Background and Factors of Influence

The theory of evolution, largely as it is purported today, was first presented by Charles Darwin to offer a purely naturalistic explanation for the variations and relationships observed in the diversity of living organisms, and ultimately the existence of life itself. Although Darwin is often credited as the author of the theory of evolution he was not the first to propose such a theory. However, he was the first to offer a naturalistic mechanism that was conceivable to produce biological change over long periods of time—this mechanism became known as natural selection. The theory of natural selection represents one of two fundamental theories that Darwin presented, also called ‘special theory’, it is relatively restricted in scope merely proposing that new races and species arise in nature by the agency of natural selection. The second more militant theory, often referred to as the ‘general theory’, makes the claim that ‘special theory’ applies universally; ushering in a purely materialistic hypothesis for the existence of life itself. The modern day concept of the ‘theory of evolution’ connotes ‘general theory’ in the vast majority of cases.

Incidentally, Darwin was a contemporary of Charles Lyell, a distinguished geologist and lawyer, known especially for his contribution and promotion of uniformitarianism. The impact of uniformitarian philosophy must not be underestimated. At the heart of uniformitarianism is an ‘old earth’ theory, without catastrophic formation, which explicitly denies the biblical teaching of creation. In a letter to Lyell, Darwin illustrated how philosophically consistent his theory was with Lyell’s: “If I were convinced that I required such additions [‘saltations’—sudden leaps of change] to the theory of natural selection, I would reject it as rubbish…” Lyell’s recently published book on his theory of uniformitarianism must have had a significant impact on Darwin.

There existed a number of other significant influences in the world of 1831 that should be considered, one of which is the social order of Victorian England. It has been said that “no society could have been more receptive to the concept of natural selection than Victorian England.”[1] Issues from pedigree and prejudice to the competitive spirit of the free market economy,from liberal theology to the ‘enlightened’ views of philosophical human reasoning, must be considered when appraising the factors of influence that must have acted on young Charles Darwin.

Many were the influences that contributed to the formation of Darwin’s theory; however, one very unique and substantial factor demands deliberation. For a short period of time, Darwin attended Cambridge University to study theology (his father sent him there in hopes that he would become a clergyman). Darwin was essentially challenged to reconcile differences between Creator and creature—divine perfection and evil. The original inspiration of Darwin’s theory was not scientific at all; it was deeply rooted in a metaphysical dilemma that he personally had difficulty reconciling. Darwin was not motivated toward evolution by science or evidence, but rather by his perception with the common notion of a divine creation that was not perfect. He employed a logic that suggested we should expect imperfect results from natural processes driven by unguided chance. Since he did not see creation consistently reflecting the goodness of God, he advocated a naturalistic explanation, and in so doing he felt he ‘solved’ the problem by distancing an all benevolent Creator from his imperfect and sometimes evil creation. We can be sure that Darwin was significantly influenced by John Milton’s ‘Paradise Lost’, since it is documented that he carried a well-worn copy of it on his voyage—a book that was immensely popular in Victorian England at the time. The obvious problem with Darwin’s solution is that in his attempt to distance God from the process of life, he effectively eliminated the need for God. It is important to note that new ideas in science often come in response to failures of older ideas. Accordingly, we must realize that Darwin’s theory of evolution was not in response to a failing scientific idea but rather a failing theological misconception. Consequently, Darwin’s theory is predicated on a negative theology that is metaphysical in nature and assumes certain premises about the nature and character of God. In the end, we find that Darwin postulated a theory to explain nature that was fitting to him, even as it relates to his view of God and how he supposes God would, and would not have, done things. The following quote by Darwin illustrates this point:

“There seems to me too much misery in the world. I cannot persuade myself that a beneficent and omnipotent God would have designedly created the [parasitic wasp] with the express intention of their feeding within the living bodies of caterpillars, or that the cat should play with mice.” – Charles Darwin

[1] Michael Denton, Evolution: A Theory in Crisis (Bethesda, MD: Adler & Adler, Publishers, Inc., 1986), 70.

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