Popular Science Monthly/Volume 33/May 1888/The Relation of Evolution to Materialism

THE RELATION OF EVOLUTION TO MATERIALISM.[1]
By Professor JOSEPH LE CONTE.

IT was seen in the sketch previously given[2] that, after every struggle between theology and science, there has been a re-adjustment of some beliefs, a giving up of some notions which really had nothing to do with religion in a proper sense, but which had become so associated with religious belief as to be confounded with the latter—a giving up of some line of defense which ought never to have been held, because not with-in the rightful domain of theology at all. Until the present the whole difficulty has been the result of misconception, and Christianity has emerged from every struggle only strengthened and purified, by casting off an obstructing shell which hindered its growth. But the present struggle seems to many an entirely different and far more serious matter. To many it seems no longer a struggle of theology, but of essential religion itself—a deadly life-and-death struggle between religion and materialism. To many, both skeptics and Christians, evolution seems to be synonymous with blank materialism, and therefore cuts up by the roots every form of religion by denying the existence of God and the fact of immortality. That the enemies of religion, if there be any such, should assume and insist on this identity, and thus carry over the whole accumulated evidence of evolution as a demonstration of materialism, although wholly unwarranted, is not so surprising; but what shall we say of the incredible folly of her friends in admitting the same identity?

A little reflection will explain this. There can be no doubt that there is at present a strong and to many an overwhelming tendency toward materialism. The amazing achievements of modern science; the absorption of intellectual energy in the investigation of external Nature and the laws of matter have created a current in that direction so strong that of those who feel its influence—of those who do not stay at home, shut up in their creeds, but walk abroad in the light of modern thought—it sweeps away and bears on its bosom, all but the strongest and most reflective minds. Materialism has thus become a fashion of thought; and, like all fashions, must be guarded against. This tendency has been created and is now guided by science. Just at this time it is strongest in the department of biology, and especially is evolution its stronghold. This theory is supposed by many to be simply demonstrative of materialism. Once it was the theory of gravitation which seemed demonstrative of materialism. The sustentation of the universe by law seemed to imply that Nature operates itself and needs no God. That time is past. Now it is evolution and creation by law. This will also pass. The theory seems to many the most materialistic of all scientific doctrine only because it is the last which is claimed by materialism, and the absurdity of the claim is not yet made clear to many.

The truth is, there is no such necessary connection between evolution and materialism as is imagined by some. There is no difference in this respect between evolution and any other law of Nature. In evolution, it is true, the last barrier is broken down, and the whole domain of Nature is now subject to law; but it is only the last; the march of science has been in the same direction all the time. In a word, evolution is not only not identical with materialism, but, to the deep thinker, it has not added a feather's weight to its probability or reasonableness. Evolution is one thing and materialism quite another. The one is an established law of Nature, the other an unwarranted and hasty inference from that law. Let no one imagine, as he is conducted by the materialistic scientist in the paths of evolution from the inorganic to the organic, from the organic to the animate, from the animate to the rational and moral, until he lands, as it seems to him, logically and inevitably, in universal materialism—let no such one imagine that he has walked all the way in the domain of science. He has stepped across the boundary into the domain of philosophy. But, on account of the strong tendency to materialism and the skillful guidance of his leaders, there seems to be no such boundary; he does not distinguish between the inductions of science and the inferences of a shallow philosophy; the whole is accredited to science, and the final conclusion seems to carry with it all the certainty which belongs to scientific results. The fact that these materialistic conclusions are reached by some of the foremost scientists of the present day adds nothing to their probability. In a question of science, viz., the law of evolution, their authority is deservedly high, but in a question of philosophy, viz., materialism, it is far otherwise. If the pure scientists smile when theological philosophers, unacquainted with the methods of science, undertake to dogmatize on the subject of evolution, they must pardon the philosophers if they also smile when the pure scientists imagine that they can at once solve questions in philosophy which have agitated the human mind from the earliest times. I am anxious to show the absurdity of this materialistic conclusion, but I shall try to do so, not by any labored argument, but by a few simple illustrations:

1. It is curious to observe how, when the question is concerning Nature, we no sooner find out how a thing is made than we immediately exclaim, "It is not made at all—it became so of itself!" So long as we knew not how worlds were made, we of course concluded they must have been created; but, so soon as science showed how it was probably done, immediately we say we were mistaken—they were not made at all. So also, so long as we could not imagine how new organic forms originated, we were willing to believe they were created; but, so soon as we find that they originated by evolution, many at once say, "We were mistaken—no creator is necessary at all." Is this so when the question is concerning a work of man? Yes, of one kind—viz., the work of the magician. Here, indeed, we believe in him, and are delighted with his work, until we know how it is done, and then all our faith and wonder cease. But in any honest work it is not so; but, on the contrary, when we understand how it is done, stupid wonder is changed into intellectual delight. Does it not seem, then, that to most people God is a mere wonder worker, a chief magician? But the mission of science is to show us how things are done. Is it any wonder, then, that to such persons science is constantly destroying their superstitious illusions? But if God is an honest worker, according to reason—i. e., according to law—ought not science rather to change gaping wonder into intelligent delight—superstition into rational worship?

2. Again, it is curious to observe how an old truth, if it come only in a new form, often strikes us as something unheard of, and even as paradoxical and almost impossible. A little over thirty years ago a little philosophical toy, the gyroscope, was introduced and became very common. At first sight it seems to violate all mechanical laws and set at naught the law of gravitation itself. A heavy brass wheel, four to five inches in diameter, at the end of a horizontal axle, six or eight inches long, is set rotating rapidly, and then the free end of the axis is supported by a string or otherwise. The wheel remains suspended in the air while slowly gyrating. What mysterious force sustains the wheel when its only point of support is at the end of the axle, six or eight inches away? Scientific and popular literature were flooded with explanations of this seeming paradox. And yet it was nothing new. The boy's top, that spins and leans and will not fall, although solicited by gravity, so long as it spins, which we have seen all our lives without special wonder, is precisely the same thing.

Now, evolution is no new thing, but an old familiar truth; but, coming now in a new and questionable shape, lo, how it startles us out of our propriety! Origin of forms by evolution is going on everywhere about us, both in the inorganic and the organic world. In its more familiar forms it had never occurred to most of us that it was a scientific refutation of the existence of God, that it was a demonstration of materialism. But now it is pushed one step farther in the direction it has always been going—it is made to include also the origin of species—only a little change in its form, and lo, how we start! To the deep thinker, now and always, there is and has been the alternative—materialism or theism. God operates Nature or Nature operates itself; but evolution puts no new phase on this old question. For example, the origin of the individual by evolution. Everybody knows that every one of us individually became what we now are by a slow process of evolution from a microscopic spherule of protoplasm, and yet this did not interfere with the idea of God as our individual maker. Why, then, should the discovery that the species (or first individuals of each kind) originated by evolution destroy our belief in God as the creator of species?

3. It is curious and very interesting to observe the manner in which vexed questions are always finally settled, if settled at all. All vexed questions—i. e., questions which have tasked the powers of the greatest minds age after age—are such only because there is a real truth on both sides. Pure, unmixed error does not live to plague us long. Error, when it continues to live, does so by virtue of a germ of truth contained. Great questions, therefore, continue to be argued pro and con from age to age, because each side is in a sense—i. e., from its own point of view —true, but wrong in excluding the other point of view; and a true solution, a true rational philosophy, will always be found in a view which combines and reconciles the two partial, mutually excluding views, showing in what they are true and in what they are false—explaining their differences by transcending them. This is so universal and far-reaching a principle that I am sure I will be pardoned for illustrating it in the homeliest and tritest fashion. I will do so by means of the shield with the diverse sides, giving the story and construing it, however, in my own way. There is, apparently, no limit to the amount of rich marrow of truth that may be extracted from these dry bones of popular proverbs and fables by patient turning and gnawing.

We all remember, then, the famous dispute concerning the shield, with its sides of different colors, which we shall here call white and black. We all remember how, after vain attempts to discover the truth by dispute, it was agreed to try the scientific method of investigation. We all remember the surprising result. Both parties to the dispute were right and both were wrong. Each was right from his point of view, but wrong in excluding the other point of view. Each was right in what he asserted, and each wrong in what he denied; and the complete truth was the combination of the partial truths and the elimination of the partial errors. But we must not make the mistake of supposing that truth consists in compromise. There is an old adage that truth lies in the middle between antagonistic extremes. But it seems to us that this is the place of safety, not of truth. This is the favorite adage, therefore, of the timid man, the time-server, the fence-man, not the truth-seeker. Suppose there had been on the occasion mentioned above one of these fence-philosophers. He would have said: "These disputants are equally intelligent and equally valiant. One side says the shield is white, the other that it is black; now truth lies in the middle; therefore, I conclude the shield is gray or neutral tint, or a sort of pepper-and-salt." Do we not see that he is the only man who has no truth in him? No; truth is no heterogeneous mixture of opposite extremes, but a stereoscopic combination of two surface views into one solid reality.

Now, the same is true of all vexed questions, and I have given this trite fable again only to apply it to the case in hand.

There are three possible views concerning the origin of organic forms whether individual or specific. Two of these are opposite and mutually excluding; the third combining and reconciling. For example, take the individual. There are three theories concerning the origin of the individual. The first is that of the pious child who thinks that he was made very much as he himself makes his dirt-pies; the second is that of the street-gamin, or of Topsy, who says, "I was not made at all, I growed"; the third is that of most intelligent Christians—i. e., that we were made by a process of evolution. Observe that this latter combines and reconciles the other two, and is thus the more rational and philosophical. Now, there are also three exactly corresponding theories concerning the origin of species. The first is that of many pious persons and many intelligent clergymen, who say that species were made at once by the Divine hand without natural process. The second is that of the materialists, who say that species were not made at all, they were derived, "they growed." The third is that of the theistic evolutionists, who think that they were created by a process of evolution—who believe that making is not inconsistent with growing. The one asserts the Divine agency, but denies natural process; the second asserts the natural process, but denies Divine agency; the third asserts Divine agency by natural process. Of the first two, observe, both are right and both wrong; each view is right in what it asserts, and wrong in what it denies—each is right from its own point of view, but wrong in excluding the other point of view. The third is the only true rational solution, for it includes, combines, and reconciles the other two; showing wherein each is right and wherein wrong. It is the combination of the two partial truths, and the elimination of the partial errors. But let us not fail to do perfect justice. The first two views of origin, whether of the individual or of the species, are indeed both partly wrong as well as partly right; but the view of the pious child and of the Christian contains by far the more essential truth. Of the two sides of the shield, theirs is at least the whiter and more beautiful.

But, alas! the great bar to a speedy settlement of this question and the adoption of a rational philosophy is not in the head but in the heart—is not in the reason but in pride of opinion, self-conceit, dogmatism. The rarest of all gifts is a truly tolerant, rational spirit. In all our gettings let us strive to get this, for it alone is true wisdom. But we must not imagine that all the dogmatism is on one side, and that the theological. Many seem to think that theology has a "pre-emptive right" to dogmatism. If so, then modern materialistic science has "jumped the claim." Dogmatism has its roots deep-bedded in the human heart. It showed itself first in the domain of theology, because there was the seat of power. In modern times it has gone over to the side of science, because here now is the place of power and fashion. There are two dogmatisms, both equally opposed to the true rational spirit, viz., the old theological and the new scientific. The old clings fondly to old things, only because they are old; the new grasps eagerly after new things, only because they are new. True wisdom and true philosophy, on the contrary, try all things both old and new, and hold fast only to that which is good and true. The new dogmatism taunts the old for credulity and superstition; the old reproaches the new for levity and skepticism. But true wisdom perceives that they are both equally credulous and equally skeptical. The old is credulous of old ideas and skeptical of new; the new is skeptical of old ideas and credulous of new. Both deserve the unsparing rebuke of all right-minded men. The appropriate rebuke for the old dogmatism has been already put in the mouth of Job in the form of a bitter sneer: "No doubt ye are the people, and wisdom shall die with you." The appropriate rebuke for the new dogmatism, though not put into the mouth of any ancient prophet, ought to be uttered—I will undertake to utter it here. I would say to these modern materialists, "No doubt ye are the men, and wisdom and true philosophy were born with you."

Let it be observed that we are not here touching the general question of the personal agency of God in operating Nature. This we shall take up hereafter. All that we wish to insist on now is that the process and the law of evolution do not differ in their relation to materialism from all other processes and laws of Nature. If the sustentation of the universe by the law of gravitation does not disturb our belief in God as the sustainer of the universe, there is no reason why the origin of the universe by the law of evolution should disturb our faith in God as the creator of the universe. If the law of gravitation be regarded as the divine mode of sustentation, there is no reason why we should not regard the law of evolution as the divine process of creation. It is evident that if evolution be materialism, then is gravitation also materialism; then is every law of Nature and all science materialism. If there be any difference at all, it consists only in this: that, as already said, here is the last line of defense of the supporters of supernaturalism in the realm of Nature. But being the last line of defense—the last ditch—it is evident that a yielding here implies not a mere shifting of line, but a change of base; not a readjustment of details only, but a reconstruction of Christian theology. This, I believe, is indeed necessary. There can be little doubt in the mind of the thoughtful observer that we are even now on the eve of the greatest change in traditional views that has taken place since the birth of Christianity. But let no one be greatly disturbed thereby. For as then, so now, change comes not to destroy but to fulfill all our dearest hopes and aspirations; as then, so now, the germ of living truth has, in the course of ages, become so incrusted with meaningless traditions which stifle its growth, that it is necessary to break the shell to set it free; as then, so now, it has become necessary to purge religious belief of dross in the form of trivialities and superstitions. This has ever been and ever will be the function of science. The essentials of religious faith it does not, it can not, touch, but it purifies and ennobles our conceptions of Deity, and thus elevates the whole plane of religious thought.

It will not, of course, be expected of me to give, even in briefest outline, a system of reconstructed Christian thought. Such an attempt would be wholly unbecoming. Time, very much time, and the co-operation of many minds, bringing contributions from many departments of thought, are necessary for this. In a word, it can only itself come by a gradual process of evolution. But from the point of view of science some very fundamental changes in traditional views are already plain. Of these the most fundamental and important are our ideas concerning God, Nature, and man in their relations to one another.

  1. From "Evolution and its Relation to Religious Thought." By Professor Joseph Le Conte. New York: D. Appleton & Co., 1888.
  2. "Popular Science Monthly" for January, 1888.