Charles Darwin's theory of evolution

Materials World magazine
1 Feb 2009

12 February sees the 200th anniversary of the birth of Charles Darwin and the 150th anniversary of the publication of his epochmaking book, On the Origin of Species. To celebrate these anniversaries there have been numerous articles in newspapers, magazines and on radio and TV, as well as a major exhibition at London’s Natural History Museum.


Darwin's theory of evolution contradicts the Creationist viewpoint.

The geological discovery by his contemporaries that the Earth was millions of years old had a profound influence on Darwin. He reasoned that, should life have started, perhaps from a single source, early in the Earth’s history, there would have been ample time for evolution, yielding multifarious lifeforms. He did not place humans in any special category and accepted that we are related to plants, bacteria and other animals.

This is at odds with the fundamental Christian belief that God created man in his own image (Genesis 1,27) and that humans began to populate the world just 6,000 years ago. In an article in The Sunday Times (11 January 2009) Bryan Appleyard made the astonishing claim that 50% of Americans still hold this ‘creationist’ view.

Appleyard also made the interesting point that had Darwin been Japanese, Chinese or Hindu Indian, then his principal insight – humans’ deep connection with the rest of nature – would have been seen as unremarkable, if not self-evident. But in the Judaeo-Christian or Muslim worlds, in which man is seen as the God-elected pinnacle of creation, Darwinism is anathema to religious fundamentalists.


How evolution absolves man and God of responsibility

In The Times (3 January 2009) Professor Michael Reiss claimed that if God ordained that lifeforms could evolve then He should not be considered responsible for the sufferings of the world. The Victorian philosopher Herbert Spencer considered that scientific evidence for ‘survival of the fittest’ permitted the view that we could assist evolution by killing ‘inferior’ races or individuals. Such ideas were developed by the German biologist Ernest Haeckel, who in turn inspired Adolph Hitler when writing Mein Kampf, thereby laying the seeds of the Holocaust.

In a letter to The Times in response to Reiss’s article, Dane Clouston argues that it is difficult to think of human life as centrally important in a universe consisting of no less than 10 thousand billion billion stars (I attempted to make a similar point in my September column).


The Atheist Bus Campaign

Although not related to the Darwin celebrations, I should mention the Atheist Bus Campaign, which involves 800 buses across the UK carrying the slogan, ‘There’s probably no God. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life’. Interestingly, the slogan does permit the possibility of a God, so perhaps the movement should be renamed ‘agnostic’, a word invented by the 19th century biologist Thomas Huxley, who had been called Darwin’s bulldog because of his strong support for evolution.


Darwin's relationship to Wedgwood

There is a sad postscript to this panegyric. Darwin could afford to devote his life to biological research because he had inherited great wealth from his grandfather, Josiah Wedgwood. By carrying out inspired research into pottery materials Wedgwood made his family’s pottery business world famous. He was also a Fellow of the Royal Society and a member of the Lunar Society, an informal learned society.

On 5 January this year the company, which became known as Waterford Wedgwood, called in administrators. On hearing the sad news, the journalist Ian Jack visited the brand new £10 million museum of pottery at Barlaston, opened by the company just three months ago. The entrance is inscribed with, ‘This museum is dedicated to the people who have made objects of great beauty from the soil of Staffordshire’.


Further information

Darwin exhibition at London's Natural History Museum

'For God’s sake, have Charles Darwin’s theories made any difference to our lives?' by Bryan Appleyard, The Sunday Times, 11 January 2009

'Darwinian thinking clarifies and deepens religious faith' by Professor Michael Reiss, The Times, 3 January 2009

Response to 'Reiss on Charles Darwin and faith' by Dane Clouston, The Times, 5 January 2009

Atheist Bus Campaign