Thursday, 6 June 2013

Evolution's Christian Defenders

The fact of an evolutionary origin of the species has not been seriously challenged for over 100 years. Multiple independent lines of evidence from fields as diverse as biogeography, embryology, comparative anatomy, palaeontology and molecular biology provide overwhelming evidence for the reality of common descent and large scale evolutionary change. The evolutionary biologist TR Gregory notes that:
In The Origin of Species, published in 1859, Darwin cited independent lines of evidence such as the biogeographical distribution of species, homology of structure, the occurrence of vestigial organs and atavisms, and the already well established process of extinction as all pointing to a conclusion that species have changed over time and are connected by descent from common ancestors. Through the force of Darwin’s argument and the mass of supporting data he presented, it was not long before the contemporary scientific community came to acknowledge the historical reality of evolutionary descent.

Over the past 150 years, this initial list has been supplemented by countless observations in paleontology, comparative anatomy, developmental biology, molecular biology, and (most recently) comparative genomics, and through direct observations of evolutionary change in both natural and experimental populations. Each of thousands of peer-reviewed articles published every year in scientific journals provides further confirmation (though, as Futuyma…notes, “no biologist today would think of publishing a paper on ‘new evidence for evolution’ ... it simply hasn’t been an issue in scientific circles for more than a century”). Conversely, no reliable observation has ever been found to contradict the general notion of common descent. It should come as no surprise, then, that the scientific community at large has accepted evolutionary descent as a historical reality since Darwin’s time and considers it among the most reliably established and fundamentally important facts in all of science.[1]
Gregory’s statement is representative of the overwhelming number of mainstream professional biologists and palaeontologists who unlike religiously motivated laypeople are the best placed people to comment authoritatively on the subject. A 2009 survey by the Pew Research Center shows that only 2% of American scientists are creationists.[2] This number, small as it is, includes scientists from all disciplines, not just the life and earth sciences, and therefore includes those without any professional expertise in biology or geology and who are likely unaware of the evidence against the position they hold. Their acceptance of special creation carries no more significance than that of a molecular biologist who denies general relativity or an electronics engineer who does not accept plate tectonics.

 The number of working biologists and geologists who deny evolution is significantly lower than 2%. Answers in Genesis maintains a list of scientists[3] who believe in creation, of whom less than half – 95 out of 195 – are earth and life scientists. The others are philosophers, engineers, physicists, mathematicians and other professionals whose denial of evolution carries no more weight than that of an educated layperson. Considering that there are approximately ten million scientists in the US alone, the percentage of life and earth scientists that are creationists is vanishingly small, and indicates that well over 99% of the working scientists whose professional life makes them the best placed people to comment authoritatively on the age of the earth and the solidity of the evidence for large scale evolutionary change. This makes the creationist claim that evolution is a “theory in crisis” difficult to defend, when only a tiny percentage of scientists whose opinion is relevant to the subject reject evolution.
Creationists often assert that evolution and atheism are synonymous, based on the vocal advocacy of atheism by biologists such as Richard Dawkins and Jerry Coyne. What creationists neglect to mention is that evolution is accepted by many working biologists and palaeontologists who are also conservative Christians. Notable examples include Francis Collins, medical geneticist and current head of the National Institutes of Health (evangelical), Brown University cell biologist Kenneth Miller (Catholic) and invertebrate palaeontologist Simon Conway Morris (Anglican). All three are active in showing that evolutionary biology is not inconsistent with Christian faith, and are hardly alone in being conservative Christians in science who accept evolution.
Further undermining the assertion that evolution and atheism are inextricably paired is the fact that many of its early defenders were Christians whose support for evolution was not based on any capitulation to an atheist zeitgeist, but on the solidity of the evidence in favour of it:

Darwin’s cause in America was championed by the thoroughgoing Congregationalist evangelical Asa Gray, who set himself the task of making sure that Darwin would have “fair play” in the New World. Let us be clear right away that this cannot be dismissed as capitulation to the social pressure of academic peers. To the contrary, Gray had to take on one of the most influential naturalists in America at the time to maintain his viewpoint – none other than Louis Agassiz, a Harvard colleague who vitriolically scorned Darwin’s theory.

But Gray was not alone. Many of his countrymen, associates in science and brothers in religion took the same stand. And indeed even those who ultimately remained unimpressed with if not hostile to Darwin were quite prepared to admit that evolution had occurred. It is surely not without significance that Christian botanists, geologists, and biologists – that is to say, those best placed to see with clarity the substance of what Darwin had proposed – believed the evidence supported an evolutionary natural history. [4]

Not only conservative Christian scientists such as Asa Gray, but conservative theologians like B.B. Warfield accepted evolution, and saw no essential conflict between evolutionary biology and Christian faith, provided it did not become a substitute for creation, but the method by which creation occurred. In fact, Warfield noted that evolution made the racialist polygenic theories extant in the 19th and early 20th centuries untenable. With respect to the 19th century scientist Louis Agassiz’s endorsement of polygenic theories, he said:
It was in connection with Nott and Gliddon's "Types of Mankind" that Agassiz first published his theory of the diverse origin of the several races of man, the only one of these theories of abiding interest because the only one arising from a genuine scientific interest and possessing a really scientific basis. Agassiz's theory was the product of a serious study of the geographical distribution of animate life, and one of the results of Agassiz's classification of the whole of animate creation into eight well-marked types of fauna involving, so he thought, eight separate centers of origin. Pursuant to this classification he sought to distribute mankind also into eight types, to each of which he ascribed a separate origin, corresponding with the type of fauna with which each is associated. But even Agassiz could not deny that men are, despite their eightfold separate creation, all of one kind: he could not erect specific differences between the several types of man. The evidence which compelled him to recognize the oneness of man in kind remains in its full validity, after advancing knowledge of the animal kingdom and it geographical distribution has rendered Agassiz's assumption of eight centers of origination (not merely distribution) a violent hypothesis; and the entrance into the field of the evolutionary hypothesis has consigned all theories formed without reference to it to oblivion. Even some early evolutionists, it is true, played for a time with theories of multiplex times and places where similar lines of development culminated alike in man (Haeckel, Schaffhausen, Caspari, Vogt, Büchner), and perhaps there is now some sign of the revival of this view; but it is now agreed with practical unanimity that the unity of the human race, in the sense of a common origin, is a necessary corollary of the evolutionary hypothesis, and no voice raised in contradiction of it stands much chance to be heard. [5]

Warfield’s refusal to dismiss evolution is significant given his status as one of the premier conservative Protestant theologians of the late 19th and early 20th century, whose work defending the inspiration of the Bible is still cited today. He also contributed to The Fundamentals, the collection of essays which defended orthodox Protestant theology against modernism and became the foundation of the Fundamentalist movement.

Widespread acceptance of the fact of evolution – if not Darwin’s proposed theory of natural selection –  by 19th century Christian biologists and geologists, as well as cautious endorsement of it by notable conservative Christian theologians runs counter to any naïve special creationist belief that conservative Christianity has been implacably opposed to evolution since Darwin’s book was published in 1859. In fact, the supreme irony is that some of the contributors to The Fundamentals saw no essential problem with evolution as a mechanism of creation.

R.A. Torrey, who served as one of the editors of The Fundamentals remained sceptical about evolution, but did not regard it as incompatible with orthodox Christianity:
While I am not an evolutionist in any sense, I have known men intimately who were as sound on the Scriptures and on all fundamental doctrines of our faith as I am who were at the same time evolutionists. I think they are mistaken, but I can see how a man can believe thoroughly in the absolute infallibility of the Bible and still be an evolutionist of a certain type.[6]

James Orr, the Scottish Presbyterian minister and theologian wrote explicitly in favour of some form of God-guided evolution in his contribution to The Fundamentals:

In his “Science and Christian Faith” essay, Orr also proposed a resolution to the apparent conflict between biological evolution and the Bible. Significant evidence points to “some form of evolutionary origin of species—that is some genetic connection of higher with lower forms,” but he thought that this change was limited (without specifying how limited). He also argued that God directs the mechanisms of evolution toward purposeful ends. “Evolution,” he concludes, “is coming to be recognized as but a new name for ‘creation’ …”[7]

In fact, there existed among the contributing authors to The Fundamentals a range of opinion on evolution ranging from rejection of universal common descent to acceptance of it, with the exclusion of humanity.[8] Furthermore, what strikes the contemporary reader is that contributing authors such as George Frederick Wright were making the same criticisms of Darwinian Theory that other contemporary scientists were making, without necessarily attacking the fact of evolution. Reas again comments:
Wright argued that “modern evolutionary speculations have not made much real progress over those of the ancients.” He especially noted the lack of success of Darwin’s proposed mechanism of natural selection acting on random variations, which, indeed, historians of late have shown to have been temporarily eclipsed by neo-Lamarckian and other goal-directed mechanisms around the turn of the twentieth century  Wright concluded that “design” is still detectable in evolutionary change, but he was vague about how much common ancestry he deemed to be well documented (he also changed his mind about this subject a few times during his career).[9]

This reluctance was well-founded, as Darwin’s theory of natural selection suffered from not having a robust theory of inheritance. While Mendel had published his work on inheritance, it remained obscure until the early 20th century, and Darwin never incorporated it into his theory of natural selection. Instead, Darwin advanced his ‘pangenesis’ hypothesis to explain how heredity worked. It never received significant support, and was invalidated by experimental work carried out by Francis Galton. As heredity was assumed to involve a blending of maternal and paternal characteristics, critics of natural selection correctly noted that under such mechanisms of inheritance, advantageous changes would quickly be blended out of the population, while others argued that intermediate forms would be maladaptive. The force of such criticisms prompted Darwin to make many changes to his 5th and 6th editions, but despite this, natural selection was not regarded by the majority of biologists as the major mechanism behind evolutionary change and by the turn of the century had fallen out of favour.[10]

Scepticism towards natural selection as the main mechanism of evolutionary change never translated to a wholesale rejection of the fact of large-scale evolutionary change. Special creationists quite often forget that Darwin had two aims in mind when he published the Origin of Species. The first was to show that evolution had occurred, and the second was to advance a mechanism to explain that evolutionary change. Darwin was fairly clear about his aims. In an 1863 letter, he pointed out:
Whether the naturalist believes in the views given by Lamarck, or Geoffroy St.-Hilaire, by the author of the ‘Vestiges,’ by Mr. Wallace and myself, or in any other such view, signifies extremely little in comparison with the admission that species have descended from other species and have not been created immutable; for he who admits this as a great truth has a wide field opened to him for further inquiry.[11]

while in “The Descent of Man”, Darwin noted:
Some of those who admit the principle of evolution, but reject natural selection, seem to forget, when criticising my book, that I had the above two objects in view; hence if I have erred in giving to natural selection great power, which I am very far from admitting, or in having exaggerated its power, which is in itself probable, I have at least, as I hope, done good service in aiding to overthrow the dogma of separate creations.[12]

It is against this background that one needs to read the cautious acceptance of evolutionary biology by late 19th and early 20th century evangelical Protestant Christianity. Some freely accepted the evidence in favour of an evolutionary process, but like their scientific colleagues were not impressed with natural selection as the mechanism for evolutionary change. Over 150 years have passed since the first edition of the Origin of Species and as Gregory noted[13] the evidence for large scale evolutionary change and common descent from multiple independent lines of evidence is overwhelming. Too many special creationists are still fighting a 19th century battle in criticising Darwin’s theory of natural selection, oblivious to the fact that the evidence for common descent was considered overwhelming over 100 years ago.

Support for evolution among evangelicals dropped precipitously after the First World War. One of the reasons was the perceived evolutionary justification for German militarism:
Torrey documented how numerous German intellectuals and military leaders had justified German military aggression based on Darwinian principles in early twentieth-century publications. Although recent scholarship has shown that authors like Torrey and William Jennings Bryan (of the Scopes trial) overestimated the direct line of influence from Darwinism to the outbreak of World War I, there remains a substantial case for social Darwinism as one of the significant factors that led to the war. Torrey did not recognize one glaring counterexample to his thesis: some Darwinists were pacifists. But, ironically, the reason for such pacifism usually hinged upon the objection that, in modern wars, the wrong people were being killed—Europeans rather than allegedly inferior non-European races.[14]

Misuse of evolutionary biology by social Darwinists no more invalidated the fact of evolution than similar abuse of Christianity by racialists seeking to place a divine imprimatur on regressive institutions such as slavery. Unfortunately, that distinction was lost (and continues to be blurred today) on the post-WW1 evangelical community. Reas again notes:
Some evangelical leaders had defended theistic evolution up to World War I, but this support dwindled among evangelicals and fundamentalists after the Great War. Although evangelicals had long argued that higher criticism in the hands of liberal theologians (those assuming naturalism in varying degrees) had corrupted our understanding of the book of God’s words (the Bible), now there was a growing concern that scientific naturalism had degraded our knowledge of the book of God’s works (nature). There was also increasing evidence that the domain of the two books significantly overlapped, particularly in disputes about the value (or repudiation) of war and of the sanctity of each individual human life.[15]

In the wake of the First World War, fundamentalists began to organise themselves to defend orthodox Christianity from what they perceived to be its two most critical threats: Darwinism and higher criticism. Interestingly, while Torrey had made no secret of his belief that Darwinism motivated German military aggression, he did not regard evolution as the most important challenge facing Christians, regarding Biblical inerrancy and the literality of the resurrection of Christ as the crucial issues. One of the reasons behind this was his recognition that evolution had not been defined with precision, making dogmatic claims about it premature:
Neither side define [sic] with accuracy just what they mean by “Evolution,” and the ardent advocates of Evolution, having given what they consider conclusive proof of the fact of an Evolution of a certain character, at once assert that they have proved the doctrine of Evolution in an entirely different sense. There is a similar confusion, though not so frequent or so gross, on the part of those contending against Evolution. No one should write either for or against Evolution without a careful definition of just what he means by Evolution.[16]

Keas argues that Torrey did not support the fundamentalist attempt to turn the 1925 Scopes Trial into a cause célèbre. Whether this is a correct reading of Torrey does not detract from the fact that the Scopes Trial led  to a significant disengagement from science, and arguably left it susceptible to the young earth creationism and flood geology ideas advanced by the Seventh Day Adventist school teacher and amateur geologist George McReady Price, and later adopted by Henry Morris in the 1940s.

The tragedy here for the intellectual reputation of evangelical Christianity is that during the first half of the 20th century, the forging of the Modern Evolutionary Synthesis answered many of the questions about the legitimacy of natural selection as a mechanism of evolutionary change that 19th century Christians had (legitimately) posed. At the time Ronald Fisher, Sewall Wright and JBS Haldane were successfully reconciling Mendelian genetics and natural selection, the Evangelical Christian community was disengaging from its earlier critical interaction with modern science and retreating to a defensive obscurantism. Furthermore, the acceptance of mainstream geological positions on the age of the earth became progressively abandoned due in no small part to the influence of George McReady Price’s ideas, which ironically, given the Fundamentalist desire to maintain traditional evangelical Protestant doctrine, were strongly influenced by his Seventh Day Adventist theological leanings.

To summarise: after an initially promising start, evangelical Protestant Christianity became less and less comfortable with evolution, and by the first half of the 20th century was overtly hostile towards it. The second half of the 20th century not only saw opposition to evolution become firmly entrenched in the evangelical Protestant mainstream, but young earth creationism and flood geology supersede the more traditional gap and day-age old earth creationist positions. Only recently has the evangelical Protestant world begun to re-engage with evolutionary biology, palaeoanthropology and other academic fields directly related to the biological origin of the species.[17]

Christadelphians have never officially supported evolutionary biology, but like the evangelical Protestants of the 19th and early 20th centuries, there was an acceptance of mainstream geological teaching on the antiquity of the Earth, and the scientific illegitimacy of citing the Genesis Flood as the mechanism behind the deposition of the sedimentary deposits and fossils. John Thomas in Elpis Israel invited his readers to consult the geological literature for more information on the history of the Earth, while Robert Roberts in The Visible Hand of God not only supported a geologically local flood, but used the biogeographical distribution of life to argue against a global flood. Both writers were expressing ideas that were entirely uncontroversial in the educated evangelical Protestant community of the 19th century.

Unlike the evangelical Protestant world of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, there has never been any official acceptance of an evolutionary origin of the species. Unfortunately, the trend towards flood geology and young earth creationism has been followed with various degrees of enthusiasm by the Christadelphian community to the point that trends such as “creation evangelism” have been uncritically accepted by some, while Roberts and Thomas have been chided by some young earth creationist Christadelphians for accepting the overwhelming scientific evidence [18] for the great antiquity of the Earth:

The Truth in the last days was revived by Dr. John Thomas, but in his ground breaking work, 'Elpis Israel', he makes an unfortunate concession and surrender to the uniformitarian interpretation of the fossil evidence of his time, subsequently imbuing the 'Brotherhood' with a completely wrong old earth bias.

Robert Roberts, a Christadelphian pioneer, believed in a local flood only, confined to the Mesopotamian region. He embraced the uniformitarian belief that fossil evidence supported "millions of years", and that all animals only existed on the continents where their remains are found today, and that extinct species came from a "Pre-Adamic creation".[19]

Thomas did not make any 'unfortunate' concessions as some extreme YEC Christadelphians allege, but rather accepted what was readily apparent to educated Christians of the early 19th century, namely the great antiquity of the Earth. This, it needs to be pointed out, was well before Darwin's Origin of Species was published in 1859. Many of the pioneering geologists were in fact devout Christians - their motivation for accepting an ancient earth was scientific. Roberts likewise accepted an old earth based on the evidence. His advocacy of a local flood came from the simple fact that the biogeographic distribution of species was not what you would expect if every single animal spread out from Mt Ararat. It is not a little disappointing to see this deprecation of the open-minded attitude of the early Christadelphians, coupled with the uncritical endorsement of the rank pseudoscience of special creationism. [20]

Creation evangelism is a needlessly provocative strategy, as it risks courting a negative response from defenders of mainstream science who are increasingly active in countering creationism. Some frankly embarrassing encounters have been recorded on-line and serve as a record of the inadvisability of making attacks on evolutionary biology a staple of public lectures. [21] Not only do these ill-advised and poorly-informed attacks on evolution serve to alienate scientifically literate potential converts to our faith, they run the risk of destabilising the faith of young believers who enter higher education and discover for themselves how solid the evidence for evolution really is, as well as the threadbare nature of special creationist arguments.

Darwin's Christian contemporaries accepted evolution because the evidence for common descent, even in the 19th century was regarded as solid. Early Christadelphians may not have accepted evolution, but they accepted not only the great antiquity of the Earth, but the evidence for progressive change in the fossil record over time. It is this open-minded attitude towards science that we need to emulate. As TH Huxley put it:
Sit down before fact as a little child, be prepared to give up every conceived notion, follow humbly wherever and whatever abysses nature leads, or you will learn nothing.
This article first appeared on the Facebook page Evolutionary Creationism: A Christadelphian Perspective


[1] Gregory TR Evolution as Fact, Theory and Path Evo Edu Outreach (2008) 1:46-52

[2] Pew Research Center (2009)


[4] Livingstone DN “Darwin’s Forgotten Defenders” (Eerdmans 1984) p xi-xii

[5] Warfield BB On the Antiquity and the Unity of the Human Race The Princeton Theological Review, volume 9 number 1 (January 1911) pages 1-25

[6] Dr. R. A. Torrey Replies to Dr. O. E. Brown,” a letter from R. A. Torrey [to the editor, James Gray], October 2, 1925, sent from his South Pasadena home, published in the Moody Bible Institute Monthly 26 (December 1925): 161–2. Cited in Keas M.N. “Darwinism, Fundamentalism and R. A, Torrey” Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith (2010) 62

[7] Keas, op cit. p 37

[8] loc cit.

[9] loc cit.

[10] Julian Huxley coined the term “eclipse of Darwinism” to describe the period from the late 19th century to the early 20th century – approximately 50 years – when natural selection was relegated to a minor role as the mechanism of evolutionary change. The main alternatives included theistic evolution, neo-Lamarkianism, orthogenesis and mutationism. Theistic evolution (not to be confused with the term used to describe Christians who accept the fact of evolution) postulated divine intervention as the mechanism for evolutionary change. Neo-Lamarkianism argued that inheritance of acquired characteristics drove evolution, while advocates of orthogenesis claimed that life evolved according to laws of development that drove it towards specific goals or end-points. Mutationism was the belief that large mutations were responsible for the creation of species. Natural selection returned to the scientific mainstream when Ronald Fisher, Sewall Wright and JBS Haldane created population genetics, the fusion of Mendelian genetics and natural selection and showed that the former did not invalidate the latter. Population genetics was one of the fundamental pillars of the Modern Synthetic Theory which was forged during the first half of the 20th century, and effectively rehabilitated Darwinism.

[11] Darwin CR. Origin of species [Letter]. Athenaeum 9 May: 617; 1863.

[12] Darwin C. The descent of man, and selection in relation to sex. (London: John Murray; 1871.)

[13] See ref. 2

[14] Keas, op cit. p 39

[15] loc cit.

[16] R. A. Torrey, Is the Bible the Inerrant Word of God, and Was the Body of Jesus Raised from the Dead? (New York: George H. Doran, 1922), vii. Cited in Keas, p 41-42

[17] The BioLogos Foundation, established by the medical geneticist and former head of the Human Genome Project is “committed to promoting a perspective on the origins of life that is both theologically and scientifically sound.” See

[18] Dalrymple G.B. "The Age of the Earth" (Stanford University Press, 1991)


[20] An excellent resource for debunking the claims of special creationism can be found at the TalkOrigins archive Other resources include the American Scientific Affiliation, a network of Christians working in the sciences as well as the UK-based Christians in Science The BioLogos Foundation, created by former head of the Human Genome Project Francis Collins, also seeks to disabuse Christians of the belief that evolution and Christianity are incompatible.

[21] A critical review of an anti-evolution lecture given by John Bilello, an emeritus professor in the Department of Materials Science and Engineering at the University of Michigan can be found at the Panda’s Thumb weblog. The retired freshwater ecologist John Hellawell, who like Bilello has written books and articles supportive of special creation, has also had one of his anti-evolution lectures savagely criticised. One of the regular contributors to The Young Australian Skeptic Forum likewise critically reviewed a creationist lecture by Peter Islip which was given at a local school hall. In response to a letter written by one of the forum members, the school principal wrote back to acknowledge that allowing an anti-evolution lecture to be given at a high school auditorium was “an administrative oversight” that would “not happen again.” This is nothing other than a public relations disaster for the Christadelphian community, and shows that making anti-evolution lectures a staple of preaching campaigns is something that we can ill afford.