Doctrine or Theory--Which?


DOCTRINES are beliefs regarding which no verifiable evidence is available. Some persons hold to the doctrine that there is a future life; others believe there is not. Some hold that there is a Supreme Being; and others feel just as firmly that such a Personage docs not exist. Since there is no definite evidence one way or other, there is little that causes one to change one’s way of thinking in regard to doctrines. We change our doctrines very rarely, usually holding to them as matters of faith throughout the greater portion of our lives. Doctrines are, in fact, our religious principles.

Theories are conclusions based upon a considerable body of accumulated evidence. Some hold to the theory that there is life on Mars; others have concluded that there is not. Some maintain that electricity stimulates plant growth; others present extensive data which seem to indicate the reverse. We change our theories frequently. Any day may witness the presentation to our consciousness of a new volume of information, which will cause us to alter completely certain of our theories. Theories are the principles of science.

Every man has his own doctrines and his own theories. There are some questions regarding which he has little or no information, and yet, if he is a thinking being at all, he formulates opinions regarding them. These are his religious principles. There are other matters upon which there is known to him a large body of facts. Some of these facts favor a certain interpretation, others oppose that interpretation. He weighs the evidence pro and con, and comes to some decision regarding the proposition. But this he regards as a conclusion and not as a belief. On the next day he may make a wholly different decision in the light of supplementary data previously unknown to him.

There is, then, at any given moment, no conflict within the individual between religion and science. It is impossible for a given person to have a theory and a doctrine regarding the same question simultaneously. As he passes from childhood to youth, or from youth to maturity, he may, it is true, find some of his doctrines becoming theories. In his younger years he may not have been mentally able to appreciate some of the evidences bearing on a certain question. Then he had to believe the one side or the other purely as a matter of faith. As he grows older, evidence accumulates and his belief becomes transformed into a conclusion. Usually his newly acquired conclusion agrees with his previous belief, in which instance he is often scarcely conscious of the change. Sometimes, however, his present theory is opposed to his past doctrine; whereupon there is likely to occur a considerable disturbance in his religious life. Because he is forced to abandon one doctrine to accept an opposing theory, there is danger that he may begin to doubt all of his doctrines. It is this situation of which the educator must take especial cognizance. Every effort should be made to see that the doctrines of our youth shall conform to the theories which they are most likely later to accept, so that there may be as few of these internal upheavals of faith as possible.

But the chief friction between religion and science takes place when a given question is a matter of doctrine to one man and of theory to another. Historically considered, religious principles have come to be regarded as beliefs which are to be lived for, fought for, and even died for. Scientific principles, on the other hand, are not beliefs at all. They are not in any sense to be thought of as sacred and infallible. The true scientist takes no offense when another scientist presents evidence against his theory. He is, in fact, himself always looking in an open-minded manner for new data to support or alter his former conclusions. It matters little to him on which side the new evidence falls; the thing in which he is interested is progress. But people are inclined to be more militant regarding their doctrines. To the international banking expert, the number of shillings which are equivalent to a dollar to-day is a conclusion based upon a large body of evidence. He stands ready to alter his theory as to a just rate of exchange in the light of additional information. But to most of us his conclusions are taken as a matter of faith. We are much disturbed if the man with whom we are dealing adopts another belief regarding the rate of exchange on that particular day.

It is precisely this situation which has led to the recent discussion between the Fundamentalists and the Modernists regarding the question of evolution. The Fundamentalists regard evolution as a doctrine to which they are opposed; the scientists regard it as a theory which their present evidence supports. The latter would not say that they believe in evolution; on the contrary, they conclude that it has occurred, basing their conclusion upon a vast body of evidence which they have in hand. The Fundamentalists disbelieve in evolution as a matter of faith, having no evidence for or against it. We thus have the doctrine of nonevolution versus the theory of evolution: and neither side seems quite to appreciate the attitude of the other.


That the Fundamentalists have not carefully examined the evidence for and against the idea of evolution is indicated by several errors regarding it which they are in the habit of making. In the first place they seem not quite to appreciate what the scientist means by evolution. They have taken evolution to mean that man is the offspring of the monkey. To the scientist this is only one out of an almost infinite number of examples of evolution; and furthermore it is a deduction with which the scientist may or may not agree. To him evolution is the theory that the existing state of nature has arisen from the preexisting state by a more or less gradual change. We know that rivers are to-day slowly changing their courses; we know that the rains are gradually wearing away the mountains; we know that new species of plants and animals have, within our own lifetime, appeared as the offspring of plants and animals that already existed on the earth. These and a multitude of other evidences force the scientist to conclude that in the past repeated changes have continued to take place, and that nature as we find it to-day is the result of such gradual changes.

The theory of evolution does not in itself involve any conclusion at all as to the causative factors of these changes. It does not necessitate nor does it eliminate a guiding principle, or a Supreme Being directing these changes. The only thing which the theory of evolution maintains is that the universe is not fixed and unalterable, but that it is in a constant state of flux. Nor does the theory of evolution stipulate how gradual or how rapid the changes may be. Sometimes there are earthquakes, volcanoes, tidal waves, which alter the surface of the earth in short periods of time. Sometimes distinct new species of living things arise suddenly.

Some Fundamentalists would accept the evolution of the nonliving universe, but deny the evolution of living things. The biologist, however, is convinced that he has just as strong evidence that living things have evolved as the topographer has that the surface of the earth is constantly changing, and much stronger evidence than the chemist has that the substances of the earth are evolving.

But biologists are not at all agreed as to the route which evolution has followed in either the plant or the animal kingdom. The main groups of green plants may be represented by the common names: pond scums and seaweeds; mosses and liverworts; ferns; conebearing evergreens; flowering plants. There is a general opinion on the part of most botanists that this sequence is the evolutionary one; that is, that each of these groups respectively originated from the group preceding it in this series. But specialists in these respective groups are by no means convinced that such is the case. Recent evidences indicate strongly that the flowering plants are probably not derived from any one of the groups of living conebearing evergreens, but that they have an independent descent from the ferns. Very recently Professor D. H. Scott, a prominent authority on the evolution of the higher plants, has concluded that ferns are not the ancestors of either the cone-bearing evergreens or the flowering plants. It might therefore be concluded that the flowering plants came from the mosses and liverworts. But while there are evidences of ferns in almost the oldest rocks of the earth, no fossil mosses have been found except in relatively recent formations. We are thus led to realize that there is at present no consensus of opinion among botanists as to the origin and evolution of the flowering plants. And yet no botanist thinks of abandoning, therefore, the theory of evolution; on the other hand, he concludes that the higher forms of plant life must have come about by gradual changes from the simplest forms during a long period of time, even though in so doing they have not left, as far as at present discovered, a perfect record of the path which they have traversed in so evolving.

The same situation exists with regard to the animal kingdom. The origin of the highest group of animals, the Primates, is quite as obscure as the origin of the flowering plants. Within this highest group, the ancestry of man is by no means completely established. Almost every year new evidence is brought forward modifying our concept of the path which evolution in this instance has followed. According to the present prevalent interpretation of anthropologists, the ancestor of the Caucasian and other closely related races was the Cro-Magnon, who lived about 20,000 years ago. About 75,000 years ago, according to some anthropologists, there lived on the earth a human being, whose offspring, during the successive generations in this long period of time, gave rise to the CroMagnon on the one hand, and to the ancestor of the present yellow race on the other. In like manner, about 100,000 years ago, it is supposed that the ancestors of the modern black race became differentiated from the rest of the human stock. Remains have been found of the so-called Piltdown man, who is thought to have lived about 400,000 years ago, and to have been the common ancestor of all races of men. One hundred thousand years before that time takes us back to a half-million years ago, when there lived the Pithecanthropus, an apelike man, probably closely related to the ancestors of the Piltdown man. In the deposits of two million years ago are the remains of Sivapithecus, a manlike ape, perhaps the common ancestor of the gorilla, orang, chimpanzee, and Pithecanthropus. Five million years ago it seems that there lived Notharctus, thought to be the common ancestor of Sivapithecus and the monkeys. There is thus a great body of evidence bearing on the ancestry of man. While anthropologists and zoologists may differ in their opinions as to the route followed, yet they are all in agreement on the conclusion that man is a descendant from lower forms of life.

Scientists are quite as little agreed upon the method by which evolution operates, as upon the course it has pursued. Some emphasize the importance of inheritance of acquired characters, and point to environment as an important determining factor. Others have clung to Darwin’s idea that there is a persistent inherent tendency within organisms to vary beyond the limits of the range of variation of the parental generation, and that competition causes the destruction of the unsuccessful variants, while the adapted ones are preserved, as he said, by natural selection, propagating their kind and giving rise to more extreme variants, and so on. In this way, environment is seen to have a guiding function, though not a causal one.

De Vries, as a result of his study of the evening primroses, came to the conclusion that new forms of plants and animals arise suddenly and only occasionally, rather than by continued gradual transitions. The mechanism of these sudden alterations in the nature of the organism, which he called mutations, still remains undiscovered. However, once these new characters arise, it has been shown as a result of investigation based upon the discoveries and interpretations of the Austrian monk, Mendel, that new forms of plant and animal life may arise by crossing parents which differ in two or more characters, thus producing offspring which have combinations of characters which never existed before. Some Fundamentalists have supposed that the rejection of Darwin’s ideas as to the modus operandi of evolution involves the abandonment of the entire theory of evolution. On the contrary it may here be stated that the inheritance of acquired characters as a prevalent potent force in evolution is now doubted by the majority of biologists. Darwin’s theory of natural selection is in quite a similar position to-day. The value of the mutation theory as it now stands, as an explanation of evolution, has also been brought into question. Even Mendel’s law is thought by some scientists not to be necessarily the correct interpretation. And yet none doubt the fact of evolution.


Most of the mistakes of the Fundamentalists regarding the theory of evolution are perhaps due largely to ignorance of its history. Too often Darwin is regarded as the father of the whole concept. Great as Darwin was as a scientist, he is certainly far from holding such an exalted position. Darwin lived less than a century ago, while one of the greatest of all discussions on the question of evolution occurred about 400 A.D., when Saint Augustine defended the theory, then attacked by other churchmen of his time. These latter have long since been forgotten, while Augustine was canonized a saint, and has retained a conspicuous place in history ever since. Still earlier, in about 400 B.C., evolution was a prominent subject for discussion by Aristotle, Empedocles, and other Greek philosophers. In fact the idea of evolution has been held by almost all peoples at almost all periods in the history of the human race.

Certain primitive peoples seemed to have gained a glimpse of evolution from their close association with certain mammals. Indian tribes, isolated widely from each other, found that the only living creatures that resembled them were certain of the large animals living in their territory. And so the Osage Indians named themselves after the beaver and regarded that animal as their ancestor. The Omaha Indians treated the buffalo in the same way; the Choctaws, the crayfish. The various totem clans are so named from this sort of ancestor worship — the bear clan, crane clan, porcupine clan, and so forth.

A second way by which the idea of evolution probably originated in human minds was in connection with the moulding of objects from clay. Ancient primitive peoples early found that many useful articles, such as cooking utensils and dishes, could be made in this way. The practice of moulding seems then to have developed into an art, giving opportunity for expression of the latent aesthetic sense within. We can imagine how ornaments, trinkets, symbols, and finally models of human beings, were thus moulded from clay. And then as these ancient artificers and their friends looked upon these images, and as their thought-life developed, it seems quite natural that there should dawn upon their consciousness the idea that man himself in the beginning may have been moulded out of clay by a Supreme Being. It is thus that the concept of God and of evolution may have come into existence simultaneously.

The Babylonians called their god Bel, which means ‘the potter.’ The Egyptians gave their name for potter, Khnoumou, to their god. The same association originated apparently independently among the Australian blacks, the natives of New Zealand and of Tahiti, the peoples of Togoland in Africa, and the Natchez Indians of Louisiana. The Esquimaux of Point Barrow arrived at a similar conclusion, doubtless as a result of the making of a snow man. Among the Hebrews the idea was handed down for hundreds of generations in their folklore and literature. Adam is their word for man; -ah is their feminine suffix; and adamah means soil. It is thus seen that their language lends itself beautifully to the transmission in their folk songs and in their poetry of the concept that man is now born of woman, but that the first man came from the soil. It is this idea of God moulding man from clay that is so clearly expressed in the second chapter of Genesis.

But there is a third way in which the concept of evolution evidently originated among primitive peoples. This came with the development of the building-instinct. By a slow, steady progress certain peoples advanced from the stage of casting things about aimlessly to putting them together and constructing thereby useful objects. They came to building huts, crude dwellings, rough pieces of furniture. And then they looked about them and saw the rivers and the mountains, the seas and the hills, the clouds, the stars, the sun. What more logical than to conclude that these also were builded by a Supreme Being gradually during a long period of time? Here again we have the first concept of God arising simultaneously and in direct association with the concept of evolution.

The oldest writings of India, about 2150 B.C., include a statement to the effect that the heavens and the earth were collected by the gods out of a primeval flood. The Samkhya philosophy of India, about 600 B.C., employed the world-building idea. In fact at this time we find a word, samcara, which meant development or evolution. Taoism in China, 600 to 500 B.C., presented similar ideas. It is thought that at about this time the first chapter of Genesis was written. It was evidently the product of a learned priesthood, basing their concept originally upon the idea of constructing a building.


The idea of God moulding man out of the clay of the earth gave birth to an entirely anthropocentric conception of evolution. It might be extended to the thought of God moulding all of the objects and beings of nature from the same ground material; nevertheless the origin of man remains the centre of interest. At best it is strongly teleological, indicating that all evolution was brought about for the purpose of providing man with the necessities and comforts of life. The belief that the whole world was made for man’s comfort has been handed down to the present time.

But the world-building idea gives us a cosmic concept of evolution. As presented in the first chapter of Genesis it is entirely free from the idea that man is necessarily the goal and the end of all evolutionary processes. It considers evolution as the development of the entire universe, with man as simply one of the more recent products. While man is without doubt the highest example of mental development and of intellectuality to be found among the organisms of the earth, yet it is another matter to consider him the aim and object of the Supreme Being — for whom every other object of nature was created.

It is highly interesting to find how closely this first chapter of Genesis conforms to our modern scientific conclusions, not only in its cosmical view of the relation of man to the rest of nature, but in the order of evolution there expressed. In modern terminology it may be taken as meaning that first there were atoms and then energy, or in other words that matter must have preceded motion. Our physicists might to-day invert this order. But third come molecules; certainly atoms (‘without form and void’) must have become associated into the various substances of the universe. Next we have states of matter arising, that is, solids, liquids, and gases, or, in Biblical terms, ‘ the firmament . . . divided the waters which were under the firmament from the waters which were above.’ This, as the story in Genesis goes, was followed by the origin of the plant kingdom, which in turn was followed by the evolution of the solar system and the stellar universe. It is strange to think of plants as existing before there was a sun to furnish energy for them to manufacture their food. And yet we know that celestial changes have occurred since plants first appeared on the earth, and also that some microscopic plants can manufacture food from inorganic matter without the energy of sunlight. It furthermore does appear quite significant that these ancient theorizers on the evolution of the earth should have left the appearance of the animal kingdom until after plant life had developed to supply the animals with food. It is also thought-provoking to notice that the order of animal evolution is given as aquatic, aerial, and then terrestrial; much as our zoölogists to-day say the probable sequence of the vertebrate series is: fishes, birds, and mammals. Finally, in the sixth period (for the Greek word, ἡμέρα may be used either

as meaning twenty-four hours, or a long era of time, as ‘in this day and age of the world’) comes the advent of man. Nothing is said about his origin, neither is it stated that the earth and air and plants and animals were created for him. It is this absence of the teleological point of view which makes it seem certain that this was a cosmical philosophy based upon the house-building analogy. The close approach, however, to the general sequence which modern science has outlined makes it seem certain that it is the product of much thought and that those who formulated it had definite reasons for each step they introduced. To them it too, perhaps, was a theory of evolution and not a doctrine.

And so in our modern life we shall perhaps avoid many a discomfort if we keep distinct our religion and our science, our doctrines and our theories, our beliefs and our conclusions. We must remember that science does not and cannot deal with primary sources. It was Sir Isaac Newton who said, ‘He who looks for final causes is not a truly scientific worker.’ Science must concern itself with existence, transformations, mechanisms, and consequences. Religion and philosophy deal with ultimate origins and final causes. Science and religion are different, but they are not fundamentally antagonistic to each other. Both have a place in all of our lives, for the universe is one and indivisible.