On the legacy of Charles Darwin
Charles Darwin’s 200th birthday, and 150th anniversary of the publication of his On the Origin of Species, has provoked a flurry of media discussion on the man, his work, and his influence.
That Darwin was influential is hardly in doubt, nor the fact that his work presented a huge challenge to Christianity. Rick Weiss, in “Darwin and God” (Washington Post), claims that Darwin himself “never took his findings as definitive evidence against the existence of God,” but this conclusion was “read into his work.” As a result, “the man who first grasped biology’s most unifying concept is today widely demonized as an enemy of the church, even as many scientists and others make a similar mistake and invoke Darwin in their rejection of everything theological.”
In a 1959 paper for the Mennonite Graduate Fellowship, John Howard Yoder noted that if a hypothesis such as Darwin’s “has suggested new avenues of investigation and provoked the accumulation of new knowledge,” it has served a real purpose. As one of the “two or three big ideas of the century,” he said, it should receive “positive appreciation.”
In that spirit, we’ve assembled several comments (used with permission) that reflect on aspects of Charles Darwin’s legacy.
Why the “why?”
I came across Richard Dawkins’s latest impassioned plea for evolution this morning via Arts & Letters Daily. Dawkins’s medium this time is a book review (Jerry Coyne’s Why Evolution is True), but those familiar with the world of Dawkins will find little new here. Mostly, it’s the same old tired re-hashing of his war against creationism and all who would resist the idea that evolutionary theory answers all questions worth asking or answering.
And once again, Dawkins gets a little over-excited in his description of what evolution actually is and what it can do: “The evidence is massive, the modern version of the story would surprise and inspire even Darwin, and it cannot be told too often. Evolution is, after all, the true story of why we all exist, and an exhilaratingly powerful and satisfying explanation. It supersedes – and devastates – all predecessors, no matter how devoutly and sincerely believed.”
The true story of why we all exist. Hmmm. Actually, it seems to me that of the (many) things that evolution can tell us, why we exist is not among them. It can trace the causal chain back as far as possible and tell a plausible story of how we have come to exist. It may give us some insight into when and where we first came to exist. It may do a masterful job of describing what exists, in all of its wondrous variety. But it cannot pronounce finally upon why we exist….no matter how desperately Richard Dawkins wishes this were so.
The Bible’s DNA
The Creation narrative in Genesis 1–3 contains the theological foundation of the entire Bible. These three chapters represent the basic theological DNA of biblical revelation. The Creation account, by virtue of the literary genre it represents, was designed to provide the blueprint of a new worldview, an alternative to the Canaanite/Mesopotamian worldview the Israelites had absorbed in 400 years of Egyptian captivity.
The Creation narrative has often been misunderstood or severely curtailed in its use in the church and in society. For instance, it was most aggressively recruited in the late 19th century to challenge Darwinism and it has been used ever since in the evolutionist/creationist debate. Regardless of the merits of that conversation, the Creation story was not primarily designed to combat evolutionism or to determine whether God created the universe in six 24-hour days or in six long periods of history. Though these are critical questions, they remain our questions and not necessarily those the text was written to answer.
It must be said, however, that while the Creation account does not address the theory of natural selection, it does critically challenge some of evolutionism’s worst and most destructive assumptions about the meaning and value of human life.
Pointing to love
When I do science as a Christian, I do exactly the same experiments that would be done by non-theistic scientists. But while they may believe that the laws of nature are godless, impersonal and automatic governors of nature, I am free to believe that they are nothing less than the expression of the faithfulness of God. God is utterly consistent in everything he does. But intelligent design proponents want to put biology back into the realm of mystery and miracle. I think that this is premature. There is a good chance that we can see the faithfulness of God even in the evolution of the cell by natural selection….
Intelligent design proponents should be careful not to abandon naturalistic explanations too quickly because there is good reason to think that God wants the world to be intelligible to us.