C S Lewis on Evolution

The Magician’s Twin is a new book about C S Lewis’s relationship to science, and to scientism in particular. It’s a good read. But it’s published by the Discovery Institute, so BioLogos felt the need to produce a series debunking it. Children, children.

In fact after an initial post met with a fair amount reasoned dissent, author David Williams significantly revised his planned series, and it became quite a useful discussion board for a time (until I lost my ability to post there and gave up following the thread – though I’m thankfully restored to grace!). But in response there has been some activity regarding C S Lewis on Uncommon Descent. Everyone wants a piece of Lewis, it appears – as others have pointed out during the conversation. Farbeit from me, therefore, to avoid staking my own claim.
In fact I only want to draw attention to a YouTube video about Lewis that I found quite fortuitously when searching for footage of the Beatles recording. It appeared in the recommendations at the side together with Yoko Ono and the Small Faces. I’d love to think that there is some strange link between these and Lewis, but more prosaically YouTube has probably picked up some cookie of mine mentioning C S Lewis that came from one of the fora – such is privacy nowadays. Nevertheless, I diverted from Let it Be to C S Lewis’s Surving BBC Radio Address. That title itself may not be true, as I’ve heard tapes of his “Four Loves” which I’m sure were made for radio. But Part One advertised that Part Two included Lewis’s views on evolution. so it seemed worth checking out in relation to the recent discussion. It’s near the beginning of the recording, so listen for yourself.

One point of disagreement between the TEs and the IDs seems to be the extent to which Lewis actually accepted evolution, and the the degree to which he merely conceded it it in discussion as being the current view of a science in which he claimed no expertise. Maybe you’ll appreciate that, in the scheme of things, it’s a matter of complete irrelevance what an apologeticist trained in mediaeval literature, who died fifty years ago, thought then about evolution, though the reasons for his beliefs would certainly be of interest.

As you’ll see from the video, he uses popular speculations about “the next big thing” in evolution as a platform for an apologetic – even evangelistic – piece about the “next thing” as far as Christians are concerned, which is to become sons of God in Christ. What interests me here is that the way he handles evolution gives a good idea about his interests and concerns. Most notably he points out that this change which humans can experience isn’t considered evolutionary by Christians, because it comes down from the supernatural power of God rather than up from anything in nature. But then he goes on to say, “But if you like to call it evolution, do.”

That makes it clear that it’s a matter of supreme indifference to him how the word evolution may or may not be used, in connection with his subject here. It’s change, it’s of God and it leads to what really matters in life, which is communion with God and transformation into true personhood. He seems to be implying, “You can call it Chinese cookery or tango dancing if you like, as long as you seek God for it.”

In one sense, that’s disappointing if one wanted to learn about whether or not Lewis believed in evolution. In another, it strongly suggests that past evolution too was a matter of little concern for him. And that is not so much because he wasn’t a scientist, but because he thought science rather peripheral to the whole human condition. Lewis certainly believed that, even before our regeneration in Christ, we are spiritual beings, destined to resemble either angels or devils. Passages in his writing suggest that his belief was that the spiritual character of mankind, like the miracle of rebirth, was a direct act of God in the world. He may not have believed firmly in Adam, but he seems to have believed in someone else of the same name.

If the bodily existence of Homo sapiens came to be through the processes the scientists proposed, then that was fair enough – the bodily existence being of pretty passing importance in Lewis’s list of priorities. It’s more than that, though, because if one were to try and pin him down more closely on whether true humanity were a product of evolution or not, he would in all probability simply have reiterated that such a process came from God rather than from nature, but then add laconically, “But if you like to call it evolution, do.”

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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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4 Responses to C S Lewis on Evolution

  1. Bilbo says:

    Lewis’s clearest discussion of evolution come in the chapter, “The Fall of Man,” in his book, The Problem of Pain. He offers what he calls a “Socratic myth,” which he defines as being probably true, so we can take it as his attempt to state his views on evolutionary history regarding human beings. It’s clear that he thought it was guided by God, and it’s clear that he thought there was something beyond the mere physical in the final product that we call human — Lewis was most likely a substance dualist. In the book he makes it clear that he doesn’t think it theologically important whether there were only two original human beings or more. But what he did think important was the doctrine of the fall.

  2. Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:

    Hi Bilbo

    Yes, that’s been my general impression over 5 decades of reading Lewis (intermittently!), though I’ve neither sought out, nor noticed, his specific opinion on the historicity of evolution. Which is maybe telling about how highly it figures in his priorities.

    It seems to me he is as indifferent to it as he is to the specific historicity of Adam and Eve. Just as, as you say, the doctrine of the fall was to him a historical truth that the Eden story expresses in mythical genre, so the physical existence of mankind was an obvious truth to which evolution was as appropriate an explanatory myth as any other.

    But since our physical existence is less contentious, and less dangerous, than our spiritual nature and our sin, his efforts were concentrated on the latter.

  3. Bilbo says:

    Nice way of putting it, Jon. I think Lewis would approve.

  4. Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:

    Thanks, Bilbo.

    I should probably stop after receiving a compliment, but our conversation might leave the impression that Lewis was indifferent to historical truth like some postmodern writers, which is very far from the case. The reality of the events in Christ’s life and death, for example, underlay all that he said about faith, and even what he fictionalised in the form of Aslan, Ransom etc.

    It’s just that he was aware that critical historical prose was not always the best way to express truth, and was in some cases not possible. If, for example, his suggested reconstruction of the Fall in early hominids were true, it would have been meaningless in the ANE landscape of Genesis. Nevertheless, he would have said, a dreadful tragedy actually happened: the offending hominids, like Adam and Eve, were (as John Walton would emphasise from his ANE perspective) archetypal and not allegorical.

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