This month marks 200 years since the birth of Charles Darwin,
the noted British naturalist. It also marks 150 years since the
publication of his important scientific book,
On the Origin of the Species.
The theory his work postulated then ignited a religious
controversy that persists to our own day.
This month marks 200 years since the birth of Charles Darwin, the noted British naturalist. It also marks 150 years since the publication of his important scientific book, “On the Origin of the Species.” The theory his work postulated then ignited a religious controversy that persists to our own day.
Charles Darwin was born in Shrewsbury, England, on Feb. 12, 1809. Both his father and grandfather were prosperous physicians, and he studied medicine for a while at Edinburgh University in Scotland.
After losing interest in this field, Darwin studied to become an Anglican priest at England’s Cambridge University.
One of his teachers was a botanist, the Rev. John Hemslow, who encouraged Darwin to take an extended sea voyage after his graduation.
He became the unpaid naturalist and gentleman’s companion to the ship’s captain. He spent the five-year voyage collecting and sketching specimens of all kinds of plants and animals he found in southern South America.
When he returned to England, he arranged his notes and read widely in scientific literature, eventually developing his theory of evolutionary change through natural selection.
In simplest terms, he suggested that minute differences between representatives within a species increase survival rates for some of them, allowing them to pass along these advantageous traits to their offspring while others die out and leave no offspring.
In 1859, Darwin finally published the famous book that explained his theory (a testable explanation of how things work, based on observations and measurements) to the general public for the first time. It ignited an immediate controversy.
Spokesmen for Christian groups attacked Darwin’s theory, saying that it directly contradicts the account of creation found in the Bible, specifically, chapters one and two of Genesis. Analysis of the Bible implied an earth approximately 6,000 years old, much too brief a time for natural selection to function.
Also, the random process suggested by Darwin conflicted with the understanding of a God who individually created each species to remain the same for eternity.
These opponents, called “creationists,” consider evolutionism the same as atheism and have fought to make sure public schools don’t weaken children’s Christian faith by teaching evolutionary theory as fact.
A famous courtroom battle over this issue took place in Tennessee in 1925. Thomas Scopes, a biology teacher, was arrested for teaching the theory of evolution in his classroom, violating a state law. After a high-profile trial, the first to be broadcast on radio, Scopes was found guilty and fined $100, though the verdict was later overturned on a technicality.
There are still battles in states and school districts across the country concerning the place of “creationism” or “intelligent design” and “evolutionism” within public school science courses.
Next month, the Texas Board of Education will decide whether the state’s new science curriculum should continue to require discussion in science classes of the strengths and weaknesses of Darwin’s theory, and the vote is expected to be close.
Meanwhile, many people of faith, who are also scientists, insist that evolution and Christianity are not necessarily in conflict, a view adopted by many progressive clergy and theologians.
The Public Broadcasting Service program “Religion and Ethics Newsweekly” recently examined the evolution/creationism controversy. One participant, Dr. Francis Collins, an evangelical Christian who led the Human Genome Project, suggested a comprehensive view that may avoid this forced choice:
“If God, who is outside space and time, chose to create a universe and populate it with creatures in his image with whom he could have fellowship, who are we to say that the process that we as scientists have uncovered – the Big Bang, the formation of stars and planets, and the mechanism of evolution to create life and ultimately human life – is not the way we would have done it? I find that enormously satisfying. Nothing that I know as a scientist is in contradiction to that. Nothing that I know as a believer is in contradiction to that.”