Contemporary Christian creationists often deride Darwinian evolutionary theory and propose one of several current creationist models as a clear alternative. Of course, these groups debate amongst themselves over exactly which literal reading of Genesis to prefer, including whether or not dinosaurs were present on the ark.
But what many of these groups fail to recognize is that Darwin did not emerge into something like a contemporary creationist worldview to fire off his evolutionary broadside and leave evolution and “creation” as a dualistic scientific battlefield. Christians prior to Darwin did not generally hold to what we would recognize as “creationism.” Instead, they blended the theological insights of Genesis with the most reasonable natural philosophy of the time, whether it was drawn from Aristotle or Linnaeus. Especially popular were models based around the “Great chain of being.”
But of especial interest is the understanding that was becoming current when Darwin was studying at university and travelling on HMS Beagle. This was the height of the anti-slavery/pro-slavery debate in England and the Americas, and a scientific shift was underway to justify – often on biblical grounds – the separate status of Africans and other “inferior races.” For these groups, Adam was seen as the beginning of the Jewish race in particular, and each race had its own lineage and progenitor. From Desmond and Moore’s study, Darwin’s Sacred Cause,
Those who believed in the separate creation or emergence of each human race or species were ‘pluralists.’ For them the various human species were not blood-kin at all. Each species in its geographical home had a separate bloodline back to the beginning, which never connected to any other species. There was no common ancestor for all the races. Some American writers were already arguing that the origin of all the different races of men’ was the most intriguing subject of natural history. A few laughed Moses out of court and dismissed as flippant talk of climate turning one race into another. These pluralists had Aborigines first appearing…adapted to the sport where they are now found. So black and white had separate ancestries and differed more from each other than one species of dog did from another. With increasing agitation over American slavery, pluralism was a perfect legitimating philosophy. Books were already denying that the separate races or species were equal or ‘sprang from the same primitive root’. Slave and master were thus unrelated, which made the planters’ actions toward their ‘inferior’ captives easier to justify.
In this context, from principles deeply rooted in both scripture and (itself derived from scripture, through divorced from its historicism) Enlightenment humanism, Darwin strove to justify scientifically that all humans are of one blood. If Darwin had not succeeded, it is possible that some other researcher would have. He was not the first to suggest common descent, natural selection and random variation. But there is no certainty that this view would have won out as fully as it has done.
What is certain, though, is that the shape of Christian creationism would be far different, with different allies and opponents. Which ought to suggest something about the relative merits of Christian creationism, being as it is a reactionary and not at all “default” or straightforward view of scripture.
What do you think? What might the creationist perspective look like today if not for Darwinian thought? Even if you reject some or all of Darwinian evolutionary theory, could it be seen as beneficial in a humanitarian light? Even if you affirm some or all of Darwinian evolutionary theory, how can we prevent it from being mishandled in the name of a “social Darwinism”?