The Doctrine of
Of the vast number of scientific ideas produced in the nineteenth century it was the
doctrine of evolution, as propounded by Charles Darwin in The Origin of Species,
that most affected general thought. The idea of evolution itself was not
new. It had been popular with philosophers for some time, and the scientists
themselves had begun to accept it, particularly Erasmus Darwin, grandfather of Charles,
and the Frenchman Lamarck. Lamarck's theory was that changes were caused in organs of the
body by a creature's habits, which were due in turn to its
environment - thus the neck of the giraffe might have become long through many
generations of stretching to reach foliage. Charles Darwin put forward another
explanation, which he supported by an immense amount of evidence. The new
theory - 'Natural Selection' - burst upon the public like a thunderclap.
Darwin argued that changes in species come about because certain individuals 'Natural
who differ from the rest are better able by means of these differences to adapt
themselves to their environment; they thus survive when the rest perish. Those
giraffes which happened to be slightly taller and longer-necked than the rest would
be able to find food when the others could not, and would thus survive and
propagate offspring, which would also be of the longer-necked variety. In the
course of time all giraffes would have long necks, which would distinguish the
whole species from other species of animals.
How the variations occurred in the first place Darwin never claimed to know.
He did not argue that natural selection was the sole cause of evolution, but that
it was the main one. It would go far to explain how the innumerable species of
living creatures could have evolved from one original form of life, which was
perhaps a single cell. It would also explain the close resemblances between plants
and animals which enable them to be classified into families, the resemblance
between the human arm, the forelegs of animals, and the wings of birds, and the
resemblances between living and extinct species. Finally, it would explain the descent of
man from early human types and from a still earlier ape-like ancestor.
The idea of evolution completely changed the outlook of mankind on all living things,
which could now be seen to operate under unchanging laws just
as surely as inanimate matter. Such was Darwin's triumph that some over-
confident scientists were assured that by sustained research they would soon
be able to explain the workings of the whole universe) and reduce the human
mind itself to a matter of molecules. Their confidence, however, tended to
decrease with their progress.
Darwin's teaching brought on a furious battle between the
champions of science and religion of religion, from which Darwin himself kept aloof
leaving the argument to Thomas Henry Huxley, who called himself 'Darwin's bulldog'. Many
religious leaders felt that the authority of the Bible was being undermined, as
indeed it was so long as they stood upon a literal interpretation of Genesis.
In desperation some religious writers endeavoured to
discredit the evidence of the fossilised remains of prehistoric animals by asserting that
these had been placed beneath the soil by God to test (or by the Devil to destroy) man's
faith in the Bible.
On more general grounds they attacked natural selection
as a godless doctrine,
for it seemed to reduce all Nature to a soulless mechanism, in which Man figured only as a
superior animal. Most religious thinkers today, however, are quite ready to accept the
findings of science.