As many opinions as there are men?
Editor’s note: We were delighted to present a series by Neil Thomas, Distinguished Reader at Durham University, “The origin of species: From Discussion Paper to Nihilistic Dogma. This is the fifth and final article in the series. Find the full series here. Professor Thomas’ recent book is Saying goodbye to Darwin: A lifelong agnostic uncovers the case for design (Discovery Institute Press).
According to an ancient Roman proverb,Tot homines, quotssentiae» : There are as many opinions as there are people. Indeed, a range of “minority verdicts,” paralleling those noted in my previous article (“The Rise of Theistic Darwinism”), was also noticeable in the reception of Darwinism in Europe.
In Germany, the ideas of Ernst Haeckel, in his youth a die-hard Darwinian materialist, were to evolve to a surprising degree from his youth into his old age. Although he once rejected the idea contained in the Humboldtian idea of Naturphilosophie (which invoked a mystical belief in a World Spirit), he later came to see sentient life as being obsess (= “animated” or “souled”).1 As Alfred Kelly once said: “In spite of himself, Haeckel almost succumbed to teleology…. His vision of nature looked like a great work of art almost yearning for the creator he kept blaming him for.2 In fact, Haeckel’s Darwinism seems over time to have evolved into a form of pantheism, a belief in this very “All-Seele(spirit of the universe) which he had once so firmly rejected.
The consumption of the Bible
His contemporary, Wilhelm Boelsche, who did much to popularize Haeckel’s views, even came over time to view evolutionary processes in lyrically hyperbolic terms as a form of the Second Reformation whose universal laws represented a progressive revelation to the ‘humanity. For Boelsche, the Bible, read in its own allegorical sense or what a later generation would call its “demythologized” sense, was fully compatible with science. He viewed the Bible as he viewed other myths and folklore as a vital but primitive expression of the human spirit, later systematized by science to a higher level of expression. For Boelsche, science was everything accomplishment of the Old and New Testaments, hence the most devout position for modern man was to espouse science Weltanschauung. It seems that evolution for Boelsche – by a form of spiritual though impenetrable alchemy that we can only guess at – had transfigured itself into the very essence of what is meant by progressive revelation: he even expressed the belief that Darwin had worked in the temple of Nature, picking up where Jesus Christ left off!
An umbrella organization
Therefore, contrary to modern and supposedly hypercorrect interpretations of Darwinism, which insist that every element of what is considered somewhat reductively as the Darwinian intellectual body being in place, in the last decades of the 19th century and into In the early decades of the 20th Century Darwinism remained essentially an umbrella organization or large church within which a variety of opinions were debated and what were effectively a number of “minority reports” published.
Darwin himself encouraged such dialogic readings of his work by openly pointing out his doubts rather than sweeping them under the rug (which seems to be modern pedagogical practice3). Indeed, if the The origin of species were a piece of creative literature, one could describe Darwin’s authorship persona as the very archetype of the non-omniscient narrator.
the The origin of speciesthen, was in its infancy a partially interrogative discussion paper or an extended position paper that tacitly invited a properly dialectical response rather than that materialistic monolith it evolved into after the much-battered “New Synthesis” cemented its position with the imprimatur of modernity in the early 1940s. In its 19and– and early 20andIn contrast, in the receptions of the last century, Darwinism did not degenerate into a weaponized nihilistic rallying cry to advance the cause of militant atheism, and some clearly understood it as a theory that clarified and reinforced their Christian faith. It is this aspect of Origin which is overlooked (or deliberately ignored) by modern legatees pushing an exclusively materialistic agenda.
- German seele (= soul). the be-prefix has transitive strength, hence “souled”, in Older English “animated”.
- Alfred Kelly, The Descent of Darwin: The Popularization of Darwinism in Germany, 1860-1914 (Chapel Hill, North Carolina UP, 1981), p. 28.
- See, for example, the contributions to How Evolution Explains Everything About Life: From Darwin’s Brilliant Idea to Today’s Epic Theory, edited by Alison George (London: John Murray Learning, 2017).