charles darwin's jubilee year
Darwin and the Theory of Evolution have been stumbling blocks for many Christians since 1859. Much of the criticism from the churches has been unfair. In fact Darwin has much to tell us on our faith journey.
In 1842 London Zoo acquired an exciting new inhabitant, Jenny the Orang Utan. One person who went to visit her was the youthful Queen Victoria. The Queen was not amused! She found Jenny “frightfully and painfully and disagreeably human”. By coincidence, in the very same year Jenny was visited by the young naturalist, Charles Darwin. Darwin commented: “Man in his arrogance thinks himself a great work. More humble - and I believe true - to consider him created from animals”.
Darwin was born in 1809 and published his most important work, The Origin of Species, in 1859. This year therefore is a double jubilee, being 200 years since his birth and the 150th anniversary of the Origin.
Although his reputation as a scientist has never diminished, Darwin has often been viewed as an enemy of Christianity, responsible for many scientists and many other educated Westerners lapsing into agnosticism. His achievement as the great protagonist of Evolution has been demonised especially by fundamentalist Christians in the United States, who demand that school curricula include the teaching of Creationism alongside - or in place of - courses in biology which teach Darwinian evolution.
The assumption is that what Darwin held is incompatible with belief in a Creator God and with the Genesis account of the origins of life, in particular the creation of the human species.
Another commonly held 'myth' is that Darwin did all his discovering and theorising when he was a young man; but then, such a storm broke out about evolution - especially the Descent of Man - that he retired into obscurity and even underwent a deathbed repentance for his 'blasphemy'. This is nonsense. It is true that the famous voyage of the Beagle, which provided much of the evidence for evolution, took place when he was in his early 20s. He was the naturalist on board, and the voyage took nearly five years of his life (1831-36).
In 1839 he married Emma Wedgwood (one of the famous Wedgwood clan who were also his near relatives) and settled down to a happy, sedate and stable family life, living close to London in Kent. He never left Britain again. Yet for the next 40 years he continued unwearyingly as a practical naturalist, and his discoveries led to many weighty publications.
Even if he had never written the Origin or dreamt up the theory of natural selection, he would still be celebrated for the astonishing variety of these discoveries. For instance, he wrote what is still the standard work on barnacles. He investigated in immense detail the ways in which plants pollinate. He discovered - long before anyone knew about plant hormones - how plants move. He was a pioneer of soil science and demonstrated the immense contribution of the lowly earthworm to soil health and fertility. And much besides.
why was the idea of evolution so shocking?
Darwin didn't invent the theory of evolution. The notion that species might change had been floating around among scientists for generations. The science of geology had advanced rapidly during the early years of the 19th century. The geologist Sir Charles Lyell brought together a host of field observations into a unified scheme of the succession of sedimentary rocks.
It was clear that the process of development of the landscape had taken thousands, if not millions of years - far far longer than the supposed 6000 years since the date of Creation, according to a timetable proposed in 1650 by the Anglican Archbishop of Armagh, James Ussher. Moreover, field geologists had unearthed a huge array of fossilised remains of animals and plants mostly extinct. Darwin read Lyell's book on board the Beagle, and after his return to England they became close friends.
What Charles Darwin did was to bring all this evidence - from rocks and fossils, from the variety of species, from embryology, even from the way plant and animal breeders developed new strains of stock - together into a single, coherent theory. Eventually, it also included his own speculation - at that time based on scanty evidence - of the origins of the human race. His thesis was that all living forms are related and have a common primeval origin.
Darwin also proposed a mechanism, natural selection, whereby the evolution of new species had taken place. In some respects this was - and still is - the most contested part of this theory. If new species evolve out of old ones purely through competition for survival - the survival of the fittest - it all appeared very brutal and impersonal. It seemed as if the Creator God was being relegated further and further from our world.
what darwin achieved
Charles Darwin's crowning achievement, scientifically, was to transform 'natural history' into a science - and into a single science with many interrelated branches.
Imagine a jigsaw puzzle with lots of pieces and no accompanying picture. This was the challenge facing 19th Century biologists at the time of Darwin. You could say that Darwin guessed what the picture might look like, and then set about placing as many pieces as he could find to fit. He left plenty of gaps - “missing links”, as his opponents called them.
That his picture of the 'puzzle' was right has never been more certain than today. Literally thousands of those links have been unearthed in the fossil record - many of which trace a complex web of origin for hominids and the precursors of modern Homo Sapiens. In recent times a fascinating source of evidence has been provided by examining the DNA of different species, which clearly confirms which are closely related and which are distant.
evolution and Genesis
Where does all this leave the Seven Days of Creation described in Genesis 1 and the story of Adam and Eve? Every civilisation has developed its myths to help people understand where they fit in the scheme of creation, and how they relate to the earth itself. We have to accept that the Genesis account is simply one of these myths, even though it contains much theological truth.
Catholic theology has no major difficulty in accepting this. The documents of Pope Pius XII, and subsequent Popes, on Biblical scholarship have encouraged Catholic scholars and commentators to use all available resources to help illuminate the Word of God. Recognising the various genres in which the Bible is written is one of those resources.
Thus the Catechism of the Catholic Church states simply that “God created the visible world in all its richness, diversity and order” (CCC 337); “nothing exists which does not owe its existence to God the Creator” (CCC 338); that “each creature possesses its own particular goodness...” (CCC 339); and that all creatures are interdependent (CCC 340). The Catechism also asserts the beauty of the Universe (CCC 341) and that the 'six days' of Genesis describe a hierarchy in the order of creation (CCC 342) culminating in the creation of human beings on the final day (CCC 343). with the idea that the living world as we know it has developed gradually over millions of years from very simple origins to the complexity of species we know today. Human beings are part of this picture. It was the genius of Darwin to compile the evidence for the evolution of species and to propose a mechanism.
our debt to darwin
Before Darwin it was easy enough for believers to envisage God as like a divine clockmaker who fashioned the Universe, gave it precise laws and left it to proceed under its own steam with just the occasional miraculous intervention. This is a totally static, uninspiring picture, and for the most part it relegates God to a distant presence - like the author of a book.
The Darwinian view introduces us to a natural world which is quite different. There is no need to postulate divine intervention for the evolution of each new species. Darwin showed that the natural variations found within any species, the isolation of populations and the need for a species to adapt to their environment would provide the causality necessary for a new species to evolve.
It is a wonderful picture that the great naturalist presents to us. Indeed the beauty and complexity of the story are far more compelling reasons for believing in God than the static view that it replaces. God is no longer remote, but is totally within the process. It readily prompts in us a sense of wonder and awe. Darwin furnished abundant evidence to support a comprehensive belief in divine providence.
Darwin was a consummate observer, but also a highly intuitive thinker. It is this combination which elevates him to the pantheon of the great. The 20th Century Jesuit scholar and palaeontologist, Teilhard de Chardin, is of the same ilk. Teilhard spent much of his life in China, investigating the fossil remains of primitive hominids, in particular the discovery and investigation of Sinanthropus, the so-called 'Peking man'. Like Darwin, he reflected and wrote prolifically on what he had seen in the field.
He suggests in L'Avenir de l'homme that there is a direction and divine purpose in evolution. Cosmic evolution reaches its peak in the development of the human person. Within human history the coming of Christianity is central. The ultimate goal of the development of the cosmos is what he calls 'Christogenesis'. What Teilhard is doing is to bring together organic evolution and St Paul's doctrine that all things are brought to their ultimate fruition in Christ.
The Vatican was bewildered by the profundity of Teilhard's speculations, and in 1962 issued a monitum warning the faithful not to accept his theories uncritically. Cardinal Feltin of Paris however applauded Teilhard for his “global vision of the universe wherein matter and spirit, body and soul, nature and supernature, science and faith find their unity in Christ.”
Another priest who has a similar global vision is the American Passionist Thomas Berry. Berry carries Teilhard's vision a step further. (He also notes one serious limitation of Teilhard: that he fails to take note of the destructive impact on our modern world of industrial civilisation. But then who did, in the 1930s?)
In Berry's eyes the primary sacred community is the Universe itself. Every being and every community becomes sacred by participating in that basic community. Humans today are a geological force in their own right, so much so that the Earth community has arrived now at a pivotal moment in planetary evolution. But let Berry tell this for himself (see interview below, with Ram Dass).
We may see this modern consciousness of the supreme importance of ecology and the fatal impact of modern civilisation as the ultimate fruit of Darwinism. Darwin taught us to take account of the evolving natural world. Modern thinkers like Teilhard and Thomas Berry have extended this horizon to encompass the whole physical world. There is a world soul with which we must learn to live in harmony. The whole earth is a sacred place. The whole cosmos is the dwelling of God. Humans must learn to become sacred by living in harmony with this world - or they will self destruct. (Michael Hill)
groping toward our ecozoic future
thomas berry, in dialogue with ram dass
Ram Dass: When I started to read your writings, I came across the term “dysfunctional cosmology”. It was such an apt phrase for the way in which I'm experiencing the world in which I live.
Thomas Berry: Well, most peoples have their life patterns and their norms of action, their ideals and their values rooted in some kind of a cosmology. It's a story of how things came to be in the beginning and how they come to be now - the direction in which human affairs should go. And as long as the cosmology functions well, there is a basis for dealing with human situations. But when there is a disassociation from the cosmology, then the whole basis of meaning begins to change.
Ram Dass: The universe is the revelation. In other words, this is a living Bible and we just have to learn how to read it. But we not only have to learn how to read it, we are part of the Bible itself. We've got to read ourselves.
Thomas Berry: We must understand the earth as a sacred reality: the trees as sacred, the rivers, the mountains. We live - everything lives - in everything else. Every atom lives in every other atom. I think that's one of the wonderful discoveries that we have now from science.
You see we are at the terminal phase of the Cenozoic, the last 65 million years. We're not just passing into another historical period, or another cultural modification: we are changing the chemistry of the planet. We are changing the biosystems. We're changing the geosystems of the planet on a scale of hundreds of millions of years. But more specifically, we're terminating the last 65 million years of life development.
So where do we go from here? To my mind we go from the terminal phase, if we survive it, into a really sustainable world. We will be passing from the terminal Cenozoic into what I call the Ecozoic. We have to learn that the universe (and in particular planet Earth) is a communion of subjects, not a collection of objects.
All the beauty of the universe we see about us came into being without human consultation. But it will never again function the way it functioned previously in the Cenozoic period, the last 65 million years, because during the 65 million years in which wave-on-wave of life expansion took place, humans had nothing to say about it. In the future, whereas the humans cannot make a blade of grass, there's liable not to be a blade of grass unless humans accept it, protect it and foster it.
Humans will have to provide a support system for many of the living forms that prior to our times made it on their own. Now the ideal should be that we should enable them to be on their own, that we should withdraw the human interference as much as possible.
Ram Dass: The changes that humans are bringing about are a breakdown of the present system. It's a transformation but also a breakdown, a loss.
Thomas Berry: We have lost our rapport with these governing forces of the planet. Now we are into what I would consider an unworkable industrial plundering society that is at a dead end. Industrial society, industrialisation can be done once; it cannot be maintained, nor can it ever be done again - for three reasons:
- first, psychic energy. When we put all this up, we were fascinated with the bright side of things. We saw only the benefits. We didn't see the disadvantages.
- second, finance. We couldn't even begin to build the New York subway system now. Our roads are breaking up faster than we can repair them. We've taken on ourselves an enormous burden. Right now, the whole industrial world is bankrupt. We can't do anything now because of our three trillion dollar debt, going fast up to four trillion dollars. I can remember when in 1928 the US national debt was eight billion dollars. (NOTE: this was written in 1991, not 2009)
- third, the diminishment of natural resources. The oil is running out. Everything we do now is dependent on oil. Our food, our clothing, our instruments, our transportation, everything. We are at an impasse and that we can't cure this by more technology in the sense of genetic engineering, refinement of computers and all that.
Ram Dass: The Technozoic Age isn't going to work.
Thomas Berry: It is not going to work. So we need to move into the Ecozoic. We need to accept life on the conditions that it is granted us. In the Asian world, and particularly India, they deal with life by strengthening the inner world, not by conquering the outer world. We try to deal with life by conquering the outer world, and so the inner world is weakened.
The basic principle has to be a self-limiting use of resources as regards resources, habitat and population. America particularly has to begin to limit consumption.
It is going to happen. We can't avoid a population now of ten billion people. But we are already consuming 40 percent of the gross earth product. If we double that and take 80 percent, then the whole biosystem of the planet will cease to function effectively. There will be a biological collapse.
However, a lot of wonderful things have happened in the last several years. I was much darker ten years ago than I am now.
Ram Dass: What kind of things?
Thomas Berry: There is now a consciousness that nothing is going to work any more unless it claims to be environmentally oriented. The whole ecological disaster is beginning to dawn on people. For example, the Chitco Movement where women went out and stopped the coating of the trees; they realised that their destiny and the destiny of the trees go together.
There is just a fantastic number of people recognising that clothing has to be ecologically made. And everything else, like food. So beginnings have been made. Maybe it's one percent, but beginnings are of that nature.
As soon as we begin to understand the universe in its sacred dimension, then we develop a sense of reverence and concern and identity and sympathy and compassion. There are two ultimate categories for me. One is creativity and the other is celebration. The universe I consider is a single multiform celebratory event. The role of the human is to enter into that celebratory process in a special mode of conscious self-awareness.
Ram Dass: So one is to be a celebratory participant. And that allows you to be peaceful even in the presence of the way in which the human mind has worked thus far. So that is the celebration. What is the other one?
Thomas Berry: Creation. Creativity.
Ram Dass: Well, in a celebratory act, every moment is a creative act, isn't it? The whole thing is creative, there's no stopping creation.
Thomas Berry: The creative is the most important. The geneticist Dubchompsky says, as regards creation being determined or random, “It's neither; it's creative.” And creativity is like a person making a poem. You don't know what it is until it hits you - like a melody. I describe it as a melody. To use Teilhard's word, we are presently groping toward what I call the Ecozoic Period.
I think we are being guided toward a creative response to what has already taken place, that can bring about a lot of healing, and can bring about a new and brilliant phase that will be available for future generations.