When and Why Anti-Darwinism First Arose

Original Article

I’m a big fan of Rod Dreher. His Crunchy Con blog rarely fails to enlighten me, so I’ve been looking forward to his reflections on faith and science, generated by his current visit to Cambridge University as a Cambridge-Templeton fellow. Rod blogged today in response to a lecture and discussion in which evolution came up. He writes that “Darwinism wasn’t initially opposed by Christians” and credits William Jennings Bryan with rallying the faithful against evolution. This is worth some further elaboration. How soon did opposition to Darwinism develop? Among whom, and why?

The question matters because if anti-Darwin sentiment only developed 60 years after the Origin of Species appeared, that might suggest it came from historical causes rather than reflecting fatal flaws in the evolutionary idea itself. With the passing of those historical circumstances, opposing Darwin today might then seem hopelessly outdated.

Darwinism means belief in the mechanism of unguided natural selection as fully capable of producing life’s countless forms, thus supplanting any meaningful notion of design in biology. The idea was controversial from the start, scientifically and morally. In fact, early critics of all stripes, Christians and others, clearly perceived the worldview to which Darwin gave scientific-seeming confirmation. And they trembled.

On the new Faith and Evolution site, Benjamin Wiker reminds us that purely scientific resistance to natural selection arose quickly, including from some of Darwin’s closet scientific allies — even Alfred Russell Wallace, the co-discover of evolution:

Immediately upon publishing, [Darwin] threw himself into an enormous international effort to have his theory affirmed, pulling every string available. Four men were particularly influential as his helpmates in this endeavor: Charles Lyell, Asa Gray, Thomas Huxley, and Joseph Hooker. Along with…Alfred Wallace, they strove to make Darwinism respectable.

Ironically, three of these men — Lyell, Gray, and Wallace — affirmed evolution [in the sense of an old earth and common descent] but thought that natural selection alone was radically insufficient to account for man’s moral and intellectual nature. Evolution needed God. Their “defection” so peeved Darwin that he wrote another book, The Descent of Man (1871), in which he made his case that our moral, intellectual, and “spiritual” aspects are all derived from natural and sexual selection. Evolution did not need God, thank you.

In the moral realm, it was immediately evident to farsighted people that Darwinism would have far-reaching consequences, distinctly not for the good, and that it represented a moral revolution. One prophet was Darwin’s own professor of natural science when he was at Cambridge, Adam Sedgwick. In a letter to Darwin dated December 24, 1859, shortly after the Origin came out, Sedgwick warned that if the new book were successful in breaking the link in men’s minds between material and moral reality, then “humanity, in my mind, would suffer a damage that might brutalize it, and sink the human race into a lower grade of degradation than any into which it has fallen since its written records tell us of its history.” The following March, Sedgwick reviewed the Origin for the London Spectator and condemned its “cold atheistical materialism.”

As the 19th century progressed, religious and other social thinkers saw what the future held. These included figures who have long been derided by elite, “sophisticated” opinion. For example, Bishop Samuel Wilberforce pointed out that Darwin’s theory undermined traditional ideas of responsibility and free will. He cited as prophetic the 17th-century English philosopher Henry More’s forecast that “vile epicurism and sensuality will make the soul of man so degenerate and blind, that he will not only be content to slide into brutish immorality, but please himself in this very opinion that he is a real brute already, an ape, satyr, or baboon.” In this view, the embrace of Darwin was not only a potential cause of cultural degeneration but also a symptom of it.

The German pastor Rudolf Schmid wrote of Darwinism in 1876 that, as many critics perceived it, this “unproven hypothesis…threatens to become a torch, which could reduce the most noble and highest culture achievements of the past century to a heap of ashes.” Darwinism could tempt men into seeing the “struggle for existence” as the logical paradigm for human interaction: “Of him who learns to look upon himself only as a product of nature, though highly ennobled, we cannot expect any other principle than that of following his nature….Where this leads to, everybody knows who knows human nature.”

A German rabbi who inspired modern Orthodox Judaism, and whose name readers of this blog will recognize by now — Samson Raphael Hirsch — in 1878 used the Biblical image of the pagan idol Baal Peor, adored in worship by mixing defecation with sexual intercourse, to illustrate “the kind of Darwinism that revels in the conception of man sinking to the level of beast and stripping itself of its divine nobility, learns to consider itself just a ‘higher’ class of animal.”

Though Darwin himself was unable to anticipate the savage use to which his theory would be put by various 20th-century political movements, even he appreciated a moral danger inherent in it. His writing calls into question not only the belief in God but in any abiding, objective, non-relative code of morality. In a notebook, he observed that “the general delusion about free will [is] obvious,” thus “one deserves no credit for anything…nor ought one to blame others.” He recognized it would be harmful, to say the least, to society if the “delusion” of moral responsibility were dispelled among the general population. But luckily the masses would never be “fully convinced of its truth.” He was an optimist.

It’s arguable, however, that Darwin’s bitterest critics on religious and moral grounds were not clergymen at all but his fellow scientists. On the Harvard campus, Asa Gray’s promotion of evolution was met by the fierce opposition of zoologist Louis Agassiz, who gave a series of addresses on Darwinism in 1862 at the Brooklyn Academy of Music: “The Structure of Animal Life, being six lectures on the Power, Wisdom, and Goodness of God, as manifested in his works.” When questioned, Agassiz’s answer to the mystery of how species originated was blunt: it was by “a thought of God.”

Darwin and his ideas functioned as a Rorschach test. Those who felt religious tradition to be a burden tended to see evolution as a source of liberation. The English biologist and eugenics advocate Karl Pearson remembered, as a young man, “the joy we…felt when we saw that wretched date BC 4004 [previously assumed to be the year of the world’s creation], replaced by a long vista of millions of years of development.” Pearson would go on to teach that Darwinian theory obliged advanced Europeans to make “war” on “inferior races.”

Among Darwin’s friends and foes, many could agree that, as Darwin’s own wife Emma put it, the theory of natural selection “put God further off.” However, one could see that as a good or a bad thing. The specter of atheism has today lost its power to shock. We know what a secularized culture is like. Darwin’s contemporaries, of course, did not know, which heightened their fear that perhaps civilization itself could not survive the subtraction of the divine from human experience.

In his long poem “City of Dreadful Night,” written between 1870 and 1873, the Scotsman James Thomson crystallized the underlying dread that many felt. He paints a nightmare vision of London transformed in the wake of the death of God: “O melancholy Brothers, dark, dark, dark!/ O battling in black floods without an ark!/ O spectral wanderers of unholy Night!” If you imagine a Victorian Gothic version of an apocalyptic Stephen King novel, you’ll have the atmosphere of Thomson’s poem about right.

Many accepted the scientific truth of Darwinism even as they feared its consequences. Friedrich Nietzsche, for one, has been claimed as a Darwinist (by H.L. Mencken, for one, who applauded him for it) and defended from the charge (by biographer Walter Kauffman). Both views are partly right.

In “On the Use and Abuse of History for Life” (1873), Nietzsche anguished at the consequences he foresaw:

If the doctrines of sovereign Becoming, of the liquidity of all…species, of the lack of any cardinal distinction between man and animal — doctrines which I consider true but deadly — are foisted on people for another generation with the frenzied instruction which is now customary, then it should take no one by surprise if people destroy themselves in egotistical trifles and misery, ossifying themselves in their self-absorption, initially falling apart and ceasing to be a people. Then, in place of this condition, perhaps systems of individual egotism, alliances for the systematic larcenous exploitation of those non-members of the alliance and similar creations of utilitarian nastiness will step forward onto the future scene.

Darwinism’s impact was felt across Europe and America not as any sort of “gift” to religious belief for which we should “thank God,” as some today hail Darwin’s theory — but as the most powerful blow to faith in modern times. It was with that impact in mind that Nietzsche in Thus Spoke Zarathustra declared the death of God and the impending overthrow of Christian “slave morality.”

A young friend of Darwin, the biologist George Romanes, came increasingly to question his mentor’s theory and lament its impact, passing through a period of agnosticism and partly regaining his Christian faith before dying at the untimely age of 46. He wrote:

Never in the history of man has so terrific a calamity befallen the race as that which all who look may now behold advancing as a deluge, black with destruction, resistless in might, uprooting our most cherished hopes, engulfing our most precious creed, and burying our highest life in mindless desolation. . . . The flood-gates of infidelity are open, and Atheism overwhelming is upon us.

A little over the top, maybe, but not without foresight, either. So when Rod writes that Christians didn’t initially oppose Darwin, the historical facts are, I think, subtler and more interesting. Lots of people saw the dangers in Darwinism and urged others not to swallow the science behind the idea without applying plenty of well-informed skepticism first. That’s something, from the beginning of this blog, I’ve urged readers to do.

David Klinghoffer

Senior Fellow and Editor, Evolution News
David Klinghoffer is a Senior Fellow at Discovery Institute and the editor of Evolution News & Science Today, the daily voice of Discovery Institute’s Center for Science & Culture, reporting on intelligent design, evolution, and the intersection of science and culture. Klinghoffer is also the author of six books, a former senior editor and literary editor at National Review magazine, and has written for the Los Angeles Times, New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, Seattle Times, Commentary, and other publications. Born in Santa Monica, California, he graduated from Brown University in 1987 with an A.B. magna cum laude in comparative literature and religious studies. David lives near Seattle, Washington, with his wife and children.