Defending Darwin

Articles from 1860 to the present on the conflict between evolution theory and religious fundamentalism

In recent months, a number of state school boards have battled over whether to add a variant of creationist theory known as "intelligent design" to their science curriculums. Intelligent design contends that the complexity of organic life cannot be explained without the intervention of a supernatural guiding force and argues that Charles Darwin's theory that contemporary species evolved from earlier ones is flawed.

The Atlantic has been commenting on the conflict between evolution theory and religious fundamentalism since Darwin first published his ground-breaking treatise in the nineteenth century. Almost immediately after the debut of The Origin of Species, Asa Gray reviewed the book in "Darwin on the Origin of Species" (July 1860). Gray, a botanist, was intrigued by Darwin's revolutionary new way of thinking about human origins, but given the major discoveries, advances, and upheavals then taking place in the world of science, he professed to be not altogether surprised by it:

Surely the scientific mind of an age which contemplates the solar system as evolved from a common, revolving, fluid mass,—which, through experimental research, has come to regard light, heat, electricity, magnetism, chemical affinity, and mechanical power as varieties or derivative and convertible forms of one force, ... and which speculates steadily in the direction of the ultimate unity of matter, of a sort of prototype or simple element ... the mind of such an age cannot be expected to let the old belief about species pass unquestioned.

Gray explained that he found Darwin's theory persuasive for several reasons: all species have some variation within them, similar species tend to be found in locations geographically proximate to one another, and new research was revealing the earth to be far older than the few thousand years previously believed.

Four years later, in July 1863, an anonymous author contributed a review of Sir Charles Lyell's book The Geological Evidences of the Antiquity of Man. The reviewer was open to Lyell's thesis that humans have a history stretching back 30,000 years, as evidenced by archaeological findings. Nevertheless, he was skeptical of Lyell's support for Darwin's theory of how humans had evolved:

We can see no more reason why a giraffe should have had a long neck, because he wished to crop the leaves of tall trees, than that mankind should have become winged, because in all times both children and men have wished to fly.

The reviewer's primary reservation was that Darwin's theory was unsupported by any known scientific principle. Scientists could not explain the appearance of those adaptations so critical to natural selection. Rather than reject natural selection, however, he encouraged further investigation; Darwin's theory should be a starting point, he suggested—an idea for scientists to continue to test and prod.

Some were far less accepting of Darwin's theory. Then, as now, many were affronted by the notion that humankind is simply a highly developed primate. In 1867, E. P. Whipple mocked such skeptics by penning a satirical objection to Darwin's theory—allegedly from the perspective of a narrow-minded reactionary named Mr. Solomon Hardhack. This rant, titled "Mr. Hardhack on the Derivation of Man from the Monkey" (March 1867), expressed indignation toward the prospect of taking man from "one step below the angels" to "one step above the monkey":

With a monkey in the background, how can even a Hapsburg or a Guelf put on airs of superiority? How must he hide his face in shame to think, that, as his line lengthens into an obscure antiquity, the foreheads of his house slope, and their jaws project; that he has literally been all his life aping aristocracy, instead of being the real thing; and that, when he has reached his true beginning, his only consolation must be found in the fact that his great skulking, hulking, gibbering baboon of an ancestor rejoices, like himself, in the possession of the "third lobe," "the posterior cornu of the lateral ventricle," and "the hippocampus minor."

Stretching his feigned righteous anger to its limits, he wrote:

Do you tell me that this is a matter exclusively for anatomists and naturalists to decide? That's the most impudent pretension of all. Why, it's all the other way. Have I not a personal interest in the question greater than any possible interest I can have in the diabolical Jingo of scientific terms in which those fellows state the results of their investigations? Have I delegated to any College of Surgeons the privilege of chimpanzeeizing my ancestors? No, sir. Just look at it. Here are the members of the human race, going daily about their various avocations, entirely ignorant that any conspiracy is on foot to trick them out of their fatherhood in Adam. While they are thus engaged in getting an honest living, a baker's dozen of unauthorized miscreants assemble in a dissecting-room, manipulate a lot of skulls, and decide that the whole batch of us did not descend from a human being. I tell you the whole thing is an atrocious violation of the rights of man. It's unconstitutional, sir!

Science continued to advance rapidly in the decades that followed. Gregor Mendel's groundbreaking research into the inheritance of traits led to an understanding of chromosomal heredity, which, in the early twentieth century in turn led to the burgeoning new field of genetic science.

The Atlantic chronicled such changes, starting with John Burroughs' "In the Noon of Science" (September 1912). The new primacy of science, Burroughs wrote, was causing people to view the world more dispassionately and mechanically; cars, trains, and industry were increasingly cluttering the world with noise and distraction, and the insight afforded by laboratory science had reduced the animal world from companion beings to mere collections of cells and bones. But science, Burroughs contended, could also inspire:

It is only through science that we know we are on a planet, and are heavenly voyagers at all... Science enables us to understand our own ignorance and limitations, and so puts us at our ease amid the splendors and mysteries of creation. We fear and tremble less, but we marvel and enjoy more.

Evolution, he suggested, challenged people to let go of old beliefs and embrace those that reason, logic, and the scientific method were proving true. Despite the growing body of evidence to support it, however, many still found Darwin's theory difficult to accept because, he wrote, "there is no poetry or romance in it as there is in the Garden of Eden myth."

A little over a decade later, in "The Modern View of Evolution" (April 1924), Vernon Kellogg considered the religious opposition to Darwin's theory. His article appeared just a year before the Scopes trial, when anti-evolutionists attempted to proscribe the teaching of evolution in public schools. According to Kellogg, the end of World War I had brought with it a revival in religious thinking, which had solidified resistance to Darwin's theory:

Whatever the reason, there has been, since the war, a quickening of attention among us in Europe and America to the status of our religion. And in course of this attention evolution has come again to the position of whipping boy for those who take their religion too emotionally and thoughtlessly, hence violently.

Biologists, he explained, might debate the details of evolution—arguing in favor of varying theories as to how evolution works. But they accept the premise of evolution in general. Anti-evolutionists, on the other hand, rarely cite scientific uncertainty as their reason for dismissing evolution. They dismiss it, rather, simply because they prefer creation theory, and strenuously believe that any contradiction must be rejected.

A year later, The Atlantic published an article that provided further insight into these reactionary views. In "Religion and Science" (August 1925), Alfred North Whitehead suggested that the tendency of religious zealots to attack new discoveries and defend tradition revealed a fundamental lack of confidence in religion's ability to withstand an evolution of ideas. He wrote:

In the early medaeival times Heaven was in the sky, and Hell was underground; volcanoes were the jaws of Hell. I do not assert that these beliefs entered into the official formulations, but they did enter into the popular understanding of the general doctrines of Heaven and Hell. These notions were what everyone thought to be implied by the doctrine of the future state. They entered into the explanations of the most influential exponents of Christian belief.

Reliance on such literal interpretations of Christian concepts made them vulnerable to scientific challenges, wrote Whitehead, and forced religious thinkers to protect those concepts against the incursions of empirical discovery at all costs. In contrast, he wrote:

... When Darwin or Einstein proclaims theories which modify our ideas, it is a triumph for science. We do not go about saying that there is another defeat for science, because its old ideas have been abandoned. We know that another step of scientific insight has been gained.

By 1957, a century of scientists had answered the calls of Darwin, Gray, Lyell, and others to use science to evaluate evolutionary theory. In "Mutations and Evolution" (October 1957), biologist Evelyn M. Witkin reviewed their progress, lauding advancements in genetic science that had enabled evolutionary theory to be tested and proven. She wrote:

The study of evolution has moved into the laboratory, and while it is not possible to duplicate here the kinds of changes that have required millions of years in nature, the elementary steps of evolution can be analyzed... Genes and mutations are much the same, in their basic behavior, whether they are investigated in fruit flies, in maize plants, in man, or in microorganisms.

She explained that the familiar bacteria E. coli, for example, reproduces so rapidly that scientists can observe many generations over a period of hours. Experiments with colonies of bacteria proved that random mutations allowed the organisms to evolve such that future generations were more fit for survival. Witkin described the way bacteria evolved quickly to become resistant to antibiotics, a phenomenon troubling to medical doctors who today are pressed to find new medications to fight bacterial infections.

As science progressed rapidly throughout the middle of the twentieth Century, the quest to defend religious tradition continued apace. Creationists first tried to counter the teaching of evolution by introducing creation into the curriculum as a religious belief, but the Scopes trial of 1925 thwarted this effort. Later, creationists claimed that creationism itself qualified as science. A few years after Witkin's article appeared in The Atlantic, John Whitcomb and Henry Morris wrote a treatise called The Genesis Flood (1961) promoting this argument. In it, they attempted, as many had before them, to marshal scientific, geological evidence to support their contention that a great biblical flood had taken place approximately 5,000 years ago. Their treatise became the founding document of what has become known as "creation science."

In a September 1982 article, "Genesis vs. Geology," Stephen Jay Gould wrote a rebuttal to their work, taking Whitcomb and Morris to task for employing miracles to account for events not explicable using science:

Since we usually define science, at least in part, as a system of explanation that relies upon invariant natural laws, this charmingly direct invocation of miracles (suspensions of natural law) would seem to negate the central claims of the modern creationist movement -- that creationism is not religion but a scientific alternative to evolution; that creationism has been disregarded by scientists because they are a fanatical and dogmatic lot who cannot appreciate new advances; and that creationists must therefore seek legislative redress in their attempts to force a "balanced treatment" for both creationism and evolution in the science classrooms of our public schools.

Gould rhetorically suggested a compromise: a non-literal interpretation of Genesis that would allow for scientific realities without striking down religious beliefs:

One might be tempted to take a "liberal," or allegorical, view of Scripture and identify this sequence with the order of creation in Genesis 1, allowing millions or billions of years for the "days" of Moses. But creationists will admit no such reconciliation. Their fundamentalism is absolute and uncompromising.

The debate over evolution remains as polarized as it was 150 years ago, with no foreseeable resolution. In his 1860 review of The Origin of Species, Asa Gray wrote:

New notions and new styles worry us, till we get well used to them, which is only by slow degrees.

One wonders whether Gray anticipated that those degrees would be measured in centuries.

—Elizabeth Dougherty