The Magazine

Darwin's Synthesis

How much conflict between science and religion?

Feb 11, 2008, Vol. 13, No. 21 • By KEVIN R. KOSAR
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Despite this, Bowler makes his point: Darwin's ideas were not universally condemned by Christians, or lauded by scientists, of the day. Neither could agree amongst themselves what to make of the claim that all existent life forms descended from a single original species. Some scientists clung to ideas about evolution that preceded Darwin, such as Lamarckianism, which postulated that life forms could inherit the attributes that their forebears acquired in their lifetimes. (This notion, of course, has been discredited: Just because Arnold Schwarzennegger developed muscle mass through weightlifting does not mean that his children will be beefcakes.) Others, such as the anatomists Richard Owen and St. George Jackson Mivart, argued that man's evolution occurred but was guided by a higher power. Still other scientists were bluntly dismissive of Darwin. The astronomer Sir John -Herschel mocked natural selection as the "law of higgledy-piggledy."

Among the clergy, too, responses were mixed. Some churchmen rejected Darwin's arguments as atheistic and contrary to Christianity in toto. Others, such as the Scotsman Henry Drummond and the Englishmen Reginald Campbell and Ernest William Barnes, were receptive to the theory of natural selection--and to science, more generally. In this discussion, Bowler plays at making a comparative case between the United States and Great Britain. In 1925, Americans witnessed the so-called Scopes Monkey Trial, which featured the State of Tennessee prosecuting a high school biology teacher named John Scopes for violating its anti-evolution statute. Across the pond Bishop Barnes was preaching his "Gorilla Sermons," which argued that Christians needed to accept apes as their ancestors.

Bowler suggests that the two nations' divergent responses to Darwin, and evolution more generally, had two causes. First, Britain (and Europe more broadly) was sliding toward secularism; in America, the opposite was happening. While churches in big, industrialized cities accommodated the new science of man's origins, the hinterland's houses of worship turned hostile to evolution and, eventually, to the notions of archaeologists, paleontologists, and physicists when they did not comport with the Genesis story of creation. This backwoods backlash, Bowler seems to think, was part of a more general recoil from economic modernization and the erosion of "family values." Bowler might be on to something, but the reader will never know: He drops the topic--perhaps wisely, since he seems to know little about American religious history.

Despite highlighting Barnes's Gorilla Sermons, Bowler does not quote them at length. That's a pity, because Barnes was a good writer and a bit of an imp: The dedication of his chrestomathy, Should Such a Faith Offend? (1928), reads, "TO THAT BEST AND MOST SEVERE OF CRITICS MY WIFE." Though his head was stuffed full of deep learning in mathematics, physics, and theology, Barnes wrote with gusto. In his sermon, "Christian Revelation and Scientific Progress," Barnes declares that

Evolution was, and still is, not an observed fact, but a theory so probable that no alternative to it can be entertained. .  .  . In our own time the leaders of Christian thought have, with substantial unanimity, accepted the conclusion that biological evolution is a fact: man is descended from the lower animals. .  .  . The time has now come when we must not try to evade any implications of the theory of natural selection.

The implications are huge. As Bowler notes, "Evolution raises general issues about how God might govern the universe, and specific issues about the status of humanity within the universe and the wider scheme of creation." If Darwin is right, what to do with Genesis's description of God fashioning an orderly, hierarchical creation, populating it with individual species and placing man above them? If man is the product of a "higgledy-piggledy" process, what to do with the doctrine of original sin as the source of suffering and death? And if man is not fallen, who needs a Christ to be savior?

Barnes, despite the obvious challenges, was undaunted: "Can we accept the idea that man and the gorilla have sprung from a common stock and yet hold that man has an immortal soul?" he asked. "I answer emphatically that we can." Avoiding a false debate over how the earth came to be, Barnes urged Christians to focus on the teachings of Christ: "Christianity is belief in Christ as Way, Truth, and Life: belief that He was the Light of the World, the Guide of the spiritual evolution of humanity."