Evolution and the Bible
Evolution and the Bible
The American Institute of Sacred Literature, Popular Religion Leaflets

"Science and Religion" Series.

By Edwin G. Conklin

First Impression, Chicago, September 1922

The past few years have witnessed a curious recrudescence of the old theological fight of fifty years ago against evolution. This movement is partly due to the increased emotionalism let loose by the war and partly to the fact that uncertainty among scientists has been interpreted by many non-scientific persons as throwing doubt upon its truth. Ten years ago, who would have thought it possible that any fundamental generalization of science would ever again be declared false because it was not supported by certain literal and narrow interpretations of Biblical texts or that attempts would ever again be made to determine by public legislation that any departure from these interpretations should be severely punished? And yet these things have come to pass. A religious organization has been formed and has gained many adherents and wide publicity, the chief purpose of which is to banish "modernism" and particularly the theory of evolution from churches and schools. Bills have been introduced in certain State Legislatures forbidding the teaching of evolution, or of Darwinism, as applied to man. Textbooks that teach evolution, even as an incidental part of theology or geology, have been placed on the index prohibitus of this new Inquisition. Scientists who have dared to teach this forbidden subject have been under fire and in some instances have lost their positions, and it is said that funds are being raised to endow and perpetuate this fight against evolution.

All this is done, we are told, to save the religious faith of the younger generation. Apparently the leaders of this movement do not realize that they, and not the evolutionists, are making it impossible for young men and women who are intellectually enlightened to remain in their denominations. Those who wield the sword of a militant faith against science should remember that it cuts both ways. It is a dangerous thing for defenders of the faith to affirm that one cannot be a Christian and an evolutionist, for students of nature who find themselves compelled by the evidence to accept the truth of evolution will be apt to conclude that they must therefore count themselves as hostile to the Church. When will we learn that the worst form of infidelity is not disbelief in certain doctrines, whether theological or scientific, but disbelief in the power and ultimate triumph of truth? If evolution is false, it cannot be saved by science: if it is true, it cannot be destroyed by theology. The advice of Gamaliel to the Sanhedrin is still good advice: "Refrain from these men and let them alone; for if this counsel of this work be of men, it will come to naught; but if it be of God, ye cannot overthrow it, lest haply ye be found to fight against God."

Few opponents of evolution at the present time have either the technical training or even the desire to weigh critically the evidences for or against its truth. Properly to appreciate these evidences requires some firsthand knowledge of morphology, physiology, embryology, ecology, paleontology and genetics. In biology as well as in other sciences it is necessary to see and handle actual materials and to observe for oneself natural processes in order to appreciate their significance; this is the reason why laboratory work plays so large a part at present in the teaching of the sciences. The advice which Huxley gave to the "paper philosophers" of his day is especially applicable to these opponents of evolution: "Get a little first-hand knowledge of biology." These anti-evolutionists not only lack such first-hand knowledge but they often have to desire to get it even second-hand; I once asked a man who was denouncing Darwin if he had ever read the books and he replied, "I wouldn't touch them with a ten-foot pole." Neither facts, evidences, nor sweet reasonableness can penetrate such an armor.


The whole scientific world long since was convinced of the truth of evolution and every year which has passed since the publication of "The Origin of Species" in 1859 has added to the mountain of evidence which has been piled up in its favor. It is fortunately not necessary here to review the evidences of evolution, for these may be found in many elementary textbooks on biology. The evidences are so numerous and come from so many sources that no intelligent man can study them at first hand and not be impressed with their importance. As a consequence there is probably not a single biological investigator in the world today who is not convinced of the truth of evolution. The fact that these evidences accumulate year after year, often coming from fields which Darwin and his contemporaries never dreamed of, is still more convincing. I once heard Lord Kelvin, the great physicist, say that any hypothesis or theory if true should find new support continually as knowledge advances. This is just what happened in the case of evolution.

These new opponents of evolution make much of the idea that evolution is only an hypothesis, or as they prefer to call it, a "guess." But unless they use the world "guess" in the Yankee sense of practical certainty, this is an erroneous and misleading statement. Evolution is a guess only in the same sense as the doctrine of universal gravitation, or any other great generalization of science is a guess. But can one honestly call that doctrine "a guess" which is supported by all the evidence available, which continually receives additional support from new discoveries and which is not contradicted by any scientific evidence?

It is true that we do not know as much as we should like about the causes of evolution (though we know a good deal more than its opponents assume), but the same may be said with regard to the causes of gravitation, light, electricity, chemical affinity, life or any other natural phenomenon. The problem of cause is never finally solved by science, for no sooner is one cause discovered than it gives rise to questions concerning the cause of this cause. Strange as it may seem, it is only the cause of supernatural phenomena that are supposed to be fully known! But of course this is due merely to the fact that no attempt is made to analyze such phenomena or causes.

Uncertainty among scientists as to the causes of evolution has been interpreted by many non-scientific persons as throwing doubt upon its truth. It is plain that these causes are complex and that they have not yet been fully discovered; it is even probable that some of the proposed explanations are erroneous and will have to be abandoned but it is not fair or honest to quote the doubts of scientists regarding the causes of evolution as if they constituted an abandonment of the theory itself, especially when the same scientists in the same connection affirm that no informed person can doubt the fact of evolution. Thus Professor Bateson of England in his address before the American Association for the Advancement of Science at Toronto expresses his doubts as to the causes and methods of the origin of species, but goes on to say:

"I have put before you very frankly the considerations which have made us agnostic as to the actual mode and processes of evolution. When such confessions are made, the enemies of science see their chance. If we cannot declare here and now how species arose, they will obligingly offer us the solutions with which obscurantism is satisfied. Let us then proclaim in precise and unmistakable language that our faith in evolution is unshaken. Every available line of argument converges on the inevitable conclusion. The obscurantist has nothing to suggest which is worth a moment's attention. The difficulties which weigh upon the professional biologist need not trouble the layman. Our doubts are not as to the reality of evolution but as to the origin of species, a technical, almost domestic, problem. Any day that mystery may be solved."
The minor stages in evolution, known as mutations and elementary species, have been repeatedly observed in plants, animals and man. Devries, Morgan and many others have demonstrated that sudden and very great changes or mutations sometimes occur, that these mutations may be combined to form races or elementary species, and it is probable that the characteristics of these elementary species are combined to form Linnaean species. Among our domestic animals and cultivated plants such changes have been wrought as amount to specific differences, Darwin says that any naturalist, if he should find our races of domestic pigeons wild in nature, would classify them in not less than twenty species and three different genera. A similar statement could be made regarding fowls and dogs as well as many fruits, grains, and vegetables. In short, evolution has occurred under domestication.

Those who urge as objection to evolution that "it is only a theory" neglect to say that their own views can be dignified by no higher title. As between evolution and special supernatural creation we have to choose between two theories or hypotheses and it is merely a question of evidence as to which is the more probable. All the evidence available supports the theory of evolution,it continually receives fresh support from new discoveries, it is not contradicted by any scientific evidence. Can the supporters of the theory of special creation say as much?


Anti-evolutionists apparently are ready to concede the evolution of rocks and plants and possible animals, but draw the line at the evolution of man. When one of their representatives says that there are no evidences of the evolution of man, that "neither Darwin nor his supporters have been able to find a fact in the universe to support their hypothesis," it is hard to understand what he means. Darwin's works are filled with facts in support of evolution, they are composed of little except such facts, and multitudes of similar facts have been accumulated since Darwin's day. Apparently the anti-evolutionist demands to see a monkey or an ass transformed into a man, tho he must be familiar enough with the reverse process. The Hotspurs who demand that evolution be reenacted "while they wait" should emulate the example of Josh Billings who said that he had heard that a toad would live 400 years; he was going to catch one and see for himself! The evidences for the major transformations in the evolution of man are not personal demonstrations since they do not fall within the lifetime of a single individual, nor indeed within the era of recorded history, but they are the same sort of evidences as those for mountain-building, stream erosion, glacial action or any other change involving long periods of time.

A common misunderstanding is that man is descended from some existing species of anthropoid ape and the latter from some existing species of monkey and so on back to certain existing species of lower animals. Of course this cannot be true for the whole organic world has been evolving together. Monkeys, apes, and men have descended from some common but at present extinct ancestor. Existing apes and monkeys are collateral relatives of man but not his ancestors; his cousins but not his parents. Such evolution may be graphically represented by a tree in which the leaves and terminal branches represent existing individuals and species while the larger branches and trunks represent ancestral forms; one leaf is not derived from another nor one terminal branch from another but these are derived from lower-lying branches. In short there has been evolution in divergent lines. The human branch diverged from the anthropoid branch not less than two million years ago and since that time man has been evolving in the direction represented by existing human races, while the apes have been evolving in the direction represented by existing anthropoids. During all this time men and apes have been growing more unlike and conversely the farther back we go, the more we should find them converging until they meet in a common stock which should be, in general, intermediate between these two stocks.

Whenever it is said that man is descended from apes or monkeys, it must be understood that this is only a brief and crude way of saying that he comes from ape-like or monkey-like forms and not from any existing species of monkey or apes. Present day monkeys and apes cannot become men because they long since passed the parting of the ways which led to these two different types. It is as absurd to think that any existing species could become any other existing species as it would be to think that any existing branch of a tree could become any other existing branch. On the other hand, the resemblances between monkeys, apes, and man are due to the persistent inheritance of certain common traits which they have derived from a common ancestor, just as the resemblances of cousins are due to the inheritances of traits from common grandparents.

It is generally held by scientists that the existing races of men all belong to one species, Homo sapiens, because these races are generally fertile inter se. But fertility is not a safe and certain criterion of a species. Some individuals belonging to distinct species are fertile inter se and other individuals belonging to the same species are sterile. But if the differences between different races of men are not sufficiently great to warrant placing them in different species, they are at least great enough to constitute sub-species. How did these differences arise if not by divergent evolution? If all men are the sons of Adam, there must have been a good deal of divergent evolution to have produced the marked differences in the white, yellow, red, brown, and black races; between the pygmies of Africa and the giants of Patagonia; between the long-limbed African and the short-limbed Japanese; between the long-heads and the short-heads; the flat-nose and the sharp-nosed races, etc.


Everything which speaks for the evolution of plants and animals speaks plainly for the evolution of man. In the structure of the human body there is scarcely a bone, muscle, nerve, or any other organ that does not have its counterpart in the higher primates and especially in the anthropoid apes. Romanes, who is often mentioned as having lost and regained his religious faith, though he never lost his faith in evolution, says of these similarities between the body of man and that of the higher primates: "Here we have a fact, or rather a hundred thousand facts, that cannot be attributed to chance, and if we reject the natural explanation of hereditary descent from a common ancestor, we can only suppose that the Deity in creating man took the most scrupulous pains to make him in the image of beasts."

Not only the structure but the functions of the human body are fundamentally like those of other animals. We are born, nourished and develop, we reproduce, grow old and die, just as do other mammals. Specific functions of every organ are the same; drugs, diseases, injuries affect man as they do animals, and all the wonderful advances of experimental medicine are founded upon this fact.

Development from a fertilized egg to birth goes through the same stages in man and other mammals even to the repeating of gill slits, kidneys, heart and blood vessels like those of fishes and amphibians. Indeed development from the egg recapitulates some of the main stages of evolution---in it we see evolution repeated before our eyes. The fact that certain embryonic structures do not repeat the evolutionary history does not destroy this general principle of embryonic recapitulation.

It is a curious fact that many persons who are seriously disturbed by scientific teachings as to the evolution or gradual development of the human race accept with equanimity the universal observation as to the development of the human individual---The animal ancestry of the race should be no more disturbing to philosophical and religious beliefs than the germinal origin of the individual, and yet the latter is a fact of universal observation which cannot be successfully denied. If we admit the fact of the development of the entire individual from an egg, surely it matters little to our religious beliefs to admit the development or evolution of the race from some animal ancestor, for who will maintain that a germ cell is more complex, more perfect, or more intelligent than an ape?

If the evolution of a species is an atheist theory, as some persons assert, so is the development of an individual, for natural development involves identically the same principles as does evolution. If one concedes the fact of individual development without supernatural interference, one might as well concede the fact of organic evolution without supernatural creation, so far at least as its effects on theology are concerned. It is surprising that the "Fundamentalists" have not denied the fact of individual as well as of species development, and if they are consistent, they will demand that we return to the teaching of the "preformationists" of the eighteenth century, to the ideas of endless encasement of one generation within another and hence to the special and supernatural creation of every child of Adam in the creation of Adam himself. When that comes to pass, there will probably be a demand that the teaching of embryology shall be abolished in all schools and colleges.

The discovery of fossil remains of man have proved conclusively that other species of men, more brute-like than any existing at the present time, preceded the present species. The Neanderthal skull, with its low forehead and flat cranium, prominent eye-brow ridges, and large, square orbits was said by many opponents of evolution to be the skull of an idiot. Since then similar skulls and whole skeletons have been found in various parts of western Europe and anthropologists generally are agreed that this Neanderthal type is so different from existing races that it must be classified as a distinct species, Homo neanderthalensis. Portions of the skeletons of still more primitive species of men have been found in Germany, England, and Africa, while the erect ape-man of Java belonged to a distinct genus, Pithecanthropus. It is a vastly important fact that the older these species are, the more ape-like they are. Likewise their handiwork, implements, and flints are coarser and cruder the earlier they occur. How can the opponents of evolution explain these facts? They cannot be truthfully denied and they demand some rational explanation.

All the evidences of evolution drawn from morphology, physiology, embryology, paleontology, homology, heredity, variation, etc., speak for the evolution of man as much as for that of any other organism. If evolution is true anywhere, it is true also of man.


Against all this mountain of evidence, what is there in support of the view of special creation? Only this, that evolution denies the biblical account of the creation of man. What is that account? Here it is in a sentence: "And the Lord god formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul." Observe, ye literalists, that this does not say that God spoke man into existence, as when He said, "Let there be light; and there was light." but a process is described by which man was formed or moulded from the dust, as the Egyptian and Babylonian deities are said to have moulded man from clay on a potter's wheel, and then to have breathed life into his nostrils.

Since the Scriptures describe a process in the creation of man, the opponents of the theory of evolution ought to be able to conceive of a dignified and divine way in which the Creator fashioned man, but this they do not do. The idea that the Eternal God took mud or dust and moulded it with hands or tools into the human form is not only irreverent, it is ridiculous. How much more like the usual workings of that Power, by whom and through whom are all things, is the view of evolution that God make the first man as He has made the last, and that His creative power is manifest just as truly and as greatly in the origin of the last child of Adam, as in the origin of Adam himself. Is it any more degrading to hold that man was made through a long line of animal ancestry than to believe that he was made directly from the dust? Surely the horse and the dog and the monkey belong to higher orders of existence than do the clod and the stone.

Whether we accept the teachings of evolution or the most literal interpretation of the Biblical account, we are compelled to recognize the fact that our bodily origin has been a humble one; as Sir Charles Lyell once said, "It is mud or monkey." But this lowly origin does not destroy the dignity of man; his real dignity consists not in his origin but in what he is and in what he may become.


If only the theological opponents of evolution could learn anything from past attempts to confute science by the bible, they would be more cautious. It was once believed universally that the earth was flat and that it was roofed over by a solid "firmament," and when scientific evidence was adduced to show that the earth was a sphere and that the "firmament" was not a solid roof, it was denounced as opposed to the Scriptures. Those who have visited the Columbian Library in the Cathedral of Seville will recall the Bible of Columbus with marginal notes in his own handwriting to prove that the sphericity of the earth was not opposed to the Scriptures, and a treatise written by him while in prison to pacify the Inquisition. Today only Voliva and his followers at Zion City maintain that the earth is flat and the heavens a solid dome, because this is apparently taught by the Scriptures.

The central position of the earth in the universe with all heavenly bodies revolving around it was held to be as certain as holy writ. All the world knows the story of "Starry Galileo and his woes" at the hands of the Inquisition, but the Copernican theory was opposed not only by the Roman Catholic Church but also by the leaders of the Reformation. Martin Luther denounced it as the "work of a fool." Melanchthon declared that it was neither honest or decent to teach this pernicious doctrine and that it should be repressed by severe measures, and John Wesley declared that it "tended toward infidelity." Even as late as 1724 the Newtonian theory of gravity was assailed by eminent authorities as "atheistic" since "it drove God our of his universe and put a law in his place."

The conflict between geology and Genesis as to the days of creation and the age of the earth lasted until the middle of the last century, and students of Dana's Geology will recall the reconciliation between the two which that great man devoutly undertook. But, by the ultra-orthodox, he and other Christian geologists were denounced as infidels and as impugners of the sacred record. It took three hundred years to end this conflict, if it may be said to be wholly ended now, but certainly no intelligent person now believes that the earth was made just 4004 years B.C. and in six literal days.


And now come men in this twentieth century of enlightenment preaching a new auto da fe, attempting to establish an Inquisition for the trial of science at the bar of theology! They propose to prohibit the teaching of evolution in tax-supported institutions by fine and imprisonment, to repeal a law of nature by a law of Kentucky. They propose to gather into the fold of their theology all existing public and private schools, colleges and universities, and to allow evolutionists and agnostics to found their own schools. In view of the fact that, with the exception of a few strictly sectarian institutions, all our colleges and universities are dedicated to "the increase and diffusion of knowledge among men," that for a generation at least they have turned away from the teaching of dogmatic theology to the cultivation of science, literature and art, that they have during this period received great benefactions for the expressed or implied purpose of carrying on this work in the spirit of freedom to seek, to find and to teach the truth as God gives men to see the truth, --- in view of these considerations it may well be asked whether it would not be more fitting for such opponents of evolution to establish their own institutions for teaching their own view of science and theology, as Dowie, for example, did at Zion City, rather than to attempt to convert existing institutions to that purpose.

Scientific investigators and productive scholars in every field have long since accepted evolution in the broadest sense as an established fact. Science now deals with the evolution of the elements, of the stars and solar system, of the earth, of life upon the earth, of various types and species of plants and animals, of the body, mind and society of man, of science, art, government, education and religion. In the light of this great generalization all sciences, and especially those which have made more progress in the last half century than in all the previous centuries of human history. Even progressive theology has come to regard evolution as an ally rather than as an enemy.

In the face of all these facts, antievolutionists turn to their medieval theology. It would be amusing if it were not so pathetic and disheartening, to see these "defenders of the faith" beating their gongs and firing their giant crackers against the ramparts of science.