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Clifford, Anne M. “Darwin’s Revolution in the Origin of Species: A Hermeneutical Study of the Movement form Natural Theology to Natural Selection."

Anne Clifford examines Darwin’s The Origin of Species in relation to nineteenth-century British natural theology. Though the latter was considered a form of science it actually offered a union between science and Christian belief in a creator. Its primary text was nature, not Genesis, and it attempted to provide evidence from nature for God’s sovereignty and purposeful design. Clifford warns us not to let the hegemony that Darwin’s theory now enjoys undercut our interest in natural theology, partly because we would not fully appreciate what Darwin’s revolution accomplished. She sets out to trace that accomplishment, being mindful of the way language in both science and theology, with its metaphorical character, shapes our claims about reality.

Her first move is to challenge the “warfare” model of the relationship between Christianity and Darwin’s theory fostered by Andrew Dickson White and John Draper. Wilberforce’s attack on evolution was actually based primarily on scientific grounds, not on concerns about biblical revelation. He accepted natural selection as a process that weeded out the unfit within a species, but he felt Darwin had not provided sufficient evidence for the evolution of new species. Wilberforce’s argument drew implicitly on Francis Bacon’s earlier distinction between the book of revelation and the book of nature. Though God was the author of both books, the distinction provided scientists freedom from forcing their results to conform to biblical texts. Darwin too drew on the two-books tradition and on a close reading of William Paley, who argued from nature to an intelligent designer. Paley went further than Bacon, though, by discussing nature’s purpose and by moving from purpose to a personal designer and thus to a personal God. He rejected randomness in nature as well as the extinction of species. The Bridgewater Treatises continued this argument, insisting on the fixity of nature and on divine sovereignty which maintains nature and natural laws. These are the actual positions that Darwin’s theory of natural selection would reject.

Data gathered from his voyage on the Beagle triggered Darwin’s “conversion” from natural theology to his theory of natural selection as an account of the variety and mutability of species. Recent discoveries in geology enhanced his account, including the ancient age of the earth and the possibility of sequencing the fossil record. Also contributing was Darwin’s knowledge of animal breeding as well as Malthus’ work on population and resources, with its focus on the struggle for existence. Darwin’s theory of natural selection and its theme of the survival of the fittest broke with natural theology not only in the concept of God as special designer of each separate species, including their direct creation and their immutability, but also with the benevolence of God. Natural theologians, it seems, had been particularly blind to the abundance of suffering and death in nature.

Clifford then analyzes the role of metaphor in science, drawing on the writings of Janet Soskice, Paul Ricoeur, and Sallie McFague. She focuses on two of Darwin’s key metaphors: “the origin of species” and “natural selection.” Darwin’s theory in effect shifted the meaning of “origins” by describing the emergence of new species while bracketing the question of the origin of life as such. He also transformed the meaning of species; rather than fixed and discrete, they came to be seen as fluid, possessing the capacity to evolve. Darwin’s metaphor, “natural selection,” combines meanings drawn from animal breeding by humans and from nature in the wild. It suggests that nature “chooses” and, though Darwin rejected vitalism, he has been read as deifying nature. Clifford also points out that Darwin considered his theory compatible with belief in God, though his personal position seems to shift from belief to agnosticism.

According to Clifford, then, Darwin did not intend a warfare against Christianity, only against natural theology, and here only in the form of a highly rationalistic Christian theism coupled to a limited body of scientific data. He challenged Paley’s watchmaker analogy that assumed a God of radical sovereignty and a passive and static world. What might we find to replace it? McFague proposes the metaphor of the universe as God’s body. Clifford modifies this by suggesting the metaphor of a mother giving birth. It brings together in dynamic tension the reproductive and evolutionary character of nature with the biblical doctrine of God as creator. It is panentheistic, rather than pantheistic, and is, according to Elizabeth Johnson, the “paradigm without equal,” drawing on a wealth of biblical texts for God’s relation to the world. Finally it is compatible with Darwin’s rejection of God as designer, the immutability of species, and it takes up his concern to acknowledge the extent of suffering in nature.

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