restricted access Introduction to Darwin and the Selected Texts
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Introduction to Darwin and the Selected Texts JOHN HEDLEY BROOKE The work of Charles Darwin impinged on many aspects of Christian culture.1 Two questions in particular were seen in a new light. Is there a clear line of demarcation between humans and animals, as had often been supposed ? And can scientific advances raise issues that may, or should, affect our moral judgment? For many, Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection, more than any previous scientific innovation, changed perceptions about how these questions should be answered. This was primarily because Darwin’s theory of ‘‘descent with modification,’’ as he described it, postulated a historical continuum between humans and their animal ancestors. There was a deep challenge to the anthropocentric assumptions that had informed so much of Western culture and Christian natural theology in particular.2 On the moral question it was clear to Darwin that the problem of animal suffering had to be taken more seriously, especially given the tortuous, bloodstained trail of evolution. Whereas in the human case suffering had sometimes been rationalized by saying it was conducive to moral improvement, this was not an argument that was obviously applicable to animals.3 There is a well-known irony in Darwin’s biography that he recognized himself. During his time at Cambridge University, which followed an abortive start to a medical career at Edinburgh, Darwin’s intention was to become a clergyman in the Church of England.4 He said of his beliefs at that time that they were ‘‘orthodox.’’ His scientific mentors in Cambridge, John Henslow and Adam Sedgwick, subscribed to a view of the world in which the many adaptations and apparent designs in organic systems were the direct result of divine power and wisdom. The irony is that Darwin later had to endure stinging attacks from members of the clergy (including Sedgwick) for his naturalistic account of the origin of species.5 Darwin himself had gradually given 120 introduction to darwin and the selected texts  121 up the idea of becoming a priest during his five-year voyage on HMS Beagle when he fully exploited the opportunity to study natural history in depth. It is well known that, in South America in particular, Darwin was struck by the similarities between fossil forms and existing species that resembled them. He was staggered, too, by the sheer amount of extinction that could be discerned from the fossil record. Crucially, he was struck by the fact that the species found on islands most closely resembled those of the nearest mainland, from which Darwin supposed they had migrated, gradually to diversify in their new environments. It would, however, be wrong to conclude that Darwin had a ‘‘eureka’’ moment when he visited the Galapagos archipelago because we now know that he initially muddled his specimens of the famous finches, not having anticipated the insight that it would be possible to tell, just by inspecting a tortoise or bird, from which island it came.6 Two elements in Darwin’s biography are particularly significant when considering his religious outlook and how it changed over time. During the Beagle voyage he witnessed many aspects of what he later called the ‘‘struggle for existence.’’ A wretched example was afforded by natives of the Tierra del Fuego, who eked out a meager existence in one of the most inhospitable climates on Earth. Darwin was deeply interested in them because, on board ship, were three Fuegians who had been taken back to England by Captain Robert Fitzroy from an earlier surveying expedition. They had been ‘‘civilized,’’ exposed to Christian teaching and values, and were now being returned, in the company of a missionary, to evangelize their own people. As it happened, this evangelical experiment ended in disaster and the missionary had to flee for his life.7 But the experience was important for Darwin in at least two respects. Arguably, it helped him to appreciate how thin was the veneer of civilization. ‘‘Were our ancestors men like these?’’ he would ask. More importantly , on studying the native Fuegians closely, he concluded that they neither had a word for God nor appeared to take part in any form of religious ritual. This challenged the common view, vouchsafed to Darwin by his cousin, Hensleigh Wedgwood, that humans differ from animals in one decisive respect. Humans had an innate sense of God whereas animals did not. Darwin was no longer so sure; many years later, when he wrote about religion in his...


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Subject Headings

  • Religion and science -- Congresses.
  • Christianity -- Doctrines -- Congresses.
  • Islam -- Doctrines -- Congresses.
  • Bible -- Criticism, interpretation, etc. -- Congresses.
  • Koran -- Criticism, interpretation, etc. -- Congresses.
  • Christianity and other religions -- Islam -- Congresses.
  • Islam -- Relations -- Christianity -- Congresses.
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