David N. Livingstone. Darwin’s Forgotten Defenders: The Encounter Between Evangelical Theology and Evolutionary Thought. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans, Edinburgh: Scottish Academic Press, 1987.
Darwin’s Forgotten Defenders is about evangelical Christian reactions to the theory of evolution in the United States during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. It profiles many figures, including James Orr, B.B. Warfield, and Charles Hodge.
Livingstone essentially argues that, until the early twentieth century, many evangelical Christian thinkers did not object to evolution on biblical grounds. Some may have believed that there was not sufficient evidence for evolution, or that questions were unresolved. Some objected to attempts to present evolution as something that undercuts the idea that the earth and life on it had a designer. But many evangelical Christian thinkers believed that there was no contradiction between the truth of Christianity and evolution. Some said that the days of Genesis 1 could have been longer than 24-hours and that God could have used evolution as his method of making the different animals. Some maintained that God creating human beings in his image could have entailed God providing humans with a soul at a particular point in time, meaning that Genesis 1 was not necessarily incompatible with the existence of early man. In the early twentieth century, however, a greater commitment to literalism emerged, as many Christians in America sought to protect their culture from certain trends. Interestingly, Livingstone notes that a book by prominent young-earth creationist Henry Morris about scientists who believed in creation actually (maybe unknowingly) favorably profiles scientists who accepted evolution.
From my summary above, some may think that the book rehashes a debate that many already know. Many of us are aware that there are Christians who try to reconcile Genesis 1 and science by saying that a day could have been longer than 24-hours, or that some (such as Pope John Paul II) posit that God could have put a soul into a form of human beings at a particular point in time. While the book does repeatedly present people who held to those ideas, it has so much more. There was the difference between William Paley’s model of design (the divine watchmaker) and other models of design (i.e., did God fashion animals according to their environments or simply use common models for them? Should we focus on the structure of animals or laws?). There were those who believed that God performed unique creations throughout history. There were those who sought to reconcile evolution with original sin, saying that evolution does not necessarily imply progress, or that evolution’s emphasis on heredity is consistent with human beings passing down original sin to their descendants. Some believed that there were parallels between evolution and Calvinism, since evolution could inspire thought about determinism and freedom. There were different versions of evolution: Darwin’s model, which saw mutations as random and not necessarily heading in a specific (or better) direction, and Lamark’s model, which held that evolution was innately progressive and that animals could consciously adapt to their surroundings. (What’s more, according to Livingstone, Darwin actually came to lean towards the Lamarkian model!) There was the relevance of evolution to racism; while evolution was used to support racism, so was creationism, and some Christian thinkers actually critiqued racism by appealing to evolution. There was the question of whether Christ could have died for pre-Adamic man or space aliens, as some maintained that Christ’s atonement could have been extended to them, even if they were not involved in the Fall of Adam. There were people who criticized evolution from a perspective that was not even distinctly Christian; one person did so on the basis of German idealism. And there is Livingstone’s thoughtful final chapter that reflects on creationism, arguing that creationists raise valid concerns about the application of evolution to non-scientific realms (i.e., politics, philosophy), and referring to an article questioning whether the Left should side with the scientific establishment over creationists, with all that the scientific establishment does that is inimical to its aims.
If I had a favorite character in this book, it was Charles Darwin. Darwin was someone who had tried and failed at many things in his life, but he met an academic who saw his potential and believed in him. Darwin was willing to reach out to those who did not entirely agree with him. And Darwin honestly admitted that his own theory was not perfect and contained unanswered questions at the time (i.e., missing links, the question of how a mutated animal can bring about mutation in the body of animals, etc.), even if he believed that it had enough evidence and explanatory power to be valid.
The book did not really address, as far as I could see, the question of whether evolution was inconsistent with Adam’s Fall bringing death into the world, when death is an important aspect of the theory of evolution. After all, the evolutionary model holds that there was death millennia before Adam supposedly lived. Maybe the Christian thinkers did not address such questions. I will not rule out that they did, though.