Few people in our modern history still produce as much emotion of praise, as well as criticism as Charles Darwin. Charles Darwin was a British Naturalist who was credited with one of the most controversial findings in the world of Science. Darwinism in time would grow up into not only a leading school of scientific theory, called Evolution but also a multimillion-dollar industry with books, texts, lectures, research for almost 150 years after it’s arrival. It is perhaps because his theory provokes such emotive responses that it is so hard to evaluate and put into its proper historic framework. However, when we examine all the relevant historical evidence, we will discover Darwin’s Theory was not just a product of empirical observation, but rather a product of the times he lived in.
Charles Darwin was born into a reasonably comfortable family and in many ways, he faces the same sort of family developmental issues that most people do. His father was a doctor, however, his mother died while Darwin was still a boy of 8 years. His father was continually concerned that Charles was not motivated enough. His Father pushed him into medical school, which did not hold up well for Darwin. Although we were an extremely bright young man he struggled in formal academics and after failing out twice, his Father still insisted Darwin continue his education. It was at this time Darwin took up the study of Theology at Cambridge. Darwin studied theology with greater academic success yet still somewhat struggled with structured university learning in general. Despite his struggles, it would be at Cambridge that Darwin would be exposed to the ideas of Naturalism and the “Enlightenment” that would make huge impacts on his life’s work. (1)
It could be argued that the Enlightenment is among the greatest influences on Darwin. In a lot of ways, Darwinism is the “crowning jewel”, or the even the end result of the enlightenment movement. The Enlightenment movement actually grows out of the “age of reason” and has its roots with Newton and the emergence of Natural Laws, for example, gravity. Ironically according to Hunt’s “In Making of the West”, Newton was originally seeking out to prove God with science. However, the enlightenment took on another flavor. It became the idea that there are natural laws that govern the world and when we know how to use them and understand them we will become enlightened from our pervious state of ignorance, inequality, and our supercilious ideas of faith and religion will pass away thereby liberating us. It took on a spirit of attack against traditional moral ideas, in favor of finding new ones more in line with the Natural law. Immanuel Kant in his essay, “What is Enlightenment?” Makes the sentiment clear, “As things now stand, much is lacking which prevents men from being, or easily becoming, capable of correctly using their own reason in religious matters with assurance and free from outside direction.” He goes on to speak in regards to teaching traditionalists beliefs, “…the guardians have first made their domestic cattle dumb and have made sure that these placid creatures will not dare take a single step without the harness of the cart to which they are tethered…” This is the intellectual/ political backdrop Darwinism will emerge in. The Church had grown weak from the enlightenment and the clashing of Catholicism and Protestantism. Intellectuals were looking for new beliefs and new faiths. Deism and Darwinism rose to fill that void.
The idea of Evolution is nothing new in the world. In fact, it is by no means a new idea exclusive to Darwin. As a wise man once said, “There is nothing new under the sun” and Darwin, and the theory of evolution is a case in point. According to the Encyclopedia of Philosophy, “Evolution is not so much a modern discovery as some of its advocates would have us believe. It made its appearance early in Greek philosophy, and maintained its position more or less, …until the close of ancient thought.” (2) We need to keep in mind Greek, and Roman literature was very popular during the age of Enlightenment and was a chief influence. However, even in Darwin’s time frame, he was not alone in his assertion. Other scholars like Nicholas Steno and William Smith had already been hard at work looking at fossils and shark teeth and trying to find a new age to the earth. Lamark had an idea that perhaps changes formed in species as a result of environment. However, Darwin could never have established his theory if not for James Hutton and Charles Lyell’s theory of uniformitarianism which is the idea that changes in the environment and living beings are a slow process that spans over huge spans of time. It is noteworthy to mention Lyell’s theory of uniformitarianism is in direct conflict with Cuvier’s earlier established theory of Catastrophism which states changes to the earth happen rapidly under catastrophic events. With the arrival of the theory of uniformitarianism, Darwin now had the raw materials to put together his ideas.
In The Origin’s of Species Darwin attempts to take a look at his observation of how species can evolve. For the most part in this book, Darwin is careful about what he says and how he says it. One can assume Darwin may have rightfully understood the impact such a book could make. In Origins of Species Darwin is drawing from his experiences on the HMS Beagle and his observation of the Galapagos Islands birds as well as domesticated animals. Darwin forms the idea that animals evolve from lower forms rather than are designed. The book attempts to map out how it is that offspring are passed characteristics from their parents that are then either beneficial or non-beneficial to the survival or the offspring. The idea is the Natural Selection occurs leaving survival to the offspring that inherits the best traits. Where Darwin fails is that he offers no empirical proof that this process leads to the formation of new species, I.e., fish evolving into frogs and so forth. All Origin’s of Species can lay claim to is that natural selection passes what we now call genetic traits to offspring, and some of these traits allow for better survival than others. This is not a new idea at any age. The only difference here is the claim this causes the formation of new species as the old die out.
The Descent of Man takes a new turn and we see a new side of Darwin’s ideas. He is not only talking about lower forms of animals he is making direct links to humans. Despite still having not solved the transitional problem between species Darwin States, “We thus learn that man is descended from a hairy, tailed quadruped, probably arboreal in its habits, and an inhabitant of the Old World.” Also in the Descent of Man Darwin takes the leap from science into his more trained venue of theology when he begins to speculate on how man formed a moral code, he states, “The moral nature of man has reached its present standard, partly through the advancement of his reasoning powers…” The leap is made complete when he ventures in the sphere of in what context we should understand God. Darwin asserts, “I am aware that the assumed instinctive belief in God has been used by many persons as an argument for His existence. But this is a rash argument, as we should thus be compelled to believe in the existence of many cruel and malignant spirits, only a little more powerful than man; for the belief in them is far more general than in a beneficent Deity.” This is not science, nor is it empirical by any definition of the term. These can and should be rightly seen as theological opinions from a former theology student that suggests Darwin may have had a bias towards the Enlightenment, Deism and the idea of an impersonal deity that does not interact with man. Which is fine for anyone to choose to believe, but it is not science; it is a theological position.
Darwin’s ideas caught on with such marked enthusiasm in part because of the intellectual, and political climate but also notably because established religion had been made weak by infighting, enlightenment ideas, and revolutionary spirit of the time. Criticism of Darwin from religious scholars was much weaker then it needed to be. George Mivart in his book “On the Genesis of the Species” simply argued the definition of Creation. While J. H. Gladstone was satisfied making a compromise by speculating the six days of creation may not have been a literal 24-hour period, despite the fact that the Bible makes it clear they are with the wording “evening and the morning “, to show day and night. What all the Bible scholars or Darwin’s era seemed to miss was that the Bible and the Genesis account do not make the claim that there is no trait variants. Only that each “kind” was created by God. We can clearly see this in Genesis 1:21 “And God created great whales and every living creature that moveth, which the waters brought forth abundantly, after their kind, and every winged fowl after his kind: and God saw that it was good.” (3) God made winged fowls is not the same as saying He directly spelled out every variation right at creation. There is room for micro-evolution and genetic variations within “kinds”. However, that is not the same as saying birds evolved from dinosaurs or men from apes. They are different “kinds”. Had more thought out explanations been offered by religious scholars in Darwin’s time, perhaps Darwin’s ideas would not have advanced as rapidly as they did.
We should also consider the byproducts Darwin had on history that came after him. True he set the scientific world on fire with advancement. If we believe Darwin styled evolution or not we can at least admit it’s discovery have man a methodology for biology that has been helpful in our approaches to medicine and so forth. However, his theory morphed into to social science as well such as Social Darwinism, which in its crudest sense is the belief, the poor and downtrodden are the weak that need to be taken care of by natural selection. During the European expansion into Africa Robert Powell, Karl Pearson, Cecile Rhodes among others would use Darwin to defend their position that the black savages in Africa were sub-human and “half Humans” not fully evolved yet to justify mistreatment and mass killings. Darwinism also spawned eugenics which is the idea we could master the human race by selective breeding and forcing the hand of natural selection. Eugenics would become a major inspiration for Hitler and his supreme race ideology, which still plagues us to this day. Perhaps we cannot fairly judge Darwin for the behavior of his followers anymore then we can Christ for the behavior of some of his supporters, but it is indeed noteworthy to take into account the negative impacts Darwinism has had on our society.
The greater point I am making is simply Darwinism did not emerge in a vacuum, as many mistakenly think. When we look at the events leading up to Darwin’s teachings we can see that science alone was not the only tool that formed his position, that in fact religion, philosophy, the Enlightenment influence, and new emerging theories all played a part in coloring Darwin’s interpretation of his observations. Almost 150 years later, with all our advances and resources his theory is still not proven, nor disproven empirically. However, with huge missing gaps in the theory like transitional fossils, nor any directly or indirectly observing the evolution from one species to another (only mutations or micro) Darwin’s theory should not be treated as proven. Perhaps, the future will bring forward new information to prove Darwin correct, and maybe not. Meanwhile, a new generation of scientist is now emerging who are growing seriously concerned and cautious about our lack of progress in proving Darwin and evolution in general. Among them are some like Dr, Arthur Jones, Dr. Timothy Standdish, Dr. A Roth together with over 50 others decorates in Science, have recently taken the stand to denounce evolution with a collective work, “Why Fifty Scientist choose to Believe in Creation”. Only the future will tell if Darwin will stand the test of time. However, what is already clear is Darwin was a product of his time.
What we do know now is that history shows Darwin was a failed medical student with his only formal education in theology, not science. Theologians make theology, not science. So we must now ask ourselves is Darwinism really a scientific theory or really just a new religion that was the crowning jewel of the age of “enlightenment”? After all, it is a belief system, based equally on observation and faith in particular pre-held hypotheses, how is that any different than any other religion of the world?
Originally published as a History Class paper at VGCC in 2005