Rescuing Darwin  

Posted by Joe Rawls in

As a somewhat belated recognition of Charles Darwin's 200th birthday, I offer an excerpt from Rescuing Darwin, a monograph by Nick Spencer and Denis Alexander published by
Theos, the British "public theology think tank". The essay documents how the historical Darwin--whose own worldview "evolved" from William Paley-style natural theology to deism to agnosticism--was nonetheless respectful of people holding more traditional religious views; many of these folks had no difficulty accepting his theory of natural selection. This contradicts today's highly polarized situation, in which Darwin has been intellectually fetishized--in wildly different ways, of course--by creationists, intelligent design buffs, and doctrinaire atheists of the Richard Dawkins variety (he's the one to the right of Darwin). The complete monograph is available here, as a PDF file. A hat-tip to Thinking Anglicans for turning me on to it.

The Reception of Evolution in North America

Considering the present American antipathy to the theory, it is ironic that evolution was popularized in North America largely by Christian academics. Foremost among these was Asa Gray, Professor of Natural History at Harvard and a committed Christian. He was Darwin's long-term correspondent and confidante who helped organize the publication of The Origin in America and who had debated the question of evolution and design with Darwin over many years.

Other Christian thinkers were equally supportive. James McCosh was president of the College of New Jersey (later to become Princeton University). Firmly rooted in the Calvinist tradition, McCosh held strongly to the concept of natural selection, but equally strongly to the belief that "the natural origin of species is not inconsistent with intelligent design in nature or with the existence of a personal Creator of the world".

George Wright was a theologian and geologist, whose books on glacial geology were for years the standard texts on the subject. He was not only a vigorous proponent of Darwin, but but believed ..."that Darwin's work actually allies itself with the Reformed faith in discouraging romantic, sentimental, and optimistic interpretations of nature"...

James Dana was professor of Natural History at Yale and editor of The American Journal of Science. He was another American geologist of orthodox Christian conviction who accepted Darwinian evolution...As he commented, "it is not atheism to believe in a development theory, if it be admitted at the same time that Nature exists by the will and continued act of God".

Through the work of eminent scientists such as Gray, McCosh, Wright,...and Dana--scientists who were also serious and committed Christians--Darwinian evolution spread rapidly within US academia and beyond. Indeed, it spread so rapidly that, according to the American historian George Marsden, "with the exception of Harvard's Louis Agassiz, virtually every American Protestant zoologist and botanist accepted some form of evolution by the early 1870's". In the words of the British historian James Moore, ..."with few exceptions the leading Christian thinkers in Great Britain and America came to terms quite readily with Darwinism and evolution".

This entry was posted on Saturday, February 14, 2009 at Saturday, February 14, 2009 and is filed under . You can follow any responses to this entry through the comments feed .


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