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15.2 Controversies in the Age of Darwin

A satirical image of Charles Darwin as an ape from 1871 reflects part of the social controversy over whether humans and apes share a common lineage.

Satirical image of Charles Darwin as an ape The immediate reaction to Darwin's theory followed his publication of “On the Origin of Species”; it started international debate, though the controversy was less than that over earlier works such as “Vestiges of Creation”.

Religious views were mixed, with the Church of England reacting against the book, while liberal Anglicans strongly supported Darwin's natural selection as an instrument of God's design.

At the public 1860 Oxford evolution debate during a meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science, Bishop of Oxford Samuel Wilberforce argued against Darwin's theory. Joseph Hooker argued strongly for Darwin and Thomas Huxley established himself as “Darwin’s bulldog” –the fiercest defender of evolutionary theory. Both sides came away feeling victorious, but Huxley went on to depict the debate as pivotal in a struggle between religion and science.

The creation-evolution controversy originated in Europe and North America in the late eighteenth century when discoveries in geology led to various theories of an ancient earth, and fossils showing past extinctions prompted early ideas of evolution, notably Lamarckism. In England these ideas of continuing change were seen as a threat to the fixed social order, and were harshly repressed. The Church of England reacted with fury, but many Unitarians, Quakers and Baptists opposed to the privileges of the Established Church favoured its ideas of God acting through laws. Publication of Charles Darwin's “On the Origin of the Species by Means of Natural Selection” in 1859 brought scientific credibility to evolution, and made it more respectable.

The Reverend Charles Kingsley openly supported the idea of God working through evolution. However, many Christians were opposed to the idea and even some of Darwin's close friends and supporters, including Charles Lyell and Asa Gray, could not accept some of his ideas. Thomas Huxley, who strongly promoted Darwin's ideas while campaigning to end the dominance of science by the clergy, coined the term “agnostic” to describe his position that God’s existence is unknowable, and Darwin also took this position. Atheists, including Edward Aveling and Ludwig Büchner said that evolution was "tantamount to atheism." By the end of the 19th century Roman Catholics guided by Pope Leo XIII accepted human evolution from animal ancestors while affirming that the human soul was directly created by God.

Creationists believed, based on a quasi-literal reading of the Bible, in Christ's return. However, they were not as concerned about geology, allowing scientists space for scientific observations, such as fossils and geological findings. At Darwin’s time few scientists or clerics rejected the antiquity of the earth or the progressive nature of the fossil record. Likewise, few attached geological significance to the Biblical flood. Evolutionary sceptics, creationist leaders and sceptical scientists were usually willing either to adopt a figurative reading of the first chapter of Genesis, or to allow that the six days of creation were not necessarily 24-hour days.

In the USA Creationism was widely accepted and was considered a foundational truth, but there was no official resistance to evolution by mainline denominations. Around the start of the 20th century some evangelical scholars had ideas accommodating evolution. However, development of the eugenics movement led many Catholics to reject evolution.

While some religions do not have theological objections to the modern evolutionary synthesis as an explanation for the present form of life on Earth, there has been much conflict over this matter within the Abrahamic religions, some adherents of which are vigorously opposed to the consensus view of the scientific community.

In Western countries, the inclusion of evolution in science courses has been mostly uncontroversial, with the exception of parts of the United States. There, the Supreme Court has ruled the teaching of creationism as science in public schools to be unconstitutional. Intelligent design has been presented as an alternative explanation to evolution in recent decades, but it has also been ruled unconstitutional by a lower court.