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Darwin in the Dock: C.S. Lewis’s Limited Acceptance of Common Descent

Lewis on common descent.jpeg

Editor’s Note: With the approach on Friday, November 22, of the 50th anniversary of C.S. Lewis’s passing, we present this week in four installments “Darwin in the Dock,” an important chapter from CSC associate director John West’s book The Magician’s Twin: C. S. Lewis on Science, Scientism, and Society. What follows is Part 2. Find Part 1 here.

Common descent is the claim that all organisms currently living have descended from one or a few original ancestors through a process Darwin called “descent with modification.” According to this idea, not only humans and apes share an ancestor, but so do humans, clams, and fungi. Common descent is a hallowed dogma among today’s evolution proponents, held with quasi-religious fervor.

C.S. Lewis clearly believed that Christians can accept evolution as common descent without doing violence to their faith. This is what Lewis was getting at when he wrote to evolution critic Bernard Acworth, “I believe that Christianity can still be believed, even if evolution is true.”18 In Lewis’s view, whether God used common descent to create the first human beings was irrelevant to the truth of Christianity. As he wrote to one correspondent late in his life, “I don’t mind whether God made man out of earth or whether ‘earth’ merely means ‘previous millennia of ancestral organisms.’ If the fossils make it probable that man’s physical ancestors ‘evolved,’ no matter.”19

In The Problem of Pain (1940), Lewis even offers a possible evolutionary account of the development of human beings, although he makes clear he is offering speculation, not history: “[I]f it is legitimate to guess,” he writes, “I offer the following picture — a ‘myth’ in the Socratic sense,” which he defines as “a not unlikely tale,” or “an account of what may have been the historical fact” (emphasis in the original). Lewis then suggests that “[f]or long centuries God perfected the animal form which was to become the vehicle of humanity and the image of himself… The creature may have existed for ages… before it became man.”20 Elsewhere, Lewis seemed smitten by the idea of embryonic recapitulation, the discredited evolutionary idea that human beings replay the history of their evolution from lower animals in their womb. And in a letter to his friend Anglican nun Sister Penelope in 1952, he mentioned his previous speculation that the first human being was descended from “two anthropoids.”21

Nevertheless, Lewis did not exactly go out of his way to champion the animal ancestry of humans. When pressed on the subject by evolution critic Bernard Acworth in the 1940s, Lewis backpedaled, replying that his “belief that Men in general have immortal & rational souls does not oblige or qualify me to hold a theory of their pre-human organic history — if they have one.”22 A few years later, Lewis relished the exposure of “Piltdown Man” as a hoax. Originally touted as evidence for the long-sought “missing link” between apes and humans, the Piltdown Man’s skull was discovered in the 1950s to be a fake forged from the skull of a modern human, the jawbone of an orangutan, and the teeth of a chimpanzee.23 Lewis wrote to Bernard Acworth that although he didn’t think the scandal should be exploited, “I can’t help sharing a sort of glee with you about the explosion of poor old Piltdown… one inevitably feels what fun it wd. be if this were only the beginning of a landslide.”24 He wrote another correspondent, “The detection of the Piltdown forgery was fun, wasn’t it?”25 Interestingly, four years before the definitive exposure of Piltdown as a fraud, Lewis had already published a poem that labeled the fossil the “fake from Piltdown.”26> His final Narnian story, meanwhile, completed a few months after the Piltdown scandal hit the headlines, features as the villain an ape who insists he is really a human being — perhaps Lewis’s whimsical commentary on “poor old Piltdown.”27

Whatever Lewis’s final position on the animal ancestry of the human race, it would be wrong to conclude that his acceptance of some kind of human evolution placed him in the camp of mainstream evolutionary biology, or even of mainstream theistic evolution. In fact, Lewis insisted on three huge exceptions to evolutionary explanations of humanity that placed him well outside evolutionary orthodoxy, both then and now.

An Historic Fall

Lewis’s first exception to human evolution was his insistence on an actual Fall of Man from an original state of innocence. In Christian theology, God originally created human beings morally innocent. These first humans then freely rejected God’s will for them, resulting in a Fall from innocence and harmony into the sinful condition of the human race as we currently find it. According to historic Christian teaching, not only human beings, but the entire creation was tainted by man’s initial act of wrongdoing. It was to reverse the impact of the Fall that God became incarnate to save us from our sins. Thus, the Fall provides the necessary “back story” for Jesus Christ and his death on the cross.

Leading theistic evolutionists no less than secular evolutionists insist that an historic Fall is incompatible with mainstream evolutionary theory. In the words of Anglican Bishop John Shelby Spong, “Darwin… destroyed the primary myth by which we had told the Jesus story for centuries. That myth suggested that there was a finished creation from which we human beings had fallen into sin, and therefore needed a rescuing divine presence to lift us back to what God had originally created us to be. But Charles Darwin says that there was no perfect creation.” Thus, “there was no perfect human life which then corrupted itself and fell into sin… And so the story of Jesus who comes to rescue us from the fall becomes a nonsensical story.”28

Spong is well known for being a theological liberal, but similar views are gaining prevalence among evangelical Christian proponents of evolution. Karl Giberson, a co-founder with Francis Collins of the pro-theistic-evolution group BioLogos, likewise repudiates the traditional teaching that “sin originates in a free act of the first humans” and that “God gave humans free will and they used it to contaminate the entire creation.”29 In his book Saving Darwin, Giberson has a section titled “Dissolving the Fall” where he essentially argues that since human beings were created through Darwinian evolution, they were never morally good. Instead, they were sinful from the start because the evolutionary process is based on selfishness: “Selfishness … drives the evolutionary process. Unselfish creatures died, and their unselfish genes perished with them. Selfish creatures, who attended to their own needs for food, power, and sex, flourished and passed on these genes to their offspring. After many generations selfishness was so fully programmed in our genomes that it was a significant part of what we now call human nature.”30 Francis Collins wrote an enthusiastic foreword to Giberson’s book.

Lewis was well aware of the problems posed by mainstream evolutionary theory for the Christian concept of the Fall. His personal library included a copiously underlined copy of The Unveiling of the Fall (1923) by the Rev. C.W. Formby, which forcefully laid out the incompatibility of evolution and the traditional Christian belief that human beings and the world were originally created morally good.31 Lewis’s underlining of the book included the following passage outlining the sinful tendency of the evolutionary process as a whole: “Obviously this entire organic process, if not actually sin-producing, is, according to its natural self-centered principles, certainly conducive to sin, and has never ceased to manifest signs of this fact.”32 Accordingly, the evolutionary view as applied to man “places him before us already burdened with an inherently self-centered nature, dominated by those instinctive structures of animalism whose overpowering bias toward evil even to-day, after centuries of civilization and restraint, is still sometimes irresistible. Thus, this theory puts man before us in a practically fallen condition from the start.”33 Rev. Formby thought this view was theologically untenable because it forced us to adopt “the impossible belief that both sin and suffering came into existence as a practically unavoidable outcome of God’s direct action.”34

Despite this apparent incompatibility of the evolutionary account with good theology, Formby was loath to disown either the Fall or evolution. Instead, he pulled the proverbial rabbit out of the hat and proposed a pre-organic fall of human beings.35 That is, in his view the first human beings previously existed as spiritual beings and fell from grace before they became embodied. The pain and suffering brought about by evolution was therefore excusable because humans as well as animals were already fallen, and in a fallen state pain and suffering are used by God to bring fallen creatures back to him. Lewis refrained from adopting Formby’s heterodox explanation, although he did suggest that the fall of Satan and his fellow angels had something to do with pain and suffering among the lower animals.36 But regarding humans, Lewis insisted there was a real fall inside human history. He further made clear that this belief was non-negotiable in his view for orthodox Christians.

Noting that “[i]t is not yet obvious to me that all theories of evolution do contradict” the Fall, Lewis was emphatic that any evolutionary theory that does deny a real Fall is unacceptable: “I believe that Man has fallen from the state of innocence in which he was created: I therefore disbelieve in any theory wh. Contradicts this.”37 Accordingly, Lewis was careful in The Problem of Pain to preserve an historical Fall as part of his hypothetical account of human evolution. Indeed, he titled the chapter in which his evolutionary account appears “The Fall of Man,” and at the end of that chapter he declared that “the thesis of this chapter is simply that man, as a species, spoiled himself.”38 Following traditional Christian teaching, Lewis emphasized that man prior to the Fall had unimpeded fellowship with God. “God came first in his love and in his thought, and that without painful effort. In perfect cyclic movement, being, power and joy descended from God to man in the form of gift and returned from man to God in the form of obedient love and ecstatic adoration.”39 Lewis acknowledged that pre-Fall man might look crude when “[j]udged by his artefacts, or perhaps even by his language,” and he did “not doubt that if the Paradisal man could now appear among us, we should regard him as an utter savage.” Yet Lewis added that upon taking a second look, “the holiest among us… would fall at his feet.”40

Lewis’s account of human life before the Fall is worth close attention. He suggested that man in his original state lived in complete harmony with himself and his surroundings. Before the Fall, man’s judgment exercised complete command of his appetites. Sleep was “not the stupor which we undergo, but willed and conscious repose.” Lifespans were under man’s control: “since the processes of decay and repair in his tissues were similarly conscious and obedient, it may not be fanciful to suppose that the length of his life was largely at his own discretion.” And man lived in harmony with the animals: “Wholly commanding himself, he commanded all lower lives with which he came into contact. Even now we meet rare individuals who have a mysterious power of taming beasts. This power the Paradisal man enjoyed in eminence. The old picture of the brutes sporting before Adam and fawning upon him may not be wholly symbolical.”41

Lewis’s description of human life before the Fall sounds very much like the literal “Eden” described by historic Christian teaching. Lewis embraced the essential reality of Eden, as did his close friend J.R.R. Tolkien, whose views on the matter were influenced by Lewis. According to Tolkien, Eden did not have an “historicity of the same kind as the N[ew] T[estament],” but it nevertheless really existed. “Genesis is separated by we do not know how many sad exiled generations from the Fall, but certainly there was an Eden on this very unhappy earth. We all long for it, and we are constantly glimpsing it: our whole nature at its best and least corrupted, its gentlest and most humane, is still soaked with the sense of ‘exile.'”42 In Tolkien’s view, every expression of horror at some evil, as well as every idyllic memory of our home life, is “derived from Eden. As far as we can go back the nobler part of the human mind is filled with the thoughts of … peace and goodwill, and with the thought of its loss.”43 Tolkien bristled at how scientists had successfully brow-beaten Christians into disowning their belief in the reality of Eden: “As for Eden, I think most Christians … have been rather bustled and hustled now for some generations by the self-styled scientists [who have] … tucked Genesis into a lumber-room of their mind as not very fashionable furniture, a bit ashamed to have it about the house, don’t you know, when the bright clever young people called.” But Tolkien added that he now no longer felt “either ashamed or dubious” about his belief in “the Eden ‘myth.'”<44 He attributed his change of heart partly to his interactions with Lewis.

Lewis had little patience for those evolutionists (theistic or otherwise) who asserted that modern science made it impossible to believe in man’s original Paradisal state and subsequent fall. At the heart of their assertions, in Lewis’s view, was what he called “the idolatry of artefacts”45 — the assumption that we can discern the morality or intelligence of ancient peoples from their material products. Lewis pointed out that pottery shards or spearheads might expose the primitive state of a prehistoric people’s technology, but they do nothing to reveal the state of the people’s morality or even their native intelligence. Such archeological discoveries do not tell us whether prehistoric peoples were kind, or courageous, or noble, or just. Nor do they tell us about their capacity for poetry or song, let alone technological innovation. “What is learned by trial and error must begin by being crude, whatever the character of the beginner,” wrote Lewis. So “[t]he very same pot” that “would prove its maker a dunce if it came after millenniums of pot-making” also “would prove its maker a genius if it were the first pot ever made in the world.” Consequently, genuine “[s]cience… has nothing to say either for or against the doctrine of the Fall.”46

If Lewis dismissed claims that science refuted the Fall, he was equally skeptical of efforts to reinterpret the Fall to make it part of evolutionary history. In the standard evolutionary picture (popularized by Darwin himself in The Descent of Man), human beings started out as brutes and only gained morality and religion after a long struggle for survival.47 Given this view of the development of human beings, it is hardly surprising that some theistic evolutionists have concluded that if there was a “Fall” in evolutionary history, it must have been a “fall upward” into greater maturity and responsibility of the sort advocated by liberal theologians since Hegel and Kant. For example, contemporary Christian thinker Brian McLaren argues that the Fall is best understood not as a fall from a higher state of innocence and goodness, but as a “compassionate coming of age story” that represents “the first stage of ascent as human beings progress from the life of hunter-gatherers to the life of agriculturalists and beyond.”48 McLaren does acknowledge that the ascent of man is marked by struggles with sin. But he seems to believe that human wrongdoing is a natural part of God’s plan to bring about human maturity. Lewis spent much of his novel Perelandra (1943) critiquing this kind of thinking, arguing that God intended for human beings to progress to self-knowledge and maturity by obedience, not rebellion.49 Four years later in his book Miracles (1947), Lewis ridiculed those who “say that the story of the Fall in Genesis is not literal; and then go on to say (I have heard them myself) that it was really a fall upwards — which is like saying that because ‘My heart is broken’ contains a metaphor, it therefore means ‘I feel very cheerful.’ This mode of interpretation I regard, frankly, as nonsense.”50

Lewis continued to defend the reality of the Fall to those who corresponded with him. “I’m not a Fundamentalist in the strict sense… But I often agree with the Fundamentalists about particular passages where literal truth is rejected by many moderns,” Lewis wrote to a correspondent in 1955. Lewis went on to reaffirm his belief in “the Fall” and echo his argument from The Problem of Pain by stating that “I don’t see what the findings of the scientists can say either for or against it. You can’t see from looking at skulls or flint implements whether man fell or not.” He then referred his correspondent to The Problem of Pain as well as “G. K. Chesterton[‘s] The Everlasting Man which is excellent on this point.”51 To another correspondent who questioned the grounds of Lewis’s belief that the earliest humans lived unfallen in a paradise-like state, Lewis replied: “[Y]ou do know very well what grounds I have for assuming the existence of Paradisal Man — namely that it is part of orthodox Christianity.”52

A Literal Adam

Lewis not only believed in an historic Fall; he also embraced the literal existence of Adam and Eve, which was another important exception to his acquiescence to human evolution. Lewis’s acceptance of an historical Adam and Eve is widely unrecognized today. Popular Christian pastor Tim Keller, for example, writes that “C.S. Lewis… did not believe in a literal Adam and Eve.”53 Keller is misinformed, at least when it comes to Lewis’s beliefs after he became a Christian. While Lewis was still a young atheist in the 1920s, he certainly disbelieved in Adam and Eve, although he was simultaneously skeptical of orthodox Darwinism.54 By the 1940s, however, he was publicly noncommittal, writing in The Problem of Pain that “we do not know how many of these [unfallen] creatures God made, nor how long they continued in the Paradisal state.”55 In private, he was not so reticent. In a discussion at his home attended by Oxford colleague Helen Gardner, Lewis stated that the person from history he would most like to meet in heaven was Adam. When Gardner protested that “if there really were, historically, someone whom we could name as ‘the first man,’ he would be a Neanderthal ape-like figure, whose conversation she could not conceive of finding interesting,” Lewis is said to have responded with disdain: “I see we have a Darwinian in our midst.”56

It is worth noting that throughout Lewis’s imaginative works, Adam and Eve are typically treated as real figures from history, not as allegories or myths, even when the characters in Lewis’s stories are seeking to explain truths about the “real” world. In the Narnian Chronicles, human beings are repeatedly referred to as “sons of Adam” and “daughters of Eve,” and during Lewis’s telling of a temptation story on another planet in Perelandra, the hero repeatedly affirms the teachings of traditional theology to the planet’s equivalent of Eve, including a traditional account of Adam and Eve: “Long ago, when our world began, there was only one man and one woman in it, as you and the King are in this. And there once before he [the Tempter] stood, as he stands now, talking to the woman… And she listened, and did the thing Maleldil [God] had forbidden her to do. But no joy and splendour came of it.”57

Additionally, Lewis treated Adam as a real person in history in his private correspondence. To his friend St. Giovanni Calabria, an Italian priest, he wrote about the “necessary doctrine that we are most closely joined together alike with the sinner Adam and with the Just One, Jesus,”58 while to another correspondent he described his novel Perelandra as the working out of the “supposition” that what happened to Adam and Eve on earth could happen to another first couple elsewhere: “Suppose, even now, in some other planet there were a first couple undergoing the same [temptation] that Adam and Eve underwent here, but successfully.”59

A Mindless Process Could Not Produce Man

Lewis’s final exception to human evolution was his insistence that the development of human beings required far more than a mindless material process. In his own words, his speculations about human evolution “had pictured Adam as being, physically, the son of two anthropoids, on whom, after birth, God worked the miracle which made him Man.”60 In Lewis’s view, Darwinian evolution might possibly explain man’s physical form; but it could not explain man’s mind, his morality, or his eternal soul. That is because the driving force of modern Darwinism was supposed to be the mindless mechanism of natural selection acting on random variation, and Lewis was deeply skeptical about what such a mindless mechanism could actually achieve.


(18) C.S. Lewis to Bernard Acworth, Dec. 9, 1944, Collected Letters, vol. II, 633.

(19) C.S. Lewis to Joseph Canfield, Feb. 28, 1955, unpublished letter, Wade Center Collection, Wheaton College.

(20) C.S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain (New York: Macmillan, 1962), 76-77.

(21) C.S. Lewis to sister Penelope, Jan. 10, 1952, Collected Letters, vol. III, 157.

(22) C.S. Lewis to Bernard Acworth, Sept. 23, 1944, reprinted 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 48 (March 1996), accessed May 18, 2012, http://www.asa3.org/AsA/PsCF/1996/PsCF3-96Ferngren.html.

(23) For more information about the Piltdown hoax, see Frank Spencer, Piltdown: A Scientific Forgery (New York: Oxford University Press, 1990).

(24) C.S. Lewis to Bernard Acworth, Dec. 16, 1953, reprinted in Ferngren and Numbers, “C.S. Lewis on Creation and Evolution.”

(25) C.S. Lewis to Joseph Canfield, Feb. 28, 1955.

(26) C.S. Lewis, “The Adam Unparadised” in Poems, edited by Walter Hooper (San Diego: 1964), 44. This poem was originally published in September 1949.

(27) See C.S. Lewis, The Last Battle (New York: Macmillan, 1956).

(28) Interview with Bishop John Shelby Spong, Compass [television program on ABC network in Australia], July 8, 2001, accessed May 18, 2012, http://www.abc.net.au/compass/intervs/spong2001.htm.

(29) Giberson, Saving Darwin, 12.

(30) Ibid.

(31) C.S. Formby, The Unveiling of the Fall (London: Williams and Norgate, 1923).

(32) Ibid., 28.

(33) Ibid., 30.

(34) Ibid., 33.

(35) Ibid., xiv-xxiii, 34, 93-109, 177-187.

(37) C.S. Lewis to Bernard Acworth, Sept. 23, 1944.

(38) Lewis, Problem of Pain, 88.

(39) Ibid., 78-79.

(40) Ibid., 79.

(41) Ibid., 78.

(42) J.R.R. Tolkien to Christopher Tolkien, Jan. 30, 1945, in The Letters of J. R. R. Tolkien, selected and edited by Humphrey Carpenter (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1981), 109-110.

(43) Ibid., 110, emphasis in original.

(44) Ibid., 109.

(45) Lewis, Problem of Pain, 74.

(46) Ibid.

(47) See discussion of Darwin’s account of morality in John G. West, Darwin Day in America, 29-37.

(48) Brian D. McLaren, A New Kind of Christianity: Ten Questions that Are Transforming the Faith, Kindle edition (HarperCollins e-Books, 2010), 49-50.

(49) C.S. Lewis, Perelandra (New York: Macmillan, 1965).

(50) C.S. Lewis, Miracles: A Preliminary Study (New York: Macmillan, 1947), 95.

(51) C.S. Lewis to Joseph Canfield, Feb. 28, 1955.

(52) C.S. Lewis to Miss Jacob, July 3, 1951, unpublished letter, Wade Center Collection, Wheaton College.

(53) Tim Keller, “Creation, Evolution and Christian Laypeople,” www.biologos.org (February 2011): 7, accessed May 19, 2012, http://biologos.org/uploads/projects/Keller_ white_paper.pdf.

(54) In his diary for Aug. 18, 1925, Lewis relates that Maureen Moore asked him how Adam and Eve related to evolutionary theory, and he replied that “the Biblical and scientific accounts were alternatives. She asked me which I believed. I said the scientific.” All My Road Before Me: The Diary of C. S. Lewis, 1922-1927, edited by Walter Hooper (San Diego: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1991), 361. This was the same month Lewis expressed his doubts about the ideas of Darwin and Spencer to his father.

(55) Lewis, Problem of Pain, 79.

(56) A.N. Wilson, C.S. Lewis: A Biography (New York: W.W. Norton, 1990), 210.

(57) Lewis, Perelandra, 120.

(58) C.S. Lewis to Don Giovanni Calabria, March 17, 1953, Collected Letters, vol. III, 306.

(59) C.S. Lewis to Mrs. Hook, Dec. 29, 1958, Collected Letters, vol. III, 1004.

(60) C.S. Lewis to Sister Penelope, Jan. 10, 1952.

John G. West

Senior Fellow, Managing Director, and Vice President of Discovery Institute
Dr. John G. West is Vice President of the Seattle-based Discovery Institute and Managing Director of the Institute’s Center for Science and Culture. Formerly the Chair of the Department of Political Science and Geography at Seattle Pacific University, West is an award-winning author and documentary filmmaker who has written or edited 12 books, including Darwin Day in America: How Our Politics and Culture Have Been Dehumanized in the Name of Science, The Magician’s Twin: C. S. Lewis on Science, Scientism, and Society, and Walt Disney and Live Action: The Disney Studio’s Live-Action Features of the 1950s and 60s. His documentary films include Fire-Maker, Revolutionary, The War on Humans, and (most recently) Human Zoos. West holds a PhD in Government from Claremont Graduate University, and he has been interviewed by media outlets such as CNN, Fox News, Reuters, Time magazine, The New York Times, USA Today, and The Washington Post.