Two and a half phases of theistic evolution #1

I want to show how changes in evolutionary science have led to changes in the theology of Christians who accept it. It should cause us to question if theology should be so much the handmaid of a variable science.

Charles Darwin developed his evolutionary theory in the context of a worldview that was, essentially, deterministic. Newtonian physics, of course, was thoroughly so. So, essentially was the uniformitarianism of Charles Lyell’s geology (particularly as it led to a complete eclipse of any catastophism at all, presumably in reaction to the Biblical Flood narrative).

The overriding social idea of the time was of progress, and particularly of progress towards the triumph of European civilisation (hence the attraction of Eugenics in later years). Negatively, this was reflected in Malthus’ idea that the struggle for survival meant, sadly, that the weak and unfit would give way to the more industrious and intelligent – an idea that Darwin, as we know, deliberately co-opted into his theory. The Origin of Speces itelf modelled natural selection on artificial selection, seen mainly as the tendency of human breeders to judge the “best” stock, not merely that suited to a particular role. And lastly, rather than pitching his theory against the evolutionary scientific alternatives of the time, he proposed it as an alternative to Special Creation.

All of these factors shaped his theory in particular ways, and especially towards the idea of an  increasing perfection, simply because all of the strands I have mentioned assumed there was such a thing, and that this world was it. Or it soon would be.

I’ll just spell that out a bit. Regarding Special Creation, Darwin was essentially saying “What a wonderful world of variety and wisdom we inhabit, which you say God made bit by bit miraculously. But see, evolution can do the same with its enchantments.”

Regarding articial selection: “Breeders have improved everything to its present great utility: nature may well have done the same by natural selection.” Regarding Malthus: “Just as in society the struggle for life excludes the weak and feckless and leaves the fittest, so does natural selection.” And so it is completely consistent that his final paragraph in the  Origin talks of the higher animals as “the most exalted object that we are capable of conceiving.” It wasn’t  just about the origin of the species, but about their inevitable progress towards perfection.

Now see how deterministic that actually renders the original theory. Believing life to consist of essentially simple cells made of amorphous protoplasm, it was no problem to Darwin that he had no mechanism of variation. He just went straight from observation of the fact of variation to the assumption that it was limitless both in nature and extent. He conceived that any identifiable trait would exist in any number of fine variations, just in the nature of things, even before he developed his mistaken theory of “gemmules”.

That being so, and given the assumption that nature was bound to select the best variations for any particular environmental niche (had he called it that), evolution would consist of a gradual unidirectional progress towards that concept of perfection. Bear in mind that the lack of catastrophism, or any idea of major upheavals like continental drift, meant that environments themselves were seen as pretty stable and constant, too. So in Darwin’s view (though it was unstated, and probably unconscious) there actually was a target for evolution to aim at: the perfect bean, ideal vole or divinely-imaged (white) human being for a particular, unchanging, environment. The theory’s lack of teleology was not an indication of a lack of direction, but an explanation of direction despite lack of divine intervention.

Now, at last, we come to theistic evolution. I’ll take B B Warfield as an example of a TE of the time, partly because he understood Darwin well and wrote extensively about the theory, and partly because he was no mindless acolyte. For Warfield, then, having squared the Genesis account with an old-earth evolutionary position, Darwinism caused no problems at all as God’s means of creation, because it offered exactly the same outcomes as traditional Christian doctrine taught. Creation proposed a good world populated with perfectly adapted flora and fauna, and Darwin’s theory of infinite variation and a perfection-orientated natural selection ended up at the same place, though at a more sedate pace and with more struggle.

Warfield, as we know, drew limits around evolution particularly with regard to man’s spiritual endowments, and certainly at one time with regard to the separate creation of Eve. But these were the exception that proved the rule. Darwin, as we also know, found a cruelty in nature that contributed to his abandonment of faith. Warfield either did not feel these, or explained them through a doctrine of the Fall. But that did not alter the basic acceptance of an evolution that was, essentially, goal-orientated: Warfield could add divine teleology to it with no threat to science or faith. The theory was quite capable of delivering the very specific outcomes, especially humanity, that sound doctrine required.

The Victorian theistic evolutionist, then, could be, and usually was, a believer in the whole Biblical and Classical notion of an all-wise, lovingly-designing God, whose means of creation was evolution by natural selection. The theory itself pointed to such a God, if to any at all.

But as I will show in the next article, evolutionary theory was to change radically in the next century, and those changes were to lead directly to a new type of theistic evolutionist, more familiar to us than Warfield but with a radically different theological outlook.

Jon Garvey

About Jon Garvey

Training in medicine (which was my career), social psychology and theology. Interests in most things, but especially the science-faith interface. The rest of my time, though, is spent writing, playing and recording music.
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