Thinking about Evolution – Early Evolutionism and Darwinism

A post in April discussed the connection between the “revolution” in biology and its often neglected metaphysical underpinnings. In this post I want to briefly discuss the development of early theories of evolutionism and the full implications of Darwinism.

Following on from the impact of geological and paleontological discoveries in the early nineteenth century, evolutionary theories challenged the story of human origins recounted in religious traditions and texts. Evolutionism broke down the barrier between humanity spirituality and the mentality of animals. Some of the more materialistic theories of evolution also undermined traditional belief that nature itself is divinely designed and constructed. In the Darwinian theory of natural selection, struggle and suffering are the driving forces of natural development and, hence, the root cause of our own origins.

Despite the ongoing sources of conflict, recent historians have shown that the conventional image of nineteenth-century Darwinism sweeping aside religious beliefs is an oversimplification. The materialistic implications of Charles Darwin’s (1809-1882) theory, for instance, were suppressed by many of supporters and first-generation evolutionists. In the so-called Darwinian “revolution,” evolutionism was popularized only by linking it to the claim that nature is progressing steadily toward higher mental and spiritual states and by making the human species both the goal and the cutting edge of that progressive drive. A sense of purpose was built into the operations of nature itself. This was not Darwin’s view, however.

Early Evolutionism

During the seventeenth century, naturalists believed that the world was created by God only a few thousand years ago. Books such as The Wisdom of God Manifested in the Works of Creation by John Ray (1627-1705) argued that each species was perfectly adapted to its environment because it had been created by a wise and benevolent God. This view was repeated in the Natural Theology of William Paley (1743-1805).

In the eighteenth century, however, the worldview of what would now be called simple creationism was challenged. In part, this was a product of the discoveries made by geologists and paleontologists. The world was clearly much older than a literal interpretation of the Genesis story would suggest. There was increasing evidence from the fossil record that some species had not only become extinct in the course of geological time, but had been replaced by others. Following the work of Georges Cuvier (1769-1832), these conclusions became inescapable.

Even before this, however, materialist thinkers such as Georges Leclerc, Comte de Buffon (1707-1788), and Denis Diderot (1713-1784) had begun to suggest that life could be created on the earth by natural processes and that the species thus produced might change in response to natural forces. By the end of the eighteenth century, Erasmus Darwin (1731-1802) and Jean Baptiste Lamarck (1744-1829) were beginning to suggest comprehensive theories of transmutation in which life had advanced slowly from primitive origins to its present level of development. The adaptation of species to their environments was explained by supposing that individual animals modified their behavior in response to environmental change, and any resulting changes in their bodily structure were inherited.

Radical anatomists began using materialistic theories such as Lamarckian transformism to attack the image of a static, designed universe that sustained the traditional social structure. Thus evolutionism became firmly linked to materialism, atheism, and radical politics. In Britain, however, the anatomist Richard Owen (1804-1892) modernized the view that all species are divinely created by stressing the underlying unity of structure among all of the members of each animal group: The Creator has instituted a rational plan for his universe that could be deciphered by the comparative anatomist.

In 1844, an effort to make evolutionism acceptable to a middle-class audience was made in an anonymously published book, Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation, actually written by Robert Chamber (1802-1871). The book proclaimed a message of progress through nature and human history but attempted to circumvent the charge that transmutationism was atheistic by arguing that progress represented the unfolding of a divine plan programmed into nature form the beginning.

By the 1850s, however, the possibility that the divine plan might unfold through the operation of natural law, rather than by a sequence of miracles, was being taken increasingly seriously even by conservative naturalists such as Owen


In 1859, the situation was changed dramatically by the publication of Darwin’s Origins of Species. Darwin proposed new lines of evidence to show how evolutionism could explain natural relationships, but he also suggested a new and potentially more materialistic mechanism of evolution.

Following the principle of population expansion suggested by the political economist Thomas Malthus (1766-1834), Darwin deduced that there must be a “struggle for existence,” in which any slight advantage would be crucial. Those individuals with variant characters that conferred such an advantage would survive and reproduce, passing the character on to their offspring. Those with harmful characters would be eliminated. This process of natural selection would, thus, gradually adapt the species to any changes in its environment. The philosopher Hertbert Spencer (1820-1903) called it the “survival of the fittest.” As understood by modern biologists, Darwin’s theory implied a branching model of relationships, in which there could be no single goal toward which life has tended to evolve and no inevitable trend toward higher levels of organization.

Conservative opponents to Darwin’s theory correctly pointed out that it not only were humans reduced to the status of animals, but also the natural world that produced us was reduced to a purposeless sequence of accidental changes.

By the 1870s, the vast majority of scientists and educated people had accepted the basic idea of evolution. But in what form did they accept the theory? Was it the radical materialism of the theory of natural selection,or was it a less threatening version of evolutionism, a compromise in which some form of purpose was retained by assuming that natural developments tended to progress toward higher states?

Recent historical work suggests that there was much compromise by all parties. There were, no doubt, conflict between conservatives and radicals. But, in the end, both sides came to accept evolution, and neither wanted a worldview based on nothing but chance and suffering. On the one hand, conservatives argued that evolution represented the unfolding of a divine plan. It was not some haphazard mechanism such as natural selection. On the other, radicals wanted a changing universe based on natural law but assumed that the changes would, in the end, be beneficial and moral. Thus they upheld a teleological evolutionism. In other words, neither side accepted the full implications of Darwin’s theory of natural selection.

Human Origins

One of the more hotly contested issues was the evolutionary origin of the human race. Darwin had been aware from the start of his theorizing that evolutionism would affect our ideas about human nature in a way that would undermine the traditional concept of the soul. His mature views on this issue were eventually presented in his Descent of Man (1871). He argued that many aspects of human behavior are controlled by instincts that have been shaped by natural selection. Our moral values are merely rationalizations of social instincts built into us because our ancestors lived in groups. Prior to Descent Spencer had already proposed an evolutionary psychology, and later evolutionists would build upon Darwin and Spencer’s work to propose a evolutionary sequence of mental faculties ultimately leading in the progress toward mankind. But unlike Darwin these later “evolutionary psychologists” retained some teleology of progress in their sequences.

A few evolutionists, including the co-discoverer of natural selection, Alfred Russel Wallace (1823-1913), were so concerned with the implications of Darwin’s claims that they refused to endorse such views, holding that some supernatural intervention was still required to explain the appearance of the human mind. The Roman Catholic anatomist St George Jackson Mivart (1827-1900) argued that, while the evolution of the human body might be explained naturally, the soul must be a divine creation.

But most stanch Darwinists believed that an ad hoc discontinuity marking the advent of the human spirit violated the “logic” of the evolutionary program, and the image of a distinct human spiritual character was readily abandoned. Those deeply religious evolutionists like Wallace and Mivart would make further concessions, arguing that traditional moral values were not at variance with nature but were built into nature in a way that ensured their emergence in the human mind. Henry Drummond’s (1851-1897) Ascent of Man (1894), for example, presented cooperation, not competition, as the driving force of progressive evolution and implied that the human race was the inevitable culmination of the development of life.

The implications of integrating humankind into nature became apparent only in the early twentieth century, when thinkers began exploring that possibility that the world might not, after all, be evolving toward higher states. Sigmund Freud (1856-1939), for example, built on the idea of evolution to argue that our subconscious thoughts are shaped by instincts from our animal past. The loss of faith in progress precipitated by World War I also helped usher in the fuller implications of Darwinism.

Design in Nature

Many continue to reject, explicitly or implicitly, the Darwinian theory of natural selection in favor of a more purposeful or morally acceptable process. Conservatives wanted to believe that nature still exhibits evidence of design by God, even if individual species were produced by natural law. Radicals too found natural selection hard to accept, arguing for non-Darwinian evolutionary mechanisms, which allowed everyone to believe that there was something more to natural development than mere trail and error. The Lamarckian theory seems to imply a more purposeful evolutionary process because it allowed individual self-improvement to be inherited and implied that purposeful changes in animals’ behavior was the directing agent of evolution.

It was, of course, the opponents of natural selection who first correctly identified its materialistic implications. They saw that in a universe governed solely by random variation and the survival of the fittest, the existing state of nature must be the outcome of trail and error, not of purposeful intention.

The most well-known and effective collection of antiselectionist arguments was Mivart’s Genesis of Species (1870). In this text Mivart’s strategy was to demonstrate that evolution was under divine control.

But for Darwin all aspects of evolutionary process was susceptible to natural explanations. The disparity between his theory and what has become known as theistic evolutionism became evident in a controversy with American botanist Asa Gray (1810-1888). Gray was a stanch defender of Darwin against those who rejected evolution. But in a series of paper collected in his Darwiniana (1876), Gray’s views on design forced him to express doubts about natural selection. He was forced to admit that selection based on random variation seemed to eliminate any real sense of design in nature. According to Darwin, all of the evidence from plants and animal breeders proved that variation was purposeless.

For many evolutionists wishing to retain the belief that nature is somehow the expression of the divine will, Lamarckism seemed to solve the problem highlighted by Gray. Novelist Samuel Butler (1835-1902) wrote that natural selection was a “nightmare of waste and death,” but Lamarckism made life self-creative in a way that fit a more general belief in the purposeful character of nature. Secular scientists also found Lamarckism more acceptable. Whereas the conservatives Lamarckists saw “design in nature,” radical Lamarckists saw the “laws of nature” as the creative force.

Modern Darwinism has now added genetics to its repertoire. In the 1930s, the “modern synthesis” of genetics and Darwinism was constructed, and remains the dominant view of scientific evolutionism. Some modern Darwinians continue to defend the view that evolution is progressive in a way that reflects human values. Julian Huxley (1887-1975), for example, endorsed the theistic evolutionism of Pierre Teilhard de Chardin (1902-1984), accordin to which the development of life is tending toward an “omega point” of spiritual unification. But others have called the human race to “grow up” and realize that the values it cherishes are not respected by nature. George Gaylord Simpson (1902-1984), for example, argued that Darwinism is essentially materialistic: there is no purpose in nature and no goal toward which evolution is striving. In such a view, we are, indeed, products of a cosmic accident.

As scientists began to insist that we must learn to live with the idea that we are products of a purposeless and, hence, morally neutral natural world, so the modern backlash began. Two very different stands of protest can be identified. The most well-known—and popularized by the media—is what is now called creationism. Less well-known is the current of anti-Darwinian thought emanating from both religious and philosophical critics of Darwinism who unite around the claim that the development of life cannot have been brought about by a process as purposeless as natural selection.

Modern religious opposition to Darwinism thus runs the whole gamut from creationism that rejects the traditional scientific explanation of the geological record through more sophisticated versions in which philosophical, moral, and even scientific arguments are ushered against Darwinism. Even the more liberal and radical thinkers who accept a completely evolutionary worldview do so as long as the Darwinian mechanism is marginalized in favor of something that allows for progress and purpose in nature.

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