Many people think the Bible teaches that God created modern species in the beginning and then Darwin proved the Bible wrong. The truth is more interesting. When fossils of extinct species were discovered in the fossil record, scientists started to ask what mechanism changed species? Darwin didn’t raise the questions, and his followers didn’t settle them.
By Dr. Todd Charles Wood, Director of the Center for Origins Research at Bryan College
There is a popular idea that the Western world was creationist until the time of Darwin, and then everyone immediately switched to evolution when On the Origin of Species was published in 1859. If so, why did these scientists switch so quickly? Surely real, biblical creationists would have vigorously attacked Darwin’s book. The history of Origin and the rise of evolution is not nearly as simple as the phrase “Darwinian revolution” might lead us to believe. When Darwin published his book, the church had already fallen asleep. Most scientists had stopped looking to the Bible for answers, and Christians assumed that the earth was extremely old. Darwin’s “revolution” was actually a relatively gradual process that began before Origin and outlived Darwin himself.
Where Do Species Come From?
The main question, which became a serious scientific problem in Darwin’s day, came from the growing science of geology, specifically from the study of rock layers (called stratigraphy) and debates about the age of the earth. The question: Where do species come from?
Early geologists had begun to see that each fossil species appeared only in certain rock layers but not others.(1) Other scientists proposed that the earth was much older than the Bible seemed to indicate. They believed that the rock layers represented countless eons of time.(2)These ideas inspired the belief that fossil species were laid down in layers over eons of time.
The next logical question was: Where did these species come from? The fossils from any given layer were seen as creatures that lived only during a particular period of time. They were not present when the previous rock layer was laid down, and other, different species appeared in later rock layers. The origin of species then became a subject of debate and speculation.
Long before Darwin published Origin, the church and scientific community had largely abandoned a high view of Scripture as the ultimate authority in every area, including science. When the debate over species erupted in the first half of the nineteenth century, neither side appealed to Scripture.
On the one side were conservatives who accepted the popular church position that God made all species to be “fixed,” or unchanging. This extrabiblical view actually comes from ancient Greek philosophy, but it was held as gospel (see Do Species Change?, p. 36).
Other more liberal-minded scientists did not look so favorably on the idea of species fixity. They believed instead that somehow species developed from other species, an idea variously called transmutation or just development.(3)
Darwin and the Origin of Species
Love him or hate him, Charles Darwin single-handedly changed the course of this debate with one book. Based on twenty years of research, Darwin’s Origin of Species laid out an argument for evolution based on a mechanism called natural selection (see Natural Selection—Theory or Reality?, p. 46). Other European authors had tried to promote the evolution of species, but Darwin succeeded where they failed. Within twenty years of the publication of Origin, almost every scientist in England and America became an evolutionist.(4)
Darwin opened Origin with an extended argument for variation and natural selection—his evolutionary mechanism. The middle chapters addressed all the objections that Darwin could think of. The final chapters argued that small changes over long periods of time have led to the major differences we now see between different kinds of animals, based on the usual evidences we still hear about today: comparative anatomy, geography, embryology, the fossil record, and vestigial organs.
Why did so many scientists convert to evolution after reading Origin? They were simply looking for a law or mechanism to explain the appearance of new species. The scientists at the time were not creationists suddenly convinced by Darwin’s overwhelming argument. They were ready and waiting to hear a natural explanation for the origin of species.
Evolution after Darwin
Initial reaction to Origin was mixed. Though most scientists quickly accepted Darwin’s evolutionary ideas, many remained skeptical that natural selection could explain it. Anatomist St. George Mivart wrote an entire book, cleverly titled On the Genesis of Species, repudiating natural selection and instead proposing an internal drive to evolve.(5) Other scientists revived Lamarck’s idea of the inheritance of acquired characteristics.(6)
At the turn of the century, the genetics research of Gregor Mendel was rediscovered, sparking other concerns about the mechanism of evolution. Mendel had crossed a tall pea plant with a dwarf and found that all the offspring were tall, but when those offspring were crossed with each other, one-fourth of their offspring were dwarves. Somehow, the characteristic of dwarfism had passed through a generation of tall plants, only to reappear in the next generation unchanged.
Now the question shifted. Instead of wondering where species come from, scientists began wondering where new traits came from. The answer, according to the majority of early geneticists, was the occasional sudden changes called mutations. These changes were not the minor variations that Darwin imagined, gradually building up to major changes. They were biological quantum leaps, like going from white to red flowers, or from tall plants to dwarves.(7)
In the 1930s, geneticists finally worked out a way to meld Darwin and Mendel, which we now call the neo-Darwinian synthesis. This synthesis coupled mathematical modeling of genetics with Darwin’s basic concept of natural selection. It took another few decades, however, for the synthesis to be accepted among the broader scientific community.
Where does this leave us as creationists? On the one hand, we disagree with the old view that species never change. Now we know that species can change and have changed. Darwin was right in that respect. Species fixity, though it sounds “creationist,” doesn’t really explain where species come from.
On the other hand, Darwin clearly went overboard when he proposed that all species can trace their ancestry back to “four or five progenitors” or even “one prototype."(8) The Bible describes God’s creation of plants, flying things, swimming things, creeping things, land animals, and humans as separate events. Each created kind may contain many related species, but the kinds themselves are unique and separate creations.
Ironically, we creationists who are interested in species and in biology find ourselves asking questions that are very similar to the ones scientists wrestled with just before Darwin. Though we acknowledge that modern species come from created kinds, there are still many questions to be answered:
1) How do created kinds generate species? Is it just random variations and natural selection like Darwin said, or is there something else involved?
2) How fast can species change? Creationists believe the earth is only 6,000 years old, but the Bible records modern species in the time of Abraham (Genesis 12:16). Could there be some kind of “trigger” that makes species change quickly
3) How much can species change? Is there some intrinsic limit to change, and if so what is it?
4) Why do species appear to be so well designed? If species can change and even adapt to new environments, how do they end up so beautifully designed? Does God somehow oversee the changes, or is the change itself part of God’s design?
Fixity wasn’t right, and neither was Darwin’s evolution. But as creationists attempt to answer these questions from a biblical perspective, we will gain a better understanding of God’s design and thereby of God Himself.
- Martin J. S. Rudwick, The Meaning of Fossils: Episodes in the History of Palaeontology (New York: Neale Watson Academic Publications, 1976).
- Charles Lyell, Principles of Geology, Vol. 1 (London: John Murray, 1830).
- Other early evolutionists include French zoologist Etienne Geoffroy St. Hilaire, Scottish anatomist Robert Grant, and even Darwin’s own grandfather, Erasmus Darwin.
- Ronald L. Numbers, The Creationists: From Scientific Creationism to Intelligent Design, 2nd ed. (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 2006), p. 1.
- St. George Mivart, On the Genesis of Species (London: Macmillan and Co., 1871).
- Peter J. Bowler, The Eclipse of Darwinism (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1983).
- E.g., see Thomas Hunt Morgan, A Critique of the Theory of Evolution (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1919).
- Charles Darwin, On the Origin of Species (London: John Murray, 1859), p. 484.