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Charles Darwin was born on February 12, 1809— 200 years ago this year. His famous book On the Origin of Species was published 50 years later, and during 2009, it is being celebrated as a watershed moment for Western civilization. However, the excitement has as much to do with Darwin’s philosophy and theology as it does with his actual theory of evolution.

The idea of the evolution of life on earth is hardly new to Western thinking. Thousands of years before Darwin was born, arguments raged over creation and evolution. In ancient Greece, Epicurean philosophers denied supernatural involvement with the material world, while creationists like Plato argued that a Demiurge (a Greek deity) fashioned the world out of chaos.

Evolution is not new

Over the ages, evolutionary theories have come and gone, with several being proposed just before Darwin. His grandfather, Erasmus Darwin, published the theory that “all warm-blooded animals have arisen from one living filament.” Another theory by the French evolutionist Jean-Baptiste Lamarck proposed that, with the help of much time and slow but constant diversity of circumstances, nature “has gradually brought about in this respect the state of things which we now observe.” Lamarck theorized that traits that developed during an organism’s lifetime, such as big muscles, were passed on to its offspring, ultimately leading to new kinds of organisms.

The idea that things change over time is neither remarkable nor controversial. Even the most literal reading of the Bible forces the conclusion that people, animals, and plants have all changed since God originally created them. What is controversial is the idea that the material world is all that exists and that God is not involved with it in any way.

This is the philosophy that underlies Darwinism.

Natural selection is a basic part of modern evolutionary theory. Natural selection states that those animals in a population that are most fit are likely to produce more offspring, and they will also pass along their better fitness, while those less fit will produce fewer offspring. Thus, the better traits will more likely survive through succeeding generations. Natural selection and the idea of change over time were recognized long before Darwin. Aristotle discussed natural selection. He argued that some creatures “survived, being organized spontaneously in a fitting way; whereas those which grew otherwise perished and continue to perish.” The earlier Greek philosopher Empedocles proposed that animals formed randomly from parts, producing weird combinations like an ox with a man’s face, but only those that by chance were adapted to their environment avoided extinction.

Why Darwinism persists

So if all of Darwin’s ideas were not new, why was his theory of evolution such a big deal when it was published in 1859? The answer to this question involves at least three factors. First, natural selection does work. Second is the structure of European society at the time and Darwin’s position in it. And third is the materialistic foundation of Darwin’s thinking and an emerging intellectual movement that needed such a theory.

The truth of natural selection. Natural selection is an excellent theory for explaining why organisms change and may explain in part how the various populations of one kind of organism become adapted to different environments. But does it explain how amoebas can change into giraffes? Can natural selection, working on natural variations in organisms, produce new body plans, new organs, and new genes, thus explaining the vast array of plants and animals in the world today? Such things have not been observed, and the extremely long periods of time that Darwinism requires make direct observation impossible. However, natural selection may explain small changes due to changing environmental conditions. Even though the concept was not original to Darwin, it is still a really good idea and almost self-evidently true.

European society. Darwin’s theory of evolution was published at a time when European thought leaders were restricted to the upper class, who viewed members of other classes as somehow beneath them. Darwin was relatively affluent, and he was a grandson of Josiah Wedgwood of Wedgwood china fame. He also had the best education the British Empire could offer—at Edinburgh and Cambridge—along with all the contacts that such an education provided. Among Darwin’s friends were academics and others for whom he could be an acceptable champion. Darwin’s privileged position allowed him to move in the circles necessary to make an impact.

Darwin’s ideas also fit well with the notion that Western Europeans were superior to other people, both those of the lower classes and those of other races. The British ruled the world, and at the pinnacle of all humanity, the upper class ruled Britain. Thus, Charles Darwin was the right person in the right social position.

Darwin’s materialism. Darwin’s theory had at its core a materialist philosophy that denied the supernatural and claimed that the material world is all that exists. This was enough to catapult his materialistic theory of evolution out of the morass of most scientific theories and make it a cause worth championing by a powerful anti-Christian minority.

Much of On the Origin of Species is dedicated to theological rather than scientific arguments, because Darwin’s theory of evolution was itself a theological argument against God’s involvement in the material world. For example, when discussing how different horse like creatures— zebras, donkeys, domestic horses, etc.—came to be, Darwin argued against God creating such similar creatures because “it makes the works of God a mere mockery and deception; I would almost as soon believe, with the old and ignorant cosmogonists, that fossil shells had never lived, but had been created in stone so as to mock the shells now living on the seashore.”

Darwin the theologian

Darwin continually argued as the clergyman that he was by training rather than as a scientist. From his privileged position in society, Darwin championed a materialistic philosophy in an age when the idea of progress was widely accepted, and upper-class Europeans saw themselves at the zenith of that progress. If Darwin was right, then humans really are, by sheer luck and natural laws, masters of the universe. The French Nobel laureate Jacques Monod put it this way: “The ancient covenant is in pieces; man knows at last that he is alone in the universe’s unfeeling immensity, out of which he emerged only by chance. His destiny is nowhere spelled out, nor is his duty. The kingdom above or the darkness below; it is for him to choose.”

At a time when it seemed that science and technology would sweep away all older belief systems and superstitions, Darwin’s mechanism of evolution via natural selection was plausible enough for many who already believed in materialism on less rational grounds. Darwin seemed to refute the necessity of a Creator God, and his theory did explain some things better than the ideas of Plato and Aristotle. As the evangelical atheist and scientist Richard Dawkins put it, “Darwin made it possible to be an intellectually fulfilled atheist.”

Freethinkers like Thomas Henry Huxley—also known as “Darwin’s bulldog”— promoted Darwin, even though Huxley questioned Darwin’s reliance on natural selection. It was enough that Darwin’s theory denied divine intervention in nature. It is telling that Alfred Russel Wallace, the “codiscoverer” of evolution via natural selection, denied materialism and is not celebrated today.

Darwin and Christians

Given that Darwin’s theory of evolution was based on a materialistic philosophy strictly at odds with Christian theism, it is hardly surprising that Greek philosophers embracing the same materialism came up with similar ideas thousands of years earlier.

What is surprising is that some Christians enthusiastically embraced Darwinism while still adhering to Christianity. Some saw Darwin’s materialistic theory as a way to absolve God from responsibility for some of the more dreadful aspects of nature. This evil in nature, Darwin assured them, could be accounted for by natural selection without blaming God: “Natural selection can and does often produce structures for the direct injury of other animals, as we see in the fang of the adder, and in the ovipositor of the ichneumon [wasp], by which its eggs are deposited in the living bodies of other insects.”

Accepting Darwinism also allowed theistic evolutionists to maintain some intellectual respectability with those who believe that Darwinism is a scientific explanation of nature rather than a philosophical program. Scientific respectability, along with the materialists’ need for scientific support of their philosophy and the Christian need to get God off the hook for evil, all help to explain why Darwin’s theory of evolution has created such an impact over the past 150 years. But its impact does not make it true or even a good guess, and Darwinism relieves God of responsibility at remarkable cost. It begs the question of how the universe and living things came to be; it reduces the Bible to a collection of fanciful stories; and it diminishes God from being the Creator of all things to a place of irrelevance.

Today, our greater understanding of living systems reveals more elegance, beauty, and brilliance than Darwin and his promoters could have imagined. Ultimately, the Darwinist belief that frogs really do turn into princes—it just takes a long time—remains an extraordinary idea. But shoehorning the amazing knowledge now available into Darwin’s materialistic theory requires progressively more heroic efforts. This does not mean that Darwinism will simply dry up and go away. People have faith in strange beliefs for their own reasons, and many Darwinists have reasons independent of the data for embracing Darwin’s theory.

If history is a reasonable guide, this means that despite the controversy and the data, a belief system like Darwinism will always be with us.

Why Darwin's Triumph

by Timothy G. Standish
From the June 2009 Signs