By the 19th century people were coming to terms with the fact that the history of the earth went back far beyond human history. Finding fossils was leading to the idea that some animals and plants were around long before others and that some had become extinct.
But most people still believed that however it happened – living things were created as they are now. May be not over 6 days, but God made horses to appear – as horses, fish of different types to appear etc. There were obviously living things that had existed but were now extinct, but the theory was that as one species became extinct another one somehow appeared to take its place. Most importantly they believed that God made humans as they are now – vitally different to all other living things – in ways we talked about last week. ‘In the image of God’ – whether we think of that as ideas, being able to have a relationship with God, being able to imagine, to worship – was something unique to humans.
This was challenged by a scientific bombshell – arrived at by a couple of people – but attributed mainly to Charles Darwin.
Darwin was a naturalist, geologist and biologist. In 1831 he went on a 5-year voyage on the ship HMS Beagle to look at the coastline of South America. He studied rocks and made drawings, notes and collections of living things from the places they visited.
He was particularly struck by two things:
- That the different native people they met – in South America, Australia, various islands – were all basically the same as himself – may be not as educated or civilized – but with the same potential. This was very different to views of the time where some races were seen as ‘savages’ or almost ‘subhuman’ – seen as a created separately to white Europeans.
- That the Galapagos Islands each had a type of finch. These were separate species – they couldn’t breed with each other, because of slight differences – but all were finches.
To us – unremarkable – but in Darwin’s mind they suggested two thoughts that were almost unimaginable at the time:
- Different species were not all independently created just as we see them now – but one species can actually develop into another.
- The different humans seen around the world came from the same ancestors.
He carried on collecting, observing, thinking. The idea was growing in his mind that species develop from one another. Right from the start, he included humans in this – noting the childlike behaviour of an orang-utan he saw in a zoo.
He also read all the latest ideas – for example about populations – the observation that if there is no control, populations – including human populations – tend to grow rapidly. This goes on until there is not enough food to go round – so there is mass starvation and the population collapses.
For Darwin, the vital point was that individuals in a species are not all identical – look at us – some are tall, some short etc. He realised that some differences might make one individual more likely to survive when there is not enough food to go around.
He also looked at selective breeding being done by farmers – where they chose the best animals to breed from – for example the cows that produce the most meat – and that these characteristics were then found in the next generation…and cows gradually changed to produce more meat.
Darwin spent much of his life collecting evidence and refining his theory. Finally in 1859 he published the first edition of his book ‘On the Origin of Species’.
This contained his theory of how species do not appear separately, fully formed, but develop over time from one to another. His explanation as to how this might happen came to be called ‘evolution by natural selection’ and although it has been modified slightly – is still widely accepted as a truthful description of what happens.
And here is his theory:
- Living things produce far more offspring than their habitat can support – so most of them do not survive.
- This leads to a struggle – competition for survival.
- The lots and lots of individuals of a species are all slightly different to each other.
- Any slight difference that gives and advantage will make that individual more likely to survive.
- Individuals that survive are more likely to breed – and they pass the useful feature on to their offspring.
Examples – beetles, giraffes.
Of course this happens very slowly – the differences are tiny, and it takes generations for them to alter…
Darwin’s finches……there was a finch that ate small insects, nectar from small flowers. Finches spread to different islands. One with lots of deep flowers containing nectar. One with lots of trees with insects living under their bark. One with lots of plants with seeds.
One of the reasons that natural selection was such a bombshell – particularly perhaps to religious people – was that Darwin included humans in his theory. He suggested that humans evolved from apes.
People could see how the evolution of the body looked entirely possible – but were shocked and upset by the idea that the features that really make us different – intellect, imagination, empathy – could also have evolved in this way.
The church was particularly critical of Darwin.
For me – brought up on the theory of natural selection – there is no difficulty with God working this way in creation – rather than in the separate creation of each species as people believed before Darwin.
For me – and for many at the time – what it does challenge is the understanding of a ‘fall’ where humanity chose the path of sin in the Garden of Eden. The understanding of this story until Darwin was that there was some sort of perfect existence until the first humans chose to disobey God and sin – that this was how sin came into the world.
This becomes much more difficult when we think of humans developing gradually over millions of years from apes, through early humans etc.
Do animals sin? If not – at what point in evolution did humans emerge who could sin? Was there a ‘perfect’ existence on earth before humanity evolved? Nature often appears ‘cruel’ is this imprinted on us?