Mere Evolution: Lewis on Evolutionary Science versus the Myth of Evolutionism
For many American evangelicals it will come as a surprise to realize just how little Lewis thought was at stake in the scientific question of our biological origins. As we have seen, Lewis had no objection to the notion that “man is physically descended from animals.” Four years after admitting to being shaken by some of the writings from Bernard Acworth’s Evolution Protest Movement, Lewis could still write in a private letter, “I don’t mind whether God made man out of earth or whether ‘earth’ merely means ‘previous millennia of ancestral organisms.’ If the fossils make it probable that man’s physical ancestor’s ‘evolved,’ no matter.”1 So far as we can tell, Lewis never took the view that belief in mere Evolution, “Evolution in the strict sense,”2 “the Evolution of real biologists,” which he took to be “a genuine scientific hypothesis” and “a purely biological theorem”3 was necessarily at odds with a belief in mere Christianity.
Indeed, the final chapter of his classic book Mere Christianity, “The New Men,” assumes an evolutionary picture of life’s origins and development throughout.4 He writes,
Perhaps a modern man can understand the Christian idea best if he takes it in connection with Evolution. Everyone knows about Evolution…: everyone has been told that man has evolved from lower types of life.5
While Lewis acknowledges that “some educated people disbelieve [the theory of Evolution],” he gives no hint throughout the rest of the chapter that he is one of their number.6 In fact, throughout the rest of the chapter he seems to simply assume a broadly evolutionary picture of natural history (as he does in The Problem of Pain and elsewhere). So, for instance, he writes:
Thousands of centuries ago huge, very heavily armoured creatures were evolved.7
At the earlier stages living organisms have had either no choice or very little choice about taking the new step [of development]. Progress was, in the main, something that happened to them, not something that they did.
Century by century God has guided nature up to the point of producing creatures (humans) which can (if they will) be taken right out of nature, turned into “gods.”9
And he says much more in that vein. While it may be possible to read Lewis as invoking Evolution for purely illustrative purposes without actually believing in it, such a reading seems less than likely given his statements in this chapter and elsewhere. In fact, Lewis offers no hint anywhere in his public writings that he regards evolutionary theory as either untrue or conflicting with mere Christianity.
What Lewis did believe to conflict with Christian faith was what he called the great “Myth” of “Evolutionism” or “Developmentalism.” But this is not the same as evolutionary theory per se. “[We] must sharply distinguish between Evolution as a biological theorem and popular Evolutionism or Developmentalism which is certainly a Myth,” he writes in his essay “The Funeral of a Great Myth.”11 Lewis believed that the great myth of “Evolutionism” conflicted not only with the Christian faith, but with Reason itself, undercutting the grounds for believing in human rationality and, therefore, in any human rationale that could be offered for believing in Evolutionism in the first place. According to Lewis,Evolutionism’s chief premise, namely, Naturalism, invalidates human reasoning itself, amounting to “an argument which proved that no argument was sound—a proof that there are no such things as proofs—which is nonsense.”12 “All possible knowledge…depends on reasoning,” he writes in chapter III of Miracles.13 “We infer Evolution from fossils: we infer the existence of our own brains from what we find inside the skulls of other creatures like ourselves in the dissecting room.” All sciences, including evolutionary science, depend upon the validity of human inference for their own validity. “Unless human reasoning is valid no science can be true.”14 Naturalism, however, with its grand Myth of Evolutionism explains all of reality, including human reason, in terms of non-rational natural causes and effects, reducing all human reasoning to being no more than the accidental byproducts of chance, matter and time, and thereby undercutting the validity of reasoning itself.
However, if one allows, as Lewis apparently did, that God guided the evolution of humanity so as to make us reasonable creatures, then humanity’s descent from the animals in no way undermines the validity of human reasoning. By maintaining the distinction between Evolution as a scientific theory and Evolutionism as a popular Myth it becomes possible for one to be a full-blooded theistic evolutionist with both a robust belief in God and a robust belief in evolution. The distinction frees Christians to accept evolutionary science without knuckling under to reductionistic Scientism. Thus, in the very essay where Lewis most acerbically attacks Evolutionism, “The Funeral of a Great Myth,” Lewis also clearly allows for a form of theistic evolution. Lewis writes:
I am not in the least denying that organisms on this planet may have ‘evolved.’ But if we are to be guided by the analogy of Nature as we know her, it would be reasonable to suppose that this evolutionary process was the second half of a long pattern—that the crude beginnings of life on this planet have themselves been ‘dropped’ there by a full and perfect life.15
As Lewis makes clear in another piece, “Two Lectures,” the “full and perfect life” by which “this evolutionary process” was “dropped” exists outside of Nature, which is to say, exists outside of the purview of the natural sciences. “Is it not…reasonable to look outside Nature for the real Originator of the natural order?” he asks.16
Lewis, however, was no Deist. He clearly did not believe that the “crude beginnings of life” were simply “dropped” by God so that the “evolutionary process” would do what it would. Lewis seems to have thought that God at least superintended the evolution of humankind, particularly humanity’s cognitive capacities, in a rather hands-on manner:
For long centuries God perfected the animal form which was to become the vehicle of humanity and the image of Himself. He gave it hands whose thumb could be applied to each of the fingers, and jaws and teeth and throat capable of articulation, and a brain sufficiently complex to execute all the material motions whereby rational thought is incarnated. The creature may have existed for ages in this state before it became man: it may even have been clever enough to make things which a modern archaeologist would accept as proof of its humanity. But it was only an animal because all its physical and psychical processes were directed to purely material and natural ends. Then, in the fullness of time, God caused to descend upon this organism, both on its psychology and physiology, a new kind of consciousness which could say “I” and “me,” which could look upon itself as an object, which knew God, which could make judgments of truth, beauty, and goodness, and which was so far above time that it could perceive time flowing past.17
Whether this picture of hands-on divine guidance is friendlier towards present day Intelligent Design theory or towards theistic evolution, a la BioLogos, will be a matter for debate. Lewis does not draw the distinctions that are customary in contemporary debates surrounding evolution—macro- versus micro-evolution, Evolution qua mere common descent versus Evolution qua wholly unguided, random process, and so on—making it difficult to say with certainty what he would say if he were here today. It seems likely, however, that Lewis would not have expected the natural sciences to be able to detect God’s supernatural guidance of man’s evolutionary path any more than he expected the modern archaeologist to be able detect the moment when our ancestors crossed the threshold from beast to man, and that likelihood might count as a strike against the ID movement’s claim on Lewis. In any case, Lewis plainly outlines a view that is quite compatible with the standard evolutionary picture of common descent and that hardly amounts to Scientistic reductionism. In short, Lewis made it quite clear in his writings that he believed that there is no real conflict between mere evolution and mere Christianity.
Surprised by Jack
Whatever Lewis may have believed in private, as a spokesperson for the faith, Lewis consistently allowed that mere Christianity was compatible with mere evolutionary science, and he even took the trouble to articulate his understanding of the Fall in such a way as to harmonize it with his belief in human evolution. While some recent writers have attempted to wield Lewis as weapon in intra-Evangelical debates around Evolution, to wield a thinker is, as Martin Buber says, to treat that thinker as an ‘It’ rather than as a ‘Thou,’ to treat him as an object to be used rather than as person with the right and capacity to defy our expectations.18 We evangelicals have become so accustomed to inserting quotable quotes from Lewis’s corpus into our sermons, books, power-point presentations, Facebook walls, and Twitter feeds that we drowsily pass over the surprising elements of his thought—the elements not easily reconciled with our clean-cut theological shibboleths—without even noticing. This is an intellectual habit ripe to be broken, and it is high time we allowed the real Jack to shatter the cultural icon—indeed, the mirror—we have made out of him. At this watershed moment in the history of the Church, when so much seems to threaten to upend the faith once delivered—whether scientific or archaeological discoveries, cultural trends, or newfangled philosophies—there is doubtless much that the greatest modern exponent of mere Christianity can teach us to help us navigate these troubled times. But it is only by opening ourselves to being surprised by Jack that we will be capable of actually learning something from him.
1. C.S. Lewis to Joseph Cranfield, Feb. 28, 1955, unpublished letter, Wade Center Collection, Wheaton College, as cited in West, “Darwin in the Dock,” 113
2. Lewis, “Is Theology Poetry?,” in The Weight of Glory, 137
3. Lewis, “The Funeral of a Great Myth,” 85, 86
4. Lewis, Mere Christianity, 185-91
5. Ibid, 185
7. Ibid, 186
8. Ibid, 187
9. Ibid, 188, my italics
12. Ibid, 24
13. Lewis, Miracles, 23
15. Lewis, “The Funeral of a Great Myth,” in Christian Reflections, 91
16. Lewis, “Two Lectures,” in God in the Dock,
17. Lewis, The Problem of Pain, 68
18. Buber, I and Thou, (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1996)