Myths of Evolution

It’s the Year of Darwin, and boy am I bored with it. All the myths are being cranked out – and very little new (with some honourable exceptions — see below.) It’s also a year after I spent a lot of my energy examining Darwin and the Church, and reading around the subject. I thought it might amuse people to read some of it here – because most of  “what we know” is wrong… This will be the first of a short series of posts on Dancing on Darwin’s Grave,  as I lash out at the absurd hagiography surrounding the chap, and the modern myths that have grown up around the birth fo Evolutionary theory. And no, I am not a Creationist! I fully accept Evolution by Natural Selection – just making that clear, ok?

Everyone knows that Darwin was opposed by the Church right? Evolution was accepted by scientists, and mocked by evangelicals? Fundamentalists hated Darwin, and Soapy Sam and Wilberforce had a huge row over religion? Er, nope. It never happened like that.

Charles Darwin

Charles Darwin

I argue quite the opposite is true – at a time when the scientific community were still intensely sceptical of Evolution in the Darwinian model, many Evangelicals played an important role in supporting and accepting evolution, and few Evangelicals seem to have opposed it in the period 1850-1920… I suspect this will please almost no one, from Darwinians to Fundies!

I’m assuming most people are aware that what we call Young Earth Creationism, the belief the earth is a few thousand years old, is really only a North American Protestant belief and has only been prominent there since 1961. Sure, in recent years it has grown in the Islamic World, and in the rest of the Christian world following US example, but YEC is really quite a modern thing.

It was not the most common belief at all in the time of Darwin, even among conservatives. Age Gap, Framework and Age Day theories were the ideas common in the Evangelical mainstream before Darwin – a fact reflected in the massive contribution of Evangelicals and Anglican churchmen to the geological breakthroughs of the early 19th century.

Ah, some may cry,  what are they? Wikipedia to the Rescue! You don’t really need to know this to get the main point, but hey–

Catastrophism and flood geology was an extreme minority position, and only one Evangelical newspaper, The Record, appears to have much time for it.

Evolution was pioneered in America by the devout Evangelical Asa Grey, writing Darwinia (1876) which reconciles his Evangelical beliefs with orthodox Darwinism, and indeed being the only non-British member of the Darwin circle who saw Origin of the Species (1859) prior to publication. He dedicated much of his life to publicising and popularising Darwinian Evolution. A good bibliography is here- So by Darwin’s time, a number of  Evangelicals were already evolutionist.

Many of the objections raised like those of Soapy Sam Wilberforce were primarily scientific not theological — Kelvin pointed out Darwinian Evolution was completely impossible in terms of our understanding of the laws of physics and a theory not substantiated by the empirical evidence: indeed it ran contrary to much we knew until we understood stellar nucleosynthesis. It was of course correct,but that was not to be established for many decades to come.

Despite these problems, the Evangelicals response was generally positive. So who accepted evolution in those first years? It’s a Who’s Who of Evangelicals. Marston & Forster list BB Warfield, AH Strong, Van Dyke, Landey Patton, AA Hodge, WT Shedd, James McCosh — all hard core Evangelical leaders. ( They cite  Livingstone, Darwin’s Forgotten Defenders, Scottish Academic Press, 1987).

Many historians of science and religion have already surveyed this territory and found that on both sides of the Atlantic works in favour of Darwin in Christian circles far outnumbered the minority opposition. Fundamentalism? Looking at The Fundamentals, I am immediately minded of Chapter 69 – The Passing of Evolution. (online here – kudos to the chap who undertook this herculean task! – ) As you can see, this limited acceptance of Darwinism and objections based upon scientific principle is not quite what one might be led to expect from the very founding document of Fundamentalism. Orr’s chapter 18 contains a resolute defence of evolution, though he was Lamarckian and here disparages Darwinism. You can read it for yourself here

Orr accepted Lamarckian evolution, or at least appears to. I could go on and on – I probably will, it’s what I do – but I suspect that the “meme” of Evangelical refusal of evolution has developed quite recently, and part of the “conflict between science and religion” woo one sees so much of these days. The popularity of the idea is simple — it appeals to both hard atheists wishing to disparage religion as an opponent of reason, and to devout Young Earth Creationist types who wish to claim this was always the Christian faith.

Few voices speak out against it – few people bother to check the facts, despite the mountains of printed material available, and modern studies like those of Marston and Livingstone.

My contention is that YEC only dates really from 1961 and Henry Morris – certainly OEC was common, but that looked at an earth many millions of years old (though limited by Kelvin’s calculations on the sun which gave the Earth an age of not more than 25 million years – – which led to his and many other physicists rejection of Darwin as physically impossible.)


Lord Kelvin, critic of Darwin's theory

The debate between physicists and geologists over the age of the Earth was ongoing, until the understanding of the actual processes involved in the sun showed the geologists were right. Physicists however probably were greater opponents of Darwinism in the early years (as pseudo-science that defied our understanding of physical law) than Evangelicals? Dunno! The Creationists as we know them are very modern – the Seventh Day Adventists, who gave Americans many interesting doctrines almost unique to that continent did much to support the rise of OEC, and McCready Price in the 1920’s was the first major anti-evolutionist who went for seven literal days I can think of? Willliam Jennings Bryan for example (he of the famous Scopes Monkey Trial) favoured one of the two main Evangelical theories –, Age/Day, where a Day represented millions of years not a 24 hour period, and the famous Schofield Refence Bible of 1909went for the other – Gap theory, where there was a Gap of millions of years between Day 1, and Day2, and possibly between other Days. Both arguments preserve Biblical inerrancy.

The myths were already building fast even by then, indeed before the end of the 19th century, one of the most famous being about the debate between Huxley and Wilberforce over On the Origin of  Species. Superb essay on the history of this by JR Lucas here, well worth reading (honestly it is!) — As you can see, this encounter is one of the most common stories almost everyone knows, but the truth is shall we say a little more obscure? Legendary indeed! Inerrantists has long accepted Gap Theory, Framework Theory or Age/Day by Darwin’s period – many leading geologists were devout evangelicals, so the age fo the Earth was known to be exceedingly ancient, and as Augustine and Origen both accepted the reading of this passage as non-literal as did theologians all through the ages, it is not surprising really they had cheerfully gone with the new science. It was a reaction to be expected in light of the dominant Baconian “Two Books” paradigm? Anyway, one does not have to be stupid ot be a Christian, it’s entirely optional – then as now. A few of us still possess brains, and a cynical scepticism about how susceptible we are to modern myths, no matter how much we can see the problems with ancient ones… Hope my historical whitterings have not bored to death.

I wrote that brief summary last year, after conversations with Beast, then luckily John Van Wyhe (Historian of Science, Cambridge University, leader of the Darwin Online Project)  published a very interesting article in BBC History magazine — January 2009 – Volume 10 – No 1 in which he also exposes ye olde myth. 🙂  Anyway, question all these myths! 🙂 I f everyone knows something, it’s often nonsense!

cj x


About Chris Jensen Romer

I am a profoundly dull, tedious and irritable individual. I have no friends apart from two equally ill mannered cats, and a lunatic kitten. I am a ghosthunter by profession, and professional cat herder. I write stuff and do TV things and play games. It's better than being real I find.
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One Response to Myths of Evolution

  1. Pingback: Debunking A Modern Myth: the Conflict of Religion & Science - Part Two « Jerome23’s Weblog

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