Charles Darwin published The Origin of Species in 1859. We've come to imagine him as a godless naturalist and to see the publication of this book as a dramatic moment in history, one that created an instantaneous rift between science and religion. These assumptions fuel some of our most intractable cultural debates. In my conversation with biographer James Moore, we step back from the current debate. We explore the world in which Darwin formulated his ideas. We read from his varied writings. We ask what Darwin himself believed. Did he find in his observations of the natural world a rejection of God and of creation? How might he speak to our present struggles over his legacy? As it turns out, Darwin was grounded in the distinctly reverent Christian philosophy of Western science up to that point in history, a view of the world encapsulated in a quote of Francis Bacon that he put opposite the title page of The Origin of Species:
Let no man 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 but rather let men endeavor an endless progress or proficiency in both.
Darwin, as we learn from James Moore, was agonizingly aware of the fixed worldview that his theory of transmutation the original term for evolution would unsettle. The people of Darwin's time believed that every condition of plant, animal, and man was static and eternal, brought into being all at once at the beginning of time. They estimated that to have been 6000 years earlier. But The Origin of Species was not the first classic scientific text to break from such beliefs. It was, rather, the last to fully engage them. Darwin waited two decades before he published. His observations and conclusions were painstakingly belabored. He anticipated religious questions and objections at every turn and responded carefully to them. Darwin's theory of natural selection was borne, James Moore asserts, of "theological humility." This insight alone would place our culture's contentious battles over Darwin on a different footing. My own suppositions have been radically changed by this program. I'm reminded of the program we created on Albert Einstein. Einstein did not reject the idea of a force or "mind" behind the universe. But he saw that expressed in natural laws that could be discerned and described. In a similar way, Darwin saw creation as an unfolding reality. Once set in motion, as he saw it, the laws of nature sustained a self-organizing progression driven by the needs and struggles of every aspect of creation itself. The word "reverence" would not be too strong for the attitude with which Darwin approached all he saw in the natural world. There is a great intellectual and spiritual passion and a touching sense of wonder evident in the writings included in this program and on our Web site, from his private notebooks and correspondence as well as the Beagle Diary and The Origin of Species. For me, this view from within Darwin's life and times opens up fascinating new ways to ponder not the rift but the possibilities for exchange between science and theology. He used the biblically evocative analogy of a "tree of life" to illustrate his theory of species sprouting as branches from the same trunk, some flourishing and others withering and falling to nourish the ground in which the whole is sustained. His vision of all of life netted together is profoundly consonant with what we are learning now in environmental sciences as well as genetics. In describing a creation that organized itself, incorporating chaos and change into survival and progress, Darwin did not challenge the idea of God as the source of all being. But he did reject the idea of a God minutely implicated in every flaw and injustice and catastrophe. As James Moore puts it, Darwin forced human beings to look at the inherent struggle of natural life head-on, not as we wish it to be, but as it is in all its complexity and brutality and mystery. This is most difficult for human beings, perhaps, in times of great change and turmoil such as ours. Indeed Moore and I trace the fact that the greatest resistance to Darwin's ideas has appeared in other cultural moments of flux and global danger. But Moore tells his students who believe they must choose between belief in a creator and the science of Darwin simply to read The Origin of Species. There is much in Darwin's thought that would ennoble as well as ground a religious view of life and of God. I'll end with that book's final lines, which are rich with wonder:
(F)rom the war of nature, from famine and death, the most exalted object which we are capable of conceiving, namely, the production of the higher animals, directly follows. 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.
Krista Recommends Reading:
The Hand of Darwin Our exploration of Darwin has many layers. On our Web site you'll find a captivating narrated tour through Darwin's private correspondence his sketches as well as his notebooks and letters by one of the scholars who knows it best, David Kohn.