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Evolution And Its Christian Influences Theology Religion Essay

There is no doubt that the development of the theory of evolution has resulted in one of the largest paradigm shifts in scientific and personal thought. Today it is the most important of the few universal theories in biology enriching and informing every biological speciality from genetics to ornithology. Evolution however, is the only well established scientific principle rejected solely on principles of personal belief. Many religious advocates, even today, reject evolution and/or its processes simply because they do not wish to reject God. Throughout history the concept of evolution was proposed by numerous scientists on separate occasion, however it was not until 1859 when Charles Darwin released his book On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life that there sufficient evidence of a credible mechanism through which evolution could occur. Prior to this the Church played a significant role in the governing of the State and the funding of scientific research. Evolution provided the means and support for the fight against religious domination, however, the debate still continues today.

Science is only one of the numerous approaches to understanding nature. Prescientific cultures were more likely to seek answers in religion and mysticism, because there was the not science available to provide them with a valuable answer. Genesis, the first chapter of the Bible, includes the most detailed and best preserved examples of prescientific thought on the origin of species (Harris 1981). Although today it is consider that Genesis was aimed to be sought at a metaphorical level, for a large portion of the past a literal view was taken (Harris, 1981).

Traditional, fundamentalist creationism rests on the claim that the Bible is without factual error and the “secret to life” was hidden in the Spirit of God (Rolston, 1987). It postulates the sudden appearance of species already designed to survive (Harris, 1981). This appearance occurred during the biblical six days of creation, which was calculated in the seventeenth century by Archbishop Usher to be in 4004BC (Sapp, 2003). Each organism was created separately, as they exist today and no genealogical relationship exists between them (Sapp, 2003). Humans were formed in the image of God and given domain over nature (Sapp, 2003). Living nature was considered a static discontinuous system and the best explanation for how animals fit so perfectly into their environment was the God designed it to be that way (Rolston, 1987).

The writings of the great philosophers of Ancient Greece provide the first recorded examples of scientific hypothesis into origin of life. In approximately 580BC, Anaximander speculated on the origin of man. He suggested that man originated from a previous species, namely fish. This has often been interpreted as evolutionary thought however he still appears to have held the belief that the first human arose suddenly form the sea not through a gradual process of transformation. This was considered the first scientific explanation of origin of species because he did not resort to a supernatural explanation, but attempted to apply his understanding of present causes to past phenomena (Harris 1981). Following Anaximander, around 480BC the powerful aristocrat Empedocles was the first to appreciate the constructive power ‘Inherence’ in the elimination of the unfit. Empedocles’ theory was that in a period of time, parts of animals arose from the Earth through the attraction of the four elements and these parts blended randomly with each other. Large monsters, such as cattle with human faces, would have been formed in this way. However, it was only the individuals with the correct number and arrangement of part that would have survived and these were the originals of the species alive now. Empedocles view was not of the evolution of one species from another but it was a clear statement of survival of the fittest. Without knowing the question, he knew the answer to the great query of what causes evolution (Harris, 1981).

It was however the views of Plato (approximately 428-348BC) and Aristotle (approximately 384–322BC) whose theories were given the most attention in the following years. Although Plato’s only scientific paper was written by Timaeus and it is uncertain if the views were in fact Plato’s, his view was one of a creator. This creator, a god not otherwise acknowledged, made the world out of chaos shaping the four elements. This creator, made lesser gods and these gods then created man. Aristotle was a student of Plato and further insisted on design and purpose of nature (Harris, 1981). He supported an idea of fixity of species (Danton, 1985) with each organism aspiring to ideal of its own species, not evolving towards some other species (Harris, 1981). In the Aristotelian and Platonic order of things, life forms were arranged in single file, from the simple inanimate objects to plants to lower and higher animals. This fixed plan of creation of increasing perfection was known as the “great chain of being” and was understood in terms of different kinds of soul. The more developed an organism, the more developed its soul and the closer it was to God (Sapp, 2003).

During the Roman Empire devotion to gods left them unreceptive to science (Harris, 1981). Greek philosophers and artists were purchased and traded as slaves. They were brought to Rome in chains to amuse, teach and glorify their masters. With the rise of Christianity threatening to the decline of the Roman Empire, Emperor Constantine (approximately 280 –337) saw the religion as the last hope of reuniting the empire and it was adopted as the official Roman religion (Harris, 1981). Saint Augustine (354 – 430) set about converging Greek Science and Christianity (354 – 430). He deduced that the creation in the first days of Genesis consisted of the Platonic ideas of the four elements coming together with God as the creator of all things. He however, rejected the fundamentalist interpretation of Genesis (Harris, 1981). For six centuries after Augustine, Greek Science was neglected and remained buried throughout the dark ages (Harris, 1981).

Right through the Middle Ages there was a literal interpretation of Genesis until the crusades initiated innovation (Wikipedia, 2010a). The church ruled and the crusades in the late Middle Ages stimulated a healthy suspicion of the motives and competence of leaders (Harris, 1981). Interaction occurred with people of other religions providing encouragement to broadening of the mind (Harris, 1981). The writings of Greek Philosophers were translated into Latin and the teachings of Aristotle started to be studied again. The Middle Ages gave way to a new questioning of the fixed and final authority of the combined church and state (Mein, 2007).

During Renaissance religious factors were leading to the rejection of authority in favour of reason. There were anti-pope movements with individual monarchs, such as Henry VIII, breaking from Catholicism. Challenges to the authority of the church on religious matter were quickly followed by challenges on scientific matters. New evidence was arising that challenged the Aristotelian doctrine. Nicolaus Copernicus proposed in 1543 that the sun was at the centre of the universe, Giordano Bruno (1548? – 1600) suggested that there might be other inhabited planets and Galileo Galilei (1564-1642) disproved the theory of unchanging planets moving around the Earth in perfect circles (Harris, 1981). Religion and science were becoming drastically separated, threatening the church.

Scientific development in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries allowed for better understanding of nature and thus further questioning of Christianity’s view. Newton’s reasoning produced an elegant picture of how the universe worked. Montesquieu, Voltaire and Diderot worked on a diffusion of new ideas, producing the encycopaedia and there was a noticeable shift from accepting ideas due solely to church influence to analysing the evidence as it present itself (Mein, 2007). A move to science that was liberated of theological presumptions and the development of the science of biology.

In the seventeenth century John Ray began the development of the first general model of biology, the system of classification (Walker, 1963). Ray developed the species concept and used it as a basic unit of taxonomy. He studied fossils and recognised that they had formed from once living organisms. The evidence of chance and extinction recorded in fossil permitted Ray to notice contradictions between biblical account of creation. He however was deeply religious and automatically rejected the possibility of an old and changing Earth, as did all scholars at his time (The University of Waikato, 2010).

By the start of the eighteenth there was an overall lack of religious enthusiasm and the church lacked vigour (Lambert, 2009). Many contemporary scholars of both science and history were beginning to question the calculation from the Bible of the Earth being just six thousand years old (The University of Waikato, 2010). Some members of society were starting to question the explanation of origin of species which had satisfied the Jews for at least 27 centuries and been defended by Christendom for half that time (Harris, 1981). The maturation of scientific thinking lead a number of scientists to separately reach conclusion that left them questioning traditional views (Harris, 1981). Issac Newton began the debate over the age of the Earth suggesting 50 thousand years (The University of Waikato, 2010). The uncovering of fossils, the exploration of new lands and the discovery of hydra, began the linking of similar yet separate species which did not fit with the accounts of creationism (Harris, 1981).

Carl Linnaeus in the eighteenth century further developed on Ray’s ideas of taxonomy. He started arranging organisms into the now-familiar hierarchical way with Kingdoms, Classes and Orders through to genus and species. Linnaeus went as far as including humans in his system and noting how closely related they were to great apes thought they should be placed in the same genus. Not wanting to seem that he was rebelling against the church teaching, he never published this specific classification (The University of Waikato, 2010). He was a religious man and early in his classification stated that there was in nature ‘as many species as issued in pairs from the hands of the creator’. Later he admitted that it was sometimes difficult to separate one species from another and substituted, in effect, the genus for the species as the original creation. Concluding that “all the species in one genus constituted at first one species”. He believed that these new species arise by intercrossing (Singer, 1931). Linnaeus’ binomial system of classification emphasised the distinctiveness of species however he was uncertain that the distribution of fossils could have been achieved in the time period provided by the Bible (University of Waikato, 2010).

The following period of development in thoughts, considering the development of species, occurred mainly in France. On the brink of the French revolution the society was essentially a feudal system with a static hierarchical order (Sapp, 2003). Evolutionary theory was positioned in direct opposition to the privileges of nobility and the church and against the conservative and new professional social control of science in France (Sapp, 2003). There was a movement, known as Enlightenment, sparked by moral outrage over the oppressive rule of Louis XV and the Catholic Church (Harris, 1981). There was loss in the belief that the king ruled by “divine right” from God and people where no longer willing to take the abuse (Harris, 1981). The movement was characterised by the belief that nature was orderly, either obeying a rational god or simply obeying natural laws and the search for what these natural laws could be.

Frenchman Georges Louis Lecleric, Comte de Buffron (1707-1788) contributed further to the debate over age of the earth and was the first naturalist of modern times to suggest the idea that species were not permanent (Singer, 1931). He propose that the planet had formed in a molten state and that its gradual cooling must have taken longer than the six thousand years allowed by the Bible or even the fifty thousand calculated by Newton (The University of Waikato, 2010). He considered nature as a whole, focusing on the likeness of species rather than the minute difference others, such as Ray and Linnaeus, had focused on (Singer, 1931). Faced with vestigial organs which don’t support the idea of creation achieving a perfect form he started contemplating the idea of species descending from earlier ancestors (The University of Waikato, 2010). His writing dealt with many of the problems subsequently raised by evolutionists and embraced a theory of evolution where a small number of animals developed, through hybridisation and the direct effect of the environment, into all the species seen today (Sapp, 2003).

Influenced by Buffron, Englishman and grandfather of Charles Darwin, Erasmus Darwin (1731-1802) wrote a booked called ‘Zoonomia’ which set out his thoughts on evolution (The University of Waikato, 2010). He noted variation between modern and fossilised species, the application of artificial selection, similarity of structures within warm-blooded animals and changes naturally produced in animals for example the production of butterflies from caterpillars (Singer, 1931). He came to the conclusions that life of earth could be descended from a common ancestor. It was believed that God was involved in the original creation of this life, but then uninvolved from that point on (The University of Waikato, 2010). Erasmus Darwin was also aware that offspring inherited features from their parents (The University of Waikato, 2010). It was his opinion that throughout life individuals undergo changes due to the influences which bear on the them. These changes were then passed on to offspring, a concept now known as inheritance of acquired characteristics (Singer, 1931). His views were not widely accepted in the still traditional England, however in France Lamarck was developing similar views of evolutionary change (The University of Waikato, 2010).

Jean-Baptise Lamarck (1744-1829) used Erasmus Darwin’s theory of inheritance of acquired characteristics as the key to his evolutionary hypothesis (Singer, 1931). Lamarck made major advances in the classification of organisms the most significant being that between invertebrate and vertebrate animals (Singer, 1931). Lamarck was convinced that there was a natural sequence for living organisms. If we knew every species that has ever been on this earth, in the past and present, he believed that it would form a ladder with comparatively few branches. Each species would differ, but only slightly from its immediate neighbour (singer, 1931). This idea of continuity led him to consider that the animal and plant series must, at some point, be continuous of each other. Thus he emphasised that all living things, plants and animals alike, should be studied as a whole (Singer, 1931). Lamarck was reluctant to believe that any species became completely extinct. It was his opinion that evolution was a way a species could adapt to environmental changes escaping extinction (Harris, 1981).

The interest of Lamarck’s theories were not fully realised until long after his death. Lamarck had held many fanciful views on a large range of topics and was held in very low esteem by his peers (Singer, 1931). The inarticulate way he expressed himself in describing how behavioural changes could bring about new structures left him open to crude misrepresentations. His critics advocated the ludicrous nature of his notions of evolution by desire on the part of the animals. He was mocked and degraded by both opponents to evolution and some of its champions. Charles Darwin, himself went to great lengths to distance his theory form Lamarck’s and George Cuvier (1769 – 1832) the scientific dictator of the time formed very low opinions of Lamarck’s abilities (Sapp, 2003).

Georges Cuvier (1769 – 1832) one of the biggest names in biology was a firm adherer to the view of fixity of species (Singer, 1931). He did not believe in literal Genesis, however his studies of the fossil record, in his opinion, showed no traces of a series of transformation of one species to another (Sapp, 2003). Cuvier established a good reputation as a patient observer who stuck to the facts (Sapp, 2003). He stood very high in the Emperor, Napoleon’s, favour and became the inspecteur general in the department of education at the time when the French education system was under major reform and several new universities founded. Even after Napoleon fell and the throne of France was restored Cuvier managed to retain his position of authority in education and science (Sapp, 2003). His attempts to make science and Christianity agree as much as possible were strongly supported by the views and desires of the people at the time. With the restoration of monarchy it was a generation for who the memory of royal oppression was less vivid than the memory of the terror of the revolution. In post-revolutionary France evolution and its beliefs belonged to the previous generation of atheism and regicide (Harris, 1981). He rejected the belief of an ancient Earth, in favour of a theory that the geographical changes noted in the Earths surface were the result of catastrophic events caused by God, the most recent being the Biblical Flood (Harris, 1981). These catastrophic events resulted in mass extinction waves and then the area was repopulated by migration from unaffected areas (The University of Waikato, 2010). New animals and plants did not evolve and his theory accounted for the changes in the fossil record for different regions (Sapp, 2003). There was an obvious flaw in this proposal because the number of species would have declined over time rather than increased. Some followers adopted an alternative view of a number of divine creations after each of the many catastrophes. Others proposed that each day of genesis was a period of indefinite length thus allowing ample time for the occurrence of catastrophes (Denton, 1985). Whatever view was taken Cuvier advocated his views so strongly and his ability to provide science that agreed with christen views resulted in there being only a minority of people who questioned the idea of catastrophes (Denton, 1985). Despite the views and evidence presented by Lamarck, Buffron and many other French naturalists of the time, Cuvier’s view of catastrophes was widely accepted and any belief in evolution was minimal in France by early nineteenth century.

Meanwhile in England, Aristotle’s views still held great weight amongst biologist (Denton, 1985). Natural history was by large funded by the Church of England and consequently was dominated by clerical naturalists who saw their science as revealing God’s plan (Wikipedia, 2010b). Scientific knowledge was not looked upon as a challenge to religious belief and the majority of discoveries of science were taken as evidence in support of the existence of a creator and the grandness of his design. In the introduction of the first edition of the Zoological Journal of London in 1824 it emphasises the idea that the study of nature uncovers the wisdom of God and indicates the special place taken by man in the natural order of the world. In 1857 a leading biologist in North America, Louis Agassiz, wrote that the remarkable accomplishments of nature “proclaim aloud the One God whom man may know and natural history must, in good time become the analysis of the thoughts of the Creator of the Universe” (Denton, 1985). There was increasing success in science eliminating any need for the supernatural explanations Genesis implied; however, a man of science could still accept the account of creation in the first book of the Bible as a literal historical description of the origin of the world (Denton, 1985).

Towards the early to mid-nineteenth century, the ideas inspired by the French revolution and the belief that everyone should be free and equal, had great influence in England (Sapp, 2003). Inside and outside of the universities evolutionary thought imported from France had disturbing social and political association for the privileged class (Sapp, 2003). At the time of the revolution, the Anglican elite in Britain were fighting off attacked by radicals trying to move away from church reign and democratise the society (Sapp, 2003). There was worried that a similar stance would be taken as France in relation to evolution and politics. In 1830 in France there was a great debate between Cuvier and pro-evolutionist Etienne Geoffroy Saint-Hillaire (1772 – 1844). Geoffroy found a lot of support outside of the scientific community by those who saw him as a philosopher committed to unravelling the mysteries of nature for the common man. The view of evolutionism was associated with the liberal ideology of the time and Geoffroy carried an alliance of republican sympathisers (Sapp, 2003). British advocates of Geoffroy’s theories included a number of Edinburg-educated anatomists who opposed the Oxbridge aristocratic domination of the medical profession. Inside medical schools, the discussion of reform and evolution was intimate. Lamarck’s ideas were mixed with demands by activist workers for democracy and attacks on aristocracy and the clergy (Sapp, 2003). Despite these threats religious revival continued in the early nineteenth century with the Church of England regaining much of the energy that was lost in the eighteenth century (Lambert, 2009). It was during this period that Charles Darwin developed his theory of evolution by natural selection which he did not publish until twenty years later (Sapp, 2003).

Although Charles Darwin (1809-1882) was not the first to suggest the idea of evolution in 1859 the general belief held by most scientists and laymen was that the world and life on it was constant and unchanging (New World Encyclopedia, 2009). Geologists and naturalists recognised the earth to be millions of years old, but conflict with religious understanding meant that this was not widely accepted (Smith, 1982). The seeds of evolutionary theory had been planted but no one had thought out and marshalled enough evidence for evolution to be accepted by society at large (Sapp, 2003). On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life published in 1859 by Charles Darwin created a revolution in biology and undeniably many other departments of thought (Singer, 1931).

By careful and scientific procedure Darwin, convinced the scientific world, once and for all, that many diverse forms of life are of common descent and that life on earth has undergone and is still undergoing transformation. For the first time there was a scientific work, by a vigilant and meticulous investigator, which set forth a vast amount of evidence on the matter of evolution and its mechanisms (Singer, 1931). Influenced by the ideas of numerous other scientists Darwin established that evolution has in fact happened and that the main cause of evolutionary change was natural selection for variations that were in their origin non-adaptive (Smith, 1982). There was no design in the natural world and there was no preconceived plan, organisms simply evolve in a makeshift manner in relation to changing ecological conditions (Sapp, 2003). There was no requirement for input from God to produce the seeming harmony in the world. The reality of existence, thought, will and feelings can be explained in terms of matter and its by-products. Humans and human nature could now be viewed as mere by-products of a materialistic process which did not fit well with belief in creationism and Christianity as a whole (New World Encyclopaedia, 2009).

The Origin of Species was presented to a public who historically held a very different view of the origins of life (The University of Waikato, 2010). Darwin published a significant amount of evidence that contradicted scriptural legends of creation and the principles behind natural selection had no room for divine guidance. If there had been design it must have been very maleficent to cause all the suffering and pain that befell animals and man (Rolston, 1987). Whereas religious belief had generally placed humans above the rest of nature as the pinnacle and end of creation, despite his attempts to leave humans out of the Origin, the views presented by Darwin suggested that humans were within nature and members of the animal kingdom descended from apes. Humanity was ultimately a cosmic accident, produced by a random process and no more significant than any other species (Denton 1985). The decline of religious belief in modern society can almost certainly be attributed more to the circulation and support by the intellectual and scientific community of the Darwin version of evolution than to any other single factor (Denton, 1985). Darwin was aware of the effect that his theory would have on society and even after twenty years of deliberation he was still reluctant to publish.

Although his own religious faith has been gradually eroding as his belief in evolution grew Darwin was very far from a ruthless crusader against religion (Denton, 1985). He was aware and very cautious of the fact that his theory was extremely controversial and anti-religious. Lacking a mechanism in which variation occurred and empirical evidence of large scale evolution he knew that not only were his conclusion controversial but the evidence was in many ways insufficient. The whole edifice constructed in the Origin was entirely theoretical (Denton, 1985). The concept of evolution by natural selection eliminated the hands of god from the design of life. Darwin could see that the elimination of this would lead to the elimination of meaning and purpose for human existence. It was an inescapable conclusion of his position which for many, including his wife, would be a profoundly distressing reality to accept (Denton, 1985). On top of this, at the time that Darwin was developing his theory similar ideas bought up by others had resulted only in disgrace and association with the revolutionary mob, a position that Darwin did not wish upon himself. He had to have all the answers ready to all likely objections before publishing to satisfy not only anti-evolutionists but himself (Wikipedia, 2010b).

Within a few years of the release of Darwin’s book, almost every biologist became an evolutionist believing that the world was a product of a continuing process of change (New World Encyclopaedia, 2009). Previously science had already started discovering a number of things that cast doubt on the literal interpretations of the Bible and the honesty of scientists denying the findings. Finally with a strong foundation a number of scientists joined a progressive group aimed at making science a profession, free from the church (Wikipedia, 2010b). The younger generation of scientific men rushed to defend Darwin’s view and to establish their claim to come to any conclusion to which their research led, regardless of the ancient traditions and beliefs of the Church (Denton, 1985). Even scientists, such as Thomas Huxley, who had formerly articulated opinions in favour of the constancy of species accepted Darwin’s evidence and became supporters of evolution (Singer, 1931). Under the stress of disagreement with the church and the state, conflict raged throughout the sixties, seventies and eighties as the “intellectuals” became more and more anticlerical, antireligious and materialistic (Denton, 1985). In Germany Darwinism made rapid progress however in France Cuvier’s influence was still strong and the reception was hostile at first but eventually lead to a slow acceptance (Singer, 1931).

Nevertheless it was not free from scientific opponents. Many scientists were not denying the inconstancy of specific forms rather they did not completely accept Darwin’s theory of Natural Selection. Richard Owen a critic of the Origin of Species declared it offered the best explanation “ever published of the manner of formation of species” though still held doubts that transmutation would result in man. He was prepared to accept some sort of secondary of natural cause for the progression of life on earth, but saw no evidence amongst living organisms or in the fossil record for the idea of gradual transformations maintaining belief in a “creative power” (Denton, 1985).

On the religious front the Origin of Species sparked international debate however, the intensity of this controversy was far less than that over earlier works (Wikipedia, 2010b). The conflict between science and religion had already erupted earlier as it became more and more generally acknowledged that discoveries in geology and biology were incompatible with a literal Genesis (Denton, 1985). The Church of England reacted against the book. There is contrasting views in sources stating both that the Anglican establishment was opposed to Darwin’s view while the Liberal Anglicans strongly supported Darwin’s natural selection as an instrument of God’s design and the accuracy of this information is questionable (Wikipedia, 2010b). Bishop of Oxford, Samuel Wilberforce led intense religious opposition to Darwin’s Origin of Species sparking the Oxford evolution debate in 1860 (Harris, 1981). In a meeting of the British Association of the Advancement of Science Bishop Wilberforce argued against Darwin’s explanation in opposition to Joseph Hooker and other scientists who argued strongly in Darwin’s Favour. The debate was depicted by Thomas Huxley, the fiercest defended of evolutionary theory on the Victorian stage, as a pivotal point in the struggle between religion and science were Darwinism was used to campaign against the authority of the clergy in education (Wikipedia, 2010b). The Catholic Church’s concern about evolution was largely focused around the theory about origin of the human species, however it was 100 years before the Vatican made an official statement of their views.

The first notable statement by the Catholics in response to Origin was in 1860 when the council of German bishops stated “Our first parents were formed immediately by God. Therefore we declare that the opinion of those who do not fear to assert that this human being, man as regards his body, emerged finally from the spontaneous continuous change of imperfect nature to a more perfect, is clearly opposed to the Sacred Scripture and to the Faith”. The Vatican did not publish any statements in response to this so it was considered that they agreed with this view (Wikipedia, 2010b). During the First Vatican Council in 1869-70, under the control of Pope Puis XI, in the section of “Faith and Reason” it stated that “Hence all faithful Christians are forbidden to defend as the legitimate conclusions of science those opinions which are known to be contrary to the doctrine of faith, particularly if they have been condemned by the Church; and furthermore they are absolutely bound to hold them to be errors which wear the deceptive appearance of truth” (First Vatican Council, 1870). Further to this the Vatican council was clear on their response to evolutionist stating “If anyone does not confess that the world and all things which are contained in it, both spiritual and material, were produced, according to their whole substance, out of nothing by God; or holds that God did not create by his will free from all necessity, but as necessarily as he necessarily loves himself; or denies that the world was created for the glory of God: let him be anathema” (Wikipedia, 2010a). Despite not making publics statements on their attitude towards the Origin of Species it was evident through the records of the Vatican Council that initially they held great objection to it and any form of evolution.

Pope Leo XIII who reigned from 1878 to 1903 stressed the volatile and changing nature of scientific theory. He accepted that the apparent literal sense of the Bible might not always be correct, however, criticised the “thirst for novelty and the unrestrained freedom of thought” of the period (Wikipedia, 2010a). It was not until 1950 however that the first encyclical, Humani Generis, was released that specifically referred to evolution. It took up a neutral position against evolution allowing academic freedom to study the scientific implications of evolution, so long as Catholic belief is not violated. The pope of the time, Pope Pius XII, held the belief that inquiry of the origin of man’s body from pre-existing and living matter was a justifiable subject of investigation for natural science. While Catholics should respect the church’s right to define matters touching on Revelation they are free to form their own opinion so long as they believe that the human soul was created immediately by God (Wikipedia, 2010a).

Since the release of Origin of Species further developments in biology have provided mechanisms by which features were inherited and variation occurred. Rediscovery of Mendel’s law at the start of the 20th century and the formation of the ‘central dogma’ of molecular biology, that information can pass from nucleic acid to protein but not from protein to nucleic acid, provided the evidence necessary to eliminate other hypothesis of the mechanisms of evolution (Smith, 1982). Today biology regards evolution as a confirmed fact (Sapp, 2003) however there is still claims in the scientific community that the mechanism proposed by Darwin may not be the full picture and some believe that there is a new paradigm on the way (Smith, 1982).

Current religious viewpoints vary greatly in respect to evolution. Some faith communities accepting natural selection as the casual agent of large scale change as directed by a greater being, other believing strictly in a literal Genesis and various beliefs in between (New World Encyclopedia, 2009). Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI have rejected intelligent design and accept the finding of scientists on the gradual appearance of life. It is the Catholic Church’s stance that any such gradual appearance of life must have been, to some extended, guided by God, however, they are yet to offer a view of what this guidance could be. The strongest view of the church is that while the human body could have been created through a process of natural selection, the human soul is a direct creation of God (Wikipedia, 2010a). In the United States in 1968 it was still possible for American teachers to be prosecuted and fired for teaching evolution and in the early 1970s fundamentalists adopted the tactic of portraying creation as a scientific theory and evolution as a dogma of the religion of “humanism”. There was the demand for equal teaching of creation in public school science, which was not even supported by the large church bodies and was rejected by the courts (Harris, 1981). There are several organisations of Bible-oriented scientists who are interested in the relation of evolution to Scripture. They are trying to find scientific proof for creationism by noting flaws in evolutionists evidence though these are often unsupported. For example they have noted an possible error in the dating of the Cambrian fossil rocks, but this error does not add up to the 10,000,000% needed to make 6,000 year old rocks appear 600 million years old (Harris, 1981). Despite evidence a large number of people still regard the bible as a literal transcription of the word of God. A larger belief however, that is also held by many evolutionists, is that even though adaptations occur by a natural process they were ultimately designed by a God that to some level dictates the laws of nature. This theory, known as theistic evolution, works of the theory that while you can prove that evolution occurs and it can be shown the supernatural guidance is not necessary for a scientific explanation it is impossible to disprove (Harris, 1981).

Throughout the history of human life there has been the question of where we came from and it is the answer to this question that influences the way we treat other humans and other species. The traditional view of the origin of life in western society is outlined in the first chapter of the Bible and it was this view of creationism that was accepted without question for over 25 centuries. The ancient Greek philosophers where the first to suggest scientific explanations of the origin of life however it was not until scientific developments in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries that literal interpretation of Genesis was doubted. While the idea had been around for a couple of centuries the landmark moment of evolutionary thought was the publishing of Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life in November 1859. This theory is not only central to modern biology but provides many with the only satisfactory definition of ‘life’ and its origins. The concept of descent with modification possesses little difficulty to most religious adherents because it does not define a process. The debate between religion and evolution now is whether the mechanisms of this process are completely natural selection or if there is some level of directive force from a supreme being.


Denton, M. (1985) ‘Evolution: A theory in Crisis’ Burnett Books, London

First Vatican Council (1869-1870) Eternal Word Television Network, Accessed 27 October 2010 <>

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Lambert, T. (2009) ‘A Brief History of Christianity in England’ Accessed 28 October 2010 <>

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Rolston, H. III (1987) ‘Science and Religion: A critical Survey’ Temple University Press, Philadelphia

Sapp, J. (2003) ‘Genesis: The Evolution of Biology’ Oxford University Press, New York

Singer, C. (1931) “A short history of biology: A general introduction to the study of living things” University Press, Oxford.

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The University of Waikato (2010) ‘Development of evolutionary thought’ Accessed 27 October 2010 <>

Walker, M. (1963) ‘The Nature of Scientific Thought’ Prentice-Hall, Inc., United States of America

Wikipedia (2010)a ‘Catholic Church and evolution’ Wikipedia, the free encyclopaedia, Accessed 12 October 2010 <>

Wikipedia (2010)b ‘Reaction to Darwin’s Theory’ Wikipedia, the free encyclopaedia, Accessed 17 October 2010 <'s_theory>

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