COMMENT: The Apology of the Church to Darwin

By Robert A. Segal

Charles Darwin as an ape, 1871, Hornet magazine

The two hundredth anniversary of the birth of Charles Darwin will occur in 2009, and already the celebration is underway. Recently, the Church of England, which is to say the Anglican Church, has officially apologized for having initially rejected Darwin’s principle of evolution. How grateful the world must be for this act of arrogance, an arrogance equal to the original attack on Darwin. The descendants of Darwin have dismissed the apology as pointless.

The Church—Anglican, Catholic, or non-Christian—possesses no authority on science. Therefore its recognition of the scientific standing of evolution carries as much weight as its prior rejection of evolution. For the Anglican Church to apologize for its former opposition to Darwin, or for the Catholic Church to apologize for its former opposition to Galileo, is akin to an illiterate’s apologizing for having failed to appreciate the beauty of a novel.

What is more galling is that the Anglican Church, having acknowledged its failure to mind its own business, cannot resist intruding again— this time over the social implications of Darwin’s theory. To quote from the Anglican website on Darwin:

If evolution is continuing, and humanity as we know it is not the final summation of the process, it is not difficult to slip into a rather naïve optimism which sees the human race becoming better and better all the time. Despite our vastly expanding technical knowledge, even a fairly cursory review of human history undermines any idea of constant moral progress. Humanity’s advance in terms of technical prowess and achievements has not, to most people’s eyes, fully liberated us from our burdens. Christians believe that all of us are constrained by sin and that only through the death and resurrection of Jesus can we move beyond what constrains us, to a fuller and more human way of living. But Christians are not the only ones who are sceptical of the idea that evolution means moral progress.

Darwin’s theory takes no stand on moral progress. Natural selection means only that those species and members of species that are best adapted to the environment have the best chance of survival and therefore the best chance of reproduction. Those reproduced will likely, but by no means always, possess the same qualities, or qualities in the same degree, as those who reproduced them. If food on the ground is scarce but plentiful on treetops, then those species and members of species that can climb trees or reach the tops of trees will have a better chance of survival than those species and members of species that cannot. If food on the ground is scarce but food on treetops plentiful, then giraffes and the longest-necked giraffes will have the best chance of survival and of reproduction. The offspring of the longest-necked giraffes will likely be taller and more numerous than those of the shortest-necked giraffes.

The environment is not fixed and is not the same everywhere. At another time or place food on the ground may be plentiful and be easier for shorter species and shorter members of species to obtain. Shortness rather than tallness will then be the key to survival and in turn reproduction.

Darwin wrote as a scientist, not a moralist. His fame lies in his explaining what is, not what ought to be. He is not claiming that humanity is ever improving, and he is not celebrating whatever improvement there is.

I therefore see no connection between the theory of evolution—which is to say science—and the theological banality of this Anglican statement—a statement that would doubtless be endorsed by other denominations of Christianity and by other religions. All that the Anglican statement tells us is that human beings do bad things as well as good things. Who would disagree? Does one need to believe in Jesus as the savior of humanity to accept this fact? Does this fact in any way supplement, enrich, or challenge the theory of evolution? If it does not, then why link this theological credo to science?

In short, why not let science be science and let theology be theology—whatever that means.

Related articles:

Can a Darwinian Be a Christian?
By Gregory W. Dawes , University of Otago
(Vol. 2, November 2007)
Religion Compass

By Arthur McCalla
Vol. 1, September 2007
Religion Compass

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