C. S. Lewis on Evolution and Intelligent Design, Part 6

| By Peter Harrison

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 continues to demonstrate that Lewis did accept the scientific evidence for evolution, while adamantly rejecting the philosophical naturalism many wrongly associate with it.

C. S. Lewis on Evolution and Intelligent Design, Part 6


Lewis was extremely critical of Evolutionary Naturalism as a total package because Naturalism involves the denial of God, moral relativism, and human devaluation. What science legitimately reveals about Evolution is then pressed into the service of a completely secular and godless vision that justifies the technological and political manipulation of humans—and this is touted as a “progressive scientific outlook.” Lewis’s Space Trilogy is not primarily about advanced space travel or futuristic warfare but about the irreconcilable conflict between the Christian tradition and the “developmental” or “progressive” tendencies of modern thought. Professor Weston and Richard Devine, for example, represent different versions of the secular scientific vision. In That Hideous Strength, the final book of the trilogy, Lord Feverstone (Devine who has become politically influential) reveals the real purpose of N.I.C.E. (the National Institute of Coordinated Experiments) to Mark Studdock, a young sociologist he is recruiting as a propagandist for the cause:

If science is given a free hand it can now take over the human race and re-condition it: make man a really efficient animal … [T]he question of what humanity is to be is going to be decided in the next sixty years … Man has got to take charge of Man. That means, remember, that some men have got to take charge of the rest … You and I want to be the people who do the taking charge, not the ones who are taken charge of. (pp. 39-40)

In “The Funeral of a Great Myth,” Lewis explains that the myth of Developmentalism or Evolutionism or Progressivism—i.e., the “Scientific Outlook”—twists Darwin’s achievement in biology into a grand, sentimental narrative about how—from elemental beginnings, against all odds, over enormous spans of time—life and then consciousness and then rational thought arose. The narrative continues: although the distant future is bleak and all existence ultimately meaningless, this courageous creature that the universe has produced, Homo sapiens, can now shape its own future (“The Funeral of a Great Myth,” 83; The Problem of Pain, 14-15). In The Abolition of Man (Book 3), Lewis warns about people of this persuasion who gain political power and calls them “the Conditioners.” No doubt, Hitler’s insidious crusade to “improve the species” through eugenics helped fuel Lewis’s incisive critique. Of course, Lewis knew that Darwin’s theory of organic evolution had been used to defend despicable acts toward humanity; but the preeminently logical Lewis knew full well that anyone could fallaciously dismiss any genuine fact by pointing out some misuse of it.

Unpublished correspondence with his friend Captain Bernard Acworth displays Lewis’s distress that Darwin’s theory had “run mad” and become the basis for the most fanatical views about the inevitable progress and limitless possibilities of the human race. Yet Lewis cannily describes his own thinking on this subject as the process of measuring scientific claims (as well as any other claims) by whether they contradict Christian orthodoxy—“the Creed,” as he says.1 Since scientific evolution does not conflict with orthodoxy, he politely refuses to reject it and equally politely declines to write a recommendatory preface to Acworth’s anti-evolutionary book, The Lie of Evolution. Some commentators place undue emphasis on Lewis’s remark that he has come to regard Evolution as “the central and radical lie in the whole web of falsehood” which so strongly influences modern thought. Such interpretations fail to account for the many contextual clues in the letters indicating that Lewis is not making this pronouncement about Evolution as science but about evolutionary science turned into a philosophical viewpoint which is naturalistic at its core. Although the correspondence transpires later in Lewis’s life, it is consistent with Lewis’s earlier published writings. The little-known letters to Acworth still show a lucid Lewis who remains focused on Progressive Evolutionary Philosophy, commonly known as Social Darwinism, as his real target, not the science of Evolution. He is not concerned about the prospect of our subhuman ancestry but consistently attacks the reductionism of our personhood in theory which leads ultimately to dehumanization in practice.2 “Reductionism,” of course, is reducing something to what it is not— qualitative matters to quantitative, the rich dimensions of our humanity to the purely physical.

The real debate is between the worldviews of Naturalism and Theism, or, really, Christian Theism. To demonstrate the conceptual advantages of Christian Theism, Lewis uncompromisingly works at such questions as, Which philosophical perspective provides a better explanation of everything we know? Which provides a more adequate vision of reality as a framework for making sense of important features of life and the world? Throughout his writings, Lewis hammers away at Naturalism’s inadequacies, at its reduction of many important features of reality to a deterministic material process. He is particularly worried about the distortions of consciousness of moral law, rational thought, and finite personhood. Christian Theism, as he argues in many venues, is philosophically far superior to Naturalism—which is frequently encountered in the guise of “the Scientific Outlook”—in explaining these fundamental phenomena. He also argues that Christian Theism is superior to Naturalism in explaining science itself, since Naturalism undercuts the validity of rational thought, which is essential for science. Lewis maintains that science as a knowledge-gathering enterprise makes best sense within a Christian worldview, which affirms that a rational God creates and upholds a rational finite reality and gives human beings the rational powers to investigate it.3 As Lewis says in "Is Theology Poetry?": “The scientific point of view cannot fit in … even science itself. I believe in Christianity as I believe that the Sun has risen, not only because I see it, but because by it I see everything else” (p. 140).

Furthermore, since Lewis affirms that “all truth is God’s truth, wherever it may be found,” he refuses to surrender the scientific truths of Evolution to Naturalism.4 One reason for this is that he believes that the facts are what they are and must be accepted when properly established. This allowed Lewis to see evolutionary science as revealing fascinating details about how God’s physical creation has developed and continues to function. Another reason is that Lewis believed that the very character of the scientific facts can reveal something about God and his ways. In this regard, he perceives compatibilities and even deep resonances between Christian Theism and Evolution that are important to the articulation of a comprehensive and informed Christian worldview.5 Lewis knew that the doctrine of creation entails that, in principle, all truths fit together as a consistent, unified whole; they are not disparate beads on a string. But in practice we are always working toward greater comprehension, trying to perceive more connections and develop a holistic perspective—in other words, we practice “faith seeking understanding.”6 Lewis himself is a wonderful model of a Christian mind seeking understanding of the role of science in the human search for knowledge and insight into the evolutionary contours of the universe which science investigates.

In Miracles, Lewis offers a charming description of what it is to see Nature properly as a creature— a description that even heightens our awareness of the resonances between Christian faith and Evolution:

Only Supernaturalists really see Nature. You must go a little away from her, and then turn round, and look back. Then at last the true landscape will become visible. You must have tasted, however briefly, the pure water from beyond the world before you can be distinctly conscious of the hot, salty tang of Nature’s current. To treat her as God, or as Everything, is to lose the whole pith and pleasure of her. Come out, look back, and then you will see. (pp. 104-105)

Supernaturalism—not just any old supernaturalism, but orthodox Christian Theism—is the best vantage point for understanding the natural world. Lewis affirmed that an infinite personal Creator willed that the physical universe come into being and, through a long and complicated process, bring forth a special kind of being, the human being, in which rationality and animality are united.7 From this perspective, the evolutionary character of the universe can be seen as physical nature’s exploration of contingent possibilities within lawful structure, but still as having a divinely willed trajectory leading to a creature who could relate to God. Classical Christian theology does not entail that either the natural world or the human enterprise was created without chanciness and contingency, without the potential for development along alternative possible routes, and therefore strictly determined. Evolution in the physical realm and free will in the moral realm mutually attest to the significant degree of openness in God’s creation.


1. See Lewis’s Letter, September 23, 1944, reproduced and discussed in Gary B. Ferngren and Ronald L. Numbers, “C. S. Lewis on Creation and Evolution: The Acworth Letters, 1944–1960,” Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith: Journal of the Scientific Affiliation 48 (March 1996): 28–33. The Creed here is probably the Apostles’ Creed, but it could be the universal ecumenical Nicene Creed, which is Lewis’s shorthand way of alluding to one of his most important themes: concentrating on and working intellectually out of the framework of doctrine that “has been common to nearly all Christians at all times” (Mere Christianity, Preface, viii).

2. Reading all of Lewis’s letters to Acworth, we see Lewis basically reacting to the evidences against evolution that Acworth proposed by saying that at his age he could not become an expert and adjudicate such matters. He was certainly open-minded and willing to consider all putative evidence for any view. But any suspicion Lewis expressed about the factual nature of Evolution can be overblown by fastening on just a comment or two. The larger context which Lewis always establishes for any particular remarks about Evolution is his deep hostility toward Evolution as a kind of secular theological creed. Misunderstanding this aspect of Lewis, Marxist geneticist J. B. S. Haldane wrote an inflammatory article accusing Lewis of engaging in wrongfully degrading scientists in his fictional novels. See “Auld Hornie, F.R.S.,” Modern Quarterly, n.s., 1 (Autumn 1946): 32–40. Although never completed, Lewis’s partial rejoinder can be found in “A Reply to Professor Haldane” in Of Other Worlds: Essays and Stories, ed. Walter Hooper (London: Geoffrey Bles, 1966), 74–85.

3. Lewis, “Is Theology Poetry?” in The Weight of Glory, 139–40. This point again picks up on the recurrent theme in Lewis (found in MiraclesMere Christianity, etc.) that reason cannot be ultimately derived from and dependent on matter. Lewis explores supporting themes in “Meditations in a Toolshed” in God in the Dock: Essays on Theology and Ethics, ed. Walter Hooper (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1974), 212–5.

4. Arthur Holmes is well known for coining this felicitous and quite profound statement which is the title for his All Truth Is God’s Truth (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1983). The idea behind this statement, of course, has deep roots in Christian history: the doctrine of creation, the concept of Christ as Logos, Augustine’s writings (on creation, the light of the mind, etc.), and Aquinas’s magisterial works (aimed at interpreting and synthesizing all knowledge under Christian understanding). Not surprisingly, the idea is pervasive in the Lewis corpus.

5. I explore this point in depth in Peterson, “Evolution and the Deep Resonances between Science and Theology” in The Continuing Relevance of Wesleyan Theology: Essays in Honor of Laurence W. Wood (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock Publishers, 2011).

6. This famous phrase (Latin: fides quaerens intellectum) echoes throughout the writings of the great medieval Christian thinkers from Augustine to Aquinas. But it is usually attributed more directly to Anselm of Canterbury. See his Proslogion in The Major Works, ed. Brian Davies and G. R. Evans, trans. M. J. Charlesworth (New York: Oxford University Press, 1998), 83.

7. “God has guided nature up to the point of producing creatures which can [be turned] into ‘gods.’” See Lewis,Mere Christianity, 222. Here again Lewis is reflecting another ancient theme of the church: that proper human destiny is participation in the divine life. See also Lewis’s restatement of the classical Aristotelian definition of Man—as “an animal, yet also a reasonable soul”—in Perelandra (1944; reprint, New York: Scribner, 1972), 178.


About the Author

Peter Harrison

  Peter Harrison is an Australian Laureate Fellow and Director of the Centre of the History of European Discourses at the University of Queensland. He holds a DLitt from the University of Oxford, a PhD from the University of Queensland, and Master's degrees from Yale and Oxford. He began his academic career at Bond University on Australia’s Gold Coast, where for a number of years he was Professor of History and Philosophy. In 2006 he was elected Andreas Idreos Professor of Science and Religion at the University of Oxford. During his time at Oxford he was Director of the Ian Ramsey Centre and a Fellow of Harris Manchester College. In 2011 he assumed directorship of the Centre of the History of European Discourses at the University of Queensland. A Fellow of the Australian Academy of the Humanities, he was a recipient of a Centenary Medal in 2003. He was the 2011 Gifford Lecturer at the University of Edinburgh and is a Senior Research Fellow in the Ian Ramsey Centre at Oxford. In 2014 he was awarded an Australian Laureate Fellowship to conduct a five-year research project exploring Science and Secularization.