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Darwin in the Dock: C.S. Lewis’s Critique of "Evolutionism"

John G. West


Editor’s Note: Today being the 50th anniversary of C.S. Lewis’s passing, we have presented 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 4. Find Part 1 here, Part 2 here, and Part 3 here.

In addition to limiting his acceptance of common descent and critiquing the power of unguided natural selection, C.S. Lewis throughout his life attacked what he called “evolutionism” or the “Myth” of “Evolution.” This was evolution as a materialistic creation story that provides a Lewis-Series-Graphic_2.jpgcompeting narrative to traditional monotheism. Purporting to embody the discoveries of modern science, this “Myth” teaches that the cosmos was preceded by “the infinite void and matter endlessly, aimlessly moving to bring forth it knows not what. Then by some millionth, millionth chance — what tragic irony! — the conditions at one point of space and time bubble up into that tiny fermentation which we call organic life.”

Against the hostility of nature and without purposeful direction or design, life “spreads, it breeds, it complicates itself… from the amoeba up to the reptile, up to the mammal.” Finally, “there comes forth a little, naked, shivering, cowering biped, shuffling, not yet fully erect, promising nothing: the product of another millionth, millionth chance. His name in this Myth is Man.” Eventually “he has become true Man. He learns to master Nature. Science arises and dissipates the superstitions of his infancy. More and more he becomes the controller of his own fate.”109 Finally, mankind becomes “a race of demi-gods” with the assistance of Darwinian eugenics, psychoanalysis, and economics. Then “the old enemy” Nature returns with a vengeance. The Sun cools, and life is “banished without hope of return from every cubic inch of infinite space. All ends in nothingness.”110

“I grew up believing in this Myth and I have felt — I still feel — its almost perfect grandeur,” observed Lewis rather wistfully. “Let no one say we are an unimaginative age: neither the Greeks nor the Norsemen ever invented a better story.”111 For Lewis, the problem with this “Myth” is not that it does not appeal to the imagination, but that it is all imagination and no logic. In fact, it contradicts the very foundation of the scientific worldview it claims to espouse.

The scientific method is premised on the idea that “rational inferences are valid,” but the Myth undercuts human reason by depicting it as “simply the unforeseen and unintended by-product of a mindless process at one stage of its endless and aimless becoming. The content of the Myth thus knocks from under me the only ground on which I could possibly believe the Myth to be true.” Darwin’s own gnawing doubt rears its head yet again: “If my own mind is a product of the irrational… how shall I trust my mind when it tells me about evolution?”112

Lewis distinguished cosmic evolutionism from the “science” of evolution, and he initially attributed it to the distortions of popularizers and journalists rather than scientists themselves. However, Lewis’s distinction between evolution and evolutionism was somewhat artificial. The core of the modern scientific theory of biological evolution, after all, is Darwinism, and the core of Darwinism is the claim that evolution is an undirected material process that proceeds without either plan or foresight. Darwin himself defined natural selection as a substitute for intelligent design. In the end, then, cosmic evolutionism does not seem to be much of an extrapolation from the mainstream “scientific” theory of evolution. Indeed, the main features of what Lewis called evolutionism were baked into that scientific theory from the start.

Lewis eventually came to better understand just how intertwined evolution as a scientific theory was with what he had called evolutionism. Much of Lewis’s growing awareness was likely due to his 16-year correspondence with Bernard Acworth, a leader in Britain’s Evolution Protest Movement. Starting in the mid-1940s, Acworth began sending Lewis books and essays critical of Darwin’s theory, materials which Lewis read and retained for his private library.113

Soon after coming into contact with Acworth, Lewis drew attention to a comment made by evolutionary zoologist David Watson that seemed to expose the dogmatism driving the beliefs of prominent evolutionary scientists. “Evolution,” declared Professor Watson, “…is accepted by zoologists not because it has been observed to occur or… can be proved by logically coherent evidence to be true, but because the only alternative, special creation, is clearly incredible.”114 Lewis drew this quote from an article written by two of Acworth’s colleagues in the Evolution Protest Movement. Lewis found Watson’s comment “disquieting.”115 Nevertheless, he still trusted that “[m]ost biologists have a more robust belief in evolution than Professor Watson.” Otherwise it “would mean that the sole ground for believing [evolution]… is not empirical but metaphysical — the dogma of an amateur metaphysician who finds ‘special creation’ incredible. But I do not think it has really come to that.”116

By 1951, Lewis was not so sure. Acworth sent him a lengthy manuscript critical of evolution, and Lewis wrote back that he had “read nearly the whole” of it. Acworth’s manuscript hit home. “I must confess it has shaken me,” Lewis wrote, “not in my belief in evolution, which was of the vaguest and most intermittent kind, but in my belief that the question was wholly unimportant.” Lewis added that the most telling point for him was the dogmatism of the evolutionary scientists cited by Acworth: “What inclines me now to think that you may be right in regarding it [evolution] as the central and radical lie in the whole web of falsehood that now governs our lives is not so much your arguments against it as the fanatical and twisted attitudes of its defenders.”117 Lewis could no longer easily maintain that evolutionism was simply something foisted on evolutionary science by outsiders. He was appalled by the growing dogmatism and intolerance he saw among evolutionists, who seemed to treat any criticism of their views as an attack upon science itself.

Lewis had a sharply different vision of what science should be like, and he made clear that knee-jerk orthodoxy was not part of it. In Lewis’s view, there was nothing anti-science about questioning dogmatic claims made in the name of science. As he came to appreciate even more deeply in the final years of his life, the scientific enterprise requires humility and an open mind in order to prosper. Those two qualities often seem sadly lacking in discussions of evolution today.

Lewis’s Most Important Legacy for the Evolution Debate

“It is absolutely safe to say that if you meet somebody who claims not to believe in evolution, that person is ignorant, stupid or insane (or wicked, but I’d rather not consider that).”118 Thus proclaims prominent evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins from Lewis’s own Oxford University. Dawkins is sometimes treated as a fringe figure because of his evangelistic atheism, but his view about the irrationality of questioning Darwinian evolution is standard fare in the evolutionary science community, where triumphalist assertions abound that the evidence for evolution is too overwhelming to question.

During Lewis’s own lifetime, one finds leading evolutionary geneticist H.J. Muller declaring: “So enormous, ramifying, and consistent has the evidence for evolution become that if anyone could now disprove it, I should have my conception of the orderliness of the universe so shaken as to lead me to doubt even my own existence.”119 Or consider statements from more recent decades by evolutionary biologist Douglas Futuyma (“the statement that organisms have descended with modifications from common ancestors… is not a theory. It is a fact, as fully as the fact of the earth’s revolution about the sun”120) and Harvard biologist Richard Lewontin (“Birds arose from nonbirds and humans from nonhumans. No person who pretends to any understanding of the natural world can deny these facts any more than she or he can deny that the earth is round, rotates on its axis, and revolves around the sun”121). Eugenie Scott, head of the pro-Darwin lobbying group the National Center for Science Education and someone who calls herself an “evolution evangelist,” is equally emphatic: “There are no weaknesses in the theory of evolution.”122 None. Zero. Welcome to the Church of Darwinian Fundamentalism and its doctrine of scientific infallibility.

Sadly, this kind of over-the-top rhetoric is found among theistic and atheistic defenders of Darwinism alike. For example, Christian geneticist Francis Collins condemns his fellow Christians who disagree with Darwinian evolution as peddling “lies” and promoting “anti-scientific thinking.”123 Theologian Michael Peterson, meanwhile, claims that “[i]t is actually quite fair to say that evolution shares equal status with such established concepts as the roundness of the earth, its revolution around the sun, and the molecular composition of matter.”124 Get the point? The person who criticizes Darwin’s theory is equivalent to someone who thinks the earth is flat, who believes the sun revolves around the earth, and who apparently doesn’t accept microscopes or the periodic table.

It is hard to believe that Lewis would have had any sympathy at all for this kind of bluster. After all, he himself questioned large chunks of modern evolutionary theory, including the ability of natural selection to explain mind, morality, and the development of complex biological structures. Lewis did grant that biological evolution was a “genuine scientific hypothesis” worthy of discussion.125 But he sharply distinguished in his own mind a “hypothesis” from dogmatic claims that something is a “basic fact.” Lewis was very clear that what he meant by “hypothesis” was an interpretation of facts based on assumptions; and a hypothesis must therefore always be open to challenge and repeal. In his view “real biologists” (as opposed to propagandists) recognized that evolution is simply a hypothesis, not a dogmatic truth. “It covers more of the facts than any other hypothesis at present on the market and is therefore to be accepted unless, or until, some new supposal can be shown to cover still more facts with even fewer assumptions.”126

At the root of Lewis’s willingness to question evolutionary claims was a healthy skepticism of the scientific enterprise itself. Lewis respected modern science, and he respected modern scientists. But unlike many contemporary champions of evolution, he did not embrace a simpleminded view of natural science as fundamentally more authoritative or less prone to error than all other fields of human endeavor.

One of the last books about science Lewis read before he died was The Open Society and Its Enemies by philosopher Karl Popper. Near the end of that book, Popper frankly admits the lack of objectivity to be found even in experimental science. Lewis underlined the passage:

For even our experimental and observational experience does not consist of ‘data’. Rather, it consists of a web of guesses — of conjectures, expectations, hypotheses with which there are interwoven accepted, traditional, scientific, and unscientific, lore and prejudice. There simply is no such thing as pure experimental and observational experience — experience untainted by expectation and theory.127

Lewis’s growing awareness of the human fallibility of science was expressed powerfully in his final book, The Discarded Image (1964).128 Published after his death, the book is ostensibly about the medieval worldview. But the nature of science is one of the underlying themes. Lewis argues in the book that scientific theories are “supposals” and should not be confused with “facts.” Properly speaking, scientific theories try to account for as many facts as possible with as few assumptions as possible. But according to Lewis, we must always recognize that such explanations can be wrong: “in every age it will be apparent to accurate thinkers that scientific theories, being arrived at in the way I have described, are never statements of fact. That stars appear to move in such and such ways, or that substances behaved thus and thus in the laboratory — these are statements of fact.”129 By contrast, the theories that seek to explain these facts “can never be more than provisional.”

They “have to be abandoned” if someone thinks of a “supposal” that can account for “observed phenomena with still fewer assumptions, or if we discover new phenomena” that the previous theory cannot account for “at all.”130 Lewis said he believed that “all thoughtful scientists today” would be able to recognize this truth, although he did not speculate about how many “thoughtful scientists” actually exist. He did think the biggest problem with scientific dogmatism lay outside the scientific community, where “[t]he mass media… have in our time created a popular scientism, a caricature of the true sciences.”131 Nevertheless, any scientist who engages in such dogmatism would clearly be doing something inappropriate according to Lewis.

However, the truly radical part of Lewis’s critique of modern science was still to come. In his epilogue to The Discarded Image, Lewis discusses at length the shift from the medieval to the modern model of biology. It soon becomes evident that he does not think empirical evidence drives scientific revolutions. Lewis declares that the Darwinian revolution in particular “was certainly not brought about by the discovery of new facts.”132

Lewis recalled that when he was young he “believed that ‘Darwin discovered evolution’ and that the far more general, radical, and even cosmic developmentalism… was a superstructure raised on the biological theorem. This view has been sufficiently disproved.” What really happened according to Lewis was that “[t]he demand for a developing world — a demand obviously in harmony both with the revolutionary and the romantic temper” had developed first, and when it was “full grown” the scientists went “to work and discover[ed] the evidence on which our belief in that sort of universe would now be held to rest.”133

Lewis’s view has momentous implications for how we view the reigning paradigms in science at any given time — including Darwinian evolution. “We can no longer dismiss the change of Models [in science] as a simple progress from error to truth,” argued Lewis. “No Model is a catalogue of ultimate realities, and none is a mere fantasy… But… each reflects the prevalent psychology of an age almost as much as it reflects the state of that age’s knowledge.” Lewis added that he did “not at all mean that these new phenomena are illusory… But nature gives most of her evidence in answer to the questions we ask her.”134

So the answers we receive from nature are dictated by the questions we ask, and the questions we ask are shaped by the assumptions and expectations of the scientific theories we embrace — assumptions and expectations likely borrowed from larger cultural attitudes that predated the scientific evidence they seek to interpret. Hence, the potential for even good scientific theories to blind us to key aspects of reality is huge.

Nowhere is this more true than in the field of Darwinian evolution itself, which is based on the inviolable assumption that everything in biology must be the result of unguided material processes. Over the past century, this assumption has undoubtedly inspired many interesting research questions and scientific advances. At the same time, it also has undoubtedly discouraged and delayed many other important research questions. Witness the unhelpful Darwinian preoccupation with “vestigial” organs over the past century. Time and again, biological features we do not fully understand have been dismissed by advocates of Darwinian evolution as non-functional leftovers from a blind evolutionary process. Time and again, researchers who eventually bothered to look discovered that such supposedly “vestigial” features — the appendix and tonsils, to name two — actually perform important biological functions.135 The evidence of function was there all along, but scientists were discouraged by the existing paradigm from asking the questions that would elicit the evidence.

More recently, one of the biggest mistakes in the history of modern biology may turn out to be the belief that the human genome is riddled with “junk DNA.” Random mutations in protein-coding DNA are supposed to drive Darwinian evolution, and so when it was discovered that the vast majority of DNA does not code for proteins, some leading Darwinists jumped to the conclusion that non-protein-coding DNA must be mere “junk” left over from the evolutionary process just like some vestigial organs. Not only that, leading evolutionists ranging from atheist Richard Dawkins to Christian Francis Collins championed “junk DNA” as proof that human beings were the result of a Darwinian process rather than intentional design.136

However, when scientists finally started to look more closely at non-coding DNA, they were shocked to learn that reality did not correspond to their ideological assumptions. Indeed, over the past decade science journals have been flooded with new research showing the rich and varied functionality of so-called “junk DNA.” In the words of biologist Jonathan Wells: “Far from consisting mainly of junk that provides evidence against intelligent design, our genome is increasingly revealing itself to be a multidimensional, integrated system in which non-protein-coding DNA performs a wide variety of functions.”137 Again, the evidence of functionality in non-protein-coding DNA was always there to find; but the evidence was not forthcoming because few people were asking the right questions. As Lewis pointed out so perceptively, treating reigning paradigms in science as all-encompassing dogmas will blind us to how much about nature we may be missing. Such dogmatism also breeds a kind of scientific authoritarianism that is incompatible with a free society, which Lewis eloquently rebuked in books such as The Abolition of Man and That Hideous Strength.138

By highlighting the all-too-human frailties of modern science, Lewis made his most important contribution to the evolution debate. In essence, Lewis legitimized the right to dissent from Darwin. By stressing the non-scientific underpinnings of scientific revolutions, Lewis showed that Darwinian evolution should not be privileged as some special form of knowledge that is immune from critical scrutiny. By exposing just how limited a window on reality a given scientific theory can provide, he validated the continued questioning of Darwinian evolution as well as other theories in science.

Indeed, Lewis predicted that it was partly by raising the right questions that the current (Darwinian) model of biology might be replaced. He used the analogy of placing someone on trial: “Here, as in the courts, the character of the evidence depends on the shape of the examination, and a good cross-examiner can do wonders.”139

Lewis’s words proved prophetic. In 1991, Berkeley law professor Phillip Johnson did precisely what Lewis had described by publishing his book Darwin on Trial, which mounted a full-throttled cross-examination of the standard evidence for orthodox Darwinism.140 C.S. Lewis was proved right again: A “good cross-examiner” really can “do wonders.” Igniting a furor among leading Darwinists, Johnson’s book helped inspire a whole new generation of scientists and philosophers to launch increasingly sophisticated challenges to Darwinian theory as well as to formulate a fresh argument for intelligent design in nature.

Like Lewis, Phillip Johnson understood that “nature gives most of her evidence in answer to the questions we ask her.” And he recognized the critical importance of asking “the right questions” in scientific debates — even when those questions may make the guardians of the existing paradigm uncomfortable or angry.141

Those who truly want to honor C.S. Lewis’s legacy in the area of science and society would do well to do likewise.142


(109) Lewis, “The Funeral of a Great Myth,” 87.

(110) Ibid., 88.

(111) Ibid.

(112) Ibid., 89.

(113) These materials included Bernard Acworth, The Cuckoo; L.M. Davies, BBC Abuses Its Monopoly; L.M. Davies, Evolutionists Under Fire; Douglas Dewar, The Man from Monkey Myth; Douglas Dewar, Science and the BBC; and Evolution Protest Movement,Evolution: How the Doctrine Is Propagated in Our Schools. All of these materials reside in the Wade Center Collection, Wheaton College.

(114) C.S. Lewis, “Is Theology Poetry?” 89 and “Funeral of a Great Myth,” 85.

(115) Lewis, “Is Theology Poetry?” 89.

(116) Lewis, “Funeral of a Great Myth,” 85.

(117) C.S. Lewis to Bernard Acworth, Sept. 13, 1951, Collected Letters, vol. III, 138.

(118) Richard Dawkins, “Put Your Money on Evolution,” The New York Times, April 9, 1989, section VII, 35.

(119) H.J. Muller, quoted in J. Peter Zetterberg, editor, Evolution Versus Creationism: The Public Education Controversy (Oryx Press, 1983), 33-34.

(120) Douglas J. Futuyma, Evolutionary Biology, second edition (Sunderland, MA: Sinauer Associates, 1986), 15.

(121) Richard Lewontin, quoted in Zetterberg, Evolution Versus Creationism, 31.

(122) Eugenie Scott, quoted in Ed Stoddard, “Evolution gets added boost in Texas schools,” Reuters.com, accessed May 19, 2012, http://blogs.reuters.com/faithworld/2009/01/23/evolution-gets-added-boost-in-texas-schools/. For Eugenie Scott’s description of herself as an “evolution evangelist,” see Ronald L. Numbers, The Creationists: From Scientific Creationism to Intelligent Design, expanded edition (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2006), 380.

(123) Francis Collins, “Foreword” to Giberson, Saving Darwin, v, vii.

(124) Michael Peterson, “C.S. Lewis on Evolution and Intelligent Design” (2010), n. 29, 266.

(125) Lewis, “Funeral of a Great Myth,” 83.

(126) Ibid., 85.

(127) C.S. Lewis’s copy of K.R. Popper, The Open Society and Its Enemies, vol. II — The High Tide of Prophecy: Hegel, Marx, and the Aftermath (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul), 388. Wade Center Collection, Wheaton College.

(128) C.S. Lewis, The Discarded Image (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1964).

(129) Ibid., 15-16.

(130) Ibid.

(131) Ibid., 16, 17

(132) Ibid., 220.

(133) Ibid., 220-221.

(134) Ibid., 222-223.

(135) See Casey Luskin, “Vestigial Arguments about Vestigial Organs Appear in Proposed Texas Teaching Materials,” Evolution News and Views, June 20, 2011, accessed May 19, 2012, https://evolutionnews.org/2011/06/vestigial_arguments_about_vest047341.html; David Klinghoffer, “Looks Like the Appendix isn’t a ‘Junk Body Part’ After All,” Evolution News and Views, Jan. 4, 2012, accessed May 19, 2012, https://evolutionnews.org/2012/01/now_its_the_app054761.html.

(136) Jonathan Wells, The Myth of Junk DNA (Seattle: Discovery Institute Press, 2011), 19-20, 23-24, 98-100. In more recent years, Collins has seemed to abandon or at least diminish his support for the junk DNA paradigm. See Ibid., 98-100.

(137) Ibid., 9.

(138) C.S. Lewis, The Abolition of Man (New York: Macmillan, 1955); That Hideous Strength (New York: Macmillan, 1965).

(139) Lewis, The Discarded Image, 223.

(140) Phillip E. Johnson, Darwin on Trial, second edition (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1993).

(141) See Phillip E. Johnson, The Right Questions (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2002).

(142) I gratefully acknowledge the research of Jake Akins at the Wade Center Collection, Wheaton College, which contributed to this essay, and the permission of both the Wade Center and the C.S. Lewis Company to quote from some of Lewis’s unpublished writings deposited at the Wade Center. Finally, I would like to thank Jay Richards, Sonja West, and Cameron Wybrow for their thoughtful comments on an earlier draft of this essay.

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.