This February 12 marks the 200th anniversary of the birth of Charles Darwin, a man whose life and work epitomize the revolutionary implications of knowledge. There will be much discussion of his “dangerous idea”—evolution by natural selection—on this occasion, and appropriately so. Yet we should resist one overwhelming temptation: To frame Darwin as an icon of conflict between science and faith. It’s a hackneyed story, lacking in historical nuance and ultimately running counter to the project of drawing helpful lessons from the life of one of history’s greatest scientists.
It’s difficult to extricate our view of Darwin from the U.S.’s century-long history of evolution battles, or from the fact that nearly half of our citizens reject outright the deep history of the Earth and its living things revealed by Darwin and some of his contemporaries. Gallup polls taken over several decades consistently show that roughly 45 percent of Americans agree with the stunning statement, “God created human beings pretty much in their present form at one time within the last 10,000 years or so.” Meanwhile, some leading evolutionary thinkers—chief among them Oxford’s Richard Dawkins—move more or less directly from their understanding of Darwin’s work to cheerleading for atheism. Science-religion battles seem resurgent today, and it’s tempting to see in Darwin the modern originator of this enduring conflict.
Yet historical research on the relationship between science and religion, including work on the Victorian period and the Darwinian revolution, reveals a very different story. Not only did fundamentally theological ideas—the notion of the “perfect adaptation” of living organisms to their circumstances, for instance—actually help shape Darwin’s theory, but religious beliefs strongly influenced its reception in surprising ways. Who would have thought that several fervent early twentieth century neo-Darwinists right in Richard Dawkins’s beloved Oxford were actually exuberantly pious Anglo-Catholics, who saw in Darwin’s ideas a stick with which to beat back deistic Protestantism?
Which is not to say that science and religion have always held hands. It is surely the case that truculent up-and-comers like Darwin’s so-called “Bulldog,” Thomas Henry Huxley, delighted in using Darwinism to tweak the noses of the Anglican clergy who ran the universities (and much else besides) at the end of the nineteenth century. The point is, surprise!, it was complicated: as the science historian John Hedley Brooke has written, “There is no such thing as the relationship between science and religion. It is what different individuals and communities have made of it in a plethora of different contexts.”
Just look at the science-religion “conflict thesis” itself, born of a pair of American late-nineteenth century books: John Draper’s 1874 History of the Conflict Between Science and Religion, and Andrew Dickson White’s The History of the Warfare of Science with Theology in Christendom of 1896. Context? Draper was a professor of physics in New York who had looked on with horror in 1870 when the Pope made his notorious declaration of papal infallibility. The idea of a pointy-hatted Italian sending unbreakable commands to Irish immigrants gave Draper the creeps. And White? He was the president of Cornell, the first non-sectarian American university, and thus keen to insist that reason itself had to be protected from all spiritual influences.
Indeed, historians have shown a wide range of contemporary responses to Darwin’s work, and many religious thinkers had no problem adapting to it. We often hear about Thomas Henry Huxley’s famously theatrical 1860 Oxford debate against the Anglican bishop Samuel Wilberforce, who rejected Darwin’s idea. Yet we forget figures like the Anglican clergyman Charles Kingsley or the future Archbishop of Canterbury, Frederic Temple, both of whom saw in evolution a new revelation about the Creator’s wisdom and plan.
As for Darwin himself, he was no Huxley. While he famously concluded about religion that “I for one must be content to remain an agnostic,” he was never combative about the relationship between his science and others’ faith. One reason for his sensitivity was his wife Emma’s enduring Christianity. The other was simply his temperament: He was not a fighter. The so-called “New Atheists” today, like Dawkins, who use evolution as their cudgel are certainly not following the example Darwin set in his own life. In a late-life letter to an inquiring philosopher, Darwin sifted from his own master-theory a doctrine of modest caution in the face of the infinite: “you have expressed my inward conviction” he wrote, “that the Universe is not the result of chance. But then the horrid doubt always arises whether the convictions of man’s mind, which has been developed from the mind of the lower animals, are of any value or are at all trustworthy.” Undue certainly was not to be encouraged–in any direction.
When we survey the range of responses to the teaching of evolution in the United States today, we’re not actually so far off from the Victorian period in many ways. We have our atheists who embrace evolution and strongly reject religion (the Huxleys, the Dawkins), our religionists who reject evolution and embrace biblical literalism, and then our vast middle of compromisers and reconciliationists—those who understand the gist of evolution by natural selection, but do not experience that knowledge as a solvent of their religious beliefs. This latter group has no motive to fight the culture war, and we seldom hear from them. But Darwin Day is for them, too–in fact it may be theirs most of all.
D. Graham Burnett is associate professor of history at Princeton University and author of Trying Leviathan: The Nineteenth-Century New York Court Case That Put the Whale on Trial and Challenged the Order of Nature. Chris Mooney is a visiting associate at Princeton’s Center for Collaborative History, author of The Republican War on Science, and the contributing editor to Science Progress.