In 2009, the world marked the 200th anniversary of the birth of Charles Darwin, the bushy-bearded biologist known for being the first to articulate the theory of evolution by natural selection. His tome On the Origin of Species, published in 1859, forever changed how people think about their place in the world. But despite near-universal scientific acceptance of his theory, if Darwin were alive today he would find himself surrounded by enemies, particularly among religious believers in the United States.
The relationship between Darwinism and religion has long been a troubled one, but the two haven’t always necessarily been foes. When Darwin’s theories were first published, in fact, many religious thinkers responded positively. The Harvard botanist and deeply committed Christian Asa Gray was a steadfast supporter of Darwin, while the well-known Presbyterian theologian James McCosh suggested that evolution was merely the process by which God created life. Of course, more theologically conservative Christians in both the U.S. and Britain were opposed to Darwin from the beginning—in 1874, Charles Hodge, another Presbyterian thinker, published a book that rejected Darwinism on the grounds that it left no room for a benevolent God.
But it wasn’t until the appearance of modern fundamentalist Protestantism around the turn of the 20th century that things really got hairy. Dwight L. Moody, an influential evangelist preacher from Chicago, helped coax the controversy out of the halls of academia and into the pews of America’s churches, where pastors harangued their congregations to stay faithful to the Bible. As the 20th century progressed, more and more leaders took up the crusade, and Darwinism proved to be a key factor in the split between liberal and fundamentalist Protestantism.
The most important arena for the struggle between conservative Christianity and Darwinian theory turned out to be the public educational system. In 1925, the politician William Jennings Bryan, concerned that Darwinian theory might lead to a decline in morals, inspired the Tennessee legislature to outlaw the practice of teaching that humans evolved from lower animals. When the American Civil Liberties Union offered to pay the legal expenses of anyone who would teach Darwinian evolution anyway, a small-town educator named John Scopes took them up on the offer.
At the ensuing trial, popularly known today as the “Scopes monkey trial,” the defense called Bryan to testify. The renowned public speaker was skewered on the witness stand, finally admitting that there were factual inconsistencies in the Bible and appearing flustered as he spoke. This led to widespread mockery of Bryan in newspaper reports—and good press for evolutionary theory. Bryan died unexpectedly in his sleep a few days after testifying. John Scopes was found guilty, but soon afterwards the Tennessee Supreme Court overturned the conviction—though on constitutional grounds rather than for any reasons connected to the merits of evolutionary theory.
Things have remained rocky for Darwin in the American educational system ever since that time. In the years following Scopes, both Mississippi and Arkansas passed similar anti-evolution laws, and many local school districts throughout the country refused to purchase books that included evolutionary theory. Some states that did not ban the teaching of the theory outright voted instead to condemn it, meaning that teachers who brought up Darwinian evolution knew they were in unfriendly territory.
Although such laws and ordinances have since been annulled by court decisions such as 1968’s Epperson v. Arkansas, Darwinism is still a hot topic in school districts and school boards around the United States. In recent decades, a new challenge to Darwinism, the theory of “intelligent design,” has emerged. Thinkers such as William Dembski and Michael Behe, who assert that some biological adaptations, such as the flagellum of certain bacteria, are too complex to have evolved without the guidance of an intelligent agent, champion intelligent design.
In Dover, Pennsylvania, the local school board voted in 2004 to include material on intelligent design in its biology curricula. Several families sued, and a legal melee resulted as the press and interested parties descended on the town to attend the trial and testify as witnesses. In the end, the judge ruled that the Dover School Board’s policy was tantamount to endorsement of religious beliefs. He ordered the board’s policy revoked, and the verdict was widely seen as a damaging blow to the intelligent design movement, which often downplays its religious overtones.
So why the big feud between religion and evolution, anyway? Well, writers and scholars have a hard time precisely defining the word “religion,” but one thing everyone can probably agree on is that religion helps people to make meaning out of their lives. Researchers have shown that things like partaking in rituals, praying, meditating, and reading religious literature help people to feel as if they live in a world that has order and purpose—a “cosmos” rather than a “chaos.”
But the Darwinian explanation for life doesn’t offer a whole lot in the way of order or purpose. In fact, the Darwinian world is pretty chaotic, and that’s the whole point. According to evolutionary scientists, evolution is driven by random genetic mutations that make creatures either more or less “fit,” or likely to reproduce successfully in a given environment. In other words, there’s no direction to evolution. It just happens. This means that humans, along with every other form of life, are the products of a random, opportunistic accumulation of parts and adaptations, a blind process. Evidence for this view is found in evolutionary quirks like the human knee, which is famously prone to injury and often used as an example of bad design. Since the knee is composed of parts that our ancestors used for walking on all fours, its structure isn’t perfect.
Furthermore, the quest for meaning, whether religious or not, isn’t just about finding purpose; it’s also about feeling as if the world is a decent place. But evolution seems to fail us here, too. Theodicy, or the problem of evil, becomes a bigger thorn in our side than ever when the natural world is looked at through the lens of Darwinian theory. Vicious struggles for existence, selfish concern for one’s own genes, the massive amount of waste and death—all these unpleasant byproducts of evolution seem to point to a world that is uncaring, heartless, and oblivious to suffering.
Thus, while fundamentalist Christian groups and other religious foes of Darwinism might claim that their objections stem from their readings of Scripture, it’s easy to wonder whether many people are simply horrified at the prospect of living in the world Darwin describes. If religion is a tool for creating meaning in life, Darwinism often seems like an instrument for taking it apart. It can also be misused to justify highly competitive behavior and even racist public policy, such as the eugenics movements of the early 20th century.
In spite of numerous moral and existential objections, though, the facts seem to fit the theory—in other words, evolution happens. It seems, therefore, that Darwinian theory will dominate our understanding of the natural world for the foreseeable future, and both religious and secular thinkers need to find ways to integrate it into a coherent story of who we are as human beings.
As Darwin’s 200th birthday recedes behind us, the legacy he left continues to raise as many questions as it answers.