HOME

 

 

    NEWS

INTERVIEWS

RESOURCES

ABOUT

View by:

 SUBJECT

 THEME

QUESTION

  TERM

 PERSON

   EVENT

Darwinism Comes to America

When the first copies of Charles Darwin’s Origin of Species reached American ports late in 1859, nearly all Americans, including most naturalists, believed that the various species of plants and animals owed their origin to divine intervention. Darwin, in contrast, argued that species had originated without supernatural assistance by means of natural selection and other biological mechanisms. According to natural selection, evolution occurred when organisms possessing certain advantageous characteristics survived in the struggle for scarce resources and passed their distinctive features on to their descendants. Eager for a scientific (that is, natural) explanation of origins and impressed by the cogency of Darwin’s argument, the majority of America’s leading zoologists, botanists, geologists, and anthropologists within fifteen years or so embraced some kind of evolution, though few attached as much weight to natural selection as Darwin did. Even Darwin’s closest ally in North America, the Harvard botanist Asa Gray, who described himself as "one who is scientifically, and in his own fashion, a Darwinian," disagreed with Darwin on several key points. He not questioned the ability of natural selection "to account for the formation of organs, the making of eyes, &c.," but appealed to a "special origination" in explaining the appearance of the first humans. He also urged Darwin, without success, to attribute to divine providence the inexplicable organic variations on which natural selection worked.

While naturalists debated the merits of evolution and the efficacy of natural selection, religious leaders typically sat on the sidelines, many of them doubting that the evolution would ever be accepted as serious science. By the mid-1870s, however, American naturalists were becoming evolutionists in such large numbers that theologians could scarcely continue to ignore the issue. Some liberal Protestants, such as James McCosh, the president of Princeton University, sought ways to harmonize their doctrinal beliefs and their understanding of the Bible with evolution, often viewing evolution as simply God’s method of creation. Most theologians and clergy, however, rejected evolution, especially of humans, or remained silent on the subject. In 1874 Princeton Theological Seminary’s Charles Hodge, arguably the most influential theologian in mid-century America, published a thoughtful little book called What Is Darwinism? The answer: "Darwinism is atheism," because it denies divine design in nature. More frequently, theological critics focused on the ways in which evolution undermined various biblical doctrines and ethical teachings, especially by teaching that humans had been made in the image of apes, not God. Particularly offensive was Darwin’s assertion in The Descent of Man (1871) that "Man is descended from a hairy quadruped, furnished with a tail and pointed ears." Such a pedigree, complained one outraged Christian, "tears the crown from our heads; it treats us as bastards and not sons, and reveals the degrading fact that man in his best estate—even Mr. Darwin—is but a civilized, dressed up, educated monkey, who has lost his tail."Ronald L. Numbers, Darwinism Comes to America (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1998), Chapter 1, "Darwinism and the Dogma of Separate Creations: The Responses of American Naturalists to Evolution."...

 Email link | Printer-friendly | Feedback | Contributed by: Dr. Ron Numbers

Topic Sets Available

AAAS Report on Stem-Cells

AstroTheology: Religious Reflections on Extraterrestrial Life Forms

Agency: Human, Robotic and Divine
Becoming Human: Brain, Mind, Emergence
Big Bang Cosmology and Theology (GHC)
Cosmic Questions CD-ROM Preview...
Cosmic Questions Interviews

Cosmos and Creator
Creativity, Spirituality and Computing Technologies
CTNS Content Home
Darwin: A Friend to Religion?
Demystifying Information Technology
Divine Action (GHC)
Dreams and Dreaming: Neuroscientific and Religious Visions'
E. Coli at the No Free Lunchroom
Engaging Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence: An Adventure in Astro-Ethics
Evangelical Atheism: a response to Richard Dawkins
Ecology and Christian Theology
Evolution: What Should We Teach Our Children in Our Schools?
Evolution and Providence
Evolution and Creation Survey
Evolution and Theology (GHC)
Evolution, Creation, and Semiotics

The Expelled Controversy
Faith and Reason: An Introduction
Faith in the Future: Religion, Aging, and Healthcare in the 21st Century

Francisco Ayala on Evolution

From Christian Passions to Scientific Emotions
Genetic Engineering and Food

Genetics and Ethics
Genetic Technologies - the Radical Revision of Human Existence and the Natural World

Genomics, Nanotechnology and Robotics
Getting Mind out of Meat
God and Creation: Jewish, Christian, and Muslim Perspectives on Big Bang Cosmology
God, Humanity and the Cosmos: A Textbook in Science and Religion
God the Spirit - and Natural Science
Historical Examples of the Science and Religion Debate (GHC)
History of Creationism
Intelligent Design Coming Clean

Issues for the Millennium: Cloning and Genetic Technologies
Jean Vanier of L'Arche
Nano-Technology and Nano-ethics
Natural Science and Christian Theology - A Select Bibliography
Neuroscience and the Soul
Outlines of the Science and Religion Debate (GHC)

Perspectives on Evolution

Physics and Theology
Quantum Mechanics and Theology (GHC)
Questions that Shape Our Future
Reductionism (GHC)
Reintroducing Teleology Into Science
Science and Suffering

Scientific Perspectives on Divine Action (CTNS/Vatican Series)

Space Exploration and Positive Stewardship

Stem-Cell Debate: Ethical Questions
Stem-Cell Ethics: A Theological Brief

Stem-Cell Questions
Theistic Evolution: A Christian Alternative to Atheism, Creationism, and Intelligent Design...
Theology and Science: Current Issues and Future Directions
Unscientific America: How science illiteracy threatens our future
Will ET End Religion?

Current Stats: topics: >2600, links: >300,000, video: 200 hours.