Research Report #33 (1986)



Allan A. MacRae
Biblical Theological Seminary

Copyright © 1988 by Allan A. MacRae. All rights reserved.


Although the author is in agreement with the doctrinal statement of IBRI, it does not follow that all of the viewpoints espoused in this paper represent official positions of IBRI. Since one of the purposes of the IBRI report series is to serve as a preprint forum, it is possible that the author has revised some aspects of this work since it was first written. 

ISBN 0-944788-33-5


Charles Darwin has been called "the Newton of biology." T. H. Huxley said that "the publication of the Origin of Species marks the Hegira of Science from the idolatries of special creation to the purer faith of Evolution." Many have spoken as though the idea of evolution started in 1859 when Darwin's book appeared, but this idea is quite erroneous.

In 1959, one hundred years after the publication of Darwin's book, Professor Loren C. Eiseley of the University of Pennsylvania published a book entitled Darwin's Century. After saying that he would not in this book discuss the ancient Greek ideas of evolution, but simply look at the precursors of Darwin within the preceding two centuries, Eisley describes in detail evolutionary views held by a number of previous writers. He declares that many of these views were very similar to the views later advanced by Darwin, and he says that at least one previous writer presented views almost identical with what Darwin later taught.

It would come as a shock to those who imagine that evolution began with Darwin if they were to look into Disraeli's novel Tancred, published twelve years before Darwin's Origin of Species appeared. In this book a fashionable lady speaks as follows:

You know, all is development. The principle is perpetually going on. First there was
nothing, then there was something; then -- I forget the next -- I think there were shells,
then fishes; then we came -- let me see -- did we come next? Never mind that; we came at
last. And at the next change there will be something very superior to us -- something
with wings. Ah! that's it: we were fishes, and I believe we shall be crows. But you
must read it.

When her companion replies, "I do not believe I ever was a fish," the lady continues: "Oh! but it is all proved . . . you understand, it is all science; it is not like these books in which one said one thing and another the contrary, and both may be wrong. Everything is proved -- by geology, you know."

In having his characters speak in this fashion, Disraeli was reflecting the great contemporary interest in a book called Vestiges of Creation that had appeared in 1844, fifteen years before the publication of Darwin's book. This book presented a thorough-going idea of evolution. Charles Darwin read this book with great care and made extensive notes in the margin of his copy. Another scientist, Thomas Henry Huxley (of whom more later), wrote a savage review, in which he strongly attacked many of its statements, using such phrases as "mean view of nature," "pretentious nonsense" and "foolish fancies." The book did not have much standing among reputable scientists, but in the world of fashion and intellectual dilettanteism it was very influential.

The idea of evolution was not new. Darwin's part was not to originate it, but to give it respectability.


Charles Darwin was a careful observer of nature who had spent nearly four years on a voyage to South America and other areas, examining plants, animals and geological formations. Returning to England he devoted himself to careful scientific research, and carried on a correspondence with others having similar interests. At one time he devoted eight years to studying thousands of barnacles. When one of Bulwer-Lytton's novels described a Professor Long, who was said to have written two large volumes about limpets, many people immediately recognized Darwin as the original of the character.

There were many who were already familiar with the idea of organic evolution -- that the great profusion of plants and animals had come to exist, not because of the purposes of a wise and powerful creator, but because of the operation of purely natural forces working in a haphazard way.

In order to understand the situation in the middle of the 19th century we must look at what preceded. In the latter part of the previous century John Wesley and George Whitefield and their associates had led in the Great Awakening which changed the whole moral and religious tone of the English-speaking world. This generation of fiery evangelists and devoted spiritual leaders was suceeded by a generation in which there was great emphasis on social service and human improvement. The effects of the Great Awakening continued even into the third generation, but by this time there were many who longed to be free from the shackles of Christian morality and outlook. The forms of orthodoxy were rigorously maintained but rationalism was rapidly spreading among the educated classes.

Few men were ready to follow Herbert Spencer in attacking Christianity directly and forcibly, but many desired to escape from Biblical ideas. It is necessary to have this situation in mind to understand the explosive effect of Darwin's book.

In the years 1832-36, when Darwin had stopped in various places on the coast of South America, he had been surprised to see the great number of kinds of similar plants and animals and their progression. He pondered over the great variety and profusion of plant life and wondered how such variety had come into existence. One day in October, 1838, while recovering from an illness, he amused himself by reading a book by Thomas R. Malthus called An Essay on Population. This book had been much discussed since the appearance of its first edition in 1797. Malthus advanced the idea that mankind keeps increasing geometrically while its food supply increases only arithmetically; therefore wars, pestilence and famine are unavoidable unless some other means of checking the increase in population could be found.

As Darwin read this book he thought of the great number of animals and plants that are produced and how comparatively few of them manage to survive and in turn produce offspring. Then it occurred to him that this might be the key to the origin of the many types of plants and animals that exist. Since no offspring is exactly like its parent he assumed that in time a great variety of offspring would proceed from any one source. Out of this great variety, only those with characteristics which would enable them to meet the conditions of their environment or to overcome the attacks of their natural enemies would be able to survive and produce further offspring. Thus gradual changes would occur. Darwin thought of these possible changes as being unlimited in principle and therefore able to produce extremely great results over a long period of time. Although he called his idea "natural selection" he later said that perhaps it might better have been described by the term "survival of the fittest," which Herbert Spencer had originated.

As soon as the idea of natural selection occurred to Darwin, he decided to gather facts that would support it. He wrote out a statement of his theory and placed it in a safe, returning to it from time to time to add further evidence, intending eventually to publish a large work in which he would deal fully with the matter.

In 1858 a young naturalist named Alfred Russell Wallace was engaged in scientific study in the East Indies. As he pondered over the varieties of plants and animals that he saw there, he was laid up by illness for a few days and amused himself by reading Malthus' Essay on Population. As he did so he hit upon exactly the same theory that had entered Darwin's mind from the same source. He immediately wrote an article presenting his idea rather fully, and sent it to Darwin. Darwin was greatly surprised to find that Wallace had proposed exactly the same theory that he himself had thought of twenty years earlier. He feared that Wallace might publish it first and thus be considered its originator. Yet he did not wish to do anything that would be unfair to Wallace. When he discussed the matter with his friends and showed them the great similarity between Wallace's article and his own previous statement, they suggested that he allow them to read both statements at a meeting of a scientific society.

Darwin accepted the suggestion. At the meeting of the Linnean Society on July 1, 1858, separate statements of the views of both Darwin and Wallace were read, along with a prefatory letter explaining the circumstances. The thirty scientists present seem to have felt no particular interest in the presentation. A few months later, where the president of the Linnean Society reviewed the events of the year 1858, he declared that he oculd find no memorable scientific progress to record.

Darwin soon began to fear that either Wallace or someone else would publish the theory ahead of him. His friends urged him immediately to put it in print himself. He therefore spent several months writing a book, which he called: On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life.

One of Darwin's friends asked a London firm to issue Darwin's book. When the publisher looked it over he thought it would not sell. Yet he was well impressed with its observations about pigeons, and urged Darwin instead to write a book on that subject, saying, "Everybody is interested in pigeons." However, Darwin insisted that the book be published exactly as it was, and the publisher hesitantly agreed to do so.

Much to the surprise of both Darwin and the publisher, the book was immediately received with great acclaim. The reason for this is easy to see. As we have noticed, many who desired to abandon the Biblical teaching about creation had become fascinated by the idea of evolution. This idea had been strongly criticized by outstanding scientists such as Huxley, who was firmly convinced that species are so fixed that there can be no change from one into another. The idea of evolution appeared to lack scientific respectability, yet many wished to believe it. Now a book by a well-known scientist had appeared, presenting a mechanism which its author felt was sufficient to explain the origin of every type of life from a previous type, and thus to make divine creation quite unnecessary.


We have noticed two reasons for the great influence of Darwin's book: (1) the fact that a man whose name stood for slow, methodical research rather than wild speculation was ready to endorse a theory that many had thought was held only by crackpots; and (2) the widespread desire, often unrealized, for an escape from the ideas that had flowed from the Great Awakening of the previous century. Yet these by themselves would probably have failed to give it lasting significance. A third factor of at least equal importance resulted from the activities of Thomas Henry Huxley.

Huxley had known Darwin for about five years and was very fond of him. During most of his adult life Darwin suffered from a variety of illnesses. He had to spend a good deal of time in bed, but still was able to devote a large part of his time to research and writing. When invited to attend a scientific meeting or to give a public address, he sometimes asked Huxley to go in his place.

When Darwin told Huxley about his theory Huxley declared that he did not believe that new species could develop by accident. He read Darwin's book before it was published and was not convinced. Yet after it appeared he became its most active defender. He said that when he read it in book form he had come to see that it was true.

There is much reason to believe that two psychological forces may have played a part in Huxley's change of attitude. One of these would be his great fondness for Darwin. He knew that there would be severe criticism by believers in divine creation and he wished to protect his friend.

Two days before the scheduled date of pubication he wrote a letter to Darwin which included the following paragraph:

I trust you will not allow yourself to be in any way disgusted or annoyed by the
considerable abuse and misrepresentation which, unless I greatly mistake, is in
store for you. Depend on it, you have earned the lasting gratitude of all thoughtful
men; and as to the curs which will bark and yelp, you must recollect that some of
your friends, at any rate, are endowed with an amount of combativeness which (though
you have often and justly rebuked it) may stand you in good stead. I am sharpening
my claws and beak in readiness.

Soon after this The Times invited Huxley to prepare a review of Darwin's book.

The other psychological factor was Huxley's feeling about churches and church leaders. As a boy he had been obliged to listen to long and dry sermons which greatly repelled him, and he had developed a strong animosity to the church.

An interesting illustration of Huxley's attitude toward the church is found in his description of an experience while engaged in the study of anatomy. At one time during his medical course he found it very difficult to remember on which side of the heart the mitral valve was located. Then, he said, it occurred to him that a bishop has a mitre. After that, he had no further difficulty. Since a bishop could not possibly be right, the mitral valve must naturally be on the left!

At a later time Huxley expressed his idea of theologians in these words:

Extinguished theologians lie about the cradle of every science as the strangled
snakes beside that of Hercules; and history records that whenever science and
orthodoxy have been fairly opposed, the latter has been forced to retire from
the lists, bleeding and crushed if not annihilated; scotched, if not slain.

Huxley was 16 years younger than Darwin. He was a man of great intelligence, devoted to the study of science. He was also a man of strong emotions, much interested in religious philosophy and metaphysics.

Darwin himself had a shy and retiring disposition, and never liked to go to public meetings. He said that if he expressed a harsh word of criticism he would be unable to sleep the following night. Public attacks upset him: sometimes he wrote rejoinders, but usually he was glad to leave his defense to Huxley. In time he came to speak of Huxley as "my general agent." Huxley, however, referred to himself as "Darwin's bulldog." Whenever Darwin's ideas were to be discussed at a great public meeting Huxley was ready and fully armed. He was an able debater and a quick thinker on his feet, extremely skillful in handling repartee.

Darwin and Huxley made an ideal combination. Huxley could speak vigorously and even caustically, while Darwin remained in the background as the quiet thinker, apparently standing aloof from the battle. The rapid spread and wide acceptance of Darwinism owed much to Huxley's vigorous support.


In some ways the Victorian era was quite unique. Although many of the scientific and literary figures had adopted positivist views and abandoned the Biblical teachings of the Great Awakening, the effects of that far-reaching movement had been to establish ideals of sincerity, truth and decency -- ideals which were still almost universally honored, even if sometimes in a rather formal or stilted way.

Thus Mary Ann Evans, who wrote novels under the penname George Eliot, had completely abandoned the orthodox Christianity of her father, but nothing could shake her faith in "a binding or spiritual law, which is to lift us into willing obedience, and save us from the slavery of unrequited passion or impulse." A visitor once reported with admiration almost amounting to awe, that he had heard her say: "God -- how inconceivable! Immortality -- how unbelievable! Duty -- how preremptory and absolute!" Leslie Stephen said: "I now believe in nothing, but I do not the less believe in morality."

When Frederic Harrison, who has been described as the high priest of English positivism, was asked by his son what a man who falls in love but cannot marry is to do, he replied indignantly: "Do! Do what every gentleman does in such circumstances. Do what your religion teaches you. Do what morality prescribes as right." When his son persisted in wanting to know why love was proper only in marriage, Harrison could barely contain himself: "A loose man is a foul man. He is anti-social. He is a beast." He finally put an end to the matter: "It is not a subject that decent men do discuss."

Thus the evolutionists claimed to hold a standard of morality that would rarely have been found among the upper classes in the time of Darwin's grandfather. Occasionally they were able to make the defenders of the Bible appear to be fighting for matters of wording, and thus seem to have forsaken the standard of sincerity and truth. One occasion of this sort has often been described. It was at a large meeting at Oxford University where representatives of both views were invited. All the principal supporters of evolution, except Darwin himself, were present. Huxley, who was as yet comparatively unknown, sat on the platform as Darwin's representative. The bishop of Oxford, an able speaker with considerable knowledge of many fields of thought, presented a whole series of scientific arguments against Darwin's theories, and then descended to ridicule. Turning to Huxley, he asked him whether it was through his grandfather or through his grandmother that he claimed descent from a monkey. Huxley startled the man who sat next to him by exclaiming, "The Lord hath delivered him into mine hands!" When it was Huxley's turn to speak he quietly presented a series of scientific arguments, and went on to say that it was not Darwin's intention to prove a direct relationship between man and ape but only the descent of both, though thousands of generations, from a common ancestor. Then he concluded with the words:

I asserted -- and I repeat -- that a man has no reason to be ashamed of having
an ape for his grandfather. If there was an ancestor whom I should feel shame
in recalling, it would rather be a man of restless and versatile intellect, who,
not content with an equivocal success in his own sphere of activity, plunges into
scientific questions with which he had no real acquaintance, only to obscure them
by an aimless rhetoric, and distract the attention of his hearers from the real
point at issue by eloquent digressions and skilled appeals to religous prejudice.

Thus the adherents of evolution claimed to occupy higher ground, and sought to use the results of the Great Awakening as a weapon against those who were defending the Bible, the source from which those results had come.

In later years Huxley expressed doubts about the theory of natural selection, lamenting the lack of inductive evidence. From 1870 to 1872 he was a member of the London School Board. The Encyclopaedia Brittanica says:

In the brief period during which he acted, probably more than any man he left
his mark on the foundations of national elementary education. . . . He insisted
on the teaching of the Bible partly as a great literary heritage, partly because
he was "seriously perplexed to know by what practical measures the religious
feeling, which is the essential basis of conduct, was to be kept up, in the
presently utterly chaotic state of opinion in these matters, without its use."

Huxley was invited to give the prestigious Romanes lecture at Oxford in 1894, and he devoted part of it to urging that ideas of survival of the fittest not be carried over from the animal world to the area of human conduct, leading many evolutionists to think that he had to some extent fallen by the wayside.

Although the purpose of Darwin's book was to present natural selection as the method of evolution, a substantial part of the book was devoted to presenting the alleged evidence for evolution itself. Previous evolutionary writers, such as Lamarck and Darwin's own grandfather, Erasmus Darwin, were rather contemptuously dismissed, and the words "my theory" were frequently used. In later editions "my theory" was changed to "the theory" in more than forty places.


In my opinion one of the cleverest and most damaging things that Satan ever accomplished was the establishment of the word "evolution" as the common term for this theory. Actually there are only two ways in which the great multitude of varying types of plants and animals could have come into existence. They were produced either by the intelligent choices of a wise Creator or by an accidental effect of unintelligent forces. The word "evolution" can easily give an entirely false idea of what is meant, for it suggests that the important factor is merely change or development. It would have prevented a great deal of confusion if the theory had been designated by a more correct description, "the theory of accidental origin."

Once I heard a young man say: "How can you doubt evolution? Anyone can see the evolution of a boy into a man. It is perfectly obvious."

This statement is not as absurd as it might seem. Change is a common fact of life. It would be difficult to imagine a greater metamorphosis than the change of a caterpillar, that crawls on the ground and chews leaves, into a butterfly or moth, that hovers in the air and takes in liquid food sucked from flowers. Such a complete change in the life of a single organism would be hardly believable if it were not a frequently observed phenomenon. If these creatures were known to us only from fossils no one would be apt to guess that a caterpillar that had died young and a beautiful butterfly, both preserved as fossils, were related at all. This illustrates the difficulty of making definite statements about the relationship of creatures known only through fossils.

Anyone who looks about him is bound to see that change is constantly going on. If one returns to any part of the world after an absence of a few years he is apt to find that great physical changes have occurred. He may be shocked to see the effects of upheavals or catastrophes. He is sure to find many results of slow and gradual change. In every phase of life changes of one sort or another are constantly occurring. No child is exactly like either of its parents. The whole human race has descended from Adam, yet today it includes individuals who differ from one another in hundreds of ways. Human languages are constantly developing in various directions. When a man of today looks at an English book written in the 13th century he can hardly understand it.

The Bible does not teach that things do not change. It is the scoffers rather than the Christians whom it describes as saying: "All things continue as they were from the beginning of the creation" (2 Peter 3:3-4). Christians should recognize the common fact of change. This, however, is very different from accepting as true the unfounded guess that all existing types of life have developed by natural processes from one simple beginning.

The weakest feature of Darwin's theory was its unproved assumption that millions of varying types of viable plants and animals were constantly being produced, and that there was no limit to the extent to which these gradual variations might go. Observation and experiment do not bear out this assumption. While there may be confusion as to the proper definition of a species, it is easy to demonstrate that all plants and animals can be divided into a finite number of "kinds," and that viable specimens beyond the limit of such kinds are rarely if ever found. In Darwin's day it was easy to assume that research among fossils would eventually produce such "missing links," of which there would, of course, be great numbers. Despite the dogmatic assertions of Carl Sagan that the fossil chart proves evolution, one may reasonably wonder whether there is today any competent biologist who can still hold that there is definite evidence that such great numbers of intermediate forms ever actually existed. In this century some informed evolutionists have said that new forms come into existence by sudden jumps, such as, for instance, the birth of a bird from a serpent's egg. Aside from being a complete departure from Darwin's theory, such jumps, if they ever occurred, would come so seldom that the chances of ever being able to prove that one had occurred would be very slight.

More recently the idea of sudden jumps has lost favor and been largely replaced by a "punctuated equilibrium" model which proposes relatively rapid changes over a few generations or a few thousand years -- "just a moment in the geological record" -- followed by long-term stability of the resultant new species. Such a theory might seem to have a slightly improved prospect of eventually being supported by definite fossil evidence in some of the thousands of cases in which, according to evolutionary theory, it would have had to occur. Yet it is really no easier to believe -- in fact, harder -- than the idea of creation by an intelligent planner.

The problem of finding a cause for the alleged rise of the many varieties from which natural selection could eventually choose survivors was discussed by Darwin in some of his later books, in which he advanced such theories as "pangenesis" and "sexual selection," none of which received any wide acceptance by other scientists.


The dogmatic teaching of evolutionary theories as established fact has done great harm to Christian faith and has been a potent factor in the widespread lowering of moral standards. As far as Christian faith is concerned, one phase of its application has been particularly vital. I refer to its combination by Julius Wellhausen with ideas of literary partition of the Bible, which had previously been largely confined to the studies of a few scholars. Just as Darwinian evolution swept the scientific world during the years after 1859, this so-called "Higher Criticism" swept the theological world during the years after 1882, eventually becoming dominant in most of the established theological seminaries.

This aspect of evolutionary teaching, by causing great numbers of theological students to turn away from belief in Biblical dependability, has been effective in removing Biblical faith from the teaching of numerous churches and even whole denominations in many parts of the world. To the average layman it appears rather incomprehensible, but its effect upon the churches has been widespread and deadly.

Darwin was assuredly not one of the world's great thinkers. But the movement to which his name gave so great an impetus has had immeasurable effects.


Jacques Barzun. Darwin, Marx, Wagner. 2nd rev. ed. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1958.

Michael Denton. Evolution: A Theory in Crisis. Bethesda, Md.: Adler and Adler, 1986.
An excellent critique of evolution from a scientific perspective by a non-Christian, an Australian medical researcher.

Loren C. Eiseley. Darwin's Century: Evolution and the Men Who Discovered It. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1958.

Alan Hayward. Creation and Evolution: The Facts and the Fallacies. Philadelphia: Fortress, 1985.
An evangelical physicist critiques both evolution and young-earth creationism.

Gertrude Himmelfarb. Darwin and the Darwinian Revolution. New York: Norton, 1962.

Gordon Rattray Taylor. The Great Evolution Mystery. New York: Harper & Row, 1983.
A fine scientific critique of Darwinian evolution by a popular non-Christian science writer.