Many of the ancient Greeks were extremely interested in the world of living things, from plants to animals. Aristotle was a keen observer, and wrote excellent descriptions of what he saw. Other Greeks, such as Pliny, wrote extensively on natural history. Aesop's fables are stories about animals with a moral attached. The early Christians and the medievals were mainly interested in the world of nature as the image of God, providing symbols of spiritual truths; thus the pelican, plucking her breast to give blood to her chicks, is a symbol of Christ shedding His blood for us. The pelican in her piety, as it is called, is still to be seen on the arms of my college, Corpus Christi. The natural world was thus invested with layers of meaning which we should try to discover in order to enhance our spiritual life.
In the Renaissance this interest was continued, but now greatly extended by numerous references to the classical authors who were seen as the fount of all wisdom. In encyclopedias like Conrad Gesner's History of Animals, for example, animals were described together with the meanings of their names in every language, the proverbs associated with them, what they symbolise to pagans and to Christians, and all other conceivable connections with other aspects of the natural world and with human life. Initially they were just collected, but later writers like Aldrovandi wove these associations into detailed webs that were described in a series of huge volumes on birds, insects and animals.
This emblematic world view, as it has been called, came to a rather sudden end around 1650. The new voyages of discovery brought back a whole range of previously unknown animals that had no emblematic meaning, so they could not be described in the old way. People became critical of the old stories about animal behaviour and began to ask whether they were true, not what was their spiritual meaning. Francis Bacon summed up the new empirical attitude to nature, and rejected the idea that it is a complex of signs revealing God's plan, or a web with hidden meanings. Thereafter the main concern was to describe the natural world as accurately as possible, to seek what is true (Ashworth, 1990).
The sciences of biology and geology received great stimulus through the voyages of discovery in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. For the first time the continents were accurately mapped, and specimens of exotic plants and animals were brought back to Europe by the discoverers themselves and by those that followed them. Botanical gardens were established in university cities such as Oxford, Paris, Bologna, Padua and Valencia, and zoological gardens followed soon after.
The great success of Newtonian physics deeply impressed scientists working in quite different areas such as biology and geology. With Newtonian science modern science had come of age, and it became the paradigm of science, in indeed of all intellectual endeavour. It was optimistically hoped that, by applying the methods of physics, all other sciences could be brought to the same level of achievement.
Among the first fruits of the application of physics to biology and geology were the estimates of the age of the earth, and these differed very widely, as described in the next section.
Faced with this wealth of new information, scientists like Linnaeus tried to reduce it to order by classifying all living things into species, families and genera, together with many more refined categories. It then became natural to ask how it all came about. Was each species separately created by God, or are they all somehow related to each other? This immediately raised theological questions concerned with the interpretation of Genesis that are still with us today.
The idea that all living things are related received powerful support when Darwin put forward his theory of evolution in his book on The Origin of Species. Initially he accepted the general view that each species was separately created, but his experiences on his voyage on the Beagle gradually convinced him that this was untenable.
The scientific debate on biological and geological questions soon became entangled with theological considerations and engaged the attention of many of the finest minds of the time. Many of the scientists, impressed by the success of Newtonian physics and Darwinian biology, came to believe that ultimately science could solve all problems, rendering religion superfluous. Men like Spencer and Huxley, and later on Bradlaugh and Wells, were very active in propagating such views, often described as scientism. Christians naturally fought back, and a confused and influential debate ensued, which continues today.
The application of physics to geology made possible the first crude estimates of the age of the earth. By measuring the salinity of rivers and oceans, for example, one can estimate how long it would take to build up the concentration of salts in the ocean today. In a similar way one can estimate how long it would take for a river to carve out a valley. Such calculations gave times of the order of billions of years. This timescale was supported by estimates of the time it would take for species to evolve from primitive forms to the great diversity we see today.
The age of the earth can also be estimated by purely physical methods, and these gave very much shorter times, of the order of a hundred million years. These were obtained, notably by Kelvin, by calculating the gravitational and thermal energy of the sun. The resulting times were far too short for the geologists and biologists.
This conflict between the geologists and biologists on the one hand and physicists on the other was eventually solved by the discovery of radioactivity, which provided an additional source of heat that could prolong the life of the sun to times similar to those required by the geologists and biologists. Subsequently in 1935 Bethe identified the cycles of nuclear reactions that provide the energy of the sun by building up helium from its constituent nucleons.
Additional problems were posed by the fossils found in many rocks. They seemed to be the remains of living creatures, and thus had to be assigned an age greater than that of the rocks where they were found.
All this evidence required times much longer than indicated by a literal reading of the Bible. This raised the problem of the interpretation of the Bible, which is particularly acute for those who accept it as the sole rule of faith. They are inevitably faced with the unpalatable choice between rejecting science or finding a different way to interpret the Bible, which has no justification on their own principles. Those however who recognise that the Church has authority over the interpretation of the Bible, since it was the Church that gave us the Bible in the first place, have no such problems.
The vast multiplicity of living things poses two problems, firstly can they have developed from non-living matter, and secondly can the more developed forms of life have evolved from the simpler forms. There are two extreme views on this, the first being that each different type of living form is directly created by God and the second that there is a continuous development from non-living matter to man without any Divine action whatsoever.
In 1877 Haeckel declared that when the chemical components of the cell are suitably united, they 'produce the soul and body of the animated world, and suitably nursed, become man'. He concluded, 'With this single argument the mystery of the universe is explained, the Deity annulled and a new era of infinite knowledge ushered in.' Since he made no attempt to describe how this can come about, statements like this are just wishful thinking with no scientific basis whatsoever.
The sheer complexity of living organisms, or even of some of the molecules essential for life, makes it difficult to see how they could be formed just by the blind operation of natural forces. Detailed calculations by Lecorute de Nuoy and others showed how extremely unlikely it was that this could have taken place as the result of random forces. Such arguments appealed to some Christians, as they seemed to offer a scientific proof of the need for the Deity. This is however a dangerous argument, invoking what is sometimes called the God of the Gaps to explain what is beyond current science. The danger is that the further advance of science may provide a perfectly natural explanation. The argument then collapses and God's activity is more and more restricted as science advances. If one encounters a difficulty in understanding some aspect of the natural world it should be tackled scientifically and not used as an argument for the Deity. God is necessary to explain the whole process, not just one aspect of it.
Indeed considerable progress has been made towards understanding the origin of life. In 1952 Miller exposed a mixture of water, ammonia, methane and hydrogen to ultraviolet light produced by an electric discharge, and after a week found amino acids in the solution. It is also very likely that further steps in the process take place via substructures, and it is much more likely that these can be formed than that the whole cell comes together from its constituents in one step. Thus while the problem of the formation of simple living organisms has yet to be solved, considerable progress has been made, and it would certainly be unwise to say that it will not one day be fully understood.
The situation is similar for the origin of species. Darwin postulated that the large variations we see are the result of very many small variations, some of which are preferentially selected because they improve the organism's chance of survival. This idea was very attractive, because it provided a possible way to understand the obvious similarities between individuals of neighbouring species. There are however serious difficulties. Firstly, very long times are needed, but this was eventually shown to be possible as described in the last section. Secondly, it was not clear how the differences arise in the first place. Thirdly, Darwin's explanation could possibly work for relatively small changes such as the celebrated evolution of the horse, but it was far from clear how it could explain, for example, the development of the first bird.
In spite of these difficulties the theory of evolution is held by biologists, at least as a working hypothesis, because it provides a possible way to understanding, whereas the alternative of special creation is scientifically barren. As the years go by, substantial advances are indeed being made. Unknown to Darwin, the Austrian monk Gregor Mendel was already laying the foundations of genetics which immediately answered one of his greatest difficulties. More recently, the work on DNA has shown the chemical structure of the genes, and we can begin to glimpse how the process of evolution could have taken place. We need not follow the details here, as our main purpose is to study the relation of these developments to religious belief. To do this we first consider the key question of the interpretation of the Bible, in particular the first chapter of Genesis, and then recall the legendary encounter between Wilberforce and Huxley. The following section summarises the views on evolution of a leading churchman, Cardinal Newman, and the final section considers those of the Creationists.
The first chapter of the book of Genesis is perhaps the most familiar text of the Bible, and also the most fundamental. It describes the creation of the world and all that is in it, including man. It is also the text that has given rise to the most controversy, and it is a perennial source of difficulty, if not scandal. It frequently happens that young people are brought up believing literally in the Biblical story of creation and then, when they read the scientific account, reject the Bible as naive and false. Thus Einstein in his autobiography recalled that he abandoned his early religious beliefs at about the age of twelve when he realised that many of the stories in the Bible cannot be true. Furthermore, the Abbe Michonneau, a worker priest, found that the apparent conflict between the six-day creation story was more effective in alienating the working classes from the Church than their social injustices.
When interpreting the Bible it is necessary to recognise its vital spiritual message, but in a way that takes full account of scientific findings. It is thus important to recognise that there are obvious internal inconsistencies if the creation story is read as literal history. Thus the sun was created on the fourth day, whereas light appeared on the first day, and plants, that need the sun's light, on the third day. Indeed, the whole idea of creation taking place in a few days is simply ridiculous compared with the millions of years that we know from extensive scientific studies are necessary for the evolution of the universe from the primeval explosion to the present day.
And yet, despite this, the Biblical account of creation has retained its power down the ages. We should analyse just what it is trying to say and how it is saying it. How authentic is it? To whom is it addressed? Is it really an historical and scientific account of what actually took place? These and related questions have to be answered before we can read Genesis with full understanding.
The Bible was given to us by the Church, and its infallibility is guaranteed by the infallibility of the Church. It is indeed literally true, but this means that it is true, not in a superficial verbal sense, but in the sense that it is intended by God to be true.
Superficially, it seems that Genesis describes creation as taking place in six days. If a day is taken the normal sense, it is clearly contrary to the scientific account of the evolution of the universe from the Big Bang about ten to fifteen billion years ago, followed by the formation of stars and galaxies and the solar system, and then the geological and biological evolution over hundreds of millions of years. Unless one is prepared to accept theological absurdities such as supposing that God created rocks complete with fossils, this implies that the word 'day' does not have its usual meaning; perhaps then it can mean some extended cosmological epoch.
This possibility has inspired many efforts over the centuries to establish a concordance between Genesis and our scientific knowledge of the evolution of the universe. The initial command 'Let there be light' can be identified with the Big Bang and the following 'days' with the stages of cosmological evolution. Many prominent scientists have remarked on the close correspondence between Genesis and scientific findings. Thus Arno Penzias, one the discoverers of the cosmic background radiation that provided the strongest evidence for the Big Bang, has said that 'the best data that we have are exactly what I would have predicted, had I nothing to go on but the five books of Moses, the Psalms, the Bible as a whole.' Victor Weisskopf declared that 'the Judeo-Christian tradition describes the beginning of the universe in a way that is surprisingly similar to the scientific model'.
Such attempts to reconcile Genesis and science have a superficial appeal, but they are fundamentally misleading. Not only do they gloss over many inconsistencies, but more importantly they are based on a fundamental misunderstanding of the purpose of Genesis, which is to teach us truths essential for our salvation, not to provide an historical or scientific account of the evolution of the universe.
The Bible is addressed to people of all ages, with very different cultural background and very different levels of knowledge. To be understood, its meaning must be essentially simple and does not require sophisticated intelligence, let alone modern scientific knowledge, for its understanding.
Genesis contains three inter-related themes, concerning God the Creator of all, God the worker and God the Creator of mankind, the summit and purpose of creation. These convey timeless spiritual truth that establish the foundations of our life on earth.
God is the creator. At a particular instant, the beginning, He created the world, effortlessly, immediately and out of nothing. He is solely responsible for His creation. It is entirely distinct from Him, and is entirely dependent on Him, so that without His conserving power it would immediately lapse into nothingness. Because it is created by God, it is essentially good.
God is a worker, so in describing creation Genesis provides a model for man, that he should work for six days and rest on the seventh. God did not tire or need to create in stages, or to rest, but we have to labour and then must rest.
God is the creator of mankind. He did not need to create, but did so out of love. He created man in His image and likeness, with the power to love God or to reject Him. He gave man power over all creation,and commanded him to exercise this power responsibly, as a careful steward.
These basic truths are conveyed rhetorically, not historically. To emphasise God's creative power, it is first of all stated that he created heaven and earth, that is everything, and then the main parts of creation are listed, to emphasise that God created everything. He began, like any worker, by creating the light, so that He can see what he is doing. Then he creates the roof of the world, nearer to the heavens, and afterwards the earth with the land and the sea. On the next two days He created the ornaments of the heavens, the sun and the stars, and then the ornaments of the earth, the birds and the fishes. On the sixth day He created man, and the animals that are subject to him, and on the seventh day He rested.
This account emphasises the creative power of God and provides a model for man to follow. Although superficially it may appear to be an historical account, to interpret it in this way is to fail to recognise its literary genre. It is enough to recall the contradictions already mentioned to see that it is rhetorical and not historical. The 'days' are not our days, or even historical epochs. Still less is it a scientific account, in spite of ingenious attempts to correlate the Genesis account with the latest astronomical theories. Genesis was written to teach us truths necessary for salvation, not scientific knowledge that we can find out by ourselves. Furthermore, any such attempts are always liable to be undermined by further discoveries. The perspective of the Bible is higher than any scientific world view, however sophisticated, and this guarantees its perennial validity.
The story of the debate between Samuel Wilberforce the Bishop of Oxford (Soapy Sam) and T.H. Huxley at a meeting of the British Association in Oxford on 30 June 1860 is very well-known. During this debate, Wilberforce tried to pour scorn on Darwin's "Origin of Species" and was vanquished by Huxley, whose scientific sincerity humbled the insolence and obscurantism of Soapy Sam. Thus the pretension of the Church to dictate to scientists what conclusions they could reach was decisively defeated and the autonomy of science affirmed.
The encounter is described in the October 1898 issue of Macmillan's Magazine, in an article entitled "A Grandmother's Tales": 'I was happy enough to be present on the memorable occasion at Oxford when Mr. Huxley bearded Bishop Wilberforce. There were so many of us that were eager to hear that we had to adjourn to the great library of the Museum. I can still hear the American accents of Dr. Draper's opening address, when he asked 'Air we a fortuitous concourse of atoms?' and his discourse I seem to remember as somewhat dry. Then the bishop rose, and in a light scoffing tone, florid and fluent, he assured us that there was nothing in the idea of evolution: rock pigeons were what rock pigeons had always been. Then, turning to his antagonist with a smiling insolence, he begged to know, was it through his grandfather or his grandmother that he claimed descent from a monkey? On this Mr. Huxley slowly and deliberately arose. A slight tall figure stern and pale, very quiet and very grave, he stood before us, and spoke those tremendous words -- words which no one seems sure of now, nor I think, could remember just after they had been spoken for their meaning took away our breath, though it left in no doubt as to what it was. He was not ashamed to have a monkey for an ancestor; but he would be ashamed to be connected with a man who used great gifts to obscure the truth. No one doubted his meaning and the effect was tremendous. One lady fainted and had to be carried out: I for one, jumped out of my seat; and when in the evening we met at Dr. Daubeney's, everyone was eager to congratulate the hero of the day.'
Several other accounts tell much the same story, and some express regret that contemporary accounts are so few. However they do exist, and they tell rather a different story. There are two reports of journalists who were actually present, and neither reported the 'tremendous words' of Huxley. In a letter he wrote to Darwin the next day, Hooker made no mention of them.
There was certainly a vigorous debate. Interest in Darwin's ideas was high, and the Bishop of Oxford had strongly opposed the idea that men may be descended from apes. He was supported by many of the most distinguished scientists including Professor Owen and Sir Benjamin Brodie. Darwin could not come because of illness, so it fell to Huxley to defend Darwin's views. Wilberforce had already written a review of Darwin's Origin of Species that was mainly devoted to a scientific assessment of the theory. He made clear that its truth should be judged objectively, and emphasised that he had 'no sympathy with those who object to any facts or alleged facts in nature, or an inference logically deduced from them, because they believe them to contradict what it appears to them is taught by Revelation. We think that all such objections savour of a timidity which is really inconsistent with a firm and well-trusted faith'. It is thus very difficult to cast Wilberforce and an authoritarian cleric trying to throw doubt on genuine scientific observations.
According to the report in The Athenaeum, Wilberforce maintained that the facts are insufficient to justify the theory, so that 'Darwin's conclusions were an hypothesis, raised most unphilosophically to the dignity of a causal theory'. He noted that some of the greatest names in science were opposed to the theory. There was not one observed case of one species changing to another. Finally, he concluded 'by denouncing it as degrading to man, and as a theory founded on fancy, instead of upon facts.' He did not reject Darwin's theory because its implications for the nature of man were unacceptable; he showed its falsity and then, and only then, did he express some satisfaction. He claimed that the hypothesis of the survival of the fittest is false and failed to account for some well-known facts, such as the absence in the geological record of any case of one species developing into another, whereas the permanence of specific forms is an established fact. Darwin explained this as due to the extreme imperfection of the geological record, and this was later shown to be the case, but in 1860 it was quite reasonable to point out the gaps in the evidence, and to argue that Darwin's idea was a conjecture and not a well-supported theory.
Darwin acknowledged the force of Wilberforce's criticisms, and set about meeting them, pointing out that they were unreasonably stringent in view of the inevitably doubtful nature of the evidence. Underlying the discussion were two view of scientific theories, the one saying that nothing must be accepted unless it is established beyond doubt and the other that we must use the best theory available, even if it is imperfect and apparently fails to account for some of the evidence. When one is in the dark, faint light is better than no light at all.
At the time of the debate, Wilberforce could and did claim that the greatest names in science agreed with him, although at least two of them, Lubbock and Hooker, expressed their disagreement. Evolution could not be proved, but it was more than a hypothesis. As Huxley observed, no one objected to the wave theory of light because the undulations had never been observed. The great merit of the theory of evolution is that it was the best explanation of the origin of species available. It provided an explanatory scheme and a method of interpreting and unifying a vast range of data. Its great appeal was the way it enabled so many facts to be organised in a coherent and intelligible way. This was why it was soon adopted by the majority of scientists in the following years. It was then found that many of the factual objections were answered as new data were obtained, though some of the most serious difficulties still remain.
It is then easy to see how the disagreement underlying the famous debate came about. Wilberforce was alarmed by the apparent theological implications of the theory, but criticised it on scientific grounds, as it would not have been acceptable to attack a scientific theory on theological grounds. It was not difficult to criticise it scientifically, and in doing so he was supported by most of the scientists of the time. Huxley, ironically enough, frequently emphasised the duty of scientists never to go beyond what is definitely proved by the evidence. On this occasion, however, he abandoned that unduly restrictive view, and supported evolution as the best available theory.
This provides an example of the influence of our beliefs on our scientific thinking. Wilberforce the bishop was concerned by the apparent implications of evolution for the nature and dignity of man. Huxley disliked ecclesiastics and wanted to keep them, and indeed all he considered to be amateurs, out of the debate. There was thus a strong underlying tension and, as usual in such situations, both protagonists went rather too far. The real encounter was thus quite different from the dramatised version forming the legend (Lucas, 1979).
It is instructive to contrast with high drama of the encounter between Wilberforce and Huxley with the views of Newman. In an entry in his Philosophical Notebooks, dated 9 December 1863 he reflects: "There is as much want of simplicity in the idea of the creation of distinct species as in that of the creation of trees in full growth, whose seed is in themselves, or of rocks with fossils in them. I mean that it is as strange that monkeys should be so like men with no historical connection between them, as the notion that there should be no course of history by which fossil bones got into rocks. I will either go the whole hog with Darwin, or, dispensing with time and history altogether, hold not only the theory of distinct species but also of the creation of fossil-bearing rocks. If a minute was once equivalent to a million years now relatively to the force of nature, there would be little difference between the two hypotheses."
In this passage, Newman is not concerned to consider the detailed scientific arguments for and against the theory of evolution. He does not see it as his duty to argue for or against the theory. Instead, he simply remarks that in its overall sweep it is far more plausible than the belief in special creation a few thousand years ago, a view that is still vigorously propagated now. Such creationists, having rejected the authority of the Church as the Divine interpreter of Scripture, are trapped by the superficial meaning of the words, which inevitably leads them to a position that is antithetical both to theology and to science.
Newman believed that the Creator lets His work develop through secondary causes, which have imparted "certain laws to matter millions of ages ago, which have surely and precisely worked out, in the course of these long ages, those effects which He from the first proposed". In a letter to Pusey, he addresses the same question: "If second causes are conceivable at all, an Almighty Agent being supposed, I don't see why the series should not last for millions of years as for thousands." Thus, "Mr Darwin's theory need not be atheistical, be it true or not; it may simply be suggesting a larger idea of Divine Prescience and Skill."
This is not of course to say that Newman concurred with all Darwin's views. By 1871 Darwin had been a rank materialist for over thirty years, although he concealed it to avoid controversy. In particular, Newman was clear about what should lie behind talk about chance as the causative agent in evolution. In a letter to Mivart he emphasised that chance is not a cause, because "what seems chance must be the result of existing laws as yet undiscovered". In another letter he expressed his view that "a theist did not necessarily have to hold that "the evolution of living beings is inconsistent with divine design", adding that "it is accidental to us, not to God."
There are many Christians, particularly in the USA, who hold that the Bible is literally true in the direct verbal sense of the words. This led Archbishop Ussher to say that the world was created, essentially in its present form, about 6000 years ago. It was thus created in such a way that scientists would deduce from their observations that it had an immensely longer history. The fossils of fishes found in some rocks do not indicate that many millions of years ago fishes lived in primeval seas; rather the rocks with fossils inside them, were directly created by God created a few thousand years ago. Creationists who hold such views do indeed recognise the power of the Creator, but they do it in a way that is radically unscientific. Their secular opponents attack their belief in Creation, and the Creationists respond by attacking science. Both have grasped one aspect of the truth, but reject the other. It is vital to hold together both truths, namely the Creation of all by God, and the scientific discoveries that have shown us how the world has developed over the ages since the instant of Creation.
W.B. Ashworth, Natural History and the Emblematic World View. Ch.7 in Reappraisals of the Scientific Revolution. Ed.D.C. Lindberg and R.S. Westman, Cambridge, 1990).
J.H. Brooke, Science and Religion. Cambridge, 1991.
L. Eiseley, Darwin's Century. Scientific Book Guild, 1959.
C.S. Gillespie, Genesis and Geology. Harper, 1959.
B. Hedley, Evolution and Faith. Sheed and Ward, 1931.
G. Himmelfarb, Darwin and Darwin's Revolution. Chatto and Windus, 1959.
S.L. Jaki. Chesterton, A Seer of Science. Illinois, 1986.
S.L. Jaki, Miracles and Physics. Christendom Press, 1989.
P. Kitcher, Abusing Science: The Case Against Creationism. Open University, 1983.
J.R. Lucas, "Wilberforce and Huxley: A Legendary Encounter." The Historical Journal 22.2.3 13. 1979.
J.H. Parry, The Age of Reconnaissance. Mentor, 1963.
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