What’s the problem with evolution?

To hear Richard Dawkins talk, you would think that all Christians are implacably opposed to evolution, and that this is basically because they are all morons and hate science on principle.

In fact most Christians have no quarrel at all with evolution or any other aspect of mainstream science. A minority, particularly in America, do and they probably thank God every night on their knees that Dawkins exists. If he did not, they would surely have had to invent him! He is exactly what such fundamentalists would like every scientist to be — brash, arrogant and philosophically naive.

Religion has become Dawkins’ “King Charles’s head”. He is obsessed with the subject to the point that it has quite ruined him as a scientist. It is interesting to compare him with the late Steven Jay Gould who was in many ways his American equivalent: both evolutionary biologists, famous scientific popularisers, and doughty opponents of creationism and intelligent design. Gould was also an atheist but he was not obsessed with religion. And he was still providing new insights into evolutionary theory right up to his death in 2002. Dawkins has produced no serious scientific contributions since writing The Extended Phenotype. Nor has he written any popular books for years that can rival The Selfish Gene or The Blind Watchmaker.

Dawkins is probably correct in his belief that religious fanaticism rots the brain. Sadly, it seems that anti-religious fanaticism can have much the same effect.

It is still worth asking why some Christians seem to have specific problems with evolution compared with other scientific ideas, and why this became a more popular and aggressive position in the second half of the 20th century than it ever was in the 19th.

It is not primarily about the first chapters of Genesis. Even at a casual first reading, Gen 1 makes more sense as a poem in six stanzas about the marvels of God’s creation than as a scientific treatise about cosmology and paleontology. As early as the fourth century AD, the great biblical translator and scholar St. Jerome described it as having been written (by Moses, he thought) “in the style of a popular poet”. The same is true of the more folksy allegorical creation story in Gen 2 in which Woman appears as the heroic “rescuer” (that's the usual connotation of the word ezer) of Man, because “it is not good for man to be alone”.

The story of the Fall in Gen 3 also reads like an allegory. Interestingly it contains no “Adam” or “Eve” as yet. We are still with “The Man” (ha adam) and “The Woman”, the male and female halves of the human race as in the previous chapter. And the claim made by some Christians that if Gen 3 is not literally true, there would have been no Fall and therefore no need of a saviour looks like a post-facto rationalisation for creationism. The reason we need a saviour is that there is clearly something horribly wrong with human nature. If you don’t believe it, go read a newspaper! An allegorical explanation of how we got into this mess is as good as any, since the important thing for the New Testament writers is how we can get out of it.

In the 19th century there was actually not much serious Christian opposition to Darwin’s ideas. At the famous Oxford debate, Soapy Sam Wilberforce was speaking less for religion against science, more for orthodox science against a cheeky interloper. Many influential Christians, like Charles Kingsley, found that evolution fitted remarkably well with quite a number of important biblical themes: God’s continuing care for His creation, the idea of great things coming from small beginnings, and the possibility that suffering and death might have a creative role.

Even American fundamentalists like B.B.Warfield did not initially reject Darwin because of a literal interpretation of Gen 1-3. They were far more concerned with the threats posed by biblical criticism than with disputes about evolution. But gradually some Christians became more and more uneasy about the moral consequences of some kinds of evolutionary thinking.

The important figure here was not Darwin but Herbert Spencer. It was he who coined the term “survival of the fittest”. Darwin hated it and never used it because he was aware, as a good Manchester liberal, of the unwelcome moral overtones of “fitness”. Social Darwinism, as taught by men like Spencer and Francis Galton, applied evolutionary ideas to society. They argued that the rich, who occupied the top of the social pyramid, must deserve to do so. Their success proved that they were the fittest (i.e. the best) members of society. The poor must likewise deserve their miserable fate. They were failures, inferior stock. The sooner they starved to death, the better for everyone else.

Social Darwinism was especially strong and influential in America. Consequently many working class Christians, especially in the more backward parts of the South, became convinced that Darwin was the devil’s emissary and that the theory of evolution had to be opposed in every way possible. They certainly didn’t want their children learning such a heartless doctrine in school!

There was also a kind of backflow from social Darwinism into biological evolutionary theory, with many writers emphasising ruthless competition, effectively projecting the behaviour of Victorian capitalists onto the animal world. It was this kind of writing that inspired Tennyson’s horrified reference to “Nature red in tooth and claw”. The brutality which they glorified was so contrary to the Christian teaching about divine love and mercy (not to mention the meek inheriting the earth) that it is hardly surprising that some Christians refused to believe that God had created such a world.

In fact direct competition for survival between animals of the same species is quite rare. Most competition is for mates, either directly or indirectly through the establishment of a territory. Those who lose out end up producing fewer offspring, but nobody gets trampled underfoot. Contests between conspecifics usually take the form of competitive display, or fights using conventional tactics which ensure that nobody gets badly hurt. Predators will kill, of course, but only when they need to eat, and they don’t usually do it to their own kind. Again, weaker members of prey species are more likely to get eaten, but not because their rivals have deliberately “thrown them to the wolves”.

In fact there is a good case to be made out for the driving force of evolution to be less the survival of the fittest than the emigration of the failures. Some animals emigrate by literally moving out. Less successful forest horses moved onto the plains, where they developed one-toed feet for fast running and high-crowned teeth for grazing on tough grasses. They are still with us today while their three-toed forest cousins are long gone. We ourselves are descended from unsuccessful chimpanzees who were forced to move out of the rain forests into more open woodland and wooded savannah where they spent more time on the ground.

Other animals manage to “move sideways” into a vacant ecological niche in the same environment. Less successful diurnal hunters are forced to become nocturnal. Less successful birds have to nest later and end up feeding their young on a different diet. Less successful old world monkeys found a vacant niche for a large arboreal frugivore and evolved into apes. Their equivalent in the new world shrank in size and became marmosets, but the dwarf primate niche was not available in the old world, where it was already filled by the prosimians.

A species that “emigrates” may not be very well adapted to its new environment but there is compensation in the decreased pressure of competition. For a while all kinds of genetic experiments become possible. There is a brief flourishing of variety. Eventually the animals become numerous enough to start competing with each other and natural selection clamps down again. The best adapted variant survives, the rest (together with the original type) disappear. A new species has been born.

Meanwhile the original winners of the competition find themselves impaled on an evolutionary fork. They are so well adapted to their environment that, as long as it stays the same, they will never evolve but merely become better and better examples of what they already are. If the environment does change, they will go extinct for they have become too specialised to change. It is the failures who become the growth points from which new branches of the tree of life can spring. It seems that the meek really do inherit the earth, just like the Good Book teaches. Eat your heart out, Dawkins!

One final point: names have meanings and sometimes those meanings can be highly embarrassing. Richard Dawkins is an educated man, so he must surely know that his name translates literally as “The strong king, son of little David”. That’s clearly a reference to Jesus Christ! Dawkins hates Christ but is forced to acknowledge him as Messiah every time he says his own name. Now I ask you, how could such a marvellous joke exist except in a world with a divine Creator?