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Darwin Correspondence Project

Essay: Evolution & theology

—by Asa Gray


The Nation, January 15, 1874

The attitude of theologians toward doctrines of evolution, from the nebular hypothesis down to ‘Darwinism,’ is no less worthy of consideration, and hardly less diverse, than that of naturalists. But the topic, if pursued far, leads to questions too wide and deep for our handling here, except incidentally, in the brief notice which it falls in our way to take of the Rev. George Henslow’s recent volume on ‘The Theory of Evolution of Living Things.’ This treatise is on the side of evolution, ‘considered as illustrative of the wisdom and beneficence of the Almighty.’ It was submitted for and received one of the Actonian prizes recently awarded by the Royal Institution of Great Britain. We gather that the staple of a part of it is worked up anew from some earlier discourses of the author upon ‘Genesis and Geology,’ ‘Science and Scripture not antagonistic,’ etc.

In coupling with it a chapter of the second volume of Dr. Hodge’s ‘Systematic Theology (Part II, Anthropology),’ we call attention to a recent essay, by an able and veteran writer, on the other side of the question. As the two fairly enough represent the extremes of Christian thought upon the subject, it is convenient to review them in connection. Theologians have a short and easy, if not wholly satisfactory, way of refuting scientific doctrines which they object to, by pitting the authority or opinion of one savant against another. Already, amid the currents and eddies of modern opinion, the savants may enjoy the same advantage at the expense of the divines– we mean, of course, on the scientific arena; for the mutual refutation of conflicting theologians on their own ground is no novelty. It is not by way of offset, however, that these divergent or contradictory views are here referred to, but only as an illustration of the fact that the divines are by no means all arrayed upon one side of the question in hand. And indeed, in the present transition period, until some one goes much deeper into the heart of the subject, as respects the relations of modern science to the foundations of religious belief, than either of these writers has done, it is as well that the weight of opinion should be distributed, even if only according to prepossessions, rather than that the whole stress should bear upon a single point, and that perhaps the authority of an interpretation of Scripture. A consensus of opinion upon Dr. Hodge’s ground, for instance (although better guarded than that of Dr. Dawson), if it were still possible, would–to say the least–probably not at all help to reconcile science and religion. Therefore, it is not to be regretted that the diversities of view among accredited theologians and theological naturalists are about as wide and as equably distributed between the extremes (and we may add that the views themselves are quite as hypothetical) as those which prevail among the various naturalists and natural philosophers of the day.

As a theologian, Mr. Henslow doubtless is not to be compared with the veteran professor at Princeton. On the other hand, he has the advantage of being a naturalist, and the son of a naturalist, as well as a clergyman: consequently he feels the full force of an array of facts in nature, and of the natural inferences from them, which the theological professor, from his Biblical standpoint, and on his implicit assumption that the Old Testament must needs teach true science, can hardly be expected to appreciate. Accordingly, a naturalist would be apt to say of Dr. Hodge’s exposition of ‘theories of the universe’ and kindred topics–and in no captious spirit– that whether right or wrong on particular points, he is not often right or wrong in the way of a man of science.

Probably from the lack of familiarity with prevalent ideas and their history, the theologians are apt to suppose that scientific men of the present day are taking up theories of evolution in pure wantonness or mere superfluity of naughtiness; that it would have been quite possible, as well as more proper, to leave all such matters alone. Quieta non movere is doubtless a wise rule upon such subjects, so long as it is fairly applicable. But the time for its application in respect to questions of the origin and relations of existing species has gone by. To ignore them is to imitate the foolish bird that seeks security by hiding its head in the sand. Moreover, the naturalists did not force these questions upon the world; but the world they study forced them upon the naturalists. How these questions of derivation came naturally and inevitably to be revived, how the cumulative probability that the existing are derived from preexisting forms impressed itself upon the minds of many naturalists and thinkers, Mr. Henslow has briefly explained in the introduction and illustrated in the succeeding chapters of the first part of his book. Science, he declares, has been compelled to take up the hypothesis of the evolution of living things as better explaining all the phenomena. In his opinion, it has become ‘infinitely more probable that all living and extinct beings have been developed or evolved by natural laws of generation from preexisting forms, than that they, with all their innumerable races and varieties, should owe their existences severally to Creative fiats.’ This doctrine, which even Dr. Hodge allows may possibly be held in a theistic sense, and which, as we suppose, is so held or viewed by a great proportion of the naturalists of our day, Mr. Henslow maintains is fully compatible with dogmatic as well as natural theology; that it explains moral anomalies, and accounts for the mixture of good and evil in the world, as well as for the merely relative perfection of things; and, finally, that ‘the whole scheme which God has framed for man’s existence, from the first that was created to all eternity, collapses if the great law of evolution be suppressed.’ The second part of his book is occupied with a development of this line of argument. By this doctrine of evolution he does not mean the Darwinian hypothesis, although he accepts and includes this, looking upon natural selection as playing an important though not an unlimited part. He would be an evolutionist with Mivart and Owen and Argyll, even if he had not the vera causa which Darwin contributed to help him on. And, on rising to man, he takes ground with Wallace, saying:

I would wish to state distinctly that I do not at present see any evidence for believing in a gradual development of man from the lower animals by ordinary natural laws; that is, without some special interference, or, if it be preferred, some exceptional conditions which have thereby separated him from all other creatures, and placed him decidedly in advance of them all. On the other hand, it would be absurd to regard him as totally severed from them. It is the great degree of difference I would insist upon, bodily, mental, and spiritual, which precludes the idea of his having been evolved by exactly the same processes, and with the same limitations, as, for example, the horse from the palaeotherium.

In illustrating this view, he reproduces Wallace’s well-known points, and adds one or two of his own. We need not follow up his lines of argument. The essay, indeed, adds nothing material to the discussion of evolution, although it states one side of the case moderately well, as far as it goes.

Dr. Hodge approaches the subject from the side of systematic theology, and considers it mainly in its bearing upon the origin and original state of man. Under each head he first lays down ‘the Scriptural doctrine,’ and then discusses ‘anti-Scriptural theories,’ which latter, under the first head, are the heathen doctrine of spontaneous generation, the modern doctrine of spontaneous generation, theories of development, specially that of Darwin, the atheistic character of the theory, etc. Although he admits ‘that there is a theistic and an atheistic form of the nebular hypothesis as to the origin of the universe, so there may be a theistic interpretation of the Darwinian theory,’ yet he contends that ‘the system is thoroughly atheistic,’ notwithstanding that the author ‘expressly acknowledges the existence of God.’ Curiously enough, the atheistic form of evolutionary hypotheses, or what he takes for such, is the only one which Dr. Hodge cares to examine. Even the ‘Reign of Law’ theory, Owen’s ‘purposive route of development and chance . . . . by virtue of inherent tendencies thereto,’ as well as other expositions of the general doctrine on a theistic basis, are barely mentioned without a word of comment, except, perhaps, a general ‘protest against the arraying of probabilities against the teachings of Scripture.’

Now, all former experience shows that it is neither safe nor wise to pronounce a whole system ‘thoroughly atheistic’ which it is conceded may be held theistically, and which is likely to be largely held, if not to prevail, on scientific grounds. It may be well to remember that, ‘of the two great minds of the seventeenth century, Newton and Leibnitz, both profoundly religious as well as philosophical, one produced the theory of gravitation, the other objected to that theory that it was subversive of natural religion; also that the nebular hypothesis–a natural consequence of the theory of gravitation and of the subsequent progress of physical and astronomical discovery–has been denounced as atheistical even down to our day.’ It has now outlived anathema.

It is undeniable that Mr. Darwin lays himself open to this kind of attack. The propounder of natural selection might be expected to make the most of the principle, and to overwork the law of parsimony in its behalf. And a system in which exquisite adaptation of means to ends, complicated inter-dependencies, and orderly sequences, appear as results instead of being introduced as factors, and in which special design is ignored in the particulars, must needs be obnoxious, unless guarded as we suppose Mr. Darwin might have guarded his. ground if he had chosen to do so. Our own opinion, after long consideration, is, that Mr. Darwin has no atheistical intent; and that, as respects the test question of design in Nature, his view may be made clear to the theological mind by likening it to that of the ‘believer in general but not in particular Providence.’ There is no need to cull passages in support of this interpretation from his various works while the author–the most candid of men–retains through all the editions of the ‘Origin of Species’ the two mottoes from Whewell and Bishop Butler.

The gist of the matter lies in the answer that should be rendered to the questions–1. Do order and useful-working collocation, pervading a system throughout all its parts, prove design? and, 2. Is such evidence negatived or invalidated by the probability that these particular collocations belong to lineal series of such in time, and diversified in the course of Nature–grown up, so to say, step by step? We do not use the terms ‘adaptation,’ ‘arrangement of means to ends,’ and the like, because they beg the question in stating it.

Finally, ought not theologians to consider whether they have not already, in principle, conceded to the geologists and physicists all that they are asked to concede to the evolutionists; whether, indeed, the main natural theological difficulties which attend the doctrine of evolution–serious as they may be–are not virtually contained in the admission that there is a system of Nature with fixed laws. This, at least, we may say, that, under a system in which so much is done ‘by the establishment of general laws,’ it is legitimate for any one to prove, if he can, that any particular thing in the natural world is so done; and it is the proper business of scientific men to push their enquiries in this direction.

It is beside the point for Dr. Hodge to object that, ‘from the nature of the case, what concerns the origin of things cannot be known except by a supernatural revelation;’ that ‘science has to do with the facts and laws of Nature: here the question concerns the origin of such facts.’ For the very object of the evolutionists, and of Mr. Darwin in particular, is to remove these subjects from the category of origination, and to bring them under the domain of science by treating them as questions about how things go on, not how they began. Whether the succession of living forms on the earth is or is not among the facts and laws of Nature, is the very matter in controversy.

Moreover, adds Dr. Hodge, it has been conceded that in this matter ‘proofs, in the proper sense of the word, are not to be had; we are beyond the region of demonstration, and have only probabilities to consider.’ Wherefore ‘Christians have a right to protest against the arraying ofprobabilities against the clear teachings of Scripture.’ The word is italicized, as if to intimate that probabilities have no claims which a theologian is bound to respect. As to arraying them against Scripture, there is nothing whatever in the essay referred to that justifies the statement. Indeed, no occasion offered; for the writer was discussing evolution in its relations to theism, not to Biblical theology, and probably would not be disposed to intermix arguments so different in kind as those from natural science and those from revelation. To pursue each independently, according to its own method, and then to compare the results, is thought to be the better mode of proceeding. The weighing of probabilities we had regarded as a proper exercise of the mind preparatory to forming an opinion. Probabilities, hypotheses, and even surmises, whatever they may be worth, are just what, as it seems to us, theologians ought not to be foremost in decrying, particularly those who deal with the reconciliation of science with Scripture, Genesis with geology, and the like. As soon as they go beyond the literal statements even of the English text, and enter into the details of the subject, they find ample occasion and display a special aptitude for producing and using them, not always with very satisfactory results. It is not, perhaps, for us to suggest that the theological army in the past has been too much encumbered with impedimenta for effective aggression in the conflict against atheistic tendencies in modern science; and that in resisting attack it has endeavored to hold too much ground, so wasting strength in the obstinate defense of positions which have become unimportant as well as untenable. Some of the arguments, as well as the guns, which well served a former generation, need to be replaced by others of longer range and greater penetration.

If the theologians are slow to discern the signs and exigencies of the times, the religious philosophical naturalists must be looked to. Since the above remarks were written, Prof. Le Conte’s ‘Religion and Science,’ just issued, has come to our hands. It is a series of nineteen Sunday lectures on the relation of natural and revealed religion, prepared in the first instance for a Bible-class of young men, his pupils in the University of South Carolina, repeated to similar classes at the University of California, and finally delivered to a larger and general audience. They are printed, the preface states, from a verbatim report, with only verbal alterations and corrections of some redundancies consequent upon extemporaneous delivery. They are not, we find, lectures on science under a religious aspect, but discourses upon Christian theology and its foundations from a scientific layman’s point of view, with illustrations from his own lines of study. As the headings show, they cover, or, more correctly speaking, range over, almost the whole field of theological thought, beginning with the personality of Deity as revealed in Nature, the spiritual nature and attributes of Deity, and the incarnation; discussing by the way the general relations of theology to science, man, and his place in Nature; and ending with a discussion of predestination and free-will, and of prayer in relation to invariable law–all in a volume of three hundred and twenty-four duodecimo pages! And yet the author remarks that many important subjects have been omitted because he felt unable to present them in a satisfactory manner from a scientific point of view. We note, indeed, that one or two topics which would naturally come in his way–such, especially, as the relation of evolution to the human race–are somewhat conspicuously absent. That most of the momentous subjects which he takes up are treated discursively, and not exhaustively, is all the better for his readers. What they and we most want to know is, how these serious matters are viewed by an honest, enlightened, and devout scientific man. To solve the mysteries of the universe, as the French lady required a philosopher to explain his new system, ‘dans un mot,’ is beyond rational expectation.

All that we have time and need to say of this little book upon great subjects relates to its spirit and to the view it takes of evolution. Its theology is wholly orthodox; its tone devotional, charitable, and hopeful; its confidence in religious truth, as taught both in Nature and revelation, complete; the illustrations often happy, but often too rhetorical; the science, as might be expected from this author, unimpeachable as regards matters of fact, discreet as to matters of opinion. The argument from design in the first lecture brings up the subject of the introduction of species. Of this, considered ‘as a question of history, there is no witness on the stand except geology.’

The present condition of geological evidence is undoubtedly in favor of some degree of suddenness–is against infinite gradations. The evidence may be meagre . . . but whether meagre or not, it is all the evidence we have. . . . Now, the evidence of geology to-day is, that species seem to come in suddenly and in full perfection, remain substantially unchanged during the term of their existence, and pass away in full perfection. Other species take their place apparently by substitution, not by transmutation. But you will ask me, ‘Do you, then, reject the doctrine of evolution? Do you accept the creation of speciesdirectly and without secondary agencies and processes?’ I answer, No! Science knows nothing of phenomena which do not take place by secondary causes and processes. She does not deny such occurrence, for true Science is not dogmatic, and she knows full well that, tracing up the phenomena from cause to cause, we must somewhere reach the more direct agency of a First Cause. . . . It is evident that, however species were introduced, whether suddenly or gradually, it is the duty of Science ever to strive to understand the means and processes by which species originated. . . . Now, of the various conceivable secondary causes and processes, by some of which we must believe species originated, by far the most probable is certainly that of evolution from other species.

(We might interpose the remark that the witness on the stand, if subjected to cross-examination by a biologist, might be made to give a good deal of testimony in favor of transmutation rather than substitution.)

After referring to different ideas as to the cause or mode of evolution, he concludes that it can make no difference, so far as the argument of design in Nature is concerned, whether there be evolution or not, or whether, in the case of evolution, the change be paroxysmal or uniform. We may infer even that he accepts the idea that ‘physical and chemical forces are changed into vital force, and vice versa.’ Physicists incline more readily to this than physiologists; and if what is called vital force be a force in the physicists’ sense, then it is almost certainly so. But the illustration on page 275 touches this point only seemingly. It really concerns only the storing and the using of physical force in a living organism. If, for want of a special expression, we continue to use the term vital force to designate that intangible something which directs and governs the accumulation and expenditure of physical force in organisms, then there is as yet no proof and little likelihood that this is correlate with physical force.

‘A few words upon the first chapter of Genesis and the Mosaic cosmogony, and I am done,’ says Prof. Le Conte, and so are we:

‘It might be expected by many that, after speaking of schemes of reconciliation, I should give mine also. My Christian friends, these schemes of reconciliation become daily more and more distasteful to me. I have used them in times past; but now the deliberate construction of such schemes seems to me almost like trifling with the words of Scripture and the teachings of Nature. They seem to me almost irreverent, and quite foreign to the true, humble, liberal spirit of Christianity; they are so evidently artificial, so evidently mere ingenious human devices. It seems to me that if we will only regard the two books in the philosophical spirit which I have endeavored to describe, and then simply wait and possess our souls in patience, the questions in dispute will soon adjust themselves as other similar questions have already done.’