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Darwin’s First Theist: Charles Kingsley and the Problem of Coherence

Michael Flannery

Most anyone who follows the current debate over Darwinian evolution is aware of the theistic evolutionists, most notably Ken Miller, Karl Giberson, and Francis Collins. In the sense referred to here, these individuals typically reject detectable design in nature and instead adhere to Darwinian mechanisms to explain all of biological diversity, superimposing upon those some view of God. As Jay Richards cautions, “Behind the phrase ‘theistic evolution’ lurks a lot of mischief and confusion.” (For a thorough examination see God and Evolution.) But who was the first theistic evolutionist?
“Firsts” are always interesting: the first to discover X-rays (Wilhelm Conrad R�ntgen), the first to discover radioactivity (Marie Curie), the first to vaccinate against smallpox (Edward Jenner), etc. Some important firsts have to be shared. Charles Darwin shares with Alfred Russel Wallace the scientific credit for developing the theory of evolution by natural selection. But the credit for seeing evolution’s far-reaching implications for the origin and nature of life may be further divided under the religious and philosophical headings.
From a strict common-descent perspective, nothing prohibited calling upon intelligent design and teleology to help explain life’s origin and its evolutionary development. That’s precisely what Wallace did. At the opposite end of the spectrum, the most unambiguous kind of atheism was expressed by the young, freethinking Frenchwoman Cl�mence Royer, who first translated the Origin into French in 1862. Royer is in many ways the progenitor of Dawkins, Dennett, Coyne, and the more strident voices of Darwinian materialism.
A third group — and a sizeable one — were those eager to embrace Darwin’s “one long argument” without losing their Christianity. Doing so was a difficult challenge, but if religious belief withered a bit and lost some of its radiance they didn’t seem to care much; it was more important to get on the correct side of Darwin. The very first to attempt this was Charles Kingsley. A minister first serving as curate in Eversley, Hampshire, Kingsley had gained notoriety with his poetry, popular novels, and tireless high-profile campaign for sanitation and public health efforts.
Active in the Linnean and Geological Societies, he also passionately pursued scientific interests, which he enjoyed blending with a cautiously restrained Christian Socialism and religious liberalism that included belief in universal salvation. In 1859 the 40-year-old Kingsley had risen through the ecclesiastical heights to preach the Palm Sunday service for Queen Victoria and Prince Albert, an act quickly followed by his appointment as Her Majesty’s chaplain. Such intimate contact with prestige and power seldom goes otherwise unrewarded, and he was soon offered the position of Regius Chair of Modern History at Cambridge University.
But 1859 was important for another reason. Although Darwin’s Origin of Species was released to the public on November 24, Darwin sent pre-pub presentation copies of his new book to carefully selected worthies most likely to give his long-labored “child” a favorable reception. Charles Kingsley was one of them, and Darwin couldn’t have made a better choice. On November 18 an ecstatic Reverend quickly jotted an obsequious letter of appreciation to the author:

Dear Sir,– I have to thank you for the unexpected honour of your book. That the Naturalist whom, of all naturalists living, I most wish to know and learn from, should have sent a scientist like me his book, encourages me at least to observe more carefully, and think more slowly.
I am so poorly (in brain), that I fear I cannot read your book just now as I ought. All I have seen of it awes me; both with the heap of facts and the prestige of your name, and also with the clear intuition, that if you be right, I must give up much that I have believed and written.
In that I care little. Let God be true, and every man a liar! Let us know what is . . . .
From two common superstitions, at least, I shall be free while judging of your books:
1) I have long since, from watching the crossing of domesticated animals and plants, learnt to disbelieve the dogma of the permanence of species.
2) I have gradually learnt to see that it is just as noble a conception of Deity, to believe that he created primal forms capable of self development into all forms needful pro tempore and pro loco, as to believe that He required a fresh act of intervention to supply the lacunas which He Himself had made. I question whether the former be not the loftier thought.
Be it as it may, I shall prize your book, both for itself, and as a proof that you are aware of the existence of such a person as
Your faithful servant,
C. Kingsley

As this letter makes clear, Darwin had already won his man over — reading the book was almost superfluous. Of course Darwin was delighted by Kingsley’s fawning support and asked if he might quote from the letter. It is interesting to note that Kingsley wanted Darwin to think of him as “a scientist like me” but it was undoubtedly the religious side that the author of Origin wanted to exploit. Sure enough, the 2nd edition published in early January 1860 found the Reverend quoted as a “celebrated cleric.”
More importantly, however, the letter clearly demonstrates Kingsley’s profound confusion over Darwin’s theory. The idea that “primal forms capable of self development” was “just as noble a conception of Deity” as special creation was hardly Darwin’s point. “As it happened,” writes Darwin’s leading modern biographer Janet Browne, “nothing could have been further from Darwin’s intention. Natural selection was a phenomenon that could never be governed, or set in motion by a Creator. Kingsley had misunderstood that the main point of Darwin’s book was to remove the Creator from nature” (Charles Darwin: The Power of Place, p. 95).
Browne is right. While early on Darwin was always careful in his public pronouncements on the theological implications of his work, later on (emboldened by his own success) he was much clearer. “There seems to be no more design in the variability of organic beings, and in the action of natural selection,” he admitted in his Autobiography, “than in the course which the wind blows.”
And in his Variation of Animals and Plants Under Domestication (1868) he wrote, “I have . . . often personified the word Nature; but I mean by nature only the aggregate action and product of many natural laws — and by laws only the ascertained sequence of events.” The point is, Darwin’s theory supports precisely these views — nothing less and certainly nothing more. When nature was examined, God was absent.
One wonders how Kingsley could make such a mistake. In America, Asa Gray had done much the same, but as a botanist he might be forgiven for not reading the theory with too close a theological eye. Probably the answer lies in the fact that Kingsley desperately wanted to accept the theory — his letter states as much. Also, as Gertrude Himmelfarb has observed, “The points [in Origin] were so intricately argued that to follow them at all required considerable patience and concentration — an expenditure of effort which was itself conducive to acquiescence” (Darwin and the Darwinian Revolution, p. 350).
Curiously, reading Alfred Russel Wallace’s Contributions to the Theory of Natural Selection (1870), Kingsley asked Wallace “to extend to all nature the truth you have so gallantly asserted for man [i.e., that the special attributes of the human intellect could not be explained by natural selection but required an ‘Overruling Intelligence’].”
Kingsley maintained his belief in “special providences” and that “the whole universe” was “one infinite complexity of special providences” (Charles Kingsley: His Letters and Memories of His Life, pp. 419-420). This was surely nothing Darwin would have ever supported. Ironically, Wallace would heed Kingsley’s advice as he continued to build upon the “Overruling Intelligence” he insisted upon in explaining man. Kingsley’s thesis would find fullest expression in Wallace’s World of Life (1910).
Had Darwin’s “celebrate cleric” deserted him? It’s doubtful. Kingsley had publicly declared the simian ancestry of humans four years before Darwin’s Descent of Man (1871) and Kingsley’s adulatory quotations remained in every subsequent edition of Origin up to the sixth and last published in 1872. Like theistic evolutionists to this day, the inconsistent Kingsley had a serious problem with coherence. Theism on the one hand and a theory that was and is expressly designed to render such considerations irrelevant on the other make very strange bedfellows indeed.
Wallace’s evolutionary theory, however, was in sharp distinction and would find its own increasing coherence in a teleological worldview. What would Kingsley have thought of The World of Life? We’ll never know. Charles Kingsley died of pneumonia on January 23, 1875. He was buried in St. Mary’s Churchyard at Eversley, but a bust of Kingsley rests proximate to Darwin’s body in Westminster Abbey. The devil and his chaplain now stand watch in God’s sanctuary, giving unsettling immediacy to the old caution against “the foxes guarding the hen house.” Ovem lupo committere!

Michael Flannery

Fellow, Center for Science and Culture
Michael A. Flannery is professor emeritus of UAB Libraries, University of Alabama at Birmingham. He holds degrees in library science from the University of Kentucky and history from California State University, Dominguez Hills. He has written and taught extensively on the history of medicine and science. His most recent research interest has been on the co-discoverer of natural selection, Alfred Russel Wallace (1823-1913). He has edited Alfred Russel Wallace’s Theory of Intelligent Evolution: How Wallace’s World of Life Challenged Darwinism (Erasmus Press, 2008) and authored Alfred Russel Wallace: A Rediscovered Life (Discovery Institute Press, 2011). His research and work on Wallace continues.



Darwin's Heretic (Alfred Wallace)