On Evolution

Contrary to what some believe, Charles Darwin did not develop or invent the concept of evolution as thoughts of origins and evolution go back to the Greeks (Democritus), Romans (Lucretius), and the Chinese (Tao). Within Christianity, the concept dates back to at least to the fourth century with Gregory of Nyssa (335-394 C.E.) and St. Augustine (354-430 C.E.). Darwin merely explained the how evolution occurs – and that is natural selection.

Darwin’s studies included theology, medicine, and geology; thus like many in at this time, William Paley’s Natural Theology influenced his view of nature. Since studying nature was Darwin’s primary love, in 1831 his five-year journey as the ship’s naturalist on the HMS Beagle began – a trip upon which he took copious, detailed notes about anatomy and geology.

Karl Giberson (Saving Darwin: How to Be a Christian and Believe in Evolution, 2008) writes the following about Darwin’s journey and thinking.

He (Darwin) started his career as a naturalist viewing the world through the lens of natural theology and seeing intelligent design. But he began to notice that things didn’t fit: here is an animal with webbed feet on dry land; there is a bee that dies after stinging its prey, its stinger serrated in a way that prevents extraction after insertion; here is a cat apparently torturing a mouse before killing it. … (Later regarding the webbed feet) If this was the handiwork of God, it was surely a cruel joke, as anyone who has ever tried to walk in flippers knows only too well.

As we know today, Darwin also knew about how we use selective breeding (artificial selection) to produce offspring with favorable variations; and thus wondered if a similar selection process existed within nature. By continuing his studies after his journey, an essay by Anglican clergyman Thomas Malthus (1766-1834) about competition for food stimulated more thoughts. Since living things struggled for a limited resource, the most-fit organisms survive to reproduce – thus natural selection.

Variations are slight differences between organisms of the same species. Looking at the human face one sees two eyes, two ears, nose, mouth, various characteristics about hair, and numerous other features. On the other hand, consider all the variations that humans display in their face alone. Examining the orange breast of multiple robins shows differences as the interspersed white is not identical from bird to bird, thus variations of a trait within a species.

Natural selection favors organisms with the most favorable variations, so over time a population adjusts within species, and even the creation of new species. In On the Origin of Species, Darwin wrote the following without knowledge of genetics:

Thus the small differences distinguishing varieties of the same species, steadily tend to increase, till they equal the greater differences between species of the same genus, or even a distinct genera.

Darwin did not publish his thoughts for 20 years, yet, a paper by Alfred Russell Wallace explaining natural selection from his studies in southeastern Asia pushed Darwin to publish. Yet the two men eventually jointly presented (in absentia) the theory of natural selection to the Linnean Society – and to think that Wallace is the one who coined Darwinism, which was also the title of his book (1889).

Knowledge about fossils and biology at Darwin’s time was shallow. Although the concept of a very old earth was already emerging, Darwin figured more answers would come over time with the discovery of life’s story within the fossil record lying below our feet.

Today, evolutionary scientists use genetics, DNA comparison, comparative anatomy, embryology, and the growing fossil record to determine life’s journey over time. Fossil discoveries continue to demonstrate that change obviously occurred and the sacred texts had not recorded these events. Meanwhile, the genetic changes Darwin described happen in genes, which Mendel and others discovered later.

Evolution is in action today through nature. Consider a tropical butterfly population evolving resistance to a killer bacteria or the increasing leg length in a toad species in their quest to secure the best habitat in a newly-introduced region. Think about impacts our daily lives today as flu vaccines are adjusted yearly in response to evolving viruses, or how bacteria become resistant to the antibodies we developed to protect ourselves against them.

Evolution is also a unifying concept serving as a common thread running through other biological concepts as maintaining a regulatory balance (homeostasis), the need for energy, organizing matter within life, continuing life through genetics, developing an organism from start to death, and organisms interacting with each other and with their surrounding environment. As evolutionary biologist and Russian Orthodox Christian Theodosius Dobzhansky (1900-1975) said, “Nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution.”

Meanwhile, one can have a misunderstanding about science, but that does not mean science is wrong.

One can ignore science, but that does not mean science is wrong.

One can disagree with science, but that does not mean science is wrong.