The Bible and Science
Until the time of the Renaissance, science grew up within the Christian tradition. The general consensus was that through a study of the created works man would be led to a knowledge of the Creator.
With the advent of the Renaissance (14th to 16th century) the situation began to change. The book De Revolutionibus, by the Polish physician and astronomer Nicolaus Copernicus (1473–1543), marked the beginning of the modern scientific era. In this book, Copernicus replaced the geocentric theory of Ptolemy (c. A.D. 150) with the heliocentric view of the universe. Johannes Kepler in 1609 introduced the laws of planetary motions, and a century later, Sir Isaac Newton (1642–1727) established the laws of motion and gravity. These discoveries suggested an image of the world as an intricate machine following immutable laws, with every detail precisely predictable. Nevertheless, these scientists, including John Newton (1725-1807), “believed that the world-machine was designed by an intelligent creator.”1
Great changes also took place in the field of philosophy. The French mathematician Rene Descartes (1596–1650), the father of modern philosophy, established doubt as the foundation of philosophy. He resolved “never to accept anything for true which I did not clearly know to be such,”2 and in the process, he constructed a purely rational view of the world. Cartesian doubt and rationalism set up the individual consciousness as the final criterion of truth. Those who followed Descartes later raised doubts regarding the authorship and authority of Scripture.
The new course in philosophy and the scientific revolution with its many new inventions supported the idea that human beings were indeed masters of their own destiny. Increasingly, in one field of study after another, God was found to be an unnecessary hypothesis, until He seemed to have become a silent actor in the play, who in the end no longer needed to even present Himself upon the stage.
Leonardo da Vinci (1452–1519), the Florentine artist and scientist, was the first on record to interpret fossils as the remains of life of the past. At first, the Flood record of Genesis was deemed sufficient to explain their existence. Until the end of the 18th century, scholars often explained the abundant marine fossils on mountains as the result of the greatest catastrophe in human history—the Flood. In time, however, the idea of uniformitarianism replaced catastrophism as the explanation for the existence of fossils and the geologic column.
The man who is generally credited with introducing uniformitarianism and the modern concepts of geology to the world was James Hutton (1726–1797), a physician from Edinburgh. In 1795 he read a paper before the Royal Society of Edinburgh in which he suggested that all natural processes such as sedimentation and erosion must have required indefinite time.
Hutton’s views were further developed by Sir Charles Lyell (1797–1875), a Scottish lawyer, who during the 1820s became interested in geology. In 1830, he published the book Principles of Geology, which ran through 12 editions and was used as a textbook in Europe and America. It brought together data from all over the Earth, concluding “that all past changes in geology were the result of a long—very long—period during which present causes of denudation, delta formation, and land rise and fall were acting at the same rate as now.”3 Through this book, which attracted the attention of the general public, as well as scientists, the “theory of uniformitarianism became the fundamental philosophy of the newly emerging science of geology.”4 These developments in the scientific arena, together with the attacks on Scripture through higher criticism, prepared the way for Charles Darwin and his theory of evolution.
Jean-Baptiste Lamarck and Charles Darwin
The first to suggest a fairly complete theory of evolution was the Frenchman Jean-Baptiste Lamarck (1744–1829), professor of zoology at the Museum of Natural History in Paris. Lamarck believed that God had created only the simplest organism, which over time developed into ever more complex life forms. He is best remembered for his fallacious principle of the inheritance of acquired characteristics. For example, a deer-like animal forced to feed on the leaves of trees, would pass on its slightly elongated neck to its offspring, which would do the same to the next generation, and over thousands or millions of years the giraffe would develop.
While a number of different voices during the first half of the 19th century propagated some kind of evolutionary process, it was the pen of Charles Robert Darwin (1809–1882) that finally led to the wide acceptance of the theory of evolution.
Charles Darwin, born in Shrewsbury, England, was the son and grandson of medical physicians. He first studied medicine and then theology, but neither field was of great interest to him. At Cambridge he took up the study of geology, and when offered the position of naturalist on H.M.S. Beagle, he accepted.
From 1831 to 1836 the Beagle was to make a five-year exploratory voyage around the world. While on this voyage, Darwin made observations on the distribution of plants and animals that were destined to change the world. “In divinity school he had been taught that species are immutable, but when he wandered over the plains of Patagonia [Argentina], he began to see life types particularly suited to the barren area. He reasoned that they could not have been created that way, and suddenly the idea came to him that species did change, and were adaptable to the environment. He later confessed to a friend that it was like committing a murder. Then what he saw in the Galapagos Islands west of Ecuador convinced him that evolution had taken place.”5
After his return, Darwin spent many years studying and reworking his notes. From them he developed the book The Origin of Species by the Process of Natural Selection. Though the book was completed in 1844, he waited 15 years before publishing it. It received a hostile reception from church leaders, but was hailed as a masterpiece by many scientists of his day.
Charles Darwin attempted to explain how species originated and continued to develop. In his book The Origin of Species he did not investigate the question of the origin of life; he confined himself to the discussion of the causes which have brought about the present condition of living matter. In contrast to the idea of the fixity of species, Darwin argued that the species are not immutable. By this he meant that new species have appeared during the long course of Earth’s history.
A second pillar of Darwin’s theory was the concept of “overproduction.” In 1789, T. R. Malthus, in his book An Essay on Population, had laid down the principle that human population increases geometrically, whereas food supply increases only arithmetically. Darwin was convinced that this was true also of animals. He saw in nature that in most cases far more individuals are born than can possibly survive to maturity. Thus, he developed the idea of the struggle for existence and the survival of the fittest. In this struggle for existence, those individuals will survive, he claimed, which are best fitted for their environment.
Another fundamental principle of his theory was the concept, already espoused by Lamarck, that fit individuals pass their fitness on to their descendants. New species, therefore, arise over long time periods through the survival and reproduction of the animals best fitted for a particular environment.
Although some modifications have been made in Darwin’s theory since he first formulated it, 160 years after Darwin, many scientists are convinced that evolution is an established fact of science. Sir Julian Huxley in 1959 claimed, “The first point to make about Darwin’s theory of evolution is that it is no longer a theory but a fact. No serious scientist would deny the fact that evolution has occurred, just as he would not deny the fact that the Earth goes around the sun.”6
Yet many scientists do, maintaining that evolutionists ignore the arguments of intelligent design that point to a creator. According to The Wall Street Journal, “40 percent of American physicists, biologists and mathematicians believe in God—and not just some metaphysical abstraction, but a deity who takes an active interest in our affairs and hears our prayers, the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.”7
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