In praise of Darwin and the spirit of inquiry

This week we will be celebrating the 200th anniversary of the birth of Charles Darwin, one of Britain’s most extraordinary scientists. His theory of evolution, one of the greatest discoveries of all time, gives us a way of understanding the connectedness of all life and the uniqueness of human life within it. Together with other branches of scientific exploration, evolution begins to unfold and illuminate the interplay of forces that make our universe such an extraordinary dynamic reality. In this sense, science is itself a journey of learning and exploration. This I find exciting and humbling.

Towards the end of his life Darwin wrote: “It seems to me absurd to doubt that a man may be an ardent Theist and an evolutionist.” The science opens me not only to puzzles and to questions about the world I live in; it leads me to marvel at its complexity. Here, I find science is a good friend to my faith. It also calls me to a journey of learning and understanding. One of the things that mars our culture is the fracture between faith and science. It impoverishes our inquiry into the realities that make up our life and world. This is a false opposition.

If we see the two as fundamentally opposed – science endangering and undermining faith, or faith obstructing knowledge – then distortions are produced on both sides. For example, some Christians argue for “Young Earth Creationism” or Intelligent Design as an alternative to evolutionary theory. Creationism is the belief that the biblical stories of Creation as described in the Book of Genesis are literally true.

Is genuine Christianity obliged to adopt any of these positions? No, it is not. Belief in creation is not equivalent to any one of them. It is a mistake to treat the theology of creation in the Book of Genesis as a scientific textbook. It does unfold a profound and valid truth about the world in which we live, its order and purpose. The Book of Genesis speaks about the relationship between God and creation and especially about the place of humanity in that relationship. That wonderful narrative of creation offers us a first vision of an “ecology of holiness” in which every material and living thing has a place and its creativity is consecrated in goodness by God. The account of creation in Genesis is pointing us beyond the question “how?” to the question “why?” Ultimately, science as well as faith must come to that most fundamental of all questions: the question of meaning and purpose.

If there are ways of misusing Genesis and the Christian understanding of creation, there is also a danger of misusing Darwin. We should be worried when his theory is distorted into “the survival of the fittest” and becomes a way of legitimising policies that discriminate against the weak and vulnerable. I think the majority of us believe it is grossly wrong to use Darwin’s theory to justify social engineering or eugenics. There are also those who argue that, from an evolutionary perspective, moral attributes are merely the product of evolution and our moral sense is no more than a survival strategy. Yet the theory of evolution does not entail the denial of moral truth. It leaves the genuinely free agent confronted with moral choice and the question of how we ought to live.

Are humans only to be comprehended in purely materialist ways? Is there not something that exceeds this and makes it an inadequate description of human life? Is there not something in us that speaks of transcendence, that hints at being not only matter but also spirit? We are part of an evolutionary process; but we are also free agents; able to influence its future direction. Science gives us immense power, but we need to use all our material and spiritual resources to use that power for the good of all creation.

The anniversary of Darwin’s birth is an invitation to renew the conversation between science and faith. Christianity can contribute to the progress of science, not only by encouraging scientists in the search for truth, but by inviting them to consider these wider questions that go to the heart of our common and necessary search for understanding.

These are questions that push us beyond the desire for knowledge alone and direct us to the need for the gift of wisdom. Without it the deeper moral structure of truth is denied. Instead of serving humanity, science becomes an instrument of oppression and destruction. The past two centuries have seen such marvellous advances in science; they bear witness to its great benefits but also to dangers. This alerts us to the question that lies within all our other questions: the choice that humans alone have to make between good and evil. It is a question planted at the heart of Genesis’s account of creation. It is as much a question for the scientist as for the believer. It, too, is about our freedom.

Darwin’s theory does not take away the reality of that freedom and the moral responsibility it gives us. It also teaches us a certain humility before the wonderful complexity and process that life is. Yet because humanity is a free agent in this, we cannot ultimately predict the future. Christianity understands human freedom. It knows that all life, but especially human life, is summoned to a perfection that it cannot attain through natural processes or through human agency alone. That future is God’s gift and it summons us to a new spiritual and moral maturity. Could it be that this is the next stage in that evolutionary adventure? The discovery that God is the destiny of life; that Christ is not only the Alpha, the one in whose image we are made, but also the Omega, the one in whom we are completed.

Science and religion are not mutually exclusive. They are partners on the journey of a mystery that unfolds, a truth that is everywhere present in the very creativity and variety of life itself. As St Augustine wrote, “Let us seek with the desire to find, and find with the desire to seek still more.”

Cormac Murphy-O’Connor