Mark Noll on Darwinism

Mark Noll on Darwinism June 3, 2015

Eminent Notre Dame historian Mark Noll has written a pithy and provocative piece for the National Association of Evangelicals on American Christians and science. Here’s an excerpt on the reception of Darwinism:

The Newtonian picture of a static, law-ordered world was breaking down before Charles Darwin published “The Origin of Species” in 1859. Napoleonic warfare, conservative political reaction, industrialization (William Blake’s “dark, Satanic mills”), class conflict and rapid population growth unsettled the social landscape into which Darwin (along with Alfred Russel Wallace) announced his version of evolution. That version made “natural selection” the key (organisms vary, more offspring are produced than can survive, those that survive are better adjusted to their environment for the purpose of survival).

Darwin, who had been reared on Paley’s idea of a creation whose order was transparent to human inspection, thought of his own theory as random purposelessness. By contrast, many theologians and most Christian scientists of the day came to accept some variety of evolution (though not always natural selection), while affirming that it too reflected order and design consistent with a divine creator. Asa Gray of Harvard, who was Darwin’s chief promoter in the United States, always maintained his commitment to traditional Christian supernaturalism while trying to convince Darwin that his theory was compatible with a view of God as creator.

Charles Darwin, photographed by Julia Margaret Cameron. Reprinted in Charles Darwin: His Life Told in an Autobiographical Chapter, and in a Selected Series of His Published Letters, edited by Francis Darwin. London: John Murray, Albemarle Street. 1892. Public Domain.

Responses to Darwin were strongly affected by many factors unrelated to science. Conservative Protestants in Scotland mostly made their peace with evolution, because they accepted a progressive view of human knowledge and were much more worried about destructive biblical criticism. Conservative white Protestants in the American South mostly opposed evolution, because it undercut the biblical literalism that had provided their defense for slavery.

The era of fundamentalist-modernist controversy saw issues of biblical interpretation replace questions of design as the most contested scientific questions. Modernists criticized fundamentalists for defending literal biblical interpretation — for the book of Revelation as well as the book of Genesis. As a result, loyalty to the Bible for many in the United States moved easily into loyalty to a strictly literal interpretation of Genesis 1–3. So strong was this reaction that some even came to question the broad acceptance of an ancient age for the earth that Christian geologists in the 19th century had embraced.

Today the Christian world contains a diversity of opinion on questions related to evolution and considerable controversy over proposed responses to climate change. Ethical questions about the application of science conclusions to genetics and stem cell research can also be controversial. These hot spots also co-exist with a nearly universal acceptance of scientific conclusions and empirical methods in all other areas of life.

Read the whole piece at The Christian Post, or you can download the book When God and Science Meet from the National Association of Evangelicals.


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  • stefanstackhouse

    There is plenty of room for God to hide Himself behind the veil of seeming quantum randomness, and yet to set into motion chains of cause and effect that ultimately govern everything that happens, both the most common and the most improbable. Why would God hide himself in this manner? Because while He has given us enough to make faith possible, He has not and will not give us enough to make faith unnecessary.

    Christians have good reason to accept evolution with a lower case “e”, because we can clearly see the hand of God’s providence within it. Everything that you eat is the product of selective breeding, and without the natural variability of species and their ability to respond to selective pressures, there would have been no neolithic agricultural revolution. Humankind would have been stuck at maybe a few million paleolithic hunter gatherers. Similarly, it is the dynamism of the earth that drives land out of the sea and that drives the great cycles – water, carbon, nitrogen, etc. – upon which all life depends. Without the ability of species to adapt to a changing environment, life on earth would have never lasted this long.

    Evolution with an upper case “E”, however, is a different matter altogether. It is one thing to allow that God has His own ways of doing things that might be different from our preconceptions, and that His way of creation (we are now discovering) involved a long process of branching out of the family tree of life. It is quite another to think that this all happened totally on its own, and totally randomly.

  • Sven2547

    It is quite another to think that this all happened totally on its own, and totally randomly.

    Evolution is highly probabilistic. No evolutionary scientist worth their salt would ever call it “totally random”.

  • James or Not

    Actually, God is not a working hypothesis due to the deep understanding of evolution, big E or small, as a process not in need of God to either begin it nor continue it. Inserting God in the process has literally no meaning and no purpose no matter where you make the attempt. It works just fine, and absolutely coherently without God.

  • Jerry Lynch

    Nice blurb for, er, for…um, what? This is what drives me bonkers about Conservatives: trying to nail jello to a wall. Or the author is utterly neutral and just a sketch artist, looking to identify a thought he once had.