Evangelicals and Evolution: Closing the Gap

A view of Gorham’s Cave, last stand of the Neanderthals
A view of Gorham’s Cave, last stand of the Neanderthals

In the popular Christian  consciousness, and especially the popular evangelical Christian consciousness, evolution is associated almost exclusively with Charles Darwin and atheism. Little is known about Alfred Russell Wallace, Darwin’s co-discoverer of natural selection. This is perhaps largely due to Darwin’s authorship of the renowned On The Origin of Species, the book that led to scientific acceptance of evolution. A lesser known reason for Wallace being in Darwin’s shadow dates back to the controversies that erupted between science and religion with the publication of  Origin. 

Wallace was exploring in Indonesia at the time but had been kept informed by Darwin of the scorn being heaped by the developing and newly bullish scientific establishment upon any scientists who espoused creationist ideas. This must certainly have given the younger man pause for thought as, despite the fact that he was a strict natural selectionist and would become Darwin’s most courageous and staunch supporter, he had come to believe that there had to have been supernatural input into the evolution of the human species. I believe that Wallace’s writings on the subject could make evolution more acceptable to evangelical Christians, and indeed all Christians who perceive evolution as a threat to their faith.

Wallace’s belief in a spiritual dimension to existence marked a surprising volte-face from a longstanding atheism, and – in direct contrast to Darwin – had been caused by his discovery of natural selection. Darwin had originally intended to become an Anglican clergyman but famously lost his faith when confronted by the immense amount of suffering he believed to be caused in the world by selection-driven greed and aggression. Wallace, on the other hand, began from a position of atheism and grew to believe there had to have been benign divine intervention in the evolutionary process. Though never conventionally religious as an adult, Wallace advanced scientific arguments of striking logic and rigor for his claim of supernatural input into the evolutionary process. His belief in a supernatural dimension to existence also made him more optimistic than Darwin on the possibilities for future moral progress. So great were the hostilities that had opened up between the scientific and religious factions however that Wallace’s well-meaning efforts to reconcile religion and science were ridiculed, while his own standing in professional science was seriously damaged. Indeed were it not for the support of Darwin, Wallace’s reputation might have been fatally wounded. Darwin’s  loyalty towards Wallace, and his enduring friendship for the younger, less well-connected man is considered to be one of the most heartwarming in the history of science. Yet the disagreement between the two men over the implications of natural selection for the human condition was a major one. In his autobiography, Wallace tries to explain their differences:

On this great problem the belief and teaching of Darwin was, that man’s whole nature – physical, mental, intellectual and moral – was developed from the lower animals by means of the same laws of variation and survival; and, as a consequence of this belief, that there was no difference in kind between man’s nature and animal nature, but only one of degree. My view, on the other hand, was, and is, that there is a difference in kind, intellectually and morally, between man and the other animals; and that while his body was undoubtedly developed by the continuous modification of some ancestral form, some different agency, analogous to that which first produced organic life, and then originated consciousness, came into play in order to develop the higher intellectual and spiritual nature of man….

Wallace’s convictions were partly inspired by his first hand experiences of hunter-gatherer tribes. He lived for long periods on the Amazon and in the Malay archipelago; it’s doubtful if any other naturalist of the era had gained such a deep, first-hand knowledge of primitive tribes. He was also an expert on the habits of great apes and had actually reared by hand a baby orangutan whose mother he had shot. He was uniquely positioned therefore with his unmatched knowledge of, on the one hand, the ‘highest’ representatives of the animal world and on the other the ‘lowest’ (least civilized) representatives of the human, to speculate upon the ape-human gap. He simply didn’t believe that natural selection could have bridged the gulf between the ape and the human species either intellectually or morally: “Natural selection could only have endowed savage man with a brain a little superior to that of an ape, whereas he actually possesses one very little inferior to that of a philosopher”. Crucial to Wallace’s conviction that there has to be more to human evolution than just natural selection were his reasonable, logical and empirical observations on what natural selection can and cannot achieve. He argues that ‘savages’ are mentally over-endowed for the primitive lives that they lead: while they have the same brain size and capacity as ‘civilised’ Humans, they have no use for the higher forms of intellectual activity that characterize more advanced societies. He points out that

 The power of conceiving eternity and infinity, and all those purely abstract notions of form, number and harmony, which play so large a part in the life of civilized races, are entirely outside of the world of thought of the savage, and have no influence on his individual existence or on that of his tribe. They could not therefore have been developed by any preservation of useful forms of thought…..But, on the other hand, we find out that every one of these characteristics is necessary for the full development of human nature. The rapid progress of civilization under favorable conditions, would not be possible, were not the organ of the mind prepared in advance, fully developed as regards size, structure, and proportions, and only needing a few generations of use and habit to co-ordinate its complex functions.

Here Wallace makes the logical argument that it is impossible for natural selection to produce traits that are not functional within relevant environments. He is also hinting at what he believes to be the source of such elevated and yet intrinsically human faculties. For just as surely, he felt, as we can trace natural selection  in the evolution of organisms, so also can we simultaneously track the action of some unknown higher power responsible for what the natural processes could not have achieved. Wallace remarks that any inquiry into such a higher power is as thoroughly scientific and legitimate as that into the origin of species itself. It is an attempt to solve the inverse problem, to deduce the existence of  a new power of a definite character, in order to account for facts which according to the theory of natural selection ought not to happen. For Wallace it was the very fact that the same great laws that had caused the evolution of all life were so obviously active in the evolution of humanity that provided evidence of a ‘Power’ greater than natural selection that was also involved.

Wallace’s assessment of the human moral faculties in relation to natural selection is just as plausible and interesting as his observations on the mental faculties. He argues that just as natural selection can account for the ability to perform rudimentary mathematics but not for the capacity to imagine ideal conceptions of space and time, so, analogously, can it account for the practice of kindness and honesty, but not for the “peculiar sanctity” and even mystical sense that can attach to such abstract moral concepts as truth, justice and beneficence in even the most primitive tribes.

Wallace’s speculations on our higher intellectual and moral faculties have interesting implications for the relationship between the material and the spiritual in our intellectual operations and our moral decision-making. With regard to morality for example, abstract concepts of truth and beneficence belong to the spiritual faculties, or soul; it is in the interplay between the intellectual/ spiritual faculties and the biologically grounded traits developed over millions of years by natural selection that moral decisions are forged.

There is another major implication, highly relevant to the creation/evolution controversies, that can be drawn from Wallace’s speculations. It’s significance lies in the fact that it can contribute to closing the gap between evolutionary biology and evangelical Christianity in particular. Institutional Christianity accepts evolution with some reservations, and doesn’t demand a literal interpretation of Genesis. Many evangelical sects hold to a literal interpretation of the Adam and Eve story, mainly because it safeguards the basic Christian doctrines of salvation and incarnation. If there was no ‘fall’ of the first humans, then neither is there any obvious need for us to have been saved by Jesus. Evolution, as is pointed out by many scientists and atheists,  seems to remove Christianity’s raison  d’etre. Institutional Christianity still hasn’t provided a satisfactory answer to this conundrum, and it is actually being left to evangelical Christianity to engage with the science. So how can Wallace’s speculations help to resolve the problem?

Clearly his rigorously argued assertion for divine intervention in the evolutionary process opens the door to the existence of a first human pair, the Adam and Eve of Genesis 2. There is nothing to say that God could not have ensouled a male and female of a pre-existing hominid species thus creating modern Homo sapiens. When you think about it, this would be a form of direct creation. My own view on this is that the first humans were most likely to have been an ensouled group of our predecessor hominids which would also count as direct creation. We are a social species, and our behaviour (as is true of all hominid species) evolved in group situations. We know from evolutionary biology that the interactions we  had with the various groupings to which we belong -especially society- and not just with each other as individuals,  have been significant in the evolution of our behaviors.

There is also the difficulty that if there were no humans other than Adam and Eve, their children would have to have bred with one another. This is also possible, and accepted in the Rabbinic literature as permissible by God. However, I prefer to think of Adam and Eve as, in one sense, the first leader and his wife and in another as the very first males and females who can be understood as the evolving sexes, Adam and Eve. A combination of Genesis 1 and 2 lends support to this interpretation of the text. Adam and Eve were not proper  names when Genesis was written, and can be understood generically. ‘Adam’ literally means the human, and ‘Eve’ can be understood as ‘the giver of life’. There is also the fact that there are two stories of creation in Genesis which differ from one another in their descriptions of the creation of the first humans. In Genesis 1 we are told that “God created humankind….male and female he created them”, while Genesis 2 tells us that God formed a man (adam) and later fashioned a woman from the man’s rib, whom the man later named Eve, which resembles the Hebrew word for ‘living’. A combination of both accounts allows us to interpret the first humans as both the evolving sexes and the first leader and his wife. Since we are a “follow the leader” kind of a species, the first leader’s decisions for good or ill would have significantly influenced the moral choices made by the first human grouping, from whom we are all descended. Evolution can therefore be reconciled with the Genesis accounts as regards human origins.

There is another aspect of the evolutionary account of origins that is complementary to and can be interpreted to expand upon the biblical story. The garden of Eden symbolizes the benign relationship that originally existed between humanity and creation. Thomas Aquinas speculates that superior physical and intellectual powers, together with the action of a special divine Providence would have preserved the human species from illness, accidents, hunger and death. This is not to say that Adam and Eve would have lived forever, their lifespans would have been natural. Without the physical rupture of death however, they would have made the transition to a superior, spiritual form of existence. In an evolutionary context the symbolism of the Genesis story tells us that the first humans were exempt from the forces that drive natural selection. The conditions that drive natural selection were all absent from the beautiful Garden of Eden, which does not mean that nature itself was different to the way it is now. A garden is an artificial environment in which the forces of nature are kept at bay by the gardener (in this case God). The “expulsion from the garden” that followed the disobedience of Adam and Eve can be interpreted now in a deeper way. Preternatural and supernatural advantages were withdrawn and humanity reverted to a more natural state in which they were subjected, outside ‘the garden’, to the full forces of natural selection. While this was certainly a punishment, we can also now infer from evolutionary biology that it would have been for the overall good both of creation and humanity. If indeed the first humans did possess the preternatural gifts of being exempt from hunger, illness, accidents and physical death it becomes clear why the loss of such gifts would have been a necessary consequence of their prideful disobedience of God. The resulting battles for the riches necessary to satisfy their desire to be their own gods would have led to an unsustainable level of competition, since there would have been no need for cooperation against the forces of nature. Such unrestricted competition would have produced moral monsters and led to infinite demands upon the resources of a finite planet. Outside ‘the garden’ humans had no option but to cooperate, and this would have guaranteed the preservation of altruism as a quintessentially human characteristic, limiting  the moral damage to human nature.

So what else can science tell us about the Christian account of origins? In my upcoming book  Homo Lapsus (which is described on the homepage of this site) I argue that the evolutionary and Christian accounts of human origins fit together like two pieces of a jigsaw puzzle to give us a greatly expanded  picture of who we are. The perspectives of Darwin and Wallace not only provide corroborative empirical evidence of a deleterious moral choice or series of choices at the outset of our history but also illuminate the way forward politically as well as religiously. If you want to get a free copy of the book, leave a comment that expresses your interest.

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