This article is based on a talk arranged by Monkstown Meeting in the Darwin bicentenary year. It was first published in The Friendly Word January-February 2010.
There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed by the Creator into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.
With these words Charles Darwin ended his monumental work On the origin of species by means of natural selection. On its first page he described the book as an ‘abstract’. Abstracts usually take considerably less than some hundreds of pages and are written in a minimalist style. Darwin was a talented writer and the Origin was far from being an ordinary abstract. A pleasure to read, it is also remarkably easy to follow the theory. It met with immediate success as a popular book besides fomenting a revolution in theology and science.
The readability contributed in no small way to its achievement in converting to acceptance of the theory of evolution not only a sceptical scientific establishment but also a very substantial proportion of Christian theologians and lay people. There was a degree of polarisation of views. At one extreme were fundamentalist Christians who held that every word of the Bible was divinely inspired and literally true. On the other side were atheists who rejoiced in a theory which flatly contradicted some of those words, especially the six-day creation story.
Tragically, the two extremist camps have survived to our own time, in spite of the fact that believers in many churches seem never to have had great problems in reconciling them. The controversy does not appear to have caused serious dissension amongst Quakers and the clergy of most of the mainstream Christian denominations have promulgated ideas on the mutability of species and of the age of the earth being rather more than 4,004 years.
More than sixty years ago my Sunday-school teacher explained that each of the ‘days’ in the creation story had been very much longer than twenty-four hours. Ten years later, it happened that my school biology teacher, who gave excellent classes on evolution, was a Quaker Maurice Wigham. The idea that Darwin’s theory and a belief in things spiritual could go hand in hand was implanted in me at an early stage and has remained.
The six-day creation story in the Book of Genesis is followed immediately by a less precise version which contradicts the first. Commentators, impelled by their belief that both have to be true, have found ways and means of squaring that particular circle. But the simpler explanation is that both are allegories, composed by different people from different standpoints. Thousands of years after the creation stories were set down, Darwin put forward his theory. It, too, provided a simpler explanation for the diversity of species that surrounds us. Extreme creationists are faced with the task of supporting an alternative theory which, when examined closely, is almost unbelievably difficult to comprehend.
There is am impressive element of scientific thought in the first creation story. Essentially it is based on observation of nature and on reflections arising from it. Animals depend ultimately on plants and plants cannot grow without light and water. So light has to be created first and then there is the need for a mechanism to allow the water to fall on dry land so a solid dome was postulated as a sort of celestial water tank. Observation first, followed by the search for an explanation is the very basis of science. The same approach applied by Darwin – but supported by many discoveries by countless observers – led to his theory of evolution.
The second creation story is theological rather than scientific and puts man – a solitary male – firmly in place as, after God, the prime force in the world. God makes his plants in the form of seeds because there is no water. Even more importantly, there is no man to till the soil. So Adam has to be ‘formed of the dust of the ground’ to tend the garden and, to save him from loneliness, other animals and finally a woman are introduced. There is an element of direct observation here, too but its standpoint is radically different. The story evidently was written in a patriarchal society. The man is in control of the land, its plants and its animals, the woman is subservient and therefore it is logical to conclude that the man must have been created first of all.
In the absence of knowledge of geology and of the circulation of water in the atmosphere – concepts of the 18th century AD – both stories are plausible. Understanding of the age of the earth, the recognition of the significance of rock strata and fossils and the introduction of a more sophisticated system for classifying animals and plants than Adam had been able to apply all led to the exquisitely beautiful and supremely plausible theory of evolution by natural selection.
Darwin in the Origin makes a number of references to the Creator – two of them on the final page of the book. Evidently he believed in some ultimate designer rather than the alternative of blind chance. Moreover he believed that the marvellous system of gradual evolution and inter-relationship of living things was immeasurably more divine than the concept of a creative artist who designed a stable earth and populated it with unchanging species.
Darwin’s theory, conceived a hundred and seventy years ago and continually refined by him in the course of the following forty years, was based on a formidable span of knowledge, both his own direct observations of nature and his reading of a great many other authors. Since his time whole branches of science, above all molecular biology, have come into being and one of the most impressive facts is that they support the theory he developed without their aid.
The great majority of scientists and great numbers of believers in things spiritual unreservedly accept Darwin’s conclusions on the origin of species. But Darwin confined his theory to material objects: rocks, plants and animals. The nature or the very existence of God and the world of spirits is neither proved nor disproved by evolutionary theory. People of faith remain free to believe that there is a great deal more to heaven and earth than are dreamt of in his philosophy. Darwin’s theory is based on observed events in the material world. It gives a convincing account of how things happened – rather than why. The question of why, to say nothing of the entire nature of spiritual or mystical experience, is very much more difficult to explain.