Charles Darwin: One Viewpoint In Evolution

Charles Darwin (b. A.D. 1809 – d. A.D. 1882) did not “invent” evolution; he only added a two-fold nineteenth century theory of evolution to the debate and discussion that already existed. For centuries previous to the 1800’s (from the Greek classicists up to Darwin’s historical time) various philosophers, metaphysicists and scientists conjectured in the arena of evolutionary explanations when putting forth theories with reference to the origins and development of life in general and, then specifically, humankind.

What seems to be more true about Darwin and his theory, however, is that his assertions became (and still are) the focal point for late nineteenth century and, now, twentieth century debate and discussion as to an authentic theory that could conceivably stand the test of the scientific method. The divisions between persons of science and religion would grow with the advent of Darwin’s hypotheses and the rifts would widen in the following decades, even into the end of the twentieth century.

Darwin’s well known voyage as the ship’s hired naturalist on the H.M.S. Beagle (from December 27,1831 to October 2,1836) was a serendipitous adventure obtained as the result of not having been able to secure employment as a country clergyman following his graduation from divinity school. It was this voyage, with Darwin’s manifold observations and educated guesses as to how floral and faunal species changed along the coast of South America and, then, the Galapagos Islands, that reinforced some previously – held assumptions on which he had been ruminating. He was profoundly impressed with a copy of Charles Lyell’s newly published Principles of Geology as he read and digested it on the ship voyage (with it’s “Uniformitarian” approach to geology and other scientific disciplines). The “double dose” of Lyell’s book and what Darwin viewed as empirical scientific evidence of evolutionary activity on the Beagle journey deeply shaped the thoughts that he would contemplate and eventually organize for the next twenty – three years.

Shortly after his return from the H.M.S. Beagle expedition, Darwin published his observations and preliminary impressions of a theory of evolution in A Naturalist’s Voyage on the Beagle (1839). He did, however, purposely put off his publication of a much more involved treatise on the subject because he knew and felt very deeply that his heartfelt theories would arouse great controversy. His speculations and, then, his doubts about what he was formulating with reference to an evolutionary scientific theory would cause him to vacillate in abundance until, in 1859, he gave in to enough pressure to beat to the publisher others who were speculating similarly on his “general” and “special” theories of evolution.

In his now firmly established book On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favored Races in the Struggle for Life (1859), Darwin proposed the following assertions/tentative conclusions:

All species of organic flora and fauna have evolved from the most simplistic life forms into more and more complicated life forms gradually over a much longer history of the earth than previously believed (perhaps millions, even billions of years); this has been dubbed as Darwin’s “general” theory of evolution;

Randomly (without seeming logical/rational patterns) life forms have changed gradually from generation – to – generation (“micro-evolution”) over earth’s long history and all living species can be traced back to a common “primordial soup” which knew no speciation early on in the history of living things (“macro-evolution”), now called Darwin’s “special” theory.

Darwin called this evolutionary process “natural selection” and asserted that only the “fittest” organisms survive to produce offspring that reflect their micro-evolutionary changes that they, in turn, then pass on to the next generation of the species. Over a period of millions/billions of year’s of gradual development, then, we may resultantly have what we label as “species” nowadays, but they are only manifestations of macro-evolutionary leaps from species – to – species over earth’s long history.

Darwin further entangled himself in controversy by publishing The Descent of Man (1871), a book in which he specifically considered the evolution of the human species. He applied essentially the same “general” and “special” theories that he had propounded in The Origin of Species to the species Homo sapiens.

The “general” and “special” theories of evolution, as proposed by Charles Darwin, generated the controversy that he feared they would. In succeeding years and decades the lines would become more and more drawn between those who would favor Darwin’s theories usually over against a Lamarckian evolutionary viewpoint.

After the publishing of The Origin of Species Darwin’s apprehensions about how the conventional scientific community would receive his new speculations re-emerged: he spent the rest of his life defending his theories and producing revised editions of his well-known writings, attempting to develop innovative nuances to his theories in order to keep abreast of new criticisms. His belief in an intelligent Designer of life had wavered enough toward the end of his life for him to be considered an agnostic by those around him.

Darwin’s theories also created spin-off theories and belief systems in other disciplines of science, philosophy and religion. Disciples and other loyalists to Darwin applied his theories to other disciplines such as the social sciences with Social Darwinism and Eugenics, for instance.

Just recently, a major news magazine article quoted Pope John Paul II as declaring that Darwin’s theory of evolution is “more than just a theory” and is fully compatible with the Christian faith; furthermore, he went on to say that a “convergence” of scientific evidence gathered in the past 50 years makes “a significant argument in favor of this theory.” There are, of course, other religious and spiritual disciplines that disagree strongly with Darwin and his theory, so it is safest to state that controversy still surrounds the dialogue between religion and science on the matter of origins when Darwin and the theory of evolution is mentioned.

Quotes from Charles Darwin:

“I was so struck with the distribution of the Galapagos organisms, &c. &c. (sic), and with the character of the American fossil mammifers &c. &c. (sic) that I determined to collect blindly every sort of fact, which I could bear any way on what are species…..At last gleams of light have come, and I am almost convinced. (Quite contrary to the opinion I started with) that species are not (it is like confessing a murder) immutable.” [personal letter to Joseph Hooker, 1844]

“I see no good reason why the views given in this volume should shock the religious feelings of anyone. It is satisfactory, as showing how transient such impressions are, to remember that the greatest discovery ever made by man, namely the law of the attraction of gravity, was also attacked by Liebnitz ‘as subversive of natural and, inferentially of, revealed religion.’ A celebrated author and divine has written to me that ‘he had gradually learnt to see that it is just as noble a conception of the Deity to believe that He created a few original forms capable of self-development into other and needful forms, as to believe that He required a fresh act of creation to supply the voids caused by the actions of His laws.’ ” [Darwin, Charles. (1859). The Origin of Species, p.239]

“I can see no limit to the amount of change, to the beauty and complexity of the co-adaptations between all organic beings, one with another and with their physical conditions of life, which may have been affected in the long course of time through nature’s power of selection, that is by the survival of the fittest.” [Darwin, Charles. (1859). The Origin of Species, pp.114-115]

“In my most extreme fluctuations, I have never been an atheist in the sense of denying the existence of God.” [personal letter, 1879]

“…..the more we know of the fixed laws of nature, the more incredible do miracles become.” [from Darwin, as quoted in Charles Darwin: Voyaging by Janet Browne, 1995]

“When I am dead, know that many times I have kissed and cried over this.” [comment by Charles Darwin, handwritten as a note at the bottom of a letter written to him by his wife; she questioned the balance between his evolutionary theories and his personal Christian faith and was concerned for him; reportedly, Darwin was expressing to his wife the conflicts in his own mind. As quoted in Barlow, N. (1958). Autobiography of Charles Darwin, pp. 237]

“The mule always strikes me as a most surprising animal: that a hybrid should possess far more reason, memory, obstinacy, powers of digestion and muscular endurance than either of its parents. One fancies art has here outmastered Nature.” [Darwin, Charles in his Diary of the Beagle, p. 247, as quoted in Stevens, L. Robert. (1978). Charles Darwin. (p. 139), Boston: Twayne Publishers]

Quotes About Charles Darwin:

“As for the argument from design (that is, if the universe is orderly, there must be an Orderer), Darwin not only denied it, but claimed credit for having demolished it himself.” [Referring to a note in Darwin’s Autobiography (pp. 93-94) as quoted in Stevens, L. Robert (1978). Charles Darwin. (p. 124), Boston: Twayne Publishers]

“Charles Darwin, a member in good standing of the Church of England and an officer of his parish church at Down, in Kent, for many years.” [National Academy of Sciences/Committee on Science and Creationism. (1984). Science and creationism: a view from the national academy of sciences. (p. 1)]

“But it is also clear that his (Darwin’s) kind of belief, though orthodox, was a very loose, English-style orthodoxy in which it was far less trouble to believe than it was to disbelieve.” [Brown, Janet. (1995). Charles Darwin: Voyaging. (p. 325), New York: Alfred A. Knopf, Inc.]


Birks, Steve (ed.). (1996). Quotes on Creation & Evolution: Evolution as a Theory/On the Origin of Life. On the Steve’s Place Website (http://www.netcentral.co.uk/steveb/create/).

Brentnall, John M. and Russell M. Grigg. (1997). Darwin’s Slippery Slide into Unbelief. On the Creation Ex Nihilo Website (http://www.answersingenesis.org/creation/v18n1/v18n1m.htm).

Brinton, Crane, John B. Christopher and Robert Lee Wolff. (1967). Darwinism. In A history of Civilization: Volume Two. (pp. 298-305), Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, Inc.

Browne, Janet. (1995). Charles Darwin: Voyaging. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, Inc.

Denton, Michael. (1986). Evolution: A Theory in Crisis. Bethesda, Maryland: Adler & Adler Publishers, Inc.

Hart, Thomas E. Darwin and the Removal of Design. On the Victorian Web Website (http://www.stg.brown.edu/projects/hypertext/landow/victorian/darwin/darwinth1.html).

Larson, Edward J. (1997). Summer for the Gods: The Scopes Trial and America’s Continuing Debate Over Science and Religion. New York: Basic Books.

Sheler, Jeffery L. (1996, November 4). Outlook: Evolution. U.S. News and World Report.

Stevens, L. Robert. (1978). Charles Darwin. Boston: Twayne Publishers.

Weisstein, Eric W. (1996-98). Charles Darwin/Jean Lamarck. On Scientific Biography Website (http://www.astro.virginia.edu/%7Eeww6n/bios0.html).

White, Michael and John Gribbin. (1995). Darwin: A Life in Science. New York: Dutton.

Charles Lyell’s (b. A.D. 1797 – d. A.D. 1875) Principles of Geology:

Darwin read and was profoundly influenced by Lyell’s Principles of Geology Being an Attempt to Explain the Former Changes of the Earth’s Surface by Reference to Causes Now in Operation (18) while on the Beagle voyage. In his book this Scottish geologist argued for a “Uniformitarian” view of the geological formation of the Earth.

Lyell (and others before him, such as the Scottish geologist Hutton) proposed “Uniformitarianism” in contrast to the widely accepted “Catastrophic” versions previously proposed in history; the “Catastrophic” theories primarily stated that the great geological changes which had taken place in the Earth’s geological layers on its crust were due to cataclysmic events (e.g., great global floods) taking place at intervals in the Earth’s history.

The “Uniformitarian” approach as maintained by Lyell suggested that the Earth’s history was much longer (perhaps millions of years rather than a few thousand years) than previously believed and that the changes in its crust geology took place gradually. In taking its own time, then, the Earth’s geology developed much more slowly than the processes suggested by “Catastrophism.”

It, of course, took a mere logical leap for Charles Darwin to apply Lyell’s “Uniformitarian,” historically much slower and more gradual, geological viewpoint to the biological sciences in the specific area of evolution.

Lamarckian Zoology:

Jean Lamarck (b. A.D. 1744 – d. A.D. 1829) was a French naturalist well – remembered for his improvements on Linnaeus’ scientific classification of invertebrate species. He did, however, propose a theory of evolution in his writing entitled Zoological Philosophy (1809) and other minor papers; his speculations maintained that animals acquired useful and helpful characteristics during their lifetimes and, then, passed them on, gradually through generations, to their offspring. Each successive generation strove to improve its characteristics and, in this manner, adaptive perfection was achieved.

Lamarck’s favorite example from nature was the long neck of the giraffe. He speculated that, at one time in the history of the giraffe species, their necks were no longer than that of, say, a cow’s neck. However, as the vegetation on trees that giraffes ate became used up and only available at higher levels on the trees, giraffes had to stretch themselves to obtain the vegetation higher up in the trees. Generations of giraffes, having to crane their heads and necks higher and higher to get the food at higher and higher levels passed on the characteristic of longer and longer necks from generation-to-generation until an optimal neck length was achieved over an historically long period of time with many generations.

Quote from Jean Lamarck: “…..continued use of any organ leads to its development, strengthens it and even enlarges it, while permanent disuse of any organ is injurious to its development, causes it to deteriorate, and ultimately disappear if the disuse continues for a long period through successive generations.” [in Zoological Philosophy]

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