This paper deals not with the history of evolution as a theory during the last hundred years, but rather with the background influences that have enabled the theory to be widely accepted. I am not going to go into the details of who said what on a particular date when Darwin first propounded his theory. I want to look at the kind of background which made it almost inevitable by the mid-nineteenth century that a theory like Darwin’s would be put forward, and not only that, but a theory like Darwin’s would be very widely accepted. To gain a real understanding of evolution, we first must come to grips with the fact that a very large number of perfectly intelligent and apparently sincere human beings have accepted the theory, and accepted it for what to them appear to be very good reasons.
“Why is it that people have thought that this theory is such a powerful explainer of so many things?”
Let me first highlight what I feel the problem is as it presently stands, and to do that let us go back to the Middle Ages. You may ask what has medieval philosophy got to do with the problems of evolution in 1979? Well, it has a great deal to do with it. I want first to look at the beginnings of modern science. In particular I want to look at the influence of the people who worked in the circle with Isaac Newton, and on that basis I then want to show how evolution was the sort of theory one might expect to be accepted, within this long scientific tradition dating back to the Middle Ages. Darwin’s theory of evolution is a perfectly natural and a perfectly reasonable consequence of the view of science and the view of the scientific method, which, unless we are very critically aware, most of us accept. Darwin’s theory, contrary to some contemporary views is not just a mad aberration, it is not just an odd twist, which destroyed the development of modern science, it is certainly not a mischievous plot. Contrary to some views it is not part of an international Zionist plot to destroy the human race. It is a perfectly natural and reasonable expression of a view of science, which, as a matter of fact, most of us go along with until in Darwin’s theory it goes crunch against something else that we are so vitally concerned about.
What I want to do in the remainder of the paper then is a very short survey of some developments in the history of western thought which I think paved the way for the development of this scientific worldview, and hence for what is almost a universal acceptance of Darwin’s theory of evolution. In doing this I want you to see something of the nature of the assumptions on which this generally accepted view of science rests.
The problem of evolution, you see, is part of a much larger problem. It has to do with the relationship of science to Christian belief, or even on a greater scale, it has got to do with the whole relationship of natural, man-attained, man-acquired knowledge to revealed truth, to Divine revelation. This isn’t just a problem for our world: it was a problem for the Church in the early centuries and some of the Church Fathers wrote on it. Augustine had plenty to say about it. It was even more of a problem for the Church of the Middle Ages, and that’s why I will take the question up there.
What was the problem in the Middle Ages?
Very simply it was this. In Europe around AD 1150 to 1200, the intellectual climate included the following sort of things: A belief that somehow the world had gone down in terms of knowledge and understanding; that somewhere in the past there were people who knew more than they knew. It wasn’t like the Hagar cartoon. They didn’t walk around saying “Won’t it be good when the Dark Ages are over so I can get a suntan.” They weren’t consciously aware that they were living in a benighted gloom, but they certainly had this feeling that somewhere in the past there were people who had more understanding, more knowledge, than they did. By and large the way they felt this came from two sources, firstly, the Scriptures. The Scriptures were badly understood and badly interpreted. The second source was the belief that the old Greek philosophers had something interesting to say. Some of Aristotle’s work survived in the early Middle Ages, some of his logic particularly, and they had a feeling that this man must have had tremendous understanding. In fact there was the view that said, “Well Aristotle was a pagan Greek who lived before the time of Christ but maybe he got his views from Jews who went to live in Athens. There’s something vaguely good about Plato and Aristotle. Maybe these people were kind of a crypto-Christian before their time, or something.” They referred to Aristotle as The Philosopher. And sometimes they called him “the master of all them that know.” A description which approaches blasphemy if you take it seriously. Then, in the twelfth century, from 1150 onwards, a whole host of new works of Aristotle started to be discovered. Now remember, previously all they possessed were two things, some of his works on logic and the impression that this great Aristotle had truth about things that they knew nothing of. And then Aristotle’s works began to appear. They appeared via Spain, part of which at that stage was still under the control of the Moslems, the Moors. People from all over Europe went to Spain to get hold of the Moorish manuscripts. And then via translations from Arabic to Hebrew, from Hebrew to Latin, from Latin back to the rest of Europe, came the works of Aristotle. It was gloriously entangled by this stage. But still people from all over Europe went to Spain to do that translation work; just their names give the impression of how widespread interest was. There was Adolade of Bath, obviously from England. There was a fellow called Herman the German. There was Gerard of Cremona in North Italy. The end result was a puzzle. Aristotle did not turn out to be quite what they thought he was. They hoped for “the master” mind and they got Aristotle the pagan. Many of his views were distinct and could not be harmonized with Christian views at all. That was the first part of the puzzle. Secondly he came in a distorted form, and thirdly he came in a form attached to large amounts of Arab commentators, who really had got him all tangled up. The impact of these three things was horrendous. “The master of them that know” had said, “Matter is eternal.” This man who was truth, who stood on a second pinnacle, almost near Scripture as one who was authority, says, “Matter is eternal.” The conflict with the orthodox Christian view of creation was embarrassingly apparent to all.
According to the Arab commentators, Aristotle said that there is no such thing as an individual, active intellect. What we have is one universal mind and each of us sort of participates in the thoughts of a universal intellect. Just think for one moment in medieval theological terms. Try and work out the possibilities of limbo and purgatory for one universal, active intellect. Which bit goes where? The whole concept of individual salvation or damnation doesn’t mean anything. Horrific! The church was faced with a very real problem; how to deal with this influx of new knowledge? This knowledge came in and helped to precipitate the establishment of the universities. The great universities of Paris and Oxford which began in the twelfth century, very largely began as places where Aristotle was taught, related to and harmonized with views of Scriptures. The medieval solution to the problem was worked out during the thirteenth century, and the person who, more than anybody else, we can credit with working on that solution was Thomas Aquinas, a Dominican friar. Aquinas made official, a very important concept that had been developing and roughly it was this: In some things we may learn from the pagans, we may learn from anyone, because in some aspects of knowledge some things, some areas of knowledge, are common to all of mankind. A great deal of ordinary, everyday knowledge is, if you like, open to all people. It is an area which you would call an area of neutral knowledge, an area which he referred to as “natural knowledge.” A big part of knowledge is just natural—anyone can pick it up, anybody can learn it. It doesn’t matter whether the person is an Arab or a Hottentot. They can come and tell you if they have discovered knowledge in this realm. But when it comes to the specific doctrines of the Christian church, as understood by Aquinas then we have to reply, not just on natural knowledge but on revealed truth. This “Truth,” according to Aquinas, was revealed only through the Scriptures and through the tradition and the authority of the Church’s teaching. So he came up with something that we can best symbolize by drawing some kind of a triangle. Down in the bottom of the triangle, is the area of natural knowledge. All of mankind can share in it, all can contribute to it. It doesn’t matter whether you are Christian, Moslem or pagan, you can take this knowledge and you can do something with it. You can understand it. You learn in it. In this area would be included the natural sciences and mathematics, etc. In the top of the triangle is the area of revealed truth, special revelation, the teaching of the Church, and the teaching of the Scriptures. Now, where did he draw the line? Well Aquinas, very concerned about presenting an apologetic of the Christian religion to people who were non-Christians, argued that, it was possible to devise five proofs for the existence of God. Five ways of proving the existence of God, which he believed could be done by appeal to natural knowledge. People didn’t have to have any particular religious beliefs at all. You could sit down with them and you could give them the arguments and they must accept them because they are good arguments, which will stand up in the ordinary, everyday market place, in the neutral market place of everyday ideas. The proofs for the existence of God, for instance, are in the bottom of the triangle. Aquinas used such proofs as the argument about the unmoved mover, i.e. everything that moves has something moving it and the argument proceeds—well something must have moved the thing that moved it and something must have moved that. Now to conclude the argument either you have an infinite backward series, which means that you have an infinite number of objects, or alternatively you have a first, unmoved Mover, which is God. This was the sort of argument, and others like it, if you look at them in a sophisticated enough form some of them are not stupid arguments. They have a certain force to them. But the point was they were in the area of ordinary, natural knowledge. You didn’t have to have any Christian beliefs to accept them. Natural knowledge proved the existence of God, but if you want to prove the doctrine of the Trinity or the atonement of Christ, you then had to move up into the realm of revealed truth, where you have to have the Scriptures and the teaching of the Church. This concept of two sorts of knowledge became a standard position. During the thirteenth century it became built in to the western mind and has stayed there to some extent ever since. It is built into the very structure of the universities, partly because Aquinas influenced the universities, partly because the universities influenced Aquinas. It was not long before the normal career for somebody wanting to study theology was first of all a degree in the faculty of Arts, then later your studies would lead to a degree in theology. That’s still built into a whole lot of views about how clergy should be trained, even today. The Arts to Theology; the natural knowledge, the study of revealed truth.
This solution looks very neat. You see it means now that there is not going to be any debate if there is an important point of revealed truth that fits, that’s part of revelation. Something that is not quite clear but about which there is some general knowledge about, fits into the natural bit. This nice, neat division, will avoid many of the problems, many of the conflicts. But within a hundred years of Aquinas’ time, the situation had changed drastically. It changed because a number of other theologians and philosophers showed, or purported to show on various technical grounds that you can’t argue from the natural to the revealed. The jump from natural truth to revealed truth is not a logical argument but a leap of faith, a jump, a step in the dark, a step forward of some kind. John Duns Scotus argued on technical grounds that you can’t generalize which sufficient generality to prove the existence of God by means of reason. Aquinas was wrong claimed Scotus. Later on there was a fellow called William of Ockam. William of Ockam drew a complete separation between the top and the bottom of the triangle. In effect, he drew a line and said, “Below this is natural knowledge; above this is revealed truth. You can’t jump from one to the other. You can’t argue in ordinary, everyday terms to prove that there’s got to be an infallible revelation.” The Black Death caught up with him and he died in 1349. William had separated the two. Natural knowledge is the realm of science, mathematics, art, literature, poetry and all sorts of things. Theology was a separate realm. This trend is very well traced in Renaissance paintings. Early Italian Renaissance painting begins by being very, very theological. People were obviously trying to express religious concepts. They were living in a world where their theological assumptions, their theological views, come right through every aspect of what they were saying. By the middle of the fifteenth century about 1450 you can start to find examples of Italian paintings which, while they have religious titles, have practically lost any Christian significance whatsoever in the way they have been done. The realm of natural artistic endeavor was now considered to be something that could stand on its own without any influence from Christian thought.
Scientific knowledge in the two hundred years from AD 1500 to 1700 expanded enormously. The bottom of the triangle grew and the top shrank. During the time of the Reformation the monolithic structure of West European religious thought was subdivided and subdivided. The bottom of the triangle got very big until people could only see the impressive mass of natural knowledge. And somewhere floating around, not related to it, living in a little realm of its own, was a tiny unimpressive and irrelevant minuscule of religious and theological knowledge. Now although this is an oversimplification, it is this type of “social environment” which was a major background influence in the direction and basis modern science was to take.
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