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When and Why Anti-Darwinism First Arose

posted by David Klinghoffer
I’m a big fan of Rod Dreher. His Crunchy Con blog rarely fails to enlighten me, so I’ve been looking forward to his reflections on faith and science, generated by his current visit to Cambridge University as a Cambridge-Templeton fellow. Rod blogged today in response to a lecture and discussion in which evolution came up. He writes that “Darwinism wasn’t initially opposed by Christians” and credits William Jennings Bryan with rallying the faithful against evolution. This is worth some further elaboration. How soon did opposition to Darwinism develop? Among whom, and why? 
The question matters because if anti-Darwin sentiment only developed 60 years after the Origin of Species appeared, that might suggest it came from historical causes rather than reflecting fatal flaws in the evolutionary idea itself. With the passing of those historical circumstances, opposing Darwin today might then seem hopelessly outdated.
Darwinism means belief in the mechanism of unguided natural selection as fully capable of producing life’s countless forms, thus supplanting any meaningful notion of design in biology. The idea was controversial from the start, scientifically and morally. In fact, early critics of all stripes, Christians and others, clearly perceived the worldview to which Darwin gave scientific-seeming confirmation. And they trembled.
On the new Faith and Evolution site, Benjamin Wiker reminds us that purely scientific resistance to natural selection arose quickly, including from some of Darwin’s closet scientific allies — even Alfred Russell Wallace, the co-discover of evolution:

Immediately upon publishing, [Darwin] threw himself into an enormous international effort to have his theory affirmed, pulling every string available. Four men were particularly influential as his helpmates in this endeavor: Charles Lyell, Asa Gray, Thomas Huxley, and Joseph Hooker. Along with…Alfred Wallace, they strove to make Darwinism respectable.

Ironically, three of these men — Lyell, Gray, and Wallace — affirmed evolution [in the sense of an old earth and common descent] but thought that natural selection alone was radically insufficient to account for man’s moral and intellectual nature. Evolution needed God. Their “defection” so peeved Darwin that he wrote another book, The Descent of Man (1871), in which he made his case that our moral, intellectual, and “spiritual” aspects are all derived from natural and sexual selection. Evolution did not need God, thank you.

In the moral realm, it was immediately evident to farsighted people that Darwinism would have far-reaching consequences, distinctly not for the good, and that it represented a moral revolution. One prophet was Darwin’s own professor of natural science when he was at Cambridge, Adam Sedgwick. In a letter to Darwin dated December 24, 1859, shortly after the Origin came out, Sedgwick warned that if the new book were successful in breaking the link in men’s minds between material and moral reality, then “humanity, in my mind, would suffer a damage that might brutalize it, and sink the human race into a lower grade of degradation than any into which it has fallen since its written records tell us of its history.” The following March, Sedgwick reviewed the Origin for the London Spectator and condemned its “cold atheistical materialism.”
As the 19th century progressed, religious and other social thinkers saw what the future held. These included figures who have long been derided by elite, “sophisticated” opinion. For example, Bishop Samuel Wilberforce pointed out that Darwin’s theory undermined traditional ideas of responsibility and free will. He cited as prophetic the 17th-century English philosopher Henry More’s forecast that “vile epicurism and sensuality will make the soul of man so degenerate and blind, that he will not only be content to slide into brutish immorality, but please himself in this very opinion that he is a real brute already, an ape, satyr, or baboon.” In this view, the embrace of Darwin was not only a potential cause of cultural degeneration but also a symptom of it.
The German pastor Rudolf Schmid wrote of Darwinism in 1876 that, as many critics perceived it, this “unproven hypothesis…threatens to become a torch, which could reduce the most noble and highest culture achievements of the past century to a heap of ashes.” Darwinism could tempt men into seeing the “struggle for existence” as the logical paradigm for human interaction: “Of him who learns to look upon himself only as a product of nature, though highly ennobled, we cannot expect any other principle than that of following his nature….Where this leads to, everybody knows who knows human nature.” 
A German rabbi who inspired modern Orthodox Judaism, and whose name readers of this blog will recognize by now — Samson Raphael Hirsch — in 1878 used the Biblical image of the pagan idol Baal Peor, adored in worship by mixing defecation with sexual intercourse, to illustrate “the kind of Darwinism that revels in the conception of man sinking to the level of beast and stripping itself of its divine nobility, learns to consider itself just a ‘higher’ class of animal.”
Though Darwin himself was unable to anticipate the savage use to which his theory would be put by various 20th-century political movements, even he appreciated a moral danger inherent in it. His writing calls into question not only the belief in God but in any abiding, objective, non-relative code of morality. In a notebook, he observed that “the general delusion about free will [is] obvious,” thus “one deserves no credit for anything…nor ought one to blame others.” He recognized it would be harmful, to say the least, to society if the “delusion” of moral responsibility were dispelled among the general population. But luckily the masses would never be “fully convinced of its truth.” He was an optimist.
It’s arguable, however, that Darwin’s bitterest critics on religious and moral grounds were not clergymen at all but his fellow scientists. On the Harvard campus, Asa Gray’s promotion of evolution was met by the fierce opposition of zoologist Louis Agassiz, who gave a series of addresses on Darwinism in 1862 at the Brooklyn Academy of Music: “The Structure of Animal Life, being six lectures on the Power, Wisdom, and Goodness of God, as manifested in his works.” When questioned, Agassiz’s answer to the mystery of how species originated was blunt: it was by “a thought of God.”
Darwin and his ideas functioned as a Rorschach test. Those who felt religious tradition to be a burden tended to see evolution as a source of liberation. The English biologist and eugenics advocate Karl Pearson remembered, as a young man, “the joy we…felt when we saw that wretched date BC 4004 [previously assumed to be the year of the world's creation], replaced by a long vista of millions of years of development.” Pearson would go on to teach that Darwinian theory obliged advanced Europeans to make “war” on “inferior races.”
Among Darwin’s friends and foes, many could agree that, as Darwin’s own wife Emma put it, the theory of natural selection “put God further off.” However, one could see that as a good or a bad thing. The specter of atheism has today lost its power to shock. We know what a secularized culture is like. Darwin’s contemporaries, of course, did not know, which heightened their fear that perhaps civilization itself could not survive the subtraction of the divine from human experience.
In his long poem “City of Dreadful Night,” written between 1870 and 1873, the Scotsman James Thomson crystallized the underlying dread that many felt. He paints a nightmare vision of London transformed in the wake of the death of God: “O melancholy Brothers, dark, dark, dark!/ O battling in black floods without an ark!/ O spectral wanderers of unholy Night!” If you imagine a Victorian Gothic version of an apocalyptic Stephen King novel, you’ll have the atmosphere of Thomson’s poem about right.
Many accepted the scientific truth of Darwinism even as they feared its consequences. Friedrich Nietzsche, for one, has been claimed as a Darwinist (by H.L. Mencken, for one, who applauded him for it) and defended from the charge (by biographer Walter Kauffman). Both views are partly right. 
In “On the Use and Abuse of History for Life” (1873), Nietzsche anguished at the consequences he foresaw: 

If the doctrines of sovereign Becoming, of the liquidity of all…species, of the lack of any cardinal distinction between man and animal — doctrines which I consider true but deadly — are foisted on people for another generation with the frenzied instruction which is now customary, then it should take no one by surprise if people destroy themselves in egotistical trifles and misery, ossifying themselves in their self-absorption, initially falling apart and ceasing to be a people. Then, in place of this condition, perhaps systems of individual egotism, alliances for the systematic larcenous exploitation of those non-members of the alliance and similar creations of utilitarian nastiness will step forward onto the future scene.

Darwinism’s impact was felt across Europe and America not as any sort of “gift” to religious belief for which we should “thank God,” as some today hail Darwin’s theory — but as the most powerful blow to faith in modern times. It was with that impact in mind that Nietzsche in Thus Spoke Zarathustra declared the death of God and the impending overthrow of Christian “slave morality.”
A young friend of Darwin, the biologist George Romanes, came increasingly to question his mentor’s theory and lament its impact, passing through a period of agnosticism and partly regaining his Christian faith before dying at the untimely age of 46. He wrote: 

Never in the history of man has so terrific a calamity befallen the race as that which all who look may now behold advancing as a deluge, black with destruction, resistless in might, uprooting our most cherished hopes, engulfing our most precious creed, and burying our highest life in mindless desolation. . . . The flood-gates of infidelity are open, and Atheism overwhelming is upon us.

A little over the top, maybe, but not without foresight, either. So when Rod writes that Christians didn’t initially oppose Darwin, the historical facts are, I think, subtler and more interesting. Lots of people saw the dangers in Darwinism and urged others not to swallow the science behind the idea without applying plenty of well-informed skepticism first. That’s something, from the beginning of this blog, I’ve urged readers to do.

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posted June 2, 2009 at 9:22 am

While the history of Darwinism is interesting to rehash from both a scientific and historical standpoint, in no way is the reality of evolution and natural selection abrogated by what any of these people said. It makes no difference how the theory was abused in the past, it is still an objective reality.
The evolution debate really relates to the underlying concept of scientific positivism, science can answer what are origins are, the way we think, and even the nature of our moral and religious behavior, and perhaps everything.
I like what Emma Darwin said about putting God further off. I am a bit afraid of how far off He is myself, but I think we must be willing to face what science is telling us.

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posted June 2, 2009 at 12:44 pm

I agree with the previous comment. This post also seems to suggest that the world has indeed become more immoral after the Origin was published. This is an empirical question. I doubt that it has.
Moreover, if Darwin’s theory has been abused to achieve immoral ends, how is this different than the abuse of all manner of scripture by religious zealots through the ages? For you, does the abuse of scripture in order to achieve violence cast doubt on its veracity?
I’m even torturing the facts a little here to be generous. One doesn’t have to abuse scripture, Hebrew or otherwise, to commit atrocities. One only has to carry out its explicit edicts to commit atrocities, which our post-Darwin world now almost universally condemns.

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Glen Davidson

posted June 2, 2009 at 12:45 pm

And what could we explain in biology without evolution and its mechanisms?
Aspects that can be explained by physics alone, virtually nothing about the history and taxonomy of life, or the distribution and change in genes throughout life. Archaeopteryx would just be a not very well “designed” bird, unaccountably dinosaur-like and for that reason not as capable as modern birds.
Note the bias in David’s portrayal. He does not credit science for why nearly all scientists accept the theory today. But he does credit the opposition to Darwin’s ideas as coming from “science,” when clearly one can question Agassiz’s motives, including his desire that human races have separate origins.
The fact is that one can understand scientists who had doubts (another thing David forgets is that there were faulty “experiments” that reputedly demonstrated inheritance of acquired characterists (not, of course, today’s limited epigenetics)) at the time, for much was not known. Indeed, heredity is often pointed out as being one of these, far less often is it noted that Mendelian heredity obviated a number of the scientific doubts regarding “Darwinism.”
Indeed, IDists often charge that “Darwinism” was merely accepted on “faith” or some such thing, but of course the proper debates occurred, and “design” was shown not to be visible in life. ID had its hearings, which is the subtext to David’s account which he leaves unwritten.
It’s as relevant to today’s science to point to scientific doubts early on as it is relevant to point to many doubts and objections to “continental drift” and to plate tectonics. Almost not relevant at all, save as a history of how well evolution has been considered and debated, quite unlike the loyalty-oath “model” that ID has. There were doubts, and further consideration, not to mention huge amounts of research, have alleviated nearly all doubts regarding both plate tectonics and “Darwinism.”
That is the real meaning of the debate about evolution.
By the way, evolution may have put god further off, as did the electrical theory of lightning, heliocentrism, and the germ theory of disease. Unfortunately for theists who desire to “see god in nature,” the entire history of science is the movement away from once seemingly reasonable supernatural forces (indeed, motion itself was often taken to be a mark of “animism”), to causal explanations. That may or may not be lamentable (do we need a sacred spot as refuge from an age when the old gods are dead, and the new not yet risen?), but it’s simply the story of scientific progress.
Darwin filled an important causal gap, and for that we on the science side are pleased with his work.
Glen Davidson

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posted June 2, 2009 at 12:59 pm

(worth a second mention)
Congratulations to you – and your fine colleagues at the Discovery Institute- on your stalwart efforts to debunk the Jewish conspiracy which goes by the name of the theory of evolution.
For this you have been nominated for the Sheikh Harami Interfaith Trophy.
The Quran records – in a tale connected to a rabbinic midrash (see Jerusalem Studies in Arabs and Islam (1991), pp. 162-175)- that, for their disobedience, some Jews were turned into apes/monkeys and pigs (2:65, 5:60, 7:166) . Being regarded as the offspring of pigs and monkeys has served as an ongoing source of shame and ignominy for generations of Jewish people.
So, in the nineteenth century, a remedy to lift this burden arrived in the form of a bright, young explorer returning from an expedition to the Galapagos Islands, where he had made some intriguing observations: Charles Darwin.
Darwin – either a crypto-Jew himself or an individual with sympathy for the Jews- seized upon this opportunity, perhaps even massaging his data (as Friar Mendel must have done in his well-known experiment).
When everyone is responsible, no one is responsible; similarly, if all of humankind descends from the animal world (especially, from monkeys), then no one group- such as the Jews- can be singled out for stain and stigma.
Thus, in one stroke, in the name of science, the burden of Jewry’s shame and disgrace is obliterated once and for all.
(Or, alternatively, according to this view, we are all Jews now.)
Well done, Daud, in exposing this junk science and the propaganda fraud which is evolutionary theory!
Rabbi Meyer Schiller would be so proud.
DELETING this post will simply confirm the truth of its contents.

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posted June 2, 2009 at 1:04 pm

David–Can you get back to discussing recovering the wisdom of the Bible? It often seems that every 1 out of 2 or 2 out of every 3 of your blogs have nothing to do with the wisdom of the Bible. Your views about childless court nominees and your endless (and often inaccurate discussions) of Darwin’s theories can be interesting but are basically beside the point re: recovering the wisdom of the Bible.
Often, I do not see eye to eye with you re: interpreting the Bible. But I often find your comments on the subject something to think about. Can you please get back to the basic reason for the existance of your blog?

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posted June 2, 2009 at 3:42 pm

As is the case with most of what you write, this idea that acceptance of the theory of evolution leads to ‘tragic consequences’ is completely contrary to reality. Acceptance of the theory of evolution correlates with less crime, better health, better education, etc.
“In general, higher rates of belief in and worship of a creator correlate with higher rates of homicide, juvenile and early adult mortality, STD infection rates, teen pregnancy, and abortion in the prosperous democracies (Figures 1-9). The most theistic prosperous democracy, the U.S., is exceptional, but not in the manner Franklin predicted. The United States is almost always the most dysfunctional of the developed democracies, sometimes spectacularly so, and almost always scores poorly…No democracy is known to have combined strong religiosity and popular denial of evolution with high rates of societal health. Higher rates of non-theism and acceptance of human evolution usually correlate with lower rates of dysfunction, and the least theistic nations are usually the least dysfunctional. None of the strongly secularized, pro-evolution democracies is experiencing high levels of measurable dysfunction. In some cases the highly religious U.S. is an outlier in terms of societal dysfunction from less theistic but otherwise socially comparable secular developed democracies.”

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Reginald Selkirk

posted June 2, 2009 at 4:26 pm

“On the Harvard campus, Asa Gray’s promotion of evolution was met by the fierce opposition of zoologist Louis Agassiz”
You might have mentioned that Asa Gray was also Christian.

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Steven Sullivan

posted June 2, 2009 at 4:57 pm

Wallace’s embrace of Victorian-style spirituality (not Christianity or Judaism) in the 1860s considerably damaged his career, which went into decline; yet it was his friend Charles Darwin who was instrumental in getting him a pension when he retired, over the objections of some other members of the academy.
Is that the action of ‘cold materialist atheist’?
As for repudiating Darwin, Wallace was a strong champion of Origin of Species from the beginning, and remained so; he even wrote a book defending natural selection, called ‘Darwinism:An Exposition of the Theory of Natural Selection, with Some of Its Applications’, in 1889, decades after OoS was published, and well after he embraced spiritualism. Wallace and Darwin differed mainly in the Wallace was unable to conceive how natural selection operating over vast spans of time could account for consciousness and ‘higher functions’ of the human brain. Essentially it was an argument from incredulity, shot through with mystical, anthropocentric, unscientific faith that the universe has a *purpose*: to bring forth humanity, of course!
The supposed evil ‘consequences’ of Darwin’s findings, are merely the consequences of human selfishness, stupidity and illogical tendency to proceed from an ‘is’ (the ‘struggle’ of all against all in nature) to a moral ‘ought’ (what is ‘natural’ is ‘good’). Blame that on evolution or God, if you like.

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posted June 2, 2009 at 11:33 pm

The correlation between denial of evolution and religiosity in general, on the one hand, and various social problems on the other, does not mean that one causes the other. Many of the improved outcomes in Europe directly relate to their superior social safety net, which they have not because they are less religious and believe in evolution more, but because labor unions and social democratic parties (which admittedly were influenced by socialist ideology) dominated for decades during the mid-20th century. There’s also slavery, and its aftermath: after a brief Reconstruction, an authoritarian, one-party South kept African-Americans poor, uneducated, oppressed, and politically voiceless until the mid-20th century. No European country experienced anything similar. These same politicians refused to invest in social services, either at the state or national level, because they didn’t want any government money going to African-Americans. Besides blocking the development of a nationwide social safety net, this meant Southern whites were disproportionately poor and uneducated too, because of a lack of state-level services. As to why the post-Slavery white Southern elite acted this way, I think it’s safe to say you can’t blame the public’s religiosity or lack of belief in Darwinism. Religious beliefs didn’t cause American social problems; you have to look at our history and government policies.
However, it is true that vast majorities of many countries (and I’m sure many US states) believe in evolution, and they haven’t descended into a Social Darwinist nightmare where people prey on the weak and so on. On the contrary, Europe (and less religious US states) spend more on helping the poor. This isn’t because they believe in evolution, though, but because they don’t have the political legacy of opposition to welfare spending, which has more to do with racism than anything else.

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posted June 2, 2009 at 11:44 pm

David: Benjamin Wiker reminds us that purely scientific resistance to natural selection arose quickly, including from some of Darwin’s closet scientific allies….It’s arguable, however, that Darwin’s bitterest critics on religious and moral grounds were not clergymen at all but his fellow scientists
Even the most cursory study of the history of science shows that in the case of any new theory, the bitterest critics are other scientists, often erstwhile “closest scientific allies”. This is absolutely irrelevant to truth or falsity. The side with the best evidence eventually wins out–sometimes it’s the new theory, sometimes it’s the attackers.
Wilker as quoted by David: Ironically, three of these men — Lyell, Gray, and Wallace — affirmed evolution [in the sense of an old earth and common descent] but thought that natural selection alone was radically insufficient to account for man’s moral and intellectual nature.
OK, David, I’ll put it to you directly–do you at least accept the possibility of an old earth (which I think you have admitted previously) and common descent (on which you’ve said nothing)? Once again, it’s a matter of simple courtesy to come clean about exactly what you believe in order for us to further any kind of dialogue beyond talking points.
Finally, for the fiftieth time: It can be cogently argued that heliocentrism and nuclear technology both lead to very bad consequences. Is that sufficient reason to call them in to question on scientific grounds? I mean, by your logic we should look at every scientific idea in terms of its socio-cultural effects, and if we don’t like these, reject it regardless of the scientific evidence. Oddly, it’s only ever evolution that you argue should be “reevaluated”. Could you please, please, please speak to this? I don’t see how serious dialogue is possible without figuring out where you stand in this area.

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David Klinghoffer

posted June 3, 2009 at 1:38 am

Tumarion, I don’t see how you can still be asking these questions after reading my blog for two months — for which, however, thank you. An old earth is scientifically undeniable as well as being theologically inoffensive except to a Biblical literalist, which I’m not. Common descent — I guess you could say I’m agnostic. If true, it doesn’t strike at the heart of Biblical theism in anything like the way that Darwinism does.
Regarding heliocentrism, there are actually interesting parallels between geocentrism and Darwinism. See here: But again, the sun’s being at the center of our solar system only bumps up against the most naive Biblical literalism, to which, I repeat, I have no reason to feel committed. There are no worldview implications and the scientific evidence is undeniable. What is there to talk about?
Nuclear technology? Huh? Again, there’s no challenge to anyone’s worldview at all. It has no philosophical implications, plus it has been practically demonstrated. There’s no comparison with Darwinism.

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Glen Davidson

posted June 3, 2009 at 1:22 pm

A YEC site says this:

This angle makes it sound like scientists are on a noble quest for the truth without any preconceptions or philosophical bias. It whitewashes the fact that all studies of historical geology must make a lot of assumptions about Earth history, which nobody ever witnessed and which is impossible to reconstruct using the scientific method. The assumptions that long-age geologists begin with are based on their materialist worldview that they accept based on their faith and philosophy, not science. [Emphasis supplied]

See if you can spot the similarities between that statement and David’s anti-evolutionary institute.

From the Governing Goals listed in the Wedge Document of David’s institute:

To replace materialistic explanations with the theistic understanding that nature and hurnan beings are created by God.

From the CSC’s earlier mission statement:

This materialistic conception of reality eventually infected virtually every area of our culture, from politics and economics to literature and music.

Ah, yes, the only difference between David’s and the DI’s position and that of the YECs is that the evidence for an old earth and universe passes the religious tests of the former, but not those of the latter. The same “assumptions” (“working axioms” one might more reasonably call them) underlie both the conclusion that the earth is old and that life evolved.
If the DI gets its way, however, there will be nothing except evidence-free theology to combat YEC insistence that the ancient earth should be treated as fiction. The DI cannot win against evolution using science, so it has to get rid of science by calling it “materialism” and thus illegitimate. But that’s what all pseudoscientists must do, YECs, IDists, Raelians, and astrologers.
Whether or not David believes in an ancient earth is thus superfluous, because he has to destroy scientific standards in order to inject his theology into science teaching (whether as the DI’s bogus “criticisms” of evolution, or otherwise), and that leaves the door wide open for the AIG to teach that the earth is young.
This is not a slippery slope argument. YECs and IDists simply have the same goal, of destroying scientific standards, since their ideas cannot withstand scientific scrutiny.
Glen Davidson

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Your Name

posted June 5, 2009 at 1:57 pm

All of this is off the scientific point to be made. A scientifically verified world design has been found, by me, so the current debates are obsolete — if other scientists than me will get off their dogmatic denial of design to confront the evidence I have tried to bring out for the last six years. You are all wasting years, rather than heed the call of new knowledge. Not even the Discovery Institute or David Klinghoffer, whom I have tried to inform of my discoveries, will condescend to let the new science out. See my new blog at, and please read the few posts there starting from the earliest.

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Harry Dale Huffman

posted June 5, 2009 at 1:59 pm

All of this is off the scientific point to be made. A scientifically verified world design has been found, so the current debates are obsolete — if other scientists than me will get off their dogmatic denial of design to confront the evidence I have tried to bring out for the last six years. You are all wasting years, rather than heed the call of new knowledge. Not even the Discovery Institute or David Klinghoffer, whom I have tried to inform of my discoveries, will condescend to let the new science out. See my new blog at, and please read the few posts there starting from the earliest.

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