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Humanity: Natural Selection’s Ultimate Challenge According to C. S. Lewis 

John G. West
Photo: A young C. S. Lewis, in a science from The Most Reluctant Convert.

Editor’s note: To mark the release on November 3 of the new C. S. Lewis biopic, The Most Reluctant Convert, we are running a series of articles exploring Lewis’s views on science, mind, and more.

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In C. S. Lewis’s view, the ultimate challenge to Darwinian natural selection was man himself. How could such a blind material process produce man’s unique capabilities of reason and conscience? 

Lewis, of course, was far from the first intellectual to doubt Darwinism’s ability to explain human beings. Alfred Russel Wallace, co-founder with Darwin of the modern theory of evolution itself, raised the same doubts, as did Roman Catholic zoologist St. George Jackson Mivart, whose best-selling book The Genesis of Species gave Darwin fits. To rebut the naysayers, Darwin responded in 1871 with two volumes and nearly 900 pages of prose in his treatise The Descent of Man, which forcefully argued that unguided natural selection could produce man’s mental and moral faculties perfectly well, thank you. 

Lewis thought otherwise, and he was tutored in his doubts by a book from of one of his favorite authors, G. K. Chesterton. The book was Chesterton’s The Everlasting Man (1922), which Lewis read for the first time in the mid 1920s. Near the end of his life, Lewis placed The Everlasting Man on a list of ten books that “did [the] most to shape” his “vocational attitude and… philosophy of life.” 

“Professors and Prehistoric Men”

In Chapter 2 of The Everlasting Man (“Professors and Prehistoric Men”), Chesterton skewered the pretensions of anthropologists who spun detailed theories about the culture and capabilities of primitive man based on a few flints and bones, likely inspiring Lewis’s discussion of “the idolatry of artefacts” in The Problem of Pain. But Chesterton also provides in his book a full-throttled argument as to why Darwinism cannot explain the higher capabilities of man. In Chesterton’s words, “Man is not merely an evolution but rather a revolution,” whose rational faculties far outstrip those seen in the other animals. Chesterton acknowledged the possibility that man’s “body may have been evolved from the brutes,” but he insisted that “we know nothing of any such transition that throws the smallest light upon his soul as it has shown itself in history.” Again: “There may be a broken trail of stones and bones faintly suggesting the development of the human body. There is nothing even faintly suggesting such a development of the human mind.”

Chesterton’s book prepared the ground for Lewis’s own eventual critique of natural selection with regard to man — as did a lesser-known volume, Theism and Humanism (1915), by Sir Arthur Balfour. Balfour, best remembered today as the British Prime Minister who issued the Balfour Declaration, adapted Theism and Humanism from the Gifford Lectures he had presented at the University of Glasgow in 1914. 

Balfour’s goal was to show his audience “that if we would maintain the value of our highest beliefs and emotions, we must find for them a congruous origin. Beauty must be more than accident. The source of morality must be moral. The source of knowledge must be rational.” Balfour thought that once this argument “be granted, you rule out Mechanism, you rule out Naturalism, you rule out Agnosticism; and a lofty form of Theism becomes, as I think, inevitable.”

Destroying Morality

With regard to the human mind, Balfour argued that any effort to explain mind in terms of blind material causes was self-refuting: “all creeds which refuse to see an intelligent purpose behind the unthinking powers of material nature are intrinsically incoherent. In the order of causation they base reason upon unreason. In the order of logic they involve conclusions which discredit their own premises.” Balfour offered a similar critique of materialistic accounts of human morality, which he thought destroyed morality by depicting it as the product of processes that are essentially non-moral. Balfour takes special aim throughout his book at Darwinian explanations of mind and morals. 

It is not known when exactly Lewis first came across Theism and Humanism. His father Albert owned a copy of a previous Balfour book, The Foundations of Belief (1895), but Lewis’s first known mention of Theism and Humanism was in a lecture in the 1940s. He later listed it as one of the books that influenced his philosophy of life the most, and its basic arguments are on prominent view in Lewis’s Miracles: A Preliminary Study (1947). As Paul Ford points out, “the thesis and even the language of Balfour’s first Gifford lectures permeates the first five chapters of Miracles.”

An Attack on Darwinian Natural Selection

The revised 1960 edition of Miracles is generally recognized as presenting Lewis’s most mature critique of the ability of naturalism/materialism to account for man’s rational faculties. What is less noticed is the challenge Lewis’s book raises for Darwinian evolution in particular. Theistic evolutionists such as Michael Peterson prefer to treat Lewis’s argument in Miracles as dealing merely with generic philosophical naturalism. But the specific example of naturalism Lewis attacks at length in his book is Darwinian natural selection, not plain vanilla naturalism.

In the words of Lewis, naturalists argue that “the type of mental behavior we now call rational thinking or inference must… have been ‘evolved’ by natural selection, by the gradual weeding out of types less fitted to survive.”

Lewis flatly denied that such a Darwinian process could have produced human rationality: “natural selection could operate only by eliminating responses that were biologically hurtful and multiplying those which tended to survival. But it is not conceivable that any improvement of responses could ever turn them into acts of insight, or even remotely tend to do so.” This is because “The relation between response and stimulus is utterly different from that between knowledge and the truth known.”

Natural selection could improve our responses to stimuli from the standpoint of physical survival without ever turning them into reasoned responses. Following Balfour, Lewis goes on to argue that attributing the development of human reason to a non-rational process such as natural selection ends up undermining our confidence in reason itself. After all, if reason is merely an unintended by-product of a fundamentally non-rational process, what grounds do we have left for regarding its conclusions as objectively true? 

Not Merely Theoretical

Lewis knew that the corrosive impact of a Darwinian account of the mind was not merely theoretical.

In his personal copy of Darwin’s Autobiography, he highlighted two passages where Darwin questioned whether the conclusions of a mind produced by a Darwinian process could in fact be trusted. In the first passage, Darwin acknowledged “the extreme difficulty or rather impossibility of conceiving this immense and wonderful universe, including man… as the result of blind chance or necessity. When thus reflecting, I feel compelled to looked to a First Cause having an intelligent mind in some degree analogous to that of man; and I deserve to be called a Theist.” Darwin claimed that this conclusion “was strong in my mind about the time… when I wrote the Origin of Species,” although “since that time… it has very gradually, with many fluctuations, become weaker.” As a result, he now “must be content to remain an agnostic.” 

Why had Darwin’s confidence in the existence of a First Cause collapsed? Apparently because he realized the implications of his theory for the human mind: “But then arises the doubt — can the mind of man, which has, as I fully believe, been developed from a mind as low as that possessed by the lowest animals, be trusted when it draws such grand conclusions?” Lewis placed an “x” next to this revealing admission by Darwin, and he underlined an even stronger statement by Darwin making the same point three pages later. In a passage from a letter written in 1881, Darwin expressed his inconstant belief “that the Universe is not the result of chance” and then added: “But then with me the horrid doubt always arises whether the convictions of man’s mind, which has been developed from the mind of the lower animals, are of any value or at all trustworthy. Would any one trust in the convictions of a monkey’s mind, if there are any convictions in such a mind?” (underlining by Lewis) 

Evolution by Intelligent Design

Lewis argued that the theist need not suffer such paralyzing doubts because “he is not committed to the view that reason is a comparatively recent development moulded by a process of selection which can select only the biologically useful. For him, reason — the reason of  God — is older than Nature, and from it the orderliness of Nature, which alone enables us to know her, is derived.” Thus, “the preliminary processes within Nature which led up to” the human mind — “if there were any” — “were designed to do so.” In short, if an evolutionary process did produce the human mind, it was not Darwinian evolution. It was evolution by intelligent design.

Just as Lewis in Miracles rejected a Darwinian explanation for the human mind because it undermined the validity of reason, he rejected a Darwinian account of morality because it would undermine the authority of morality by attributing it to an essentially amoral process of survival of the fittest. As a practical matter, Lewis questioned whether Darwinism could actually explain the development of key human moral traits such as friendship or romantic love. But in Miracles he made a more fundamental point: A Darwinian process “may (or may not) explain why men do in fact make moral judgments. It does not explain how they could be right in making them. It excludes, indeed, the very possibility of their being right.” According to Lewis, by attributing our moral beliefs and practices completely to mindless and non-moral causes, Darwinists undermined the belief that moral standards are something objectively true or even the belief that some moral beliefs are objectively preferable over others. 

Morality Under Darwinism

After all, if human behaviors and beliefs are ultimately the products of natural selection, then all such behaviors and beliefs must be equally preferable. The same Darwinian process that produces the maternal instinct also produces infanticide. The same Darwinian process that generates love also brings forth sadism. The same Darwinian process that inspires courage also spawns cowardice. Hence, the logical result of a Darwinian account of morality is not so much immorality as relativism. According to Lewis, the person who offers such an account of morality should honestly admit that “there is no such thing as wrong and right… no moral judgment can be ‘true’ or ‘correct’ and, consequently… no one system of morality can be better or worse than another.”

 Near the end of his life, Lewis made this point with hilarious results in a “hymn” he wrote lampooning Darwinian evolution. The hymn mocked the blind and undirected nature of Darwinism: “Lead us, Evolution lead us/ Up the future’s endless stair… Groping, guessing, yet progressing,/ Lead us nobody knows where.” As Lewis wryly points out, once one excludes a higher purpose from biological evolution (as Darwin tried to do), traditional standards of human progress and decay no longer make sense: “Never knowing where we’re going,/ We can never go astray.” Applied to morality, Darwinism’s philosophy of endless change repudiates “Static norms of good and evil/ (As in Plato) throned on high;/ Such scholastic, inelastic,/ Abstract yardsticks we deny.”

Whether it be man’s intellect or his morals, the cardinal difficulty with Darwinian natural selection according to Lewis is that it is mindless, and a mindless process should not be expected to produce either minds or genuine morals.

Lewis thought that a mind-driven process is a far more plausible option than a mindless one.

This essay was adapted from “Darwin in the Dock,” Chapter 6 of The Magician’s Twin, edited by John West. For reference notes and sources, please consult the book version.