Darwinian theories of man's evolution out of lower species challenged nineteenth-century Christian belief on at least four grounds:

1. By emphasizing that species changed, evolutionary theories apparently destroyed ancient notions of the Great Chain of Being, such as Pope described in The Essay on Man, in which all living organisms had their proper place in a fixed, immutable order.

2. By emphasizing that species changed over time, evolutionary theories called into question the literal truth of the Bible, which stated, at least according to Bishop Usher, that God had created the world in 4004 B. C. (Nonetheless, theologians, including Broad Churchmen and the great Evangelical Patrick Fairbairn, argued that even a literal reading of the Bible permitted a world millions of years older than previously thought. Fairbairn, author of The Typology of Scripture, which appeared in various editions between 1845 and 1872, pointed out that the Old Testament presented the history of a continually evolving religion and that the days of creation could well have been some divine measure equivalent to entire eons millions of years long.)

3. By thus placing human beings within vistas of previously unimaginable time, evolutionary theories, like Copernican ones that displaced man's world from the center of the universe, made man, a recent arrival, seem pretty unimportant. To some extent, all of these other views had entered intellectual debate decades before Darwin published his works on speciation (1859) and the descent of man (1872), and in fact geology, which prepared the way for Darwin (as well as Tennyson), devastated the religious faith of many Victorian intellectuals by the time the great biologist wrote. (Geologists like Charles Lyell, who emphasized gradualism, had convinced many that the earth's rocks documented a tale that had required millions, even hundreds of millions, of years to unfold. See Stephen Jay Gould, Times Arrow, Time's Cycle: Myth and Metaphor in the Discover of Geological Time, Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1987).

4. Darwin, however, added one additional component of the theory that proved devastating to orthodox belief — the notion of Natural Selection, which holds that species inevitably produced random variations and that only those characteristics of beings that survive to reproduce themselves could survive. Both the essential randomness and the apparently wasteful cruelty of the selection process argued against any form of moral divinity.

Natural Selection, which apparently leaves no place for God in the world, has proved the most difficult part of the theory for many to accept, though, as Darwin himself recognized, his theory contained other potential difficulties. Those who refuse to believe in Darwinian selection generally follow some version or other of Lamarkianism — a pre-Darwinian form of evolutionary theory named after the brilliant biologist and founder of invertebrate paleontology Jeane Baptiste Pierre Antoine de Monet, the Chavalier de Lamarck (1744-1829). According to Lamarck, organisms adapt to their environments and then have the power to pass those changes on to their offspring. Lamarkianism, which has the double appeal of requiring little time for evolutionary change and appearing efficient and even beneficent, has always appealed to true believers. In the twentieth century, for example, Lamarckian evolution became the official scientific dogma of the the USSR, which denounced Darwinian theories as devices of capitalist oppression. Under the guidance of Trofim Denisovich Lysenko (1898-1976), who won Stalin's approval, Lamarkian approaches to genetic improvement, animal husbandry, and plant hybrids created severe problems for both Soviet agriculture and Soviet biology.

Since Tennyson appears to espouse a particularly beneficent form of evolutionary theory in In Memoriam, the question arises, was he a follower of Lamarck? What do you believe?

Created 1998

Last modified 14 January 2020