This article first appeared in Salvo 61
It started with latent unbelief. Not with science or scientific evidence, but with a restrained spirit of revolt, hemmed in only by the bib and tucker of the Victorian Age. The only thing needed to unhem the pretense of Christianity was a book written by the Devil’s Chaplain—Charles Darwin, the British gentleman living off the largesse of his esteemed father, the physician Robert Darwin, and influenced by his radical grandfather Dr. Erasmus Darwin.1 The skeptical spirit of the age was waiting for an idea like Darwinism. Once the pretense of Christianity was gone, everything had to be purged, including the fattened Established Church and scientific inquiries tainted with theology.
Many Christians today are familiar with the scientific critiques of Darwinism (and the modern version of Neo-Darwinism).2 But if the Devil is in the details, then Christians also
need to be familiar with the historical context in which Charles Darwin produced his theory, published in his 1859 book Origin of Species and his 1871 book Descent of Man. Christians ought to continue to study and refine the scientific criticism of Neo-Darwinism. To aid the appraisal, we must also begin to appreciate the wider context that made Darwin’s theory possible. What drove this wealthy Whig gentleman, tormented by the infirmities caused by inbreeding, to posit the theory of transmutation (today scientists also call it macroevolution)?3 And why did so many people accept his speculations as fact?
Charles Darwin grew up in a family influenced by the theological liberal Joseph Priestley. When Charles was born in 1809, the family name was already associated with subversive atheism. Young Charles was desperate for attention, so much so that he had a penchant for inventing deliberate falsehoods. Doctor Robert Darwin wanted his son to become a doctor, so in 1825 Charles enrolled in Edinburgh Medical School, becoming the third-generation Darwin to study medicine there.
Edinburgh was a hotbed of dissenters interested in heterodoxy. In 1826 Charles joined the Plinian Society, a group determined to overturn the Christian consensus. At Edinburgh, Darwin mixed freely with medical students who identified as materialistic atheists. The mentor who influenced Darwin the most during this period was Robert Edmond Grant, a hardline evolutionist who would enthusiastically praise Darwin’s Origin of Species three decades later. Grant’s approach to evolution shaped Darwin’s initial approach to the subject. Charles left Edinburgh after two years, transferring to Cambridge.4
After Charles earned his Cambridge degree in 1831, he took off on a five-year voyage on the HMS Beagle. It’s worth noting that Darwin didn’t travel on the 90-foot vessel as a blank slate. His extensive observations, specimen collections, and writings were carried out with deep and developing anti-religious commitments. When he returned from the trip in 1836, he wasn’t the same man. There was new confidence to challenge established authority.5
There was also an explicit departure from the supernatural worldview. This instinct lay dormant during his early life, sequestered until the time for disclosure was right. In 1850, Francis Newman’s book, History of the Hebrew Monarchy, was the talk of London. The book advanced the standard skepticism of theological liberalism. The anti-supernatural radicals loved it, including Darwin. With Newman consolidating Darwin’s doubts, Charles concluded that religious instincts evolved with society. Near the end of his life, Darwin said he had “never been an atheist in the sense of denying the existence of God . . . an agnostic would be the most correct description of my state of mind.” “Agnostic” was a term coined in 1869 by Huxley to refer to someone who “did not deny or affirm God’s existence.”6
As for the evolution of Darwin’s beliefs, his adult life continued along the path charted by his upbringing. When his beloved daughter Annie died at Easter in 1851, any remaining remnants of Christianity were once for all destroyed. He couldn’t fathom a world where God would allow his child to die. He’d rather believe in the contingency of nature. As tragic as any child’s death is, we have to take note of how Darwin’s intense emotions bore on his scientific work. In other words, his reasons for rejecting God were not merely a result of following “the science.”7
A Heavy Diet of Speculation
In 1854, Darwin was still keeping his transmutation opinions close to the vest. Joseph Hooker encouraged him to present arguments from both sides. Darwin pretended to do so, but the balance was a public mask. Internally, he was committed to one side and had been for fifteen years. As he continued to develop his theory, he concluded that nature was self-improving. He likened it to industrial progress with specialization among the workforce. In nature, competition created variations that filled open niches. This explained the many varieties of species.
Darwin understood this was a theory without scientific evidence. He understood that since his theory came from economical observations, some might not regard it as sound science. He knew that if people were going to buy the theory, “evolution had to be seen standing on the solid rock of science.” Concealed was the fact that his theory was steeped in religious feelings.8
A few years before Origin of Species was published, a cabal of young-guard materialists gathered around Darwin. They included zoologist Thomas Huxley, botanist Joseph Hooker, and physicist John Tyndall. The goal was to gain a larger share of influence over the public. Their strategy was to turn science into a profession without any influence from theology. This allowed them to act as if they didn’t have religious convictions. It also gave them a built-in excuse. Whenever detractors disagreed with their radical conclusions, it was because they were beholden to theology rather than science.9
The theory of transmutation came about through a heavy diet of speculation. For example, in the 1830s, when the first two fossil monkeys were found, Darwin immediately concluded that they were part of the story of human ancestry. Yet, throughout Darwin’s lifetime, there was incomplete fossil evidence to prove his theory. Darwin acknowledged the gaps, but he was optimistic that more fossils would turn up to plug the gaps.
They haven’t. The fossil record lacks intermediate fossils. Not just a few are missing, but most of them. The theory of “punctuated equilibrium”—abrupt explosions of new biological forms that sometimes contain multitudes of animals together—was devised to explain away the gaps. But the theory’s proponents still cling to a materialistic framework, positing natural selection and rapid change as the mechanism producing new species. G. K. Chesterton said, “In dealing with a past that has almost entirely perished, [a scientist] can only go by evidence and not by experiment. And there is hardly enough evidence to be even evidential.”10 Darwin, however, possessed only a trace amount of the fossils he theorized about. This didn’t stop him from imagining an entire narrative of descent.11
Beyond the Bounds
Joseph Hooker privately thought Darwin was “too prone to theoretical considerations about species.” Darwin admitted as much in the summer of 1856. He wrote that while his ideas looked good on paper, “Lord knows it may be all hallucination.” A few months later, he submitted parts of Origin of Species for review, worried that it was “too long, and dull, and hypothetical.” In 1857, he made the stunning admission that “I am quite conscious that my speculations run beyond the bounds of true science.”12 Regarding his 1867 book, Variation Under Domestication, he worried aloud to Hooker that the book was “wildly abominably speculative.”13
Darwin recognized that there is a difference between facts and speculation. But he conflated the two when he regarded his speculation as fact. He wrote that “without speculation there is no good and original observation.” Darwin claimed that his book would include a large collection of facts, which it did. But his interpretation of those facts was speculation.
Darwin and Huxley rearranged the burden of proof. Christians now had to prove that God was the Creator without appealing to supernatural revelation, while Darwinists could prove transmutation with imaginative conjecture.14 This is the result you obtain when you begin by eliminating supernaturalism as an option. D. M. S. Watson, professor of zoology in the 1940s, explains, “Evolution itself is accepted by zoologists not because it has been observed to occur or . . . can be proved by logically coherent evidence to be true, but because the only alternative, special creation, is clearly incredible.”15
Darwin possessed several presuppositions. First, he presupposed that God did not intervene in human history. Therefore, acts of God could not account for the numerous variations of plant and animal species in the world. Darwin took the abundance of species as proof that God was not the Creator.
Second, he presupposed that life came from non-life. This, as Christians know, is a scientific challenge to Darwinism. Perhaps the first law of biology is that life doesn’t come from non-life.16 Darwin didn’t seem concerned with this problem, presupposing that the building blocks of life spontaneously emerged from inorganic matter. Once these building blocks of life appeared, simple ones became more complex as if carried effortlessly upward on an escalator. To this day there is no empirical scientific proof that life comes from non-life.17
Third, he presupposed that his speculations were free from theological bias. The fatal error for Darwin (and Huxley) was that they thought their approach to science was uncontaminated by religion. They thought that true science must be done apart from theological convictions, and that they were men free from any doctrinal tilt. Darwin and Huxley thought their speculations were unencumbered by theology. In truth, intense heterodox theological commitments influenced Darwin from his earliest days. When he rejected the God of the Bible, transmutation became his religious belief. In his book Darwin on Trial, Phillip Johnson observes that Darwinists “insist upon keeping religion and science separate” yet “are eager to use their science as a basis for pronouncements about religion.”18
The Path of Transmutation
Darwin’s theory of transmutation was that animals developed gradually through adaptations upon adaptations. Eventually, enough adaptations occur that a species changes kind. This is where the distinction between microevolution and macroevolution is clarifying.
In microevolution, small changes (what Darwin called “adaptations”) happen within species. The problem for Darwin is that when microevolutionary changes occur, information and organization are degraded. For example, mutations in DNA always downgrade functionality and specificity. The only “good” accomplished by mutations is when they offer resistance against some new threat to the organism by randomly breaking a cellular function that the threat was exploiting. Once the threat is gone, the organism is less fit than before the degradation.
Furthermore, mutations are random. If millions of mutations are needed for macroevolution, what is the likelihood of those random mutations perfectly fitting together to form a unified complex creature such as a human being? Macroevolution requires change or increased organization of the sort that is categorically impossible. Organization requires the planning of interrelated components. That planning is unthinkable from merely material causes. That kind of biological planning comes only from a Transcendent Person. Peter Drucker said, “The only things that evolve by themselves in an organization are disorder, friction, and malperformance.”19
Why did Darwin take the path of transmutation? Why did he think species changed kind? Most people know that Darwin’s observations on the HMS Beagle were the antecedent for his theory: the different-sized Finch beaks in the Galapagos Islands and the strange-looking Platypus in the Australian Wolgan Valley. These things indeed sparked his curiosity. Darwin pondered, If you were an omnipotent creator, why would you bother going to all the trouble of designing two different species to occupy very similar ecological niches? Why make the water rat for Europe and North America, and the platypus for Australia?20 It just didn’t make sense.
Darwin made other observations on his journey. For example, he observed the indigenous savages of South America and wanted to be able to explain how they were the same kind of creatures as English gentlemen. He thought it was unreasonable to think that one God could create such a spread among men, locking some into a miserable environment. So he opted for the evolutionary explanation that the human races were spread naturally. This meant, in Darwin’s thinking, that savages were not fated to remain savages.21
The aforementioned Thomas Huxley is one of the reasons Darwin’s theory became popular. He is known as “Darwin’s Bulldog” for his advocacy of Darwin’s theory of evolution. For years, Huxley had balked at Darwin’s theory of transmutation. But he was driven to separate science from theology and to create a new professional class of scientists who would become the new high priests of England. So he eventually converted to transmutation when he realized that Darwin’s theory served his purpose well. Transmutation was the cleaver needed to split science from theology.22
This same effort was carried out in the United States in the second half of the nineteenth century. Andrew Dickson White (1832–1918), the founding president of Cornell University, and John William Draper (1811–1882), professor of chemistry at the University of New York, manufactured a war between science and Christianity. The purpose was to besmirch clergymen so they’d be viewed as unsuitable for scientific work. The new cohort of professional scientists would step in and fill the void.23
The publisher originally printed 1,250 copies of Origin of Species in November of 1859. Sales quickly exceeded that number, and more books were printed. When the atheist Harriet Martineau read it, she exclaimed, “What a book it is!—overthrowing (if true) revealed Religion.” That, for many, was the point. For both atheists like Martineau and people flirting with skepticism, Darwin introduced a theory that sparked the imagination and provided a seemingly viable response to biblical Christianity. For them, he helped knock down Moses.
Contemporary critics of Darwin, like Adam Sedgwick, pointed out that Darwin’s book was not scientific. But it was too late. The people got what they wanted, an escape from the constraints of God’s commandments. They didn’t care if Darwinism made fiddlesticks of empirical science. Decades Later, the Russian Marxist Leon Trotsky said, “Darwin did away with all of my ideological prejudices. He opened the universe to me.” At Marx’s funeral, Friedrich Engels quoted Darwin in his eulogy and then said, “Marx is doing for the social sciences what Darwin did for the physical sciences.”24
Now armed with Darwin’s theory, Huxley and his cohorts could set out on their calling of establishing a new epistemology. The goal was to take science out of the hands of men with religious convictions. Their strategy called for direct conflict. Huxley was hankering to deploy his brilliant and bellicose rhetoric to take on the outmatched clergy. He wanted Darwinists to be in charge of science and take it in a secular direction. Then the new authority—science—would replace the old authority—God.
Huxley made the rounds giving witty talks tailored to subvert the audience’s traditional disposition. He pitched transmutation as a form of self-help. He positioned the Darwinists as the new moral authority. The preacher of Darwin’s anti-gospel called people to submit to the “nobler future” of their new truth. Huxley’s ideology was iconoclastic, polarizing, and effective.25
A New Metaphysics
Today the word “science” is tossed around as if it were an independent authority, as if it were an authority free from bias, as if its pronouncements were those of a deity. This cannot be. Why not? Because science is a human endeavor undertaken by human beings who have feelings, experiences, and presuppositions. There is no neutrality in science. It is done by people who operate out of a worldview.
The term “science” itself is a nineteenth-century term. Before that, people did natural philosophy, which was related to theology. The shift started with Immanuel Kant (1724–1804), who taught that we can only know for sure those things learned through the senses. Since God isn’t observed in this empirical way, we can’t know that he exists. Yet Kant still felt that God existed, so he tried to live as though God were real, even though he didn’t know if his thoughts corresponded with external reality. This became the headwater for a new definition of the Christian faith, one where faith is defined by feelings alone. By stripping away epistemology, Kant created a new metaphysics.
Darwinism initially seems like a biological hypothesis. But for its devotees, then and now, it is a comprehensive worldview. It is an “ism.” As Cardinal Christoph Schönborn has pointed out, Newton’s theory of physics didn’t produce Newtonism. Einstein’s theory of relativity didn’t produce Einsteinism. But Darwin’s theory produced Darwinism. This reveals that Darwinism is an ideology. Thomas Huxley’s grandson, Julius Huxley, explained this when he said:
All aspects of reality are subject to evolution. . . . In the evolutionary pattern of thought, there is no longer either need or room for the supernatural. . . . The evolutionary vision is enabling . . . the new religion that we can be sure will arise to serve the needs of the coming era.26— Julius Huxley
Huxley knew that if the Creator’s authority is denied, then something would replace it. If secular man can remove God and give an alternate account of his own existence, then he can assert himself as his own authority. In Huxley’s case, the new authority would be paraded out under the name of science. And this science now speaks ex-cathedra. If man can deny that God is the Creator, he is his own god and law-giver.
Since Darwin, the primary battleground between the world and the church has been the issue of origins. Victorian England was a much different place from twenty-first-century America. In Queen Victoria’s England, heterodoxy was tolerated if the offender was polite about it. In the United States today, orthodoxy is tolerated if the offender is private about it. This is just one of many reasons why Christians ought to augment their critique of Darwinism with knowledge of the history that brought Darwin’s worldview into prominence.
1. In 1796, Erasmus Darwin published the book Zoonomia or the Laws of Organic Life, in which he posits a theory of evolution.
2. The difference between Darwinism and Neo-Darwinism is that Darwin was unaware of discoveries in genetics that came to light in the twentieth century. When Darwin wrote Origin of Species and The Descent of Man, he had no mechanism to explain how random variations might occur. In the early twentieth century, geneticist Gregor Mendel discovered that living things genetically pass their traits on to their offspring. So Neo-Darwinism combines genetic mutations with natural selection as the mechanism for random variations.
3. Darwin called it transmutation because the theory is that species are mutable (changeable) to the degree that one species transitions into another.
4. Adrian Desmond and James Moore, Darwin (Warner Books, 1991), 9–36.
5. Ibid., 196.
6. Ibid., 377, 636, 568.
7. Ibid., 378–387.
8. Ibid., 415–421.
9. Ibid., 431f.
10. G. K. Chesterton, The Everlasting Man (Rough Draft Printing, 2013—orig. 1925), 24f.
11. Darwin, 222, 288.
12. This is one reason why many scientists are suspicious of the validity of Darwinism. See dissentfromdarwin.org.
13. Darwin, 341, 441, 445, 456, 540.
14. Ibid., 463.
15. Quoted in Schlossberg, Idols for Destruction: The Conflict of Christian Faith and American Culture (Crossway, 1990), 144f.
16. This need not imply that laws governing the physical world are the only laws governing life and its continuance. Life has aspects beyond the material, particularly for human beings made in the image of God.
17. Darwin, 230, 479.
18. Phillip E. Johnson, Darwin on Trial (Regnery Press, 2010), 27.
19. See Michael Denton, Evolution: Still A Theory in Crisis (Discovery Institute, 2016). He argues that the overwhelming majority of changes produce an organism less fit for survival.
21. Darwin, 221–222.
22. Ibid., 465–472.
23. Ronald L. Numbers, “Introduction,” Galileo Goes to Jail and Other Myths About Science and Religion (Harvard University Press, 2009), 1–7; Leslie B. Cormack, “Myth 3: That Medieval Christians Taught That the Earth Was Flat,” ibid., 28–34; Timothy Larsen, “‘War Is Over, If You Want It’: Beyond the Conflict Between Faith and Science,” Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith 60, no. 3 (September 2008), 147–155.
24. Darwin, 476–486.
25. Ibid., 488f., 500–510, 533, 538.
26. Kenneth D. Keathley and Mark F. Rooker, 40 Questions About Creation and Evolution (Kregel Academic, 2014), 330, 335.
Jason Cherry is an elder at Trinity Reformed Church in Huntsville, Alabama, as well as a teacher and lecturer of literature, history, and economics at Providence Classical School in Huntsville. He graduated from Reformed Theological Seminary with an MA in Religion and is the author of the book The Culture of Conversionism and the History of the Altar Call and the forthcoming book The Making of Evangelical Spirituality (Wipf and Stock).