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A Brief Christian Commentary On the First Chapters of Charles Darwin's On the Origin of the Species (By Means of Natural Selection)

Brett Nichols

Posted on April 26, 2020 20:54

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A commentary on the controversial book from Darwin has been a source of debate between science and religion for two centuries. In this commentary, I will attempt to clarify just what about Darwin's theory is specifically controversial within theistic–especially Christian circles.

In Darwin’s On the Origin of the Species, he begins in chapter one by highlighting the concept of shared ancestry between particular forms of animals. Darwin states in the context of wild dogs that, “[i]n the case of strongly marked races of some other domesticated species, there is presumptive or even strong evidence that all are descended from a single wild stock.” He illustrates the notion of common descent as well by articulating the naturalist community’s presumption that all pigeons “descended from the rock pigeon." Furthermore, Darwin insinuates that in the same way there are variations of dogs and pigeons in their own respects originating from an initial ancestor, it is likely that all creatures descended from various shared ancestors.

For many contemporary readers, especially Christians that hold a reservation against an evolutionary perspective, an important distinction must be made between Darwin’s promoted idea that creatures share a common ancestry and the concept of natural selection. Where both play closely within Darwinian evolution, the notion of common descent can still be retained within a Christian worldview with little conflict due to the fact that common descent can theoretically be a part of a divinely guided process. On the other hand, the concept of natural selection has great difficulty in reconciling with traditional faith due to the divine creation story being replaced with a narrative of natural contingency conducting the intricate development of life. One could assume that Darwin's replacement of guided creation may be incidental, as he did himself come from a background of Christian faith. However, looking at Darwin's history in retrospect, it is clear that he intentionally rejects the common Christian notion of immediate divine agency within creation.

In Chapter 2, "Variation Under Nature", Darwin derives a natural explanation as to why some “genera” hold more significant variation than others within the wild. Contrasting his position with that of supernatural causation, he states, “if we look at each species as a special act of creation, there is no apparent reason why more varieties should occur in a group having many species, than in one having few.”  In Darwin's statement, he singlehandedly denies any viable claim for active divine causation within the current form of the species. Such a statement is emblematic of the difficulty of creating a Darwinian synthesis within theistic religions. Darwin's notion of natural selection being "a power" that is omniscient and solely explained by natural law. Darwin does later argue that God created primitive creatures to have their descendants later evolve into the more vast and advanced species we see today over the span of millions of years, however, this carries its own issues–especially regarding a divine explanation for the origin of humanity.

While Darwin does provide a wide-reaching explanation of life on earth with some appeal to divine agency, there is little surprise that his position remains difficult within many theological circles.

Brett Nichols

Posted on April 26, 2020 20:54

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