On Darwinism, then and now

Sarah Coakley identifies a key battlefield between science and faith in our own time.



Sarah Coakley identifies a key battlefield between science and faith in our own time.


It’s very interesting that it’s the realm of Darwinism and neo-Darwinism that perhaps has been the most fraught and debated in recent decades. And the presumption there has been – because of a new wave of (I think one can rightly say) ideology in genetic interpretations of Darwinism since the discovery of the genome – that that interpretation of Darwin is a fundamental challenge to any theological thinking, and that we can now show that at base we are nothing but animals programmed for competitive selfish behaviours. That’s a crude rendition of this ideology, but it has taken an enormous hold, I think, on the secular public.

The first thing I want to say in response to that is if you look at the history of Darwin and the generation before him, and then the various renditions of Darwinism and evolutionary theory since him, it’s completely impossible to think of Darwin without, as it were, the Christian backdrop which spawned him. And Darwinism has always been thoroughly entangled with religious interpretations, anti-religious interpretations, and the continuing contestation about that.

In the generation before Darwin, the work on palaeontology that so inspired him was deeply permeated by a sense of historical development, of the very structures of rocks in our universe, that was almost impossible to conceive unless one had a strongly biblical sense of development, historical development. And Darwin steps into that and himself, then, as an undergraduate, becomes fascinated by William Paley’s Natural Theology – which he later became much less enchanted with, as you probably know.

But if you think of evolutionary theory according to Darwin as itself a developmental vision – through a history which for him was inflected with actually an extraordinary Victorian optimism about the capacity for humans to improve morally over generations – you’ll see that Darwin himself, even though he lost his faith ultimately over the death of his child Annie, is impossible I think, even to conceive of without that theological backdrop.

And the theological responses to Darwin in his day were very varied, very rich – and obviously contested and lampooned to some extent, but also much less disjunctive than the contemporary versions. The fundamentalisms that Darwin was dealing with were nothing like as crazy as the American fundamentalisms which are now in play. And the secular ideology that we now confront, which is an entirely new interpretation of Darwin, was something that he himself could never have predicted. 

So what we have today, I think, is a kind of contestation for the heart of Darwinism which really can’t be carried on without reconsidering the extent to which theological ideas and teleological ideas were originally written into it. And I’m particularly concerned with one dimension of the ideology that’s been promulgated in recent decades, which is the idea that even the cooperative capacities of evolutionary populations – i.e., what has been shown to be a countervailing propulsion in all evolutionary populations which, as it were, counter-balances the selfishness which is always there as well … the debate here is whether we can explain away those cooperative or unselfish or solidarity dimensions of evolution simply as a more clever or incisive mode of selfishness. And Darwin himself had very fascinating intuitions about this in his late work The Descent of Man. He saw that a kind of what would now be called group selection would be fostered by his theory of evolution, precisely because people in groups, hunter-gatherers and so on, are willing to make sacrifices for the sake of the whole group. And that, he said, would be natural selection. 

So my particular interest is in looking at what I sometimes call, as in my Gifford Lectures, this countervailing purple thread across the evolutionary spectrum, of the unselfish. Not in order to paint it with rosy-tinted spectacles, because clearly, unselfish behaviours within a group can then lead to very aggressive behaviours towards one’s enemies – so it’s not that there is a natural propulsion to saintliness here. But when one brings this to consciousness and reflects on the whole evolutionary spectrum, then the challenge becomes, what are the contemporary issues that our own human race have to face that are probably going to have to produce higher forms of altruism if we have any chance of confronting them? And how do we look at this in the light of the whole evolutionary history?  

If we are already a priori devoted to the pessimistic mode of reflection on evolution as inherently tending towards violence and destruction – especially, according to this ideology, through religious manifestations – then this in itself is likely to be self-defeating.