Written in the genre of Henry David Thoreaus travel-thinking essays, Rick Kennedy's Jesus, History, and Mount Darwin: An Academic Excursion is the story of a three-day climb into the Evolution Range of the High Sierra mountains of California (click here to see a map of the mountains). Mount Darwin stands among other near-14,000-foot-high mountains that are named after promoters of religious versions of evolutionary thinking. Using the trek as its framing narrative, the book branches off to explore the complex and at times even murky spaces at the intersection of Christian faith, ancient and natural history, and observational science. Over the next several weeks, we will be posting excerpts from the book.
The Weakness of a Respectable God
Mount Darwin was named thirteen years after Charles Darwin (1809–1882) died. Evident throughout his Voyage of the Beagle is a serious young man, diligent and humble. Also evident is a young man with little interest in an active and communicating God. The Christian church appears in the book as an oppressor of Indians, and his accounts of camping and climbing adventures don’t include outbursts of praise for the creator. On climbing a Chilean mountain he wrote, “Everyone must know the feeling of triumph and pride which a grand view from a height communicates to the mind.” A little later he wrote of camping out: “The night was cloudless; and while lying in our beds, we enjoyed the sight (and it is a high enjoyment) of the multitude of stars which illumined the darkness of the forest.” He loved the mountains, the stars, and the forests, but never showed in his writings a love for God.
Coming from a family of no great Christian piety or biblical rootedness, Darwin easily slipped into vagueness about God and allowed his science increasingly to define his religion. Darwin was a genteel, retiring man who loved the outdoors. He was a good man over whom the Bible’s accounts of Jesus had no hold. His greatest achievement was a description of a theoretical mechanism of species creation that had no apparent need for a designer. If there was a God involved in the evolutionary process, Darwin wrote in On the Origin of Species, then it was “presumptuous” to think that God acted in the way taught by the churches. Darwin himself began the academic tradition that evolution demands a new understanding of Christianity.
Darwin’s book became the catalyst for new ways of thinking about God. Some have proposed getting rid of religion altogether. Some want to keep a spiritualized creation without an active or communicating God. Some just want an intellectually respectable theism. Kenneth Miller in Finding Darwin’s God: A Scientist’s Search for Common Ground between God and Evolution (1999) declares his Christianity, but the God in his title is too vague and too dignified. He defines God by the “great Western monotheistic traditions” and further distinguishes God for “truth, love, and knowledge.” But such a respectable theism doesn’t fit Jesus.
Christianity, if it is to be defined by its biblical foundation and long-standing tradition, has to be rooted in an Old Testament God who is too complex to be distinguished by generic words with talisman effects such as “truth, love, and knowledge.” God is most complex in the New Testament as one who came to earth in more a mixture of grace and jurisprudence than logic.
The tensions between biblical Christianity and Darwinism can’t be clarified by appeals to a respectable God. Christians give away the store if they start that way. I have read too many books supposedly about Christianity and science that make no reference to the Bible and no mention of Jesus. Can a book really be about Christianity with no reference to the Bible and no mention of Jesus? A robust dialog between Christianity and Darwinism has to have the Christians standing on traditional foundations, not some vague, cookie-cutter monotheism. Christians believe in a God who became a man, was reported to have walked on water, redirected the weather, killed a tree, and made himself a nuisance to the laws of nature.
The Evolution Range
The peaks of the Evolution Group—Mount Darwin, Mount Haeckel, Mount Wallace, Mount Fiske, Mount Huxley, and Mount Spencer—were named by a twenty-five-year-old aspiring writer and member of the Sierra Club named Theodore Solomons (1870–1947). In 1895 he named a valley and contiguous basin “Evolution,” and the major peaks bounding the east side of the valley and basin after those whom he called “the great evolutionists.” The names he chose to attach to mountains were not just those of famous scientists; rather, he chose the names of promoters of evolution, especially promoters of the spiritual implications of evolution. Solomons’ mother was a theosophist—a believer in vital spiritual truths communicated in the wisdom of many ancient religions. She taught her son to be skeptical of modern, organized, institutionalized religions. His sister became a theosophist and astrologer. Solomons liked the way Darwin’s evolution had opened the way to thinking about spiritual influences in natural history. He named the mountains of the Evolution Range after personal heroes, most of them living and travelling the lecture circuit. Alfred Russel Wallace, had recently been to San Francisco and was the most prominent scientist in the world doing systematic observations of séances, levitation, and other communications with spirits. He believed in the scientific verifiability of certain aspects of spiritualism. Ernst Haeckel was popularly promoting “monism” and “ecology” as a way of understanding the spirituality behind the cosmos. Thomas Huxley, Darwin’s “bulldog” and promoter of “agnosticism,” died that year. Herbert Spencer was promoting “Social Darwinism” and promoting a post-Christian thinking about ethics. John Fiske was the Darwinist who was probably closest to Solomons’ personal model. Fiske was a popular writer and lecturer who promoted modern thought while debunking Christianity.
Theodore Solomons, deep in one of the most isolated areas of the Sierra Nevada and apparently moved by the power of Darwinism to bring new understanding to everything, named the peaks overlooking his Evolution Valley not after the most famous geologists of the world; rather, he named them after the most famous proponents of how Darwinism should change humanity’s way of thinking about religion. Religion could never be the same after Darwin. Huxley attacked tradition. Haeckel advocated a universal, non-personal, psychic force at work in the cosmos. Wallace had become a stump speaker for spiritualism. Spencer promoted a social Darwinism. And although Spencer avoided religious matters in his writings, John Fiske promoted what he thought was Spencer’s religious version of social Darwinism.
John Fiske (1842–1901), another non-scientist, may be the key to understanding all Solomons’ choices. It is easy to imagine that when Solomons was sitting on the valley floor naming the peaks he had in his knapsack a copy of Fiske’s collection of essays, Excursions of an Evolutionist (1883). It makes perfect sense—though there is no evidence, just pure speculation—that Solomons was reading Fiske when he looked up and named the peaks. Excusions of an Evolutionist not only includes Fiske’s praise of Spencer as one whose work is of the caliber of Aristotle and Newton, but also has a long essay, “In Memoriam: Charles Darwin,” written on the day of Darwin’s burial in 1882 as a “tribute to the memory of the beautiful and glorious life that has just passed away from us.”
There is a good chance Solomons heard Fiske speak in San Francisco in 1892, just three years before naming a mountain in honor of him. Fiske wrote that he met John Muir at that time. Fiske was most famous for the two-volume Outlines of Cosmic Philosophy (1874), in which he stretched Spencer’s evolutionary ideas into religion in ways similar to Haeckel’s monism. In his memorial essay, Fiske insisted that “Mr. Darwin’s work” has been “to remodel the theological conceptions of the origin and destiny of man.” Conceptions of God and religion, for Fiske, had been reformed root and branch because of Darwin:
“No religious creed that man has ever devised can be made to harmonize in all its features with modern knowledge. All such creeds were constructed with reference of theories of the universe which are now utterly and hopelessly discredited. . . . Is not the belief in God perhaps a dream of the childhood of our race, like the belief in elves and bogarts which once were no less universal? and is not modern science fast destroying the one as it has already destroyed the other?”
If I understand Solomons right, when he said he named the mountains after “the great evolutionists,” he was not really thinking much about science. He was not a scientist; he was an aspiring writer and progressive from a theosophist family. He was thinking about religion, the cosmos, what Douglas Adams called “Life, the Universe, and Everything.” Solomons was thinking the grandest thoughts possible as he mapped one of the grandest valleys and mountain ranges in America. His mind turned to the people who aspired to put behind them the old religion and propose new religious interpretations of the cosmos. I think it was Fiske that he had in his knapsack. In one of the essays on Spencer and sociology in Excursions of an Evolutionist, Fiske praises “the truly philosophic character of Mr. Darwin’s method.” This is the spirit honored in Solomons’ Evolution Range of peaks. He was not honoring scientists as scientists; rather, scientists as philosophers, as professors, as religious reformers.
Solomons’ mountain names were later promoted by the Sierra Club along with naming other trails and passes in the area after two other promoters of a mixture of natural science and spirituality: Joseph LeConte and John Muir. LeConte led the first group of university students into the Sierra in the summer of 1870. In the fall of 1869, he and his brother John had enrolled the first students into the new land-grant university in Oakland. A story is told that Joseph handed a pen to enroll a young man, saying, “You have the honor to be the first student to register in this institution that is destined to be one of the very greatest in the country.” Joseph was the first geology professor in what did become one of the world’s great universities: the University of California at Berkeley. He and his son both eventually got peaks named after them, and both did a fair amount of naming mountains themselves. At the end of that first academic year, eight students invited LeConte to join them on a geologizing ramble in the Sierra Nevada. He called the group the “University Excursion Party” and published an account of the trip. LeConte’s A Journal of Ramblings Through the High Sierras of California by the “University Excursion Party” (1875) begins with the party saddling their horses in Oakland on July 27 and heading east.
Two years after Solomons named the peaks of the Evolution Range, LeConte published a set of public lectures called Evolution and Its Relation to Religious Thought (1897). LeConte was sure that the theory of evolution would soon be incorporated into the Christian mind in the same way that the sun-centered view of Copernicus was eventually accepted by Christians. What LeConte could not abide was the notion that Darwinism would be used to undermine God’s active role in creation. “God,” LeConte wrote in 1884, “is ever present and ever working in nature.” LeConte believed that truth would prevail and that science and Christianity would not be found contradictory in the long run. Christianity and Darwinism, rightly understood, were compatible and eventually people would wonder what the fuss was about.
The trouble with LeConte was that both his Christianity and his Darwinism were a bit vague. In his autobiography, LeConte wrote that he tithed to all the churches in his neighborhood without regularly attending any of them. “So far as churches are concerned,” he wrote, “I could never take a very active part in any, because it seemed to me that they were all too narrow in their views.” Here is a typical quote from LeConte’s Evolution, Its Nature, Its Evidences, and Its Relation to Religious Thought (1897)
“Infinite space and the universal law of gravitation; infinite time and the universal law of evolution. These two are the grandest ideas in the realm of thought. The one is universal sustentation, the other universal creation, by law. There is one law and one energy pervading all space stretching through all time. Our religious philosophy has long ago accepted the one, but has not yet had time to readjust itself completely to the other.”
Around the campfire, LeConte, Muir, and the Berkeley students could wax eloquent about infinite time and the universal law of evolution that created the mountains they camped beneath. I am not so romantic. As much as I would love to share a campfire with LeConte, Muir, and Solomons I am distrustful of scientific claims to universality—let alone appeals to infinite time. I think being reasonable about science and religion is more complicated and certainly requires a greater recognition of the limits of what we know and how we know.