When Darwinism Came to America

When Darwinism Came to America

Since the debut of Darwin’s work in America, views in the church have been diverse; there has never truly been one single perspective that could be described as “the American Christian position” on evolutionary theory and the proper interpretation of the Genesis creation narrative.

In the decades leading up to the 1859 publication of Darwin’s magnum opus The Origin of Species, much of the scientific community in the United States (which included numerous sincere Christians) had already embraced the idea that the earth’s history involved long geologic ages during which many biological species had appeared and later become extinct. Geologists cited the patterns in the fossil record as evidence for long epochs punctuated by sudden changes in the earth’s flora and fauna. Some Christian geologists interpreted these relatively abrupt transitions as markers of divine intervention by which God had specially created new species following population collapses caused by ice ages and cataclysmic floods. Leading academics, such as geologists James Dana at Yale and Edward Hitchcock at Amherst College, believed that Christian teachings on creation could be harmonized with the scientific data by interpreting the “days” of Genesis 1 as representing long ages (the so-called “day/age theory”) or by assuming that there was a long period of time between God’s initial creative act recorded in Genesis 1:1 and the divine activity described in Genesis 1:2 and beyond (the “gap theory”). These ideas contrasted sharply with Irish Bishop James Ussher’s seventeenth-century calculation of the earth’s age—roughly 6,000 years—which was based upon a literalistic understanding of the biblical genealogical records. Thus, prior to the rise of Darwinism in American scientific circles, a diversity of views already existed about how to best understand the early chapters of Genesis in light of scientific evidence.

When the British printing of Darwin’s Origin made its debut in America in late 1859, the majority of scientists had yet to embrace any theory of biological evolution, even though such ideas had been discussed in academic circles for quite some time. It should be noted that skepticism toward evolutionary thought was not always connected to religious convictions. In fact, some devout Christians in the scientific community readily embraced it. Darwin’s greatest American champion, Harvard botanist Asa Gray, was a deeply devoted Presbyterian who disagreed with the claim that the theory of evolution by natural selection was inherently atheistic. Gray, who had corresponded with Darwin on scientific matters since 1855 and went on to facilitate the American publication of the Origin in 1860, argued that natural biological mechanisms of evolutionary change exhibit God’s design just as much, if not more than, instantaneous acts of creation. He used the analogy of cloth woven by hand compared to cloth made by a power loom; both are obviously the product of mindful design, and the latter is even more impressive because of the level of intelligent contrivance involved. Creation is all the more impressive, Gray explained, if God engineered an evolutionary mechanism to accomplish it.

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