the fact that this bit of historical fluff has been disproved over, and over, and over…

Why has such a silly idea found such remarkable staying power? The various answers to that question are nearly as infuriating as the myth itself. There are several theories.

Some believe Washington Irving’s 1828 mostly fictional biography, A History of the Life and Voyages of Christopher Columbus is at fault—with a little help from Charles Darwin. Jeffrey Burton Russell writes of this,

The silliness [of Irving’s book] would probably have faded away but for the appearance of something else no one expected: the theory of evolution. In the early 19th century, the notion of slow geological change gained strength, and by mid-century Charles Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace introduced the idea of biological evolution. Scientific doubts raised at the time are perfectly understandable in the context of the age. But other objections came from Christians who insisted on taking the entire Bible literally, which medieval Christians had not done. These anti-Darwinists assumed that the creation story in Genesis was supposed to be a literal, scientific, and physical account of the beginning of the world, and because they believed the Bible to be without error, they had to reject evolution. Evolution’s supporters, who apparently believed Irving’s tale, claimed that evolution’s opponents were just as stupid as medieval Europeans who allegedly thought Earth was flat. From there, the Flat Error found its way into textbooks, stories, and even a few encyclopedias, where it fit so nicely into what else we know most of it false about the Middle Ages.

Other explanations share the same theme, but vary in assigning blame. Here’s Phyllis Schlafley’s take:

The myth that people of the 15th century believed that the earth was flat was popularized by 19th century atheists in order to use science in their war against religion. What better way to discredit religion than to attribute an obviously false idea to religious people! This myth can be traced directly to two very influential 19th century books: History of the Conflict Between Religion and Science by John William Draper (a physician) published in 1874 and History of the Warfare of Science With Theology in Christendom by Andrew Dickson White (the first president of Cornell University) published in 1896. Both men used the flat-earth myth to help spread their arguments against religion. These books started the false and dangerous ideology that there is a war between science and religion, and that science is the only source of truth. The flat-earth myth did not appear in schoolbooks before 1870, but nearly all textbooks included it after 1880.

The attempt to make Columbus into a hero of the battle between science and religion is particularly ridiculous. Columbus was a deeply committed Christian whose own writings prove that his desire to carry the message of Jesus Christ to faraway lands was the primary motivation of his historic voyage to the New World.

Was Columbus, as Schlafley says, really “a deeply committed Christian?” The answer to that depends on who you ask—just as the answer to nearly every question about the man seems to vary depending on the answerer. Certainly he wrote in his diaries of his faith and of his desire to share the Gospel with the native peoples he encountered. He is also thought to have been something of a greedy, genocidal kidnapper who paved the way for a lucrative and destructive slave trade—even his contemporaries found fault with him there.

I’ll part ways with Schlafley and give Columbus’ Christian sincerity a resounding “maybe”.

By the way, my library search did turn up a few non-flat-earther-myth-endorsing gems, suitable for very young children. You might take a look at the homework your child brings home this week, and then inoculate her with a few of these:

  • Christopher Columbus: Sailing the Sea of Darkness by Eric Arnold (This volume is highly rated by my Kindergartner for its depiction of sea monsters, the possibility of which was apparently the most exciting part of Columbus’ voyage.)
  • Scholastic First Biographies: Let’s Read About… Christopher Columbus by Kimberly Weinberger (Light on detail, but good for the very young. Best line in the book: Columbus never did find all of the gold he wanted. But we remember him today as a brave sailor. And we honor him for his mistake!” Well, yes, come to think of it, we do.)
  • Christopher Columbus by Rae Bains. (We didn’t get through all of this one. I guess there weren’t enough pictures of sea monsters—but it looked like a decent resource for the 8-10 year-old crowd).
  • A Book about Christopher Columbus by Ruth Belov Gross, illustrated by Syd Hoff. (This book deserves to be read simply because it was illustrated by Syd Hoff. Enough said.)
  • A Picture Book of Christopher Columbus by David A. Adler. (Not much detail, but the pictures are nice and there is a map inside. Maps are cool.)

Classics for the Contemporary Christian: Digging into Darwin

Darwin’s Dead and He Ain’t Coming Back…or so the Christian bumper sticker says. Personally, my favorite is the one of the Jesus fish eating the upside-down mutant fish with legs labeled ‘Darwin’. In the Jesus vs Darwin showdown, apparently survival of the fittest is true after all.

For many Christians, the instinctive reaction to Darwin, author of the theory natural selection—not, as commonly thought, the author of theory of evolution—is defensive and even hostile. Darwin, some think, is the guy who tried to kill God in the 19th century. He’s the main cause of modern secularization; his theory is in direct opposition to Christianity.

Everyone and their great-uncle’s cousin have an opinion about Darwin. But few have slogged through his five hundred-page classic The Origin of the Species—the book that influenced the future shape of biology, geology, botany, et cetera, et cetera…

But is it possible to let Darwin speak for himself? Not without cracking open Darwin’s text.

From the Introduction, Darwin states that his purpose is to show that “the view which most naturalists entertain…that each species has been independently created—is erroneous.” His goal concerns the origin of species, not the origin of life. Throughout the course of Origin, the exclusive focus of his work is the interconnectedness of specific species and how they trace back to one or more ‘archetypal’ organisms.

In fact, not even until the last pages of his work does Darwin address more universal implications of his theory:

Analogy would lead me one step further, namely, to the belief that all animals and plants have descended from some one prototype. But analogy may be a deceitful guide. Nevertheless all living things have much in common, in their chemical composition, their germinal vesicles, their cellular structure, and their laws of growth and reproduction.

Assuming that the analogy holds true, Darwin still never attempts to answer where that ‘prototype’ might have originated. He certainly never rules out the possibility of a divinely orchestrated evolution that utilizes the means of natural selection. It would seem that, if a Creationist wishes to dismiss Darwin, it must be on scientific, not religious grounds—common descent of species is possible within the Christian conception of God. As author G.K. Chesterton pointed out, “a personal God might just as well do things slowly as quickly, especially if, like the Christian God, he were outside time.”

Whether discussing the hive bee’s architectural genius or the tyrannical, slave-making habits of the Formica rufescens ant, Darwin’s observations of the natural world evidence how miraculous it is. If those species had a common ancestor, would they be any less miraculous? For my part, and aside from any concerns of the theory’s accuracy, I find the idea of God using the gradual processes of the natural world to develop his energy from a single seed even more awing. But for any Christian, The Origin of the Species is well worth reading, particularly while keeping that in mind. Give Darwin the benefit of the doubt: he’ll open up an amazing world of intricate and diverse, yet unified life. No cannibalistic Jesus-fish required.

The opinions here expressed are solely that of the author.
…well, not solely, but you know what I mean.