Darwin on Change and How It Challenged the Church’s Beliefs

FROM THE LECTURE SERIES: Redefining Reality: The Intellectual Implications of Modern Science

By Steven Gimbel, Ph.D., Gettysburg College

The church was completely in tune with Aristotle’s findings, but it was in contradiction to the views held by Darwin on change. Darwin challenged the theory that everything was perfect in this world because it was created by a perfect God.

Illustration of Darwin's theory of evolution in four stages
Charles Darwin’s findings, that species grew over time and adjusted effectively according to the change in the environment, challenged the Church’s beliefs.
(Image: Imassimo82/Shutterstock)

As the Church adapted Aristotle’s scientific views as its official principle for all theological purposes, there was still room to account for constitutional differences in the species and divide them into different categories. But then the list of categories of the species could be organized in the order of their perfection. This could be in the order of lowest to the highest perfection. In this hierarchy of perfection, humans could be near the top of the list with angels above them and God taking the topmost position. This was termed as the Great Chain of Being. Each organism belonged to a species, there was a place on earth for each species and was a part of the Great Chain of Being. This whole system was settled and unchangeable. It was created by God and was as perfect as Him. 

This is a transcript from the video series Redefining Reality: The Intellectual Implications of Modern Science. Watch it now, on The Great Courses Plus.

Darwin on Change

But British naturalist Charles Darwin’s theories on change suggested otherwise. His findings that the species grew over time and adjusted effectively according to the change in the environment, challenged the Church’s beliefs. Here the question was that if the species grew or changed over a period of time then they were not perfect to start with. Since God is perfect, his creations would also be perfect or the best of all the worlds that were possible. But because the world was changing, it meant that either it was the best of all the possible worlds earlier and presently it was not or it was moving towards ultimately becoming the best of all the possible worlds. These were the views of Darwin on change. Whichever way it was, whatever God created would show some level of imperfection and God is absolutely perfect, this was in contradiction with that. The world should have been the best of all the possible worlds, presently was the best of all possible worlds, and will always remain so.

But Darwin’s studies showed that organisms did not develop according to any fixed plans. According to him, species change their properties with time, as per the selection methods that decide which of the characteristics would remain in them and which would not. And this was from the outside and not inside. These changes in the characteristics are not progressive. There is a no bigger plan as such for them to move by which they become more perfect said Darwin on change. Species simply adjust to the existing situations. These situations are themselves are not a part of a bigger plan and would change automatically without any reason and plan.

Photograph of seated Darwin.
Charles Darwin’s studies showed that organisms did not develop according to any fixed plans. (Image: Charles_Darwin_seated.jpg: Henry Maull (1829–1914) and John Fox (1832–1907) (Maull & Fox) [3]derivative work: Beao/Public domain)

Darwin’s studies did not have any of the bigger theological outlooks of Aristotle’s approach that was easily and comfortably accepted and embraced by the Church. The picture of a stable world where everything was placed by God where it should have been, was replaced by what was said by Darwin on change. It was a picture of a world where imperfect things adjusted with each other that further propelled the idea of a world that was changing continuously and always remained unstable. Darwin is known for his association with evolution but another man Alfred Russel Wallace met him there. Wallace was younger than Darwin and was in contact with him. It is known from Darwin’s work that he got the idea first. However, Darwin was an anxious kind of man who disliked any type of dispute.  Ideas of Darwin on change were very exhaustive and sweeping so he was taking a lot of time to bring these ideas out in print.

Learn more about the search for a grand unified theory (GUT).

Why Did Darwin Delay Publishing His Work?

There were two reasons for it. The first was that he did not want to publish it until he was sure that his findings would not be challenged. To this effect, he knew he would face a lot of resistance. So he was collecting evidence to boost support by taking arguments from fields like animal husbandry, archeology, geology, and from every possible area of science that he could get to so that he could show that everything leads to his conclusions. So the conclusions of Darwin on change remained with him for quite some time. But his ultra-careful attitude and his taking such a long time enabled Wallace to reach the same conclusions that Darwin had on change without knowing about his findings. The second reason for such a long delay in Darwin’s findings coming out in the open was that he wanted his work to be published after his death. And since he was alive, he did not get his work in print. The thinking behind this reason was that he did not want to face critics and he thought this was the best way to avoid them. In any case, Darwin was sick throughout much of his adult life so he thought it would not be long before he was dead, so he could afford to wait.

This is the photograph of Alfred Russel Wallace (1855-1922).
Alfred Russel Wallace and Charles Darwin had the same theories on evolution. (Image: London Stereoscopic and Photographic Company (active 1855-1922)/Public domain)

But one day, Darwin received a letter from Wallace and in it was the core of the same theory that he had been working on for so many years. He knew if Wallace published his work first, all his hard work of years would go down the drain. No one will be interested in the findings of Darwin on change. But he could not publish his work now as that would amount to intellectual property theft. This was because Wallace had sent him an idea and if he published his work in his name, it would be assumed that he had stolen Wallace’s work. He was in a predicament about the course of action he should take. He went to one of his old professors named Charles Lyell, and they found a way forward. They decided that Darwin would write a short version of his own work and let Wallace know that he also had the same idea and the two of them would publish the work together at the same time in the same journal. Since Darwin’s findings were much advanced, the theory of adaptive evolution came to be associated with his name only.

Learn more about how chaos is not randomness.

Common Questions about Darwin on Change

Q: What is Darwinism?

Darwinism is a theory by Charles Darwin about biological evolution. It says that all species grow through natural selection.

Q: What was Darwin’s view on extinction?

Darwin said that extinction is not general. Only those species who are unable to get better than other species are extinct.

Q: What was the effect of Darwin on society?

Charles Darwin had a great impact on society because he was the one who created awareness about the process of evolution among people.

Q: What was Darwin’s statement about adaptation?

Charles Darwin said that the only species that could survive were those who could adapt to the change and not the strongest or most intelligent ones.

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