This blog series, adapted from this article in Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith, is a comprehensive study of the views of Christian author and apologist C. S. Lewis on the theory of evolution and the argument from intelligent design. Today Peterson demonstrates that Lewis did accept the scientific evidence for evolution, while adamantly rejecting the philosophical naturalism many wrongly associate with it.
Lewis on Evolution
Since Lewis rejects ID in the narrower sense, what does he think about Evolution? Lewis accepted both cosmic and biological evolution as highly confirmed scientific theories. He understood that when a scientific theory—which is a proposal about how some natural phenomenon is caused by some natural mechanism—is confirmed by many factors, we call it a fact. We should not understand the terms theory and fact as though “theory” means “not a fact” or “lacking adequate support.” Sometimes Lewis uses the term “hypothesis” as synonymous with a scientific theory, as do many scientists.
Regarding cosmic evolution, Lewis comments that his Space Trilogy contains “only enough science” to lift the reader’s imagination away from the ordinary; but the science it does contain is informed by the basic scientific picture of the cosmos and space and the planets. In his more overtly philosophical (and apologetic) books, Lewis sometimes alludes to well-known information about the universe. In The Problem of Pain, he writes,
Look at the universe … By far the greatest part of it consists of empty space, completely dark and unimaginably cold. The bodies which move in this space are … few and so small in comparison with the [vastness] of space... (p. 13)
Elsewhere Lewis speaks of “nebulae” coming into being in the early history of the cosmos; therefore he knew something about cosmology and astronomy.
Lewis then transitions to biological evolution in that same passage in The Problem of Pain:
n our own [galaxy and solar] system it is improbable that any planet except the Earth -sustains life. And Earth herself existed without life for millions of years and may exist for millions more when life has left her. And what is life like while it lasts? … [A]ll the forms … can live only by preying upon one another. (pp. 13-14)
Here he reflects on what science tells us about key elements of organic evolution—the struggle for survival and natural selection. He continues:
[T]hat man is physically descended from animals, I have no objection … For centuries God perfected the animal form which was to become the vehicle of humanity and the image of Himself … The creature may have existed for ages in this state before it became man … n the fullness of time, God caused to descend upon this organism … a new kind of consciousness which could say “I” and “me,” … which knew God … [and] could make judgements of truth, beauty, and goodness... (pp. 72-77)
Clearly, Lewis accepts the Darwinian concept of “common descent with modification.” In other writings, he calls biological evolution a “genuine scientific hypothesis” ("The Funeral of a Great Myth", p. 83) and scientists who study it “real biologists” and “real scientists.” (p. 85) He even refers in various locations to the age of “monsters,” “dragons,” “huge, very heavily armored creatures,” the great reptiles, dinosaurs, which had to pass so that mammalian life could emerge and flourish. (p. 87; Mere Christianity, p. 218)
So, Lewis never voices any objection to the scientific facts of Evolution as though they are somehow incompatible with orthodox Christian doctrines— and, in fact, he was completely comfortable integrating Evolution into a comprehensive worldview. For Lewis, positively engaging the growing body of human knowledge does not mean accommodating the latest fad but responsibly reflecting on how the Christian vision makes best sense of the facts and broad principles we learn from a variety of sources, including the sciences. Since Lewis’s time, of course, the findings of the sciences have converged more strongly on the truths of Evolution, such that it now has as high a degree of confirmation as anything else we know in science.
Why do certain religious groups continue to have problems with Evolution? One factor is the low quality of science education in our schools that makes it difficult to have informed discussion in which all parties adequately understand the methods and aims of science. Also, we noted earlier the perception that Evolution contradicts a literal reading of Genesis, which, for Christian fundamentalism, violates biblical authority. But the factor that requires attention here is that some people—both Christian and non-Christian—see Evolution as implying that there is no God, as being a form of atheism. So, Evolution becomes identified with the view that matter alone is real, chance and randomness eliminate design and purpose, moral absolutes do not exist, and a human being is merely a complex animal with no special dignity. However, these are not scientific claims; they define the philosophical worldview of Naturalism (or Materialism).
Lewis, of course, was a sworn opponent of Naturalism, but not of Evolution. He carefully distinguished Evolution as science from Evolution as co-opted by philosophical naturalism ("The Funeral of a Great Myth", p. 83). Naturalism has been around since the dawn of philosophical thought in Greece 2,500 years ago. Its advocates have always claimed that “Naturalism-plus-the-science-of-the-day” explains all that needs to be explained, and that therefore theological and metaphysical explanations are obsolete. In our day, thinkers who take this approach have been dubbed “the New Atheists.” Lewis shrewdly cautions us not to fall for their spin:
Please do not think that one of these views [i.e., either Naturalism or Supernaturalism] was held a long time ago and that the other has gradually taken its place. Wherever there have been thinking men both views turn up … You cannot find out which view is the right one by science in the ordinary sense (Mere Christianity, p. 22).
Lewis is making two important points: (1) That it is pure propaganda that Supernaturalism was believed when people were prescientific and intellectually unsophisticated, but that science has now shown that Naturalism is true. In point of fact, classical Christian orthodoxy is always capable of the most sophisticated engagement with any new information. (2) That science—legitimately operating by methodological naturalism—cannot decide between the two philosophical options of Naturalism and Supernaturalism. For naturalists to think that science itself provides evidence for Naturalism is, ironically, to commit the same category mistake earlier attributed to ID: failing to distinguish what sorts of issues are properly addressed in the fields of science and philosophy, respectively. The New Atheists fallaciously claim that their philosophical position is closely linked to a scientific case for atheism which is supported by evolutionary science, whereas ID proponents fallaciously claim that their version of science exposes weaknesses in evolutionary approaches and thus provides grounds for thinking that something like Theism is true.
Lewis’s incisive criticisms of Naturalism masquerading as evolutionary science are still very relevant to the growing cultural discussion. Consider two famous examples of scientists promoting Naturalism in the name of science. In the 1980s, Cornell astronomer Carl Sagan burst on the scene with his book Cosmos (New York: Ballantine, 1980) and the PBS series it inspired. The first sentence of the book declares: “The cosmos is all that is or ever was or ever will be.” (p. 1) The sum total of reality is matter, continually and endlessly changing in space. There is no intelligent and benevolent being behind it all.
More recently, Oxford zoologist Richard Dawkins makes the New York Times Best Seller List from time to time with books arguing that Evolution combined with philosophical naturalism provides a complete and compelling explanation of the world. As a leader of the New Atheism, he writes in The Blind Watchmaker (New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 1986),
An atheist before Darwin could have said, following Hume: “I have no explanation for complex biological design. All I know is that God isn’t a good explanation, so we must wait and hope that somebody comes up with a better one.” I can’t help feeling that such a position, though logically sound, would have left one feeling pretty unsatisfied, and that although atheism might have been logically tenable before Darwin, Darwin made it possible to be an intellectually fulfilled atheist. (p. 6, emphasis added)
So, for Sagan and Dawkins, the philosophical view that physical stuff is ultimate reality can now be coupled with a comprehensive scientific account of how the physical realm developed and operates. You have the complete package: Naturalism co-opts Evolutionary Science. No need for a Creator-God; the physical realm simply explains itself!